Crafting the Perfect Blade: Bant Deathblade in Legacy
A Brief History of Stoneforge Mystic
Putting the Blade in Deathblade
For a long time, Stoneforge Mystic has been my favorite card. I really got into Legacy on the back of Stoneblade, which was a deck predicated on backing up the power of Stoneforge Mystic with blue counter magic, cantrips, white removal, and occasionally a 3rd color to add some utility. Much of my early success in the format was because of Stoneforge Mystic. It’s a powerful source of card and board advantage, which, through a versatile selection of equipment, can solve a wide variety of issues. In addition, being able to deploy a 4/4 lifelink creature with Batterskull, as well as keep the board stable with Umezawa’s Jitte, meant that the Stoneblade decks were well-positioned against the Delver-based decks. Being able to back up this plan with disruptive spells, like Force of Will, Counterspell, and Thoughtseize, as well as play a meaningful amount of basic lands, meant that Stoneblade was the ideal aggro-control deck at the time, being able to adapt to the opponent’s game plan relatively easily while applying pressure.
Putting the Death in Deathblade
The printing of cards like Deathrite Shaman and True-Name Nemesis helped fuel this gameplan, but changed the fundamental nature of the deck into a midrange strategy. This variant of the deck sacrificed disruptive spells for cards that impacted the board. The Stoneforge Mystic decks that adapted Deathrite Shaman, which were named Deathblade, now played to the board much more and gained a more powerful, proactive game plan. This helped position the deck against the fairer decks in the format, but it sacrificed some potential against combo decks because it lost some of the spell-based interaction.
As of a few years ago, these Stoneforge-based decks were among the best and most popular in the format, but this wasn’t necessarily because they were dominant against any particular deck. At best, these decks were slightly favored against the average Legacy deck, but, at the same time, they weren’t poorly positioned against most of the decks in the metagame, either. This made them strong choices for people to play in a long Legacy tournament because skilled pilots could leverage their playskill and would have a good chance of playing a real game of Magic every round.
However, along the way, Stoneforge Mystic’s impact on the average game of Legacy was decreased, and the decks that played it were usurped by Miracles. Neither Stoneblade or Deathblade were invalid choices, but based on metagame shifts, new cards being printed, and the dominance of Miracles, Stoneforge-based decks became a suboptimal deck choice. The Stoneforge Mystic engine wasn’t strong enough to disrupt the wide range of decks that would be seen in a Legacy tournament, or apply a meaningful amount of pressure. Traditional combo matchups, like Storm, didn’t improve for the deck, as these combo decks have game plans that could ignore Stoneforge Mystic. In addition, Lands grew in popularity, and Stoneforge Mystic wasn’t able to apply enough pressure to have an impact on the game. While Deathrite and True-Name are well-positioned in the matchup, maxing out on those made it difficult to manage the Miracles matchup. At the same time, Delver decks moved away from the traditional Nimble Mongoose + Stifle game plan, and adapted some Deathblade technology with Deathrite and True-Name, as well as Young Pyromancer + Cabal Therapy, which proved to be difficult at the time for the deck.
Finally, most Stoneforge-based decks had more difficult matchups against Miracles, as well. Deathblade both played too many creatures that were answered by Terminus and didn’t apply enough pressure quickly enough to get under the Miracles deck before they could stabilize. Stoneblade had a more robust game plan against Miracles, but the Stoneforge engine was simply less impactful than Counter/Top was. Simply put, the problem with the Stoneforge-based decks was it’s namesake. Various elements of the deck were still good, like Deathrite in conjunction with True-Name Nemesis, or Counterspell in conjunction with Jace, the Mind Sculptor, but Stoneforge Mystic wasn’t able to pull it’s weight in the metagame in most cases.
The Banning of Sensei’s Divining Top
Luckily for lovers of Stoneforge Mystic, the banning of Sensei’s Divining Top was a boon to the card. While Miracles does still exist, and, somehow, is still good, it is much less of a consistent Terminus deck. As one would expect, this makes playing creatures much more appealing. Basing one’s strategy on aggressively deploying powerful creatures, like Deathblade sought to do, is now less of a liability than it was. In addition, the printing of Leovold was a huge boost for the power of Deathblade, which often played more than 3 colors in order to support Deathrite Shaman’s ability to eat creatures, and occasionally play green sideboard cards. Leovold provided the deck a powerful 3-drop that was both proactive and effective at disrupting various combo decks’ potential to cantrip into the pieces they need. In addition, it makes mana denial plans much worse because each Wasteland and Rishadan Port used draws a card for Deathblade, which helps against decks like Lands and Death and Taxes.
Leovold did exist in Legacy for some time before Top was banned, so Deathblade had access to it for a while, but the overrepresentation of Miracles still made it difficult for the deck to flourish. As I mentioned earlier, simply casting creatures on turns 1, 2, and 3 is a risky gambit in the face of Terminus. However, Reid Duke was able to set the groundwork for Leovold with a Sultai deck that focused on deploying powerful 3-drops on turn 2 as frequently as possible:
The fundamental concept behind the deck is quite strong. Simply play the 8 best mana dorks and the 6 best 3-drops in order to maximize the amount of games in which they are played on turn 2. Playing with 8 mana dorks allows the deck to keep up with the speed of Legacy and not fall behind on board or on tempo in the early stages in the game. This deck suffered some of the same problems that Deathblade did, being a creature-based midrange strategy. However, in cutting down on the creature-base, and adding in some non-creature based card advantage cards, like Sylvan Library and Jace, this problem was mitigated to some degree.
