When cards get banned and formats change, things don't always shake down the way we would expect. It's easy to say things like "Deathrite Shaman got banned so graveyard decks will be great now," but that's actually just a very surface-level observation and doesn't take into account how other people will also react to the changes. If level one is playing graveyard combo decks, level two would be playing sufficient graveyard hate to defeat those decks.
As it turns out, the way things generally go is that graveyard decks get worse. Graveyard decks during Deathrite Shaman's era were built in a way to fight Deathrite, either by attempting to be fast enough to power through Deathrite Shaman or by directly attacking it with cards like Pithing Needle or Collective Brutality. Now these decks must contend with a variety of hate cards, from Leyline of the Void and Rest in Peace to Containment Priest and Surgical Extraction, which makes it difficult to craft a Game Plan capable of handling every different way they get attacked.
More realistically, what ends up happening is cards that were held back by Deathrite Shaman – but aren't enough by themselves to demand specific answers – end up getting way better. For example, both Snapcaster Mage and Gurmag Angler are cards that have become significantly better in the wake of Deathrite Shaman's untimely eradication from the Legacy format. Do you side in Rest in Peace against a deck that only has Snapcaster Mages or only has Gurmag Anglers as graveyard interaction? Probably not. It's a dead card any time they don't draw one of those. Therefore, Snapcaster Mage and Gurmag Angler don't typically have to play against pure graveyard hate and they don't have to fight through the incidental graveyard hate that Deathrite Shaman provided. Typically speaking, these are the kinds of cards that benefit from a ban, and the Legacy format has played out this way so far.
I've been playing a ton of Legacy in preparation for the Pro Tour this weekend, and while I cannot reveal what deck I have decided to play, I still have played with and against a huge swath of the Legacy format in the past month and I'm going to share my thoughts on the place each of these decks occupies in the Legacy format.
There are a ton of different ways to build Miracles right now. Some versions are strictly white-blue and focus on playing excessive basic lands alongside Back to Basics to soft lock opposing players. Other versions splash red for powerful sideboard options like Pyroblast and sometimes Blood Moon as well as being able to better use cards like Engineered Explosives.
Miracles has been one of the best-performing decks. Without decks like Grixis Delver or Four-Color Control in the format to just overpower Miracles in raw power level, the slow plodding card advantage Miracles provides is once again a relevant part of the format.
As much as it pains me to admit it, I don't think that Monastery Mentor is very good in Miracles right now. Mentor is a card that I thoroughly love, but without Sensei's Divining Top to abuse it its power level is much lower, and while it is still a powerful card it doesn't seem to fit into the current gameplan of modern Miracles lists.
These Miracles decks are all trying to do the same thing, which is try to stay alive as long as possible while slowly building up incremental card advantage with cards like Counterbalance, Search for Azcanta and Predict while Terminus and Swords to Plowshares keep them alive in the meantime. Monastery Mentor doesn't fit that strategy. Spending three mana to cast a Mentor takes away from being able to cast a Snapcaster Mage and flashback a Brainstorm or activate Azcanta or answer a problematic card from the other side of the board. I liked to play Miracles with Sensei's Divining Top more like a proactive midrange deck that aggressively locked out your opponent with Counterbalance-Top. These versions play a lot more like a control deck and Jace, the Mind Sculptor is a sufficient win condition. Mentor not needed.
Overall, I think Miracles is a strong but not overbearing deck. Hate pieces like Containment Priest, Blood Moon and Back to Basics are pretty essential to beating the decks that naturally prey on strategies like this, such as Eldrazi and Sneak and Show, especially if Boseiju is involved. Still, Miracles has plenty of holes in the strategy. It can be weak to other control decks that attack with Hymn to Tourach and cards like Cavern of Souls and Eye of Ugin are huge issues for the deck, if they don't exactly have their Back to Basics or Blood Moon. Miracles doesn't close out the game quickly, and that can be a real disadvantage in Legacy when decks are as powerful as they are.
Death and Taxes has seen marked improvement since the bans. Deathrite Shaman allowed decks to fight out from under the ways that Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, Wasteland and Rishadan Port attacked their mana, and Four-Color Control especially was a nightmare matchup for Death and Taxes, and that deck fell apart without Deathrite able to hold together its greedy mana base.
