Innovations – I Would Play RUG in the SCG Invitational

Monday, November 29th – Are you coming to the Richmond SCG Open featuring the Invitational this weekend? With thousands of dollars on the line, you should take the best deck with you, no? Patrick Chapin prefers RUG, and here’s why.

I am in Cali, playtesting, but what would I play in Standard, at the Richmond StarCityGames.com Invitational? The RUG deck, but with Acidic Slime instead of Goblin Ruinblaster, Inferno Titans instead of not Inferno Titans, and a couple Tumble Magnets. Big surprise, these are all the changes that the deck’s designer, Michael Jacob, has been advocating, and it turns out he’s right again.

Acidic Slime is far superior to Goblin Ruinblaster for a variety of reasons. First, it’s a much more impressive body, most notably with its ability to rumble with big dogs, like Gaea’s Revenge. Second of all, it can hit basics. This is particularly important against Valakut, which could easily have three Mountains and two Forests on the battlefield. Valakut is certainly a matchup you need the help against, and while this is hardly a major edge, it’s a non-zero one, despite the increased casting cost. Finally, Acidic Slime is obviously a massive upgrade whenever you need to hit a key artifact or enchantment. This doesn’t come up that often, in Standard, but there are a number of juicy potential targets, such as Eldrazi Monument, Tempered Steel, or possibly even Basilisk Collar.

Why is Inferno Titan the new hotness? While Primeval Titan has always dominated, and Grave Titan has been returning in popularity, Frost Titan was the new hotness for a month. That month was last month, however. Frost Titan is still a sweet card, to be sure, but people’s decks have adjusted a little, plus the addition of Tumble Magnet removes the need for Frost Titan in RUG (and even Avenger of Zendikar isn’t that hot, if you ask me).

This is a bigger upgrade that you might realize, because Inferno Titan is often a One-Hitter-Quitter, meaning that it often just takes the one hit to take someone out. Additionally, the ability to spray Arc Lightning style is particularly well-suited to the new world we live in, where Vampires and Boros are on the rise, and Elves, White Weenie, and Goblins still put up reasonable numbers. Besides, the ability to take out a Jace, Lotus Cobra, and Oracle of Mul Daya, or to combine with a Lightning Bolt to take out a Titan is not to be underestimated. Now that your Titan is just getting Doom Bladed a lot of the time anyway, it’s more important to get lasting value out of it on the way in, and with no higher end and no sick lands like Valakut or Eye of Ugin, Primeval Titan just doesn’t have a big enough impact on the board in this deck.

Finally, the controversial Tumble Magnet… Ahh, Tumble Magnet

Tumble Magnet is surely destined to never be fully understood in its lifetime, or at least its Standard lifetime. Tumble Magnet is this generation’s Tangle Wire, a card that was oft misunderstood during the years it was legal in low-powered formats, but is now a permanent fixture in Vintage on its relatively rare efficiency at buying tempo.

Tangle Wire? Your article is about Tangle Wire?

Tangle Wire costs you three mana and a card, but how often does it net you far more than three mana worth of tempo? Setting aside the ability to play it off a Mishra’s Workshop, we still see that your opponent has to tap four, then you have to tap two besides the Tangle Wire. Next your opponent taps three, then you tap one. Even if you don’t have any other permanents, such as Chalice of the Void or Null Rod, to tap, you’re still talking about costing your opponent ten mana to your six (three to cast, plus two, then one). Not to mention if you’re tapping creatures, you’re potentially getting even more than a mana worth of value out of each tap. A net of four mana is pretty amazing, all things considered, as that’s more than a Black Lotus worth, albeit split over several turns.

Is it without cost? No, of course not, as it costs you a card, the mana to get going, and it’s a very crude sort of power, as it doesn’t target what you would want most. Still, the key is that it lets you trade a single card for tempo advantage over your opponent over the next several turns. The time you buy yourself (tempo) ought to be capitalized on by advancing your board with other cards that further your strategy, such as Sphere of Resistance and Lodestone Golem. Otherwise your tempo advantage will dissipate entirely, as is generally the case with temporary imbalances such as tempo. Tumble Magnet is the same way.

