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December 9, 2014

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Comparing Miracles

If you’ve been watching the legacy tournaments, or if you’ve been flattering me by reading past tournament reports, you might notice that there are two very different builds of Miracles recently posting strong finishes. We have Joe Lossett (TEDitor’s Note: Ron’s not-so-secret crush) playing what he calls Cheater Miracles, but which you might also see referred to as Legendary Miracles, and we have the European Miracles list Phillip Schonegger piloted to a top 8 finish at Grand Prix New Jersey. In the past 6 months we’ve seen a wide variety of Miralces lists, including some that feature Stoneforge Mystic and Batterskull, some with Sword of the Meek and Thopter Foundry, some with Enlightened Tutor, and recently we’ve seen the return of Energy Field + Rest in Peace/Helm of Obedience as the win condition. I’d like to take a look a the differences between Lossett’s Legendary Miracles and Schonegger’s European Miracles list in particular, and compare the competing synergies in each deck.

Let’s start with a brief look at each deck list, and then I’d like to make some more detailed comparisons between the two decks.

Legendary Miracles – Joe Lossett

Creatures: (4)
Vendilion Clique
Venser, Shaper Savant

Planeswalkers: (2)
Jace, the Mind Sculptor

Lands: (23)
Island
Mountain
Plains
Arid Mesa
Flooded Strand
Scalding Tarn
Tundra
Volcanic Island
Karakas

Spells: (31)
Relic of Progenitus
Sensei’s Divining Top
Counterbalance
Brainstorm
Counterspell
Dig Through Time
Force of Will
Pyroblast
Spell Pierce
Swords to Plowshares
Entreat the Angels
Terminus

Sideboard: (12)
Pithing Needle
Baneslayer Angel
Containment Priest
Counterspell
Flusterstorm
Hydroblast
Red Elemental Blast
Wear / Tear
Venser, Shaper Savant

Let’s start with the creatures. You’ll notice that while both decks are effectively Wizard Tribal, Legendary Miracles is playing 0 Snapcaster Mages and instead a full suite of Legendary creatures that we can squeeze extra value from with our two mainboard copies of Karakas.

Lossett is playing 23 land in his Miracles list, with 2 Karakas, a single Volcanic Island, and one Mountain with which he can cast his “Cheater” cards – the main board Pyroblasts – and his sideboard tech. While he was running a singleton Mystic Gate until recently (and even two copies before that), he has moved away from the filter land.

Legendary Miracles’ primary win conditions, besides the creatures, are Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Entreat the Angels. The other interesting spells we’re running are two copies of Relic of Progenitus, one Spell Pierce, two Counterspell, a frighteningly low (two) copies of Swords to Plowshares, and a singleton Dig Through Time.

Now let’s take a quick look at European Miracles:

European Miracles – Phillip Schonegger

Creatures: (3)
Snapcaster Mage

Planeswalkers: (3)
Jace, the Mind Sculptor

Lands: (21)
Island
Plains
Arid Mesa
Flooded Strand
Scalding Tarn
Tundra
Volcanic Island

Spells: (33)
Sensei’s Divining Top
Counterbalance
Brainstorm
Counterspell
Force of Will
Pyroblast
Red Elemental Blast
Swords to Plowshares
Entreat the Angels
Ponder
Terminus

Sideboard: (15)
Engineered Explosives
Containment Priest
Blue Elemental Blast
Counterspell
Flusterstorm
Pyroblast
Red Elemental Blast
Wear
Vendilion Clique
Council’s Judgment
Pyroclasm

At GPNJ Schonegger represented Wizard Tribal with 3 copies of Snapcaster Mage as his full creature package, a lean 21 lands (with 0 Karakas and 3 Volcanic Island), and some interesting non-creature spells. Schonegger played 4 Ponder, 0 Spell Pierce, 4 Swords to Plowshares and 3 Jace, the Mind Sculptor along with 2 Entreat the Angels for win conditions. Despite what people say, eventually you want to win the game.

Let’s take a look at the big differences in these decks.

Creatures:

The creatures in each of these decks synergize directly with the rest of the cards the decks are built around. Looking at European Miracles, we see three Snapcaster Mages. In addition to the 4 Brainstorm, 1 Red Elemental Blast, 1 Pyroblast, and 2 Swords to Plowshares Lossett is playing, Schonegger is also playing 4 Ponder and 2 more Swords to Plowshares. Counting the Spell Pierce Lossett plays, that means an additional 5 one-mana spells to flashback with the blue ambush viper.