Another area that Death and Taxes has benefited from is the recent increase in value from Karakas. With decks like Sneak and Show significantly more popular, Karakas is once again relevant at doing something other than just bouncing your own Thalia in response to removal spells. Death and Taxes boasts a somewhat favorable matchup against Sneak and Show and that's not trivial when Sneak and Show looks to initially be one of the big winners from the bans.
Death and Taxes isn't even as bad against Miracles as it used to be. Thanks to Recruiter of the Guard being able to loop repeatedly with Flickerwisps and an Aether Vial – as well as Brightling being a great threat against spot removal and Terminus – this matchup is definitely winnable. Death and Taxes, as per usual, is going to struggle against decks like Elves, fast combo decks that can deal with Thalia or win before it comes down, and cards like Walking Ballista and Toxic Deluge.
I'm surprised that Temur Delver has been doing reasonably well in the format, because I feel like the deck is fairly underpowered as a whole. It's not 2012 anymore and cards like Nimble Mongoose are simply not what they used to be. It takes an eternity to get threshold, which means that Nimble Mongoose is basically Fugitive Wizard for a long period of time in every game. By the time turn four or five rolls around and you finally get seven cards in the graveyard, your opponent might have cast a card like Gurmag Angler and even though your 1/1 for one has now upgraded to a 3/3 creature, it still cannot swing past the 5/5 for one your opponent played. GG.
Temur Delver is entirely a land destruction deck. The entire purpose of the deck is to use Stifle and Wasteland to make your opponent unable to play the game, and if that plan fails it can be pretty tough to win. Backing up the disruptive elements with pressure is a great strategy because you need to kill your opponent before they can draw out of it, and Delver of Secrets and Tarmogoyf are both impressive creatures in Legacy that apply a lot of pressure.
Indeed, the power of this deck lies almost entirely in Delver and Tarmogoyf, and I think if people eventually figure out a better replacement for Fugitive Wizard...err Nimble Mongoose...then this deck will truly be a frightening deck to see on the other side of the table in Legacy. As it stands right now, if you just keep land-heavy hands and never shuffle lands back with cards like Brainstorm, you should be able to fairly easily Dispatch this deck by virtue of just having better cards.
Sneak and Show was a huge early winner from the bans, as Gitaxian Probe + Cabal Therapy and a Deathrite Shaman fueled Leovold, Emissary of Trest were both nightmares for this deck. Arcane Artisan was also a huge boon for the deck. It's a sideboard plan that sidesteps Flusterstorm, Spell Pierce, and hate cards like Containment Priest or Pithing Needle on Sneak Attack. It's also a way to dig through the deck and forces your opponent do things like put Karakas into play early, which gives you better information on how to sculpt your Game Plan.
Ultimately, though, the early success of Sneak and Show was enough to prompt a reaction from other decks in the format. There seems to be a higher density of cards like Pithing Needle in sideboards, nearly every white deck plays Containment Priest and decks like Death and Taxes have steadily increased the number of Phyrexian Revokers they are playing.
Sneak and Show can fight through some amount of hate and is sometimes fast enough to just preempt the hate with speed, but Sneak and Show is also a deck with a lot of natural inconsistencies. The mana base is fragile and painful and there are a huge number of cards in the deck that literally don't do anything unless you can pair them with another card in the deck. Couple this with people dropping in things like Humility and Ensnaring Bridge and it might be tough to get wins with this deck right now.
Still, this is one of the most explosive and powerful decks in Legacy and as the format ebbs and flows, Sneak and Show will rise back to prominence again.
Lands looked to be worse in the format initially after the bans. Lands was a deck that could actually fight the Deathrite Shaman decks reasonably well with Punishing Fire and cards like The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale, Wasteland loops with Life from the Loam and being able to make a quick Marit Lage were all powerful against Deathrite Shaman decks.
As people began to put actual graveyard hate in their decks, cards like Rest in Peace or Leyline of the Void, Lands seemed to initially take a big hit. Couple that with decks like Sneak and Show, Storm and Reanimator jumping out of the gates early as strong frontrunners and Lands looked like it was straight dead.
But you can never keep a good Loam strategy down. As people started to fall away from playing the faster combo decks when the format adjusted, Lands once again started peeking back up as a realistic contender. Especially now that Eldrazi has become a huge part of the metagame, making a fast Marit Lage is just game over against that deck as they have very few main deck ways to deal with it, and not a whole lot of sideboard options either.
