Recurring Nightmares – Spiraling Out of Control

This seems to be the week where everyone wants to ban something.

In Standard, where I admit my knowledge is rather tenuous, the card in question is one Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Having experienced Jace primarily in a format which is rife with answers to the card, along with the ability to counterspell the 4 mana Sorcery speed card for free, or win before it enters play, I’m not one to say I’m particularly fearful of Turn 4 Jace. However, my minor dabblings in Standard over the last year have given me precisely one relevant insight – if your deck does not contain at least 4 cards with type Planeswalker – Jace, you are doing things very, very wrong.

Unquestionably, the card is the most powerful thing you can do with four mana, bar none. The only thing even remotely comparable is to play and activate a Koth, but that’s just something the Pat Sullivans of the world tell themselves so they can sleep at night. The reality is, Jace was designed to be the most powerful planeswalker ever in terms of cost/abilities, and in that, it was a resounding success. In every other way, his design was a failure of disastrous proportions.

As we’re all patently aware, GP Dallas featured an incredibly diverse and healthy top 8 of 4 Jace, the Mind Sculptor decks, and 4 Jace, the Mind Sculptor decks. While it may be true that the other 56 cards were varied between the RUG and Caw decks, no one is debating the fact that really, the other 56 cards are semantics. Patrick Chapin has publicly claimed the statistic that the top 16 decks featured more Jaces than they did basic Islands to play them, which is absurd.

I don’t have the ability to objectively debate the merits of banning Jace. I know there are people whose opinion I respect on both sides of the discussion, and perhaps it’s better left in their (capable) hands. I expect that much like Legacy, when Survival was everywhere, banning such a dominant card will result in a broad and interesting landscape where many decks that were previously under the radar are allowed to perform. There are certainly negative impacts to such a ban, as well, but as I said, I’ll leave that discussion to those who are more invested in the results of the debate.

On the other side of the rotational fence, we’ve seen the window open on articles pleading for bannings in Legacy. This time, the sights are set on Time Spiral.

Put Away the Ban Hammer

I won’t pull punches – this is a joke to me. At this point in my career with the format, I have seen the following cards be “the best card,” and subsequently demanded banned (in order):


I’m not saying some of these aren’t worthy of the banned list, but Chicken Little sure is a busy dude. Frankly, it’s begun to wear on my patience.

First of all, two victories do not a ban-able offense make. Even less so when you consider the source of these victories – two of the most prolific players of the Legacy format, who have independently been responsible for more than a dozen top 8s across the Open series, with various decks, and who have countless other Legacy top 8s and wins spanning the last decade. Hatfield is not a household name to your average PTQer (well, maybe now it is), but believe me, if you ask anyone who has been involved with Legacy for more than the last year, they’ll be aware of who Alix (ObfuscateFreely) and Jesse (Mad Zur) are. They don’t play on Saturday at these opens. It’s not because they can’t. They’re busy – testing Legacy. IT’S ALL THEY DO. They are machines sent from the future to destroy 5ks. They are more advanced in their technology than you or I, because they are inventing new technology while we’re debating whether to run 3 or 4 Rhox War Monk in Bant. It’s nothing new to us; they’ve been doing it for years. A brief list of decks that the Northern Virginia crew – headed by the Hatfields – has beaten us with while we weren’t looking (most of the time, these were never seen at a Legacy event prior to them making top 8):

Threshold (Ian MacInnes, Alix Hatfield)
RG Survival Advantage (Dave Price (no, the other one))
Solidarity (Dave Gearhart)
2 Land Belcher (Brian Diefendorf)
Cephalid Breakfast (Alix Hatfield, Jesse Hatfield, Jesse Kreiger, and one other player I can’t remember – all at the same event)
Red Death (Anwar Amhad)
Eva Green (Anwar Amhad, Dan Signorini)
Team America (Dan Signorini)
Dragon Stompy (Damon Whitby)
Enchantress (Matt Elgin)

This does not take into consideration any of the decks that crew was responsible for prior to 2004 – of which there are many. The foundations of this format, and a good 75% or more of the decks in it, were set into place by these players.

