Why is a card like Null Rod primarily played in aggro decks? It limits your opponent’s options, shuts off a part of his deck; on the surface that sounds like you’re taking the control role, right? Well, no. Merely disrupting your opponent’s game plan doesn’t actually win the game. Your opponent will eventually draw into a backup win condition or a card that removes your Null Rod. In order to translate that disruption into victory, you need to need to be proactive. The quicker you pile on the damage, or assemble your own combo, the fewer draw steps they get to find an answer. In Legacy, Stony Silence can be a great plan against your Affinity opponent if you are expecting to win a few turns from now. If you’re expecting to win ten turns from now, don’t count on it.
This is the allure of so-called “hatebears”. Typically costing 2 mana to deploy and often possessing 2/2 bodies, they disrupt the opponent while still providing power on the board to give you the win sooner. Your opponent will have something in his deck to remove it, but he will need to spend time, cards, and mana to do so. That gives you a window for victory, but you need a deck that is capable of seizing that opportunity.
Spirit of the Labyrinth is one of the more unique hate bears ever printed. It doesn’t necessarily shut down a combo opponent’s game plan entirely, but it tangentially attacks everything he does to set up his plan, and it protects your other more devastating hatebears by limiting the opponent’s ability to dig for an answer. With its above-par 3 power, it presents an even faster clock than usual, giving the opponent even less time to draw an out.
There are basically two sorts of combo decks in Legacy. The first is something like Sneak and Show or Reanimator. These decks need to assemble one card from Column A (powerful creature) and one card from Column B (card that cheats it into play) to execute their plan. Traditional two-card combos like Cephalid Illusionist + Nomads en-Kor also fall into this group. They usually rely on cantrips and library manipulation to find both pieces of the combo. Sometimes those decks will have the “god hand” with both pieces of their combo, but much of the time they need to draw into one of the pieces, or find the mana to cast them, and Spirit of the Labyrinth excels at slowing them down. Spirit isn’t just attacking them obliquely, either. If by some good fortune their win condition involves Griselbrand or Enter the Infinite, Spirit is attacking their plan much more directly.
The other type of combo deck relies on reaching a critical mass of spells and mana to execute one big turn and win the game on the spot. Storm combo and Elves would be examples of this type. Without the ability to draw more than one card per turn, those decks just don’t have enough resources to fuel their big turn. Elves is left with the hope of casting Natural Order for Progenitus or following a beatdown plan that is much weaker to spot removal. Storm combo may have some specific hands that would win through it, but it’s not quite as simple as having one card from Column A and one from Column B, and much more of their deck is given over to cantrips that are dead cards facing down a Spirit.
Most of the early chatter about Spirit of the Labyrinth involved slotting it into Death and Taxes. D&T is, in its current incarnation, a white-weenie deck with a heavy concentration of mana denial and hatebears. The problem with any given hatebear in D&T is that the deck just isn’t very fast. It relies on reaching a critical mass of permanent-based disruption that so thoroughly paralyzes the opponent, he can’t do anything but watch as you chip his life away with a Serra Avenger.
My first thought, however, was to add Spirit to Zoo. Zoo has the best cheap creatures in Legacy for raw power alone, and can end the game out of nowhere with a flurry of burn spells. If any deck can take advantage of the window of opportunity lent to it by Spirit of the Labyrinth, Zoo would be it. When you play Zoo, every point of damage is huge, and Spirit’s third point of power matters a lot in that context.
Unlike Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, Spirit of the Labyrinth leaves Zoo’s own spells nearly untouched. Only Sylvan Library is affected, and it was typically a singleton in Zoo and easily moved to the sideboard.
Unfortunately, there’s a problem: True-Name Nemesis. That guy is a brick wall for opposing ground-pounders. Many decks have adapted to deal with it, but the Naya color combination of Zoo has the fewest tools of any shard to handle it. Splashing black is an option that has been discussed elsewhere, but I prefer to stay in Naya colors. Zoo wins by being fast and consistent, and I don’t want to add any stumbling blocks to the mana. At a minimum, you would have to remove the two basic lands for black duals. Against creature-based Wasteland decks, being able to fetch up a basic mountain to cast and activate Grim Lavamancer has saved my bacon more than once. Limiting ourselves to Naya colors takes away some of the best answers, but there are a few interesting options. Let’s start with some possible sideboard cards.
- Everlasting Torment. Protection functions as a damage-prevention ability, which this enchantment turns off. Although this card won’t let you block a True-Name Nemesis, it will ensure TNN dies were it to block one of your creatures. It also has the upside of turning off lifegain from things like Batterskull or Umezawa’s Jitte. Unfortunately, having all damage dealt in -1/-1 counters is going to work against Zoo in most common scenarios. Zoo’s creatures generally outclass the opposition in power/toughness. With Everlasting Torment on the field, you can no longer swing Kird Ape into Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, for example. A 4/5 Tarmogoyf attacking into a Batterskull’s Germ token is substantially worse as well. As a sideboard option, Everlasting Torment has a lot going for it, but it has a definite drawback.
