Magic Theory From The Ground Up: Part III

Welcome back to my "Magic Theory From The Ground Up" series! In this third installment, I'll be expanding on the discussion of resources from last time and using that to provide a basis for the concept of tempo.

Resource Advantage

As we saw in the previous article, having more resources than your opponent is a good thing. With more resources at your disposal, you should be able to play stronger cards and abilities (or at least more at the same power level). Because of this, players look for ways to establish a position of having more resources than their opponents, otherwise known as a resource advantage. This applies to all types of resources: life, mana, cards, etc. In fact, if you think of threats as resources that directly advance you towards the goal of winning, you'll see that lineup advantage is really a form of resource advantage.

So how do you obtain a resource advantage? I mentioned resource acceleration last time, and that is one of the primary ways to out-develop your opponent. Efficiency is also important because playing with efficient spells means that you can get more use out of your available resources, making more plays each turn than your opponent can. Finally, a third method of securing a resource advantage is through attacking your opponent's resources (also known as disruption).

Disruption and Attacking Resources

Like resource acceleration, reducing your opponent's available resources gives you a resource advantage (more for you, less for them). Disruption is often more powerful than resource acceleration, especially in the early to mid game. Many of the strongest decks in the history of Magic have centered around focused disruption (such as LD decks or discard decks), destroying critical resources to leave the opponent helpless.

In another MTGS article ("Magic Theory: Zones of Attack"), Morgan Coke outlined "zones" for attacking your opponent's life, his cards, or the game itself (by winning through a combo). The zones he describes correspond to the various resources that you can attack, except that I don't include the stack as a resource (but perhaps I should). As he pointed out, there are advantages and disadvantages in attacking each of these resources, and some of them are much more important than others. For this article, though, I'll simply outline seven common resources and provide examples of disruption.

In theory, life is the most important resource in the sense that once you run out of it, you lose the game. But life often has little impact on player position, so it generally is less important in practice.

Aggressively attacking a player's life total can be an effective strategy. Aggro decks focus on developing resources early to reduce an opponent's life total, pressuring her to react quickly and diverting her other resources away from her own development. In the early days of Magic, before the minimum deck size was increased to 60 and the "rule of four" was established, it was widely accepted that a deck filled with a few Mountains and nothing else but Lightning Bolts was something to be reckoned with. At 3 damage per R with continuous refueling, this life disruption strategy could quickly end the game before the opponent could save herself.

By "permanents," I generally mean threats and other utility cards (such as Howling Mine or Mirari's Wake). Your opponent hopes to gain something from these cards, so removing them is beneficial to you. I've discussed lineup advantage with threats and answers on the board, so you should already be familiar with disrupting permanents.

Mana is mostly a subcategory of permanents (because mana comes primarily from land). The difference is that disrupting permanents gets rid of the end products, while disrupting mana gets rid of the capability to create those products. Compare it to a factory producing an army of robot soldiers. Would you rather shoot down the robots as they walk out of the factory, or blow up the factory itself? Clearly, mana disruption can be a lot more powerful than simply answering other permanents.

Mana denial comes in two flavors: "hard" disruption like LD (Stone Rain, Strip Mine) and "soft" disruption like lockdown cards, mana hosers, and cost increasers (Winter Orb, Blood Moon, Trinisphere).

Oh, the agony!
Like mana disruption, hand disruption aims to get rid of harmful cards before they see play. Although hand disruption normally doesn't affect the current board state, it helps you establish the better position in the future. In the early days of Magic, discard decks were among the most powerful archetypes.

Timmy: I'm first. I'll play Black Lotus, sacrifice it for BBB, play three Dark Rituals, Mind Twist you for 7, finally playing The Rack.
Jimmy: Ouch.

Some decks, such as Reanimator or Threshold-based decks, rely on cards in the graveyard as a resource. Others may take advantage of cards entering the graveyard, through effects like Disciple of the Vault or Kokusho. Against such decks, disrupting the graveyard may be a necessity, while against most decks, attacking the graveyard will be a waste of time. Some examples of graveyard disruption are Tormod's Crypt, Nezumi Graverobber, and Samurai of the Pale Curtain.

Like life, running out of a library will directly lead to a loss. However, the library has less of an impact on the game than life does, and it's generally much harder to eliminate your opponent's library than it is to reduce his life total. Some decks have found success with this strategy, using various approaches: Millstone (Michael Loconto won the first Pro Tour this way), Ambassador Laquatus (in Dragon combo decks), Brain Freeze (in Storm decks), Dampen Thought (in Kamigawa block draft), and even just stalling the game to let the opponent draw his entire deck (in some builds of Stasis).

