Welcome to my Op-Ed on Tempo level-ups! In this opinion piece I’ll be providing some insights into the principles that I use when playing Tempo decks in Highlander, and letting you in on a shortlist of my favourite rules-of-thumb when combining my two favourite groups of friends: Spell Pierces and Tarmogoyfs.
Tempo and Me
Anyone who knows me is well aware that I am a very conservative player; the word ‘risk’ is barely in my Magic vocabulary. On the surface, this may seem diametrically opposed to Tempo, which often centres around fast starts and aggressive positions early in the game. However counterintuitive it may be, ‘conservative’ is not synonymous with ‘Control’, and I actually try to avoid pure Control strategies as a general personal rule. As a conservative player I want redundancy, I want to create highly predictable game states, and I want to take the reins and ensure that the verdict of the game is decided early, preventing the opponent from getting the chance to draw and cast something that trumps my position.
All of these point to a specific Tempo strategy I like to call “Protect the Queen“.
This is my bread-and-butter archetype across multiple formats. Whilst I thoroughly enjoy and have had success with different strategies, this type of Tempo is where I feel most at home, and I can run on ‘auto-pilot’ 95% of the time. When I have the fundamental terms of engagement running in the background (since playing Protect the Queen is second nature), it frees up my mental energy to focus on understanding the idiosyncrasies of the current board state, anticipating the opponent’s tactics, and so on.
So the question is: how do we get these processes to become second nature? Well that’s what I hope to do in this Op-Ed: provide a few tips and tricks, along with examples that might help any budding Tempo player feel more comfortable with a Tarmogoyf on board and Spell Pierce in hand! If you’re new to Tempo then this is the place for you; if you’re transitioning to Highlander then the article might help contextualise how Tempo excels in this specific format.
Lesson One: Be utterly committed to your primary game plan
Let’s take my very earliest iteration of “RUG Life” (Temur Tempo) as an example, so that we can see the principles in their rawest form. I recommend this especially for newer Highlander players, because with the swath of universally powerful eternal staples printed from 2019 onward, it is often tricky to see an underlying strategy through the soup of cards that are simply excellent on their own (rather than attuned to specific play strategies).
If you want a real blast from the past, check out the original decklist I was playing back in 2018. I rocked various iterations of it for a while, eventually settling on this list by the end of the year:
Before the advent of the Modern Horizons era onward (heralding in overpowered Temur staples with threats like Wrenn, Oko, Hexdrinker, and the list goes on), RUG Life was already winning multiple events, and this 75 from 2018 is filled with nostalgic hits that still pull at my heartstrings.
Looking past some cards that are very much a sign of their times (when Temur Tempo card options were limited), the engine is still a tried-and-true reflection of the fundamental Protect the Queen philosophy in Highlander. If you want the most recent lists don’t forget to check out Moxfield, which has all manner of current Tempo lists in Highlander (that use the most recent Points List of course!). From 2019 onward new printings just kept getting better and better, allowing us to swap out 2-mana permission spells for new free counters like Force of Negation, and upgrade now-embarrassing 1-drops into all-stars that are relevant at every stage of the game, such as Hexdrinker, Dragon’s Rage Channeler, and the list goes on! Cards from 2019 onward have let Temur decks play anywhere along the spectrum of Tempo, Midrange, and Control when needed, however when building a Tempo version of RUG Life it is at its best when constructed with the Protect the Queen strategy in mind.
When you explore the most recent RUG/Temur deck lists in highlander, you’ll notice that the most aggressive versions all have a primary game plan: play a threat, and continue to reduce your opponent’s life total for as long as you can protect that threat, wash-rinse-repeat, closing those last few life points via board presence or burn spells. Whilst I certainly cannot attest that our philosophy is rocket science, I can say that even with the best 75 in your hands, it is surprisingly easy to make very small (and sometimes incremental) errors when playing, which end up losing you the game.
Hence, lesson one… remember that game plan, and stick to it when selecting which cards you’ll include in your deck. In the modern age where we are spoilt for choice on powerful cards, it’s often hard to cut your favourites, but when evaluating what to include in your 60, or broader sideboard slots, step back and evaluate: What role does this card play?
