Love it or hate it, they finally pulled the trigger. Deathrite Shaman and Gitaxian Probe were banned in Legacy on Monday. I have my own opinions on the matter, and in fact my article last week laid out exactly how I felt about those cards, conveniently leading up to the announcement.
This article is not about those opinions. Instead I want to focus on what this means for Legacy and how the format will likely move on from this. Before I jump in I do want to note one thing. I've said this in the past, and I'll say it again. One common misconception that players often make is to assume that when a ban sets a format back, that things will simply revert to what they looked like before the offending card began to influence the format.
That doesn't always work out. So while Temur (RUG) Delver used to be a dominant deck in Legacy before it was pushed out by Deathrite Shaman, the surgical extracting of Deathrite Shaman from the format doesn't necessarily mean that it will dominate again. It very well could return right back to glory, of course, but there have also been large developments in other decks, many years worth of new cards and strides in how we have learned how to build decks in general that this deck might not be as good as it once was, even without Deathrite holding it back. While Stoneforge Mystic was once dominant, there's no reason to believe it will be good again, and so forth.
So keep that tenet in mind while you read. Things aren't always going to be cut and dry and it's hard to predict what will happen, but nonetheless, here are some basic trends I expect.
The value of Wasteland has been quite low for a while now. Wasteland has never been actively bad, but for many years now it has been a shell of its former glory. First Treasure Cruise punished Wasteland by using the destroyed land as a Lotus Petal to cast Treasure Cruise, which found replacement lands. Then Miracles punished Wasteland by playing an excessive amount of basics, and finally Deathrite Shaman punished the card by allowing players to play out from under it quite easily.
This land made a promise. Can it finally keep it?
While decks that play a lot of basics like various Back to Basics strategies can still exploit Wasteland, other decks in the format are no longer quite so insulated against the denial aspect it provides. I think this means that we could see a huge uptick in decks where Wasteland and other forms of mana denial are a core part of the strategy. This will, of course, depend a lot on where the format goes next, but unless a specific dominant strategy emerges that once again punishes Wasteland, it's a safe bet to expect a resurgence.
Stifle is another card that could easily be back. Stifle is a card that has many uses in Legacy, from countering Stoneforge Mystic triggers to planeswalker abilities and more. Stifle even counters the storm trigger, rendering cards like Tendrils of Agony and Empty the Warrens ineffective. However, the main value of a card like Stifle is pairing up with Wasteland to attack mana bases via Stifling a fetch land activation. Stifle on a fetch land is a one-mana instant speed Stone Rain for a single blue mana. That's not bad. Stifle plus Wasteland used to be a core strategy of Legacy, but if your opponent just played a Deathrite Shaman, wasting your turn afterward trying to attack their mana while they still deployed two and three-mana plays just wasn't cutting it. That's no longer a worry.
Rishadan Port, a once staple of Legacy, is another card we could see being heavily played again. Rishadan Port's most common play was to tap lands down in a player's upkeep or draw step to deny their use for the turn, but it could also occasionally handle lands with relevant activated abilities as well. While Rishadan Port costs a lot to activate, cards like Life from the Loam and Exploration or Aether Vial were omnipresent in Port decks, making the cost of activation low.
Other tax effects like Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, Trinisphere, Thorn of Amethyst, and Sphere of Resistance are all cards that were worse against Deathrite Shaman but could be devastating once more.
These are all decks that were significantly worse with Deathrite in the format that could possibly see an uptick in play now that their main enemy is gone.
One of the common reactions I saw to the Banned and Restricted announcement was that while they didn't unban Stoneforge Mystic in Modern, they at least unbanned it in Legacy. Deathrite Shaman and Stoneforge Mystic were sometimes even played in the same deck together, such as in various Bant or Esper Stoneblade decks, but the truth is that Stoneforge Mystic was still heavily kept in check by cards like Gitaxian Probe and Deathrite Shaman.
One major reason for this is that Gitaxian Probe enabled Cabal Therapy to be one of the defining cards of the format in both Grixis Delver and Ad Nauseam Tendrils decks. Cabal Therapy was a devastating card against Stoneforge Mystic because you could just wait until they searched up the equipment with Stoneforge and then use Cabal Therapy to take care of the Batterskull, Umezawa's Jitte, or Sword they found. Not only did this turn Stoneforge Mystic into a Squire, but it also significantly limited the effectiveness of future Stoneforge Mystics, which were reduced to significantly less options.
Another card that punished Stoneforge Mystic even more than Cabal Therapy was Kolaghan's Command. Kolaghan's Command was another card that was a huge part of the format, being a staple of both Four-Color Leovold Control strategies as well as Grixis Control. Both of those decks relied on Deathrite Shaman to accelerate into powerful three and four-mana plays like Kolaghan's Command and Jace, the Mind Sculptor, as well as cards like Snapcaster Mage to provide recursion. Without Deathrite able to accelerate anymore and with combo and mana denial threatening to return to Legacy in a big way, it's hard to imagine that Kolaghan's Command will see nearly as much play anymore.
Kolaghan's Command completely and utterly destroyed Stoneforge Mystic by waiting until they had invested four mana into the Stoneforge and the activation, and then blowing up both the Stoneforge and the equipment for three mana. This specific interaction is a large part of what drove me away from Stoneforge Mystic, because my record with Stoneforge Mystic against the popular Kolaghan's Command control strategies was very poor, and likewise my record with Kolaghan's Command decks against Stoneforge Mystic was very good.
It may be easy to immediately jump to the conclusion that without Deathrite Shaman in Legacy anymore, graveyard strategies will completely rise to dominance. I don't think that is actually true.