In chess, tempo refers to a “turn” or single move. When a player achieves a desired result in one fewer move, he “gains a tempo” and conversely when he takes one more move than necessary he “loses a tempo.” Similarly, when one forces his opponent to expend moves (often in defense) that he would not otherwise have expended, one “gains tempo” because the opponent wastes moves…

In general, making moves with gain of tempo is desirable. A player is said to have the initiative if they are able to keep making moves which force their opponent to respond in a particular way or limit their responses. The player with the initiative has greater choice of moves and can to some extent control the direction the game takes, though this advantage is only relative, and may not be worth very much (having a slight initiative when a rook down, for example, may be worthless).

-Wikipedia entry on Tempo (Chess)

While tempo is often a source of much confusion in Magic players (though generally only Magic players that aren’t familiar with chess), the concept of initiative receives an almost laughable shortage of attention. Think about a game of Magic where one player wanted to play a Boggart Ram-Gang, but instead the turn is spent Maelstrom Pulsing the opponent’s Rhox War Monk, which is producing a bigger impact on the board (each attack undoes the Jund player’s attack, plus deals damage). Besides, a removal spell such as Bant Charm, Oblivion Ring, or Celestial Purge would just set Jund further behind. Jund’s play here is dictated by his opponent having initiative.  

Now imagine if the following turn the opponent plays another Rhox War Monk and perhaps a manland. This time Jund answers with a Bloodbraid Elf which reveals a Terminate. Now Jund is on the offensive, instead of the defensive, as they’ve spent their turn undoing Bant’s turn, but now they also have a three-power creature hitting the opponent (already connecting once). So often, this three points of damage is like a card (Lightning Bolt your Jace or your face), which makes Bloodbraid Elf deceptively akin to a three-for-one, not just the two-for-one he’s generally billed. Once you factor in Sprouting Thrinax, Boggart Ram-Gang, and Blightning, we’re talking a serious swing in card advantage and tempo.

Bloodbraid Elf is good? That is what your article is about? Maybe you should go back to Tangle Wire

Yes, Bloodbraid Elf is amazing, but why is he amazing? He isn’t amazing just because he’s a two-for-one, as there are a thousand two-for-ones in Magic. He’s amazing because not only does he give you two cards, he also casts one for free and has haste. This generally makes him worth at least two cards, plus some free mana that is used to play the second card (which is generally worth a card), plus he has haste which is generally going to get you a Bolt’s worth of damage, which is yet another card. Yes, that makes him a virtual four-for-one, but so much of why he dominates is because he has a nearly unmatched ability to seize the initiative.

If you’ve ever played with or against Jund, then you surely remember what it’s like to be way ahead, only to have to face “back-to-back Bloodbraids.” Jace, the Mind Sculptor is a very powerful card, but if the opponent is just going to kill it and advance their board at the same time, he looks a lot less impressive. Flashfreeze is often awesome against Jund, but if Jund is ahead on board, it can sit rotting in your hand while you get run over. However, if the Jace player gets ahead of the Jund player, the combination of Jace plus Flashfreeze is often game-ending. What is it about the different board states that causes Jace and Flashfreeze to fluctuate in value so much?

One might answer, “The board position,” but what is it about the board position that changes things so much? Who has the initiative!

So many games, these days, boil down to getting a planeswalker advantage. This is the ultimate battle for initiative, as the difference between a planeswalker with one loyalty is massive over a planeswalker with zero. Initiative is a very temporary advantage, but if you can capitalize on it by getting multiple uses out of a planeswalker, you’re turning it into a permanent one.

Most tournament-caliber planeswalkers produce at least a card’s worth of value every turn. This value comes from not only the token, or the untapping, or the drawing, or the killing of a creature, or whatever, it also comes from the life you’re virtually gaining by way of the opponent having to attack your planeswalker (often with more points of creature damage than loyalty). The clearest example of this is with Jace, the Mind Sculptor. When you play a Jace and the opponent kills it, the advantage it gained was nice, but nothing compared to the massive advantage of successfully untapping with a Jace.

