The State of Legacy: Picking Apart Survival

Currently, there are a few writers calling for the banning of Survival of the Fittest, and there is an eleven-page thread on The Source dedicated to the subject. By now, people have realized that the deck is resistant to half-assed attempts to stop it. This article will help players learn to use their full ass by investigating the theoretical weaknesses of the Vengevine decks, using some sweet blue decks as examples. Then, I ask some of Legacy’s greatest minds (and some other guys) a few questions regarding the state of legacy and the current banned list.

Yes, Survival is posting a 65% win percentage against the field. Personally, I’m excited about a new challenge. This is how Magic works. I (or better, Saito and his crew) broke the Columbus metagame. Now the meta has shifted, and it’s time to break it again. If just beating Survival is all you’re interested in, there are a few decks that boast a 50% or better win percentage against it, including tempo blue decks and Ad Nauseam. I could dump out some lists from my gauntlet with sideboarding guides, but that would be the used car salesman equivalent of putting sawdust in your transmission. It might seem convenient now, but such shortcuts actively hurt you, the reader, in the long run.

The best way to metagame is to find a way to fundamentally ignore the goodness of whatever deck you’re attacking. In Kamigawa Block Constructed the metagame began as a field of Umezawa’s Jitte.dec, to the point where maindeck Manriki Gusaris didn’t seem completely insane. Later, the real heavyweights in the format were the Myojin and Gifts Ungiven decks. By not running small creatures, and thus not caring about the Jitte wars, these heavy mana monstrosities turned the format’s most notorious equipment into a clunky legend that clogged up hands. Lesson being, don’t run narrow cards to beat a specific strategy. Build decks that are strong theoretically, and the rest will fall into place.
Turning that bit of strategery to UG Madness, the options that keep Vengevines in check in Standard should work for Legacy as well. Yes, there are more of the hasty elementals, due to Survival, but Legacy has handled Survival for quite some time. It is the combination of tempo-y 4/3 hasters and the inevitability of their recursion that has people frustrated. In theory, there are a few tried and true ways to make 4/3s irrelevant.

1- Playing 5/5s: In Standard, my favorite way of handling Vengevines is through a turn or two of Sarkhan activation, pooping out a Baneslayer Angel, or slamming down a Primeval Titan. In Legacy, there are two creatures that fulfill the “giant things” quota in such a way to make Vengevines look terrible. Emrakul, assuming you can land it, and Tombstalker. I designed the stock UG Madness list with Emrakul decks in mind, and there were indeed plenty of them in Columbus. While the current crop of Emrakul decks (Sneak Attack, Doomsday, Mosswort Bridge) have inevitability, they are weak to fast tempo starts. If an early Survival + disruption is too much to handle, the deck needs work. I think the correct UG maindeck contains three Daze and three Spell Pierce, making Emrakul enablers difficult to resolve in time.

That said, longtime Team America advocate David Gleicher recently Top Eighted the Nashville 5k, which makes me think that Tombstalkers are right for this metagame. Gleicher is one of the deck’s most competent pilots, and after testing with him I know he can definitely take down a UG player with ease, especially off a turn one Thoughtseize. However, his deck is weak to Swords to Plowshares, which is a mainstay of the GW variant of Survival. Also, he tells me that the Merfolk matchup is terrifying, though he managed to take apart his share of Folk players on his way to the top eight.


Gleicher retools the board before every tournament. Before Nashville, I kept suggesting plans that involved cutting the Goyfs for awesome cards, like Pithing Needle+Perish, to which he replied: “Do you even know what my deck does?”

I guess not.

Still, the deck runs eight fatties that put un-exalted Vengevines to shame, as well as the tools to keep Survival off the board.

