Pulling the RUG Out from Under Modern

Written by Joseph Scalise on . Posted in Competitive Magic, Modern

Pulling the RUG Out from Under Modern

Joseph Scalise

When he’s not writing or shooting hoops, Joseph Scalise is usually reading online articles, grinding at PTQs or playing in local FNMs. Although a reluctant Limited player, he is a large cube enthusiast and loves Standard and Modern. If he could, he would sleeve up White Weenie in every format, but sometimes he has to settle for other forms of aggro. Most of all, he is just a 21-year-old aspiring screenwriter who spends good chunks of his time on the sunny California coast slinging spells across whatever table he can find.

As any dedicated Magic player knows, Wizards, for all of its glory and innovation, messes up sometimes. Every once in a while they let a Necropotence, Jace, The Mind Sculptor or Skullclamp slip through the cracks. Sometimes they are just off. But, more often they get things right. More often than not they craft great formats, give players fun, interesting cards and allow people to play the game they love. This takes skill. Maybe also some reprinting, play testing or in the case of Modern, just some time.

Across the board, everyone has a deck they can play: Storm, Fish (Delver), Zoo, various control archetypes, Loam, Tron, Combo, GW aggro, Affinity, Jund, Pod, USA aggro and Gifts. It’s all there. It doesn’t matter if you like turning your guys sideways, holding back counters, slamming Eldrazi, recurring graveyard-based spells or dumping a grip full of artifacts turn one, Modern is the people’s format. However, this article isn’t about all of these wonderful decks. It’s about the deck I like most in the format right now: RUG Tempo.

RUG Tempo is a deck that has some basic needs and some traps you can easily fall into. That being said, if some great, global planar shift occurred and I was suddenly going to GP Columbus tomorrow morning, this is the list I would play:

RUG Tempo is an intricate deck and a well-oiled machine. Each card is a cog that needs to add to the overall tempo and advance the deck forward in the game. So, without further ado let’s get to the card choices.

Lands — Less is More

Overall, the land base is simple. Fetch for shock lands or basics depending of what colors you need and the amount of damage you can afford to take. However, two points need to be hammered home. First, (and I will not be able to stress this point enough) keep the land count low. I know, I know, you never want to be mana screwed. Trust me when I say this is a deck that really doesn’t want to be drawing more than four lands in a game. The theme of this deck is value–getting the most out of every single land you tap. You cannot waste time drawing extra lands (or hitting lands off of Delvers) when you need to be out-valuing your opponent and controlling the game state. With RUG tempo, less truly is more. That is a theme that will permeate this article.

The second point concerning land is that no matter what you think, do not cut Mutavault. I know the colorless land seems a little threatening, but this is a card the deck wants. It is a beater when it needs to be while also giving you a creature that dodges Wraths and sorcery-speed kill spells. Sometimes it even provides a much needed blocker. As for the fact that it taps for colorless mana? That isn’t a big deal. Every single card in the deck either costs one mana or isn’t color restrictive. The two exceptions to this rule are Vendilion Clique and Deprive. However, you will have the two blue when you cast Clique, and Deprive is not a spell you want to be casting turn two anyway. Mutavault also allows you to run more counter spells since you can shut off your opponents spells while hitting them for two or four every turn.

Creatures — Control the Beat

I am lumping both of these cards together because they both provide the same function in RUG Tempo: bringing the beats. Each is an under-costed fatty that you want to ride all the way to twenty damage.  This deck runs three things: lands, creatures and, most importantly instants (twenty three to be exact). Delver will flip early and it will flip often (although it will never flip as much as you want). “Turn one Delver, go” is the best play the deck has and that’s a play you should constantly look for. Tarmogoyf is a turn slower but about three to five damage bigger. Each card’s function in the deck is straight forward and completely essential. This is a deck that just wants/needs huge creatures that are surrounded and protected by a flurry of different spells. Well, except…

Everyone in the Magic world knows Señor Chan’s power level. But dear God, Wizards couldn’t have printed a better card for RUG. Snapcaster is the definition of tempo. He grants you everything you want: card advantage, mana utilization, combat tricks and a creature that attacks for two. He is perfect and could arguably be the glue that holds the deck together. I couldn’t love him more unless he had flying. And cost three mana. And had flash. And maybe some control effect.

