In today’s article we’ll examine card advantage and tempo, attempting to unravel the mystery of how some decks are able to ignore or sacrifice card advantage and still perform successfully.
The dominant paradigm for deck-building and analysis in Magic theory is card advantage. This is a theory explicitly built around cards in hand. It states that the player with access to a greater number of cards and effects will tend to win the game. There are two major variants: raw card advantage and virtual card advantage.
Raw Card Advantage
This is a school of deck-building and theory which is designed to access a greater number of cards than the opponent. The ability of the opponent to produce resources at the relatively slow rate of 1 card per draw step per turn is the limiting factor that makes this strategy possible. Often, the goal is to trade cards one-for-one and win by simply running the opponent out of resources. A variety of control decks are built around this model. Blue countermagic such as Counterspell or Mana Drain is often used due to the ability to trade one-for-one with virtually any card. The blue model is usually to make these trades and play some card advantage engine to ensure an eventual victory. This may be a cluster of one-shot effects like Gush, Thirst for Knowledge, or Intuition plus Accumulated Knowledge. It may also consist of repeatable effects like Dark Confidant and Jace, the Mind Sculptor. There is an alternate model, which is to build the deck primarily out of cards which naturally provide card advantage. Every card played contributes to a resource lead, eventually overwhelming the opponent. Hymn to Tourach, Shardless Agent, and Stoneforge Mystic are all examples of this principle. Non-blue control and midrange decks often follow this route, as they have access to less-universal answers and to fewer card-drawing engines.
Virtual Card Advantage
This is a school of deck-building which is designed to access a greater number of matchup-relevant effects than the opponent. The theory is built around a dual understanding – most decks can draw only 1 card per turn, and not all of those cards are useful. Virtual card advantage seeks to draw a greater number of useful cards than the opponent. There are a number of ways that decks might achieve this. Running zero creatures, or creatures which are resistant to removal, has the potential for virtual card advantage. The opponent will expend precious draw steps on useless creature removal spells. The same can apply for other card types, such as an artifact-free deck against Steel Sabotage or a mono-red deck against Blood Moon. Another way to achieve virtual card advantage is to lower the mana curve of a deck. By running cheaper spells, the player can run fewer mana sources and therefore draw fewer mana sources during the course of a game, and draw more ways to use that mana. If the player runs a number of cantrips such as Ponder and Brainstorm, this allows a similar effect. Early on, these cantrips can be used to find additional land or cheap action. Later on, they can find additional business. Over the course of a game, this can result in a relatively greater number of spells available.
Card advantage is the dominant paradigm of Magic theory. It is often the lens through which current players evaluate new cards and sets. Card advantage is one of the lenses through which players evaluate potential decks and strategies. For example, it is relatively common for players to defend Golgari Grave-Troll, Glimpse of Nature, or Ad Nauseam by virtue of comparison to blue draw spells. This is a flawed comparison. These cards are certainly quite powerful, but their proper context is rarely trading one-for-one and winning with an eventual resource advantage. Similarly, players are skeptical of cards like Goblin Guide and Armadillo Cloak, despite their tremendous power and proven tournament success. These cards provide efficient, powerful effects at the possible cost of card disadvantage.
Let’s consider two successful Legacy decks:
4 Kird Ape
4 Wild Nacatl
1 Loam Lion
4 Grim Lavamancer
3 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
2 Qasali Pridemage
2 Scavenging Ooze
3 Knight of the Reliquary
[Other Business] (11)
4 Lightning Bolt
4 Chain Lightning
3 Swords to Plowshares
[/Other Business] (0)
[Mana Sources] (22)
4 Arid Mesa
4 Wooded Foothills
2 Windswept Heath
[/Mana Sources] (0)
4 Veteran Explorer
2 Deathrite Shaman
2 Scavenging Ooze
1 Kitchen Finks
1 Eternal Witness
1 Wickerbough Elder
1 Thrun, the Last Troll
1 Deranged Hermit
2 Grave Titan
[Other Business] (23)
4 Green Sun’s Zenith
4 Cabal Therapy
2 Liliana of the Veil
1 Garruk, Primal Hunter
2 Sensei’s Divining Top
3 Pernicious Deed
4 Abrupt Decay
2 Innocent Blood
[/Other Business] (0)
[Mana Sources] (22)
4 Verdant Catacombs
4 Misty Rainforest
1 Marsh Flats
1 Dryad Arbor
1 Phyrexian Tower
[/Mana Sources] (0)
Zoo and Nic Fit have the potential to produce both raw and virtual card advantage. Even so, card advantage alone cannot explain the success of these decks. These are not the most card-advantageous decks in the format, nor are they most likely to generate substantial virtual card advantage. Nic Fit has a number of powerful plays which are card-disadvantaged. Phyrexian Tower, Veteran Explorer, and Liliana of the Veil will often produce desirable effects which are technically card-disadvantageous. Zoo’s only route to raw card advantage is Grim Lavamancer – yet Zoo routinely wins matches against decks which contain no 2-toughness creatures. Some additional theory is needed to explain the success of these strategies – card advantage alone is simply insufficient.
