The Fundamental Theories of Magic

The central dogma of modern Magic professes the benefits of card advantage. This theory was first put into practice in 1996 by Brian Weissman as a tenet of “The Deck” and can be reduced to one simple equation:

Cards < More cards i.e., Divination

While this concept appears simple now, it was a revolutionary thought in the early years of the game and inspired generations of deck builders.

The next significant iteration on Magic theory was not expanded upon until Adrian Sullivan devised what came to be known as the Philosophy of Fire around 2004. For the unfamiliar, the Philosophy of Fire outlines several principles that are critical to the Magic resource economy, even if the practical implications were not immediately clear:

Cards = Life i.e., Lava Spike

The commutative property applies in this case and we are also led to:

Life = Cards i.e., Necropotence

To summarize the abstract Magic theory of resource conversion up to this point: you can trade your cards for your opponent’s life total, you can trade your own life total for more cards, and/or you can trade your cards for more cards.

But even if you only trade 1-for-1 with your opponent the entire match (therefore not following the card advantage dogma), and your cards are not exchanged directly for life (the Philosophy of Fire), you can still win the game. Anyone that has defeated an opponent in Limited when they never drew their second land has seen this in action. You both drew the same amount of cards and you are not playing any direct burn spells in your Limited deck, but you still won the game easily. In other games, just going 2-drop into 3-drop into 4-drop into 5-drop when your opponent stumbles has the same effect and usually the same outcome. Although maybe you did not know what this other resource manipulation was, it still helped you win the game.

But how do we describe this phenomenon in a way that helps us to improve as Magic players? Well, let’s first forget about the convertibility of our cards into other resources and investigate what other resources are actually accumulated and exchanged in a game of Magic in an effort to pinpoint what exactly is happening.


Instead of thinking about our cards and our life-total as the resources we start the game with, which convert from one quantifiable integer number to another discrete data point throughout the match, such as with card advantage and the Philosophy of Fire, let’s think of a resource that is more fluid—one that resets at the beginning of each turn: mana.

Mana is the resource that can be trickled out slowly over a turn cycle or spent all at once for a larger effect. The mystique of the mana advantage is that while any passerby can freeze your board state and tell who might be winning based on cards in hand and a simple comparison of life totals, what is much less quantifiable is how well each player has utilized this replenishable resource throughout the match and who has better taken advantage of this axis of a game of Magic. While in Limited you might say that the player with 6 lands in play is significantly advantaged over the player with 3 lands, the story in Constructed could actually be the opposite depending on deck construction. Even the mathematical basis for the mana curve itself is just an in silico simulated model for maximizing the mana resource utilization on the most turns of the game, but it still allows us to draw some immediate conclusions about mana usage 1) the underlying optimization challenge is not limited to discrete mathematics like life total and cards, 2) the optimized state cannot be easily or practically calculated in-game, and 3) in two different games with the same board state we might have a widely different interpretation of who has utilized their mana optimally.

Do the Discrete Resources of Cards and Life Matter?

I am suggesting an addendum to the Philosophy of Fire, and I will characterize it like this: if we look only at the specific boundary condition of the end of the game, then it doesn’t matter if I have more cards in hand than you when the game has finished, because the game is finished. It doesn’t matter if the game ends with me at only 1 life, because the game has ended. The Top 8 tie-breakers are not determined by total life differential, number of cards drawn, or by some other metric of how dominant you were in the matches. The only numbers that matter in the Top 8 calculus are how many of those matches and games ended in victory or defeat. So how much should we care about the discrete resources while we are in a game?

My approach is that in every game I make it my goal to efficiently convert all of my in-game resources of life total, cards, and especially mana into the other in-game resources as necessary and in whatever manner best navigates me toward a position of victory at the end. Sometimes that means I am required to adopt an aggressive plan where I throw away all of my resources in hand and on the table hoping to ride the wave of my slim advantage, like aggressively trading down in card advantage or down in lands in play before my lead evaporates because I only have a cheap creature on the battlefield. Other times my deck will need me to maneuver my resources into a more defensive stance like a block of ice, trying to end the game before my solid yet fragile advantage melts, such as by chump blocking with a Faerie Rogue every turn so my Spellstutter Sprites can trickle across the finish line for victory. Another deck might require me to make my game-plan as obscure as a cloud of fog, leaving you unsure if you should leave mana up for a removal spell or if you have time to advance your own board position, only for me to clarify my intentions on your end step and then win on my turn if you chose incorrectly. All of these strategies suggest a flexible approach depending on the circumstances and converting the resources of life, cards, and mana into the right configuration to secure victory.

