Forging a Legacy: 25th with Stoneblade in Worcester

July 28, 2015
What people choose to play in Legacy and why has always been an interesting foray into player psychology for me. After all, Legacy is a format where lethal combinations of cards are exceedingly easy to assemble with the help of Brainstorm and Ponder, and protection in the form of free counterspells like Force of Will and Daze, or discard spells like Duress and Cabal Therapy can be slotted into many combo decks to force through their game-winning plays. Turn three wins are expected from many combo decks, and turn two or even turn one wins are not even that uncommon. That being said, combo decks don't even make up a majority of the metagame. Despite their relatively high power level and high consistency, many players still choose to play decks that win by attacking with creatures until their opponent's life total is zero.

Why?

It could be that players believe most combo decks are simply too easy to hate out. Combo decks tend to lose when one or more of their pieces is rendered ineffective, and many of them simply cannot beat a turn 2 Thalia or Ethersworn Canonist. Losing outright to certain cards is never fun, and if a player wants to beat your combo deck, there is assuredly a card they can play against you that you can't beat no matter what your combo is. It is also possible for combo decks to simply brick and not draw the cards they need to win. Despite the excellent filtering and card selection available in Legacy, you won't always draw the cards you need in order to execute your plan and win the game. This is true of almost every Magic deck ever, but fair decks manage to at least function no matter what cards they draw in whatever order they draw them, as long as lands and spells are present. When your deck doesn't do anything at all unless it has a specific combination of cards, you are going to lose some percent of your games to simply not drawing your combo.

That being said, I don't think these are the main reasons combo decks aren't more prevalent in Legacy. I think these points fail to address a simple fact about Magic players: they play Magic because they think it is fun, and play the decks that they find fun - it just so happens that the decks many people find fun are decks that win by attacking with creatures. This fact could be attributed to the large design philosophy overhauls in recent years. It is common knowledge at this point that Wizards has been increasing the power level of creatures and decreasing the power level of non-creatures, which in itself is not really the reason combo decks aren't as popular as their power level suggests that they would be. More important than power level considerations is the fact that many players whose introductions to Magic were post-Time Spiral Standard* were not exposed to combo on the same scale as generations that came before them, and consequently did not learn to play or appreciate combo decks as they were not even an option for them when learning the game. The design philosophy of this era was that spells exist to supplement creatures, and many of the decks people play in Legacy today reflect this ideology, regardless of whether or not these decks are on a comparable objective power level as the creatureless or unfair decks (it is also worth noting that almost every creature played in Legacy was printed during or after this era).

I'm not saying combo decks are inherently better or worse than fair decks; I'm merely pointing out that combo players and aggro/midrange/control players seem to have cut their teeth in different eras of Magic. When asking my long-time friend Pat Shaw why he only plays combo decks, he simply responded with “Combo is life”. I didn't ask why, as I felt his statement was pretty self-explanitory.

Theory in Practice

I recently attended the StarCityGames Legacy Open in Worcester, MA with UWR Stoneblade as my weapon of choice:

Nate's U/W Stone Blade
2 Snapcaster Mage

4 Stoneforge Mystic

2 True-Name Nemesis

2 Vendilion Clique

4 Brainstorm

2 Counterspell

3 Dig Through Time

4 Force of Will

2 Lightning Bolt

1 Pyroblast

2 Spell Pierce

4 Swords to Plowshares

1 Umezawa's Jitte

1 Batterskull

2 Jace, the Mind Sculptor

3 Ponder

4 Island

1 Plains

2 Arid Mesa

4 Flooded Strand

4 Scalding Tarn

3 Tundra

2 Volcanic Island

1 Karakas

Sideboard:

1 Grafdigger's Cage

1 Relic of Progenitus

2 Containment Priest

2 Meddling Mage

2 Flusterstorm

2 Pyroblast

1 Surgical Extraction

1 Wear

1 Council's Judgment

1 Sudden Demise

1 Supreme Verdict

Going into the tournament I knew the decks to beat were Omni-tell (OK matchup) and Miracles (pretty bad matchup). So why did I choose Stoneblade if the supposed bad guys of the format were not even great matchups? Something many people don't realize about Legacy is that while you will often be rewarded for having a heavily proactive strategy, you are going to encounter situations or cards that you just can't beat with anything in your deck if your deck is too linear. In order to minimize the chances of this happening, I tend to play interactive decks with many angles of attack. I realize that despite the fact that the agreed upon best decks in the format are not planning to beat you by casting creatures, with so many options available in the format, I am still going to encounter people that are trying to beat me by attacking me to death. Case in point: in fifteen rounds, I played against Omni-tell 3 times and Miracles only once. I played two other non-creature decks in Reanimator and Storm (although I guess Reanimator is technically a creature deck, but not in the typical sense). My other nine opponents? Their plans were to cast various creatures and attack me to death, against which using Stoneforge Mystic to fetch Umezawa's Jitte and Batterskull is a game plan on its own. I finished 10-3-2 which was good enough for a 25th place finish, and overall I was quite happy with my deck choice for the tournament. 

During the ride to the tournament, my co-worker and teammate Max Brown brought up a good point about the state of Stoneforge Mystic and cards like it in Legacy: too many decks simply don't care that you're casting it. If you're on the draw against Omni-tell or Storm, casting turn 2 Stoneforge Mystic could just get you killed on the spot, even if you have Force of Will backup. But hey, that's pretty much what you sign up for when you go to a Legacy tournament. Sometimes your opponent has the nuts and you get to just F6 and watch them do their thing that kills you. Would I have been better off without Stoneforge Mystic in my deck? Maybe, but probably not. Batterskull and Umezawa's Jitte won me many games that I would have had no business winning otherwise. Even in the matchups where it's not ideal, fetching a Batterskull and putting it into play for 2 mana is a reasonably fast clock, and backed up with enough disruption can close a game out on its own. It's not as good as Tarmogoyf or Young Pyromancer in those instances, but it's better in enough other situations that I like having it as my plan over those options. I even felt so good about my chances that weekend that I promised Max that if I didn't cash the tournament, I would never cast a Stoneforge Mystic again... and here I am still fetching Batterskulls.

At its core, the Stoneblade deck is a controlling strategy that doesn't even necessarily need to rely on Stoneforge Mystic to be good. It's just that Stoneforge Mystic is so good against so many decks that I feel, despite its moderate clunkiness, it's worth playing in a UWx control/midrange shell. If I knew for a fact that I would mostly be playing against combo decks, I would probably shave some of the maindeck removal and Stoneforge Mystics for some hate bears like Meddling Mage and some extra cheap counterspells which is what my post-board configuration ends up looking like anyway. I think a configuration like that puts you as a pretty big favorite against commonly played combo decks, which is why the Stoneblade deck is so good: it can morph to beat anything, you just have to know what you're trying to beat.

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