I am not interested in playing real games of Magic. I love a good Splinter Twin mirror and I enjoy playing real games of Magic, but if your goal is to win an event, you need to win so many games in a row. Trying to actually grind through win after win for an entire tournament is extremely hard. I like to have an easier way.
To avoid playing games of Magic, make it so your opponent’s cards line up poorly versus yours. It doesn’t matter if their hand is good and yours isn’t. If your cards line up well versus theirs, you have such an absurd advantage. Generally, I would call this exploiting their cards, as the way you neutralize what your opponent is doing is so brutal.
One example is Lantern Control, right when Grixis Shadow was picking up steam and people were calling for Shadow’s ban. I remember constantly playing against decks with main-deck Runed Halos, Leylines, and excess removal spells and cards like Auriok Champion/Wall of Omens/Kitchen Finks, etc. In a format where almost everyone is hedging hard to destroy creatures, Lantern is the perfect choice. Your Shadow matchup won’t be very good, but you will do well versus everyone else packing their deck for Shadow.
Lantern was so good because it interacted on a different axis in the days of Shadow’s dominance. It didn’t matter if your opponent had a weird brew, because all decks were hedging to beat what they perceived to be the decks to beat.
If you are trying to understand how to “steamroll” a tournament you need to be very aware of how to exploit what people are doing without being exploited yourself. Sometimes the exploit is obvious. If you cast Chalice for 1, your Delver opponent may be dead in their tracks. You exploited their 1-drops, but knowing that Chalice exploits Ponder isn’t really very helpful. The other exploits are like puzzles you need to put together yourself.
I recall hearing Brad Nelson once say he was playing Gruul Ramp at a Pro Tour. One of the matchups was very good, unless your opponent figured out a strange way to play against the deck that exploited the ramp deck. Since the ramp deck was a brew, Brad wasn’t very fearful that people would discover this and felt that against opponents playing “normally,” the matchup was very favorable for him. So we can also exploit strategies by playing in certain ways. To do this, you need to think about what is going on in the matchup and try different and weird strategies.
Another way to exploit is to subvert people’s expectations and get them to board poorly against you. When I play U/R Gifts/Baral Storm in Modern, I almost always side out Gifts Ungiven and Past in Flames, and side in Pieces of the Puzzle and Empty the Warrens. I find many of my opponents mulligan to graveyard hate when it doesn’t do anything against me, and I get a huge edge because of it.
This is a common experience for TES players in Legacy as well. There are two distinct Storm decks: ANT and TES. ANT is a slower, grindier deck that utilizes its graveyard, whereas TES has literally no cards in the main deck that interact with the graveyard except Rite of Flame, and only a single Past in Flames in the sideboard to grab off Burning Wish. Here you can gain a massive edge by deceiving your opponents, similar to siding in and out of Sealed decks. Presenting an all-in aggro deck and siding into a midrange deck causes them to sideboard suboptimally.
I’ll finish this by sharing a couple of silly examples. One is playing a basic Island in the Grixis Delver sideboard. People had done this before, but Omar Beldon told me to try this and I was discovering how obscene it was when people would Ghost Quarter me turn 1, assuming Delver has no lands, go all in to cast a Blood Moon/Back to Basics, or even Path to Exile my Deathrite on the first turn. By just making a small change to subvert people’s expectations, the rewards were huge.
Another came in a game versus Lands. Most Delver lists run three of one dual and two or three of the other. I was playing seven duals in my deck and pretended for many turns I was out of lands by failing to fetch off fetchlands, and set up a turn where my opponent went all in on a Tabernacle, rather than set up Punishing Fire to kill my lethal threat, and I sneakily fetched my final Sea.
The point of these examples is to illustrate how it is possible to gain an immense edge by trying to think of what you can do to exploit your opponent’s cards. If you can successfully do this, the rewards are there.
But GP Niagara was not a story about exploiting cards. I played a cookie-cutter U/W Blade deck and played Ponder mirrors all weekend.
