Better Deckbuilding 101 – Understanding Tempo with Ghost Dad

Posted in Building on a Budget on May 15, 2006

By Ben Bleiweiss

Hello and welcome to tempo week here at! During this week, many of our writers will be discussing the concept of tempo as it pertains to Magic. There will be a deck built on a budget later on in this column, but a lot of what I deal with today will be the fundamentals of deckbuilding – whether budgeted or not. I might not be doing zany things with Sky Swallower and Bronze Bombshell this week, but I think that you'll find this column as rewarding as my others.

What is tempo? As defined by, tempo is “a characteristic rate or rhythm of activity; a pace.” In Magic, the exact definition of tempo has been murky at best. I'm going to throw my two cents into the ring and discuss my take on tempo.

Mark Rosewater has talked at length about three types of Magic players in Timmy, Johnny and Spike. To paraphrase Mark's concepts (in case you don't want to click on that link), Timmy likes playing to cast big, splashy effects, Johnny likes toying with intricate combos and card interactions, and Spikes like playing to win, period.

To me, there are four types of decks in Magic: Aggro, Combo, Control, and Tempo. Each of these deck types has a specific focus, as far as intended strategy for winning the game. Tempo and Control decks are similar, as are Aggro and Combo. Confused? Let me explain.

Let me first compare Aggro and Combo decks. Aggro decks seek to win the game as quickly as possible by using efficient creatures and spells to reduce an opponent's life total to zero. Combo decks seek to win the game as quickly as possible by using efficient spells to reduce an opponent's life total to zero and/or deck them. The overall strategy for Combo and Aggro decks are virtually identical – the difference between the strategies comes via the tools and pace they use to win. Let's compare two recent Aggro and Combo decks from the Pro Tour.

Aggro and Combo

Craig Jones - Zoo
Pro Tour-Honolulu 2006

Maximilian Bracht - Heartbeat
Pro Tour-Honolulu 2006

Craig's deck is a great example of an Aggro deck. It uses aggressively-costed creatures (Savannah Lions, Isamaru, Kird ApeWatchwolf) and spells (Lightning HelixCharFlames of the Blood Hand) to try to reduce an opponent's life total to zero as quickly as possible. Very few of the cards in his deck can interact with his opponent's board position, and those that are able to are more often used to clear the way for his creatures to keep on coming. Craig's deck will often win on the 5th or 6th turn.

Maximilian's deck is a great example of a Combo deck. It uses lots of card searching, card manipulation and mana acceleration (Muddle the MixtureSensei's Divining Top,Sakura-Tribe Elder) to set up a hand which will allow him to use multiple mana-generating or card-generating elements (Weird HarvestEarly HarvestHeartbeat of Spring) to power up a spell which will kill his opponent in one fell swoop (Maga, Traitor to Mortals and Invoke the Firemind). Maximilian's deck will often win on the 5th or 6th turn.

What do both of these decks have in common? They are generally non-interactive. They don't seek to control the pace of the game, but instead try to win by picking a course of action (attacking or getting a one-turn combo kill), and sticking to it no matter what. Yes, sometimes Craig needed to Char a creature defensively, but nine times out of ten that Char is headed towards a Meloku (to clear the path for multiple 2-3 power creatures) or towards an opponent's head. Just the same, Max doesn't much care what happens on the opponent's side of the board as long as he can get his combo off reliably. Neither of these decks are trying to throw a wrench into the opponent's plans. That isn't 100% accurate – both of these decks are the wrench being thrown into the opponent's plans!

Control and Tempo

Shouhei Itou (Player B)
Grand Prix Hamamatsu 2006 Top 4

Team Faddy Josh
Deat B - Tim Bulger

Shouhei's deck is a great example of a Control deck. It uses efficient removal or stalling spells (Cruel EdictHinderRemand) to set the pace of the game, slowing an opponent's path of victory to a crawl. After dismantling the opponent's plan, the Control player then uses a path to victory (Kokusho, Keiga, Meloku) that will end the game quickly by itself. Control decks often will take a dozen or more turns to win.

Tim's deck is a great example of a Tempo deck. It uses efficient creatures and spells (Dark ConfidantSickening Shoal,Tallowisp) to set the pace of the game, accelerating his own path to victory while, at the same time, slowing the opponent. There are several cards that cheat the normal pace of the game (Thief of Hope, the Shoals, Tallowisp), allowing Tim to dictate how quickly he can win. Tempo decks vary the most out of all four of the deck types in regards to how quickly they can win, but usually it is either very quickly (five-seven turns, see U/G Madness decks) or over a dozen turns.

