A Guide to Beating RG Tron
Today, Oath of the Gatewatch will be released, providing many new tools for RG Tron. Together with the ban of [card]Splinter Twin[/card], RG Tron is poised to take over one of the top two spots in the Modern metagame. In light of this, now seems like a good time to discuss the weaknesses of RG Tron, and how which angles of attack are useful to hobble it.
First, though, a moment for our lost comrade.
Splinter Twin, May 19, 2011 – Jan 22, 2016
This past Friday my long time adversary and, if I may say, friend [card]Splinter Twin[/card] will be laid to rest, following an untimely ban from the Modern Format. She was taken from us too quickly. The Tao Te Ching teaches us that “The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long”. As we know, [card]Splinter Twin[/card] burned with the intensity of limitless hasty creature tokens.
For those who don’t know me, I am a RG Tron player. As one pillar of Modern to another, an honour Twin earned through its resiliency and pedigree, I want to express my deep, palpable sadness at Twin’s passing. Many people knew her as a combo deck, but she was so much more than that: she was a tempo deck, she was a control deck, and she was my teacher. Although many people saw me as a victim to her bullying, I considered our matchups to be among the most beautiful and deeply satisfying moments of playing Magic in any format. She challenged me to play control and was a strict mentor. Any slight misstep resulted in an endless wave of [card]Deceiver Exarch[/card]s that ended my lesson. A diary of these lessons can be read here. We will become weaker players in your wake.
I was always happy to sit across from you, Twin player, and I will deeply miss our matches. Blood is thicker than water, and the bonds formed in battle are stronger than those formed by family. Thank you for your lessons.There is rest for you now.
[card]Splinter Twin[/card] is survived by its cousins [card]Deceiver Exarch[/card], [card]Pestermite[/card], [card]Bounding Krasis[/card] and its partner Kiki-Jiki.
How does RG Tron function?
The maindeck of a RG Tron deck is broken up into thirds:
20 Lands –
4 [card]Urza’s Mine[/card],
4 [card]Urza’s Tower[/card],
4 [card]Urza’s Power Plant[/card],
4 [card]Grove of the Burnwillows[/card],
1 [card]Eye of Ugin[/card],
1 [card]Ghost Quarter[/card],
1 Flex spot (usually another [card]Ghost Quarter[/card] or [card]Forest[/card])
20 Cantrips/Tutors –
4 [card]Chromatic Star[/card],
4 [card]Chromatic Sphere[/card],
4 [card]Ancient Stirrings[/card],
4 [card]Expedition Map[/card],
4 [card]Sylvan Scrying[/card],
8 Sweepers –
4 [card]Oblivion Stone[/card],
1 [card]Ugin, the Spirit Dragon[/card]
6 Creatures –
3 [card]Wurmcoil Engine[/card],
1 [card]Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger[/card]
6 Other –
4 [card]Karn Liberated[/card]
2 [card]Relic of Progenitus[/card]
The lands and the cantrips/tutors form the engine of the deck. The deck is mostly an engine for assembling the three Urza lands, which together grant 7 mana. The two powerful openings are:
Turn 1. Urza land, play [card]Expedition Map[/card].
Turn 2. Urza land, use Map to find third land.
Turn 3. Urza land, play Karn or [card]Wurmcoil Engine[/card].
Turn 1. Urza land, play Chromatic Star/Sphere.
Turn 2. Use star for green, play an Urza land, play [card]Sylvan Scrying[/card] to find third land.
Turn 3. Urza land, play Karn or [card]Wurmcoil Engine[/card].
Without interaction from the opponent, RG Tron will have access to 7 mana on turn 3 in about 45% of the games on the draw. This falls to 36% if it’s on the play. Checkout the link to see a breakdown for how often we achieve Tron on turn 3.
It uses its sweepers and [card]Spellskite[/card]s to ensure that it doesn’t lose in the early game. Once it has assembled Tron (the three different Urza lands), it uses its sweepers and Karn to stay alive while it looks for [card]Eye of Ugin[/card]. This land can find Newlamog or a stream of [card]Wurmcoil Engine[/card]s. RG Tron has the strongest endgame in Modern except for Lantern Control, so it can afford to push the game late.
The number of [card]Pyroclasm[/card]s, [card]Oblivion Stone[/card]s, [card]Spellskite[/card]s, Ugins, Newlamogs and Relics are all meta dependent. Everything else in the maindeck is locked in. With the release of Oath of the Gatewatch we might also see newcomers like [card]Warping Wail[/card], Kozilek and [card]Kozilek’s Return[/card], but these don’t change the fundamental engine of the deck.
