Rigo, Streetwise Mentor is a force to be reckoned with. The ability to create busted board states before the opponent has made their second land drop, being able to abuse some of the most broken cards in the format, grind opponents to dust or come back from seemingly unwinnable positions, Rigo can do it all. So why is one of the best decks in the format so unpopular?
At first glance the commander doesn’t seem too interesting. A 2/2 body for 3 mana that draws you a card every turn with a bit of protection is good, but not broken. His real strength is how the deck is constructed around him, without being too dependent on him. I have won multiple games where the commander hasn’t hit the battlefield a single time! There are almost no decks in Historic Bawl that can achieve that, let alone consistently.
The additional protection ability also has a lot of utility. Apart from sticking around after a board wipe you can also use him to chump block two turns in a row against larger threats like a Kogla, the Titan Ape while still being on the offensive with your evasive threats to close out the game.
The deck is very flexible and approaches every matchup differently but to summarize the gameplan: Play a threat, stick a value engine and disrupt the opponent. In some cases a card can fulfill more than one of these roles, for example Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath does not only hit hard but also draws you a ton of cards in the process. In most games, your early turns are going to be a mix of cheap, evasive creatures, efficient interaction and ramp. Depending on the matchup you don’t need all of these but more on that later.
Another big role player are your 8 Ninjutsu creatures. They are absolutely essential to the success of the deck although you can find yourself winning games without ever using one. Whether you are riding a single Mist-Syndicate Naga to victory or using your ninjas to return interaction like Brazen Borrower, the utility these cards bring to the table is extremely powerful.
Understanding how Ninjutsu works is essential to the success of this deck and sometimes just playing a Moonsnare Specialist before combat instead of getting fancy is exactly what you need.
Another really important thing is to know exactly when you use cards like Once Upon a Time (OUaT) or make your land drop. Let’s say you start the turn with OUaT in your hand and an evasive threat on the field as well as your commander. The reason to play OUaT in your main phase would be to find something like Faerie Vandal and grow it immediately with the attack. Drawing the card first would give you more information on which card to choose from Once Upon a Time.
Land drops can be equally tricky: If you play your land before attacking you might be able to tap out more optimally for your ninjutsu creature that you just happen to draw from the attack trigger. In other cases you might want to hold your land drop to make a more informed decision. Do you want to drop a forest to play two mana dorks and hold up countermagic or would you rather drop an island to play a Kira, Great Glass-Spinner alongside a single dork?
The current version is rocking a whopping 34 1-drops and an average mana cost of 1.8. This seems a bit overkill but it really isn’t. This deck wants to turbo out the hand extremely quickly and takes a good 5 card hand over a medium 7 any day. If you have a good start with this deck you are not going to miss those two cards since you are going to draw a ton anyways. We run a total of 15 evasive threats that cost 2 or less mana. This gives us a ~69.5% chance to see one in any given hand of 7, which seems suboptimal, but we also have to consider the free mulligan we get from playing Historic Brawl, growing that number to around ~91.6%.
On top of that, we have a total of 22 cards that meaningfully interact with the opponent. This is anything from simple cards like Spell Pierce, Swords to Plowshares or Boseiju, Who Endures, to more complex ones like Giant Killer or Overcharged Amalgam. Creatures are especially strong here because we can return them to our hand with our ninjas.
Cheap card draw engines like Curious Obsession, Combat Research and Grazilaxx, Illithid Scholar keep our hand full. The focus here is on cheap effects, not necessarily big ones. It is very important that we make sure the opponent doesn’t sneak a threat into play that we are not equipped to deal with currently or counter that pesky removal spell that is pointed at our enchanted creature. In most matchups we would rather play only one draw enchantment on our creature and keep up Spell Pierce instead of being greedy and tapping out.
We round out the rest of the deck with a couple of spells that help us to actually kill the opponent because it may take a while winning the game with one damage at a time. The already mentioned ninja package helps a ton with that but cards like Uro, Iymrith and Faerie Vandal help going over the top if that is what you need.
Let’s finally talk about the manabase because there is more to it than meets the eye. The baseline is that we need to cast our spells, which is way more difficult than one might think with the options available to us in Historic Brawl right now. While we do have access to some powerful lands like Command Tower, Shocklands, Fastlands and Painlands, this is basically where the fun stops. Slowlands and Checklands are fine, but not optimal considering that we really want untapped lands all the way through.
The main issue is that we just don’t have the quantity of good lands available until we have Fetchlands on MTG Arena (which are probably still a few years away, if at all). We are even so desperate that we play cards like Spara's Headquarters and Fabled Passage. Fine cards overall, just not what we want in a tempo deck like this at all. This leaves absolutely no room for colorless or tapped utility lands especially since our commander requires three colored pips to cast.
Tech Choices and Notable Exclusions
While we talked a lot about our general gameplan there are some cards in this deck that deserve their own article. Whether they fill a specific role in certain matchups or are more powerful than one might think, they should provide an interesting discussion.