Alternatives to Card Advantage
There are a few alternative theories which could contest the supremacy of card advantage and explain the success of decks like Zoo and Nic Fit. The “mana curve” principle states that decks should be constructed so as to efficiently play spells, placing a premium on inexpensive spells that can be played early or as supplementary plays later in the game. This principle has come to be a dominant feature of deck construction, ignored only for specialty decks that bypass mana costs or generate tremendous amounts of mana. Control decks rely on the mana curve to efficiently trade spells one-for-one and survive until their relatively more expensive spells are able to generate card advantage or other resource advantages. As a result, it is not a true alternative to card advantage but rather a supplementary principle used by card-advantage-seeking and card-advantage-ignoring decks alike.
The Philosophy of Fire and other theories built around a single archetype or single deck also fail to lay out a framework that provides a meaningful alternative to card advantage. The Philosophy of Fire is essentially an argument in favor of Lightning Bolt, Lava Spike, and Fireblast in a world where card advantage is king. It argues that Shock or Lightning Bolt is the baseline for how much damage is “worth” a card, and that cards like Searing Blaze or Flame Rift present card advantage by providing a greater volume of damage. While a Wild Nacatl may be worth 3 Lightning Bolts, and therefore 3 cards over the course of a given game, this theory presents little value in distinguishing between various creature-based strategies or deck construction options. As a result, it is simply too narrow to fully explain the success of various non-card-advantanged decks in Legacy, Vintage, or other formats.
Tempo is perhaps the greatest rival to card advantage. Along with the mana curve, these three principles form the core theoretical basis for constructing decks, choosing lines of play, and evaluating new cards throughout Legacy, Vintage, and even smaller formats such as Standard and Block Constructed.
The term “tempo” in Magic jargon refers to several distinct but closely related concepts. It may refer to an archetype or strategy. It may refer to a line of play. It may refer to the synergies of a particular card. Finally, it may refer to a specific type of resource imbalance.
A number of decks in eternal formats may be referred to as “tempo” decks. The most common plan for these decks is to play an efficient creature such as Delver of Secrets, Tarmogoyf, or Lodestone Golem and support that creature long enough to achieve victory. In more general terms, the goal is to generate a favorable game state and maintain that game state until victory is achieved. To maintain the favorable game state, counterspells such as Daze and Force of Will may be used. Some decks may run removal spells such as Lightning Bolt and Swords to Plowshares as well as additional creatures to replace the initial threat if needed. Finally, the Mishra’s Workshop decks implement the same game plan by making opposing answers and threats uncastable rather than ineffective. To do this, they utilize Sphere of Resistance effects alongside Wasteland and Smokestack. These mana-denial tactics reduce the ability of players to change the current game state, prolonging the use of any advantages already achieved.
Almost all decks will sometimes make tempo plays. These are lines of play which maintain a favorable game state. The hallmark of these plays is that they maintain the current state of the game with the expectation that victory will be achieved. These should be regarded as separate from defensive plays which maintain a neutral or non-victory-reaching board state (such as a battlefield with no nonland permanents). Tempo plays are similar but should be regarded as distinct from offensive plays which present more threats to the opponent; usually this is an attempt to enhance or generate a favorable state of play rather than maintain one. While offensive plays gain tempo, they do not rely on already possessing a tempo lead. The protection of the tempo lead is what leads certain plays to be called “tempo” plays. Giant Growth is an excellent card to help clarify the difference between offense, defense, and tempo plays. It can be used offensively to deal the final 3 damage to a player, defensively to allow a small creature to kill a major threat from the opponent (acting as a removal spell), or it can protect a creature from toughness-based removal. This last example is the tempo role, maintaining the game state against the opponent’s attempt to alter it. These tempo plays present themselves to many decks. Virtually every blue deck will sometimes use Force of Will to prevent opposing removal spells or blockers. Similarly, Thoughtseize may proactively fulfill the same role by discarding opposing removal spells.
