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Attack of the Wandering Ones – Introduction to Tempo in Legacy

Welcome again to my articles on one of Magic’s oldest and greatest formats. Last week we talked about how Legacy distinguishes itself amongst many of Magic’s other formats. Today we’ll be starting our series talking about the general macro-archetypes that you’ll see within the format.

One of the most popular styles of decks in Legacy is tempo decks. These decks can be defined as being decks that utilize efficient threats, cheap countermagic and resource denial to destabilize and defeat the opponent before they can get to the late game. Decks like this tend to not exist within formats such as Modern or Standard, because the efficiency of cards cannot compare to Legacy, and it’s often difficult to tap out for threats and protect them with countermagic without access to cards such as Daze and Force of Will.

Let’s be a bit more specific. Here are a few hallmark characteristics of tempo decks in Legacy.

1. A low number of cheap, efficient and resilient threats

Being able to play threats that one can ‘ride to victory’ is important for tempo decks. You generally want to be preserving one threat, so each threat has to do a lot of heavy lifting, but at the same time only having a few threats in your deck means you can accommodate a lot of disruption. The staple of all tempo decks is a certain one-mana 1/1:

Err, I mean:

Image Image

Being easy to flip due to the extreme density of instants and sorceries, Delver is an evasive 3/2 that can kill an opponent very quickly from turn one. Other threats utilized are Deathrite Shaman, who allows tempo decks to leverage a mana advantage over their opponents, as well as being a reasonable clock in the late game, and Tarmogoyf, who is the most efficient dumb beater the game has to offer. More specialized threats are cards such as Nimble Mongoose, Young Pyromancer, True-Name Nemesis and Stoneforge Mystic, who change the direction of the tempo decks they accommodate.

2. A low land count and lots of cantrips

The original Xerox principle basically stated that for every two cantrips (cantrips being cards such as Brainstorm, Ponder and Preordain, which essentially allow you to cycle through cards) you have in your deck, you can shave a land. Tempo decks take this to the extreme, by only running fourteen mana producing lands, but run a minimum of eight cantrips in four Ponder and four Brainstorm. What this means is that the topdecks of tempo decks are generally more live than those of decks with regular land counts (they’re probability wise more likely to draw a spell) and they also get the ability to use heaps of card selection to find precise answers when they need them.

3. ‘Soft’, but cheap, permission

By this I mean taxing counters such as Daze and Spell Pierce. These cards can be incredibly powerful when threats are already on board – your opponent can’t sit around and wait to cast their blocker or removal spell around Daze if they’re being beaten up by a Tarmogoyf – however they tail off in power when the tempo deck lacks pressure and the game goes long. The resource denial that tempo decks employ, as we’ll see later, ensure that these cards can maintain relevance. These are also important because they allow tempo decks to establish their board, but also interact whilst tapped low, or even tapped out – allowing them to press their advantage while denying the opponent. Tempo decks are also able to operate off a very low resource base, only needing one or two lands to play, making cards such as Daze powerful, as missing a land drop isn’t as important. In fact, Daze should be rarely hard cast in tempo decks, because you can Brainstorm away the excess land! Complementing all this soft permission is of course the mainstay of Legacy, Force of Will, which can often be used more aggressively in tempo decks due to the nature of wanting the game to be as short as possible.

4. Resource denial

These usually come in the form of Wasteland, staple in most tempo decks, as denying opponents mana for the sake of a land drop is an excellent deal for decks that can operate off low amounts of mana. These also help ‘soft’ counters, such as Daze and Spell Pierce, become more relevant despite the game being a few turns in. Some versions will run the card Stifle, which can be situationally powerful, especially when countering a fetchland activation and acting as a one-mana Stone Rain, but can also be dead weight in certain matchups. Black tempo decks will often run Hymn to Tourach, denying the opponent resources in a different manner via hand disruption – tempo players utilising black often aim to hit lands with their Hymns especially, as again, this helps soft permission remain powerful.

5. Efficient answers

Lightning Bolt, Swords to Plowshares and Abrupt Decay, the premier removal spells of Legacy, are mainstays in tempo strategies, clearing away any blockers or problematic creatures. Notice that Lightning Bolt tempo strategies are often more aggressive than those who aim to utilise Abrupt Decay and Swords to Plowshares, who often take a more midrangey tone.

Ok, now let’s look towards the major tempo archetypes.

