Adrian Sullivanâ€˜s story concluded:
“…Of course, that was back in Rome, when I was at the height of my renown as a writer and theorist, so to speak.”
The story Adrian Sullivan told was classic Corrupter (Adrianâ€˜s original alter ego): comical, ironic, thought-provoking, and slightly out of the range of a family site. This article is not about that story. This article is about the discussion that followed my response.
“Adrian, I truly believe that the height of your renown as a writer and theorist may be in 2025.”
Adrian assumed this was a joke about having played over 30 years, but I went on to explain what I meant.
“Adrian, I think in the future, most people will probably not be familiar with the majority of the decks, articles, or ideas that you have ever come up with. In the future, your tournament accomplishments will be mostly forgotten by the community as a whole. You may never win a Pro Tour, you may never be as big a weekly writer as you were or are. You may never be as active a deck building force as you were in what you call your â€˜prime.’ You might accomplish some or all of these things, or even greater, in the future, but that isn’t what you will be remembered for.
“I believe that you will be best remembered for your contributions to the true Grand Unified Theory that is to come. Zvi, Flores, you, I, and others, we haven’t done it yet, though we have a general sense of what it is we are developing, discovering, and putting words to.”
Adrian nodded and knew exactly what I meant, though he was interested to hear what new thoughts I had on the subject. This article is the gist of the conversation that followed, where I presented my case to Adrian and sought his counsel in clarifying the ideas that I was formulating, to see if he could pick apart any of the logic, any of the theory behind what I believe to be the next step in The Theory of Everything. The first half will be a little heavier and more abstract. This is one article where it is definitely 100% set up so that you can skip sections if you need or want to. You can also definitely go back and reread sections that you previously skipped. The second half will provide some basic talk about Card Advantage, Tempo, and the Philosophy of Fire that may be particularly useful to mid-level and less experienced tournament players. Just a warning: this is going to be a long one…
To begin with, the term “Theory of Everything” is a somewhat indulgent (if hopefully accurate) term borrowed from Physics that needs to be given the proper context to mean anything at all. To set that context, we need to first talk about the Grand Unified Theory. The next several paragraphs will be primarily about real world physics, and while I think it helps explain what I think Magic physics is really like, it is not absolutely vital, so if the next few paragraphs are not to your taste, feel free to skip to the next section, “A History of the Fundamental Forces of Magic.”
Real World Physics Lesson
The term Grand Unified Theory is also borrowed from Physics, and predicts that the Electromagnetic Force, the Strong Nuclear Force, and the Weak Nuclear Force as really all one thing that at extraordinarily high energy levels merges into one “field.” Albert Einstein’s dream was that such a thing existed, and would someday be discovered, even if it was not in his lifetime, and that it would also include Gravity.
See, Physicists talked about there being four (now three) types of “forces” in our universe. No, we are not talking midichlorians, nor are we talking Earth, Fire, Water, and Wind. We are talking about the four forces that are the only things “going on” in the Universe. Everything that happens in our Universe, every force that is acting on anything else, can be described as one of these forces.
Electromagnetic Force: Everyone is familiar with Electricity and Magnetism, and these forces were already understood to be the same thing as early as the 19th century, before the search for the Grand Unified Theory began. As such, it is considered one force.
The Weak Nuclear Force: This is the force that causes atoms to decay, that causes radiation.
The Strong Nuclear Force: The short answer is that this is the force that holds atoms together.
Gravity: The force that causes mass to attract other mass, like Earth attracting an apple falling from a tree.
Something that has troubled physicists to no end is how awkward it feels that we need several totally different systems of physics to describe these seemingly fundamental aspects of reality. There is a certain ascetic beauty to a unified theory that can describe everything. After all, why should some things obey a certain set of laws and other things follow completely different laws? While it is possible that the universe is arranged this way, why would the universe go to all this trouble?
In 1979, Electromagnetism and The Weak (Nuclear) Force were proven to actually be connected. The Electroweak Theory was groundbreaking, and Noble Prizes were awarded to these brilliant minds that did something remarkable for their field.
Today, the search for the Grand Unified Theory that unifies the Electroweak Force and the Strong Nuclear Force has thus far eluded physicists, but there is great reason to believe that we are not that far from uncovering it. If and when we do, we will have simplified the three basic forces into two, and be that much closer to eventually formulating a Theory of Everything, which would also include gravity.
In many ways, this is the Holy Grail of Physics.
A History of the Fundamental Forces in Magic
Magic theory was not always as advanced as it is today. Back in the mid-nineties, just about everyone was stone cold awful at the game. Even the people who were good did not really know how to put into words why the things that caused them to win worked the way they did. These were the dark ages of Magic theory.
