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Recurring Nightmares – Needled 24/7

In a format as wide open as Legacy, one of the most important skills to master is the art of properly constructing a sideboard. Unfortunately, this is one of the most overlooked skills, as well. Very often, players will put weeks and weeks of testing into their 60 maindeck cards, with little regard for the 15 cards which make up their sideboards – regardless of the fact that between half and two thirds of their games will be played post board.

When considering which cards to play, it’s important to keep in mind the very different nature of the format when compared to other, smaller formats like Standard. In these formats, it’s quite natural to consider your deck’s weaknesses to other archetypes, and to construct a sideboard to approach parity or advantage in those matches. If you’re playing a deck like UB control, and find that your Valakut matchup is a little weak, you can add cards to your board to specifically target this match. The recent Pro Tour in Paris shows an excellent example of this in Guillaume Matignon’s deck tech, where he showcased silver bullet sideboard cards like Kuldotha Rebirth as an answer to the Kuldotha Red decks which are looking to donate a Jinxed Idol against control; or Gravitational Shift as a way to blank the attackers of Vampires, which typically have 2 power or less, and no evasion. While occasionally these matchup-specific cards can be blanks, it’s perfectly acceptable to run them anyway, because it’s rare that a matchup in Standard is so one-sided that you can’t sacrifice a few slots to shore a weakness, and in a tournament as focused as a Pro Tour, you’re unlikely to run into a deck you are completely surprised to play.

Surprise!

Pick any given Legacy event of reasonable size, and the same is not true. If you’re running through eight rounds of Legacy, the chances of you playing the same deck twice are much less than the chances of running into a rogue creation that you have not prepared for or tested against. Tuning your sideboard for specific matchups will often leave you with a sideboard where a large percentage of the cards are underused, or worse – unused.

For these reasons, it is much more common for Legacy deckbuilders to approach sideboarding strategy from a more general perspective, rather than the focused stance that targets weak matchups that the smaller pooled formats are known for. Cards like Yixlid Jailer, while crushing a Dredge opponent, are much less valueable in matchups like Aggro Loam or New Horizons, where the specific abilities of cards in the yard are not so important as the presence of them in the yard. Along with this, the inherent resiliency of the top tier of the format usually does not allow for narrow answers to be as back-breaking as with other formats – the answers to the answers are just as potent as the answers themselves.

As with all discussions of this type, there are of course exceptions to this rule. Linear strategies like Dredge and Belcher are playing a game to blank an entire subset of the field by their normal gameplan. Because of this, they can dedicate their sideboard to those cards which actually do interact with their own plan, rather than taking a general approach.

Because the format is so diverse, these general answers increase in power against the field, while at the same time perhaps giving up impact on specific decks. A card like Krosan Grip is never the sexiest play you can make, but it has value against a number of different decks and different archetypes, and will give you more value across the board than a card like Circle of Protection: Red.

For all of these reasons, and more to come, I’ve long advocated a strong consideration be given to including a non-zero number of Pithing Needle in any given Legacy sideboard.

Needle has a multitude of things going for it. First, it’s an artifact. Much like the O.G. of Legacy sideboards (Tormod’s Crypt), this allows it to be played in any deck that can create a colorless mana. For those following at home, that’s every deck. No matter if you’re a mono-green Elf combo deck, or a five color control monstrosity, you’re going to be able to cast a Needle. Even Belcher, with its one land, can afford it. This alludes to the second benefit that Needle presents: a CMC of a whopping one. The idea of “slipping into play before countermana is up” isn’t really relevant in a format where Daze and Force of Will abound, but the idea of “slipping into play before Counterbalance is up” is.

I won’t regale you with a list of cards which are shut down by Needle. Instead, I will present a list of decks in Legacy that I would side Needle in against – using the last two SCG Open top 8 lists as a reference.

