A few weeks ago before Grand Prix Worcester I was graced with Ben Friedman's presence at my house. While a good amount of that time was spent goofing off we managed to play quite a bit of Magic too. As much fun as M13 Draft is we kept coming back to Legacy. It's only been about six months since I started playing the format consistently but I've acquired a taste for it. Unfortunately I don't get to play high-level Legacy matches as much as I'd like so I definitely relished the opportunity to get in some games against someone with a ton of practice in the format.
I also already have plenty of things to say about Return to Ravnica but this is as good a time as any to talk about a format that probably won't change too much with the release of a single set. It also might be a good idea to get comfortable with the format before it gets put on the backburner while everybody tries to break "new Standard."
Ben already brought you the first part of our two-article series featuring detailed analysis about the matchup between our favorite Legacy decks RUG Delver and Esper Stoneblade. Unfortunately my house doesn't come equipped with fancy video equipment or two playsets of Force of Will on Magic Online so instead we sat down in my living room for some authentic old-school playtesting.
Here's the RUG list I've been playing:
Dismember takes up a slot often occupied by Spell Snare. Dave Shiels pointed out to me recently that Dismember answers the majority of cards that are also answered by Spell Snare: Tarmogoyf Stoneforge Mystic and Scavenging Ooze in addition to Knight of the Reliquary Tombstalker and almost every commonly played Legacy creature.
Sulfuric Vortex is a card which has seen play on and off in RUG sideboards for a while now. With the current upswing in Stoneforge and U/W Control decks Vortex provides a noncreature threat that proves difficult to deal with and taxes their resources in a very different way than the rest of the RUG deck. Vortex gives you a different angle of attack just like Life from the Loam does in the RUG mirror or against control decks.
The split of graveyard hate is also a concession to the U/W Control deck as Surgical Extraction is very effective against Terminus and Sensei's Divining Top. I've been reasonably happy boarding in one Extraction against Esper decks with Snapcaster and Lingering Souls though I don't by any means think it's a necessity.
Here's the Stoneblade deck Ben played for reference:
Pre-Board Games: 4-6 (2-3 on the play 2-3 on the draw)
I was a little disappointed with RUG's game 1 performance in the matchup. I did lose a few games in the set when I mulliganed to five or less which is an important statistic. RUG mulligans significantly more than Stoneforge simply due to its low land count. That said it's pretty easy to win games on six or five cards because RUG only needs two lands to operate.
Against Esper (and in many other matchups) it's a good general rule of thumb to not play your third land until you need it. Keeping lands in hand is important for making Brainstorm into a monster. Drawing three spells and putting back two lands really feels like Ancestral Recall in this deck and also allows to you to actually get ahead and grind out the other fair decks.
If your opponent plays out two more lands than you and you both can cast all your spells then you have two more one-for-ones to work with. This is an important principle to keep in mind particularly against Stoneblade as many games come down to fighting their sources of card advantage and successfully grinding them out. Letting yourself get blown out by an Engineered Explosives or post-board Terminus is a good way to let them dictate the pace and direction of a game.
For pre-board games Ben's list can actually be short of win conditions. Jace is very difficult for him to resolve against my Dazes and Pierces and I have a ton of answers to Stoneforge Mystic and Vendilion Clique. However Mystic can also be troublesome because it represents a source of card advantage as well as a threat and will often make a late-game "reloading" Brainstorm that much better.
For the most part you can afford to play around the Engineered Explosives in game 1. While it's not optimal to let them buy a ton of time you generally are giving them more inevitability by walking into it than by slowing down the clock for one or two turns.
That said if your hand is such that you are currently unable to deal with their threats (particularly one you already know about) then sometimes you just have to play into the Explosives. I often found myself setting up turns where I would use Daze or Pierce to buy a single turn before Explosives activation and that was often enough to get in six or so damage that would make every subsequent threat or burn spell lethal. Putting your opponent in a spot where they can't afford to tap out but also must dig for answers is a very good position to be in.
One thing that also comes up frequently is using Dazes Pierces and Wastelands to force them to crack fetches and take extra damage. Dazing an opponent on seven or four who has a fetch in play puts them in an awkward spot of either countering a spell or making your Lighting Bolts even more live. The same can be said for managing their shuffle effects with regards to Brainstorm—sometimes it's easy to gain a "virtual card" this way by forcing them to keep an irrelevant shuffle effect in hand or even to redraw one of the bad cards off the top of their library.
Your Nimble Mongooses are your most resilient threats in game 1. Most Stoneblade lists have at most two maindeck Explosives to deal with them effectively which you can fight with Forces or by playing threats out one at a time (though playing a Delver and a Tarmogoyf together is fine for example).
Brainstorming with RUG
Brainstorm in Legacy basically allows you to mulligan a few cards from your hand at any point in the game provided you have a non-zero number of cards in hand and a shuffle effect. It is the glue that holds Legacy control decks together because it provides the opportunity to play a diverse set of answers to different problems but also can get rid of ineffective answers on a matchup-by-matchup basis. Legacy decks are also filled with cards like Daze and Spell Pierce which lose value as the game progresses. Brainstorm allows Legacy decks to play powerful efficient early spells while mitigating the diminishing returns of drawing those cards as the game goes on.
The traditional logic of "holding your Brainstorms" derives from this since the card is at its best when you have at least two "dead cards" to put back and as much information as possible to sculpt a new game plan with a new hand.
When playing RUG I find myself casting a wide range of Brainstorms from extremely aggressive to very conservative.
