From time to time, I enjoy the nostalgic feeling of sleeving up an old archetype and testing it out against the current format. Most of the time, that deck doesn't have the tools to compete at a high level, because Legacy has moved beyond the metagame that made the old deck viable, or some fundamental difference exists between the format that was and the format that is.
Yet, at nearly every major tournament, I witness some player who has decided that against all odds, this will be the tournament where their pet deck makes a comeback.
I've coined this phenomenon The Solidarity Fallacy – the idea that, if one merely wills it enough, their favorite deck will become a powerhouse once more, and they will win the event with ease.
The problem with this theory, of course, is that their deck has not changed along with the times – or if changes to it have been made, they don't correct the fundamental weaknesses in the strategy that is responsible for its decline in the first place.
Certain strategies have lasted throughout the test of time in Legacy – the "Miracle Grow" strategy of cheap threats, cantrips in place of mana, and powerful but tempo-oriented disruption has been a staple of Legacy since the dawn of the format. It has developed along the way, including new threats and spells as warranted by new printings, but the ultimate strategic goals have been the same. Dark Ritual-based Storm Combo has been a staple archetype, though it has waned and waxed in power along with the available spells and new printings. Blue/White control has a storied past in the format, from the early days of Standstill, Decree of Justice, and Eternal Dragon all the way through to Stoneforge Mystic, Batterskull, or Entreat the Angels. Each of these strategies have adapted to include the most powerful version of what they try to do, but as decks of varied flexibility and adaptability, they have managed to avoid complete supplementation.
The same is not true for all strategies.
Solidarity, as our prime example, is a deck that once dominated the Legacy scene. For those of you unfamiliar with the strategy, it was a High Tide deck completely comprised of instant-speed spells, allowing the pilot to win at any point in the game – sometimes with lethal damage or a crippling spell literally on the stack. It used the once-obscure Legends spell Reset to facilitate this, along with many other untap effects to generate absurd mana.
There are two important things to note:
A) This list existed at a time when the interaction between Cunning Wish and the exiled zone was more inclusive. When utilizing Wish, you could find cards that were either in your Sideboard or in your exiled zone, meaning a spell exiled for the flashback cost of Flash of Insight was accessible. This was critical.
B) This was prior to the printing of Delver of Secrets, Batterskull, Emrakul the Aeons Torn, Griselbrand, Deathrite Shaman, etc. Time Spiral was firmly seated on the banned list. It was a bygone era.
What draws players to a deck like this is the uniqueness of winning in response to nearly any threat. Given enough time, you can always just High Tide in response and win. The entire deck is built to be capable of buying that time. Spells like Remand, which rarely see Legacy play, are intended to be pseudo-Time Walks, exchanging your opponent's tempo for your own ability to make another land drop.
What this deck lacks in today's terms is the ability to play the most powerful spells that are available in its arsenal, because it artificially forces you to play at instant speed. The benefit of Reset is also its greatest drawback – not only can it be played on the opponent's turn, it must be played thusly. Therefore, any spell drawn during the attempt to combo that is not playable on the opponent's turn is a blank.
Late last year, High Tide aficionado Feline Longmore attempted to Revive the crippled archetype with this list:
While it is enticing to revisit the deck because of the inclusion of Dig Through Time, we must ask if that new spell is enough to return the deck to the spotlight, or if instead we're just shining a light on the flaws inherent in the strategy. Consider you lose the following in exchange for Reset:
Candelabra of Tawnos
That alone should be a telling set. Your single best spell in Time Spiral, and your strongest mana engine in Candelabra of Tawnos. Additionally, you're replacing
With Opt and Impulse. There are some advantages to Impulse for certain, but Opt is widely regarded as an inferior card selection spell. It's worse than Sleight of Hand for the cost (with the benefit of instant speed, granted), which is commonly considered far, far worse than either of the above one-mana spells.
Spiral Tide has a difficult time competing with the current stock of Legacy decks – so one must wonder what advantages are gained by going Solidarity rather than sorcery speed. Ignoring all of this, and choosing to play a bad deck anyway is the essence of the Solidarity Fallacy.
So, the next question extended must be, under what circumstances can it be correct to play an old deck in a new format? Are there times when revisiting an old archetype can be beneficial, such as when it's expected to succeed?
There are four basic catalysts that trigger a deck that was once good to become good again:
1) A new card printed that makes the deck significantly better
2) A new card printed that makes a deck this deck crushes more prevalent, or improves a good matchup that beats a bad matchup
3) An existing card banned that makes the deck's bad matchups Disappear
4) A natural shift in the metagame that turns the former top tier deck into a solid metagame choice
Let's tackle these one by one.
First, new card printings are the most common way for shifts in the metagame structure to occur. Introducing new cards into the available pool gives players and builders new toys to play with, and naturally these deckbuilders will try to find places for the best of each set to work into decks. Sometimes a set will have very little to offer to Legacy, maybe a single card or two at most in some niche decks, other times a set can revolutionize the shape of the metagame. Khans of Tarkir fell somewhere on that spectrum much closer to the revolutionary, but once Treasure Cruise was banned it fell further toward the meh. Blue/Red Delver, a deck that certainly existed prior to KTK but was considered inferior to its Temur cousin, was booned by the additions from Khans, and though it disrupted the format due to its prevalence, power, and low cost, it exemplifies this catalyst.
