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Polishing Yourself Without Having to Scrub #2
By Andrew Emmott
I apologize for this article’s EXTREME lateness, as well as the first strategy article’s general banality, (Like any of you even REMEMBER that article), but I think the content of this article will make up for it, and it really does stand on it’s own as a solid strategy article I think. This lesson primarily applies to deck building, and it’s a lot of material to tackle, so be warned. Before I get started, I suppose it’s all too necessary to make the following disclaimer: generalities made in this article are of course not hard-and-fast rules about strategy, but rather rules of thumb that are usually true. When I say something like, “It’s best if decks are kept at exactly 60 cards,” I’m obviously not talking about Battle of Wits decks. The beautiful thing about life is that there ARE exceptions to every rule.

LESSON #2: Tempo and its underlings – Card Advantage and the Mana Curve

The above terms are tossed around quite a bit, and a less experienced player might not know exactly what concepts they address; do not worry, definitions will be provided as necessary. What I am demonstrating in this article is what tempo is, how it helps you, and what other concepts need to be considered when trying to maximize your tempo.

Tempo, put in a broad generality, is the pace at which your deck proceeds to win the game. With such a simple definition you might assume that I’m arguing that the fastest deck is the best deck. Well, on some level, I am. Come now, the deck that wins first, well, WINS. Of course, I mean this in a more open-minded sense. Sligh may be a really fast-paced deck, but it doesn’t always win. Why? Because of tempo’s evil twin: Disruption. Disruption is essentially the methods one uses to ruin another player’s tempo. Sligh’s pace can be counteracted, and an eventual win can be surmounted against it.

Enough with broad generalities for now, here is an ideal model of what you should do during the course of every round. (Note that I say “round”, which would include your opponent’s turn too.)

1. You will untap all permanents.
2. You will draw a card.
3. You will play a land.
4. You will attack with all creatures that should attack.
5. You will play all activated abilities that should be played.
6. You will spend all mana that could have possibly been put in your mana pool.

Of course, this is never really how it goes, but this is the ideal scenario. The better your deck enacts and/or the more it prevents your opponent from enacting this model, the more efficient your deck is. Diverting from the norm prescribed above can be a typical measurement of efficiency or inefficiency.

To clarify, tempo and disruption are more or less just fancier words for this efficiency model. For simplicity, these six rules will from now on be referred to as the “Tempo Rules.”

To make the reading of the tempo rules more clear, consider rule #2, (You will draw a card). Any round in which you draw exactly one card, you are keeping normal tempo. Any round in which you draw more than one card, you are keeping superior tempo. Any round in which you draw less than one card, you are keeping inferior tempo Similarly, any round in which you play more than one land is superior tempo, and any round in which you play less than one land is inferior, etc.

Of course, all six of these rules are meant to be broken. Hypothetically I could build a deck that means to put an Ensnaring Bridge and a Words of War into play, empty its hand, and then sit on a ten-turn clock. Here, I obviously do NOT want to be drawing cards, but that’s because I’ve traded off the use of my card draw for something else. Examining such transfers of power is a complex thing and beyond the scope of this article, but I just wanted to point out the these six tempo rules are not hard-and-fast mandates, just solid guidelines for conventional decks to follow.

(Side note: Actually, the term “Rogue Deck” might be best reserved for decks that are intentionally designed to run on a different set of rules for tempo and efficiency).

Furthermore, rules #4 and #5 include the subjective term “should” in them. Well, whether or not a creature “should” attack is certainly an aspect of strategy, but again, it’s outside the scope of this article. I say “should” to leave this back-door open – of course you should not always attack with every creature you can – but the rule exists to speak more to disruption. If my Propaganda or Ensnaring Bridge is preventing my opponent’s from attacking, then I am certainly messing with their tempo. What I’m saying is, ideally, your creatures should only refrain from attacking when you choose to have them stay back, not because they get bounced or tapped at the declaration of the attack step.

Which brings me to the last point of this introduction: obeying the six rules is impossible. So is writing the perfect novel. The idea is that you try to get as close as you can.

But why maintain tempo? Tempo alone does not win you the game. Well, a good way to describe what tempo does for you is to consider that it reduces the element of luck as much as possible from the game so that the outcome is left more to the playing skills of the players and less to the mad-top-deck-of-the-day.

