How do Magic: The Gathering Legacy Decks get Made?
After a recent Legacy tournament at Manaleak I went for a meal with some friends, when someone asked the question: How often does a new deck get born in Legacy?
This is a very deep question.
How would you define what a ‘new’ deck is? Where does the evolution of an old deck end and a new one begin? Where do all the old decks that basically get retired out of existence go? Every set has the potential to spawn new decks, revolutionise old ones and get everyone’s brewing juices going.
Let’s begin by looking at some of the decks that are out there as decks to beat:
Death and Taxes
Oops, All Spells
And this is just scratching the surface. Any new deck would have to have a reasonable match up against a broad group of these decks. So how do they come about?
Sometimes new decks come about because of a new mechanic. Look at Fate Reforged, for example, The Manifest mechanic gave a new lease of life to Phyrexian Dreadnought decks, albeit relatively short lived, as there was a mechanic that just did something new. This can happen in far more dramatic circumstances though.
Case Study #1: Dredge
You may not be surprised to know that before the Dredge mechanic was printed in Ravnica: City of Guilds, there was no deck named Dredge. It wasn’t even known as Dredge at that time, as Ichorid was seen as the major powerhouse behind the deck in its early years. With the printing of a new mechanic we had the CREATION of an entirely new archetype.
Flash forward a few years to Time Spiral Block and we get a whole load of new toys to play with. Time Spiral itself gave us Dread Return, while Future Sight supplied two of the biggest players in the deck in Narcomoeba and Bridge From Below, as well as the role player that is Dakmor Salvage. This was a major EVOLUTION of the deck as it was then rarely seen in the older configuration without these newer cards. Often evolution is slower than this, with only one or two cards being added to a deck each year. It is very rare that you will get multiple cards per set going into an existing deck.
The next phase of Dredge came around the time of New Phyrexia. Mental Misstep was running rife, people were trying to find ways of mitigating its effect, the Chancellor cycle (Chancellor of the Annex et al.) helped spawn a crazy manaless deck that used things like Blazing Shoal with Reaper King to pump Memnites to lethal proportions and someone had an idea of a way that Dredge could do this too.
Manaless Dredge became a whole new deck that used a similar Dredge engine and threats but created a deck that could literally win without casting a spell. Sure, it still had Cabal Therapy and Dread Return in most lists, and occasionally you saw some Dakmor Salvages as a way of rebuying Bloodghasts, but on the whole it was very different to regular Dredge. This was the SPAWNING of a new deck from an existing one.
Both Dredge and Manaless Dredge are still viable decks these days, with each branch having staunch advocates and fans. And that’s one of the great things about Legacy.
A more recent, if less dramatic, example of a mechanic driven deck is Infect, which uses pump spells and creatures with infect to hit your opponent for 10 poison as quickly as possible. It took a while for this deck actually gain some traction, but it now has found a place as a disruptive Tempo deck.
Infect is not the most disruptive deck by far though.
Case Study #2: Disruptive Weenie
I will say this now:
Death and Taxes is the new Goblins.
The reason that Goblins died a death in the last year or so is not just because of the number of Delver decks beating up on them, or the number of Miracles decks Terminussing their goblins away. Instead, the White Weenie deck known as Death and Taxes was created, evolved and became better than Goblins. Both use AEther Vial to create a mana advantage, allowing them to attack their opponents’ mana with Wasteland and Rishadan Port.
Death and Taxes’ pilot keeps on taxing resources with its creatures though, gaining the upper hand. Thalia, Guardian of Thraben allows the deck to do this in a literal way with a very real cost on all non-creature spells, with Aven Mindcensor doing a similar job by jumping in and preventing fetchlands from, well, fetching lands.
This, along with the variety of creatures that Death and Taxes runs, is a big part of the reason that the deck plays better in general than Goblins. Sure, Goblins can be a lot more explosive and it can be very resilient and fill its hand back up quickly with Goblin Ringleader. but it doesn’t have the flexibility to allow it to play other roles in different match ups.
