GP Seattle marked my first chance to play Legacy for the first time since the delve bannings. I’ve always been a fan of Legacy and I was very happy with the changes. Treasure Cruise made it really difficult for decks like my favorite Esper Spiritblade to compete with the Delver decks, as you would spend the first few turns trading 1-for-1 to stabilize, and then they would just reload and overwhelm you. I was never able to find an Esper configuration that I loved against Miracles, with or without Dig Through Time, but with that card leaving the format I was hopeful that people would move off the deck.
Matt Sperling and I began discussing the format a few weeks before the event. He was pretty set on Miracles initially, so I left that area of exploration to him and I started with my most recent Spiritblade list.
I spent a few days tinkering with this style of list before deciding to look elsewhere, which was disappointing as I really wanted my old friend to be good again. My conclusions from this testing were:
My old (pre-Cruise/Dig) plan was to overload on discard in a lot of matchups. Many decks cheat on mana sources, relying on cantrips to find them what they need. You can cause a lot of problems for them with a turn-1 Thoughtseize. Combo decks pack a lot of redundancy, but to beat you they often needed both halves of their combo plus protection. Getting to take whichever piece they were light on (such as Griselbrand or Show and Tell against Sneak & Show) was a really effective way to keep them on the back foot long enough to pick their hand apart more.
If you can reliably play 3 discard spells by turn 5-6 (between 7-8 copies with 3 Snapcasters), they will have a very hard time piecing things together.
Delve made this strategy laughable, as you were spending a card to 1-for-1 them, while making their Dig or Cruise cheaper to let them get ahead when they reloaded.
In my testing for Seattle, I found that discard was certainly better than it was before the bannings, but it wasn’t as good as it used to be. Overloading was still a good strategy against the combo decks, but it proved very ineffective against the other fair decks. It does basically nothing to stop Ancestral Visions, the biggest problem card out of Shardless BUG (even if they just suspend it) and it is also pretty bad against Sensei’s Divining Top, as they can just float their impact cards on top of their library.
Discard also has the problem of losing to topdecks. Combo decks need to assemble multiple cards, so you could often position yourself where no single top deck would beat you, but against Miracles, they can always just draw a Counterbalance, Top, or Entreat to put you in bad shape. No amount of Thoughtseizing or Duressing can protect you from that.
I wanted to have access to 7 discard spells to beat combo, but I would need another way to interact with the fair decks. That put a big strain on my sideboard slots.
I decided that Stoneforge Mystic is a trap in these decks. Umezawa’s Jitte just isn’t the game-winner it used to be. There are way more combo and pure control decks in the field now, and even decks Jitte used to shine against, like Elves, are actually pretty resilient to the card now. It also just isn’t necessary to win these matchups.
Batterskull was underwhelming. There are so many more copies of Thoughtseize, Hymn to Tourach, and Vendilion Clique running around. In previous iterations of the metagame, I could just jam a turn-2 Stoneforge and win if they didn’t have removal. It was a very proactive card. Now, half of the time, the Batterskull I searched up would get ripped out of my hand and suddenly my late-game trump was just gone. I had to use my Stoneforges reactively, and that really doesn’t work with the format.
I only wanted Jitte in maybe 25% of my matchups and having a Batterskull in my deck no longer provided much inevitability, so I decided that this was the wrong approach. Matt briefly explored some 2 Stoneforge, 1 Batterskull packages in various shells, but we both agreed that it was better to move off of this plan entirely in favor of a new proactive white creature—Monastery Mentor.
My third takeaway was that Lingering Souls was still great, but not quite as well positioned as it used to be. In previous metagames, most fair Legacy games came down to Jace wars. Lingering Souls was very well positioned to win those fights as the card was a great natural foil to Jace’s inherent defenses. These Jace decks now represented a much smaller portion of the metagame, and a lot of people now had sideboard cards that would trump this plan (Engineered Plague, for example). I wasn’t winning as many games by just making some Spirit tokens and attacking.