2- Ignoring creatures: In Standard, I piloted Patrick Chapin’s UR Pyromancer deck to a tenth place finish at Nashville, going 7-1-1, with a 2-1 record against Vengevine decks. In half the games, an early tempo start from the Vengevine player forced me to interact, which was fine. The other half of the time, Ascension’s strategy allowed me to ignore my opponent’s game plan entirely. In Legacy, a competent Ad Nauseum player goes at least 50% against UG while destroying other Survival variants. Non-combo decks might not be able to smoothly ignore Survival in the maindeck, but this strategy is a valid sideboard option, as we see in Dustin Buckingham’s take on Stiflenought, which he piloted to a ninth place finish in Nashville:

This list shores up both the Folk and Survival matchups postboard by bringing in the Peacekeepers. Peacekeeper is better here than in most places since he has the CB lock to protect it from Swords to Plowshares. If his opponent doesn’t scoop to the Peacekeeper, the Stiflenaught player can play draw-go until he reaches his Jace, which ends the game neatly. The sideboard in general is fantastic, as it answers the tempo that many Legacy decks rely on.

Note that Peacekeeper isn’t a very good option for green decks, like GW, Zoo, or countertop, because UG lists will bring in Submerge and/or Mind Harness. So much for inevitability.

3- Exile the Vengevines: Path to Exile, Journey to Nowhere, and Bant Charm have all worked pretty well against Vengevines in standard. While Exitrpate and Faerie Macabre are fine at removing Vengevines from the yard, I think spot removal is better against the field right now. Note that effects like Swords to Plowshares don’t answer the Survival engine itself, but in a deck that does a good job keeping Survival off the table they’re necessary to clean up the Vengevines.

If you noticed a similarity between this deck and Meandeck Counterbalance, then you play too much Legacy. Meandeck’s build was one of my gauntlet lists for Columbus as one of the many stress tests for the first drafts of UG Survival. Once I had tweaked the matchup up to fifty percent, still worse than any other stock CB list, I was satisfied. If I went to a 5k today, my ideal list would be within a few cards of this updated version, perhaps switching the position of the Predators and the Cliques.

The format is being dominated by Aether Vial and Survival of the Fittest right now, so playing a deck that can reasonably maindeck Pithing Needle, as well as handle both Lord of Atlantis and Vengevine, constitutes a shrewd metagame call. Note that Needle is still good against Survival decks if they don’t draw Survival. In testing, I hit Umezawa’s Jitte with it fairly often, and have occasionally needled Basking Rootwalla, though this is clearly not ideal. Also, GW Survival builds are filled with targets to the point where the third Needle out of the board feels necessary. I know planeswalkers have been popular in recent CB lists, but the way Legacy games play out, I want to have the game locked up by turn three or four. This means that cards like Jace and Elspeth, while powerful, are too slow for what I want to be doing.

Some notes on playing the deck: Test it! Unless you’re Nassif, you shouldn’t pick up CB cold. Run it into GW and UG Survival until you’re winning 50% of your games. Test different sideboard configurations. Be patient. Learning when to hold Needle and when to run it out, as well as what to dig for when, and even topping and brainstorming correctly are all skills that take time to develop. You’ll lose some games to the odd Survival or Qasali Pridemage that slips through the cracks, but don’t let that bother you. In general, CB decks reward tight play, and you should get a warm, fuzzy feeling as you start winning with them.

Ideally, we could take out green entirely for black, as black is simply a better color right now. Thoughtseize, Tombstalker, Engineered Plague, and Perish are all fantastic cards. It’s too bad that Tombstalker has absolutely no synergy with Counterbalance.

One of the reasons I chose to show my tweaked CB list instead of a deck that beats up on Survival normally (like Ad Naus) is because I wanted to show that most viable decks can be tweaked to go 50% or better against Survival and still stay strong against the field. A few notable exceptions are goblins and maybe zoo. If you want to play a red deck, go all out with it. Mono red, or burn with a splash, is great against Merfolk and has decent game against Survival too.

