Deck Primer: RUG Sprowess in Highlander

Welcome to a deck primer on RUG Sprowess in 7 Point Highlander! In this article we will take a deep dive into RUG Sprowess, which is a representative of the Tempo Strategy in Highlander. You’ll notice a unique fusion of elements from multiple Highlander Archetypes, including Protect the Queen and a blend of principles from Burn and Theme Combo.

Squires throughout the realm aspire to her mix of panache and martial prowess.

– Syr Gwyn, Hero of Ashvale

Want to play an 18/10 double strike and trample creature on turn two? Like the idea of pumping a creature for lethal damage after your opponent has unsuspectingly declared no blockers? Have you always wanted to play infect in 7 Point Highlander but were too frustrated that it was never quite good enough? Well look no further, let me present to you RUG Sprowess™! Here at RUG Sprowess™, you get to finally play get to play Berserk without the infect damage so you can claim that you won ‘fair and square’ through combat damage.

Click on the link below to explore the latest RUG Sprowess deck list!

Deck List – RUG Sprowess

The Origin of RUG Sprowess

I always loved playing Prowess in Highlander. I love the combination of playing cheap spells, putting pressure on my durdly midrange and control opponents and drawing a ton of cards for maximum fun. Historically, this has meant playing Izzet as red and blue enable an aggro-style play with lots of card draw. This is where I owe a creative debt to some of the pioneers of Prowess and Izzet decks in Highlander: Wan Chin Wan’s “Wan Chin Burn”, Athiette’s “Dr Suess”, Tim Evers’ “The Bus” and Phil’s aggro list “TM55” (you can read more about these here in Dan Abraham and Drew Carter’s deep dive on Lava Spike and Burn). I played many hours with a variant of those builds and enjoyed them greatly, but always felt like there was room for innovation. Playing only two colours in Highlander simply felt like I was passing up an opportunity. In 2020, a Highlander deck can easily accommodate 3 colours.

Pointed Cards in RUG Sprowess

  • Ancestral Recall (4 Points)
  • Treasure Cruise (2 Points)
  • Merchant Scroll (1 Point)

RUG Sprowess’s Game Plan

Pump it! One of the first cards I started brewing around for a third colour was, surprisingly, Scale Up (hence the S in Sprowess, which doubles nicely with my initials!). I always felt like it would be a great addition to a Prowess deck. Playing it onto a creature such as a Monastery Swiftspear on turn two would give you a 7/5 creature as the Prowess trigger would add to the pump spell. Once I started adding Scale Up, I was immediately led to experimenting more with pump spells.

Contingent on the creature surviving, pump spells seemed like the best value for mana in terms of damage and using them on Prowess creatures was the logical conclusion to that line of thinking. I started playing Become Immense, Invigorate, Titan’s Strength, and Reckless Charge, and felt like they were good additions to a Prowess deck that I envisioned to be more explosive than some of the more grindy Izzet builds. This also had the benefit of allowing me to play Berserk, a card I always wanted to play but never found a home for beyond Infect. After playing Berserk a handful of times, I never looked back.

Most controversially (and despite copping a lot of flak from haters), I have found that opening the flood gates to pump spells made Assault Strobe a really strong inclusion. Especially with spells like Invigorate and creatures like Thing in the Ice that card has often felt like a second Berserk, even as it is obviously not as good as Berserk itself.

Key Cards in RUG Sprowess

Free Spells

At the core of this deck are free spells. Free spells allow you to get those Prowess triggers as quickly as possible, making Berserk and Assault Strobe even better. They also allow you to flip a Thing in the Ice reliably on turn three. I try to play literally every free spell under the sky in this deck. That means Gitaxian Probe, Manamorphose, Gut Shot, Fireblast, Gush, and Mutagenic Growth. Adding green also allows you to play Land Grant (Thanks to Tim Evers for the recommendation!) and Invigorate. Invigorate is one of the strongest cards in this deck, acting basically as a free Mutagenic Growth on a Prowess creature and being extremely powerful with Berserk and/or Assault Strobe.