What do Control and Tempo decks have in common? Both decks seek to control the pace of the game on both sides of the board. They are both interactive decks – they rely on being able to thwart their opponent's strategy. Control and Tempo are two sides of the same coin – both use tempo (lower case t) as their greatest focus for winning, but Control tries to slow the entire tempo of the game to a crawl, whereas Tempo decks try to expedite their victory much earlier in the game. Think of Tempo decks, in a way, as Control decks that try to do their winning during the early stages of the game, rather than in the later stages.

Ghost Dad – One of the Greatest Tempo Decks Ever Built

Ghost Dad is one of the finest examples of a tempo deck in Magic's history. Virtually every card in the deck was carefully chosen to control the pace of the game, or to cheat the normal pace of the game. Let's examine the deck card-choice by card-choice.

Major Cheats

Dark Confidant

Major Cheats

Dark Confidant : One of the basic rules of Magic is that a player only draws one card a turn. Dark Confidant allows for two draws a turn, plus provides a 2/1 body. Compare this toWatchwolf (which has double the total power/toughness of Dark Confidant). Watchwolf is put into decks to attack. Dark Confidant is put into decks to draw extra cards.

The ShoalsShining Shoal and Sickening Shoal both may be played for free by removing an additional card from hand. This also breaks a rule of Magic – spells are supposed to cost mana, yet these eight spells in the deck can be played by spending zero mana in exchange for a card of the appropriate color.

Tallowisp : Just like Dark Confidant, but with a little more restriction and a little more pinpoint accuracy. Tallowisp allows the Ghost Dad player to draw extra cards for playing Spirits or Arcane spells – but chances are the Ghost Dad player would be playing Spirits and/or Arcane spells anyhow! Plagued Rusalka,Ghost Council of OrzhovaKami of Ancient LawTallowisp,Shining Shoal and Sickening Shoal all trigger the aura search onTallowisp.

Minor Cheats

Plagued Rusalka : Turns creatures (already on the board) into removal spells.

Thief of Hope : Turns Spirits/Arcane spells into one point Consume Spirits. Also returns a Spirit to hand once it dies.

Ghost Council of Orzhova : Acts as a one point Consume Spirit. Can act in this way multiple times if you have multiple creatures in play to sacrifice, and the effect costs 1 instead of White ManaWhite ManaBlack ManaBlack Mana.

Kami of Ancient Law : Turns itself into an enchantment removal spell.

Descendant of Kiyomaro : Works well with Tallowisp and Dark Confidant, plus swings the life totals by six (+3 for you/-3 for your opponent) instead of three.

Pillory of the Sleepless : Negates an opponent's creature, plus swings the damage race by a point a turn.

Shining Shoal : Listed a second time, it also can turn an opponent's removal spell back on them or their creature (Volcanic HammerWildfire).

How does it play out? The Ghost Dad player wants to get down an early Dark Confidant and/orTallowisp, and then draw extra cards. Opposing creatures are nullified with Plagued RusalkaSickening Shoal or Pillory of the Sleepless (or sometimes Shining Shoal), while the Ghost Dad player continues to keep attacking and drawing more cards. Descendant of KiyomaroThief of Hope and Ghost Council of Orzhova help negate any Dark Confidant damage, and the Ghost Dad player presses their momentum to victory through attacking, card advantage, and removal.

Ghost Dad on a Budget

The title of this column is Building on a Budget, is it not? I took a look at Ghost Dad and thought it would be a great deck to deconstruct and rebuild as a budget deck. I removed all the rares from the deck:

Out: 4 Caves of Koilos, 4 Dark Confidant, 1 Eiganjo Castle, 4 Ghost Council of Orzhova, 4 Godless Shrine, 4 Shining Shoal, 1 Shizo, Death's Storehouse, 4 Sickening Shoal, 1 Strands of Undeath, 1Tomb of Urami

This left me with a whopping 28 open slots to replace! I took out the Strands of Undeath to start, because their original intent was to pitch to Sickening Shoal to kill Meloku. Without Sickening Shoal in the deck, it came out – though I might add it back in later.

Eleven of these slots were lands, and were swapped for Swamp, Plains and Orzhov Basilicas.

In: 4 Orzhov Basilica, 3 Plains, 4 Swamp (17 slots left)

Unfortunately, there are no cards in Standard which replicate Dark ConfidantSickening Shoal, orShining Shoal. This means that two of the three major time/mana-cheats for this deck were inaccessible. This left the other one – Spirits, auras, and Tallowisp. I wanted to keep this deck Black/White, so I did a search for all of the Spirits and Aura – Enchant Creatures in these colors in Standard (please note that Dissension was not included, since it's not on Magic Online yet).

