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Guest Article: Thawing Glaciers

Guest Article:  Thawing Glaciers
Written by:
  • Tse Shuen Wan

📅 March 31, 2021

⏱️19 min read

Hello friends! It's been awhile since you've heard from me since I've been a little more active on Twitter/Discord/Twitch. I've been wanting to put out some more concrete thoughts on each colour combination that I've tested with the new banlist/rule changes. I plan to cover all the different combinations of midrange/control I have played so far after leading on some general findings! Buckle in, it's going to be a long one.

The State of Legacy

The format has sped up significantly, even if this was not immediately obvious.

For what seemed like an eternity, it was difficult for a solid mana denial plan to be effective against Snow and its ilk because of the pervasive presence of Arcum's Astrolabe.

Delver variants have largely divided into a very distinct dichotomy following the bans; One that retained its grindy strength by adopting Uro, and the other by shedding the 'fat' and leaning heavily on explosive starts or heavy mana denial to win quickly. To quickly separate these:

I've included a few MTGO handles (and will continue to include them) if you were interested in taking a look at what some of these lists look like. These are some of the players I've played most against (all of which are really good).

Anecdotally, I feel like the more polar your build of tempo is, the more successful it is likely to be. Delver has always been very flexible but being in the middle ground worsens what your deck is fundamentally good against while only slightly improving your worse matchups.

Unfortunately for us reactive decks, the fastest deck often dictates what is required for us to maintain a positive matchup against 'delver' and I think fundamentally what is required of a control deck right now is quite difficult to satisfy. Not only do you need to have fast interaction to fight these Sprite Dragon/Young Pyromancer decks, you also need some way to have game against the Dreadhorde Arcanist shell that has largely been filled by Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath and Sylvan Library even out of tempo.

Prison cards; The Format.

Well, lets not beat about the bush: Oko, Thief of Crowns was prison killer #1. Unchallenged, he defeated every 3 mana planeswalker in existence, most 4 mana planeswalkers and probably most 5 mana ones too (Honorable mention to Wrenn and Six, he sometimes beat that too!).

With Oko gone, the slew of prison walkers printed in War of the Spark have returned in force; Narset, Parter of Veils, Teferi, Time Raveler and of course Hullbreacher/Leovold, Emissary of Trest.

Unfortunately, with these heavy blue prison cards, they demand a very specific answer right as they are played. My personal play experience is that blue mirrors have become extremely volatile...

While play skill remains a key component, an astonishing amount of games end when a prison card resolves and prevents the opponent from playing any magic at all (Hullbreacher in particular). If you don't play Pyroblast/Abrupt Decay, the chances of you being able to do anything productive in that game is incredibly low.

In low resource games, cards like Narset, Parter of Veils have proven themselves to almost always be better than pure engine cards. She pulls you ahead on cards while preventing your opponent from having huge swing turns with top-decked cards like Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath.

Cards like Jace, the Mind Sculptor/Dack Fayden were historically powerful cards in midrange/control mirrors, but in the face of these prison-engine cards, they don't always accomplish what they once did.

Where does that leave us? Well there are a few solutions to this conundrum, the most obvious being to play Abrupt Decay which was Snow's solution to these walkers in the first place (and to defeat versions of itself). Post board, employing a critical mass of Pyroblasts (3-4, with Snapcaster Mage) can also be quite effective, but failing to play either of these cards usually meant you had to leave in a pile of Forces, creating significant tension in decision making when one is also trying to play around Veil of Summer and Pyroblast.

Choosing any one of these options create other weaknesses as a Quid Pro Quo type tradeoff; the variety of solutions have in turn generated an entire metagame of distinct blue midrange/control shells which are able to coexist. (Limited assimilation; Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath. More on that further below)

Non-blue is back!

Unsurprisingly, decks like Death and Taxes that saw fringe play during Oko, Thief of Crowns's reign have become forerunners in the new format. Maverick and other decks like Lands/Loam with the ability to play Choke have also returned and serve as genuine contenders against Ponder/Brainstorm decks that dominated the format with a fierce stranglehold over the last year.