For years the Clique has been seeing play in blue-based control and aggro decks throughout different formats. It has many interesting interactions. The reason Clique is an intricate piece to RUG is that sometimes it works as a another Delver that can join the party whenever it wants while also allowing regulation of the other player’s hand for a more control type game. However, it also allows you to smooth out your draws. Do not forget about this function. More often that I’d thought, I Clique myself to get rid of a dead late game card. When casting Clique in this deck you should always think of what step you want to cast it on, what you want to do with it and if you want to target yourself. It is these interactions and nuances that make RUG Tempo so fun to play.

Instants — The Meat of the Deck

This is your “hang back” card. Think of it as your ace in the hole. Deprive shines in this build because you don’t need many lands to operate. Bouncing one is no big deal. However, Deprive should be saved for the late game. Use your other spells to control early tempo and save this for the “must counter” spells that could otherwise swing the game. I would even consider running two of these. I have one because I didn’t know what else to cut. But there is room to test.

Nothing says “tempo” like bouncing a spell back to your opponent’s hand and then cycling through your library to find more answers. This card is awesome in every way. It really shines against cascade spells such as Violent Outburst (you can just put that Living End back in your hand) or Bloodbraid Elf (pay for that Maelstrom Pulse next turn). The most important thing to remember about Remand is that it’s sort of a hard counter and should be used as such. Mana Leak is for the early game and Remand is usually for the later draws. However, if you have a turn one Delver or are playing against another tempo/aggro deck, this can easily be used early on as a way to keep your hand gassed up. The most important part of this counter spell is knowing when to use it and when to use the next card.

The quintessential counter spell. It’s a three-of in my list because when they’re bad they’re awful. You still want to slam these on the table before they become dead. The only problem is that is still costs two. When I can, I’d rather pay one.

The first half of the one mana counter spells. Spell Snare is about as straight forward as this deck gets. It only has one use. You use it to counter their two drops, be they Bob Maher (Dark Confidant, Cranial Plating, Tarmogoyf or Squadron Hawk. While always strong in tempo decks, you almost always want to see this in your opener when you are on the draw. Being able to be on the draw and still counter their value spell then play your own Delver the following turn while having Bolt up? Sounds pretty good to me.

Possibly my favorite card in the deck. Pierce is insanely good at what it does: punish sloppy play. Like Spell Snare, Pierce has the ability to put you right back into games. Even when the opponent plays into Pierce, the one mana cost is very rewarding.

If I could rename this card it would be “the card that Modern forgot.” This spell cries value, is almost always a hard counter and can put you up so much in the game by setting up Delver flips or sliding away lands. Condescend is criminally underplayed in the format. It is exactly what cards like Snapcaster Mage and Vendilion Clique are doing: allowing you to do more for less mana. In this case instead of getting a creature you can Scry instead. Sure it is a little more mana intensive than other spells, but being able to keep the tempo up by countering a spell (sometimes for just two) and then Scrying the top of your library is very strong.

Perhaps the most controversial pick in my list, Vapor Snag does what tempo decks want to do. The one life is relevant, it works well with the creatures in this deck and it is good off of a Snapcaster Mage. However, I put Vapor Snag in my seventy five for one reason: big creatures. While this deck counters just about everything your opponent attempts to resolve and then burns out the rest, I found that a resolved Goyf or Knight of The Reliquary-like creature can be problematic. Having a card that allows you to get those cards back to your opponent’s hand where they can be countered later is very strong. In RUG Tempo, the name of the game is versatility and getting more for your mana. Vapor Snag bounces blockers, sets back aggro decks for a turn and rewinds big threats back into counterable spells.

