A Beginner's Guide to Legacy
Legacy is like Vintage's younger sibling. From the days of it being called "Type 1.5," it was given a second-hand banned list and nobody thought it could compete with the older format. Eventually, however, the format became an independent entity with a unique banlist, and it has now surpassed Vintage in popularity. Some prefer the more stable power of the format, while some prefer the fact that the format is cheaper, and others just like playing with 4 Brainstorms. Whatever your reason is for liking Legacy, the format has proven itself to be a force that is here to stay.
Another good comparison is between Legacy and Modern. In that case, Legacy is the older format with more powerful cards and cheaper interaction. Arguably, the cheap interaction cards like Force of Will, Wasteland, and Swords to Plowshares slow down the format more than the raw power of the cards increases the speed. This makes Legacy a more well-rounded format despite the fact that it has a larger and more powerful card pool than Modern.
Like all formats, there is a banned list for Legacy. This list used to be an exact copy of the Vintage restricted list, but as stated before, it is now unique to the format. In fact, there are cards legal in Legacy that are restricted in Vintage. This can seem strange at first until one realizes that most of the cards that are restricted in Vintage, but not banned in Legacy, are cards that increase consistency. Given the raw power of some of the restricted cards, increasing consistency in finding or using them can be very dangerous. Other than the banned list, every card ever printed in Magic's history is legal to be played.
Legacy is quite possibly the most diverse format, and trying to view decks in terms of traditional archetypes can be misleading. This is because decks are more interested in playing powerful cards and synergies rather than fitting neatly into a specific archetype. For example: Miracles plays some prison elements, some control elements, some game-winning creatures, and some combos. Does that mean that it is a prison-control-aggro-combo deck? These sorts of semantics can cause a person to lose sight of how the deck plays out, and even though some decks will fit neatly into traditional archetypes, the format as a whole doesn't. It is better to try and view decks as individual entities and worry about the variations between those decks, rather than trying to classify them as fitting into a certain archetype.
This is where it can be difficult to begin since there are so many decks in the format. While Vintage might technically have more legal cards because of the Restricted List, there is no contest that Legacy has the most viable decks of any major format. Not only that, but many of the decks take advantage of unique angles of play or mechanics to define them. I'm going to start with the slow decks and work my way towards the more aggressive decks and hopefully this will cover the decks themselves while also providing an idea of how they play.
First comes the most prisony of all prison decks, Lands. The deck plays 30+ lands, a bunch of tutors for lands, ways to get more lands on to the battlefield, and of course Life from the Loam to get even more lands from the graveyard. Using utility lands like Maze of Ith, Glacial Chasm, The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale, Wasteland, and Rishadan Port, the goal is to lock the opponent out from being able to kill you. Then you make a 20/20 flying indestructible Marit Lage off of the Dark Depths & Thespian’s Stage combo and kill them. Fear not if Marit Lage can't get there the deck also plays Punishing Fire & Grove of the Burnwillows combo to grind people out 2 damage at a time.
The next most prison-like deck in Legacy is actually disguised as an aggro deck. It is called Death and Taxes, and it is a white weenie deck built around the cards Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, Mother of Runes, and Stoneforge Mystic. The fact that this is not only a winning deck, but one of the premier decks in Legacy is a testament to the power of those 3 cards because the rest of the deck looks like an unplayable pile of white weenie. Believe me, this deck is not only very good but also surprisingly skill-intensive to play.
Next comes what will simply be known as "MUD". This is for any colorless deck trying to leverage lands like Ancient Tomb and City of Traitors to get things into play for cheap. Some versions play Metalworker and lots of artifacts. Unifying themes are cards like Chalice of the Void and mana taxing effects like Trinisphere or Thorn of Amethyst. Versions of this deck can vary from super prison comparable to Stax in Vintage, or just an aggro deck with a few lock pieces.
Borrowing from MUD, we have Painter, which uses the same mana base, but rather than running mana taxing lock pieces, there are Blood Moon and Red Elemental Blast/Pyroblast. These cards are all held together by the Painter's Servant & Grindstone combo. The color named is blue to turn on the blasts. The deck commonly runs an Imperial Recruiter toolbox and plays like combo-prison, which seems really strange but that is how it works.
Then we have the big dog: Blue/White Miracles. Very often, this deck splashes red for additional sideboard tools, but at the core it is a Blue/White control deck. The deck aims to lock the opponent out from casting spells with Counterbalance by manipulating the top of their library with Brainstorm, Ponder, Jace the Mind Sculptor, Fetchlands, and of course Sensei's Divining Top. With all of this manipulation, miracles like Terminus are an easily accessible 1-mana board sweeper and Entreat the Angels is a huge cheap finisher. Finally there is Monastery Mentor which combined with all of the cheap spells and Sensei's Divining Top can kill very quickly.
Next are the BGx midrange decks with Liliana of the Veil, Deathrite Shaman, Abrupt Decay, and Tarmogoyf. Some run red for Punishing Fire, Lightning Bolt, etc. Others choose the blue life for Shardless Agent, Brainstorm, and Force of Will. Whatever the choice made, the deck is always a solid contender because sometimes even the great Brainstorm & Force of Will aren't the right metagame calls.