RUG Delver

Old school players will call this ‘Canadian Threshold’ or ‘Tempo Thresh’ but most people will call this RUG Delver, or, adopting the Khans clan name, Temur Delver. The deck follows a long history of ‘Threshold’ decks, which aimed to abuse the Threshold mechanic of Odyssey block by playing an abundance of cheap cantrips with the Threshold creatures. Unfortunately, Mystic Enforcer and Werebear no longer cut the mustard in Legacy with Tarmogoyf existing, but one Threshold threat is still played and is very valuable, and unique to the RUG Delver deck: Nimble Mongoose.

The first iteration of these decks, indeed, crafted by a few Canadians, before Delver of Secrets existed, looked something like this:

Canadian Threshold

Lands: (18)
Flooded Strand
Polluted Delta
Wooded Foothills
Wasteland
Tropical Island
Volcanic Island

Creatures: (8)
Nimble Mongoose
Tarmogoyf

Non-Creature Spells: (34)
Brainstorm
Ponder
Spell Snare
Stifle
Daze
Force of Will
Lightning Bolt
Fire // Ice
Rushing River
Wipe Away

Interestingly, the deck hasn’t changed too much and current stock RUG decks will typically begin with the ‘RUG 54’:

RUG Delver

Creatures: (12)
Nimble Mongoose
Tarmogoyf
Delver of Secrets

Non-Creature Spells: (24)
Brainstorm
Ponder
Daze
Force of Will
Lightning Bolt
Stifle
Lands: (18)
Wasteland
Wooded Foothills
Flooded Strand
Tropical Island
Volcanic Island

Leaving the deck only six (!) flex slots to fill, typically with some number of additional burn spells (Forked Bolt most common), some number of Spell Pierces and perhaps some Spell Snares.

This deck is the most aggressive in denying its opponents resources, with the full set of Stifle being a hallmark RUG Delver card. It is also very aggressive creature wise, preferring to have no midrange backup plan like a lot of the other tempo decks, instead relying on being able to finish the opponent off with Lightning Bolts or having a shrouded Nimble Mongoose go all the way. In fact, the deck’s threats scale beautifully, with Delver being prone to removal, but most efficient, Tarmogoyf only generally dying to Plow and Mongoose being the hardest to remove, only dying to Diabolic Edict or sweeper effects, but needs time to grow into a 3/3.

Out of all the tempo decks RUG Delver is the best at getting ahead and staying ahead, but a lot of the time once the opponent reaches their endgame the deck can have trouble winning, with cards such as Daze and Stifle being lacklustre draws in the late game. The majority of the deck’s threat base is also brickwalled by opposing Tarmogoyfs and other fat creatures, and loses against unchecked Stoneforge Mystics, since being able to burn the opponent out is very important. The sideboard of the deck typically aims to remedy these problems, however.

Personally, RUG Delver is my favorite choice out of all the tempo decks due to its intense aggression and ability to capitalize on mana denial the most. My current list is looking like this:

RUG Delver

Creatures: (12)
Nimble Mongoose
Tarmogoyf
Delver of Secrets

Non-Creature Spells: (30)
Brainstorm
Ponder
Daze
Force of Will
Lightning Bolt
Stifle
Chain Lightning
Spell Pierce
Gitaxian Probe
Sylvan Library
Lands: (18)
Wasteland
Wooded Foothills
Flooded Strand
Tropical Island
Volcanic Island

Sideboard: (15)
Spell Pierce
Submerge
Pyroblast
Rough // Tumble
Hydroblast
Surgical Extraction
Ancient Grudge
Krosan Grip
Life from the Loam
Scavenging Ooze
Pithing Needle

Notice that the sideboard aims to beat opposing Tarmogoyf decks (Submerge), Stoneforge decks (Ancient Grudge) and Miracles decks(Pithing Needle and Krosan Grip), all of which can be tough matchups for RUG.

BUG Delver

A deck with another weird name, BUG Delver initially began as Team America, a tempo deck utilising Tombstalker, Sinkhole and Snuff Out, along with the typical blue cantrips and counterspells, to deny the opponent resources and creatures. A typical decklist looked something like this:

Team America

Lands: (20)
Bayou
Tropical Island
Underground Sea
Bloodstained Mire
Flooded Strand
Polluted Delta
Wasteland

Creatures: (8)
Tarmogoyf
Tombstalker

Non-Creature Spells: (32)
Brainstorm
Ponder
Daze
Force of Will
Stifle
Sinkhole
Thoughtseize
Snuff Out

Also existing simultaneously was Dark Tempo Thresh, which was essentially Canadian Threshold cutting the red spells for Dark Confidant and black removal such as Smother. In the end, these versions were less popular than Canadian Threshold due to the clunkiness of their cards and lack of reach, despite them also incorporating Delver of Secrets during Innistrad. But then Return to Ravnica occurred, which revolutionised BUG Delver.

