Go big or go home. This appears to be the lesson to be learned from this week's Legacy Premiere IQ results. As the format continues to develop in the wake of the Treasure Cruise bans, Delver and its cohorts seem to be falling further and further behind. The decks that appear to be finding success are those that are naturally strong against the archetype – Death and Taxes, various forms of "big" combo decks, and fast combo decks that are capable of playing around soft Counterspells.
A pair of Miracles lists and a pair of combo builds round out the Top 4 of the event, with an interesting and rarely-seen Food Chain deck taking top honors.
There are some very interesting interactions in this deck that may not be apparent at first glance. The glue that binds the deck together is Misthollow Griffin. Its unique ability to be cast from exile creates the engine that combines with Food Chain to create infinite mana, and also fuels Force of Wills and Misdirections by being a blue card to pitch with an upside. Manipulate Fate, a garbage box common that sees play basically nowhere else, becomes a triple-Demonic Tutor plus cantrip in this deck, placing the Griffins exactly where they're most useful.
The Food Chain engine, for those unfamiliar with the relatively obscure enchantment, works as follows:
As early as turn two (via Birds of Paradise or Deathrite Shaman) you can cast Food Chain. This literally begins a chain by exiling a creature card and ramping to cast creatures further up the mana curve. Birds ramps to Strix (unfortunately not on its own), Strix ramps to Vendilion Clique, Clique ramps to Griffin, and then the Griffin gets repeatedly exiled for mana and re-cast from exile, netting one blue mana each time until "infinite" mana is achieved. From there you can cast either an enormous Genesis Hydra or a Tidespout Tyrant, either way getting the Tyrant in play. You then re-cast the Griffins, bouncing all the opponent's permanents and leaving you with more than enough power in play to attack for lethal on the next turn.
What makes this deck particularly powerful and interesting beyond the combo aspect is its ability to grind a match out the good old-fashioned way. With many of the spells replicating those of a more traditional Sultai shell, casting a Vendilion Clique off a Deathrite Shaman works just as well in this deck as any other. The natural resiliency of the Misthollow Griffins allows you to play through any number of Swords to Plowshares. The graveyard ability of Deathrite Shaman and the delve of Dig Through Time allow recycling of Griffins removed via damage or non-exile means. Baleful Strix, though not a particularly efficient clock in-and-of itself, plays a strong defensive role against aggressive decks or other midrange decks trying to grind out via Tarmogoyf or Tasigur, the Golden Fang.
The sideboard of the winning list includes a pair of Umezawa's Jitte, which demonstrate the willingness of the pilot to forego the combo and attack with medium creatures until the opponent dies. While the high- and low-end creatures aren't particularly impressive on their own, the strategy of "strap a Jitte on it" works as well with these guys as it has since Betrayers hit the shelves.
From my experience with Twin in Modern, which in many ways bears striking similarities to this deck, the threat of the combo is often more important than the combo itself. Opponents can often find themselves in the difficult position of choosing whether to commit to stopping the combo or stopping the board presence, which are often at odds with each other. The fact that your primary threat is also a combo piece, and can remain a threat from any zone, makes the combo particularly threatening.
At one point a few years back, there was a similar deck in Legacy, built around a green Enchantment meant to allow the controller to go infinite. Despite a passionate following online, the deck never took off into the mainstream – part of which had to do with the absurd price tag on Imperial Recruiter and part of which was the spotty results in the hands of the general community.
Essentially this deck leaned heavily on Aluren to play its creatures for free. The Recruiters form a tutor engine that allows you to find any of the other creatures in the deck. The "combo" here is Dream Stalker, Cavern Harpy and Ghitu Slinger; Dream Stalker enters the battlefield and returns Ghitu Slinger, Cavern Harpy returns Dream Stalker, and Harpy returns itself for one life. Replacing the Slinger with Spike Feeder allows you to gain one life on the cycle rather than losing one, meaning you can go to an arbitrary life total before beginning the loop for damage. Later iterations of the deck replaced both the Slinger and the Spike Feeder with Parasitic Strix, which serves both roles. What was always the interesting part of the deck to me was the inclusion of Eternal Witness, which allowed you to return any number of cards from your graveyard to your hand, which often meant you would pass the turn rather than winning on the turn you combo out, after using Cabal Therapy to force your opponent to discard their entire hand, and keep four Force of Will and four blue cards in your hand. The fact that you can play your creatures at instant speed means even if they do manage to find a card that plays through this soft lock, you can just repeat the loop as needed and gain infinite life or kill them in response to a given threat.