Iymrith, Desert Doom
A slow 5 mana flier is not something you would expect from this deck but the more you think about it the more sense it makes. As we discussed earlier this deck can have issues closing out the game. Crashing in a couple of times with this big dragon will solve that problem while providing us with more cards to protect her. There are usually two ways to play this card: You either slam her down early and make the opponent answer this big threat while holding back your other resources or you do it the other way around, committing to the board, forcing a board wipe and slam Iymrith on an empty board when the opponent is tapped out.
This slot used to be a Nightpack Ambusher but there were a couple of issues with this: While flash is an extremely useful keyword in this deck, not having evasion is a real downside when you ignore the opponents chump blockers otherwise.
Kira, Great Glass-Spinner
Kira is a double edged sword. While turning off your curiosity effects and taking away some utility from March of Swirling Mist is definitely a downside, this card can be an absolute nightmare to deal with in certain matchups, especially for red and black decks. If your gameplan revolves around this card you should try to play out the Auras beforehand and hold back a Negate in case the opponent goes for a board wipe, since it is about the cleanest answer to a resolved Kira.
A card that serves a similar role but plays out completely different is Shapers' Sanctuary. While Kira has to be played out carefully this little enchantment is usually dropped and forgotten while drawing you tons of cards in a lot of your worst matchups.
March of Swirling Mist
Oh March of Swirling Mist, you absolute beast of a card. While this card is rarely ever seen in Historic Brawl since most decks can’t utilize it to its fullest potential it is extremely powerful in this deck. This card is similar to Brainstorm in Legacy: The best card in your deck that you don’t want to put on the stack. The longer you can wait casting it, the better it becomes since its utility is off the charts.
While you can use it to protect a single card from a removal spell, it is even more powerful if you phase out your whole board in response to a board wipe. You can phase out the opponent’s board to swing for lethal, phase out their mana dorks in their upkeep or their threats in response to them casting an aura to make the enchantment go to the graveyard. The versatility is endless and only further fueled by the fact that we draw a ton of cards to pitch with our commander. March really puts your skills to the tests in how you use it and I encourage you to get creative with it!
Toski, Bearer of Secrets
Toski is a really strong card and while the poor statline is usually one of his downsides it can actually be an upside in this deck as it allows us to draw a card with Rigo. If we have our commander with a shield counter and a Toski amongst other things and the opponent wipes the board we still get to draw three cards on our next attack, which is absolutely massive. Generally speaking, we prefer to play the indestructible squirrel in a situation where we can draw multiple cards immediately.
Two notable exclusions from the deck are Reconnaissance Mission and Coastal Piracy: They achieve very similar things to Toski but with a major downside: They do absolutely nothing if we do not have other cards in play.
Archon of Emeria
This card sadly did not make the cut but not for the reasons you might think. The major synergy here is how this card interacts with Ninjutsu. We can obviously return this card to our hand, cast our spells and play it again but that is pretty costly to do. Instead we Ninjutsu another card to our hand, replay it and pass the turn to spend the most of our mana and keep up countermagic for the single card the opponent is allowed to play during their turn. The main reason why this card is not in this list is because the matchups where this card shines are already favorable or not popular.
Citywide Bust and Dusk // Dawn
These two cards are generally interchangeable and while they function as one sided board wipes in the right matchups, the floor on them is very low. Cheap spot removal will usually be enough most of the time and allows for more flexibility overall. If you encounter a lot of stompy decks in the queue you might want to consider running one of them (I generally prefer the former) but as of right now, I don’t see the appeal.
Matchups, Matchmaking and Mulligans
Due to the way the matchmaking in Historic Brawl works, you don’t have to worry about certain decks like Kinnan, Bonder Prodigy or Baral, Chief of Compliance until Rigo gets placed higher, but that doesn’t mean he is powerless against them.
The list has already performed in small tournaments and as of the writing of this article I have a personal record of 167-36 in the public queue, resulting in a 82% win rate. This deck’s worst matchups are aggro decks, which are luckily not too popular.
Let’s have a look at how the deck tackles different archetypes:
Playing Against Aggro
Depending on the style of aggro you are up against, this matchup can be quite tricky because the opponent can block your evasive threats and has cheap removal to deal with your board. Against decks that play to the board your unblockable creatures are at a premium. Another role player are your large creatures like Ledger Shredder as they disincentive the opponent from attacking into you while you can slowly grow your advantage with a draw engine.
Playing Against Combo
Combo decks are mostly about knowing the key cards in your opponent’s deck. Luckily for us we have plenty of tools to deal with these cards. Paradox Engine decks generally have trouble closing out the game if the namesake card gets dealt with. Against storm decks you usually have the choice of either preventing them from drawing cards or gaining mana. All of this depends on the exact matchup and it is best advised to learn the opponent’s deck if you keep having trouble.
Playing Against Control
The control matchup is about resolving a few key cards and protecting them to the best of your ability. Don’t overcommit to the board and apply just enough pressure to make them sweat. Cards like Uro, Suspicious Stowaway, Ledger Shredder or a Rigo with a couple of enchantments are often enough to run away with the game and don’t need much more to support them. It is often correct to provoke the opponent into using a board wipe and drop the actual threat when their shields are down.
