Legacy goes Top-Less

Rich Cali
April 27, 2017


This is a new era in legacy. Bans in legacy are infrequent, and often a response to a single card, represented in different archetypes, being over-represented in the metagame. Treasure Cruise and Mental Misstep are examples of this kind of ban. Much more rare is the ban of a major piece of a single archetype with the intention of dismantling the deck itself. Survival of the Fittest was the last instance of this, and that was in 2011. Using this as context, the Sensei’s Divining Top ban was unlikely. Wizards of the Coast has established a precedent of allowing legacy to exist  safe from the banhammer, for the most part, assuming it will self-regulate. This is a good thing for the format because legacy players have a tendency to adapt well to new technology and seemingly overpowered decks. This is why Show and Tell and True-Name Nemesis are not only still legal, despite calls for bans, but also are not dominant in the metagame. This self-regulation never happened for Miracles.

The Truth of the Matter

Throughout its time as the defacto best deck in the format, no deck was able to effectively contain Miracles. At times there were decks that served as hard-counters to Miracles, such as 12 Post and Goblins, but those decks only existed at the fringes of the metagame. More popular archetypes, such as Eldrazi and Infect, were able to present gameplans that were difficult for Miracles to handle. They served their purpose for a short time but were no lasting solutions to Miracles’ dominance. Miracles players had all of the tools in order to adapt to these decks without sacrificing much power in their primary gameplan. The printing of Monastery Mentor pushed Miracles into new heights. Regardless of the opposing gameplan, and however grim the situation was, Mentor allowed the Miracles player to take over the game and attack through the opponent at a minimal cost. This turned matchups wherein Miracles was very unfavored into much better matchups.

At its peak, it seemed like every matchup was at least even, and the deck even had some matchups that were in the 55-80% range of win percentage. This is a quality that more experienced players are attracted to, and caused the deck to be overrepresented. Miracles was not only more likely to perform well in the early stages of a tournament, due to its higher level of consistency than the average deck, but also outperform decks in the later rounds due to a higher base power level. As a result of this high power level, along with its relatively slow pace of play, the legacy metagame was warped around the deck.

The Delver decks slowed down and played a higher density of expensive, more powerful cards. Their threat base was adjusted in order to make it more difficult for Miracles to easily respond. Midrange decks that focused on deploying efficient threats on turns 2-4 couldn’t keep up with the late game power that Miracles represented. Combo decks needed to either speed up or try to fight on a slower axis. BR Reanimator and Turbo depths are examples of the former, and Grinding Station Storm and Sneak and Show are examples of the latter. Specifically, BR Reanimator was a fascinating reaction to the slower metagame. Due to the fact that Counterspell and Counterbalance became the norm (as opposed to Spell Pierce) the critical turn of disruption came on turn 2. That’s why UB Reanimator was usurped in metagame representation, and BR Reanimator became the norm.

Miracles’ existence pushed historically well-performing decks out of the metagame. Stoneforge Mystic based control decks were completely outclassed by Miracles (although, it’s possible that those decks would have still fallen by the wayside, regardless of Miracles’ dominance). Counter/Top was a stronger plan against both a random and expected metagame than Stoneforge Mystic was, thus making it a more stable choice. Other decks, like Maverick and Elves, had a difficult time managing a metagame wherein one of its worst matchups was the most popular. Both of these decks were able to adapt to some degree, but between the minimization of traditionally positive matchups for these decks, like the midrange decks, and Miracles’ powerful, efficient removal and primary gameplan, it was difficult for them to develop as they have in the past. Even Lands, a deck that preys on decks trying to play Brainstorm, had difficulty overcoming everything Miracles could present.

This all might seem like i’m overstating the power of the deck. After all, I was an avid Miracles player, and it wouldn’t be unlikely that I would overestimate the decks hold on the metagame. However I played the deck because I thought it was the most powerful deck in the field. My opponents could never present a gameplan that worried me and, because of this, I think the deck was too good. I think the Sensei’s Divining Top ban was a good thing.

My Perspective

I didn’t, and still don’t, think the legacy metagame was healthy. Never before has a deck like Miracles existed for the length of time that it did. Decks had to make bizarre, unheard of deckbuilding choices just to keep up. Storm having to maindeck Abrupt Decay is not a sign of a well-rounded format. I became jaded by the fact that the top 8 for every major event consisted of 1-3 Miracles decks, and this was just considered the norm. I longed to see an older archetype, since retired to the history books, perform well, and perform consistently, thus opening up the metagame. I wanted a reason not to play the deck, but it never arrived.

The number one problem I had, though, is that I love Legacy. I love casting Brainstorm, Wastelanding people, being Wastelanded, casting Jace, the Mind Sculptor, and so many many other unique parts of the format. I love the interplay that is created from having such a large, powerful card pool that can promote any strategy people want to employ. I couldn’t stop playing Legacy just because I perceived it to be unhealthy. Quite the contrary, actually. I still wanted to play as much Legacy as I could, and Miracles allowed me to do that incredibly well.

From the Miracles perspective, the games were complex, interesting, and very fun. Every game was not only a puzzle but also involved a substantial amount of actual gameplay. Assembling Counter/Top was my plan, and even after that was assembled, the game required a plethora of micro decisions before it would come to its natural conclusion. This was one of the most detrimental factors that Miracles as a deck had on gameplay. Not only was it a consistent, powerful combo-control deck, but even after the deck took nearly full control of the game, the game still went on. The opponent of the Miracles player was not able to concede due to the perception, albeit an accurate perception of the situation, of a miniscule chance that maybe they could resolve a spell, and that would change the outcome of the game. With this hope, the game went on, and the Miracles player still had to activate Sensei’s Divining Top every single turn, managing what options were available in hand and on the top, even though both players knew the odds.

Compounding this issue is the net-negative impact that the card Counterbalance has on both players’ experience. Every outcome surrounding the card created a negative emotional experience for one of the players involved. Unmanipulated Counterbalance hits are upsetting for the opponent, while the same is true of misses for the Miracles player. The Miracles player finding Sensei’s Divining Top could be heartbreaking for the opponent, but never finding one was just as bad for the Miracles player. I cannot presently think of any other card that has this emotional effect on a single game of Magic, and this situation came up in the majority of the games.

This being said, was Sensei’s Divining Top the correct ban? After all, as opposed to banning Counterbalance this has a splash effect on other decks in the format such as Nic Fit. I think Top was the right choice. The problem with any other ban is that it might not kill the archetype, which I think was the intended, and in my opinion, the correct, goal. It’s possible that a Monastery Mentor and Sensei’s Divining Top deck would have been similarly detrimental if Counterbalance was axed- and if Terminus was axed it’s possible that not enough would have changed. The splash damage of the Top ban is unfortunate, but I think it was the most effective choice, assuming that they do not want to have to make another ban to serve the same purpose. I’m willing to concede that I may be wrong about this, but for now, I will maintain this opinion.

The Future

I am personally lost regarding deck choice. A part of me even fears that my ability to succeed has now diminished because i’m not able to rely on such a powerful deck to carry me. However, I am incredibly excited to tackle this brand new Legacy metagame. I don’t completely understand what is going to succeed in the new metagame, but I expect that Delver, Lands, Storm, and Elves are going to be major contenders. A number of new questions arise with this new era: Will Stoneforge Mystic decks be able to comfortably exist again? Has the printing of Leovold greatly influenced how the decks will be built? What will the face of combo be without Miracles? Will the format speed up again, thus making cards like Spell Pierce worth considering again? I hope to answer some of these and more as I explore the format again, and attempt to relearn how to play Legacy without Sensei’s Divining Top.