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 prison decks, which are a prominent part of the metagame.
Table of Contents
Part I: An Introduction to Legacy
Part II: The Defining Cards of Legacy
Part III: Choosing Your Deck
Part IV: Using Cantrips Properly
Part V: Graveyard Decks
Part VI: Combo Decks
Part VII: Prison Decks
Legacy Guide Part VI: Prison Decks
I can’t say with confidence that the decks I’ll cover today are the absolute best in Legacy. However, I personally consider them to be some of the most defining decks of the format. They contribute to making Legacy what it is, and help to set it apart from newer formats like Modern, Pioneer, and Standard.
These are what I call Prison decks. If that term is unfamiliar, it’s because Prison decks are a nearly-extinct species in today’s Magic. The cards that enable these strategies are always unique, often old, and unlikely to be reprinted in any kind of standard-legal form. Understanding Prison decks is key to learning the difference between Legacy and newer formats.
What is Prison?
Prison is the strategy of making your opponent unable to cast their spells, or unable to use their cards to their normal effect. We’re used to cards like Thoughtseize, Counterspell, and Swords to Plowshares neutralizing opposing threats on a one-for-one basis. However, the goal of Prison cards is to invalidate large swaths of opposing cards all at the same time.
Let’s look at one of Magic’s most iconic Prison cards. This one should be familiar to Legacy and Modern players alike.
Blood Moon has two important functions that contribute to a Prison strategy. The first is neutralizing a large portion of the opponent’s deck by taking away the abilities of their nonbasic lands. Rather than point removal spells at your opponent’s Mishra’s Factories one at a time, Blood Moon is a single card that stops them all for the rest of the game. Similarly, you’ll never have to worry about an Eye of Ugin, an Academy Ruins, or a Dark Depths while Blood Moon is on the battlefield.
Blood Moon’s second important function is to prevent the opponent from casting spells. Just as it directly shuts down the abilities of nonbasic lands, it can also indirectly shut down all spells with demanding colored mana requirements. It’s a stone cold killer against something like Grixis Delver.
Chalice of the Void is the most important Prison card in Legacy. Recall that the efficiency of the format results in most decks being made up primarily of one- and two-mana spells. Chalice of the Void is deadly in such an environment.
Some decks make the sacrifice of going without Legacy’s powerful one-mana spells in order to reap the rewards of utilizing Chalice of the Void. If you get a Chalice of the Void onto the battlefield with one counter, and your deck is designed to play conveniently around that, you’ll have a tremendous advantage over most decks in Legacy.
Karn, the Great Creator is a relatively recent printing that’s had a huge impact on Legacy. His passive ability shuts down opposing artifacts, which comes in big against decks using artifact mana such as Mox Diamond or Lotus Petal, as well as shutting down Aether Vial, equipment, and a handful of other commonly-played artifacts.
Equally important, Karn’s -2 ability allows its controller to grab an artifact–often a prison card–off the sideboard. This allows you to choose the right tool for the right job, instead of being stuck with 4 main deck Ensnaring Bridges against a combo deck, or ineffective graveyard hate against creature decks.
Blood Moon, Chalice of the Void, and Karn, the Great Creator are three examples of popular, iconic Prison cards. However, there are many more that you might run into including Thalia, Guardian of Thraben; Sphere of Resistance; Thorn of Amethyst; Trinisphere; Back to Basics; Choke; Ensnaring Bridge; and Armageddon just to name a few.
What to Expect from Prison Decks
At this point, it’s necessary to make an important clarification. While there are some dedicated Prison decks in Legacy, you’re much more likely to run into decks that merely have some aspects of Prison while also employing other strategies. For example, a control deck that simply sideboards a few copies of Blood Moon, or a disruptive creature deck that plays with Thalia, Guardian of Thraben.
If Prison is one of your opponent’s primary strategies, they will likely have fast mana to facilitate it. The faster they can get a card like Chalice of the Void, Blood Moon, or Trinisphere onto the battlefield, the more effective it’s going to be. (Consider the difference between casting a turn 1 Chalice of the Void for one versus casting a turn 2 Chalice of the Void after the opponent has already played Delver of Secrets).
