Hello, I’m Geoffrey Moes, and I made Top 8 at the recent StarCityGames Legacy Open in Columbus on June 3rd playing Belcher with a sideboard consisting of fifteen Revised Islands.
This all started a little more than a week before, on Friday, the 25th of May. I’m no stranger to Eternal formats, but my choice format is almost exclusively Vintage. It was only with some persuading by my Team Serious teammates that I was convinced to participate in a Legacy tournament.
Jumping into this wasn’t an easy task, though. I had no deck, and worse than that, no real format experience with the Legacy metagame. It quickly became apparent that Belcher was the best choice, both to have a good time and also to minimize my interactivity with the format, giving me less opportunity to blunder into mistakes that a more experienced Legacy player would avoid. I spent an hour or so shopping around online for all the components that I was missing, which was almost of them. Bits and pieces of the deck arrived all week, and after the mail arrived on Saturday I headed off to Columbus, still leaving one Lion’s Eye Diamond floating in mail limbo.
Because I was missing the Lion’s Eye Diamond, I was forced to run only three of them and instead gave that card slot to the 4th Manamorphose, which in the team build typically is only a 3-of.
Empty Belcher, by Geoffrey Moes
4 Goblin Charbelcher
4 Empty the Warrens
4 Gitaxian Probe
4 Street Wraith
Mana Sources (44)
4 Chrome Mox
3 Lion’s Eye Diamond
4 Lotus Petal
4 Elvish Spirit Guide
4 Simian Spirit Guide
4 Land Grant
4 Tinder Wall
4 Rite of Flame
4 Desperate Ritual
4 Pyretic Ritual
This list is primarily the creation of my teammates Matt Hazard and Nat Moes, who did considerable testing with it in preparation for SCG Cincinnatti earlier this year. The same Matt Hazard, you might recall, who placed second with Charbelcher in the 2010 Legacy Champs at GenCon. They were attempting to build a list with maximum turn one win consistency.
Experimenting with other variants (most importantly the Burning Wish variant that is more commonly played), they found most of them had a turn one win consistency in the mid-seventies. This build came out in the mid to high eighties, and was the clear winner by their metrics.
Other than lacking Burning Wish, the other thing separating this build from other more typical Legacy Belcher builds is the lack of Seething Song. Seething Song is a little awkward because it’s the only ritual that costs three and it produces a fairly unappealing five mana. A cost at three puts it well above the general mana curve of the deck, and turns it into a counter-magnet when storming up. In addition, the resulting five mana is usually one more than you need to do anything fun, with the exception of heading up to seven to play and fire Belcher (a responsibility best left to Lion’s Eye Diamond). This is a little bit different if you’re playing Burning Wish, because Seething Song into Burning Wish gives you RRR for the follow-up play, but without Burning Wish that last R you’re paying a premium for is too often wasted. In this build, it’s cut in favor of cantrips to make you see your other rituals more often.
The deck is amazingly consistent. The cantrips keep it feeling very small, and because of them you can have a very tight deck consisting of the best 48 cards you want to play.
I’m not certain that the 3 Lion’s Eye Diamond and 4 Manamorphose change didn’t help me in the grand scheme of things. When used in conjunction with Burning Wish, Lion’s Eye Diamond is a powerful card that provides the mana you need to make your wishes come true. In this build, however, Lion’s Eye Diamond is only used to bait counters and to fire Goblin Charbelcher, aside from hijinx involving chaining multiple cantrips together and breaking it in response, example being Gitaxian Probe, cycle Street Wraith in response, cycle Street Wraith in response, crack Lion’s Eye Diamond in response. That happens…not very often. On the other hand, Manamorphose is by far the weakest cantrip, as the mana fixing is not often all that relevant. It amounts to a huge bottleneck, and is often used just to find a card that actually provides a net mana gain. It still cantrips, however, and having the extra one reduces the theoretical size of the deck that much more.
