A Few Words on Beating Omniscience

Drew Levin and I don’t always agree, but we do on Omniscience. The mono-blue version is the cream of the current Legacy combo crop, with the only downside that it’s trickier to play than Sneak and Show. It recently won the Bazaar of Moxen, which you can see here.

If you want to beat the deck, discard and countermagic are the two most reasonable forms of maindeck disruption.

Discard is great because Omniscience is a three-part combo. By taking away a piece, you’re buying some indeterminable amount of time, and even a single turn is better than dying. The closer you get your opponent to hellbent, the further he is from going off. [card]Liliana of the Veil[/card] is the stone best card I’ve found against the deck. When the opponent is facing a Liliana while low on cards, he has to stop making land drops and can’t build up protection for the combo, all while getting drained of resources every turn. It’s rare for the opponent to beat the planeswalker, and impossible if hellbent.

You can’t rely solely on discard, however. Omniscience can protect its hand with [card]Brainstorm[/card], and sometimes has redundant pieces. On top of that, the deck combos as early as turn two. Post-board, most lists run [card]Leyline of Sanctity[/card], which can brick a black mage’s entire hand.

Countermagic is the other path to take, though Omniscience will usually best this route by packing way more, including [card]Force of Will[/card]s, [card]Pact of Negation[/card]s, and [card]Cunning Wish[/card] to tutor up redundant copies. The good news is that they don’t have more counters to bring in, so if you have a pile of [card]Flusterstorm[/card]s, you can go from losing every counter war to winning them all. Omniscience will usually leave a couple mana open to pay for [card]Spell Pierce[/card] and the like, but when you [card]Force of Will[/card] [card]Show and Tell[/card] they have to counter back, which makes [card]Flusterstorm[/card] the best card possible. Often, they have more countermagic but can’t deal with all of the storm copies.

During the counter war, don’t forget to counter the original [card]Show and Tell[/card] and not the [card]Pact of Negation[/card] protecting it.

Be careful with countermagic. Good Omniscience players will wait until they have backup, double backup, or even triple protection in the form of [card]Force of Will[/card] and multiple [card]Pact of Negation[/card]s. This means multiple hard counters won’t be good enough if you can’t apply pressure.

I’ve had the most luck with a combination of counters and discard, such as in the UB control deck I’ve been working on. If you’re interested in my latest list, check out my video set with the deck.

As far as Omni hosers go, I like the following:

[card]Arcane Laboratory[/card]
[card]Trinisphere[/card]
[card]Meddling Mage[/card]
[card]Ethersworn Canonist[/card] (underplayed at the moment)
[card]Flusterstorm[/card]

Time for a Brew, Mesphinx

I don’t want to spend this whole time talking about a stuffy mono-blue combo deck, no matter how good it is, how great it feels to play, or how dominant it is (for Legacy). Fortunately, the internet is brimming with sweet ideas and underdeveloped brews.

Sphinx RUG, by Maffei Roberto

[deck]Main Deck
4 Delver of Secrets
4 Vexing Sphinx
1 Vendilion Clique
2 Spell Snare
4 Stifle
2 Misdirection
4 Force of Will
3 Deep Analysis
4 Brainstorm
4 Punishing Fire
1 Faithless Looting
4 Tarmogoyf
3 Izzet Charm
2 Scalding Tarn
4 Wooded Foothills
3 Tropical Island
3 Volcanic Island
4 Grove of the Burnwillows
4 Wasteland
Sideboard
1 Pongify
1 Flusterstorm
2 Surgical Extraction
1 Sulfur Elemental
1 Pyrostatic Pillar
1 Ancient Grudge
2 Rough Tumble
2 Red Elemental Blast
1 Life from the Loam
3 Krosan Grip[/deck]

The deck intrigues me. Charming in its roughness, captivating in its genius—it’s hard to look at it without itching to play.

Maffei isn’t the first person to try [card]Punishing Fire[/card] in RUG. He is, to the best of my knowledge, the first to implement [card]Vexing Sphinx[/card]. Sphinx gives the RUG shell new life, combining with [card]Punishing Fire[/card] and [card]Deep Analysis[/card] to squeeze blood from stone, to create a viable draw engine in the middle of a tempo deck. After the Sphinx gets in a few hits, it draws you into more gas and burn to put the opponent away, successfully multitasking as tempo finisher and grindy engine enabler. I like how, as a 4/4, it’s invulnerable to Bolt, and the larger-than-average body gives it an edge over [card]Vendilion Clique[/card], [card]Delver of Secrets[/card], and random [card]Lingering Souls[/card] tokens in the skies.

Sphinx interacts well with [card]Stifle[/card], as it both prevents discard and the aging counter, delaying the Sphinx’s retirement. If you Stifle an early trigger, you’ll have to discard fewer cards over the course of several turns, and can milk the [card]Punishing Fire[/card] engine longer and perhaps even kill the opponent. Later, [card]Stifle[/card] converts into 4 damage, which is still useful.

