Legacy is generally a forgotten format when it comes to professional level play. While a beloved format by many – held together for years by the community that loves it – there historically haven't been many Legacy Grand Prix events, generally just one or two a year, and Legacy is not a format ever played at the Pro Tour. That is, until recently. Pro Tour 25th Anniversary featured Legacy as part of team play, and with the onset of Team Constructed Grand Prix events, Legacy is being played more and more at the Grand Prix level as well.
Recently, there have been two premier level Legacy events, the Pro Tour in early August and Grand Prix Richmond last weekend, which has given us some great insight into what the top Legacy decks are after the format was shaken up a few months back by the Deathrite Shaman and Gitaxian Probe bans.
Personally, I have played a lot of Legacy both lifetime and recently, testing for about a month straight leading into the Pro Tour, and then again after the Pro Tour leading into Grand Prix Richmond. I feel very comfortable in the format and have a lot of experience playing against a wide swath of archetypes. Today, I'm going to give my picks for what I think the best Legacy decks are, ranked in order from five to one.
Eldrazi might be the most one-dimensional deck in Legacy. The deck consists almost entirely of creatures of various levels of disruption and Chalice of the Void, but that doesn't make it a bad deck. On the contrary, I think Eldrazi is a strong deck that severely punishes any opponent who stumbles at all on their gameplan.
Chalice of the Void for one is the bane of most fair blue decks in the format. These decks generally don't have an easy way to remove it from the battlefield – most Delver decks have zero main deck answers – relying instead on having to counter it on the stack. If it does manage to stick, then it shuts off a huge swath of powerful cards. Fair blue strategies rely on one-mana cantrips, one mana-removal spells and one-mana interactive elements and Chalice is a big fat nope to all of that. Against the Delver decks, it also counters threats like Delver of Secrets, Nimble Mongoose and Death's Shadow, hurting their ability to generate pressure along with shutting out their means to dig through the deck.
Chalice is also a huge Thorn of Amethyst in the side of the various combo decks in the format. Decks like Storm can struggle to combo through a Chalice on zero, one or two, making Chalice pretty effective at any stage in the game, and even a Chalice on one forces a deck like Sneak and Show to just draw their combo naturally without help from cantrips. Against Reanimator, Chalice on one shuts off an enormous chunk of their deck, including their main ways to dump creatures in the graveyard via Entomb or Faithless Looting.
Chalice of the Void by itself is not enough to beat these decks, but when you back it up with the fast and disruptive clock that Eldrazi provides, then it becomes a serious problem. Thought-Knot Seer is, as always, both a fast clock and relevant piece of disruption. Reality Smasher, especially cast off of a Cavern of Souls, is a nightmare for fair decks to race or deal with and puts immediate pressure on combo decks to end the game or just be dead.
The Wastelands in Eldrazi also pair really well with the disruption and speed to punish any opponents who are slow to develop or missing lands in the early turns.
While Eldrazi struggle to beat certain cards like Dark Depths and Thespian's Stage, Ensnaring Bridge or land-hate cards like Blood Moon or Back to Basics, my experience is that sometimes Eldrazi just strips you of those options with Thought-Knot Seer or comes out of the gates so fast that you don't have time to find these cards or assemble them.
So while Eldrazi might be an extremely one-dimensional deck with glaring holes that can be exploited, the fact of the matter is that these cards might come too late, might not be drawn at all, might get stripped by Thought-Knot Seer, or you may not ever even get to cast them thanks to Wasteland blowing up your spot and your mana base. Good draws from top tier decks should be able to Dispatch Eldrazi, but any weakness or stumble is pretty easy for Eldrazi to exploit and capitalize on, which is why it is one of the best decks in the format.
Blue-Black Death's Shadow was the breakout deck from the Pro Tour, played by the ChannelFireball team, including Josh Utter-Leyton, who took the deck all the way to the finals. At the time, it looked like the deck that would take over as the best deck in Legacy. Delver of Secrets is a powerful card, and this deck provided what other Delver decks lacked, good one-mana plays to accompany it via Thoughtseize and Death's Shadow.
However, the truth is that this is merely a good deck in Legacy, not anything particularly busted.
What Death's Shadow offers is an extremely potent game plan against combo decks. This deck has a blisteringly fast clock, heavy disruption with Thoughtseize, Force of Will, and soft permission like Daze and Stubborn Denial. Oh yeah, and it also plays the sick value Reanimates. Reanimate is a nice combo with the deck's own cards, especially Street Wraith, which is a reasonably sized body in Legacy and swampwalk is a reasonably relevant ability. It also costs a whopping five life to Reanimate Street Wraith, which gets Death's Shadow online in a jiffy. The added upside of Reanimate? It can absolutely Devastate some combo decks like Reanimator or even Sneak and Show if you can Thoughtseize a Griselbrand and then Reanimate the G-daddy, since you can steal creatures from their graveyard as well.
