After talking about different combo decks again for a couple of weeks, the feedback I was receiving suggested I should take a look at something different for a change. As I can understand that all combo all the time might be somewhat unsatisfying, it seemed like a good time to take a look at the archenemy instead: the Tempo shell.
Canadian Threshold (aka RUG Delver), UWR Delver, Grixis Tempo and the German BURG deck are all major players in at least parts of the global metagame. I'm not sure what happened to Team America-style BUG decks, maybe all the players interested in fair magic favoring those colors have concluded they'd rather suspend Ancestral Vision on turn one instead of dropping a Delver. Suffice it to say that niche seems to have disappeared.
With RUG consistently being the most-played deck in the format presently, understanding why these decks usually are mentioned together and what really makes them tick feels like important information. So that's what I'll be putting out there today – the fundamental gameplan of the tempo pillar, including an analysis of how it is implemented in the different versions of the deck and what we can learn about the construction of tempo decks on a fundamental level by looking at the different archetypes.
I'll be using Canadian Threshold as the jumping-off point because it's essentially the ancestor of all the other tempo decks at this point, and we'll follow through by pointing out how the other shells' implementations of the tempo strategy differ from the original.
Well, enough prelude, let's jump right in.
Let's start with some decklists for reference. These are lists of each of these archetypes as they're seeing play. Generally speaking you're likely to see a tweak or two, but if you know these decklists you're likely to know at least 90% of what's in your opponent's deck once you've correctly identified them as a tempo deck and seen their colors.
Before we move on to discuss the why behind individual card choices, let me take a moment to talk about the way tempo decks approach the game from a more general point of view. Every good Magic deck has a plan it tries to implement going in. Those plans can reach from “resolve Show and Tell ASAP” or “flood the board with threats until one sticks” to “counter or kill everything my opponent plays”. For tempo-decks, that plan is to make sure you get to use more of your cards than your opponent in the same time frame.
By doing this, the tempo deck makes sure it is going to have a bigger impact on the game than its opponent, at least for long enough to capitalize and win the game before the opponent can catch up and turn the game around back in their favor.
To implement this strategy, an ultra-low mana curve of cheap aggressive threats and disruption is used to keep the opponent stuck in the early game while their life total dwindles down to nothing. And that's the tempo strategy in a nutshell.
Now that we're aware of the theory, let's start by looking at the innards of the grandfather of all Tempo decks, Canadian Threshold. Things look pretty simple at first. We see twelve creature threats, seven burn-based removal spells, eight pieces of library manipulation, fourteen mana sources and nineteen pieces of cheap disruption in our sample list. The newer tempo archetypes closely mirror this configuration.
While a couple of slots are changed from time to time – mainly between removal and disruption, sometimes also to make room for some free information gathering in Gitaxian Probe – this is a typical skeleton. The interesting part is looking at the nitty-gritty details here, though, so let's do just that.
Here's what delivers the actual blows:
All three of these creatures are chosen for their excellent power-to-cost ratio, but they all also fulfill important and very different roles in enabling Canadian Threshold to implement its strategy, making each the perfect threat for certain matchups.
Delver of Secrets is the deck's Wild Nacatl – a cheap, high power aggressive threat. Delver's role is the same it has had in every deck ever since Innistrad – it supercharges the whole gameplan by giving a blue disruptive deck a clock to rival Zoo. Delver isn't in the deck because it helps in specific matchups, it's there because it makes them all better. That's also why it's an automatic four-of in all four lists. In addition, Delver also happens to be the cheapest and least-resilient threat the deck can muster, making it ideal against removal-light opponents and especially combo decks.
On the other hand, Tarmogoyf is efficient but actually often the worst card in the deck because two mana is more than you'd like to pay for your spells. The reason to play it anyway – aside from raising the threat count – is that it gives the deck some staying power. When the game goes long and the opponent actually gets to cast spells that cost more than a single mana, Tarmogoyf is the ultimate trump against creature-based decks. Usually a 4/5 or bigger in these matchups (land, sorcery, instant, creature), Tarmogoyf gives RUG something that is big enough to actually dominate combat, either buying time for a Delver to end the game thanks to evasion or just slogging through the ground battle based on raw stats alone. It shines the most against decks that use burn for removal (such as the mirror) and the format's tribal decks, against which it represents either an immortal wall or a clock they have to trade three or four cards for if they want to truly stop it.
