Opening plays in Magic, in general, are not the subject of articles very often. An opening matters a lot less in smaller formats than it does in larger Eternal formats and making the wrong call on turn 1 can outright cost you the game (or even match!).
Let’s take a Standard tournament as an example. You sit down for your match, keep a good hand blind and your opponent goes Hissing Quagmire, go. You have read up on the format and likely deduced that your opponent is playing either GB Delirium or GB Amalgam. You make your turn one play (which likely is the same regardless of their play) and they make a turn two Servant of the Conduit off a Swamp. You are now relatively safe in the knowledge that they are playing GB Aggro Delirium and know you should play around Blossoming Defence (a card that is often a 4-of in such lists). Despite the fact you guessed wrong originally, you can’t really be punished, as your plays for the first three turns are, in all likelihood, going to remain fairly similar regardless.
If we move back a little and delve into Modern, I can relate to an example from an actual game. My opponent in a GP played a turn one Wooded Foothills, cracked it for a tapped Stomping Ground at the end of my second turn, untapped and conceded after I cast an Eldrazi Displacer on turn 2. I quickly dismissed him being on burn (why would he concede on turn two?) and deduced he was either on RG Eldrazi or Scapeshift. I boarded hesitantly and lost game two to a good RG Eldrazi draw - if I had boarded correctly, I may have been able to win this game. I would say that in this occasion, I wasn’t particularly punished by my guessing game regardless.
Now for a Legacy example; this example is also a real scenario from a Legacy GP. Our hero is playing Shardless BUG, he has lost the dice roll and his opponent played a Swamp after a mulligan to five and passed the turn. A basic Swamp would lead me to think I was playing against one of four decks: ANT, Reanimator, Shardless or Pox. Our hero had the choice between a first turn Thoughtseize or the more explosive Deathrite Shaman allowing for a turn two Liliana of the Veil. Given our shortlist of possible decks, Thoughtseize makes more sense against both combo decks (to protect yourself) and Pox (aiming to hit Smallpox or Liliana). Our hero in this occasion misjudged the situation, went for the Deathrite Shaman and promptly found himself on the wrong end of a Reanimated Griselbrand.
With this in mind, it follows that it is in your best interests to defend yourself against the most likely opposition given how your opponent starts their game. Misjudging their deck on turn one can often be the difference between getting to play a game or immediately losing on turn two. Then what might a common opening look like in Legacy?
For all the below scenarios, assume you’re on the draw, there have been no mulligans (mulligans affect your opponent’s chance of having a choice for their first land) and you have no prior information about your opponent’s deck.
Fetchland, go is one of the most common first turns in Legacy and also very telling right from the get-go.
Flooded Strand, Misty Rainforest, Polluted Delta, Scalding Tarn - a blue fetch strongly implies either a slow/reactive hand from various flavours of Delver or a Spell Pierce hand from a Show and Tell deck. If the fetch is a Polluted Delta, it is likely that they are on Reanimator or ANT; whereas a turn one Flooded Strand or Scalding Tarn strongly implies Miracles.
This opening is tricky to play against as it requires you to play in two completely different ways to defend yourself against all the possibilities - you shouldn’t cast a spell into a Daze if you can help it, but you also can’t stop yourself from developing your game plan if they are a combo deck ready to kill you on turn two or three.
If I can spare it, I usually try to play into the Daze with my second best spell (Ponder is the level of card you want to cast here). If it resolves, you’ve furthered your plan; if it gets Dazed, at least the chances of dying to combo is much lower (unless they have Daze + Entomb into Reanimate, which you’re unlikely to beat anyway).
HIGH: Delver, Show and Tell decks, ANT, Reanimator, Miracles
LOW: Elves (Misty)
Wooded Foothills - Foothills, go is possibly the sneakiest opening in Legacy. It stinks of a surprise Stifle, so remember to play accordingly. RUG Delver can find all their duals with blue fetches, so using this specific fetch is a good way to mask the fact you’re playing against a mostly mono blue deck.
HIGH: RUG Delver
LOW: Elves, Jund, Lands
Arid Mesa - They are likely playing Painter, so expect their hand to contain at least one Red Elemental Blast/Pyroblast if their turn one is land, go. There’s a small chance of them being on Miracles (usually they run one or two to help accommodate a sideboard basic Mountain).