Brian Weissman, Adrian Sullivan, Eric Taylor, and others helped develop the most basic of Magic theory that would provide the tools that two of the most influential minds in the game’s history, Zvi Mowshowitz and Michael Flores, would build on to bring understanding of Magic theory to the masses. Do you realize when I was a kid, the best players always seem to win, were virtually unstoppable, despite the existence of broken cards and simplistic cards? It was not until these five men, and many others like Brian Hacker, Robert Hahn, John Shuler, Jamie Wakefield, George Baxter, and Frank Ksumoto found the words to describe what was really going on in a game of Magic to the masses, and how they could use this information to win more games.
Brian Weissman coined the term “Card Advantage,” and described Magic theory in terms of the struggle to acquire an advantage when it came to this sort of resource. This fundamentally changed the game forever, and the first truly great deck, and the most important deck of all time, The Deck, was born. A very basic primer on Card Advantage can be found in this excerpt from Next Level Magic.
Overnight, thousands of players rose to greatness by taking advantage of the original “net deck,” and immediately started seeing the benefits of this new understanding, not just with this one particular deck, but in every format and with every deck. This new perspective changed everything. Was Magic solved?
Hardly. It was not long before people started realizing that card advantage is not the end-all, be-all. While people started seeing this with cards like Fastbond and Dark Ritual, it was not really brought to the forefront until Mirage and the beginning of the first modern Limited era. People were realizing that there was more to Magic than card advantage.
Eric Taylor is the first writer I know of to really begin to describe “Tempo” in Magic – followed by Brian Hacker, Scott Johns, Alan Comer, Gary Wise, and others – began to refocus the discussion on this subject. More and more strategies were developed that seemed to throw card advantage out the window. Winter Orb, Force of Will, Contagion, Man-o-War, Gemstone Mine, Arcane Denial, Unsummon, Propaganda, and more pointed to a world where card advantage no longer seemed to be at the center of winning. Was card advantage still good? Yes, but apparently there was this other force at work that authors explored and laid the groundwork for eluding discussion.
We could talk about tempo in certain contexts, but what was is really? Was it mana? Was it land advantage? Was it time? Is it tempo to Memory Lapse a Dark Ritual? What about attacking? Many could feel what was being described; the concept has been among the most elusive in all of Magic theory.
The advent of tempo and the printing of a different sort of card (Jackal Pup, Carnophage, Hatred, Empyrial Armor, Man-o-War, Nekrataal) ushered in a new era. Beatdown was no longer a fringe strategy that was commonly associated with “Little Kid White Weenie.” The years that followed centered on the debate between Tempo and Card Advantage. How were the two connected, people wondered? What was the equation?
Eventually, Adrian Sullivan began talking about a bold new way of looking at the game. He began putting into words an inherent flaw in both of these theories. He began describing the most glaring “exception” to both card advantage and tempo. What he may have called this philosophy is mostly irrelevant, because much to Sullivan’s chagrin, it was to become known as “The Philosophy of Fire,” after a ground-breaking article by Michael Flores by that name that described Adrian’s theory.
Adrian Sullivan is a thinking Red mage, and is a classic example of why the stereotype of the burn mage as a hard headed brute is often not as accurate as people would like to think. Adrian was trying to find the words to describe why it was that spending mana and a card to Lightning Bolt an opponent could be good. You were losing Card Advantage. You were losing Tempo. Why then was Lightning Bolting an opponent so ruthlessly effective?
Adrian originally began describing his philosophy of viewing life as a resource in terms of cards like Shock and Necropotence, but without even realizing it, he was uncovered a third pillar of Magic theory. Michael Flores actually took the concept that Sullivan had uncovered and ran with it, taking it to a level that was far beyond what Adrian had ever meant the term to describe, beginning here. One cannot fault Flores for this, though, as the direction that he took the concept is much larger and more useful as it examines why the things Adrian is saying were true and applies them to every applicable part of the game.
Adrian talked about burn and life total as a resource, but Flores pointed out that cards in your library and poison counters you could afford to take were really the same sort of thing. The Philosophy of Fire was evolving from the measure of how close you are to losing the game, as Adrian originally designed it to be, and towards a measure of actual resources that you had to work with.
Was Magic becoming more and more complicated not only with the cards and rules, but in the system that was needed to describe it? Do we really need three different sets of laws to describe Magic’s Physics? Was Magic doomed to countless corner cases and special examples? Would we always be finding more and more new types of forces, resources that we did not original envision? Wasn’t there anyway to merge the fundamental forces, to unify our theories?