While none of these decks have proved to be impossible to beat in pre-board games, the existence of these decks as a sizeable portion of the metagame tax deck construction. Cards such as Wasteland, Rishadan Port, Aether Vial, Choke and Cataclysm make games somewhat tricky to navigate and can easily steal matches since mana bases have largely reverted to being dual-centric.

Learning how to build a good mana base is now more important than ever, and understanding when and how to play around wasteland in the context of your own deck is essential to surviving the early turns.

All blue decks playing red have had to adjust very drastically to the return of Knight of the Reliquary & Mother of Runes. Losing Oko, Thief of Crowns/Dreadhorde Arcanist as a source of recursion for Lightning Bolts and Chain Lightnings have really pushed reactive decks towards black and white removal.

Of these, white becomes the clear best options against the multitude of delve threats (Ethereal Forager, Gurmag Angler and Hooting Mandrills are seeing play), while black becomes a close second with Plague Engineer, Abrupt Decay, Fatal Push and Assassin's Trophy being very competitive (in that order).

In some ways, the existence of these archetypes restrain deckbuilding in a similar fashion to how the Arcum's Astrolabe/Oko, Thief of Crowns slowly but surely forced the same decks into obscurity over the last year.

The cost to playing a blue control deck with neither black nor white is very high, since pyroblast and lightning bolt don't always cut it against these decks.

In this next section I will attempt to discuss some of the decks I have played in the past few weeks. Although I don't fully understand the consequences of these conclusions, I hope to give a good picture of where each deck stands in the metagame and the niche they fill so you as a reader can make an informed choice on which deck is suitable for you to pick up for the coming Showcase/PTQs in April!

Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath

Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath is quite an interesting phenomenon since its been adopted by some delver decks following Oko, Thief of Crowns's departure from the format. In some ways, this is reminiscent of Oko, Thief of Crowns as a homogenizing force among blue decks. Where Uro truly differs from Oko is the steep deckbuilding restrictions it imposes on the player. Without Arcum's Astrolabe, a very large portion of the metagame has been relegated to 2/3 colours with only a few adventurous souls (or stubborn, depending on who you ask) choosing otherwise.

I don't think any invested legacy player needs any convincing on Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath's power level at this point, but let's keep in mind Uro is both a huge boon and a huge weakness just by existing in your list.

A Tour of Control Decks

Bant (mechint)

Creatures Spells Lands Sideboard
2 Ice-Fang Coatl 4 Brainstorm 4 Flooded Strand 2 Engineered Explosives
2 Snapcaster Mage 4 Ponder 4 Misty Rainforest 1 Carpet of Flowers
3 Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath 1 Preordain 1 Mystic Sanctuary 2 Relic of Progenitus
1 Council's Judgment 1 Scalding Tarn 1 Surgical Extraction
4 Force of Will 2 Snow-Covered Forest 2 Veil of Summer
3 Force of Negation 4 Snow-Covered Island 1 Ethersworn Canonist
4 Swords to Plowshares 1 Snow-Covered Plains 2 Meddling Mage
2 Terminus 2 Tropical Island 1 Rest in Peace
1 Narset, Parter of Veils 2 Tundra 1 Wilt
2 Teferi, Time Raveler 2 Back to Basics
2 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
1 Carpet of Flowers
2 Sylvan Library
1 Shark Typhoon

Strengths: High Velocity Engine, Basic Heavy, Proactive, Sufficient Tempo Compensation, Individually Good Cards

Weaknesses: Poor Non-blue Interaction, Card Efficient Counter Magic, One Dimensional

As we've seen the last few weeks play out, Bant 'Miracles' quickly presented itself as a great contender for the most successful Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath control shell.

It plays Swords to Plowshares and Terminus: the two best creature removal spells in the format and boasts a threat dense, high velocity engine that is frighteningly similar to the early versions of its predecessor.

Game 1, the deck is very powerful against most fair blue strategies and can close the game very quickly with a slew of prison walkers or forces behind. Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath is great against hand disruption (Liliana of the Veil, Hymn to Tourach, Thoughtseize) while also acting as an engine-board-stabiliser against all tempo strategies.

Conveniently, the deck elegantly compensates for its tempo negative clunkiness by playing an unbelievably high density of 7 Forces in the maindeck.

