Back To Basics #5: Counting Tempo, Part I

My card advantage articles had to assume that only card advantage was important, so you could do the bean counting without getting too confused. However, it’s painfully obvious that card advantage isn’t always the most important thing:
For example, Force of Will trades two cards for an opponent’s spell, yet it’s one of the best blue cards ever printed. So why is Force of Will good? The answer lies in the frequently-misunderstood concept of Tempo.

Back To Basics (A Beginner’s Guide To Type I Magic Concepts)

Part 1: Why Timmy And [author name="Brian Kibler"]Brian Kibler[/author] Shouldn’t Play Type I (Why Fat Is Bad)

Part 2: A Mana Curve Can Be A Line Or A Blob

Part 3: Counting Card Advantage

Part 4: Recounting Card Advantage (A Clarification Of Part 3)

Tan Foregoes Break

I feel old.

Last weekend, we went to a baptismal party for a cousin’s firstborn. We all used to be playmates, now we’re babysitting our cousins’ toddlers. Of course, we don’t do too bad. Imagine a four-year old lording it over the officemates’ kids in the Bring Me games because he has four sets of his Mom’s cousins backing him up.

Oh, I turned twenty-four on the nineteenth. Maybe in a couple of years, I’ll be writing:”You CAN Play Type I #201: What To Answer When Your First Grader Wants To Borrow Your Moxen.”

“The Deck” Wins Worlds Side Event

This fresh from Stefan Iwasienko, a.k.a. Womprax:

“The Deck,” Sylvian Lauriol, Champion, Worlds 2003 Type I side event, August 2003

Blue (19)

1 Ancestral Recall

1 Time Walk

1 Mystical Tutor

1 Merchant Scroll

3 Cunning Wish

1 Fact or Fiction

1 Future Sight

1 Stroke of Genius

4 Mana Drain

4 Force of Will

2 Morphling

Black (6)

1 Demonic Tutor

1 Vampiric Tutor

1 Yawgmoth’s Will

1 Mind Twist

1 Skeletal Scrying

1 The Abyss

White (4)

1 Balance

2 Swords to Plowshares

1 Renewed Faith

Red (1)

1 Gorilla Shaman

Mana (29)

1 Black Lotus

1 Mox Sapphire

1 Mox Jet

1 Mox Pearl

1 Mox Ruby

1 Sol Ring

1 Strip Mine

3 Wasteland

1 Library of Alexandria

1 City of Brass

3 Polluted Delta

3 Flooded Strand

4 Underground Sea

3 Volcanic Island

1 Tropical Island

3 Island

Sideboard (15)

1 Circle of Protection: Red

2 Swords to Plowshares

1 Diabolic Edict

1 Blue Elemental Blast

1 Duress

1 Tormod’s Crypt

1 Ebony Charm

3 Red Elemental Blast

1 Skeletal Scrying

1 Misdirection

1 Shattering Pulse

1 Stifle

The first thing that caught me, as usual, was the mana base. With a laugh, Stefan explained that the event winner couldn’t find Tundras for some reason, and ran basic Islands instead (strangely enough, that’s somewhat like what happened to Tom Chanpheng’s White Weenie deck and its Adarkar Wastes before he became World Champion). Well… Congratulations, Sylvian!

The list itself raises a few eyebrows, though. The lone Duress in the sideboard is curious, among other things, since a single copy usually comes with Burning Wish. With six fetchlands and Vampiric Tutor main (probably for Future Sight), the lack of Brainstorm also can’t be missed, and these slots seem to have been turned over to land. The event itself showcased eighty-eight players with seven rounds of Swiss, with no finals. The Top 8 lists implied a strong field, though the only”name player” I recognize is Dülmen veteran Swen Weinhold-Markus, who took BangBus (The DCI got hit by a bus) to #3.

Very, very curiously, Hulk Smash and Stax took only #5 and #6, respectively. Vengeur Masque was spotted somewhere at the bottom of the overall standings, and other Hulk decks turned in dismal showings. (No, don’t ask me to explain this.)