Finally, Nimble Mongoose is the deck's inevitability. One of the big ways a tempo deck loses the game is by getting all its threats killed against removal-heavy opponents, nullifying the effectiveness of its disruption.
In contrast to every other creature in the deck, Nimble Mongoose is actually very hard to kill outside of combat. As a result it isn't uncommon at all for a Mongoose backed by the deck's plentiful disruption to go the whole way while Swords to Plowshares and even Abrupt Decay sit uselessly in the opponent's hand. It's the Threshold player's favorite long-term threat against decks like Miracles and Jund that try to stabilize the board with removal.
Now that we've understood how exactly these threats are intended to work, it shouldn't surprise us to see that the other Tempo decks use different cards to create similar utility. Let's take a look:
UWR Delver uses exactly twelve slots for creatures, too, and obviously has the same four Delvers as every single other deck we're looking at. Without green, though, it clearly can't use Tarmogoyf to provide its big body to dominate creature matchups. Luckily, ever since New Phyrexia white has its very own 1W-echo Baneslayer Angel in Stoneforge Mystic, which serves that purpose nicely. It's more of a mana sink, though, making it worse at playing backup in the cheap high-power-threat department, which explains it being a three-of instead of the full playset.
Geist of Saint Traft takes up Nimble Mongoose's mantle as the removal-resistant inevitable threat, though its higher mana cost and much shorter clock allow UWR to go down to essentially just two real finishers.
The resulting extra space is taken up by some utility creatures that happen to also double as threats in Vendilion Clique and Grim Lavamancer, allowing the deck to play a stronger control game in the midgame at the cost of some raw early-game power.
We can see this trend towards utility instead of huge bodies taken even further with the BURG deck. This deck is essentially RUG Delver minus the somewhat clunky Tarmogoyfs, replacing the pure beatsticks with the powerful tempo-gaining utility of everybody's favorite mana elf, Deathrite Shaman. It may not look like it on first glance when checking the deck's mana curve, but jumping ahead on mana is incredibly potent in a tempo deck.
The mana burst Deathrite Shaman provides makes it easier for this version to really cut the opponent off of all options early in the game, only to finish with the rapid clock of a Delver or Mongoose supported by Deathrite drains – that's still five points a turn, after all. The single nod to a big body in the cited list – others run one or two Goyfs, usually – is a Scavenging Ooze, once again a fattie whose value is based just as much on its utility as graveyard hate as on actual size once it has devoured a couple of guys. Very clearly the deck takes a more controlling approach to the game than any of the other decks.
The Grixis Delver list, finally, turns one of the spell-based removals into a thirteenth creature, Grim Lavamancer, as a walking Shock. More importantly though, it's missing the big bodies or the removal-resilient threats the other decks have. Instead, it goes with a different approach, backing the tempo-based disruption with threats that will just run away with the game in short order if unanswered for even a single turn.
When a tempo deck gets to untap with a Dark Confidant, there's a significant chance the opponent is never getting out of the disruption phase of the game. Usually you try to slog through the first couple of turns until the tempo player's hand runs low and you can finally start to get mana online and resolve spells. With Bob Maher, Jr sitting in play, the tempo deck simply isn't going to run out and you're in for a world of hurt, devastated lands and countered spells. It thus ensures inevitability in a different way.
Finally, Young Pyromancer might be a terrible topdeck when empty-handed but goes totally bonkers if you get to untap with it while having a reasonable hand size. Just by continuing your regular game of cantrips and disruption it will flood the board with tokens rapidly enough to come close to matching an Empty the Warrens, providing either nigh infinite chump blockers (taking up the role of Tarmogoy) or a horde of individual small threats that laugh at spot removal (replacing Nimble Mongoose).
This combo-esque end-game allows the deck to play very differently from the other tempo decks as it can suddenly take a true combo-control role when the matchup or hand calls for it, playing disruption cards for the first couple of turns before exploding onto the board with enough power to end the game swiftly even if it was behind on the board before.
Now that we know how these decks plan to finish the game, let's get to the actual thing that makes them into tempo decks instead of just aggro – the disruption suite. Here's what Canadian Threshold brings to battle:
Wasteland and Stifle – mainly used as a super-Sinkhole against opposing fetchlands – keep the opponent's mana limited, locking them in the early game. Against a deck with only four spells that cost above one mana, being stuck on one or two lands is a recipe for disaster. For every spell you cast, they'll usually be able to use at least two or three. That leaves them the opportunity to deal with your one spell per turn while they continue to sculpt their hand, deploy threats and keep countermagic up all at the same time.
