Eternal Warrior #44: You Can’t Ban the Snowman

This is a pretty sad time for the Legacy format, and honestly it’s starting to hit me just how boring things have gotten in the past several months. This is an article series that is, more or less, about playing a bunch of different Legacy decks. Although I’ve dabbled with Delvers during the height of True-Name Nemesis, I have generally shied away from the top tier decks — if you are interested in grinding a top tier deck and learning all the lines of play, there are already plenty of places to do that. This column is generally about putting my tickets down on some goofy green-black deck with maindeck Choke and a Titania, Protector of Argoth, and seeing how it performs. And I know we all enjoyed laughing it up at Tymaret, the Murder King, the High King of Homicide, and his stupid, stupid name. It’s those sort of oddball cards and strategies that fuel our continued curiosity about the game. As eternal players, non-rotating formats have always been in danger of growing stale. And I fear that is starting to happen with Legacy, and that a shake-up is in order.

With StarCity Games drastically reducing the amount of premiere Legacy events on their calendar this year, the format has had a relative dearth of high-profile showcases in 2015. So far the “highlight” of the year, if you can stomach to call it that, was the dreadful GP Kyoto last month. The event hit the 2000 player cap, and was a success from that standpoint. But the picture of the format we got from that event was of a format much diminished from its heyday.

Four or five years ago, if you sat down to play a large paper Legacy event, you could expect to see a diverse assortment of decks across all strategies and colors, sporting quirky names of unknown origin, and occasionally somebody would kill you with a Sea Drake. Yes, the turn-of-the-decade metagame did have an absurd obsession with splashing Tarmogoyf into everything. But in a way, that was just part of the format’s particular brand of crazy.

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Lewis and Clark, Farley and Spade, Goyf and the Fish King: History’s Greatest Duos.

By now we’ve all grown accustomed to the format narrowing quite a bit during the SCG Open era. But considering where the format has come from, it is a bit disheartening to see a Legacy GP where EVERY SINGLE DECK in the Top 8 contained four of these:


The Top 8 consisted of 2 Miracles, 2 Omni-Tell, 1 ANT, 2 Delver variants and a Jeskai (UWR) Stoneblade deck. Yes, that’s 32 out of a possible 32 Brainstorms in the Top 8. Writing at StarCity Games front page, Legacy enthusiast Carsten Kotter ascribed this to the Japanese player base being slavishly blue-centric in their deck choices. But the situation isn’t much better in North America, where 75% or better of the Top 8 in most paper events routinely packs a set of Brainstorms.

The online metagame isn’t much better. In a recent MTGO Daily Event on May 10th, out of 13 decks that finished 3-1 or better, 11 of the 13 packed a full set of Brainstorm. The only outliers were a pair of glass cannon combo decks.

I think the time has come to give Brainstorm the axe. Every time this is suggested, a bunch of the old-time players will claim that restricting Brainstorm led to a decline in Vintage popularity and suggest that banning it in Legacy would do the same. The Vintage connection has always seemed like a pure coincidence to me; the paper format always had a short half-life thanks to genuine card scarcity, and the decline was inevitable. Are we really to believe that Legacy would lose players en masse if Brainstorm weren’t around any more? Have you been to any paper Legacy tournaments at the local level? These people aren’t there to cast Brainstorms, they’re there to do powerful things with the entire card pool at their disposal, relive the glory of old decks, and cast obnoxious spells that once caused their friends to throw yogurt cups at them across the high school lunch table. And of course, they can continue to do that in local game stores across the country. But why is Legacy on MTGO and the $5K circuit to be reserved for people who want to cast one blue spell in particular, to the detriment of format variety?

Now, I’m not on an anti-blue crusade here. I play plenty of blue spells, and respect the role that Force of Will plays as a check against combo run amok. One of the locals at my store continuously rages about Force of Will, despite the fact that he plays white-based decks against which most blue decks would board out Force. Force is a net good for the format, but I don’t think it’s clear that Brainstorm is a necessary appendage. Blue could soldier on with Ponder and Preordain smoothing their draws and pitching to Force. Without the instant-speed ability to hide cards with a Brainstorm, perhaps black discard would gain back some power and even the playing field a bit. You think Brainstorm is skill-testing? Cabal Therapy is just as difficult. Banning Brainstorm would not dumb down the format, just change the types of intricate decisions you have to make.