Zvi’s Grand Unified Theory
Building on Flores and Sullivan, Zvi wrote The Grand Unified Theory, which began to talk about the link between Card Advantage and the Philosophy of Fire. While the article touches on burn spells being used for tempo, it is really about the fundamental link between how much cards are worth with regards to “Card Advantage” versus your opponent’s life total reaching zero (In essence “The Philosophy of Fire”). The article is primarily about Shock, the at-the-time baseline burn spell, and how a card was worth two life and a mana, and that Shock was at the time the center of Magic physics.
I appreciate what Zvi is beginning to describe here, and want to take it more than just a step further. I want to take Zvi’s Grand Unified Theory to what I believe to be the inevitable extreme. I want to describe a system for describing every sort of resource (force) in the game completely independent of context. In addition, I want to link not only Card Advantage and the Philosophy of Fire, I want to link Tempo and demonstrate a clear and elegant connection between the three and how they are actually related.
That’s right. I am proposing a single theory that describes every way to affect the game internally, and one that does not require any specific pool of cards to exist or not exist. This system links all three resources and is totally binary in that everything either is or is not a matter of card economy (card advantage), and the same is true for Tempo, and The Philosophy of Fire (which is in need of a better name both for purposes of rolling off the tongue and to more accurately describe the concept). I think it will take other great theorists – possibly Zvi, Flores, and Sullivan themselves – to help flesh out the language and applications of this theory, but today I am presenting the beginnings of my Theory of Everything.
The Theory of Everything
When I was writing Next Level Magic, I had no trouble writing about Card Advantage and had quite a bit to say on Virtual Card Advantage, though it troubled me that no clean explanation existed of these two forces that we understood to be one. They needed to be cleanly linked, like the Electromagnetic Force and Weak Nuclear Force described above.
The Philosophy of Fire plays the part of the Strong Nuclear Force described above and, like in Physics, the unifying of this theory with the theory of Card Advantage/Tempo is the primary component of The Grand Unifying Theory. Theorists originally described burn as having two primary roles:
1) Burn creatures.
2) Burn opponents.
Today, however, we realize that burn is also to hit planeswalkers; remove opponent’s life total as a resource for cards like Sign in Blood and Scalding Tarn; prevent cards like Luminarch Ascension from triggering; stop a Jitte from becoming active; building a Storm count; triggering Spinerock Knoll; removing a Bridge from Below; and so many other elements of the game. How can we describe all of these things without writing a list as long as the list of elements on the periodic table?
When I came to the subject of tempo, a force as elusive in connection as Gravity, though every bit as omnipresent and known to exist, I was at a loss. I had a pretty good idea of what it was, but how could I describe it simply and cleanly? What was the link? This prompted me to develop a new framework for viewing tempo, one that avoids the problems with equating tempo with mana, or counting tempo in terms of land drops, but rather starts from a foundation that intrinsically linked to Card Economy and The Philosophy of Fire.
Finally, one last question that needs to be addressed is:
How will this help us win at Magic?
It is no good to sit around and pat ourselves on the back at clever definitions that relate these ideas if they do not produce real results, as The Theory of Everything is meant to be a useful framework for describing Magic Theory that can actually be applied to win games, not just fascinate like so much String Theory. It is because of how vital I consider this question to be that I start with it, before describing the three forces themselves.
One of the most important lessons I ever learned from Zvi is that the whole point of Magic Strategy, the core of Magic Theory is about having more and better options than your opponent. This means gaining more and better options and denying your opponent many or quality options.
The Object of a Game of Magic
Magic is a game of resources. You begin with some, you gain some over time, but all are just means to an end. All of the resources that we will define in a moment are tools that are used to create more and better options, as well as deny your opponent options. The most important of these options is the option to continue to play the game. The real object of a game of Magic (as far as winning at Magic is concerned) is to deny your opponent this option.
Every single resource/option you use in a game of Magic affects your ability to continue to play the game and your opponent’s ability to do the same. At its core, Magic is a game of submission, where every move you make should be leading to eventually taking from your opponent the option to continue the game.
This is not to say that you should play lock decks, or anything along those lines. Reducing your opponent to zero from burn spells, running them out of cards with Jace, giving them ten poison counters, or even activating a Door to Nothingness… these are all just ways of denying your opponent the option to continue to play the game.
Just as in Chess, every pawn, every square that is controlled, every space advantage is just a means to the end of checkmating the opponent (or forcing a draw depending on what you are trying to accomplish, which is also true in Magic). In Magic, we only care about card advantage, tempo, and the philosophy of fire insomuch as they are concerned with eventually denying our opponent the option to continue to play the game. You may ask, “What about when we do things so that we don’t die, so that we can continue to play the game?”
