I got the idea for this article when discussing if Endurance is a sideboard or a maindeck card. At the spoiler of MH2 my first reaction was that Endurance could be a turn 0 answer to combo decks such as Reanimator and Doomsday. I figured that it could also come in vs Delver and it replaced 2 of the 3 Shifting Ceratops that I had in the sideboard specifically for this matchup.
My first level-up came a few months later when I read a tweet from the Japanese Lands master Hori Masataka saying that Endurance is the best answer to Knight of the Reliquary. I had primarily played Endurance as a stonewall effect vs Delver but as I fully realized that it has flash (also if you pay 3 mana for it) then I started to use it more like a removal spell. It’s a bit situational, and it doesn’t always answer creatures with static abilities such as Goblin Welder, Elvish Reclaimer or Dark Confidant, but it’s no more situational than other red-green removal such as Punishing Fire or Drop of Honey. Endurance can even be flashed in on our opponent’s end-step and kill an opposing Narset or Karn (similar to how Vendilion Clique used to be one of the best answers to Jace). As I started viewing Endurance as a removal spell it made more sense to put it into the maindeck instead of the sideboard.
My last level-up came a few months later when I played with my friend and coach Andreas Petersen (ecobaronen). We were playing vs Painter and the boardstate was empty as we had spent the first turns trading resources with our opponent. We had Endurance in our hand and I kept thinking of it as a removal spell for a potential Magus of the Moon that our opponent could draw. Andreas asked me, “why don’t we cast Endurance and smash our opponent 4 times and then they’re dead?” After this game I started to mentally realize that Endurance can also smash my opponent’s face, and this is very good in an aggro deck like Lands. My opponents will often take a few hits by my Constructs and then be forced to use their removal on them. This opens up for Endurance to come down and finish the job. After I have started to play Endurance more proactively my win-rate vs Uro decks such as Blue-Zenith has increased significantly. I now make Constructs in the early turns and wait for them to cast their first Uro before I snap in Endurance and kill them before they can find another Uro to stabilize.
How does this tie back to deckbuilding and sideboarding? Well, we moved Endurance from our sideboard to the maindeck and we now had 3 new sideboard slots to discuss in the Lands discord. Some people told me that they still lost to Reanimator and they wanted to fill those 3 extra slots with Surgical Extractions. I even played 2 Surgical Extractions in a Showcase Challenge earlier this year. Guess what, one of my losses in that tournament was against Reanimator. In G3 my opponent had an explosive turn 1 of Swamp, Dark Ritual, Lotus Petal, Show and Tell into Archon. My hand had both Endurance and Surgical Extraction in it. My conclusion after the tournament was that we can’t really beat the nut draws from Reanimator and we shouldn’t even try to do this. Our goal is not to get a 100% winrate vs Reanimator. In fact we couldn’t even get a 100% winrate if we tried because Reanimator is a proactive and powerful strategy. They can always have draws that beat ours. If we plot our expected winrate vs Reanimator as a function of the number of graveyard hate pieces that we play then we would see that at some point there is diminishing returns (meaning that each additional slot of graveyard hate increases our winrate less than the previous did).
We have convinced ourselves that we shouldn’t try to get a 100% winrate vs Reanimator. What should we do then? We want to maximize our expected winrate in the tournament which is the sum of all our winrates in the various matchups times the metashare of those matchups. It’s an empirical law that all decks are at least 2 sideboard slots short of covering all matchups in Legacy. This means that we have to make some sacrifices and every slot that we dedicate towards Combo is a slot that we cannot use to improve our Tempo, Control or Midrange matchups. In some metagames it can be correct to completely ignore some matchups if their metashare is low.
Who is favored in a matchup?
Another thing that I see many inexperienced players do is to waste sideboard slots vs their already good matchups. This might be because they don’t really know if they are favored or not in the matchup. Maybe they’ve only played it a few times and lost.
I like to use the following diagram to visualize who is favored in a given matchup. On one axis I have my draw (bad, average, good) on the other axis I have their draw (bad, average, good). In this context “draw” means your starting hand plus all cards that you draw in the game. My rule of thumb is that if I win the games where we both have an average draw then I will have a positive winrate (+60%) in the matchup. After all, most games will play out in such a way that both players have an average draw. If I also win the games where both players are having a good draw then my winrate will be even higher in the matchup.
Let’s look at a concrete example to illustrate this method: Lands vs Elves. I would argue that a good Lands hand will beat a good Elves hand. Let’s look at some good Lands hands for inspiration:
- Turn two Marit Lage on the play.
