Time and time again, I’ve heard the same story from my opponents. “I don’t play much Legacy.” “My friend handed me this deck.” “Yeah, I don’t normally play this format, I just wanted to play today.”
Excuses, all of them. Rule number 1: No excuses, play like a champion.
I won’t lie, once or twice I’ve heard this from an opponent, and they’ve proceeded to smash me with the deck their friend handed them that morning. More often, however (by far), I proceed to capitalize on the unfamiliarity they have with their deck and with the format, and relegate the round to a near-bye. This is not meant to sound arrogant – rather, to point out the idea that by choosing to walk blindly into an event with no preparation, you’re doing little more than donating your entry fee to the eventual winner.
Consider that your friend is loaning you a deck for the tournament. Chances are it’s not an identical 75 to the deck they’re playing in the event. Why aren’t they playing the deck they gave you? They aren’t handing you their best chance at victory – that would be foolish on their part. They are handing you their backup plan, the deck that they think might be ok, but isn’t the hot new item they’re sleeving up for themselves. Often, they’ve given you a stock list of some netdeck they’ve been using for their gauntlet. That means anyone else who has prepped for the event will likely know the entirety of your list, or can guess at it (including your sideboard) based on their superior knowledge of the format. What a brutal advantage!
Certainly, there are people who do zero testing for a format, are handed a deck, and proceed to win said event. Chances are, you aren’t one of them. Is it really so difficult to prep for an event that you’re willing to handicap yourself before you sit down for your first match? Magic is HARD. You’re only making it harder.
In an effort to assist those who insist on going blindly into the next Legacy event that comes around, I’ve put together a short list of things that you should do (without fail) prior to entering a new constructed format. These can apply to any format you aren’t familiar with, so if you’re a Legacy guy and plan to PTQ in Extended, or a Standard guy trying your hand on Sunday at a SCG Open, these should be of service.
1. Do your homework
Read articles. Read coverage from recent events. Look at decklists. The internet exists. It’s criminal that people go into a format without knowing what they’re likely to be playing against. The amount of information available is actually overwhelming. You have time to sift through some of it in order to be more ready.
Let’s say your event is this Saturday. You have to work/go to school all week, and your nights are taken by other duties. Really, your only free time is Friday at FNM. Perhaps, just perhaps, you could spend your FNM reading coverage from last weekend’s events to get an idea of the metagame. Or, print off some of the articles that discuss the format and read them on the trip to the venue. Or, call a friend who plays the format, and in between asking them for a deck, ask them about the format and what you should be expecting. Any of these are viable choices for those with a limited amount of time to devote to a new format. Of course, you’re reading articles right now, so obviously your time isn’t quite as limited as this extreme example. Once you’ve finished this article (of course you’d want to hear the rest of these great tips first, right?) continue on to try and uncover articles on the topic at hand. The time investment will pay dividends.
2. Read your cards
Possibly the most important rule. Last week I briefly discussed an opponent playing Affinity who didn’t realize that [card]Disciple of the Vault[/card] triggered when my artifacts hit the bin. Failure to realize this cost him the game, and in turn the match. This is inexcusable for someone who intends to win the event. Really, it’s fairly inexcusable for anyone that can read. I said it before, but I will repeat it (and likely will continue to repeat it forever) – read every card in your deck. Don’t assume you know what it does and move along. Maybe you’ve seen the cards before, but it’s been a while (say, since they were legal in Standard). Refresh your memory. Consider the applications of each card, and how it fits into the deck’s overall strategy. Do you even know the deck’s overall strategy? Each card has a purpose, a plan for its inclusion into the limited number of slots in the deck. If you can’t discern what that purpose is, ASK someone. Don’t approach random strangers and say “Hello sir, I’m wondering if you could tell me why this deck runs [card]Oblivion Ring[/card]?” but perhaps the person from whom you’ve borrowed the deck could shed some light on the situation?
