One Game At A Time: Death & Taxes at GP Niagara Falls 2019
by Michael Paul Skipper
I own an actual, factual Jitte. In the fall of 2017, I moved into my current residence, and I was spending money like I had money to spend. This was to be the first place I could truly call my own, so I want it to feel like home every time I come home. My move was prompted by a very tumultuous living situation previously, so I decided to focus on myself and my interests more than ever. I put artwork of music, video games, film, and Magic on my walls. One night at FNM with friends, between rounds, I pulled the trigger on purchasing an “ornament” from Japan. It is 150 years old, and I thought that I deserved to treat myself to it. Plus, who knew when someone would try to barge in…
I do not assume that I’ll ever get another chance to write an article like this, so here is the full story of my journey with Legacy Death & Taxes.
In August 2013, Innistrad was approaching rotation, and I had recently become interested in Magic finance. I began playing two years earlier, and now I was learning about Dark Confidant and Tarmogoyf. Modern Masters had recently released, and I saw that these cards were around $20-$25 when they were in Standard, and they were much more expensive in 2013. I thought it would be prudent to buy 4x Snapcaster Mage for $80, even though I didn’t have a deck to put them in at the time. I had played against a lot of Humans in Standard, and had seen another card show up in Legacy lists, so I spent $6 to get my remaining three Thalia, Guardian of Thraben. While I bought the Snapcaster to eventually sell, I bought Thalia because I really liked the card and imagined that I would want them someday.
In the spring of 2014, after finishing a family-based furlough, I returned to my adult home of the Bay Area. While away, I stayed in touch with the players I had met through an online group; much love to Oakland’s EndGame community. One of my friends that I met while Gathering told me to reach out when I would be returning to California, and he offered to help me get settled after the move. I am a very lucky boy, so a couch turned into a room, and I now had a roommate with an eye for Eternal formats. Soon, my collection of Standard cards slowly became a collection of Modern, and so on. My roommate had a few Legacy decks for me to try during this process, and it only took a couple of games of Death & Taxes before I knew I had found something that clicked.
In 2016, Eternal Masters was announced, and I set out to acquire Karakas, Aether Vial, Wasteland, Rishadan Port, and Stoneforge Mystic, one by one. Thanks to PucaTrade, where I work, I was able to methodically acquire each one of these. On the day EMA released, my Tempest Wastelands arrived in the mail, and I was ready for battle.
It was at this point that I spent two years losing a lot of games, and learning.
January 2018 held host to Grand Prix Santa Clara, a team trios constructed event. My team somehow picked me to play Legacy, and in the months leading up, I studied the format as deeply as possible; I did not want to let my teammates down. I made handwritten notes of every card in the format, broken down by card type and CMC. This list eventually became a decklist in Decked Builder, and a portable study tool. I read or reread every matchup article on Thraben University. Our results in Santa Clara were not good, but I did feel prepared for battle.
GP Seattle 2018 was Legacy format, so I used the event as motivation to visit a close friend. My only goal for Seattle was to finish day one. I finished 4-3-1. Leading into the event, I decided that it was finally time to build D&T on MTGO. Magic Online is really a great way to practice, but I find it harder to play than paper, because you cannot see your opponent sweat. The only hand reveal spells in D&T are the pilot’s wits and eyes, so losing that edge has a cost. Still, if you’re reading this article, I do recommend that you find a way to put together the deck on MTGO. Legacy is about knowing your matchups, and there’s no substitute for reps. You must know your gameplan and you must identify your opponent’s deck quickly.
Deathrite Shaman and Gitaxian Probe were banned, and much rejoicing commenced.
At this point, my sights were set on Shizuoka in November 2018. I spent months of paying off debt and getting back to school in the fall. I took a conversational Japanese class, so as to not embarrass myself too much upon my visit. The experience was a great one. I want to specifically credit my Japanese opponents for their respect and decency. We focused on the game, and the language barrier seemed to help in that regard.