- Turn three Marit Lage plus early removal.
- Exploration, Life from the Loam, Grove of the Burnwillows, Punishing Fire.
- Mox Diamond, Sphere of Resistance, Tabernacle.
I would also argue that an average Lands hand will win over an average Elves hand. In fact any Lands hand that has access to Tabernacle will likely beat an average Elves hand.
This does not mean that we have a 100% winrate vs Elves. A good Elves draw will definitely win over a bad Lands draw and possibly also over an average Lands draw. Here are some examples of good Elves draws:
- Explosive Glimpse hands.
- Multiple Cradles and Natural Order.
Drawing up your matchup like this can help you understand where to focus your sideboard slots. If you already have a very good matchup then I wouldn’t waste sideboard slots to improve this specific matchup.
As I said in the introduction there is an empirical law that we are always (at least) 2 sideboard slots short of covering all matchups in Legacy. In order to optimize our overall winrate we should therefore look for cards that are efficient i.e. they improve a matchup without requiring many slots (typically bombs that can be tutored or cantripped into). We can also look for cards that overlap vs many matchups (such as counterspells or discard spells). In this section I go over the major archetypes in Legacy and how I think you can attack them in an efficient manner.
In my opinion the most efficient way to combat a combo deck is to attack them from multiple angles:
- Stack based interaction.
- Discard spells.
- Permanent based hate.
- Fast clock.
This is good because combo decks cannot afford to spend many slots on interaction. Take Storm for example, they play 6-8 discard spells (ANT) or 4 Veil of Summer (TES). If they expect all your interaction to be permanent based then they can swap Veil of Summer for Chain of Vapor. But it gets a lot harder for them to sideboard if they have to respect both stack based and permanent based interaction. If they are forced to bring in Chain of Vapor but also keep in Veil of Summer then they will have to side out some combo pieces or cantrips (and this makes their deck slower and less consistent). These games will typically go longer and this will favor you because you will draw more of your interaction.
I usually feel favored if I can attack a combo deck from 3 different angles. For example, in current iterations of Legacy Lands it’s possible to attack Doomsday from 3 different angles. If you look at my decklist from the last Showcase Challenge you can see that I only have one slot that is dedicated towards Doomsday (Thran Foundry) but since it’s a 1 mana artifact I can tutor for it with Urza’s Saga. I feel very comfortable playing vs Doomsday post sideboard as I have:
- Stack based interaction in Endurance and Pyroblast.
- Permanent based hate in Thran Foundry and Sphere of Resistance (combined with mana denial).
- A fast clock thanks to my Constructs or Marit Lage.
This video demonstrates pretty well how games of Lands vs Doomsday play out in my experience.
My final advice for combating Combo decks is that there is a form of “cheese” or “brewers advantage” to be found when building your sideboard vs these decks. If you play a deck like Death & Taxes or Lands that typically attack Storm with taxing effects then you can improve your winrate more by adding a card like Mindbreak Trap instead of another Sphere effect. This is partly because of diversification (as discussed above) but it’s also because you catch them by surprise. It’s very possible that a Storm deck has 0 actual outs to a Mindbreak Trap post sideboard vs Lands.
There are two ways to beat control decks. You can either try to overload them with card advantage or find a threat that they can’t answer. In my opinion the first way is suboptimal, if you try to maximize your expected winrate vs the entire field, because it will require many slots. You are trying to beat them at their own game. They dedicate a lot of slots to card advantage such as Narset, Expressive Iteration, Sylvan Library, Uro, Predict, Standstill, Jace. You will have to dedicate more slots if you want to reliably beat them on this axis. This can definitely be done by the Lands archetype. If you look at a deck like 8-Mulch they in fact try to overload the Control deck by playing eight Mulch effects on top of four Life from the Loam. This comes with a cost though and it makes 8-Mulch worse vs other parts of the Legacy field.
My other issue with going the 8-Mulch route is that if the control players feel like they’re losing the card advantage race then they can go the opposite route and just jam red sideboard cards like From the Ashes and Blood Moon. What does it matter if you draw 4 lands with Mulch if they are all Basic Mountains? In fact this is exactly what happened when 8-Mulch broke out earlier this year, the meta started to get very hostile towards Lands.
