Long ago, before there were any formats at all, there was simply "Magic."
Folks would buy booster packs and starter decks, sort out any cards that seemed powerful, and shuffle them up together with a handful of basic lands. Nothing was banned, and even the four-copies-per-deck rule was an innovation of the future. This was truly the wild west, and it was pretty easy to kill your opponent on turn one as long as you had access to enough good cards.
The four-copies-per-deck rule was implemented next, and the initial DCI banned & restricted list dropped in January of 1994. Black Lotus and the Moxen were all restricted to one copy per deck, alongside other powerhouses of early Magic like Rukh Egg and Orcish Oriflamme. The decision was made not to ban cards for power level reasons, but the ante cards, manual dexterity cards, and several other cards that messed with game states in weird ways (like Shahrazad) were banned for other reasons.
At the start of 1995, WotC introduced the Standard format, which was then called Type 2. At the time, Standard was comprised of just three sets: Revised, The Dark, and Fallen Empires. It had no banned and restricted list at the time, because the hope was that WotC wouldn't revisit any of the mistakes they made during their first year of card design. The previous banned list remained in effect for the "other" format, then called Type 1, now known as Vintage. Standard continued to evolve over the next few years, while tweaks continued to affect the Vintage banned and restricted list.
The format we're going to be talking about today, Legacy, was created in May of 1996. Called Type 1.5 at its outset, Legacy was designed to bridge the gap between Vintage and Standard. The idea behind it was simple: you could play cards from any Magic set, but all the cards that were either banned or restricted in Vintage would be banned in Legacy. That way, the format wouldn't just come down to powerful singletons like Black Lotus and the Moxen, which were already becoming incredibly expensive and hard to acquire. The hope was that Legacy would be an incredibly powerful format, but not one defined by quite as much overt brokenness as Vintage.
Over the years, Legacy has remained a shockingly stable format. The top tables usually include some number of Delver decks, other tempo decks, Lands combo, Elves combo, Reanimator, Stoneblade, and a couple of pure control brews. The top Legacy staples — Mox Diamond, Lion's Eye Diamond, Force of Will, etc. — are more or less the same as they were a decade ago. Sets like Modern Horizons have definitely added powerful new cards like Ragavan to the format, but generally just improved the top few dozen shells that were already present in the metagame. Cards like Yorion, Sky Nomad have occasionally led to major new innovations, but most of the cards and interactions in those decks would be familiar to anyone who last played the format in 2015. Other than Vintage, Legacy is the most staid and static format in the game.
This is a feature, not a bug. Legacy's audience skews older than most other Magic formats, because it is most often played by folks who acquired their staples back when it was possible to trade for a Lion's Eye Diamond or two at FNM. Many of these people don't keep up with every new Magic set, and they aren't out there cracking packs on a weekly basis. Part of the appeal of Legacy is that you can put your deck aside for six months and then pick it back up again, make a few tweaks, and head off to an event. Once you reach a certain age and life starts moving fast, this becomes a very appealing way of engaging with the community.
Unfortunately, looking at a list of top Legacy decks is financially daunting for anyone who isn't already bought in. According to MTG Goldfish, the top five decks in the format range in price from $2,400 to almost $10,000. You can buy some pretty decent cards in that price range, so it's incredibly hard to justify dropping all of that cash on 75 tiny pieces of cardboard, even if they are very powerful. I know a lot of folks who haven't even considered investing in Legacy because of this sticker shock, and I can't blame them. No matter how I try to sugar-coat things in this article, Legacy is expensive. Period.
But if I believed that a Legacy deck was out of reach for most of you, I wouldn't be writing this piece. I have long argued that a Legacy deck is one of the best investments that any Magic player can make, and I stand by that today. My goal today, then, is to both convince you to buy into this delightful format, and to give you all the tools you need to make it happen on a budget.
Let's see if I can pull it off!
Before we get into the dollars and cents, let's talk about what Legacy offers — and also what it fails to offer. After all, there's no reason to buy into Legacy if its particular quirks aren't appealing to you.