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Deathrite Shaman and Abrupt Decay gave the deck an insane shot in the arm. The deck now had one of the most powerful and versatile removal spells in the entire format, as well as a creature that gave the deck acceleration, gravehate, lifegain and a clock. Most BUG Delver variants became very distinct from its RUG Delver cousins, eschewing the reach of burn to be able to play a longer game thanks to the acceleration of Deathrite Shaman, allowing them to utilise planeswalkers such as Liliana of the Veil, in addition to the traditional axis of Delver, mana denial and soft counters preventing the opponent from doing anything. Rather than be as single-minded as RUG Delver, BUG Delver lists exist on a spectrum, with some leaning harder on the midrange gameplan, while others borrowing heavily from RUG Delver’s ‘get ahead and stay ahead’ mentality, often indicated via Stifle.

Firstly we’ll look at a more midrange list:

BUG Delver

Lands: (20)
Wasteland
Underground Sea
Polluted Delta
Verdant Catacombs
Misty Rainforest
Bayou
Tropical Island

Creatures: (14)
Tarmogoyf
Delver of Secrets
Deathrite Shaman
Tasigur, the Golden Fang

Non-Creature Spells: (26)
Ponder
Hymn to Tourach
Daze
Brainstorm
Force of Will
Abrupt Decay
Liliana of the Veil
Sideboard: (15)
Liliana of the Veil
Disfigure
Submerge
Golgari Charm
Spell Pierce
Creeping Tar Pit
Vendilion Clique
Grafdigger’s Cage
Null Rod

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Notice here the usage of four Hymn to Tourach, Liliana of the Veil and a greater land count. These versions of BUG Delver have less reliable Delver blind flips, but again, have a greater late game thanks to cards such as Liliana and Tasigur.

Now a look at a leaner list:

BUG Delver

Creatures: (16)
Dark Confidant
Deathrite Shaman
Delver of Secrets
Tarmogoyf
True-Name Nemesis
Lands: (18)
Flooded Strand
Scalding Tarn
Tropical Island
Underground Sea
Wasteland

Non-Creature Spells: (26)
Abrupt Decay
Brainstorm
Daze
Disfigure
Force of Will
Spell Pierce
Stifle
Ponder

Sideboard: (15)
Grafdigger’s Cage
Pithing Needle
Abrupt Decay
Divert
Flusterstorm
Force of Will
Murderous Cut
Surgical Extraction
Vendilion Clique
Maelstrom Pulse
Marsh Casualties
Thoughtseize

Notice here a lower land count, more efficient removal in Disfigure, less emphasis on a tap-out plan due to Stifle and Spell Pierce, and a more aggressive threat base (Dark Confidant, True-Name Nemesis). This BUG version is less about the long game, but aims to get ahead and stay ahead (possibly very far ahead, thanks to Dark Confidant) similar to the strategy of RUG Delver.

UWR Delver

Also known as Patriot or Jeskai Delver, UWR Delver is a bit of an oddity in the family of Delver decks. It has a huge amount of raw power, utilising Stoneforge Mystic and her complement, True-Name Nemesis, as its threats of choice (before the Merfolk’s printing, Geist of Saint Traft was the deck’s hexproof threat, interestingly), but combines this somewhat slow attritiony gameplan with Delver of Secrets backed up by the typical Wasteland and Daze. Although Lightning Bolt is excellent for reach and removal, the deck also plays some number of Swords to Plowshares, which conflicts with the typical aggressive style of Delver strategies. UWR Delver is a deck that probably has the worst symptoms of drawing the wrong half of its deck, but makes up for this by having the greatest flexibility and power in both the main deck and the sideboard. If this is what you prefer, rather than homogeneity of game plan, UWR Delver is an excellent choice. Typical lists look something like this:

UWR Delver

Creatures: (10)
True-Name Nemesis
Delver of Secrets
Stoneforge Mystic

Non-Creature Spells: (30)
Dig Through Time
Spell Pierce
Brainstorm
Daze
Force of Will
Lightning Bolt
Swords to Plowshares
Ponder
Batterskull
Umezawa’s Jitte
Lands: (20)
Flooded Strand
Volcanic Island
Arid Mesa
Scalding Tarn
Tundra
Wasteland

Sideboard: (15)
Containment Priest
Grim Lavamancer
Meddling Mage
True-Name Nemesis
Rest in Peace
Flusterstorm
Pyroblast
Red Elemental Blast
Wear // Tear

Notice that a lot of UWR Delver lists have begun to incorporate Dig Through Time to further allow them to move into the late-game and lean on the Stoneforge Mystic and True-Name midrange game plan. UWR Delver lists also have an amazing array of sideboard options, especially against combo (which they suffer against game one, due to main decking around seven removal spells) including problematic permanents such as Containment Priest, Meddling Mage and Rest in Peace, versatile answers such as Wear // Tear, as well as generic blue countermagic.

UR Delver

UR Delver was by far the most popular Delver variant when Treasure Cruise was legal, but its popularity has now been subdued with Treasure Cruise being banned and the only Delve payoffs being the somewhat clunky Dig Through Time and Delve creatures such as Tasigur, the Golden Fang and Gurmag Angler, for versions splashing black.

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This deck is centred on Monastery Swiftspear and Young Pyromancer, in addition to Delver, and is less about resource denial but more about pure speed and aggression to gain a tempo advantage. The deck utilises the aforementioned threats and additional cantrips such as Gitaxian Probe to pump Swiftspear to a huge size, or make a swarm of Elementals with Young Pyromancer. These threats, which can quickly get out of control, force the opponent to play into spells such as Daze; it must be noted that without the assistance of Stifle or Wasteland though, UR Delver’s Dazes are considerably worse when no threat is in play. All the deck’s cantripping pays off in the form of cheap Dig Through Times or a one mana 4/5 in the form of Tasigur. Digs generally aim to find burn to close out the game, since a lot of the deck’s threats tail off in quality as the game progresses.

UR Delver, unlike BUG and UWR, rather than blur the line between tempo and midrange, blurs the line between tempo and aggro. Typical lists look like the following:

UR Delver

Creatures: (12)
Delver of Secrets
Monastery Swiftspear
Young Pyromancer

Non-Creature Spells: (32)
Fireblast
Dig Through Time
Brainstorm
Daze
Force of Will
Lightning Bolt
Chain Lightning
Forked Bolt
Gitaxian Probe
Ponder
Lands: (16)
Mountain
Polluted Delta
Island
Misty Rainforest
Scalding Tarn
Volcanic Island

Sideboard: (15)
Flusterstorm
Pyroblast
Shattering Spree
Price of Progress
Submerge
Sulfuric Vortex
Grafdigger’s Cage
Pithing Needle

And, as aforementioned, there are versions which have splashed black for additional Delve payoffs as well as Cabal Therapy, which is excellent with Young Pyromancer and Gitaxian Probe.

Grixis Delver

Creatures: (14)
Tasigur, the Golden Fang
True-Name Nemesis
Delver of Secrets
Monastery Swiftspear
Young Pyromancer

Non-Creature Spells: (30)
Dig Through Time
Brainstorm
Daze
Force of Will
Lightning Bolt
Cabal Therapy
Forked Bolt
Gitaxian Probe
Ponder
Lands: (16)
Island
Scalding Tarn
Flooded Strand
Underground Sea
Misty Rainforest
Polluted Delta
Volcanic Island

Sideboard: (15)
Cabal Therapy
Surgical Extraction
Pyroblast
Electrickery
Grafdigger’s Cage
Thoughtseize
Price of Progress
Null Rod
Smash to Smithereens
Submerge

These are the most popular Delver variants currently, although the list is not exhaustive. Four-color Delver popularised by Eric Rill has seen play, as has Esper Delver that Steven Mann utilised in a SCG Legacy Open, so check out those if you’re interested. Nonetheless, hopefully you’ve been able to get a general understanding of how tempo decks in Legacy fundamentally work, and how you can translate this to winning with them, or beating them, as they are one of Legacy’s mainstays.

Anyway, next week we’ll be looking over the recent Legacy results in This Month in Legacy (April 2015).

‘Til next time,

Sean

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