Focus on Legacy – Constructing UBG Landstill

Are you one of the types of people who likes to see your opponent squirm in their chair as you destroy everything they play, or counter anything else? Are you one of the types of people that seeks to demoralize an opponent and chuckle inside as you stare at their board state, barren of all relevant non-land permanents? If so, you may just be the type of person who likes playing a deck like Landstill.

Landstill has been around in many shapes, sizes, forms, and colors since before the advent of modern Legacy (the unchaining of the Type 1 and 1.5 Banned/Restricted lists), and was a powerhouse even back when Mana Drain, Mishra’s Workshop, and Bazaar of Baghdad were all legal in the old Legacy format of yesteryear. Since the creation of modern Legacy we’ve seen many color combinations such as Blue-White (UW), Blue-Red (UR), Blue-White-Red (UWR), and Blue-White-Green (UWG), Blue-White-Black (UWB), Blue-Black-Green (UBG), Blue-Black-Green-White (4C). The more colors you add the more access you have to the best spells of those colors (usually efficient removal), but the more colors you add the more you open yourself up to potential mana problems.

For the longest time I was an advocate of 4C Landstill, as I believe Swords to Plowshares is the most efficient removal spell in Legacy, and Pernicious Deed is the best board sweeper available. My old team BHWC/BHWW was responsible for taking Mike Torrisi’s (aka SpikeyMikey) crazy idea of cramming four colors into Landstill and then testing and tuning it into a thing of beauty, where it shined for quite a while in tournaments across the globe. I still think it’s a very strong deck in the right field, but right now the field may simply have too many Wastelands for it to be the right call. We’ll talk about that in an upcoming article, but as of this moment I’m paranoid of mana denial.

So if you enjoy playing Landstill, what is the correct call right now as we race towards GP Columbus 2010? I would argue that Blue-Black-Green (UBG) offers the strongest potential package of removal and power heading into the late summer and fall, without being as soft to mana denial and occasional self-combustion (not drawing the right colors). Based on the last two months we’ve seen a resurgence of aggro and aggro control decks, most backed by Wasteland for tempo and disruption. If we’re down to three colors we should be able to take this omnipresence of Wasteland in stride and pack a ton of removal and counterspells alongside a solid manabase.

The potential field for GP Columbus is littered with aggro and aggro control decks. Goblins packs a tons of mana denial into it’s efficient shell, and preys upon Merfolk and slower Blue decks. Merfolk packs Wasteland, Daze, and Cursecatcher to gain tempo in the early game, and preys upon CounterTop and combo decks. Naya Zoo packs the most efficient creatures possible and preys upon everything but combo with its speed. Bant Tempo/New Horizons has replaced Canadian Threshold as the classic aggro-control deck abusing tempo, efficient creatures, and mana denial to exploit combo and other Blue decks. Landstill decks love a field full or competing creature decks, as Landstill preys upon these decks by packing tons of cheap removal, board sweepers, and then eventually hope to finish the opponent off with a glacially slow win condition.

Wait, what?! A glacially slow win condtion? That sounds like the nut low. Landstill decks have traditionally just cleared the board and then gotten there with Mishra’s Factory and stuff like Faerie Conclave or Nantuko Monastery. And that used to be good enough, before insane creatures like Tarmogoyf, Qasali Pridemage, and Knight of the Reliquary were printed. Nantuko Monastery was just as big if not bigger (and first strike) than most commonly played threats, but now that the power curve has been busted that no longer cuts the mustard. So what to do?

Jace, the Mind Sculptor has been one of the defining cards in the Standard format since it was printed, and it is slowly starting to creep into every other constructed format. The power and abilities of Jace 2.0 are undeniable, as it can clear the board of creatures, Brainstorm you every turn, or ultimately win the game by fatesealing your opponent into oblivion. That kind of seems like it fits right into the Landstill strategy, doesn’t it? Control the board, draw lots of cards, and eventually win once your opponent’s position has been reduced to rubble. Well Jace has already started popping up in most Landstill decks recently, taking the spot of Fact or Fiction. While you don’t have instant speed insanity of end of turn Fact or Fiction (GG!), the power and options Jace 2.0 present make it an auto-include as your victory condition du jour in modern Landstill decks. If you couple this with some Mishra’s Factories and/or Mutavaults to stall the ground (or get there once you’ve locked up the board), that is more than enough adequate win conditions that aren’t necessarily slow, and naturally fit in with what your deck was trying to accomplish anyway.