You must expect the Prison cards to start coming down as early as the first turn. If your opponent is using fast mana like Ancient Tomb, Mox Diamond, and Lotus Petal to cast these threatening cards on turn 1, then you’ll either need Force of Will, or you’ll have to construct your deck to have other ways to combat them.
Decks With Prison Elements
In this section, I’ll cover a few decks that contain elements of the Prison strategy, but might not necessarily be classified as Prison decks. Keep in mind that lines can be blurry, and there’s not necessarily one “correct” way to classify a Magic deck.
Four Color Loam is a midrange deck that utilizes Mox Diamond for both acceleration and color fixing. This allows it to cast devastating spells ahead of schedule such as Dark Confidant, planeswalkers, and of course–Chalice of the Void. It offsets the card disadvantage of Mox Diamond by using Life from the Loam and a high count of useful utility lands. On top of everything, it can lock creature decks out of the game with the Punishing Fire+Grove of the Burnwillows combo.
Colorless Eldrazi can be built as either an aggressive creature deck, or a powerful ramp deck utilizing Cloudpost and Vesuva. Both versions have the tremendous appeal of getting to cast Chalice of the Void for X=1 very quickly, at very little cost. You can expect their sideboards to feature more Prison cards like Sphere of Resistance and/or Thorn of Amethyst. Force of Will and Abrupt Decay are the two best cards for combating turn 1 Chalice of the Void.
Death and Taxes is a white creature deck that pressures the opponent’s ability to cast spells with Thalia, Guardian of Thraben and Sanctum Prelate, plus Wasteland and Rishadan Port to limit their access to mana. It also plays with Phyrexian Revoker and any of a handful of other Prison-like options including Spirit of the Labyrinth, Containment Priest, Pithing Needle, Armageddon, and Cataclysm. Make sure you have a comfortable amount of mana, and play plenty of cheap removal spells in order to keep yourself from being locked out.
Urza ThopterSword is a blue- and artifact-based deck that uses Ancient Tomb and other fast mana to enable turn 1 Chalice of the Void. It has Karn, the Great Creator with a toolbox of prison cards to fetch off of its sideboard. However, unlike the other prison decks mentioned, by using Urza, Lord High Artificer and Emry, Lurker of the Loch, it also gets to enjoy the benefits of Force of Will and Force of Negation against opposing combo decks.
Dedicated Prison Decks
Legacy Lands Deck List - Reid Duke
Historically, Lands is one of the most successful prison decks in Legacy. Per its name, Lands use a large number and variety of nonbasic lands to control the game. Life from the Loam provides plentiful card advantage while Exploration and Mox Diamond provide explosiveness.
Lands uses a combination of Wasteland, Rishadan Port, and Ghost Quarter to cut the opponent’s resources. (Eventually whittling them down to nothing given enough casts of Life from the Loam). It uses the combination of Maze of Ith, Glacial Chasm, and The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale to neutralize the opponent’s creatures. Older versions used to supplement with Punishing Fire and Grove of the Burnwillows, but newer versions (like the one featured) center around U/G in order to gain access to Oko, Thief or Crowns.
Today, Lands has access to a quick kill with a 20/20 Marit Lage token, but often winning the game is an afterthought, as the opponent will be nearly locked out of making mana and attacking with creatures.
In addition to all of this, you’ll also find a combination of Chalice of the Void and Sphere of Resistance in the sideboard of most Lands decks.
Lands is an extremely potent deck, and is challenging to play against. The best strategies against it are fast, non-interactive combo decks like Storm. Short of that, you can fight fire with fire by turning to your own Prison cards that punish nonbasic lands–think Blood Moon, Armageddon, and the like. Finally, be sure to protect your mana, and chose threats that circumvent their defensive measures, such as True-Name Nemesis and planeswalkers.