This leads us into the next tip:
3. Familiarize yourself with the interactions
Legacy is a unique snowflake. Don’t make the mistake of believing that you have a handle on the format because you’ve goldfished your deck a few times, and read every card twice.
I won’t be one of those pundits who hold the format above them on a pedestal like some sort of sacred cow. However, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that tens of thousands of cards are legal in the format, and the interactions between these cards breed nuances that aren’t present in other formats. New things will present themselves, and familiarizing yourself with the “normal” happenings will conserve mental resources for the times when something unique actually does happen. I’ll give a pair of examples.
[draft]Knight of the Reliquary
Maze of Ith[/draft]
I recently witnessed a judge call discussing this interaction, and felt it was relevant enough to warrant a minor explanation. Player A attacked with his KotR, and Player B had no plays during combat, nor blockers. During the end of combat step (after damage has been assigned, but still during the Combat Phase), Player A used Maze of Ith to untap the Knight of the Reliquary. Because it is still the Combat Phase, the Knight is considered an attacker, although its damage has already been dealt. The Maze doesn’t prevent the damage (the damage has already resolved) but it does garner an untap, allowing the Knight to be activated later should Player A deem it warranted. This subtle use of the phase structure is something easily overlooked, and could disrupt the combat calculations for many players.
Mangara of Corondor[/draft]
Another land + creature interaction, this one is a bit more intricate. Player A will activate the [card]Mangara of Corondor[/card], and retain priority. Realize that the only cost for Mangara’s ability is “tap.” Exiling the creature is part of the resolution of the ability, not the cost. While retaining priority, Player A will return a Forest to hand with [card]Quirion Ranger[/card], untapping the Mangara. Player A lets this ability resolve. Again, retaining priority, they will activate Mangara a second time in response to all of the other effects on the stack. In response to this second ability, they use Karakas to return the Mangara to their hand. The net result is a Forest and a Mangara in their hand, and two permanents of the opponent in exile. Even with these tricks in play and ready, Eli Kassis managed to blow out a number of opponents in DC with this interaction. Players have become aware of Quirion Ranger’s interaction with [card]Fauna Shaman[/card] due to the success of the [card]Survival of the Fittest[/card] deck, but their focus on that interaction let the Mangara tricks fly under the radar.
Both of these are relatively new to the format (in the sense that they haven’t been seeing high-level play for very long), and as such are easily overlooked by a player who has only a passing familiarity with Legacy. However, by following suggestion #1, you can discover such interactions in feature match coverage and strategy articles, and be prepared in advance.
4. Do something powerful
One of the best decks to be handed before an event is Belcher. The reason for this, despite its complicated decision trees, is because it essentially ignores a significant portion of the format. Can you count to seven? Can you count to ten? These are the questions the friend of the would-be Belcher player needs to ask prior to handing over the deck. As Belcher generally has a difficult time fighting through hate, it’s unlikely that even a skilled opponent can fight past a number of Merfolk/Counterbalance matchups in any given event, so the skill factor is less important with this deck than it would be with something like Zoo. That’s right – I’m saying the combo deck is easier to play than the dumb creature deck. However, based on the power level alone, the Belcher deck will give an unfamiliar player more opportunity to “just win” than one with more nuance. In essence, by playing a deck with a higher objective power level, you’re limiting the amount of interaction you’ll be required to face, and in doing so, limit the number of mistakes you can subject yourself to due to unfamiliarity with the format. If you’re going to try to win, you may as well try to win big, because trying to win small opens yourself up to losing to yourself instead of your opponent.
On the other side of the spectrum:
5. Play to your strengths
Are you a Limited specialist? You should probably be playing a deck that capitalizes on the red zone, where combat math matters. Playing a deck like Belcher is likely a poor choice for you, because you’re removing the advantage you actually have over many opponents in Legacy – your ability to do complicated combat math. For you, a deck like Affinity (again, power level remains high) or Zoo makes a lot more sense. If you play Standard primarily, and have been slamming Caw-Go mirrors for the last few months, perhaps getting your hands on some sort of control deck is better for you. I do not generally recommend this for players who are unfamiliar with the format, but some people just love playing control. This exposes you to the most risk of player error, as there are so many different lines of attack in Legacy that a control deck must be highly adaptable and capable of anticipating the possible lines their opponent will utilize in order to cut them off from said attacks. Without an intimate knowledge of the format, it’s unlikely a player piloting a deck like my UW Thopter deck would be making optimal choices turn after turn. Hell, I’ve proven that it takes even more than that kind of knowledge to play it right – I obviously didn’t!
