Magic the Gathering: Tempo and Card Advantage

This MTG article focuses on different strategies in Magic the Gathering. For any MTG deck, the chances of winning increases substantially if one maximizes his/her tempo and card advantage. What do I mean by those terms?

Magic has two main limitations in the game: you can only play one land per turn (meaning mana is limited), and you can only draw once per turn (meaning your hand is limited). So, tempo advantage is having more mana available to you than your opponent. If you have 5 lands and your opponent only has 2, you have a significant tempo advantage. Card advantage is having more cards than your opponent. If you have no creatures on the battlefield but 5 cards in hand, and your opponent has no cards in hand and two creatures on the battlefield, you have card advantage. Maximizing both these advantages significantly increases your chance of winning a game. So here’s some tips and examples of having good tempo and card advantage.

Lands that come into play untapped are significantly better than lands that come into play tapped. If you have a land that comes into play tapped, that’s like giving your opponent a free turn. This is why Watery Grave is so much better than Salt Marsh. Also, cards that produce multiple colors of mana may need to have a tradeoff with tempo. It is likely that the more colors in your deck, the more of a hit you’d have to take in terms of mana consistency, and potentially tempo consistency.

2. Cards that can delay your opponent’s mana production produce significant tempo advantage. Land destruction such as Stone Rain and Sinkhole deprives your opponent of having mana. Mana short and Exhaustion basically give you free time to develop your position while your opponent is delayed.

3. Denying your opponent good draws is another way of producing tempo advantage. Venser, Shaper Savant and Remand forces him to re-cast his card again or wait until next turn. Plow under, Temporal Spring and Memory lapse prevents him from drawing any new cards for a couple turns. In the meantime, you have new draws for yourself while he does not.

Card Advantage:
Obviously, cards that draw cards give you card advantage. Moreover, cards that do stuff and draw cards (called cantrips) provide card advantage by replacing the one you just played. So try to use cantrips if you can. Examples include Repulse, Exclude, Dismiss, Wall of Blossoms. Shadowmage Infiltrator and Dark Confidant draw you an extra cards every turn. Fact or Fiction can get you up to five cards just by itself!

2. Repeatable effects are card advantage by virtue of having the opponent spending more than one card on it. Bitterblossom and Squirrel nest produces tokens every turn and will need at least one card to destroy it plus more cards for each token produced. Call of the Herd serves up two creatures the opponent has to deal with.  A Kitchen Finks will likely require two cards to kill it, since it comes back using persist. A Troll Ascetic may not ever be killed at all, since it regenerates. If your opponent has to spend more cards than you put into it, then that’s card advantage, and vice versa. If I used a Wrath of God to destroy 5 creatures my opponents put on the battlefield, then I’m 4 cards up over him (my 1 vs. his 5). If I Recoil a token, then I’ve destroyed a creature and forced him to discard a card, a 2 for 1.

3. Card destruction is also card advantage. If I make my opponent discard cards, then he has less card advantage than me. And by depriving the opponent of cards, he has less options to use and less time to find his answers. Cards like Hypnotic Specter, Thoughtseize, Mind Twist are examples of cards that force the opponent to discard, gaining you card advantage.

4. Don’t use Auras. They have inherent card disadvantage. Why? Because if I put an Aura on a creature, or another permanent, when it dies, the Aura also dies, giving your opponent a 2-for-1. There are Auras like Snake Umbra and Rancor which prevents this 2-for-1, but for most Auras, its not a good idea to use them. Equipment were also invented as an alternative to Auras, without this disadvantage.

Mana efficiency:
One thing that is both tempo efficient and card efficient is playing mana efficient cards. That is, cards that do a lot compared to the mana spent to cast it. Do you know why Doom blade is better than Dark Banishing? Because it does the same thing, for less mana!  Lightning Bolt vs. Shock? Counterspell vs. Cancel? Same thing! Use the cheaper card, always. It is strictly better and is more mana efficient. Tarmogoyf will almost always be more powerful than Grizzly Bears even though they have same casting cost, thus its more mana efficient to use Tarmogoyf.

Cards that have multiple effects are also mana efficent. Solemn Simulacrum gives you a land, a creature in itself, and draws you a card when it dies, meaning its both tempo and card efficient. In card advantage terms, if you manage to kill a creature with it, that’s a 3-for-1. Grim Lavamancer reuses the graveyard for a repeatable 2 damage, and it only costs 1 mana to put out! Flametongue Kavu and Nekrataal kills a creature when it comes into play, and you have the creature itself. That’s a 2-for-1. Blightning deals 3 damage and makes the opponent discard 2 cards for the same CMC as Mind Rot. That’s mana efficient. Lightning Helix, Undermine, Prophetic Bolt are all examples of cards that have multiple effects and compared to their casting costs are mana efficient. Some mechanics such as Cascade/Persist/Flashback are inherently card advantageous as well. Bloodbraid Elf, Kitchen Finks and Call of the Herd are good examples of this.

Also, instants are better than sorceries since they can be cast on your opponents turn. If there’s a card like Diabolic Edict and Cruel Edict which is the same thing but a sorcery, I would take the instant every time. Instants are always better. Same with creatures. Creatures with Flash are always better than regular creatures. Snapcaster Mage not only can be played on the opponent’s turn, but also gives you additional card advantage by letting you re-use another card from your graveyard!

Also, some cards produce passive tempo/card advantage by producing some effect the opponent finds hard to deal with. A Propaganda forces the opponent to use his mana up to do something basic like attack. No Mercy may cause the opponent to delay his attack, or sacrifice his cards. These still give you card and tempo advantage over time, gradually. Planeswalkers like Elspeth, Knight-Errant often have multiple effects for one card, meaning they are almost always worth using because of their inherent card advantage and mana efficiency.

So what have we learned?
-Preferably use lands that come into play untapped and fix your mana
-Deny your opponent good draws
-Deny your opponent mana
-Use cantrips and repeatable card drawing effects
-Use card destruction and repeatable card discarding effects
-Use cards that have repeatable effects
-Use mana efficient cards, the cheaper the cost the better
-Cards that have multiple effects are better
-Instants are always better than sorceries
-Preferably use creatures with flash
-Enchantments and Artifacts produce passive advantage over time.
-Planeswalkers are inherently mana efficient 

And that’s it! Hope you learned something about tempo / card advantage from this article.