Starting Out with Death and Taxes

The following is part two of a two part series by Discord user Darkview. It is presented here with minimal editing. Part one is available via the articles tab.

Getting started on a Legacy deck is hard, and Death and Taxes is no exception. Picking a starting list, learning to play it well, evaluating progress, and finding resources can be challenging. This article is written to help these players succeed. In it you’ll find a solid starting list, links to the best content, and tips to improve your play and practice.

A Starting Decklist
There are tons of great Death and Taxes lists, but it’s important to start out with a strong “stock” build. A stock build will include the stable elements (the core lands, creatures, and spells), and pick its flex-slots and sideboard for maximum overall power and versatility against a wide range of possible matchups. I recommend the following stock deck list.

Darkview Pre-Ikoria Starter Taxes 4/14/20

Land (24)
Mishra’s Factory
12 Plains
Rishadan Port

Creatures (25)
Mother of Runes
Phyrexian Revoker
Stoneforge Mystic
Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
Mirran Crusader
Recruiter of the Guard
Sanctum Prelate
Palace Jailer

Non-creature Spells (11)
Swords to Plowshares
Aether Vial
Umezawa’s Jitte
Sword of Fire and Ice
Sideboard (15)
Walking Ballista
Ethersworn Canonist
Sanctum Prelate
Path to Exile
Surgical Extraction
Council’s Judgment
Pithing Needle
Deafening Silence
Rest in Peace

This list has not changed much over time, and has proven itself able to handle a wide variety of matchups. It should provide a good starting experience, and a chance for you to explore the various play patterns and options of the deck. While I wouldn’t alter this list much when you’re starting out, shifting quantities by 1 probably won’t ruin the experience for you.

Naturally, this is just a starting point. There is plenty of room for customization. Land counts can vary in either direction, potentially including more utility lands. Creature selections can include a wider variety of niche cards for specific fields, or more aggression. Sideboards also vary quite widely. Over the years, the deck has seen it’s fair of odd gimmicks as well. It’s not surprising to see lists vary by up to 20 cards within a few weeks (in comparison to other Legacy decks, which may change by less than 10 cards over years). Over time, you will expand from the “stock kit” as you acquire cards to handle the peculiarities of different fields you play in. Having these cards and knowing how to integrate them is a sign of your development as a player, willing to reach into an ever larger toolkit for the answer that you know you need.

Educational Content
One of the best things about Death and Taxes is that its following has generated a huge volume of worthwhile content and resources. Almost no other deck has anything close to this. This allows you to study the deck in a very traditional sense: by reading and watching the experts. This can allow you to progress much more quickly than you might on your own. The following resources are the ones I recommend first, but you can find much more if you go searching.

The first of these is Thraben University. Phil Gallagher has created an incredible resource here for aspiring Death and Taxes players. Articles cover all sorts of topics at great depth. There’s hundreds of hours of recorded gameplay with excellent commentary. While I wish the website were updated more frequently, much of this information is timeless. Personally, I credit ThrabenU for much of my quick success with the deck. His stream and Youtube content is all linked on the website as well.

The second is xjCloud, who streams on Twitch and posts the videos on Youtube. He is currently the preeminent streamer of the deck, often posting multiple leagues with the deck in a week (when he doesn’t randomly decide to go on a Bomberman kick for a while). His play is excellent and absolutely worth watching.

There is also an excellent article series by Thomas Enevoldsen, who was at one point the indisputable top-performer in Legacy and devoted Death and Taxes pilot. The first article can be found here.

Additionally, the Discord server is an excellent place to discuss the deck and ask questions. Be warned that you are entering open dialogue with random people on the internet, and not all of them have flawless etiquette. Nonetheless, some esteemed pilots frequent that forum. Also me. It may be an asset. Use at your own risk.

Perfect Practice
While I recommend you start with study, you’re not going to get good without actually playing Magic. It will take dozens of matches to be decent, and many hundreds to master. I’ve been playing the deck for about two years, and I like to joke that I am almost halfway-competent. It is only partially in jest. Death and Taxes is a hard deck. Correct play involves correctly identifying the opposing deck correctly, deducing their likely options and tactics, and proactively thwarting them, all while managing the incredibly complex workings of your own deck.

