Why Warlord Gives Me Tempo Tantrums: Thoughts On IBC

Unlike Urza block, you won’t lose the game in the first four turns… But if your goals aren’t clearly set early on, you’ll lose nonetheless.

I’ve been doing some playtesting for the IBC qualifier season, and let me tell you first off that deckbuilding in this format is mucho fun. There’s a ton of possible deck configurations out there. I built something like eight proxy decks. HOWEVER. Playtesting quickly tosses a bucket of cold water in the face of enthusiasm, limiting the number of truly viable decks.

So what makes IBC tick? That’s what me and I’m sure thousands of people the world over are trying to figure out.

My first impression is that it’s all about Tempo Advantage.

The concept of Tempo advantage has been around for a while; one of the first decks I can remember that was built to fully work on maintaining tempo advantage to win was the Forgotten Orb decks that made full use from many of Visions’ 187 creatures. It used quick drop creatures to mount an early offense, Winter Orbs for disruption, and tempo control spells like Memory Lapse and Man o’ War that were particularly powerful with an Orb in play. When your opponent was having a hard time even playing one spell a turn, even small creatures eventually made short work of him.

IBC reminds me of that. Here’s the way a typical playtest session has gone:

Turn 1, play a Coastal Tower.

Turn 2, play a forest, drop a Blurred Mongoose.

Turn 3, play an island, attack with Mongoose; counter opponent’s bear with an Exclude and draw a card.

Turn 4, play a plains, attack with Mongoose; counter opponent’s second bear with a Mystic Snake.

Turn 5, attack with Mongoose and Snake; either Repulse opponent’s critter at the end of their turn, or cast Fact or Fiction.

So by the end of your opponent’s fifth turn, he’s got no creatures out, is at twelve life and has two 2/2 creatures that will rapidly kill him unless he does something. The problem he has is that you’ve got plenty of blue mana open and five cards in hand. You’ve achieved (and maintained) tempo advantage and he’s in some serious trouble.

The sad thing is, if two players face off against one another with the same deck here, and if each gets a reasonable draw, it all comes down to who goes first. The first player to reach two mana to drop a bear and then gets to three mana to maintain tempo is in an extremely powerful position. By the time enough mana develops to wiggle out from under the pressure with counterspells or instant-speed removal, there’s going to be a ten to fourteen-point difference in life totals. That’s a big mountain to climb.

It reminds me a bit of what I dislike about Warlord. For those who haven’t played the game, it’s a collectable card game that feels like a cross between D&D and Warhammer. It’s actually a really well-designed game that can be quite fun… Most of the time. However, there’s an all-too-common occurrence that I consider to be a flaw in the game – and that’s the fact that the first turn can completely dominate the rest of the game by establishing such crushing tempo advantage that it’s hard to overcome.

Each player starts out with six characters, laid out in a formation of three in front, two in the middle, and their Warlord in the back. Combat is resolved with a twenty-sided die; each character has an armor rating that’s the number on the d20 that needs to be rolled to hit, and each character has an attack bonus (zero or more) to modify the number rolled. In general, the starting characters are all of equal power, so all things being equal, the first round will end with each side more or less in similar positions. The problem comes in the dice rolling; sometimes people get bad rolls. Sometimes people get good rolls. When a player has a string of good rolls and his opponent gets a string of bad rolls, the loser’s board position deteriorates. That’s the way it should be, right? The problem with Warlord is that the formation dictates what cards you can play. Higher level characters and items have to be played in ranks further back. In the rules of the game, you have to keep correct ranks, where no one rank has more characters than the rank in front. If a player’s front rank has been devastated, characters get pulled up to fill ranks without getting to act first… And when your ranks thin you end up with cards in hand you can’t play; it’s much like operating under a Winter Orb in Magic. Your options decrease exponentially, while your opponent gets more and more options.

Now to give the game credit, this doesn’t usually happen; the dice roll out like they should, each side takes some losses, plays some cards, and ends the turn with their board developed further. But often enough, the tiniest tempo advantage gained on that first turn will gradually overwhelm an opponent in the long run.

IBC reminds me of that. The first three to five turns seem to be critical, much more so than in Type 2. It’s weird, because the last time those turns were so vitally important was back during Urza’s block; of course, back then you could immediately lose the game in that time period. In IBC you won’t immediately lose during those turns, but the foundation can be laid for your eventual defeat. The important thing to consider is, who has contributed more towards controlling the board? The decks that will know success in IBC will be the decks that get to play more cards to control the board.

Let’s take a look at a deck that tries to follow this model:

4 Meddling Mage

4 Spectral Lynx

4 Galina’s Knight

4 Vodalian Zombie

2 Dromar the Banisher

4 Repulse

2 Exclude

4 Absorb

4 Dromar’s Charm

4 Fact or Fiction

24 land

This deck invests heavily in turns 2-5, and that strategy is likely to pay off in victory. Sixteen bears backed by fourteen three casting-cost spells to maintain tempo is a strong configuration. Once an opponent manages to stabilize after losing half or more of his life, the deck can overcome with Fact or Fiction or Dromar.

So how do you beat decks like this? You need to have plenty of early control cards, and cheap sweepers would be nice, too. You’d need a deck that can steal tempo away with instants and patience. Let’s take a look at a deck that does just that, based on Brian Kowal’s winning IBC deck from Origins:


4 Vodalian Zombie

4 Prohibit

4 Exclude

4 Repulse

4 Pernicious Deed

4 Undermine

4 Fact or Fiction

4 Mystic Snake

3 Spiritmonger

4 Salt Marsh

4 Yavimaya Coast

4 Llanowar Wastes

7 Island

4 Swamp

2 Forest

I’ve been told this is the exact decklist, though I’ve had a few conflicting stories on it so I can’t say for sure. But this deck breaks from the typical IBC mold by not worrying overly much about early bears; only four creatures can be played on turn 2. Instead, this deck wants to keep its mana open to respond to the opponent’s early threats with Prohibits, Excludes, Repulses, Undermines and eventually the great tempo-stealing Mystic Snake. At some point along the way, Pernicious Deed can sweep away any annoying small critters that have managed to sneak into play. Ideally, this deck dukes it out and survives the early game. At that point the deck shines, by riding the card advantage gained from Deeds and Fact or Fictions to finally cast and protect the beastly Spiritmonger, one of the best finishers in the format.

I’ve played this deck and like it a lot – in fact, I’m leaning towards playing something a lot like this. My main problem with the deck is the Prohibits. While it’s true the spell is handy at countering Bears early on, between the Excludes, Repulses, and Deeds, I didn’t find myself overly worried about Bears. What did worry me were powerful three-cost tempo spells like Vindicate and Temporal Springs, which I could do nothing about with my two mana and a useless Prohibit in hand. I have found Disrupt to be much better, since that early in the game you are mainly worried about non-creature spells. I’m playing with four Disrupts at this point, though three is probably the more correct number. Later on, Disrupts can be easily cycled away, sometimes draining an extra mana from your opponent that he’d rather keep to regenerate a Lynx or to cast an Opt.

IBC is proving to be a fast format; not necessarily fast to win, but the foundations of your victory must be staked early on. Choose your cards and your deck with that in mind, and best of luck at your qualifiers.