Death or taxes? Death BY taxes!
There are those who call Legacy (the greatest format ever, in my opinion) a casual format, and they are right to a point, since there has not yet been a Pro Tour in this format.
Still, there are Legacy Grand Prix, and the format offers diversity in deck construction. While most articles talk about blue decks that feature 4 Brainstorm, 4 Force of Will, and 3-4 Ponder (fill up the rest with good stuff) I'm going to take you away from the "strongest color" in Magic to take a look at a deck that features another color (or even 2) without using any blue cards. Despite not playing blue, the deck is at least tier 1.5 if played correctly, and in certain metagames it could become a true tier 1 choice: Death and Taxes.
Why play a nonblue deck when blue is the strongest color in Magic: the Gathering?
• The most important downside of running 8 cantrips is that they cost you resources and time. Neither Brainstorm nor Ponder provide you with a clock. You look through your deck for a better clock like Tarmogoyf or Counterbalance or Infernal Tutor, while your opponent might just play a Goblin Guide, a Goblin Lackey (which even might be uncounterable thanks to Cavern of Souls), or consider Death and Taxes: a Mother of Runes or an Aether Vial. Let's assume you are on the play with your tempo-based-blue deck, then you might Daze the enemy's first-turn play, or play a removal spell on your turn, if the threat is really dangerous. In the case of Daze, your enemy is one turn further ahead of you, cause you had to bounce a land. In the case that you played removal, your second turn might only have been good to get rid of the turn-1 threat your opponent just played (and he might keep up with an even more dangerous turn-2 threat). Now let's assume you are on the draw and your opponent started with a big threat like a Goblin Lackey or a Aether Vial: Even having 2 or 3 cantrips in your hand might not help you to get out of this critical situation, or you might have to pull the kill switch with a Force of Will, generating card disadvantage.
• Cards like Brainstorm or Ponder provide you with a lot of card quality, but not real card advantage. Brainstorm is only really efficient if coupled with a shuffle effect, especially a fetchland. I've seen multiple players who didn't have a fetchland to shuffle away situational useless cards resulting in horrible deaths—knowing their draws for the next two turns. Of course, these situations occur sparingly in well-built decks, but they happen and you really have to ponder if you can keep a hand with only one land and a cantrip.
• While blue offers great library manipulation, combo cards (hello, Show and Tell), and strong defense like Force of Will, the color lacks any sort of cheap and efficient removal, assuming that you want to really get rid of something and not merely bounce a creature. Most blue control decks (Miracles) or aggro-control decks (Team America/Canadian Threshold/Shardless BUG, which I refuse to call Sultai) have to splash one or two colors to get access to lovely removal like Swords to Plowshares, Lightning Bolt, or Abrupt Decay. I know, many don't care and even splash three colors (BURG Delver). This results in a dangerous mana base, easily disrupted by one or two Wastelands. I know, dear Miracles player, your deck can feature a solid mana base, the most unfair removal (Terminus), AND the best main-deck combo hate (Counterbalance) in one deck. So just enjoy your obviously best deck in the format as long as it is legal!
To illustrate this, a little example from a Legacy tournament three weeks ago: Julian Knab (probably the best and most successful Elves player in Europe) plays against a 4-Color Delver deck. The match is 1-1. While Julian plays Elf after Elf and generates card advantage via Wirewood Symbiote plus Elvish Visionary, the Delver player has a solid hand, but his cantrips find only more cantrips and the wrong mana sources (thanks to his greedy 4-colored mana base). When he is finally able to cast a Sudden Demise for 2, Julian has already drawn 7 or more cards and easily wins the match in the following two turns.
A good clock might be better or at least equal to durdling around. With this thought in mind, you can see Death and Taxes' advantages, which has some really good early threats AND can durdle in the midgame.
Know Your Role
With decent early-game threats while clearly NOT being an aggro deck, Death and Taxes plays an unusual role in the metagame. I even would go so far and say that D&T is more of a control deck then most blue decks are (except Miracles, which is the epitome of control in Legacy). The role D&T will play varies in most of matchups.
While against decks like Storm (Ad Nauseam, Tendrils, and T.E.S.—The Epic Storm) it's an aggro deck that tries to get one or two hate bears like Thalia, Guardian of Thraben or Ethersworn Canonist online as soon as possible, it wants to play a long game against decks like 4-Color Delver. The longer the game lasts, the better your threats become: if the game lasts long enough, a Mother-of-Runes-protected, Sword-of-Fire-and-Ice-equipped Batterskull Germ token will outrace any Delver of Secrets or Tarmogoyf, while your opponent's Dazes are useless in the mid- or late game.
You all want the one and only best deck list for this archetype. It does not exist.
It all depends on your personal play style and your metagame. I've been working on this deck for more than two years and I have two deck lists that seem equally strong to me. I like them both, and playtesting has shown that both lists' cards can be changed to your individual preferences. I'm going to give you some examples for individual choices you can make, so your deck becomes optimal for your personal play style.
First, I'm going for the more "straightforward list" that most players would consider to be a classic D&T build.
