With this document, I intend to share my knowledge about my favorite deck in what also happens to be my favorite MtG format. It is really a deep dive into the theory behind the deck in light of my philosophy of 100 card singleton and as such considerably longer than any of my previous articles. I am aware that this article-format does not appeal to everyone. Given the density of information contained in the piece, it is not meant to be consumed in one reading session. Rather, it should serve as a key resource at your disposal which you can constantly revisit whenever you want to take inspiration from alternative ways of thinking about the format. To the dedicated few among you who are deeply invested in the RUG tempo archetype, I hope this primer resonates with you and helps you enjoy the deck even more.
As many people seem to agree on, singleton formats such as European Highlander are characterized by their high degree of variance. Variance is of course present in any other format and an important part of what makes playing the game exciting and intricate time and time again. Tinkering with variance is therefore both an intentional and integral design component of Magic and one that influences player’s deck- and card-choices as well as their strategic outlook or tactical positioning. However, in Highlander, variance seems to be more a more noticeable structural feature because of several reasons. One important aspect is that it is harder to consistently pull of a strategy due to either a lack of functionally equivalent cards or fluctuation in the quality of individual cards a certain deck has access to (density issues). Another crucial factor is the overall much more unstable mana situation; and adding to or subtracting colors from a deck to address this issue often leads to a delicate choice between power and consistency.
Over the course of my career in the format, I have branched out into several different deck types – starting from non-blue midrange over combo-brews and more control-ish blue decks – only to realize that either am I not able to pilot them at their required skill level, or they have too many holes in their strategy, or are just prone to loosing against the format-defining dynamics due to their average converted mana-cost or color requirements. For me, when it comes to selecting a deck, the most crucial test it needs to pass is: is the strategy sufficiently shielded from losing against the format, i.e. how well can it cope with variance at both sides of the table? Because, more often than one might like to admit, Highlander decks lose to themselves in light of the format before losing to their opponent.
Therefore, the primer will introduce theories and concepts that, taken together, will exactly tell you how and why RUG tempo manages to – above all things –beat the singleton nature of the format. I am going to guide you through the principles that influenced the deck’s construction, inform you about the allure of the overall strategy, guide you through match-ups as well as tactics and help you in making the deck your own (which also implies being honest about its various weaknesses). Although the primary reason for writing the article is to expand the community’s knowledge about this specific deck, it raises some broader points about the format generally from the perspective of a tempo-devotee.
Going forward, this article is works from the premise that Highlander can be practiced as a serious competitive outlet, posing lots of theoretical puzzles and intricate strategic scenarios. Whatever your individual approach to the format may be, please do not consider the following as an attempt to discredit other ways of approaching and enjoying the format or the game of Magic, generally. It works for me, because I have developed this kind of thinking over time and under specific circumstances, but I accept that there are other equally viable interpretations. However, with this piece, my intention is to make this process transparent and convince you of its general viability.
How to make sense of the deck?
To start alluding to the various appeals of the RUG tempo deck, I am going to analyze it in more abstract terms. In this segment, I am thus attempting to engage in an unusual kind of methodology to better visualize the strengths and weaknesses of the deck contextualize them on a scale relative to what is possible within the confines of the format. Right below you can find a web diagram that alludes to six categories which I propose to evaluate Highlander decks with. After a quick definition of each of the respective categories, I will outline my reasoning for RUG Tempo’s performance. (*Disclaimer. I don’t claim objectivity and universality of these categories. There might have been subconscious biases involved in choosing the categories and measuring RUG’s metrics which make the deck appear much better than it might actually be, while treating others unfairly and leaving them worse off as a result. I leave that to the critical judgment of the reader and would gladly receive feedback on this segment.).
Adaptability (90/100). This metric describes a deck’s ability to adapt to the demands of the matchup and the specificities of an individual game of Magic while it is being played. Due to its extremely low curve, RUG makes full use of its available mana in the early game and beginning stages of the midgame. Thus, it is most often commanding the terms on which cards and mana are exchanged. Depending on the demands of specific matchups and situations, this not only allows the deck to quickly switch between passivity and activity; most crucially, you can swiftly turn around and nullify the disadvantage of being on the draw. This is what I love most about the deck, actually. Additionally, having green allows the deck to have a substantial board presence before most decks have enacted their game-plan. Large quantities of library manipulation and card filtering (while not granting a lot of card advantage) allow the deck to sustain and gradually expand upon some marginal advantages.