- cheap and efficient protection?
- a powerful early-game threat?
- a support card that helps me to either:
- 3a) close the game in some way (burn spells, time walk, something to push past blockers, etc.), or;
- 3b) glue the rest of the deck together (free/cheap cantrips or efficient card selection).
Anything else? Cut it.
A lean and efficient Tempo deck is a killing machine, and drawing something off-plan can mean the difference between winning and losing the game. There is of course a caveat here regarding your couple of slots for cards that may be less efficient, but serve very specific roles (e.g., providing inevitability vs. a Control opponent, and so on). However we’ll get to when things don’t go to plan later.
Next, let’s consider the lesson of ‘sticking to your primary game plan’ beyond just assembling your deck, and during the actual game itself.
Lesson Two: Mulligan judiciously
Your deck is built to Protect the Queen, so mulligan hands that do not fill this two-part-combo. There are two easy principles to remember:
- If your hand has no ‘Queen’ in it, send it back
- If your hand has no ‘Protection’ in it, send it back *
I provide a * caveat on the second point because this is a general rule, but it is far less important than the first. For example, you can still keep your opening hand if you have, say, a swath of threats, because by running them out one after the other, they each essentially serve as ‘protection’ for the next (successively dying to removal, counterspells, until one sticks).
For every turn the game goes longer, the more your opponent mobilises their resources, which is not where we want to be. Therefore the second rule above is there to simply remind you that in general you should commit to the primary game plan of protecting a threat rather than replacing it. This often comes up when you have a threat on one turn, and then plan to play a better threat the following turn, but only have one piece of protection. It is almost always correct to protect the weaker threat than allow it to die, and follow up with the better threat plus protection. By getting in an additional attack with a weaker threat one turn earlier, rather than waiting to protect the preferred threat next turn, you gain Tempo (imagine it like partially casting a Time Walk).
Regardless, I digress from the main principle here which is around what kind of hands to keep.
Let’s take some hands as examples, which are ideally on the play:
Tier 0: The God Hand
Tier 1: The Good Hand
Tier 2: The Playable Hand
Let’s look at the last image. This ‘Playable’ hand is perfectly serviceable (and often a keep by inexperienced players), but presents many awkward choices such as knowing when to tap out off your permission, and wily opponents playing around Force of Negation, meaning you may end up losing your threats AND being stuck with unused permission spells. Further, whilst having a lovely 1-2-3 curve, the actual threats themselves may not apply much pressure (your delver flips 1 in 3, so it’s a 1/1 for likely two attack steps, and both Scooze and Klothys only deal 2 a turn), and overall that doesn’t allow you to press the advantage of being on Tempo. This all being said, things can certainly work out for you, but this hand is a bit of a gamble! If it’s your first 7, mulligan this, because a Protect the Queen deck offers you far better on-plan hands that ensure you are playing to the strengths of Tempo.
Now, let’s revisit the first two options in the Tier 0 and Tier 1 hand examples. As you’ve seen, the God Hand and the Good Hand both only require 5 cards! Anything else you’ve drawn is a freebie and ups the chances that your hand is excellent. However with only 4-5 core pieces (all of which have ample redundancy) required to build a solid hand it means you can mulligan judiciously.
Never be afraid to go down on cards (card disadvantage) for the odds of getting a better hand that lets you get out of the gates faster and with more certainty (up in tempo).
Detractors of Tempo decks will always decry our faith in the “Protect” + “Queen” combo with criticisms such as “you can draw the wrong half of the deck”, “you will run out of protection eventually”, and “games don’t always go to plan, so a more flexible, less linear game plan is superior”.
On the surface, these weaknesses are indeed true. However, a practiced Tempo player knows that whilst the motto may be ‘Protect the Queen’, that isn’t the end goal. It is a strategy. Fundamentally, our goal is not dissimilar to a Burn deck: reduce your opponent’s life total to Zero as quickly as possible. The key is, whilst we have the same goal, we have different methods of achieving it. The goal is never to protect any one Queen forever, it is to leverage that brief window of opportunity, gaining tempo, in order to end the game.
