There’s a recurring conversation that’s been cycling through the Legacy community this year. At it’s core, it starts with a general sentiment along the lines of “Legacy would be a healthier format without Force of Negation.” I find this assertion interesting and wanted to dive into the the dynamics of eternal formats and how deck construction has changed the relative impact of Force effects throughout the years.
Historically, Force of Will has been seen as a necessary evil, to act as a stop gap for some of the more degenerate play patterns that the format can enable. Shells such as Show & Tell, Storm and Belcher require some sort of policing effect, otherwise they’d take over the format. This view on the card has not changed as the years have passed.
This is a stark contrast to the usage of the card in fair matchups. In Legacy of yesteryear, players have utilized the heuristic that Force of Will should be boarded out in any sort of fair resource based matchup. The reason this ideology became so prevalent was the relative power level of threats. Cards such as Stoneforge Mystic, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Tarmogoyf and Delver of Secrets are all effects that don’t necessarily need to be answered on the stack because their on-board presence can be mitigated via some interactive spell within a few turns without having an irreparable effect on the game. Jace stands out as an exception as it had the potential to make an immediate impact on the game state but it often needed around three activations to really take over a game. This paradigm meant that it was not only acceptable, but players were encouraged to present post-board configurations of their decks that leaned in on having as many one-for-one answers as possible with opposing threats. With the card being critical in some matchups and a liability in others, the effect has generally been seen as inoffensive regardless of some of the play patterns it promotes.
However, that dynamic has shifted in the recent years. As threats have become more powerful they’ve had a greater immediate impact on the game as soon as they hit the table. While a card like Jace can be answered cleanly by a card like Lightning Bolt, other cards like Oko, Thief of Crowns and Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath cannot, thus creating a more immediate sense of the game ending. With this sort of “Show and Tell” dynamic creeping into the fair decks it becomes increasingly important to have on the stack interaction.
However, there’s a built in downside to Force, right? Well, yes and no. While trading two cards for one is at face value a clear example of opportunity cost, the card advantage engines of today are head and shoulders better than those of yesteryear. Lingering Souls, Shardless Agent and Dark Confidant all seem weak and unwieldy when compared to Uro, Oko and Dreadhorde Arcanist. Historically, engines would recoup cards slowly or at random, while also not necessarily producing a impressive board state. In comparison, recent effects create a more sustainable and repeated advantage while, in Dreadhorde Arcanist’s case, giving the player a choice of card selection to further press an advantage.
Interestingly enough, Sylvan Library stands out as a card that’s transcended the eras, but even then with the increase in main deck playable life gain effects, it’s much more powerful now than it was in 2012.
Another aspect to consider is how deck building philosophy has evolved throughout the years
When I think back to the often romanticized 2012 period of Legacy, I often find myself asking, “what RUG Delver deck actually a good deck or was it ahead in the arms race because every other deck was built horribly?” It’s pretty jarring to look back at that period of Legacy and see how decks were constructed. The fair blue decks in the format didn’t play Ponder which is wild to think about these days. Folks were just working off “de strengf of de Brainstorm” without any supplementary effects to reduce variance. No consistency, just vibes. You have to wonder, was the eight cantrip Delver shell where your strongest card was Tarmogoyf actually good or was the rest of the field built using Cold War-levels of technology so random that Stifles and Wastelands completely shut people down since they were completely reliant on top-decking resources as opposed to having cheap effects to increase consistency?
Honestly, looking at old deck lists has me feeling nostalgic. When paper magic starts existing again, I’m going to walk around with two copies of stock 2012 Canadian Thresh just to jam mirrors with random people.
But I digress, as you compare 2012-13 fair blue decks to more recent iterations or spiritual successors you’ll notice a general trend. Early on, players utilized a critical mass of interactive spells so that their average draw step was more impactful, then eventually deck construction shifted towards the philosophy of playing the minimum number of interactive spells but having a critical mass of cantrips so you can find the effect you need when it’s going to be the most impactful.
Proactive discard-centric midrange decks such as Shardless BUG slowly metamorphosed into shells such as Czech Pile which eventually lead to the more recent Snowko decks.
