Some friends and I are playing at a Planar Chaos sealed tournament. In between rounds, one of them comes up and recounts about how he just received the worst beating ever despite having an amazing opening hand in game three. I ask him what happened and he replies, “So I suspend Ancestral Visions on turn one. My opponent mulliganed to six and missed his third land drop. I think I’m in good shape at that point, but he plays Imp’s Mischief on my Visions and then a Gorgon Recluse (with Madness) because he had to discard. I go to play a Benalish Cavalry and a Saltfield Recluse to push through some damage. Then he plays Rough/Tumble. I get totally blown out and lose.”
Does that story sound familiar? The story where your friend thinks he’s in a position where he can’t possibly lose to being on the opposite side, being unable to claw back into the game and win. Quite a few of these stories usually include him recounting the four or five cards, the exact combination necessary in the exact order required for his opponent to steal the win. What are commonly overlooked are the subtleties that should have been noted when playing that fateful game. My friend could have played Cavalry Master on turn five followed up by Saltfield Recluse and mana to cast Cancel on turn six. Instead, he tries to dump his hand into play and start attacking immediately with the Benalish Cavalry. In the end, the guy chalks up the loss to getting extremely unlucky when in reality it was reckless play that helped facilitate his defeat. He was so far ahead on the board that he didn’t need to over commit. In the end he was punished for it. Granted, in limited there aren’t as many options at the beginning of the game concerning which cards to play from your hand when compared to constructed formats, especially ones with large card pools such as Legacy. The story still reinforces the idea that consistent careful play rewards those who practice it.
In a format as powerful as Legacy, the plays made in the first turns of the game have a major role in determining the tempo of the game; that is, which of the two players jockeying for position will be able to use their cards the most effectively and end up ahead with their game plan. Some decks will deliver an opening hand that has several routes of play. Only one of those plays will be the right one after taking into consideration the risks involved with the ability of the hand to deal with those risks and the probability of the worst-case scenario actually happening. Do I play my Polluted Delta and fetch a basic Island to play Ponder and set up my two-drop creature or do I play Underground Sea first because I have Brainstorm and Polluted Delta also in my hand? One play sacrifices card quality but protects itself from Wasteland whereas the other is the opposite. This article is going to explore the pitfalls of the opening turns in Legacy and the cards associated with them as well as compare some of the decks that can easily punish careless opponents.
When the number of one-mana spells used in Legacy is tallied up, it’s not surprising how easy it is to overlook many of the points that need to be considered before making a play. Factor in fetch lands and the problem is exacerbated. Look at the following deck list:
You’re playing with the list above in a tournament and sit down for your first round. Your opening hand is: Underground Sea, Flooded Strand, Ponder, Sensei’s Divining Top, Brainstorm, Stifle, and Tarmogoyf. You have no idea what your opponent is playing. Seems like an okay hand on the play, right? So what do you do on turn one? Are you a bit puzzled? Don’t feel bad if you are. There are sixteen different lines of play alone without seeing any additional cards:
Assuming that you don’t know what your opponent is playing; maximizing Ponder for card quality isn’t going to be easy because of lack of information. The ability to evaluate a card’s merit is influenced largely by how many of the sixty cards in your opponent’s deck you know. You might be playing against a Stax deck which has four Trinisphere and four Wastelands, in which case the three lands that you see from Ponder are actually good. However, since you didn’t know, you shuffled your deck and ended up losing.
Of all the cards played in legacy, Sensei’s Divining Top (SDT) is probably the largest mana sink in the format. Playing SDT on turn one gives your opponent the opportunity to resolve something nasty like Aether Vial because you will only be able to see the top card of your deck by drawing with SDT in order to find Daze or Force of Will. Given that your hand is full of business, the only real advantages of playing SDT on turn one is to find a Counterbalance as quickly as possible or a Daze or Force of Will in order to resolve Tarmogoyf on turn three.