1 Arid Mesa 4 Flooded Strand 6 Island 1 Misty Rainforest 2 Plains 1 Polluted Delta 2 Scalding Tarn 2 Tundra 1 Windswept Heath 3 Snapcaster Mage 4 Stoneforge Mystic 4 True-Name Nemesis 1 Vendilion Clique 3 Jace, the Mind Sculptor 1 Batterskull 4 Brainstorm 2 Council's Judgment 2 Counterspell 4 Force of Will 4 Ponder 2 Spell Pierce 1 Spell Snare 4 Swords to Plowshares 1 Umezawa's Jitte Sideboard 1 Celestial Purge 2 Containment Priest 1 Disenchant 1 Engineered Explosives 3 Flusterstorm 2 Palace Jailer 2 Supreme Verdict 3 Tormod's Crypt
I played five U/R/(x) Delver Wasteland decks. One was quite weird with Nivmagus Elemental, Swamp, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Kolaghan’s Commands, and Snapcaster Mages. I played two Grixis Control decks. I played two Tundra mirrors. One was EsperBlade and the other was Fabiano on Miracles. I played 42AD, the storm master, lands with Rishadan Ports, Steel Stompy, Depths.
With a round 1 bye and conceding to Edgar the last round for seeding purposes, that was my Swiss portion.
Then in the Top 8, I played against Sneak and Show, Fabiano again, and Death and Taxes in the finals.
The only games that could be exploited were against Fabiano. We had open deck lists in the Top 8, and I read through Gerard’s Miracles list. I noticed there were no Mentors main. I could freely Plow his Snaps and Cliques without thinking twice.
More importantly, this meant my Snapcasters were hard for him to interact with (on multiple levels). Normally, I can cast Snapcasters vs. Miracles, but they can use Mentor to answer it, or they can use their own Snapcasters. If I Plow then I am naked to Mentor. Without Mentor, my Snapcasters are obscenely powerful. In the matches where he would play turn 2 AK, I would respond by Snapping Brainstorm on my own end step, rather than put in Batterskull with a SFM (as Snap-Brainstorm helps me pressure his JTMS more and set up my own JTMS/Sculpt countermagic/TNN).
I also had a large mix of countermagic (main 2 Pierce, 2 Counterspells, 1 Snare, 4 FoW, sideboard 3 Fluster) making it very hard for him to play around/read me, while his countermagic was three Pierce, one counterspell, two Counterbalance, four Force of Will main. He used Meddling Mage sideboard to disrupt the combo, so it was more comfortable for me to navigate in that sense.
I chose such a simple deck basically because I wanted to play a Ponder deck, but also wanted to crush anyone who tried to cast Chalice of the Void or use Wasteland against me. In Legacy, there are so many decks that you cannot bring a 75 that is well suited to combat everything. I feel pretty comfortable as long as I don’t die to Chalice, so I mostly hedge my deck choice to beat it, and I don’t believe the other Ponder decks are actually good vs. Chalice. Many disagree and say they feel fine. If you are 60% against Eldrazi and go 3-2 versus them, that is not an acceptable record if you are trying to Top 8 a GP. It’s 15 rounds and you need a 90% win-rate—you can’t just be okay against Chalice decks and hope for the best.
The Delver matchup, on the other hand, is not good for U/W Blade. You have very little removal game 1, and all of your threats are clunky versus Daze/Bolt/FoW, and are not good at stabilizing through disruption. Post-board I get Verdicts, so I can easily catch back up on most boards and not die to creatures I could not remove. The fact that in my five or so matches against it, my opponents commonly had dead Wastelands on the board, helped a ton. I think Delver players should be willing to sideboard Wasteland out more often. If your opponent isn’t actively fetching nonbasics, Wasteland is just a brick, and you need all your spells to squeeze the opponent. Most of my opponents leave in Wasteland, and I get free value out of that.