Countermagic is also why the mana-denial strategy really comes to fruition. Daze is a live card significantly longer thanks to the mana denial, making it an active hard counter for large portions of the game, and Force of Will always trades for more mana than it costs (well, if you aren't forcing a Lion's Eye Diamond).
Whenever one of the free counters hits something, the tempo deck once again gets ahead not on actual card count but on cards used. It is then because of these free spells that the tempo deck can tap out on turn one or two to start the clock all the while never risking their stranglehold on the opponent's ability to do anything relevant at all.
And that's basically all there is to it – keep the opponent from doing anything that matters while the deck's efficient clock takes them toward zero at a steady yet quite rapid pace. Once we pass turn two or three, Spell Pierce and Spell Snare are easy to keep up and usually provide a similar advantage in the mana-used department, rounding out the disruption suite. These are some of the weakest cards in the deck but there simply aren't any efficient free counters left to be used.
The other three decks don't differ significantly from Canadian Threshold in this area at all – fittingly, as that's why they're considered Tempo decks – which is reflected in their near identical disruption suite. I'm actually somewhat unhappy with our UWR and Grixis players for cutting down on the fourth Force of Will, as I think it's too important a tool to skimp on but they succeeded so who am I to tell them how they should be doing things.
Against combo decks, stopping a couple of key spells will often be enough to stay ahead until the game actually ends. Against more creature-heavy strategies, though, there will more than likely be a couple of creatures that actually make it into play in spite of the barrage of disruption. While Tarmogoyf is one way to deal with this eventuality, RUG also runs removal to take care of whatever has slipped through the cracks, opening the way for its creatures to beat down:
Note that every single removal spell the deck uses is burn. While that is in part a function of the RUG colors – there aren't many solid removal spells other than burn available – the deck uses red mainly for removal, meaning the choice to go pure burn is quite intentional. It makes a lot of sense, too – you're a tempo deck and when your disruption really does work or the opponent simply doesn't provide targets for your removal, you'd like to be able to support your main strategy with these cards instead of having them rot in your hand. The reach provided by burn-based removal is an important part of Canadian Threshold's endgame and will often shave off those one or two turns in which the opponent might otherwise have turned the game around.
All three other decks above share this insight, though each of them supports the mandatory Lightning Bolts with a few cards that can actually kill something large. The reason for this is simple: they already run the requisite colors to make less limited removal available, be it Swords to Plowshares, Abrupt Decay or Dismember, and they don't have their own Tarmogoyfs.
One of the biggest problems Canadian Threshold faces is a Tarmogoyf (or similarly large, cheap fattie) on the other side of the board – it's cheap enough to often come online through the disruption and generally too big to kill with burn. What Canadian Threshold does to address this situation is to drop its own Tarmogoyf so that the two end up mainly staring at one another while digging for more Goyfs or some other way to win through the standoff. None of the other three tempo decks has access to its own Goyf, so having a couple of ways to get rid of an opposing one becomes important enough that sacrificing a little bit of reach is worth it for them.
From what we've seen so far, it should be evident that Canadian Threshold wants to see a very particular mix of spells each and every game: just enough threats to have at least one survive, just enough removal to open the way or finish off the opponent, and a ton of conditional disruption spells to keep a tight grip on the game until your threats have finished the job. A lot of its spells even become terrible once the opponent has established a solid position. Sure sounds like a recipe for inconsistency.
To help with that issue, Canadian Threshold relies heavily on its set of eight cantrips:
While these cards don't have any useful function as far as the deck's actual gameplan is concerned – in fact they're counter-productive by using mana without either advancing the board or slowing down the opponent – they are extremely important to make sure you have the correct pieces at the correct time. If the deck just used more creatures and disruption spells instead of library manipulation, it would end up drawing just one or two sides of the deck when it needs a combination of all of them to function at peak efficiency.
Toning down on the actual spells you plan to use to win the game and replacing them with cheap ways to find those cards allows the deck to flow significantly more smoothly. It also allows the deck to run just the best threats and answers, granting it higher overall card quality, not something that's easy to mirror with active cards given the low curve requirements. The cantrips also help to make sure the very small manabase – we'll talk about that below – will actually cough up the necessary two lands the deck needs to be fully functional.