While Legacy sits stagnant and out of the spotlight in 2015, Modern continues to get high profile support. And though the pros may grouse about playing it on the Pro Tour, and complain about it devolving into a game of sideboard roulette, you can’t deny that Modern looks way more diverse and intriguing than Legacy does this year. The Treasure Cruise era imposed homogeneity on both formats, but when Cruise got the axe it was Modern that split in several different directions. Legacy simply returned to being a format of five or six different Brainstorm decks, plus Elves and D&T. Modern very explicitly uses bannings to periodically alter the format. That policy isn’t universally beloved, and it hurts players who like to master and tune a single dominant deck, but honestly I think pissing off the Birthing Pod players is a small price to pay to mix up the format. The resulting landscape is more appealing for having these occasional seismic shifts.

I’m not saying that I like Modern better than Legacy. Modern has a number of glaring flaws which I’ve discussed in this column before. But while Legacy is taking a back seat, Modern is getting Modern Masters 2015, launched by a reprise of the record-setting GP Vegas. And in the wake of that release, a Modern Grand Prix in Charlotte is coming in June, organized by StarCity Games, which could easily break 2000 players. Legacy is fading, and while most of that isn’t the format’s fault, it isn’t doing much to keep interest levels up where it can.

Legacy can still have a place in the game, but it needs to market itself better. Diversity is the strength of Legacy. You have the entire card pool, the most powerful spells, limitless combinations to work with, and all anybody does is draw cards in chunks of three as if that’s the most thrilling thing you can do in a game of Magic.

I’ve been forced to conclude that banning Brainstorm is the only thing that will shake the format up enough to keep it interesting moving forward. Printing a good card in another color is just an invitation to players to combine the card with Brainstorm in their blue decks. The developers would have to go so far as to add “you can’t cast this spell if you control any islands” to some powerful future printing, and even then I can’t say for sure that blue players wouldn’t just switch to Gemstone Mines. There is just nothing short of a banning that would diversify the field and return Legacy to the vibrant, attractive format it once was.

In the meantime, I would like to highlight interesting non-blue decks that have fought the good fight and gotten decent results.

Death and Taxes was not always a mono-white deck, and in fact originated as an Orzhov deck. So I found this attempt to integrate red into the archetype intriguing:

Hatebears decks have the problem of not drawing the right bears for the right situation. Imperial Recruiter helps alleviate this by searching out the Phyrexian Revokers, acts as tutorable removal by searching up Fiend Hunter, and post-board can grab either Ethersworn Canonist, Containment Priest or Leonin Relic-Warder. Recruiter is an expensive tutor for Legacy, and other decks with Recruiter such as Painted Stone will use Sol lands to help offset the cost. Here we have Recruiter pairing quite nicely with AEther Vial, much as Goblin Matron has for the past decade.

Maindeck Magus of the Moon is a strong incentive for the red splash as well. Although it does interfere with some of D&T’s lands, most of those lands are part of the mana-denial plan anyhow. I suspect Magus whiffs against too many of the popular combo decks right now — you don’t want your Karakas to become a Mountain only to see Emrakul Sneak Attack you — but it’s clearly a total beating against the 3- and 4-color tempo and midrange decks.

David just missed Top 8 on breakers, but two Junk (Abzan) decks did make it in. They got crushed by Miracles, of course. Still, it’s a solid peformance, so let’s take a look at Peter Cottell’s list which made it to the semi-finals:

This deck has an awful lot of singletons for a list without any tutoring or card selection — maybe he should splash blue for Brainstorm? I kid, I kid. But usually we see Green Sun’s Zenith as the way these green-based midrange decks find their answers. There is an Enlightened Tutor package in the board, but I wonder if there should maybe be a second copy of the Tutor. I’ve played Tutor packages with only one before, it basically acts as a second copy of the sideboarded card you want. Typically there is one enchantment or artifact you want in particular, so the “toolbox” nomenclature is misleading.

I like the singleton Chrome Mox as a concession to the need for early interaction. My own recent Junk deck ran 3 Mox Diamond, but it was a Knight of the Reliquary deck. It’s hard to determine the right number of Moxes to run, whichever you choose, because they are best on Turn 1 but are horrible late draws. There’s no easy answer besides putting in the work of goldfishing dozens of hands to see what your deck can handle.

That’s all for this week, folks! I’ll be back in a couple weeks time with some videos. Feel free to share your thoughts about the health of the format in the comments, I’m really curious whether the majority of the players are tired of Brainstorm or just wanna keep on casting it.