Playing SDT on turn one allows you to see about a dozen cards by turn four assuming you draw into zero Ponder, Brainstorm, fetch lands (Use SDT to look at card #1, #2, and #3 on you upkeep of turn two. Play the Flooded Strand. Fetch a land and use SDT to see card #4, #5, and #6 at the end of your opponent’s turn two. Play Ponder on your turn three to see card #5, #6, and #7. Shuffle and draw #8. Use SDT to look at card #9, #10, and #11 at the end of your opponent’s turn three. Use SDT to look at card #10, #11, and #12 during your main phase of turn four). The problem with this line of play is that you’ve been ignoring your opponent all this time and they’ve probably played a few spells that you don’t really want to resolve. At the time you started the Top shenanigans, you only had access to one Stifle as permission, so you’d have had to have found and used a Force of Will, Daze, or Stifle in addition to a number of resolved spells from your opponent equal to the excess number of spells that they played versus the number of permission spells that you played. In other words, they probably have a nasty card or two in play and are going to try to kill you with them.
This play is terrible. Much like Ponder, you open yourself up to making bad decisions because of lack of information. You don’t know whether you need to maximize the spells in your hand and use Flooded Strand to shuffle or to play Brainstorm defensively and protect yourself from hand disruption like Thoughtseize, Duress, or Hymn to Tourach. There are no plays in the deck other than playing Engineered Explosives for zero that can be made after playing Brainstorm which makes playing it in your main phase even worse.
4. Underground Sea / pass the turn:
Of the sequences of play which involve playing Underground Sea as your land, passing the turn is by far the best play; “Why is that?” you ask. By passing the turn you gain the opportunity to blow out your opponent with a Stifle if they play and try to use a Wasteland or fetch land on their turn. In the case of the opponent playing a Wasteland, the smart ones will try to generate a tempo advantage by using it on your upkeep. From their perspective, if you do indeed have a Stifle, forcing you to use it on your turn is much more effective because it reduces the mana available for you on your turn. You would have to pass the turn instead of playing the Tarmogoyf in your hand.
Another possibility is that your opponent plays a land that can’t be Stifled when used. In that case, they are either going to make a play or pass the turn. Given that their play is not Ponder, Brainstorm, or another similar card quality card, you are most likely going to respond with Brainstorm to give you as much information so you can properly assess the threat-level of their spell. For example, if the opponent plays a Grindstone and you have Force of Will in hand but Brainstorm draws into Engineered Explosives, then you’d probably be better off dealing with it via the Explosives instead of countering it.
A small corner case exists where your opponent does have a Wasteland and you have a different hand which is quite land heavy, has Brainstorm, and at least one fetch land. In this situation, you may want to lure your opponent into using their Wasteland because it will not be as effective considering the amount of lands that you have access to. This sequence of plays helps you develop your hand without any real loss of tempo.
Unless you have information about what you’re playing against, and are using Ponder to dig for a specific card like Force of Will, you’re going to fall into the same pitfall as playing Ponder with Underground Sea, but deeper. The additional problem created by playing Flooded Strand is twofold. Without any other information, you really want the land fetched by Flooded Strand to be able to produce green mana so you can play Tarmogoyf. At the same time, you open yourself up to Wasteland. If the opponent does indeed have a Wasteland, then your next play is going to depend on what you saw with Ponder. Ideally, there would be another fetch land and you’d be back to the original opening game situation, but with card X that you kept with Ponder and a known card Y on top of your deck. If card Y is undesirable, playing the second fetch land is going to be better than the Underground Sea. If you didn’t see a fetch land with Ponder, then your next few turns are going to play out awkwardly. You’d probably end up playing Underground Sea and passing the turn.
Additionally, you’d need to not cast Brainstorm on their end of turn if they played another Wasteland. The game would degenerate into a staring contest between their Wasteland in play and advancement of their game plan versus your untapped Underground Sea in play and the Stifle in your hand. If it looks like they’re getting ahead, then you will be forced to make a play and leave your Underground Sea unprotected.
