Legacy is an open format. One of the reasons why the format is so beloved is that there are upwards of two dozen distinct decks that are reasonable choices
to play at a competitive tournament. It is consistently impossible to provide an exhaustive analysis of “the Legacy metagame,” if one even exists. It is
plausible to analyze the top tier of archetypes and their performance against one another. It is materially useful to analyze, in depth, how a specific
matchup can play out. That analysis is the substance of today’s article.
The matchup in question was played out in the finals of the StarCityGames.com Legacy Open in Syracuse, New York two weekends ago. The lists, for
There is a very clear role for each player – Miracles is the control deck, RUG is the aggressive deck. Attempts by RUG to play a long game are typically
ruinous. Exceptions exist, but a good heuristic for the RUG player is to play aggressively and attempt to end games quickly, while a good heuristic for the
Miracles player is to control the board and maintain a high life total.
This matchup is beautiful for its complexity; there are many layers of counterplay available to both players, and it is essential to understand what
matters at any given point in the game.
Level zero of the matchup is that RUG can present a three-power flyer as early as turn 2. Unchecked, this clock is enough to force Miracles to play into
RUG’s “soft” countermagic: Spell Pierces, Dazes, and so on.
The counterplay to an Insectile Aberration is a Swords to Plowshares with either one or two mana up. A RUG player can choose this hill to die on, expending
a tremendous amount of resources to protect their flying 3/2. If the end result is that the Miracles player is left without a way to meaningfully interact
with a three-power flier, the RUG player will win. Otherwise, it is likely that the Miracles player will have gained enough time to recover and take
control of the game.
There are two ways to interact with a gameplan that involves casting a one-mana pinpoint removal spell on turn 3–either you can rely on a creature that
cannot be targeted, or you can attempt to stop your opponent from reaching three lands. Both are valid strategies. One is far better.
The mana denial plan that springs to the minds of many when you say the words “RUG Delver” – typified by Wasteland and Stifle and punctuated by the
aforementioned soft countermagic – is very weak against Miracles. Miracles tends to play between five and seven basic lands, making it very likely that
they will be able to have a basic land be their first land and quite possibly their second. From there, attacking their manabase is far less useful.
Facing down four Sensei’s Divining Tops, four Brainstorms, and very often four Ponders is another good reason to not spend cards attacking Miracles’
manabase – without a real clock and countermagic backup, it is an exercise in futility to try to Stone Rain someone out of the game when they look at three
cards a turn.
Instead of attacking the Miracles player’s manabase, it is better to play and protect a threat. Since Delver of Secrets is so amenable to a pastoral
lifestyle, it is far better to rely on a nimbler champion. Dodging not only Swords to Plowshares
but also Jace, the Mind Sculptor’s -1 ability, Nimble Mongoose is an ideal threat against Miracles. This is the “real” axis of the RUG Delver deck’s plan
of attack – resolve a Nimble Mongoose and go seven rounds across an open board.
The real counterplay from Miracles, then, comes in the form of Terminus. A one-mana Rout truly defines the matchup; it kills all of RUG’s threats, its mana
cost allows it to dodge all of the soft countermagic, it can be “set up” with the best card in the format, and you rarely get to see it coming with
Gitaxian Probe. Almost all of the time, you have to play around it in a very traditional sense.
The only true counterplays to Terminus are Force of Will and Stifle, and Kale Thompson didn’t play with Stifle. For those of you who are curious: Stifle
interacts with Terminus because the Miracle mechanic – like the Suspend mechanic – has a trigger that moves it from a zone where it’s revealed to the
stack. Similar to how you can Stifle a zero-counters-left Ancestral Vision and it will stay exiled forever, you can Stifle a Terminus and it will just
stick around in its owner’s hand. Absent a Jace or a Brainstorm, Stifle effectively “counters” the Terminus. On net, you’re losing a card, but Stifle is
absolutely the best way to interact with a Terminus while playing RUG Delver.
The matchup isn’t just about board position though. The clock is always ticking. The more time that passes, the more lands that Miracles can put into play,
the worse RUG Delver’s prospects get. Daze and Spell Pierce get worse, Wasteland gets worse, and Miracles gets closer to locking the game up. Sensei’s
Divining Top and Counterbalance are “the clock” in a very real way. Without a maindeck means of removing either, a mutable Chalice of the Void is
lights-out against RUG Delver. An awareness of that possibility must be present in the RUG player’s mind. Time is always of the essence.
