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Recurring Nightmares – What Now?

StarcityGames.com Open: Minneapolis – August 29 – 170 players

3rd
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StarcityGames.com Open: Baltimore – September 19 – 233 players

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StarcityGames.com Open: Nashville – October 17 – 175 players

1st
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7th
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StarcityGames.com Open: Charlotte – October 31 – 343 players

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6th
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StarcityGames.com Open: Boston – November 7 – 218 players

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Is anyone out there questioning the dominance of Survival of the Fittest in Legacy anymore?

It’s nearly out of hand. I’ll admit at the onset I was in the camp of “let’s see what happens. It’s just another deck.” My mind has been changed. Frankly, the format has gotten to the point where this engine has finally come into its own.

Those of us with some experience in the Legacy have always been aware that Survival of the Fittest was seriously powerful. In fact, many people were questioning the absence of it on the banned list when the format was created in 2004. ATS, or Angry Tradewind Survival, was one of the few decks that was left completely unchanged by the shake-up, and was an early contender for best deck. It saw a fair bit of play (and success) at the birth of Legacy. Even when it was outclassed by the evolution of Goblins and Landstill that had a stranglehold on the first year of the format, no one ever really forgot that Survival was at the top of the list when rattling off the most powerful unbanned cards.

Over the last six years, there have been a few times when Survival has been a metagame foil – when the original iteration of Threshold was the deck to beat, a [card]Flametongue Kavu[/card]-based Survival list was a strong spoiler. When Landstill was top dog, the traditional package of [card squee, goblin nabob]Squee[/card]/[card]Genesis[/card] provided a card advantage engine that gave Survival enough late game to be a 50/50 matchup at worst. When we saw a resurgence of threshold-type decks as [card]Natural Order[/card] [card counterbalance]Counter[/card][card senseis divining top]Top[/card] became dominant, an Elf-based Survival deck came crashing through the format, and provided a strong aggro choice to compete with the top tier again.

And then, out of nowhere, UG Madness reappeared, with a [card]Vengevine[/card]-fueled Survival engine in tow, and Legacy was changed.

I believe, and I’m certainly not alone in this belief, that without a serious metagame adaptation, Survival of the Fittest will become the most dominating card in Legacy since Flash existed as a deck. The results of the major events since Grand Prix Columbus support this hypothesis.

Regardless of the color choices in the deck, the basic shell has remained the same:

4 [card]Survival of the Fittest[/card]
4 [card]Vengevine[/card]
2-4 [card]Basking Rootwalla[/card]
1 zero mana creature
1-4 [card]Birds of Paradise[/card]
0-4 [card]Noble Hierarch[/card]
0-4 [card]Fauna Shaman[/card]
0-4 [card]Wild Mongrel[/card]

The rest of the cards in the deck are basically a player’s choice to decide what support system the deck runs – be it black for discard/[card]Necrotic Ooze[/card], white for removal/tutoring, or blue for filtering/counterspells. Regardless of the splash, the ultimate result is the same – an extremely powerful engine capable of explosive starts and an inherent resistance to traditional methods of control.

So now what? If you ask the community what their thoughts are on the card, you get the normal range of discussion – in fact, Bill Stark did just that during his coverage of the SCG Charlotte Open. His interviewees seemed rather dismissive of the idea of banning the card, pointing to the deck’s reliance on the engine – or in Patrick Chapin’s case, to the small amount of play in comparison to [card]Wasteland[/card] or [card]Brainstorm[/card] – as reasons the card is fine for the format. While I’m not 100% sold on the bannability of Survival, I do question these reasons for it being benign.

First, consider the idea that the deck is bad without the engine online. How, exactly, are you planning to stop it from coming online? With the inclusion of [card]Fauna Shaman[/card], the deck gains 8 Survival effects, although Shaman is a far cry from being on the same power level as the enchantment. Regardless, it provides redundancy and resiliency to permanent-based hate like Pithing Needle, allowing you to use your Shaman as the initial tutor to find your creature-based answer to the hate. If your plan is to counter the Survival, both of the primary splashes have ways to secure the successful resolution – either by proactive discard, or reactive counters. I’m not saying it’s impossible to stop the card from going active, but it’s not a simple matter of “just counter Survival.”

