A New Legacy Deck, Innit?
📅 December 15, 2022•
⏱️34 min read
A comprehensive breakdown of Legacy's newest broken deck: Initiative Stompy
What the *** is the "Initiative"?
In June 2022, Wizards released Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur's Gate. It was a fairly innocuous set by Commander standards, but it wouldn't be a Commander set without accidentally breaking legacy. The front runner this time around was Minsc & Boo, Timeless Heroes, a card highly praised amongst theorycrafting legacy players as one of the most powerful planeswalkers currently legal. While the card started to show up in paper Naya Depths and 4c Control lists, it would be another 3 months before we could figure out just how good it was, as the card wasn't added to MTGO until September. With it came a bunch of cards with the “Take the initiative” mechanic, a keyphrase marrying D&D's dungeons with Conspiracy's monarch, generating a ton of value over turns as you protect your position as… the initiative holder? The next in the initiative? The initiator? Not as catchy as “the monarch.” but I digress.
The key difference here is that cards that take the initiative stack extremely well, as opposed to monarch creatures. If you take the initiative while you already have the initiative, you continue to venture deeper into The Undercity. The other difference being that while the monarch draws you a bunch of cards, a lot of those will be largely useless if you build your deck in a way that you spew resources to get the monarchy early, whereas the initiative will kill the opponent unchecked by itself, with rooms like The Forge and Trap! providing a quick clock, and the final room, Throne of the Dead Three, generating a massive and hard to answer threat.
This mechanic quickly blew up Pauper as people paired the common initiative cards with stuff like Dark Ritual, Lotus Petal and other fast mana, in order to take the initiative as early and often as possible and beat the opponent with both a quick clock and hard to check inevitability engine. So fast, in fact, that 4 different initiative cards were banned not even a month after their debut on MTGO.
During this fiasco, legacy moved on relatively unscathed. Minsc & Boo made its expected waves, Caves of Chaos Adventurer started seeing niche play in Moon Stompy. But MTGO hadn't added all the Baldur's Gate cards. Notable exclusions were White Plume Adventurer and Seasoned Dungeoneer. White Plume quietly skated under the radar, but watchful stompy experts clocked the classic 2 + X mana cost as an easy Ancient Tomb pair, and as the only 3 mana initiative creature, the card had wild potential to break legacy as bad as what happened to pauper. But requiring a whole new deck to build around it, it was harder for the card to make waves in paper the same way Minsc did. While it lurked in the shadows in paper and spiked some events, all hell broke loose when both White Plume and Dungeoneer got added to MTGO in early November.
Initiative Stompy (or Dungeon Stompy, or one of the 400 other names people made up for it) won the literal first Saturday Challenge it was legal, in the hands of PVDH and top 4'd the Sunday Challenge with Luinil at the helm. From there it started sweeping through leagues, landing myself and Luinil at trophy leaders with 6 trophies each by the end of the next week, and ultimately culminated in my 2nd place finish in the Showcase Challenge. The landscape of legacy had been irreversibly altered.
One of the biggest challenges when working with an extremely powerful shell in magic is that it can be hard to identify which deckbuilding decisions are the correct ones, and which ones you're just winning with because your deck is broken and it doesn't matter. Case in point:
Two wildly different ways to build the deck on display here. The first fork in the road of Initiative Stompy deckbuilding, to me, was choosing the correct mox. Chrome Mox and Mox Diamond both stretched the deck in different directions. Chrome decks, similar Moon Stompy, could afford to run a very tight land count, extra fast mana, and a bunch of very impactful low curve cards. Diamond decks gave the ability to run a lot of powerful utility lands, like Wasteland, Urza's Saga, or extra copies of Eiganjo, Seat of the Empire and Karakas. The first room of The Undercity gives you a basic land to hand, meaning it was generally more desirable to play the fast mana that let you keep real cards in your hand and discard lands, as you would naturally acquire more mana from the initiative.
Additionally, you could afford microsplashes for Once Upon a Time, a card I found to be obscenely powerful in testing, given the power level of your sol land + initiative card starts vs your other starts. Eventually, the Chrome lists started to win out. I think ultimately the additional suite of fast mana in Lotus Petal puts the chrome lists above the diamond ones, as you have a much higher likelihood of powerful turn 1 plays with twice the amount of mana rocks. While diamond lists could also play petal, the land count for your diamonds starts to look wildly irresponsible when built like that, something I'm usually not a fan of.
The next hurdle is one I don't think a lot of people were actually aware of: Is this deck a Chalice of the Void deck? The easy answer is “of course it is, you're a fast mana deck in legacy that doesn't play 1 drops.” But a lot of exploration that I and others did was working with Swords to Plowshares main over chalice. The plan does make a lot of sense in theory. In a deck based around holding onto the initiative for multiple turns to generate an insurmountable advantage, why wouldn't you want to play extra removal spells main? Plow is probably the best it's ever been in legacy, having almost no dead matchups outside of some of the more dedicated combo decks.
