Turbo Karn Echo*Saga* Primer

Urza’s Saga is a busted magic card — it became clear the first weekend MH2 was legal that the card was far better than anticipated. I was excited to try it in Turbo Karn Echo, a deck I built in 2019 and have been playing with moderate success since. There were times when I thought the deck was well-positioned and even thought about writing a primer in the past, but I knew deep down it was just my pet deck. Playable, sure — I could rack up some trophies with it. But it wasn’t going to be elite-tier; no one was going to be calling for Mesmeric Orb bans anytime soon. Urza’s Saga might have pushed Turbo Karn Echoes enough for it to become the real-deal. I think no deck gained as much from the printing of this powerhouse land, and after getting some practice with sequencing and when to pivot to the Construct plan my results have been off the charts. In my last nine leagues* I have six 5–0 trophies, two 4–1s and a 3–2 for an overall record of 41–4, including a 21-match win streak.

*You may have noticed I cleverly cherry-picked the data by adding the qualifier “after practicing sequencing…”, I was 15–10 in those first leagues for a still-fantastic but slightly more realistic 56–14 record overall since the printing of Urza’s Saga.

A few months back, Casey Lancaster and others began putting up results with this version, and the linked Rich Cali deck guide officially put Forges and Mesmeric Orbs on the Legacy map. It’s the same basic shell as I had been playing since 2019, but the landbase and sideboard looked a bit different. Notably, Casey chose to play more powerful colorless lands (this was pre-Saga, but we can just imagine a couple Veins/Inventor’s fair becoming those) and the sideboard configuration looked a bit different. Casey’s fully-colorless build became the standard configuration for the few other rogues and lunatics who like to durdle with artifacts instead of Dazing and Wastelanding opponents into submission like good Spikes are supposed to. I think these land choices highlight some differences in the conception of what this deck does best and possibly even how to play it — part of the reason I am writing this primer is to make a case for including the humble Island over more powerful or explosive choices like Inventors’ Fair or Crystal Vein. Before diving into any of these subtleties, however, let’s look at my current build and lay out exactly what this deck does.

Here’s a link to this decklist on mtggoldfish,

clone103’s list as of 6/19/2021

What does this deck do?

PLAN A: Assemble the Engine

The Engine

The Engine: Mystic Forge + Basalt Monolith (untapped or with 3 mana floating) + Mesmeric Orb. Once the engine is established, we can do it all. Is the top of our deck a colorless card we can cast at net positive (or neutral) mana cost? Play it. It isn’t? Tap/untap Basalt Monolith to mill the top card. It’s critical to make sure to keep 3 mana at the ready always to be able to filter the top of the library. Sometimes this means skipping over that first Karn we could otherwise cast; there will be more to come once we have more mana available, and even in the rare instance they all show up before we get to 7 mana we can Echo them all back later. Get a Defense Grid (or four!) in play just to be extra sure nothing is going to go wrong. Fetching Aetherflux Reservoir from the sideboard and following up with a few spells is the typical and fastest way to end the game immediately once fully set up.

Ok, so that’s a three-card combo and costs something like a bazillion mana. Is this really good enough for Legacy? Surprisingly, if left unchecked this deck will produce a full-Engine kill by turn 3 with the median hand (mean is higher, since “fizzles” more than outweigh the earlier kills). Turn 2 full-Engine kills are not at all uncommon, and even turn 1 is possible, though rare. The real secret, however, is this deck is just full of absolute haymakers that are one-card-combos in most scenarios. Sticking a single Forge is overwhelming for straightforward reasons; The Engine is nigh. Karn is a badass and has all the usual tools like Liquimetal Coating and Ensnaring Bridge to soft-lock or escape a sticky situation, but also can fetch combo pieces in Orb or Basalt Monolith*. The two-card combo of Mesmeric Orb and Monolith represent the ability to spam Echo the Eons, and again you’ll assemble The Engine soon thereafter. Even just an Orb on its own can dig really hard for Echo the Eons, especially with a Voltaic Key (which can keep untapping itself) in play. Even when the opponent is disrupting us, we are just one spell away from taking over the game.

*The typical lists I see are playing 4 Basalt Monolith main — in my opinion this is a clear-cut mistake. I commonly search up Basalt Monolith as the only way to achieve a deterministic win, or just to combo alone with Mesmeric Orb.

Plan B: Lock it up

The world is brown

Like every deck playing Karn, we have the ability to lock up the game with Microsoft Lettuce or soft-lock with Liquimetal Coating. This “Plan B” accounts for around 20–25% of game wins.