Consider that you’ve opened your seven, and you have a [card]Pithing Needle[/card] for their Survival. You play it on turn one, while your opponent opens with Hierarch. You play a threat of some sort on turn two, while your opponent plays a [card]Wild Mongrel[/card], pitches a [card]Vengevine[/card], and pitches a [card basking rootwalla]Rootwalla[/card] putting it and the Vengevine into play, and attacking for 5. This isn’t even that uncommon of a start – and your hate has gone completely unnoticed. There are a multitude of variations of this opener, most of which can ignore a single piece of hate when it’s directed at Survival. In short – it’s not just the Survival of the Fittest that’s enabling the power of the deck. If it was, there’s no way it would be putting up the kind of results it has been for the last two months.

Take a look at the decks that have been top 8ing along side the Survival decks. You have a Goblins deck packing 2 [card]Warren Weirdings[/card], 4 [card]Gempalm Incinerator[/card]s, and a [card]Goblin Sharpshooter[/card] in the main, along with 3 [card]Perish[/card]es, another Weirding, 3 [card]Pyrokinesis[/card] and 4 [card leyline of the void]Leylines[/card] in the board. You have a Rock deck containing 4 [card swords to plowshares]Swords[/card], 1 [card]Pernicious Deed[/card], and 4 [card]Vindicate[/card] maindeck (along with discard spells), and 2 more Deeds, 3 Edicts, and 3 [card]Extirpate[/card]s in the board.

By the way, that’s it for Charlotte. There were only three non-Survival decks (2 of which were the Rock deck) in that top 8. Even at its peak in the last GP Columbus, Flash only took half the top 8 spots.

In Boston, you have a Mono-Blue Control deck that can put a 12/12 into play on turn 2 – the only non-storm thing going that’s faster than attacking with Vengevine on turn 2. You have another Goblins deck running the 4 Incinerator, Sharpshooter maindeck, this time with 3 [card]Relic of Progenitus[/card] over Leyline, and still featuring Pyrokinesis. This deck runs 3 [card]Krosan Grip[/card]s, to boot. And you have a [card]Show and Tell[/card] deck, trying to ignore all of the format’s creatures, while splashing black – not for [card]Thoughtseize[/card] or [card]Lim-Dul’s Vault[/card], but entirely for sideboarded [card]Extirpate[/card]s and [card]Perish[/card]es! Even then, it still runs [card]Meddling Mage[/card], [card]Spell Snare[/card], and [card]Pithing Needle[/card]. It seems like the decks that are winning the battle against Survival are packing serious hate for all of the methods of attack the deck presents – but even through all this hate, Survival has pulled out a finals mirror match in back to back to back events. In fact, let’s look at the top 8 of each event in more detail.

Nashville

Countertop v. Canadian Thresh
Team America v. Survival
Survival v. Survival
Survival v. Horizons

Survival advances in 3/3 quarterfinal matches. Survival advances in 2/2 Semifinal matches.

Charlotte

Horizons v. Horizons
Survival v. Survival
Survival v. Survival
Survival v. Goblins

Survival advances in 2/3 quarterfinal matches. Survival advances in 2/2 semifinal matches.

Boston

Dreadstill v. Horizons
Show & Tell v. Survival
Survival v. Survival
Survival v. Goblins

Survival advances in 2/3 quarterfinal matches. Survival advances in 2/2 semifinal matches.

In each one of these top 8s, one of the quarterfinal matches is completely devoid of Survival. Each also contains at least one mirror match for Survival. It’s worth wondering what the results would have shown if the standings had allowed the Survival decks to face off with another type of deck in each match – would we have seen a result where the all top four decks were Survival-based? It’s impossible to say for certain, but it does show just how dominant the deck has been in the single elimination rounds.

As for Chapin’s comment on the saturation of the card, let’s just point to numbers.