Agency (90/100). With its high density of cantrips, counterspells and burnspells the deck presents the pilot with plenty of choices. While this leaves unparalleled room for skill (format knowledge, familiarity with the deck, exact play) to be leveraged, this also implies a much higher margin for error. RUG in particular is not good at catching back up once it started to fall behind, hence even slight inaccuracies are elevated onto the level of severe misplays. As the deck does not carry its pilot by itself, errors are punished disproportionately These issues notwithstanding, few decks are as challenging and as rewarding as RUG tempo, because it demands both familiarity with key scenarios and constant reevaluation, including highly contextualized risk-assessment. The deck requires a high degree of familiarity with the format. This implies knowledge about commonly played archetypes, their most frequent play patterns, general composition and angles for you to exploit of them to beat you with. Most preparation will therefore be theoretical, which includes getting deeply familiar with how your deck might respond. This deck also requires a high degree of general understanding for the game, as RUG tempo’s card-pool won’t carry you by itself. The cards are all very situational and require a bit of setup that often involves foresight in the form of risk assessment and exploiting potential outs. This deck can feel like hot air if piloted incorrectly, so the ability to revisit and recognize one’s mistakes is crucial for becoming successful with it.
Consistency (85/100). Consistency broadly designates a deck’s ability to feel the same each time it gets picked up to be played, i.e. that it is capable to regularly deliver its typical draws and to enact its basic strategy in any given game of Magic. While there are obviously things to improve upon, i.e. having more quality one-drops to its avail or gaining more cantrips, RUG’s components are relatively simplistic, namely card selection/ disruption in the form of counter-burn (forms of removal with the lowest risk of being dead)/ and threats, all of which have possess ample functional equivalents in the Highlander card-pool to choose from. The core of the deck is therefore very elegant with almost no moving pieces that obstruct your game-plan from working effectively. Taken together, this makes the strategy comparatively resilient to the format-inherent variance which, among other things, manifests itself in fewer mulligans.
Proactivity (75/100). Another way to shield oneself from losing against the format (as opposed to your opponent) is to adopt a proactive game-plan. Although, while the deck is often the aggressor, coming out of the gates blazingly isn’t an aim in itself for the strategy. RUG has a suite of uncompromising threats for the first two turns of the game. Green is particularly suited to be paired with softcounters for it simply offers the highest stats-for-mana ratio. It can frequently produce the archetypical tempo draws that force your opponent into a reactive role right from the get-go. However, the decision to deploy a creature, particularly on the draw, is highly contextual and dependent on the matchup. Both the relatively low density of creatures as well as the risk to fall behind quickly should inform the pilot’s plays at all times. Nevertheless, the deck is usually able to craft a scenario in which a threat can be safely and reasonably deployed in light of the demands of the matchup.
Card Quality (60/100). Although it might sound pretentious to complain about card quality when your deck can play Wrenn and Six, Oko, Thief of Crowns, Gush, Brainstorm and Force of Will, among others, I would argue that the average card quality of the deck is comparatively mediocre. For starters, it doesn’t benefit from tutor-spells that elevate the general potency of topdecks (which, apart from cantrips, are quite weak in RUG tempo – especially lands, as you have virtually no mana sinks). Secondly, it tries to maximize the utility of softcounter-spells to its maximum degree and try to make up for the loss of card quality and card advantage by simply drawing and casting more spells than the opponent.
Stamina (50/100). Stamina defines a deck’s ability to play longer games or to rebuilt after its strategy has been disrupted. Related to the observations in the prior category is the conscious decision to trimming down the midrange-component of the deck to the least possible degree, aiming to facilitate a more consistent game plan. Outgrinding and outlasting games isn’t the deck’s favorite terrain, and in scenarios where you have fallen too far behind on resources you are mostly attempting to put your opponent within range of burn damage to finish them off. However, the deck is not close to being as fragile as certain combo decks which cannot hope for a quick rebuilding once their initial combo is disrupted. The ability of playing longer games comes from the high amount of card filtering and library manipulation contained in the shell.