While Death's Shadow is an efficient machine against the various combo decks on the format, it breaks down a bit against some of the more fair decks. Grixis Control is a close matchup, and I think Miracles is a solid favorite thanks to Swords to Plowshares and Snapcaster Mage plus Swords to Plowshares being so unbelievably good against the deck. Swords to Plowshares not only slays every creature in the deck, the life gain "drawback" is actually pure upside. A timely reinforced Swords to Plowshares will reduce the effectiveness of future Death's Shadows or render them uncastable entirely. The nature of Swords to Plowshares is such that if will kill every Death's Shadow in play if you Plow a Death's Shadow, regardless of how many they have. Plowing one Death Shadow will always put their life total at 13, which will then conveniently kill every other copy.
Decks like Lands also have a better matchup against Death's Shadow when compared to other Delver strategies, thanks to Grove of the Burnwillows being a natural foil to Death's Shadow, which reduces the number of relevant threats down enough to where a Maze of Ith or two can almost entirely lock them out of the game.
Despite all of this, Death's Shadow is fast, powerful and disruptive enough to beat any deck at any point in time. So while a lot of these decks have favorable matchups against the deck, they can't ever truly be that dominant against it, because you are always just at risk of getting destroyed by Thoughtseize and cheap counter backed Death's Shadows very early in the game.
Grixis Control is what I played at GP Richmond, and that last list is an updated recommended list based on my experiences from that event. As you can tell from these lists there isn't a lot of consensus on exactly how Grixis should be built, although I would recommend 21 lands at the very least, regardless of which list you choose.
Grixis Control was the deck that the team I tested with thought was the best leading into the Pro Tour and Reid Duke and I both ran it back at GP Richmond, still believing it to be one of the best decks.
Grixis Control is basically the Jund of Legacy – now I'm starting to understand why Reid likes the deck – it's not a deck that boasts any truly insane matchups except perhaps Death and Taxes, but has a slightly favorable matchup against a good chunk of the field. It's also a deck that tends to get better after sideboarding in a lot of matchups, thanks to being able to swap removal spells for interaction against combo decks or interaction for removal against creature decks, all while being able to harness the power of Snapcaster Mage to double down on the effects that are best.
Grixis Control is the natural evolution of the Four-Color Leovold Control deck, known colloquially as Czech Pile, in the post-ban world. Unfortunately, without access to Deathrite Shaman and Leovold, Emissary of Trest, the deck has lost a lot of its edge against combo decks, Lands and other control decks like Miracles. Against combo, game one can be really tough, although Grixis still has a chance with hand disruption, Jace, and Force of Will, but after sideboard the matchups generally favor Grixis fairly heavily with cards like Surgical Extraction and additional interaction factoring in.
Grixis is generally favored against Temur Delver, really close against Death's Shadow and slightly unfavored against Grixis Delver. I expected a lot of the Grixis Control mirrors, Death's Shadow and Grixis Delver at GP Richmond, which is why I played two copies of Liliana's Defeat in my sideboard, and I would play them again. Liliana, the Last Hope is one of the best cards in the format against Grixis and having a one-mana answer to that card that can be flashed back with Snapcaster Mage and that deals three not-irrelevant damage is a huge benefit. It also kills Gurmag Angler and Death's Shadow, two cards that can be tough to kill since they dodge Lightning Bolt and Kolaghan's Command, and also Fatal Push in the case of Angler.
Grixis Control really shines bright against decks like Stoneblade or Death and Taxes, where Kolaghan's Command puts in a lot of work dismantling their deck with efficient two-for-ones against their best cards. Kolaghan's Command is also really nice against Red Prison and Eldrazi, where it blows up Chalice of the Void with impunity. Those two matchups are pretty close, with Grixis having a slight edge against Eldrazi and being a slight dog against Red Prison.
Going into GP Richmond, I thought this was the second best deck in the format, but I also mistakenly believed that Grixis Control was favored against Miracles, something I no longer believe is true, especially now that a lot of Miracles lists are moving to playing Accumulated Knowledge, which generates an astronomical amount of card advantage that is very hard to Overcome and that punishes cards like Hymn to Tourach pretty hard. Moving forward, I think Grixis will need to find a solution to punish Miracles card-drawing engines to reassert dominance in the format again.
I'm honestly a bit surprised to see Miracles performing so well, as it is a deck that I did not think was particularly great in Legacy after the banning of Sensei's Divining Top. Without Top, cards like Terminus and Counterbalance became more about hoping to generate value at the right times than controlled one-mana instant speed wraths and a soft-lock, and that added variance was not appealing to me. I also thought Miracles suffered from having too many cantrips and not enough action, an ailment that is often referred to as being "too much air."
However, Miracles continues to rack up good finish after good finish in Legacy events and, much like the recent success of White-Blue Control in Modern, it is proving that a deck can be extremely clunky and still be a powerful threat in the format based on the raw power of the cards.