Now for some definitions.

MANA CURVE:

I begin with what is perhaps the most complicated concept to be discussed here, but I do so because the basic premises are easy to grasp. The mana curve refers to your incremental climb towards a larger mana pool. Let’s say that you keep pace with tempo rule #3 exactly, and you don’t play any sort of mana speed. What this means is on turn 1 you will be able to cast a 1 casting cost, (cc), spell, on turn two, you will be able to cast a 2cc spell, turn three a 3cc spell, etc. This may seem simple enough, but I would venture that not enough people consider this sort of model when picking cards. Sure, for nine mana, Krosan Collosus is pretty good. Its draw back is simply that it costs nine mana, which means it’s probably not coming out earlier than turn nine, (For the sake of this argument, forget that it has morph). In nine turns, a bunch of two and three casting cost creatures could have killed you twice over. On top of that, if you’re waiting nine turns for a nice big kill condition and investing a lot of resources into just one card, you leave yourself very susceptible to simple removal spells. It only costs two mana to Counterspell it or Terror it, and if it’s turn 9 then that means your opponent has seven extra mana available to use against you somehow. What this comes down to is that it’s more strategic to consider how fast you will go up the mana curve and plan to have a spell in your deck for each step up the curve.

The most basic and most typical structure that decks follow is that they are 60 cards big and have 20 lands, which means that 1 out of 3 cards is a land. Let’s examine the ramifications of this model.

Assume that your deck has no card drawing or mana acceleration at all, and also assume that you go first and thus, draw no card on your first turn. Also assume that the law of averages never fails. On your first turn you will have seen seven cards, which means that you are holding 2 1/3 lands. You play your land. Turn two you’ve seen 8 cards, so you have 2 2/3 lands. You play your second land. Turn three you’ve seen 9 cards which means you have 3 lands, so you play your third land. Not bad, you haven’t missed a land drop yet. Ah, but on turn 4, you’ve seen ten cards, which means you’ve only got 1/3 of a land left. More realistically, you’ve only got a 1/3 chance of having your fourth land at this point. Law of averages says you should have your land by turn 6. Your fifth land is not mathematically probable until turn 9. In other words, if you have no mana acceleration or card drawing, don’t realistically expect to play a 5cc spell until turn 9. If your deck can deal with this, then fine, there’s nothing wrong with having no acceleration or card drawing.

Which brings us to the topic of mana efficiency. Mana efficiency primarily speaks to tempo rule #6. In theory, if your deck can spend all the mana it can, then it’s making the most of its available pool. So how does the mana curve fit into this? Well let’s consider our above model.

To review, mathematically your curve should be at 1 by turn 1, 2 by turn 2, 3 by turn 3, 4 by turn 6, and 5 by turn 9. Let’s assume that you’re building a green stompy deck and you plan to have the game won by turn 9, so for simplicity we won’t consider beyond a curve of 5. Well, you have 40 non-land cards of various casting costs. How should you distribute the casting cost to achieve maximum mana efficiency? Let’s see, on turn 1, after you play the land, you have 6 cards left; one of them had better be a 1cc spell. Well, if a pool of seven cards holds 2 1/3 lands then it hold 4 2/3 non-lands so 1 out of every 4 2/3 non-lands needs to be 1cc. This works out to be about 8 1/2 cards out of 40, so you should be packing 8 or 9 1cc spells, depending on how safe you think you need to play it. On turn 2, when you hit a mana curve of 2, you have seen a card pool of 8, which contains 2 2/3 lands and so 5 1/3 non-lands. Again, this means that 1 out of every 5 1/3 non-lands should be 2cc. This comes out to exactly 7.5 cards out of forty, so 7 or 8 2cc spells. Again, your choice.
Following this progression we get turn 3, at a curve of 3, drawing from a pool of 9 cards, which would mean 1 out of 6, which means 6 or 7 out of 40. Mana curve of 4 isn’t reached until turn 6, which sees a pool of 12 card, which means that 1 of 8 should be 4cc, which means 5 of 40. For 5cc we have a pool of 15 which means 1 of 10, which means 4 of 40. If you round up all these final numbers and add them up we’ve got 33. The other seven slots could be awarded to 6 and 7cc spells, but you might just want to fill out your deck with other casting costs.

