I am back with part 2 of My Death & Taxes! This time I’ll focus on how to play the deck as well as mulligan decisions. You can find part 1 here. In it I talk about how to make card choices for your deck list.
How to Play Death and Taxes
Know your role and make a game plan
As a deck that mainly seeks to disrupt the opponent’s plan, Death and Taxes requires that its pilot has a good understanding of the Legacy format. You must know each deck’s (or at least deck type’s) main engines and – just as importantly – their weak points. In my opinion, the skills you need to play this deck as optimally as possible cannot necessarily be obtained by just jamming a bunch of games. Even if you learn all the interactions with Aether Vial, Flickerwisp, Recruiter of the Guard, Stoneforge Mystic and Rishadan Port. The main goal when you play D&T is to know your role and formulate a game plan.
To break this down, your game plan should basically be the answer to the following questions:
- What is my opponent’s plan to win the game?
- What are the strengths and weaknesses of their plan?
- What tools do I have to mitigate those strengths and exploit those weaknesses?
- How do I stop them in the short-term?
- How do I stop them in the long-term?
If you have the answers to the above questions, victory is elementary, as most of your tools to stop them (your creatures) will also be your way to win (since they, you know, kill them). If your answer to questions 3-5 are that you do not have the necessary tools and/or cannot stop them either in the short-term or in the long-term, you need to formulate another question:
- How do I kill my opponent before they execute their game plan?
It is an important realization to know that if you play the deck, it means that, for the most part, you don’t have a game plan of your own. Your plan is to watch the other deck unfold, and then punish its weaknesses.
To Learn Death and Taxes, Learn Limited
How to identify your role and be flexible with it
In my experience, acquiring the skills to accurately identify your role in the matchups, as well as formulate and change a game plan based on that, is similar to learning to play Limited Magic. In Limited, the roles of the players shift quickly in the games. If you experience this over and over means that you improve your ability to assign yourself the correct role. You might be the aggressor, the defensive side, you might have to play around bombs or disrupt synergy. When you play D&T, Legacy is a lot like Limited. Here are some examples.
If you play against a combo deck like Storm, the Storm player is usually the aggressor. They have to kill you before you land one your disruption “bombs”, like Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, Phyrexian Revoker or Ethersworn Canonist. Once you manage this, the roles switch and you are the aggressor, and their life total becomes the clock that counts down until they find a way to remove your disruption.
Against Lands, you have a premium disruption creature in Sanctum Prelate. So you race towards a copy of that card, perhaps with the help of a Recruiter of the Guard. At the same time, your opponent will try to get as much value of their Life From the Loam before you get there or even assemble the Dark Depths and Thespian’s Stage combo to kill you. So now the game plan has evolved from “find Sanctum Prelate” to also include “survive 20/20 indestructible fliers”.
Against UW Miracles, the Death and Taxes player will usually be the aggressor, while they play around the “bombs” of UW Miracles. That will be Jace, the Mind Sculptor most of the time but might be Monastery Mentor or even Back to Basics in some instances. Since you usually lack the speed to take down your opponent before they can land a Jace, you must adapt your game plan. Disrupt their mana for long enough so you can either kill them or deal with the powerful planeswalker once it lands. This can mean that you don’t play more creatures in favor of Rishadan Port activations on critical turns. That way you delay their bombs, which can seem counterintuitive to the role of “the beatdown”.
Against Grixis Delver, they will usually be the aggressor, as D&T has the tools to take over the late game. This means you need to preserve your life total for as long as possible. It’s also why it may be correct to throw away a “bomb” like Stoneforge Mystic to a Daze so your Flickerwisp resolves, or to play Swords to Plowshares over Aether Vial turn 1.