Perhaps the most interesting list is the finalist’s Post-Gush Super Grow:

Super Grow, Maxim Barkman, Second Place, Worlds 2003 Type I side event, August 2003

Creatures (9)

4 Quirion Dryad

3 Meddling Mage

2 Mystic Enforcer

Counters (11)

3 Counterspell

2 Daze

4 Force of Will

2 Misdirection

Draw and manipulation (18)

1 Ancestral Recall

1 Time Walk

4 Brainstorm

3 Opt

1 Peek

1 Merchant Scroll

4 Accumulated Knowledge

1 Cunning Wish

1 Fact or Fiction

1 Gush

Removal (4)

2 Swords to Plowshares

2 Seal of Cleansing

Mana (18)

1 Mox Emerald

1 Mox Pearl

1 Mox Sapphire

1 Library of Alexandria

4 Flooded Strand

3 Polluted Delta

4 Tropical Island

3 Tundra

Sideboard (15)

2 Null Rod

1 Intuition

1 Misdirection

2 Deep Analysis

1 Counterspell

1 Balance

1 Meddling Mage

2 Sacred Ground

1 Naturalize

1 Seal of Cleansing

2 Swords to Plowshares

People who are sticking to blue-based aggro-control after the demise of Growing ‘Tog have been trying, among other things, Accumulated Knowledge – and Maxim’s build seems to have worked without any support cards like Intuition. Perhaps the death of this archetype was grossly exaggerated – good news for the budget players who lost their decks with the (inevitable) handicapping of that Roland Bode masterpiece.

More on this in future columns; this was not an isolated performance.

(Congratulations, by the way, to Stefan for placing #12 with a 5-2 record. I thought Suicide Black would do well in the present metagame, and he took his unpowered version with maindeck Null Rod and Withered Wretch. We still can’t fix the mana curve, though, and his only had ten Turn 1 plays, already counting Dark Ritual, Lotus Petal, and Demonic Consultation.)

Recap: Counting Card Advantage

The last installment of”Back to Basics” left off with several examples and clarifications of how to measure the card advantage generated by a play. To recap, drawing cards is one of the game’s strongest strategies, and breaks the fundamental rule”Draw one card per turn.” Several inmates of the restricted list are there simply because they break the rule too well, from Ancestral Recall and Fact or Fiction to Necropotence and Yawgmoth’s Bargain, and most recently, Mind’s Desire.

Drawing an extra card is like taking an extra turn, because that’s one of the most important parts of a turn. If you could play chess and take two moves for every one move of your opponent’s, you’d probably win – and the same holds for Magic.

The bean counting isn’t so tough, if you add up the changes your play would effect on the game. Just remember that adding a permanent to your side of the board or discarding an opponent’s card is usually as good as drawing an extra card. Further, losing cards from your library or your graveyard do not affect card advantage, since this doesn’t affect the number of cards you draw.

(There are extensions like”virtual” card advantage or how one card of yours can neutralize even cards that an opponent has yet to play… But you can figure these out on your own. Meddling Mage is a perfect example of a card that shuts down other cards, and other examples include Moat, Blood Moon, Null Rod and even a good blocker.)

Example #1: Counterspell your Lightning Bolt


-1 card (Counterspell moves from your hand to your graveyard)


+0 card (Lightning Bolt headed to the opponent’s graveyard moves to that graveyard)

Subtracting, you get: -1 card advantage

Example #2: Mana Drain your Jackal Pup


-1 card (Mana Drain moves from your hand to your graveyard)


-1 card (Jackal Pup that would go onto the board instead moves to opponent’s graveyard)

Subtracting, you get: +0 card advantage

Example #3: Force of Will your Ancestral Recall, pitching Morphling


-1 card (Force of Will moves from your hand to your graveyard)

-1 card (Morphling is removed from the game)


-0 card (Ancestral Recall headed to the opponent’s graveyard moves to that graveyard)

-3 cards (Opponent no longer draws three cards)

Subtracting, you get: +1 card advantage

Example #4: Arcane Denial your Mind Twist (for four)


-1 card (Denial moves from your hand to your graveyard)

+1 card (You draw a card)

+4 card (Four cards are no longer moved from your hand to your graveyard)


-0 card (Mind Twist headed to the opponent’s graveyard moves to that graveyard)

+2 card (Opponent draws two cards)

Subtracting, you get: +2 card advantage

This bean-counting method is inspired by actual accounting methods, and you can get the same results by simply checking how many more cards in hand you have compared to your opponent’s, if you make your play and if you don’t.