Cantrips

Not as good as free spells, but these replace themselves and have become increasingly important as this deck has evolved towards one-hitting the opponent for the win. The usual suspects are: Ponder, Preordain, Brainstorm, but recently I’ve also been playing Sleight of Hand, not just because of the cool Foglio art but because the right combination of creature, pump, and protection spells is absolutely crucial.

I also play Shadow Rift which is an amazing card (remember, you can give Shadow to your opponent’s creature making all your creatures unblockable!). Unlike the Izzet build, this deck does not play Crash Through and/or Slip Through Space as Berserk’s trample clause basically takes care of that. Elusive Spellfist also comes with an inbuilt evasion ability and many of the flying creatures are usually able to get in without having to deal with blockers.

Card Draw

With all these free spells in the deck card draw is more important than ever. This is where I spent all the deck’s points: Ancestral Recall, Treasure Cruise and Merchant Scroll. Ancestral Recall is a no-brainer and Treasure Cruise becomes active surprisingly fast as your graveyard fills up real quickly. I used to play Snapcaster Mage for the last one-point slot, but the fact that it is not an instant or sorcery often is a huge hindrance in a deck that so heavily relies on non-creature spells. Most of the time you play sorcery-speed anyway and spending a point when there are unpointed versions of this effect felt terrible. Though it did not make the final cut in the current build, I actually found Regrowth better than Snappy as it adds to Prowess, allows you to get a creature back, and does not cost a point. I also tested Force of Will in this spot but found that this was not great either as I rarely had redundant blue spells to pitch to it and often no blue cards at all on hand. All in all, it provided just too much card disadvantage and not having to spend all the money on the double masters edition in order to avoid playing a Terese Nielsen card is an added bonus. 

Merchant Scroll has to date proven by far the best option in this slot as it basically doubles the probability of getting an Ancestral Recall and, if I have cast that already, a Gush. Getting and casting Gush has been more relevant than I expected, especially when stuck on two lands, allowing me to cast the Gush the very same turn (relevant when playing against control) or if I am in need to cast one more spell for an additional Prowess trigger to close out the game but have no more mana available. A few times it has also helped me by getting a shadow rift for lethal Kiln Fiend damage.

Creatures

I want to start this section by emphasising how much the printings of Stormwing Entity and Sprite Dragon have improved this deck. With all the free spells in this deck, Stormwing on turn 2 happens a fair bit (think Manamorphose or Gut Shot their mana dork!) and the scry ability is invaluable in a deck that so heavily relies on the correct combination of spells. Similarly, Sprite Dragon is basically prowess on steriods and with flying and haste it has all the keywords one could wish for.

Aside from those two, this deck plays the usual Prowess suspects: Monastery Swiftspear, Blistercoil Weird, Soul-Scar Mage, Kiln Fiend, Stormchaser Mage, and Elusive Spellfist. Thing in the Ice is also incredibly good in this build, given that it plays so many free spells and, as mentioned above, pairs really well with Berserk or Assault Strobe. Though not a Prowess creature, Delver of Secrets is a no-brainer in this deck given that it plays 29 (!) instant or sorcery spells.

With 17 castable 1-CMC spells, Dreadhorde Arcanist is fantastic, providing for the much-needed fuel as hands tend to empty out fast. Arcanist’s trample ability is also highly relevant as a simple Scale Up allows you not only to cast Gush from the graveyard, but also deal a substantial amount of damage to your opponent – sweet!

Last but not least, I cannot stress enough how good Noble Hierarch is in this build. Not only does it ramp and provide an important exalted trigger that is highly relevant with Assault Strobe and Berserk, but it also allows you to win with an oversized Hierarch beatdown and, let’s be honest, that is one kind of a feeling.

Lately, I have also been playing Deathrite Shaman because it just feels wrong not to do so, though its drain ability has been much less relevant than its ability to ramp. Having a little graveyard disruption has also helped against decks that can be faster than Sprowess, such as Reanimator.