While it is helpful to dissect these different categories and analyze them individually, the boundaries between them are not that clear-cut as they blur into each other. I do not advocate for calculating the average score of each deck and rank them accordingly into tiers, but I think it is a useful concept to theoretically explore the bandwidth of each category and see where an individual deck falls onto.
Composition of the list.
The overall list I am presenting here is the result of thousands over thousands of hours and matches of testing over now almost two years. Ever since the release of Modern Horizons 1 when the deck finally reached the necessary threat-density, I basically played the archetype nonstop. While the deck initially developed in a local metagame in which other blue tempo iterations are prevalent, I tried to access different local metagames from which I hoped to become more familiar with matchups that I consider RUG to have structural difficulties with. As a rough indication, I recently managed to run the deck to a 47-23 match-win record in the very aggro-/manadork-heavy Magic Monday series (which you should definitely consider joining!) before I stopped attending it regularly. Recently, I even transitioned to MTGO and adapted the list to be able to play Canadian Highlander and Australian Highlander (60 card singleton plus 15 card sideboard, points list), where the meta is even more unpredictable. The deck-theory principles translated equally well into those formats, confirming to me that this is one of the principally correct and productive ways of tackling a singleton format.
General comments. Overall, the groups of cards the deck is comprised of are designated some rather narrow, but clearly defined functions in order to both minimize the potential for dysfunctional opening hands and maximize the potential for the “protect the queen draw” to be enacted effectively. The deck’s disruption is the iconic counter-burn combination, threats come in the form of creatures and some Planeswalkers, all glued together by ample amounts of card selection. This leaves basically no room for fancy or luxurious choices such as equipments, utility packages or diverse avenues of card advantage. Generally, this archetype plays about 50% spells, 30% lands and 20% threats. This is not based on an elaborate methodology, but due to the high amount of card manipulation, you are able to trim on lands as well as threats to mitigate the risk of flooding on mana (as lands have such diminishing returns in this archetype) or being drowned in creatures (thereby becoming too one-dimensional and uninteractive). With almost fifty spells that effectively cost between 0 and 1 mana, and only three cards that commit three mana mainphase, you almost assuredly have one of the lowest mana-curves out of all decks in highlander. Coupled with the fact that the bulk of cards in this deck is blue, you have a clear base color which makes for a consistent mana base.
Lands. In line with the themes I just outlined, the lands in this deck fulfil one function and one function only – which is to reliably produce mana. This implies minimizing all avoidable inconsistencies regarding the mana-base. The first and most crucial requirement is to have untapped blue mana at all times. Apart from Forest/Mountain/Taiga (which you are forced to be playing in highlander for the lack of present alternatives at this point in time), all your lands have the ability to tap for blue the turn you play them. Also, in comparison with other Uxx tempo variants, RUG is in the unique and advantageous position to have both blue horizon lands in its arsenal. One exception is the Triome, but due to the consistency boost it grants as well as its cycling-ability, it is a must play as well. Bearing in mind all this, I advocate for cutting Stomping Ground (as it is simply unnecessary) as well as the Checklands and recommend playing the UX pathways as well as UX Painlands in order to guarantee immediate access to blue mana and avoid occasional tempo losses from having inaccurate lands. The incidental life-loss of the latter group of lands is really overshadowed by the consistency-boost they grant to such a mana-hungry early-game strategy, and in later stages you almost never use them as you will not be spending/ be able to spend all the mana you could get out of your lands. As for how many lands to play, proclaiming to have the correct answer is a tight rope to be walking on. Counting Wasteland, I currently wouldn’t recommend playing less than 28 lands because the probability of opening on turn 1 blue mana would simply be too low in this configuration (given you then still play Taiga/Forest/Mountain); while I also think that 31 is about the maximum you should be or realistically could be running, bearing in mind the above-mentioned criteria . The exact amount of lands any individual list is ought to be running changes relative to the density of one mana card selection one resorts to play. My list is running all cantrips that offer even the slightest form of selection, the two baubles as well as Traverse the Ulvenwald (with Abundant Harvest, a pre-print from Modern Horizons 2 almost guaranteed to make the cut), and I have been content with 30 lands roughly since the release of M21, even though the curve was constantly lowered down.