Each maindeck card is individually powerful, lessening the need for the high amounts of card selection that Miracles is typically defined by. Unfortunately, post board games are where this deck truly suffers.

Despite its long list of merits, Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath serves as an important cornerstone in the deck's gameplan; Surgical Extraction recreates every weakness classical miracles had that Uro solved. In addition to difficulties closing out games when Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath is exiled, the deck can be anemic against opponents with easy access to Karakas, Skyclave Apparition or Gilded Drake.

Despite many Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath decks sharing these issues, Bant has shown the least amount of resilience in deck construction. There aren't a tonne of good ways to reconfigure the sideboard to ameliorate it, at least not while respecting combo and graveyard as real archetypes. Relying on forces as your main way to interact can also backfire against Pyroblast/Veil of Summer heavy decks, non-creature spells that slip past counter magic are very difficult to interact with.

BUG (pokemoki / ecobaronen / lynnchalice)

Creatures Spells Lands Sideboard
2 Baleful Strix 4 Brainstorm 1 Bayou 1 Karakas
3 Snapcaster Mage 4 Ponder 1 Cephalid Coliseum 2 Carpet of Flowers
3 Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath 2 Cling to Dust 1 Forest 1 Crop Rotation
1 Leovold, Emissary of Trest 2 Fatal Push 2 Island 1 Dread of Night
1 Plague Engineer 2 Thoughtseize 3 Misty Rainforest 1 Flusterstorm
1 Unearth 4 Polluted Delta 2 Surgical Extraction
1 Abrupt Decay 1 Snow-Covered Forest 2 Veil of Summer
2 Assassin's Trophy 1 Snow-Covered Island 1 Scavenging Ooze
2 Drown in the Loch 1 Swamp 1 Force of Negation
1 Life from the Loam 2 Tropical Island 1 Liliana, the Last Hope
1 Toxic Deluge 2 Underground Sea 2 Plague Engineer
4 Force of Will 1 Verdant Catacombs
1 Sylvan Library 2 Wastelands
1 Jace, the Mind Sculptor

Strengths: Multiple Engines, High Deckbuilding Flexibility, High Average Card Quality, Permanent Removal

Weaknesses: Mana Hungry, Fragile Mana Early, Reliant on Tempo Compensators, Delve Threats & Jace, the Mind Sculptor

BUG is able to diversify its interaction significantly through Abrupt Decay, Plague Engineer, Drown in the Loch and Thoughtseize. You get to play the prized Leovold, Emissary of Trest and have a great separate engine card in Life from the Loam that continuously fuels Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath.

In a long game, Life from the Loam significantly improves the deck's weaknesses against Rishadan Port, Wasteland and Karakas which Bant can sometimes be vulnerable to. Post board, Life from the Loam can act as a secondary win condition since both Wasteland and Field of the Dead are accessible through it.

Given the arsenal of high quality options, BUG's resilience to changes in the metagame is unparalleled by any of the other control variants: A simple inspection of performing BUG lists over time demonstrate clearly how influential the pilot's deckbuilding can alter matchup profiles.

BUG plays well through prison cards like Chalice of the Void and has outs to most resolved threats. This gives the pilot much more agency over the outcome of games where they lost a force battle in the early turns. Where BUG struggles most is in the mid-game(T3-5) where the colour requirements of its spells tend to cause the deck to slow down significantly.

Fetching a basic to play around wasteland can often create cascading delays in mana expenditure by bottlenecking coloured mana. This extends to Wasteland and Stifle, which delay double spell turns, and even to situations where you are playing from behind. The deck is just not adept at answering the board and producing a threat on the same turn. Despite the high average card quality, tempo negativity is a recurring theme for the archetype, (Except you, Plague Engineer!) ironically increasing the value of free counter magic as a means to convert cards into tangible material. The games with and without Carpet of Flowers are night and day.

