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By: CZML, Cassie Mulholland-London
Apr 01 2015 12:00pm
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Tempo is dead. Long live tempo.

Tempo decks as an archetype haven't really been around much lately. The closest we've gotten in recent Standard seasons has been RW Aggro and Jeskai Tokens, and neither of them quite fit the bill. You see, the core tenets of a tempo deck--also referred to as an "aggro-control" deck--are that the deck must lean towards aggression, the deck must care about both its board presence and the opponent's, and the deck must be able to switch roles fluidly. RW Aggro almost meets these conditions, but the presence of purely aggressive creatures like Goblin Rabblemaster and Stormbreath Dragon make it closer to a more traditional aggro deck than true aggro-control. Jeskai Tokens is even closer to being a tempo deck, and I may be picking hairs here, but what keeps it from being a true tempo deck in my opinion is that when the deck is functioning optimally (i.e., when it has its namesake enchantment out), it completely ceases to care about its opponent's board presence. Instead of being a board presence deck, it becomes a hybrid combo/burn deck.

The last real tempo deck in Standard was probably UW Delver, although you could certainly make the case for The Aristocrats (but I'd argue that Blood Artist and Skirsdag High Priest made it more of an aggro-combo deck than an aggro-control deck). Delver had early pressure backed up by removal and counterspells, and although its creatures leaned towards attacking it could always switch roles with bounce spells or Restoration Angel. It was a true tempo deck in every definition of the term.

As Justin Timberlake would have written were he a Magic player, we're bringing tempo back.


Let's run down our definition of tempo again. Leans towards aggression? Check. Cares about both players' board presence? Check. Can switch roles at any time? All of the checks.

This deck is a solid mix of threats, disruption, and card selection, with a whole lot of synergy thrown in. A full twelve of our sixteen threats have Prowess, and all of our threats punch above their weight in terms of cost-to-power-ratio. Even though Ojutai Exemplars is a 4/4 for four mana, it feels like the second (okay, more like fifth) coming of Morphling in terms of its usefulness. In fact, Exemplars does so much that the army of Switzerland might sue Wizards for patent infringement. Can't attack into that Siege Rhino? Anticipate will tap it down, and next turn you can hit it with the Hero's Downfall you just found. Opponent targets Exemplars with an Abzan Charm? Ultimate Price your Courser of Kruphix in response. The only disappointing thing about Exemplars is that it doesn't dodge sweeper effects, but because Brimaz is an army in a can and we have Myth Realized, not to mention a full eight discard effects after sideboarding, we shouldn't be tremendously vulnerable to wraths anyway.

Speaking of wrath effects, we're playing a split of End Hostilities and Crux of Fate for a couple reasons. First, Crux is slightly easier to cast, especially with Urborg in the deck. Second, I'm expecting a large influx of Dragons into the format, and Crux can kill those without touching our team. It may end up being correct to just run End Hostilities, but I want to test the split before I make any hasty decisions.

As far as the mana base goes, the only issue I have is that I couldn't fit in the second basic Island. Sometimes you want to Anticipate into Treasure Cruise, and having two fetchable blue sources helps tremendously. Unfortunately, the mana is slightly precarious as things are, so I wouldn't make any changes without extensive testing.

Now that I've gone over some of the card choices, let's talk about gameplay. The first thing you should know is that one of the cornerstones of playing this deck is role assessment. Because you can take either a more controlling role or a more aggressive one, each turn of the game presents an opportunity to switch from being the beatdown to the control or vice versa. Based on the matchup and your hand, it will be your responsibility to evaluate the situation and determine whether you should be trying to shorten the game or prolong it. Sometimes, like against Mono Red Aggro or UB Control, the answer will be exceptionally clear, but in most situations it will be something of a judgment call. Don't worry if you genuinely can't figure it out, though, because there's a pretty easy rule to follow with most tempo decks: when in doubt, attack. Most decks actually have a stronger lategame than we do, so ending the game quickly is going to be your go-to more often than not. The complexity lies in realizing that you might have to slow the game down for a couple turns before you turn the corner and put your opponent away.

