Focus on Legacy – Combating Survival

Combating Survival of the Fittest

During the recent coverage of StarCityGames Nashville Legacy $5K event SCG writer called for the banning of Survival of the Fittest. OOOOOOH GOD, a deck has taken the SCG circuit by storm! We had better take immediate corrective action and ban something! Now I think we can all recognize that Survival is a fantastic card, but is it really ban-worthy? Let’s take a look at this, and various ways to combat Survival after the jump.

During many games where Survival hits the board against an unprepared opponent, the advantage it can provide will most often result in either notable card advantage gained (when coupled with Squee, Goblin Nabob to fetch out extra creatures every turn), or 3-4 hasty Vengevines being returned from the graveyard to play a turn or two later with double Basking Rootwalla or some other goodies being cast. Other Survival variants (WG Survival and Bant Survival most notably) can use the engine to either put Iona, Shield of Emeria or Emrakul, the Aeons Torn into play using Loyal Retainers-fueled chicanery. Still yet, Survival can also be used to dump Phyrexian Devourer and Triskelion into the graveyard, and then search up Necrotic Ooze to kill the opponent with, as illustrated by Ryan Marmulstein’s slick Survival Ooze deck from Nashville. In all of these situations Survival of the Fittest has provided the engine for the success of these decks. I’m all for supporting anything that makes Phyrexian Devourer and Necrotic Ooze remotely playable.

So Survival’s value is clear, but is it so valuable that it proves dominant, and proves so much better than other powerful situational cards available in Legacy? Let’s examine some of Legacy’s other most powerful and abusable cards, and their impact on in-game situations for comparison.

In Merfolk, also one of Legacy’s most popular decks and top performers, uses and abuses AEther Vial to the absolute fullest. AEther Vial provides uncounterable insertion of all of the deck’s creatures into play to sneak under the veil of opposing Blue decks’ counterspells. AEther Vial allows the Merfolk toting mage to use their lands to activate and attack early and often with Mutavault to provide tempo, and to keep mana open for Spell Pierce and their other counterspells. It also allows them to successfully keep risky hands with lots of colorless mana sources (Wasteland and Mutavault) because they can rely on AEther Vial to just get them there. Let’s also not forget the insane synergy between dropping an AEther Vial and then following up with a Standstill, providing tons of card advantage and tempo. In this example it is just as powerful and important to Merfolk as Survival is to the Survival decks. Without AEther Vial the Merfolk deck would not exist as a successful, let alone playable deck.

In Goblins, another of Legacy’s more popular and successful decks, AEther Vial is also at the heart of their strategy, along with the incomparable Goblin Lackey. Both of these cards were deemed too powerful for Extended in their respective tours of duty, and banned by the DCI. They both perform admirably here, and have caused people in the past to call for their banning as well, when Goblins was the top dog on the block. See how times change, and how perspective changes when people adjust to the metagame and tournament results? This is a great example of giving the format time to breathe and adjust. Both AEther Vial and Goblin Lackey provide incredible amounts of tempo and broken plays by cheating more goodies into play without paying the mana costs printed on the card, while disrupting the opponent’s manabase with Wasteland and Rishadan Port. That seems like a good deal, but I would argue that like Survival, both of these are fair and not too broken for Legacy.

Intuition is another example of a card that can be degenerate in the right deck, and if it resolves the unprepared opponent is going to have a hell of a time winning the game going forward. Whether it is in a Survival deck, a Life From the Loam or 43Lands style deck, or a DredgeATog or It’s The Fear style deck, Intuition is very powerful and often effectively game ending. The dividends might not pay off in a turn, but it is used as a tutor or engine to do something broken in all of these cases, usually providing an overwhelming advantage if the game continues on.

In Landstill variants, CounterTop variants, and other miscellaneous Blue decks the win condition du jour is now Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Like Intuition, Jace 2.0 is an incredibly powerful card that might now win the game in a turn or two, but if the opponent can’t deal with it (like an active Survival of the Fittest), they’re going to lose the game in short order. Jace, the Mind Sculptor is arguably more powerful than all of these cards, but that’s a subjective argument for another time. But like the rest of these cards, Jace has not empirically proven to be too powerful for the Legacy format, even though most often it is a game changer and game ender.

