Know Your Limits: Tempo Swings in Limited
Before I start I would like to give myself a quick introduction for anyone who doesn’t know who I am. My name is Sean Davey and I’ve been enthusiastically playing Magic since I was about twelve and Mercadian Masques had just been released. Whilst I do enjoy constructed, particularly deck design, limited is really where the lion’s share of my skill and excitement lies.
I am a professional instrument teacher, so I like to think that I’m pretty good at explaining difficult concepts face-to-face. Music theory like Magic theory rarely has hard and fast rules, like always [blank] when [blank] happens. You must instead rely on understanding of the inner workings of a situation to come up with the best solution. I hope that my good verbal communication comes over well in writing as I want to touch on a concept in Limited Magic that I have been mulling over for a while now.
I feel that a lot of good players understand this on some level, but may not be able to describe it with concrete terminology. I’m going to try and sketch out this concept from it’s most basic level.
The way that the majority of limited games play out is that from turns 2-3 onwards, both players are generally making one play each turn that advances their position in some way. If this carries on indefinitely the game is almost certainly going to be a very close one. However, in the real world this does not tend to happen. At some point a player will pass a turn without making a play in the same turn cycle that their opponent did play a relevant spell. Another possibility is that a player did play a card that impacts the board in their favour, but their opponent played two! One more is that a player played a relevant spell and while their opponent did also play a spell, it had little to no influence on the current board state.
These moments are the tipping points in the game that I like to call ‘Tempo Swings’. A tempo swing essentially happens when one player makes a larger number of meaningful plays in a turn cycle than their opponent. I have found that a good yardstick is that if you have achieved a favourable tempo swing two times more in a game than your opponent and held that advantage over more than one turn, you are very likely to win.
If we take this theory to heart our goal is to both try and get cards into our deck that allow us to create positive tempo swings and also play in such a way that we open ourselves up to causing these situations for ourselves, whilst attempting to prevent our opponent from doing so. I must stress that you cannot simply just cast any spell or activate any ability and call it a meaningful play. You can only count actions that have a reasonable positive impact on your game plan.
To go any further in this discussion we have to define, what exactly is a ‘meaningful’ play? I will outline below the most likely possibilities, but by no means is the list a comprehensive guide to all the positive actions you can make in a game.
1. Playing a creature that is able to make profitable attacks or blocks on the current board state.
This is the most common one. Simply playing a Runeclaw Bear onto an open board will be a meaningful play as it can freely get in attacks. Playing a Runeclaw Bear onto a board where your opponent also has a single Runeclaw Bear is still an meaningful play as your creature has the potential to make profitable attacks or blocks. Fugitive Wizard is rarely a meaningful play as it doesn’t often find itself in a situation where it can take an action that gives you any advantage.
To take a more complicated example, if your opponent has two Centaur Coursers on the battlefield, playing a Runeclaw Bear as your only creature is not a meaningful play. It can’t block a Centaur Courser to gain value and even if your opponent attacks with both Centaurs and you are able to freely attack with your bear, you are not able to compete in a race situation as your damage output is so much lower.
However, playing a second Runeclaw Bear would be meaningful as it opens up a situation where you can double block and trade one Runeclaw Bear for one Centaur Courser. Just to clarify, even though you played two creatures in one turn, only the second one changed the board state in your favour, therefore you only made one meaningful play that turn. It can get a little murky later on when the board is more cluttered and it is harder to discern whether a creature is having impact on a board state. You’ll have to use your best judgement to decide whether it is or not.
2. Removing or otherwise disabling an opposing creature from making profitable attacks or blocks.
This is essentially the opposite of the first point, instead of adding a relevant creature to your team, you take one away from your opponent. This includes any kind of bounce (Unsummon), kill (Murder), combat trick (Giant Growth) or disable (Pacifism) effect. One thing to note is that while bouncing is the same as killing a creature in the short term, if the bounced creature is still relevant later in the game it may be that you have given your opponent a meaningful play further down the road on a turn when they may have previously had none.
That said, bouncing is still a highly desirable effect in limited Magic. You need to apply the same rules about creatures having a meaningful impact on the board when you point removal at them. If you cast Doom Blade on your opponents Centaur Courser when you have a sole Runeclaw Bear on the battlefield, that would be a meaningful action, because the Centaur Courser had profitable attacks and blocks available to it. If you used Shock to kill an opposing Squire when your board consisted of a Centaur Courser and a Runeclaw Bear, that would not be a meaningful action as the Squire did not have profitable attacks or blocks available to it. This category could even include putting a Dead Weight on an opposing Centaur Courser, because even though the creature wasn’t killed, it now cannot effectively take part in combat.