I have a few problems with the list, which we can flesh out by comparing its differences to typical RUG. While it ups the mana count along with the curve, it also runs into color problems. Despite cutting blue fetches for Groves, it adds five double-blue spells at the three-drop slot. That’s not enough blue sources to reliably cast your cards on time. Rather than run more cantrips to make up the difference, we have less, making the mana base less reliable than a [card]Goblin Test Pilot[/card].

[draft]deep analysis[/draft]

[card]Deep Analysis[/card], while cute with the grindy Sphinx engine and various filter cards, is difficult to hardcast, especially when [card]Wasteland[/card]ing the opponent. One of the problems is that its best use is being discarded to Sphinx, but casting it after our three-drop makes it feel like a four drop, which almost defeats the purpose of discarding it for value. I like the card, but three is too many. In fact, one is probably too many. At least it pitches.

[draft]spell snare[/draft]

[card]Spell Snare[/card] is a great card, but it’s not the right spot in the metagame cycle. MUOmniscience, arguably the best combo deck in the format, doesn’t run two-drops at all. If the card is for [card]Tarmogoyf[/card] mirrors, I like [card]Dismember[/card] better because you can cantrip into it after the ‘Goyf has already resolved. Many of the formats best two-drops, like [card]Dark Confidant[/card] and [card]Stoneforge Mystic[/card], get eaten by [card]Punishing Fire[/card], making [card]Spell Snare[/card] somewhat redundant.

One thing [card]Spell Snare[/card] does best is counter [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card], which might otherwise be an issue when facing some Esper Blade variants. In those matchups, [card]Swords to Plowshares[/card] is a major concern, especially once you’ve committed resources to a Sphinx. It’s important to know when your creatures are bad and you need to prioritize the [card]Punishing Fire[/card] combo. Esper is one of those matchups, as recurring Shocks devastate the opponent’s win conditions, from the creatures to Jace to the late game [card]Batterskull[/card] Germ.

The deck lacks one of Delver’s best friends, [card]Ponder[/card]. We need Ponder to set up Delver, increase deck velocity and, due to the selection, reduce flood. In a deck with a combo, like [card]Punishing Fire[/card] and [card]Grove of the Burnwillows[/card], [card]Ponder[/card] is particularly good at putting the pieces together. Since we’re upping the curve for Sphinx, Punishing Fires, and Clique, I don’t want my cantrips to also cost an arm and a leg. Maybe an arm, and only then if I get to pick which one.

For someone who loves [card]Nimble Monoose[/card] as much as I—the guy who added [card]Green Sun’s Zenith[/card] to satiate his Mongoose craving—I’m strangely comfortable cutting it from this list. Nimble’s main role was to provide a different sort of threat, able to wade through a swath of disruption to rip apart an opponent like a hapless garter snake. It filled the role that [card]Thrun, the Last Troll[/card] does in the midrange decks. Fortunately for us, [card]Punishing Fire[/card] also fits this role, and can also grind down and kill an opponent no matter how many [card]Swords to Plowshares[/card] he has access to.

Another card missing from this list is [card]Lightning Bolt[/card]. I understand that [card]Punishing Fire[/card] and [card]Izzet Charm[/card] pick up the slack, but having a one-mana kill spell that also goes to the dome is one of the main reasons to play red in the first place. So long as [card]Deathrite Shaman[/card] maintains this level of popularity, I want access to cheap removal. If my sweet 4/4 bites the dust and draws me a pile of cards, I need to draw burn to finish the opponent off.

Adding red spells to the deck makes Grove better as well, transforming it into a useful land. No one needs a random colorless land in the early game, and with [card]Lightning Bolt[/card] we’ll be able to play a Grove and continue curving out.

[card]Life from the Loam[/card] should be in the main deck. It rebuys Sphinx fodder and works well with the other various looting effects while offering some resiliency to opposing Wastes. On top of all that, it provides its own soft lock while dredging into [card]Deep Analysis[/card] and the [card]Punishing Fire[/card] combo.

[card]Fathom Seer[/card] is a great way of turning earlier land drops into gas while keeping your 4/4 beatstick around longer. The problem is that the deck then overloads on three-drops, which isn’t what tempo wants to be doing. Still, a more dedicated deck might want both, especially if it runs a mana engine like [card]Aether Vial[/card].

There are a ton of other ways to get value out of the Sphinx discard, including madness cards and [card]Vengevine[/card]s. In my expert opinion, that is going too deep.

Some kind of sacrifice outlet, like [card]Cabal Therapy[/card], [card]Varolz, the Scar-Striped[/card], or [card]Carrion Feeder[/card] would give more control over when Sphinx dies. Not necessary, since it dies on its own, but factors into future brews.