Lesson Three: Know that not all Tempo threats are created equal
Looking back in time to my first iterations of “RUG Life”, I always felt the stark contrast to opening with Grim Lavamancer vs. opening with Goblin Guide. Whilst the deck embraced all the best threats that Temur had on offer, the games where I led on the latter were won easily, whereas the former presented much tougher uphill battles. This is not the case in 2022, where we are spoiled for choice, constantly upgrading our original threats with more and more universally strong ‘Hexdrinkers’, ‘Dragon’s Rage Channelers’ and their ilk, that are continually relevant at every stage of the game.
The 5 best Tempo creatures in the 2018 early “RUG Life” era:
The 5 best multi-strategy RUG creatures just 3 years later:
Whilst Tarmogoyf still maintains one of the top spots, the modern era heralds a new landscape of universally good threats at low-low prices (of mana). Despite the fact that there are far more amazing creatures (not to mention planeswalkers as threats) than we will exhaustively list above, in principle my mantra of ‘Not all Tempo Threats are Created Equal’ still stands, however it’s now a little more situational (beyond just the obvious Ragavan is essentially just better than Zurgo!).
Making decisions on sequencing
Let’s say you have a hand containing:
- 2 land
- a cantrip
- a good threat
- a less good threat
- Spell Pierce
There are so many sequences of play on offer here, but as per the rules-of-thumb we covered earlier, we can immediately rule out the ‘lead on cantrip’ and/or ‘hold up Spell Pierce’ plays which are a common opener in other archetypes. For us, we will almost always lead on the weaker threat turn 1, followed by stronger threat on turn 2 with Spell Pierce backup (and the option to Cantrip if instant speed). Whilst I could teach you that rule back in 2018 and you’d be able to simply apply it by rote, it’s much harder nowadays because… every one-drop threat in RUG Life is good!
So how do we decide? Instead you need to base your decision on what you know; how do each of the threats stack up against your opponent’s strategy? For example, if they are on a Midrange deck, threats with Flying are inherently better at getting in for damage over large ground-bound blockers. Your own large creatures are also excellent, but vary in value according to the colours available to your opponent, e.g. Swords to Plowshares hits essentially all of our creatures, so forcing them to use it early on a smaller but legitimate threat will pave the way for your Murktide Reagent afterward.
Deciding on sequencing ‘in the blind’
What if you don’t know because you’re on the play in Game 1? This is when immutable rules break down; in a vacuum you actually want to lead with your strongest threat on turn 1. Yes it is nerve racking, and you’ll feel like a dummy when your Ragavan receives a Fatal Push but your un-haste-able and less busted turn 2 play is the one you end up protecting with Spell Pierce. However on the play, the cost-benefits analysis is heavily in your favour so it would be an error not to take advantage of the possibility that they have no interaction. This is even more true should your opponent have mulligan-ed.
However the exact same scenario is completely turned on its head when you are on the draw. If your opponent leads with a fetch land, you quite often still have zero information, aside from, say, that they are probably not on an proactive deck (but fast decks draw slow hands all the time too – so we essentially have very little information from one fetch land given that most 3-colour decks play 9 of them…). In this vacuum, on the draw, again we go back to basics and almost always lead with our weakest threat, with the intention to play your stronger threat turn 2 with Spell Pierce backup (and on the draw there were also two chances to draw Daze, Force of Will, and Force of Negation as bonus protection).
As you can see, there are many factors at play, but they often boil down to:
- 1) things you can decide in a vacuum, and;
- 2) things that are informed by your opponent.
A good example of the former is ‘time sensitive threats always come down first, even if it breaks another rule-of-thumb’, an example of which is Goblin Guide. The more of these decisions you can have on autopilot, the more brain space you free up for evaluating more situationally-specific scenarios.
Lesson Four: Identify when card advantage does and doesn’t matter in Tempo
Fundamentally, RUG Life does not care about card advantage. This seems a ridiculous statement for a deck that has historically played Ancestral Recall, but remember that the deck was born from 58 Temur cards that presented a solid Protect the Queen strategy, and really no pressing need for a Pointed card that fit that strategy… so “Thug Life: let’s chuck in all 7 Points (at the time) in Ancestral Recall and Time Walk”. When playing a highly consistent, proactive deck with an incredibly clear game-plan, never seeing your Points is perfectly fine! Hence the advent of the two-blue-Power strategy for Tempo.