So if we know how we ultimately want to win, let’s figure out how we’re going to stay alive long enough to get to that position. Landstill UBG variants have been around for a while and have especially been tearing up Magic Online (MTGO) the last two months, so we don’t need to reinvent the wheel here. Let’s look at a few very recent versions for the current metagame that have finished highly.
Tim Shaffer Grand Prix Columbus Trial, Grand Rapids (MI) list 06-10-2010 (2nd place out of 20; 4 Jace, the Mind Sculptor, 4 Wasteland, 0 Mutavault)
Charles Gordon SCG Seattle list 06-13-2010(13th place out of 189; 4 Jace, the Mind Sculptor, 4 Wasteland, 0 Mutavault)
Alexis Martinez LCL3 list 06-19-2010 (1st place out of 64; 4 Jace, the Mind Sculptor, 0 Wasteland, 2 Mutavaults)
SICKx7 MTGO Legacy Daily list 07-05-2010 (1st place out of 28; 4 Jace, the Mind Sculptor, 4 Wasteland, 0 Mutavault)

For the most part these decks are very similar, with the exception of the manabases (Wastelands, basic lands, Mutavaults). With that in mind, here are the tools we will most likely want to choose from.
Counterspells and Disruption
Force of Will – this is pretty much a no brainer for any Blue-based control deck in any format where it’s legal; auto 4-of
Daze – awesome early game and mediocre thereafter; for a deck that wants to hit land drops and develop its board position quickly this doesn’t necessarily fit the bill, although it would help in the very early game
Spell Snare – a large chunk of Legacy’s best spells and threats ring in at 2 mana (Devastating Dreams, Counterbalance, Qasali Pridemage, Hymn to Tourach, Smallpox, Dark Confidant, Goblin Piledriver, Umezawa’s Jitte,Tarmogoyf, Lord of Atlantis, Coralhelm Commander, Arcbound Ravager, Survival of the Fittest, Painter’s Servant, etc.), so if you want to make it to the mid game 3 or 4 of these would fit in nicely in a control deck
Spell Pierce – limited in that it can’t hit creatures, it can still hit opposing counterspells and a lot of threats your opponent wants to drop ASAP (Counterbalance, Survival of the Fittest, anything in combo/Reanimator, etc.); probably best as a 2 to 3-of
Duress/Thoughtseize – excellent at stripping away threats or counters from the opponent’s hand, but reactive decks don’t really want to do that against anything other than other control decks or combo decks; sideboard material most likely
Counterspell – once we get to the mid-game this becomes the best counterspell in our deck, and doesn’t discriminate among casting cost or card type
Stifle – a card of so many purposes, there is a time and place for Stifle, and I’m afraid right now is not necessarily the best time for it, but I could be wrong; this is a highly debateable slot for me and is best when used in conjunction with Wasteland; this will make its way in and out of my Landstill decks based on the decks I expect that day in a given tournament
Cryptic Command – the options that this card presents makes my head want to explode for its awesomeness, but the truth is most of the time it will be too slow, and for 4 mana you’d rather be casting Jace most of the time (or blowing up Pernicious Deed); that being said I’ve still got a couple on standby just in case the format becomes inundated with slightly slower decks

Innocent Blood – with no White for Swords to Plowshares, this becomes the most efficient removal spell available to us in a UBG shell, so it’s inclusion is logical
Ghastly Demise – another removal spell with drawbacks, this is efficient targeted removal that isn’t affected by opposing Spell Snares and is fast enough to play around the Cursecatcher/Daze/Spell Pierce against Merfolk, and is fast enough to hit Goblin Lackey on turn 1
Vendetta – like Ghastly Demise, this can’t hit Black creatures, but is only one mana and is efficient, but the loss of life equal to the opposing creature’s toughness will often prove damning
Smother – a discriminating removal spell that is great for targeted and efficient removal, especially in a format where any creatures with higher than 3 casting cost don’t see much play; this will compete for slots with Diabolic Edict and Ghastly Demise, and may eventually steal that slot depending on how the metagame shakes out (the slower the better for Smother)
Diabolic Edict – another instant speed removal spell that doesn’t discriminate, gets around Chalice of the Void for 1 (but gets hit by Spell Snare), and can actually deal with an opposing Emrakul, the Aeons Torn
Maelstrom Pulse – a catch all answer, but slow at 3 mana and sorcery speed; probably best as a sideboard card against slower decks
Pernicious Deed – relatively slow, but your catch all answer to permanents of any variety (except Planeswalkers) and doesn’t care about the mana cost of those permanents it destroys (hint: the nuts!)
Engineered Explosives – can come out faster and cheaper than Deed, but only destroys permanents of one specific mana cost; better as a supplement to Deed than anything

