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

25 thoughts on “Rule of Law – Beating Combo in Legacy”

  1. I can relate to the “Design a new deck that beats combo”.

    I’ve been playing the same deck in Legacy since GP Columbus, one i built myself, and i feel favored in pretty much every matchup except Landstill, which is a nightmare.

    I went 6-2-1 on day 1 of columbus, and having built the deck the day before, i was really happy with that result. I crushed reanimator, tendrils, and enchantress on my way to that record, and i’ve never lost to a combo deck, even now, with the new ones emerging. I’ve made a few changes since columbus, and i think i may have soared through to day 2 if i had played the exact list i have now, because a few of the cards were underwhelming, and i also didn’t play Jace TMS :P. the list is: (for anyone who cares :P)

    1 Island

    1 Volcanic Island

    4 Misty Rainforest

    4 Polluted Delta

    3 Wasteland

    1 Bayou

    3 Tropical Island

    4 Underground Sea

    4 Tarmogoyf

    3 Tombstalker

    3 Vendilion Clique

    3 Firespout

    2 Smother

    4 Counterspell

    4 Daze

    4 Force of Will

    2 Pernicious Deed

    4 Brainstorm

    3 Sensei’s Divining Top

    3 Jace, TMS.

    My board actually hasn’t changed since Columbus, and i still probably wouldn’t change any cards in it.

    1 Firespout

    2 Smother

    2 Infest

    2 Thoughtseize

    4 Krosan Grip

    4 Spell Pierce

    I highly recommend everyone to try out this list – It’s by far the best deck i’ve ever built, and i never get tired of smashing some face with it 😛

  2. Grim Tutor is very, very slow and hurts any Ad Nauseams you cast, idk why that homie plays it. Seriously, just splash red for BW and YOU GOOD.

    Elves is a doo-doo deck. I know this from months of experience. Don’t play it.

  3. @ “For various reasons, such as weak matchups against Landstill and Team America, Counterbalance decks have fallen out of favor in Legacy”

    Seriously, how closely do you actually follow the metagame? Sure, Team America is one of the reasons (although definitely not the most important), but Landstill has fallen out of favor a long time ago and nobody plays it nowadays anyway, Counterbalance or not.
    Three main reasons why Counterbalance was relatively bad were: Aether Vial, Green Sun’s Zenith and a general trend of playing cards with higher CMC (3, sometimes even 4) across the whole format.

    PS: Please explain why you didn’t put Gaddock Teeg in your anti-combo list.

  4. Also, if Merfolk is popular, don’t play Dredge. It’s a 50/50 at best preboard for Dredge because of Cursecatcher’s double effectiveness at removing Bridges and countering Breakthrough. Postboard, it’s obviously worse because of Relic.

  5. You mentioned Enchantress Countertop. I’m currently in the process of building Enchantress, and I want to try playing Countertop as well. How would you start building Enchantress Countertop, when your engine is green, your protection is white, and your kill is red? (At least those are the traditional colors; if there’s something better I’m not thinking of I’m all ears)

  6. Heavily disruptive Stifle/Wasteland decks (Team America, Canadian Threshold, etc.) are extremely good metagame choices when combo is around. Not even High Tide is resilient enough to beat through stifles, red blasts and ten to twelve counterspells of a UGR threshold-style deck.

    I blame bad sideboards (dredge is not hard to beat games 2 and 3 w/ four pieces of hate if you know what you are doing) and blue aggro-control decks that think four force of wills is a sufficient disruption package for the latest “rise of combo”.

  7. @Spike: Gaddog Teeg is decent vs. Tendril’s combo, Tide, GSZ and NO but does nothing vs. Show&Tell or Painter. Ethersworn is only good vs Stormcombo / High Tide and maybe Elves. Good question indeed.

    This is the real difficulty in beating combo ATM, there are quite a number of different archetypes which demand different answers to hose them. 15 card sideboards are maybe not enough anymore for a format so diverse. The fact that you need to have 3-4 pieces of GY hate vs. Loam and Dredge isn’t helping.
    And if you pack maindeck hatebears to beat combo, you usually die to aggro quite messily.

  8. @Lyle

    You can use Words of Wind or Wilding, and demolish their board position or overrun them.

  9. lol at raspuns how ’bout a reprint… seriously though most peeps are playing intuition at this time with goblin welder and doing all types of shenanigans w/ artifact lands and LED. see Durwards list. i had been playing counter top thopter foundry, but found it just to slow to set up. recently i have been running TA or TES. think im going to jump on the painted stone band wagon. would like to play time spiral but there is no way in hell that i am paying what scg thinks i should for candelabra. TA has been quite good for me and is a blast to play. One word of advice if KotR and/or \Terravore are in your meta pack smothers or extra go for the throats in your board. you’ll thank me later.

  10. Erayo isn’t good vs storm. I tested Chapin’s Erayo list vs TES and it wasn’t particularly close. Storm can just get an extra chrome mox or lotus petal countered and then go off.

  11. As Jack J pointed out, you don’t want to play Dredge in a Merfolk heavy metagame. I’ve been playing Merfolk in Legacy for a while now and my matchups against Dredge are great. Actually, I also like playing Merfolk against combo, but it’s definitely as strong as Countertop and (if you play mono-blue, like I do) the sideboard tech isn’t as great, especially against High Tide.