Threats. There is really something to be said about playing too many threats, and in conjunction with Planeswalkers also forcing you to commit mainphase, everything between 19 and 23 threats is absolutely sufficient. The requirements I have towards my threat-base are that they are meaningful in every stage of the game, implying that they should either help your deck pick up velocity or create a meaningful board presence that incentivizes your opponent to react to your strategy. One way of thinking that has developed while refining the deck is that you want to prioritize threats with a relatively reliable floor and a low fail-rate, hence why I won’t recommend playing dryads (that obtain +1/+1 counters when a certain type of spell is cast) or purely aggressive creatures such as Goblin Guide or Monastery Swiftspear. Threats ought not to demand much additional investment from you, especially when considering that you need to keep investing in counter-mana. My more unconventional one-drops of choice are therefore Nimble Mongoose, Bomat Courier and Pteramander. An important plus to the threat-base is also that green creatures virtually possess protection from red forms of removal and are rarely bested in 1-on-1 combat, so the color naturally lends itself well to the blue/red core of the strategy.
Counterspells. Their obvious centrality to the tempo archetype notwithstanding, some aspects are still worth singling out. As becomes visible from the deck-list, it exhibits a high concentration of so-called soft-permission, i.e. radically low-priced counterspells that tax certain groups of spells upon being cast. On paper, these spells are very conditional, thus eyebrows are often raised when people see that the list is packing spells such as Stubborn Denial, Flusterstorm and Miscast in addition to the usual counterspell package. The reasoning behind this is simply to bolster the deck’s consistency in exploiting key scenarios, principal among them to be able to protect the initial wave of removal hitting your threats. The cards just mentioned, although arguably a bit more narrow or conditional, make a good enough Spell Pierce impression that they are vital inclusions. In this vein, the suite of counterspells I chose to run is a bit more slanted towards fighting non-creature spells, because the green and red cards in this deck are tasked with keeping the board manageable and establish dominance there. One quick word on Veil of Summer and Pyroblast: I have found peace with the realization that my archetype has structurally bad matchups (see below), so I do not mind drawing dead cards in those matchups all too much, especially since these two cards are beyond broken in still the majority of matchups one encounters in higher-stakes tournaments.
Since library manipulation will feature so prominently throughout the remainder of the primer, I decided to not specifically address the identity-defining role of cantrips and their crucial relevance to the deck in this section. Suffice it to say that cantrips are the glue kitting the different opponents together, and you cannot draw and play enough of them if they grant a minimum degree of card selection. Crucial to the deck’s success is to pick up as much velocity as you can get, i.e. to put yourself in the position to see the maximum number of cards and therefore increasing its options during gameplay. A huge majority of wins comes on the back of drawing several cantrips during the game.
To sum up, if you decide to customize the deck according to your needs and preferences (to which, by all means, I encourage you to do – keep innovating!), I suggest bearing in mind the following principles before including a new card:
Always look to lower the curve of the deck, i.e. ask yourself if there is currently a card with a higher converted mana cost (cmc) in the deck that fulfils a similar function to the card you are looking to include or one which is less impactful or worse for the same mana value.
Try to include cards with a higher floor, meaning that you are looking for options that fulfil their designated purpose satisfactory and reliably and not the ones that grant fancy bonuses or have conditional utility. The deck isn’t really looking for much else than it already has.
Try to minimize the amount of non-blue mana symbols you add to the deck. You want your deck to run as smoothly as possible and not subject yourself to variance all too much.
Omissions and exclusions.
Related to the previous discussion and in order to better illustrate the issues I raised, I am outlining my reasoning for excluding certain cards of which the majority might think they are obvious staples to the archetype. I expect this section to provoke some controversy among those who engage with the article, but I hope to at least create an understanding on what my guiding principles are.
