Tree of Tales – 5 Lessons of Legacy

Over the years, I have learned alot of lessons about this game, some that have stuck better than others.  Some have been financial in nature, some technical, and others a little more wacky but no less valuable.  Most notably though, I have learned 5 essential lessons about the Legacy format, which I have used time and again to achieve desirable results.  I’d like to share them with you here under the tree, and hope they serve you as well as they’ve served me.

1. Just as in Monopoly, Real Estate matters.  To many people, this is a pretty common saying, but one that is deeper in nature than you might realize.  First and foremost, you will learn upon entering the Legacy format that Lands are going to be the most expensive and essential part of your collection, especially if you intend on playing multiple decks.  Conservatively, you would spend $4,000 to $5,000 acquiring a full player’s set of fetches and dual lands (more if you’re a vanity player… a LOT more).  But wait, that’s not it.  Next we start looking at format staples like Wasteland and it’s ilk.  Karakas, Maze of Ith, Tabernacle of Pendrell Vale…. It can get pretty staggering.  There is a bright side however; almost none of these cards will ever drop in value short of the game ceasing to exist.  Investment wise, they’re solid gold… kind of like Real Estate.  Secondly, controlling land in the Legacy format is probably the most relevant form of play currently in effect, and has been for a very, very long time.  Cards like Wasteland, Stifle, and Sinkhole promote mana denial, which quite literally warps the entire format into making mana curves cap at 3 cmc.  Most people never even consider this aspect of Legacy, until it smacks them in the face and tells them they won’t be casting spells that game.  Remembering that land is more of a resource in the format than in others where mana denial is not as common or prevalent will help you, not only while playing but also during deck building and pre-match strategy.  Knowing whether you have outs to either preventing their mana or keeping them from preventing yours drastically affects your decisions for the rest of the match.

2. This is a game of numbers.  I know that lots of people will disagree with me, but at it’s heart this is a mathematician’s game.  We try to find the right mana curve, we seek to achieve optimal results with our spells, and we try to assure that we will draw the appropriate cards at the optimal times.  Unfortunately, we all know that sometimes that doesn’t quite add up, and sometimes you just don’t get the card you need.  Boy is that frustrating.  However, that doesn’t mean your statistical analysis is incorrect, nor does it mean that you should allow singular results to affect your choices.  Realistically, the larger pool of data you have, the easier it will be to formulate decisions that make logical sense.  Where am I going with this?  First, playtesting.  I see so many players lose a match in tournament, get frustrated, and tilt off into wonderland, thus ruining any success they had prior to that point.  The common vein?  “I should have won that match.”  Why?  Have you played that matchup dozens of times against that particular person?  Probably not, which means there are tons of variables you can’t possibly ascertain.  Even assuming you’ve tested that matchup, it doesn’t mean their deck is the same, nor does it mean they would make the same decisions as the person you tested against.  Things change, and they all affect the outcome.  Don’t think that a small pool of playtesting knowledge will achieve an invincible deck.  Especially in Legacy, audibles rarely work if you haven’t tested with them.  You gotta beat the horse till it’s dead, then ship it off to the dog food factory, then feed it to your dog before you’re even close to being “prepared.”  Secondly, sideboarding.  I see many people attempting to put a million silver bullets into a sideboard, worried about every deck imaginable.  This doesn’t work for the most part, and usually ends up hurting more than it helps.  While some decks truly don’t want to board more than a card or two (RUG and BUG Delver both come to mind) in most cases, most other decks have 3-5 flexible spots based on what they’re playing against.  This means that it can be more effective to dedicate your sideboard to 4-5 specific matchups that you feel could use shoring up, as opposed to trying to answer 12 different decks.

3.  A Brainstorm in the hand is worth Two in the Bush.  Ok, maybe I’m getting a little obtuse with my titles, but the point remains the same.  A lot of decks in Legacy (like, pretty much every single one) rely on Library manipulation in order to accomplish their ends.  The important thing to remember is that there is a critical mass where Library manipulation stops being useful and starts being repetitive.  As my previous point already addressed, mana is a premium resource in Legacy, and investing mana to look for cards runs the danger of not actually interacting with an opponent.  While obviously different decks will need different amounts of manipulation, there is a format you can use to determine an approximate value.  In a combo deck, you are probably looking for 2-4 cards to immediately win the game (sans Storm, which has the restriction of needing to cast 8-10 cards prior to one which wins the game).  This means that you place your combo pieces, put whatever measure of protection you need, then fill the remaining slots with search spells.  These decks generally don’t look to actually interact, which is why they are able to run profuse amounts.  Next you have tempo, which is more restrictive.  Since you know your mana is at a premium (your intention is to maximize your resources in order to “beat” your opponent to the finish line), you allow that in a given game you probably have the ability to cast 2-3 manipulation spells by turn 5 (assuming they cost 1).  I won’t go into the math, but this means that 7-9 spells should probably accomplish your goal.  Other (non-blue) decks generally find options like Sylvan Library, Sensei’s Divining Top, Dark Confidant, or fetchlands to enable them to filter their deck and/or achieve card volume advantage.  The point is, card advantage matters, whether it’s selection or volume, and the more you keep that in mind the more successful you will be.