Some cards have an abstract potential to become powerful in tempo decks or tempo lines of play. This potential synergy may be apparent from the release of the card or it may take time to be fully realized. Unsummon is a card that is commonly referred to as a “tempo” card. It is technically card-disadvantageous, but creates or maintains a favorable state on the battlefield. While Unsummon rarely sees Eternal play, similar cards such as Submerge, Steel Sabotage, and Karakas see extensive play. By moving a creature from a useful zone like the battlefield to a less-useful zone like the hand or library, these cards prolong or enlarge advantages present on the battlefield. Along the same lines, Delver of Secrets subtly promotes a tempo-based shell. Delver is an efficient creature that functions optimally when surrounded by instants and sorceries and functions poorly if a deck is constructed to be too creature-heavy. Instants and sorceries are almost all one-shot effects, which are capable of efficiently removing opposing threats or otherwise maintaining the board state. They are generally poor at functioning as threats, which positions Delver as an excellent strategic complement. Similar tensions influence other classic tempo creatures such as Quirion Dryad.
Tempo as a Resource Flow
This is the most critical meaning of “tempo” and the one which influences and legitimizes all other meanings of the term. Common Magic expressions such as being “ahead on tempo” or “gaining tempo” require a measurable, meaningful concept. To be entirely concrete, one should have a precise definition of tempo with as few exceptions as possible. The following is a good candidate:
Tempo is the flow of resources that trigger game-end conditions by any element of the current game-state. Players gain tempo by increasing the flow of game-victory-triggering resources or by reducing the opponent’s flow of game-victory-triggering resources. A player is “ahead on tempo” if the current game state is capable of generating a game-victory-triggering resource for that player at a rate sufficient to defeat the opponent before the game-state generates a level of resources that trigger game-end conditions in favor of that opponent.
It may help to examine some simple beginning-of-game cases to see how this definition pans out. In all of these examples cases “you” will start on the play with an empty board.
Case 1: You play Gitaxian Probe, Tropical Island, Mox Jet, Tarmogoyf. You are now ahead on tempo. Tarmogoyf will generate 1 damage per turn in the current game state, which will kill your opponent in 20 turns. Your opponent’s only victory-triggering resource flow at the start of the game is cards removed from your library, which will take 50+ turns to kill you with your own draw steps.
Case 2: You play Tropical Island, Mox Jet, Tarmogoyf. You are very nearly even on tempo. Tarmogoyf is a 0/1 and so both players are currently only building towards victory-by-decking, which will happen in approximately 50 turns for both players. The presence of Tarmogoyf under your control means you will naturally tend to establish a tempo lead in most games as play progresses, but you have not yet done so.
Case 3: You play Swamp, Dark Ritual, Necropotence. You are ahead on tempo. How far ahead are you? Stop to consider the resource flows both players will experience as the game progresses. While the Necropotence will give you a big burst of cards initially, cards in hand do not trigger game victory. Instead, you have shut off your own draw step and given yourself a tiny tempo advantage. Since you do not deck, your opponent is no longer building towards any game-victory-triggering resources while the current game-state will require your opponent to draw a card every turn. In almost every game you will build overwhelming tempo and card advantage from this point, but you have not yet started to do so.
Case 4: You play Swamp, Dark Ritual, Phyrexian Negator. You are ahead on tempo. You will kill your opponent in 4 turns. If they play a creature or a burn spell they may reduce your tempo lead or take a card advantage lead. Unless they eliminate the Negator, you are likely to maintain a tempo lead for a long period of time, possibly sufficient to win the game.
Case 5: You play Island, Black Lotus, Bottled Cloister. You are slightly behind on tempo. You will deck sooner and therefore the current flows of game-ending resources are against you. Like Necropotence, you will likely use your card advantage to build an overwhelming tempo lead, but you have not done so yet.
Case 6: You play Island, Black Lotus, Jace the Mind Sculptor. You are capable of activating Jace’s ultimate in 6 turns from any point where he has 2+ loyalty. You are ahead on tempo, but could fall behind if the opponent starts to play faster threats.