Karakas. Being off-color, adding Karakas has real opportunity costs in a deck that wants to consume all its mana as soon as it is available. Since most of your spells cost one or two mana, you cannot afford the luxury of having spell lands that only provide colorless mana. Even if you dedicate a spell-slot to Karakas, it is debatable if this space is even worth devoting for Karakas. While it does serve as an out in certain scenarios, it is not a necessary component to your general game-plan against strategies like Reanimator or Abzan midrange. I have seen so many games in which Karakas resulted in bad keeps or severe tempo losses in Grixis or Temur (especially since mana isn’t perfect in Highlander to begin with) that I would definitely recommend to get rid of it sooner rather than later.
Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath. Uro is a powerful and format-defining card. However, I don’t think it is the turn-3-play the deck is looking for. The way I interpret the deck and the format, you are better of maximizing the consistency of your average draw and focusing on setting up and developing the play-patterns that you want to exploit. Uro is a threedrop that doesn’t add to the board, and although it helps you stabilizing, in many matchups it doesn’t do much in terms of shielding against a game-deciding turn 3 play from the opponent, a scenario whose frequency has steadily increased over the last two years. As indicated, RUG tempo is ill-equipped to catch back up once it has started to fall behind on the board, and with Uro requiring double green while also taxing the graveyard (thereby making many of your early-game threats much worse or disabling them altogether), it is debatable if its inclusion is an absolute necessity. Granted, I don’t feel particularly comfortable in writing that, but so far, I haven’t missed the card.
Dig Through Time. Admittedly, it might be objectively wrong for me to not play a card that many claim to be ban-worthy, but I’ve cut the card over six months ago (at the time of writing) as I was not convinced by its practical performance. One of my main priorities when piloting RUG tempo in Highlander is to be able to play with the cards in my hand as quickly as possible, i.e. as soon as I have access to them. While DTT virtually costs two mana, every Delvespell you put in your deck increases the risk of getting glutted with slow and expensive cards that, like Uro, have additional costs in the form of shrinking your Nimble Mongoose and Tarmogoyf, disabling your Dreadhorde Arcanist, take away your Delirium or whatnot. Given that RUG tempo is comprised of many situational cards, DTT also has a natural limit on its potency. All in all, DTT for me always felt like a four-drop or a mulligan and not the elegant two mana 2-for-1, and I would much rather have another threat such as Hooting Mandrills in its place. This opinion is of course extreme, but I am not winning less without the card for I now have more opportunities to have a consistent early-game.
Mystic Sanctuary. After having played with it for almost a year, I finally disciplined myself and let go of the card. While its highs were extremely high (like, in combination with Gush and Dack Fayden), its lows were also extremely low (because having a tapped land has become so costly for how the deck plays out as of late). All in all, it was a case of sacrificing power for consistency and not against the card individually (I still maintain that the card is busted and severely underplayed in the format). If more fetch- or dual lands with basic land types were to be printed, this card would instantly jump back into the deck.
Hullbreacher. Yet another piece of brokenness I miss out on – if you haven’t done so already, you are probably severely questioning my authority to talk about the deck by now. Hullbreacher is great. By all means, play it, but the overall performance of the deck doesn’t hinge upon this card’s inclusion. Every three-drop you play in this deck is basically replaceable (apart from Oko, Thief of Crowns; and True-Name Nemesis if it were to be unbanned), and Hullbreacher doesn’t grant the same inevitability as the other three-drops I am already playing, so I cut it for [/c]Klothys, God of Destiny[/c]. On a related note: maybe it is my personal tendency to play a bit more cautiously, maybe it is due to its evasion and universal utility, but I have never been unhappy with Vendilion Clique.