For the Shizuoka main event, I decided at the last minute to register Mangara of Corondor. My understanding is that this card was the birthing point of Death and Taxes as an archetype, and I knew from experience that it was a catch-all. This decision proved costly, as the card is quite slow. I believe that Legacy has moved on and Mangara will never be relevant again. I picked up a draw against Goblins that would have been a win with another 5 minutes on the clock. My record was 5-1-1 heading into the final round. In round 8, Red Prison had turn one Legion Warboss in both games. I was eliminated and emotionally crushed. Having spent a whole year focusing my entire life on a singular event led me to heavy disappointment when things didn’t go my way.
Alas, there was still competitive Legacy to play the following day. I went undefeated in the Swiss rounds and lost in the semifinals to my opponent’s turn one Ratchet Bomb. Along the way to a 3rd place finish, I played a featured mirror match which you can check out here. I went home with two boxes and spent the night quietly opening packs. By the time I left Shizuoka, I finally felt like I had a configuration of the deck that made me comfortable.
At GP Oakland 2019, I mostly focused on Legacy side events. Attending a hometown Magic Fest means seeing everyone you’ve ever met playing the game. I’m lucky to live in an area where this is possible. During the event, some of my longtime friends gave me compliments about my skill with D&T. Having known these people for years, it really meant a lot to hear their kindness. It made me feel like my journey yielded something positive.
At my brick and mortar job, I was working near a color printer and label maker for a few weeks. I spent about $100 on deck boxes and sleeves, and turned the chaff in my apartment into a tier one eternal format. My experience playing Legacy has traditionally involved a lot of fear. There were many times in the first few years when I asked my opponent, “Am I dead?” Decks can do scary and powerful plays very early in the game, and as a human, I fear what I do not understand. So, playing games with the “Legacy Cube,” as my friends dubbed it, removed much of my fear, and replaced it with knowledge. Knowing what decks are capable of from the inside out is valuable. Additionally, Legacy is incredibly fun and sharing the format with friends is a great way to spend time together.
I think it’s time to talk about card selection, because my decklist is a bit unorthodox.
Remorseful Cleric. To be honest, this card does not feel good enough. I was planning on cutting this for Sanctum Prelate or Palace Jailer, but decided to keep Cleric. The obvious usefulness of the card would seem to be against Reanimator, but that’s not why I really like it.
1. Snapcaster deterrent
2. Trades with Insectile Aberration
3. Wears Equipment
4. Stops Reanimation
Here’s a great example of the utility of this card. I happened to draw Recruiter of the Guard on a turn when my opponent was tapped out. They had previously looked at their graveyard, so when I resolved Recruiter, I tutored and Vialed Remorseful Cleric, and passed the turn. This card turns the screws on Snapcaster Mage. It’s not great, and it’s not good enough on its own, but it will protect your board advantage in a way that no other card can. Additionally, I really like to have six flyers to sufficiently answer Delver of Secrets. Cleric gets sided out often, but it does a lot of things that I’m looking for; I will continue to play it until something better is printed.
Walking Ballista. This card is of comparable power level to Umezawa’s Jitte and can kill multiple threats, most notably Mother of Runes. Legacy is a format where I almost never have too much removal, and this card is a headache for control players and a monster in the mirror match. I don’t fault anyone for putting this in the sideboard, and I thank them during game one if we get paired.
Serra Avenger. This card is always on the chopping block, but I feel that cutting Avenger is a mistake. To encourage myself to play Serra, I’ve had this desktop background for the past few years; I even bought a deck divider. 3/3 flying, vigilance is simply a must kill threat. One of the problems that I have with many D&T decklists is their lack of ability to smack opponents in the face. This card does that, and more. Additionally, the art and the flavor of this card move me. What can I say? My name is Michael and I love Angels.
Mirran Crusader. Speaking of smashing, no card does it like crusader. No card pairs better with equipment. No card is better against Liliana. I like having two copies because I don’t have the patience to play around Diabolic Edict (and now Liliana’s Triumph as well). The game needs to end in a timely manner, especially game one, and Crusader will cross the finish line more often than a lot of other options.