I hope I didn’t lose anybody; take that last part again slowly if you need to.

The above approach is the rough, dirty way to look at how your deck builds around a mana curve. There are other factors to consider, and even more complicated math to be worked out, but the important thing is to remember that any adjustments you make to fit your mana curve progression are a two-way street. What I mean is, you can change the land count to fit your casting costs just as well as you can change your casting costs to fit your land count.

Other factors to consider are:

Card Drawing – This increases your card pool, which increases both the number of lands you see and the number of non-lands you see, BUT it’s also taking up one of the non-land slots in your deck. Do the math yourself on this one; I will cover card drawing a bit more in the card advantage section.

Non-Land Acceleration – Classically this comes from elves and other “mana-buddies”, but this includes all other sources, except lands. Again, it needs to be taken into account that these cards are taking up the non-land card slots, and also that, usually, the acceleration is either temporary, (Dark Ritual), or suffers from summoning sickness or some other kind of delay, (Llanowar Elves, Sky Diamond, Eladamri’s Vineyard), so the step up the mana curve happens the turn after the card is drawn and played. Again, some complicated math to be worked out.

Land Acceleration – Cards like “Untamed Wilds” that both get around the one land per turn limit, but also pull land out of the deck, (A concept known as “Deck Thinning”), which reduces the chances of land being pulled later. This requires some psychotic math. I was already dividing cards into thirds with our remedial basic model, I wouldn’t even imagine working out the math for myself on this one. Gah. Of course, approximation can help, (This also bleeds into my “overcompensation” tactic, again, to be discussed later). Anyway, it’s just something to consider.

Additional Costs – This covers activated abilities, non-mana casting costs, X costs, etc. The ability to play these also needs to be considered. A simple example is River Boa. Yes, it’s only a 2cc spell, but part of why it’s the broken is that it regenerates on the cheap. On account of I almost always want to leave a mana open to regenerate it, I consider it a 3cc spell when calculating mana curve. A similar thing might go for Pernicious Deed. Sure you can drop it when your curve hits three, but Deed’s power lies in it’s ability to pop at instant speed, so you might not want to drop it until you have enough extra mana to blow up what you want to blow up. X cost spells like Fireball or Drain Life can perhaps be better treated with a “target” value. If your deck strategy calls for you to be making 7 point Fireballs most of the time, then you can consider it an 8cc spell. Of course, this strategy might not always work; you might just be planning to use the Fireball as a game closer or as creature control. Versatile spells with versatile casting costs can make mana curves harder to build around, but hey, they also bend to circumstance a bit better too, eh? Again, these are just things to consider. You don’t have to calculate the appropriate probabilities ad naseum just to arrive at numbers you might have reached with simple intuition.

So, how does this model of mana curve fit with tempo? Well it relates most directly to rules #3 and #6. Putting a land into play every turn speaks to the prerogative of climbing up the mana curve and making the most of that mana speaks to mana efficiency. The brute-force logic is that a deck that gets mana quicker will be able to cast more powerful spells and win the game faster, but this concept is counterbalanced by the idea that one needs to make the most out of the mana present and doesn’t want to get “mana flooded.” If you have significantly too much land on the table then you’re wasting cards.

Disruption – Land destruction is the most obvious way to hamper your opponent’s mana curve, but don’t think it is the only route. There are colorless tactics like Rishadan Port and Tangle Wire, (These attack rule #1), as well as “bounce” spells that can return land to owner’s hand. Note that these tactics are most potent in the early game; that’s because most deck builds will have their fastest climb up the mana curve in the first three turns so. Keep this in mind when considering what, if any, disruption spells you plan on including in your deck.

By now my argument about tempo is probably a bit more clear to those of you who were lost earlier. Build your deck so that it moves forward efficiently and understand what methods you use so that, if you want, you can disrupt your opponent in the most efficient fashion. If you can keep superior tempo to your opponent, you should win, (Or at least, as I said earlier, you should only lose if you or your deck deserve to lose the match-up).