Example Opening Hands
Now let’s have a look at four different opening hands. The goal is not to show off the broken starts this deck can have but the nuanced decisions one has to make for the average hand.
Generally speaking however, you will likely mulligan for solid mana, as this is a weakness for this deck with the current lands we have in the format. Remember, the context for all of these examples can change depending on the matchup.
Hand Number 1
In unfair matchups like Storm, I would immediately ship this hand back and would search for counterspells and spot removal. Against most other decks, this hand is decent and a lot of ways this can play out. If you suspect that Kami of Bamboo Groves can swing in on turn 2 and survive the attack, it is recommended to lead on it, as either of our follow ups benefit from that.
You can either play a Rigo on turn 2 to swing in and draw a card, which is the more generic play that will always be good, especially if you are on the play against control and go under most counterspells.
The other option is to ninjutsu the Kami back to the hand to channel it at a later point in the game for value if Kappa Tech-Wrecker is a relevant card in the matchup. If Kami does not connect, this hand becomes considerably weaker, but still not unplayable.
Hand Number 2
This is a perfect example of a hand that can potentially play the game without Rigo. It is also a hand that is really good on the draw, potentially even better than on the play since you have many reactive spells. The main power here comes from Ledger Shredder and protecting this conniving bird should be a high priority.
If you suspect that the opponent might remove it once it hits the field, consider passing on your turn 2 to either use Memory Lapse or Petty Theft on Brazen Borrower to interact with the opponent and play Shredder on turn 3 with Spell Pierce up. I would much rather use Petty Theft over Memory Lapse in most cases as the counterspell can further protect our board once it is established.
In a 6 card hand I would put back one of the interaction spells depending on the matchup, on 5 the Island.
Hand Number 3
A very tricky hand that requires a good read on the opponent. Most of the time we would like to lead on Silver Raven, sending to the bottom basically anything that isn’t a land with the idea of going for a ninjutsu play on turn 2. Depending on how the situation played out and if we found a land we can then either Llanowar Elves or do nothing, with the intention of playing The Wandering Emperoron turn 3 if we found a Plains and go for Grazilaxx, Illithid Scholar as our draw engine down the road. If we haven’t found a land at this point we are very likely to scry again with the Silver Raven and get two more looks at a land.
If the opponent is on a list with a lot of removal I would likely mulligan since it is going to be very hard for us to do anything without the Silver Raven. On 6 I would send back The Wandering Emperor on 5 the Llanowar Elves.
Playing Against the Deck
While this deck is very hard to pilot correctly due to the amount of options and different angles it can take it is pretty hard to play against as well. Generally speaking you want to prevent the Rigo player from drawing cards and kill their big threats. On a board with a Rigo and a Grazilaxx, Illithid Scholar it is much more efficient to deal with their one evasive threat if you have a board presence instead of killing one of the engines, since they are so dependent on having that evasive threat in the first place.
Do not make the mistake of pointing a removal spell at one of their unblocked creatures in the combat phase since they will be able to just ninjutsu it back to the hand in response. In a lot of games you will have the time to respond to their board since you won’t be under too much pressure, but make no mistake: They will draw into countermagic and it will blow you out if you get greedy, so make your move as soon as you see an opening.
Random Tips and Interactions
- You can hold full control to ninjutsu a creature to your hand after it has dealt damage since it is still considered attacking until you leave the combat step. This means you can swap in a Kappa Tech-Wrecker, deal damage, use its ability and then return it back to your hand after it has used up its counter to exile another artifact or enchantment next turn if the matchup requires it.
- Rigo draws a card per target and on attack, not on damage. This means that swinging in with your Arboreal Grazer on turn two after playing Rigo will draw you a card and if the opponent has a planeswalker you can draw up to two cards per turn with his ability given you have enough attackers.
- Ninjutsu is an activated ability. This means that you can put your ninja into play in turns where the opponent anticipated your plays by holding up countermagic and gain virtual tempo doing so. This also helps with transforming Suspicious Stowaway.
Playing the Deck on a Budget
- You need the ninjas. All of them. There is no way around that.
- Whatever draw engine you don’t own can be replaced by Curiosity, Reconnaissance Mission and Coastal Piracy, in that order.
- Basically any cheap and evasive creature can be replaced with a 1 mana 1/1 flier, pick what you think fits the deck best. The current ones are definitely the most optimal though and you will feel their absence.
- As additional threats I recommend the already mentioned Nightpack Ambusher if you own a copy, otherwise any big flier will do.
- The mana base is also integral to the strategy, you can swap out a couple of dual land for basics but that’s about it. You need to be able to cast your spells and you need to do so on curve.
To answer the question from the start of the article: Rigo is unpopular because he is one of the hardest decks in the format to play and punishing to play. The tempo playstyle might not appeal to every player and he is quite difficult to build on a budget due to the critical mass of specific cards required. If you enjoy complex decisions and being able to deal with basically any situation Rigo might just be the deck for you though. I for one, absolutely love this deck and can’t recommend it enough because mastering it will definitely make you a better magic player!