All that said, Chalice won this fight as well (for now at least). Regardless of plow being a powerful card and highly synergistic with the deck's game plan, it missed on the deck's core game 1 strategy: presenting rapid fire powerful threats to bury your opponent. Most stompy decks, especially in game 1s, hinge on getting out ahead in a blisteringly fast pace with their fast mana cards, presenting threats ahead of schedule until your opponents run out of timely answers. You're often much better served curving Chalice into White Plume as opposed to curving White Plume into a turn where you hold up a plow.
Your objective across most game 1s is to flatten your opponent, and in the postboard games you can slow down and refine your gameplan with a card like Plow. (Part of the reason Chalice won out is also, in my opinion, due to the addition of Touch the Spirit Realm, which I'll get into later). As we see the meta adapt to the Initiative menace, we may see a world where plow becomes the default over chalice, if for no other matchup than simply the mirror. I think you lose a lot of equity across the board with this strat, but in more narrow fields, or if Init Stompy starts to really take over the meta, we could easily see it.
The final step, and perhaps the trickiest, was how to fill out the decklist with a supporting cast. Yes, the initiative cards were broken. Yes, we decided to play Chalice and Chrome and Petal. But which cards complete the deck in the best way possible? The number of playable options, from Spirit of the Labyrinth to Archon of Emeria to The Wandering Emperor to Thought-Knot Seer felt practically endless. I'm not much of a deckbuilder myself. I'm much better at deck refinement, so starting from nothing was a daunting task for me. I found this task especially hard when testing Init Stompy builds, because the core of the deck felt so absolutely broken you could win with any and everything (I managed a 5-0 with 4 Brushland in my deck that I forgot to change after cutting all the Eldrazi).
However, as I played the deck more and chatted with my fellow Initiative breakers, I started focusing in on some core tenets:
Build your deck to beat Delver, then work backwards from there.
An adage I coined when refining Moon Stompy this year, this helped a lot in deciding which cards were playable and which weren't. Elite Spellbinder started making the cut over Anointed Peacekeeper due to how useful 3 power fliers were in the matchup. We refined the creature suite to humans and clerics so we could add Cavern of Souls, one of the best tools the deck had for the Delver matchup. We ended up cutting Archon due to this, although Archon was obscenely powerful during our testing, and if there's a world where you could play both Archon and Cavern remains to be seen.
Keep “the magic mana cost” in mind during deckbuilding.
With 21 lands, 4 Chrome Mox, and 4 Lotus Petal, this deck's mana was built very closely to Moon Stompy's (WOTC pls give us Angelic Spirit Guide). With that in mind, I tried to build the deck around the 2W flashpoint. Dungeoneer made the cut because the initiative was too broken not to play as much as I could (within reason. The 5 mana enchantment is… not very good). It was easier to cut stuff like Thought-Knot Seer from early builds because it became more and more clear the most critical turns were casting early spells, not more powerful 4 drops.
Protect the initiative.
Pretty obvious, but keeping the initiative is very broken, and you want to hold onto it for as long as possible. So we shoved a bunch of removal into the deck. Solitude was a natural inclusion, as Fury taught us how well pitch elementals play in Stompy strategies. Eiganjo became the flex land of choice as an extra removal spell. Palace Jailer managed to squeak into the lists despite being a 4 drop, simply because it was extra removal and card advantage bundled into one. If you're already hellbent on protecting the initiative, protecting the monarch as well isn't the tallest order. Touch the Spirit Realm also fit the bill as a modal removal spell that also matched the magic mana cost.
Everytime We Touch
This is the list my testing team converged on. The archetype is so fresh and legacy is rapidly changing to compensate, so I can't say “this is the best list out there,” but I think it's an extremely powerful starting point. I ended my testing of this list at a 66-11 win-loss ratio, which is easily the most absurd tear I've ever been on with a deck. But given that I wrote most of this article the week after my 2nd place Showcase Challenge finish, I imagine the format will already look wildly different by the time you read this. Not much I can do about that though.
The mana is hard to touch. 17-18 lands + 4 Emeria's Call is pretty rigid. Call is a powerful tool as a land that can pitch to Chrome Mox and Solitude, as well as randomly getting cast in late games, since Stompy decks can sometimes flood out late. The sol lands and fast mana are basically non-negotiable. They lead to your busted starts, and that's what this deck tries to do. You could maybe shave 1 City of Traitors in favor of one of the other flex lands, at the very most. Cavern of Souls was one of the key role players in breaking the delver matchup, and I frequently want to add the 4th to the manabase, but you need to respect true white sources. Karakas and Eiganjo, Seat of the Empire make it in as the best and most free white flex land options. The 2nd Karakas is the other land I wish I had room for, primarily as a tool against Minsc & Boo. And finally, this deck really wants to play a minimum of 3 Plains, as you often search out 1 or 2 of them as you enter The Undercity over the course of each game. You could maybe squeeze by on just 2 for additional copies of the other white flex lands, but that really starts to stretch the limits of the manabase.