Before I get a large outcry in the forums telling me that I’m underestimating my own deck, or GW Survival, note that most players feel the same way I do. To demonstrate this, I polled a mixture of pros, ringers, and randoms whose opinions I value. Some are legacy legends, some only play the format at Grand Prix and Pro Tours. Some are big names, others almost unheard of. Hopefully this diversity will lend some credibility to my conclusions. Rather than ask them about Survival directly (how boring!), I decided to be more open:

1. What deck do you like in Legacy?

2. What do you think of Legacy’s current banned list?


1. CB Top, though I haven’t played with the new cards

2. The list is fine. I don’t like that top makes the games go long, but if you ban top then combo will dominate.

Matt Sperling:

1. Goblins

2. The banned list is good. I like it.

Owen Turtenwald:

1. Affinity with 4 Mox Opal.

2. Mystical Tutor almost certainly didn’t need to be banned but it doesn’t seem to have changed much. The list is fine for now.

Brian Kowal:

1. The Junk list I day two’d Columbus with that put Brad in the top eight.

2. I’m fine with Legacy’s banned list. Sometimes I wonder if Lion’s Eye Diamond or Sensei’s Divining Top should be legal to play.

Michael Pozsgay:

1. I have played 10 different decks at major events and have liked Enchantress the most, but that is the beauty of legacy. You can play whatever and do well with it. Merfolk is the best deck.

2. The banned list is pretty bad. Earthcraft, Hermit Druid, Land Tax, Memory Jar, Skullclamp(?), Windfall, Wheel of Fortune, and Worldgorger Dragon are all cards that could be unbanned, as none of them break vintage. Even Timetwister might be fine. Are any of these banned cards better than Ad Nauseum or Brainstorm?
[Aside: While I’m known as the UG madness guy, I have played quite a bit of storm combo, and the thought of Wheel of Fortune or Timetwister being unbanned in the same format as LED is scary. Windfall might be fine, due to how much worse it gets on the draw and how it doesn’t win the game off the top like the others do, but even that is sketchy. End aside.]

Alex Bertoncini:

1. I like Merfolk and Survival decks, as they have the best overall game and the best matchups.

2. I think the current banned list is good, but they have room to ban cards like Survival and unban cards like Earthcraft.

Timothy Landale:

1. I like Goblins quite a bit. It’s probably not the best deck, but it’s usually in the top three.

2. I think the banned list is pretty good. The format is really healthy which is the goal of the banned list, so it has done its job.

Jason Ford:

1. UB Storm, as it’s only dead to CB decks. On that note, you’re probably most likely finding me playing a CB deck, as that’s the kind of Magic I’d like to be playing.

2. The banned list seems fine. People are playing and winning with a variety of decks – though whether or not that should actually be happening (as in, people are just playing what they want to and are ignorant of “best” decks) is a different matter. Survival seems to be up there right now, but that’s probably just a matter of it being heavily played, as I’m pretty sure those decks aren’t actually that good. [I agree, to some extent.]

Craig Wescoe

1. Counter-top with Firespouts and Goyfs.

2. I think there should be more communication between players and the DCI concerning cards that the DCI is thinking about banning or unbanning. For instance, when an announcement is made each period, the DCI should also include cards that are being watched and cards that are being tested to see if they can be safely unbanned. They used to do this sort of thing a lot but for some reason have stopped doing it.

Drew Levin (durrrrrr on the CFB forums)

1. The best deck in legacy is Vengevine Survival (I prefer Rion Marmulstein’s version with Ooze/Devourer & Natural order in the sideboard) (congrats, Caleb, way to unleash the monster.) Given that it is, at core, not doing Unfair Things (you know, actually stone killing people on turn two a la ANT, locking people out of the game on turn 2 a la Reanimator, etc.), it will find something that it can’t beat. It plays a number of quick threats that aren’t all answerable on the same axis of interaction — you can Leyline the deck, but it can just beat you with 4/3s; you can Meddling Mage Rootwalla and get Oozed; you can Suppression Field and get Krosan Gripped, etc.