An example of an aggressive Brainstorm would be on turn 2 or 3 with a Tropical Island and a fetchland in play and a need for red mana. You're often better of casting Brainstorm before you fetch rather than forcing yourself to play another land later in the game to get that shuffle effect. While it may be counterintuitive to cast the spell so early you're saving yourself a card by not making that third land drop. Keep in mind that Thought Scour helps as a pseudo shuffle effect while fueling Tarmogoyfs and Mongooses as well.
You can typically afford to hold your Brainstorms longer when your opponent is on the back foot. At this point you've applied some pressure and they've failed to come with an answer. Brainstorm allows you to reload when they do find an answer or can help dig for interactive spells to protect your game plan. Until you know which of those two metrics you need to be fighting on it's better to wait on casting it.
On the play I typically sideboard like this:
On the draw I typically sideboard this way:
Ancient Grudge out of the sideboard gives you the ability to cut down on the number of answers you have to Stoneforge Mystic. I like having access to one Force of Will as a hard counter in the late game and was sometimes even leave two in on the draw. While many of the important cards they have post-sideboard are non-blue (Lingering Souls Terminus Engineered Explosives) I find that the Blasts are very effective at fighting their sources of card advantage and selection (Snapcaster and Brainstorm). They also help you Force through and protect Sulfuric Vortex.
I think you are still trying to be aggressive enough on the play to warrant not bringing in Life from the Loam but it is a legitimate plan and source of card advantage on the draw. Naturally this is only true against Esper versions of Stoneblade with numerous nonbasic lands.
Vortex creates an interesting subgame after sideboard because their answers to it are few and far between (especially if you have Grudge as they would have to play Explosives through Pierce and Daze and still have two mana left over). However Snapcaster Mage Lingering Souls and Vendilion Clique give the Stoneblade player the opportunity to get aggressive and race the Vortex so it isn't always good an empty or even board with even life totals. If you get ahead it's hard for them to answer your threats while simultaneously racing you. Sometimes they'll be sitting on a bunch creature removal spells and look foolish when they get Bolted out.
I choose to cut Lightning Bolt instead of Forked Bolt in this matchup because of Lingering Souls. Lightning Bolt is a better answer to Jace but they typically side number of those out and you have Red Blasts in addition to other counters to deal with them anyway.
Post-Board Games: 5-5 (3-2 on the play 2-3 on the draw)
The post-board dynamic is a bit different. They have a few more efficient and effective answers to your threats (particularly Mongoose) but you also have another diverse threat in Vortex and answers in Red Blasts and Grudge that are more efficient and suited to the long game than Forces and Bolts. Lingering Souls can be a problem from the Esper side but not if you already have a board presence. I'm more afraid of Souls' ability to race and kill me than I am of it stabilizing the board or buying time. Typically post-board games are grindier because both players have better answers and are trying not to get blown out.
In general you just have to diagnose a game and find a weakness to exploit. Sometimes the weakness is their lack of answer to a particular threat sometimes it's their mana and sometimes it's when you don't let them find a source of card advantage. If time is what they need don't give it to them but don't get too aggressive when you're favored in the long game.
The Ten Commandments of Playing RUG
- Slow down. Be patient. This is not an all-out aggressive deck. You are surprisingly resilient and capable of grinding out an opponent.
- Try not to play too many lands. One of the ways you leverage an advantage is by being able to operate off of few lands and get rid of the ones you don't need. Use Daze as a "Dark Ritual" to get mana out of a land for a turn but still have it back in your hand when the Brainstorm gets cast.
- Brainstorm wisely. Unlike some writers I'm not telling you to wait forever on them. People more often get tricked into waiting too long with them when playing this deck. Sometimes you should Brainstorm aggressively: to apply pressure find an answer or maximize your mana and shuffle effects.
- Use the top of your library as a resource. You have a tremendous number of powerful library manipulation spells. Use these to create an extra hand of situational cards on the top of your library that you can get rid of when they are no longer needed and you are about to draw them. Thought Scour is amazing at doing both things at instant speed.
- You are not a land destruction deck. Wasteland is a powerful tool that you can afford to play and sometimes you get free wins out of it. Mana screwing your opponent is not a good way to win most games of Magic and is certainly not something you should strive to sculpt a game plan around (especially without Loam in your deck).
- Don't get attached to Force of Will. Force of Will is a bad card against a lot of decks so you will want to side it out. It might look like it answers everything but it does so at a very steep cost and should only be used when time or lack of other real answers is a major factor.
- Play around things only to the extent that you can. There is no substitute for practice when it comes to this one. Sometimes you will get Dazed Forced or Wrathed. Don't lose a game by being too cautious when the conservative approach is not enough.
- Mulligan mulligan mulligan. You have very few lands in your deck. One is often enough but zero is usually too few. Three and four are often too many without a Brainstorm. Your deck is very capable of winning games on five or six cards. Don't just keep hands that can cast spells—make sure they can win.
- There are a number of cards or scenarios that you simply can't beat. That is a fact you have to accept in order to get all of the advantages that this hyper-consistent and efficient deck provides. Learn how to avoid these scenarios by figuring out when to get aggressive and when to be cautious. Don't get upset if they play something you simply can't beat.
- You WILL win an alarming large number of games on one life with no lands in play and no cards in hand. Every game is played on the edge and every turn you're a mistake away from losing.
I really love playing RUG and if you find yourself with a similar attitude to me when it comes to decks I'm sure you'll enjoy it too. The deck can be scary and frustrating to pilot but the rewards are also there for those who practice and are patient.
I'm looking forward to playing some version of this at the SCG Invitational in Atlanta this weekend as well as U/W Delver in Standard for what will be the last time in its current form. After that it's on to Return to Ravnica which promises to shake things up (hopefully in the favor of some U/W tempo deck!)
Thanks for reading