After testing Maffei’s list, I attempted to address my own concerns:

Sphinx RUG

[deck]Main Deck:
3 Scalding Tarn
4 Wooded Foothills
3 Tropical Island
3 Volcanic Island
3 Grove of the Burnwillows
4 Wasteland
3 Vexing Sphinx
4 Tarmogoyf
1 Vendilion Clique
4 Delver of Secrets
4 Stifle
1 Misdirection
4 Force of Will
1 Deep Analysis
4 Brainstorm
3 Punishing Fire
1 Faithless Looting
2 Izzet Charm
3 Lightning Bolt
4 Ponder
1 Life from the Loam
Sideboard
3 Flusterstorm
1 Sulfur Elemental
1 Pyrostatic Pillar
1 Ancient Grudge
2 Krosan Grip
3 Red Elemental Blast
1 Mind Harness
1 Dismember
2 Rough Tumble[/deck]

Testing confirmed my suspicions on [card]Deep Analysis[/card]. Even in the grindier matchups I couldn’t find time to actually cast the card, and putting it in the graveyard was often more trouble than it was worth. Do I use this [card]Izzet Charm[/card] as an answer or do I dig with it, pitching [card]Deep Analysis[/card], hoping to dig into an answer + value? I’m guessing that the final version will have zero of the card, but for now I’ll keep on running the miser, hoping to live the dream in some spectacular fashion.

I’m not sold on [card]Faithless Looting[/card]. Unlike the other cantrips, it doesn’t pitch to [card]Force of Will[/card]. I have gotten to discard [card]Punishing Fire[/card], which felt awesome, and it has smoothed out my draws a few times and given me something to do with extra Grove mana. I might cut it for [card]Thought Scour[/card], which can randomly sack out and hit one of the graveyard-relevant spells.

Cutting Grove to a 3-of reduces the combo consistency, but it makes the mana much better. Meanwhile, by adding [card]Ponder[/card] we should get to Grove more reliably than Maffei’s list. [card]Punishing Fire[/card], on the other hand, has no impact on the mana base. The split with [card]Lightning Bolt[/card] respects the curve, but Punishing might be important enough to run the full four anyway.

Loam works wonderfully with the Fires combo, allowing more land drops and thus access to multiple [card]Shock[/card]s per turn. Loam also makes our mana better, turning one fetchland into two and getting us to double-blue mana. Also, if our only blue source gets Wasted we can always Loam it back off of a Grove.

Thoughts and Concerns

The deck plays well, and it’s clearly competitive, though I still have a few concerns that I hope to resolve.

First, the tempo mirror is rough. Whenever you’re evaluating a tempo mirror on paper, look to the curve. Since the matchup is full of [card]Wasteland[/card]s, [card]Stifle[/card]s, and free countermagic, the tighter curve has an avantage. Not only does Sphinx RUG run three drops, unlike normal RUG, it also features a suite of almost-dead burn spells ([card]Shock[/card] vs [card]Nimble Mongoose[/card], go!). On top of that, normal RUG has four more free counterspells in Daze.

The extra lands in the mana base, along with the miser [card]Life from the Loam[/card], offer a little compensation. If we can resolve a Sphinx against a board of [card]Nimble Mongoose[/card]s, we can win through brute size. Post-board, winning the [card]Tarmogoyf[/card] mirror is huge, and we might want more slots dedicated to that.

My second concern is the combo matchup. Unless we’re facing a deck that dies to [card]Force of Will[/card], which is, surprisingly, still a thing, we’re going to be a dog in game one thanks to all the crappy burn spells. Normal RUG isn’t super amazing against combo either, but at least it has [card]Daze[/card].

That’s one of the reasons I’ve respected combo so much in the board. After subbing in a pile of REBs and [card]Flusterstorms[/card], decks like Omniscience and Ad Naus start to seem downright beatable. [card]Pyrostatic Pillar[/card] is a holdover from the original list, which looks good on paper but I haven’t had time to test it. Decks with a lot of countermagic see their 1-ofs more often, which makes me more likely to run misers in a deck like RUG. In the past I’ve run [card]Counterbalance[/card], [card]Gilded Drake[/card], and [card]Venser, Shaper Savant[/card] to good effect.

Finally, I worry that I won’t have time to fully tune this deck before the St. Louis Open this weekend. Who am I kidding? That’s plenty of time. I just need to test more and tweak the board a little. I don’t think the [card]Ancient Grudge[/card] is better than [card]Pithing Needle[/card] (which hits [card]Sneak Attack[/card]), though I do like how [card]Ancient Grudge[/card] can be discarded or dredged into. [card]Sulfur Elemental[/card] might not be necessary in a deck with [card]Punishing Fire[/card], though I’ve never fought the Grove vs. Lingering Souls battle before. Lastly, I need to make sure I have enough of the right answer for the [card]Tarmogoyf[/card] mirror. [card]Mind Harness[/card] might be good against RUG, but it’s weak to [card]Abrupt Decay[/card]. I suspect I’ll end up squeezing in some number of [card]Submerge[/card]s, but hopefully I’ll find a more creative solution—perhaps [card]Engineered Explosives[/card].

Wish me luck.

Caleb Durward
@CalebDMTG

(Correction: This article originally listed Krosan Grip and Oblivion Ring instead of Arcane Laboratory and Trinisphere as hosers for Omniscience.)