You don’t get any extra credit for staying alive longer. None. If you are trying to survive until time runs out, your goal is essentially to remove your opponent’s option to play the game by denying him the resource of time, which, while you are restricted in how much you can manipulate, is a resource that only exists in a finite amount, and to pretend otherwise is to rob yourself of a more clear understanding.
The only reason it is so often right to make decisions to stay alive is because if you can no longer play the game, you cannot take away your opponent’s option to continue playing the game. From Spike’s perspective (remember, this theory is with regards to competitive Magic), the point of a game of Magic is remove this option, even if it “kills you.” For instance, if you cast Final Fortune, you will die at the end of the turn. If you remove your opponent’s option to continue playing the game long enough to see the end of the turn, then it doesn’t matter. You Win.
A game of Magic is a struggle between two parties that both want something that there is only one of: “A Win.” Neither player begins the game with this, but both want it, and in order to acquire it, they leverage the options/resources that they have available to them to get more and better options, as well as deny the opponent options, until one player finally “Captures the Flag,” and is able to deny the opponent the option to continue playing the game.
The Three Resources
There are three types of resources in a game of Magic. Resources are really just options in Magic, and every type of option you have in a game to try to lead you towards your goal can be expressed in terms of these three types.
There are resources you begin the game with, but do not gain naturally over time. There are resources you gain naturally over time, but do not begin the game with. Finally there are resources you both begin the game with and gain naturally over time. Every resource in Magic can be described in these terms.
These resources are, for the most part, components of the turn that you have the ability to do every turn:
â€¢ The ability to continue playing the game, which is essentially a resource you begin the game with but do not naturally gain more of without action (Life Total, Cards in Library, etc).
â€¢ The parts of the turn which relate to resources that you do not begin the game with (Land Drop, Untap, Attack).
â€¢ The parts of the turn which relate to resources that you begin the game with and gain more of naturally over time (Primarily the Draw Step).
These are the three fundamental building blocks of Magic theory. You have probably read material on all three under the titles we have been using throughout this text:
â€¢ The Philosophy of Fire
â€¢ Card Advantage
These three concepts deal with the basic manipulation of resources in Magic. The reason there are three is because there are three ways for a resource to be available to you in a game.
The Philosophy of Fire deals with resources that you start with and get no more of, unless you pay for them in some way with the use of specific cards. The most well understood example is that of your life total, but this also includes the cards in your library, how many poison counters you can endure without dying, and so on. This is really just a way of describing the option to continue playing the game.
Tempo deals with resources that you have the opportunity to utilize every turn. The most important of these to understand is, surprisingly, the land drop â€” but the untap phase and attack phase are also important. While they are not as relevant, this also includes the other phases such as upkeep and discard, as well as abilities that you can trigger or activate once (or some amount) per turn, like Planeswalkers or Icy Manipulator. You start the game with absolutely no Tempo, and it is only through the exploitation of parts of your turn (or the denial of parts of your opponent’s turns) that you gain it.
Card Advantage (or, more accurately, Card Economy) is a big one. This is one of the most important concepts in Magic; its early pioneer, Brian Weissman, changed Magic forever by pushing the theory. Card Advantage is a unique resource in Magic because you start the game with seven cards (so it is sort of like the Philosophy of Fire), but you also draw a card each turn (so it is sort of like Tempo).
Card Advantage is the only fundamental resource that occupies a large amount of territory in both areas â€” so much so that sometimes it is useful to view it as one, sometimes the other, sometimes both, and sometimes neither. This is just a result of the strange things that happen when these two concepts meet. Card Advantage is at the very center of all resource management in Magic and as such, it is generally the most useful building block to describe everything in Magic.
I am sure most of you are familiar with these concepts, but as an extra bonus, I would like to share some material on these basic components of the game. Most of the readers that can really appreciate the first half of this article probably already understand the material I am about to present, but it may be interesting to glance through to see if it sparks any further understanding. Likewise, if the first half of this article has been a little thick, perhaps less experienced tournament players may find the second half particularly useful.
Card Advantage versus Card Economy
Card Advantage is really just the positive side of the spectrum of a concept known as Card Economy. Just as the idea of a dollar means nothing without an understanding of what you can do with a dollar, you must understand what a card gets you in order to appreciate the seven cards you start with and the card you draw each turn.
While I will not make this article any longer by revisiting the basics of card advantage here, there is no shortage of material on the subject. The point I want to mention here, though, is that Card Economy really is more important than card advantage. Card Advantage is just how many you have. Card Economy is how good they are, so to speak.