You have inevitability
How virtual card advantage wins you the late game
Generally, Death and Taxes has some sort of inevitability over most decks in the format, you get further away from defeat if you prolong the game. As such, the deck has a fallback game plan, which is to make it to the late game. This might seem counterintuitive since we play a lot of small white creatures. But there is a lot of “hidden” card advantage, which means that your threats retain their potency even in the longer games. While there are obvious card drawers like Palace Jailer, Stoneforge, Recruiter and even Batterskull (equipment and a creature!), the rest of the deck is filled with what I like to call pseudo-card advantage. You either amplify the effect of your own cards or mitigate the effect of the opponent’s cards. Parts of the following examples might be obvious to some, but I include them anyway to illustrate my point:Flickerwisp removes tokens and resets Batterskull or planeswalkers nearing ultimates. It lets us get an additional equipment with Stoneforge Mystic, creates mana for Rishadan Port activations, gives a creature pseudo-vigilance and resets opposing Aether Vials. You can use Flickerwisp to unflip Delver of Secrets, and even the simple fact that it flies means that the opponent doesn’t get any blocking use out of their Snapcaster Mage. This is even without mention of all its obvious 1-for-0’s when you save another creature with a Flickerwisp that comes out of an Aether Vial. Mother of Runes usually requires two removal spells if you get to untap with her. Phyrexian Revoker stops planeswalkers, Noble Hierarch, mana artifacts, Gempalm Incinerator, Knight of the Reliquary and Grim Lavamancer to name a few. Karakas makes mana, doubles as removal for their legendary creatures and protects your Thalia.
Aether Vial saves mana and ignores opposing counterspells.
Partial Advantages Until Victory
Play the game of inches to the late game
As you can see, a lot of these examples are only partial card advantage. Phyrexian Revoker on a Noble Hierarch shuts down the mana but not the Exalted ability. Flickerwisp provides vigilance, but only for a turn. This deck plays a game of inches, and it claws its way to game wins through these inches, constantly pushing the opponent further back without giving up the advantage. Many of the plays you make with D&T put you up slightly more than 1 card, and that is the main way the deck gains its advantage and grinds out the long game.
So, if you have doubts about what lines to take, I found that in general, if you prolong the game and bury them in (pseudo-)card advantage, that typically works in favor of Death and Taxes. Please do apply this principle with appropriate consideration, as sometimes it’s just better to throw caution to the wind and smash face!
Our Mana Denial Lands
Some thoughts on Wasteland and Rishadan PortRishadan Port and Wasteland can be daunting cards to play with, since you are presented with options almost every turn in addition to playing your spells. Do I Wasteland their land or play my spell? And if so, which one should I choose? Do I port their land on upkeep and effectively skip my own turn? Which land do I port? The correct use of Port and Wasteland is one of the key aspects of D&T game play, as it is your main path to interact with the opponent’s hand. You can compare it to “soft counters” like Remand or Memory Lapse. You don’t get any real card advantage if you tap or destroy their lands, you merely delay them until later, so it’s all about what you do with the time that is given to you.
There are of course easy choices where you already have pressure out or a Vial that ticks up. In those scenarios, you are likely already ahead on the board. That way you can usually afford to tap or kill their lands, since time is on your side. So let’s look at the more difficult spots, where the board is at parity or you are behind. It is of course all incredibly contextual, but a general thought process should be to first consider what the long-term plan is if I tap their lands instead of playing my spells. Who benefits most from the extra time, the potential extra land drops and extra cards drawn? If I play against combo, the extra time might let me draw into a disruption piece like Thalia, but the extra time might also give them what they need to go off. I also consider how well their deck works at instant speed to be able to utilize the ported mana. After these long-term considerations, I consider how my spell for that turn matches up against their potential play for the next turn. If they have untapped mana, I consider a potential answer for my spell as well as their play next turn.
