This Week in Legacy — Legacy History Lessons, Part 1

WRITTEN BY

Howdy folks! This is Joe and we're here today to talk a little about the history of the Legacy format. It's a bit of a change in what we've been doing—we're still keeping an eye toward Eternal Weekend U.S. in October—but the metagame has finally started to settle a bit and solidify.

Today's first lesson was spurred on by a discussion with a few users on the PucaTrade Discord channel. This history lesson is about a deck that carries with it a stigma, and it's something that is still "technically" legal to play in the format.

Four Horsemen


"Four Horsemen by Mark Wilkinson"

Four Horsemen came about shortly after Rise of the Eldrazi was released due to the presence of the Eldrazi Titans, who all came with a trigger that would shuffle the player's graveyard into their library (along with the Titan itself) when they went to the graveyard from anywhere. Without this kind of effect, this deck actually doesn't work.

To start to understand this, let's take a look at an actual decklist.

Four Horsemen

Creatures (6)
1 Emrakul, the Aeons Torn
4 Narcomoeba
1 Sharuum the Hegemon

Instants/Sorceries (28)
4 Brainstorm
4 Cabal Therapy
1 Dread Return
4 Force of Will
4 Gitaxian Probe
4 Lim-Dul's Vault
4 Ponder
3 Thoughtseize

Artifacts (9)
4 Basalt Monolith
1 Blasting Station
4 Mesmeric Orb

Lands (17)
3 Flooded Strand
3 Island
4 Polluted Delta
3 Scalding Tarn
1 Swamp
3 Underground Sea

Sideboard (15)
3 Emrakul, the Aeons Torn
3 Massacre
3 Pithing Needle
4 Show and Tell
2 Spell Pierce

The deck functions off the basis of two cards: Mesmeric Orb and Basalt Monolith. By repeatedly tapping the Monolith for mana and then using that mana to untap itself, the Orb will trigger and cause you to mill a card. This process is repeated until Sharuum the Hegemon, Dread Return, and Blasting Station are in the graveyard and at least three Narcomoeba enter the battlefield via their trigger.

If the deck hits the lone Emrakul, the Aeons Torn during this process, it starts over going back through the motions again until this condition is true. At this point, the Horseman player casts Dread Return, sacrificing the Moebas to return Sharuum, who returns Blasting Station. Once this is assembled, all it takes is milling again to hit Emrakul, shuffling and starting over to continue hitting an opponent with Blasting Station damage.

The Stigma of Slow Play

As stated above, Four Horsemen comes with a bit of a stigma, due to how the deck interacts with Magic Infraction Procedure Guide (IPG) specifically. In tournament Magic, when a player is performing actions that represent an infinite loop (such as the Splinter Twin combo) the player performing the loop must be able to provide an exact number of iterations that they will perform that loop as a proposed shortcut.

For example, in the case of Splinter Twin, the Twin player would say: "I will perform this loop 3,000 times and make 3,000 token creatures." This is fine because the loop is deterministic, meaning that the loop can be proven that if the Twin player repeated the same action 3,000 times that they would indeed end up with 3,000 tokens.

In the case of Four Horsemen however, this is not so. The loop, while seeming to be an infinite loop, is actually not deterministic at all. Because of the need to put the graveyard into a specific configuration and the potential of hitting the Emrakul that starts the entire loop again, there's no possible way to indicate how many iterations it would take to put the graveyard into that specific configuration.

When this happens, if the loop is continually executed and the game continues to remain in the same game state without any changes to said game state, the IPG says these kinds of things fall under how judges handle Slow Play warnings. As in, it is considered to be slow play if the player attempts to repeat a loop without actually advancing the game state.

However, what do we mean when we talk about "advancing" the game state? Well, a few things happen during the loops that actually do advance the game state. One of the more common plays is to let a Narcomoeba enter play during the loop and immediately sacrifice it to cast Cabal Therapy if there is one in the graveyard. This is a game action that advances the game state.

The problem becomes when the game state is continually going back to where it began. An example of this is to start the loop, hit Emrakul, shuffle and then start back up again and hit Emrakul before any other piece of the combo. This sort of loops returns you to the exact same state as before, which doesn't advance the game state. This is where players can get into potential trouble in regards to Slow Play warnings.

One might present the argument that the general outcome of the kill condition is all but assured when the Horseman player is going through the motions, but the sheer probability of how long that condition might take is enormous in size, and one of the driving reasons why people don't seek to play this deck in a competitive environment. It isn't possible to accurately predict how many iterations of the loop it would take to reach the desired game state. It might take five minutes, it may take the entire match time. It's not something that can be shortcutted due to how the Magic Tournament Rules and IPG define shortcuts and slow play.

In short, playing this deck is much like the time loop ending at the climax of Doctor Strange. In fact, I highly recommend that if you end up actually playing this deck you are obligated to tell your opponent that you have come to bargain with the start of every loop.

Theoretically however, it is possible to completely remove Emrakul from the equation entirely (by just not playing her) which would allow the player to completely mill themselves. However, at that point, the deck would have to adopt a different kill condition than Blasting Station (likely something like Laboratory Maniac with Angel of Glory's Rise). This strategy would also open the deck up to being less resilient to graveyard hate.

What if we change the Rules?

This argument comes up often enough. Those who are die-hard enough about the deck have long advocated for fixing the Slow Play rules in the IPG to allow the deck to be played and function. While I believe there is room for finesse in the Slow Play rules, I don't believe there needs to be changes to competitive rules for the sole purpose of allowing Four Horsemen to be a competitively played deck. Opening up that sort of thing would open it up to a lot more than just it, and those rules exist to help preserve the integrity of the game in a tournament environment.

It's quite unlikely that anything like this will ever happen, as Wizards seems content with how these rulings work as is within the current MTR / IPG so I do not ever think these rules will change for any reason related to the deck Four Horsemen.

Outside Knowledge

This article from a Magic judge does a great job of explaining this deck as well as dispelling some of the myths surrounding it. I recommend it, it's a great little read.

In addition, Legit MTG wrote an article about this deck a few years ago to try and come up with a version that doesn't have this issue as much (by using, of all things, Sidisi, Brood Tyrant to make the mill into developing a zombie army). You can check out their article.

Wrapping Up

Thanks for joining in my first introspective article on a little of Legacy's varied history. Next time in this series we're going to do some discussion on one of Legacy's most infamous/famous decks. That's right, I'm talking about Flash Hulk (Dammit, Barry!).

Until next time.

Joseph Dyer is an avid Legacy enthusiast. He's admin of the /r/NicFitMTG subreddit, as well as a regular participant on the Source and MTGLegacy subreddits. His knowledge of the Legacy format is deeply rooted in constant analysis, playtesting, and lots of discussion of the format. Joseph's primary accomplishments include a 10–5 finish at GP Columbus 2016 with Rhino Fit, and a 32nd place finish at a SCG Columbus Legacy Classic with Sneak Fit. 

MTG strategy, finance, & trading. Delivered weekly.

Join the other Magic traders who get our content first.