Death and Taxes
Since consistency and resilience to disruption are huge benefits, I like the deck mana base and would not recommend straying far from these choices:
The Mana Base
While the Wastelands and Rishadan Ports attack the mana base of your opponent, the three Karakas provide you with a mighty tool: you can protect your Thalia, Guardian of Thraben while giving you hilarious outs against enemy fatties like Griselbrand or Emrakul, the Aeons Torn. The only downsides are that they can be hit by Wasteland and you can't have multiple copies in play.
The 2 Flagstones of Trokair have great synergy with the 2 Cataclysms in the sideboard and can be ridiculous against narrow decks like Smallpox. Be aware that the Flagstones will not trigger when you have a Rest in Peace in play.
Next, basic lands are tech! That's especially true in this deck, since you are nearly completely invulnerable to Blood Moon and enemy Stifles (though they might hit your Stoneforge Mystics). Some players like to play a 1-of Cavern of Souls to fill up their deck with more utility—I personally dislike them, since they are targets for Wasteland and often you need the white mana to cast Swords to Plowshares or a creature that costs WW. The same can be said of the 1-of Horizon Canopys some players use, since the deck needs its mana to constantly activate Rishadan Port.
Next we have a core of 20 creatures in the deck, which I would call the sacred cows of D&T. I would highly recommend against cutting even one of them, since these are (at the moment) simply the best choices with the best synergies in the deck.
Mother of Runes
Mother of Runes are exactly what I mentioned at the beginning: A 1-drop that is not much a threat of herself, but protects all your other creatures from spot removal if not handled immediately—sounds fair to me.
Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
Thalia, Guardian of Thraben is even more important. 1W 2/1 first strike sounds decent already, but the taxing ability is what seals the deal. Pay 2 mana for your Brainstorm—Oh, you are tapped out? Then no Force of Will for you... What, you can't get a storm count of more than 3? Not my problem! While she does slow down nearly every other deck, the ability is not so problematic for this deck that runs 26 creatures and aside from the 3 equipment cards, exactly 8 one-mana spells.
There isn't much to say about Stoneforge Mystic—a 2-mana value-searcher that can carry the equipment she found.
Next we have Phyrexian Revoker, which can win matchups all on its own. There are a ton of highly relevant cards in Legacy that Revoker shuts down: Sensei's Divining Top, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Engineered Explosives, Sneak Attack, Deathrite Shaman, Pernicious Deed, to name just a few. Be aware that he shuts down mana abilities too, so Lion's Eye Diamond might be a great target as well.
Last but not least Flickerwisp! On paper he looks unimpressive, and when I started to play D&T I wondered myself why he's even on the list—but not for long. The more you play D&T, the more you will love Flickerwisp. He is already good enough when played at sorcery-speed. From flickering out a Delver of Secrets to flickering your unattached Batterskull to flickering a Stoneforge Mystic, the applications are endless for this guy. He gets crazy with an Aether Vial on 3. He saves any of your permanents from spot removal at instant speed, can hold off enemy attackers, or even let enemy permanents vanish for your whole next turn (if Vialed in at the end of the opponent's turn).
After that, there are about 11 cards that can be found in 99% of all D&T lists (sometimes someone switches the Sword of Fire and Ice for another Sword). We have 4 Swords to Plowshares, the best spot removal ever printed (although Abrupt Decay has become a real contender); 4 Aether Vial, which make the difference between a clumsy White Weenie deck and the deck with probably the most tricks in the format; and the 3 best equipment cards in Legacy. Be aware that there are no matchups in which you board out Aether Vials (as some players do in Modern Merfolk). D&T relies heavily on this card, which allows you to play unfair games with a fair deck (turn-1 Aether Vial, turn-2 Rishadan Port, tap your land, turn-3 Wasteland your land, tap the other, all while playing creatures).
Lastly we have 6 slots left which can be filled with any good stuff you want. At the moment I'm running 2 Spirit of the Labyrinth, since they are quite good against Miracles or any deck that plays Brainstorm (especially when Vialed in response), 3 Serra Avenger (they are undercosted for what they do, and can enter the battlefield with Aether Vial even a turn before they'd normally arrive) and the 1-of Brimaz, King of Oreskos. 3-mana 3/4 with double-upside sounds great, and beyond that he is legendary and can therefore be rescued with Karakas.
At this point I have some other suggestions, if you dislike my current choices in these slots: Aven Mindcensor is a good choice. It can trade with Delver of Secrets or carry equipment over a stalled ground, and disrupting all enemy search abilities can be devastating—think about fetchlands, enemy Stoneforge Mystics, or even Infernal Tutor in Storm decks. Mirran Crusader is another option, which shines against any BUG (Sultai) deck; Mangara of Corondor, which works as a slow but recurring spot removal card with Karakas; Vryn Wingmare, if you want to go for a harder taxing plan; or even Ethersworn Canonist if you really hate combo decks.