4x White Plume Adventurer and Seasoned Dungeoneer is easy. Taking the initiative is broken, and these are the best cards for it. White Plume's untap ability is huge as pseudo-vigilance, allowing you to both apply pressure and protect the initiative from your opponent. Dungeoneer… has a ton of text. It basically makes any party creature (remember that very memorable and playable mechanic from Zendikar Rising?) unblockable, and also randomly makes them explore (remember that very memorable and playable mechanic from Ixalan?). This lets you easily attack through gummed up boardstates to take back the initiative, or just flat out kill your opponents. An easy thing to miss when first analyzing the initiative is just how fast your opponent gets their face kicked in by it. White Plume can deal as much damage as an unchecked Goblin Rabblemaster over the course of 3 turns. (0 -> 5 -> 15 in WPA's case and 1 -> 7 -> 15 in Rabble's). Dungeoneer does the same thing, or more if you hit +1/+1 counters off the explore triggers, as well as being fully unblockable. These things hit hard.
Thalia, Guardian of Thraben makes it in as both a human for cavern and an early play to fill in an early dead turn. Early hatecards are very important for this deck, mostly to maintain the deck's ability to beat combo. I would likely opt for Spirit of the Labyrinth instead if not for the importance of cohesive creature types (but don't tell Thalia I said that).
Elite Spellbinder makes his legacy debut. This card… does not look like a legacy power level card. And you'd be right (sorry PVDDR). The big thing about this card is that it checks a lot of boxes this deck is looking to fill. Human? Check. Also a cleric? Check. 2W mana cost? Yup. Disruptive effect that can apply to fair decks as well as combo? You bet. While Spellbinder is in general a less powerful card than Anointed Peacekeeper, you can occasionally snipe a Shark Typhoon, equipment from Stoneforge Mystic, or Show and Tell hit with Spellbinder. But the key feature here is flying. 3-power fliers are at a premium vs delver. One of the predominant strategies in the matchup, especially postboard, is to kill every threat on sight and run away with the initiative. Being able to trade off with delver's non-Murktide threats is an important feature of Spellbinder.
Anointed Peacekeeper, or Beefkeeper as I like to call him (look at those arms!), still makes it into the fringe slots, as extra copies of a near identical card to Spellbinder. Some key differences are his ability to name cards not in hand, and the taxing of activated abilities. As a fast mana deck, you can occasionally just slam him turn 1 and name a fetchland in your opponent's hand to shut them out. But more helpfully he'll tax a card like Urza's Saga or Thespian's Stage, or name Thassa's Oracle if you don't manage to resolve him before your Doomsday opponent casts their titular card. All that wrapped up with vigilance (everyone say it with me now: PROTECT THE INITIATIVE) makes it a reasonable option for stompy strategies.
Solitude is an easy slam dunk. Like I touched on earlier, the pitch elementals play very nicely in stompy strategies, providing both early game interaction and late game powerful mana sinks. Swords to Plowshares that provides a lifelinking body late is exactly what this deck wants. Digging for a removal spell upon reaching Throne of the Dead Three at the end of the Undercity is an understated upside of removal with bodies, and comes up a lot more than one might expect.
Palace Jailer doesn't check every box on the list (apparently jailers aren't an appropriate party creature type), but he fits the bill on removal that plays nicely with Cavern. We already touched on Jailer's synergies with the deck, but it bears repeating the handful of copies play very well with digging for removal at the end of the Undercity, as well as the card advantage and removal the card offers upfront.
Chalice of the Void is a card I already discussed at length so I'll keep it fairly brief. Chalice is just your free win button vs the non-stompy part of the field, as well as a card that lets you have more consistent powerful t1 plays to curve into your heavy hitters. As we see the legacy meta adapt and Init Stompy absorb more and more of the meta, we may see this card phase out, but for now, you're still an Ancient Tomb deck, just take the free wins and Force of Will bait.
Touch the Spirit Realm is the pièce de résistance of this build. An extremely unassuming card, Touch manages to slot in as the perfect style of card Init Stompy was looking for. It's a removal spell at the perfect mana cost to be utilized with sol lands and around chalice. It's an uncounterable flicker for your variety of ETB creatures, whether to dodge removal spells or simply accelerate your Undercity exploration. You can even channel on your evoked Solitudes for a double plow + 3/2 lifelinker. In a deck all about removing your opponents' creatures while trying not to run completely dead spells, Touch slots into the deck perfectly, even if it doesn't look like it.
Swords to Plowshares is simple. You're a fair white deck. Play plows. Like I've mentioned in the endless Chalice vs Plow debate, there's definitely a world where this card is maindeckable, but for now these are living in my sideboard.