How and When to Deny Mana
A look at Port and Wasteland in different Matchups
Imagine a match against Grixis Control, it’s turn 3 on the play, you have a Recruiter of the Guard in hand and you tapped their land on turn 2. So they have an untapped fetchland against your 3 mana. This could represent removal, but you don’t care that much about the Recruiter itself, but rather what it finds. In this situation, I’m not too worried about their answer and turn 3 play. The worst would probably be Liliana, the Last Hope, which they play 1-2 of, so I can relatively safely get something like a Palace Jailer with my Recruiter and threaten a big turn 4. If I’m on the draw, however, and they can cast a Jace next turn, I’m more likely to use Port to delay them for a turn and hopefully find a 2-drop so I can apply some pressure and then tap their lands at the same time. Look for the big plays from the other side and act accordingly. If I am in a defensive role in the matchup, I generally favor my own spells, even into open mana, since I don’t want to risk that I’m left with gas in my hand when the game is over, and the deck can easily get bottlenecked on mana when you don’t have a Vial.
Wasteland is sometimes simpler, since it doesn’t cost an additional mana to activate, so you can usually play your threats at the same time as you waste them. With Wasteland, I always think of how I can shut them out of certain spells versus shutting myself off from casting my more expensive creatures or paying equip costs. Recruiter and Stoneforge Mystic are very mana intensive plays, so keep that in mind and don’t just waste the first non-basic you see! Another consideration is “who needs the mana more”. A Delver deck can operate on very little mana because everything is so cheap, so they prefer that your resources are limited as well. That is why I am not a huge fan of wasting opposing lands against Daze-decks. Grixis Control has a vulnerable mana base and their powerful plays usually require 4-5 lands, since that is when Snapcaster Mage and flashback costs, planeswalkers and cantrips plus Kolaghan’s Command come into play. So in this matchup I generally like to waste their lands at the first opportunity. UW Miracles has a much more stable mana base, so it can be hard to screw them, which is why I often like to hold on to the Wasteland. I may need the mana more.
The Gateway to Mana Denial
What to waste and what to port
Let’s talk about targets. Rishadan Ports generally want to hit the lands that help cast sorcery-speed spells. This means black sources against decks with Hymn to Tourach, green sources against decks with Tarmogoyf, blue sources on turns where they can cast Jace, and so on. But sometimes, tapping their blue source on upkeep means they don’t get as much value out of something like a Brainstorm, because since they are most likely forced to draw one of the cards they put back (a small win!).
For Wasteland, I try to focus on the lands that either help them find more lands or that let them cast instant speed removal, in an attempt to finish the game faster. That generally means blue sources for cantrips and white sources for Swords to Plowshares or red sources for Lightning Bolt.
Due to the relatively low land counts of most Legacy decks, I generally like to waste a land on turn 1 in the dark and hope to mana screw them. Especially if they play a dual on turn 1, since that is a sign of a land-light hand (since they generally want to lead on fetches to avoid getting wasted).
Tips and Tricks for Waste and Port
Some interactions that might win you a game
- If you have 2 Rishadan Port activations, remember to tap one land in upkeep and one land in draw step to prevent them from floating 2 mana in the same phase.
- If they have mana open and you want to equip one of two creatures, consider tapping their land on your draw step, so they can’t float mana into your main phase. This way they must kill one of your threats before you decide which one to equip.
- The same goes for tapping their land when you have Thalia, Guardian of Thraben in play. If they have one mana untapped they can still pay for Force of Will, but if you tap on draw-step they no longer have that option.
- It is generally a good idea to play out your Ports before your Wastelands, so they are more likely to fetch non-basics. In some cases, especially holding multiple Ports and a Wasteland, it may be better to play out the Wasteland to induce them fetch basics, since you have a higher chance to color-screw them with the Ports then.
- Against the combo of Dark Depths and Thespian’s Stage, you can tap their Stage to induce them to sacrifice it when you have Wasteland or Karakas. It is also good to tap it (instead of colored mana) on turns where they could make a 20/20 so they at least do it sorcery speed. Remember you can respond to a Crop Rotation by tapping a Stage!
- If you plan a big turn (like using equipment or getting strong threat on the board with Vial), I like to wait on tapping a land until they have completed their actions for their turn, since I may be able to prevent them from playing a spell on my upcoming turn. Remember to tap in their second main phase to avoid them floating mana in your end step.