Mana-fixing – I briefly want to discuss mana-fixing, or the process by which your deck sets up the appropriate colors of mana. Well, green is the best color to do this with, obviously, but the advent of multifarious dual lands has made it fairly easy in any color. I don’t want to touch on this subject too much, but my advice is that you decide on the number of total lands first, based on your converted casting costs, (Or the other way around, however you’re doing it), and then you compare colors, potency and relevance before deciding on the mix of landtypes. Don’t just add up colored mana symbols, though that is a good starting point. If you don’t have a lot of black in your deck but you want to be consitently casting Duress or a mesmeric fiend within the first two turns, then you may want to weight you black mana base a little bit heavier. Other examples: Your deck is exactly half-blue and half-white, but all of your card drawing spells are blue. You might be justified in weighting blue a bit heavier because if you can consistently cast your card drawing spells then the rest should be able to sort itself out. Or consider that most of your green spells in your three-color deck either produce any color of mana, (Birds of Paradise), or get any color of mana, (Krosan Tusker). Again, you may be justified in weighing green a bit heavier because if you can cast your green spells more consistently, the other colors will just come.

CARD ADVANTAGE:

Essentially, whenever a card affects more than one card, you have attained card advantage. Card advantage is discussed so much because it is the ambiguous science of judging how much weight a card is pulling. After you’ve worked out your mana curve, the next thing you need to consider is what cards to fill in what cc slots, and you should start by judging their card advantage. Most simply, card advantage is considered in terms of card drawing. Ancestral Recall is an easy example of card advantage: you play one card, and you get three more, giving you a simple ratio of 3:1, (Or +2). However, when your Wrath of God destroys 10 opposing creatures, that is also card advantage, (usually). In a case where your Wrath of God destroys more of your own creatures than your opponent’s, this is not card advantage. Just do the ratios: If your WOG destroys 10 opposing creatures and none of your own, then the ratio is 10:1, (+9), but if it destroys 3 opposing creatures and 5 of your own then the ratio is 3:6, (-3); this would be called card disadvantage.

Card disadvantage isn’t necessarily bad. Burn spells that target a player are card disadvantage, (0:1), but they obviously are valid spells, (Of course, burn spells that target – and destroy – a creature provide a neutral card advantage of 1:1). Putting permanents into play usually should not be considered when calculating card advantage. While the permanent is in play you still haven’t spent its use, so card advantage should be calculated after the permanent leaves play, (If you drew 5 cards off your Archivist before it is destroyed, the Archivist gave you a card advantage of 5:1 or +4, but if you drew none, then you suffered a card disadvantage of 0:1 or -1). Creatures that kill more than one creature in combat before they are destroyed have given you card advantage.

Card advantage is an important thing to consider in Magic, but it is also a somewhat subjective field. In most conventional decks that give little or no regard to their graveyard, any thing that puts cards in their graveyard works against their card advantage, but thanks to Odyssey block, the graveyard can become a useful place for cards to exist, (Yes, certainly their were recursion combos before Odyssey block, but Odyssey really blew the hinges off the graveyard’s general uselessness). Typically, a careful study would be card disadvantage: you draw two cards, but then you discard three, plus you’ve spent the resources of casting the careful study, which leaves you at 2:3, (-1). Conversely if the deck is working towards threshold, then the addition of three cards into the graveyard plus two more into the hand all works for card advantage: Two cards in hand, two more in graveyard, plus the fact that the careful study card is still pulling it’s weight in the graveyard could be argued as a card advantage of 5:0, (+5). When madness, flashback and incarnations are considered, the potency of such card advantage can become staggering. This sort of thing goes beyond Odyssey block. Prosperity is huge card advantage when you have a Viseling on the table, but not so much if you don’t. The point of these examples is that what is and what isn’t card advantage can be subjective and needs to be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Another thing that complicates card advantage is creature tokens, because they act like cards, but aren’t cards at all. On one hand you want to think of Call of the Herd as card advantage because you’re getting two creatures in one card, but conversely it seems weird to call a Verdant Force a source of card advantage. Perhaps the Call of the Herd becomes card advantage when the one card ends up drawing two of your opponent’s burn spells. It can be argued a number of different ways. Again, it’s all subjective.