Plan C: Construct Beatdown

“Nice Ouphe”

So we didn’t assemble The Engine or Lattice-lock the opponent in the first 2–3 turns of the game. This is where Urza’s Saga shines. We now have a Construct plan C! Not only that, we’re threatening to tutor up an LED that can unlock an Echo the Eons stranded in hand, or a Manifold Key to make a Construct unblockable, give it pseudo-vigilance, or more commonly simply untap a Monolith. In games where the land component of Saga was essential, Opal or Petal can be fetched to replace it.

Maybe the opponent has a Collector Ouphe cooking. If this is a pre-boarded game, yes, we’re still going to lose most of the time, but Constructs give us a feasible out that adds solid win percentage.

The biggest stumbling block pre-Saga was only drawing one or two haymakers that were dealt with and then drawing nothing but air until the game was out of reach. Inventors’ Fair could mitigate this problem sometimes, but the mana commitment was often a big ask. Sagas represent four more legitimate threats for the cost of a land drop.

Note that Saga Constructs are plan C, though. If I have a functioning hand, I bias towards playing it out as normal, with Saga as a backup or a strict land drop. Turn 1 Tomb into Defense Grid or Grim Monolith is going to generally be my play preference over T1 Saga, threatening T2 Construct. With City of Traitors, it’s likely I’d reverse the land sequencing, but still often progress the board with something like Grim Monolith or Grid in a blue matchup over making the Construct on turn 2. It takes a little experience and feel to know when going for Constructs early is best (there are certainly times to do so) but early on I was biasing too much to getting full value from the land. It’s often correct to “miss value” and make 0 Constructs; Saga will still serve its purpose of being a land for three turns and then search up something even better.

Ballista: For when life is awkward

Walking Ballista is not a card I’m happy to have in my opener against an unknown opponent, but it’s a very important card to have exactly one of for certain sticky situations. Suppose our Depths opponent Pithing Needles Karn in a game 1. Constructs are unlikely to get the job done, and without Ballista in the deck we’d be in a spot where even assembling The Engine can’t get the job done, as we have no win condition. Ballista is that second wincon. We can keep cycling through our entire deck, using all the LEDs/Opals/Keys/Petals, then Echo them all back and eventually make enough mana for a lethal Ballista. It’s a lot of clicks on modo — I highly recommend using that Reservoir from the board and Ballista only as a last resort.

Ballista in the deck is also nice for cleaning up a Thalia, Phyrexian Revoker, or Meddling Mage in the same scenario where The Engine is active but we would otherwise be spinning our wheels. Self-mill to Ballista, clean up the hatebear and then go off.

Ballista has also picked up some equity with the printing of Urza’s Saga because the damage is relevant more often now that Constructs are a threat. And there are matchups like DnT where Ballista is fantastic on its own. Not always an all-star, but don’t leave home without him.

A case for Islands

The most broken land ever printed

In his article on Forge Combo, Rich Cali says “Crystal Vein doesn’t see a lot of play in Legacy these days, as not too many decks are willing to throw away lands for a quick burst of mana. It’s exactly what this deck is looking to do though, so it’s a solid inclusion here.”

I would argue that throwing lands away for a quick burst of mana is not what this deck is looking to do. True, sometimes lands are expendable, especially when a Monolith and a Key are online, but I do not view this deck as a “Force Check” deck. I view it as a stream of haymakers that completely overwhelm countermagic and disruption. If our first big threat resolves, great, but the key is that when it doesn’t we have another haymaker right around the corner. And then another. I’ve tested Crystal Vein extensively, and most times the extra burst was either unnecessary or not worth the sacrifice. Hands with access to Ancient Tomb or City of Traitors are better served by those lands, and hands without them are the exact type of hands that turn into disasters when you sacrifice Crystal Vein and have your threat countered.

Still, even though I’m not keen on sacrificing the land, it does matter sometimes. With Vein we would gain more reliable speed vs combo, and have an easier path to T2 Forge/Karn vs nonblue decks where we’d feel safe going all-in. Plus our deck is all colorless, right? So Vein has more upside than Island…what are the tradeoffs?

