Constructed Tempo Powerhouses

Posted in Latest Developments on May 19, 2006

By Aaron Forsythe

First off, pleasepleaseplease go read Scott Johns's article on tempo. It's fantastic, and it's coming from someone that absolutely knows what he's talking about. I have had my creature Time Ebbed by Scott more than once so that his pair of Zodiac Monkeys can hit me for four more damage. Scott's article is required reading because I borrow many of his terms.

Scott talks mainly about Limited, and while that stuff is all very interesting, I'm not going to continue focusing on it. Limited tempo happens naturally in whatever the card set is—R&D doesn't have to devote too much time to making sure the pieces are there. All you need are two-power two-mana guys, cheap tricks, and expensive powerful cards to tempt you to the dark side.

I want to talk about Constructed tempo for a bit, specifically cards that are on the fence regarding whether or not reprinting them is considered “in bounds” by the current development team.

Whereas combat tricks and removal play key tempo roles in Limited, bounce, countermagic, and land destruction are great tempo tools in Constructed.

Land destruction is the interesting one of the group, as it neither nets you a beat or sets your opponent back a beat, but what it does do is prevent your opponent from hitting his later beats. Land destruction is at its best when the opponent hasn't played anything in the early turns.

Bounce can be used as it is in Limited, putting opposing threats back in the hand so your guys can hit for more damage. But it can also be used as pseudo-land destruction in the early turns so that opponents can't make plays until they are too far behind developmentally.

Countermagic, as a tempo piece, is at its best when protecting creatures. Imagine a White Weenie deck that splashes blue for Mana Leaks and Remands and you'll get a good picture of how counterspells work with tempo.

In development, we keep Constructed tempo in mind quite a bit. Below are a bunch of powerful Constructed cards that have led to debates here in R&D:

Historical Tempo Powerhouses We May or May Not Reprint Again:

These two cards are similar. Both counter spells—sort of—and maintain card parity with the opponent. One gets you a new card, while the other prevents your opponent from getting a new card. There are differences between the cards—some may even say profound ones, as Remand has been oft-called “the most important card in Standard”—but for the sake of this discussion they are essentially the same.

Both cards have two functions: keeping yourself from falling behind in beats, or making sure you keep whatever beat advantage you currently have. The fact that they do both is what makes them so amazing. Both cards are great in control decks, as they can keep the board clear until your bigger and better spells can come online, and they let you keep expensive opposing threats at bay for only two mana, freeing up your other mana for stuff like card drawing.

That said, because they are cheap and splashable, they may be even better in aggressive decks. There is nothing more demoralizing then having your Wrath of God Remanded while you are being attacked by a pair of Ninja of the Deep Hours. Memory Lapse, when at its best, plays a lot like Time Walk. Here's a powerful deck from Ice Age/Mirage-era Standard that used two-mana creatures, Memory Lapse, and Winter Orb to tie opponents in knots—getting ahead in tempo and never letting go:

Forgotten Orb

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Without Winter Orb around to Complicate things, Remand is clearly the more powerful of the two cards, and we'll be happy to give it a rest once it rotates out. If we feel blue needs another two-mana counter to go with Mana Leak in the near future, Memory Lapse would likely get the nod.

Force Spike and Daze

While it is imaginable that Force Spike could perform the second role of Remand and Lapse—keeping you ahead in tempo—that isn't the card's best use. Force Spike's role is almost always to keep you from falling behind in the early game. Going first, Force Spike lets you keep Lions, Hounds, Elves, and Birds off the table, and it handle two-mana spells like Wild Mongrel and Watchwolf when going second.

The card becomes dead in the late game, but that's a good problem to have; it means you managed to survive into the late game. Then the best use of the card is to pitch it to Force of Will, Forbid, or Psychatog.

Daze, although it looks similar, plays quite differently, as it lets you be very proactive with your mana. It makes sure you keep the tempo advantage as opposed to not lose it. Daze is currently seeing play in the Legacy format as part of the threshold beatdown decks.

Summersberger, Helmut

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Counterspell decks are supposed to have holes in their armor, and quick creatures should be a weakness. Therefore we probably won't be printing Force Spike any time soon. If counterspell players want answers to early beatdown, they should have to consider more narrow cards, like Unsummon, Steel Wall, and Spell Snare; Force Spike is too universally applicable.

Similarly, free countermagic in tempo-based decks is something we're not fond of. Decks that continually play out threats should be vulnerable to defensive measures—efficient creatures and free counterspells combined almost feel like cheating. Even really cheap counterspells (like a madnessed Circular Logic) combined with efficient beatdown (like Wild Mongrel) is far too difficult for most decks to fight against fairly. So I'd consider Daze to be currently off limits.

Avalanche Riders and Plow Under

Two of my all-time favorites… as a player. As a developer, I have to look at the cards slightly differently.

As I said above, the main use of land destruction is to make sure you get ahead in tempo in the future by making your opponent miss beats. Stone Rain is not a great play when your opponent has two Savannah Lions in play, because you're behind and not doing anything to change that. Avalanche Riders is a different story. It puts you ahead if things are even, it can bring things close to even if you're behind, and it sets your opponent back developmentally in all instances.