Brightling. “A Swiss army knife covered in bees.” I found a new mode on Brightling in Niagara: Target opponent reveals that they don’t have removal. Part of the playing D&T is accepting that you don’t often have the luxury of waiting for a perfect play sequence. Aether Vial doesn’t always show up. Sometimes all you can do with three mana is cast a Brightling. If your opponent doesn’t kill it, it lets you know to get aggressive, and that information is valuable. Of course it’s better to protect the card, and it’s better to have a Vial, but don’t be afraid to be fearless. The lifelink on this card is frequently more reliable than Jitte and Batterskull, and can push a game out of reach for your opponent.
Cavern of Souls. It’s true that there are times when this card is a liability, but my opinion is that they are offset by resolving Thalia when you need her. I actually had an opponent attempt to Force of Will a creature played off of Cavern during the tournament too, so that was a nice bonus. Flickerwisp can reset the card, and there’s too much countermagic in Legacy for me to not want a couple of these.
Sideboard Sanctum Prelate. Prelate attacks and blocks poorly. I’ve tried this in the main deck in the past, but there are matchups where it does not do anything. I feel like I can play well enough against Miracles game one without this, and I don’t like this card against Delver, as I need to cast Plow. It’s a good tool in certain matchups, which is why I like it in the sideboard.
Sideboard Palace Jailer. Palace Jailer is very powerful and very risky. The games where the Monarchy is lost are almost always game losses in my experience. My answer to this has been starting the card to the sideboard, however I respect the decision to main deck Jailer.
Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. I want to give a shout out to this card. I haven’t always played him, but he won me a few games, and I feel like he’s underrated.
Michael Skipper, GP Niagara Falls Top 8, 4/21/19
I didn’t take notes on my matches at the tournament. I didn’t have the bandwidth for that, so here are some notes from my memory. On the GP Friday, I participated in a last chance trial event which had an odd number of players. After winning three rounds, I received a bye in round four, which granted me two wins for the main event. This was incredibly lucky.
R1 Win – Bye
R2 Win – Bye
R3 Loss – Ad Nauseam Tendrils
The first match of the day was against another Bay Area player. It was nice to play against a familiar face. I cast Chalice of the Void for the first time in my life here. I promptly missed the trigger and we had a ten minute judge call. In game 3, I played Stoneforge instead of Thalia on turn two, which was obviously a major punt on my part. I died immediately.
R4 Win – Miracles
Game one lasted quite a while. I think game one is very important in this matchup, so I thought hard about my decisions. My opponent accused me of purposefully slow playing, and did not believe me when I said I was thinking carefully. He somehow kept a hand weak to Wasteland in game two.
R5 Loss – Grixis Control
I had an Aether Vial on three when my opponent cast Kolaghan’s Command[c] targeting Vial and making me discard. I was planning on Vialing [c]Mirran Crusader[c] prior to this and I did not adjust properly. I also had a [c]Flickerwisp, which should have been used instead to save the Vial. I never caught back up on tempo. Two major punts, two round losses.
At this point, I was despondent. I knew that if I had made ‘correct’ plays, I would have been in a much better position. I did my best to ignore all thoughts except, “It’s just one game at a time.”
R6 Win – Miracles
My opponent cast Force of Will in response to a Recruiter of the Guard cast with Cavern of Souls.
R7 Win – U/R Delver
I don’t know why Delver players Wasteland me. Sometimes it works, to be sure, but if I already have an Aether Vial, I just don’t get it. I drew enough removal, and Flickerwisp sealed the deal.
R8 Win – Sneak & Show
Game one I got annihilated. Game two they had turn one Show & Tell, and I had Palace Jailer for their Emrakul, the Aeons Torn. They followed up with a Pyroclasm, thinking the Emrakul would return. It did not. Game three was close in this roller coaster matchup, but I won and secured my first ever day two.
R9 Win – B/R Reanimator
After winning the die roll, I asked if I could begin. My opponent said yes, and told me after the match that they forgot to reveal Chancellor of the Annex. Outside of the best draws from Reanimator, this feels like D&T’s best matchup in the field. A Recruiter of the Guard chump block on Grave Titan followed by Exhume allowed me to get the Flickerwisp to win the match.