Case 7: You play Island, Delver of Secrets. Your opponent plays several Dark Rituals, Demonic Tutor, Yawgmoth’s Will, and the Dark Rituals again. You are ahead on tempo. Your opponent casts Demonic Tutor. You are still ahead on tempo. Your opponent casts a “lethal” Tendrils of Agony. While it is on the stack, you are suddenly and hopelessly behind on tempo. If you have a card like Mindbreak Trap you can regain all of that tempo in one fell swoop – just like the Tendrils generated all of that tempo at once.
Case 8: You play Island, Delver of Secrets. Your opponent casts several Dark Rituals and other spells but ends the turn after a non-lethal Tendrils of Agony, putting you to 4 life. You are ahead on tempo. The opponent could readily topdeck a second Tendrils, meaning that they could more readily achieve lethal tempo than if you had a full 20 life. A second advantage the Tendrils player enjoys is that they have a life buffer, reducing the tempo advantage of the Delver player. Nonetheless, the Delver of Secrets will kill the opponent in 36 turns (likely far fewer once Delver flips) while your own draw step will kill you in approximately 50. This gives the Delver player a tempo lead of 14 or so turns out of 50, a lead which is likely to become larger as the game progresses.
These examples illustrate that the metric presented is precise and provides a crisp delineation of who is ahead on tempo and how far ahead or behind each player is, as counted in number of turns. The examples also hint at the fact that tempo is not relegated to the battlefield. The Stack is a critical zone in which many decks generate overwhelming tempo advantages, directly triggering game victory. Other zones may also become relevant, such as the hand when discussing Viashino Sandstalker or Pulse of the Fields, or the graveyard for cards such as Ichorid or Firemane Angel. Suspend cards such as Greater Gargadon will often make the exile zone a relevant zone as well for the consideration of tempo.
Another key point that should be grasped is that only life, poison, decking, and alternate win conditions (such as certain Planeswalker ultimate abilities, Laboratory Maniac, Battle of Wits, and similar conditions) matter for tempo. Cards and mana are exceedingly important resources that influence who will have and maintain tempo advantages in the future, but these resource advantages should be considered secondary and irrelevant to tempo in a given moment. Control decks do not win purely by virtue of card advantage or mana advantage. Instead, the plan is never to ignore tempo, but to generate it in overwhelming amounts as the game progresses. Toxic Deluge, Sower of Temptation, and Terminus are all examples of classic control cards that are played precisely because they recover tempo disadvantages incurred in the early game. In metagames where this class of cards is under-utilized by control decks, strategic weaknesses will emerge to various aggro and aggro-control decks built on more aggressive uses of tempo.
Tempo and Mana
Players often assume a relationship between Mana and Tempo. Perhaps the poster child for this relationship is Remand. Remand is often thought to be tempo-advantageous if it delays a 3+ mana spell, tempo-neutral if it delays a 2-mana spell and tempo-lossy if it delays a 1-mana or free spell. This conception captures an important facet of tempo – players are often constrained by their mana. Developing a tempo lead can be easier if you have a mana advantage, but not always. Similarly, Remand is not always dependent on mana to provide efficiency. If you spend a whole turn to Remand a 4-mana card but your opponent has a 2-mana creature to cast in addition, you lose tempo despite your far superior mana efficiency. If your opponent is not constrained on mana (say, because they have assembled Urza’s Tower and friends, or simply played a Tolarian Academy) Remand may have no impact at all on tempo. Aside from mana production overcoming the mana efficiency of Remand, there are other ways that the mana-tempo relationship might be altered. One obvious way is if both players do not have the same level of spell efficiency. Remand is relatively more tempo-gainful if it stops a Tarmogoyf than a smaller creature like Dark Confidant or Snapcaster Mage. Suppose both players have 4 mana. One plays a 4/5 Tarmogoyf, the other responds with Snapcaster Mage, target Remand with the ability, cast Remand targeting Tarmogoyf. The ‘goyf player simply re-casts the Tarmogoyf. Despite the fact that Remand traded equally in terms of mana, the superior efficiency of Tarmogoyf versus the Snapcaster Mage has created a tempo gain for the Tarmogoyf player. More mana-efficient cards (such as Remand versus an expensive spell) will reliably create a tempo gain when both players are highly constrained on mana and use supporting cards of roughly equal efficiency. When the Remand player is more highly constrained on mana this relationship begins to weaken, and when the non-Remand player is highly constrained the relationship intensifies beyond the original claim – even 1-mana spells may be Remanded with tempo advantage if the Remand player has ready access to multiple mana and the opposing player is mana-screwed or otherwise tight on available mana. Thoughtcast can often be Remanded with indirect tempo advantage (denying cards that would likely contribute to tempo) because Thoughtcast’s artifact requirement often places it in decks with few blue mana sources. Remand can often be used to deny the Thoughtcast for a turn while the Thoughtcast player waits for a blue source to untap.
