Modern has always been about being proactive. From my very first forays into the format (hint: this involved bad 3 colour merfolk decks), I’ve had to learn the hard way that threats are better than answers.
So the linearity of the current Modern metagame shouldn’t come as a big surprise. Even if we are used to combo decks being a bit more robust (like Splinter Twin), it’s not like we haven’t seen the likes of Burn and Bogles before.
But if you look at what’s been going in the lately, calling Modern “linear” is something of an understatement. If interactive metas are the classic rock-paper-scissors triangle, Modern is like a bunch of long parallel lines, so straight and narrow they could make the equator jealous. Modern is like ships passing in the night, except instead of being full of pirates or smugglers or soldiers or whatever they’re full of robots, gigantic poison elves, weird fire things that are somehow both creatures and enchantments, and whatever the hell a narcomeba is.
The decks dominating the format (Burn, Dredge, Death’s Shadow, Affinity and Infect) are the new monarchs of the linear: each offers a game plan that leaves you dead on turn 3 or dead to several topdecks. Each is so powerful that they require very specific cards to beat. These decks are so single-minded in their game plan that they only play interaction of their own when it compliments their gameplan. In Death’s Shadow, Thoughtseize gets the nod over Lightning Bolt because it disrupts and pumps your dudes; in Dredge, Conflagrate does the work of a removal spell and is both an enabler and a finisher.
With such decks dominating, it’s hard to imagine why on earth we would want to play anything even remotely interactive. The format is so fast, and its threats so diverse, that there are few incentives to not play the fastest, most single-minded deck. Even white decks that have the most backbreaking sideboard cards in the format can’t be everywhere at once: Stony Silence, Ghostly Prison, Wrath of God and Rest in Peace are great, but they only hit parts of the meta, and are just dead in too many spots to be a game plan on their own. So why try to play fair?
Well for one reason I’m foolish. Another is because combating the linear bogeymen of Modern is just so satisfying when it works. Another reason is that I need to keep myself occupied with something while Wizards figures out what to ban.
I know what you’re thinking. “Richard, we all know that Modern is dark and full of terrors, blah blah blah. What does this have to do with Khans block’s premier Temur three drop? You know. Big knucks. The knuckleballer. I was told he would be here, and I’m honestly not about elaborate introductions or sob stories for blue mages. Where is Uncle Knuckles!?”
Fear not feral reader. Savage Knuckleblade approaches!
I’ve been brewing on and off with ole’ knucks for some time now. We go way back to college. We both took BIO 2200, “Abnormal Knuckology” and PHIL 1010, “Ethical Savagery.” Knucks and I even managed to T8 a Face to Face Open last year (You can see the deck tech here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tFPtH8Fs-24).
That happened right before the Modern Pro Tour that unveiled our new Eldrazi Overlords, which my deck had precisely zero game against. Turns out playing tempo against a deck that has better, cheaper threats is a losing proposition. So obviously, I lost the quarters to the very talented Thomas Sims on a prototype “Eltronzi” build.
So while I didn’t win the tournament, it wasn’t a complete loss. I knew that the deck had legs (furry ones). But the problem I always had was its tendency to mulligan, due largely to its lack of threat density. It needed the right “mix” of interaction and threats in order to be effective, and playing more monsters meant trimming on spells. Unlike the linear decks that just need the right 6 or 7 cards, RUG didn’t have the luxury of playing a wall of threats and hoping one sticks.
My breakthrough actually came from Reid Duke who did a RUG Midrange video a couple months ago. I realized that Ancestral Vision can be a threat too: if you can stay alive long enough for it to come off suspend, it can give you the tools you need to out muscle your opponent. This solved the threat density problem by providing a game winning one drop.
Unlike the linears, the game plan here is relative to what the opponent is trying to do. Against aggressive decks, it tries to play catch up in the first few turns by playing big bodies and efficient removal. Noble Hierarch really helps here by allowing us to start making two plays a turn as quickly as possible. The deck has some big, powerful creatures that are capable of blocking early on and then getting aggressive in the mid game, often providing a 2-turn clock. Krasis helps here by being both a blocker and attacker at the same time. Huntmaster is another perfect two-way player: catching you up when you’re behind, and closing the game out quickly once you’re ahead.
Against midrange, the deck has plenty of card selection and value, and Jund can struggle against this kind of strategy. Because RUG doesn’t need synergy between its threats it doesn’t just lose the attrition game. Because it has access to counterspells, RUG has a strong tempo game against the big mana decks and spell based combo decks.