The Sultai shell was a strong choice at the time of his victory because it allowed the deck to have a relatively stable mana-base and play Abrupt Decay as the primary removal spell, which was necessary to combat Miracles at the time. However, one thing this deck is missing is an impactful 2-drop. Tarmogoyf is a strong beater and Baleful Strix helps clog up the board, but neither are incredible in conjunction with the deck’s gameplan. In some amount of games, the turn 1 mana dork might be removed, or occasionally, not drawn in one’s opening hand. In these games the deck is simply too slow out of the gate to keep up with most Legacy decks. This is where Stoneforge Mystic can close the gap:
This has been a popular variant of Deathblade since the banning of Top, and it has a lot of nice things going for it. Being able to play a mana dork on turn 1 enables a lot of powerful, tempo-generating plays, especially when backed up with Daze. Not only is playing a 3-drop a turn ahead of schedule a strong, proactive play, but being able to play a removal spell or a Wasteland, in addition to a Stoneforge Mystic on turn 2 is excellent. Stoneforge Mystic has natural synergy with every creature in the deck, because having more creatures allows players to equip more often. In addition, this deck gets to play most of the strongest creatures in Legacy, so pairing them with Stoneforge can be overwhelming. Fundamentally, this game plan isn’t much different than what Deathblade has always done. However, increasing the density of the enablers and threats means that it happens more consistently. Adding in the mana dorks allows the deck to trim on lands, as well, as this deck only runs 20.
Bad Case of the Spins
Weirdly, it might be possible that the presence of Miracles in the past metagame might have been the only major point holding the deck back. Playing a lot of mana dorks is no longer such a huge liability because they are less likely to be cleaned up with a Terminus. This means that Deathblade gets to be a bit faster than other variants of Stoneblade. This allows it to pull ahead of the Delver decks more often, while having draws that can play through opposing Stifles because of the density of dorks. In addition, increasing the speed of the deck allows it to be more proactive against decks that are a bit more powerful. Being more likely to play a turn 2 True-Name Nemesis is strong against Lands, while turn 2 Leovold is quite disruptive against just about every blue deck. Deathblade has always had this option available to it, but increasing the mana dork count makes the deck more consistently able to do it.
Another factor benefiting the archetype is the inclusion of Daze, which is much more valid, again, because of the weakening of Miracles. Due to the facts that games against Miracles went long, and they had a large number of basics and time to set up against a deck like Deathblade, Daze never flourished as an option to backup the deck’s game plan. However, Daze is an excellent card at generating tempo in Legacy, and it gives the deck the ability to play more than 1 spell every turn more often. While many of the points I made regarding the reduced impact of Stoneforge Mystic in Legacy still apply (e.g., not a potent card against Lands or Storm), being able to construct the rest of the deck in this manner helps mitigate those problems in a significant way.
This deck has some issues, though. Despite the addition of Daze, and the presence of Leovold and Vendilion Clique, the game 1 matchup against most combo decks leaves a lot to be desired. Daze does not disrupt Storm particularly well, and Force of Will is not nearly enough to stop the deck. Stoneforge Mystic is not an impactful card in the matchup at all, and True-Name Nemesis doesn’t apply enough pressure to their life total. The matchup against all of the combo decks does improve post board, where Stoneforge Mystic can be sided out for more disruptive hatebears. Elves is also a tricky matchup, as they can often be too fast to disrupt, and also play a strong midrange game against Deathblade. Umezawa’s Jitte is excellent, of course, but often it can be too slow, even with 8 mana dorks.
No Ponder seems a bit fishy
Due to space being tight in the deck list, this deck can’t really afford to play Ponder. To me, this is a huge downside. While the mana dorks allow this deck to play 3 drops on turn 2 more consistently, the loss of Ponder means the deck is more susceptible to drawing the wrong cards and not having the right answer or threat at the correct time. Mana dork flooding is also quite common, which is mitigated by the presence of equipment, but it can make the deck feel underwhelming at times.
Another serious issue with the deck is it’s manabase. Not only is Blood Moon going to end the game most of the time it comes down, being on the draw makes the deck more susceptible to Stifle and Wasteland. I mentioned that the deck is able to ignore Stifle more often, but that is mostly only true if a mana dork resolves and sticks around, which isn’t guaranteed. If the turn 1 mana dork is removed, this deck’s manabase can be pulled in too many directions sometimes, and a Wasteland or 2 can really damage it’s ability to play spells. Despite being a Bant deck at it’s core, this deck does play a fair amount of Black spells, so being able to cast all of its spells on time can be difficult without a mana dork.