This is why I prefer the other way to attack control decks i.e. to try and find a threat that they cannot answer. By doing this we turn the game into something else than “who can draw the most cards”. Delver decks have historically been really good at doing this by playing cards such as True-Name Nemesis, Klothys, God of Destiny, or Court of Cunning. If we manage to stick such a threat against a Control deck then we exploit their biggest weakness which is that they can’t close the game quickly. I learned to appreciate this strategy in the Snowko era. If I managed to resolve a Klothys vs Snowko then I had effectively nullified all their Uro’s, and Klothys gave them 6-7 turns to kill me before they would be dead. They simply couldn’t race Klothys unless they already had an active Oko. Today’s Control decks are better at answering threats thanks to Prismatic Ending and they also have a faster clock in Minsc & Boo so this strategy is harder to execute but it can still be done. Here are some examples on threats that a Lands deck can play that is very hard for a Control deck to combat:
- Thespian’s Stage copying Urza’s Saga and then a basic land.
- Cavern of Souls and Primeval Titan into Field of the Dead.
If you play online then another resource to be mindful about is the clock. This is often the most important resource when playing against Control. I try to ensure that I have more time than my opponent already from the very first turns of the game. I will restart my computer in between each round (and sometimes before going to sideboarding) to avoid having lag. This strategy is also exploiting the fact that Control decks can have a hard time closing the game, and the Lands deck can play defense rather well with Marit Lage (+20 life), Karakas, Maze of Ith, Constructs and Punishing Fire. This strategy is so effective that it has made me reevaluate cards. Take Sylvan Library for example. I used to think of it as they’re trading 12-16 life for 3-4 cards, but now I think about it as they’re trading 5-10 minutes of their clock for 3-4 cards. The latter is typically not a profitable trade and, although they might win G1, they have set themselves up to lose the entire match.
If you want to learn more about Lands vs Control then you can read this deep dive that I wrote last year.
This category contains all non-blue midrange decks such as Death & Taxes, Elves, Goblins, Maverick, GW Depths, Lands. There are two ways to beat these decks. You can either hate them out or you can try to go bigger than them. Midrange decks revolve around creatures and / or lands, and there are plenty of excellent hate cards for these. Here are some examples:
- Death & Taxes: Dread of Night, Massacre.
- Elves: Plague Engineer, Perish, Opposition Agent.
- Goblins: Plague Engineer, Pyroclasm.
- Maverick: Perish, Terminus.
- GW Depths: Perish, Terminus, Blood Moon, Price of Progress.
- Lands: Blood Moon, Price of Progress, Ruination, Force of Vigor.
The stronger a hate card is vs a certain matchup the more narrow it typically is. Massacre, for example, is extremely good vs Death & Taxes but pretty bad vs Elves or Goblins. In some metas it can still be a good idea to add a few narrow hate cards but in other metas it’s better to look for hate that have a broader application. This all depends on the distribution of the non-blue Midrange decks.
None of the non-blue Midrange decks can play Force of Will and this is their biggest weakness in my opinion. If you go bigger than these decks then you exploit this weakness. They won’t be able to stop you from casting your spells, and if you have a strategy that simply wins when both players are casting their spells then you will have a good time vs non-blue Midrange decks. This is easiest achieved by playing a Combo deck, but it can also be accomplished by non-combo decks that play cards like Shark Typhoon or Primeval Titan.
Lands as a deck is very good against the other non-blue Midrange decks (except those that play Knight of the Reliquary) because we can both go over them (via ramp into Field of the Dead or by creating large Constructs) and we also have Tabernacle as a maindeck tutor-able hate card. Tabernacle is strong because it stops our opponent from swarming the board. They have to use their mana to keep their first 2-3 creatures alive and then they can’t deploy more creatures to the board. This allows the Lands deck to reach the endgame where we are favored thanks to Urza’s Saga and Field of the Dead. If you want to learn more about Lands vs non-blue Midrange you can study these resources:
I saved the big bad tempo archetype for last. It should be obvious by now that combining cheap undercosted creatures with free interaction is the best macro strategy in Legacy. As I have explained in the previous sections the Combo, Control and Midrange archetypes all have strategic weaknesses that can be exploited but this isn’t really true for the Tempo archetype.
- Tempo decks have, unlike Combo and Midrange decks, plenty of slots for generic interaction and most of it is free so they can progress their proactive gameplan while holding up counterspells.
- Tempo decks can, unlike Control decks, finish a game quickly and they can often race any “hard to answer” threat that you might present to them.