Finally, I really disliked the new baby Jace. It played out as a Snapcaster with suspend a lot of the time, and that was just too slow for the format. The deck also relies on Jace, the Mind Sculptor to close out games and provide a huge advantage, which interacted poorly with baby Jace. I often wished I just had a Merfolk Looter in play so I could keep ripping through my library.
I spent some time playing with Shardless BUG and Miracles (the enemies) before coming back to a different take on Esper, focusing instead on Monastery Mentor.
Esper Mentor Draft #1
I tried a number of permutations of this list, initially with the 2 Stoneforge package (MentorBlade) and then moving away from it to further push the Mentors. Matt suggestedTasigur, and Patrick Chapin suggested Painful Truths. I was pretty underwhelmed by Tasigur, as it lines up poorly against Swords to Plowshares, Karakas, and Tarmogoyf, but I liked the Painful Truths quite a bit. I had mixed results with the deck.
One of the downsides to testing on Magic Online is the lack of control over what you play against. Over the course of 2 days, I didn’t play against a single Miracles or Shardless BUG opponent, so I wasn’t sure if this configuration improved those matchups over my other Esper lists. Instead, I played against a lot of Storm (favorable) and Elves (very favorable), and a random mix of fringe decks like Lands, Aluren, and MUD. I found myself running out of time and heading to Seattle without a clear deck in mind.
Enter Patrick Chapin.
Patrick saw the posts Matt and I were making about our various Esper lists, and he proposed adding Deathrite Shaman to the deck. From playing Shardless BUG, I knew how powerful Deathrite was in all of the fair matchups. One of my problems with Shardless was my inability to board out enough fair cards in unfair matchups, leaving me with too many bad draws. Our Esper list had a much higher concentration of action, letting me actually board out all 4 Deathrite Shaman in these matchups. It seemed like a great fit for what we wanted.
It also let me shore up my Miracles matchup by adding Abrupt Decay to the sideboard. I was constantly impressed by how much work Abrupt Decay did for me out of BUG and I really wanted to find a way to play the card. The problem with just throwing it into the main deck was Wasteland. I hate being soft to Wasteland. I want to play my spells in Legacy so I fetch basics as often as possible. Putting Abrupt Decay in the main deck strained the mana too much. Once I knew I wasn’t playing against a Wasteland deck, I could easily run Abrupt Decay off of the 4 Deathrite Shaman and 1 Tropical Island, giving me additional spot removal against decks like Elves and a great answer to Counterbalance.
I ended up theory-crafting the remainder of my list, drawing on my experience playing related Esper lists. I was very happy with the 75 I ended up with:
Esper Deathrite Mentor
Despite feeling well prepared for the event, the tournament didn’t go my way. I beat the two Elves players I faced (I’ve always found Elves to be a pretty easy matchup for Esper lists) but I lost to Reanimator, Sneak & Show, and Food Chain. I liked both my Reanimator and Sneak & Show matchups but I felt like I was drawing dead against Food Chain. Misthollow Griffin is so hard to handle when your primary removal is Swords to Plowshares!
Having played the deck, I think the main deck should have 2 Cabal Therapy and 0 Thoughtseize, but I was hedging as I’ve historically had terrible results with blind Cabal Therapies. For whatever reason I’ve really struggled to logic through what is in their hand early in the game and I let this influence me when I shouldn’t have. I also think the deck should only have 1 Painful Truths, as it is a lot of life loss and I wanted one more proactive card. I would probably play either a third discard spell in that slot or a second Council’s Judgment. I really wanted a 2nd Judgment in the 75, but ultimately I couldn’t find room for it.
I would probably cut the Notion Thief from the sideboard, as it never really did anything. It is great against Shardless BUG, but it is probably worse than Misdirection there. It might be good enough against Miracles to justify its spot—I would need to test that matchup post-board more to get a better feeling for it.
I think Legacy is in a pretty interesting place right now and I hope I’ll have an opportunity to play more of it soon so I can keep tuning this Esper list.
[Editor’s note: The conclusion of this article has been revised for clarity by the author.]