For starters, the Legacy community is fairly small and tight-knit — perhaps not as much as the Vintage community, but far more than, say, Modern and Commander. In my experience, the Legacy lifers are pretty eager to welcome newcomers to their community, and they will help you make the leap into acquiring the key pieces of your first deck out of pure selfishness if nothing else. After all, they're eager to have more people to play with.
This sort of community is great, but the flipside is that it's hard to find more than a small handful of other Legacy players if you live in a rural town or a smaller city. You might be playing all your games with the same handful of people, so your appreciation for the format might depend more on how well you get along with them than anything else. You used to be able to get around this somewhat by traveling to large Magic events and playing in Legacy side events, but that's nearly impossible to do in the age of Covid.
It's also important to understand that WotC is completely uninterested in promoting Legacy as a format. In fact, I will be shocked if there is ever an "official" large Legacy event again. Back in 2010, when Legacy was exploding in popularity, WotC realized that they were going to run into some major card availability issues around Reserved List staples. Their solution was to quietly sunset the format while creating and promoting Modern as Legacy's hip new Reserved-List-Free alternative. If anyone over there is interested in reinvigorating Legacy, they haven't shown it over the past decade.
The "good" news here is, of course, the fact that WotC doesn't seem interested in promoting any sort of competitive tabletop Magic right now — Legacy or otherwise. Once we get to a place in the pandemic when it makes sense to start having lots of large in-person events again, they will likely be more convention-esque, like what happened in Vegas a few weeks back. That's really good news for Legacy players, because it means that most events should have at least a few small Legacy tournaments to play in. You just have to be okay with the fact that these small events are likely to be the pinnacle of your competitive Legacy career. There are no rungs on the ladder above this right now.
Lastly, it's important to consider whether or not the format's overall stability is appealing to you or not. The metagame does evolve, but not at the speed of Modern, much less Standard. To me, this is a really nice antidote to the hyper-speed that everything in the world of Magic operates at these days. I appreciate the fact that I don't need to keep up with the way the format evolves from day-to-day. This is going to feel boring and excruciating to some of you, though, and Legacy is probably not the right format for anyone who doesn't want to spend months brewing their deck and learning the ins-and-outs of the top match-ups. If you want things to proceed at a quicker pace, look elsewhere. If you like the idea of really getting to know your deck, Legacy might be exactly what you're looking for.
Now that we've taken a look at whether or not Legacy is right for you, let's talk about the best ways to buy in.
Have you ever purchased a card without going for a test drive first? I haven't. I've definitely fallen in love with a car in theory, only to find out that it just doesn't feel right behind the wheel. Maybe it has too many blind spots, or it's just too bulky, or the acceleration is sluggish. There are lots of things you simply won't know about a car until you actually get on the road.
A Legacy deck costs about as much as a car, so why are you buying a deck without test driving it first?
Just like with a car, a deck can seem awesome on paper and then feel awful the minute you start actually playing with it. I can't tell you how many times I've put together a deck (usually in Commander), played a few games, and then vowed to never touch it again. This feels even worse if you've put a lot of money into your brew, because you'll probably just keep playing it, hoping it will eventually feel better. By the time you throw in the towel, you might be ready to write off the whole dang format.
The solution is simple: either borrow the deck you want to build and test it out beforehand, or proxy it up yourself. It doesn't have to be pretty: Sharpie on basic lands will do. Any Legacy community worth their salt will not have a problem with this, and will be eager to play against a new brew while helping you decide if it's the right deck for you. Heck, you can even proxy up a few and play them against each other just to get a sense of what your Legacy play-style is like.
This step might feel trivial, but most of the folks I know who had a bad time trying to get into Legacy either skipped or ignored it. I highly suggest spending as much time in this phase as you can.
This obviously won't apply to everyone, but if you're already a Modern maven, a longer-tenured player, or you've opened a box or two of a Masters or Modern Horizons set, you likely already have at least a couple of Legacy staples in your collection. The Solitude cycle of creatures from Modern Horizons 2 see a ton of play in Legacy, for instance. Other Modern staples that see a lot of play in Legacy include Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer, Mishra's Bauble, Force of Negation, Dark Confidant, Snapcaster Mage, Stoneforge Mystic, and the fetchlands.