Force of Wills in the last 5 top 8s – 88
Wastelands in the last 5 top 8s – 111
Brainstorms in the last 5 top 8s – 52
Aether Vials in the last 5 top 8s – 24
Lion’s Eye Diamonds in the last 5 top 8s – 9
Survival of the Fittests in the last 5 top 8s – 72

Based on those numbers, there are a total of two nonbasic land cards more saturating than Survival – Force and Wasteland. Here’s another cute statistic:

Number of [card]Force of Will[/card]s in Survival-based decks – 44
Number of Force of Wills in non-Survival decks – 44
Number of [card]Wasteland[/card]s in Survival-based decks – 40
Number of Wastelands in non-Survival decks – 71

Chapin is right and wrong. He’s right that Wasteland is very much more present than Survival. He’s wrong that [card]Brainstorm[/card] is. He didn’t mention Force, but it is worth mentioning – and it’s relatively even with Survival. But here’s the question he didn’t ask – would you prefer the most common cards in the format to be reactive answers or proactive threats? Survival is the #1, undisputed, format defining threat – and that has everything to do with the unparalleled tutoring and card advantage generation that it provides. The crazy part is, it’s completely reasonable to include the other two most predominant cards in the format in the same deck, to help clear the path for the Survivals!

And again, I’m left asking “now what?” If we’re willing to accept that Survival is a powerful deck that is not sufficiently dominating to warrant banning, then we need to conceptualize a way to attack the new face of the format with some margin of success. In my eyes, we’re left with a few options.

Option 1 – Play Survival. This is my personal choice, as you readers have witnessed over the past few weeks. Winning is something I enjoy, and when the rare opportunity presents itself to play an obvious “best deck” in a format as broad as Legacy, I tend to want to jump on that opportunity. There are many players out there who are of the same mindset, which may be part of the reason we’re seeing so many Survival decks in the swiss rounds lately. However, there are also those who resist the urge to play the “best deck.” These players do so for what I can identify as three reasons.

Reason 1: Pet deck syndrome. They play a specific deck, regardless of the metagame. Rodney Hannigan, for example, has been playing his Urg Dreadstill deck for about three years, without fail. He’s done well on and off with the deck, but nonetheless, he’s basically stone set on that choice regardless of the metagame.

Reason 2: Card availability. Whether this means you simply can’t get your hands on the cards to build whatever deck you’d prefer to play, or you show up to an event and play whatever deck your friend hands you, this reason has more to do with deck selection in this format than I think a lot of us would like to admit. Cards aren’t cheap, and Survivals aren’t getting any cheaper. Between those and the Vengevines, Forces, Wastes, dual lands, etc. that the deck requires, it’s no surprise that some players are budgeted out of the deck.

Reason 3: Teenage angst. Some players just refuse to play Mirrodin block Affinity, regardless of the overwhelmingly obviousness of the choice. They just can’t conform to playing the “evil empire” deck, regardless of how disadvantaged they are by their refusal. This doesn’t make them bad players – often they just want to find the way to beat the system, and are deckbuilders at heart.

It doesn’t really matter why you’d choose not to play it, all that matters is the choice. Given that you don’t want to play Survival, what options are left?

Option 2 – Play a metagame foil. I’d suggest looking into the Goblins lists that have put up results, as well as the Dark Horizons decks that have been picking up steam. For a long time, the New Horizons builds have been sinking their teeth into the top 8s of large events, but when Vengevine became omnipresent, they kind of fell off the map. This has a lot to do with the speed of the Survival decks, and really because Horizons had issues with Vengevine. However, with the addition of black, the deck picked up a plethora of new tools to fight the green menace, not the least of which was [card]Extirpate[/card]. These allow the deck to fight through the recursive nature of the Survival deck and combine with a multitude of removal spells to win the attrition game. You could also try to employ [card]Lion’s Eye Diamond[/card]s to win before the Survival deck goes online. From what I’ve been reading, storm combo (especially those utilizing [card]Xantid Swarm[/card]) has a positive matchup against the deck. The issue, of course, is fighting through all the other decks at the table until you face Survival.

Option 3 – Metagame slots become dedicated to Survival hate. In this option, your choice is to try and fight the Survival deck on every front. I would suggest avoiding this at basically all costs, because one of the strengths of the deck is its ability to adapt. However, if you must run your favorite deck, here are some options which are relatively effective in hating out the Survival engine.