In Example #4, for example, assuming both players have a full hand:

Starting position: You have seven cards in hand, opponent also has seven (0).

If you don’t Denial: You have three cards in hand, opponent has six (-3).

If you Denial: You have seven cards in hand, opponent has eight (-1).

The difference is two cards – the same result you get when you add up the individual changes in hand size. (Again, this is akin to accounting’s periodic counting method, while the above examples are more like accounting’s perpetual counting method.)

Both methods of bean counting, incidentally, prove why Arcane Denial stinks (try redoing it with an ordinary Counterspell, and you get a better +4 card advantage).

Again, I don’t assume all of you have taken a bookkeeping class (or have a parent who did), but Magic players are smart kids and this is nothing like the statistics and probability articles occasionally contributed by some blessed-but-demented souls.

The Limits Of Bean Counting

My card advantage articles had to assume that only card advantage was important, so you could do the bean counting without getting too confused. However, it’s painfully obvious that card advantage isn’t always the most important thing.

For example, Force of Will trades two cards for an opponent’s spell, yet it’s one of the best blue cards ever printed.”Pure” card advantage theory also can’t completely rate Gush, since the above bean counting will only tell you it gives +1 card advantage but can’t measure the drawback.

The most extreme example is, of course, Psychatog. This one-card combo pairs with nothing more than cards in hand and in the graveyard, and couldn’t care less about munching all the cards in its controller’s hand to hit 20/21.

(Yes, you have to draw a bunch of cards to set it up – but don’t read too much into the example at this point, since it’s a familiar”extreme” example if you don’t. It’s a little easier on the readers who aren’t familiar with older cards like Kaervek’s Spite and Fireblast.)

But how do we explain the gaps in the above”pure” card advantage theory? Card advantage is the oldest and most familiar of the”advantage” theories, but the crux, again, is that you normally draw only one card each turn and breaking this fundamental rule wins games.

You can thus explain the gaps by pointing out that a turn has many other components:

  • Untap all your permanents

  • Draw one card

  • Play one land

  • Make an attack

In other words, while cards in hand is the most visible and most easily counted part of it, there are other ways to take extra turns.

(This thought was first expressed by Scott Keller on the defunct New Wave Games, in an underrecognized classic,”Everything Is A Time Walk.”)

I’d like to call these less quantifiable, less visible and less obvious ways of taking Time Walk”tempo.” You’ve probably heard the term before, and heard it used in so many ways, or references such as”momentum of the game” and”time advantage.” However, while you probably got the drift, it’s really hard to get a complete grasp of this elusive term,”tempo.”

Eric“Danger” Taylor admitted that it’s really a difficult concept to define. In his classic Dojo piece Tempo and Card Advantage, his best definition was,”Time is, for the most part, interchangeable with mana.” He was ahead of the pack in 1998, but it’s still not a solid definition of”tempo.”

In any case, attempting to further define this”slippery idea” (as EDT wrote in a later Invasion-era article, Controlling Tempo) at this point will only confuse you, since five years of Magic articles hasn’t done it. Instead, I’d like us all to go back to Scott Keller’s Time Walk Theory and walk through what might be the elements of tempo.

Counting Tempo: Land Drops

Let’s start with something as easy to count as cards in hand: Land drops.

You see, the power of land drops even when deciding whether to play or to draw. In Type I, because of the efficiency of all the cards and the brutal tempo, you play. If you’ve ever held a Mana Drain against a Turn 2 Sinkhole, going second, you know why you’d rather have the land drop over the extra card. Even in blue-based control mirrors, you’d rather have your land drops first.