Notice the alt casting cost in the upper-right

It’s easy to mentally shortcut Echo the Eons as “cast this from the graveyard with UUU from LED” but in this deck (with Islands, at least) hardcasting Echo is a legitimate threat, often as early as turn 2 (Sol Land, Grim Monolith, Key, Opal, Island). This is especially crucial vs blue control and when facing Leyline of the Void post-board. I hardcast Echo at least once per league, on average. It’s possible to do without Islands with Petals/Opals but it does happen more reliably in this build. That’s a big deal. Furthermore, there are hands with Mesmeric Orb that don’t have Opal/Led/Petal. Having 4 additional blue sources in the deck means fewer stranded Echoes in the graveyard, and more keepable Orb hands.

The truth

The biggest reason for Island, however, is that Echoing Truth is *the truth.* Trying to get around Collector Ouphe with Constructs and/or Karnstructs (from Casey’s sideboard) is cool, but often doesn’t get the job done in my experience. Echoing truth bouncing the Ouphe before comboing off is more reliable. Conveniently, Echoing Truth is fantastic in almost every matchup where Defense Grid is not good (TES being the notable exception). Legacy combo expert Jax even recently suggested that we could bring in ET against “Oops, All Spells” as we can hit Narcomoeba with the last trigger on the stack. It’s probably not the greatest plan in the world, but the matchup is miserable (do not play this deck if you’re expecting lots of Oops) so we will gladly accept another Hail Mary option.

Blue mana has value, but why not something like Seat of the Synod that helps turn on Mox Opal? It’s vital to be able to tap for blue under an Ouphe. We really can’t afford to play around Ouphe/GSZ every turn by leaving an Opal and a land untapped at all times, and we most often need to wait for a later opportunity to bounce the creature anyway. Island helps cast artifacts under the Ouphe to prepare for the right moment to Echoing Truth.

Island, go. Not this time Wasteland.

Other intangibles also favor Islands. Sure, Wasteland is normally going to be better off waiting for an Urza’s Saga or Ancient Tomb than whatever land we’d play in the place of Island, but there are times where we really need a land in play that is Waste-proof. Assassin’s Trophy and to a lesser extent Veteran Explorer and Ghost Quarter are nice little perks of having basics.

Island has been argued by some to be the most powerful land ever printed. Take advantage!

Mulligans:

“Keep”

This deck does mulligan a lot, but mulligans very well. We want to have a hand that is going to be doing something broken on turn 1 or 2. That broken thing can be Echo the Eons if we’re dumping most of our hand first or leading on Defense Grid (if it sticks, great, if not our Echo is more likely to resolve). It is not advisable to keep LED plus Echo and not much else until we’re looking at something like a 5-card hand or we know we are against non-blue. The fact, however, that we are always just an Echo away from recovery means mulligans to oblivion are not auto-losses. It also only takes a four-card hand (Sol-land, Grim Monolith, plus Key or Petal) to turn 1 a Forge or Karn.

On the draw I am willing to keep hands without a threat if they are capable of being explosive. Something like: LED, Petal, Opal, Ancient Tomb, Defense grid, Grim Monolith, Manifold key. T1 we can play Grid vs blue or Grim Monolith vs nonblue. Any draw of Echo, Forge, Karn, Orb or even Saga in the first couple draw steps (and often later still works) is going to lead to a lot of wins. That’s a lot of outs and is likely better than spinning the wheel on 6 cards.

Matchups and Sideboarding:

Delver: Matchup Rating — Difficult

When considering the viability of any deck in Legacy, analysis should start with whether it can get a passing grade in this matchup. There is some good news and some bad news on this front.

The good news: I have a positive winrate (just under 60%) historically vs Delver including data from the pre-Saga era (and even dating back into the Oko/DHA era).

The bad news: Delver is one of the first decks players less experienced with Legacy flock to (for good reason) and this matchup involves precise decision-making and sequencing from both sides. While I have a winning record here, I realistically feel like an underdog (probably in the neighborhood of 40–45%) vs a skilled pilot. The more experienced Delver players have a better feel for when to counter something like a Grim Monolith — less capable players tend to fire off counters on mana too often, but better players seem to do so only in the spots where it will be backbreaking. There are spots where I am practically fist-pumping when my Delver opponent Force of Wills my Karn — better players can identify situations where they can gain tempo by forcing me to invest more mana by instead countering whatever I fetch (maybe an Ensnaring Bridge or combo piece) or the Mystic Forge that I *actually* wanted to resolve. Karn is often very awkward in this matchup; it is slow and easily threatened by creatures and Bolts.