Indianapolis:

1st Place – Counter Top RUG (Sensei’s Divining Top, Engineered Explosives, Grim Lavamancer, Jace TMS)
2nd Place – Forgemaster Combo (Sensei’s Divining Top, Lightning Greaves, Kuldotha Forgemaster, Steel Hellkite, Goblin Welder, Wasteland)
3rd Place – Junk and Taxes (Aether Vial, Sword of Fire and Ice, Knight of the Reliquary, Mother of Runes, Qasali Pridemage, Stoneforge Mystic, Umezawa’s Jitte, Mangara of Corondor, Wasteland, Karakas)
4th – Counter Top Thopter (Engineered Explosives, Sensei’s Divining Top, Thopter Foundry, Jace TMS, Academy Ruins, Karakas)
5th – Merfolk (Aether Vial, Coralhelm Commander, Cursecatcher, Merfolk Sovereign, Mishra’s Factory, Mutavault, Wasteland)
7th – Counter Top Progenitus (Sensei’s Divining Top, Qasali Pridemage, Jace TMS)
8th – Goblins (Aether Vial, Gempalm Incinerator, Goblin Sharpshooter, Siege-Gang Commander, Rishadan Port, Wasteland)

San Jose:

1st – Goblins (Aether Vial, Gempalm Incinerator, Goblin Sharpshooter, Siege-Gang Commander, Rishadan Port, Wasteland)
2nd – Counter Top (Sensei’s Divining Top, Jace TMS)
3rd – GWB Junk (Nihil Spellbomb, Sensei’s Divining Top, Tormod’s Crypt, Knight of the Reliquary, Pernicious Deed, Elspeth, Knight-Errant, Maze of Ith, Wasteland)
4th – BW Deadguy (Sword of Fire and Ice, Sword of Light and Shadow, Mother of Runes, Stoneforge Mystic, Umezawa’s Jitte, Wasteland, Karakas)
5th – Merfolk (Aether Vial, Coralhelm Commander, Cursecatcher, Merfolk Sovereign, Wasteland)
6th – Goblins (Aether Vial, Gempalm Incinerator, Goblin Sharpshooter, Siege-Gang Commander, Rishadan Port, Wasteland)
7th – Counter Top (Sensei’s Divining Top, Vedalken Shackles, Jace TMS, Karakas)
8th – Merfolk (Aether Vial, Coralhelm Commander, Cursecatcher, Mutavault, Wasteland)

Out of 16 decks in the two combined top 8s, I would not board Needle in against one. That one still runs Jace, the Mind Sculptor and a TON of fetchlands, but I wouldn’t be prone to boarding in for those cards unless I had lost game one to Jace. Regardless, this says a lot. Most of these decks are reliant on a select few cards which are totally inhibited by Needle, and are left at a significant disadvantage by a one mana spell that any deck can play. It is incredibly annoying to have a Top Needled while playing Counter Top – first hand experience at work there. Fortunately for Counterbalance players, the card is incredibly underplayed. Although it is picking up in use across decks of all types, I still maintain that basically everyone should be playing them.

With the release of Mirrodin Besieged, we now have access to another playset of Needles, in [card]Phyrexian Revoker[/card]. While not exactly identical, the Needle and Beetle are near enough in effect that they can be considered as replacements for one another should you be of the mind that one is more to your liking than the other.

Let’s look at the pros and cons of the two:

Needle:
Pros
• One mana
• Can name Lands
Trinket Mage exists
Cons
• Cannot attack
• Cannot stop mana abilities

Revoker:
Pros
• Creature, can be a threat
• Stops mana abilities of non-land permanents
Cons
• Two mana
• Is a creature, can be removed via creature removal
• Cannot name lands (Wasteland, Mutavault, Rishadan Port)

Of course, we can consider the mana costs to not necessarily be a benefit or detriment when discussing specific decks. For decks whose plan A revolves around a Chalice of the Void set to one counter, it seems rather counterproductive to use Pithing Needle, when a similar two-mana spell exists. Combined with the fact that your Chalice will protect the Beetle from removal like Swords to Plowshares and Path to Exile, and you start to see the table above shift around a bit.

Personally, I’m not as much a fan of the Revoker as some of my colleagues, especially when compared side by side with Pithing Needle. In the decks I am prone to playing, the body attached to Revoker is generally a hinderance more than a benefit, as the last thing I want to do is allow them to Swords the card protecting my manabase from Wastelands, or stopping them from locking me out with Jace. Most Legacy decks are prepared to deal with creatures – regardless of the number of combo decks out there, or the number of Planeswalkers the top decks are packing, the most common form of damage is still creature-based, and removal is going to be prevalent. The number of artifact removal spells being tossed around has been increasing, but it is still nowhere near the same level as creature death killers. In my opinion, I would much prefer to allow the “body attached” to be that of Trinket Mage – I then get value from the 2 power body, and still maintain the disruptive element, despite the death of the creature. However, the doubling of the mana for the Trinket → Needle does make it much slower, and the reliance on blue can be a factor.