R10 Win – U/R Delver
Brightling was cast with no protection, didn’t die, and promptly told me how weak my opponent’s hand was.
R11 Win – Eldrazi
People think I won’t block, and I don’t know why. My opponent got out to a fast start with double Thought-Knot Seer. Recruiter of the Guard and Serra Avenger were happy to team up to trade, especially since my opponent had already cast a Dismember earlier in the game. Once the pressure was off, the board stabilized and victory with Batterskull and Flickerwisp was easy. Phyrexian Revoker on Endbringer was important in getting there.
R12 Win – Grixis Delver
Good matchup is good.
R13 Win – Miracles
Game one was close, but Unexpectedly Absent doesn’t do much against a deck with no fetch lands. My opponent told me how much they hate Sword of Fire and Ice after the first game. I immediately tutored for it in game two thanks to that recommendation. Disenchant killed the sword, but I got them down to one life while double Rishadan Port and a Thalia protected by Karakas turned the screws. I asked them if they had any outs before they cast Monastery Mentor as a chump blocker to buy one turn against Thalia. That felt good!
R14 Win – U/R Delver
My opponents don’t think that I’m going to block. My Flickerwisp flipped a Delver, and they attacked with the 1/1. I guess my opponents think I’m going to want to keep a three power attacker, but part of what makes Death & Taxes viable in the format is that Flickerwisp kills Delver. I’m more than happy to trade every time. Rishadan Port and Thalia took away their options, and they died with a lot of cards in hand.
R15 Win – U/B Shadow
My opponent was intimidating and very skillful. I made the classic mistake of attacking into a Death’s Shadow, not realizing that it wouldn’t die if they took damage. I also made the mistake of naming Street Wraith with Phyrexian Revoker instead of Liliana, the Last Hope. That decision cost me the second game, which was close and long. Game three I put Umezawa’s Jitte on Mirran Crusader and went for it. I asked them if they had any outs, and made my way into the top 8.
Quarterfinals Loss – Death & Taxes
I was very excited to finally face D&T, as I hadn’t faced it yet on the weekend. I love the mirror, and all of its intricate decision points. We looked at each other’s deck lists before the match, and I knew that Walking Ballista was going to be key. Game one probably lasted 35 minutes, and my opponent was ahead by about thirty life before I got Ballista plus Jitte online. I very slowly picked apart my opponent’s board while double Mother of Runes worked overtime. Game two I lost to tempo. Game three I made my third major mistake of the tournament, and received my third and final loss as a result. I had an active Stoneforge Mystic with Jitte in hand, an Aether Vial on two, and another Stoneforge in hand with three untapped lands. My opponent tapped out for Palace Jailer targeting Stoneforge, and I let it resolve. Tournament over. I should have activated Vial, put in Stoneforge, grabbed Batterskull, and put the Batterskull in play in response. I could have equipped the Jitte to Batterskull on the following turn and destroyed my opponent’s two creatures. Instead, I did not activate Stoneforge in response, which wasted my mana for the turn. I Vialed in the Stoneforge anyway, equipped Jitte to it, and lost my Stoneforge on the attack to get the charge counters. My brain was mush at this point. I said out loud, “I just puuuuunted!” My opponent laughed and agreed. There were more plays after that with Jailer and Flickerwisp, but I essentially lost a full turn of tempo and never recovered due to that misplay. My opponent, of course, is an excellent player and made it to the finals, so congratulations and respect to them.
And there you have it. My only losses were when I made serious play mistakes. That is a good feeling, and bodes well for the archetype. I got favorable matchups in a favorable metagame. Death & Taxes doesn’t typically get a lot of respect, but it put two copies into the top 8, and that brings me pride.
Thanks to Mary. Thanks to George & Rob. Thanks to the entire PucaTrade crew and community. Thank you Phil. Thraben University is an incredible resource, and Mr. Gallagher creates amazing content. Thanks to everyone who read this article. My two cents is to practice hard, know your matchups, and be willing to lose over and over until you develop intuition. And remember, it doesn’t matter what happened outside of the game that you’re in. Just make your best decisions, and take it one game at a time.