What has become the most exciting and controversial part of the deck is the sideboard. The original idea for chucking the Belcher sideboard entirely came on in preparation for SCG Cincinnatti, because Nat didn’t think that sideboard answers actually helped the deck. Obviously, if you’re running Burning Wish, some of the sideboard is dedicated to the Wish board. We already left out Burning Wish, though, so that section was unnecessary. Nat argued that answers like Xantid Swarm and Red Elemental Blast clutter up the deck but do little to increase its effectiveness, because every answer you draw only clouds your ability to enact your original game plan, especially if the answer is irrelevant. Xantid Swarms get killed, and Blast effects nullify counters that could instead be baited out with the spells they’re subbed in for. Instead of trying to interact with our opponent, we decided, it would be better to keep the core of the deck strong and focus on either winning before the hate comes online or baiting out the hate spells and driving a critical threat through to reach victory.
Having no sideboard would be a bold move, but we didn’t necessarily want to go that far. Having no sideboard gives your opponent information that you don’t want him to have. Instead, we opted for a junk sideboard so we could generate the illusion of sideboarding just for the possibility that our opponents would oversideboard in response. If I can convince my opponent that I’m bringing in Xantid Swarms, my opponent needs to maintain some kind of creature kill in order to deal with them. Those creature kill spells do not help him win, and they do not obstruct me from winning. That puts me ahead.
This same idea has been used in Vintage by Dredge players for a while. After autowinning game one, you don’t necessarily know what your opponent will be bringing in to hate you out in game two. Rather than bring in answers that can address everything they could possibly throw at you, you have the option of not sideboarding at all and just going into game two with your original sixty, unmuddled by worthless cards that could possibly be completely dead. If things go well, the match is over. If things go poorly, you will have more information to use when sideboarding when going into game three, giving you much better chances to grind out a victory. We took this same idea and took it to the extreme with Belcher, deciding that we didn’t need any silly answer cards at all.
Crafting the sideboard as being all Islands came up as a joke somewhere along the way, and it stuck. We decided they should specifically be Revised Islands as the most unpimp Islands possible for maximum comedic value.
On to the actual tournament. 257 people showed up for the StarCityGames Legacy Open in Columbus Ohio. I expected to be playing a rogue deck, but the more that I listened in on random snippets of conversation going on beforehand, the more I heard about people playing Belcher or people with friends playing Belcher. That got me worried, because if everyone else got the memo that Belcher is going to be all over the place that signals a really bad day for me.
Round 1 vs. Kurt Crane (playing RUG Delver)
Game 1: I open a hand with Land Grant, LED, some two mana rituals, and Empty the Warrens. The hand is fine as long as I can draw something to bridge the gap to two mana, as Land Grant intoTaiga alone doesn’t get me casting two mana rituals. I’m on the draw, so it should be fine. He plays a dual that includes Blue, which is a bad omen of things to come. I draw Land Grant, which is worthless because I’ve already got one in hand. I don’t Land Grant yet, because if I’m going to show my hand anyway I might as well keep some mystery as to what’s going on on my side of the board, so I discard the extra Land Grant at end of turn. On his turn he plays another land and plays a Tarmogoyf. Over the next two turns I proceed to do nothing as I draw another Empty the Warrens and yet another Land Grant, all of which get me nowhere. He plays another Tarmogoyf and lays the hurt down on me. At three life, I draw a Rite of Flame. It’s all or nothing, so I cast Land Grant and get my Taiga, but the resulting Rite of Flame meets the expected Force of Will, at which point it was all over for me.
I nonchalantly shuffle in all fifteen Islands and then spend some time going through the deck and pulling them out. I don’t think he noticed at all.
Game 2: My hand is pretty good. I have a Charbelcher in hand and 2 Lion’s Eye Diamond to fire it, but the hand caps out at three mana, which isn’t enough to get Belcher into play. The extra Lion’s Eye Diamond is basically blocking me by not being something that actually generates useful mana. I keep anyway, because I should be able to draw a mana source, even though that will give him a turn to develop. I play a Lion’s Eye Diamond for my turn, hoping to draw out a Force of Will. It doesn’t, and I pass the turn. He drops a Blue dual and plays Delver of Secrets. I draw another LED and pass the turn. He fails to flip Delver, but does nothing relevant on his turn other than attack with unflipped Delver. On my turn, I draw Rite of Flame, but he has a Daze that I can’t pay for. Delver flips and continues to pound me into the ground as I draw trash. Close to the end, I once again have assembled what I need to go off, but any counter basically sinks me. I play a Manamorphose because I need another ritual at this point, but he has a Daze for it and I’m sunk.