Heck, if you've got the shell of an Azorius Control or Stoneblade deck in Modern, you're more than halfway to Legacy Jeskai Stoneblade.
Not only will raiding your collection like this bring the price down, but it's likely that you have a lot of these cards because you enjoy playing with them. If you've been itching to pull your copies of Jace, the Mind Sculptor out of retirement, for instance, this is a great excuse to do so. Not only will it lower your bottom line, but it will give you direction in your approach to the format.
If you're truly starting from scratch, you might want to consider looking at decks on the cheaper end of the spectrum. Most Legacy decks cost between $2,000 and $5,000, but there are a few really solid decks that you can buy into for quite a bit less than that. Here are three of them:
Burn has long been the classic budget choice, and it has always been at least somewhat viable in Legacy. It's not as powerful right now as it has been in the past, but you can definitely show up at a Legacy event with a Burn deck and do well.
The best part of playing Burn in Legacy is that you can pick up an entire optimized deck for right around $200. You pretty much just need four copies of Eidolon of the Great Revel, four copies of Goblin Guide, two copies of Mindbreak Trap, and a bunch of $1 to $2 cards. If you already have the Eidolons, you're halfway there.
Oops! All Spells
If you'd rather play combo than burn, Oops! All Spells is a $600 deck that's definitely capable of winning a Legacy event. The key cards here are Elvish Spirit Guide, Pact of Negation, Thoughtseize, Agadeem's Awakening, Chrome Mox, and Force of Vigor.
There are some slightly heavy hitters there, but nothing that you shouldn't be able to trade for at FNM or snag on the cheap during a TCGplayer sale. Remember: you don't need the prettiest copies of every card to play in a Legacy tournament, and sometimes HP copies of cards like Chrome Mox can be found for a lot less than the going market rate.
Death and Taxes
Death and Taxes isn't just good for a budget deck — it's legitimately one of the top four or five decks in the entire format. This was the number-one deck I recommended that people invest in the last time I wrote about getting into Legacy, and I hope at least a few people took my advice. While the list looks a lot different now than it did back then thanks to a couple of Modern Horizons sets, I like to think that the folks who picked it up back then were rewarded with a head start on one of Modern's very best brews.
Anyway, Death and Taxes is only "budget" compared to other Legacy decks, since the optimal build will run you close to $1,500. You need cards like Stoneforge Mystic, Recruiter of the Guard, Solitude, Aether Vial, Karakas, Urza's Saga, Rishadan Port, Wasteland, Surgical Extraction, and Mindbreak Trap. It doesn't have any dual lands, though, and the only Reserved List cards in Death and Taxes are still less than $50 each. If you already have most of the expensive Modern Horizons stuff in your Modern collection, this could be a great deck to brew up.
Reanimator is a cheap deck by Legacy standards, but it'll still run you about $2,500 to build. This seems like a lot, and it is, but nearly $2,000 of that cost is tied up in four cards: three copies of Badlands, and one copy of Scrubland. Take those away, and you're looking at a deck cost way south of $1,000. Heck, most Modern decks cost way more than dual-free Legacy Reanimator.
How many additional games will you lose if you replace these four dual lands with three copies of Blood Crypt and one copy of Godless Shrine? That life loss will add up in a deck like Reanimator that relies on cards like Reanimate and Griselbrand to win the game, but I have quite a few matches of Legacy Reanimator in my play history and I think those additional life points would have mattered in maybe one game every twenty. That's a lot — enough to really frustrate you over time — but it's a reasonable cost to pay for getting into this deck for less than a thousand bucks.
It's also worth remembering that you probably aren't going to be playing this deck in any major events, because…well, there aren't really any major Legacy events anymore. Losing one game in twenty is intolerable when you've paid a lot of money and spent a day grinding out an event, but it's not half as bad when most of your matches are pretty casual.
