(Disclaimer: As the title suggests, this article is focusing on Legacy before Aether Revolt. It is not unreasonable to expect that the set (read: Fatal Push) is going to affect the format, but there likely won’t be any major changes, and I am going to address potential implications once I get into the decks I want to cover today.)
(Edit: There’s been a lot of criticism towards this article based on unclear methodology and miscommunication; I wrote a short explanation that you can check out here.)
Legacy, as a format, has two problems that prevent the metagame from developing like other formats do. When you look at metagame changes in Legacy, unless they are caused by bannings, unbannings or new printings, they are extremely slow.
Because of card accessibility, many players are not able to switch decks on a weekly basis. “Last week’s event was dominated by combo decks? Well, cool. I’m not gonna be able to switch from Elves to Delver just like that!”
Another factor is the sheer number of decks available in Legacy. It would be ridiculous to expect someone to be familiar enough with every single deck in the format to just pick them up for a tournament. Many matchups require knowledge of general gameplans and specific interactions – you play UR Delver for the first time, then attempt to kill a 2/3 Tarmogoyf (Land, Sorcery) with a Lightning Bolt. Unless you’ve seen the interaction before, you likely won’t know that Tarmogoyf will live.
For this reason, it’s a good idea to invest – both financially and your time – in just a few archetypes, maybe even only one; as many players do in Legacy. In my opinion, there are a handful of decks in the format that have much better chances to help you win a tournament than most other decks. I have been talking about the “Top Tier of Legacy” for a while now and I often get called out on it. So far, I have never expressed my thoughts on this quite thoroughly, but I hope this article will be sufficient.
I am not claiming these are the only decks that are “playable” in Legacy – if your goal is to play Magic, have some fun and not get destroyed, Legacy offers a plethora of decks you can pick and do fine with. If you want to give yourself the best shot to win tournaments though, I highly suggest you pick one of the decks I’m covering here.
So if you’re looking for a deck to invest your time and money in or you’re just interested in my “elitist ramblings”, this article is for you.
One last thing to keep in mind before we get started: It’s not possible to have perfect information in Magic. Out of the decks I know, these six are by far the best in Legacy, by virtue of beating all the other decks I’m familiar with. If there was a deck that only beat these six but lost to everything else, that deck would still be tier 3 at best.
This list still has the heavy Eldrazi presence in mind we saw over the summer. Other decks I consider decks to beat at this point in time are Shardless Sultai, Grixis Delver, Aggro Loam and Lands. Death & Taxes and BR Reanimator are additional decks that probably should be on your radar. Beating those decks, which you should expect to face in a tournament, is what makes the six decks discussed in this article the best decks in the format right now.
These are the three decks that I think have been at the top of the format ever since the banning of Dig Through Time. Not only do I think these decks are the best decks right now, but I also believe they are most likely to be the best decks in the future. Note that they are in no particular order; which one is actually the best depends on the metagame you’re playing in.
My thoughts on this deck are well-known. During 2016, I played Canadian Threshold in every single tournament I took seriously. This is the list I’ve been playing for the second half of the year:
What makes Canadian so good is its flexibility. You can tune the deck to beat almost every single deck in the format with minimal effort because of the high amount of countermagic the deck runs. You already have built-in interaction against every deck in the format, coupled with a very lean and aggressive curve that facilitates a large amount of draws that never allow your opponents to get their game plans going.
The list shown above is meant to beat a metagame mostly consisting of Miracles, Show and Tell strategies, Grixis Delver, Aggro Loam, Lands, Shardless Sultai, Eldrazi Stompy and Death & Taxes. And while it does excel in those matchups, this focus is also the deck’s main weak point: You beat what you prepare for, but several decks can give you trouble if you don’t prepare for them. Elves is one of the decks you will have a hard time beating without running some copies of Rough // Tumble and if you want to beat Storm or Dredge, you should also run a few cards for those matchups.
Fortunately, there are very few decks you will fundamentally have a hard time against, but UR Delver and Burn do belong in that category. Historically, Canadian Threshold would also have problems against deck with many basic lands and large amounts of late game bombs like Nic Fit and Stoneblade, but ever since the inclusion of Winter Orb, this deck has become much better at executing its main game plan of hindering the opponent’s mana development and beating down with small creatures.
Out of the decks I’m covering here today, Canadian is also the one that is most likely to (drastically) change in the future, depending on how the metagame shakes out with the addition of Fatal Push. For that reason, it might be best to understand this deck as the “mana denial with efficient creatures and a plethora of countermagic” slot rather than strictly UGR Mongoose + Delver + Stifle. I would not to surprised if the creature base or even the deck’s tertiary colour were to be revisited during the next months.
Notably, this deck can not really exist in a vacuum; it will always have to be metagamed. Speaking strictly about Magic Online, I have liked Canadian for Swiss + Top Cut tournaments where the metagame homogenises as the rounds progress, but I don’t consider it a great choice for League play where you are to expect to face the full metagame unfiltered.