There are of course thousands of different scenarios where you could discuss the use of Rishadan Port and Wasteland based on matchup, hand context, turn of the game etc., but these are some of the general guidelines that I find come up frequently when you play Death and Taxes.
The Art of the Mulligan
When is a D&T hand a keeper?
The idea that you tailor your game plan to what your opponent does can make mulligan decisions rather difficult. Usually you don’t know what your opponent is up to before you decide on a hand in game 1.
Yet there are still some general considerations that you should keep in mind when you contemplate your opening seven. Here are two major thoughts that you should keep in the back of your head.
First, the choice of whether to mulligan is likely the most important decision of the game, so don’t take it lightly. As a deck without card selection spells like Brainstorm or Ponder, your mulligan decision is your best chance to impact the contents of your hand. D&T mulligans quite well, so don’t be too scared if you don’t like what you see. We have card advantage machines like Stoneforge Mystic, Aether Vial (that allows you cut on lands) and Palace Jailer. Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, Wasteland and Rishadan Port help us disrupt their mana and prolong the game. Both types of cards allow us to negate the impact of the hand size difference after a mulligan, so I am not too scared to go to 6 or even 5 if I don’t like my previous opening hand.
Second, your primary principle with any opener should always be to deprive the opponent of resources to cast spells OR to make those spells irrelevant. And you want to do this fast, by which I mean you have to impact the board within the first couple of turns. Any hand without a turn 1 or turn 2 play is usually a mulligan. Something like a Swords to Plowshares into 3 drops can potentially be a keep, especially if it includes a Wasteland or a Rishadan Port as well to disrupt the opponent. At least on the play, I consider a Rishadan Port activation as a turn 2 “play” for the purpose of this rule of thumb. Conversely, I don’t consider Umezawa’s Jitte a turn 2 play.
The Dream Opener
What you want in a perfect hand
Looking at specific cards, Aether Vial is what I most want to see in my opener. Getting it down on turn 1 is so powerful that I keep most hands with it, even if the rest is a bit more lackluster. The combination of Aether Vial and mana denial in the form of Rishadan Port or Wasteland can provide so much early tempo that you just run away with the game. Past Vial, I am looking for powerful plays in the form of either Mother of Runes, Thalia, Guardian of Thraben or Stoneforge Mystic, i.e. cards that can take over the game with no immediate answer from the opponent.
After this, the texture of the rest of the hand comes into play. Think about what punishes you in the short term. Can you reliably produce white mana through an opposing Wasteland? Do you have any utility lands to stall the opponent? Are there obvious targets or advantages for the Flickerwisp in hand? Do you have any pressure against a slow control deck? How do we deal with an early flipped Delver of Secrets? Do you have an answer for a Griselbrand out of Reanimator or Show and Tell? Are there any equipments that clog up the hand?
Below I included some sample hands to go over my thought process. These are all against unknown opponents, and I will highlight whether our decisions should change if we’re on the play or draw. As a reminder, this is the stock list I use as an example in this article series.
Death and Taxes by Thomas Enevoldsen
This hand has Aether Vial, two of the best threats in the deck and mana to cast them. Easy keep.
This hand has the one-two punch of Mother into Thalia and safe mana to cast it. Even if Flickerwisp and Sword of Fire and Ice are not terribly relevant in the opening turns, this hand is still very good. Easy keep.
Three-drops and mana to cast them as well as some disruption in Wasteland. Wasting your opponent’s land without any pressure is not generally a strong play, so I would consider this hand too weak to keep. If one of the lands were a Port, I would keep this hand on the play, as it buys you a turn for your powerful three-drops. Sanctum Prelate can be particularly powerful in game 1 against certain strategies. But as it is, I would mulligan this hand.