The second problem is that by using Flooded Strand to fetch a land before Ponder resolves is that you close the door on being able to select two of the three cards seen to draw and then use the Flooded Strand on the next turn to shuffle your deck so that you don’t have to draw the worst of the three. The only time that playing Ponder is the better turn one option is if you don’t have a Stifle in hand to use offensively or defensively. In the case where you don’t have Stifle, using the Flooded Strand to fetch out a basic Island is the most conservative play of the three options (realistically, fetching a second Underground Sea isn’t an option because it neither protects you from Wasteland nor lets you to cast Tarmogoyf).
Again, using to Flooded Strand to fetch and Underground Sea really isn’t an option because it doesn’t stop Wasteland from raining on your parade and it doesn’t help cast Tarmogoyf. Given that you’re set on playing SDT first, that indicates that you’re going to play more of a controlling game. Against an unknown opponent, that may not work out. Settling for a defensive role is not something that I’d want to gamble on against an unknown opponent. If your intention is to play Tarmogoyf on turn two, then you’d most likely not open with fetching for a Tropical Island. The reasons behind that are because Wasteland really wrecks you here. If your Tropical Island gets destroyed with a Wasteland, then your next play is going to be Underground Sea and then Ponder. You are going to shuffle if you don’t see a land. At this point, you’re still in trouble against a second Wasteland and could be locked out of the game for a few turns and then lose very quickly after that.
The play involving the least risk is using Flooded Strand to fetch out a basic Island. By getting the Island, you create a stable mana base that you can use to facilitate your card quality with SDT. On your next turn, you’re either going to play the Underground Sea from your original hand or the land that you drew for the turn. If you drew a Tropical Island, it is better to leave that in your hand in case your opponent is able to successfully use Wasteland on it in conjunction with additional disruption to stop your Stifle. The black mana from the Underground Sea doesn’t actually matter at this point in the game, but the green mana from Tropical Island is very important because you have a Tarmogoyf in your hand.
This is one of the worst plays possible. The synergy between Brainstorm and fetch lands is so powerful that you don’t want to pass up opportunity to combine the two effects unless your hand is all good cards. However, at that point you have to ask yourself why you’re casting Brainstorm in the first place. Using your fetch land before playing Brainstorm serves virtually no purpose. If you knew for a fact that your opponent has Stifle, then you could make a reasonable case about using your fetch land before playing Ponder or Brainstorm. Unless your opponent has a blatant tell about having Stifle in hand such as the way that they arrange or grip their cards, it is unreasonable to make this play. More often than not, using Flooded Strand preemptively is going to be almost exclusively in post-board games against decks that play Stifle but not Wasteland. Almost no decks fall into that category.
Again, this play falls into the category of something that you’d do because you have information about what you’re playing against. When playing against Wasteland, you’re going to want to fetch out Island. Since you have Stifle in your hand, it isn’t as much of a problem. While you decrease your chance of being able to play Tarmogoyf on turn two, a play which requires you to draw into one of the nine remaining sources of green mana with an end-of-turn Brainstorm, you increase your resilience to Wasteland and can justify the use of Stifle as an offensive card if you are indeed playing against fetch lands which is highly likely with an unknown opponent. In the scenario where it is correct to use a fetch land to get Tropical Island and pass the turn, you could be trying to bait your opponent into using a Wasteland only for you to counter it with Stifle and gain tempo. You could also be playing around opposing Stifles which is a legitimate argument.
Not every Legacy deck is going to be packed with multiple Stifle and Wasteland, which is certainly a relief when playing a deck with a delicate mana base. Many decks in fact play four colors with only one or no basic land. Playing the wrong land on turn one can spell disaster if they end up getting paired against a deck with Wastelands. Thankfully, there are more decks that don’t play with it than without it.
