Tuning NO RUG Part Three – Unleashing the Hydra

Sometimes, you just have it. I remember playing a tournament match against Zoo where my opponent was one game up. I was playing NO RUG, as usual. It was the last round and we were playing for Top 8 so I really wanted the win. Naturally, I had Natural Order on turn three in game two and turn five in game three. I just won. Sadly, this is not always how it goes, and it’s not always that easy. Today, we’re taking a look at one of these stories where we don’t always have the perfect hand.

It was only a testing match, but it’s interesting nonetheless. I’d like to present a video, but I didn’t record so we have to work with text only. No matter.

First off, a mulligan exercise. For game one, I win the roll and decide to play. I open a reasonable hand:
I think this is a clear keep. Tarmogoyf can be cast at least as a 3/4 quite early and I have two cantrips in addition to three lands, disruption and business. Sweet. Without the Tarmogoyf I most likely wouldn’t keep this hand though. I would also prefer having Terravore here, but you can’t have everything you always want. My opponent mulling to four makes me even more happy about this hand though.

I lead with Volcanic Island into Ponder. Since my opponent mulled to four I want to play as aggressively as possible here. Ideally, I’m going to swing for four or five with Tarmogoyf from turn three on, or get something even better (Progenitus, Terravore). The Ponder sees two Lightning Bolts and a Brainstorm. I could keep it on top for additional reach and a way to shoot down Noble Hierarch or Dryad Arbor (plus even more cantrips), but I decide to shuffle. I would rather get a Noble Hierarch, Vendilion Clique, Terravore, or Natural Order here, and I don’t want to cast cantrips for several turns. Instead of business I draw a Taiga. Whatever.

My opponent has a regular start with Savannah and Green Sun’s Zenith for Dryad Arbor. Maybe I should have kept the Bolts on top, but I think that was too risky. I’m kind of cold to a turn two Knight Of The Reliquary here, but that’s unlikely. Also, I still have a Brainstorm and can find Terravore or a Zenith.

For my second turn I draw Noble Hierarch. I decide to not play a 2/3 Tarmogoyf but to try to set up a turn three Natural Order, so I cast Brainstorm. Note that I don’t make a land drop first because I don’t need to play around Daze. In retrospect this was a mistake since my opponent could have had Mental Misstep and I still had Spell Pierce in hand to counter it. Brainstorm resolves and I draw Green Sun’s Zenith, Dryad Arbor and Terravore. Turn two Knight of The Reliquary doesn’t look so scary anymore. I put back Dryad Arbor (no-brainer) and Green Sun’s Zenith, keeping Spell Pierce, Scalding Tarn, Tarmogoyf, Misty Rainforest, Noble Hierarch, Terravore and Taiga in hand. I put back Zenith instead of Taiga because I still have both Tarmogoyf and Terravore in hand and I want to bait Wastelands for Terravore. Also, I like having enough lands, and I most likely won’t need a third threat anyway. I crack Scalding Tarn for Tropical Island, cast Noble Hierarch and end my turn.

My opponent has no land drop and can only cast Sylvan Library. Being able to counter that would have been a huge advantage for me, so I’m not too sure if playing Hierarch was right. Considering that I was going to land a threat on my next turn no matter what I did before, I most likely should have kept Spell Pierce mana open. Nobody’s perfect, but this is an example of the decision making tree you go through when deciding to play aggressively versus looking to keep mana open to counter specific cards.

For my third turn I draw another Hierarch. I play Taiga, cast Noble Hierarch, attack for two with the first one and cast a postcombat mainphase Tarmogoyf. Again, I could have kept Spell Pierce mana open, but there was nothing I was afraid of at this point. Jace would have to wait another turn to be cast so apart from equipment, there would be pretty much nothing exciting going on. My sequencing was off though. I should have cast the Tarmogoyf precombat, before Noble Hierarch. This way I could have countered a possible Force Of Will. But actually, I’m not even sure if that had been the right play since I still have my Terravore and this way I can keep my Spell Pierce for Jace (or Elspeth, or any equipment that might be relevant).