Next, a new card may not impact your deck directly, but it can Foster a change that creates a more welcoming environment for your deck. Storm Combo rarely gets any new toys, but the viability of the deck ebbs and flows with the presence of some specific matchups that are punishing for the strategy. Cards like Counterbalance are difficult for Storm to beat round after round, so when those strategies are dominant it makes choosing Storm a difficult prospect. Despite the increase in Delver strategies during the months of Treasure Cruise, the focus of those decks were on other Delver decks and Burn – meaning the types of Counterspells likely to be seen were not as impactful against Storm. Additionally, despite the price actually paid for the Cruise, the eight mana CMC of Treasure Cruise meant Counterbalance was not an effective way to fight the popular spell. These paired to create an unexpectedly positive metagame for Storm, as can be witnessed through Royce Walters' Top 8 with the deck at Grand Prix Philly.
Third, and following the Treasure Cruise analogue, when a bad matchup is suddenly yanked from the metagame, the decks that were preyed upon by the broken card/deck start to show up once more. In this case, we can look to the resurgence of Elves and Show and Tell strategies as evidence. When the whole format was focused on a deck running maindeck Forked Bolt, it made little sense to fight with a pile of X/1s. Additionally, with maindeck Red Elemental Blast effects, a deck focused on resolving a sorcery speed blue spell could be difficult to justify. Once the major impediment to these decks' viability was gone, they began to show up in much greater numbers once again.
Last, there will occasionally be an inexplicable shift to the metagame that allows for a deck that perhaps has not always been considered tier 1 to become the best choice. Often this is related to the natural presence of single-card strategies that make life difficult for the matchup – like graveyard hate with Dredge, or lifegain with Burn. While no external catalyst may be present in the sense that we outlined above, there can be times when the format becomes inbred, and people forget to prepare for a broad field. In these instances, you see a deck like Manaless Dredge or Burn spring up from seemingly nowhere and make a deep run in the tournament scene. It wouldn't take much to hate these decks out – and often that happens immediately following a run by the deck – but a savvy pilot caught the format with its proverbial pants down and capitalized on a lack of preparation.
It's important to note once more that these four catalysts do not include "You feel like playing an old deck again." Time and time again I see players bringing older archetypes to an event, and when pressed for a reason why they chose that strategy over any other, the most they can offer is "I like this deck."
This weekend, while Gerrard Fabiano was continuing his steady dominance of all Northeast Magic events, Jack "Finks" Kitchen was putting an old archetype back on the map in the Legacy Premier IQ. His version of Imperial Painter – a combo deck revolving around the interaction between Painter's Servant and Grindstone – took the top standing through a field hell-bent on the attack step.
I believe there are two factors of influence at work on Jack's victory (beyond what I assume is his impeccable play). First, Jack succeeded in an environment particularly weak to Ensnaring Bridge. The unfair decks vying to win outside the attack step are largely non-represented in the top of the standings, instead the lists are filled with Knights of the Reliquary, little green and colorless men, and a whole lot of Delver of Secrets. Second, now that the format has returned to pre-Treasure Cruise strategies, Jack capitalized on a significant lack of basic lands, with a deck that runs a whopping five Blood Moon effects in the maindeck, along with another six tutors, and can play a Moon as early as turn one.
There were six basic lands in the Top 8 (not including Jack's deck). Let that sink in. SIX basic lands, TOTAL. If you didn't cripple yourself by fetching a basic on turn one, or by some chance Jack won the die roll, you were largely sunk.
This is a classic example of our third and fourth principles above. Treasure Cruise was banned, making the decks that were running 10 basics a thing of the past. Along with that change, the format returned to a version where decks that were preyed upon by Delver – like Lands, Elves, and Maverick – are part of the metagame once more. All of these decks are currently slanting their manabases hard toward duals to make as broad a range of sideboard options available to them as possible. The cost to that manabase up to now has been a vulnerability to Wasteland – but in fact the Painter deck is capable of much more punishing interference.
If I were a betting man, I would expect the next few weeks of Legacy play to consist of some more stable manabases – perhaps not going so far as to cut colors, but I would imagine a deck like Stone-Blade or Miracles (one capable of running a larger amount of basic lands) to be poised for a resurgence. Of course, pairings make as much difference in this format as they are accused of making in Modern, and a deck like Painter can run headlong into Death and Taxes for three rounds before dropping, or the opponent can hit their first turn Deathrite Shaman on the play two games in a row. I don't expect Painter to be a permanent fixture on the top tables – it never has been, even when Delver was 30% of the metagame. However, I would not completely ignore these former powerhouse strategies in favor of the new and shiny, as there are always a number of former winners waiting on the wings – and plenty of players who are waiting for their favorite broken clocks to be right once more.