Burn Spells

Playing burn spells isn’t really the point of this deck and, provided the creatures survive and have enough evasion, you always get more damage for CMC with pump spells. As this deck has moved towards killing my opponent with one, big hit (due to Berserk and Assault Strobe), slow burn has become a mostly redundant strategy. This is the main section where I have cut cards from the traditional Izzet builds. Most notably, Chain Lightning and Lava Dart which are near-staples in Izzet are absent in this build. Nonetheless, it is hard to say no to playing Lightning Bolt as it can help disrupt the enemy should they have a particularly cumbersome creature on the battlefield.

Other than Bolt, I cannot emphasise enough how good Barbarian Ring is in this deck as it often is just a free extra 2 damage and filling up the graveyard is never really a problem. Fireblast, being a free spell and doing a ridiculous amount of direct damage, is probably the best burn spell for this deck and has closed out more games than I can count.

Protection

Being so pump spell heavy comes with one big caveat: the creature must survive! Every infect player knows this as there is nothing worse than pumping one’s creature and having it removed before combat damage. Luckily this has been much less of a problem for me than I anticipated as opponents are often tapped out, thinking they can survive one more turn with 18 life to their name. Often you can also gauge whether your opponent has any interaction as they signal to you that they do not have anything in their hand after passing priority back to you after (not) declaring blockers. Mental Misstep and Daze really do the heavy lifting in this department, allowing you to go for the kill without worrying about protecting your creatures. These two cards are invaluable in this build. Spell Pierce, to a lesser extent, has also been very strong as it is just really fast and great in a number of situations, especially against difficult combo matchups.

That notwithstanding, I have found Blossoming Defense to be a very sensible addition as it can be used proactively to simply pump your creature should you be confident enough that your opponent has no interaction. Apostle’s Blessing has similarly been surprisingly good as it can be used proactively to make your creature unblockable, including protection from artifacts! Apart from those two protection spells, however, I have had no need for more as it just makes you play unnecessarily defensively.

You want to be the proactive deck.

When to play RUG Sprowess?

This deck is really flexible in terms of match ups. I’ve been having a great time with it against a heavy control meta as there are just too many free and cheap spells for counter-magic to be effective and you are often too fast for them. In fact, this deck emerged within a heavy control meta. Combo as well as heavy removal and discard are probably what you want to watch out for. Storm style combo can be faster than you and you are very light on counter magic. Removal + discard is a tough combination to deal with as your creature has to survive and your hand empties fast. Klothys + a slower, more grindy play style (boarding out sorcery speed pump + free spells that don’t replace themselves) has helped.

Recently, the meta has been very creature heavy which has been interesting because you need to get through with the damage but simply adding a slip through space mainboard has helped with that too. Against creature decks that are low to the ground, you don’t really have too much of a problem. All in all I’ve found this deck to be very versatile and adaptable to any meta.

The Sideboard Guide

Match Ups

Effectively sideboarding with this deck means under- rather than over-sideboarding. Sprowess tries to very carefully balance pump spells, creature spells, protection spells, and card draw and disrupting that balance too much messes over the entire strategy. Often you are also the faster deck and need not worry too much about stopping your opponent. As a general guide I try not to board in more than 5 cards and I rarely ever mess with the creature count as it’s already on the lower side of things and people like to bring in removal against you. The overarching philosophy of the sideboard is to play as many cheap instant/sorceries as possible. Prepare yourself to face heavy removal post-board in most match ups and a common thing that I do is remove some of the sorcery speed pump spells like Reckless Charge, Assault Strobe, and even Scale Up that open you up to being blown out. Transitioning the deck towards more Midrange burn by bringing in Chain Lightning and Klothys, God of Destiny is a great idea.

Artifact based strategies:

  • Destructive Revelry
  • Smash to Smithereens

Blue based strategies:

  • Miscast
  • Disrupt (tempo spice!)
  • Spell Snare

Graveyard combo decks:

  • Tormod’s Crypt
  • Relic of Progenitus
  • Scavenging Ooze (‘scooze’ post-board is also really good as it avoids all the blasts that people sideboard in against you)

Green decks/creature decks: I have significantly increased the cards in this section to reflect the meta shifting towards creature builds.