Birds of Paradise/Noble Hierarch: Quite frankly, mana dorks should not feature in a dedicated tempo strategy. Although they are appealing on a surface level, such a low-curve deck needs one mana plays which are adaptive to various situations or create more pressure individually. Dorks are only good for the deck in the following scenario: if they survive and enable a turn 2 threat with counterbackup. After that, you’ve accomplished everything you wanted from the early turns, but now it becomes a question of how to sustain that advantage. I think the reason why these cards have not established themselves in UG tempo variants is that they exhibit a severe decrease of utility. In most cases, their ceiling is being a Lotus Petal, and a one-time boost is not worth a hand-card in these comparatively fragile decks. Tempo is much better off sculpting their hand or disrupting cost-effectively, thus paving the way for its threats all the while maintaining its ability to adapt to the opponent’s game.
All in all, what you can take away from this discussion is that I am advocating for valuing increases in consistency and velocity over increases in raw card-power for tempo deck. Regardless of how convincing you found my reasoning to be, one final piece of advice to at least bear in mind when testing the deck: if you ever find yourself in a situation in which you think “card XYZ would have really helped me in this game if it were included”, take a step back and reflect on how the game has played out. In the vast majority of cases, something more fundamental has went wrong for you during the early stages of the game and card XYZ, especially three and four mana cards, would have not made a big difference to the outcome of the game.
Matchup Tier List.
Listed here are some of the most frequently played archetypes in Highlander, ranked by how well RUG Tempo fares against those strategies. Conceptually speaking, I find it more helpful to think about a deck’s positioning in the metagame more from a general strategic perspective, meaning that I try to identify the core identity (the so-called shell) of individual decks and see how well my deck is set up against the basic tenets of certain classes of decks. In the case of RUG, it loves to play against controlling blue shells or the UB combo shell (A tier) with lots of spells. GB midrange with lots of quality removal or WG creature-heavy shells are typically more problematic (C and D tier).
Therefore. a general heuristic would be that the more stack-centric a matchup, the better it is for RUG. Matchups in the B and C tier can go either way, but RUG tempo can always bank on having the more consistent draws; and coupled with its relatively consistent ability to ride an early threat to victory this helps mitigating slightly negative matchups. Even though I do think that tempo as a strategy is very beatable and certainly has unfavorable matchups, I believe that the deck-types it struggles most with are not necessarily among the format’s theoretically best archetypes (barring perhaps mono white). Taken together, the fact that it performs well against the perceived best decks of the current meta while also being consistent enough to muster a good fight in unfavorable matchups makes RUG tempo a great deck-choice and, in my opinion, renders it in top-tier territory for Highlander.
A (positive matchups)
Blue midrange & control shells, Scapeshift, combo (e.g. Hermit, Reanimator, Breach)
play into RUG’s disruption suite & overall game-plan
B (slightly positive matchups)
Mono Red, green Ramp variants,
one-dimensional game-plan, less interactive
C (slightly negative matchups)
GBx Midrange (Jund, Abzan, 4c Blood)
better mid-/late-game; higher average card quality
D (unfavorable matchups)
Death and Taxes, RG Beats, Maverick, Mono Black Suicide
disruption stapled onto creatures; board presence slips under most of your disruption package; very few tempo-positive exchanges possible
Useful heuristics against popular strategies.
GBx midrange variants: Ideally, your opening hand should contain some form of cheap card advantage such as Sylvan Library, Dreadhorde Arcanist, Klothys, God of Destiny etc. You should prioritize finding more threats with your cantrips. Don’t run your matchup-deciding threats out without the appropriate setup, your opponent’s deck isn’t the fastest.
Swarmy creature decks: If you are forced to decide between holding up countermana or deploying a threat, a good heuristic is to run out the threat if they are already on the board. Chances are you might not draw enough lands in time to go threat + counterspell in one turn.
Nonbasic-land-hate strategies: Do not compromise your ability to add to the board by trying to play around non-basic-hate. Your green threats are tough for them to handle. Magus of the Moon is not a factor since your removal is red. You can Wasteland your own land or Gush in response to Price of Progress.
Mana Elves: Always (!!!) bolt the bird as it minimizes variance during gameplay and takes options away from your opponent. If you can’t/ don’t, you are unlikely to gain tempo advantages along the line and have a lower chance of winning.