Another thing to keep in mind with Canadian Threshold is that it’s probably the most skill-intensive deck on this list. I have played all these decks to some extent and I have watched others play them and this is by far the one where I disagree with other players’ decisions the most. You’re always trying to eek out slight advantages with this deck and it can be very hard to make a comeback if you slip up.
Here we have the deck that is almost universally considered the single best deck in Legacy but somehow still only makes up for 15-20% of the Legacy metagame in its more popular days.
Miracles is the most consistent of the decks listed, allowing you to play Magic almost every single game, thanks to its relatively high land count and the large amount of library manipulation.
Not only does the deck have access to many individually powerful cards like Monastery Mentor, Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Blood Moon (as well as all the white silver-bullet enchantments you can run), but there’s also the Counterbalance + Sensei’s Divining Top package which threatens to lock some decks out of resolving spells entirely, forcing them to either run a heavy countermagic-suite or situational removal (Abrupt Decay, Krosan Grip).
I believe the best approach to playing Miracles is what Brian Braun-Duin outlined in his GP Louisville report. I might not agree with all of his card choices, but I respect the idea behind the list. There’s also the option of running Daze with Mentor, as Claudio Bonanni showed to be legit.
Miracles is a deck that can adapt to most problems thrown its way. Of course it’s useful to have an idea of what you have to beat, but with Mentor in the mix, trying to just run through your opponents is not the worst back-up plan. Couple that with the deck’s consistency and tendency to play highly interactive games when not nut-drawing opponents and you get a deck that produces many games where the better playing person wins. Ergo, if you think you are better than your competition and you’re not quite sure what to expect to face in a tournament, Miracles is a great choice for you. This is the reason we have traditionally seen the deck do well at the Grand Prix level and on Magic Online, piloted by household names.
Miracles’ biggest weakness is the huge target on its head. If you want to beat Miracles with any of the other decks on this list, you can – but only until they realise they need to dedicate a few more cards to the matchup.
A great example for this is Miracles vs. Storm. Miracles beats inexperienced Storm players extremely hard, and even good players that don’t dedicate the necessary slots to beating Miracles. But once the Storm player has access to Abrupt Decays, Krosan Grips, Sensei’s Divining Tops, multiple Tendrils of Agony and maybe some copies of Carpet of Flowers, it becomes a favourable matchup for Storm. Then the Miracles player starts running Cliques and more countermagic and it becomes harder for Storm again.
Storm can more reasonably play the “perfect 60” for the matchup, but if both decks get to do so, Miracles is the favourite by a decent amount. In my experience, this is how most of the deck’s matchups play out.
Show and Tell
I’ll be frank here. Out of the decks listed, this is the one I am least familiar with and it could be as low as Tier 2, depending on how some of the matchups I have no experience with play out.
Nonetheless, Show and Tell variants are very powerful and customisable – you can go with straight up OmniShow, regular Sneak & Show or a hybrid list, depending on what your expected metagame dictates. It appears that the only non-blue deck to give any Show and Tell strategy trouble is Death & Taxes, which is very good against regular Sneak & Show, but less so against lists with Omniscience.
Boseiju, Who Shelters All is a troublesome card for blue decks to go up against; even those with Wasteland. Show and Tell strategies are consistent and good at stealing games, similar to Miracles. Of course, being combo decks, they are also prone to not drawing winning combinations of cards. And because they run lower amounts of interaction than Miracles and Canadian, they’re not always able to draw out games long enough to assemble their combos.
In this tier, there is only one deck:
This deck is unique in so many ways, it has to be in its own tier.
Why is this worse than Canadian, Miracles and Show and Tell? First and foremost, if you really want to beat Storm, you will beat Storm, with almost any deck. Still, when players are not prepared for Storm, the deck is ridiculously strong. Since the printing of Past in Flames, there has been exactly one deck in Legacy that was naturally favoured against Storm: Eldrazi Stompy.
Because Storm is so inherently powerful – threatening to kill by turn two up to 45% of the time, depending on the list – the deck gets away with a lot of mistakes both in playing and deck construction. Likewise, it punishes opposing mistakes harder than almost any other deck.
The second reason that Storm is not Tier 1 is what I like to call the combo cap: Sometimes you just don’t have a winning hand. So why does Show and Tell get to be Tier 1 but not Storm? Storm’s interaction, especially before sideboarding, is not meant to draw out games. It’s meant to prevent something from happening during combo turns. There are attempts to address this during sideboarding through hard removal or in rare cases Daze, but this certainly doesn’t go as far as naturally running hard countermagic.
However, just as those who want to beat Storm will do so, those who are not willing to put in the necessary work will lose to it. This is especially true for decks without blue, which are prone to losing game one thanks to a lack of interaction and then not being equipped to win a postboard game with Storm on the play. If you’re interested in further reading on beating Storm, I wrote an article on exactly that a while back.
