Tempo & Card Advantage: A Delicate Balance
Of all the concepts we'll cover in Level One, tempo and card advantage are the ones with the most power to directly influence the outcome of the game. In discussions of Magic theory, they're the most talked-about, and they draw the most interest. It seems strange that, by now, no one's been able to—so to speak—"crack the code." No player, writer, or theorist has been able to come up with simple, all-encompassing guidelines for how to manage these two resources.
Part of the problem is that tempo and card advantage frequently compete with one another. You make sacrifices in tempo to gain card advantage, or you make sacrifices in card advantage (or card quality) to gain tempo. These tradeoffs can stem from either the way you build your deck or the way you play the games.
Cancel | Art by Slawomir Maniak
There's no equivalency formula between the two resources that will always hold true in every situation. It's impossible to say that "this much tempo is a fair trade for this much card advantage." And it's impossible to say that one is more important than the other, since falling too far behind in either can lead to losing the game. Therefore, the best you can do is to be able to identify, in a game, how the values of tempo and card advantage are changing, and where you should focus your efforts.
You can think of games of Magic as playing out in two stages. For lack of creativity, we'll call these "the early stage" and "the late stage."
In the early stage, both players have hands full of spells, but limited mana. It's a race to get ahead and develop the board. This is the stage where it's possible to gain substantial tempo advantage, and the rewards of doing so can be very great.
In the late stage, the dust has settled; players have played out the lands and spells from their opening hands. Either one player has emerged with an advantage, or the game has remained even and begun to slow down. There's more mana and less to do with it. In the late stage, it becomes more difficult to gain a tempo advantage.
The length and importance of these two stages can vary wildly, and that's the challenge! In a matchup between two slow, White-Blue Control decks, the early stage might consist of a tiny window where one player can get a quick Planeswalker into play and gain a minor advantage. On the other hand, in a matchup involving a hyper-aggressive weenie deck, the game might be decided before it ever reaches the late stage! Identifying the stage of the game, and knowing how to play accordingly, will ensure that you're making the best possible use of your cards.
The Early Stage
In the early stage, there's the chance of getting out ahead. If you can come out fast, unbalance your opponent, and push a tempo advantage, you can earn an easy win. Most often, this will mean quickly getting ahead on the board with creatures and Planeswalkers.
You can seek to finish out the game in the early stages if your deck is fast enough. Often, the best-case scenario is to simply kill your opponent before he or she even has a chance to cast all of his or her spells! However, equally often an early-stage tempo advantage will translate into a late-stage advantage of another form. Life total is an easy example.
Red Aggro decks can come out fast, often deploying several cheap creatures before the opponent ever casts a spell. They gain an early tempo advantage and convert it quickly to damaging the opponent. Eventually, the slower and more powerful deck might manage to stabilize the board with End Hostilities or Elspeth, Sun's Champion. At this point, you can think of the game as shifting into the late stage. All things equal, the slower and more powerful deck will have the advantage in the late stage. However, if the red aggro deck was able to successfully convert its early-stage tempo advantage into 14 or 16 damage, then it can easily win the game in the late stage with a simple burn spell or two! (An aggro deck's ability to win in the late stage is called reach.)
Despite all my emphasis on trade-offs between tempo and card advantage, an early-stage tempo advantage can be converted into card advantage under the right circumstances. A perfect example is a Planeswalker like Xenagos, the Reveler. If you can get Xenagos into play quickly, then each turn that he remains in play, uncontested, he adds a free 2/2 Satyr to your board—card advantage. Eventually, the game will reach the late stage and perhaps your opponent will even kill your Planeswalker, but much of the damage will already be done, and you'll be left with the advantage of a number of extra creatures on the battlefield. Some creatures can also provide this effect, as in the case of Goblin Rabblemaster making tokens or Jeskai Elder providing the virtual card advantage of perfecting your hand.
If one deck is faster than the other, it will have the advantage in the early stage. Its goal is to jump ahead in tempo and press the advantage. The slower deck's goal is to keep pace, minimize damage (to life total or any other aspect of the game), and get to the late stage as quickly as possible.
If the decks are of comparable speed, the player who goes first will have an advantage in the early stage. Last week, I touched on the fact that mirroring your opponent's plays when you're on the draw is typically a losing battle. You'll start out behind, and you'll remain behind for the whole game. In order to "break serve," the player on the draw will have to trade resources, slow the game down, and try to get to the late stage on even footing (or as close to it as possible).
The Late Stage
The early stage is defined by the bottleneck of mana. You have many spells, but few lands. The late stage begins when the bottleneck gives way and a great expanse of open space and available mana is left. The limiting factor in the game shifts away from mana (and tempo) and toward card advantage and other resources (like life total).
Finally, you'll be very glad to have spells that provide card advantage, like Dig Through Time or Bitter Revelation. Since the early stage is about developing your board, you'll err on the side of playing out your creatures and removal spells first and leave your card drawing for the late stage, when things have slowed down and you have the leisure to cast these types of spells.
In the late stage, most decks will have spent the spells in their hand and will be forced to play off the top of their libraries. This means that it becomes crucial to squeeze every bit of value out of each of your spells, even if it means slowing yourself down to do so. Where you might scry a land or a cheap play to the top of your library in the early stage, in the late stage you're looking for long-run power, even if it means slowing yourself down to get it.
Let's take a look at a couple of common types of spells and how you should use them differently in the early stage and late stage of a game.
