Blake on Legacy: Birthing Pod

Blake on Legacy: Birthing Pod

Jul 31, 2014

Theros Block Constructed is finally finished as a format. Scheduled Events and queues have been retired on MTGO, so competitive play is at an end. We are still many weeks away from the beginning of Khans of Tarkir spoilers and the beginning of a new year of Block, so this has meant my Magic playing time has been spent elsewhere for the last couple of weeks.

I like playing fair Magic, probably far too fair – I love durdling. Legacy is one of the most friendly formats around to brew a slow deck. Despite a relevant number of super-fast combo decks, the format has a wealth of slower, mostly Blue midrange decks with a variety of strategies. Unlike Modern where the Green Black base far outstrips any other fair alternatives, in Legacy you can play Lightning Bolt, Liliana of the Veil, Shardless Agent or Flickerwisp and still compete reasonably.

One card that is relatively unexplored is Birthing Pod. Clearly one of the most powerful things you can be doing in Modern, Pod fits into a strange space in the Legacy metagame. It’s not explosively fast in that it doesn’t do anything at all until Turn 3 at the earliest, but it’s at its best assembling a powerful combo. You are neither playing an explosive proactive game nor a dedicated reactive game, so strategically the card is in a tough position in Legacy. Add onto this the very high deck building cost (you would not typically play a 25 creature deck in Legacy without good reason) and it’s not surprising that Pod has not made much impact.

With the recent MTGO version 4 changeover, my resolution was to play only decks I enjoy while I adjust to the client. Magic is a game that requires lots of thought, lots of clicking and it’s timed. Frequently the deck you believe to be the best is one you either don’t enjoy or one you’re bored with, especially at this time of year. If on top of interface misunderstandings and unexciting games you happen to suffer the cruelties of variance, even a great pastime can become unenjoyable. I decided to try a few approaches to Birthing Pod in Legacy.

Explorer Pod
by Caleb Durward

Lands (21)
Bayou
Forest
Island
Misty Rainforest
Phyrexian Tower
Swamp
Tropical Island
Underground Sea
Verdant Catacombs

Creatures (38)
Acidic Slime
Baleful Strix
Deathrite Shaman
Deceiver Exarch
Eternal Witness
Glen Elendra Archmage
Grave Titan
Kitchen Finks
Murderous Redcap
Phantastmal Image
Scavenging Ooze
Veteran Explorer
Shriekmaw
Thragtusk
Abrupt Decay
Birthing Pod
Brainstorm
Cabal Therapy
Pernicious Deed
Recurring Nightmare
Sideboard (15)
Arcane Laboratory
Golgari Charm
Mindbreak Trap
Negate
Notion Thief
Thoughtseize
Umezawa’s Jitte
Vendilion Clique

This is a list Caleb played at a Legacy Open in September. It was his first time playing the list, so it is by no means his final take on the archetype. What it provides is a starting point for a Nic Fit-inspired Birthing Pod deck. Many of the most recognisable parts of both Nic Fit and Pod decks are present, with pleasing synergy. Phyrexian Tower provides a free sacrifice outlet for Veteran Explorer that can also provide you the option to trade in a mana dork or leftover Eternal Witness for extra mana. Explorer incentivises you to play high CMC creatures, but this can sometimes lead to the familiar problem of ramp decks – drawing a wildly inappropriate mix of spells and having no options to work around it. Birthing Pod allows you to minimize the actual fatties in your deck and is a great mana sink.

The problem I had with this strategy is very fundamental – Veteran Explorer. The deckbuilding cost and inconsistency it introduces is extremely high.

  1. You’re required to play 3 or 4 basics more than you would otherwise, plus Phyrexian Tower, in your low land deck. Having this many basics makes you worse on average against Wasteland decks, who can more easily restrict you to one color of mana.
  2. You’re required to play a higher curve to break the symmetry of the card. You need Grave Titan and Thragtusk to go over the top of potential Turn 2 Jace, the Mind Sculptor from your opponents. This makes your opening hands less consistent.
  3. Sometimes you don’t draw a sacrifice outlet and have a 1/1 for 1 that doesn’t do anything.

Fair decks like this are already playing a dangerous game against combo without compromising their consistency and efficiency further. I feel like the Nic Fit game plan works pretty well against the Delver decks, but provides very little help to your combo match up. The symmetry of Veteran Explorer is a very real disadvantage against High Tide[/c], Sneak Attack or Storm decks. Even if you assemble Veteran Explorer and Cabal Therapy, if you miss on your first name you’ve provided only average interaction, you’ve ramped your opponent two lands (which they get to untap with first) and your follow up Thragtusk is perhaps not all that menacing.