Since you also opt to play in most other formats and matchups, you can see the power of this segment of tempo outright.

Further, the Restricted List reveals that breaking this fundamental rule is as broken as drawing extra cards. Fastbond doesn’t draw any cards, but the mana boost has been abused throughout the game’s entire history. It was restricted after StormDrain (Fastbond + Storm Cauldron + Drain Life) broke the last Type I Pro Tour, but it was still an important part of Growing ‘Tog and modern combo decks from The Shining to Timetwister-based combos.

The Power Of Sidestepping Casting Costs

Casting cost is one of Magic’s fundamental constraints. Morphling, for example, is nice and all, but he’s just Force of Will fodder until you can get to six mana. Normally, this won’t happen ’til turn 6, and only if a very large ratio of your deck is mana. Thus, Morphling-based decks have a lot of other and much cheaper spells they can use in the meantime – including our card-disadvantageous Force of Will.

(Yes, ‘Tog needs only three, we know. That’s why we didn’t use it as the example.)

This helps explain why expensive spells are generally bad: You might have lost by the time you accumulate enough land drops to make use of them. Thus, as explained in Why Timmy and Kibler Shouldn’t Play Type I, the best decks use the cheapest possible spells. However, there’s another side to this coin: What if, instead of minimizing the land drops you need to accumulate before you can use your spells, you add to the land drops normally available to you in a given turn?

Magic writers like EDT focused on tempo in 1998 and Mirage block, looking at cards like Man O’War. However, the classic tempo example for this category dates further back: Dark Ritual.

Looking at Ritual from our”pure” bean counting perspective, it fails to make sense:

You cast Dark Ritual, Hypnotic Specter


-1 card (Dark Ritual moves from your hand to your graveyard)

+0 card (Hypnotic Specter moves from your hand to the board)

In”pure” card advantage terms, you just lost a card… And yet”Ritual, Specter” is a dreaded opening that dates back to the start of the game. If you can’t deal with it before it takes a few hits, you stand a good chance of losing. Saying it”gains back” card advantage by discarding isn’t satisfactory, because”Ritual, Phyrexian Negator” is likewise dangerous. It also doesn’t explain why the best combo in the game’s history,”Ritual, Necropotence,” was worlds more terrifying than Necropotence alone.

The answer is simple: Dark Ritual allows you to make a Turn 3 play on Turn 1, effectively putting you two turns ahead of your opponent and forcing him to deal with your Turn 3 play with only his Turn 1 plays. (This thought, incidentally, helps explain why tempo swings are far more brutal in Type I than in any other format.”Turn 1 plays” include extremely efficient cards such as Swords to Plowshares and Force of Will.)

Another classic example of this concept is the Stompy deck:

Stompy, Oscar Tan, January 2003 Gauntlet deck

Creatures (28)

4 Rogue Elephant

4 Skyshroud Elite

4 Ghazban Ogre

4 Quirion Ranger

4 Druid Lyrist

4 River Boa

4 Elvish Spirit Guide

Pump (12)

4 Giant Growth

4 Rancor

4 Bounty of the Hunt

Others (4)

3 Null Rod

Mana (17)

4 Land Grant

1 Black Lotus

1 Mox Emerald

11 Forest

Sideboard (15)

4 Rushwood Legate

4 Hidden Herd

3 Hidden Gibbons

4 Naturalize

Instead of Dark Ritual, it has Elvish Spirit Guide, which gives a measly one mana in comparison. However, ESG is referred to as a Time Walk for Stompy. Why? Since almost everything costs just one mana, that measly one mana doubles your Turn 1 plays. Playing two Ghazban Ogres on Turn 1 instead of just one means a lot more attacks and a lot more damage before the Turn 1 plays are dealt with, if at all. Put another way, this is like taking part of Turn 2 along with Turn 1.