Games 0-2, Matches 0-1
I’m a little bit disheartened, but I wasn’t actually expecting to do well with Belcher at the tournament, so this doesn’t come as a big surprise. The deck did not pan out, and having slow starts against a Blue opponent (the hardest lBue deck in the meta, no less) didn’t help. My cousin and teammate Nat Moes reassures me, telling me that the loser’s bracket is where Belcher wants to be after round one.
Round 2 vs. Justin Sosbe (playing RUG Delver?)
Game 1: I’m on the draw with a pretty good hand that has a nice first turn Empty the Warrens. He plays a land and passes the turn. I storm up, but I make a critical misplay that could have easily cost me the game. I was at five storm with four mana in the pool and my relevant remaining hand consisted of Desperate Ritual and Empty the Warrens. Twelve goblins is plenty to seal the deal right there, but for some reason I decide to cast Desperate Ritual instead to get the extra storm. He asks me to hold on and mulls it over a bit. I look down and realize my mistake, horrified that if he pulls out any decent counter (even a Spell Pierce would leave me at three mana after the resolution of Desperate Ritual if I opted to pay for it) I am totally crushed by my hubris. He doesn’t. I Empty the Warrens for fourteen goblins and they run him over in two turns.
Instead of shuffling in all fifteen sideboard cards, I fan then out and very deliberately take a group of four and then a group of two and put them in my deck. He notices this, and starts up a discussion about sideboarding.
“Red Blasts?” he says.
I reply with, “Yeah, you’d better bring them in, because I’m siding in my Delvers.”
We chuckle, but he also has brought in several more cards after noticing that I am sideboarding. This is exactly what I was hoping for, and why I think that my previous “shuffle in all fifteen at once” sideboard was unsuccessful. Showing my opponent how many cards I am bringing in (in other words, sideboarding like an idiot) gives them a pretty good idea of what to think I’m fielding against them, and forces them to counter that. Just what I want.
Game 2: This one starts out just like the first, and I have a good hand with a nice Empty the Warrens. He plays a fetch and passes the turn. I Street Wraith into a ritual, which is fine, and then I start storming up after imprinting a Simian Spirit Guide on a Chrome Mox. I start with Rite of Flame, and then head directly into a second Rite of Flame. In response, he takes two to the dome to Surgical Extraction my Rite of Flame in the graveyard. While resolving Surgical Extraction, he gets to see exactly what my plan is, and that I have plenty more mana to replace the R that I lost when he removed the Rite from the yard.
As he’s searching through my deck, he’s apparently just looking for what I sideboarded in, with repeated exclamations of “What did you sideboard?!”
I said, “Ask me after the match. We’ll have a laugh.”
After finishing up with the Extraction, he cast a Brainstorm in order to search for an answer to the looming hoard, but found nothing. I resolved the rest of my Rituals unimpeded and ended up with an Empty the Warrens for a healthy eighteen goblins, courtesy of his bumps in storm count, which quickly overwhelmed him in the following turns.
Games 2-2, Matches 1-1
I fanned out my sideboard after the match was over, and we both had a good laugh.
Round 3 vs. Ari Lax (playing Ad Nauseam Tendrils aka ANT)
Game 1: He mulligans in game one, but I keep a hand with good mana and three cyclers, two Street Wraiths and a Gitaxian Probe, figuring that I’ve got some draw power to find a threat. I Gitaxian Probe him first to see Polluted Delta, Brainstorm, Ponder, Rite of Flame, Infernal Tutor, and Ad Nauseam. Nothing that’s there is very relevant to me, so I cycle the Street Wraiths and get an Empty the Warrens on the first draw. I stormed up and played Empty the Warrens with six storm, yielding fourteen goblins to go into the red zone. Ari fetched, Pondered, and eventually Brainstormed, but was unable to find a way to kill me faster than I could kill him.
I did what I did last round, and which became my typical move every round, in moving a playset of four cards and another set of two into the deck and then removed them. I don’t think it had any effect here.
Game 2: He starts off with an immediate Inquisition of Kozilek on me, revealing a stellar hand with Goblin Charbelcher, the mana to cast it, and a Lion’s Eye Diamond to fire it. We chat about the decision a bit, and he makes the right choice to take the LED because I have too many Rituals for the loss of a single one to stop me and his only hope is to kill me before I can find what I need to fire it. I pull Lion’s Eye Diamond off the top because it’s better to be lucky than good. Belcher did not miss.