Because of these considerations, the primary factor for analysis should always be the actual flow of resources that contribute to victory. The resources that lead indirectly to these primary resources should be considered secondary. Cards in hand or flashback cards in a graveyard are examples of secondary tempo resources. Finally the efficient use of mana should be considered as a tertiary factor. In many situations there will be no difference between various cards or lines of play with regard to the first two factors. Mana efficiency, especially early in a game when both players are essentially mana-screwed, will be the default consideration. Over the course of a game, players will typically draw a surplus of mana and reach a point where mana is not particularly constrained. Mana efficiency drops away almost entirely as a consideration from this point and players must re-evaluate their decisions. Because this dynamic wherein both players are essentially mana-flooded is extremely common, tempo cannot be limited to merely a statement of mana efficiency. Many of the most successful cards for recovering from a tempo disadvantage are often mana-inefficient. Despite this, they generate a great deal of tempo very efficiently and thus find their way into format-defining control decks. Sower of Temptation, Terminus, and Toxic Deluge can be very efficient tempo plays to restore parity or gain a tempo advantage. Even at 6 mana, Terminus can trade a single (late-game) turn for several (early-game) turns of mana investment and provide a tempo gain. Tempo-based decks (whether they are designed around protecting a tempo lead as in aggro-control or generating a maximal tempo lead as in true “aggro”) are strongest when this sort of tempo gain is unavailable or underplayed.
Tempo Applied: Zoo and Nic Fit
Tempo is the principle that explains the success of Zoo and Nic Fit. In the case of Zoo, creatures are played in succession, attempting to generate an overwhelming board advantage before the opposing deck can “stabilize” with expensive cards. In the case of Nic Fit, the goal is to play cards which generate an overwhelming tempo advantage. This is a strong parallel to the plan of many control decks to use expensive cards to generate overwhelming card advantage.
Zoo enjoys a natural tempo advantage over many of the most important Legacy decks. In the language of tempo established above, this means that Zoo tends to find itself facing resource flows such that it is ‘scheduled’ to win before the opponent. This is distinct from the concept of a fundamental turn – the opposing deck may make up that tempo with a combo finish or a control trump. Zoo is very nearly incapable of stopping these huge, tempo-stealing plays. However, if the opposing deck stumbles, or if it is poorly tuned, Zoo is one of the decks most capable of punishing that misstep. Even when Zoo has a mediocre draw or mediocre board state, it often has creatures generating unblocked attacks and damage each turn. When the opponent relies on creatures, Zoo enjoys a size advantage, generating unblocked attacks as well as giving it a natural tempo lead.
Nic Fit is a close cousin to Zoo. The goal of both decks is to establish an overwhelming tempo advantage with sizeable creatures and removal spells. As with Zoo, simply playing large creatures will tend to generate tempo advantages, punishing awkward draws and decks with smaller creatures.
Answering the Tempo Decks
Zoo and Nic Fit establish a maximum of consistency and early board presence. Nonetheless, dedicated creature trumps like Moat and The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale can decimate these decks. These decks also have subtler weaknesses related to their pattern of resource generation. Zoo and Nic Fit can repeatedly generate damage, but have few ways to generate other resources. A classic control principle is to attack constrained card drawing, gaining advantages with two-for-one cards like Hymn to Tourach and Baleful Strix, but any of the limited resources will work. Mana denial can be effective due to Zoo’s greedy manabase and Nic Fit’s expensive threats. Various decks attack the use of combat to generate damage, utilizing cards like Maze of Ith, Ensnaring Bridge, and Elephant Grass. Finally, while these decks are excellent at establishing board presence, they can be trumped in that area by decks which do not rely on mana to directly play creatures. Reanimate and Show and Tell can dump huge creatures into play and exceed the capacity of even these decks to establish tempo.
Join me next time when I examine decks whose resources spiral out of control.