Likewise, I have a lot of experience in the matchup — your mileage may vary here: I have heard of players picking this deck up and basically never beating Delver. Hopefully this guide can help some. Identify whether sticking a Defense Grid is essential or if it is bait. In a threat-heavy hand I’m far more willing to throw a Grid right into a Daze, but might hold off a turn to make sure it eats a Force (or resolves) in a threat-light hand. It’s important to manage life-loss from Ancient Tomb; consider not casting that Mesmeric Orb this turn at the cost of 2 life. Ancient Tomb for a Key or even Keys on T1 isn’t worth it even with a Basalt Monolith coming behind it. You’ll have plenty of mana with that Monolith and key(s) next turn without pre-paying the mana at the expense of 2 life.

Play/Draw matters a ton in this matchup, so also consider being lucky at winning die-rolls.

Sideboarding:

Play: no changes.

Draw: -1 Mesmeric Orb, +1 Echoing Truth (no changes also fine)

In the sections above I mentioned dealing with Ouphe several times but didn’t mention Null Rod in the same breath, and that was intentional. This is because we typically see Null Rod from decks where we cannot afford to bring in Echoing Truth — primarily Delver.

I’m not going to sugar-coat it. Null Rod out of Delver is a death knell. We will lose. Once in a blue moon we can steal a game with Sagas. Still, boarding in answers is not the solution, especially on the play where we want to be maximally proactive. If Delver draws their (usually 1-off) Null Rod, they have Forces and Daze to protect it, and even an inexperienced pilot will probably understand their hate rock is all that matters. Even if we board in answers to their one or two lock pieces (Grafdiggers Cage is also quite bad for us) they will too often have the answer to our answer. Better to understand that they won’t always have it and not play around it at all.

On the draw, a Truth or two makes some sense. It can bounce a flipped Delver (sometimes even two!) to buy time, and Mesmeric Orb is slow on the draw as anything but a completion to the Engine and exposes us to Surgical Extraction*. Still, I think going down to 1 Orb is wrong, and the other usual suspects as potential cuts (Grids, Opals, Petals, Lands) are all important vs. Delver. I used to cut a Key when I played 7 in the main but with only 6 I’m not high on that — it might still be valid.

*A note on Surgical Extraction: It’s a fine card to bring in against us — when it snipes an Echo the Eons getting milled during our untap step, or snipes Karn before we Echo it’s annoying. However, neither prevents us from winning when we assemble The Engine, and sniping a Forge doesn’t lock us out either since we can bring it back with Karn. From our perspective it’s perhaps a reason to shave a Mesmeric Orb, but not a card to particularly fear.

Blue based Control/midrange: Matchup Rating — Favorable

Like Delver, the best pilots on these strategies tend to make things a lot closer, but I doubt any amount of playskill can swing this matchup in their favor (more aggressively hateful sideboards than typically exist could, however). Without the clock that Delver presents, we have too much time. We will setup boards with access to so much mana that every drawstep has the capability of presenting a must-answer question. Hardcasting Echo the Eons must be met with Force of Negation exactly, or eats two counters. Defense Grids make it difficult for the opponent to meaningfully commit to the board, and if they are countered, pave the way for real threats to resolve. Long games are fine. It’s amazing how often multiple turns of active Sylvan Library or even Jace the Mindsculptor end up not being enough for them. Constructs tend not to be the finishing blow here, but can often force the opponent to use resources dealing with them that would otherwise be pointed at your other permanents, and force the opponent to respect them in sideboarding.

Sideboarding options:

Always: -1 Mox Opal, +1 Echoing Truth.

Optional: Lotus Petal or Mesmeric Orb (or both) can also be cut for 1 more Truth, 1 Nihil Spellbomb (my preference) or both.

If the opponent is on Bant or Miracles, Truths become more important, as Deafening Silence is quite a thorn. Echoing Truth is not particularly good otherwise, but it isn’t important to have as much speed — multiple Opals are essentially mulligans, especially punishing if they aren’t immediately turned on. We have the luxury of including a catch-all or two. Bounce their Narset before Echo the Eons or deal with an unexpected hate piece. Similarly, Nihil Spellbomb isn’t great, but in the mid-game it cycles at worst, and has the upside of keeping Uro off the table, which is usually the best way for the opponent to close the game on us. It can “counter” their Surgical Extraction on occasion. It’s a non-stop-card with Forge in play, and has a nice little interaction with the one Echoing Truth in that with Forge/Orb in play we can set up to draw it off the Spellbomb if it’s needed. As a cheap artifact, Spellbomb can be dumped from the hand early before any Echoes happen, and cycle later. In my experience it does *just* enough, but it isn’t in any way essential either.

