For the next few weeks, Reid is revisiting some of the key concepts of Magic, updated for Magic Origins. These concepts are so important to learning Magic that we wanted to reintroduce them to the next wave of Magic players. Enjoy.
One of my greatest joys in life—aside from Magic, of course—is music. I learned at a young age, though, that my love of music was to be relegated to listening, and not making it myself.
The one concept that I never could get was that of tempo—how fast or slow to play. I didn't want to pay attention to my sheet music, or to my teacher, or to my bandmates. I just wanted to do my own thing and play at my own pace. Eventually, there came a point where even I could no longer listen to my disharmonious clatter, so I gave up playing music and went back to playing Magic.
But I don't like to make the same mistake twice, so when it comes to Magic I have a deep respect for the concept of tempo. Like mana and card advantage, tempo is a resource. It differs, however, in the sense that it cannot easily be "counted" like the other two can.
Tempo, in the most basic form, is board presence. It's derived from how your creatures, lands, Planeswalkers, artifacts, and enchantments match up against those of your opponent, and the consequences that follow from it. We call it "tempo" because of the way the two players jockeying for the resource dictates the pace of the game.
As a resource, tempo is very closely related to mana. It's often (but not always) related to life total as well. When it comes to card advantage, you'll sometimes have to choose between gaining tempo at the expense of card advantage, or vice versa. For example, if you take a turn to cast Weave Fate, you gain card advantage, but you've spent a turn without improving your board presence, and so may have given up tempo in the process. Other times, though, you might be able to leverage a tempo advantage into card advantage instead. Say you're so far ahead on the board that your opponent is forced to chump block—block and lose a creature—just to preserve his or her life total!
USING YOUR MANA EFFECTIVELY
Two weeks ago, I introduced the concept of the mana curve, building your deck with a healthy mix of spells that cost varying amounts of mana. Mana curve is important because of tempo. If your deck is made up of all five-mana spells, you'll have nothing to do on the first four turns of the game. Your mana on turns one through four will be wasted. If your opponent is able to use his or her mana more effectively, then you'll fall behind on the board, fall behind on tempo, and fall behind in the game.
Mana is a resource, and one aspect of tempo is making sure your mana doesn't go to waste. If you find yourself very often ending the turn without using all of your mana, this should be a red flag that there might be an inefficiency in either the way you've built your deck or the way that you're playing the game.
Let's say, for example, that your opponent has just played a Cleric of the Forward Order. You play your second land, and the only play you can make is to cast Reave Soul on the Cleric. Should you do it?
Well, this is a complicated question. Sometimes, other factors can outweigh your tempo concerns (for instance, maybe you want to save your Reave Soul for a flying creature later in the game). However, casting Reave Soul is the play that gains you the most tempo—you spend your mana efficiently and save yourself from falling behind on the board.
Imagine that your hand also contains Read the Bones. This is a three-mana card that you're hoping to cast next turn. If you don't cast Reave Soul now, then you'll either have to wait until much later to use it, or else you'll have to delay casting Read the Bones. The longer it takes you to cast your spells and deploy your threats, the more tempo you'll lose. Even after you cast Read the Bones, you'll probably want to start casting the creatures and spells that you drew with it. This may be your one good window to cast Reave Soul!
Tempo is about developing your board, and playing lands is part of developing your board. Each land that you play provides you one more mana every turn for the rest of the game. This is why progressive turns tend to become more powerful, with wilder tempo swings as the game goes on. This is also why missing a land drop is so devastating; you fall behind on tempo right away and your ability to recover tempo on future turns is also damaged.
Sometimes lands, like the one you search for with Evolving Wilds, enter the battlefield tapped. This means that they cause you to miss out on one mana on the turn you play them—potentially leading to a loss of tempo. The flip side is that Evolving Wilds gives you much more versatility than simply playing with basic lands (since you can search for a land of whichever color you happen to be missing). On any turn you didn't have something pressing to spend your mana on, playing a land like Evolving Wilds can be a good long-term investment. Whether to avoid "enters the battlefield tapped" lands or to include them in your deck is a question of your exact strategy, and how much you can afford a small loss of tempo in the early turns.
And what about a card like this?
Leaf Gilder can function the same way as a land once it's in play. Like a land, it offers extra mana every turn for as long it remains on the battlefield, potentially allowing you to pull ahead of your opponent in tempo as the game progresses. The catch is that it requires an initial investment of mana. Again, some decks will be willing to make this investment and others will not.
CREATURES AND INITIATIVE
At any given moment, a player is playing in one of two ways: either being proactive (deploying threats, attacking, or otherwise progressing his or her own game plan), or else being reactive (defending, trying to answer the opponent's threats). It's good to be proactive whenever possible.
The proactive player takes the initiative, meaning that he or she sets the pace of the game and forces the opponent to react.
A number of advantages come along with taking the initiative. One of them is that if you're attacking very aggressively, it's often difficult for your opponent to find a way to attack you back. You don't have to mount a defense, don't need to worry about your life total, and don't need to protect your Planeswalkers. The best defense is a good offense!