Don’t get me wrong – Phyrexian Revoker is absolutely as good as Pithing Needle. There are situations where Revoker is strictly better, and matchups where one is gold and the other is dirt – take Combo, for example. When your opponent is planning to make seven mana, cast a Charbelcher, and tap it, the Pithing Needle is the better card. When your opponent is planning to make five mana, cast Ad Nauseum, and draw a hundred cards, it pays to have a threat that can turn off a Chrome Mox, Lotus Petal, or Lion’s Eye Diamond. As much as they are similar, these subtle nuances are all the difference in the world, and the real choice between the two. The fact that such a debate even exists is a testament to the success of the design of both cards.

Whichever you choose – Needle or Beetle – the choice to play one of them should be an easy one. They represent low cost investments that have the potential for large impacts in your games. They are answers that solve a broad range of problems for many decks, with a low overhead and a ton of positive value. The cards are underplayed and undervalued in-game, and represent a way for players familiar with the intricate and wide-ranging span of Legacy interactions to gain an edge on the field. All good things.

Before I depart, I’d like to update you all on my most current attempt at breaking Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas. We’ve been working on the deck for a few weeks now, and after a poor showing at the most recent Jupiter Games Lotus event, I went back to the drawing board to see if I couldn’t address some of the issues I had with the deck. The last list was the unfortunate victim of an untimely vacation for our entire editorial staff, so here is a refresher:

This list was serviceable, but as I said, it wasn’t where I wanted to be. I forced red into the main deck in the form of a pair of Volcanic Islands, to open access to Red Elemental Blast/Pyroblast in the sideboard, but was unhappy with this decision. I thought the mistake wasn’t in splashing, but the extent to which I splashed. I opened up the lines of discussion with Caleb Durward, who has also been Painting the World Blue, although his list is a much more dedicated combo deck – eschewing most of the cards I actually want to play for combo-oriented speed. The two of us, along with my teammate Alex Artese, discussed the idea of adding Goblin Welder to the list, but decided it didn’t add enough to the deck without access to Intuition. Eventually I scrapped the red and tested with other splash colors – Green for Tarmogoyf was obviously decent, but wasn’t anything special. It wasn’t until I tried to add White for Enlightened Tutor that things really got kicking.

In each iteration of the deck, from the UB starting point to the current incarnation, I found the deck playing less like combo and more like control, so I eventually decided that the thing which felt most incorrect about the list was the Painter/Grindstone combo in and of itself. Once I made the leap to cut that, and play the actual control role, things started falling into place. The list ended up looking much more like Josh Guibault’s list from SCG Indy than Caleb’s Painter list, but I’m comfortable with that. Here’s the list, and a little discussion.

I almost don’t want to share the board, as it’s currently tuned to our local metagame, which is kind of random (at best), but I wanted to show that I am, in fact, running more than a single Pithing Needle in the 75. Oddly, the strongest card in the board is the basic Island.

I’m happy with the progress on the deck, although I am positive it isn’t at 100% yet, and I would probably still change at least one or two maindeck cards prior to the DC or Edison Star City events. I plan to continue the tweaking of this list, because it is, in a word, strong. The holes I’ve dug myself out of with the combination of Tezz, Jace, and Thopter Sword are diverse and extreme, and I have yet to feel like any game is completely unwinnable, regardless of the present board state. Moat and Ensnaring Bridge are both insanely good in the current metagame, and both have express purpose in the deck. Enlightened Tutor is the key to the deck, and gives you access to any number 0-4 for Counterbalance when needed, along with fetching one or both pieces of the Thopter combo, as well as the CounterTop lock. Tezzeret has begun to be appreciated in Standard after his showing in Paris, but he’s even more effective in Legacy, where you are allowed to run lands that up your artifact count, along with Top which makes a guaranteed hit on every +1, and Thopter Sword to arbitrarily up the artifact count for his Ultimate ability. He tends to be the most explosive of the Planeswalkers, and is easily better than Jace in this deck – which is saying something.

As I said, the tuning will continue, and as it does, I’ll be sure to keep you all updated. Till then, play more Needles and Beetles, and remember – keep your stick on the ice.

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