If the format is full of creature decks where Marit Lage and Punishing Fire are good cards, then Lands looks to be a strong contender, but if the format ends up being chock full of combo decks and decks like Miracles that have Back to Basics, graveyard hate and Swords to Plowshares, then Lands will probably remain on the backburner.
Storm was a deck I considered to be unplayable prior to the bans. Gitaxian Probe and Cabal Therapy were just as good against Storm as they were in the deck, and Deathrite provided a clock and incidental hate against cards like Past in Flames and Cabal Ritual while also ramping into Hymn to Tourach and Leovold, two cards that were devastating to play against as Storm.
The deck is a bit better now. Without Gitaxian Probe to help figure out what to name, players have swapped over to playing Thoughtseize over Cabal Therapy, which might just have honestly been better all along.
There are two versions of Storm. The first is Ad Nauseam Tendrils, which predominantly kills with Past in Flames setting up for Tendrils of Agony and The Epic Storm, which is actually a better Ad Nauseam deck and is set up for fast Empty the Warrens. Thankfully it isn't confusing at all!
Personally, I think Ad Nauseam Tendrils is the better deck of the two. Sometimes Empty the Warrens isn't good enough to win, and Ad Nauseam Tendrils is just way more resilient, even if it is a bit slower.
I don't think Storm is the best deck in the format, but I do think it is decent. It has good matchups against a lot of creature-based strategies and can fight through a lot of counterspell-based disruption. It tends to struggle most against permanent-based disruption like Chalice of the Void and strategies that combine multiple forms of disruption, like decks that play hand disruption and counters.
I think the biggest thing holding Storm back right now is that it is fairly poor against Eldrazi, which is quickly becoming one of the more popular decks. Eldrazi can attack storm with Thorn of Amethyst, Chalice of the Void, Leyline of the Void and a fast and disruptive clock with cards like Thought-Knot Seer.
Jeskai Stoneblade seems to be the more popular and successful Stoneblade variant out there. I'll be honest, the deck looks quite poor to me, but in practice actually isn't that bad. I think Stoneforge Mystic is a fairly weak threat if you aren't putting it into play off of Aether Vial, but it is still an imposing creature in other creature matchups and can just be sided out against non-interactive combo decks.
Jeskai Stoneblade has a lot of game in various creature matchups like Delver and Eldrazi thanks to cheap removal pairing with way more powerful threats in True-Name Nemesis and Stoneforge Mystic. It can also sideboard into relatively decent matchups against combo decks after sideboard. It can be pretty weak, however, against various control strategies like Sultai, Grixis and Miracles, especially Grixis with Kolaghan's Command which functions primarily to embarrass Stoneforge Mystic as much as possible.
This is also a deck that is just fairly medium in general. It doesn't have a fast clock or an Overabundance of interaction, so it's prone to just losing a lot of games by drawing the wrong half of your deck. The classic Jund problem. I tend to avoid playing decks like that in more powerful formats like Modern and Legacy.
Grixis Delver is back, baby. Or maybe it just never left. Who knows.
There are two versions of the deck, those with Bomat Courier and those without. The Bomat Courier versions are a little faster to the punch and better at snowballing. What I mean by snowballing is that they can get out ahead early and use Bomat Courier along with Ponder, Preordain and Brainstorm to keep their card selection and quality high and just keep putting relentless pressure on the opponent. Even if they never end up cracking the Bomat Courier or it dies, the opponent was still on the back foot the entire time. The problem with Bomat Courier is that it can be quite embarrassing to draw later in some games or against various creature matchups.
The non-Bomat Courier versions seem to be growing more and more in popularity lately. While a bit slower, they are more resilient and employ the classic Grixis Delver strategy of presenting a lot of varied threats are all game-winning if left alone and all require different types of cards to answer them. Swords to Plowshares is effective against Gurmag Angler, but less effective against a Young Pyromancer that's been unchecked for a bit or a True-Name Nemesis.
The power of this deck lies largely in Gurmag Angler, which might very well just be the best creature in Legacy right now (or at least very close with Tarmogoyf). Without Deathrite Shaman to hamper how quickly you can power out a Gurmag Angler, they can come out fairly quickly and since they often just cost one mana, you can play a Big Gurms and do something else on the same turn as well.
