Recurring Nightmares – Optimism

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It’s funny, I didn’t really expect to get back to telling this story. Much like my vigor for most things, I was excited and anxious out of the gates, but as time passes and my interest wanes, I start to consider continuing the story a chore, rather than something I’m doing for fun. I needed a bit of time away from this series to renew my enthusiasm.

I figured we had caught up to a point in the story where the events were of recent memory, and it would not be worthwhile for me to rehash those events that could be witnessed by those who were willing to read through my archives on this site. I’ve already written of them at length once, and wasn’t interested in a rehash. However, sufficient time has passed to where it’s now worthwhile to recall these events, and introduce them to those who were not privy to them as they occurred. Magic is a game with a fair bit of churn, and while some of us have been playing forever (and likely will be playing forever), not all of us get the chance to experience everything first-hand. Enough of you have encouraged me to once more take up the mantle of “Legacy Historian,” and so here I am—and here we go.

For those who couldn’t be bothered to click the final link above, we just survived the release of Rise of the Eldrazi, and are living in a world where Gerry Thompson is crushing the Open series with Reanimator. The deck has won the most recent Legacy Grand Prix, defeating an [card]Ad Nauseam[/card] player who killed himself with the deck’s marquee card in the finals. Wizards has finally committed to taking action on the format, which is defined by (and clearly ruled by) the unfair decks. On June 1st of 2010, the banned list came out, with the following changes:

[card]Mystical Tutor[/card] is Banned.
[card]Illusionary Mask[/card] is Unbanned.
[card]Grim Monolith[/card] is Unbanned.

To say that these changes were unexpected would be quite the understatement. For those of us playing at the time, we were aghast at the banning, which seemed totally out of left field. [card]Mystical Tutor[/card], at the time seeing play in a few decks—some of which do not even include a full set—was seen as an innocuous player, and many thought there were far greater offenders that could have been banned rather than the Mirage staple. In fact, one such card, [card]Entomb[/card], was only very recently allowed off the banned list, and if anything was reasonable for the powers that be to axe, it was the card that was just let out of prison! However, Wizards believed, for better or worse, that the card selection facilitated by [card]Mystical Tutor[/card] was too good for the format, and that the spells you could find with Mystical were strong enough to make this tutor above the power level acceptable in Legacy.

Of course, they didn’t say that in as many words. Instead, they mentioned something about some games in the tournament practice room on Magic Online (where no one played Legacy), and something about a “gentleman’s agreement” to not play good decks. Or something. It was a confusing time, and it seemed like there was a whole lot of retroactive justification going on, where they really didn’t need any.

The community* was surprised by the ambiguous rationalizations from Wizards, and while they were partly upset by the immediate un-viability of their favorite revive-a-fatty deck, they were more upset by the precedent they felt this established—where cards could be banned to nerf specific decks without a real explanation from those in charge.

(*A note on “the community”—at this point in the history of Legacy, “the community” no longer refers to the former notion of “The Legacy Community,” as it once did. With the increasing exposure of the format to Magic players at large through the SCG Open series and continued Grand Prix events, those with a vested interest in the health of the format are no longer the elite few who have bought into a niche format, but are instead people who simply love the game, and want to continue playing in an enjoyable alternate format. This shift is one of the healthiest changes that has happened to Legacy, and the format is far, far better off because of it.)

Of course, we know now with the perfect vision of hindsight that this wasn’t the case, and we’ve seen the reality of the statement that Wizards was making with the banning of [card]Mystical Tutor[/card]. Statement, because regardless of intention, almost every action made by the company will be seen as a Statement by players.

Wizards has slowly worked toward creating a game where creature combat, and not spells, are the focal point of game interaction. [card]Mystical Tutor[/card] does not fit into that paradigm, any more than [card]Flash[/card] or [card]Mind’s Desire[/card] does. The early years of the game contain spells with such powerful effects that having access to a tutor of that caliber is outside the scope of the game as they envision it. This is why you can’t play the Mystical, but you are welcome to [card worldly tutor]Worldly[/card] to your heart’s content.

Along with the highly controversial banned announcement, we also gained access to a pair of cards that were previously illegal in Legacy—[card]Grim Monolith[/card] and [card]Illusionary Mask[/card].