My opponent’s third turn is again uneventful, with only a Noble Hierarch coming off the Savannah. I’m hoping to just rip a Fire // Ice at this point to seal the deal but I never see one the entire game.

My next turn is uneventful as well; I untap and draw Dryad Arbor, then I attack with Tarmogoyf, dropping my opponent to 13. I should have played a land and most likely Terravore as well here, but there was really nothing I was afraid of. Yes, I know you shouldn’t feel safe when you’re ahead, but that’s a couple of questionable decisions now depending on how the game shakes out.

My opponent still can’t make a land drop and attacks for two with Dryad Arbor. Now imagine if I had countered that Sylvan Library. I hate these kind of games, but this illustrates the many in-game decisions you face with a deck as straightforward as NO RUG. I hoped to record some massive Natural Order blowouts, but instead I’m beating a mulligan to four with a Tarmogoyf.

Back to the game! I have another disappointing draw in Misty Rainforest, attack my opponent down to eight with Tarmogoyf, crack a Misty Rainforest for Tropical Island and cast Terravore, which is met by Force of Will pitching Force.

With my opponent being at seven (i.e. within Bolt range after my next attack), he really needs something special to happen. He only drops a Wasteland and ships the turn though.

I draw another useless card (Progenitus) and attack with Tarmogoyf. My opponent blocks with Dryad Arbor, and I ship the turn back.

He arranges his cards with Sylvan Library, and surprisingly draws two, going down to a precarious three life. He casts Brainstorm, I Spell Pierce it, he pays two more mana, and Brainstorm resolves. He draws his cards and concedes.

Despite the game not seeming interesting on the surface, I still think there’s something to learn from it. I kept a hand with two cantrips and only one threat and despite drawing more than ten extra cards over the course of the game, I only saw two relevant cards outside of my opening hand. Without the Tarmogoyf I easily could have lost that game (with some better draws from my opponent). This is the reason why you never want your hands to rely on cantrips. If he had been able to curve Knight of the Reliquary into a resolved Jace for example, I most likely would have lost, as even if I resolve Terravore and/or my Green Sun’s Zenith for something big he can just bounce it for three turns while attacking with a Knight. That’s why you ideally want to have everything you need in your opening hand, or definitely have a reasonable plan of attack that does not rely on cantrips. That Spell Pierce was huge, if only for having it ready just in case.

As for sideboarding, I bring in three copies Submerge and two Ancient Grudge for a Vendilion Clique, two Tarmogoyfs, a Ponder, and Sylvan Library. I usually board out all of my Cliques, but this list has Force of Will and Vendilion Clique is also decent against Stoneforge Mystic (while being weak to Umezawa’s Jitte). Tarmogoyf was only 3/4 in game one thanks to Ponder, which is a one-off and got boarded out. It’s rarely bigger than 3/4 in this matchup, and that just isn’t sufficient.

Anyway, on to game two! I’m on the draw this time and fan open my hand of seven:

Obviously you don’t want to keep a hand that has Volcanic Island as the only land. I mull into:
Remember what I said about cantrips? This hand is not very strong and could just waste 2-3 turns doing nothing, so I ship it back and open:
This hand is okay. Not optimal, but okay. I can only hope for my opponent not having Wasteland. Here we go.

My opponent, who kept his seven leads with a simple Tundra, go. I draw Dryad Arbor unfortunately. I have a few options here, like playing Arbor and passing (being able to cast nothing), playing the Foothills into Noble Hierarch, or just playing the Foothills and passing to keep Spell Pierce and Brainstorm active. I play my Wooded Foothills and ship the turn again. I don’t cast the Noble Hierarch because I don’t want to get blown out by Wasteland + Mental Misstep or Wasteland + Swords To Plowshares. The better plan is to crack my fetch on turn two, then cast Brainstorm and hopefully have a fetchland ready to shuffle away unneeded cards (Dryad Arbor) and cast Noble Hierarch. That will enable me to see four new cards (draw for the turn plus Brainstorm’s three) to see another fetchland.