Is a Beast from Garruk worth a card? What about a token from Martial Coup? What about a Broodmate Dragon token? Where do you draw the line? See, the key is that the relative value of these “cards” is different and three Spectral Procession Tokens versus a Broodmate Token is a lot like someone with three one-dollar bills versus someone with a single five-dollar bill. That is why we speak in terms of card economy, not just card advantage.
When evaluating if something is a matter of card economy, the only question you need to ask is “Does this relate to the resource that I start with and gain over time?” (the cardboard, as it were). When evaluating how important this is, ask yourself how it relates to your ability to get more options that you want, the best options you can for positioning yourself to eventually deny your opponent the game.
What will two more cards do to affect your position in the game? If you have exiled all of your opponent’s victory conditions and the only way you can lose is by running out of cards before your opponent, drawing two cards will give you two options that are irrelevant at the cost of a resource that is vital (cards in your library).
Is it worth spending three cards to kill Baneslayer Angel? Think about the types of options you have now with those three cards and the options your opponent has with the Baneslayer. If you use those three cards to deny your opponent that option, how does that affect the value of your future options, such as Broodmate Dragon, Lightning Bolt, or Garruk?
In general, card advantage is a good thing, but that is only because in general a card in your hand is worth more than a card in your library. This equation changes, and there is always some sort of cost associated with obtaining card advantage. To understand card advantage, one most always consider the true manipulation of resources that is occurring. When you cast Divination, you spend a card, three mana (that you gained from part of your untap step), and two cards from your library (which mean among other things the option to keep playing the game for two more turns as well as pay for things like Arc-Slogger).
All of those things are resources that you must trade in order to gain the resources of two more cards in your hand. The point is that card advantage is nothing more than one type of resource you have to work with and when evaluating lines of play that potentially affect card advantage, the most important factor to consider is not what gives you the most cards, but rather what gives you the best options. For instance, it is not hard to see that it might be much better to have one Cruel Ultimatum than two Terminates and a Lightning Bolt.
As I said, when I was writing Next Level Magic, I had to come up with a new way of talking about tempo, as I was not satisfied with what had already been written on the subject. What follows is in great deal from that section of my book.
As we just saw, card advantage is so very tricky because it deals with a resource that you both start the game with (seven cards) and gain over time (a card a turn). Tempo is actually much simpler, though there has actually been a lot less written on it. As a result, it is more commonly misunderstood than card advantage. Tempo deals with the resources that you gain every turn, but do not possess initially. The most common of these is mana.
At the beginning of a game, you have no mana and no ability to generate mana. During Stage 1, you just don’t have the mana you need to work with. As the game progresses, you are able to build up your resources to a point where you can actually cast your spells. This is Stage 2, and the most common way of getting there is by playing land. To read more about the stages of Magic, check out Flores’s work here. He invented this concept, though often uses the term Phase instead of Stage.
You start the game with no land in play and have the ability to play one land a turn. This basic arrangement dictates the pace of the game, and consequently most of the conversations about tempo.
You can play one land a turn, so something that breaks that rule is worth some amount. This is why Signets cost two mana, whereas Graven Cairns costs no mana.
In addition to the ability to actually play land, the amount of mana you can generate each turn is essentially a function of how many turns have progressed normally (although if you do not draw extra cards, you will begin missing land drops at some point).
One of the primary reasons that Vintage is so different from Standard is the prevalence of Moxen, Black Lotus, Mishra’s Workshop, and so on. It is not at all uncommon for Vintage decks to be built to leave Stage 1 on their first turn. The way they do this is by gaining tempo.
Dark Ritual is a high-tempo play not because it produces mana, but because it gives you more of a resource that you would normally have to wait for â€” namely, the amount of mana you could have in a turn. It may be card disadvantage on the surface (you are trading a card for this mana boost, after all), but if you can convert that tempo into something worth more than a card, then you stand to profit. Who cares if you are down a card if you resolve Necropotence on turn 1 instead of turn 3?
Tempo is not just limited to Ritual effects, though. Take, for instance, Remand. Remand is a classic tempo card that lets you trade two mana for however much mana your opponent spent on their spell. In general, if you are consistently Remanding spells that cost three or more, you are gaining tempo. If you are Remanding spells that cost two or less, you are losing it. Why is two a loss? Because your card is reactive and requires you to leave the two lands untapped before your opponent ever tries to cast a spell.
This is why Remand’s popularity surges and then falls: it all depends on the expense of the cards that people are playing. Lately, Extended has been all about one-and two-drops, making Remand poor. When it was legal in Standard, Remand was one of the best cards in the format, since the spells were so expensive. (Keep in mind that Remand draws a card, making its cost mostly just the mana, but it also doesn’t really stop the card, so its gain is mostly just mana, too.)