Cards to Play Around as Miracles
If you’re the Miracles player, you want to play around Daze as much as possible. When your opponent has one mana up and could have played a threat or
Ponder to meaningfully advance their position, you should consider the extent to which Spell Pierce can hurt your position. More than anything else though,
you need to play around Wasteland.
Sequencing your lands in the early game is absolutely critical. If you have basic lands, play them first. If you have fetchlands, play those next. If you
have dual lands, hold those until the turn where you know that you’re going to cast a spell. Never let your opponent Wasteland a land that has not been
used. If you can help it at all, play Sensei’s Divining Top off of a basic land – the easiest way to lose games against RUG is to fail to develop your
manabase. Hitting your first three land drops is critical.
Once you’ve established your ability to play Magic, you need to be aware of how many cards are in your opponent’s hand. If it’s four or more and you
haven’t played a meaningful spell all game, it’s very likely that they’re holding a Force of Will and a blue card.
Your job in the midgame is to figure out how to sculpt the game so that you don’t lose to their Force of Will. Figure out what card the game is going to
revolve around and then figure out how to resolve it. If that means baiting a counterspell, figure out how and when to cast it so that it looks like The
Threat They’ve Been Holding Force of Will For. If they fired off an early Force of Will on your turn 2 Swords to Plowshares on Delver of Secrets, feel free
to disregard this. For the most part though, the games you win will come down to a two-turn window where you cast two meaningful spells, one gets
countered, and the other one effectively or literally wins you the game. The spells can be anything from Terminus to Counterbalance to Entreat the Angels
to Jace, the Mind Sculptor, but you don’t want to end up with Entreat the Angels against two Chain Lightnings or Jace, the Mind Sculptor against Nimble
Mongoose or Counterbalance and no removal left against a resolved threat.
This talent for discerning what matters isn’t so much “playing around things” as it is triage. You’re playing against RUG Delver, they always have
something and very often have two or three things. Eight of their counterspells are free, and the best way to think about whether the RUG player has them
are by asking “have I tapped out lately?” and “have I played anything that would win me the game on the spot?” If the answers to those questions are “no,”
then they probably have Daze and/or Force of Will. It’s not a hard thought process, which is why I’m emphasizing the importance of rank-ordering the
situational relevance of your spells.
Even though you’re the control deck, your job is to bait out countermagic. In every situation where you have a good spell, you want to either draw out two
of their soft counters or draw out their Force of Will. Ideally, you’ll have the time to trade your good spells for two of their counterspells enough to
resolve the last one. The games that you just barely lose are the ones where you get RUG to two-for-one themselves twice, but then you lose on the turn
before you stabilize against an opponent on empty. When you think about those games after the fact, think on how you might have been able to draw out their
counterplay earlier in the game. Learning the pacing of the matchup will take time and rough experiences. If it brings you solace, remember that you are
ultimately favored in the matchup. Learn how to pace the game such that you get to cast all of your spells, eventually resolving the important one.
It is very rare that you can let a Counterbalance resolve. There are times where you don’t have a choice, but that puts you in a bad spot against a
four-Ponder build like Roukas’s or Schönegger’s, since they can set up their Counterbalance so much more of the time. The games where they have
Counterbalance are really rough, and sometimes they just have one and you don’t have the right answer for it. You’ll lose almost all of those games.
When they don’t have Counterbalance, you can reasonably divide games into “turns where they don’t have Sensei’s Divining Top” and “turns where they have
Sensei’s Divining Top.” In the former, you want to play aggressive, play out your threats, and focus on stockpiling counters and stopping Jace, the Mind
Sculptor. Although a third threat is rarely correct to play out, the cases where it is correct are going to be when they don’t have a Sensei’s Divining Top
The reason why Sensei’s Divining Top matters so much is that it creates the everpresent possibility of an instant-speed Terminus. Once they have Top, you
must try to ration your threats so that you can beat a Terminus. If playing around a Terminus opens you up to Snapcaster Mage plus Swords to Plowshares,
you have to make a judgment call about whether to commit a second threat to the board. This will depend on the composition of your hand – specifically, the
quantities of Stifle, Spell Pierce, and Brainstorm.