For this reason, even though Storm might often not be the best deck to win a tournament, it is a great deck to consistently do well with, being given a lot of semi-free wins. Storm also has a strong cult-following; many players end up on Storm at some point and then never leave, meaning it is almost always a relevant metagame-presence, severely holding other decks back, especially those without Force of Will.
In turn, one thing holding Storm back is how skill-intensive it is. This is amplified by the fact that many Storm players try to improve the wrong aspects of their game. Yes, it is a fundamental skill to be able to properly execute combo turns, but smaller things are even more important to go really far with the deck. This means sequencing your spells, optimising cantrips, knowing the odds behind Ad Nauseam flips and especially sideboarding correctly. The most important aspect during sideboarding is identifying the correct approach to the game, i.e. picking the correct business-configuration. Picking your interaction is only secondary.
Out of the decks listed, Storm is the least safe in the future. With the direction Magic is going, it is not unlikely that soon every deck will have access to a two mana creature that completely locks Storm out of the game. There are multiple new lock pieces printed every year and a fair amount end up seeing play. That being said, as of this moment, Storm is still clearly above the final two decks we’re looking at today (and consequently all the other decks in the format).
The two decks I’m covering here have troubles beating both Miracles and the two combo decks, but they are both very good against the overwhelming majority of decks not covered in this article.
How good this deck is heavily depends on the metagame it’s played in. UR Delver excels in metagames heavy on creature decks, thanks to its heavy removal package, very aggressive clock and great card advantage engine in Bedlam Reveler. And while it mostly plays out like an aggro / tempo abuse deck in those matchups, it plays out more like a combo deck in non-creature matchups, especially against Miracles.
I think UR is slightly favoured against Miracles if properly set up, but there’s a very real limit to how far you can get (the combo cap, basically). You can not afford to board out all of your burn, so you will always end up drawing cards you can’t trade for opposing cards. This is a very dangerous proposition against Miracles, which will usually try to grind you out – especially against Counterbalance, you’re drawing slim. Thus, if you want to make a deep run in a long tournament (or over multiple smaller tournaments), I don’t think this deck is a great choice. If you face Miracles once, especially a less experienced pilot, it is perfectly possible to win (you are favoured, after all). But if you have to face Miracles multiple times, you are almost guaranteed to lose at some point. UR really is only slightly favoured, and I would not bank my tournament success on going 3-0 against Miracles with this deck.
As for the combo matchups, Storm is not a great matchup against skilled players with good lists (i.e. multiple Past in Flames and Tendrils after sideboarding), but I’ve been happy with the Show and Tell and Reanimator matchups. As opposed to the Miracles matchup, being a combo deck yourself is actually not bad against combo decks.
To sum up, I think UR Delver is clearly worse than Miracles, Canadian, Storm and Show and Tell, but it’s also clearly better than all of the other decks in the format, except for the last one we’re covering today:
This is the only non-blue deck I respect. If I’m not casting Brainstorm, I need a very good reason. Almost all non-blue decks have the upside of running more aggressive curves, but they tend to lack in the consistency department. Between Green Sun’s Zenith, Glimpse of Nature and the Wirewood Symbiote + Elvish Visionary engine, Elves has great backup for its Gaea’s Cradle or Natural Order draws.
Elves has the power and it has the consistency. Like UR Delver, it naturally beats most creature decks, but its struggles against Miracles and combo are more pronounced. I am certainly not an expert on Elves, but from talking to @itsJulian23 and Niklas Holtmann (12-3 atGP Chiba last year and MKM Series Top 8 finisher) it appears that you can beat either Miracles or Storm somewhat reliably (though it would take slightly more effort to beat the best Storm players), but you can not beat both and then you will still have issues against Show and Tell, which apparently is the deck’s real demon.
However, Elves is great against unprepared Delver decks (that’s me!) and it can easily out-grind most of the decks below Tier 2. Along with Storm, Elves would likely be the deck to benefit the most from a potential Sensei’s Divining Top ban, although to be fair, I don’t see that happening and Storm would still benefit much more.
Honorable mention: Death & Taxes
This deck is a dark horse to me. It has gotten some new toys recently, but to the best of my knowledge, they still don’t exist on Magic Online (which makes up for almost all of the Legacy I play these days). Couple this with the hefty price tag on Rishadan Port and I don’t get to play against the deck much, nor do I get to try it out myself (I have reservations about dropping a grand on a deck that seems unexciting to me).
The number one thing keeping decks out of Tier 1-2 range are bad matchups against both Miracles and combo. Especially against Miracles and Storm many decks fail. BR Reanimator is starting to make this problem even worse, starting to eat into combo decks’ share of the metagame while being faster, albeit more fragile, than most of them.
Up next are consistency issues, which non-blue decks tend to have. Non-blue decks are often ahead against blue decks in the early turns, but once the early onslaught of powerful spell has settled, blue decks have much better late games thanks to their cantrips. The worst case of this problem is Eldrazi Stompy, which regularly only casts three relevant spells in the first five turns of the game, and if those are not enough, the deck has a very hard time winning.
As always, thanks for reading!