  12. thank you for noting the viability of an affinity combo killer, ive been working on such a deck myself for a while in testing, its matchup against elves is a sheer race but it gets crispy after sideboarding when I have acess to perish whitch as everyone can imagine whipes them out however, since elves can kill on turn 2 its tricky to set up plays properly

  13. Spike wrote:
    “Three main reasons why Counterbalance was relatively bad were: Aether Vial, Green Sun’s Zenith and a general trend of playing cards with higher CMC (3, sometimes even 4) across the whole format.

    PS: Please explain why you didn’t put Gaddock Teeg in your anti-combo list.”

    Aether Vial and CMC 3+ were phenomenon at GP Columbus but CounterTop was quite good there. GSZ hurts but it isn’t that big a deal. I don’t think your “3 main reasons” explanation holds much water, especially if it ignores Team America which wasn’t a deck in Columbus but is now.

    I thought I put Teeg on the tier 2 list but guess I forgot. Canonist is better vs the combo decks you’re more likely to face right now. Teeg is too weak vs. Elves and Tide (Stops a card or two but doesn’t stop going off) relative to Canonist. Canonist is weak vs. Show and Tell and Painters but the former is just a bad deck and the latter is weak to normal elements like creature removal so you don’t need a hoser to stop it.

  14. Joarthus, your deck looks interesting and well designed. I especially like sideboarding Spell Pierce, something I did with Natural Order CounterTop last year and liked. Keep working on the deck and improving it. Have you experimented with 2 Counterspell 2 Inquisition of Kozilek instead of 4 counterspell? Is Spell Snare good enough? If you go to 4 Firespout does that let you put 1-2 Spell Pierce main? Just keep tinkering. =]

  15. @Jack J

    Splashing red for BW is a very bad idea — without a splash, Merfolk is a cake walk (you generally run 2-3 U Seas as your non-basic lands, and can just cantrip while they put little pressure on you). That’s not to mention that if you run BW you have to run crap like Rite of Flame, and you can’t have a functional sieboard.

    You’re right — Grim Tutor does suck if you’re trying to cast Ad Nauseum. Play that list — you’ll realize Ad Nauseum is definitely not the win-con in that deck, IGG is, and decks you want Ad Nauseum against you’ll be playing the slow game and just cantripping into an Infernal Tutor.

  16. @Jack J

    Splashing red for burning wish completely changes that deck. As it’s built, it has a very good game vs Merfolk and other wasteland/mana denial decks. Not to mention, running burning wish means you have to run terrible rituals like Rite of Flame.

    And you’re right — Grim tutor does suck if you’re trying to Ad Nauseum. Play that list a few times — in 80% of your matchups you should never be casting Ad Nauseum. The deck is an IGG deck that occasionally casts Ad Nauseum against heavy discard decks (which you’ll generally just win by can-tripping into an infernal tutor an playing the slow game).

  17. Splashing red for Burning Wish doesn’t require you to play Rite of Flame. I’ve been playing a mostly-ANT list with Burning Wish in place of Grim Tutor. The deck changes aren’t too huge; but if you make that change you will want to run an extra Burning Wish MD and have 1 of the Infernal Tutor’s in your sideboard so you can still perform the chain tutors -> tendrils kill.

    Agree with the note above that ANT is frequently an IGG deck, Ad Nauseam isn’t good in some matchups.

    As an ANT player I mostly want to dodge Dreadstill. Fortunately that deck isn’t very good against the field, but it’s a nightmare matchup.

  18. I wanted to just say I agree with most of the decks you’ve assembled but I do not know how you say you can make a budget version of painted stone. You said to save money you can replace Force of Will and Volcanic Islands but what about the $200 Imperial Recruiters? They are basically the best card to grab your Painter Servants with unless you decide to run Enlightened Tutor which may be a very crappy but suitable replacement for those Imperial Recruiters. Your not going to buy a card that only works in pretty much 1 deck when you can buy 4 forces for the same price and run them in just about anything that plays blue in legacy.

    Great article though I think right now the Key to legacy is finding the right sideboard to fit the meta game right now. It would be cool to maybe see some Null Rods for once and possibly Extirpate since it has the ability to remove any combo decks signature piece. High tide doesnt work when you Turn 1 Thoughtsieze/Duress/Inquisition followed next turn by an Extirpate. This may seem like a fairly bad solution but when run also in conjuction with blue spells can be quite devastating.

    Thanks for your time, Rob.

  19. I think 1 priest is plenty. Cutting the Krosan Grips to get to 15 cards is probably advisable for the sb.

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  21. Instead of imperial recruiter, how about fabricate?
    I don’t have a lot of experience in the format or playing with the deck, but I’m really interested in playing it. Does imperial recruiter serve a function besides getting painter’s servant?I’m not trying to just find a budget solution for the recruiters, just trying to understand what else he does that fabricate would not also accomplish. Additionally, fabricate can get grindstone or be pitched to force of will.
    So what am I missing that makes imperial a better fit for the deck over fabricate?

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