Faerie Macabre is a card I've gone to bat for a lot. I genuinely think that Macabre is often better than Leyline of the Void in these sorts of decks. Diversifying your hatecards is very important vs decks like Reanimator and Oops, where they will always bring in cards like Force of Vigor and Serenity to interact with your permanent based hate like Leyline, as well as clean up other hate cards like Chalice of the Void. If I didn't want leyline vs Delver as Moon Stompy, I'd likely be on a similar strategy here. There is a miss here vs Echo the Eons decks where leyline would obviously be much better, but I think those matchups are very good and echo is at a low point currently. Notably, it's important to not get complacent when it comes to hate cards like this. If everyone starts playing only Faerie, the graveyard deck players start to get wise to the plan and aim for hand disruption rather than removing hate cards. It's reasonable to make switches to leylines often to make sure your opponent can't be sure what you're on.
Mindbreak Trap is the medium middle ground for respecting fast combo. Fast mana + hate permanents is a good recipe for beating combo decks (see moon stompy's plan) but extremely fast combo + losing some die rolls can still be a pain point. Trap keeps you safe vs a lot of the super fast nonsense that can sometimes catch you with your pants down.
Loran of the Third Path and Null Rod are the artifact hate of choice here. Rod pulls double duty as combo hate vs various Lion's Eye Diamond strategies, while Loran helps you vs Urza's Saga decks. Both cards have various strengths and weaknesses depending on what you're concerned about.
Aven Mindcensor is back from the dead after like a 10 year hiatus from legacy. I still remember the days when this card was in D&T decks in like 2012 (it was bad back then too). Luckily, like a great many cards, it looks a lot better when paired with fast mana. While clearly much weaker than alternative colors' options like Opposition Agent, mindcensor generally does a good-enough impression, fighting Green Sun's Zenith decks as well as Doomsday, with a smattering of other relevant hits vs combo, stoneforges, etc. I personally really hate this card, but that's because I was scarred for life in 2015 modern, in an incident involving a lethal scapeshift for 4 mountains being cast through my mindcensor, but that's neither here nor there. But sometimes this card does fail you and that sucks.
Containment Priest is most of what I want mindcensor to be. Good vs the GSZ decks, while being much better vs stuff like reanimator. It misses Grist, the Hunger Tide, which is a fairly glaring issue, as well as having 0 text vs Doomsday, which is why a split is generally preferred, but I hate mindcensor so… priest is better.
Obviously there are far too many cards to go over every single one I decided to exclude, but I wanted to touch on 2 in particular: Stoneforge Mystic and Archon of Emeria. Stoneforge started showing up primarily in PVDH's version. I found that I pretty highly valued cards that were more relevant vs combo and delver, and was even unimpressed by stoneforge vs control. I much prefer to put more early disruptive elements in the deck, in large part to bolster your combo matchup, one of your weaker points. Stoneforge is definitely better than most other cards in the mirror, but isn't backbreaking to answer, especially with Elite Spellbinder in the deck, which made me feel more comfortable in ditching it.
Archon was a card I was extremely high on early in testing. A real hatebear role player in vintage, it was pretty clear to me that Archon was powerful with fast mana but was missing a deck to go into. Init Stompy felt like that deck, until we narrowed in on the Cavern of Souls variant. The consolidation of creature types pushed Archon (and Stoneforge) out of the deck for potentially weaker options, but ones that were more consistently castable in the reworked manabase. I haven't done enough experimenting to be confident if there's a world where you can do both, but I wouldn't be shocked to see Archon end up in lists again.
Starting off with everyone's favorite deck, I will make the bold claim that you are favored here (author note: this statement was made before the delver players' pro white creatures sideboard tech, which has definitely improved their matchup, but I'll talk about that more later). I wouldn't be so high on this deck if I, and many of my testing companions, weren't absolutely farming delver players with the Cavern + Touch iterations of this list..
You have an extremely diverse suite of impactful threats to answer, and all of them involve very different answers. You're a turn 1 chalice deck, putting them immediately to counterspell checks, as well as a bunch of singularly powerful racing threats. Dungeoneer, in particular, is immune to bolt and is unblockable, applying an extremely fast and hard to interact clock. In addition, you're maybe the only stompy deck with answers to Murktide Regent, which is historically delver players' best thing to be doing vs stompy strategies. Solitude is an extremely potent maindeck removal option, and the addition of Touch the Spirit Realm lets you fill out the deck with more removal, as well as a protection spell for your own threats.
A play pattern that inexperienced players often play into is waiting until your upkeep to bolt your White Plume, hoping to waste your dungeon trigger on +1/+1 counters from Forge. This plays into letting you untap your mana for an uncounterable Touch channel to save your White Plume and get another Initiative trigger. As the deck gains popularity, you'll see delver players play into this less and less, but it then opens you up to getting the free move to Lost Well as they start to sorcery speed remove your creatures. It's a win-win.