On his turn he drops Windswept Heath, cracks it for Tropical Island, and casts Stoneforge Mystic. I crack Wooded Foothills for Volcanic Island, and attempt Brainstorm. Apparently that was a Mental Misstep and my opponent goes to seventeen, countering my Brainstorm. Stoneforge resolves and grabs Umezawa’s Jitte. Not exactly where I want to be in this game.

Usually, I don’t cast Brainstorms without being able to shuffle away both cards. In this case, I’m positive it was the right play though, as Force of Will, Fire // Ice, or Lightning Bolt are all pretty good there. Had I drawn into Fire // Ice for example, I could cast it in my turn, assuming there’s also a land for me. This isn’t possible if I wait to cast Brainstorm until my turn. I also get the chance to draw Force of Will to just counter the Stoneforge Mystic. For the two cards I lose here (seeing one card less and having to draw one of the cards I put back) I get many more outs to the Stoneforge Mystic. This is a reasonable trade. Not that it mattered, but I think it’s worth discussing, especially the full use of your mana capabilities.

On my turn, I draw Ancient Grudge which is the best tactical card to counteract his equipment and Stoneforge strategy, but still have no great second land drop. I drop my Dryad Arbor and say go, hoping for the best. My opponent doesn’t make it any better by dropping another land and casting Swords To Plowshares on my Dryad Arbor.

I get super lucky though and draw Tropical Island. At the end of my turn he cracks the freshly played Misty Rainforest for a Savannah and activates Stoneforge Mystic, putting Umezawa’s Jitte into play. On his turn he drops Horizon Canopy and taps Savannah and Tundra to equip Umezawa’s Jitte to Stoneforge Mystic. He attacks and I cast Ancient Grudge and it resolves. He ends his turn with no other action. Awesome!

I draw Taiga, and now I’m finally in the game. I have three lands, I’m quasi-immune to a single Wasteland and I can still flash back Ancient Grudge. I cast my 3/3 Terravore and let it ride.

He plays a mainphase Brainstorm at this point. After it resolves, he drops Windswept Heath and cracks it for Tropical Island, taps out for Jace and bounces Terravore. Bummer. He attacks with Stoneforge Mystic and I go to 18.

But I get lucky again! I draw Fire // Ice and kill Jace, keeping Tropical Island untapped. Then I cast Noble Hierarch and ship the turn. His turn is again unexciting with him only attacking with Stoneforge Mystic and using Wasteland to destroy my Tropical Island.

I draw Misty Rainforest, drop it and recast Terravore, which is 6/6 at this point. He has Force of Will pitching Negate, going down to 14. On his turn he draws an extra card with Horizon Canopy, attacks with Stoneforge Mystic and drops Dryad Arbor. End of turn I fetch for my own Dryad Arbor.

The draw for my seventh turn is Brainstorm. I cast it, it resolves. I have Spell Pierce, Green Sun’s Zenith, Lightning Bolt, and Submerge in hand. I keep Green Sun’s Zenith and Submerge while setting up Lightning Bolt as my draw for the next turn. Spell Pierce could have potentially dealt with another Jace on the opposing side, but Lightning Bolt realistically can deal with it, and can also clear one of his creatures out of the way. I attack with Dryad Arbor, he goes to twelve and I Submerge his Dryad Arbor. If he had a counterspell, he most likely would have countered my Brainstorm here. By letting him draw a useless Dryad Arbor, I make sure he doesn’t draw into something relevant and I can safely cast Green Sun’s Zenith for Terravore on my next turn.

On his turn he does nothing but drop Dryad Arbor again and attack with Mystic. I’m at fourteen now and he has only one card in hand. For my turn, I do as I had planned and cast Zenith for Terravore which is 8/8 at this point. Who needs Progenitus? On his turn nothing happens. I draw another Bolt, show him both, and he’s dead. Terravore is a beast!