You have a potential turn 1 play in Swords to Plowshares followed by a turn 2 Thalia. Thalia + Wasteland can really put the hurt on some decks, so even if Jitte and Flickerwisp are somewhat lackluster in this opener, I consider this a reasonable keep.
Pretty threat-light, but the combination of Aether Vial and Rishadan Port is so strong that I keep most hands with them in it. You also have a Swords to Plowshares to halt any offense from your opponent, and Brightling is obviously a very resilient threat in combination with Aether Vial. Keep.
This is a bit trickier. You have a turn 1 play and somewhat of a curve (Jitte being your two-drop). As you also hold Karakas for any potential fast Griselbrand or the likes, I would keep this hand, though it is a bit on the weak side.
Two Phyrexian Revokers and mana to cast them along with some disruption in Rishadan Port. Other than that, it doesn’t have much going for it, and I think I would mulligan this hand, but it is close. Maybe I keep in the Deathrite Shaman era, but Revoker can be a bit of a dud against some decks, so I would look for a stronger and more versatile six.
No turn 1 play and a pretty dead Jitte means this hand is a bit weak, and that Rishadan Port doesn’t look like it has an activation coming anytime soon. On the plus side, we have a turn 2 Thalia and turn 3 Flickerwisp for any fast Delver or creature opening. Recruiter provides the late game, especially in combination with Flickerwisp, so I still think this hand is good enough to keep.
Similar to Hand #5, this hand doesn’t have a removal spell and thus could risk falling seriously behind if on the draw against an aggressive deck. I would, however, still keep this hand even on the draw, as you have Recruiter of the Guard to find whatever the matchup requires and with the Ancient Tomb you can even go turn 2 Recruiter and get a Thalia or Stoneforge, or you can play for the long game by chaining Flickerwisps or even going straight for Palace Jailer. Keep.
No colored mana is usually a mulligan on 7 cards, unless there is an Aether Vial. Even with plenty of mana disruption to buy time until we draw a white source, I would still ship this back. Mulligan.
This hand is pretty bad, but it does contain Aether Vial and Thalia. I think that one the play, where Thalia is the strongest and with a Karakas to protect her, this is an (admittedly mediocre) keep. On the draw, I think the hand is too slow, and one removal spell leaves you without any threat at all. Keep on the play, mulligan on the draw.
I’m not a big fan of this hand, as it doesn’t do anything particularly strong and doesn’t put much pressure on the opponent either. I would mulligan this hand on the draw, as the risk of having to go to 5 is somewhat mitigated by the extra card. On the play, I would keep, but not be happy about it.
Two Vials, one inefficient beater and a whole lotta land. This is not a very fast hand and can easily be overrun, but it has a great setup for the lategame with the mana disruption as well as double Vial to be able to play any threat you draw. Since I’m lacking white mana too, I don’t think the extra Vial is that dead, and the lands should disrupt your opponent long enough for you to draw some threats. I would keep this on the back of its strong potential later in the game rather than its immediate impact the first couple of turns.
This hand is probably close to an 80 % favorite against some decks like Delver and 10 % favorite against others like combo. It even has game against decks like Grixis Control or UW Miracles, as the Palace Jailer is so hard to deal with, and you are fairly sure it will resolve due to the Aether Vial. I think that overall, I would have to mulligan this hand because it is too “all-in” for my taste, it is weak to combo decks and I think you can do better with 6. If one of the Plains were a Karakas, Rishadan Port or Wasteland, I would keep, as it gives you some minor disruption, but as it stands, it is a close mulligan for me.
This hand also lacks disruption, but on the plus side it has a turn 1 Mother of Runes (sort of insurance for future disruption pieces like Thalia or Phyrexian Revoker) and it can produce a turn 3 Palace Jailer or Jitte plus equip. I think that is strong enough to warrant a keep, but I would mulligan this hand without the Ancient Tomb.
And with that, we have reached the end of part 2. Thanks for reading and be sure to check back in to part 3, where I will go over the most relevant matchups with a sideboard guide and gameplay advice.
See you then!