Note how Rogue Elephant shows the same concept in a slightly different way: You permanently lose a land drop to play a large creature you normally wouldn’t be able to play on Turn 1.

Note, further, that all this readily explains why Black Lotus is so good. Everyone up to Inquest considers it the most overrated piece of cardboard we know because it just doesn’t seem to do anything by itself. Letting you play the spells that”do things” three turns earlier, though, isn’t anything to laugh at.

Mana Drain, incidentally, generates the same card advantage as Counterspell, but the above examples explain why it causes extreme swings in a game.

The Power Of Sidestepping Casting Costs For Free

Black Lotus, Dark Ritual, Elvish Spirit Guide, and Rogue Elephant all involve a loss of card advantage. This shows you why the Moxen – and Mishra’s Workshop! – are so powerful. At no cost in cards or mana, you get free land drops and permanently get to play your spells turns earlier than normal. A handful of other cards, such as Mana Crypt, Sol Ring, and Tolarian Academy give you similar brokenness – but countless Standard decks have featured weaker versions of the same things: Llanowar Elf, Priest of Titania, and Rofellos in various green-based decks from Legion Land Loss to Fires to Trinity Green, Fire Diamond in Ponza and others like Marble Diamond in Prison, Grim Monolith in Accelerated Blue, and Lake of the Dead in various black decks beginning with the Necrodeck.

Again, when your strategy precludes turning to cheaper spells, you turn to what has been called”mana acceleration,” as you saw with Explosive Vegetation at Pro Tour: Venice. You’re not trying to draw more cards, but trying to use the ones already in hand earlier, hopefully before your opponent can deal with them.

The Power Of Killing Land Drops

Discard and countering are the two most familiar forms of disruption, but land destruction is another favorite. This theme trades the land destruction player’s resources for an opponent’s land drop. When you play Sinkhole, for example, you trade a card and two mana for your opponent’s land drop and a card.

Ignoring the color screw aspects, you see a parallel to discard and card advantage. You give up one of your turns (all of turn 2’s mana to cast Sinkhole), but you keep all your land drops and are a turn ahead there. Again, in card advantage terms the trade is even, but the difference lies in the tempo trade. Your plan is to then play a threat like Phyrexian Negator and do some damage while the opponent’s tempo is temporarily stunted.

This helps explain why a Land D deck with sixteen to twenty-four Land D spells is weaker. The idea is to ride on tempo – but if you can’t play a threat and win before he rebuilds, you defeat your own strategy. Focused decks have no more than four Sinkholes, four Wastelands, one Strip Mine, plus three or four copies of Null Rod, Powder Keg, Nether Void, or Pox as appropriate.

Controlling an opponent’s land drops has also been seen with global effects, from Balance in the original Maysonet The RackBalance, Armageddon in all the reincarnations of Erhnam-geddon and Prison, and Wildfire; even a defensive Upheaval can fit in here. In Type I, we presently have Nether Void and Sphere of Resistance and they don’t work very differently. Sphere, Stax’s key disruption spell, arrests the tempo of its opponents, but uses the free land drops from its artifact mana to break the symmetry. Nether Void freezes tempo and devaluates everyone’s land drops, but the idea is for a Hypnotic Specter or Nantuko Shade to go to work before the opponent can play more mana.

Note that”The Deck” is the classic card advantage archetype, yet the power of its “Land D option” with Gorilla Shaman and a couple of Wastelands can be explained in tempo in addition to card advantage terms. Brian Weissman would even use Regrowth on Wasteland, a card advantage neutral play that has to be explained in tempo terms.

Loss Of Land Drops As A Drawback

Loss of this kind of tempo has also been used as the drawback for some cards. Thwart, for example, creates less card disadvantage than Arcane Denial, but no one plays it because of the brutal tempo cost. In fact, Foil saw more game time in pre-Growing ‘Tog aggro-control builds, despite its card disadvantage. Further, Gush and Daze also saw play in these. They had very cheap spells and could minimize the disadvantage of returning land to hand. Cheap spells also meant they ran very little land, so they could easily replay the land because they had no land left in hand anyway.