Given the inevitable big shift in the metagame, the sideboards of RG Tron will be in a state of flux. For that reason, I won’t go into depth about them right now. I would only like to point out that it is common for RG Tron to have the full set of four [card]Nature’s Claim[/card] in its sideboard. This deals with Affinity, troublesome enchantments like [card]Stony Silence[/card], [card]Blood Moon[/card], and gains life against Burn.
Pressure, Disruption and Tempo
When playing against a goldfish, RG Tron will set up in the first three turns and then play a massive threat ([card]Wurmcoil Engine[/card], Karn, Ugin) on turn 4. Generally speaking its threats are difficult to deal with once they resolve; Wurmcoil requires a specific answer like [card]Path to Exile[/card], otherwise it will take multiple spells to completely answer it. Karn and Ugin both protect themselves and come into play with a lot of loyalty.
The easiest way to deal with RG Tron is to win before they can cast any of their threats. Trying to answer RG Tron’s threats is usually a losing proposition since their threats require narrow answers (although Lantern Control does a reasonable job of that). This discussion will focus more on preventing RG Tron from playing its threats rather than answering them.
To win before they can cast their threats you need some combination of pressure and disruption. It is a sliding scale; here are how some decks in Modern position themselves against the boogeyman.
All pressure, no disruption
– Infect. Even through a [card]Pyroclasm[/card] they can deal 10 poison damage to us by turn 2 or 3.Lots of pressure, some disruption
– Affinity. Some slight disruption in the sideboard, but their fast, diverse, wide set of creatures makes it hard to stabilize.
Some pressure, lots of disruption
– [card]Living End[/card]. Maindeck [card]Fulminator Mage[/card]s with early recursion is hard to stabilize through.
All disruption, no pressure
– RG Tron. The mirror is dominated by Karns, [card]Ghost Quarter[/card]s and occasionally [card]Blood Moon[/card].
[card]Living End[/card] and RG Tron are special as they have a lot of relevant disruption, namely land destruction, so they don’t need a lot of pressure. RG Tron has 12 land tutors ([card]Expedition Map[/card], [card]Sylvan Scrying[/card] and [card]Ancient Stirrings[/card]) and 8-12 cantrips ([card]Chromatic Star[/card]/Sphere, [card]Relic of Progenitus[/card]), so it is difficult to permanently deal with their lands by making 1-for-1 exchanges with them. In most decks you might have up to 4 pieces of land destruction, which doesn’t even come close to our number of tutors. You are welcome to run a deck with 12+ pieces of land destruction, but this usually means you are giving up on your non-RG Tron matchups.
As a result, when playing against RG Tron you want to be a tempo deck. Forget about card advantage, forget about playing control, forget about value. Your job is to play threats (pressure) and then prevent the RG Tron deck from stabilizing (disruption). This has two essential components and they need to be done in that order. If you only [card]Thoughtseize[/card] me, then [card]Stone Rain[/card] me twice, you have given me at least 3 draw steps to find one of the 40 cards that are devoted to my engine. I have won many games that involved multiple opposing [card]Fulminator Mage[/card]s but no pressure. Put another way, a turn 2 [card]Tarmogoyf[/card] needs to attack 4 times to win the game. You need to push the game to turn 6 at least. Using a turn 3 [card]Fulminator Mage[/card], into a Turn 4 [card]Tarmogoyf[/card] means you need the game to go to turn 8 to win the game.
You will notice that when playing against RG Tron, the best UWR control players will play a turn 2 [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card] targeting nothing just so they can apply pressure. Yes, it is unusual for them to play a tempo game against other decks and their deck is not optimized for that role, but that is their most likely line to victory in this matchup.
Going wide is a viable strategy; so long as you are not vulnerable to [card]Pyroclasm[/card], [card]Oblivion Stone[/card] or Ugin. For example, an early [card]Thoughtseize[/card] from Affinity can strip away a [card]Pyroclasm[/card] (or see that we don’t have a sweeper) and then Karn will not be fast enough to remove all of Affinity’s creatures. Manlands tend to be annoying for RG Tron as they are immune to [card]Oblivion Stone[/card] and sorcery speed interaction like [card]Pyroclasm[/card], Ugin cannot stop them either. [card]Ghost Quarter[/card]s and Karn can answer manlands, but that usually taxes Karn.
Combo decks like [card]Scapeshift[/card] don’t quite fit into this framework, but you can think of them as applying all of their pressure over one turn while disrupting RG Tron until that turn via counter magic.
Since disruption is such an important ingredient in beating RG Tron, let’s talk about some of the more common pieces of disruption.