Also: a lot of the Legacy tournaments that folks do run these days allow some number of proxies. With a deck like this, having access to just four or five proxies can cut your deck cost down 75%! That's huge, and it's likely the future of this format if folks want it to remain accessible.
It's also worth remembering that adding just one dual land to a deck like this is going to help quite a lot. Since your turn one play in most games is cracking a fetchland for Badlands, that first Badlands is going to do a lot of work for you. The other two can wait even longer to acquire.
You can apply this same logic to most of the best decks in the $4,000 to $5,000 range. For example, the top deck in the format, Izzet Delver, has a retail cost of just under $5,000. More than $3,000 of that are the four Volcanic Islands that the optimal list is required to run. Replacing those with four other Izzet-colored dual lands is cheap, though, and this deck doesn't even care about the life points that much — it just needs the ability to drop a Ragavan, cast a Ponder, or return an Island to cast Daze on turn one. There are quite a few cards in the game that let you do this most of the time, and most of them don't cost $800 each.
I know, I know — you hate the Reserved List. You want WotC to abolish it tomorrow. The idea of spending hundreds of dollars on a card that WotC could simply choose to make accessible feels awful, and you don't want to engage with that particular market on principle. Believe me, I get it. If you can get beyond all that, though, I highly recommend letting the Reserved List work for you.
See, when you spend $100 on a Modern staple, there's no guarantee that it will still be worth $100 in a year or two. I definitely have Tarmogoyfs in my collection that I spent more than $150 for, and they're worth just a tiny fraction of that now. The history of Magic is littered with expensive cards that have tanked in price due to a combination of reprints and shifting metagames. This is fine if you can shrug these losses off, but it's not so great if you're on a budget and were counting on those cards as major assets in your collection.
If buying Standard and Modern cards is like renting an apartment, where you're guaranteed a short-term benefit at the cost of long-term value, buying Reserved List cards is like buying a house. It's a lot more expensive, but you get the benefit of accruing value (or at least not losing much money) over time. And just like the real estate market, the Reserved List is very good for people who have bought in and very bad for people on the outside looking in.
I'm not here to defend either the Reserved List or the real estate market, both of which are enemies to accessibility, but I feel like more Magic players should leverage the Reserved List as a way to lock in long-term collection value. $500 is a daunting amount to spend on a single card, but I bet most of you have an easy $500 worth of random extra cards lying around on your desk, or in your closet, or in a deck that you don't play anymore. Get those cards listed on the TCGplayer marketplace while they still have value, and snag an HP Badlands. Let the fact that the Reserved List protects value work for you instead of against you for once.
One of the good things about Legacy's stability is that the same couple hundred cards recur from deck to deck. New cards are added to this pool from time to time — especially when Modern Horizons sets are released — but most of the best Legacy cards have been good forever. Right now, the most-played cards in the format are Force of Will, Brainstorm, Ponder, Force of Negation, Pyroblast, Surgical Extraction, Swords to Plowshares, Torpor Orb, and Daze. These cards are all well-known staples that have been a part of every eternal player's toolbox for years.
As long as you're willing to be patient, you can simply make a list of key Legacy staples and wait for the right opportunities to buy in. For example, every Masters set is going to include at least a dozen Legacy staples, if not more. If you buy those on release weekend, you might end up paying half as much for those staples as you'd be paying right now. Don't want to wait that long? You can trawl the TCGplayer marketplace for underpriced MP copies, or save your cash for the next big sale.
Making a long-term staples list is also really helpful when you're looking to trade. I know, I know, FNM trading is more or less dead these days, but if you start engaging with the Legacy community, chances are the binders will start to come back out at some point. Legacy folks do still like trading, especially if they're getting other Legacy staples in return. Make a few savvy trades, especially if you're trading toward the deck you're excited to build next, and you can really jump-start your collection.
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Last week, we took an early look at the latest Un-set, Unfinity. While formal previews aren't going to start for a while, there's already a lot to love about this set, especially from a finance perspective. What effect will the fact that some of these cards are going to be Legacy and Commander legal have on box prices, and how about those borderless space-themed shocklands? Seriously — don't forget to sign up for this newsletter. It's out of this world (groan).