This versatile deck was quite good with an Aluren in play, but the fact that it was particularly reliant on the resolution of the four-mana enchantment made it difficult and clunky to play. Though the Food Chain deck also relies on a sorcery-speed enchantment, the mana cost is much less restrictive and the spells in the deck have been more streamlined to play without the namesake enchantment on the battlefield.
Notably the winner of the IQ, Jeffery Chen, is not a player known for finishes with this archetype – something I would have expected if this were a one-of event where a dedicated Food Chain enthusiast spiked a win for the deck. This bodes well for the deck, though whether it has the resiliency and power needed for long-term sustained success is yet to be determined. It seems unlikely that this will be the next big thing in Legacy. The combo has been around for a few years and despite the addition of Dig Through Time to its arsenal, not much has really changed in the deck to make it an attractive tier one archetype.
The fifth place deck was a breath of fresh air, in the form of a Primeval Titan deck ramping mana via Cloudpost. We've occasionally seen monogreen versions of this deck pop up in Top 16s, but rarely have we seen a list with this kind of spice.
Something of an amalgamation between a traditional Cloudpost deck and a Show and Tell deck, this list tries to use early mana ramp via Locus lands to do broken things in the midgame. It uses Expedition Map, Crop Rotation and of course Primeval Titan to put many copies of Cloudpost, Glimmerpost, and Vesuva into play, eventually using an Eldrazi endgame to Annihilate the opponent out of the game. Because of the silver-bullet style card selection afforded by these tutors, the deck also gets to play a pseudo-Lands strategy, including cards like Bojuka Bog, Glacial Chasm and Eye of Ugin to help support the strategy. What interests me is the inclusion of Moment's Peace, a card we haven't seen in Legacy, perhaps ever, as a means of buying more time to set up the unparalleled end-game. The list also includes a singleton Trinket Mage, most likely tutoring up Expedition Map – though other targets include the normal Sensei's Divining Tops and Engineered Explosives, along with more unique targets in Candelabra of Tawnos and a pair of maindeck Pithing Needles. To some extent, this makes the deck feel like a pile of situational one-ofs, though the inclusion of a full set of Brainstorms and Tops should make it much easier to Sift through the less impactful spells and lands to find those with a little more meat on the bones.
To some extent, this deck also reminds me of a recently-popular modern deck (I mean of course the Amulet deck Justin Cohen took to the finals of Pro Tour Fate Reforged), though it does lack some of the speed that deck boasted. What it lacks in speed however it does appear to make up for in power, and the ability for this deck to punch through a counterwall via a pile of Locus lands and a Cavern of Souls on Giant can't be underestimated. Strangely, one of the observations I've made in Legacy is that the format tends to gravitate toward small mana costs – which is why a card like Abrupt Decay is so powerful in the format – but when you move the spells far up the curve in the way this deck is doing, it can be difficult to deal with those permanents efficiently. A deck like Temur Delver really has no way to profitably interact with a resolved (or uncounterable) Primeval Titan, and is vulnerable to that kind of threat early in the game. It's the same principle Caleb Durward was working from when he developed his Nic Fit decks. Sometimes, a Grave Titan really is good enough in a format largely devoid of Wrath effects. Of course, this deck also has the backup strategy of just jamming a Show and Tell on turn three, putting an Eldrazi into play. That too is often good enough.
The decline of Delver has left a window for these more complex decks to find a home in the format, as the speed and disruption of Delver made it difficult to have the time to set up these more elaborate engines. Perhaps that shift in the format's shape will be the catalyst for more of this type of deck to find their way to the top of the standings. I for one am excited at that prospect, as these decks are far more interesting to me than another Top 8 full of the same old Miracles and Delver decks. There's nothing wrong with just getting 'em dead, but for my money, I'd always rather do something flashy along the way.