Games 4-2, Matches 2-1
Round 4 vs. Brandon Young (playing UW Stoneforge)
Game 1: I am on the play and have a weak but still reasonable Empty the Warrens for ten goblins, which passes through without incident. I am not even able to figure out what he’s playing, as he scoops after his second draw, having played only a fetchland.
Despite having no idea what he’s playing, I still go through the sideboard motions. I won game one so quickly that our neighbors are still in the preparation stage for their first game. The guy on my right gets a bit nosy, and out of the corner of my eye I see him get a shocked look on his face when he sees me picking through my sideboard. I ignore it, and am glad that he doesn’t say anything. Brandon did not seem to notice.
Game 2: Brandon seems more confident this time about, so I’m expecting something with the word “counter” on it after he plays a fetchland and passes to me. It’s a little bit awkward, though, because I storm up and Empty with four storm again only to meet a Force of Will on the Empty the Warrens. I explain to him that it only counters the initial copy, which it is clear he didn’t know. That kind of sucks, but there’s not much to be done about it. He still chooses to maintain the play, which leaves me with only eight goblins. That’s not enough to assure a kill, and I think we both know it. I cast a Land Grant before drawing a threat, figuring I’ll want the land on the board before I get any information that I want to keep hidden, but he has a Force of Will for that, too. This has diminished his hand, but he gets some dudes online that are keeping my tokens from sealing the deal, as I feared would happen. I get a Belcher and a Lion’s Eye Diamond, but I don’t have enough mana to play out the Belcher. On his final turn, he casts Stoneforge Mystic and gets a Batterskull he doesn’t have the mana to play. That Batterskull may easily end me if it hits the board, because I have only nine life remaining due to cantrips and other beats damage. Fortunately, I draw an Elvish Spirit Guide which gives me the 4th mana I need to play Belcher, and the LED fires it. Belcher did not miss.
Games 6-2, Matches 3-1
Round 5 vs. Chris Brinkerhoff (playing Dredge)
Game 1: He is on the play, but he does nothing relevant and I proceed to drop Belcher and fire it on my first turn. It’s almost as interactive as playing against Dredge in Vintage. BOOM! Roasted.
Game 2: I keep an opener with good mana, a Goblin Charbelcher, a Street Wraith, and a Gitaxian Probe. He mulligans once and then thinks for a while before decided to keep his six. Using a City of Brass, he plays Cabal Therapy, naming Belcher. That screws me of my win condition, which seems pretty bad. On my turn, I Gitaxian Probe him to see a hand of Cabal Therapy, Cabal Therapy, Cephalid Coliseum, and Stinkweed Imp. That hand basically puts me on the hot seat this turn, but everything is cool because Gitaxian Probe nets me an Empty the Warrens and then Street Wraith gets me another mana spell. I play out my hand and Empty the Warrens for fourteen goblins, giving him two turns to stabilize the game. He plays Coliseum and Cabal Therapies himself to get Stinkweed in the yard on the next turn. I swing, taking him to four life. He dredges Stinkweed Imp and uses the Coliseum now that he has Threshold, but the only thing it turns up is one Narcomoeba, which isn’t nearly enough.
Games 8-2, Matches 4-1
Round 6 vs. Jerry Yang (playing Sneak and Show)
Jerry Yang is a friend and teammate, so being paired up against him is a huge bummer, especially since we’re both X-1 and the person who loses is knocked out of doing anything exciting. Nevertheless, this is how tournaments work, and we’re both intent on giving it our all.
Game 1: Jerry wins the die roll and is on the play. I mulligan, and so does he. My six are pretty good, with a Belcher that I can play on turn one, but I’ll have to dig to fire it. Fortune is not so favorable for Jerry. He knows what he’s facing, but after the game he told me the hands were so bad they weren’t fit for any opponent. He keeps his hand of four. He has a counter for me, but I’m still able to get through it to put Belcher on the table. He drew more countermagic to stop anything that would activate it, but over four turns I turn up Taiga, ESG, and SSG to get uncounterable activation mana and blow him out.
I don’t bother sideboarding. Jerry knows all my tricks.