In contrast, your highly consistent proactive deck that randomly spikes a blue Power card off a natural draw just vaults ahead at breakneck speed! Hence why RUG Life never successfully played Spellseeker, or Time Warp, and so on; the Blue Power effects were only good ‘as printed’, because any time you tried to dedicate time or mana to find them, you lost Tempo, fundamentally betraying the strength of the whole archetype itself.
Therefore, when playing Protect the Queen, we do not ascribe to typical Card Advantage principles, but rather the extension of those principles via denial. There have been many articles written on this concept in the past so I will not belabour the point, but in essence: If you deny your opponent the time or mana to play X of their cards before the game is over, you were essentially ahead X cards (thus, you had card advantage and won because of it).
Here are my general rules for when to care about Card Advantage in this archetype:
- When your opponent ‘just’ needs X to change the game state, deny them X at that critical time.
This is an example of ‘temporary’ card advantage, which is the crux of Tempo as a whole. Let’s set the scene for a hypothetical: let’s say that you saw the opponent has Toxic Deluge due to your early Gitaxian Probe. They intend to gain card advantage over you by killing 2 or more creatures. You can actually make a decision to counterintuitively overcommit, making their Deluge better, but simultaneously worse. Even just one more turn of pressure from an extra creature makes their Deluge hurt the life total a bit more.
We can compound that by making them conscious of the likelihood that your over-commitment to the board means that you actually have a counterspell. Therefore they are slightly more likely to wait just one more turn to have their own counter up, or better yet, they never cast it, instead using spot removal to try and play around your soft permission. Either way, you’ve denied them time, mana, and life total, all of which will eventually result in them being within burn range even if their Deluge does resolve and you lose all your creatures!
You can of course simply play this situation in the more conventional sense, which is to sandbag creatures in hand and force the opponent to snap off the Deluge early. This nets them a little bit of card advantage, but you can rebuild and try to fight the battles over spot removal on your resulting creatures. However the former example is how you can extract card advantage from counterintuitive play that, in essence, sometimes denies the opponent their Deluge (putting you up a card).
- Build your 75 to take advantage of your opponent’s mana base
Again, this is just another variant of ‘temporary’ card advantage: mana denial. Now that the days of 7 Points of blue Power are very much over, we can instead embrace Points that are far more true to the actual archetype itself: Wasteland and Strip Mine.
There is a reason every Legacy Tempo deck runs 4 Wasteland, so there isn’t much to be said here. If you destroy their one source of a colour of mana (or they stumble on lands), stranding cards in hand is how you generate card advantage.
- Be fast
Last, another tactic for achieving temporary card advantage is to put your foot on the accelerator, and don’t let up. If your opponent has breathing room to cast a card because they need to deal with your pressing board state, you have essentially made them discard that card. In general, RUG Life will end the game with no cards in hand, and the opponent with some. This is great!
There are of course some games where you end with more cards in hand than your opponent, for example burying them with a Dreadhorde Arcanist casting a second Ancestral Recall, or drawing more cards than you know what to do with via Uro escaping… These games are hard to lose, and the card advantage wasn’t exactly the thing that was winning the game, but rather the clear board you had engineered with key removal spells or protection that allowed your Dreadhorde Arcanist to continue to attack. Alternatively, you won because your opponent was so focussed on your initial game plan that resources have been exhausted, and Uro comes out to play uncontested, when you would otherwise lose the long game. In short, by being fast, and taking command of the game from Turn 1, it allows you to engineer scenarios where you win the game, more often than not by leveraging every card you draw, and stranding your opponent’s in their hand.
Whilst none of these ideas are revolutionary, and much has been written on the topic of card advantage in Magic, I simply want to stress that for any budding Tempo player you should keep a shortlist of rules and/or tactics that work toward them to ensure that you are never misled by the temptation of drawing cards over enacting your primary game plan. With powerful card draw these days like Expressive Iteration, it is incredibly difficult to tear ourselves away from the desire to see more of our deck. This doesn’t mean you should avoid sleeving up these cards entirely, it simply means that your sequencing should always be informed by your overall goal, and the tactics you need to enact to achieve it.
