Stifling Progress in Legacy
Recently, when trying to read up on some old Legacy articles from 2011-2012, I happened across a Drew Levin article that I remember being fond of. In it, he talks about how Stifle is a terrible card and shouldn’t be played in RUG Delver. He has a few points about the card, but the one that stood out to me is this:
“...the real reason that Stifle is unplayably bad is that it doesn't stop anything you care about”
Now this was during a time before Terminus was a card in Legacy, which does add 1 more card to his list, but I think this point definitely still holds true. Stifle is an amazing card at preventing your opponents from playing Magic. Sometimes. And when it isn’t, it can be challenging to turn it into a meaningful piece of disruption. Occasionally it needs to be thrown at anything that moves just to use the card at all. At that point it barely feels like its worth a card, so is it just in the deck to “get” people?
This sparked a discussion with my friend about parallel cards that people play that might fall under the same principle, which I will call the “Stifle Principle” for the sake of this article. How many of these cards are there, and how often are people including these cards which might come at a high deck building cost, or be otherwise weaker than other choices, just for the purpose of stealing a game. Even a single card can make a huge difference in win % across a tournament, and drawing a “cute” card, as opposed to something a bit more consistent, can be game ending.
In this article, I want to evaluate card choices and deck lists using this principle. There’s a long history of these instances occurring and looking at these examples can provide valuable insight into what mindset goes into it.
Starting at the place Drew Levin left off seems appropriate. Since the Deathrite ban, I have been beating up on RUG Delver a bit, but the entire archetype is partially predicated on this principle. Stifle can be a completely backbreaking card if people don’t expect it. A 1-mana land destruction spell? That’s amazing. However, once people know about it its impact is greatly mitigated. It is not that difficult to play around and build one’s deck to reduce its impact. This started happening from the get-go, and decks that can basically ignore the card have been doing well since the ban.
Stifle isn’t the only card in the deck that fits this concept, however. Many of the other soft permission spells in the deck can fall under this effect because they end up being ubiquitous to the archetype. Every RUG deck basically plays the same suite of disruption, and once one is practiced in playing around them, it isn’t that difficult. Because this is such a known quality, RUG Delver can start at a disadvantage in many games simply because people can play choose to play around, or build their decks around, a large number of its spells.
I think this is a large part of the reason that the deck hasn’t dominated any event like it used to. RUG has always had the ability to win against just about any opponent because it follows the “Aggression + Disruption” principle that has worked for so long in Legacy. However, it isn’t the strongest deck by a long shot, and it has barely used any new innovation since its return. These days, everyone knows about it and its play patterns are much more predictable. I think stepping away from the “I hope Stifle is good” shell could be a strong next step for the deck:
I don’t know if something like this is actually good, but looking at the recent Legacy results, I think this has a ton of strong features. Tarfire allows Tarmogoyf to beat Gurmag Angler almost every time. True-Name can help against the ever-popular Death and Taxes deck that just won the Pro Tour (!!). The extra land count can help battle against other mana denial decks.
Regardless of whether this decklist is good or not, I think moving away from the free win part of the deck might give it a better chance of fighting what people think RUG Delver is all about, and overall allow it to put up a fight.
This card warrants its own section that is separate from Delver. Daze is such an unbelievable card when it comes to swinging the tempo. So much so that sometimes players want to use it to push through their powerful, non-Delver threats. Sneak and Show, Miracles, and Stoneblade have all had some level of success with Daze in the deck list. However, when this card isn’t blowing people out it is likely doing absolutely nothing. Paying 1 mana can be so trivial in some games of Magic. Maybe one’s opponent didn’t play anything on turn 2. Maybe the game dragged onto turn 5. Maybe they are playing Delver themselves, and all of their cards cost 1 mana. Meanwhile, the deck builder had to find room in their deck for 2-4 Dazes only to find them doing nothing. This is a huge cost. Whatever cards are being cut definitely have a purpose in the deck, and shifting the purpose towards “they won’t expect it” is not going to be a consistently winning strategy.
Sometimes a choice like this is worth it, and that is often when it is:
- Actually pushing through a broken strategy
- Completely and fully unexpected
When Top was legal, Claudio Bonnani won GP Lille with Daze in his Miracles deck. Counter-Top was broken, and who would expect Daze from Miracles? This created the perfect storm for him to be successful. After this event, though, there were very few of these lists that ended up performing well at high-level events. Why? Because when you suspect they might have Daze it is pretty easy to play around. This means that people choosing to include it in their decks can be at a substantial disadvantage going into the match.
While this isn’t a common choice people make, it is one that is tempting enough to come up now and then. I think this is a mistake far more often than it is correct, and for most decks it is better to leave the Dazes in the binder.
This is perhaps the most narrow case I will include, but it very much follows the principle. Sire of Insanity used to be the go-to turn 1 threat of BR Reanimator. It resolves, they discard their hand, and the game ends 4 turns later. But in what way is this better than Griselbrand? Sure, they don’t have a hand, but by putting a Griselbrand into play and drawing 7-14 cards, the odds of getting another unbeatable creature and shredding their relevant cards away with discard are incredibly high.
By playing Sire in your deck, you have already increased the odds of drawing it above 0%. This means that in some games you will be force to Reanimate it and just hope they don’t have a developed manabase/a way to remove it. Trophy leader Eric Landon wrote about this in his sideboard guide, and for the most part people have stopped doing this. However, the fact that it happened for so long is somewhat indicative of people’s willingness to steal games from their opponents. This deck has always had better ways of doing that simply by design, so maximizing the deck’s ability to consistently get a better threat in play is a much better approach.
Thespian's Stage/ Dark Depths in Aggro Loam
This is the last inclusion I want to talk about, and it’s actually one that I don’t think is that bad (but, based on the nature of this article maybe that makes me bad). I do think it follows this same pattern of “pay a cost to include a means of stealing a win in a deck that doesn’t need it.” Aggro Loam is a 4 color deck, so including a colorless mana source and a land that doesn’t tap for mana can definitely lead to some punishing mana draws. The upside is there, but often it ends up being a win-more. The most common way to assemble it is to untap with a Knight of the Reliquary. However, untapping with a Knight often results in a substantial advantage anyway, so it doesn’t take that much more to end the game from there. In conjunction with Life from the Loam it can be a very powerful strategy to inevitably end the game, but outside of Knight, there isn’t a consistent way to put it together.
Overall, I think it hurts the deck more than it helps, which is my key point about all of these cards/strategies. It is a cost/benefit analysis, and if the overall costs outweigh the benefits in the long-term, I think it’s much better to go with more stable and consistent choices.
It’s Not All Bad
There are a ton of other examples of this (Dryad Arbor in Infect, Grim Tutor in Storm). I don’t think it’s always wrong to make choices like these. The problem is when these high cost cards end up becoming deck building staples they make the archetype more exploitable. In addition, they have the potential to do more harm than good. If everyone knows that UW Stoneblade plays 3 Daze, they will make their choices to minimize its effectiveness.
I am not suggesting that innovation shouldn’t be implemented. Innovation and iteration are essential keys to good deck building. I am suggesting that each card choice should be viewed with greater scrutiny and there should be a very good reason for including any card over a staple choice.
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