Instant Analysis – SCG Kansas City & San Jose Legacy Opens

In the wake of the December 20 2010 announcement by the DCI banning Survival of the Fittest, the metagame clock in Legacy was set to be turned back in time about six months before the breakout performance of Caleb Durward’s Vengevine Survival at Grand Prix Columbus in June.

While there were other Survival variants and Vengevine decks floating around and performing admirably over the past few years, no Survival deck had quite captivated players’ attention like this since RecSur circa 1998. From the Blue-Green Madness variant with Wild Mongrels that Caleb piloted a number of other intriguing variants spawned over the next five plus months, including WG Vengevine Survival that Jessie Butler won with at SCG Nashville, Rion Marmulstein’s Necrotic Ooze laced BUG Vengevine Survival deck from the same event (SCG Nashville), the Hatfield’s mono-Green Lion’s Eye Diamond-fueled turbo Vengevine Survival* from SCG Baltimore, Nick Spagnolo’s Trinket Mage infused UG Survival Vengevine at SCG Charlotte, and Gerry Thompson’s BWG Fauna Shaman-Necrotic Ooze-Vengevine-Survival mashup from SCG Boston, a polished variant of many others that had come before it. The rapid mutation and proliferation of Survival as a percentage of the metagame and repeated success led to the DCI wielding the axe, probably prematurely, late in 2010.

With the fallen beast slain by the DCI and Survival’s tombstone written, what decks and strategies would players turn to in order to trump a metagame rewound about half a year? In this week’s Instant Analysis follow along as we review what players busted out for the first two major post-Survival metagame tournaments of the New Year, at SCG KC and SCG San Jose. That’s right, two mini-articles for the price of none!

SCG Kansas City Legacy Open (January 9, 2011)

On the second weekend of January and the first stop on the 2011 SCG season 194 competitors traveled to America’s heartland in Kansas City not only for world class barbeque, but to compete in the Legacy portion of this weekend’s StarCityGames Open series for $5800 in prize money. While many of the old favorites were well represented, there were also some new and reimagined decks elbowing in for a spot at the top tables.

We’ve got the Top 16 decklists up, and as can be expected there’s a good amount of aggro decks like Goblins and Merfolk, as well as a couple of BWG Junk decks.

There are a few interesting decks, so let’s dive in and take a look at some of the other decks that players and readers might not be as familiar with. Lewis Laskin piloted a deck SCG dubbed ‘Green and Taxes‘ in their deck tech segment, which is a takeoff of the mono-White deck named Death and Taxes, which abuses the interactions of Aether Vial, Mangara of Corondor, and Karakas. You can use Mangara’s ability to remove itself and target permanent from the game, and then with the ability on the stack use Karakas to bounce Mangara (which is Legendary) back to your hand, and then rinse and repeat to clear out any other problematic permanents. Aether Vial helps evade countermagic while also doing all types of annoying things, and freeing you up to use your mana for equipping things, bouncing things with Karakas, or screwing with the opponent’s mana with Wasteland. What this deck loses in mana stability compared to the mono-White version, it gains in the fact that it’s creatures (Tarmogoyf and Knight of the Reliquary) are generally much bigger and stronger. Knight of the Reliquary is absurd in here, fetching Karakas, Wasteland, and generally just being a massive threat. Most people will overlook this deck, but it was probably one of the best choices for this tournament and I wouldn’t have been surprised if it won the whole thing once it got into that Top 8.

The first place I’ve seen a similar deck played was MTGO by creative deckbuilder FiatLux, who back in early May 2010 was playing a BWG Death and Taxes build, splashing for goodness like Confidant and Tarmogoyf. If people keep tweaking this I expect it to be a very strong choice the next few months and in any metagame where ground combat is the centerpiece of Legacy. Most Death and Taxes pilots tend to swear by running 4 Stoneforge Mystic because of how powerful Umezawa’s Jitte and Sword of Fire and Ice are, and I agree. I would immediately cut the third Gaddock Teeg in favor of the fourth Stoneforge, as it just does more in more matches. If a Black splash appeals to you as well I would recommend looking at something like this.

Junk and Taxes, by Jaco 01-15-2011

Business (38)
Swords to Plowshares
Aether Vial
Umezawa’s Jitte
Sword of Fire and Ice
Mother of Runes
Dark Confidant
Stoneforge Mystic
Knight of the Reliquary
Mangara of Corondor

Mana Sources (22)
Windswept Heath
Verdant Catacombs
Sideboard (15)
Umezawa’s Jitte
Sword of Light and Shadow
Ethersworn Canonist
Krosan Grip
Path to Exile
Bojuka Bog

This gives you access to the two best Black spells in Legacy currently, and also gives you a draw engine, which is always a good thing. Thoughtseize is so powerful and mana efficient right now that it is also an obvious addition if dipping your toes into the waters of Black. Everything in this deck represents most of the best these respective colors have to offer at the moment, fused together with the power of Aether Vial.