Hand Disruption – [card]Inquisition of Kozilek[/card], [card]Thoughtseize[/card], [card]Vendilion Clique[/card].
I’m always surprised when I see players side out their [card]Inquisition of Kozilek[/card]s. Hitting an early tutor or cantrip can easily delay us by a turn or more. Clique is particularly strong as it establishes pressure as well as being disruptive. With an early Clique, if we only have threats but cannot assemble Tron, it is often better to just leave us with our cards and not let us draw into another land or tutor.
Land Destruction – [card]Ghost Quarter[/card], [card]Tectonic Edge[/card], [card]Crumble to Dust[/card], [card]Fulminator Mage[/card], [card]Molten Rain[/card], [card]Rain of Tears[/card].
All of these are quite effective. [card]Crumble to Dust[/card] loses some value now that [card]Warping Wail[/card] is available for RG Tron. [card]Tectonic Edge[/card] isn’t a common choice because Tron can operate off of only three lands. Overall, land destruction is nearly the best form of disruption available.
Counterspells – [card]Spell Snare[/card], [card]Spell Pierce[/card], [card]Mana Leak[/card], [card]Remand[/card], [card]Cryptic Command[/card].
[card]Spell Snare[/card] is worth playing if you are afraid of [card]Pyroclasm[/card]. Although, it additionally hits [card]Sylvan Scrying[/card], [card]Spellskite[/card] and [card]Warping Wail[/card]. We can usually afford to play around [card]Mana Leak[/card]. Strong RG Tron players can navigate through [card]Remand[/card] not playing into it when the opponent wants to draw cards. [card]Cryptic Command[/card] to counter+bounce a land is a very strong tempo play that I don’t see often enough.
Artifact Destruction – [card]Abrupt Decay[/card], [card]Ancient Grudge[/card], [card]Kolaghan’s Command[/card].
Getting an early map is strong. It can be crippling. Getting a Sphere can be annoying, but is a lower value play. We get to draw a card if you hit our Star. Hitting an [card]Oblivion Stone[/card] when we don’t have the mana to activate it can be back-breaking.
Lockout Pieces – [card]Stony Silence[/card], [card]Blood Moon[/card], Spreading Seas/Sea’s Claim, Pithing Needle/Phyrexian Revoker, [card]Gaddock Teeg[/card], [card]Aven Mindcensor[/card], [card]Chalice of the Void[/card].
[card]Stony Silence[/card] and [card]Chalice of the Void[/card] (for X=1) are the strongest early pieces of disruption against RG Tron since they stop a lot of our engine cards. [card]Stony Silence[/card] in particular stops [card]Oblivion Stone[/card] from being able to wipe it away, so we’re forced to use Karn, Ugin or [card]Nature’s Claim[/card]. [card]Pithing Needle[/card] is generally quite good and can stop [card]Eye of Ugin[/card], Karn, Ugin, and [card]Oblivion Stone[/card]. [card]Aven Mindcensor[/card] usually comes down a turn too slow, and [card]Gaddock Teeg[/card] is vulnerable to [card]Pyroclasm[/card] and [card]Oblivion Stone[/card]. [card]Spreading Seas[/card] leave us with land to use that can be reversed with [card]Nature’s Claim[/card] or [card]Oblivion Stone[/card].
[card]Blood Moon[/card] is a strong tempo play, but it absolutely needs to be played along with pressure. It is generally easy for RG Tron to get to six lands and cast a [card]Wurmcoil Engine[/card]. The worst thing that can happen to you is that RG Tron gets up to 7 mana, plays a Karn and then exiles all of your basic lands.
Taxes – [card]Leonin Arbiter[/card], Thalia, [card]Suppression Field[/card].
These are much better than they look because they provide pressure and disruption. Even the one extra mana from Thalia prevents a Turn 3 Karn and really slows down our deck velocity (with all of our cantrips).
Lobotomy Effects – [card]Slaughter Games[/card], [card]Cranial Extraction[/card], Bribery, [card]Telemin Performance[/card].
RG Tron generally runs very few cards that can actually win the game ([card]Wurmcoil Engine[/card], Ugin, Newlamog and maybe [card]Thragtusk[/card]). After sideboarding it is possible to seriously hobble the deck by exiling its win conditions.
Thanks for reading. Let me know what you think; I’d love to hear from you. Are the Tron lands too powerful for Modern? How do you usually deal with the RG Tron matchup? Have you ever cast Bribery against them?
Catch me at Face to Face Games Toronto for Legacy FNM, send me a message on reddit /u/mpaw975, or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.