If you use a Lightning Bolt on a Scion of Oona, you have gained tempo because essentially you are ahead by two mana. This is not the end of the tale, however, since that two mana is for naught if you just leave two land untapped for the rest of the turn and do nothing with it.
On the other hand, if you played a Sower of Temptation and your opponent plays a Scion in response, which you answer with a Lightning Bolt, you are still way ahead even if you still have two lands untapped. Your opponent spent seven mana and two cards, which you answered this turn with your five mana and two cards. It doesn’t matter if you tapped the lands or not. If you didn’t use them for anything else, you might as well have.
Tempo is more than just the mana spent on spells, however. It is the manipulation of any resource that you gain over time, but do not start with. This can include the playing of land, untapping permanents, attack phases, and so on, as well as denying your opponent of these.
The key to understanding tempo is to evaluate everything in terms of how much this resource is worth right now. To take tempo away from your opponent is to give yourself tempo, but this matters not at all if you don’t do anything with it.
The easiest demonstration of this is Rite of Flame. Rite of Flame can be one of the best cards in a lot of Extended decks because of the tempo it generates early on. However, this mana is of little or no value to you if you are drawing off the top, trying to hit a card drawer.
Tempo (like Card Advantage) is only worth what you can do with it. Who cares if you Stone Rain your opponent if you don’t take advantage of the fact that he is temporarily behind on mana? The classic problem with Stone Rain is that you are trading three mana for the land drop (since you both lose a card), which is generally not a great deal. In addition, your opponent already got to use his land, so you are further behind. On the flipside, who cares if you draw 3 extra cards, if your opponent Stone Rains you enough so that you can’t cast any of them, what good are they?
Where Stone Rain becomes good is when you either are gaining enough value out of the other parts of your turn (like the attack phase) to be worth the three mana, or you have enough land destruction so as to keep your opponent in Stage 1 on a longer term basis. That is the tricky balance with a card like Stone Rain. It is a very fine line between when it is great and when it is terrible. Sometimes, the opponent drawing a single land can undo all of the Stone Rains of an entire game. Other times, a single Stone Rain can prevent every counter-play that an opponent was going to make.
Standard Faeries was a perfect example of a tempo-based strategy. Oh sure, it had card advantage in the form of Spellstutter Sprite, Ancestral Visions, and Jace Beleren… but for the most part, the way Faeries worked was that it played cards that built an advantage every turn that they sat in play (like Bitterblossom, Ancestral Visions, or Jace Beleren). Then it tried to use all of its other cards to “Time Walk” the opponent.
Every Remove Soul, every Broken Ambitions, every Agony Warp, every Mistbind Clique â€” they are all just “Time Walk,” or plays that try to prevent the opponent from advancing the game. Faeries is very much a Stage 2 deck, as it moves out of Stage 1 very quickly, but tries to ensure that the opponent never reaches Stage 3 by throwing delay maneuver after delay maneuver in his way, all the while gaining an advantage every turn.
When you are building a tempo-based deck, the key is to figure out what advantage you are gaining as a result of the tempo you are producing. A Faeries deck gains tokens and cards, but also very much takes advantage of all of the extra attack phases it gets. (When you are beating down with 1/1s and 2/2s, you need all the attack phases you can get!)
You don’t need to draw extra cards to play a tempo strategy; you just need to capitalize on something that you are gaining from time. For instance, there was once a five-color Black aggro deck called Forgotten Orb that was based on Black weenies; Red, White, and Green utility; and Blue for permission like Memory Lapse and Arcane Denial.
The way this deck would work is that it would deploy some early creatures like Fallen Askari and Black Knight, then take a small lead on board with cards like Man o’War, Uktabi Orangutan, and Nekrataal. Then it would use Winter Orb to keep the opponent out of Stage 3, sealing the deal with Memory Lapses and Arcane Denials.
Although Arcane Denial and Memory Lapse don’t really stop threats that well in a vacuum, they are very good at wasting your opponent’s time. When you have a Winter Orb in play, this time is worth so very much. When you are attacking with 2/2s, you are getting paid every turn that your opponent isn’t stopping you. Memory Lapse normally gains you only two mana on a Wrath of God â€” but if there is a Winter Orb in play, it may be worth four turns. And if you have a Black Knight and a Fallen Askari out, those four turns may be worth sixteen damage.
Many people proudly Venser a Wild Nacatl and say that they have gained tempo on their opponent. This is usually not the case. Although Venser is great for gaining tempo, it is completely a matter of context. When you are making decisions in game or when building a deck, you must ask yourself how much mana each player is spending.