While many, many other dedicated Prison decks exist in Legacy, none of them are among the most popular decks in the format. These include (but are not limited to): Red Prison; Enchantress; Pox; Tezzeret; and MUD. While it’s probably not necessary to study each one individually, I will feature one decklist in order to give you a taste of the type of thing you might run into in a Legacy tournament.
Legacy Painter’s Servant Deck List - utley26
Just like the Thespian’s Stage plus Dark Depths combo in Lands, the Painter’s Servant decks feature the instant-win combo of Painter’s Servant plus Grindstone. That said, its most common route to victory isn’t simply racing to the combo, but instead locking the opponent out of the game (either partially or completely) before assembling the combo at their convenience using cards like Goblin Welder, Enlightened Tutor, and Imperial Recruiter.
A turn 1 Blood Moon (or Magus of the Moon in some lists) can score an easy win. Similarly, many decks are not prepared with answers to Ensnaring Bridge, and can be locked out of winning when it sticks on the battlefield. Creatively, when Painter’s Servant names blue, this deck has access to five or more Elemental Blasts that can counteract any ways the opponent might have to get out of the lock. In this way, the Prison deck can tighten its grip on the game by deploying Prison cards like Ensnaring Bridge, Blood Moon, Pithing Needle, and Ethersworn Canonist which can invalidate large categories of cards. Once large portions of the opponent’s deck can be ignored, the remaining answer cards are free to target only the precious few tools that the opponent might have remaining.
Tips for Playing Prison
As a deckbuilder, the idea of Prison decks can be fun and appealing. Your cleverness can be rewarded when you identify patterns in the metagame, and choose cards to exploit those patterns.
My only caution is that, while a well-built Prison deck can be very successful, a poorly built one might hardly function at all. Recall the example from earlier: A turn 1 Chalice of the Void or Trinisphere might delay or lock the opponent out entirely. However, casting one later might not save you from the Delver of Secrets they put onto the battlefield on turn 1.
Similarly, if you misjudge what you’re likely to face, you might show up with Prison cards that are ineffective against what your opponents are doing. An example would be Ensnaring Bridge against a Storm deck, or Thalia, Guardian of Thraben against Elves.
Focus on four ingredients for your Prison decks.
- Speed. Cast your spells quickly for maximum effectiveness and easy wins.
- The ability to find the right card in the right matchup. Crop Rotation in Lands and Enlightened Tutor in Painter’s Servant help these decks to have the perfect Prison card against each opponent they face. Karn, the Great Creator gives you an entire toolbox in one card!
- Flexible answer cards. Inevitably, things will slip through the cracks, and having some cards that can answer anything will help plug the holes.
- Win the game quickly and decisively once you’re ready. Crafty opponents will eventually find ways to wiggle out of your lock. It’s often easier to win the game with a combo (Thespian’s Stage plus Dark Depths) or a hard-hitting creature (Reality Smasher) than it is to prepare for every single possibility you could face over the course of a twenty-turn game.
Tips for Playing Against Prison
It’s very common for Prison decks to attack your mana. In this way they limit the number of cards and combinations you can use to escape their hold. Protect your mana by playing a healthy number of lands, including basic lands in your deck, and mulliganing risky hands.
The more single-minded your gameplan, the more vulnerable you will be to the Prison cards your opponents choose to fight you. If you have a balanced gameplan with a variety of threats and answers, you’ll be harder to shut down.
Choose reactive cards that can answer a wide variety of threats, including noncreatures. Swords to Plowshares and Fatal Push may be the most efficient removal spells in Legacy, but I feel most comfortable when I have access to cards like Abrupt Decay, Council’s Judgment, and Force of Will, because those cards can protect me against much of what these Prison decks are trying to do.
Like it or not, many games of Legacy come down to one player or the other being essentially unable to play the game. Sometimes they can’t cast their spells under a Blood Moon, other times they can’t use their creatures in the face of an Ensnaring Bridge. Be careful not to let it happen to you!