Mana Sources
Since the advent of three and four color Landstill decks there’s been a debate amongst Landstill practitioners about the use of Wasteland for mana denial (and to clear the way of opposing manlands). I won’t wade into that debate here, but will instead present two separate manabases below, which are slightly different than the winning lists above. I will say that I always believe mana denial in Landstill is best accompanied by Stifle, but that’s of course if you have room for it. I’ve included 3 basic lands in each list, because it is very rare that there are games with any deck where I want to fetch 4 Underground Seas, for example. So I tend to build my decks and play games on the side of caution against mana denial, and that can be seen in the decklists below, and this accounts for the differences between my manabases and the winning lists found above. Of note here, Bayou is kind of hit or miss in a lot of UBG decklists and I’m on the fence about it, but I would encourage you to test it to see if you deem it necessary with how your games play out.

Landstill UBG 20101Q4, by Jaco 07-14-2010
Business (36)
4 Force of Will
3 Spell Snare
3 Spell Pierce
3 Counterspell
4 Brainstorm
4 Standstill
4 Innocent Blood
2 Ghastly Demise/Smother/Diabolic Edict
4 Pernicious Deed
1 Life From the Loam
4 Jace, the Mind Sculptor

Mana Sources Wasteland Version (24)
4 Wasteland
4 Mishra’s Factory
4 Polluted Delta
3 Misty Rainforest
3 Tropical Island
3 Underground Sea
2 Island
1 Swamp

Mana Sources Mutavault Version (24)
4 Mishra’s Factory
2 Mutavault
4 Polluted Delta
4 Misty Rainforest
3 Tropical Island
3 Underground Sea
1 Bayou
2 Island
1 Swamp

That is a pretty sick deck. Quad-lazer Jace may seem like a lot (especially since Planeswalkers are Legendary), but the reality is you can use it to draw removal from your opponent or clear the board, and if your opponent doesn’t deal with it (or the second, or third, or fourth one), they’re going to get rolled. Jace is just that good, and this is one of the best decks that can really abuse Jace in Legacy.

Sideboard Cards
Now that we’ve got our main deck sewn up, let’s also look at some of the most common sideboard cards you’d potentially rock.
Relic of Progenitus – this has been my favorite graveyard hate card since its printing, as it cantrips, can fit any color, is cheap, reusable, and incremental (unlike Tormod’s Crypt)
Extirpate – nothing really kicks Life From the Loam decks in the balls quite like a well-timed Extirpate; is also very good at removing the few win conditions from very narrow decks (like New Horizons) after you’ve killed their dudes
Coffin Purge – in my testing the past couple of months this seemed to often be the best graveyard hate card against Reanimator, and was also pretty good against Loam decks, while not being as stellar against Dredge; this is probably bested by Relic of Progenitus in the current climate
Planar Void – pretty solid mana to power ratio (and is an enchantment), this card truly does not suck if you don’t open with it in your hand (like Leyline of the Void) against decks where it matters
Leyline of the Void – if you like playing roulette and gambling that this will be in your opening hand, or plan to mulligan super aggressively, then this card may be right for you, but most of the time I think you’d be better off with a combination of the above graveyard hate
Hydroblast/Blue Elemental Blast – cheap and efficient answers to Goblins and Zoo alike, as well as having random game against things like Imperial Recruiter (in Aluren and some Painter/Grindstone variants), Sneak Attack, Burning Wish, Price of Progress, Vexing Shusher, and Blood Moon/Magus of the Moon
Engineered Plague – this used to be great, then was mediocre, and now is trending towards great again (against Goblins, Merfolk, Faeries, Thopters, Elves, Empty the Warrens out of Charbelcher decks, etc.)
Perish – a well time Perish absolutely destroys Bant decks, and is also pretty good against Zoo decks (Wild Nacatl, Tarmogoyf, Qasali Pridemage, Knight of the Reliquary)
Krosan Grip – the best anti-enchantment and anti-artifact card ever printed, the split-second ability makes it very relevant against Counterbalance, Survival of the Fittest Crucible of Worlds, Form of the Dragon, Bitterblossom, Pithing Needle, etc.
Engineered Explosives – faster and cheaper than Deed, this can also help deal with opposing Pithing Needles, Empty the Warrens tokens, and decks with a million permanents (Enchantress or Stax, for example)
Mindbreak Trap – a total anti-combo card that is blanked by Xantid Swarm, most of the time I’d rather just have Duress or Thoughtseize
Pithing Needle – a pretty interesting and often overlooked answer to often problematic cards (Goblin Charbelcher, Mosswort Bridge, Aether Vial, Survival of the Fittest, Shelldock Isle, Sensei’s Divining Top, Wasteland, etc.); the only drawback is that it can be swept away by your own Pernicious Deeds

Because your local tournament is unkown to me, I can’t really recommend a perfect sideboard for you, but the above options are a great place to start.

