My goal with this guide over the coming weeks is to paint a picture of the Legacy format, and today we are going to focus on graveyard-based decks, which are a prominent part of the metagame.
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Legacy Guide Part V: Graveyard Decks
In the first sections of my Legacy Guide, I offered a broad outline of the format. I gave advice for those diving into Legacy for the first time, and offered suggestions for preparing for a Legacy tournament. Now we’ll delve into the finer details, covering a small handful of individual decks. More importantly, I’ll go over how to approach beating each of the broad categories of decks that you might face.
I’ll start with a category of decks that helps make Legacy Legacy: Combo decks. Part V will focus on graveyard-specific strategies, while Part VI will touch on the more traditional Combo decks.
What to Expect from Combo Decks
If you’re a long-time Standard player, you might remember a few combo decks springing up over recent years. We had Kethis Combo, Nexus of Fate, and even mana ramp decks have qualities in common with combo decks.
These can hardly be compared to Legacy combo decks.
The tools exist in Legacy to build extremely fast, consistent, and foolproof combo decks. If there’s a combo in your deck, it’s likely that your entire gameplan is based around that combo, and you have no Plan B.
These decks have also been huge winners from the change to the London Mulligan rule. Now they can start with their key pieces in hand more often, and they can find smooth, functional hands almost every game, even if they’re playing a dangerously low land count.
The faster combo decks in Legacy will “go off” on the first turn between ten percent and fifty percent of the time. They are designed to go off on the second turn with incredible consistency, even through a single piece of disruption. This means that if your anti-combo cards are primarily spells that cost one or more mana–like Thoughtseize or Spell Pierce–you’ll be dead in the water when the combo player has a good hand on the play. If possible, you should combine these cards with “free” disruption like Force of Will, Force of Negation, Mindbreak Trap, Surgical Extraction, and Daze (although Daze might not save you when you’re on the draw).
Graveyard Combo Decks
I featured R/B Reanimator in section III of this Guide. It’s an explosive and effective deck that might fit well into certain players’ budgets due to the absence of Force of Will. (You can also avoid the Fetch/Dual manabase by playing Monoblack, or by turning to substitutes like Blackcleave Cliffs).
The goal is to get a giant creature in the graveyard via Entomb, or simply by discarding it. Griselbrand is the most common target, but Entomb can allow a small toolbox featuring Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite, Iona, Shield of Emeria, Ashen Rider, and a handful of other options.
Reanimator has one of the highest game-one win rates of all the decks in Legacy. It’s fast, simple, and consistent; being able to produce a giant creature by the second turn in the vast majority of games. Graveyard hate is excellent after sideboarding, but sometimes Rest in Peace and Relic of Progenitus can even be too slow!
Dredge is a familiar archetype that also appears in Modern and Vintage. In all formats, it’s a deadly adversary that is usually only beaten through raw speed or dedicated graveyard hate.
The strategy is simple: find a dredge card and a way to get it into your graveyard. From there, you can quickly dump your library into your graveyard (sped along by Faithless Looting and Cephalid Coliseum). Cabal Therapies shred the opponent’s hand while Narcomebas, Ichorids, and zombie tokens from Bridge from Below do the rest. Some versions will include something like Flame-Kin Zealot as a quick way to win via Dread Return, but it’s hardly necessary with the built-in speed and disruption of the archetype.
Hogaak’s reign of terror ended with multiple bannings in Modern, but it still exists in its fully powered form in Legacy. Like Dredge, this deck uses self-mill, resilient creatures, and Cabal Therapy to off-balance the opponent. However, it also has the namesake 8/8 trample to close games quickly, as well as Altar of Dementia, which can accelerate the self-mill process, or provide a non-combat way to win the game.
While it might be slightly slower than traditional Dredge, Hogaak is more resilient and has better sideboard options. In my opinion, it stands as not only the best graveyard deck, but one of the very best decks in Legacy right now.