Plow Under is, to me, the quintessential “I'm ahead and I'm staying there” card. It certainly isn't very good if you are losing on the board… but if you are winning on the board, your opponent may just concede when you cast this. Not only are the expensive cards he's holding not going to be played for a long time, but his chances of drawing a relevant cheap card go up in smoke as well.

I don't think either card is unfair in its own right, but combine them with any other bit of mana disruption and you can put games out of reach very quickly. Both cards have been extremely relevant to Standard each time they've been printed, and the kinds of pressure they put on formats is something we want to enable very, very infrequently. R&D would have to think long and hard about the consequences of brining either of these cards back again before reprinting them.


Noah Weil quoted me pertaining to Man-o'-War in his article this week, and that opinion is the one generally shared by my coworkers. I'm a little more on the fence when it comes to this card; I personally love Man-o'-War and bring him up every time we're putting a Core Set together.

If we keep the environment clear of most of those kinds of cards, the jellyfish may indeed return someday.

Yes, he is a fantastic tempo card. He's great at keeping you ahead in a creature war, he can snatch initiative from your opponent if you're a little behind, and he is a fine card to topdeck if you're flat-out losing (unlike other tempo all-stars like Force Spike and Plow Under). But he's just plain fun… and I've heard many people comment that he's one of their favorite Visions cards now that that set has been released Online.

So I'll keep exploring the possibility of getting this card reprinted. Heck, it worked for Hypnotic Specter once we determined that Dark Ritual was the real power behind the throne and that the scars associated with the random discard of Hymn to Tourach had healed. I think Man-o'-War has similarly always been the toady for more super-powered villains like Winter Orb, Tradewind Rider, free countermagic, Recurring Nightmare, and Propaganda. If we keep the environment clear of most of those kinds of cards, the jellyfish may indeed return someday. Of course, there is the whole “Creature – Jellyfish” problem that our creative team isn't exactly in love with…

Shining Shoal

Assuming you are playing in an environment where you reasonably expect your creatures to be damaged, Shining Shoal is a ridiculously powerful tempo card. For a whopping zero mana, you get an effect that is part combat trick, part counterspell, and part burn in a color that already lays claim to a lot of the best aggressive creatures. And you get to keep casting stuff like nothing happened.

These effects are great to do once in a while, as they change the way the game is played and force players to think about the ramifications of their actions at times when normally the right decision would be clear. Like most “free” spells, we usually want them to show up, do their thing, then go away. This isn't the kind of effect we want people to have to sweat out in Standard year after year.

Since Shining Shoal is Arcane, we pretty obviously won't be reprinting it in a Core Set. This class of card as a whole, however, is something that we'll return to every so often.

Over-the-Top Bombs That Won't Come Back:

Lightning Bolt

The fact that Lightning Bolt does three damage to a player for a single mana is only a small part of what makes the card “too good”; after all, we printed Lava Spike. No, the real issue with the Bolt is that it is a fantastic tempo card in addition to being a way to win the game. Bolt kills somewhere in the range of 57 of the 88 creatures that debuted with it in Alpha, and almost all of them cost more mana—often significantly more—than it does. That's too much for a one-mana card.

Swords to Plowshares

Lightning Bolt may deal with 57/88 of Alpha's creatures, but Swords takes care of 87/88. For. One. Mana. There has never been a better deal for efficient creature removal than this.

Rishadan Port

Like Plow Under and Avalanche Riders, this card is one that keeps you ahead in tempo once you grasp the initiative. The problem is that the card costs 0 mana to play and is colorless in addition to tapping for mana when necessary, meaning any deck that wanted it—tempo or otherwise—could throw in the card relatively painlessly.

Any deck with Ports that got off the ground quickly could stay ahead very easily.

Force of Will

Force of Will does everything Force Spike does, everything Daze does, and tons more. It has been called the glue that holds Vintage—the most power-laden format in the game—together. Many players probably don't think of FoW as a tempo card, but it does a fine job of that. Check out Nicholas Labarre's Merfolk deck from Pro Tour—Rome. Besides Force of Will, it backs up its weenie horde with other cards from today's discussion, like Force Spike and Man-o'-War. He took this deck to a second place finish at that event, which was defined by the most degenerate Extended deck ever played—Tolarian Academy.


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Two Week's Ago's Poll:

How happy were you with the Azorius guild?
Pretty happy 3560 31.3%
Neutral 2248 19.8%
Very happy 2174 19.1%
Overjoyed 1197 10.5%
Mildly unhappy 1174 10.3%
Outraged 538 4.7%
Very unhappy 481 4.2%
Total 11372 100.0%

One in five of you is actually unhappy, but on the flipside three out of five of you are happy with the Azorius. We can live with that.

Last Week's Poll:

What Ravnica block guild do you feel best matched its mechanics with its flavor?
Golgari 2647 19.4%
Simic 2402 17.6%
Rakdos 2239 16.4%
Gruul 1135 8.3%
Orzhov 1061 7.8%
Selesnya 1059 7.8%
Izzet 1045 7.7%
Dimir 763 5.6%
Azorius 726 5.3%
Boros 543 4.0%
Total 13620 100.0%

Golgari wins, with Simic in second. I think radiance bummed people out, which I suppose in understandable.

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