Permission spells, like Dissolve, have a very interesting relationship with tempo. If you're ahead or even on the board, they're great for preventing you from falling behind. However, when you find yourself behind already, they can't do much to help you get back into the game.
In addition to that, permission spells are reactive cards that can only be used in the proper window. You have to decide ahead of time if you're going to hold up mana for your Dissolve. Only when you've left your mana available and when your opponent has cast a spell will you have the option to use your Dissolve.
In the early stage, if you make the commitment of leaving three mana untapped for Dissolve, then you should often be willing to counter whatever spell your opponent casts, even if it wasn't exactly what you were hoping to counter. If you don't, then your three mana will be wasted, and failing to use your mana in the early turns is a sure-fire way to fall behind in tempo.
Along those lines, if you suspect that your opponent has left mana open because he or she has Dissolve, a great play is to cast one of the weaker spells out of your hand. This will give your opponent the choice of either falling behind in tempo or using up his or her Dissolve, allowing your more powerful spells to get through later. Even better, if you have an activated ability like a Rakshasa Deathdealer or a creature with outlast or monstrosity, you can use your mana on that instead of casting a spell and never give your opponent a chance to use his or her mana at all.
Permission spells have a bit of a different function in the late stage. Here, you have the option (if you find it best) to be patient and wait to counter your opponent's best spell. There are very few other ways to defend yourself against a Crater's Claws for X=10, so perhaps you'll want to save your Dissolve for that, even if it means letting your opponent's Heir of the Wilds, or whatever other spell, resolve first.
Here's an interesting example of the two different ways to use permission spells. Ben Stark's Jeskai deck features Nullify in the main deck and Disdainful Stroke in the sideboard. Both are two-mana permission spells, and yet they serve very different roles.
Nullify is in the main deck because one of Jeskai's weaknesses is that it doesn't have much to do on the second turn of the game. Mr. Stark's plan is to play his second land, and pass the turn with the intention of Nullifying absolutely anything his opponent casts. It's an early-stage tempo play that helps him avoid falling behind.
Disdainful Stroke, out of the sideboard, is exactly the opposite. Jeskai normally has to spend several cards to undo the damage of a Siege Rhino or an Elspeth, Sun's Champion, but Disdainful Stroke can come in against a slow deck as a late-stage play, where Ben can patiently wait to answer his opponent's most important card.
Bounce spells can be excellent tempo plays. In the early stage, when there's a bottleneck of mana, bouncing a creature to the opponent's hand can feel like making the opponent skip his or her turn!
A common sequence in Khans of Tarkir goes like this: You're on the play and play a two-mana creature followed by a three-mana creature. Your opponent's first play is a three-mana creature, and you cast Force Away on it. Already you've dealt a noticeable amount of damage to your opponent, and you have two creatures to your opponent's zero. Your opponent probably has a hand full of great cards, but with only three lands in play, it's unlikely he or she can cast more than one spell each turn. If you have a good follow up, you can be in a great position to take this game.
A good guideline, when you're ahead and trying to push an early-stage tempo advantage, is to cast your bounce spell the first time you don't have something else to spend your mana on. In other words, play out your creatures first, and then cast Force Away on the first turn that you don't have a creature to cast (or can cast two spells in the same turn). Bouncing one of the first creatures your opponent casts will have a long-lasting effect on the game, because it will take your opponent that much longer to play out the cards in his or her hand and get to the late stage.
What you don't want to do is cast Force Away on the last creature your opponent casts. If you bounce a creature, but your opponent has nothing else to do with his or her mana the following turn other than recast it, then you've only enjoyed a tempo advantage for a brief snapshot in time. This can be okay if you're able to gain an immediate advantage (say, via a big attack), but in general this is not the way that bounce spells should be used in the late stage.
Bounce spells typically result in card disadvantage, since you're spending a card out of your own hand, but are not destroying one of your opponent's cards. In the late stage, this can translate directly into a loss, so your challenge becomes to find a window to cast Force Away without suffering card disadvantage.
Some convenient examples include bouncing a creature with an Aura attached to it. The creature will eventually find its way back to the battlefield, but the Aura will be gone forever. Similarly, if you bounce a token creature it will be lost to the opponent forever.
In the absence of these conditions, patience becomes key. Sometimes you can use Force Away to save your own creature from an opponent's removal spell. If your opponent casts Rite of the Serpent on your Jeskai Windscout, and you respond by Force Awaying it to your own hand, you've suffered a minor setback in tempo, but you've found a way to trade your Force Away for a powerful removal spell out of the opponent's hand. In the late stage, avoiding card disadvantage is far more important than tempo concerns.
Force Away can also help you make favorable trades in combat. For example, if your opponent casts Awaken the Bear and you Force Away the creature, you've made an even trade in terms of cards, and probably saved yourself a lot of damage to boot! Alternatively, if your opponent double-blocks your Glacial Stalker, you can Force Away one of the two creatures in order to save your Stalker while it gobbles up one the remaining blocker.
In short, it's all about patience in the late stage. In the early stage, you want to cash in your cards quickly if you smell blood and think you might be able to earn a quick win. In the late stage, things slow down and it takes patience and creativity to find the best use for your cards.
Some games of Magic are decided long before the late stage ever arrives. In cases like this, concerns of card advantage might hardly matter. However, if you're unable to see when the texture of a game begins to change, then you won't be able to make the best use of your resources. You'll risk being disadvantaged against a player who's more patient and more mindful of card advantage.
Magic is about adapting. The best way to play your cards will change based on the circumstances. Be able to identify what's important in a game, and be able to play accordingly.