Now aside from the subjective arguments of power level of cards, how are the decks performing? At SCG Nashville Legacy $5K Survival variants accounted for 4 of the top 8 slots, and 5 of the top 16 slots, while being one of if not the most played archetypes in the tournament. It put up strong numbers as it probably should have when so many people were playing it. At SCG Baltimore Legacy $5K Survival variants put 3 players in the top 8, and 5 in the top 16, matching the totals that Merfolk put up. Merfolk also won that tournament, so should we be talking about taking corrective measures against it too? Of course not, because by all measurable accounts the Legacy metagame is healthy, developing, and thriving. Elsewhere in the world the largest Legacy tournaments recently have been Eurovino 5 (347 players on 09-11-2010), where 2 totally different Survival decks finished in the top 8, and then in Madrid at the Eternal Weekend 2010 (293 players on 10-09-2010) in which 2 Survival decks made top 8. Should we be equally concerned that the 2 TES and 1 Spring Tide decks also in that top 8 would have crushed those Survival decks had the top 8 not arranged to a split? Oh no, combo is going to overrun the metagame!

For people who are slow to change cards, decks, and strategies, I’ve got some bad news for you. You’re going to get smoked if you don’t adapt, as it that’s some kind of newsflash. If you continue to play your stock Zoo deck with 8 Kird Apes and vanilla dudesweats in the current metagame, you fully deserve to lose. In early 2009 Pro Tour stalwart Tomoharu Saito conquered the Grand Prix circuit by winning back to back Extended GPs with Zoo. He did this not by being content to play the same deck that won him GP Singapore, but by significantly changing up his deck for the next tournament (GP Kobe) a month later, in order to combat what he successfully predicted the metagame would shift to (more combo and other decks that preyed on unprepared aggro decks). If you want to beat powerful decks like Survival (or anything else) consistently, you need to adequately adapt what you’re playing. Sometimes that means wholesale deck changes, sometimes it means adjusting a significant amount of cards in your deck to hate out Survival, or Tendrils of Agony, or Goblin Lackey.

Like Max McCall touched on in his latest article on SCG, there are a number of effective cards that can be used to effectively dampen the current incarnation of Survival decks. Let’s look at some those and go beyond single hate cards as well.

Spell Snare has been very good in since it was printed, but its value in Legacy is currently at an all time high. Not only does it counter Survival of the Fittest, but it also counters a lot of the most important spells in the format at the moment: Tarmogoyf, Qasali Pridemage, Dark Confidant, Lord of Atlantis, Coralhelm Commander, Silvergill Adept, Painter’s Servant, Stoneforge Mystic, Umezawa’s Jitte, Counterbalance, Burning Wish, Infernal Tutor, Thopter Foundry, Standstill, and much more. If you are playing counterspells in your deck for something other than forcing through a combo card (like Doomsday or Show and Tell) you should be playing 3-4 Spell Snares right now, even if it means cutting back on your count of Spell Pierce or actual Counterspell. It is that good, and is extremely well positioned right now. Some very recent examples of the successful application of Spell Snare that I like are David Lopez’s UBG Threshold deck and Luis Martin’s UGR Faeries list from the Eternal Weekend 2010 top 8, as well as Ben Wienburg’s UGR Threshold list from SCG Nashville. All of these lists are built to abuse the tempo openings that Survival decks can provide. First turn Ponder, Daze your spell, replay a land, Spell Pierce or Spell Snare your two drop on the next turn, then drop a Tarmogoyf or Dark Confidant soon thereafter and start going to town. Use Lightning Bolt, Fire/Ice, Diabolic Edict, and Snuff Out to kill your important dudesweats, and then keep the onslaught going. Wasteland your land, Stifle your fetchland (or Survival activation, or Exalted trigger) to slow you down, and continue the onslaught. In this same vein I would not be surprised if we saw a small resurgence in Bant Tempo decks that can pack Spell Snare, Spell Pierce, Swords to Plowshares, and Qasali Pridemage.

The much maligned Extirpate is actually pretty effective at combating Survival decks as they are currently constituted (as well as other stuff like Dredge decks and Life From the Loam decks). If you are lucky enough to Duress, Thoughtseize, or counter a Survival of the Fittest and Extirpate it, then bravo. But more often if you see a Survival hit play you can really do a number on the opposing mage’s strategy by just Extirpating their Vengevines when they go for that line of play, as it will take away their fastest and most reliable way of killing you, and force them to try to ground out a win with small creatures. In the Survival variants not packing Tarmogoyf this becomes a pretty difficult proposition against an opponent with removal or any semblance of a counterattack. You want to try to beat me down with Wild Mongrel, Aquamoeba, and Qasali Pridemage alone? Good luck with that. Now if you draw multiple Extirpates you can really put a crimp in the opponents plan if you manage to Extirpate their Vengevines and Tarmogoyfs (or something comparable, depending on the version they’re playing).