Moreover, if you're forcing your opponent to block, you're putting them in a frightening position. For one, removing a key blocker often means a big tempo swing and a lot of damage being dealt. Even when the creature survives to block, the attacking player will usually have all of his or her mana available (since it's the attacking player's turn) while the blocking player might not (perhaps having just tapped out to play a blocker). This means that combat tricks like Titanic Growth and Mighty Leap can be used to their full potential.
For a player who wants to be attacking, creatures also require this initial investment, since they cannot attack the turn they enter the battlefield. However, for a player who's concerned with blocking (who is jockeying for tempo exactly the same as his or her opponent is), a creature can create a tempo swing immediately. "Enters the battlefield" triggers and abilities like haste can be excellent in terms of tempo.
REMOVAL SPELLS AND "REMOVAL SPELLS"
Removal spells can be a great way to gain tempo advantage. With a removal spell, you can take out a blocker to continue attacking or you can take out an attacker and defend yourself with little risk of anything going wrong.
Unholy Hunger is a simple, elegant, no-questions-asked removal spell. If your opponent spends his or her turn playing a creature and you spend your turn casting Unholy Hunger on it, you've probably broken even on tempo advantage. (As a side note, you've also broken even on card advantage—a "one-for-one" trade).
If Unholy Hunger has one flaw, though, it's that it's a little pricy.
A perfect example of a tempo-based strategy is to deploy a lot of cheap creatures and try to win the game before your opponent can answer them all or have time to cast more powerful spells. Unholy Hunger costs five mana, but against a strategy like this, it can do nothing better than kill a creature that cost two or three mana to put into play.
If you fill your deck with cheap creatures, it's likely that your cards will be less powerful and unable to stand up to your opponent's cards in a fair fight. Fortunately, you don't have to engage in a fair fight! Imagine you're able to deploy four or five creatures in the first five turns of the game, and then your opponent begins fighting back on turn five starting with an Unholy Hunger on one of them. It might be the case that turn five resulted in no net gain of tempo, but since you were so far ahead before that, you've managed to preserve your tempo advantage. Once you're ahead on tempo, every turn that the game state does not change you'll able to glean an advantage in another form—in this case, massive damage by attacking your opponent.
Now imagine an even more devastating scenario: the player ahead on tempo is the one with the Unholy Hunger. Again, you've managed to get ahead on the board by playing a handful of cheap creatures on the early turns. Now your opponent, in an act of desperation, casts a Sentinel of the Eternal Watch, hoping to block and stabilize both the board and his or her life total. You cast Unholy Hunger on the Sentinel and are free to attack with all of your creatures.
This is a perfect example of preserving—or pushing—your tempo advantage. In other words, you've made a play that realizes a concrete advantage because you have the upper hand in tempo. When your opponent misses a beat, knowing how to capitalize on your tempo advantage is key. Removal spells are great for pushing a tempo advantage because, unlike creatures, there's no initial investment—their impact on the board is immediate.
Unholy Hunger offered a one-for-one trade—no change in card advantage. A bounce spell, like Disperse will actually leave you with card disadvantage much of the time. You'll have spent a card, but your opponent's creature, while off the battlefield, will still be in the game as a resource that he or she can use in the long-run. Nevertheless, Disperse and Unholy Hunger will sometimes have an identical impact on the game. Given that it costs only two mana, Disperse can be a great tool if your game plan is focused on tempo (at the expense of card advantage).
In the case where you have four creatures and your opponent has just played Sentinel of the Eternal Watch as the first blocker, casting Unholy Hunger and casting Disperse are likely to be very similar—either one will win the game! The Sentinel will be in your opponent's hand instead of the graveyard, but it's likely that you're going to win immediately by attacking. If not, then your opponent will have to invest six mana again (this is probably a full turn) and in either case, the game is likely to be decided before your opponent has time to cast every card in his or her hand.
Traditional measures of card advantage go out the window when one player loses the game with five or six cards left in-hand!
Note that these are perfect circumstances for a bounce spell to be effective for three specific reasons. First, you're ahead on tempo already and are using Disperse to push your advantage (you realize an advantage in the form of life total by leveraging your tempo advantage). Second, you're bouncing a six-mana creature, forcing your opponent to spend far more mana to replay Sentinel of the Eternal Watch than you spent on Disperse (you might even cast another creature this turn to further your tempo advantage). Third, your opponent has a hand full of other cards he or she is waiting to play and is therefore bottlenecked on mana (he or she has more things to spend mana on than he or she has mana available).
What makes tempo such a challenging concept in Magic is that it can be hard to know how its value changes from one situation to the next. There are plenty of times where neither player has the ability to push a tempo advantage. One example is a creature stall, where neither player can profitably attack. Another is a late-game scenario where both players have plenty of mana to spare. Imagine that you cast Disperse on your opponent's Sentinel of the Eternal Watch but are unable to attack. On your opponent's turn, he or she has plenty of mana and nothing else to do with it besides replay the Sentinel. For a split second you've gained tempo, but you were unable to push your advantage. The end result is the identical game state as before, except you've lost Disperse as a card in your hand.
In cases like these, tempo should take a back seat and you should instead focus on considerations like card advantage.
The value of tempo changes from one game to the next, and even one turn to the next. Knowing when you can capitalize on tempo can offer you a great advantage, but identifying when you should focus on other aspects of the game instead is just as important.