6. Slow down
You’re playing too fast. Unless your name is Michael Poszgay. With that exception, don’t be so afraid of going to time that you force yourself to make a play just for the sake of making one. Consider the ramifications of the play, and what your opponent may do to react to it. Consider if there is a play that would earn a different type of reaction – one that is more in line with what you’d like to see happen. Consider what your opponent may do on his turn, and what you’ll do to respond. Consider if that puts you in a position you’d like to be in, or if there’s a better scenario. Think about how to conform the game into the scenario you want, rather than allowing your opponent to dictate the direction of the game.
The more your thinking becomes proactive, rather than reactive, the further ahead mentally you’ll be. Many players don’t consider the lines of play that stem from their choices, and choose to allow the cards they draw to dictate the lines for them. I can say from my personal experience that the most enlightening advice I’ve ever gotten in this game was to think about “what do you expect to happen? Do you care?”
They say a “good” chess player calculates three to five moves ahead in any given position, from both sides of the board. Granted, there is no hidden information in a chess game – you have to work with limited information as to the contents of the opponents’ hand, their top decks, and the contents of their deck. However, it is possible to make educated assumptions based on the knowledge you do have, and to use those educated assumptions to formulate what their plan would be, working to take them off from that plan. This is not an intuitive process for many of us. It takes time to master, and takes time in-game to do. If you’re allowing yourself to play reactively, or for the cards to play you, then you’re also allowing your opponent to play you. Take the time necessary to consider the entirety of the situation.
7. Don’t over-complicate
As I said, Magic is hard. Like, really hard. By walking into a tournament relatively blind, you’re intentionally making it even harder. By playing a deck you aren’t all that familiar with, you’re making it harder still. If, for some godforsaken reason, you choose to play a complicated deck, you’re basically stacking the odds against yourself so highly that you can’t help but fail.
[card]Sensei’s Divining Top[/card] may actually be the most difficult card in the game to play optimally. [card]Doomsday[/card] is up there, but the fact that you really only need to choose correctly once makes it slightly lower on the scale. [card]Brainstorm[/card] is incredibly difficult to play optimally – hell, even choosing when to play it is worth an article in and of itself (an article which has been written, by the way – think about this one when you’re doing your homework). I’ll give you all the benefit of the doubt and assume that you’re capable of playing this game to some marginal degree – don’t consider this patronization, as I don’t consider my own skill much higher than that – so I won’t belabor the discussion with the “how-to’s” of playing cards like [card]Aether Vial[/card] and [card]Force of Will[/card]. Nor will I tell you that putting a die on Tarmogoyf to track his p/t is lazy and noob-ish (and can lead to trouble if the die isn’t corrected when the yards change). However, I will suggest a hierarachy of decks which are good and bad for an inexperienced Legacy player to be given, should they choose to play the format with other players’ decks. Treat this as suggestion, as there are always differing opinions based on who likes to play what.
Decks which are reasonable:
Decks which are borderline:
Junk and Taxes
The Rock w/o Top
Decks which are probably not a good idea:
The Rock w/Top
And, of course, some qualifications for these choices.