One thing I want to stress about playing this deck: it is not easy! Between scrying, timing your fetches, and cards like Anticipate, Thoughtseize, and Ojutai Exemplars, the deck presents more decisions each turn than most decks in Standard. Here are a few tips:

Anticipate is not a 2-drop. The deck has more than enough early plays to want to cast Anticipate blind on turn two. Wait until turn four or five at the earliest so you know what you want to find with it. In addition, casting multiple spells in a turn can give cards like Seeker of the Way and Ojutai Exemplars a tremendous boost.

Fetch early and often. Deck thinning may be a myth, but putting cards on the bottom with Temples and Anticipate is not. The earlier you crack your fetch lands, the lower the chance you shuffle suboptimal cards back in. If that isn't reason enough, you're playing a deck with Treasure Cruise in it.

Don't be afraid to play Instants on your turn. There are more protection spells and counterspells in Standard than ever, what with Valorous Stance and Silumgar's Scorn fixing to be major players in the coming months. Be careful of Abzan Charm and the new cycle of Commands as well. All of this means that if there's a creature you absolutely have to get off the table, you had better do it while your opponent is tapped out (or in their upkeep before they draw). Losing a little value from a Prowess trigger is often much better than getting blown out by Dromoka's Command and the like.

Mulligan aggressively. Cards like Thoughtseize, Anticipate, and Treasure Cruise can regain parity, but only if you keep a hand with action and the lands to use it. That being said, as long as you have relevant, castable noncreature spells you should be in relatively good shape. Keeping a hand full of removal and having to draw into threats is much better than keeping a hand full of threats and dying to a fast Stormbreath Dragon.

Overall, the deck is very powerful and loads of fun to play. If you enjoy decks where you always have options and where each decision you make--no matter how minor--affects the game, I would heartily recommend Esper Prowess.

A note about the deck: as the meta coalesces, the numbers will definitely shift around quite a bit. This is a deck that needs to be precisely tuned to succeed, and having an updated build is crucial. The Complete 75 Method I discussed in one of my first articles for is an invaluable tool to anyone looking to learn this deck. It may seem time-consuming, but I would recommend using the method before each large tournament you attend, even if the metagame doesn't seem to have shifted that dramatically.

Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for videos with this deck once Dragons of Tarkir hits MTGO!


Casper Mulholland

@CasperZML on Twitter

tikipanda on MTGO


Drown in Sorrow by Dwarven_Pony at Thu, 04/02/2015 - 12:10
Dwarven_Pony's picture

Great article and great deck!

My recommendation would be to add another Drown in Sorrow to the sideboard.

The card is just SO UNSEPAKABLY BRILLIANT in the deck due to its synergy with every single creature you have, and because it will single-handedly swing an aggro matchup in your favour. I'd want to maximize my chances of drawing the Drown in Sorrow (also known as one-sided End Hostilities for 3 mana, with scry added in!) post-board rather than having it as 1 in 20 cards post-board, especially since you have zero chance of drawing it pre-board.

Plus, I think that tokens are very prevalent in the meta, which increases the effectiveness of Drown in Sorrow all the more. Yes Drown in Sorry is a horrible card in some matchups, however it is sideboard only, so this does not pose a problem.

When I lose to an aggro deck in Game 1, I love the feeling of saying "In goes 4 x Drown in Sorrow! Take that! Wipe that smile off your face please coz it will come up every 15 cards rather than every 20 cards!" This makes a big difference against an aggro player, coz you don't have much time to draw it before you are dead.

Thanks by CZML at Thu, 04/02/2015 - 18:06
CZML's picture

The fourth Drown in Sorrow might be strong, but I have Anticipate to help me find Drown, so I might not need it. It all depends on how much room I end up having once I do the Complete 75 for the deck, as well as how bad the aggro matchup is game 1.