-4 Lotus Petal -1 Anointed Peacekeeper
+4 Swords to Plowshares +1 Touch the Spirit Realm
Postboard starts to feel even better as you get to load up on an extra 4 plows as additional removal. The postboard games commonly play out with you removing every threat they have with your 4 plow 4 solitude 4 touch 2 jailer 2 eiganjo deck, before eventually playing out your game ending threat like White Plume or Dungeoneer, often uncounterably. Siding out petals may feel counterintuitive, but the reality is that Init Stompy is extremely mana hungry, and Delver is likely to convert a Daze against you regardless. With the shift to full control deck, the games will typically last awhile, and you don't need to rely on the speed of petal.
You farm control players (I say as I lose to Vook on 4c in the finals of the Showcase Challenge). Real talk though, control is going through some pretty important deck reconstruction plans to account for the Init Stompy matchup. A fast initiative creature will be almost unbeatable for them every game, and with cavern in the mix, it becomes very hard for them to answer one. Some of their best plans involve board control + [Minsc & Boo, Timeless Heroes] or Endurance to steal the initiative. This often leads to them weirdly playing out like a bad Delver strategy vs you, trying to force your early plays and stick a creature to threaten you as they answer your threats. Minsc is particularly threatening to try to check without a Karakas handy, but generally requires you to not be massively ahead by the time it's relevant to successfully impact the game.
-2 Anointed Peacekeeper, -1 Lotus Petal
+1 Touch the Spirit Realm, +2 Swords to Plowshares.
Postboard games are more of the same. I haven't zeroed in on exactly how much removal you want vs control, but I have found going down on petals to be incorrect with how important it is to slam an early cavern'd threat. Beefkeeper gets the cut over Spellbinder, as Spellbinder's tax will be permanent, while Beefkeeper can often be clunky vs the variety of removal options control will bring to the table.
Most chalice mirrors tend to be clown fiestas, and the moon stompy matchup is no different. Luckily, most of Moon Stompy's maindeck hatecards don't do a lot. Blood Moon can sometimes catch you unawares but with 4 Chrome Mox 3 Plains and 4 Lotus Petal (playing your initiative card can tutor up a permanent white source from your petal) you're usually fine against all their hate. They do have a variety of wide board haste threats if unchecked, which can definitely be dangerous when trying to protect the initiative.
Oftentimes the games you lose will involve playing a Goblin Rabblemaster and Fury in the same turn to clear your blocker and take the initiative for themselves. Try to be mindful of Fury at all times. Space out your 1 and 3 toughness threats, as you can sometimes get caught by a wrath that could've easily been avoided by waiting for Forge to buff up a White Plume out of Fury range first.
Also important to watch out for Caves of Chaos Adventurer as a way to manually take the initiative in clogged boardstates. But in general, you're the better stompy deck, with fewermaindeck dead cards and more removal, and will win more games accordingly.
-4 Chalice of the Void, -3 Elite Spellbinder
+4 Swords to Plowshares, +1 Touch the Spirit Realm +1 Containment Priest +1 Loran of the Third Path
Sideboard games feel more even after both players get to delete a lot of their dead hate in favor of more real cards, specifically removal spells. Luckily, in a battle of removal spells, you're generally favored, as the primary initiative holder. Spellbinder gets shaved over Thalia mostly just for the ability to profitably block, as every card protecting the initiative is hugely important. Priest makes it in because of its favorable interaction with Fable of the Mirror-Breaker flipping, as well as just being a flash 2/2 to put in front of 1/1s in emergencies.
WE FINALLY DID IT. A MONO WHITE DECK WITH A GOOD DOOMSDAY MATCHUP. THE YEARS OF D&T GETTING FARMED ARE ALL WORTH IT. All your hatecards are pretty massively impactful, and you have an exceptionally fast clock to back it up. As with basically all stompy decks, you are in danger of sometimes dying to t1 Doomsdays, but that's just the life you choose to lead. You basically want to mulligan to fast disruptive starts like Chalice or Thalia or Spellbinder, then follow it up with an initiative creature to quickly slam the door shut. This is a matchup that gets hurt by decisions like Spellbinder over Beefkeeper, and lack of Archon at all, but ultimately you have a very solid Doomsday matchup and can improve it pretty considerably if/when you need to.
-2 Palace Jailer, -3 Touch the Spirit Realm, -1 Seasoned Dungeoneer
+2 Mindbreak Trap, +2 Aven Mindcensor, +1 Loran of the Third Path, +1 Null Rod
Postboard games don't go much differently, just play fast interactive creatures and dead them ASAP. Loran may look goofy but with how fast the deck is, the tap ability can put some dday players in a bind trying to kill you, especially backed up with stuff like Solitude. Null Rod is fairly medium but can either slow down their petal based starts or catch them with their pants down if played post Doomsday pile.