The reason Hypergenesis is good is because it does truly unfair things — turn 2 Emrakul, turn 3 Progenitus + Sphinx, whatever you can come up with. Pretty much whenever you resolve Show and Tell or Hypergenesis, your story starts sounding a little unbelievable. Even if you’re just making one guy, it’s generally going to get there. Removal in Legacy is at an all-time low, and the removal that’s played doesn’t touch Progenitus or Emrakul. Presenting a Rock deck (that’s basically what Vengevine Survival is — it plays 4 mana green creatures and minimal disruption, which is what I call ‘playing fair’) with an unfair situation is a fairly reliable way of beating it, provided that their disruption package isn’t built to beat that threat. In this case, VVS doesn’t play hand disruption (and, incidentally, makes hand disruption really bad, since Hymning someone for a Vengevine and a Rootwalla is fairly vomit-inducing), so if Hypergenesis can assemble Cascade card + Force/Misdirection, it’s a huge favorite to win.

2. I think the DCI’s management of the banned list is incredibly well thought out, albeit a little conservative in terms of unbanning cards. The format is healthy, many decks are viable, and the metagame shifts without having something that is overly powerful. When such a deck arises (Flash, Reanimator, ANT to a lesser extent), they ban the correct card and move on. In the current discussion of the banned list, I think that Vengevine Survival is a good deck, but no more worthy of banning than any other “pillar” card — Counterbalance, Lion’s Eye Diamond, and so on. I think there are cards that could come off of it (Land Tax comes to mind), but the format is remarkably healthy given its impressive scope and depth.

Chris Mascioli: I’m not good enough to play legacy, 🙁

Ari Lax:

1. I am a proponent of UB Storm in Legacy, but the next best option is probably Merfolk or Vengevine (the former gets better based on poor technical skill of your opponent, the latter on poor deck building).

2. If the format is going to exist as a narrowed, heavily played format like Extended or Standard then the current list is fine, but LED should be closely watched. If the format is supposed to be a semi-casual one for local events, several cards should be banned to help clear out the obviously over powered cards (my list of these cards actually hasn’t changed since when I proposed it). [And here it is]

David Gleicher:

1. I always play Team America because it is the most fun deck I’ve ever played and fits my playstyle. But I think there are lots of decks that are legit as long as you know your matchups and have a plan. I really like the new GW beats list (with Survival, but not really a Survival deck) that won the Nashville 5K.

2. The legacy banned list is too large. The following cards should definitely be unbanned: Earthcraft and Land Tax. They should also take a long hard look at unbanning Hermit Druid. Mystical never should have been banned, but they just did it so they should probably keep it there for a while.

Cody Lingelbach:

1. RB Goblins. The deck is very explosive.

2. I think Gush has way to much potential to be off the list. Top should be on the list, because if Wizards banned it in old ext for time issues there is no reason not to in legacy. They might as well be consistent.

[The way the Lands.dec plays out, this line of reasoning should also apply to Life from the Loam. While I would enjoy the shorter rounds, I would also miss playing with the cards.]


1. Anything but dedicated control, as control can’t realistically lock up the game until it untaps with [card]Pernicious Deed[/card] on turn four, a turn too slow for Legacy.

2. Please unban things.

As you can see, the overall verdict on the banned list is “fine,” with only Bertoncini entertaining the idea of banning Survival. Most players would rather see cards unbanned. The decks that people like in the format are as varied as ever, ranging from Enchantress to Show and Tell to Countertop. Compare that to the degenerate standard formats in which these same players might all cite the same answer: Ravager, Faeries, Jund, and so on. While a new deck might be doing well, legacy is as healthy as ever.

With that, good luck metagaming.

-Caleb Durward

This article was written with copious amounts of caffeine and the Cee Lo Green… Is the Soul Machine album substituted for sleep.


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