How Legacy Prepared Me for cEDH

Harvey McGuinness • March 1, 2024

How did you learn to play Magic? Not just cast spells and attack with massive creatures, but really play the game in an almost competitive sense. Think of the first time things like "strategy" and "format" popped into your mind. I imagine that, for most of you, games of Limited or Standard come to mind; at least, those were the most popular formats back when I started over a decade ago. Alternatively, for those who joined more recently, maybe casual Commander was your entry point. My story is a bit different. My first deck - my first real deck - was Legacy Miracles. These are the lessons my time in Legacy taught me.

Why Legacy 

My favourite part of Magic has always been the stack. Back when I joined Legacy in earnest - around 2015 - there was a common phrase that Standard was played on the battlefield, Modern was played in the graveyard (something which has shifted significantly as cards like Golgari Grave-Troll and Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis have come and gone), and Legacy was played on the stack, so it was only natural that I gravitated towards the "fair" Eternal format. 

There are plenty of effects that I immediately fell in love with from my time in Legacy, from real cantrips (totally unbiased opinion), like Ponder, to the unique role of fetchlands when combined with top deck manipulation (Brainstorm, Counterbalance, etc.), but what really sealed the deal for me was the existence of one card in particular: Force of Will.

When I joined Legacy, the pitch-Elemental cycle wasn't even a pipe dream yet. Solitude and the like were far from Modern's norm, with even the original Counterspell yet-to-be introduced to the cardpool. Suffice it to say, while Modern certainly had its own comparably broken things going on, it didn't have nearly as much in terms of free things. Legacy, through Force of Will, was very different. Whoever was playing blue could, theoretically, always interact, and this meant that the stack was always at play, even when players weren't casting spells or activating abilities. Free interaction meant omnipresent interaction, which meant omnipresent bluffing. This brings me to my three Legacy takeaways: counting cards, patience, and bluffing interaction. 

Counting Cards

That first phrase - counting cards - is something I don't see too often in Magic, especially in singleton formats like Commander, but I think it's a crucial part of gameplay. In general, the conversation around counting cards focuses on keeping track of a deck's land count and its probability of flooding or getting mana screwed in any particular game. I have 28 lands in my 98-card main deck, my opening hand of seven cards has three, my first draw isn't a land but I do crack a fetchland, thinning my deck a bit more... how have I influenced my likelihood of drawing a land on turns two, three, etc? This is a question that's pretty readily tackled readily by card counting, but it's far from the only one. Keeping track of tutors, counterspells, etc. - any and all classes of effect - it's all doable with proper counting. 

Have you ever cast Counterbalance, or played against one? If you have, you'll know that a resolved Counterbalance completely changes how a game of Magic is played, especially if its controller has any topdeck manipulation in their deck, shuffle effects included. Rather than just keep track of effect density, now you need to keep track of anticipated quality density; in this case, the odds that the top card of an opponent's library is the same as the spell you cast. From kitchen table to Legacy to Commander, I've been playing Counterbalance for a little under a decade now, and that card has single-handedly shifted me to someone who counts lands in Magic to someone who counts basically every possible category and quality, as necessary. If I have three opponents, and they each have one mana open, what can I infer is the possible set of game actions each player could take based on that singular mana, plus the range of free spells?

Beyond open mana, however, counting cards also means that I've constantly got my eyes on the card counts for opposing graveyards, the number of fetchlands that have been cracked, etc. In a format run by Underworld Breach, thinking about the ease of starting an escape chain can be crucial, allowing you to glean when your opponents are more or less likely to try and pop off. As for fetchlands, this does two things: it both works in tandem with the aforementioned Underworld Breach tracking as well as provides insights into the likelihood of your opponents having more or fewer lands in hand. Like I said earlier, cracking fetchlands decreases the odds of drawing more lands down the line, so a player who cracks every fetchland as soon as possible will draw more nonland cards as the game goes on. These are just two relatively universal examples in an otherwise incredibly diverse format, but it does highlight just how much information you can pick up from the smallest of things. 