Depths is a matchup that often feels like walking a tightrope, and this is no exception. A reasonable creature based deck with removal and an instant kill condition are a lot of angles to be aware of, but ultimately Init Stompy feels favored here. A defining characteristic that comes up repeatedly for Init Stompy over other stompy strategies is the inclusion of plenty of powerful removal tools. Solitude + Touch + Jailer can really overload their fair creature plan, and as always, the initiative provides a very fast clock when needed. Sylvan Safekeeper is a card to be very aware of, as it always is with removal-dense decks, but with tools like Beefkeeper and Arena in the Undercity you have a lot of ability to fight it.
An important play pattern to keep an eye out for is fetchland or green source + Crop Rotation for Dryad Arbor on your end step as a surprise creature to steal the initiative. Generally trading initiative back and forth isn't a huge deal, but it's important to keep in mind in situations where you only have 1 creature in play and can potentially lose to the initiative snowball backed up with a single removal spell.
-4 Chalice of the Void, -4 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
+4 Swords to Plowshares, +1 Touch the Spirit Realm, +2 Aven Mindcensor, +1 Containment Priest
Mindcensor and priest are large role players in postboard games, as they allow you to shut off Green Sun's Zenith access to Safekeeper. Be mindful of [Minsc & Boo, Timeless Heroes] (also found in the main sometimes) as another source of hasty initiative stealing. Other than that you just get to go up on removal and beat them down as fast as possible.
I don't want to say “this matchup plays out almost exactly the same as GW depths” but… this matchup plays out almost exactly the same as GW depths. It's a creature-dense deck with an instant kill combo, your plan is to point and click removal spells and punch them in the face really fast before they can kill you. The key difference is that Elves is more creature-dense but doesn't interact as well, at least preboard.
This means your creatures are generally very safe, so you want to establish a clock fast, since their kill condition is much harder to interact with than a Marit Lage. As with Depths, keep in mind the fetch for Arbor to steal initiative plan, but always remember that it's often fine to let initiative go for a turn if you can reliably get it back with more attacks.
-4 Chalice of the Void, -4 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
+4 Swords to Plowshares, +1 Touch the Spirit Realm, +2 Aven Mindcensor, +1 Containment Priest
Don't tell the Elves players but I've started to catch onto their plans. Chalice isn't that exciting against them anymore, as they shift more and more towards a plodding midrange deck instead of a combo deck (specifically referring to Fiend Artisan elves here. If they're still playing Nettle Sentinel and Glimpse of Nature that's a different ballgame).
Current Elves lists are on ~11 1 drops that you can hit with Chalice, and only if they don't also have a Shepherd in play. You're better off just sticking with your creature threats to gum up their plans and beat them down. Mindcensor and Priest are huge here, as their deck is wholly built around searching their deck for creatures to put into play. The main card to be aware of in postboard games is Snuff Out, as a free removal spell can push a Natural Order through a hate creature, or snipe your blocker and steal the initiative.
8 Cast is definitely one of the more tricky matchups. They're decent at dodging a lot of your hate (especially if you end up t1ing a chalice on 1 before you know what they're on) and they can frequently generate both wide board with Sai, Master Thopterist (generally their scariest card) and big heavy hitters with Urza's Saga tokens and Kappa Cannoneer. Luckily, we are a fairly removal-dense deck, and with all your extra mana you can even kill a Cannoneer through its ward fairly often if need be.Your best game plan is to generate a fast initiator (preferably Dungeoneer here, as she can easily punch through cluttered boardstates 8 cast can generate) and try to defend the initiative as best you can.
If you can pull enough ahead early, you can get by with some back and forth initiative exchanges to get to Throne of the Dead Three first and try and put them in the dirt. (Author's note, I'm 7 matchups in and am now realizing the gameplan in every single matchup is “play init creature and punch them in the face fast and hard.” Very insightful advice for you all, I'm sure.)
-4 Elite Spellbinder, -2 Palace Jailer
+4 Swords to Plowshares, +1 Loran of the Third Path, +1 Null Rod
You don't gain a huge amount from the sideboard in this matchup. While I don't think this matchup is great, it's generally fine, and not seen enough for me to want to invest more sideboard slots into it. If you want to improve the matchup, you can definitely add more copies of Null Rod and Loran, or even something like Serenity. Just the knowledge of the matchup can go a long way in postboard games though, with regards to hate sequencing and putting an early chalice down on 0. Spellbinder gets the cut here because of how bad he is vs thopters, as well as not taxing Urza's Saga activations like Beefkeeper does.
My least favorite part of every matchup breakdown I write: the graveyard decks. Being a 0 Force of Will deck, your agency in the matchup is fairly minimal. Sometimes you'll keep a turn 1 Chalice of the Void or Thalia, Guardian of Thraben hand and just kill them, oftentimes you'll just die. Then you move to sideboard games where you get to bring in a pile of hate.