In the same mode of attacking the graveyard we can also utilize Relic of Progenitus to a much greater extent. Relic is another card that is well positioned right now and is main deck material at this point. Relic limits Survival of the Fittest, Tarmogoyf, Knight of the Reliquary, and more. It costs one colorless mana so it can be splashed in any deck that wants to play it, can come out as early as turn one, and it cantrips so it is never truly a dead draw (like say Tormod’s Crypt, for example). Check out Joan Font’s Goblins RB deck here from the Catalan Legacy League (LCL) back in July (81 players). This is an excellent example of maindecking a card that is very effective against Survival and other decks, within the context of an already existing deck.

Another card that may be main deck worthy right now is Krosan Grip. I know most people are loathe to include situational cards in their decks for the most part, but Krosan Grip is really strong, uncounterable, and deals with a number of problematic permanents floating around Legacy right now. It clears out Survival of the Fittest, AEther Vial, Moat, Humility, Counterbalance, Seismic Assault, Umezawa’s Jitte, Engineered Plague, Sensei’s Divining Top, and more. Back in 2009 at GP Chicago, Eternal superstar Andy Probasco was running Krosan Grip in his CounterTop list, behind the rationale that whoever was resolving the soft lock of Counterbalance + Sensei’s Divining Top was going to win most of the Blue matches, so if he had a way main deck to get rid of an opposing Counterbalance he would be that much better off when he played against those decks. With the strength of Survival and the other enchantments and artifacts floating around the format Krosan Grip is once more maindeck worthy.

In the same spirit as removing the enchantment once it hits play, Ray of Revelation has suddenly become a solid sideboard option. Haven’t heard of that one lately? Yeah, that’s because it hasn’t been useful in a long time since the days Worldgorger Dragon was wreaking havoc in both Type 1 and 1.5 before the unchaining of the Banned/Restricted lists and the creation of modern Legacy. What Ray of Revelation does is assure that Survival of the Fittest will rarely be relevant, as the Flashback ability helps mitigate opposing counterspells, and if you’re playing something with any Dredge mechanic it also gains value by being able to be cast after it has been dumped into the graveyard.

Another single card that has been thrown around to help combat Survival is Pithing Needle. While this is cheap and flexible solution to Survival of the Fittest and other problematic cards like Jace, it is very susceptible to Qasali Pridemage and Trygon Predator that are often found in these decks, so keep in mind it is best when paired with other hate, or if you have a strategy that will allow you to wrap up the game quickly.

One of the best cards against Survival variants and all of the aggro decks in general is another old standby named Humility. This is costly and relatively slow, but when it hits play it slows Survival decks to a crawl, and they have no main deck way to remove it (and maybe 2-3 Krosan Grips after sideboard). Most decks that would play Humility happen to play a lot of counterpsells and removal anyway, so getting to 4 mana isn’t super difficult, but then again most decks that would play Humility are only going to play 1-2 copies and possibly pair them with Enlightened Tutor. So you have to manage your resources correctly in order to know what to fight over and what to spend your removal on. I have been good success lately in testing Humility in a CounterTop variant I’ve been working on, which I outlined a rough draft of in my SCG Denver & Minneapolis wrap-up article. I’ve now got both Moat and Humility main, and another copy of Humility in the sideboard. They are both also very effective at combating Merfolk and Zoo decks.

Aside from single cards, we need to look at specific decks or styles of decks that have game against Survival. One commonly overlooked way to combat Survival decks is to attack their manabase, so that they do not have the mana available to efficiently curve out and accelerate as they normally would. In doing so you are trying to bottleneck their available options. Some Survival decks with more than two colors play manabases that are soft to disruption, but many of the newer Blue-Green or Green-White variants have 4+ basic lands. In these cases Wasteland only goes so far, as most of the time they’ll be fetching out Forest or Island early. But the thing is, even with a manabase that appears more solid they are often running only 19-21 lands, and relying on Noble Hierarch or Birds of Paradise to function. What if you could use this against them?