Legacy Shardless BUG (7/28/13) by MIchael Braverman
Legacy Four Color Control (5/20/2018) by Brian Braun-Duin
Legacy Sultai Control (10/10/2020) by Samu_27
Stoneblade shells evolved from UW to Esper to eventually the spell-dense Esper Deathblade and finally, lower to the ground variants of UWx Stoneblade that exist now.
Legacy Stoneblade (12/16/2012) by Joe Knizacky
Legacy Esper Deathblade (2/23/2014) by Lee Prost
Legacy Stoneblade (10/3/2020) by Bonezzz
Miracles also followed a similar progression, as it moved from the power-driven Legends builds to the eventual velocity-based Predict and Accumulated Knowledge builds of the shell. It’s interesting to think about how the progression of technology in this deck shell often becomes a matter of playing cards that have been in print for years but were simply underutilized.
Legacy UW Miracles (12/9/2012) by Joe Lossett
Legacy Miracles (12/24/16) by AnziD
Legacy Miracles (3/23/2019) by Minhajul Hoq
The implementation of cantrip heavy deckbuilding, which from here on out I’ll refer to its colloquial name “Xerox” (a reference to Alan Comers “Turbo Xerox” deck), created a control shell that, due to its high density of cantrips, was afforded the ability to lower its land count. If you note in the above deck lists, there’s a common trend of land counts dropping from 22/23 to 19/20 even though common logic would dictate that these resource-driven shells would want more robust mana bases.
I find the increase in Xerox deckbuilding increased due to some of the long term effects it’s had on eternal formats. For one, until the printing of Oko, Chalice of the Void shells were a potent counter to the one drop heavy blue shells. However, an additional impact to decks decreasing the number of “action” spells in lieu of increasing consistency is that there is an increased importance placed on protecting your action spells. With this “protect the queen” style gameplay becoming more and more prevalent, the in game importance of Force effects increase.
How does the addition of Force of Negation affect the combo shells in the format? Well, that’s a bit more of a complex issue. In recent months, we’ve seen an increase in shells such as Doomsday, Omnishow and BGx Depths, all of which operate in some way that allows them to punish decks that place too much emphasis on Force effects as their primary method of impedance.
Doomsday utilizes counter magic, discard and Cavern of Souls as a way to ensure its combo happens. Omnishow has begun utilizing effects such as Veil of Summer and Teferi, Time Raveler. Depths utilizes a combo that can completely supersede the stack as a relevant point of interaction. The major losers in this dynamic are some of the Storm variants as well as Reanimator shells. While Doomsday, Omnishow and Depths are good at forcing their opponents into a position where only a singular axis of interaction is relevant, the issue that many Storm and Reanimator shells have is that there are often multiple axes of attack that are relevant. So even if the pilot of these shells is able to invalidate Force effects, they’re still weak to graveyard hate and other forms of interaction. While all of these shells are able to counteract their requisite non-Force hate effects, it comes at a much higher cost for Storm and Reanimator. Storm variants require a critical mass of spells so each effect they need to play in order to answer the opponent’s board comes at a decent opportunity cost. Doomsday and similar decks have a lower opportunity cost when addressing hate due to the more narrow array of points of interaction.
With all of that said, is the presence of both Force of Will as well as Force of Negation a detriment to Legacy? As I see it there are two ways of looking at this issue. Through the traditionalist lens, the presence of Force of Negation is creating an environment where decks that represent Legacy’s history and nostalgia are being pushed out the format, thus making it impossible for people to play their favorite decks in the new era. A more modernist approach would look at this situation and point out that formats will evolve over time and a deck’s lifespan is finite. Personally, as someone whose favorite decks no longer exist, I skew towards the latter opinion. One of my favorite aspects of Legacy is the fact that, albeit at a slow pace, it does evolve over time, meaning that while there is a sense of consistency, there’s enough changes to keep things from feeling stale. From a more empirical standpoint, the increase in Forces seems like a symptom of more underlying “issues” than the forces being the problem themselves.