Burn is one of the most important aspects of the deck to master. Since RUG is not a straight burn or aggro deck you need to know when to take out creatures and when to go to the face. Some matchups are trickier than others. One such case is Affinity. If they play a Cranial Plating or early Signal Pest, you just want to hold the burn to stave off damage. However, if Affinity is dropping early beats and you have the Goyf or Delver to match, sometimes you just want race them and thrown burn at their spin down life counter. Using a Jet on turn two on the play to take out an opponent’s key creature (Bob!) while also scrying is pretty awesome. Always pay attention to the best mode for your burn.

(There is a card that is clearly missing from my above seventy five: Serum Visions. I just don’t like it in this build. I had it in for a while and it did smooth out draws. However, having access to Magma Jet and Condescend both allow you to Scry while also doing things. Serum Visions is obviously no Ponder or Preordain. It was mostly a card I was unhappy to see. I’d rather just have the cards in my hand or other ways to procure them from the deck. Yes, RUG likes to syphon through cards. Having those syphons on spells that interact with the game state seems a lot stronger in tempo.

Artifacts — There is Only One

This card is a very powerful spell artifact that helps lock down opponent’s creatures. The deck only runs four non-Island lands which helps ensure that you can reliably steal creatures. The Shackles shine against almost all decks, either by taking an opposing Delver, Goyf (sometimes), Dark Confidant, Steppe Lynx, in response to a Splinter Twin… the list goes on. Sometimes you have five mana available and your opponent just doesn’t see it coming.

Sideboard — Something for Everyone

A card I was initially very resistant to in the board. It really defines niche and only comes in against decks whose instants create problems. However, it is a strong card. As I have stated before (again and again), RUG Tempo is all about getting more for your mana. Dispel goes into game two of an instant-heavy matchup and takes a mana cost off of all your counter spells.

With the new Restoration Angel/Birthing Pod abomination floating around, Combust really comes in handy. It’s a must-have against the Twin and Naya Pod match up. Yes, your counters are adept at taking the game, but those can be Dispelled or Leaked. Combust? Counter spells go home and stay there.

The obvious inclusion against Affinity players. It is very powerful in the metagame, also bringing down Pods and slowing ramp. You might even want a fourth, although I am always skeptical of having a four of anything in my board. Shackles is really strong against RUG Tempo and you should not hesitate to bring Grudge in against it. No matter how well you play, a resolved Shackles can ruin your day.

This card is comes from the “fight fire with fire” school of thought. Threads can ruin even RUG’s best laid plans. If you have the chance: Counter. This. Card. What do you do when it resolves? Snag? Your outs are slim and you don’t want to be using removal on the creature they took from you. That being said, since it is the best against not just your deck but other tempo decks–USA aggro, Jund and Delver decks in general–you want three of them in your sideboard. It’s powerful, and can easily swing games. In the mirror it is perhaps one of the most important cards and worth using an extra counter spell or two to make sure it resolves. Once again, it is versatility, something this decks desperately wants.

It has split second, it has flash, it will resolve and it will be a problem for the decks it comes in against. It’s Sulfur Elemental! You want him against Martyr type decks. Yes, those decks exist and they can actually do things. Do not bring him in against white weenie archetypes, however tempting. You won’t be thrilled when facing down their three one Mirran Crusaders who only wants to wear your face home as a trophy. While only coming in for a couple of matchups, the Elemental is very, very strong.

Rounding out the seventy five is a pair of the best life gaining X/4s in the format. And I know what you’re thinking: “But it costs four…and you said… with the lands…and more for your mana.” Don’t worry, it’s okay. Sometimes you need to make an exception. Baloth is coming in against decks where discard is relevant (Jund/Loam and the like) and also can be hardcasted to gain some life (USA better have a Path in hand). It’s a solid beater, dodges burn-based removal (seriously, counter this thing when played against you), it’s amazing when free and can easily buy you the extra turn against Burn or Burn variants.

Final Thoughts

So there you have it. That’s the wrap up on RUG Tempo. This deck is insanely fun to play and I would highly recommend it if you’re planning on a trip to Columbus. I hope you enjoyed the article and you like the card choices I made. Feel free to comment on what you like and what you didn’t. Until then, have fun with Modern.

-Joseph Scalise

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