Rule of Law – Beating Combo in Legacy

I am of the opinion that Legacy right now is one of the best formats in Magic: The Gathering’s history. There are a ton of cool and competitive decks, and much room to innovate and succeed. There are bullets for every strategy, and yet Rock-Paper-Scissors isn’t really the dynamic of the format at all, especially after sideboards are taken into account.

This terrific format has different metagames in different regions, and the decks are constantly evolving. One recent trend across many weeks and many locations is the rise of Combo.

Combo decks have been doing really well, but they aren’t threatening the health of the format in my opinion. You just have to be ready. You don’t have to “join ‘em” and play combo, there’s always “beat ‘em.” Today I’ll show you how.

The best way to approach the problem, in my opinion, is to consider why combo is winning right now. What are the opponent’s doing to allow combo to win? What about the combo decks is powerful? Once we understand the problem, we’ll be able to search for answers.

Why has Combo been good recently?

The decks are inherently powerful

In eternal formats, there are so many cards available that many powerful combos will be available. As Legacy is getting played more and more, the weaker combos are getting less popular as better combos emerge or gain in popularity. As an example, there was a time when a 20 man Legacy tournament was more likely to contain 2 Belcher decks than a single Tendrils of Agony deck. There is no good reason for that other than the fact that the good Tendrils lists hadn’t shown up, done well, and been tuned to be even better.

Here’s a typical Tendrils list from a recent event:
Tendrils by James Lance


That list is explosive like Belcher (a little less so obviously), but it is more resilient, can beat Force of Will, and can play a Bob plan post sideboard. There’s no reason to Belcher.

An even more recent arrival is High Tide.

High Tide by Jesse Hatfield

Now we’re even slower, but even more resilient. This trend is no accident. If you’re an “all in” combo deck it’s too easy to pick up losses to Merfolk, Landstill, etc. When you’ve got your own Force of Will, or your own Duress, you can actually beat the other guys’ Force of Will.

So what we’re seeing is that decks like Belcher and Aluren have better alternatives. If you want to kill turns 1-2, play Tendrils. Go slower but play Force of Will, go with High Tide.

Other important combo decks right now include Dredge, Painted Stone, and Elves. Going into SCG LA’s legacy tournament, I had narrowed my options down to two decks, Elves and Painted Stone (with counter-top). I chose Elves, and if I had remembered to put Quirion Ranger in my deck it would have been a great choice.

Here’s what I would play in Legacy today.

My current list for Painted Counter-Top is as follows:

As a budget deck, Volcanic Islands can be Steam Vents (with 1 Volcanic to fetch and a couple Steam Vents, you hardly will notice the difference) and Forces of Will can be an additional Misdirection or two, a Daze, and some extra Red Elemental Blasts. In either form, this deck does a good job of capitalizing on the strength of Counter-Top and the strength of the Painted Stone Combo. It goes beyond just resiliency or “defending the combo” to try and gain a trump card against the other combo decks, which typically fold to Counterbalance + Top.

This leads to the next discussion of why Combo is good right now.

The decline of Counter-Top

For various reasons, such as weak matchups against Landstill and Team America, [card]Counterbalance[/card] decks have fallen out of favor in Legacy. Well, if Legacy was an ecosystem, Counterbalance is like a predator that keeps a population of rabbits or deer in check. If that predator becomes scarce, you’ll see an explosion in the prey population.

Elves is a good deck, I mean a really good deck. Trust me, it’s better than you think it is and only very slightly worse than Matt Nass thinks it is. The fact that people aren’t all using 4x Green Sun’s Zenith is crazy. I look at people’s decklists and then look at mine and it’s like watching people swordfight holding a musket. Eventually everyone will figure out that G tutor up a Dryad Arbor or 1G get any piece of combo or 7G get Regal Force is just insane. Oh and by the way, you can Green Sun’s Zenith for 3, get around Counterbalance, and find the Viridian Zealot.

Even with the Zenith+Zealot plan, Counterbalance is still awesome against Elves. Now they have to find and resolve a Zenith, and then go off before you find another Counterbalance. No easy task.

Tendrils has similar problems. Again, they’ve got a few cards to break it up (Duress/Thoughtseize), but having played the matchup with various Counterbalance decks, its favorable for the blue deck. Tendrils already walks a kind of fine line in terms of being resilient enough to beat Force of Will decks. When they have to avoid UU, Enchantment, Game Over AND fight through counters, it tips the scales in blue’s favor.

So what about the new kid in school, High Tide? I think Counterbalance is one of the best ways to fight them. Can they Cunning Wish for Wipe Away and get out of it? Sure, they can. But all you have to do is find or Brainstorm a 3 drop to the top of your deck along with a 1 drop and the game is literally over. If you have Daze and Force or Counterspell and Force, then you’ve got more counters than they do, so just like Tendrils there’s more than just the Counterbalance to fight through.

In all these matchups, if you add a Combo to your Counterbalance deck in the form of Painters Stone, you’ve got another way to beat combo, just kill them.