Just as you can gain extra time (phases) through Time Walk or Aggravated Assault, there are a few cards that can be used to attack your opponent's time. Fatespinner and Blinding Angel are examples. It's very difficult to execute a focused attack on an opponent's time, so if you're looking to obtain a time advantage, you're better off just accelerating your own.

Resources and Tempo

The game of Magic revolves around resources and resource advantages. Players want to gain advantages by accelerating their development, slowing down the other player's development, and maximizing the use of their resources with efficient cards. These ideas form the basis for understanding tempo, which is central to any competitive game involving development over time - Magic, Warcraft, Civilization, and so on. If you've ever studied chess or go, you know just how crucial a small loss of tempo can be.

But what exactly is tempo? I've heard many different definitions, although they generally describe the same thing: Tempo refers to your rate of development. This is an open definition, but in the future we will work towards refining this concept and breaking tempo down into its components. In particular, we will discuss specific types of tempo, especially with regards to resources - mana tempo, threat tempo, card tempo, etc. The player with the edge in resource tempo is the one who has (or will soon have) the resource advantage.

The difference between resource acceleration and resource tempo is that tempo is comparative. It measures the difference between how fast you and your opponent are developing. In particular, tempo is generally discussed in terms of "tempo gains" and "tempo losses." At the start of the game, both players start with equal tempo, but whenever a player increases his (relative) rate of development, he is gaining tempo; likewise, whenever a player decreases his (relative) rate of development, he is losing tempo. Note that even if you're behind on resources at the moment, having the tempo advantage means you'll catch up and take the lead, sooner or later.

Example: Timmy currently has a lineup advantage with 8 1/1 Snake tokens versus Jimmy's zero creatures. However, Jimmy has an Isochron Scepter with Raise the Alarm imprinted. Although Jimmy is behind on threats right now, he can produce two 1/1s each turn while Timmy doesn't produce any more. So Jimmy has an advantage in tempo, and in a few turns he will also have the lineup advantage.


When studying the usage of resources and how it impacts the fight over tempo, it helps to think in terms of investments. Every time you spend your resources for a spell or an ability, you're investing those resources. You should be looking to make a gain from that investment, in some form or another. For example, you might invest mana in a creature in order to obtain a lineup advantage and deal some damage to your opponent. You might invest some life to draw cards with Necropotence, which you hope will be worth more than the life you spent. Investment often means a conversion between resources, such as in the examples above. On the other hand, some investments mean trading your resources to destroy your opponent's resources, through cards such as Lightning Bolt or Stone Rain.

Who ever said mana doesn't grow on trees?
Just as if you were spending money, you want the most bang for your buck when making investments in Magic. Speed and efficiency are desirable because you can maximize the gains you make from your resources. Each player's choice of investments determines who will have the resource and tempo advantages.

But just as in real life, investments carry risks. You won't always get what you paid for, at least not when your opponent has a say in it. Your opponent may have ways to reduce the gains from your investments. We encountered this with threats and answers; this is just the generalization of that concept.

Common Magic theory says that whenever your opponent can answer one of your investments using fewer resources than you spent, your opponent is gaining an advantage. The idea is that you've used up a lot of resources for something (say, a Force of Nature), but your opponent only uses a fraction of that cost to get rid of it (with say, a Terror). If you both had about the same amount of resources, you'd quickly fall behind if the game continued in this way. Instead, you could've been better off if you had used those resources for some other purpose.

Decision making in Magic revolves around you determining the best way to invest your resources. To continue the money analogy: you're generally better off investing early, since you'll have more time to reap the benefits of those investments. Of course, there are times when investments in certain things will pay off better than investments in others. To maximize your overall profit, you have to play the market right. The most skilled players are those that have the experience and insight that allows them to invest wisely.

Moving On

Tempo and investments are a very complex matter to study properly, and at this point I haven't built enough tools for us to examine them more in depth. This discussion is only the beginning; there's still much more ahead of us. Remember, Timmy and Jimmy haven't even started playing with full decks!

Next time, I'll take a slight detour and look at an expansion of the concept of tempo: progress. We'll study the interaction of the main strategies (aggro, combo, and control), further breaking down the three game stages (early, mid, and late) as it relates to each of the strategies and their development.

For now I'll leave you with one piece of advice: when it comes to mana, don't spend it all in one place! See you in Part IV!


Credits: Goblinboy (editing), iloveatogs (banner)


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