Tempo analysis along these lines also explains why Maze of Ith has not seen competitive play except as an attempt to neuter Psychatog – a lone exception where the tempo loss is worth it. Because Maze doesn’t produce mana, its hidden drawback can be compared to Lair lands like Dromar’s Cavern and Visions lands like Coral Atoll.

Abusing Tempo

This segment of tempo is all about getting more mana than your current turn number, and I’ve described a lot of examples from Mishra’s Workshop to Sinkhole. Picking out a final example, I think the land drop aspect of tempo is best abused in combo decks, despite TnT‘s first-turn Juggernauts and control’s first-turn giant Mind Twists. Consider:

Rector Tendrils, Kenny Öberg, Ninth Place, GenCon Type I Championships

Blue (15)

1 Ancestral Recall

1 Time Walk

1 Timetwister

1 Mystical Tutor

4 Brainstorm

3 Impulse

4 Force of Will

Black (14)

1 Necropotence

1 Yawgmoth’s Bargain

3 Duress

4 Cabal Therapy

1 Demonic Tutor

1 Vampiric Tutor

1 Yawgmoth’s Will

2 Tendrils of Agony

White (4)

4 Academy Rector

Mana (27)

4 Dark Ritual

1 Black Lotus

1 Mox Sapphire

1 Mox Jet

1 Mox Pearl

1 Mox Ruby

1 Mox Emerald

1 Sol Ring

1 Lotus Petal

1 Mana Crypt

1 Mana Vault

3 Gemstone Mine

4 Polluted Delta

1 Flooded Strand

3 Underground Sea

2 Scrubland[/author]“][author name="Scrubland"]Scrubland[/author]

Sideboard (15)

1 Balance

3 Phyrexian Negator

3 Seal of Cleansing

3 Orim’s Chant

1 Form of the Dragon

2 Blue Elemental Blast

1 Mind Twist

1 Island

Rector-Tendrils abuses the free land drops early, trying to pay the five mana for Academy Rector (and Cabal Therapy). However, so does everything else.

The abuse, however, lasts well after Rector puts Yawgmoth’s Bargain into play. After tapping out to get Bargain, the deck can still effectively keep playing land as it draws. Just drawing an artifact and a Dark Ritual lets it cast Tendrils of Agony, and keep going if it needs more. You saw something that looked similar in Type II with Renounce and Tooth of Ramos:

Bargain, Jon Finkel, 2000 Magic Invitational (Type II portion)

4 Academy Rector

3 Yawgmoth’s Bargain

2 Yawgmoth’s Will

4 Skirge Familiar

3 Renounce

4 Vampiric Tutor

4 Soul Feast

4 Grim Monolith

3 Voltaic Key

3 Tooth of Ramos

4 Dark Ritual

6 Swamp

5 Plains

4 Peat Bog

4 Phyrexian Tower

3 Remote Farm

Sideboard (15)

4 Duress

4 Phyrexian Negator

3 Perish

2 Disenchant

1 Circle of Protection: Red

1 Massacre

You also saw the same action in so many other combo decks, from High Tide in Extended to Academy decks in Type I; you might even count Natural Balance in ProsBloom (Squandered Resources + Natural Balance + Cadaverous Bloom) as fitting the bill. Note that unlike Dark Ritual, Lotus Petal and Mox Diamond are normally unplayable (Mox Diamond with Land Tax or Tithe, for example is one exception) because of the card disadvantage… But combo decks would love to have unrestricted copies so they can keep going with free (colored!) land drops and they’d gladly take the card disadvantage.

Thus, hopefully, this final example also gives you some insight into adding a tempo viewpoint to your card advantage analysis as well.

We’ll take up the other aspects in the next Back to Basics.

‘Til next week,

Oscar Tan

E-mail: Rakso at StarCityGames.com

IRC: rakso on #BDChat on EFNet

University of the Philippines, College of Law

Forum Administrator, Star City Games

Featured Writer, Star City Games

Author of the Control Player’s Bible

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