Instead of building a Nic Fit deck, I wanted to build an actual Birthing Pod deck. Veteran Explorer was replaced by Birds of Paradise – less explosive, more reliable, less demanding, not symmetrical. The more decadent 5 and 6 drops were cut and the curve lowered. This certainly removes a lot of the free wins you get from casting monsters far larger than Legacy decks are prepared to deal with, but I replaced them with far more interactive creatures at lower points in the curve. There was still one fundamental decision to be made, though…

To combo or not to combo?

With the Nic Fit “ramp into fatties” plan removed, I wanted to investigate whether any of the Modern Pod combos (Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker, Melira, Sylvok Outcast and Archangel of Thune) worked. I will talk about each briefly, then give some thoughts in the strength of creature-based combo in Legacy in general.

Melira, Sylvok Outcast / Viscera Seer / Kitchen Finks or Murderous Redcap

The immediate problem with this combo is that it requires three creatures to be in play, which is an ambitious goal in Legacy even if the creatures are all cheap. Secondly, Viscera Seer and Melira, Sylvok Outcast are quite embarrassing to be casting in normal games. You need to be playing more Chord of Calling and Green Sun’s Zenith type effects to expect to put together three pieces with any reasonable frequency, so your non-creature slots are pressured and you can’t play as much interaction.

Archangel of Thune / Spike Feeder

These creatures were actually much more respectable to be casting in real games. They both gain life, which was relevant against Delver decks, Death and Taxes and Burn. Archangel of Thune is a pretty real threat in a deck that produces a lot of small, likely ignored creatures. Unfortunately you’re still trying to get a 5 mana creature into play and Spike Feeder is after all a very poor card to draw most of the time.

Kiki-Jiki / Deceiver Exarch, Restoration Angel or Zealous Conscripts

Since this combo requires a triple red card, it necessitates a very different approach. You get access to Imperial Recruiter, which is truly excellent in this deck. The cards you’re playing are slightly underpowered by Legacy standards, but you can usually get use out of a Deceiver Exarch or a Restoration Angel. Red does though provide by far the fewest options for unfair matches. You get to have the same explosive fun as Kiki Pod in Modern, but you are similarly helpless when you have awkward draws.

Overall, I played dozens of matches with these various combos in Legacy. At the end of this, I was left wondering exactly who I was excited to have the combo cards in against. They are all too slow for the faster combo opponents and their inclusion directly impacted the interactive elements I could play. Against the Delver and Blue midrange decks it seemed hopelessly optimistic to try to keep bad creatures in play through efficient permission and spot removal. In Modern, you can combo kill your Affinity or Splinter Twin opponent if they have a slow draw. It’s certainly not something you’re favored to do, but it will happen some relevant of the time given the consistency and pace of the decks played there. In Legacy, your likelihood to win by just curving out combo creatures is vastly reduced to the point of being minuscule.

If comboing out to win wasn’t powerful, what is this deck really doing? Can you play a bunch of creatures and 4 Birthing Pod and win tournaments in Legacy? The card itself still felt absurdly powerful when I had it in play. Fair decks were having a problem dealing with it, I just wanted to solve the problem of the unfair decks.

Firstly, I wanted to see whether I could accommodate Force of Will. If you’re a deck that wants to tap out where possible and suffers in the combo match, Force seems like it would be extremely useful. Caleb’s list already had 4 Brainstorm, 4 Baleful Strix and several other Blue creatures, so it seemed possible to get up to around 18 – 20 Blue spells easily. With a more stable manabase post-Explorer, I felt happier trying cards like Vendilion Clique and Sower of Temptation (the latter of which was surprisingly effective in a field full of Abrupt Decay). Deceiver Exarch did not feel like a card I wanted to have in my deck other than being Blue, so that felt like a cost, but the problems were more serious.

Playing a few Force of Will and hoping to beat combo decks doesn’t work. Firstly, Force isn’t even good against Dredge, which is a significant portion of the ‘unfair decks’ category. Secondly, the Blue combo decks are built to beat a single Force. If you’re playing a Delver deck and have Daze, Force and Spell Pierce you have a realistic curve to trouble the Combo player. If you’re playing irrelevant creatures and holding up Force, a single Duress is terrible for you. Permission works much better when it’s part of a more dedicated package, even Force alone was not doing enough against all but the most linear of combo decks (like Belcher). It was doing the same thing Veteran Explorer did, too – requiring sub-optimal card choices elsewhere.