Here are complete lists of the Black/White Spirits, Arcane Spells and Aura – Enchant Creature cards in9th EditionChampions of KamigawaBetrayers of KamigawaSaviors of KamigawaRavnica, andGuildpact. Included with each is a comment about why it was cut from consideration, if it was indeed cut from consideration. Remember, we're trying to rebuild Ghost Dad as a budget deck, so A) we have to observe that this is a budget deck, B) we have to keep the focus of Ghost Dad as a deck, and C) we are trying to keep this as a Tempo deck. If you ever wanted a look into my head as I choose candidates to fill out a deck, these lists are for you!


Akuta, Born of Ash (Possible)
Ashen-Skin Zubera (No, bad tempo)
Belfry Spirit (Possible)
Benevolent Ancestor (No, too defensive)
Bile Urchin (Possible)
Blinking Spirit (Possible)
Celestial Kirin (No, price too high)
Crawling Filth (No, too slow)
Cruel Deceiver (No, bad tempo)
Dancing Scimitar (No, too defensive)
Deathknell Kami (No, bad tempo)
Ghost Council of Orzhova (No, price too high)
Ghost Warden (No, bad tempo)
Ghost-Lit Redeemer (No, bad tempo)
Ghost-Lit Stalker (No, bad tempo)
Ghosts of the Innocent (No, too defensive)
Gibbering Kami (No, bad tempo)
Gutwrencher Oni (No, bad tempo)
Harsh Deceiver (No, bad tempo)
He Who Hungers (No, bad tempo)
Hikari, Twilight Guardian (No, bad tempo)
Hokori, Dust Drinker (No, price too high)
Horizon Seed (No, bad tempo)
Horobi, Death's Wail (Possible)
Hundred-Talon Kami (No, bad tempo)
Iname, Death Aspect (No, bad tempo)
Infernal Kirin (No, price too high)
Innocence Kami (No, bad tempo)
Kabuto Moth (Possible)
Kagemaro, First to Suffer (No, price too high)
Kami of Ancient Law (Already in deck)
Kami of Empty Graves (No, bad tempo)
Kami of False Hope (Possible)
Kami of Lunacy (No, bad tempo)
Kami of Old Stone (No, too defensive)
Kami of Tattered Shoji (No, too defensive)
Kami of the Honored Dead (No, too defensive)
Kami of the Painted Road (Possible)
Kami of the Palace Fields (No, bad tempo)
Kami of the Waning Moon (Possible)
Kataki, War's Wage (No, price too high)
Keening Banshee (Possible)
Kemuri-Onna (Possible)
Kiyomaro, First to Stand (Possible)
Kokusho, the Evening Star (No, price too high)
Kuro, Pitlord (No, mana cost too high)
Kyoki, Sanity's Eclipse (No, mana cost too high)
Lantern Kami (Possible)
Martyred Rusalka (No, bad tempo)
Moonlit Strider (Possible)
Myojin of Cleansing Fire (No, mana cost too high)
Myojin of Night's Reach (No, mana cost too high)
Nikko-Onna (No, bad interaction with enchantments)
Oyobi, Who Split the Heavens (No, mana cost too high)
Painwracker Oni (No, bad tempo)
Patron of the Kitsune (No, mana cost too high)
Patron of the Nezumi (No, mana cost too high)
Plagued Rusalka (Already in deck)
Pus Kami (No, mana cost too high)
Razorjaw Oni (Possible)
Revenant Patriarch (Possible)
Sandsower (Possible)
Scourge of the Numai (No, bad tempo)
Scuttling Death (Possible)
Seizan, Perverter of Truth (Possible)
Sewerdreg (No, bad tempo)
Shinen of Fear's Chill (No, bad tempo)
Shinen of Stars' Light (No, bad tempo)
Shirei, Shizo's Caretaker (No, too combo-oriented)
Silent-Chant Zubera (No, bad tempo)
Skullmane Baku (Possible)
Souls of the Faultless (No, too defensive)
Tallowisp (Already in deck)
Thief of Hope (Already in deck)
Torii Watchward (No, Too defensive)
Twilight Drover (No, too combo-oriented)
Waxmane Baku (Possible)
Wicked Akuba (Possible)
Will-o'-the-Wisp (No, price too high)
Yomiji, Who Bars the Way (No, mana cost too high)
Yosei, the Morning Star (No, price too high)
Yukora, the Prisoner (No, bad tempo)