Sorry, I got off on a tangent there. Those VA guys are good. Where was I? Right, Time Spiral.

It’s good. I won’t deny that. In the hands of a skilled player, it can be a beast. I have played it in its current form, and I played many of the versions prior to this one, including Solidarity. I’ve done well with them. And then I’ve played them in a metagame that is aware of their existence, and prepared. The outcome is not so great. Do you know why Solidarity is not a viable deck in today’s metagame? It’s not because they banned Reset when the deck peaked (despite many, many players asking for the ban) – it’s because people started playing cards and decks that had the ability to beat it. Counterbalance, Meddling Mage, Rule of Law, etc. All those cards I recommended last week. The metagame adapted, and the world kept on turning, and the format was healthier than ever.

Here’s a thought – remember that broken deck that spawned the banning of Mystical Tutor? Remember what its game plan was? Yeah, as it turns out, Iona naming Blue on turn 3 is pretty good against the mono Islands combo deck that tries to win on turn 4. What’s even cooler is that the 9 you take for Reanimate is completely irrelevant.

Maybe I’m going overboard in dismissing the idea of Time Spiral being banned. From what I’ve read, there were only one or two people honestly considering it for banning. One, at least, is viewing the card (and the world) from the perspective of a Blue/White control apologist, who cannot accept that the game has shifted from the paradigm in which “pure” control is viable. Caw-Go need not apply – that deck is Aggro/Control in a limited card pool environment. The idea that any Landstill-like variant can compete with all the various modes of attack that Legacy contains is laughable, and the idea that because one deck (in this case, High Tide) is virtually unwinnable, and therefore must be banned, is similarly insane. You can’t really beat Dredge with that style of deck, either, but no one is saying Ichorid should be banned.

If you’re interested in control in Legacy, go big or go home. I’ve said this before, but will repeat – the lines of attack in this format are too varied to be able to cope with them all in a “fair” manner. This is not to say that it’s impossible to play control. Far from it. Here are some considerations that must be taken into account.

Mountain, Goblin Lackey
Dark Ritual, Dark Ritual, Ad Nauseam
Natural Order, Progenitus
Green Sun’s Zenith into Gaddock Teeg, Tarmogoyf, Knight of the Reliquary, etc.
Show and Tell, Emrakul
Aether Vial, Goblin Ringleader
Gemstone Mine, Breakthrough
• Island, Island, Island, Island, High Tide
Vault of Whispers, Mox Opal, Memnite, Memnite, Frogmite, Thoughtcast
Tarmogoyf, Jace the Mind Sculptor
Wasteland, Life from the Loam
Painter’s Servant, Grindstone
Nomads En-Kor, Cephalid Illusionist
Entomb, Reanimate into Iona
Stifle your fetchland, Wasteland your dual, Daze your spell
Orim’s Chant you (or Xantid Swarm attacks), Ad Nauseam
Thoughtseize, Extirpate
Glimpse of Nature, Elf, Elf, Elf…
• Return four Ichorids to play, attack for 12, Cabal Therapy you four times
Ancient Tomb, Chalice of the Void for one

This is only scratching the surface of the format. As you can see, I’m not lying – the idea that one deck can inhibit all of these lines is absurd. You can’t play fair – the other decks aren’t, so why would you?

I’m not here to doom and gloom, though. There is hope. Control has powerful effects that can negate these lines, and the ability to work around any symmetry in these effects. This strategy was fundamental in constructing my list for Edison, and nothing has really changed since then.

Weenie and Tribal Creatures:

Despite being the format where spells are more powerful than creatures, most of the decks in the format still win via the attack step. Negating this is still as good as ever, and there are plenty of ways to do it.

