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.
Table of Contents
For many years, Miracles was the top control deck in Legacy. Even after the banning of Sensei’s Divining Top, Miracles kept putting up results by using Brainstorm, Ponder, and Portent to set the top of its library. It’s only been recently, with the release of Modern Horizons, that a new style of control deck has become the go-to for those looking to play a long game in Legacy.
Arcum’s Astrolabe is the card that’s changed everything. It may not look like much, but it’s often the subtle, one-mana cards with a low deckbuilding cost that can come to define formats. We already know the power of Brainstorm, Sensei’s Divining Top, Gitaxian Probe, Faithless Looting, and Deathrite Shaman. And now we can add Arcum’s Astrolabe to that list.
There’s tremendous value in building your deck to operate primarily on basic lands. Wasteland is one of the most played cards in Legacy, and it’s the best weapon that small creature decks have against mana-hungry control decks. With a high concentration of basic lands, and the ability to conveniently fetch for them, you make that weapon ineffective against you. You never fail to find on a Path to Exile, Ghost Quarter, or Field of Ruin. You don’t have to worry about Price of Progress, Blood Moon, Back to Basics, or any of commonly-played cards that hose nonbasic lands. In fact, you can even use those tools yourself!
Arcum’s Astrolabe shatters a basic tenet of MTG. In the old days, if you wanted a stable manabase full of basic lands, you had to center your deck around one or two colors. Now, it’s trivial to tap into three, four, or five colors of mana while still operating on all basics! Consequently, all snow decks play with a familiar selection of key cards, before rounding out the edges based on their pilot’s personal preference.
No surprises here, as these are staple cards that virtually all blue decks play.
All snow decks are centered around blue and green, in part due to the strength of the U/G gold cards. Ice-Fang Coatl is a payoff for playing snow. It’s a stronger version of Baleful Strix, which has been a highly desirable control card ever since its printing.
Oko, Thief of Crowns is probably the best planeswalker ever printed, and has already been banned in Standard, Pioneer, and Modern. Its high loyalty makes it difficult to combat, and the constant stream of hasted elks makes him a trump of opposing planeswalkers like Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Narset, Parter of Veils. Oko and Arcum’s Astrolabe are also a natural pairing, since you’ll often have a free artifact on the battlefield, ready to be animated as soon as Oko comes down.
A more subtle, but similarly important green card is Veil of Summer. It’s a killer sideboard card against opposing blue and black decks, and sometimes even makes it into the maindeck of snow control decks. Veil allows you to force a threat through permission, or to counter a key Thoughtseize or Abrupt Decay. In doing so, it also draws you a card, providing both tempo and card advantage in a combination that often proves gamewinning. Weren’t we just talking about low-cost, one-mana spells?
Just like Veil of Summer, Pyroblast is a hyper-efficient sideboard card that offers an advantage in the mirror, as well as against non-snow blue decks. Not every snow deck plays red, but with the costs of touching into an additional color being so low, it’s a common choice to do so.
White is an appealing color for snow decks, and is often chosen as a main color in order to grant access to Swords to Plowshares, which remains the most efficient removal spell in Magic.
Snow Control - TheZooKeeper
TheZooKeeper has a particularly controlling take on snow. This is the heir to the old-style Miracles decks. It seeks to set the top of its library with Brainstorm, Ponder, Jace, The Mind Sculptor, and Mystic Sanctuary in order to utilize Terminus and Entreat the Angels. All of the fringe card choices are made with the goal of card advantage and long-game staying power.
Four-Color Mentor - Oliver Tomajko
Instead of the miracles package, you can choose to be more proactive, tapping into white for additional planeswalkers, and creatures like Stoneforge Mystic or Monastery Mentor. This is the deck that Oliver Tomajko used to win the Starcitygames Players Championship; it’s highly tuned for snow mirror matches.
4-Color Snow - Lynnchalice
Abrupt Decay is one of the best black cards in Legacy, providing a key answer to Chalice of the Void, Aether Vial, and Oko, Thief of Crowns (among plenty of others). However, lynnchalice has omitted it from the above decklist and chosen to cover those bases in other ways.
Yet another way to utilize Oko, Coatl, and Veil of Summer is with the Sultai Zenith deck. This is a more proactive and midrange style of deck which uses Green Sun’s Zenith for a toolbox of useful and powerful creatures. Importantly, this deck can also cast Oko on turn 2, which is a way to score an easy win with an archetype that otherwise has to fight for every game.
Sultai Snow - Llabmonkey
A typical Snow opening involves fetching for a basic land and using a set-up card like Arcum’s Astrolabe or Ponder. You’ll find a couple of dual lands in every snow list that can be searched up in case of an emergency, or against non-Wasteland opponents. However, against anyone who might want to attack their manabase, snow players will be looking to operate solely on basic lands in the early turns.
Since snow is not a fast or explosive archetype, and since the first turn is often used to set-up, there needs to be a density of cheap (or free) reactive cards so that the pilot can keep their head above water. Force of Will, Force of Negation, and Swords to Plowshares are the most common choices.
Finally, with the board stable and their mana solidly underneath them, the snow player can look for opportunities to resolve powerful finisher cards like Oko, Thief of Crowns, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, or Monastery Mentor.
With no obvious weaknesses and access to three, four, or five colors of mana, it’s no surprise that snow decks tend to improve relative to their opponents after sideboarding.
We’ve already covered Veil of Summer and the Elemental Blasts, which are among the most powerful sideboard cards in all of Legacy.
Recall from Part IV of the guide that it’s wise to have access to three or four dedicated graveyard hate cards. Surgical Extraction is a natural choice for versions with Snapcaster Mage, while Rest in Peace, Grafdigger’s Cage, and Containment Priest are other go-to options.
Personally, I like to have access to one or two cards that hate on nonbasic lands. Cloudpost decks and Life from the Loam decks are natural predators of snow decks, but packing Blood Moon, Back to Basics, or From the Ashes can give you a fighting chance.
Extra combo hate is never a bad idea. Flusterstorm, Spell Pierce, Force of Negation, and Mindbreak Trap are nice options. Black decks can turn to a small number of discard spells. And white decks have access to Deafening Silence, Meddling Mage, and a number of other options.
Finally, most snow decks will want a little more firepower for mirror matches and other “fair” decks. This could come in the form of additional planeswalkers or value creatures in the sideboard, or it could be more techy cards like Carpet of Flowers, Sylvan Library, or Painful Truths.
Since there are virtually no restrictions when it comes to colored mana, you can expect a ton of variety when it comes to how these snow decks are built. But it will always be true that the maindeck is focused on value and card advantage, while the sideboard looks to correct weaknesses against extreme decks, and make small improvements against a diverse range of decks.