There are basically two competing forces at play here. One is that without Deathrite Shaman, decks will be more vulnerable to the graveyard in game one. Gone are the days where Dredge decks are losing game one to random four-color piles of creatures. This certainly increases equity of graveyard decks in game one. However, the flip side is that without Deathrite Shaman to lean on to provide incidental graveyard hate, decks will be forced to rely on sideboarding actual hate, like Containment Priest, Rest in Peace, Leyline of the Void, Surgical Extraction, and more. Also, some decks in Legacy relied on the Deathrite Shamans in other decks to push out graveyard strategies, allowing them to skimp on graveyard hate themselves, but that is no more. They will be forced to dedicate cards to it now.
The end result is that graveyard decks are going to be way better in game one, but might be worse after sideboard. While Deathrite Shaman was a huge hassle, it was also easier to answer with cards like Pithing Needle, Collective Brutality, and more. Cards like Rest in Peace are more powerful and harder to beat.
One consequence of Deathrite Shaman being banned is that cards that incidentally use or care about the graveyard but aren't part of a dedicated graveyard strategy are going to be way better. For example, Snapcaster Mage is going to be a much better card without having to worry about Deathrite Shaman depleting its options or being able to remove whatever card is targeted in response. Snapcaster Mage isn't, by itself, the kind of card you bring in graveyard hate against, so it is a clear winner.
Other cards that casually benefit from the graveyard are creatures like Tarmogoyf or Nimble Mongoose that don't have to worry about being shrunk by Deathrite Shaman. Delve threats like Hooting Mandrills, Gurmag Angler, Tombstalker, and Shambling Attendants will be generally easier to cast, even though they lose Gitaxian Probe as a free enabler. Even glacially slow flashback spells that haven't been great since 1994, like Lingering Souls, might once again be worthwhile.
Young Pyromancer has been one of the defining threats of Legacy for years now. It became the best creature in the format when Treasure Cruise was legal and then still remained a major part of the format even after Cruise was banned. Young Pyromancer was a card that heavily took advantage of both Deathrite Shaman and Gitaxian Probe.
Gitaxian Probe was a free way to generate Elemental Tokens and Deathrite Shaman allowed for plays like a turn two Young Pyromancer while also being able to cast another spell afterward to create a token. When Young Pyromancer didn't die it generally took over the game, and when it did die, you wanted to make sure you got some value out of it first. Deathrite Shaman and Gitaxian Probe both enabled this. Let's not even talk about the dream curve of Deathrite Shaman into Young Pyromancer + Gitaxian Probe + Cabal Therapy + Flashback Cabal Therapy, which would completely Devastate an opponent's hand and create a sizable board state at the same time.
It's hard to imagine Young Pyromancer being a big part of the format anymore. While Young Pyromancer and Cabal Therapy is still legal, it won't happen on turn two anymore and without Gitaxian Probe, Cabal Therapy is firing blind a lot more often. A Young Pyromancer on turn two is now completely vulnerable barring free countermagic, and waiting until turn three or four to deploy is awkward and much less effective.
On a very meta level, it's pretty easy to make the jump that since fair decks just lost their best card that unfair decks that didn't play Deathrite Shaman would naturally see themselves get better relatively.
However, I think it even goes a bit past that. Deathrite Shaman didn't just represent more powerful and faster fair decks, it also allowed for extremely devastating anti combo cards to be easily cast. Deathrite Shaman enabled cards like Hymn to Tourach and Leovold, Emissary of Trest, cards that made life a living nightmare for decks like Storm or Sneak and Show. Now it's a lot harder to fire those cards off in a reasonable time frame or while also holding up cards like Flusterstorm or Spell Pierce as well.
From my testing, decks like Four-Color Leovold were massive favorites against nearly all combo decks, ranging from Reanimator to Storm variants to Sneak and Show. I can't speak personally for how Grixis Delver fared in those matchups, but I know Gitaxian Probe plus Cabal Therapy could sometimes be a nightmare for those decks as well. Without those cards in the format, combo decks should have a little more time and be under a bit less direct pressure, making it way easier for them to operate.
One area that is a little murkier is that some combo decks like the various Storm strategies actually used Gitaxian Probe themselves. Probe was a free way to increase storm count, make sure the coast was clear, and set up for Cabal Therapy to go after the right hate cards. Playing against Storm, I actually frequently (almost always) countered Gitaxian Probe with soft or situational countermagic like Spell Pierce or Pyroblast because of how much information and advantage it gave the Storm player to have perfect information. While Storm decks should have to contend with fewer Leovolds, Hymn to Tourachs and Cabal Therapies being sent their way, they also took a pretty big hit themselves. I would say this is likely a net negative. Storm is weaker overall but could still see occasional success now that it is a deck that can sometimes be a good metagame call instead of basically never being a good metagame call back when Deathrite reigned supreme.
The thing about Legacy in a post Deathrite Shaman world is that I think most of the strategies that I've discussed in this article today are on fairly even footing. The dream is that Legacy will trend back to being a healthy, diverse, balanced format. It's easy to pick a subset of decks, like combo decks or Wasteland decks or Stoneforge decks or graveyard decks and come up with reasons why they will dominate in this new format, but the reality is that these strategies are all beatable and exploitable. What ends up doing well any given week is likely going to take a combination of great play, a well-tuned list, and hitting good matchups and a favorable metagame. This will hopefully breed a more fun format than the best Deathrite Shaman decks just posting favorable matchups almost entirely across the board.
I'm excited to see what springs from this, but I'm also nervous. I'm playing Legacy in the team Pro Tour in a month, and my plans just went belly-up. Hopefully I can find my way again. Stoneforge don't fail me now!
- Brian Braun-Duin