One card I have had success with as a tool battling older aggro-control decks is the card Smallpox. Not only does this destroy lands, but it also kills creatures and shrinks the opponent’s hand. It is a symmetrical card, but when you couple it with the presence of Life From the Loam in your deck you can mitigate any damage done to your side, while putting a significant dent in your opponent’s resources. Think about this potential line of play in a game against an opponent playing a typical Survival deck.
Opponent Turn 1: Windswept Heath, sacrifice for Forest, cast Noble Hierarch, pass (5 cards left in hand).
Our Turn 1: Verdant Catacombs, sacrifice for Swamp, cast Mox Diamond (pitching any land), cast Smallpox

Now, right here I have completely negated my opponent’s explosive first turn, damaged their manabase, killed their creature, and they will end my turn with 4 cards in hand and nothing on the board. Let’s say they happen to have a Basking Rootwalla in hand and discard that to Smallpox and then cast it via the Madness mechanic. So the board state is opponent with Basking Rootwalla in play and unknown cards, and you with Mox Diamond in play. I like the position of mana versus a 1/1 creature.

Now every game is different, but the point is that Smallpox can be a very effective tool in a creature laden format. It doesn’t target so it can get rid of annoying cards like Nimble Mongoose, Progenitus, and Emrakul, the Aeons Torn, and it is usually pretty good whether you draw it early or late. So how do we go about implementing Smallpox effectively in a Life From the Loam deck? Here is a sample list to think about.


[Business] (32)
Life From the Loam
Engineered Explosives
Swords to Plowshares
Maelstrom Pulse
Knight of the Reliquary
Eternal Witness[/Business]

[Mana Sources] (28)
Mox Diamond
Volraths Stronghold
Academy Ruins
Bojuka Bog
Ghost Quarter
Tranquil Thicket
Windswept Heath
Verdant Catacombs
Tropical Island
Underground Sea
Plains[/Mana Sources]
[Sideboard] (15)
Krosan Grip
Ray of Revelation
Tormods Crypt
Leyline of the Void
Helm of Obedience
Zuran Orb
Chalice of the Void
Ethersworn Canonist
Solitary Confinement[/Sideboard]

I won’t go into all the details of this decklist here and now, as I’ll be covering Smallpox more in depth in another In the Lab article coming next week. But this deck has a lot of good tools to combat Survival decks, as well as having game against most other archetypes (Dark Ritual combo notwithstanding, which is always going to be a soft spot for Loam decks).

Another archetypal strategy for combating Survival decks are Dark Ritual based combo decks. Although the speedy Mystical Tutor-laced Ad Nauseam Tendrils (ANT) decks have been neutered by the banning of Mystical Tutor, other combo decks have risen up to take up the mantle of doing unfair things with Dark Ritual and Lion’s Eye Diamond. Bryant Cook‘s The Epic Storm (TES) deck from GP Columbus earlier this year serves as a sweet starting spot, and in fact Alex de Valle and Inaki Puigdollers both piloted TES to the top 8 of Eternal Weekend 2010 (293 players). Federico Bonade also piloted TES to a top 4 at the aforementioned Eurovino 5 (347 players). The current incarnations of Survival decks (especially those not packing Blue) are virtual byes for TES. Another Ritual deck that doesn’t particularly give a rat’s ass about Survival is Tommy Kolowith‘s GPT winning Doomsday list. This list and variations of it are criminally underrated right now, as virtually every aggro and Survival matchup is a bye for this deck. I actually prefer Tommy’s deck right now because the manabase is solid and it has relatively consistent opening hands compared to TES. My sideboard is a few cards different, but that is a very solid deck to play if you just want to crush Survival decks all day.

The main thing to keep in mind is there is not really a silver bullet out there, or one specific card that’s magically going to beat all Survival decks. If you’re using that for justification of banning a card or simply for complaining about something, you’re delusional and should try to apply the same principle to every other Legacy deck that doesn’t suck. But by putting the target on their back and adjusting your decks accordingly with more and more tools to fight them, the Survival players are going to have a tough road to overcome when they are facing ever increasing amounts of hate. If you can parry their early attack and disrupt them enough to forge your own solid path to victory, you still stand a very good chance of winning most games against Survival, and any other deck for that matter. Adjust your deck as the metagame adjusts and you will be rewarded handsomely.