If you are trying to answer a Spectral Procession, Wrath of God is not actually that good, since it is just a one-for-one trade that loses a mana. This is why Esper Charm on a Bitterblossom, while often correct, is not an exciting play.
If you are trying to figure out how to beat something in deck building, look to answers that are at least the same cost (or cheaper) than the threat or answers that produce some other benefit, such as drawing a card, giving you a creature, or scrying.
If you are trying to figure whether or not to throw away resources in a game for temporary gain, ask yourself what you are doing with that tempo anyway. It’s just like how if you draw seven extra cards and they are all land, they may be worthless; if you set your opponent back seven turns and do nothing with it, did it really matter?
This is why good Faeries players mulligan so much. They know that if they don’t have a card like Bitterblossom, Ancestral Visions, Jace, or Mistbind Clique, then what good is all the time they are buying themselves? This is not to say they mulligan every hand that doesn’t have one of these, but their hand has to be pretty freaking good to justify keeping a hand that doesn’t do anything.
When you are dealing with tempo, ask yourself what you can do with it to determine its real value. If your opponent is the one with the tempo, ask yourself what they can do with it. If they can’t punish you, who cares?
In the case of Five Color versus Faeries, the tempo they gained was beating us over and over because of the Bitterblossoms and Jace. As a result, we used cards like Broken Ambitions, Volcanic Fallout, Plumeveil, and Terror to regain lost tempo and negate the advantage.
The utility of the tempo is what is what is important. If your opponent is beating you with tempo, ask yourself what he is specifically doing that is gaining the tempo. Then address that. Mistbind Clique? Broken Ambitions and Terror. Cheap countermagic? Play uncounterable cards like Volcanic Fallout, or at least instant-speed threats like Plumeveil.
If you are thinking about focusing your strategy on tempo, ask yourself what you are doing with the time.
The Philosophy of Fire
You start the game with twenty life â€” and unless you do something about it, you won’t get any more. That is not just a measure of how long you have to live, though, since you can actually live indefinitely at one life. You just need to not drop to zero. This is the most basic aspect of having the option to continue playing the game. With zero of this resource, you cannot play the game.
Your life total is really a resource that you start the game with, but do not gain over time (which is, essentially, the opposite of tempo). Many players make the mistake of thinking their life total matters beyond the fact when it is zero, you are dead. It is true that it matters when you are using your life as a resource, but this is exactly the point.
Your life total is just a number. That is not what is important. It is a resource. That is all it is.
Necropotence is the most famous way to trade cards for life, but there are certainly dozens and dozens, maybe a hundred ways, to do this outright. In addition to paying life for things (Elves of Deep Shadow, Shadow Guildmage, Death Wish, Hatred), you can actually use your life during a game as a resource.
For instance, let’s say that you have a Tidehollow Strix in play and an Agony Warp in hand. Your opponent attacks with Kathari Screecher. You could Agony Warp. You could block to kill it. Instead, you take two, waiting for your opponent to play another creature so you can try to set up a play to kill two creatures with the Agony Warp (while blocking with the Strix).
You don’t always need to be gaining material to have it be worth it to take the extra damage. For instance, let’s say that your opponent attacks with an Anathemancer and you have a Terminate. You suspect that your opponent is playing Demigod of Revenge, which your hand can’t beat without the Terminate. Maybe you take the damage this turn and see if he plays the Demigod next turn when he plays his fifth land. If he doesn’t, maybe you use the Terminate then.
In this case, you are paying two life for the option to kill a Demigod. If you can beat him if he has no Demigod, maybe you can beat him with no Demigod and two less life â€” but if you Terminate the Anathemancer, you may have two more life, but so what? If you can’t beat Demigod, you can’t beat Demigod. The life matters… but does it matter as much as the option? That is what being good at Magic is all about.
The Philosophy of Fire is not just about trading your life as a resource, whether that trade is for card advantage, tempo, or options. It is also about trading your resources (again, cards, tempo, or options), to reduce your opponent’s life total (or even raise yours).
Every time you Incinerate your opponent, you are trading a card (and a mana) for three life off your opponent. Experienced players realize this is generally not a great play early, but are aware that it can become one. The important factor is what the opponent’s life total means in this context.
When your opponent is at twenty, an Incinerate is hardly threatening to them, as the difference between twenty and seventeen isn’t typically going to impact their game. However, if you Incinerate your opponent and they are now at four life, suddenly they can no longer safely tap out. You could Flame Javelin them at any moment. This is a big reason why you should generally not play out all of your lands late in the game with Red decks (unless you have an effect like Banefire) â€” you want them to think they’re in danger, so keep the lands in your hand and the information hidden! But this should also draw your attention to the advantages that having them afraid to tap out gains you.