Monolith was the card expected to have impact on Legacy, although rumors of its potential were far larger than the impact it actually had. Once again, the fear of the broken Stax deck arose, and the combination of 8 Sol lands ([card]Ancient Tomb[/card], [card]City of Traitors[/card]) alongside [card]Grim Monolith[/card] and [card]Mox Diamond[/card] as avenues to support a turn 1 [card]Metalworker[/card] or [card]Trinisphere[/card] was still not enough to turn the deck into a mono-brown degenerate machine. There were inklings of this deck at least passing the laugh test, but it was not yet a contender. The problem, really, is twofold: First, this format is not Vintage, where one’s mana base is largely comprised of spells that cost zero mana to play. Instead, we play actual, honest-to-goodness lands, and even basic ones at that! This makes cards like [card]Trinisphere[/card] and [card]Thorn of Amethyst[/card] much less effective at cutting us from the ability to play spells, since we can eventually just play through the [card]Trinisphere[/card]. Second, the investment to power these spells out in a timely fashion is much greater, since you need either a pair of lands and a Mox, or a Sol land and a Monolith, or some other combination of multiple cards—rather than simply “Workshop, Trinisphere.” This is much more difficult to accomplish, and leaves you with far less steam to back the combo up with, since instead of having 5 cards in hand, you usually have 3 or 4.

In any event, Monolith was kept in the back pocket of some brewer-types, but wasn’t making real waves at the time of the unbanning.

[card]Illusionary Mask[/card], however, was a sad case of a good idea gone all to hell.

The oracle text of Mask has changed nearly as many times as [card]Time Vault[/card], but at the time of the unbanning, it was the same as today:

X: You may choose a creature card in your hand whose mana cost could be paid by some amount of, or all of, the mana you spent on X. If you do, you may cast that card face down as a 2/2 creature spell without paying its mana cost. If the creature that spell becomes as it resolves has not been turned face up and would assign or deal damage, be dealt damage, or become tapped, instead it’s turned face up and assigns or deals damage, is dealt damage, or becomes tapped. Activate this ability only any time you could cast a sorcery.

What a mouthful! Effectively, what it means, is that instead of paying a creature’s mana cost, you can pay that cost plus any amount of mana you wish (in order to mask what the cost actually is). In exchange, you get a morph, which is flipped basically whenever a stiff breeze blows by it. The important part of this is that you get to ignore the creature’s enters the battlefield triggers and effects, so you can use the card to circumvent drawbacks on cards like [card]Phyrexian Dreadnought[/card] or [card]Lord of Tresserhorn[/card].

This has always been the case. However, three very important things changed with the shift in Oracle as it stands today. First, the creature is a 2/2, instead of a 0/1, which is what it used to be. Second, you used to be able to flip the creature whenever you wanted, rather than just when certain criteria had been fulfilled. Third, it used to put the creature into play, rather than casting it. The third point is the most important, as it effectively meant that Mask was a pseudo-[card]Aether Vial[/card] that had a drawback and bonus at the same time. Now, since the creature is no longer put into play, the opponent can still counter the creature as you try to play it. This greatly reduces the viability of the card, and so even those who had been waiting years to see the return of Masknought were left with a sour taste.

Soon after these changes went into effect, a second Legacy Grand Prix Columbus—this time with 100% less [card]Flash[/card]—took place. The event was a resounding success, featuring a wide open metagame full of interesting and fun decks, many of which hadn’t seen success prior to the event. The Top 8 had eight distinct and separate deck types represented, something quite rare for any event, let alone Legacy. Bryant Cook, the developer of TES, and long time Legacy enthusiast had his breakout event, where he fell in the quarterfinals to an interesting deck piloted by another breakout player—Caleb Durward—piloting the deck that put his name into our collective psyche: UG Survival Madness. And Madness it was, as it rapidly became the most influential deck of the next six months and contributed to one of the more comical periods of Legacy writing. From my perspective, at least.

UG Survival Madness

Caleb Durward – Grand Prix Columbus 2010, Top 4

[deck]Main Deck:
3 Forest
1 Gaea’s Cradle
1 Island
4 Misty Rainforest
1 Scalding Tarn
4 Tropical Island
4 Wasteland
2 Windswept Heath
1 Wooded Foothills
4 Aquamoeba
4 Basking Rootwalla
4 Noble Hierarch
3 Trygon Predator
4 Vengevine
4 Wild Mongrel
1 Wonder
2 Daze
4 Force of Will
3 Stifle
4 Survival of the Fittest
2 Umezawa’s Jitte
2 Faerie Macabre
3 Krosan Grip
4 Spell Pierce
3 Submerge
3 Wheel of Sun and Moon[/deck]

Soon after the Grand Prix, UG Survival began to run amuck on the SCG Open series, as players recognized the power inherent in the combination of [card]Vengevine[/card] and [card]Basking Rootwalla[/card]. The shell developed beyond the UG build Caleb played, and incorporated white for [card]Enlightened Tutor[/card]. As more people experimented with the deck, they quickly found that it outperformed nearly every other deck in the format—having a better aggressive plan than the aggro decks, and running enough disruption to blow past the combo decks. The recursion of [card]Vengevine[/card] gave the control decks fits, as no amount of removal could prevent a crew of 4/3 hasters from returning from the dead. Survival began to slowly but surely move from “off the radar” to “dominating the format” in a few months.