3. Enabling a creature you control to attack or block profitably on a board position where it previously couldn’t.
The classic example of this is some kind of aura or equipment that boosts power and/or toughness. If you cast an Oakenform on your Runeclaw Bear when you opponent has two Centaur Coursers you have taken a creature with minimal use in combat and turned it into something that has reasonable attacks and blocks available to it.
Granting evasion may also make a creature relevant when it wasn’t before. For example if you have a Runeclaw Bear and a Siege Mastodon in play against an opposing Stampeding Rhino, equipping Kitesail opens up a profitable attack for your Runeclaw Bear.
4. Reversing an opponents action that would cause any of the above to happen in favour of them
This one’s easy when you know about the others. Using Essence Scatter on a meaningful creature qualifies, as does casting a Safe Passage in response to a Lightning Bolt. Basically any action that reduces the impact of a relevant action from the opponent to little or no effect.
We now know what constitutes a meaningful play, but what kind of qualities are we looking for in a card that allows us to make more meaningful plays than our opponent in a turn cycle?
1. Cheap spells
It’s hard to describe how good cheap spells are in limited magic. Cheap creatures allow you to net a very easy tempo swing by going under your opponent. For example if you cast Runeclaw Bear on turn two, but your opponent did not value two drops very highly in the draft and missed playing a creature on that turn, you are immediately ahead. Similarly, you don’t want to get caught out by your opponent in this way, so make sure you give yourself the chance to make meaningful plays starting from turn two. Meaningful one drops are few and far between, but if you have a creature like Rakdos Cackler you can pretty much count on gaining a tempo swing if it appears in your opening hand.
Another way you can gain a tempo swing by using cheap spells is playing two in a turn. If you attack your Runeclaw Bear into your opponents freshly played Centaur Courser and it blocks you can cast Giant Growth to take out the centaur and then follow up by playing a second Runeclaw Bear. In this situation you have both played a relevant creature and removed an opposing creature (2 meaningful actions) to your opponents play of one relevant creature (1 meaningful action). I value one mana spells that have a relevant effect on the board very highly, because they can easily enable these kind of turns.
In the above example if we swapped out Giant Growth for a Titanic Growth you would not be able to execute the same sequence on turn 3. In addition if it was turn 4 and you now wanted to make the double play of Titanic Growth and Runeclaw Bear, there is a greater chance of the bear being outclassed by other creatures on the board and possibly not qualifying as a meaningful play.
One or two mana removal spells are totally awesome, because they almost guarantee great tempo turns. If the Giant Growth was instead changed to a Lightning Bolt, even if your opponent didn’t block you could still achieve the same effect. Do remember that you can’t just include any one-mana spell and expect to get a positive tempo swing. Rangers Guile can do it, but the situations where it does are much less common than Giant Growth.
2. Spells that single handedly have two or more meaningful effects
This is my favourite category and cards that fit this criteria are often among the most powerful in a given limited format. Tempo swings win games and you usually have to work hard for them. In previous examples you had to find two spells that are relevant to the board state, count your mana and only if you can pay for both and find a good use for both do you get the pay off. With these cards you just tap your mana, cast them and reap the rewards.
Aether Adept both puts a creature in play that has a good chance of affecting the board state and removes an opposing creature from play. Another example is Druids Familiar, which gives you a creature big enough to always be relevant and usually enabling another one of your guys to start participating in combat effectively. These cards are the ones that push me into colours. They are simply that good.
Cards like Forge Devil have this potential, but there are many situations where either or both halves of the card, that is the removal aspect or the creature aspect, are not significant on the current board. Even so, the potential upside is hard to ignore. Any card that can cause a positive tempo swing on it’s own is always something worth considering highly, even if situational.
3. Cards that have relevant effects at nearly all stages of the game
Later in the game the board is usually more complex, includes a few larger creatures and players are hoping to top deck cards that help affect the board state. If your opponent draws and plays a Maritime Guard it is likely to have a negligible effect on the board ie. not a meaningful play. If you were to respond by casting a Deadly Recluse, that is a card that is almost always relevant as it can usually trade for one of your opponents creatures that are currently having an impact on the board. Even though you both played a spell, your opponent is still behind a tempo swing. You are also more than happy to play this card on turn two.