HIGH: Painter, Burn
Bloodstained Mire - Mire doesn’t see a lot of Legacy play and it would lead me to think they are on a combo deck of some sort (likely ANT or Reanimator). I would rule Grixis Delver out based on Mire not finding Tropical Island.
HIGH: Reanimator, ANT
Marsh Flats, Verdant Catacombs, Windswept Heath - It is extremely unlikely that a deck would keep a hand with any of these as a T1, go play. Verdant would imply BUG Delver in disguise, Marsh Flats would imply Esper Stoneblade and Windswept Heath would imply a poor draw by Maverick or some such.
Verdant or Windswept can also be Elves, as they’ll play anything that fetches Dryad Arbor, Bayou and basic Forest.
Coloured land followed by a non-telling spell
A turn one Delver, for example, is a very good indicator to which archetype your opponent is on - and you know this from only a small piece of information. This information leak is made up by the fact T1 Delver on the play is one of Legacy’s strongest openings - especially if backed by a Daze. These openings change a little based on whether they were fetched, so do use both pieces of information to your advantage:
Dual land, Ponder - I would say that the turn one Ponder is one of, if not the, most popular openings in the format. The land used to cast the Ponder can often help you work out what your opponent is playing:
Tundra - Miracles, Esper Stoneblade
Tropical Island - Infect, RUG Delver, BUG Delver, Grixis Delver (very unlikely)
Volcanic Island - Sneak and Show, RUG Delver, Grixis Delver, ANT
Underground Sea - ANT, BUG Delver, Grixis Delver, Reanimator
Island, Sensei’s Divining Top (or Ponder) - This is where the fetchland used to find the basic Island gives you crucial information. If they used a Polluted Delta, I would likely put them on ANT. A Flooded Strand or Scalding Tarn implies Miracles. All of them have a small chance of being Omnitell or High Tide (Misty Rainforest would imply one of these for sure). There is a very small chance your opponent is cautious and is on Reanimator, but this is less likely as Reanimator often needs BB to win (Entomb is easier to find than Careful Study + a large man), so basic Island isn’t a strong opener for them (particularly on the play, they will likely be happier fetching for Underground Sea).
Volcanic Island, Brainstorm - You might be tempted to think your opponent is on Delver or a Show and Tell deck, but this opening is fairly rare and usually implies danger - your opponent is likely on ANT and has all but one of the tools required to go off on turn one. This is a very aggressive line aiming to end the game quickly! If they pass the turn, you should expect their hand (+ top two) to contain all of Lotus Petal, Dark Ritual, Lion’s Eye Diamond and Infernal Tutor, but be missing the second Ritual/Lotus Petal to win. If you let them untap undeterred, you are likely dead.
Bayou, Deathrite Shaman - This opening, whilst fairly innocuous, tells you a lot. I would put my opponent on Elves or Jund and not on Shardless or BUG Delver. Having played both blue decks, having an Underground Sea on turn one is so important that leading on a Bayou can seriously hurt your development. Exceptions happen, but I would be likely to, for example, go for the kill on turn one with a combo deck and not play around Force of Will against this opening.
Forest, Deathrite Shaman - Unless your opponent is super defensive about Wasteland (or suspects you’re on Blood Moon) AND already has the superior Swamp in hand, then this opening is not Jund or Shardless and is instead almost certainly Elves. Likewise, if your opponent leads on Taiga, Deathrite Shaman, I would be confident in putting them on Elves.
Swamp, go - Again, you are put in an awkward position by this opening, although there are 2 things you absolutely should avoid - don’t tap out of a Spell Pierce if you have it and don’t make a turn one creature if you can avoid it. I would put my opponent on either a fast combo deck (ANT, Reanimator), Shardless or Pox - hence leaving Spell Pierce up to hedge against both or not playing a creature right into a crushing Smallpox.