Game 2: Jerry can’t stop me from playing Empty the Warrens for fourteen goblins on my first turn. He says, “I have answers. I just need to draw them.” He untaps, draws, and playing Echoing Truth with a smile. That sends me to frown town as I have to figure out an alternative and I’m fresh out of good stuff. Jerry gets moving with some Blue cantrips, but he seems unable to find the business he needs to apply pressure. I eventually reload and am able to play another Empty the Warrens for another fourteen goblins. This time he is unable to topdeck the out, and is overcome by 1/1s.
Games 10-2, Matches 5-1
Round 7 vs. Jeff Hoogland (playing BW)
This round we are at one of the feature match tables. I sit down with Jeff and declare that this will be the battle to see which spelling of our name is stronger. After that, we get into small talk and he laments playing against jerk combo players. Awkward.
Game 1: He is clearly not pleased when I win the die roll and turn out to be a combo player, proceeding to Empty the Warrens for twelve goblins. He can’t recover from it, and is very frustrated because, as I found out later, his opener had, among other things, land, Chrome Mox, and Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, which would have really shut me down. His frustration is amplified by the Belcher player in the feature match next to us being generally boisterous and loud, which was very distracting.
Game 2: I have a hand with plenty of mana but no threats. I do have a few cantrips, one of which is Gitaxian Probe. At this point, I don’t know he’s packing Thialia, so I figure I have some time to work. I keep the hand. I Gitaxian Probe him on my first turn to see Hymn to Tourach, Thalia, and Lingering Souls. He gets Thalia down, so my mana spells instantly get a lot worse. I get a Taiga on the board, and I play a Lotus Petal with it. When I’m one mana away from having enough to play Empty the Warrens, he gets his second Black source he needs to play Hymn to Tourach. He finds one of the Land Grants I was squirreling away to insulate me from the Hymn, but the second hit is an Elvish Spirit Guide, which is a huge blow. He follows that up with a Wasteland on my Taiga, which effectively ended the game there, even though my imminent death dragged on for several more turns.
Game 3: I am on the play again, and I have Empty the Warrens, decent mana support, and two Gitaxian Probes. I keep. My Gitaxian Probe reveals Verdant Catacombs, Wasteland, Chrome Mox, Liliana of the Veil, Hymn to Tourach, Thalia, and Tombstalker. That hand would destroy me if he were on the play. My Gitaxian Probes, however, turn up another Gitaxian Probe, which further adds to the storm count, and I Empty the Warrens for sixteen goblins that he can’t answer.
Games 12-3, Matches 6-1
After the tournament, I ran into Jeff Hoogland on Reddit in a thread where he was discussing his experiences in the tournament. He mentioned in talking to me that I was the “least obnoxious” Belcher player he’s played against. High praise, I think.
Round 8 vs. Nick Edgerle (playing RUG Delver)
Game 1: I win the die roll, and have first turn Goblin Charbelcher with activation mana. Belcher did not miss.
My opponent is not happy. Any pleasurable small talk that was going on earlier in the tournament has been forgotten by now, as people have more and more invested in their win records.
Game 2: This starts out looking pretty rough. I have a Gitaxian Probe to check his hand, and I see two Misty Rainforests, Brainstorm, Thought Scour, Daze, and Spell Pierce. I attempt to bait out something with a Lion’s Eye Diamond, but it fails. I continue on with a little storming, hoping to bait out one of the counters, and that does succeed. I lose a little because of it, but he expends the Spell Pierce and I pass the turn. We played draw and go for a while, with him amassing a large amount of mana on his side of the board, at least seven. I reached a point that I had to make a move, and made another attempt to go off. I played Chrome Mox and Lotus Petal, then used them to Manamorphose, hoping to get him to Daze it. He did not. I used the resulting mana to play Pyretic Ritual, which might be a more alluring target. He took the bait and Dazed it, which I paid for using Elvish Spirit Guide, then played Taiga and cast Empty the Warrens with five storm copies. He responded with Brainstorm, then Dazed one, Spell Pierced another, and then hard cast Force of Will on a third copy, leaving me with only six goblins. That’s not enough. It got worse when he drew a Tarmogoyf the following turn and starting throwing in Lightning Bolts to pick at their numbers further. With him at one life, I ran out of goblins, and needed to find an alternative win. It looked bleak when he played another Tarmogoyf with me only at seven life. Fortunately, I pulled Goblin Charbelcher off the top. He was completely spent on countermagic from drawing just aggro elements, and I was able to use my mana on hand to play it and then the Lion’s Eye Diamond I played on the first turn of the game to fire it.
