Next Level Magic Preview – Tempo

Thursday, June 4th – The following are passages from “Next Level Magic,” Patrick Chapin’s Strategy Guide that is being released as an e-book, here on StarCityGames.com, in one week’s time. Today’s preview is the last in the series, and it concerns… Tempo

Next Level Magic by Patrick

Pro Tour Hawaii starts tomorrow, so I am sitting on the beach in Waikiki discussing the probable metagame with Zac Hill, enjoying the climate, the scenery, and all of the beauty that seems to be popping up everywhere I look. I don’t have too much time to hang out here today, as we do have decisions to make regarding our deck choice this weekend, so let me cut straight to the chase.

I am excited to announce the release of ‘Next Level Magic’ one week from today!

That’s right, Noon Thursday, June 9th, ‘Next Level Magic’ will finally be available here on StarCityGames.com! As such, I have one more week of promoting to do here, including some of the feedback I have been receiving, alongside a preview of some of the material from ´Next Level Magic.´

I’m sure you get tons of these emails, but I still feel that I need to throw in my personal thanks. I had been on a huge break between Mirrodin and Shadowmoor, coming back into a world run by Fae and Demigods. I was lost up until I started listening to your advice and tactics. It soon became a world of Fae and Demigods that were crying while I resolved a certain nine-mana storm sorcery. Now, with added help through your Next Level book excerpts, you continue to be the force that helps me to understand the enigma that is Standard. Thank you for all your devotion to this game we so deeply enjoy, and thank you for all the help you’ve given others just like me. You truly are an innovator.

Hey Patrick. I’m an avid reader, and I must say you have done more than inspire me through the last year, when I first started playing Magic.

Patrick is a great deck builder, he is also great player and writer. He knows everything about Magic, so you can learn something worthy from him. I promise his articles must be nice for us!
Kenji Tsumura

I’m very excited for your book because it comes at an opportune time in my Magic career. I’ve been playing this game since 1995 or so, when I was a wee lad. I made it my goal this summer to finally justify my habit and take the game seriously. My first goal was to hit 1800, and I’ll likely do that before the end of the week. I’m hoping that with your book in hand, I can continue the pursuit and achieve my next goal – qualify for the Tour. Your writing bends my mind and forces me to think about the game differently, so I’m eagerly awaiting its release.
KB Reid

Next Level Magic is a comprehensive course on realizing your goals in Magic, whether they are to go Pro and qualify for the Pro Tour, or whether you want to just put up better results at your local FNM. We’ll begin Section 1 by laying out a blueprint of the most useful way to approach improving your Magic game; we will discuss why Zvi was right when he said that the better strategy in Magic is about having more and better options; and we will examine the direct correlation between having effective mental shortcuts and making better decisions in Magic. These tools will help to form a foundation that you can build on once we get to more specific Magic scenarios — but without this foundation, you will not have the results of which you are capable.

Section 2 will center on the four perspectives: four ways of thinking that will be useful to us in every area of Magic. Whether we are discussing card advantage or building a Magic team, whether we are contemplating sideboard options or deciding on the twenty-third card for our Draft deck, these four perspectives will be useful in organizing our thoughts and tackling problems.

Section 3 will begin our descent into in-game Magic theory. Here, we will begin by discussing the nuts and bolts of Magic theory: the important differences between the early game, the mid-game, and the late game. We will help you to understand your role in a given game (should you be the aggressor or the defender?). We will discuss card advantage, virtual card advantage, tempo, the Philosophy of Fire, mulligans, sideboarding, manabases, templating, and more.

Section 4 is dedicated to the Mental Game. Here we will discuss everything from reading opponents to preventing tells, from bluffing to Jedi Mind Tricks. This section features a great deal of useful material — but as entertaining as this aspect of Magic may be, it is worthless if you don’t have a sound foundation of tight technical play and a useful mindset. Magic games are generally decided by tight technical play, not mind games. This material is useful, and a better understanding makes you a better card player, but it is vital to remember that playing Magic as perfectly as you can is what is important. It is generally better to spend your time and energy doing playing excellent Magic, rather than practicing “mind tricks” on people.

Section 5 revolves around the major archetypes in Magic strategy. Here we will discuss everything from Control to Mana Denial, Combo to Burn, Discard to Weenie/Token, Reanimator to Aggro-Control, and more. This section is not just a look at all of the major archetypes in the game’s history, but is also a useful tool for breaking down the basic premises behind the major archetypes and what it takes for them to succeed, as well as what it takes to defeat them.

Section 6 is dedicated to Limited, primarily focusing on Draft, though there are some Sealed-specific areas. Although much of what it takes to succeed in Draft is based on Magic concepts discussed in earlier sections, there are concepts specific to Limited that need to be understood. When people write about Limited, they usually just talk about what cards they drafted or played, and what plays they made in game. We will discuss some fundamental Limited theory that many players are lacking in their game. This core understanding of drafting is extremely useful for anyone who plays Limited, whether at their local eight-man Draft or the top 8 of a Grand Prix.

We are about to get down to business… but before we do, it is imperative that we get on the same page with regards to our approach to the game. Just as it is dangerous to teach someone how to shoot a gun without teaching them how to use it properly, it is dangerous to teach people Magic theory without helping them develop a solid foundation.

Without the proper approach to improving at Magic and understanding this game we know and love, one risks missing out on what they could be learning as a result of thinking they already know “enough.” This is easily understood when you observe the amateur who tricks someone at FNM with a “mind trick.” They then try the same trick over and over, patting themselves on the back each time it works, never even realizing that they probably could have won even more games if they had been spending this focus on finding a more perfect line of play.

Over the past month, I have been previewing segments from ‘Next Level Magic,’ and today I would like to share one more segment before we go live. By popular demand, I am including a portion of the segment on tempo that follows the segment on card advantage that was previewed last week. I hope you enjoy it.


.. 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.

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 none.

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 ways in which 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 — 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 Magma Spray 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 Magma Spray, you are still way ahead even if you still have two lands untapped. Your opponent spent seven mana and two cards that 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 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.

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. (The same is true for Fulminator Mage, which is a more relevant card as I write this, but I did not want to distract the issue with a card that also has value as a creature.)

The premier tempo deck of 2008 was Faeries in Standard. Oh sure, it does have card advantage in the form of Spellstutter Sprite, Ancestral Visions, and Jace Beleren… but for the most part, the way Faeries works is that it plays cards that build an advantage every turn that it sits in play (like Bitterblossom, Ancestral Visions, or Jace Beleren). Then it tries to use all of its other cards to “Time Walk” the opponent.

Every Remove Soul, every Broken Ambitions, every Agony Warp, every Mistbind Clique — 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 — 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 deckbuilding, 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…

…Of course, understanding Tempo and Card Advantage is only possible when you also consider the Philosophy of Fire…

I hope you have enjoyed these previews as much as I have enjoyed writing them. Check out the coverage of Pro Tour: Honolulu this weekend, where I put into action what I have been working on for so long. Alara Block Constructed is a fun and exciting format, and I look forward to seeing how things shape up this weekend.

Next Level Magic is about results. There are plenty of great options to entertain you, and this guide is pretty entertaining, but when it comes to helping people produce real results in tournament play, Next Level Magic is the best system I know for improving. See you Monday as the countdown to Next Level Magic switches to mere days!

Patrick Chapin
“The Innovator”

Next Level Magic by Patrick