You’re a Tempo deck, so don’t get mired in conventional and surface-level thinking around how card advantage = winning the game through inevitability.
Lesson Five: Accept that you can’t be prepared for everything
When playing Tempo, your decision-making is largely front-loaded into the earliest stages of the game. When you look at the first 4 lessons, you will note that almost everything favours ‘staying on plan’, that is, one should build their deck with the best case scenario in mind at all times. Therefore, a card like Jace Vryn’s Prodigy is, despite being a format all-star, woefully off-brand and actually incorrect to include in your 60, according to the following rules (more on the JVP example later, as it’s not that clear-cut once we delve beneath the surface).
The 60 of a Tempo ‘Protect the Queen’ list should contain only lands and;
1) interaction that is cheap enough to fit into the early stages of the game (or play multiples in the same turn later);
2) threats that come down early, and remain relevant in the mid-game, and;
3) that last ditch effort to close a game via getting past blockers or hitting the life total directly.
Whilst I’m using RUG Life as an example throughout this article, you can easily apply these principles to other colour combinations. The universal key is that every time you go off-plan (e.g., including a tutor for your powerful spell, or include cantrips and card-draw that cost more than 0 or 1 mana), your deck gets inefficient, i.e., it loses Tempo.
Let’s take another look at JVP according to the 3 rules for inclusion that we have just covered:
- Rule 1: JVP when flipped can’t easily provide you with interaction/protection directly
- Rule 2: Whilst relevant in the mid-game after a quick flip, JVP is not an early threat
- Rule 3: JVP can close the game by recurring burn and removal or a Time Walk. Nice!
- Rule 3 again: The -2/-0 ability can occasionally open up attacks, but this is optimistic.
- Rule 3 yet again: Flipped JVP can win the game, but on an axis (mill) that you haven’t been working toward
In short, whilst JVP looks like a 2-drop creature, he actually applies no early game pressure and instead plays on the axes of the third rule: support and closing the game. However, he does none of these particularly well, i.e., in essence, the ‘best’ parts of JVP can easily be replaced by Regrowth, which provides immediate impact on the game and loses far less Tempo in the process… and yet, we often don’t even play the card Regrowth in RUG Life anymore!
The moment you take your foot of the accelerator your opponent quietly breathes a sigh of relief, as they have the chance to stabilise and actually leverage all those other cards in their hand, rather than focus solely on stopping your advance.
So why do we often still play JVP? The key that we’re getting to in Lesson Five is… all of our discussion so far refers to a perfect world.
In the real world, you do need to allow a very small portion of the main deck (and the majority of your Sideboard) to go ‘off plan’, in essence breaking all of those rules that we just established!
Here are a few more cards that are technically off-brand for RUG Life: they apply little to no pressure to the opponent’s life total, and concern themselves primarily with raw card advantage, a sub-game we’re not meant to be drawn into, right?
Let’s take Uro as an example. Immediately after the release of Theros: Beyond Death, I eagerly sleeved up Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath in the sideboard of RUG Life. Whilst it was a staple from the get-go, and a maindeck all-star in my local meta, I refused to play it in my 60 because the card is the diametric opposite of everything Protect the Queen wants to do! I likened that to Sylvan Library; we really don’t want to durdle with cards in our deck outside of the Control matchup, but when we are playing vs. that archetype it is a relief to have such inevitability. It allows us to keep up with a Control opponent who has loaded up on creature-removal.
Therefore, one philosophy for Tempo is to stay lean-and-mean in the main deck so that we are always only ever drawing cards that are on plan, and then switching it up post-board rather than diluting our Game 1. The other philosophy is ensuring that we always have access to the occasional ‘out’ just in case even our Game 1’s get drawn out. This brings us to the crux of lesson five, which goes beyond just deck building but to the tactics we use in games when they don’t go our way…
Be prepared to be unprepared
Although your entire strategy revolves around assembling two halves of the deck (in the right order!), there will be times where you never draw an additional threat, and can feel that game slipping away every turn you aren’t applying pressure. There will also be games where your opponent makes blockers that you aren’t equipped to remove, making your threats seem paltry in comparison. In these instances you often have to throw all your rules-of-thumb out the window in an effort to do anything! What I recommend however, is to always have in the back of your mind that your goal is to get your opponent’s life total from 20 to zero, however the tactics you use to achieve that can differ.