Furthermore, card advantage calculations don’t consider potency. When Choking Tethers taps 4 creatures it could be said that you’ve earned a card advantage of 4:1, but certainly your fourth Aether Burst that returned four creatures to their owner’s hand was more potent, (Not to mention the six creatures total that the first three bursts returned to hand). To counter this, some people have taken to considering only things that draw, destroy, discard, or remove cards from the game in calculating card advantage, but then again, the graveyard isn’t all that bad a place for a card to hang out anymore, so card advantage theories are only proved more subjective by this complication.

In some cases it comes down the old can-you-deal-with-this-threat type examination. If one of your cards “deals” with three of your opponent’s cards, then you can probably say you’ve attained a 3:1, (+2), card advantage.

In the end, a card’s potential to generate card advantage is one thing to consider, but it’s not the only way to value a card. Also, as said earlier, card disadvantage is not always a bad thing. What’s needed is balance. Ideally you want all the cards in your deck to average to at least a card advantage of 1:1, (Or 0. This is why I’ve been secondarily using the +/- descriptors for card advantage). Burn spells are good, but when you run out of cards in your hand, you’re gonna wish you had something like an Ancestral Recall to replenish your store. So for every 5:0, (+5), careful study you play, you’re allowed 5 0:1 burn spells, (Because 5 – 5 equals 0). Not really a good example, but I hope that makes sense. Also consider that card disadvantage can be made up for in other ways. The burn spell example I’ve been giving is good. Sure, card advantage helps you, but it doesn’t actually finish your opponent off. Burn spells might be card disadvantage, but they can also win the game. I’m running in circles at this point; the important thing to remember is that card advantage is what you make of it. It is a very situational concept, (Good deck building doesn’t always help you achieve card advantage, a lot depends on the course of the game and your opponent’s deck), and you need to be in tune with what rules of card advantage are most practical to apply to each deck you build.

Things to consider are:

Card Drawing – Card drawing enlarges the total pool of cards you have seen in the game. This is most closely linked to the mana curve concepts already discussed. Increasing your total card pool has a lot of advantages and can be welcomed even at the expense of actual card advantage. Careful Study is still very playable in a deck that cares little for it’s graveyard; it’s a very cheap way to get to two more cards in your deck. Remember that the spell you play counts as losing a card, though.

Recursiveness – I’m not just talking about buyback and the like here. When something is “recursive” it is the “gift that keeps on giving.” Buyback and flashback are obvious enough in this category, but consider Icy Manipulator over Terror. The Terror gets rid of one creature for good, and at a low cost, which is certainly good. But wouldn’t you feel stupid if you Terrored one of your opponent’s Erhnam Djinn’sonly to watch them drop a Thorn Elemental next turn? With Icy Manipulator you can neutralize the Djinn now, and the Elemental later. I’m not saying that Icy Manipulator is always better than Terror, they both have their drawbacks, I’m just saying that card advantage can be looked at in terms of versatility too.

The concept of card advantage addresses Rules #2 and #3 most directly, but speaks to disruption more than anything else. In fact, rules #2, #3 and #6 are usually the only ones that you can modify for yourself. Rules# 1, #4 and #5 exist to A) give you a simple guideline on how to play and B) give you ideas on how to disrupt your opponent and ruin their tempo, (Stop them from untapping and attacking!).

I want to end on a reminder that this is not gospel. I have provided a rough basic outline for deckbuilding and playing. These rules don’t apply to “tourney” decks only. Considering these concepts will help you build your wacky theme decks in a fashion that is more effective as well.

Homework:

Well, I’ve given you plenty to think about in terms of deck building, and maybe my Tempo Rules have given you ideas on stronger gameplay, but I know you can’t change overnight. What if you keep forgetting to play end-of-turn abilities or upkeep effects? Well here’s something you ought to try – Leave yourself reminders.

This is easiest with upkeep effects. The upkeep comes before the draw phase, so why not put something on top of your library? (Like one of those beads we’re always using to count stuff with). You can’t draw a card without moving the object, and this will remind you that you have something to do first. EOT actions are a little harder to leave reminders for, but you could try putting things on some of your tapped permanents so that you won’t untap your stuff before playing your spell.

Of course, most of us play in environments where your opponents are not likely to be sticklers about going back a few phases for simple actions, but it’s just an idea.

NEXT TIME: Creatures – How to judge them, and how to play them.

Read More Articles by Andrew Emmott!

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