Arcane Spells

Blessed Breath (Possible)
Call for Blood (No, bad tempo)
Candles' Glow (Possible)
Charge Across the Araba (No, bad tempo)
Choice of Damnations (No, mana cost too high)
Cleanfall (No, too defensive)
Cranial Extraction (No, price too high)
Dance of Shadows (No, mana cost too high)
Death Denied (Possible)
Death of a Thousand Stings (No, bad tempo)
Devouring Greed (Possible)
Ethereal Haze (No, too defensive)
Footsteps of the Goryo (No, no use)
Goryo's Vengeance (No, too narrow)
Hideous Laughter (No, kills all my own guys)
Horobi's Whisper (Possible)
Hundred-Talon Strike (No, too narrow)
Otherworldly Journey (Possible)
Plow Through Reito (No, bad tempo)
Pull Under (No, mana cost too high)
Pure Intentions (No, too narrow)
Quiet Purity (No, too defensive)
Rend Flesh (Possible)
Shining Shoal (No, price too high)
Sickening Shoal (No, price too high)
Sink into Takenuma (No, bad tempo)
Soulless Revival (Possible)
Spiritual Visit (Possible)
Swallowing Plague (No, bad tempo)
Terashi's Cry (No, too narrow)
Terashi's Grasp (Possible)
Terashi's Verdict (No, too narrow)
Three Tragedies (No, mana cost too high)
Waking Nightmare (No, does not fit deck)

Enchantment – Aura (Enchant Creature)

Blessing of Leeches (No, too narrow)
Cage of Hands (Possible)
Clinging Darkness (Possible)
Conclave's Blessing (No, too defensive)
Contaminated Bond (No, too narrow)
Cowed by Wisdom (No, better alternatives exist)
Enfeeblement (Possible)
Faith's Fetters (No, is Enchant Permanent and can't be fetched with Tallowisp)
Fear (No, too narrow)
Flickerform (No, too narrow)
Guardian's Magemark (No, better alternatives exist)
Heart of Light (No, better alternatives exist)
Holy Strength (No, better alternatives exist)
Indomitable Will (Possible)
Kagemaro's Clutch (No, better alternatives exist)
Mark of the Oni (No, too narrow)
Midnight Covenant (No, too narrow)
Necromancer's Magemark (Possible)
Necromantic Thirst (Possible)
Oni Possession (No, too narrow)
Pacifism (Possible)
Pillory of the Sleepless (Already in deck)
Ragged Veins (No, too narrow)
Shadow Lance (Possible)
Sinstriker's Will (No, too defensive)
Spirit Link (Possible)
Strands of Undeath (Possible)
Unholy Strength (No, better alternatives exist)
Vigilance (No, too narrow)
Ward of Piety (No, too narrow)

Possible Spirits: Akuta, Belfry SpiritBile UrchinBlinking Spirit, Horobi, Kabuto MothKami of False HopeKami of the Painted RoadKami of the Waning MoonKeening BansheeKemuri-Onna, Kiyomaro,Lantern KamiMoonlit StriderRazorjaw OniRevenant PatriarchSandsowerScuttling Death, Seizan,Skullmane BakuWaxmane BakuWicked Akuba

I immediately eliminated all spirits with a mana cost over four, because the top of the curve in the non-budget Ghost Dad was four as well – this eliminated Belfry SpiritKami of the Painted RoadKemuri-Onna, Kiyomaro, Revenant PatriarchScuttling Death, Seizan, and Skullmane Baku. I then took out any creatures which could backfire as often as they helped, wiping Horobi and Razorjaw Oni off the list.

Keening Banshee

Keening Banshee immediately leapt to mind as a creature I'd want to use in a budget build of Ghost Dad. It acts as both a threat (2/2 flyer for four) and removal (-2/-2 to target creature), allowing it to serve double time. I didn't want a creature whose sole purpose was offense for offense's sake (Akuta, Lantern KamiWicked Akuba) or a creature with a tempo-oriented ability, but with a very substandard body attached (Kami of the Waning MoonSandsower).

This left Bile UrchinBlinking SpiritKabuto MothKami of False HopeMoonlit Strider, and Waxmane Baku standing. Bile Urchin and Kami of False Hope both seemed too narrow, so I took them out of the running. Among Blinking SpiritKabuto MothMoonlit Strider and Waxmane Baku, I choose to runBlinking SpiritBlinking Spirit would allow me to trigger bothTallowisp and Thief of Hope multiple times, cheating the “each spell triggers those two guys only once” rule. It also dodges removal spells like a champ, cheating the “two damage to a two-toughness guy will kill him.” I did keep Kabuto MothMoonlit Strider and Waxmane Baku in the back of my mind as creatures to swap in, should I be unhappy with any of my deck choices.