Jeskai (lynnchalice)

Creatures Spells Lands Sideboard
3 Snapcaster Mage 4 Brainstorm 4 Flooded Strand 1 Mountain
4 Ponder 4 Island 2 Flusterstorm
1 Spell Snare 2 Mystic Sanctuary 2 Pyroblast
4 Swords to Plowshares 2 Plains 2 Red Elemental Blast
1 Counterspell 1 Polluted Delta 2 Surgical Extraction
3 Predict 4 Scalding Tarn 1 Containment Priest
1 Entreat the Angels 2 Tundra 1 Hullbreacher
1 Force of Negation 1 Volcanic Island 2 Monastery Mentor
4 Force of Will 2 Wear // Tear
3 Terminus
1 Engineered Explosives
2 Narset, Parter of Veils
1 Teferi, Time Raveler
2 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
1 Teferi, Hero of Dominaria
4 Mishra's Bauble

Strengths: Mana, Hyper Efficiency, Ultra Xerox, Decision Intensive, Low Variance

Weaknesses: Abstract Gameplay & Sideboard Mapping, Low Performance Floor, Reactive, Off-meta 'stuff'

Jeskai is the modern day iteration of Miracles. It reserves an unusually large portion of the main for card selection and makes up for the excessive xerox elements by leaning heavily into mana positive swing cards.

By sacrificing the raw power of green, the deck is able to considerably compress its mana curve, resulting in an extremely lean, low to the ground control deck with a solid mana base that frequently cannot be attacked. Post board, most lists gain access to a critical mass of Pyroblast effects making it an oddity among most control variants with a tempo positive, mana positive, card efficient answer to the expensive blue threats seeing popular play.

Outside of having great counterplay against Veil of Summer, being able to consistently set up a fast Terminus and leverage multiple copies of Mystic Sanctuary lets it remain very competitive against the aggressive delver variants.

Unfortunately, in order to beat the 'meta' blue decks, the sideboard is very heavily skewed in order to run sufficient answers to these game-ending threats.

Monastery Mentor acts as a great tool against unfavourable matchups, but is not always the ideal solution: Classic prison cards the deck utilised over the years have significantly diminished in value since 3 drops and Carpet of Flowers have grown in popularity. The deck closes the game slowly and relies on card advantage generators that are not as immediate as Sylvan Library or Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath.

Non-blue planeswalkers (Klothys, God of Destiny, Liliana, the Last Hope) present a vexing problem for the deck especially if the matchup is also about raw card quantity. Understanding your role in each matchup and identifying your opponent's deck quickly is vital to being successful. Failure to sequence cantrips correctly or making unforced gameplay errors always result in catastrophic game states.

Grixis (Ihavethefire)

Creatures Spells Lands Sideboard
4 Baleful Strix 4 Brainstorm 2 Badlands 1 Flusterstorm
2 Kroxa, Titan of Death's Hunger 4 Ponder 2 Bloodstained Mire 3 Pyroblast
3 Snapcaster Mage 3 Fatal Push 2 Island 2 Surgical Extraction
1 Valki, God of Lies 1 Spell Snare 1 Mountain 2 Thoughtseize
1 Lightning Bolt 4 Polluted Delta 1 Abrade
2 Thoughtseize 3 Scalding Tarn 1 Entrancing Melody
1 Angrath's Rampage 2 Swamp 1 Kolaghan's Command
1 Liliana's Triumph 3 Underground Sea 1 Narset, Parter of Veils
4 Force of Will 2 Volcanic Island 2 Plague Engineer
2 Force of Negation 1 Toxic Deluge
2 Kolaghan's Command
1 Narset, Parter of Veils
1 Liliana, the Last Hope
2 Jace, the Mind Sculptor

Strengths: Pyroblast, Hand Disruption, Reach, Proactive

Weaknesses: Mana, Conditional Removal, Virtual Card Advantage

Grixis is a midrange deck that fills the niche of preying on the combo/pseudo-combo decks designed to beat the Uro decks.

Thoughtseize and Hymn to Tourach are not the powerhouses they once were in fair mirrors, but they retained most value against all variants of Dark Ritual/Show and Tell.

In the preboard games, quick Hymn to Tourachs are vastly underestimated by the community and often steal games despite being poor into Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath.

Coincidentally, Grixis' disruption commonly produces game states where cards like Hullbreacher and Narset, Parter of Veils are at their strongest since opponents are incentivised to spend their resources immediately to avoid losing them. Despite having access to Pyroblast, Grixis struggles heavily in long games against both Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath and Veil of Summer with no good recourse.