- Holy Light. This hits True-Name Nemesis along with Baleful Strix, two cards you hate to face down with an aggro deck. It also kills popular creatures such as Dark Confidant and Vendilion Clique that appear in numerous archetypes. The only creature commonly played by Zoo itself that would die to Holy Light is Grim Lavamancer. Unfortunately, it does nothing against Death and Taxes, a deck filled to the brim with x/1 creatures. The popularity of Death and Taxes allows this kind of effect to have application in more than one matchup, but Holy Light strikes out against it.
- Bedlam, Magistrate’s Veto. These are probably a bit too narrow, and for that amount of mana you can find other cards that give you more strategic options, as we’ll discuss below. Still, I’ve certainly played games where one of these would have won the match, and as even Legacy games become more and more about creature combat, maybe there will come a time when this type of global Falter effect is useful outside of limited.
Overall, I’m not impressed by the sideboard options, though I think Everlasting Torment at least has some merit. Rather than narrow sideboard cards, let’s take a look at different strategic options.
The first would be to overload on additional burn spells. The idea would be that you can throw a few guys into your opponent’s forces to push some damage through, and though you’ll lose one or more creatures doing this, you keep them on the back foot long enough to finish with more powerful burn spells. You can likely keep your opponent from untapping with Stoneforge Mystic thanks to your many burn spells acting as removal, so you shouldn’t have to worry too much about Batterskull hitting the table. This strategy attempts to ignore TNN by more aggressively going for the dome. But a TNN equipped with Jitte would be a potential nightmare for this strategy. You would want to pack some artifact destruction in the sideboard — Smash to Smithereens is an option I like a lot in burn-heavy builds.
A second option would be to build a “Big Zoo” style of deck with larger creatures that survive an attack into TNN. In addition to Tarmogoyf, Knight of the Reliquary, Loxodon Smiter and Thrun, the Last Troll look like solid options. Scavenging Ooze can probably grow big enough to suffice as well. However, I tend to avoid “Big Zoo” decks, because they have very little hope of ever racing combo. I don’t think the trade-off is worth it.
The final idea, and the one I’ll be highlighting in today’s videos, is to use evasion to push damage over, around or through TNN. I first considered flying. There aren’t any flying creatures in Naya colors that have particularly impressive stats for their cost. Death and Taxes has gone back to running Serra Avenger, but I believe that’s too slow for Zoo. Elspeth, Knight-Errant could do the trick, sending any of our creatures sailing over TNN’s head. It isn’t ideal, however, because TNN is great at fighting planeswalkers. And many of the blue stoneblade decks pack sets of Daze and a few copies of Spell Pierce, making it questionable whether you can resolve the 4-mana planeswalker.
The solution I settled upon was trample. Trample is not a very common ability in Legacy today. In fact, the ability has been rarely played in the history of the format. Phyrexian Negator was once common, but you weren’t attacking that into opposing creatures unless it was for the win. The most popular trample creature in Legacy for many years was Terravore. The interaction between trample and protection occurs very rarely in Legacy, and I’ve seen players at paper tournaments block Terravore with Mother of Runes, tapping Mom for protection from green, only to smack themselves moments later when they realize what they just did. Although Deathrite Shaman has made Terravore nearly unplayable at the moment, there is another option we can turn to: Ghor-Clan Rampager.
Rampager has proven itself worthy in Standard and Modern aggro decks, but it isn’t a card you expect to see in Legacy. I think it’s about time we remedied that.
Rampager Zoo by RexDart
Rampager helps you push big damage through to your opponent’s face, and its pump-spell mode is uncounterable — though it can be Stifle‘d. It does require being a bit careful not to be blown out by spot removal. UWR Delver in particular is running full sets of the best 1-mana removal spells in the game, so you’ll have to be patient and pick the right moment to go for it. Or you can always just cast it as a creature — it matches up pretty well against any non-green creature the other fair decks are likely to play against you.
This list has a healthy allotment of big burn spells for reach. With Rampager in the mix, Boros Charm‘s rarely-used double-strike mode could actually be relevant, but it’s mostly there as a 4-damage burn spell that might occasionally save the team from a Supreme Verdict, Pernicious Deed, or Engineered Explosives.
Mindbreak Trap and Gaddock Teeg make up my usual anti-combo package, but with the rise of Sneak and Show, I decided it was time to add a couple Red Elemental Blast into the mix. With Spirit in the maindeck, I moved the Sylvan Library into the sideboard — I still want it against black-based attrition decks. I would typically play Krosan Grip rather than the more narrow Smash to Smithereens, but I like the 3 damage in this aggressive variant, and there aren’t as many problem enchantments running around as there once were. There are some, to be sure, but I doubt I’m ever going to hold up three mana to kill Omniscience in a timely fashion.
I’ve included four match replays from the 2-man queues. Overall, I was happy with this deck, and with Ghor-Clan Rampager in particular. The card performed better than I had even hoped it would, and I believe it has firmly claimed a spot. Spirit of the Labyrinth didn’t get a chance to do too much in this set of videos, but I still believe it is the perfect choice to shore up Zoo’s weaknesses.