What exactly is tempo? What is an aggro-control deck? These ambiguous topics have been argued to death elsewhere. Rather than bore you with twenty pages of that, I’m going to give an open definition of the two. Tempo is the pace that a game is being played out; not the literal pace, but rather the rate (turns) which the game is coming to its end. Each deck will try to end the game at a certain pace, whether it be as quickly as possible or at its leisure. An aggro-control deck is a strategy that resolves a threat in the early stage of a game and uses disruptive cards and abilities to maintain the game tempo at a pace uncomfortably fast for the opponent to execute their game plan. Having outlined the thoughts required when playing against a deck with a considerable tempo elements, it is time to take a seat on the other side of the table and look at two of the decks that like to seize tempo and run with it.
The Team America and Canadian Threshold decks both have a high number of overlapping cards (28 excluding fetch lands and dual lands). Four copies of Tarmogoyf, Brainstorm, Ponder, Daze, Force of Will, Stifle, and Wasteland are played in both decks.
The most flexible win condition in Legacy. I don’t need to go into great detail to explain why Tarmogoyf is so good. It costs two mana, has immediate board presence (early game, it’s easily a 3/4; late game, it’s almost always 5/6 or larger), and can easily be played in any deck because of fetch lands and it being only one green mana.
As I mentioned earlier, the mana base of many Legacy decks will often compose of 0-3 basic lands, 5-9 fetch lands, and a bunch of dual lands and other non-basics. Decks that run both Wasteland and Stifle prey on these weak mana bases. Opening hands that are commonly kept will contain one land and a few cantrip spells like Brainstorm or Ponder. These types of hands are quite susceptible to being locked out of the game by one or a combination of Stifle and/or Wasteland.
While Wasteland won’t get you ahead on the board, it does generate significant pressure for the opposing deck to use their card-quality engines to find lands instead of good spells. People will be forced to use their fetch lands before they can get full value of their Brainstorm. Resolving a Stifle can be back-breaking because board parity is broken, which helps Team America and Canadian Threshold to maintain tempo so that they can resolve a threat.
Free spells like Daze and Force of Will provide another source for tempo. When your opponent is trying to play spells that cost two or more mana and you are responding with spells that effectively cost no mana, you get the opportunity to also play additional spells of your own that cost mana. If both players are playing spells, but player A is using free spells to stop player B’s, given that player A has a threat in play to translate each turn’s worth of spells and counter-spells into damage, then the game will be won for player A. Daze and Force of Will are two of the main spells used to facilitate scenarios that play out as described above.
Daze is a bit more restricted in its optimal uses than Force of Will. Daze, when played on an opponent’s turn in the early game isn’t impressive because the tempo loss can be quite severe. That’s not to say that Daze can’t be used effectively on an opponent’s turn, because it can. You really don’t want to Daze your opponent’s turn two spell if you are on the draw unless you have to. Using Daze on your turn to protect your threat from their counter is generally a much better use.
Card quality is paramount for aggro-control decks. The proper ratio of disruption to threats to mana must be maintained in order to maximize the performance of these decks. Without a threat in play, disruption has far less meaning because at the point where two decks are trading cards one for one, the deck that draws better will come out on top. With a clock is in play, the chances of the opponent drawing what they need to get back into the game decreases. Brainstorm and Ponder ensure that decks run smoothly.
For the people who don’t have experience with formats that include both Brainstorm and shuffle effects like fetch lands, you may not have a grasp of exactly how broken the combination is. Brainstorm plus a fetch land can be on par with Ancestral Recall. Yes, I said it; one blue mana to draw three cards. In the later stages of the game when you may have one or two lands in your hand that you don’t need in play, Brainstorm can easily turn that bad hand with no action into three new spells. The added bonus of the fetch land is that you are now drawing live again because you were able to shuffle the dead lands away into your deck.
Ponder is usually relegated to the aggro-control decks in Legacy. A deck can still be an aggro-control deck if it doesn’t have Ponder, but usually not vice versa. As mentioned above, maintaining the proper disruption to threats to mana is paramount. By playing with Ponder, a deck gives itself the opportunity to play fewer lands. Drawing lands two turns in a row when you don’t want to can easily spell disaster whereas drawing Ponder lets you see up to four cards and shuffle the undesirable lands away.