Moving forward, a lot of discussion around Blade is on splashes: red for Blasts, black for Zealous, and green for Noble. I believe black is stronger than it looks, as the 2-mana Plague Wind is absurd in True-Name mirrors, and this deck can struggle with Delver game 1. As I said, your threats are clunky and bad at stabilizing vs. Daze/Bolt, and you don’t have much removal. Sweeper effects can really help make up for this and swing the matchup around, hence the two sideboard Verdicts.
I know Eric Landon really enjoys the green splash for Noble. I have never tried it, so I can’t say anything useful about it except that Liliana, the Last Hope does exploit Noble Hierarch in a way I am not super comfortable with.
The red splash is powerful. I felt that the cards I would cut for red Blasts weren’t huge upgrades. I was making marginal upgrades, but the red Blasts are absurdly strong, and especially efficient at answering Arcane Artisan from Sneak and Show.
One important aspect about sideboarding in Legacy is differentiating between builds of decks, i.e., between TES and ANT, between Omnishow and Sneak and Show, etc. as these decks, despite being very similar, play out very differently and are weak to different cards. Graveyard hate is almost useless against TES but exceptional versus ANT. The way to know your opponent is on TES is if you see Rite of Flame, Chrome Mox, or Burning Wish. Those are red flags. Some ANT players may play these cards, but it is extremely fringe. If your opponent uses Infernal Tutor to fetch up a Past in Flames or Tendrils main, they are ANT. TES only plays Empty as a storm card main, so they would need to fetch out Tendrils from the board to kill you.
On to how you should sideboard differently: TES makes Goblins a lot. You want to side in all your Explosives and Zealous, whereas ANT will go for Empty occasionally but it isn’t their plan A or B, especially vs. Stoneforge. Versus ANT graveyard hate is very valuable. They are also a bit grindier so you want to mull less versus them if possible or they might just outgrind you.
The other decks that look very similar but are very different: Omnishow and Sneak and Show. You can tell they are Omni if you see Intuition, Impulse, or Cunning Wish. Omni means they are generally going to try to kill you with Omniscience so you can’t really count on cards like JTMS or Jailer as much to remove creatures. Most importantly, they don’t have a real sideboard, which means you don’t need to fear Arcane Artisan as far as I have seen. If you have Surgical, it is obscenely good versus Omnishow whereas it is merely okay versus Sneak, mainly due to Intuition.
These plans are not set in stone and there could easily be better options out there. It also depends on the Delver build. If they are playing Stifles, you are more inclined to have Flusterstorm. If they are a grindier B/U/G deck, I would be more inclined to leave in all my JTMS. If you see a lot of Winter Orbs, you might want Disenchant. Force is also okay, but evaluating Force of Will vs. fair decks is complex, so it is kind of the lazy person’s tactic to side it out and not think too much. Versus Stifle decks Force arguably gets some value. A nice trick to exploit Stifle is to try and fetch when they Ponder. Then if they Stifle you can Flusterstorm both.
Again, the way you sideboard is contextual. Versus Gerard I kept in zero Plows, when I normally keep in three.
This is probably wrong, and FoW is probably good but I currently do not have a better plan as Legacy is extremely complex. Always be aware of what your opponent is doing and board accordingly.
Sneak and Show
Try to be aware if they are Omni. Versus Omni, you basically board the same, but you can cut Plows safely unless you see Artisan.
Again I am not 100% on this plan but it is the best I have come up with thus far.
Death and Taxes
If you are on the play, Counterspell is fine. I would probably cut the third FoW for a single one, but I’m not sure what is correct.
Siding here is really tricky as Plow is terrible, but if you want to become the monarch having access to a removal spell can be nice to deal with Strix.
It is possible that Plains is worse than a Force. Basic Plains can be nice so you can cast your 4-drops versus Hymn but you would need more experience. Clique might seem awkward versus Strix and Last Hope but it is so good on so many boards that I would keep Clique in.
This is probably incorrect, but like my previous examples I am not sure of a better way to sideboard with my current experience. I would need to play more to understand what matters more.
Shout outs, to Boston and Hans Jacob for lending me cards, and to Eetai/Peter for buying me food. It’s very much appreciated. And to everyone else who made the weekend as pleasant as it was.