Playing the Deck
Whether you have or haven’t played Landstill decks in the past, the strategy is pretty straightfoward. Destroy or counter most of what your opponent plays, soak up a little damage when necessary, drop Standstills to draw cards and refill your hand, and then eventually win with manlands and/or Jace.

One of the tricks to playing Landstill decks is knowing what kinds of hands to keep against the specific deck you’re playing against. Are you playing against a deck with a lot of mana denial and only have a Wasteland and Underground Sea in your opening hand? That’s probably not going to get there. Are you playing against Goblins and don’t have any removal? That’s probably not going to get there. Don’t be afraid to mulligan aggressively with this deck. Between Standstill, Jace 2.0, Life From the Loam, and Pernicious Deed you can generate lots of virtual and real card advantage that can rebuild your hand and board position, or put you far ahead of your opponent if things are going right.

On the topic of the card Standstill, people have been deriding the card as long as I can remember, but it keeps on showing up in winning decks. Do you know why that is? Because some players know how to play with effectively, and a great number of people don’t know how to best play against it. It doesn’t do much. It just draws you a significant number of cards once you’ve cleared the board of relevant threats, and is one of the best card advantage engines available in Legacy. It’s not as broken as Ancestral Recall in Vintage, but in Legacy Landstill decks it usually works out very well because they have a ton of removal. That being said, if you are playing with Standstill you have to be smart. If you’re not playing Wasteland in your version it doesn’t make sense to throw it out there in game 1 against Merfolk, because not only do they have Mutavaults to match your Mishra’s Factories, but they also have Wasteland, and if you don’t have Wasteland you’re seriously behind. Be smart with it and it will reward you.

When watching other players playing Landstill (and Blue in general) I am often left scratching my head by how frequently Brainstorms and fetchlands are wasted. In decks with lots of conditional cards you should be saving your Brainstorms for the absolute last possible minute when you need to use them. For example, say you have hit your first two land drops are have 6 cards in hand. Is it correct to Brainstorm on your main phase there to try to dig for land if you don’t have a fetchland in play? Probably not, because if you Brainstorm on your main phase and don’t hit that elusive third land, you effectively just got double-Time Walked. The better play would be to wait an additional turn or two until the last possible minute (either facing down a threat on the board where you need removal, or would have 8 cards in hand and would have to discard anyways if you don’t hit a land). This will increase your odds of seeing that land (because you’d be two cards deeper into your deck, and will have seen up to 5 cards if you Brainstorm as described later in that example). Saving your Brainstorms will also allow you to shuffle away dead cards (extra removal or lands in mid game) at a later time, so this is critical to success with Landstill decks.

Similarly, while you may have 6-8 fetchlands in your deck, just cracking them to potentially thin your deck out a miniscule amount is rarely correct. The more optimal play is usually to save them to play around Wasteland, to hit a specific color if you’ve been cut off that color otherwise, and for their synergy with Brainstorm and Jace. Small things like this can and often do equal the difference between wins and losses in tightly contested games, so don’t fritter away your fetchlands!

Another trick is knowing when and how to use Jace, the Mindsculptor. For example, when your opponent has a 2/2 on the table of some sort (let’s say Mutavault or Lord of Atlantis), you have to know when and how to use Jace. Do you Brainstorm there looking for removal or to draw as many cards possible before Jace dies? Do you bounce your opponent’s dude? Do you use the +2 fateseal ability to pump Jace and effectively make them have to attack Jace (buying you life, and turns)? A lot will depend on what’s in your hand (removal, counters, or additional Jaces), how many cards your opponent has in hand, and what your life total is. This experience only comes with testing the deck, so start practicing.

In this article we’ve reviewed some sucessful UBG Landstill lists, made our own slightly modified version, and talked about some sideboard options. We’ve also presented you with a few tips on playing the deck. Join us again soon as we’ll next look at playing some specific matches with the deck, and talk a little more about sideboarding. Thanks for reading.