Spell-based combo: Given that you don’t play discard spells, try to deduce as much information about their hand as possible from the minor tells they give away, such as which dual lands they fetch in light of how most of their deck looks like/ if they discard a creature over a counterspell from your hand/track the card they tutored in their hand etc. Always be mindful of which counter-magic you represent with your mana. Try to minimize playing sorcery speed unless absolutely necessary.
Mono Red: Land an early green creature and start attacking! Games are often close and demand courage.
Scapeshift: Given on how much information you operate or which counterspells you have, it is generally ok to let rampspells resolve.
Control: Do not overextend if it doesn’t significantly change the clock. Often, fighting over card selection or raw card draw is not recommendable, rather let them spend their mana to amass cards if you are already on the board.
Tempo: Matchup is really swingy – often the person drawing a free counterspell wins given roughly equal skill-level. Try to pull gradually ahead on cards or nutz’em.
Weak points of the deck.
As every Highlander deck, the RUG tempo strategy has certain holes to it which are very important to be aware of when navigating it. Additionally, no highlander deck can claim completeness for itself in a sense that it never experiences noticeable gaps in its card pool or cohesiveness. For the sake of transparency and to keep things in the right perspective, I decided to list and rank some observations that I obtained from piloting the deck against the vast majority of established archetypes.
Noticeable strategic deficiencies
Frequently reoccurring thoughts
Inability to stabilize fast enough against early avalanche of creatures on the draw; inability to play a substantial late-game
Power level inhomogeneity in one-drop suite; density of card-filtering cantrips not on a desirable level; suboptimal play gets punished disproportionately
Opening hands containing the opposite color of spells and dual lands; amount of dedicated creature removal/ spell counter slightly higher than desirable; sometimes a bit too graveyard reliant
By now, I assume that the reader has a general sense of what I am hinting at, so I am not explaining all the minute details of the aspects listed here. Suffice it to say that observations in the middle and right column are already complaints on a very high level, whereas if you are dissatisfied with RUG Tempo’s noticeable strategic deficiencies, you should consider playing a different deck altogether rather than trying to make too many changes to the deck and thereby create unintended imbalances in the general plan.
Presented here is a shortlist of cards that are severely problematic for the deck and often have a decisive impact on how the game unfolds. As I alluded to above, while RUG tempo in theory has the tools to beat every strategy in highlander, some cards are real roadblocks to effectively enact your own plan and can put the deck out of balance.
Baleful Strix. This card is a nightmare to face as it functions like a bridge for midrange or control decks to transition into later stages of the game where they can leverage their more powerful spells – a game that RUG tempo does not want to play. This card is a guaranteed two-for-one for your opponent and hinders you from attacking, therefore disrupting and delaying your primary game-plan immensely. The fact that it comes down turn 2 when you most likely cannot react to it on the stack makes matters worse. Paired with Kolaghan’s Command or something akin to graveyard recursion, this card will win the matchup almost on its own. Verdict: Public enemy no. 1.
Gurmag Angler. Sadly, RUG does not offer enough removal to reliably get rid of cards with this rate of stats. Elking or bouncing them does help, but such creatures force you to include some rather undesirable cards, i.e. dedicated creature removal. It also holds your attackers at bay and doesn’t take many hits to finish you off. All in all a very formidable foe to face up against. You basically have to fight through these kinds of cards by amassing an army of creatures yourself.
Teferi, Time Raveler. Teferi’s minus ability is often reducing your board presence by 100% and also factually guarantees the turn 4 plays of your opponent to resolve. The floor for this card in the RUG matchup is incredibly high, as maintaining board-presence is so crucial for making the components of your hand achieve their optimal usage, or any usage at all.
