Baleful Strix put 14 copies into the Top 16 of the SCG Premier IQ in Milwaukee this weekend. That has to be some sort of record. Between a pair of birds in Jeremy Seroogy's Esper Mentor list, and a full set in both(!?) the Nic Fit lists as well as the second place(!!!) Aluren list, it was a week to shine for the little familiar that could.
Seroogy's Esper list is a rather straightforward interpretation of the new face of control in Legacy. With a transition away from the common Stoneforge Mystic -> Batterskull package toward a Monastery Mentor shell, Esper has begun to resemble some of the Vintage decks of the current age more than its predecessors in Legacy control. In fact, despite the cards like Toxic Deluge and Jace the Mind Sculptor, traditionally associated with the pure control decks like Miracles, Seroogy's list plays more of a tempo game akin to Delver decks than it does the waiting game. As such, Baleful Strix represents a threat that has the capability of shutting down the offense from Delver, Tarmogoyf, Griselbrand and Emrakul alike, but nets you a card and pairs extremely well with Cabal Therapy. As a road block on the way to bigger and better things, Strix is unparalleled in Legacy, and it finds a solid home in this pseudo-control shell trying to survive until its powerful midgame threats can come online.
A brainchild of Caleb Durward – as are many of the most outlandish Legacy brews you see in popular play – Nic Fit combines the power of ramping basic lands via Veteran Explorer with the affinity for horrible naming conventions popular in Legacy. A first turn Explorer into a turn two Cabal Therapy with flashback can lead to degenerate game states in a deck that is more capable of taking advantage of the additional lands (and in fact, has the lands to fetch) than most decks in Legacy. Ramping into a top end that includes heavy hitters like Grave Titan and Thragtusk converges well with the spot-removal heavy format, and often forces the opponent to trade multiple cards for your threat.
If trading two-for-one is the market you're in, then Baleful Strix meshes into the fold nicely – and pairs even better with the Modern-banned Birthing Pod, which has found Legacy play in the Nic Fit shell. A curve of Deathrite Shaman into Pod, followed up by Strix being Podded for one of a host of Silver Bullets can be devastating even for the fast combo decks in Legacy. Against the "fair" decks like the Esper shell above, the card advantage train is plowing through the station and the decks full of cantrips can't keep up. Of course the deck isn't without problems of its own – much like any other (essentially) ramp deck it has clunky draws, and without any way of interacting with the stack outside Glen Elendra Archmage it is prone to losing to decks that ignore the battlefield. Force of Will enters from the sideboard, but even as a best-case you only have 22 Blue cards in the deck and you'd need to stretch a long way to hit that number. Still, if the deck can hit favorable matchups along the way (read: Delver and Pyromancer decks) and circumvent any awkward draws to sabotage itself, Nic Fit has the tools required for tournament success – as can be witnessed by the pair of very similar lists to make the Top 10 in Milwaukee.
As for Aluren, I have a well-documented dislike for the deck in general, and will never understand the allure of bringing such a pile of terrible Magic cards to an event you've spent money to enter. Let's run through the checklist:
· Four mana Sorcery-speed noncreature you can't win the game without resolving.· Host of cards that are miserable to draw on their own.· Manabase that only a mother could love.· "Infinite" combo that requires a million cards to pull off.· "Infinite" combo that loses to more than one kind of removal.· Armada of loyal fanboys thinking of corner cases on forums worldwide.
Yep, that's Aluren for you folks.
When the deck works, it's hard to argue that it just works. With its namesake Enchantment in play, the deck can seem to perform like a well-oiled machine, fighting through no limit of disruption spells and doing stack tricks that would make your head spin. Swords to Plowshares? No problem. Just bounce my Recruiter with Dream Stalker, Recruit then play a Cavern Harpy, hold priority, bounce the Harpy, play it again, and bounce the Dream Stalker, replay Stalker to bounce Recruiter, Recruit for a Parasitic Strix and go off with the Swords on the stack. No problem. Opponent has a Disenchant effect in response to the first Recruiter? No worries! Cascade a Shardless Agent into a Dream Stalker into another cascade into a Baleful Strix into a second Recruiter into a Cavern Harpy into the combo. No problem. Opponent has a Thoughtseize on turn two? Crap. Big problem.
I've played a lot of Omni-Tell at this point, and I can say with a straight face that the single greatest threat to your success with a linear combo deck like Aluren or Omni-Tell is the realization from the opponent that they only need to focus on the single spell you must resolve to win, and their dedication to preventing you from doing so. With Aluren you have hand disruption in the place of Counterspells, but ultimately the two are the same – your goal is to sculpt a hand that fights through the opponent's disruption to land your game breaker. Failing that, you're looking at anemic 1/3 beats, and that is not a winning strategy in this format. This isn't Modern.
On the flip side of these complaints, one good thing about Aluren being in the format is the presence of cards you will just never see played in any other deck. Things like Dream Stalker, Parasitic Strix and even Plaguebearer get their day in the sun (though I don't know how you expect to get good use out of Plaguebearer in Legacy without a mana combo in your deck). There's an undeniable amount of creativity and flexibility in decks like Aluren and Nic Fit, and they really demonstrate the depth of the Legacy card pool. Decks like this aren't built because they harness the most powerful cards in their colors – they represent the pinnacle of synergistic building and the idea that the sum is (much, much) greater than its parts.
While each of these decks have a system of intricate strings tying the parts of the deck together, there's a baseline thread that is common to them all – and Baleful Strix is an integral part of that thread. They all include
X Baleful Strix
4 Cabal Therapy
This is not an attempt to bring about a discussion of the merits of Brainstorm, but rather to demonstrate that the biggest piece of the puzzle that allows decks like these to be realistic in Legacy is the consistency provided by the manabase along with the smoothing effects of Brainstorm. Without either of the two pieces of the puzzle, these decks would never be reliable enough to hit the important pieces of the deck without stumbling. At the same time, the disruption provided by Cabal Therapy gives the decks game against combo and control, while delaying the pressure of aggressive and tempo strategies enough to get their own game plan online. Baleful Strix exists at a junction between these two points. It provides a body for the disruptive element to rely on – both in the sense that it slows the board progress of the aggressive decks and allows for the requisite sacrifice to flashback Therapy. It continues the card flow against the decks where keeping up with card advantage is essential, and digs deeper toward the pieces of the deck that are critical in a given matchup. These decks have developed an understanding of the intricacies of their own nature that pushes them to include "filler" cards – but contrary to surface appearances, these birds serve a role much more important than filler and are truly the glue that binds the whole ball of string together.
Milwaukee's Premiere IQ was one of the most diverse Top 8s we've seen in months of Legacy play, despite the pervasiveness of the Grixis sub-type. Though Delver and Young Pyromancer do combine extremely well to create a threat base that can be difficult to combat, we are seeing a phenomenon that's rather unexpected. Rather than seeing a concentration of Grixis and anti-Grixis decks, we're seeing a propagation of decks that have reasonable Grixis matchups but are incredibly broad in nature. Despite its potency, Grixis decks are fragile in their plan of attack, and many of these decks that can address the X/1s head-on or go over the top of them have been seeing great success. I don't believe for a second that it's due to some quirk of the Midwest metagame. Players have recognized that there really aren't any unbeatable decks in Legacy and have capitalized on the open nature of the format to bring some of their favorite off-the-wall builds to the table. From Elves to Aluren, from Nic Fit to Delver, there's no shortage of possibilities in today's metagame - and this is only the beginning of the diversification of success in Legacy. Stay tuned, there are lots of crazy brews to come.