One example I’ll use to highlight this principle is making ‘bad attacks’ that give your opponent card advantage; using unconventional tactics (and even going off the Protect the Queen strategy) to achieve your fundamental goal. Pictured below is your hypothetical board state going in to your turn sometime in the mid-game:
In this scenario, you do not have a Delver of Secrets or Dragonrage Chaneller that promises to have evasion in the future, or perhaps a Hexdrinker or Scavenging Ooze that could become big enough to push through or trade… nor any haste threats in the deck that are big enough to get through these blockers! There’s essentially no promise that the situation will get better, especially if we don’t have those couple of slots in the deck for ‘off-plan’ cards like Uro that could help us play a completely different grindy non-Tempo game.
If your deck is lean-and-mean, then you have to think about the one and only thing that you do actually have on your side: time.
Stick to your Tempo principles, take the reins and use time to your advantage. Summon Goblin Guide, swing with everything, and your opponent will gleefully kill your two best creatures, snag themselves a free land, and leave you with not much but a lonely Goblin Guide in the face of two massive blockers (will he ever get to attack again?). However you have them at 3 life, and they then need to make a choice: start attacking you and be vulnerable to, well, many things… or stay back whist deploying more spells (giving you time), or stay back and not cast anything for fear that you have a Lightning Bolt they need to interact with, should they have access to Blue. Regardless, this is your best opportunity to leave yourself open to drawing any Lightning Bolt effect, and sandbagging those two soft permission spells to counter any interaction you have. The latter is another example of breaking the conventions of your tactics (wanting to Protect that ‘Little Guide that Could’ from a future removal spell) in favour of focussing on your goal (getting that life total from 20 to 0).
The key here is whether you like to build your deck with a couple of off-plan outs, or keep all your less-linear cards in the board, or you like to sideboard transformatively, etc. In short, know what your goal is and be open to changing your tactics from game to game, or even turn to turn.
The above hypothetical scenario is perhaps relatively clear-cut for experienced players, however it’s an example of what I see as such a common mistake by budding Tempo players, which is why I wanted to highlight it.
Another good example is when both you and your opponent are on no cards in hand, and an empty board, very high life totals, and you top deck Tarmogoyf. If your Control opponent has a deck full of removal spells, you would be loathe to deploy ‘goyf only to lose it to their top-deck removal, and lament your next draw being a counterspell or Veil of Summer, etc.
However, you cannot be prepared for everything. You can’t always have the counterspell, even though your opponents may attest that you do (because due to your careful sequencing, it often appears that way!). So if you’re sitting there wondering what the correct play is in any such instance, be careful to identify when a tactic actually defeats your goal. In this instance, waiting longer to draw protection ensures you can use the Protect the Queen strategy by employing the ‘counter a removal spell’ tactic, but it drags the game out longer, which fundamentally runs opposite to your goal (to pressure their life total and take the Tempo reins).
This brings us to the end of this Op-Ed on Tempo in the context of “RUG Life”. In closing, playing magic well is all about juggling all the information that is competing for your cognitive resources. By selecting a play style that ‘vibes’ with you, you’ll more readily accept some of the aspects of play as second nature, which frees up space to take on the mental load of in-game idiosyncrasies.
For me, Tempo and the Protect the Queen approach happens to resonate with my conservative playstyle, and the 5 lessons above are just some of the morsels that I’d like to impart to other budding Tempo players. If Tempo isn’t for you, find the strategy that you feel could work, and identify some rules-of-thumb that you can memorise, and could progressively run on auto-pilot. Anything that frees up your attention and allows you to appropriate mental energies to focus on the nuances of the game itself will allow you to more readily analyse your opponent’s tactics, and subsequently identify how to defeat them.
Until then, may all your Ragavans be accompanied by a Daze!