Okay, I take it back; go back to Bloodbraid Elf, just not another “Jace, the Mind Sculptor is good” article. Let me guess, Preordain is up next?

It doesn’t have to be Jace, though. The point is that untapping with a planeswalker is generally much more than twice as good as playing it in the first place. First, you get to use it again, already doubling your value in many regards, but now, you have the mana from your turn to play your cards in such a way as to defend it, giving you an advantage again next turn. The huge disparity between a planeswalker with one loyalty and one with zero makes many Standard games into battles to get one beat, one click, one unit of time ahead of the opponent. That is initiative.

I see so many players get frustrated by planeswalkers, when it always seems their walkers always die, while their opponents get game-winning advantages out of them. My advice? Look to seize the initiative. The player that goes first generally starts with the initiative, but there are countless plays that can turn it around.

Noble Hierarch and Lotus Cobra seek to set you ahead a turn, while Mana Leak on a planeswalker can effectively allow your “third turn” to stop the opponent’s “fourth turn.” If you follow this up with a planeswalker of your own, you’re generally now way ahead. Without cards like Bloodbraid Elf in the format to turn the tempo around, this can be deciding. The correct way to combat this is generally to not let it get to this in the first place.

If you’re attacking with a creature rush, it can be very difficult for the defender to stabilize with a planeswalker (though once they do, you’re generally dead). Alternatively, you can play a Titan and go over the top of the opponent, presenting a big enough threat that you might actually compete with their walker. Either way, we’re still talking about a struggle for the initiative, as the rush deck tries to hold on to it from the beginning, and the Titan decks try to take it back with their big plays.

What is the practical takeaway? When you’re surveying the board, deciding how to play this position, ask yourself who has the initiative? Who is “one beat ahead” at the moment? If it’s you, how can you sculpt the game into such a place where you can gain an advantage every turn, while you use your turn to match your opponent’s? Various Titans, Tomes, charge counters, and even just attackers are all fine ways to do this. If your opponent has the initiative, what lines of play will allow you to take the initiative from them? So often, the first step is taking the initiative from them, and then you can deal with things like actually winning.

For instance, against many rush decks, a plan might be to Pyroclasm then drop a Jace and bounce the guy they play the turn after. Alternatively, one might Summoning Trap after a Mana Leak on a Titan. Regardless of what your plan is, the game is about finding a way to “get ahead” of them. This is where Tumble Magnet comes in…

Oh goodie, this is sure to be riveting…

While Tumble Magnet is of a far lower power level than Tangle Wire in most contexts as a result of not disrupting mana, it targets and can be used when you actually want it. This makes it ideal for combating specific, high-impact permanents. As fate would have it, it’s a very common occurrence in Standard where tapping a key creature or artifact at just the right moment is easily worth multiple mana. If you get at least two mana worth of value from each tap, you’re not just up three mana compared to your initial investment, you’re also potentially in a position to seize the initiative.

Imagine the curve of Tumble Magnet into Jace. While you might not always open with this exact sequence, as your opponent will likely have more than one creature on the table, the strategic point remains, which is that Tumble Magnet gives you a way to protect your Jace without spending mana. It’s basically a proactive removal spell. It neutralizes the opponent’s best creature every turn, allowing it to basically upgrade as they advance their board. It combines with sweepers, plus it answers threats that haven’t hit the table yet, such as that Vengevine they were going to play.

For instance:

Turn 1 Opponent gets ahead with a Llanowar Elf.

Turn 2 Mana Leak opponent’s play

Turn 3 Tumble Magnet, opponent plays Vengevine and bashes you (don’t tap it)

Turn 4 Jace, bounce the Vengevine!

Now you have a Jace that can survive the Llanowar hit and even if your opponent plays the Vengevine (or had another in hand), you can tap it! Yes, you lost a third of your Tumble Magnet, but getting to untap with Jace is worth far more. This is a very basic example of seizing the initiative and converting it into a real advantage. This is also a good reminder of why Jace’s bounce ability is so important to using him properly. It’s a fantastic way to get a click ahead of the opponent, which is the exact scenario where Jace thrives.