Free from the Blue commitment, free from Veteran Explorer and awkward combos, the deck had ample space to play more reliable cards. Every card could be there on its own merits. The fair matches had become better as I trimmed trouble elements. I brought back Cabal Therapy alongside maindeck Thoughtseize because Turn 1 interaction is absolutely mandatory against combo decks and still perfectly fine elsewhere. I had a Vendilion Clique and added Mesmeric Fiend to be able to Pod into interaction as quickly as possible; they also made me more likely to hit with the first Cabal Therapy. Every cheap card in the deck needed to be good against the unfair decks, with the more expensive cards allowed leeway to provide value against fair ones.

Having cut Veteran Explorer, I had seven five color manadorks and fewer basics to burden the manabase. I’d tried to remove unreliability where possible, so felt I could afford to play a few white cards alongside the BUG base. Primarily this was for Sin Collector maindeck as well as Ethersworn Canonist and Meddling Mage in sideboard, but once I was playing the lands I saw no reason not to play the fairer Restoration Angel and Reveillark. They would not be cards I would justify splashing for, but still performed very well.

Four Color Hate Pod
by BlakeNJudge

Lands (22)
Bayou
Forest
Island
Misty Rainforest
Polluted Delta
Savannah
Swamp
Tropical Island
Tundra
Underground Sea
Verdant Catacombs

Creatures (26)
Baleful Strix
Birds of Paradise
Deathrite Shaman
Eternal Witness
Glen Elendra Archmage
Kitchen Finks
Mesmeric Fiend
Murderous Redcap
Orzhov Pontiff
Phantasmal Image
Phyrexian Revoker
Reclamation Sage
Restoration Angel
Reveillark
Scavenging Ooze
Sin Collector
Sower of Temptation
Wall of Roots
Vendilion Clique

Spells (12)
Cabal Therapy
Thoughtseize
Brainstorm
Birthing Pod
Sideboard (15)
Abrupt Decay
Ethersworn Canonist
Flusterstorm
Jace, the Mind Sculptor
Meddling Mage
Nihil Spellbomb
Obstinate Baloth
Pernicious Deed
Thoughtseize
Umezawa’s Jitte
Yixlid Jailer

Is three copies of Brainstorm justifiable? I was finding it extremely troublesome to draw two copies in my opening hand. This deck is trying to cast 4 drop creatures, get Birthing Pod into play and use every single mana every turn. When you cast Turn 1 Birds of Paradise and then cast a three drop on Turn 2 that gets Dazed, you don’t always have time for Brainstorm. You’re not routinely passing with mana up, able to decide whether you have to tap out or not depending on your opponent’s plays. I wanted to cast Brainstorm on Turn 4 to improve my hand as best I could, not Turn 2 to find the right reactive spell. Non-creature slots are extremely precious and I wanted 5 discard spells over the fourth Brainstorm. I can absolutely believe that it is still correct to cut a creature for it, but I’m not sure which one that would be.

There are relatively few maindeck silver bullets here. Scavenging Ooze is a reasonable beater and incidental hate card even against decks that aren’t dedicated to the graveyard. Orzhov Pontiff is narrow, but it completely wrecks Death and Taxes and Elves, as well as providing an out to True-Name Nemesis and Empty the Warrens. At worst you can often get a couple of points of hasty damage from it and Pod it away. Phyrexian Revoker finds use in most matches, likewise. I have certainly thought about playing Meddling Mage maindeck given the amount of discard, this is something I’ll be looking to test.

The sideboard has surprisingly few creatures given that this is a Birthing Pod deck. Unfortunately creatures are often too slow to rely on against combo, so some one mana hate spells are necessary. The hate bears are relatively standard and cover most combo matches. I include only a single Thoughtseize since discard has greatly diminishing returns, especially when we have Cabal Therapy to be flashed back and discard creatures to Pod into. I have 1 Flusterstorm to supplement the discard and provide some limited insurance against topdecks. Jace, the Mind Sculptor is there for the Miracles match up, since Terminus is their most troubling card against you by far.

Birthing Pod decks take a lot of work. There should likely never be a stock Pod list in any format, there are too many alterations that can be made in a deck full of one ofs. I may be deluding myself as to the power of the card, but I have from an empty board activated Pod four times against my opponent’s four Jace activations and won the game. This is just one match up and I have to pay a much higher price than the Jace player, so this is by no means a representation of the strength of the cards, but I believe there is promise in this kind of deck in Legacy.

As always, I would love to hear any feedback. You can reach me here on the site, Twitter or Magic Online (BlakeNJudge). You may also more than occasionally find me in Twitch Magic chat rooms (BlakeNJudge).

Blake Campbell (BlakeNJudge)
Twitter: BlakeNJudge

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