Sideboard: -4 White Plume Adventurer, -4 Seasoned Dungeoneer, -2 Palace Jailer
+3 Faerie Macabre, +4 Swords to Plowshares], +1 Containement Priest, +2 Aven Mindcensor
Postboard games will rely on your mulling to turn 1 disruption on the play, or generally just macabre on the draw. With only 1 priest in current lists, it's hard to configure a boardstate to completely lock them out. This is definitely a matchup hurt by mindcensors over priests, and can be adjusted accordingly. Generally the initiative dudes come out, both because you don't really need the clock as much as you want to overload on disruption, and because sometimes you can die really fast if they Thoughtseize + Reanimate your initiative creature instead of one of their own.
A mixture of Solitudes, Plows, and Touches is nice for a variety of ways to get out of the Serra's Emmisary lock, and each of the cards individually can serve their own purposes. Solitude being great against Exhume, Plow being the most efficient answer available, and Touch synergizing with your own creatures like Elite Spellbinder or Solitude for more ETBs, as well as the Oblivion Ring mode.
This is maybe the first time I've written a matchup breakdown and the mirror has been a genuine concern. I'm not used to playing good decks. Unfortunately for both me and all of you: welcome to a fucking shitshow of a mirror. In a battle of maintaining the initiative, the best cards to play are more cards that take the initiative, so you don't have to attack, as all your creatures are under fire from all the removal spells. Generally speaking, the most important heuristic is to never play your initiative creature unless you either need to take it from your opponent, or you have another initiative creature to back it up.
If you play out a White Plume, and your opponent plays one of their own, suddenly you're in deep shit. If you attack, they just trade and keep the initiative. If you have a removal spell, you need to hope they don't also have one. The best plan is to either have a followup initiator, or wait for them to make the first move. Both players are basically trying to turbo their way to the Throne of the Dead Three, because as soon as you hit it there's generally a huge swing in advantage via something like Solitude or Palace Jailer or another Initiator to start the process all over again. Try to conserve your Dungeoneers if you're ahead, as well. It's by far the most powerful card with her ability to punch through boardstates, so if you can force removal on other threats, it gives you more of a chance to snowball with some unblockables later.
Sideboard: -4 Chalice of the Void, -4 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
+4 Swords to Plowshares, +1 Touch the Spirit Realm, +1 Loran of the Third Path, +1 Containment Priest, +1 Aven Mindcensor
I'm honestly not sure if postboard games become more or less of a clown fiesta. While you both get to cut the unplayable chaff that you've brought to the table, you also both get to fill your deck with even more removal spells to sling at each other. Nothing really changes besides a reduction in nongames due to one player keeping a chalice/thalia heavy hand. Loran, Priest, and Mindcensor all come in mostly because they have medium upside over Thalia, but aren't that exciting (though Mindcensor does get much better if your opponent is on a stoneforge version). The mirror has gotten so weird with initiative swings that I legitimately think taking the draw might be the correct play, although I haven't actually put it to the test. Since you always want to play the 2nd initiative creature, getting the extra card might be worth it. But maybe these are the ravings of a mad man. Playing in the mirror will do that to you.
Combating the Initiative Menace
If you were paying attention, you'll note that I think almost every matchup I went over is close or favorable for Initiative Stompy. So clearly the deck needs a ban. Well… maybe it does. But no small part of that is that legacy is currently adapting to fight against Initiative Stompy. In the 1-1.5 weeks between my Showcase Challenge finish and me writing this article, legacy decks are already going through some serious overhauls. Delver has started playing sideboard Unchained Berserker. Control is losing playing many more copies of cards like Dress Down, Terminus and Torpor Orb. People are already teching their deck out for the mirror with cards like Archon of Absolution and Empty-Shrine Kannushi (a card I have to imagine < 0.1% of magic players knew existed until last week).
While I think some of these options might be an overcorrection based on the popularity boom of a new successful deck, there are some important takeaways here if you wish to fight against Init Stompy.
If you're a fair deck, the initiative forces you to play a creature-based subgame with your opponent. This means you need to really revamp deck construction if you can't regularly punch through Init Stompy boardstates. Fair deck players are quickly realizing that a card like Torpor Orb is often too slow to be reasonably effective in the matchup. Delver decks are looking to use Unchained Berserker to sneak past blockers and removal and steal the initiative, but if you don't want to get that narrow, cards like Third Path Iconoclast or True-Name Nemesis are also applicable for the matchup to go around or through opposing creatures and removal.
While control decks haven't made this move yet, I wouldn't be surprised to see a shift towards Ice-Fang Coatl as a potent surprise flying initiative thief. Even going up on cards like Endurance and [Minsc & Boo, Timeless Heroes] is warranted, as you just need to increase your creature count or you lose the ability to take the initiative from the opponent. Important to note here, that while going wide is an important strategy to let you fight the subgame, oftentimes Init Stompy is content to swap the initiative back and forth, so you'll generally need to go so wide you have plenty of blockers to gum up the works, or combine creatures with enough removal to ensure they can't get the initiative back.
If you're an unfair deck, you can try to exploit the lack of Force of Wills. The easiest way for combo decks to beat Init Stompy is to try to win the game on turn 1. While this doesn't feel like a great plan when the other best deck in the format is Delver, that hasn't stopped combo players before, and likely never will. So the fewer turns you can give your opponent, the better.