My favourite thing about this build of RUG is its ability to pivot; it goes from a defensive position to an aggressive position in a flash (literally), because nearly every creature in the deck has flash, haste or a relevant ETB trigger. In the same vein, we usually think of Cryptic as a control card but believe me: it’s an even better tempo card. There is nothing quite like having a Goyf and a Krasis on blocking duty, then firing a Cryptic EOT, tapping the opponent’s team, and then slamming with a hasty Knuckleballer for a ludicrous amount of damage.
One of the best things about this deck is its optionality. Most cards have different modes. Snapcaster, Knucks, Cryptic and even Burst Lightning have a variety of uses that require non-linear play and thought. Many of them are as good in the early game as they are in the late game, so the deck’s threats scale to play a whole game of magic. Snapcaster can flashback a Bolt or a Cryptic; Knucks can be a 4/4 with haste or a 6/6, or have pseudo-vigilance, depending on what resources you have available and what you need to deal with.
One of the big differences between this build and previous ones is the relative lack of countermagic. The main reason is because counterspells are the actual worst right now. It pains me to say it but it’s true. Counterspells are so bad. They’re worse than the crappy takeout chopsticks that never split evenly in two. They’re as good as Islands are against Choke. Playing counterspells in this format is like maindecking Ancient Grudges in a field full of Argothian Enchantresses.
This poses a bit of problem insofar as Spell Snare is so important to surviving the early game against both Affinity and Burn. Unfortunately, Spell Snare is really bad against the likes of Infect, Eldrazi and Death’s Shadow. Without counters, we need to make sure that we have other kinds of relevant interaction. This is why one mana removal spells, such as Burst Lightning and Flame Slash, are important here.
Of course the reason that these sorts of option-oriented strategies aren’t so hot in Modern is because they come at a steep mana cost (and yes, a 3 mana 4/4 is basically a vertical cliff); unless you’re Arcbound Ravager you typically have to pay a premium for multiple abilities. Despite the quality of the curve, most other decks in the format will simply be more efficient than RUG. So even though Snapcaster gives you a lot of options, sometimes you need a 1CMC Lightning Bolt instead of a 3 CMC 2/1 that comes with some free electricity. Sometimes you just need a Fog and not a Cryptic.
The question is whether or not the juice is worth the squeeze. Are powerful, modal cards worth the extra mana, or is it just too clunky to be worthwhile? Realistically, I think the answer to that question depends on a few different factors.
This deck has the upside of playing short and long: it isn’t all in on any one card, and can play a reasonable early game with plenty of mana sinks for the late game. That means that when it draws well, it can beat Burn or Jund with the same sorts of cards, and doesn’t need sideboard tech to do so.
On the other hand, it can still be too slow for some of the more aggressive matches, and needs sideboard slots to swing some of the more difficult ones (Dredge, Affinity). Because it’s a RUG deck, we are also missing some of the more powerful Modern sideboard cards. As versatile as the RUG cards, the efficiency of cards like Lingering Souls can be too much to overcome.
That said, if it can get out of the early game in one piece, finishing the game isn’t usually a problem. So the goal in sideboarding involves delaying all the linear strategies with the same cards. If we can board in the same stalling tactics against a variety of decks, we can devote precious sideboard slots to other matchups. This means sideboarding in cards that allow us to remain proactive while blunting opposing attacks.
The first card that came to mind for the task was Propaganda. That could shut down every aggro deck other than burn, and with the help of Noble Hierarch, could do so early enough to be relevant. But then I remembered Modern is stupid, and Propaganda is a white card that has something to do with ghosts for no apparent reason.
Then it came to me. Fog.
If you’re not dead, and you have creatures that can attack, fog is an instant speed Time Walk. Fog can give you the extra turn you need to get into Cryptics, and it can be flashed back with Snapcaster. Fog helps in aggro matches because your ability to leverage cards is more important than gaining card advantage. Fog allows you to convert cards into what you really need to win: time to play your haymakers. It costs only a single green mana, so you can deploy a threat on the same turn you play it, and start cracking back right away. If the linear decks are eschewing most of their removal, than holding a board presence should be pretty easy.
That gives us a little more room for heavy hitters in the rest of the board, with more Ancestrals and some removal for the BGX decks, some sweepers against annoying X/1s, and a little more disruption against instant speed combo. Voila!
If you’re looking for something a bit different in Modern, and want to dust off your unplayable blue cards, try giving the Knuckmaster a shot! He might surprise you. And even if he doesn’t, he will definitely surprise your opponents.
Thanks for reading!