Games 14-3, Matches 7-1
Round 9 vs. Glenn Jones (playing UR Delver)
After round eight is over, I am at 21 points and am playing at table three for my round nine match. I’m not a tournament math guy, but I figure we can probably draw in. My opponent also has 21 points, so I figure he’s trustworthy when he says we can draw into top eight. There was one person with 22 points that didn’t make top eight, but it wasn’t me (Editor’s Note: it was Bob Conley, who lost his last round).
My final stats after the Swiss were as follows:
Respectable enough for an outlier deck with a pocket full of Islands.
Games 14-3-1, Matches 7-1-1
Top 8 vs. Kurt Crane (playing RUG Delver)
Oh hey, that guy that started my tournament experience by handing my face to me! Everything aside, I actually had a good time in my games with Kurt. It was a welcome departure from the incredible tension of the preceding rounds of the Swiss.
Top 8 is rough for Belcher. The surprise element is gone. Your opponent knows what you’re playing the first game (even if I hadn’t played him earlier). Additionally, since Kurt was 4th seed and I 5th, he got to choose to play first without a die roll, which is not a comfortable position for Belcher. I had won a lot of games on the draw, but I’m not one to enjoy a handicap.
Game 1: He mulligans once, but keeps his hand of six. I mulligan as well because my opening seven has excellent mana but no threats, and I would really like a sure threat in this match. I don’t get it, and my hand of six is just a hand of worse mana than my original seven. I keep it anyway, not willing to get rid of any more counter fodder. That becomes immediately relevant when he Dazes the Tinder Wall I play, which is currently my only 1cc spell that I have to bridge the gap to the 2cc rituals. He lands a Delver and then a Tarmogoyf which are eating my face in a hurry, and when I have nine life remaining I have to go for it. I do some stuff and make some mana, and the game state ends up with me with RRR in my mana pool, Lion’s Eye Diamond on the table, and a hand consisting of Pyretic Ritual, 2 Empty the Warrens, and Manamorphose. With his multiple creatures on the board, I need more storm in order to seal the deal, and a counter will destroy me regardless of what it’s hitting, so I play Manamorphose, leaving just R remaining. He plays Spell Pierce on it. It’s a terrible situation for me, because I have no backup plan and I have no response to the Pierce other than going for broke, which is what I decided to do. I cracked the Lion’s Eye Diamond for green and discarded my hand, using two of the green to pay for the Pierce and resolve the Manamorphose, leaving RRGG in my mana pool and me with a board of nothing and nothing in hand. I drew the card off of Manamorphose and, in an amazing display of luck, played the resulting Empty the Warrens for fourteen goblins. The following turn he attacked with Delver, taking me to six, and in return I attacked with thirteen goblins, keeping one at home for chumping Tarmogoyf. The following turn, he attacked with Delver, taking me to three.
“Bolt?” I asked.
“Bolt,” he said, and I died.
Game 2: My trend of drawing bad hands against Kurt continued, and he had the Spell Pierces ready and waiting whenever I attempted to get off the ground. He played another Delver and a Tarmogoyf which were only too happy to take advantage of the time I spent flopping about attempting to piece together something of an offensive. My life total went from twenty to seventeen, then seventeen to eleven, eleven to two, and then it was done.
Games 14-5-1, Matches 7-2-1
Overall, it was an amazing experience and the deck performed amazingly well. It’s ridiculous that every round I won I won in two games except for the round against Jeff Hoogland, which I won in three. The consistency of the deck is absurd. I did an AMA on Reddit regarding the deck, and you can read that here for further entertainment.
The 15 Island sideboard has caused an incredible stir on the Internet, which is also pretty cool. On the other hand, there are also a number of people coming out that seem disappointed, even angry that we would do such a thing and furthermore that the deck did so well. For as much unofficial coverage there has been of the sideboard, there seems to be just as much official coverage of the event that has been sweeping it under the rug and pretending it didn’t happen. It really surprises me, because I think that one of the things that’s so amazing about this game is that crazy stuff like this can occur, and every once in a while does occur. Why try and hide the fact that, sometimes in this game, Magic really does happen?