Miracles actually has mostly good matchups in Legacy. Cards like Back to Basics, Counterbalance, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, and Monastery Mentor offer a huge variety of avenues for which to attack various decks, and Miracles being able to jam proactive powerhouses like Back to Basics or Monastery Mentor, protect them with Flusterstorm or Spell Pierce, and then power home from there is a large part of why I believe it is starting to see more and more success. Simply playing a reactive control strategy is not always feasible in Legacy. So many decks can punish that style of play, but being proactive with threats that end the game while still having the ability to play a grindy card-advantage driven control game is the mark of a great deck.
Decks that are supposed to be good against Miracles can just find themselves losing to cards like Monastery Mentor or Back to Basics, and decks that don't care about those two cards can find themselves just losing to the normal control elements of the deck.
Traditionally bad matchups like Sneak and Show have fallen out of the format hard, leaving Miracles in a spot where the worst of the mainstream matchups are now decks like Grixis Delver or Temur Delver that aren't necessarily bad matchups for Miracles but have a diversified threat portfolio and can punish the clunky Miracles draws effectively.
Death and Taxes is another deck that used to be a slam dunk matchup for Miracles but is now much tougher, without Sensei's Divining Top able to slam Terminus at will, and Death and Taxes gaining a lot of new cards from supplemental products to bolster this matchup over the years. An Aether Vial on three counters can be difficult for Miracles to deal with, as it represents an endless stream of Recruiters of the Guard and Flickerwisps, and Thalia is always game to punish cantrip-heavy hands.
Ultimately, however, I think most of the time that Miracles loses matches, it's to problems with the cards not coming together coherently rather than a serious matchup disadvantage. Miracles can draw too much air and not enough action quick enough to matter, or get stuck with too many clunky cards like Jace and Terminus in hand without a Brainstorm to fix everything. It can also lose sometimes to drawing too many cards like Back to Basics and Counterbalance in matchups where they aren't great. When the deck draws Brainstorms early and often, however, it's a real pain to beat.
HA! You thought you were done with Grixis Delver after the Deathrite Shaman and Gitaxian Probe ban? Think again. Because it's back and worse than ever, but still good enough to compete and maybe even be the best deck in Legacy.
The power of Grixis Delver, as was the case previously, lies entirely in its threat base. Grixis can be a real pain for other fair decks to compete with, because the combination of Delver, Young Pyromancer, Bitterblossom, True-Name Nemesis, and Gurmag Angler represent cards that are all potent threats on their own and also require greatly different cards to answer them. Lightning Bolt kills Delver and Young Pyromancer, but not Gurmag Angler. Terminus sweeps all of it away, but Bitterblossom keeps powering out threats and Young Pyromancer is a great way to follow up a board sweeper. Diabolic Edict slays Gurmag and True-Name Nemesis, but is inefficient against Delver and laughable against the Young Peezy.
In some regards, the banning of Gitaxian Probe actually forced some decks to get better in aspects of how they were built. I think the prime example is in the discard suite. Cabal Therapy was a devastating card when paired with Probe and Young Pyromancer, but the fail rate on that card is extremely high and without information it was very easy to just brick on it. I think decks like Storm and Grixis Delver were actually better served just playing cards like Thoughtseize and Inquisition that always take exactly what you want to take out of every hand rather than playing higher variance cards like Cabal Therapy. Now they are forced into that decision.
I think the value of hand disruption is extremely high in Legacy right now. There is a good density of combo decks, a lot of control decks, and even the creature decks are more linear like Eldrazi, or more midrange like current builds of Grixis Delver. Hand disruption is effective against all these strategies, and I think the strength of Grixis is that hand disruption plus a diverse threat base is a powerful strategy against control decks, and the hand disruption can also often buy enough time to win against combo decks, even with the diminished clock speed.
Unlike Miracles, Grixis Delver isn't the kind of deck that has all good matchups but loses to itself. Decks like Red Prison and Lands tend to boast good matchups against Grixis Delver, and other Delver decks can be close matchups as well.
The reason I think that Grixis Delver is the best deck isn't that it's favored against the entire field or anything wild like that. It has good and bad matchups like one would expect. The reason I think it is the best deck is that it plays such a high density of great cards. It has Brainstorm, Wasteland, Thoughtseize, and Gurmag Angler, which are all phenomenal cards in Legacy right now.
Over the course of a long Legacy event, I think it's really hard to imagine that your opponents have a higher density of good cards in their decks than you do, and that card quality and difficulty of your opponent's being able to line up answers effectively against you means that I believe you will definitely win more matches than you will lose. Your opponents have to win two games against you, which means they have to avoid getting torn apart by hand disruption and Wastelands and manage to adequately deal with your threat base twice in a match. That is easier said than done.
Grixis Delver isn't anything flashy, but what it does have is power, consistency, and resiliency. I tend to believe that even though Legacy is a format where many degenerate things are possible, decks that boast those three traits end up coming out on top time and time again, year after year. I don't see why this would be any different.
- Brian Braun-Duin