Sneak and Show: Matchup rating — Difficult

Sneak and Show is secretly Delver, and a lot of I wrote there applies. I have an overall positive winrate (though closer to 50% than vs Delver), but wouldn’t feel great against getting paired against JPA93.

Their clock is simply a combo instead of some creatures and Bolts, but from the perspective of our strategy not too much changes. Karn is better here because it turns off their Petals and isn’t pressured — early Karn into Liquimetal Coating can really hurt them. They also don’t attack our mana, which is nice. This is balanced (and likely then some) by the fact that Sneak and Show’s clock is faster than Delver’s, and resolving an Echo without winning that turn often leads to an immediate loss on their turn. Countermagic *and* a fast clock isn’t what our deck wants to face.

Sideboarding: no changes

If you want to board in answers to something like Cage, Island is likely the first cut. I don’t cut Ballista, though it’s an option. I’ve seen Needle out of Sneak and Show, and Surgical on Karn would also otherwise be game-ending.

Oops, All Spells: Matchup Rating — Abysmal

If you know the opponent is on Oops, mulling to T1 Karn or T1 Echo is mandatory, and gives you a fighting chance. I am not sure this is correct, but if my opponent mulligans to 5 and I resolve a turn 1 Karn, I fetch Tormod’s Crypt in the dark (or Spellbomb if I have mana leftover). The logic is Oops and Reanimator are the most likely decks to mulligan to 5 to begin with, and this play will swing a likely loss into a near auto-win. If the opponent isn’t on these decks, we still have the advantage of having a Karn on the battlefield and them having mulled to 5.

Sideboarding:

-1 Walking Ballista, -4 Defense Grid, -1 Island, +4 Echoing Truth, +1 Tormod’s Crypt, +1 Nihil Spellbomb.

I’m not 100% sure leaving a Crypt in the board is correct, but I’ve tried it both ways and seem to get burned a lot by being able to turn 1 a Karn but not get protection. I think this configuration offers better odds of finding the effect.

I’m not sure how good the plan is yet, since it’s still untested, but I like the idea of stealing a game with Echoing Truth on Narcomoeba with the last trigger on the stack. It’s fairly easy to have it up on turn 1 with a Petal or active Opal.

Defense Grid isn’t actually dead here as they are likely running Force of Vigor. Maybe a Grid or two are worth playing (I used to keep some in before moving to Echoing Truth). Bringing in the fourth LED is also an option, as Crypt is going to be the most important wish target. We really have limited tools to win this matchup as we are completely shields down on the draw vs. a consistent T1 combo deck. Hoping to dodge it is our best bet.

Everything Else: Matchup Rating — Probably favorable or downright easy

I’m phoning it in…

I’ve written far too much already, and I’m starting to get lazy. You’re starting to get tired too, and have possibly noticed that three of the first four matchup ratings were “difficult to abysmal.” Not a great start, but the good news is that most other matchups mostly range from “favorable” to “cakewalk” *and* sideboarding is fairly intuitive for the remainder of matchups. Echoing Truth does heavy lifting in every matchup where the opponent is going to be relying on permanent-based hate but doesn’t have countermagic. Grids out, Truths in — simple.

In matchups like DnT, Goblins, and Elves I also bring in the second Ballista. The third Orb is a good cut candidate, as always.

Leaving 1–2 Defense Grids in can be ok if you’re expecting at least two copies of Force of Vigor, especially vs non-Wasteland decks where shaving an Opal is more attractive, or in cases where you don’t expect Echoing Truth to be as useful as normal.

Some matchups lumped in this “everything else soup” are tougher than others, of course. Elves is the most formidable of the GSZ/Ouphe decks because their clock is on par with ours and they have the hatebear, while Depths is a bit easier since Echoing Truth is great vs both Ouphe and their primary win condition.

TES is double-edged because they are so weak to Karn, but they are otherwise faster and have access to Pulverize — one of the few matchups where both Echoing Truth and Defense Grid are bad. A couple ETs are probably fine to deal with a possible Empty the Warrens, and LED should likely come in since sticking Karn is already so good we don’t need the full suite of targets as badly (and could use more decent cards in the main).

Many of the perennial Archetypes like DnT, mono Red Prison or Knight of the Reliquary decks are decidedly underdogs to us in my experience, but have decent chances against us if things line up well or they came extra-prepared, while most of the truly fringe archetypes and brews are simply too underpowered to compete.

Hope you enjoyed this primer, and that I’ll be sticking Karn before you do should we be paired against each other in the future!

clone103 on modo