Despite this, I think a major reason to play this deck is its positioning against the current most popular deck, Grixis Delver. While Deathblade is not incredibly favored (Stoneforge decks never are), I think it has an edge in the matchup, which means a lot in this metagame. I mentioned earlier that Young Pyromancer + Cabal Therapy is difficult for Stoneforge-based decks, but it is a bit different in this case. Having a diverse creature base allows this deck to play through Cabal Therapy by deploying impactful creatures to the board. If a Cabal Therapy resolves, the Deathblade player can often use Stoneforge Mystic to start attacking, in conjunction with Exalted or the damage from Deathrite Shaman. Furthermore, most of the creatures in the deck prevent Elemental tokens from attacking, and an equipment that has found it’s way into play can be devastating to the Delver player. Even if the first equipment is stripped away with a Cabal Therapy, keeping the Stoneforge in play means that a second Stoneforge can allow a 2nd equipment to be cheated in.
Deathblade also tends to be the best True-Name Nemesis deck in the format because of its interaction with equipment. This, in conjunction with the main deck Sword of Fire and Ice, means that a resolved True-Name can be easier to manage. Stifle and Wasteland have much less impact against this variant, and thus Daze is less impactful against Deathblade, too. However, as I mentioned, this is mostly true when a mana dork is played early on. The most problematic card is definitely Delvers of Secrets. It can be difficult to deal with when spot removal is nowhere to be found, so I recommend being conservative with removal spells and saving them for Delvers more often than not.
I also think that this deck is well-positioned against the various Grixis-based control decks that exist now. As they are built now, they tend to skimp on answers to a resolved True-Name Nemesis, and both Leovold and Stoneforge Mystic demand answers and 2 for 1 the opponent. In addition, pulling ahead on mana is excellent in the matchup, so the mana dorks help a lot on that front. Kolaghan’s Command is a serious issue, killing most of the equipment that Stoneforge Mystic can get (and, killing Batterskull most of the time), but being a 3-mana spell, Daze can help mitigate its impact. One benefit to skimping on cantrips is that Leovold is less impactful against Deathblade, but it can still be difficult to deal with if left unchecked.
Not exactly Sensei's Top but just good enough
On the other end of the control deck spectrum, I think the new Miracles deck is a more difficult matchup for Deathblade. This is mostly for the same reasons it was difficult before. Terminus is great at cleaning up the creatures Deathblade plays, and the deck naturally plays around Daze very well. Furthermore, Counter/Top wasn’t at its best against Deathblade, so losing half of the engine isn’t as much of a detriment. However, Leovold is much more impactful than it was before due to the fact that the deck is so dependent on cantrips and can’t use Top to set up Miracles anymore. Stoneforge Mystic is also much better because Terminus isn’t always going to come down and clean up the board early in the game. Plus, having the Sword of fire and Ice in the main deck helps turn every creature in the deck into a meaningful threat that can’t be bounced with Jace. Having more Jaces in the Deathblade deck would certainly help the matchup because it’s such a powerful card in the matchup. As it stands, I think Miracles has the edge, but it’s not by a huge margin.
While Deathblade has a relatively poor game 1 matchup against combo, the sideboard games are much better for the deck. This has always been the case for Deathblade, as it gets to take out its removal and slower threats for more meaningful creatures and disruption, and it is no different here. Meddling Mage, Containment Priest, and Ethersworn Canonist all greatly disrupt a large range of combo decks, in addition to the main deck Leovold and Vendilion Cliques. Stoneforge Mystic is not very good in these matchups, so siding out the whole package has merit against decks like Storm and Show and Tell.
I think the way the deck is constructed now, Lands might be a relatively even matchup. The verdict is still out on that one, but Leovold, True-Name, and Deathrite are all very good in the matchup, and having Swords to Plowshares means that there’s an answer to a fast Marit Lage. Wasteland and Punishing Fire are still very good, though, and I don’t have the reps right now to make a solid judgment, but I would love to hear any opinions on the topic.
Some readers might recall that a few weeks ago I wrote an article describing the reasons that I thought midrange decks are sub-optimal, but here, I write about a deck that is nothing if not midrange. I still think that midrange decks are not the best choice, primarily because the best Delver deck in the format is a faux-midrange deck. However, I write this article for two reasons. The first is that I do think this deck has a strong game plan against Grixis Delver, and I don’t think that should be ignored. Grixis Delver is likely the best deck in the format at the moment, and it is definitely the most popular, so having an edge in the matchup is a big deal.
The second reason is that I really love playing Stoneforge Mystic decks. I want decks like this to break into the tier 1 again because I want to play with Stoneforge. I don’t exclusively play tier 1 decks, but if i’m going to play in a tournament, I like to give myself the best chance of winning and, as such, I tend to play the best fair deck in the format. However, I really enjoyed testing this deck and think it has a lot of merit. I think it has more flaws in deck construction than most Delver decks, but I think it’s a solid choice if you are looking for a deck that has a strong game plan against Delver. I’m going to keep testing this deck as time goes on and see how well it fares against a wider range of decks. As I continue to test it, and have more matchup data and opinions on the deck, I will try to analyze specific matchups more in depth and see if there are any more issues that can be solved with the deck. I will also try to give a better idea as to how the postboard games play out against most decks, and what options exist for sideboarding.
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