Moat, Humility, Ensnaring Bridge, Peacekeeper, Gideon Jura, etc. all encourage your opponent to play fair, and leave the red zone out of it. These spells are good enough to do the entire job on their own, which sets them apart from cards like Propaganda that slow things, but don’t stop them. In addition, removal is still good. You can choose to run spot removal like Swords to Plowshares, Go for the Throat, Ghastly Demise, Lightning Bolt, Path to Exile, and Grim Lavamancer, or you can run sweepers like Wrath of God, Firespout, and Engineered Explosives. If you’re feeling saucy, you can run Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth plus Mutilate. I dare you.

There are plenty of ways to stem the creature assault if you have the adequate time to establish them. Fortunately, the cheap removal in Legacy is nearly as good as the cheap creatures.


Let’s be honest – people aren’t playing Legacy because it’s awesome to attack for three on turn 2. They’re playing it because it’s awesome to WIN on turn 2. Spells, man. They’re the ticket. Combo decks are traditionally the best matchups for control because blue is really the only color that can fight with the combo decks on their own turf – the stack. In this format, there are plenty of ways to do it – many of which I outlined last week, but I’ll refresh your memory.

Force of Will, Counterspell, Spell Pierce, Daze, Spell Snare, Red Elemental Blast, Blue Elemental Blast, Stifle, etc are all interactive ways to stop “anything” from a combo deck. These are primary resources for control, but they aren’t enough to do it on their own. The combo decks aren’t the fragile delicate flowers they are in smaller formats, they’re packing as much punch as you are. Orim’s Chant, Duress, Xantid Swarm, and Thoughtseize all force you to have a redundant amount of hate, and High Tide plays the inevitability game better than you do. We’ll get to that. For the more traditional storm decks, you’ll need access to multiple forms of stopping power, and even more as the game progresses. In addition, all of those cards that are so good against the creatures are blanks against the storm.

Giant Monsters:

Much like the weenie hordes, Giant Monsters must be dealt with outside the red zone. Often, once allowed to attack, the game is basically over, no matter how many storm the Wing Shards have (although that card is criminally underrated). If Emrakul is turned sideways, you lose. That’s all there is to it. The best way to solve this issue is to not let these creatures hit the battlefield in the first place. If they do hit, you should be proactively prepared. Some of the cards from the weenie response team do work – Humility, Moat, and Ensnaring Bridge all work well at making the fatty stay home. Moat is obviously less effective against Emrakul, but works well against most others.

Graveyard Shenanigans:

Dredge does unfair things and doesn’t care about most of your deck. However, they can’t play the fast combo game against you, because it makes them susceptible to your counterspells. Reanimator can’t do much without their graveyard, unless they’re showing and telling (again, opening themselves to counterspells). Cephalid Breakfast wins out of the graveyard. Loam decks fondle their yards relentlessly. Each of these decks are pretty capable of ignoring you during game one, and because grave hate is SO irrelevant against the decks that it’s bad against, you really can’t afford to main deck it. However, knowing that your deck has such a glaring weakness means you’re able to utilize your sideboard to dedicate some slots to the kind of thing that crushes these decks. Extirpate, Tormod’s Crypt, Nihil Spellbomb, Relic of Progenitus, Leyline of the Void, etc. Keep in mind that most of these decks won’t fold to these cards on sight, because as grave-based decks, they’re expecting to see them every single round. By extension, they’re likely to be better at playing through or around the cards than you are at playing against them. This is a true test of the control archetype in this format, and you’ll need to master this aspect of the metagame to compete with control.

Making it all fit:

The issue with all of these answers is a simple one – how do you make sure that you have the appropriate answer to the right question, while keeping your deck to the 60 card limit? The worst thing that can happen as a control player is opening a hand full of white cards vs. Storm. Fortunately, the deck gets to play the best tutor that isn’t banned in Legacy, in Enlightened Tutor. Access to this card allows you to play in a manner that can get the silver bullet that answers the issue at hand. Between this tutor and powerful targets that are broad in scope and effect, you have a much greater potential to fight multiple fronts. Your goal should be to use these “blowout” cards to make it nearly impossible for your opponent to utilize their game plan, and mop up after with counters/removal/winning.

