When it comes to Legacy, my heart tells me to play Jund. I want to take advantage of the hyper-efficient tendencies of Legacy players and prey on fair decks. The problem, of course, with Jund, is the lack of access to Force of Will. A wealth of efficient permission is the distinguishing feature of Legacy. Force of Will, Daze, Spell Pierce, et cetera all police a format saturated with completely broken, one-shot, game-winning interactions. For about a year now, I have been trying to engineer a Jund-style deck in Legacy that lacks this major weakness, and, though not yet fully tuned, I believe that the decklist is a huge step in the right direction.
The presence of free counterspells forces combo decks to be malleable– able to threaten a lethal confluence of spells, but resilient, capable of quickly filling holes poked by hand disruption and counters. So what is the most effective way to reliably disrupt a combo deck? Jund, despite its use of the format’s most threatening discard spells in Thoughtseize and Hymn to Tourach, is very susceptible to being combo’d out early in the game.
Some may consider this surprising, considering Modern Jund’s reputation of being such a combo killer. The nature of Modern and Legacy are obviously quite different, but no more so than in the vast chasm in quality separating the formats’ respective one-mana cantrips. It takes much longer to replace an Ad Nauseam discarded in Modern than its corresponding Infernal Tutor in Legacy, thanks to the efficacy of Ponder, Brainstorm and Preordain (or the relative inefficiency of Serum Visions and Sleight of Hand, depending on your perspective). Now, to a well-versed Magic player, this is all very evident; but it is important to highlight the distinction as it is directly responsible for the gap between the minimum adequate response to the threats of a Modern combo deck, as opposed to those of one in Legacy.
There is a certain threshold at which a deck becomes so redundant that poking a sorcery-speed hole with hand disruption spells becomes more of a Remand-style effect, i.e, it does not permanently pacify the danger. Modern combo decks are definitely below this threshold; Legacy combo decks, if considered as a range (in a statistical sense) straddle the threshold. However, the success of Legacy combo decks could plausibly be correlated to redundancy. This is somewhat subjective, but I’ll make the case. I consider the top tier of Legacy combo decks to consist of Storm, Reanimator, and Snow and Tell (and its variants). Each of these decks plays 8-12 premium cantrips, in addition to an incredibly high density of combo pieces. If someone was to ask an informed Legacy player:
“What makes Storm so much more resilient to a single piece of disruption than say… Goblin Charbelcher?”
A likely response would be:
“Well. Storm has the ability to play a longer game, while Belcher goes all in on a single threat.”
Yes, that’s correct; but, from the perspective of the deck trying to fight against combo, it’s important to flesh the difference out a little bit more. Consider the application of the card Thoughtseize in both of these contexts. Theoretically, a Goblin Charbelcher deck can have an opening hand resistant to Thoughtseize, but this is unlikely. Unless the hand consists of a perfect balance of mana and threats, a Thoughtseize either strips a premium mana source and strands the opponent’s win conditions, or leaves behind a hand full of mana and nothing to do with it. Then, the opponent will have to rely on the top of their deck to deliver a perfect replacement for the discarded spell, while your deck gets to do whatever it wants to do, uninterrupted; in Legacy, this window is often enough to win the game. Against glass-cannon-style decks, Thoughtseize is an immediate one-for-one, but often a functional a seven-for-one.
Against Storm, the utility of discard spells is much more related to trading resources and delaying the assembly of the critical mass of spells required to facilitate a kill with Tendrils of Agony. Again, this is because of the presence of cantrips. A common misconception is that cantrips are played simply to find the remaining combo pieces needed to go off. In actuality, even in an alternate universe where it is legal to play a deck containing 10 Lotus Petals, 20 Lion’s Eye Diamonds, 10 Dark rituals, 19 Infernal Tutors and 1 Tendrils of Agony, there would still be merit to using Ponder and Brainstorm. Cantrips are split cards. If you are playing against an opponent playing A+B Combo Deck, where all that they need to do is cast A and B to win, you would much rather cast a discard spell into a hand of “A, B, B” than “A, B, Ponder” because Ponder gives the opponent several looks at replacing the discarded spell, instead of being at the mercy of the top of their deck.
Hopefully, at this point, we agree that it is not a winning strategy to fight Legacy’s best combo decks with discard spells alone. So… what about counterspells? Pound for pound, counterspells are stronger against an opponent trying to assemble a lethal combo than discard spells. Back to Goblin Charbelcher for a second. Counterspells are like instant speed discard spells against combo decks. Instead of forcing an opposing Belcher player to discard their sole win condition at sorcery speed, casting Thoughtseize as an instant in response to their final ritual results in a literal seven-for-one, and diminishes their ability to rebuild. Counterspells have this same crippling effect.