Smaller evasion creatures like Wind Drake are good turn 3 plays and likely still have good attacks and blocks available to them on turn 7. Another sub-set of cards are creatures with a relevant body early in the game, but have an activated ability that has a reasonable to significant effect later on. Vitu-Ghazi Guildmage is the most recent poster child for this. You can still be making centaur tokens that have a very good chance of impacting the board, while your opponent may be passing the turn without making meaningful actions. Every time this happens, you gain a tempo swing in your favour.
Well costed removal like Doom Blade can be thrown at early creatures to stop yourself falling behind and will almost always have targets later on. In fact, Doom Blade is always exactly as good as your opponents best non-black creature. This is one reason why near unconditional removal at a reasonable cost is so highly valued.
We can also look at in ways in-game to play in order to both increase our chances of hitting a positive tempo swing and reduce the chances of being on the receiving end of one. However, I think that topic deserves it’s own article. Instead, I’m going to look at a few cards from recent sets and evaluate them in terms of how they might help us get ahead in the tempo war.
First of all this guy is a two-mana creature. One of the easiest ways for a tempo swing to happen is that one player plays a creature on an early turn and the other player doesn’t. Making sure you have a reasonable chance to have a two-drop in your starting hand by valuing them appropriately when you put your deck together will help ensure that you are the player who does have a creature rather than the one who doesn’t.
This guy also has a one-mana combat trick attached to him in the form of bloodrush. I really do like one mana combat tricks! It’s just so easy to attack with a two-drop creature on turn three, take out the blocker with Skinbrand Golbin and then follow up with another two-drop. There were certainly no shortage of good two mana creatures in the Gatecrash draft format to enable this line of play.
You are running a risk of drawing him later when he has little to no impact on the board, but battalion and bloodrush ensure that even small creatures have some value later on even if they are being seriously outclassed on the board. The bloodrush ability on the card itself can often do relevant things later in the game as well.
To sum up he’s cheap, enables easy tempo swings and stands a good chance of still being a meaningful play later on in the game. I value all these attributes highly and I do not feel at all bad about taking this guy around 4th or 5th pick, despite there being nothing overtly powerful about him.
Equipment is interesting. The main strength lies in turning your outclassed creatures and future topdecks into relevant entities. In a longer game if you are playing creatures that could be equipped and attack profitably, but your opponent is putting creatures on the board who’s effect on combat is negligible, you are gaining an advantage.
You do need to be aware that equipment with relevant qualities tend to be pricey for their immediate board impact and you will actually need something in play that benefits from being equipped. Even something powerful like Butchers Cleaver is expensive enough that you may need to space out it’s cost over two turns, possibly even dropping a tempo swing on the turn where you cast it. Even if you do cast and equip it on the same turn, it may be that you could have played two other relevant spells on the same turn, missing a chance to get ahead.
Getting back to Silver-Inlaid Dagger, it has a high chance of being cast and equipped on the same turn, often enabling a creature to attack or block effectively that previously couldn’t. This is great as it’s unlikely that you are dropping tempo on the turn you cast it, plus it keeps a higher number of your spells in the meaningful camp going forward. It’s also cheap enough that you can potentially cast it and another spell or ability on the same turn.
As good as it is, when you use it you really want to be enabling an attack that previously wasn’t there on the turn that you cast it . If it’s possible to attack profitably with all your creatures anyway, it is almost always better to develop your board with an additional creature instead of handing one of your guys the dagger. It’s also important to remember the risk that you might not even have a creature at all. For reasons like this I find that in recent times I have been picking only the best non-creature spells over solid creatures, so non-creatures have to really impress me to get picked highly.
Silver-Inlaid Dagger carries some risk of dropping tempo on the turn that it gets played, but it’s more likely that it is relevant right away and then goes on to make one or two more spells that weren’t meaningful into something quite relevant. For these reasons I would always play this card if I got it and would pick it over pretty much any average creature.
That’s all I have for you today. Thanks for making it to the end of my article and I hope it has helped plant the seeds to improve your game in some small way. Most of my inspiration is from Steve Sadin’s work on the Limited Information column at Daily MTG and Marshall Sutcliffe’s podcast Limited Resources, so I highly recommend checking these out if you like my approach to Magic theory.
I’m also keen to have your feedback, so get in touch with me via my brand new twitter @seanplaysdraft and the comments section below. I will be working on part two of this article, so ask questions and I will try to include the answers in the next article. You can also follow me and help me get to know Twitter itself!
Thanks for reading, thanks for sharing.