This list is by no means exhaustive, but some groups of cards are actually less of a problem than one might think. The lack of enchantment/artefact removal is mitigated by the fact that you have access to Brazen Borrower via Traverse the Ulvenwald and because you have a lot of interaction to fight them on the stack. Things like Blood Moon/ Back to Basics can be anticipated well in advance and are deployed on turn 3 where you ideally already have a board presence and pass with mana up. Also, in this deck, one basic island goes a long way. As per midrange, Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath could also be named, but you can out-tempo the card once you’ve countered an initial escape trigger, so it is not much better against RUG then it already is against any other deck. Considering RUG’s ability to cope with Planeswalkers, it must be noted that its primary way of dealing with them is by creating a board presence or fighting them on the stack. Bearing in mind the principles I outlined above, it is often not worth dedicating a card-slot to removal for a specific class of permanents as their opportunity cost is relatively high in this strategy. Evoked by the increasing prevalence of high-loyalty Planeswalkers from turn 3 onward, I conceded a slot to Magmatic Sinkhole as it also deals with the vast array of creatures in the format.
What follows is an explanation of concepts of cards whose printing would immediately patch some holes in the deck. Above all things, the deck is constantly on the lookout for more cantrips that a) are blue, b) cost one mana c) do not create card disadvantage and d) provide filtering in the form of scrying/rearranging the top/choosing from the top/ draw-and-put-back etc. This card-type is so crucial for the deck’s success as it helps mitigating the risk of drawing the wrong half of your deck in certain matchups and as it helps to keep the velocity on a high degree. You really cannot have enough of these kinds of effects, but even one additional cantrip would be a noticeable boost to the strategy.
Next on the list, while probably a bit far-fetched, are additional Fetchlands. As of now, the deck still has a lot of lands with no basic land type which only factor for one of each color pip into the construction or calculation of the mana-base. Fetchlands, essentially another copy of each Basic/Dual/Triome they can find, increase the consistency of your mana-base exponentially (while also having other benefits, such as thinning the deck, shuffling away dead cards or fueling the graveyard). If they were to see print, this deck (like almost every Highlander deck, for that matter) would be in for fetchies that could only find one basic land type, i.e. Island, Forest, Mountain. Mana is always the most noticeable area of improvement for singleton decks and are always what gets me most excited during spoiler season.
Now, I could of course wish for another free counterspell or 3cmc walker, but the most attainable consistency boost to the deck would probably be another one-drop or two-drop that you can actually deploy on turn one or two without worrying too much. In the two-drop slot, you have more leeway to design cards with a reasonable damage output and high stats (which I like because stats grant virtual protection from red, are some sort of evasion against value-producing early-drops such as Dark Confidant and force your opponent to play their removal into your soft-permission). A design I came up with which could be interesting to test and isn’t too unrealistic to see print would be as follows: GR (cmc2); base power/toughness: ½; gains +1/+1 for each basic land type among lands you control; if it is dealt combat damage, it deals that much damage to you. (Please leave a comment if you have strong feelings about the design).
Years ago, “tempo” decks in highlander were strange animals. You were basically forced into playing green alongside blue as the quality of threats was much higher in the curve, thus making mana dorks a necessity. Also, due to the way games of highlander have played out, these decks were better off emphasizing their midrange component. Now, in 2021, you can now more authentically approximate the “Delver”-tempo style which is so popular among Legacy players. Your mana is better, your threats are supreme and we have attained a sufficiently high degree of redundancy in archetype-defining cards that this strategy rose to the upper echelons of the format. In short, the main reasons the deck is good are that it has a clearly identifiable, consistent and quite proactive strategy, while profiting from a low-mana curve and its ability to adapt to many opposing strategies.
The blue/red tempo shell has become an evergreen in the format, not only because it has game against most contending strategies, but because it is effectively shielded against the structural flaws manifest within a 100-card singleton format. Nevertheless, this strategy is very beatable by midrange decks or decks that try to grind you to the ground. The issue going forward, however, is how those decks will manage to reach the same level of consistency in order to reliably exploit their advantages in the matchup and how well they will be able to fare against combo. Apart from stifling the latter, there is really not much leeway to ban anything that would take much power away from the blue/red shell.
To all those who made the effort and went through this article, let me thank you for your interest and willingness to engage with my writing. I hope this primer was helpful to you, even though you are more than welcome to disagree with what was written in it. It’s a constant pleasure to provide content to you. Eternal gratitude goes out to my playgroup and Magic-pals, without whom these thoughts would have probably never cultivated. Another big thank you goes out to the team behind this website who make enormous efforts in helping me bring this article to you!