As I discussed above, Belcher plays the “Do you have [card]Force of Will[/card]?” game better than basically any other deck in the format. Because of this, it can win despite its pilot’s unfamiliarity with the opponent’s cards. Decks like Zoo and Affinity have a “go for the throat” mentality which lends them to do well in the hands of people unfamiliar with the more complex Legacy interactions, but who are familiar with similar strategies from other formats. Dredge will likely be the topic of some debate, but the same principle applies to it as does Belcher – it can circumvent a large portion of strategies based on its own sideways approach, and tends to play itself to some extent. Certainly, it is stronger in the hands of a player who is intimately familiar with its nuances, but again the power level of the deck (and its near inability to lose game one against islands) will give it game where other decks may lack. As for Merfolk, while some may say the deck is relatively difficult to play optimally, it does generate a lot of damage quickly, and has the tools to compete with nearly anything. As Alex Bertoncini has demonstrated time and time again, the deck is fully capable of winning tournaments, and its relatively small price tag (in comparison to many other decks) allows it to be a reasonable backup deck for many players. It’s a solid choice as both a strong deck and a comparatively “easy” deck to play.
Again, none of these decks are idiot-proof. We’re working from the assumption that the player picking the deck up is capable of assessing a game state and reacting accordingly.
The decks in the second category all play some sort of skill-testing cards. For most, this means [card]Brainstorm[/card], which can be accompanied by [card]Stifle[/card] in many instances. Others include tutoring packages, such as [card]Knight of the Reliquary[/card] or [card]Goblin Matron[/card]. Each of these decks can be played to success by a novice, but will require significant experience to play optimally in complicated situations. Contrary to popular belief, Goblins is actually an incredibly complex deck that – while certainly capable of the “nut draw” – often ends up grinding an opponent out with card quality/advantage rather than explosive draws. The format tends to be prepared for a turn 1 [card]Goblin Lackey[/card], so the games when you follow that up with a [card]Siege-Gang Commander[/card] and a [card]Goblin Piledriver[/card] are few and far between.
The third category is comprised of decks that I would recommend avoiding if you’re new to the format. Many of them contain Sensei’s Divining Top, a card which I continue to grow in respect toward, and which I fail to play correctly despite all my efforts to optimize. Others have odd draw engines (Lands, Enchantress) which require specific in-game decisions which are predicated on plays which may not have yet been made. Cards like [card]Rishadan Port[/card] and [card]Sterling Grove[/card] require you to play an anticipative game which predicts what your opponent will do next, and proactively answers that threat, rather than allowing you to be responsive. The combo decks are incredibly complicated, and can be frustrating to play if you aren’t familiar with all of the tricks that are second nature to the experienced players. People like Bryant Cook and Alix Hatfield have seen the interactions with hate so often that it becomes reflex to play around certain cards in certain situations, where others would run headlong into the counter/disruption without seeing it coming. Having played with and against Bryant for so long, I can tell you that no one I’ve ever played against can read the presence or absence of Force of Will in their opponent’s body language as well as he can – although his own poker face is non-existent. This isn’t a byproduct of some inherent talent, it’s due to seeing the same debate over an opening hand for hundreds and hundreds of rounds, from seeing the way his opponents react to his first [card]Dark Ritual[/card], from watching how everyone really does have all the same tells. A new player to the deck will not have this same learned skill. Finally, a deck like Painted Stone (see: Caleb Durward’s list) or [card]Enlightened Tutor[/card] powered CounterTop play the combination of Brainstorms, tutors, Tops, and combo/control – which makes them possibly the most complex decks in the format to play perfectly. I believe the list I played in Edison was the best deck I’ve ever played – but obviously, despite actually selecting every card in the 75, I still played it incorrectly. Caleb’s deck adds to the complexity by running Intuition and Goblin Welder, along with a transformational sideboard. I’m pretty certain the kid is a masochist, because there’s no way he isn’t making at least a few mistakes every event.
Despite the inherent difficulty of playing in a format in which you don’t specialize, Legacy has a lot to offer – many players who are relatively new to Legacy consider it to be the best Magic you can be playing right now, and they’re completely right. In order to prevent your first few forays into the format from being failures (forgive the alliteration), take the time to review some literature on Legacy, and follow the steps I’ve laid out above. With a little luck and a bunch of skill, you’ll be proficient in the format in no time. Best of luck in your transition, and remember – keep your stick on the ice.