Moat, Humility, and Ensnaring Bridge are all important weapons against creatures. Humility is bad against Affinity, where Moat shines. Ensnaring Bridge is bad against a field of Noble Hierarchs, where Humility can lock them out of mana and attackers. Ensnaring Bridge is a great answer to Emrakul, and it comes down a full turn earlier than Humility – an extremely relevant point in its favor. Establishing Humility plus Moat against decks winning with creatures usually means that between 70 and 75 of their cards are now blanks. All of these can be found with Enlightened Tutor.

Similarly, Pithing Needle, Phyrexian Revoker, Null Rod, and Cursed Totem all have applications versus cards that are extremely bad for you as a control player. Permanents like Aether Vial and Jace, the Mind Sculptor can be difficult to execute a game plan through – but they can be shut down by Needle or Revoker. Affinity and Painter decks often have difficulty finding the win through an on-board Null Rod, and Cephalid Breakfast must answer a Cursed Totem to win. The combination of Totem and Ensnaring Bridge can spell an assured victory in some matchups. Many of the Green Sun Zenith decks have trouble with their manabase in the face of Cursed Totem in the same manner that Affinity does against Null Rod (not to the same extent, of course).

Counterbalance. Oh, Counterbalance. The two of us have a sordid history; that much is certain. The format as it stands today has finally developed to a point where a resolved Counterbalance and Sensei’s Divining Top no longer assures victory. However, the combo is still a potent weapon in the control players’ arsenal. I would no longer recommend going “all-in” on the plan, but having access to the soft lock via Enlightened Tutor (and I strongly suggest access to more than a single one) can be crucial in the combo matchups, including High Tide. They aren’t exactly dead against the rest of the field, but you can’t rely on them being as good as they are against combo.

Graveyard hate is typically found in the form of cheap artifacts that can either sit in wait, ready to spring on the yard deck, or be deployed strategically once their impact will be relevant. In both of these situations, finding one at the right time via Enlightened Tutor is going to ensure the right card at the right time.

Enlightened is not the be-all end-all answer to life, the universe, and everything, but it does go a long way to solving most of the major issues with control in Legacy. It even finds ways to win in Thopter Sword! Granted, utilizing such a win condition means you lose access to Null Rod, but as I said, it’s difficult to play every card in one deck. Focusing on the best of the best, while not impeding your own routes to victory is a delicate balance you’ll have to find for yourself.

The rest of your deck should be focused on securing time and the resolution of these backbreaking spells. This is where the cheap removal like Swords to Plowshares and Go for the Throat come in, and where spells like Force and Counterspell are added. Really, the most difficult part of playing control is finding a robust win package that can both win through disruption/removal as well as do so in a 50 minute round. Jace, of course, is capable of this along with filling out the role of finding and protecting your power spells, and Thopter Sword is a tutorable win condition that is resilient to hate. The life gain and steady stream of blockers is a side benefit in establishing an early line of defense while looking for more security, when necessary.

For those of you keeping track at home, we’re arriving awfully close to the list that I played in Edison, which Shaheen Soorani has indirectly lambasted as a “fourteenth place deck.” I won’t deny my placing of top 16 at that event, but I take umbrage with the idea that it isn’t poised to do better. I firmly believe that a deck like that list is placed well in the current metagame, and that with the appropriate attention to the proper mix of 1-card answers to the decks that are being presented, it could absolutely take down any given event. It has all the tools to do so, specifically because of the toolbox approach it takes in answering these decks. Despite the incredible diversity in approach of the “aggro decks” (read: every deck that takes the beatdown against you) there is enough overlap in your answers that you should and will be able to successfully navigate the Swiss rounds.

Just because, here’s a list.

I like this list, but it still has issues. We’re seeing a specialist, and working on them.

Until next time, keep yourself (and your opponent) under control, BAN NOTHING, and remember – keep your stick on the ice.


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