To elaborate on this further, a good Delver pilot will be able to play the deck as an ‘All in Red’ type deck or a hard Control deck dependent on the match up, or at any point on the scale in between. Death and Taxes in not quite as flexible as a lot of Delver decks, but it is able to attack the format in a different way to Delver decks and as such it occupies a different place in the metagame.
Case Study 3: Threshold
It all started with a ‘Goose and a Bear. He had the right to bear arms. But when the Werebear didn’t grow, it died. Then comes Tarmogoyf. The Threshold deck is a deck that played a lot of small cantrip type effects, Wastelands and fetch lands to fill up the graveyard to threshold – at which point both Nimble Mongoose and Werebear became significant threats.
The real evolution though was when Delver of Secrets was printed in Innistrad. Snapcaster Mage was initially the more impactful card in the deck, but it didn’t take long for people to realise that a one-mana 3/2 flyer that pitches to Force of Will is actually a pretty good beater. It wins the games fast with the disruption that the threshold decks have to keep the game in the developmental phase.
Compare the following two decks:
Canadian Threshold by Ben Wienburg circa 2009
4 Nimble Mongoose
2 Vendilion Clique
4 Fire // Ice
4 Force of Will
4 Lightning Bolt
4 Spell Snare
3 Flooded Strand
3 Polluted Delta
4 Tropical Island
4 Volcanic Island
1 Tormod’s Crypt
2 Trygon Predator
2 Krosan Grip
Temur Delver by Harlan Firer
1st Place at StarCityGames.com Invitational Qualifier on 6/14/2015
4 Delver of Secrets
4 Nimble Mongoose
4 Force of Will
4 Lightning Bolt
4 Spell Pierce
1 Spell Snare
4 Flooded Strand
3 Tropical Island
3 Volcanic Island
4 Wooded Foothills
1 Pithing Needle
4 Tormod’s Crypt
1 Sulfuric Vortex
1 Sylvan Library
1 Ancient Grudge
1 Blue Elemental Blast
1 Krosan Grip
1 Ghost Quarter
Whilst on the surface there isn’t a huge difference between the two decks, there are subtleties to the differences. The counters that are used (Spell Snare vs Spell Pierce) show differences in the metagame at that point with a heavy reliance on two-drops. The newer list has more threats and more removal spells, as well as a more eclectic sideboard plan with fewer cards for specific matchups – but those that can come in have a higher impact.
The printing of Delver of Secrets had a big effect on the Threshold decks as it became the primary threat for the deck. Delver also allowed the creation of other Tempo decks in other colours, notably UR Delver with Young Pyromancers and BUG Delver. Having said that, BUG Delver was also enabled by a couple of printings from Return to Ravnica in Deathrite Shaman and Abrupt Decay. Speaking of new decks springing from Return to Ravnica block…
Case Study #4: The Combo Engine
As far as I’m aware, the newest ‘Real Deck’ in Legacy is ‘Oops, All Spells’. This deck just plain didn’t exist before Gatecrash was printed. Here were two creatures that did something that hadn’t been seen before, the closest effect has been banned in Legacy and you could run EIGHT of them. This instantly gives a Combo deck great consistency when you can have access to so many copies of your win conditions.
The deck still needed a mana shell, which was lifted from a no-land Goblin Charbelcher deck (which also makes a nice alternate win condition after sideboards), and a way to actually win the game once all the cards in your deck are in the graveyard. This has the advantage over regular Belcher decks: you only need 4 mana to cast Balustrade Spy or to cast and activate Undercity Informer.
Whilst the deck is very much a glass cannon, it is popular amongst Legacy newcomers. It is relatively cheap, has a big, splashy finish, and is the sort of deck that you can practice at over and again by yourself to get really familiar with the inner mechanics.
Absolutely brand new decks very rarely crop up in Legacy, but there is a constant, gradual change – like tectonic plates shifting on the Earth’s crust. Once in a while though, there’s an Earthquake. Or even a Volcanic Eruption.
Community Question: What’s the best ‘new’ Legacy deck you’ve seen recently, and why?
Thanks for reading,