  • Submerge
  • Flame Slash
  • Chain lightning
  • Forked Bolt

Lifegain prevention (any white deck):

  • Rampaging Ferocidon

Black Midrange decks and hand disruption:

  • Klothys, God of Destiny
  • Veil of Summer (unsurprisingly one of the best sideboard cards you can have)

Lands:

  • Scavenging Ooze

Other sideboard considerations:

  • Mistcaller. Great against reanimator and Oracle.
  • Vapor Snag. This card is surprisingly good in a fast build like this deck. I have played it mainboard in the past.
  • Vandalblast. If you need more artifact removal.
  • Sulfuric Vortex. I love and hate this card. It has about won me as many games as it has lost me games. Ultimately, I have decided not to play it as this deck deals too much damage to itself with Gitaxian Probe, Mutagenic Growth etc. and the risk of this backfiring is too large. Klothys has been much better.
  • Sylvan Library. Good against hand disruption but too slow and not very proactive in closing out the game or dealing damage. Can’t afford to take that much damage yourself. I prefer Klothys.
  • Ankh of Mishra. Spicy and great against Lands. Depends on your local meta.
  • Pillar of Flame. Good against Black-Red aggro but I haven’t faced that deck in ages. There are better burn alternatives already in the board.

Additional Support

The Flex Slots

There are maybe 3 cards that could be taken out:

  • Faithless Looting. This deck already struggles with running out of gas and looting often just makes it worse. Of course, the flashback ability can really help you sort yourself out during the mid-game if you are flooded with lands or are desperately searching for another creature which is why I am still playing it, but I do often think about just replacing it with a blue cantrip. On the plus side, it fills up your graveyard and activates Treasure Cruise, Become Immense and Barbarian Ring quickly which is the main reason why I still play it.
  • Deathrite Shaman. It feels clearly worse than Noble Hierarch which is not something I thought I’d ever say but it is true in this build where the drain ability is rarely relevant. Draining often also feels redundant as you are aiming to close out the game with one, big hit and getting only two damage for one mana is poor value in this deck.
  • Sleight of Hand. The worst of the cantrips and can be replaced if something more powerful comes along. For now, having the correct combination of spells in hand is too important not to play it.

Maybe cards to be added

Here are a selection of your ‘maybe-board’, i.e. some cards one might consider adding or experimenting with. I have collated them into groups based on theme, whether they push damage, act as removal, or recur your important spells.

Push Damage

  • Slip through space. As more creature builds appear on the scene I have been tempted to play this card. In this build, it’s usually better than Crash Through as you attack with one, large creature. Renegade Tactics is another, slightly more inferior consideration but in my view this deck really does not need more evasion beyond Shadow Rift, Berserk, Flyers, Thing in the Ice and Elusive Spellfist.
  • Groundswell. Simply a good pump spell but in my opinion Titan Strength’s scry ability is more valuable and Reckless Charge’s haste and flashback ability are more valuable than the extra damage this gives. The landfall clause has also been problematic in this 18 land deck. Might of Old Krosa is another consideration but same arguments apply.
  • Price of Progress. I really love this card and often this deck can do everything it needs to do with no more than three lands. Additionally, Fireblast and Gush allow you to get rid of non-basics before firing Price of Progress off but in the end I decided against playing it because it didn’t form part of the deck’s main strategy of pumping one creature. It also is 2 CMC which often is annoying as you want to get those Prowess triggers and empty your hand in one go. I could be convinced to play it again.
  • Temur Battle Rage. I always wanted to make this card work but 2 CMC cards have to be extremely good to make it in this deck and I don’t feel like this is good enough.