This brings us to patience, something which effectively serves as a precursor to bluffs. In general, it's wise to spend mana as quickly as you have access to it. It makes sense to be doing things as readily as you can; the game will only last so long, after all. However, this isn't always the case, and learning when to sit back, regardless of whether or not you are supported by a value engine, is crucial.

This lesson is less unique to Legacy and is more of a generalizable sixty-card rule, but the distinct availability of free interaction was certainly an incubating factor. In short, just because you can do something doesn't mean you need to. In Legacy, this was because - unless you timed it right - you would more often than not face disruption either on the stack or, in the case of permanent threats, through incredibly efficient removal.

The primary difference between patience in Legacy and patience in cEDH, however, was that the two-player interaction posted by any action directly implicated you, and as such timing was frequently a question of opportunity windows and resource exhaustion. In cEDH, since it's a multiplayer format, an opposing game action can draw you into the fray, but it doesn't have to. For sixty-card Magic, if my opponent casts a Lightning Bolt, it's only going one of two places: at me, or at my things. In cEDH, if my opponent casts a Lightning Bolt, it can simultaneously advance their own gameplan as well as mine, provided it targets a threat to both of us. The game as a whole may be zero-sum, but that doesn't mean every gain made by an opponent comes at your expense. This is certainly a substantial difference from Legacy, but playing a control deck in a format with free interaction for all those years taught me just how terrifying the shortcut "Untap, Draw, Pass," can be. 


First, a bit of context. I mentioned earlier that patience segues readily into bluffing, but I want to clarify that these two are not one and the same. Patience implies the capacity to act but the will not to do so. Bluffing is itself an action, something which can be enabled by patience, but which isn't necessarily a direct result of it. This may sound like philosophical waxing, but it has real consequences in evaluating game states and action sequences. 

Here's an example that was pretty common back in the Legacy arena, one which I replicate often in my games of cEDH. I have two cards in hand, at least one of which is a land, and I'm playing a blue deck. Provided I'm not strained on mana and I don't need to cast the other card right away (maybe it's a Talisman I don't currently need, lest I feed the upcoming Dockside Extortionist, or it's a removal spell which I can wait to cast until later), it's often the correct decision to simply leave both cards in hand - until I get a third - in order to bluff any and all pitch spells (Force of Will, Force of Negation, etc.). This is far more of a bluff than it is simply patience, as I'm not making much material gain by playing the unnecessary land or being aggressive in deploying mana rocks.

This is where leaving mana up and leaving cards up can be functionally the same thing. In both cEDH and Legacy, the best (and consequently the most common) stack interaction is free. Leaving mana open only widens the pool; suddenly things like Swan Song enter the mix of rebuttals. 

Alternatively, bluffing can also take the form information sharing. I wouldn't go so far as to say share your hand with the table and say "I will counter your spell" only to not do so. That's lying, and cEDH has too much of that as is. However, you can warp the table's impression of your individual capacity by referencing actions you've already taken. Stressing phrases like "I did just tutor" can put psychological pressure on your opponents into thinking you have a response, when in reality you more likely just grabbed a wincon for later down the line. 


Counting cards, being patient, and managing your bluffs are all crucial parts of playing any game of Magic, but they take on a whole new life when your role at the table shifts from a one-v.-one to a four-player tug-of-war where players change hats turn after turn. That being said, sixty-card Magic - especially formats like Legacy with its comparable interaction suite - have plenty of lessons to teach. I hope this trip down memory lane has shared some of them with you and maybe, just maybe, gotten you to consider slotting Counterbalance into your decklists.

Harvey McGuinness is a student at Johns Hopkins University who has been playing Magic since the release of Return to Ravnica. After spending a few years in the Legacy arena bouncing between Miracles and other blue-white control shells, he now spends his time enjoying Magic through cEDH games and understanding the finance perspective.