Knowing the key cards that help define what an aggro-control deck is important, and as described above, I’d hope that the topic is a bit clearer to you. Given that the core of overlapping cards in Team America and Canadian Threshold is understood, it’s time to look at the cards that distinguish the two decks from each other, the pros and cons of each, and the resulting differences in game play.
Tombstalker is quite large and evasive. It almost always dodges Counterbalance. Decks without dedicated removal have a hard time not losing to a resolved Tombstalker. Engineered Explosives and Pernicious Deed won’t quite cut it against this monster. Opposing deck strategies have learned to deal with Tombstalker. Removal like Swords to Plowshares, which was already the go-to removal spell in the format, is a natural foil to Tombstalker. More recently, cards like Echoing Truth and Relic of Progenitus are used to fight against it. An early Relic can ensure that casting Tombstalker is going to be nearly impossible especially in a deck like Team America where the number of lands that it has in play is always low. Echoing Truth isn’t as impressive as Relic of Progenitus because the opponent’s graveyard may be full of cards to remove and replay the Tombstalker for a mere two mana.
The main advantage of Nimble Mongoose is that it has shroud. In an environment where there is a lot of removal like Swords to Plowshares, Vindicate, and assorted burn spells, having a creature that can’t be targeted is a major advantage. Nimble Mongoose can be cast very quickly. There are several problems though. It doesn’t have board presence. Offensively, Nimble Mongoose isn’t going to be able to fight its way through a Tarmogoyf or an active Mishra’s Factory and survive and can take a while to get powered up if you can’t get threshold quickly. Nimble Mongoose can also be easily destroyed by Engineered Explosives and Pernicious Deed.
There are quite a few similarities between these two cards. Both are good defensive spells when you’re on the draw turn one. In that situation, they’ll protect you against your opponent’s turn two plays and set you up for a good play on turn two involving a threat plus Force of Will or Daze. Unfortunately for Thoughtseize, it is not very good at stopping a freshly drawn spell. Casting Thoughtseize and taking the best card out of a weak hand only to have them draw something that is actually good is always an unfortunate possibility. Thoughtseize is better for a deck that is going to constantly tap out each turn and/or decks that only care about a specific card stopping their game plan. Thoughtseize will be in a more aggressive deck and allow for a consistent turn two threat when used on turn one whereas Spell Snare has to wait until turn three at the earliest to be used together. Thoughtseize isn’t restricted to dealing only with two-mana spells like Spell Snare is, but can’t steal back lost tempo because of the mana commitment required from an opponent. The field must be taken into consideration when looking at Spell Snare and Thoughtseize. While Spell Snare isn’t very good at stopping decks with Dark Ritual, Thoughtseize is superb. If there is a strong representation of Counterbalance, then Spell Snare gets the thumbs up.
Sinkhole fills out the mana denial aspect of an aggro-control strategy. When used in combination with Stifle, Sinkhole acts as one side of a vice. Do you want to play around Stifle and fetch out a land only to have it destroyed with Wasteland or Sinkhole or do you save the fetch and not use your mana as efficiently if you weren’t playing against a mana denial strategy? Having to ask yourself these questions can often lead into games where you stumble on plays, being forced to protect your lands so you can cast your important spells. The problem created in those situations is that by waiting to make plays, you’re falling into the trap of what the aggro-control deck (Team America in this case) is trying to do: use mana denial to generate tempo instead of parity. Sinkhole is very good at punishing the decks with a low land count and redundant cantrip spells but rather sub-par when playing against a deck like Elves which has a low curve and explosive mana or against a dedicated aggro strategy with a curve that averages slightly above one mana.