I wanted to think of a 3rd piece of advice here but honestly there hasn't really felt like there is one. Almost all of my losses center around decks that are teched to fight the initiative fight, or kill you before it matters. If this continues to be the case, the deck might prove too fucked up and we'll see White Plume Adventurer on the ban list. So if Init Stompy has you down, maybe just give it a few weeks and check back in on how legacy is doing in 2023.
Where do we go from here?
The way I see it, there are 2 paths forward. Either the meta adjusts, and Initiative Stompy becomes the cool new legacy deck on the block, settling into a reasonable win rate as other decks identify better cards and game plans to combat it, or the deck continues to farm people and White Plume ends up the 4th white card on the banlist (5th if you count Shahrazad). It's very hard to tell without waiting longer to see how other decks adjust. In my opinion, the playability of absolute nonsense sideboard cards like Unchained Berserker and Empty-Shrine Kannushi give me some real Underworld Breach vibes regarding Init Stompy (definitely a solid step or 2 below on power level though). We're even seeing the deck move to the plows over chalices main as the mirror gets more and more popular. Once a deck's top priority and maindeck hedges start heavily leaning towards the mirror, it does feel like it's indicative of a problem
(hmm… sounds like delver for the past year).
Regardless of the final outcome, I think Init Stompy is far more than a flash in the pan. The deck has already started to adapt to the counterattack of pro white idiots with cards like Gut Shot, Walking Ballista, Spatial Contortion, or Warping Wail. People are really testing the limits of what the White Plume + Dungeoneer shell can do, from color splashes (mainly red for Caves of Chaos Adventurer), to slotting the cards into other archetypes like UWx Init Stoneblade strategies.
Personally, I don't think either of these are super viable long term. The mana in mono white is already stretched near its absolute limits, and the color splash decks lean heavily on Mox Diamond, which has a whole host of previously mentioned issues about failure to maintain land count (I'm begging you, put more than 23 lands in your diamond lists). And while the attempts at absorbing initiative creatures into blue strategies is a tried and true effort for many a broken card over the years, I don't expect it to stick.
The initiative gets better the faster you put it into play, before your opponent can set up a board to fight over it, and a lot of the blue lists I see are really glutted with slow clunky cards with high mana costs, which Delver gets to then prey upon. I find that a lot of these decks are seeing wins because the initiative core is busted, but likely not the end game for the cards. But it's only been a month at this point. Anything is possible. People will continue to try to break and refine and re-break this exceptionally powerful shell for the foreseeable future. And when the dust settles, I wouldn't be surprised to see White Plume on the banlist. But I hope I'm wrong, because I've been having a ton of fun with the first playable white stompy deck in… maybe ever.
If legacy adjusts to the point where the deck isn't broken, I think it provides a much needed check on the sideboard capacity of a lot of the blue decks. Needing to plan for combo AND mirror tech cards AND Hydroblasts for moon stompy AND now some pro white creatures for Init Stompy, holes can really start to open up to exploit sideboard gaps in the defenses of the top decks. I'll be doing my best to get the deck banned, because I think it's very very good and I'll be playing it for a while. But like I said, we'll have to wait and see.
This time around, the shout outs are really important to me. Unlike a lot of what I did with similar D&T or Moon Stompy articles, breaking a brand new deck was a huge team effort.
I could not have done it without the success and genius minds in my testing team: Max Gilmore (@maxtortion), Jason Murray aka Luinil (@jasonkmurray), Eddie Zamora (@yosoy_ez), Jarvis Yu (@jkyu06), Callum Smith (@callumsmithmtg), and Francis Cowper (@FrancisCowper).
I'm writing this before Eternal Weekend/Showcase Qualifier Weekend, so I hope our efforts end with putting someone on top. Additionally, plenty of other people were right alongside me in breaking this deck, even without direct testing together, like Peter van der Ham (@pvdh_magic), Sahar Mirhadi (@saharmirhadi), @MTG_Oni, Lee Hung Nguyen (@1mrlee), and plenty of others that were all working to absolutely break this deck in half.
It was a herculean effort to refine a deck with such a truly busted core, and all input was very important at every stage in the process. As always, a huge thanks to Min and Max for giving me a place to put all my lengthy ramblings. And also, if you've read this far, you should know the drill by now. Watch The Owl House. You've read how many of my articles now, and still haven't watched it? Disrespectful, really. Fantastic show. Season 3 Episode 2 (the penultimate episode of the series) was just announced for a January 21st, 2023 release date literally as I was concluding this article. So it's a sign that everyone that reads this should watch it.
Anyway, I'll see you all after Initiative Stompy wins Eternal Weekend and the Showcase Qualifier. Gonna make myself a plaque that says “2 time champion of helping get white cards banned in legacy.” (rest in peace, Zirda, the Dawnwaker).