On a similar note, I would be remiss if I did not mention sixth place finisher Gene Richtsmeier’s BW Vial deck, which also capitalizes on the strength of Aether Vial and Thoughtseize to allow it’s creatures to slip into play undeterred. This build is kind of similar to Blue White tempo decks with the Stoneforge Mystic package to buoy the Serra Avenger in the deck (hint: Jitte or SoFI-equipped Avenger is the nuts!). Instead of the Force of Will and Daze this deck is packing Tidehollow Sculler and Thoughtseize for disruption, and then combining that with removal like Swords to Plowshares, Diabolic Edict, and Vindicate. I don’t think this is as powerful as the ‘Green and Taxes’ deck, but in the matches I was able to watch Gene’s removal pulled him out of some unfavorable board positions time and time again. The flying ability of Serra Avenger also provides an end game to ground stalemates, and an inevitability that the deck would otherwise lack.

CounterTop variants of all sorts have been floated and tested, but lately Aether Vial decks and Islandwalking Merfolk have been trumping the strategy as a whole. AJ Sacher’s interesting take on the CounterTop NOPro lists goes about battling that a different way entirely, by merely seeking to clog the ground just enough to bust out a fast Natural Order into Progenitus, and then use the light counter package to protect it. His deck features zero removal (and zero White spells), but plays 8 mana producing creatures; most notably are 3 Wall of Roots. This was a long time staple in old Survival decks for its ability to produce crucial Green mana necessary to operate Survival while stalling the ground combat, and it serves in a similar capacity here. AJ used it to hold off opposing Merfolk and Goblins just long enough to Brainstorm, Top, and Ponder into Natural Order (for which Wall of Roots could be sacrificed to), and occasionally to protect his Jace, the Mind Sculptor. I would have liked to see the fourth Natural Order in there, but this configuration seemed to have served AJ well enough to deliver another Top 8 performance. For those who may have overlooked it, check out the Terastodon in AJ’s sideboard. That’s right, Natural Order doesn’t always just find Progenitus!

One deck that I had the opportunity to watch multiple matches for was Jacob Baugh’s High Tide deck. This wasn’t quite Solidarity (Reset High Tide), and it wasn’t quite Spring Tide (a Snap + Cloud of Faeries sorcery speed High Tide), as combo mages now have the recently unbanned Time Spiral available to do absurd things with. Jacob’s version (let’s call it Spiral Tide going forward) uses both Merchant Scroll and Cunning Wish together with endless cantrips to find exactly what he needs at a given time. There are a number of permutations with which to kill your opponent, but most often you are going to do one of the following:
Option 1) High Tide once or more and then generate enough mana to hard cast Emrakul, the Aeons Torn and win (don’t laugh, this happens by the fourth turn with decent regularity).
Option 2) High Tide once or more and start untapping and generating more mana, and then cast Brain Freeze and maybe a Twincast to deck the opponent.
Option 3) High Tide once or more and cast Time Spiral, and then kill the opponent with anything (Emrakul, Brain Freeze, Stroke of Genius).

While the quality of the cantrips available now (Brainstorm, Ponder, Preordain) allow this deck to be very consistent, it is not without weakness. In watching his matches and speaking to Jacob, the deck is relatively soft to CounterTop, Mindbreak Trap, and random things like Extirpate. In Round 8 with a Top 8 berth on the line eventual fifth place finisher Shea Hart (playing BWG Junk) was able to Duress and then Extirpate Jacob’s High Tide’s in game 2, at which point Jacob didn’t have a realistic shot at winning facing down any kind of clock. In game 3 Duress and Hymn to Tourach made an appearance, and Jacob decided he had to go for it, as he felt he wouldn’t be able to generate any kind of combo if he was hit by yet another discard spell in the coming turns. After a noble attempt in which he cast a couple of High Tides and about a half a dozen cantrips, he ultimately failed and was bounced from contention, landing in 13th place. But this Spiral Tide deck is very good, and I suspect you’ll be seeing more of it throughout the year. Not everybody likes attacking, and the banning of Mystical Tutor last year has dampened interest in Tendrils of Agony decks for the moment.