In the sideboard I have 4 copies of Ethersworn Canonist (I might be the only D&T player who plays the full playset, but it's by far the most boarded card in my matches). It rocks against Elves, and Storm-based combo decks, Infect, narrow decks like High Tide or OmniTell, and can even be good against Snapcaster Mage or slow down an enemy Young Pyromancer. I have 2 Containment Priests, which crush Sneak and Show, reanimation strategies, and are great against decks like Elves. Remember that while Containment Priest is in play, your Aether Vial does not work anymore.
I play a 1-of Manriki-Gusari for opposing equipment. I think it's worth the one slot since you can search for it with Stoneforge Mystic and it even helps against Affinity (Cranial Plating) but feel free to cut this card when you think you won't face any equipments.
I have 3 Rest in Peace, which not only help against any directly graveyard-dependent deck but also shine against Tarmogoyfs, Deathrite Shamans, or Nimble Mongoose. It's also fine to go for 2 Rest in Peace and 1 Relic of Progenitus for diversity, but since Null Rod is boarded against us to shut down Aether Vial and equipment, I actually like the 3rd Rest in Peace more. Next we have 2 Council's Judgment, which can deal with any problematic nonland permanent your opponent might show up with, even planeswalkers.
The main purpose of the 2 Cataclysm is to have high-impact cards vs. Miracles, which seems absolutely necessary in the current metagame. Lastly, I play a 1-of Pithing Needle, which functions as the 5th Phyrexian Revoker, with the upsides that it can come down turn 1, shut down fetchlands, and (most importantly) survive Terminus.
As I said before, you can make some individual changes in the main deck and even more in the sideboard. Some suggestions for certain matchups:
- Kor Firewalker is an excellent option if you face a lot of red decks like Burn or Goblins.
- Enlightened Tutor can be used if you want to have a more flexible sideboard with many 1-ofs at the price of card disadvantage.
- Ratchet Bomb might help against tokens or any deck with a large number of permanents at the same low casting cost.
- Oblivion Ring might be an option against Show and Tell decks. As I mentioned before you might go for some copies of Mindbreak Trap if you fear fast combo.
- Sunlance might be a good choice if you face a lot of aggressive Delver of Secrets decks.
- Holy Light is a mediocre option against tribal-decks and True-Name Nemesis, since it kills your own Phyrexian Revokers too.
This last sideboard card (Holy Light) brings me to the second list that I want to present you. How good would it be to have a board sweeper (which mono-white decks lack), that clears only your opponent's board? Interested? Then the following list might be something for you.
Death and Taxes
So I have a small red splash here, which gives you access to many options, although most WR D&T lists only use 3 red cards:
Imperial Recruiter provides the deck with a cool toolbox, which you can maximize or minimize as you want (and Imperial Recruiter is a really awesome creature combined with Flickerwisp). I think Fiend Hunter is a must-have due to his immediate effect on the deck, that is much more grind-y than classic D&T lists. Magus of the Moon is the main reason to run the red splash, since it offers the potential for a blowout win, especially since the Magus of the Moon can come in with instant speed via Aether Vial. A Mother-of-Runes-protected Magus of the Moon can be a game-winner even against an opponent who floats mana in response.
In the sideboard there is another Magus of the Moon to help out in the matchups where the first one is handled via discard or well-timed removal (credits for the WR D&T build go to Mark König, a great D&T player from Denmark, who used to play 3 Magus of the Moon main deck). I like the idea quite a lot, but there are many matchups where Magus is not that great. I think one in the main deck and one in the sideboard is a solid choice.
Then we have the 3 Sudden Demises in the sideboard, which are the nuts in certain matchups. They can turn the tables against Elves, take out multiple Delver of Secrets at once or when carefully and well-timed—even win the mirror.
Lastly, some more comments about the choices in the list: Of course the mana base had to be changed a bit to provide enough red mana sources, and I have to admit that the mana base of WR D&T is not as solid as in mono-white lists. Still, it's solid enough, with a certain number of basic Plains and the AEther Vials. In this version of the deck I even like the Cavern of Souls because you play a ton of Humans. In the main deck, the Ethersworn Canonist is a metagame choice, you could switch him for a second Magus of the Moon or a fourth Phyrexian Revoker. I like the Eight-and-a-Half-Tails a lot as tech against certain grindy decks like Miracles or even Shardless BUG, where he isn't that bad as a 2/2 for 2 mana that can be protected by Karakas. This guy can completely dominate the late game and even protect your equipment from stuff like Abrupt Decay.
In the sideboard I play a wild mix of 1-ofs that also can be switched around easily. Here's an example that made Top 8 at an SCG Open.
Looking at the archetype overall, I think it's a solid choice for any tournament. Colin Logan has shown that the deck is competitive and strong enough to play in a league with any blue deck. I even think that with more Imperial Recruiters around we would see the WR lists more often, since they appear to be really strong against decks like Shardless BUG or Lands. Against Miracles the Magus of the Moon is of course unimpressive, but here it's the Imperial Recruiter which shines against removal like Terminus.
I'm going to write a detailed matchup analysis for the two lists I posted in this article, so if you want detailed information about a certain matchup, just let me know in the comments!