Fighting Back, How to Beat Combo

Bring Back Counter-Top or play Merfolk

No surprises here, since as I just discussed, Counterbalance is very strong against the combo decks. Finding the best list vs the other decks in the field is no small task. It’s a work in progress for me and many others, and Painter Countertop is just one attempt. There are so many directions to take it that the “right” build is likely to change metagame to metagame.
In addition to Painters Stone, my notebook has pages scribbled with all kinds of Counterbalance decks. Stasis Counterbalance (which morphed into Back to Basics/Draw Go Countertop), Enchantress Countertop, Faeries Countertop, Shackles/Threads Tempo CounterTop. These are of course in addition to traditional lists like the one I started 11-0 with at GP Columbus last year (before choking and punting my way out of top 8) or UW Enlightened Countertop.

GP Columbus CounterTop by Matt Sperling

The fact that you only need to play 4 Counterbalance and 4 Top (which is just a solid card regardless) to be playing the “CounterTop” archetype means that you can be creative with how you build the deck, and I think you can be rewarded for doing so.

Merfolk is just another natural foil to the combo decks. Less innovation space is available here, but when the timing is right, Merfolk is a great deck.

Design a New Deck That Beats Combo

For the truly bold among you, there is room in this format to experiment and beat even very powerful linear combo decks. Imagine playing a WUB control deck with Dark Confidant, Meddling Mage, Ethersworn Canonist, Aether Vial, Standstill, and counters. How can we make that deck beat creature decks? It’s a challenge, but maybe we could, using our sideboard and a few other maindeck choices.

Anti-Combo Affinity is something I think we’ll see eventually, and I think there is actually more than one way to do it. Canonist and Chalice are available, but there are also plenty of blue cards you can play these days in affinity, perhaps enough to run Force of Will. Erayo is another option.

Don’t Play Slow, Non-Interactive Decks

This recommendation is somewhat annoying, since I mentioned earlier how healthy the format is. Why can’t I play Zoo in a healthy format? Well, to me, a healthy format doesn’t mean every single archetype or gameplan is viable. It just means a high number of different decks are viable, innovation is very possible, and the format doesn’t feel stale or repetitive.

It just isn’t smart to show up with Wild Nacatl or Lava Spike or Goblin Lackey right now. Sure, you can beat Merfolk and a few other decks, but at this point in time the trophy goes through the Combo decks. To win the event you will likely have to interact with your opponent or kill them quickly. Unlike Standard during “Combo Winter” there are actually ways to interact with combo effectively, and these varied interactions make the format healthy.

Have a Real Sideboard

One very important way to interact is to play the right sideboard cards. The name of the game these days is finding the cards that are good against all the combo decks, and then choosing from among those the most devastating.

I think the top tier of anti-combo cards looks something like this:


That’s pretty much it. If the card isn’t on that list, it probably isn’t as good against the top combo decks as a card that is on the list.

It is important to note that Affinity could easily maindeck one of these tier 1 hate cards (or the similar Erayo), making their deck a powerful interactive aggro deck.

Other cards (in the second tier) suffer from some deficiency like being too slow or too narrow or not powerful enough:

Brain Freeze (surprisingly effective and underused AGAINST combo decks, especially when you yourself are combo and can use it proactively or defensively)
Mystic Remora
Meddling Mage (closest to tier 1 but still slightly awkward against Tendrils and Elves which have multiple lines and now Zenith to get what you named)
Spellshock/Pyrostatic Pillar
Rule of Law/Arcane Laboratory
Orim’s Chant
Leyline of Sanctity
Hymn to Tourach

You might play a few tier 2 hate cards in addition to tier 1, or perhaps fit some of them into the maindeck since they are less narrow and might be good in several matchups.

Dredge hate is a horse of a different color, which is one of the strengths of Dredge. Dredge requires specific hate AND it doesn’t care about counterspells that much, so that’s why it’s still decent even though it’s slower and less interactive than the other combo decks. As I’ve said before, with Dredge you sometimes have to gamble and board zero cards when you can’t afford to play 4-6 cards dedicated. Certain hate cards like Meddling Mage actually work against dredge, so look for those in addition to Leylines if Dredge is popular in your area.

Join ‘Em

“I’m swimming in the money, come and find me, Nemo” –Drake.

The last option is just picking up some Candelabras or Glimpses and goldfishing till Nemo floats to the top of the bowl (I realize he’s a clown fish. Quick aside: one of the cutest things I’ve ever seen was at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach. This little girl (maybe 6 years old) walked up to a tank that contained only clown fish, and hundreds of them, pointed into the tank, and moved her finger around as she identified the fish, “NEMO, NEMO, NEMO, NEMO, NEMO, NEMO, NEMO, NEMO”).

Having a good sideboard is still important, as is playing the right deck for your metagame. Where players love control decks, you need to be resilient with something like High Tide or Elves or Painters Stone. Where everyone is “doing their own thing” with combo and beatdown decks, go faster with Tendrils. Finally, if Merfolk and CounterTop are popular, play Dredge.

-Matt Sperling
mtg_law_etc on Twitter


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