By the time October rolled around—and with it, the release of Scars of Mirrodin—an entirely new monster had been created with the Survival machine.

The release of [card]Necrotic Ooze[/card], and the combo which used it, pushed the Survival deck from merely “very good” to “nearly untouchable,” and players really started to get the Ban It itch. For those who don’t recall the combo,

[draft]Necrotic Ooze
Phyrexian Devourer

With the latter two cards in the graveyard (likely discarded by Survival to fetch the Ooze), and the Ooze in play, you activate the Ooze using Devourer’s ability, and exile the top card of your library—retaining priority. The retaining of priority was important at the time, but has been corrected now. Time for more errata chat!

The oracle text of Devourer at the time:

When Phyrexian Devourer’s power is 7 or greater, sacrifice it.

Exile the top card of your library: Put X +1/+1 counters on Phyrexian Devourer, where X is the exiled card’s converted mana cost. If Phyrexian Devourer’s power is 7 or greater, sacrifice it.

Since that period, the Devourer had the seemingly redundant last sentence removed. However, since the text was there during the period the combo saw play, one had to continually respond to the ability if they exiled a card with CMC greater than 2, because otherwise the Ooze would die.

So, you would hold priority, check the CMC of the card you exile, and if it were greater than 2, you would respond by using the ability again. If the card’s CMC was 2 or less, you would allow the ability to resolve, adding X +1/+1 counters to the [card]Necrotic Ooze[/card]. You would then remove them via the [card]Triskelion[/card] ability, and deal that much damage to your opponent. At the end, you’d have a bunch of Devourer abilities on the stack, very few cards left in your library, and a dead opponent.

Of course, this was merely one angle from which you could attack. If, for example, the opponent had a [card]Leyline of Sanctity[/card] in play, you could put a bunch of [card]Vengevine[/card]s in play and attack them to death. So easy, even a kitten could do it.

Survival decks were more than strong. They were more than dominant. There was a point, in late November into early December 2010, where Survival became the most dominant deck in the history of Legacy. It began to take not only the first place slot, but often more than half the Top 8 of SCG Opens. In those elimination rounds, it was losing only to the mirror, or to decks with dedicated ways to fight the deck on multiple fronts. And more often than not, even those decks were losing. For insight into how ridiculous the dominance was, check out this article, where I broke down the prior few events during the height of Survival’s reign.

A great debate began. Should [card survival of the fittest]Survival[/card] be banned? Should [card]Vengevine[/card]? Should [card]Basking Rootwalla[/card]? Should it be left to its own devices, allowing the format time to adapt to this new threat? Were we willing to trade the interesting and powerful engine of [card]Survival of the Fittest[/card] for a more stable metagame?

No one truly had the answers, but everyone thought they did. There wasn’t a day that went by that didn’t have an article on one of the major strategy sites discussing the potential implications of banning some card from Legacy, especially as the clock moved closer and closer to that all important December 20th date. With every single person with a soapbox to stand on chiming in on the format’s health and what they think the future should look like, I couldn’t help but recall those tumultuous times in the past where Legacy was a much smaller format, and the then-paragons of the format made the same kind of outcries. When there were very real changes and the greater Magic community told the Legacy guys to walk it off. Here we were, six years later, and the whole world seemed to have its collective eye on the format. This time, I think they all had a little more empathy, as they’d had a taste of how awesome the format can be, and either wanted to keep it how it is, or make it what they think it should be. The parallels were abounding, and I couldn’t help but laugh a little as I saw history repeat itself once again.

The December banned list came, and Survival went. Those who were lobbying for the [card]Vengevine[/card] axe rather than Survival were disheartened, and the Europeans continued to tell us that Americans are stupid, and that they had this Survival problem all figured out.

They say the Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away, and Wizards decided that sounded like a pretty good plan. They yanked Survival out from under our feet, but they snuck in and gave us [card]Time Spiral[/card], as well. Those of us paying attention knew this meant the format would not, and could not go back to where it was before the Survival deck was discovered.

[card]Time Spiral[/card] existing in Legacy for the first time meant two things: First, it meant [card]High Tide[/card] was destined to be a real deck again. Having a draw 7 that doubled as mana acceleration was just too sweet a treat for the deck to be totally non-viable. The only thing to determine was if the format was too fast for the card to be realistic on turn 4. Turn 4 was the speed the deck would likely be relegated to, as you need four lands to [card]High Tide[/card] -> [card]Time Spiral[/card]. Second, it meant that the battle was once more moving to the stack, rather than the combat step, and that there was a clearly defined fundamental turn within Legacy that required an aggro deck to either race or be capable of disrupting. When it comes to turn-3 aggro decks, just one thing comes to mind—Goblins.

While writing this article, Adam was listening to: Quicksand – Slip

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