If the opponent can’t afford to tap out, that’s going to make it much harder for them to play Mistbind Clique. Every turn they don’t Mistbind Clique, you have saved four life. This equation may be continually shifting, remember. Let’s say you block a Boggart Ram-Gang with a Mulldrifter. You have traded a card (the 2/2 is still worth a card, even if you drew two extra) to prevent three damage. On the surface, this appears to violate our policy about chump blocking. However, against a Red deck, it’s like you are “countering” an Incinerate.
While playing against decks with a fair amount of burn, it is important to figure out how to minimize the amount of damage you are taking. If your opponent attacks with a Woolly Thoctar and you are considering blocking with a Spellstutter Sprite, ask yourself this: is that Spellstutter Sprite is ever going to be worth more than five life to you?
If you have a Bloodbraid Elf and a Jund Hackblade in play, and your opponent has a Plumeveil but only seven life, ask yourself if the creature in play is worth more to you than three damage (an Incinerate). If your opponent has a creature you can’t get through, like Plumeveil, the question is whether or not you will ever want to kill the Plumeveil. In this case, why waste a Flame Javelin that you eventually draw on the Plumeveil when you could use the Javelin to deal the last four damage to your opponent?
There is nothing wrong with throwing away creatures and other resources to deal extra damage or to prevent damage â€” but bad players do this too much. Decent players avoid it. Good players look for when it is right to do. The question is, “Is the resource you are trading worth less than the life points?”
Many players make the mistake of thinking that lifegain is bad, since it is generally not as good as rookies think. The truth is that lifegain can be a very powerful weapon against someone who cares about life totals. For instance, if you play Kitchen Finks against a Red deck, it is not just two bodies that they have to get through, it is also two Shocks that have been undone by the life gain. That is a lot of card advantage for a Green/White card that draws you no cards.
Even in a B/W Tokens deck that uses Bitterblossom, we can look at Kitchen Finks as two more attack phases before we die to our Bitterblossom, then two more attack phases if we can kill it. The key is to evaluate what the life matters in a given context.
The Philosophy of Fire extends beyond just your life total, however. Remember, this aspect of Magic strategy relates to resources that you start with, but do not naturally replenish. For instance, the cards in your library are actually a resource. Anyone who has ever used Arc-Slogger can attest to this… but it goes beyond that. If you are trying to win before you run out of cards, then someone milling you can actually knock several turns off the clock before you die.
Poison counters rarely matter in Magic, but I would not be surprised if a block in the not too distant future revolves around them. At the start of the game, you can handle nine poison counters before dying. If they start printing cards that let you take poison counters for gain, it will obviously be a very clear resource to use.
To understand the Philosophy of Fire, you must be in the habit of continually evaluating what events will take place later in the game that will be influenced by them. For instance, let’s say that you are at seven life and your opponent has three cards. If you let a Flame Javelin resolve, now you must counter Incinerate or die. On the other hand, if you counter Flame Javelin, you could in theory let two Incinerates resolve, without losing. In a way, countering Flame Javelin is actually a form of card advantage, as it means you can save two Counterspells that would have had to be used to counter Incinerates, at the cost of just one Counterspell (on the Flame Javelin).
One of the most effective shortcuts for understanding this aspect of Magic strategy is to get in the habit of asking yourself what life points are going to be worth to you and to your opponent as the game progresses. You will develop an understanding of the relative value of this resource (and remember to view it as just that!).
An enormous change has taken place in Magic over the past few years, with Planeswalkers storming to center stage. These powerful cards are primarily vulnerable to attacking creatures and spells that can deal damage directly. As such, the Philosophy of Fire has taken on a new dimension, as it now has overlap with your “defense against Planeswalkers.”
The Theory of Everything is:
In a game of Magic, resources are options and can be viewed in three ways, that which you begin with but do not gain naturally (The Philosophy of Fire), that which you gain naturally but do not begin with (Tempo), and those that are both (Card Economy). The most important of these, like a King on the Chess board, is the option to continue playing the game. The object of a game of Magic is to take away this option from your opponent. The way you do this is by manipulating your resources to get more and better options while denying your opponent the same, in an effort to eventually take away their option to continue to play. This is at the core of every element of Magic strategy, and when faced with a situation, asking oneself which of these three types of resources is in question can provide the player with the best framework for evaluating both strategy and tactics. Each of these three fundamental types of resources has properties that can be understood and exploited, studied and improved upon, but they are all just parts of the same thing:
The option to play the game.