I think this is one of the best decks in the format right now. It has a reasonable matchup against most decks, although without Deathrite Shaman the deck is a lot slower and thus way more vulnerable to decks like Lands or cards like Blood Moon. Those aren't unwinnable matchups or cards to beat, but they can be quite problematic still.
For fans of Four-Color Control in Legacy, this is the logical post-ban evolution. Grixis Control has a powerful matchup against creature decks and is quite strong in other midrange and control matchups, thanks to the power of Hymn to Tourach, Snapcaster Mage and Kolaghan's Command. The deck is even fine against Eldrazi, thanks to Baleful Strix being able to trade up with Thought-Knot Seer and Reality Smasher.
The problem with Grixis is that it has a weak matchup in game one against a lot of combo decks, and since Grixis has a slow, almost nonexistent clock, those decks have time to draw out of your hate in post-board games before you finish them off. Grixis is also quite weak against lands-matter decks like Lands or Eldrazi Post because it lacks a clock to finish the opponent before they eventually set up their endgame of recurring Life from the Loam or activating Eye of Ugin to find giant monsters.
Ultimately, though, I think this deck is quite good and it seems to be putting up more and more recent finishes on Magic Online. This will probably start to become a more prominent deck in the format, instead of the more fringe archetype it currently is.
There are two different versions of Eldrazi. There is Eldrazi Post, which plays Cloudpost and is more of a ramp into Ulamog kind of strategy that uses Eye of Ugin to both reduce the cost of effects and also search up cards like Walking Ballista and Ulamog. There is also Eldrazi Stompy, which is a more aggressive strategy featuring cards like Eldrazi Mimic to get boosted by Thought-Knot Seers and Reality Smashers for quick aggression and disruption.
Both decks have actually been doing fairly well recently. Eldrazi was a complete non-deck in Legacy before the bans, but now seems like a tier one strategy even. Eldrazi is well-positioned against a lot of combo decks thanks to Chalice of the Void, Thorn of Amethyst, Leyline of the Void and Sorcerous Spyglass, and boasts a natural edge against creature decks outside of cards like Stoneforge Mystic, Tarmogoyf, and Gurmag Angler, which can brawl with even larger Eldrazi.
Eldrazi gets completely steamrolled by any Dark Depths decks, but Eldrazi can just accept that they will lose those matchups and try to be reasonably good against the rest of the field. Eldrazi is a really one-dimensional strategy and is exploitable by cards like Ensnaring Bridge, Blood Moon and Dark Depths, but even those cards and strategies don't always get the job done because Eldrazi also has incredible speed and disruption that sometimes makes those cards simply too slow to matter.
Eldrazi, while being extremely explosive and powerful, also loses a lot to itself. Ancient Tomb is a liability against any creature strategies, even slower ones like Stoneblade, and the deck is trying to cast expensive cards with a high land count and no card draw or card selection like Brainstorm, making it prone to flooding out or getting destroyed by opposing Wastelands often enough.
Black Red Reanimator was designed in a format where beating Deathrite Shaman was essential for a Reanimator strategy. Cards like Chancellor of the Annex and Dark Ritual to power out turn-one reanimations was essential to get under Deathrite Shaman and it was okay to sacrifice consistency to do this.
Now that Deathrite is no longer a part of the format and graveyard hate is transitioning to cards like Leyline of the Void, Faerie Macabre, Rest in Peace, Containment Priest and the like, I think the lack of consistency of Reanimator is a real drawback and simply not worth the risk anymore. While the deck is still abstractly the most powerful deck in the format, and will generate a whole lot of free wins, I don't expect it to consistently put up good results.
There are plenty of other decks also doing well in Legacy right now, I've even played against Enchantress a bunch lately, and that's a real Blast from the Past. However, it's truly not possible to cover every possible deck in an article about a format as wide open as Legacy so I stuck to talking about the most popular choices right now. Hopefully this helped to paint a picture of why these decks are doing well or poorly right now and how they match up in the format as a whole.
Happy Brainstorming, or if that isn't your thing, Happy Double-Digit-Basic-Plains-ing.
- Brian Braun-Duin