As you can see, I managed to not draw a single Natural Order in the entire match. I also didn’t have to play against Knight of the Reliquary. This match was overall quite atypical, but I figured it would be nice to have something that wasn’t just “then I cast Natural Order on turn three and win on turn five.” In game two, I beat a very, very strong hand on a mulligan to five, which also speaks for NO RUG’s raw power. Admittedly, I got a bit lucky, especially regarding Wasteland, but I think I played to my outs and my deck rewarded me for that.

This will be my last article on NO RUG for the time being. We’ll see what’s going to happen in the weeks leading up to GP Amsterdam, and if there will be a reason to write about this deck again, I will certainly do so. For now, I mostly focus on brewing though, so I guess I’ll share some of my (failed) experiments in my next article. If I find something reasonable, I’ll let you know. I’m currently pondering a Blue Zoo list, which looks promising, plus I’ve been working on a Bant Aggro list. Yes, that’s the list we played against in testing. Because this week’s article is so short, here’s the current Bant Aggro list and a sample hand, LSV style, with some thoughts:


[Business] (39)
Force of Will
Mental Misstep
Spell Pierce
Swords to Plowshares
Noble Hierarch
Qasali Pridemage
Knight of the Reliquary
Vendilion Clique
Sylvan Library
Jace, the Mind Sculptor
Green Sun’s Zenith[/Business]

[Mana Sources] (21)
Horizon Canopy
Misty Rainforest
Windswept Heath
Dryad Arbor
Tropical Island
Savannah[/Mana Sources]
[Sideboard] (15)
Sword of Feast and Famine
Umezawa’s Jitte
Rhox War Monk
Scavenging Ooze
Sower of Temptation
Stoneforge Mystic
Thrun, the Last Troll
Krosan Grip
Bojuka Bog
Tower of The Magistrate[/Sideboard]

What I like about the deck is that it’s a giant toolbox, while still not being random. You get a lot of value out of your sideboard with access to three types of tutors (Knight of the Reliquary, Green Sun’s Zenith, Stoneforge Mystic). Thus, the cards you bring in are versatile and somewhat hard to deal with.

Changes I’m considering in the maindeck are mostly the second Sylvan Library and the countermagic suite. Not too sure about that, but this is where I’m currently at. I could possibly include the fourth Jace or add Daze to deal with Hive Mind, if that deck sees a resurgence. Stoneforge Mystic is in the sideboard because it’s mostly needed to beat aggro matchups, and I’d rather have some cards in my sideboard that I rarely bring in than cards in my maindeck that I often board out agaisnt everything else, if that makes sense. Also, Merfolk and Goblins are on the decline and Zoo can be beat by just having the bigger dudes. I might want to work in a Tarmogoyf again as well (to easily Zenith for), but I really feel it has gotten much worse over the past few months with all of the Knights and other large creatures running around.

As for the sideboard, I’m not too sure about Rhox War Monk being needed when I also have Batterskull. Sower of Temptation could also be something like Phantasmal Image or Phyrexian Metamorph, most likely the latter.

Here’s an interesting sample hand (in fact, it’s the hand from game two):

Actually, this hand is really strong and I’m still amazed that I could beat that draw with a mulligan to 5. It’s full of interaction from the first turn on and has very strong mana. The only problems for this hand are Fire // Ice and removal for the equipment you’re going to fetch. You still have Swords to Plowshares as backup to prevent your opponent form resolving an early Natural Order, and Mental Misstep can do that as well by either countering a Noble Hierarch or Green Sun’s Zenith, or countering a cantrip. In case there are some non-Vendilion Clique beaters involved, Jace is there to keep the board clean. Keep in mind that Clique is very strong against both Jace and Mystic, but is weak against Umezawa’s Jitte. So if you fetch Jitte and put your opponent on Clique, you might want to hardcast it instead of cheating it in with Stoneforge Mystic.

If you have any suggestions (or questions) about these decks or future topics you’d like to read about, let me know. You can write a comment or send me a mail at jonathanalexander at gmx dot de. That’s it for today! Take care!

Missed the two first articles of the series Tuning NO RUG?