Snuff Out is another spell that enables a deck to double up on spells for the turn. Free spells will always be good, although the newer versions generally have unattractive alternate costs. Snuff Out is going to remove just about any creature that is played against you except for Nimble Mongoose, Dark Confidant, Tombstalker, and Mystic Enforcer. Almost everything else is fair game. The great part about Snuff Out is that it doesn’t care about creature toughness like Lightning Bolt, Fire/Ice, and Ghastly Demise. With a converted mana cost of four, it’s very hard for a Counterbalance deck to stop it from resolving. The problem with Snuff Out becomes apparent when playing against a deck that combines a large amount of direct damage spells and a swarm strategy like Goyf Sligh, Red Death, or Zoo.
Lightning Bolt, the most balanced of the “one-mana-do-3-X” spells from Alpha, was one of the hallmark removal spells for Legacy along with Swords to Plowshares until Tarmogoyf was printed. At that point, the value of Lightning Bolt diminished greatly; it could no longer reliably kill the best creature in the format. That isn’t to say that it has become unplayable. Lightning Bolt shines in areas where tribal aggro is present. To say that Lightning Bolt can’t kill a Tarmogoyf isn’t exactly true also. An early unprotected Tarmogoyf will usually bite the dust if there isn’t already a sorcery or creature in the graveyard. In addition to that, your own Tarmogoyf will usually bounce off theirs in combat. Having the Lightning Bolt to finish it off happens quite a bit. The problem with Lightning Bolt comes with its lack of flexibility; it does three damage, period. It can’t kill large men alone like Phyrexian Dreadnought, Phyrexian Dreadnought, or Mystic Enforcer with threshold. Being able to go to the dome gives Lightning Bolt an added bonus; while that may be the main strategy for some decks, when using Lightning Bolt in a deck like Canadian Threshold which doesn’t play many burn spells (only eight), being on six or less life can be a bit precarious.
Fire/Ice is another multi-purpose spell that shines in a heavy tribal metagame. Both sides of the card facilitate tempo. Being able to kill one or two of the opponent’s men, tapping one of their land during their upkeep so that they can’t cast that spell that they couldn’t cast last turn, cutting the opponent off a certain color of mana, tapping a larger creature when going into combat, or just going to the dome are just some of the uses that the card has. Many of the effects generated by the card are on the smaller scale of what a card can do, but it rewards good play when you know what to do with it against each deck in the field. The downsides to Fire/Ice are similar to Lightning Bolt: it costs more (two mana) and only deals two points of damage to a big creature.
Bounce Spells like Echoing Truth, Rushing River, and Wipe Away are generally described as “catch-all’, “panic-button’, or “outs’. Certain decks have a tough time dealing with a particular resolved threat whether it is Moat, Humility, Tombstalker, Counterbalance, or any other troublesome permanent. Most decks won’t run more than two copies of cards like this between main deck and sideboard. The problem with bounce spells is that they aren’t going to be good most of the time. You need them when something has gone wrong, and hopefully that isn’t on a regular basis. You need them when playing against a deck that yours isn’t prepared for dealing with.
Team America is a deck where you’re tapping out almost every turn to disrupt the opponent while deploying big men (Tarmogoyf and Tombstalker) and using free spells to deal with anything that they might resolve. Team America shines against the blue-based aggro-control decks that rely on Tarmogoyf, light mana bases, redundant card quality engines (Brainstorm and Ponder), and Counterbalance. Canadian Threshold is a bit more defensive than Team America. Usually, Canadian Threshold will try to resolve a threat and use its extensive counter suite to ensure that the threat goes the distance. In a tribal environment, Canadian Threshold is a better choice than Team America.
Many people don’t understand the subtle nuances involved with formats such as Legacy. The vast card pool creates a high standard for viable cards. The average mana cost of most spells is somewhere between one and two. As a result, the number of options available at the beginning of the game with each player’s opening hand increases. Taking into consideration each line of play is required for becoming a consistent successful player. While there may be more than a dozen lines of play for the opening turn of the game, there won’t be more than one or two that are correct.
Regardless of what deck you play, you must realize the common mistakes that you and your opponent could make. Set traps for your opponent and avoid theirs. Navigating the first few turns may be hard at first, but in the end, your opponent will be the one telling their friends about their bad beat.