Wasteland, go - Wasteland is broadly split into two different categories of decks - coloured Wasteland decks and ‘Sol land’ Wasteland decks. Regardless of which, Wasteland signifies that your opponent isn’t trying to kill you on the first few turns. A turn 1 Wasteland from a coloured deck (Delver or Death and Taxes primarily) implies they have an awkward/mediocre hand and are hedging against your own Wastes. I would expect their hand to contain only a single nonbasic capable of producing coloured mana and so they want another draw step before exposing it. If your opponent is instead on a colourless Wasteland deck (Eldrazi, MUD), then they are either protecting a ‘Sol land’ for a turn 2 play, be it Trinisphere, Endless One or Thought-Knot Seer off Simian Spirit Guide) or only have a City of Traitors as their 2nd land. Since City of Traitors isn’t always a 4-of, I would be inclined to save my Wasteland for their 2nd land rather than attempt to strand them with only a City in play from turn 1.
Rishadan Port, Aether Vial, go [accompanied by a turn 2 Wasteland or 2nd Rishadan Port] - Whilst this is a reasonably common Death and Taxes opening, you should keep Goblins somewhere in your mind so you don’t get blown out by a Goblin Lackey suddenly materialising at the end of your turn two. Similarly don’t do the opposite and get blown out by a Thalia, Spirit of the Labyrinth or Phyrexian Revoker during your turn three.
Swamp/Underground Sea, Cabal Therapy - this is quite an interesting one, assuming they’re also running blind. If they name Force of Will, then it is extremely likely they are on ANT and clearing the way for a possible turn 2 kill - all alarm bells should be ringing. If, however, they name something less interactive, then it is much more likely they are on Nic Fit, a deck incapable of killing you before turn 10 (or something almost as silly). I would still
assume they are on a combo deck and play accordingly, but is it worth remembering they might be trying to grind you out of cards instead of outright killing you. There’s also a small chance that your opponent is on Grixis Delver, but given they have at least 12 better T1 plays (Ponder, Deathrite, Delver), it is quite unlikely they lead on a blind Therapy.
‘I choose to draw’ - your opponent is playing Manaless Dredge. You should choose to draw games 2/3 given that you’ll have an additional card to work with and their turn 1 plan is always going to be ‘go’ regardless. This also gives you information on cards to mulligan into (Deathrite, Lightning Bolt for your own 1 drop to exile Bridge from Below, Thalia, a turn 1-2 kill off a combo deck, etc).
You may notice that none of these openings imply lands - this is due to the fact that a Lands seven will always include one of Exploration, Manabond or Mox Diamond (+ Loam), which should immediately tell you what your opponent is playing.
In any situation where you aren’t sure what your opponent is doing, it is often correct to assume they’re playing a combo deck and can kill you the next turn. Doing so means that you, on the draw, should prioritise cards like Thoughtseize, Ponder (to find Force of Will) or leaving up Spell Pierce instead of tapping out for cards like Deathrite, Delver or other less interactive cards.
Legacy isn’t such a scary format after all, now is it?
(Huge thanks to Kayure Patel and Callum Smith for the help with both content and editing)
Are you stuck on what to play this weekend? Why not try this innovative take on Infect from Italy:
Standstill Infect, by Tommaso Marlieri (2nd at Autumn 4Seasons)
4 Inkmoth Nexus
4 Misty Rainforest
4 Tropical Island
4 Verdant Catacombs
4 Blighted Agent
4 Glistener Elf
4 Noble Hierarch
4 Gitaxian Probe
3 Force of Will
3 Vines of Vastwood
2 Spell Pierce
1 Become Immense
1 Crop Rotation
1 Sylvan Library
2 Krosan Grip
2 Rest in Peace
2 Swords to Plowshares
1 Force of Will
1 Invasive Surgery
1 Pithing Needle
I would suggest cutting down to 60 cards maindeck, but the idea of adding Standstill to a deck that already naturally runs creaturelands is sweet and something I would love to try!
About Joao Choca:
Joao started playing competitive Magic in England in 2007 and has been a Grand Prix grinder since then. Joao has retained Bronze status since induction and has been rewarded for his consistent results with a win in Grand Prix Turin 2018. He enjoys thinking outside the box and is one of the more creative team members when it comes to fresh ideas. His approach is one of gradual improvement and he is constantly looking for flaws to fix in his game. His aim is to achieve Silver and stay on the Pro Tour circuit.