[draft]Extirpate[/draft]
I hate this card. I’ve written diatribes on more than one occasion detailing why I hate this card, but unfortunately they don’t apply here. When you hit a Survival players’ Vengevines, it’s going to put a severe hurting on them. The difference between this plan and, say, killing off a [card tarmogoyf]Goyf[/card] and Extirpating is twofold. First, you aren’t spending another card to kill the Vengevine. It’s finding its way into the yard all on its own. Second, the opponent isn’t relying on the top of their deck to find more. They have Survival and Shaman to tutor for them directly. Between the two, it’s relatively simple work for them to just start all over again. Extirpate, unlike Coffin Purge or Ravenous Trap, prevents that from happening.

[draft]Pithing Needle[/draft]
In stark contrast to Extirpate, I love this card. Even in this world of 2 mana enchantments wreaking havoc on Legacy, not enough people are playing Pithing Needle. It is, in no uncertain terms, the simplest and most universal answer to the Survival problem available. I know, I know, I just discussed how it wasn’t really all that much of a problem, but the thing is, sometimes you just catch them with their pants down. It’s a flexible enough answer to be worthwhile even against non-Survival decks, so play more of them.

[draft]Perish
Natures Ruin
Hibernation
[/draft]
I don’t believe this is the most elegant solution to the deck, but people seem to love running them. Mostly, I think, because it’s also an answer to [card]Progenitus[/card]. Don’t forget that [card]Wild Mongrel[/card] is only green when the opponent wants him to be, and that Vengevine has a tendency to return from the dead. Hibernation is basically just a [card]Fog[/card] when a discard outlet is available, so don’t be in such a hurry to run that out, either. These cards can be effective, but reliance on them leads to situations where by the time you use it effectively, the damage has already been done.

[draft]Spell Snare
Spell Pierce
[/draft]
Answering the Survival is potentially your best way to get ahead in the game, although by no means does it ensure victory in and of itself. Spell Snare has the distinct advantage of answering the other discard outlets traditionally played in the deck as well, so it may be the better card overall. Its ability to also counter powerful two-drops like [card]Counterbalance[/card] and [card]Tarmogoyf[/card] lends it the additional flexibility that more than makes up for its narrow target range.

[draft]Humility[/draft]
Whenever Survival used to become heavily-played in the past, this card would pop up in Landstill and the threat would be suppressed. It hasn’t seen a resurgence this time around, and I’m not sure why. It basically flattens the entire deck, and with planeswalkers around to win with, instead of relying on [card]Decree of Justice[/card] or [card]Mishra’s Factory[/card], it doesn’t seem too difficult to find a new control home for it.

[draft]Spectral Lynx[/draft]
If you’re the type of deck that wants a 2/1 for 2 that you can regenerate for a B, then this is your guy. Oh wait, he has protection from green? Nice. See also: [card]Coast Watcher[/card], [card]Dunerider Outlaw[/card], [card]Vodalian Zombie[/card], [card]Zombie Outlander[/card]. [card]Sphinx of Steel Wind[/card] is pretty good too, I hear.

[draft]Circle of Protection Green[/draft]
No, I am not kidding. In the past, [card circle of protection red]CoP: Red[/card] was a staple of any control sideboard. It’s entirely possible that the time has come for this to become just as viable. I have been blown out by this card playing Threshold before, true story.

After that, there are always some slow and obscure ways to deal with the deck, like [card]Dream Tides[/card] and [card]Flooded Woodlands[/card].

Realistically, there are options out there for methods to defeat the new powerhouse. Even if you decide to play the deck, you need to be prepared for many, many mirror matches if you expect to succeed. Cards like [card]Wispmare[/card] and [card]Wonder[/card] become even more valuable in the mirror, when you’re looking to nullify your opponents’ speed and risk as little of your own as possible.

Until such time as Wizards decides they’ve seen enough and bans the card, or someone out there discovers an adaptation within the existing card pool that shuts down the deck, we’re looking at a tier one almost entirely comprised of one card. Either choose to play it, or put serious testing into figuring out exactly how your chosen deck can beat it – because otherwise, you’re going to be naturally selected as unfit for survival.

Until next time, don’t forget that [card]Wild Mongrel[/card] changes colors, and remember – keep your stick on the ice.

Adam

P.S. – I wrote the word Survival 75 times (in context!) in this article. A new record?

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