On the other hand Vendilion Clique and Venser obviously combo with the two Karakas in Lossett’s deck. While there are some small ways to gain extra value (drawing extra cards by Venser-ing a Top in response to drawing, for example) these really serve to give us more powerful late-game plans. Venser is a repeatable catch-all that helps us against a variety of threats, and Vendilion Clique is a reasonable clock that helps to improve our hand or attack our opponent’s (and can be used to miracle a Terminus in a pinch). Vendilion Clique is a soft-counter to Stoneforge Mystic and AEther Vial, helps attack Planeswalkers, and combinted with Jace’s +2 ability can ensure us the late game victory. Even the fact that we can block a Batterskull with Clique, then bounce with Karakas to prevent the life gain, then re-cast it hit someone’s hand is a ton of value.

Lands:

The manabases are surprisingly different between these two decks. The lack of Karakas in Schonegger’s list is not surprising – our two legendary creatures are in the sideboard. But playing 3 Volcanic Islands is powerful in the current field because Red Elemental Blast and Pyroblast are excellent – and fetching out a Volcanic on turn one to Ponder leaves us the ability to Counterbalance on two or leave up Pyroblast. Having three copies of it means that we have some resilience to Wasteland — we don’t have to fetch out a basic Mountain if our singleton Volcanic gets killed.

Perhaps the biggest difference in the manabase is simply the number: Legendary Miracles plays 23 while the European list plays 21. This is due in part to the power of Ponder. 4 Ponder doubles the cantrip count and we don’t risk Brainstorm locking ourselves out of the game if we brick on finding a second land.

Non-creature spells:

We’ve already talked a bit about Ponder, but it is really one of the defining differences between these decks. Many of the card choices can be traced back to wanting to play a set of the second cantrip. 3 Snapcasters? Much better with 4 Ponders in the list. 21 lands? Much easier to find your second/third land with extra Ponders. 3 Volcanic Islands? Easy to cast Ponder on turn 1 reliably. Schonegger has said that while his deck is not as powerful as Lossett’s, his aim is to maximize on consistency, and casting cantrips has long been the path to consistency.

Ponder is powerful in Miracles for another reason. Sometimes, you just have to sculpt your hand; maybe you don’t have the Top yet, or you need to stack your hand to defend against a move your opponent will make next turn—whatever the reason, sometimes you have to cast a cantrip. Brainstorm has a function in Miracles that is unique when compared with nearly every other deck: putting cards on the top of your deck is very powerful, both for casting Miracles for their alternate cost, and due to the interaction with Counterbalance. Because of this we have to be very careful about when we decide to fire off a Brainstorm. Having access to an extra 4 cantrips gives us the ability to dig through our deck while preserving Brainstorms for when we really want to interact with the top of the deck. While there are a few other different non-creature spells in these lists, Ponder is really the card that shapes nearly every other difference between the lists.

Another factor to consider in relation to Counterbalance is the spread of CMCs in the two decks. In European Miracles, there are 18 1 CMC spells and 8 2 CMC spells. Compare this to Lossett’s list which has 15 1 CMC spells and 6 2 CMC spells, but with more targets at 3, 4 and a singleton 8 (very useful vs Sundering Titan, and acceptable vs Treasure Cruise too). So while Lossett has a greater spread, again Schonegger’s deck is going to be able to more consistently get the powerful 1 and 2 mana spells that define Legacy.

One more minor point to consider is Lossett’s recent addition of 2 maindeck Relic of Progenitus. This is a concession to Treasure Cruise decks, but it’s a very minor cost to play in Miracles when we aren’t playing Snapcaster Mage. Relic cantrips and can even let us miracles cards at instant speed without being forced to draw our Sensei’s Divining Top. It also pairs up well against Deathrite Shaman decks, and can randomly get a win against Reanimator.

Summary:

In conclusion, perhaps the way Schonegger described it is the best way to characterize the two decks: the deck built around playing 4 Ponder is significantly more consistent, but sacrifices some of the raw power that Lossett’s Legendary Miracles plays in the form of Venser, Vendilion Clique, and Karakas. While these situations seem clunky, a deck that sees as many cards as Miracles does can find the cards it needs to get the engine online. Is it worth it to sacrifice a consistent game plan for more options and poweful answers? It’s hard to say, as both versions have been posting results in recent legacy tournaments, but it’s worth noting that two players on Europrean Miracles managed to break into the top 16 at GP NJ with Schonegger at 4th and Tomas Vicek at 11th.

– Genghis Ron