Now imagine Tumble Magnet against Mono-Red. It’s obviously very powerful against Ball Lightning types, but even just tapping a Plated Geopede or an ultimate Dragonlord means a pretty massive gain of life. Yes, you could’ve used a spot removal spell here, but remember that preventing the Geopede from attacking one turn may be worth a lot, whereas the next turn, it might be worth significantly less. Additionally, it’s a proactive removal spell that actually protects you when you tap out for your Jace. Koth? A lot less scary when you have a Tumble Magnet!

But if you have a Tumble Magnet, won’t your opponent not play his Koth and run face-first into a Tumble Magnet activation? Exactly! Which means, over time, you’ll over and over get little edges without actually having to use any charge counters. If your Tumble Magnet makes it a bad play for them to play a Vengevine, they may have to play two smaller creatures to advance their board, but you still have that extra counter. This doesn’t even factor in if you’re a miser with Contagion Clasp, Venser, Glimmerpoint Stag, Admonition Angel, or Throne of Geth.

How is Tumble Magnet against Titan decks? Well, this is where it shines compared to a lot of other removal spells. You can play it early when you wouldn’t normally be doing anything relevant against them. Now it’s just sitting in play waiting to protect you, even if they sneak a Titan, Eldrazi, Wurmcoil Engine, or whatever through (most notably with Summoning Trap). It doesn’t stop Avenger all that well, but he isn’t as popular in the format as all of the various Titans, plus you presumably have access to some sweepers. It also doesn’t stop Gaea’s Revenge, but here we go back to cards like Acidic Slime.

When most people are just using Titans, the value gained from tapping a Primeval Titan for three turns is huge. It isn’t just six damage and two lands a turn, as that would make it just a removal spell. It’s a little bit like Bloodbraid Elf in that the tempo it’s seizing ends up being worth far more than the sum of its parts. For instance, if your opponent sneaks a Titan in with a Summoning Trap, you’re often going to die, but a Tumble Magnet not only provides an insurance policy but forces your opponent to commit more to the board, making your Mana Leaks, Day of Judgments, or whatever else much more live.

In RUG specifically, imagine your opponent snuck in a Titan with a Summoning Trap when you countered his Avenger. Now, you drop an Inferno Titan and go to the dome. Now your opponent’s Titan gets tapped down but drops a Wurmcoil Engine. You tap it on your turn, then finish them off, having dealt like seventeen damage over the past two turns. There are countless variations of this line, but the point is that when you’re in battles between Titans, every turn you get to use yours (or your Jace) is worth more than a card, let alone a third of a card.

Tumble Magnet is hardly “insane” or anything like that; it’s just that it’s a very Doom Blade/Journey to Nowhere type of effect but available in non-black and non-white decks. Additionally, it hits black creatures and can be used at instant speed, giving it advantages over both of those options in the right circumstances, not to mention not costing any mana when you actually want to use it.

If I played in the Invitational, that’s what I would play, as RUG has a great mix of game-winning, advantage cards like Jace and Titans, great ways to accelerate like Cobra and Explore, and great ways to negate the opponent’s best plays like Mana Leak, Lightning Bolt, and Pyroclasm. Of course, while all that sounds great, the real reason I’d play it is that it just seems to perform the best in my testing. It’s consistent, reliable, and while it may be one of the most popular strategies, I just want to win, not be different or anything. There’s a time to think outside the box, be creative, and brew, and a time to play The Enemy.  

I definitely don’t knock anyone that has a brew of their own, as if you’ve found something better, more power to you. Additionally, I hardly think RUG is the only good deck, as U/B (and other various Jace decks) and Valakut are both good. I’m not that big of fan of Eldrazi or the various aggro decks, but I certainly respect Vampires and Boros. Finally, with Worlds right around the corner, I’m definitely in the lab brewing, trying to break it. All I’m saying is that I don’t have some crazy new deck for the Invitational, and if I were playing in it, I’d just want to collect that nice $10,000 for first place. Even if the Top 8 splits completely, that’s over $4,000 a head, better than winning a Grand Prix!

Anyone else imagine that Gerry’s tear is just getting started…?

Patrick Chapin
“The Innovator”