Two of the three other decks use the full double playset here, too, and even supplement it with two and four Gitaxian Probes respectively to shrink deck size (remember the point about playing just the best versions of each type of card) and provide some free information as to how to approach the game.
The two Probes in the BURG deck are essentially player preference; in the Grixis deck, however, they're an important tool to make Young Pyromancer as powerful as it can possibly be. Free spells translate into tokens immediately, increasing the deck's resilience to spot removal, a weakness compared to the other tempo decks we already identified above.
The UWR deck, on the other hand, sacrifices its eighth cantrip to get a fifteenth mana source into the deck. Looking at its mana curve, that makes a whole lot of sense: between Geist of Saint Traft, Vendilion Clique and Stoneforge Mystic, you'll need that third land drop significantly more often than the other three decks would and you're also less likely to have unused mana sources lying around even after turn three.
Finally, there's one very special thing about Canadian Threshold and its brethren decks compared to “normal” decks: the manabase.
Not only are those only fourteen lands, they're all non-basics! The only other decks that can go that low are fast combo decks that don't plan to play each game for more than a couple of turns. Canadian Threshold's ability to play so few lands is based on its incredibly low curve – one mana casts everything but Tarmogoyf – as well as the aforementioned cantrips virtually increasing the land count when necessary as long as the first blue mana is available.
That fact is also the reason to run only non-basic lands. Because Canadian Threshold is so focused on getting ahead early and keeping that lead, it can't risk hitting the wrong lands early in the game. Every spell needs to be castable as soon as possible and any land that isn't an Island to cast cantrips, Stifles and Dazes with is a huge liability as a result.
Luckily, the incredibly low curve of the deck means it generally never wants to have more than two or at most three lands in play anyway, reducing the impact of getting Wastelanded significantly and thereby negating a large part of the drawbacks inherent in nonbasic lands.
Wanting only so few lands in play also enables the deck's hidden card advantage engine. By being able to run so few lands, late-game draws are much less likely to be lands, giving the deck a spell advantage in topdecking wars. Additionally, you can turn Brainstorm into what amounts to a full Ancestral Recall for most intents and purposes by holding on to extra lands as soon as two are in play.
The other three decks use exactly the same principles, and as such their manabases are very close (obviously changed to the appropriate colors). The two deviations from this standard are UWR's fifteenth land – as mentioned a result of its higher mana curve – and the BURG-deck's Taiga. Now, playing Taiga goes against everything I just said – it doesn't cast most of the deck's spells and will often cause hiccups if drawn early – but fills one very important function: it allows this four color deck to be fully functional on only two lands.
With only fourteen colored sources, you will get stuck on two lands and you want those to allow the deck to cast all its spells. In addition, I mentioned that the main way these tempo decks get card advantage is by Brainstorming back any lands beyond the second, trading them in for more active spells. Seeing as the BURG deck is the “control” deck among them (well, as much as any Delver deck is ever a control deck), this card advantage effect is particularly important. Conveniently enough, the fact that its replacement for Tarmogoyf is Deathrite Shaman gives it more virtual blue mana sources than any of its rivals actually has.
Why a Taiga specifically? Well, the deck has green, red, blue and black spells, the most demanding of which are the two Abrupt Decays. To cast those, BG is necessary, meaning the two lands in play need to either be Tropical Island and Badlands or Underground Sea and Taiga. Badlands only casts Deathrite Shaman and Lightning Bolt on its own – say after its companion land has been Wastelanded – while Taiga enables all the main-deck off-color spells – clearly making it the superior choice.
And that's what Legacy's tempo decks are all about. The lowest curve in the format and a boatload of disruption allow them to out-spell opponents and win before they are fully active. In fact, while the implementation and gameplay are quite different, tempo decks share many qualities with the format's actual combo decks, from low land count and strong library manipulation to a focus on winning before the opponent is ready to bring their tools to bear. They simply don't create this effect by being super-fast but by being efficient and harmstringing their adversaries.
I hope this little overview has helped you to better understand this major player in the Legacy metagame and to appreciate the huge differences as well as commonalities between these archetypes. If there are any questions remaining, corrections to make, or issues to address, feel free to share them in the comments. I'll be reading all of them and will do my best to answer anything that comes up. I'd also appreciate any suggestions as to what you'd like to read about as I'm writing these articles for you guys – so let me know which areas of the format could do with some additional highlighting.
Until next time, get ahead!