There is another fundamental strength to the Tempo archetype that shouldn’t be forgotten. It’s the implicit card advantage that they gain by playing fewer lands than their opponent. They get away with this because their threats are undercosted. Norwegian Legacy Grandmaster MatsOle once said something along the lines of “it’s hard to combat Delver when their 2’s (2 drops) are stronger than our 3’s (3 drops)”. Midrange decks have to play acceleration such as Mox Diamond, Aether Vial or Ancient Tomb just to keep up with the raw efficiency of the Tempo threats. In a long and grindy game the Tempo deck will often be up 2-3 cards by simply drawing less lands / acceleration than their opponent. Historically, every time that the Tempo archetype has access to actual card advantage spells like Treasure Cruise, Dreadhorde Arcanist, or Expressive Iteration it gets broken and forces a ban onto the format. These cards were all really powerful but they were also just the straw that broke the camel’s back in my opinion.
I’m not saying that it’s impossible to get a favorable matchup vs UR Delver but you need to respect this deck. It’s not enough to put 1 basic mountain in your sideboard and hope for the best. You need to build your maindeck as a well oiled machine, without any clunky / cute cards, and you also need to dedicate 6-8 of your sideboard slots for Tempo. This is what I mean when I say that Wasteland and Daze dictate what cards that are playable in your Legacy maindeck.
So what can we do to combat the Tempo archetype? You can attack them in a few different ways and none of them works every time:
- Attack their mana. They play few lands and very few basics so you can sometimes mana screw them out of playing the game. This strategy was always risky, as they don’t need a lot of lands to operate, but it has gotten even worse vs the current iterations of UR Delver. Most of their threats cost 1 mana now instead of 2 and Dragon’s Rage Channeler in particular is excellent at helping them find more lands. I used to win somewhere between 20%-30% of my games by wasteland locking my opponent out but now it’s more like 10%-20%.
- Big dumb creature. Their removal is damage based so they can have a hard time answering a big dumb creature like Marit Lage, Hogaak, Uro, or Batterskull. They do play Brazen Borrower, Submerge and Unholy Heat so this does not work every time. I still try to win with Marit Lage in most of my Delver games but timing is key.
- Cheese a win. There are some cards like Choke or Chalice of the Void that attack their entire Tempo core. These cards can win you the game if you manage to land them on an empty board. Current iterations of UR Delver are extra weak to graveyard hate so something like Rest in Peace or Unlicensed Hearse can also cheese out a win. This strategy only works if you get it online early as once they get onto the board your cheese card will be mostly useless. It’s still a good strategy though, and I would say that Choke wins me 30%-40% of the post sideboard games vs UR Delver.
- Answer all their creatures and draw more cards than them. This is the classic Control vs Tempo plan. In my experience this is much better in game 1. I remember playing Snowko and crushing Delver in game 1 just to lose to their “hard to answer” threats like Klothys in game 2 and game 3. Don’t get tricked into thinking that your Delver matchup is good just because you win a long and grindy game 1.
The final thing that I want to say about the Tempo archetype is that as a non-blue Midrange player you want Delver to be the best deck in the format. This is because Delver will push down the amount of combo decks that you will face in the winner’s meta. If WoTC took out the large banhammer and wiped Tempo out as an archetype then I think we would get a meta of blue Control / Soup decks vs Combo. I prefer the meta that we have now from a competitive Lands player’s perspective. If you want to learn more about the Lands vs Delver matchup you can read this deep dive that I wrote a few years ago.
In this article I have discussed the major Legacy archetypes and their strengths and weaknesses. But there is a lot of room for maneuver inside each archetype. In fact most top tier decks in Legacy can be built to beat any of the other top decks. You have access to an enormous cardpool and you can often find the tools that you need to make your deck favored in any given matchup.
The issue is that you cannot build your deck to consistently beat all other top decks at the same time. Fifteen sideboard cards are not enough for you to do this. You will have to make sacrifices and concede (accept that you are below 40%) in certain matchups. You should also not try to be 100% in any matchup as this is impossible in a game with variance such as MTG. If you don’t accept that you can lose some amount of games vs all matchups then you will waste sideboard slots vs your already good matchups. I try to build my deck so that I win the games where both players have an average draw or where both players have a good draw. If this is already the case then I would be hesitant to dedicate more slots for a given matchup as these slots can be better used to improve my bad matchups.
Finally, I prefer sideboard cards that have a broad utility such as Sphere of Resistance. Sphere may not be a 10 in any matchup (outside Storm) but it’s a 7 in many matchups and this will improve my winrate across the board. Sideboard bombs can be very effective but they are often narrow. I therefore prefer bombs that I can tutor for such as 1 mana artifacts or lands.
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