Following that are the Stoneblade variants. These are UWxxx decks based around Stoneforge Mystic and a pile of control elements. The key difference between this deck and Miracles is the lack of Counterbalance & Sensei's Divining Top and the lack of miracles. Instead, it puts a reliance on creatures and equipment to get the job done.
Eldrazi is a relatively new deck to Legacy. It abuses the 2 mana lands like Ancient Tomb and City of Traitors alongside the Eldrazi Temple and Eye of Ugin to create a robust manabase of lands that can effectively create at least 2 mana. While only some of this mana can be used towards cards that disrupt the opponent like Chalice of the Void and Thorn of Amethyst, all of it can be used for powerful Eldrazi monsters like Thought-Knot Seer and Reality Smasher.
Now we have Delver decks, and if you thought “Uwxxx” was vague, Delver decks are “Uxxxx!” Delver decks come in whatever color combination you could possibly want, because blue does so much heavy lifting for the Delver strategy that you can just slot in any other colors to fit your specific metagame needs.
Infect and Delver occupy the same space in Legacy - it is, somewhat, just a matter of preference. Infect, however, has put up enough results that I would be wrong not to mention it. The deck uses Infect creatures with cards like Invigorate and Berserk to create a lethal creature in 1 hit.
Finally, we get to combo level speeds, starting with the slowest and fairest combo deck: Burn. What could be fairer than needing 6 spells and 2 lands to win a game of Magic? Sure, the deck isn't that fast and runs almost no disruption, but it gets there sometimes, and boy is it popular. Let’s move along before I talk myself out of including it on the list!
Picking up a bit in speed, along comes perhaps the most resilient combo deck in Legacy - Elves. This deck plays a pile of 1-mana 1/1s and can win on turn 2. Somehow that isn't an oxymoron. Elves is the last tribal deck truly alive in Legacy and it has survived by being one of the best combo decks, using Glimpse of Nature and Natural Order to great effect.
Now comes Sneak and Show. Using a combination of Sneak Attack and Show and Tell, the deck can very consistently put out an Emrakul, the Aeons Torn or Griselbrand and ride them to victory. The deck is a very simple combination of 2 complementary strategies being mashed together to great effect.
Next up, we get our old friend, Reanimator. While getting a Griselbrand out on turn 2 doesn't technically end the game, in a deck with 4 Force of Will and a bunch of other great things to reanimate, it gets pretty close to it. Somehow, Reanimator isn't the fastest reanimation deck in the format, but that honor has to go to our next entrant.
Dredge. Turn 2 Griselbrand is great and all, but how about having 10 hasty 3/3 zombie tokens turn 2? That kind of tends to end quickly. Dredge operates by discarding a card with dredge on it and using the dredge mechanic every time it would draw a card until it can kill the opponent with Bridge from Below zombie tokens and a Dread Return on a Flame-Kin Zealot.
Lastly, we have the fastest deck in Legacy: Storm. I'm not including Belcher in this list because burn was already a stretch to include, and I don't want to include fringe decks. Storm abuses cards like Lion's Eye Diamond and Dark Ritual to make lots of mana to chain together enough spells for a lethal Tendrils of Agony. The deck is very hard to play but also easy enough to disrupt.
I didn't know quite where to put this next deck on the speed spectrum, since it isn't fast but it doesn't run ways to slow the opponent down. It is quite simply the biggest mana deck in Legacy - 12-post. The deck makes a lot of mana by getting as many Cloudposts and Locuses on the battlefield as fast as possible through land tutoring and Primeval Titans. Eventually the deck gets 15 actual mana to cast Emrakul, the Aeons Torn and then the game usually ends. This is what happens when you let traditional ramp run away with itself, and it occupies a strange space in Legacy where raw power lies, but nothing else.
There is no way around the fact that Legacy is an expensive format. However, there are ways to somewhat mitigate the cost of getting into the format. First of all is taking an existing Modern deck and "upgrading" it to be Legacy playable. Unfortunately, this usually means investing in dual lands, but there is only one way around that if you want to get into the format.You could pick a deck that doesn't use the traditional fetchland/dual land manabase. Unfortunately, decks like that tend to use other expensive lands like Wasteland or City of Traitors. Another option is just picking a naturally cheap deck like Dredge or Burn. Unfortunately, the cheap decks tend to be very metagame dependent.
Honestly, the cheapest way to play Legacy is to play it on Magic Online. In addition to Legacy Leagues there are also monthly premier events that offer higher stakes Legacy. Most cards are cheaper online than they are in paper and it is often possible to build decks from nothing for 25%-50% of what they cost in paper. Playing on Magic Online is just great if you're willing to put up with some of the quirks the program has.
Like in all of Magic, people are going to gravitate towards decks they find appealing, regardless of how good the deck is. The thing about Legacy is that there are so many viable decks that it is hard not to like a good deck. This means that at any given Legacy tournament it is possible to play against almost any deck in Legacy. I didn't even list all of the decks in Legacy; only what I thought were the best of the best. Also, I lumped several Delver variations together. If you want diversity, then look no further than the Legacy metagame. Good luck predicting and beating it!