As a general rule, graveyard-based combo decks are exceptionally hard to beat before sideboarding. However, for games two and three, they have to contend with both the generic disruption on opponents’ sideboards and potent graveyard hate cards like Surgical Extraction and Nihil Spellbomb.
Choosing Your Graveyard Hate
The main reason that I prefer Hogaak to the other graveyard strategies is that it’s more difficult to shut down with a single sideboard card. A one-time use card like Tormod’s Crypt can buy time against a Hogaak player, but they can easily rebuild and overpower it. Rest in Peace is effective, but if there’s already an 8/8 trample on the battlefield when it comes down, then it won’t be enough. Surgical Extraction can hit one piece, but the deck can still function perfectly fine with one piece missing–if the Vengevines don’t get you, the Bloodghasts and zombie tokens might. And all of that is not even to mention that the namesake card can be cast without ever hitting the graveyard!
The delve mechanic is also particularly tricky to play against. Since it’s part of the cost of playing a spell, you cannot respond to your opponent delving. A common situation is that you’ll be sitting with a Nihil Spellbomb in play or a Surgical Extraction in hand, and the Hogaak player will cast something – let’s say a Stitcher’s Supplier. If you let the triggered ability resolve, the opponent might immediately cast Hogaak without passing priority, circumventing your graveyard hate. This puts you in the unenviable position of either using your hate card early for very little value, or risking it being useless altogether. So much for your awesome sideboard card!
For these reasons, Leyline of the Void is one of my top graveyard hate choices right now. It’s the only card that’s both fast enough to stop a quick Hogaak or Griselbrand and packs enough punch that the graveyard decks can’t work around it. That said, Leylines lose value in a format with the card selection of Brainstorm, Ponder, and Preordain. For blue decks, the seven cards in your opening hand only make up a relatively small portion of the cards you see over the course of the game. So while you can dig to your other graveyard hate cards, Leyline puts you completely at the mercy of your opening hand. Because of this, Leyline of the Void might not be a slam-dunk for decks like Delver and Snow. However, if you’re not playing with Brainstorm and Ponder–for example decks like Elves or Eldrazi–then it remains an extremely potent option.
The other end of the spectrum is Surgical Extraction. It’s ideal for decks that can dig to their sideboard cards, and have answers to small stuff that might slip through the cracks. It’s a particularly great pairing with Snapcaster Mage, and can even be a reasonable tool against non-graveyard combo decks when paired with Thoughtseize.
Rest in Peace and Relic of Progenitus are effective and versatile, but might be too slow to help you if your Reanimator or Hogaak opponent has a good draw on the play. Feel free to sideboard these cards, but I recommend diversifying your anti-graveyard suite if you do.
Tormod’s Crypt is a nice middle-ground since it’s free to cast, but packs a bigger punch against Dredge than Surgical Extraction does. I’m a big fan of Nihil Spellbomb in decks with access to black mana, since it replaces itself and can therefore come in for a wider variety of matchups.
How many graveyard hate cards should you put in your sideboard? Well…As many as you can fit! It’s acceptable to take the calculated risk of playing with zero graveyard hate cards if you want to use your sideboard slots elsewhere. However, the first couple of anti-graveyard cards do have a lot of value. Playing six or more dedicated sideboard cards is probably past the point of diminishing returns, but there would definitely be matchups where you’d be glad to have them. It’s most common to see three or four dedicated graveyard hate cards in Legacy sideboards right now.
Sometimes the best thing you can do is to find cards that are effective against Graveyard strategies, but also have applications elsewhere. One great example is Containment Priest, which is an all-star against Reanimator, but can also come in against Elves, Sneak and Show, and a handful of other matchups. Karakas is effective against Griselbrand and Hogaak, and you can even look a little deeper to cards like Anger of the Gods or Scavenging Ooze.
One way or another, you’re going to run into graveyard strategies when you play Legacy. And since these decks are so difficult to beat before sideboarding, they can be among the most nerve-wracking matchups you’ll face in a tournament.