In: 3 Blinking Spirit, 3 Keening Banshee (11 slots left)

Possible Arcane SpellsBlessed BreathCandles' GlowDeath DeniedDevouring GreedHorobi's WhisperOtherworldly JourneyRend FleshSoulless RevivalSpiritual VisitTerashi's Grasp

I immediately cut Terashi's Grasp – it was just a tad too defensive, but I would definitely have it if this deck added a sideboard. The spells then aligned into four categories:

I had already added Keening Banshee as a way to kill opposing creatures, plus I had my eye on several auras which were capable of also killing creatures, so I eliminated the entire “Spells which kill my opponent's creatures” category. Of the spells which save my creatures from being killed, Blessed Breathseemed the best – it was cheapest to cast, could be used both offensively and defensively, and could be tied onto another arcane spell (including a second Blessed Breath) for a free cast.

I decided to run one copy of Devouring Greed – the temptation to end the game in one fell swoop was too great to pass up, especially when that swoop could be ten-to-twelve damage regularly. BetweenDeath Denied and Soulless Revival, I chose to run Death Denied. It offered a lot more versatility than the Revival – it only costs one more mana to get one creature than the Revival, plus it has the option of getting back several more creatures at once. I didn't have Shining Shoal to work with, but I now had two spells that could either save my creature from death (Blessed Breath) or bring it back after death (Death Denied)

In: 3 Blessed Breath, 3 Death Denied, 1 Devouring Greed (4 slots left)

Possible Enchantment - Auras (Enchant Creature)Cage of HandsClinging Darkness,EnfeeblementIndomitable WillNecromancer's MagemarkNecromantic ThirstPacifismShadow LanceSpirit LinkStrands of Undeath

Shadow Lance

The deck already ran three copies of Pillory of the Sleepless. IfTallowisp hit play, I would be able to tutor out all three copies regularly – this meant that I could place a low priority on other creature neutralization spells. This swept Cage of Hands andPacifism off the tablet.

Between Clinging Darkness and EnfeeblementEnfeeblementseems like the more powerful choice. If I ran either one, it would be to take a creature off the board for good, and not to neutralize a high power/high toughness creature (that was the job of the Pillory).

Since I could run my auras as a silver bullet strategy (being able to tutor for the exact one-of I need, depending on the situation), I decided I wanted one way to enhance my creatures as well. Necromancer's Magemark was too narrow,Spirit Link didn't do enough to further the power level of my creature, and I didn't have enough evasion to considerNecromantic Thirst. This left Indomitable Will and Shadow Lance as options, and Indomitable Will didn't seem like a great choice, given that if I tutored for it, the element of surprise would be neutered.

In: 3 Enfeeblement, 1 Shadow Lance

I kept Strands of Undeath in mind for a possible revision, and then went off to play some games. My strategy was the typical Tempo strategy – drop guys, keep momentum constantly on my side, and be in the driver's seat for the entire game.

Budget Ghost Dad

Was the budget build of Ghost Dad a success? The answer is yes. I ended up undefeated throughout my practice games, and in all-but-one game I was in control the entire game. Most games started and ended in a torrent of pressure and momentum-control – I would drop a couple of early creatures, neutralize their guys with either other creatures (Keening BansheePlagued Rusalka) or enchantments (Pillory, Enfeeblement), and get my guys back if they traded in combat (Soulshift, Death Denied). As a sign that the deck was working well, my games played out virtually the same way each and every time.

Hopefully this column gave a little insight into the process I go through when building a deck. I decided which type of deck I wanted to build (Tempo, as opposed to Combo, Control or Aggro), identified the possible choices for the deck (Spirits, Arcane spells, Enchantment – Auras), and whittled the deck down to a finely-tuned pile of 60 cards, with several alternate choices in case certain cards didn't work as well as intended.

I also felt like I succeeded in making a viable budget build of Ghost Dad. In this case, I will unequivocally say that there were certain concessions made to the budget version that could not be overcome with alternate choices, such as the pitch spells or Dark Confidant. However, the essence of the deck remained the same, and Ghost Dad was such a powerful Tempo deck to begin with that even losing some of its more powerful cards did not blunt much of its timing, pacing, and destructive capabilities.

 This was quite a departure from Ben's previous Building on a Budget articles. Did you like it?
Yes, and I'd like to see more columns focusing on theory and deck building, as opposed to game logs.
It was ok, and I wouldn't mind seeing an article of this type now-and-again, but not often.
I really didn't like this article – go back to your regular article format!

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