Recursive

  • Regrowth. Until recently, this was a staple in Sprowess. It is a much better card than Snapcaster Mage in my opinion, as it adds to your Prowess count and does not even cost a point! It allows you to get back an Ancestral Recall, only to cast it again with Dreadhorde Arcanist, which is quite the feel. Importantly, it allows you to get back a creature like Swiftspear if your opponent plays heavy removal. I have put it aside temporarily as I have tried to make this deck as fast as possible.
  • Lutri, the Spellchaser. I have been wanting to test this card more seriously as a replacement for Merchant Scroll. It feels very slow for such a fast deck and doesn’t add to Prowess. Playing it on T3 with Gush / Fireblast is tempting though.
  • Mission Briefing. It plays a similar role to Regrowth. I like that it gives you a Prowess trigger and that it allows you to fill up your graveyard and plan your next card draw, all while not costing a point like Snapcaster Mage but the double blue has more often than not been a big issue, making the casting of an Ancestral Recall near impossible.
  • Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy. I like this card a lot, and it also helps you fill up your graveyard and select the correct cards. Just a tad not proactive enough for my liking. At 2 CMC I want to be casting a creature that is really powerful and able to deal damage asap. For recursion, Regrowth is simply better as it adds to Prowess.
  • Noxious Revival. This card needs more testing but I generally am very amenable to playing free spells in this deck. It feels a little bit too heavy on card disadvantage but I am happy to be proven wrong.
  • Postmortem Lunge. I have thought about this card a lot, but it would typically not give you a Prowess trigger as you will be presumably reviving a Prowess creature. I think it might be just a bit too spicy.

Removal

  • Chain Lightning. This used to be a staple in my build and could take the place of Sleight of Hand but as I have moved towards speed and an emphasis on having the correct combination of cards on hand in order to win in one go, this has become less valuable of a card. As creature decks make a resurgence you might want to include this again.
  • Forked Bolt. Similarly, this has been useful in the past, mostly as it helps you deal with annoying x/1s that often serve your opponent as blockers (thinking of Lingering Souls but also most mana dorks). As mentioned above, though, this build has really moved away from the burn strategy and you have ways to evade blockers. Also, Lingering Souls hasn’t seen much play at all recently but this might change.
  • Lava Dart. I loved this card in Izzet, but for now I found that with Gush and Fireblast I rarely get to have the luxury to sacrifice a land for the extra ‘ping’.

Other candidates

  • Rite of Flame. I have tried to build this deck as explosive and aggressive as possible and this card fits the bill. Unfortunately, with all the free spells this deck is at a perpetual risk of running out of cards. Sometimes I find Rite of Flame extremely powerful (allowing for a turn one Kiln Fiend or three Prowess triggers if you cast two spells off it), but sometimes it leads to you being empty-handed too quickly. In my view, Manamorphose does a much better job, while also allowing you to fix your mana – a feature that I often miss with Rite of Flame, as double red can be suboptimal in a three colour deck.
  • Magmatic Channeler. I’ve seen this card make the rounds in Izzet builds. I’ve tested and really liked the value of it and its ability to cycle cards, but have ultimately found that it really doesn’t work well with Become Immense and Treasure Cruise.
  • Inkmoth Nexus would be great in this deck but I simply cannot justify playing a colourless land in a three colour deck that plays Gush and Fireblast and wants to win by turn three or four (and I would never cut Gush or Fireblast).

Video Content

Round 3: 01:45:19 – RUG Sprowess vs Jungle Boogey (Yidris Midrange) | Quarter Finals: 04:26:37 – RUG Sprowess vs BUG Lurrus | 04:40:36 – RUG Sprowess vs BUG Lurrus

I hope you enjoyed this primer and thanks for reading! Please do let me know what you think in the 7ph Discord or Twitter!

Sophie Pezzutto

Sophie Pezzutto started playing Magic in 2014 with the release of the first Ravnica block. She started her foray into the competitive Magic scene with Modern, taking great enjoyment in transforming her Celestial Colonnade on turning 54 when she decided it was time to turn the corner. Bringing this play style to the Highlander community with (notoriously slowly played) Grixis Control decks, she eventually was tired of drawing games and pivoted to more tempo-oriented builds such as Izzet Prowess. Sophie's drive for optimisation and enjoyment of Izzet culminated in the creation of "RUG Sprowess". Sprowess integrated pump spells like Scale Up (hence the name) into the Prowess mechanic and was inspired by contemporary infect builds in structure and play style but also by Sophie's desire to cast Ancestral Recall as many times as possible. On weekends she enjoys cycling around Lake Burley Griffin with her family.