I suspect the true reason Grixis has trailed behind other variants of control is its lack of a card quantity engine outside of Jace, the Mind Sculptor.

Virtual card advantage had no real downside until the printing of Force of Negation and Grixis is arguably the worst colour combination at recovering from heavy card disadvantage. This is only exacerbated by the heavy saturation of black spells that already fill the core of Grixis. If the deck is to survive, it needs some structural reform that directly addresses this issue so that it can continue to keep up with engine powered control decks.

Esper (Whitefaces)

Creatures Spells Lands Sideboard
3 Baleful Strix 4 Brainstorm 4 Flooded Strand 1 Fatal Push
3 Monastery Mentor 4 Ponder 2 Island 2 Surgical Extraction
3 Snapcaster Mage 1 Fatal Push 2 Marsh Flats 2 Disenchant
2 Inquisition of Kozilek 1 Plains 1 Hymn to Tourach
4 Swords to Plowshares 4 Polluted Delta 4 Meddling Mage
2 Unearth 2 Scrubland 1 Hullbreacher
2 Hymn to Tourach 1 Swamp 1 Narset, Parter of Veils
3 Of One Mind 2 Tundra 3 Plague Engineer
3 Force of Will 2 Underground Sea
2 Force of Negation
1 Vindicate
2 Teferi, Time Raveler
1 Jace, the Mind Sculptor

Strengths: Hand Disruption, Recursive, Explosive, Creature-Centric, Sideboard Malleability

Weaknesses: Mana Sequencing & Vulnerability, Thin Margins, Requires Constant Risk Assessment

Esper is a midrange deck enabled by a collection of value oriented creatures. Baleful Strix in combination with Swords to Plowshares is able to efficiently answer every creature threat in the format.

Having development tied to creature spells conveniently acts as a natural buffer against opposing planeswalkers. (Gone are those with outrageous starting loyalty) Unlike its Grixis counterpart, the deck packs a card advantage engine conflating Snapcaster Mage with Of One Mind, while Monastery Mentor offers a great way to play through its natural foils (Punishing Fire, Liliana, the Last Hope) via sheer explosiveness.

When ahead, Esper is able to heavily pressure the opponent's resources by means of its discard package making Hullbreacher equally powerful in this shell. While Veil of Summer can be problematic but Teferi, Time Raveler offers decent counterplay while being another source of incremental card advantage.

Esper has a long history of powerful hatebears, making sideboard construction very malleable. It has the potential to be the most hostile against all flavours of Combo. Esper pilots however are in a state of constant vacillation against Tempo since the opportunity cost of playing around daze can sometimes be very high: Evaluating mana expenditure while it is available can be difficult for those unfamiliar with dual heavy decklists.

Monastery Mentor adds another layer to this by presenting difficult gambit-esque decisions when playing from behind. Understanding when it is correct to expand your hand to protect/resolve the Mentor requires deep understanding of relative roles. The mana is very fragile on early turns, making fast Blood Moons problematic, and against Life from the Loam and its ilk, games without many fetchlands can end without much pilot agency.

Despite this, Esper takes the crown for having the best uncontested mana, since it plays too many duals for Rishadan Port to be effective once you make it to the mid-game.

Conclusion

I understand none of these small paragraphs do the intricacies of each deck justice; play patterns and decision-making in general contribute greatly to the success of each pilot, as it should be in our beloved Legacy format.

Despite Bant's domination over the alternatives in the current metagame, I believe the deck's construction is fundamentally flawed and over time will suffer consequences of its simplicity (Just as its predecessor did).

Regrettably I was unable to have enough games with an old favourite of mine; Punishing Thieves (Stryfo Pile) to draw conclusions on the state of the deck. For thoughts on that archetype, I defer you to my friend Chase Hansen for his thoughts!

I hope individuals continue to innovate on reactive decks in general, I've seen a few RUG lists be successful this past week, but it remains to be seen if the polarising nature of Lightning Bolt is sufficiently mitigated by the strength of Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath.

If you have any questions regarding my thoughts or feedback, I'd be happy to answer them. You can reach me on twitter at @LynnChalice. If not, until next time!

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