  1. I say ban it if it’ll help format diversity. I don’t play Legacy that much on MtGO but I can honestly say that the last 7 opponents I played Legacy against all were using Brainstorm. The funny thing is that I decided to take advantage of this. I’ve been killing people with, believe it or not, Underworld Dreams and Fate Unraveler. I’ve even gone so far as to break out the highly splashable Arcane Denial and Vision Skeins and it’s hilarious how effective this stupid deck is. People have insulted me during the game about playing “bad cards” only to be killed by a Barbed Shocker or Cerebral Vortex out of nowhere. The deck clocks in at about 5 tickets minus the lands so it’s very affordable. It might not take down a major tournament but it’s a fun way to beat on somebody who spent a fortune on their blue deck.

  2. Having a heavier thoughtsieze format is not exactly better than a heavy brainstorm format. Why do we need to add variance to all formats? You get screwed and flooded less in legacy less than any format due to brainstorm. You can argue legacy is stagnant but so are all eternal formats and more importantly than that, getting to actually play magic (not screwed/flooded) far outweighs color diversity.

  3. To the anonymous reply above:

    I think it was proven that even in a format as small as *Standard* both Ponder and Preordain were sufficient to allow the consistent operation of 19-land aggro-control decks, even when only one of those cards was legal at a time. Those cantrips are banned in Modern, and yet land-light U/R/x tempo decks have functioned there as well on the backs of such mediocre cantrips as Sleight of Hand and Serum Visions. There’s nothing wrong with having decks like that in the format, but decks constructed along the TurboXerox principles have such heavy virtual card advantage over other decks – while maintaining a strong matchup against combo – that it skews the metagame too far towards those decks. Other cantrips would continue to support that style of deck, but I do believe that eliminating Brainstorm would weaken the incentives just enough to allow other decks to compete more evenly. In other words, go ahead and have your spells that smooth your draws, but have them at sorcery speed (or at 2 mana) so there’s some kind of real cost to making that choice in deck construction.

    There was a small segment of the Standard player base that loved playing Caw Blade mirrors, and there is a portion of the Legacy player base that loves playing Delver mirrors now, but I don’t believe that’s the best way to market Legacy and maintain interest in the format moving forward.


    I think we’ve seen a proliferation of people maindecking anti-draw measures as a response to horde of Brainstorms everywhere. It’s driven the price of Chains of Mephistopheles through the roof in the paper game. Underworld Dreams likely has the problem of being tough to resolve against decks that play Daze and Spell Pierce, but I certainly like seeing old classics get some love. I actually played Underworld Dreams in a Jund list as sideboard tech a couple years ago:

    And I considered it in this mono-black Zombie list I played last year, and though it didn’t make the cut it in the version I played on these videos, it probably would have been at home there:

  4. RexDart, I don’t think you understand brainstorm. You make it seem as if tempo decks are a huge problem in legacy because of brainstorm, yet, tempo decks are generally the worst brainstorm decks. Delver decks are very linear and do not get the true reward of playing brainstorm. Combo decks and control decks need very specific cards. Unless of course you are calling all blue decks that skimp on lands and kill with creatures tempo decks (e.g. grixis pyromancer, jeskai stoneblade). Banning brainstorm makes tarmogoyf/thoughtsieze style decks better along with other linear beat down decks. If you want that, just play modern.

  5. So…is this article title a Young Jeezy reference?! 1000 gold stars to you, sir! lol

  6. I do agree that Brainstorm is better in decks with a lot of singletons or situational answers, which isn’t most Delver decks. And while I might be a little loose calling ALL blue aggro-control decks “tempo” decks, that’s a pretty common label for them, and anything with Daze in it is certainly planning on gaining early tempo and riding it to victory. There are people who play Delver decks like they were control decks (how Stephen Menendian describes his style in Vintage with Delver, for example). But I think the idea of skimping on lands is very important to Delver, as it has been since TurboXerox and that generation of deck design, because of the virtual card advantage you get, so even if the more linear delver decks don’t benefit as much from the card-selection of Brainstorm, they certainly do benefit from being able to design their deck with access to Brainstorm in mind.

    And yeah, Eli, it’s a Young Jeezy reference :-) All of my article titles since about #8 have been references to album titles, although some have been more perfect fits than others.