However, where discard spells are weak against opposing cantrips, counterspells are easily taken care of by opposing discard spells and counterspells. The beauty of discard spells is that they steal the initiative from the opponent, and initiative is the most pivotal aspect of playing with and against combo decks. If the combo player gets to ask the game’s first pressing question, chances are they’re doing so knowing that the subsequent answer will be inadequate, and the door will be open for a kill. On the other hand, counterspells are the best way to answer these questions in real time. For a deck like Jund that relies solely on discard spells, there is no way to interact with an opponent attempting to kill you; they get to goldfish for the win carefree. By contrast, consider a deck like Miracles. Miracles relies almost entirely on permission to defend against combo decks. Despite the fact that counterspells are better at answering a combo player’s questions than discard spells are, fighting singularly on that axis significantly diminishes your ability to execute your own game-winning strategy. The reactive nature of counter-magic forces you to sit back and wait for the opponent to act, holding mana open in case an important question is asked. In theory, every mana held up waiting for the opponent to go for it is a mana less spent actually committing resources toward killing them. In practice, Miracles can mitigate this waste of mana to an extent by deploying some of its threats at instant speed. Even so, a great example of the deficits of a permission-only strategy is game three of Grand Prix Prague’s finals. Rodrigo Togores’ (ANT) Miracles opponent had a hand completely stacked with permission, but because of the (justified) pressure that he felt to favor extra counterspells over a faster way to kill Togores, the best clock that he could muster was a single 2/1 Snapcaster Mage. This lack of velocity allowed Togores the requisite time to craft a very complicated kill through Past in Flames which bypassed his opponent’s wall of counterspells. This game highlights the pitfalls of overloading on counterspells; though they are better at disrupting the opponent in real time, counterspells, sans the support of other modes of interaction, allow combo players to engineer a way to break through over the course of several turns.
There are two, far more effective methods of reliably disrupting combo decks, both of which are utilized in the above Esper list. The more obvious option is the use of narrow hate-cards, like Gaddock Teeg and Ethersworn Canonist. These cards have limited application in most matchups, but often just win the game when used in the correct context; for this reason, they are much more effective in the sideboard.
The other strategy which I have found effective is using a combination of hand disruption and permission. For instance, imagine that you are playing a match against Sneak and Show with BUG Control. You keep a strong hand, containing Force of Will, some extra blue cards, a Tarmogoyf and a Thoughtseize. You won the die roll and open up on the discard spell to see a hand with 2 copies of Griselbrand, a Show and Tell, a cantrip, a Force of Will and 2 Islands. In this scenario, it is much better to have a mix of discard spells and permission than a heavy concentration of either. Being able to proactively strip the opponent’s permission and then play a big threat on turn 2 without having to hold up extra mana for counterspells significantly reduces the opponent’s window to break through your defenses. At this point, you have a fast clock in play and the opponent is on the back foot, needing to dig for both lands and a counterspell (plus even more land if it’s Spell Pierce or an extra blue card if it’s Force of Will) while all of your interactive top-decks set them further and further back. This is an ideal situation.
Imagine the same scenario again, but instead of a Thoughtseize, your hand contains a Spell Pierce. Spell Pierce is a great card in general, and especially against combo decks, but here, the fact that it does not diversify your interaction completely changes the game. You now lack the information needed to know whether it is safe to play the Tarmogoyf on turn 2, giving the opponent at least one whole extra turn to combo off. This loss of tempo is compounded by the opponent’s ability to chain cantrips and supplement their hand’s weaknesses. You are resigned to being reactive which allows the opposing deck’s redundancy to take over the game. Legacy combo decks are designed to win the arms race and almost always do when starting from parity. It is also important to note that combo decks are inherently favored in counter wars. Because they get to ask the first question, they cast their counter second. This means that the combo deck wins in the event that both players have the same number of counterspells. I estimate that there is (very roughly) a 15% higher likelihood of victory in this scenario if your final card is Thoughtseize instead of Spell Pierce.
Another argument in favor of using a combination of Thoughtseize-style effects and permission is that discard spells allow you to push the opponent’s hand in the direction that is most vulnerable to your remaining resources. Or, in other words, your Thoughtseize makes your leftover Force of Will much more potent. You’re playing against Sneak and Show again. You keep another dream hand with a Thoughtseize, a Force of Will, an extra blue card and a threat. They won the die roll and lead on Island, Preordain, scrying one card to the top and one to the bottom before drawing. You cast the discard spell and the opponent reveals a hand containing a Scalding Tarn, an Ancient Tomb, a Brainstorm, 2 Ponders and a Show and Tell. The efficacy of Thoughtseize as used against combo decks comes from the implied card advantage of stranding combo card A in the opponent’s hand by discarding combo card B. I like to call this a “ripple.” This is easily undone by cantrips, as previously stated, but the trifecta of stealing the initiative, taking their best card, and putting one or more of their other cards on suspend while the dig for backup combo pieces is extraordinarily powerful. This time, however, the opponent’s hand is quite resistant to Thoughtseize. They’re set up to play a long game, hoping to use cantrips to sculpt an unbeatable hand. Though Thoughtseize itself isn’t going to dismantle this hand, it makes your Force of Will a ton better. As always, the discard spell gives you complete information, diminishing the combo deck’s ability to buy time by forcing you to play scared.You correctly identify the weakness of the opponent’s hand and Thoughtseize trades with Show and Tell. Suddenly, their cantrips are stretched incredibly thin, now having to scramble to assemble their combo with counter backup while their life total dwindles as the hands of your turn two Tarmogoyf, which you knew was safe to play. If your hand, instead of a counterspell, had had a second discard spell, it would have likely traded with a cantrip on turn two or three and done very little outside of exchanging resources, causing no ripples. Had your hand instead contained two counterspells, you would not have been able to tap out for Tarmogoyf on turn two out of respect for the combo.
In each of these scenarios, the opponent kept a very strong hand, which turned out to be definitively second-best to the combination of targeted discard and permission brought to the table by our blue Jund deck. I have discussed the specific synergies between permission and discard spells already, and hopefully, those contentions were convincing, but the general point is that interacting on multiple axes allows you to beat a far wider variety of hands kept by combo-wielding opponents. Understanding this concept is the first step to brewing a fair Legacy deck with intrinsic resilience to the format’s combo elite.