4.  Power and Aggression are two very different things.  A lot of the time, the same conversation can be heard regarding the “power level” of creatures.  Person A says Tarmogoyf is the best creature of all time, B argues for Stoneforge Mystic, and C still thinks Dark Confidant, while D is making cases for Snapcaster Mage.  The problem with these conversations is that they completely avoid the real problem, which is that power and aggression are two completely different things.  Cards like Stoneforge Mystic and Snapcaster Mage are powerful, not because of their impact as a creature, but rather the alternate effects they produce.  I would personally argue that Stoneforge Mystic is the best of this lot, as it yields immediate effect, regardless of game state (for the most part), where Snapcaster Mage requires both additional mana and cards in graveyard, while Dark Confidant must live a cycle before yielding advantage.  Aggression is a different story, these are creatures that are measured solely on their ability to hurt your opponent.  In reality, Delver of Secrets may be the most aggressive creature ever printed.  In Legacy, it is reliably a 3/2 flyer the turn after it hits, making it 3 power plus evasion for 1 mana.  Nimble Mongoose is another, albeit significantly harder to reliably transform, which is why Tarmogoyf is traditionally thought of as a better aggressive creature.  The point to all this?  When building a deck, you should analyze whether you are trying to be aggressive or powerful, and adjust your creature choices to reflect that decision.

5.  If it ain’t broke, you better fix it.  With the number of incredible spells that this format allows us (Brainstorm, Force of Will, Hymn to Tourach, Mox Diamond, etc.), there is no reason you should be playing “fair” magic.  While degenerative cards do occasionally get the axe, realistically you have a pool of 10,000+ cards that is constantly growing with cards that can’t possibly be tested against all of those cards.  Crazy things will happen (Hive Mind, Omniscience), and you better be ready for them.  Every match you sit down, anything can (and probably will) happen, and if you’re not playing equally unfair, then you may as well go home now.  Fair is for Standard, not for Legacy.  You should either be trying to end the game as fast as humanly possible, or finding fun and creative ways to prevent your opponent from doing so (sometimes a strange mix of the two, thanks Delver).  Focus your efforts, and make sure that whichever way you’re going is busted like a windshield in a car accident.  There is no reason with this many cards you should feel like your deck is anything but incredibly good.

Anyway, those are the rules I have learned over the years.  They have kept me successful in what most consider the most difficult format to play.  I started playing Legacy in the Necropotence era, 98-99.  I had been playing since Arabian Nights hit the scene, but didn’t get serious until Mirage block came out.  Vampiric Tutor, Demonic Consultation, and Necropotence was an insane engine, and you could plug just about anything into it and win in Legacy.  These days, it’s a little more complicated, as the format is significantly more muddled than it was back in the days of yore (either play Necro, or play against it), which leads me to my bonus point.  Sometimes play experience can be more important than play skill.  I have seen, in many cases, a “better” player lose to a “worse” player, because that “worse” player actually did his homework and played that specific matchup prior to that point.  This is so much more prevalent in Legacy than anywhere else, because there are so many different degenerative decks.  Play skill is definitely an important factor no matter what, but having a wealth of play experience can be just as important.   That deck you’ve never played against before might just be getting ready to do something you’ve never seen before that beats you on the spot.

Lastly, enjoy the little things.  I didn’t get out an awful lot this previous year, mostly due to a hectic work schedule combined with some serious complications in my personal life.  This inherently means I didn’t succeed an awful lot, having not actually participated.  Even so, there were several things that I remembered over the course of the year that brightened my spirits regarding my game.  I think the high point of my tournament play was when I took a game one loss in SCG: Phoenix due to a deck registration error (I believe it was round 4) as I had registered my Mountains as Forests.  Wow.  I asked if I was getting DQ’ed, he told me no (after basically forcing me to reveal to my opponent as a result of the deckcheck that I was playing Delver of Secrets), informed me of the game loss, and I proceeded to 2-0 that round.  Well, 2-1, but who’s counting right?  So a critical error on my part in fact turned me onto the tightest gameplay I can remember.  He was playing High Tide, and I was playing UR Delver (which as I recall I thoroughly believed to be the best deck, despite overwhelming evidence that RUG was better at the time).  Turns out that was a bad match-up for him, even with me giving away games like raffle tickets.  Have a good one, and I hope to see you again under the tree.