Your two biggest challenges are managing your threats (both in play and in hand) and managing your untapped mana. Part of managing your untapped mana is
deciding whether to play a land or hold it to put back with Brainstorm. The situation gets considerably more difficult when playing with builds that have
four Stifles, given the bluffing elements of untapped mana in four-Stifle builds and the additional strain that Stifle puts on untapped mana. The most
difficult decisions, therefore, are the ones that require you to tap out of some amount of resistance to deploy a threat. Treat those decisions as the ones
worthy of the most consideration.
Key Sideboard Cards as RUG
Your worst cards by a wide margin are your red removal spells and your fourth Wasteland. Lightning Bolt, Chain Lightning, and Forked Bolt are all basically
Lava Spikes in a matchup where every card is crucial. Cut every single one of them. It may seem worrisome to have no card-for-card way to remove a resolved
Jace, the Mind Sculptor, but I promise that a Jace typically resolves only after you have already lost. In the rare situations where Jace helps the
Miracles player stabilize, you would rather have a sideboard card in your hand than a Lightning Bolt. After all, you have to have that card in your hand
leading up to that situation – your sideboard cards can interact with their other gameplans, whereas Lightning Bolt is eminently useless.
In most game states, your second Wasteland is awful. It doesn’t cast your interaction, it rarely finds a target before they hit four lands, and it isn’t a
spell. You aren’t keeping hands based on the number of lands you have – you’re focused on having blue sources. Wasteland is a spell, and it’s a pretty bad
one in this matchup.
Your best sideboard card is Pyroblast. Not Red Elemental Blast, by the way – Pyroblast. Only Pyroblast. Regardless of whether or not you play any Grim
Lavamancers, you want Pyroblast because it can help you reach Threshold for Nimble Mongoose. In this matchup, though, you’ll typically be using it to
target their Counterbalance or their Jace, the Mind Sculptor rather than your own land.
After Pyroblast, you have any number of options, but none of them are worth playing more than two copies of. Pithing Needle can shut off Sensei’s Divining
Top and Jace, the Mind Sculptor, which is nice. Envelop is a hard counter for Entreat the Angels. Ancient Grudge can attack their Stoneforge Mystic
sideboard plan as well as their Sensei’s Divining Tops (with a fetchland activation on the stack, of course). Krosan Grip – which I prefer to Ancient
Grudge – fights Rest in Peace, Counterbalance, and random artifacts and enchantments ranging from Blood Moon to Moat to Humility. Flusterstorm and Spell
Pierce are both fine ways of interacting with the higher end of their removal suite – typically one or two Council’s Judgments and any Snapcaster Mage’d
The goal of RUG’s sideboard plan is to have access to a diverse set of counter-answers to Miracles’ answers. A twelve-threat density is appropriate – you
don’t want to end up boarding into twenty creatures and get more of them swept away by Terminus or choked in your hand, waiting for the first Terminus to
clear the board. Although proactive plans are typically better than reactive plans, there are absolutely cards from Miracles that require answers from RUG.
Key Sideboard Cards as Miracles
The best cards that you can board in don’t get answered by RUG Delver’s common sideboard cards. Right now, RUG tends not to play Krosan Grip and tends to
play a lot of Pyroblasts, so the best cards against RUG are white cards and enchantments. Given that RUG generally boards out all of its red removal,
Stoneforge Mystic is a great card to bring in, as Batterskull is nigh-impossible for RUG Delver to beat. Even though RUG tends to play Ancient Grudge, it
can’t board in too many of them since it doesn’t interact at all with Terminus or Counterbalance or Jace, the Mind Sculptor or Rest in Peace or Swords to
Plowshares. Often enough, Stoneforge Mystic into Batterskull will be a solid plan.
Other good plans include Rest in Peace (which is a sort of Eradicate against Tarmogoyf and a solid beating against all Nimble Mongeese) and Humility. Path
to Exile is excellent as a way to bridge the gap to the midgame, but its applications are relatively narrow and its drawbacks more severe against the rest
Overall though, your goals are the same as in game 1: stabilize the board, lock them out with Counterbalance (and possibly other enchantments), and kill
them with anything at all after that. You want to cut some number of Jace, the Mind Sculptor (too expensive), Counterspell, and an Entreat the Angels. The
last thing you want is to jam cards that cost a lot and have a relatively low impact. If you can resolve Counterbalance and float a one and a two, almost
all RUG decks will be completely dead to it.
Since theory needs to be backed up by practice, I’ve made a set of videos where I play (and modify) a RUG Delver deck against Jarvis Yu playing Miracles.
Although I start off with Kale Thompson’s decklist, I end up somewhere very different. Enjoy!