The last deck from KC that I want to highlight is Caleb Durward’s 16th place Painter Servant deck. We here at Eternal Central are pretty big fans of Painter decks in general, as it’s the best combo for the money in Legacy, and the most similar to a Vintage deck. This past November Jordi Amat wrote an article here on EC introducing a fast and redundant combo version of Painter he dubbed “Transformers,” and both he and I have tuned our own lists for this as the metagame changes. It’s fast and powerful, which is rewarding in Legacy right now. In a previous Instant Analysis article I highlighted Ken Adams’ SCG Minneapolis winning Painter deck, which utilizes the synergies between Painter’s Servant + Grindstone, Painter’s Servant + Lion’s Eye Diamond, and Lion’s Eye Diamond + Auriok Salvagers, not to mention all the tutoring goodness between Enlightened Tutor, Imperial Recruiter, and Trinket Mage. In Legacy if you can consistently be doing broken things you know you are headed in the right direction.

The direction Caleb took the Painter deck was similar to Ken Adams’ list, but he made it faster by stripping out the White and upping the Lion’s Eye Diamond count, as well as adding Mox Opal. He also increased the Goblin Welder count and subbed in the best remaining Blue tutor in Legacy, Intuition. With either combo piece and Goblin Welder in play Intuition becomes lethal, or if you have Goblin Welder in play with enough artifact lands Intuition will effectively become lethal within a matter of two turns at most (two Goblin Welder activations). Goblin Welder is very hard to keep alive in Legacy, as there is a ton of removal played, but it can help bring back your fallen or countered combo pieces. Like Ken Adams’ deck before it this deck lacks Academy Ruins, but aside from that it’s a pretty smooth sailing combo machine. While clunky, the Show and Tell plus Emrakul package out of the sideboard can catch unsuspecting or unprepared opponents off guard, and ignore hate cards like Null Rod or Pithing Needle the opponent might bring in.

SCG San Jose Legacy Open (January 16, 2011)

The following weekend the SCG tour arrived in San Jose to thaw from the Midwest chill. The metagame looked largely the same, dominated by aggro, tribal, BGW Junk, and CounterTop variants, with other oddities mixed in here or there, as is the norm in Legacy. The Top 16 decklists are available to peruse, and if you’re looking for something new or interesting to do battle with you might find a couple of the decks interesting.

Goblins once again dumped a couple players into the Top 8, and once again walked away with the trophy. This time it was Ian Bartolomei’s Mogg War-Marshall heavy BR Goblins deck walking away with the honors. This build is a bit lighter on Goblin Warchief and Goblin Chieftain, instead utilizing 4 Mogg War-Marshalls to get max value out of Gempalm Incinerator, and to build up a small army quickly before and after Firespout.

There is not much else to see of note from the San Jose Top 8, other than a heavy leaning towards tribal and Aether Vial decks. If you can’t beat Aether Vial you can’t win these tournaments right now. To me this means there is room for more Show and Tell, Dark Ritual, and Argothian Enchantress‘ next week at SCG Indianapolis and in the coming weeks.

Outside of the Top 8 there are some interesting things going on. Nick Spagnolo ran a near identical copy of Caleb’s Painter deck from the week before to a Top 16 finish, and two identical Blue-Green Vengevine Elves deck slid in at 11th and 12th place, piloted by Matt Nass and Greg Hatch, respectively. Matt Nass also made Top 8 of the Standard portion the day before with an Elves deck, but this beast is quite different.

Present are the Glimpse of Nature, Nettle Sentinel, and Heritage Druid that allow Elves to do sick things to begin with, but also present are Fauna Shaman (yes, it’s an Elf) along with Intuition to dump Vengevine goodness into the graveyard to provide more reach and an accelerated endgame. Also present are 4 Natural Order and 1 Progenitus out of the sideboard to provide yet another angle of attack, which will often trump whatever hate cards an opponent might bring in (Firespout, Chalice of the Void, Ethersworn Canonist, Engineered Plague). This deck has staked an early claim as the best post-Survival Vengevine deck, but I’m sure we’ll see more and more come out of the woodwork as the year goes on. The lesson here, like the Painter deck above, and like Mystical Tutor and Survival decks before it, is, do broken things before your opponent does them.

In probably my favorite Magic article ever, Zvi Mowshowitz wrote about the Extended format way back in March of 2005. Among other things, he posits that you want to be playing one of the most powerful decks in any given constructed format, that you do not want to be interacting with the opponent and be forced to find an answer for every little thing they do, and above all else never play fair. Decks like Reanimator, Vengevine, Painter, Doomsday, Elves, and even things like Enchantress do not play fair. They do something degenerate, and that’s what you want to be doing in Legacy in a field full of Ather Vials. Let’s see just how unfair the next few stops of SCG and the LCL/MCL (large monthly Spanish tournaments) are.

* The mono-Green “turbo” Vengevine Survival speed build with 4 Lion’s Eye Diamond first appeared on MTGO piloted by sicksicksicksicksicksicksick, and the Hatfield’s took it and tweaked it slightly before piloting it at SCG.