Practice is required, and perfect practice makes perfect. Study and practice, and your performance will improve by leaps and bounds. Here are a few tips to improve your practice:

  • Don’t get discouraged by your losses. There will be many. Focus on trying to understand what led to your loss: what was the key misjudgment, sequencing error, or strategic decision that sent the game down the wrong path?
  • Even when you win, you probably made errors. Find them, and tighten your play.
  • Take notes or recordings, if you can. Games go long, and key points are often obscured by seeming unimportant at the time, and by being long past when the game ends. If you have the time, no detail is too small to matter.
  • Discuss interesting matchups with your opponent or any observers if they are willing. Getting an understanding of how your opponent looks at the match is very useful for control deck pilots. If you have notes or recordings, you can also ask other players.
  • Balance matchup repetition and variety. Delver, Miracles, and the mirror are common and complex, and replay has a lot of value. It still pays to be a bit familiar with less common matchups.
  • Try to play other decks too, especially against Death and Taxes. You will develop a whole new appreciation for what Death and Taxes does, and a lot of insight into how to use it better against the deck you’re playing.
  • Start out by learning conventional play patterns and sideboard plans. Once you’re familiar with them, try something different just to see how it works. There are a lot of default play patterns, and good players know when to eschew them for the unconventional.
  • Once you feel comfortable with the stock list, begin to test out other cards in flex-slots. Death and Taxes is a control deck, and you need to be able to adapt the deck to your field.
  • And remember to have fun practicing! You got the deck so you could play it, after all!

Beginner’s Piloting Tips
Legacy is a hard format, and Death and Taxes is a particularly complex deck. There are very few “free” wins and “easy” lines. To help you get started, I will give you this woefully incomplete list of tips. They may not take you very far, but I hope they help you find your footing.

  • Death and Taxes is an aggro-control deck. Generally extending the game usually favors you, but you do need to close it before your soft controls wear thin. Role evaluation will be key to figuring out which half of the deck you need to emphasize, and when to pivot.
  • Against an unknown opponent, an ideal hand can play most of its cards through a single piece of disruption, and has a reasonable plan against both fair and unfair decks that starts no later than turn 2. Realistically, you sometimes need to accept a slightly more vulnerable hand, or one that is weak to either fair or unfair decks.
  • Plan out every turn before taking your first action. Death and Taxes offers many options, and correct sequencing has a lot of value.
  • Develop mental cues to help remember your triggers. Dice on the library is easy for Vial triggers, but remembering Monarch or Chalice triggers can be harder.
  • Death and Taxes is a very mana-intensive deck, but Wasteland and Port are also major elements of its disruptive package. Unless you have a Vial, you will have to make a choice as to whether to develop or disrupt, and who can best use their mana.
  • Stoneforge and Recruiter are some of the most powerful cards, but also open you up to tempo blowouts if used improperly. Consider the opponent’s counterplays and the fail case of each possible pick before searching.
  • Look for ways to cut your opponent’s possible lines of play simply by good sequencing. Vial, Thalia, Wasteland, and Port can all be very effective at this.
    Wei wu wei (action through inaction). If you’re not under pressure to do something, it’s often best to do nothing. This is especially true in the face of removal. Sometimes you can force the opponent to act in a bad spot, or find a way to cut their lines.
  • Play to your outs. Especially in longer sideboarded games, Death and Taxes has draws that can suddenly flip an entire game state. If you’re on the back foot, figure out what a recovery would look like and set up for it. It may look like a great D&T player “got lucky and top decked the perfect spell,” but in reality, they might have been playing towards that exact line for quite some time. You can “make your own luck” in some cases.
  • When sideboarding, be careful not to accidentally sideboard out too many creatures, or neglect how your opponent’s deck will likely change the marginal value of your cards.

Parting Thoughts
Death and Taxes is an exceedingly complex deck requiring a vast amount of format knowledge, which can make it feel overwhelming for a starting player. Thankfully, it is also a deck with a vast amount of content to help a new player, and a deck so enjoyable it spurs pilots to effectively teach themselves what they need to succeed. As long as you start with a sound deck list, take advantage of the content out there, and practice effectively, you can become proficient in one of the all-time best decks in the format.

Author’s note, 22-April-2020: These articles were written prior to Ikoria’s release. Since then, developments have undermined the premises of these articles. Ikoria’s Companion mechanic is one of the most powerful mechanics in the game’s history. It is very likely that Death and Taxes will not be able to compete with the “better” Companion-based decks. Unless these are removed from the format and/or Death and Taxes receives a Companion of similar power, the deck may cease to be viable. Beyond this, it may be the case that new sets will continue to destabilize Legacy with every release. If that is the case, the idea of a perennially good deck ceases to be valid. Time will tell, but the reader should account for this uncertainty in their decision-making.

About the Author

Phil Gallagher

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