The Way of Water

This leads us to a discussion of tempo, which is an area that has briefly been explored by Patrick Chapin (although always with the qualification that it is quite unexplored) and Eric Taylor, though neither dove too deep into the convertibility of mana into the discrete resources of life and cards or the tidal nature of tempo.

I’ve decided to call this philosophy of tempo The Way of Water, and not only because these strategies often involve the mighty Island. No matter how tightly your opponent might plug the weaknesses in their strategy, decks that thrive on this axis are built to find a way to erode through the tiniest of holes and cause their entire plan to sink. Water is also an ideal metaphor for contrasting the continuous flow of the mana resource throughout the game with the static and discrete values of life and cards. Tempo is tidal in nature, and is a back and forth struggle for board advantage or mana advantage. The archetypal tempo deck victory conditions are not often not instantaneous (though combo versions have existed), but rather, with tempo, you will usually drown your opponent one drop at a time while trading other resources such as life, cards, and mana. Similarly, the components of a deck that abide by the Way of Water can look unimpressive, sometimes even individually weak, but the cohesion between the individual parts creates a strong force that can leave your opponent up a creek without a paddle, or lost at sea, or feeling like a fish out of water, or trapped in hot water, or whatever other water-based idiom you would like to insert here instead.

Earlier I distilled the philosophies of card advantage and Fire into three simple equations, and if I had to do the same for this new interpretation of tempo it would be this:

Potential mana utilization > # cards in hand i.e., Noble Hierarch

Your mana utilization > opponent’s mana utilization i.e., Spell Snare

Your tempo + opponent’s tempo = 0

Card Advantage Doesn’t Matter

When the idea of card advantage was widely adopted in 1996 with the introduction of The Deck, I had only just learned to read. Even when the concept of the Philosophy of Fire was expounded in 2004, I was still a full decade removed from playing the game. So by the time I learned to play in 2014, card advantage and exchanging life for cards were ingrained in the game and are now the only way many of us have ever known how to play. Everything now seems to be an expected value calculation for maximizing long-term advantage. Everyone now seems to want to play different flavors of midrange and combo decks. Why? What happened to tempo decks? Well, the concept of card advantage is easy to recognize and quantify. More nebulous concepts like “life total doesn’t matter” are still later understood by novice players, but I’m proposing a new claim to level us all up once again:

Card advantage doesn’t matter

So then what does matter?

Perhaps I should take a step back before we wade too far into the deep end. This article was inspired after a recent defeat of a rather disappointed Jund opponent with my beloved Infect deck in Modern. At the conclusion of the final game they revealed their hand after a medium length game (by modern Modern standards at least) and showed me the Bloodbraid Elf, Kolaghan’s Command, Maelstrom Pulse, and even a Night of Souls’ Betrayal that it contained. If I had just survived one more turn I would have had you easily is a classic refrain from those unfamiliar with the axis on which these decks tend to exist. Then it dawned on me: yes, if all of our cards cost zero mana then you would have won, but I specifically chose this deck to exploit the mana advantage of my cards. But how did I do that and why did it work? Why am I regularly able to overcome what should be poor matchups “on paper”? While the basis for this theory was initially forged on the battle-grounds of Modern, its applicability extends to all of the other formats as well. I’ll explain.

When I have chosen a tempo deck such as Infect or Temur Delver or Splinter Twin or Faeries, I often felt that my opponents and I were playing different games with different objectives. Yes, we can trade your Terminate for my Blossoming Defense all day. Yes, I will pay the opportunity cost of a mana next turn to cast a free spell this turn with Daze. Yes, I will play Spell Snare, Dispel, or Spell Pierce even when they are situational and narrow. Yes, I will be ecstatic about casting Remand on your 2-mana-or-greater spell. Yes, I will Wasteland your land even though you have already had the opportunity to tap it for mana. Yes, I will play Noble Hierarch even if none of the spells in my deck cost more than 2 mana. Yes, I would still play Mental Misstep if the DCI would let me. But what do these all have in common?

Each of these examples demonstrate the convertibility of one of our limited resources into another, but rather than cards into cards or life, we are instead trading our mana for a greater amount of our opponent’s mana or reducing our opponent’s ability to utilize all of their future mana, or we are trading our cards in hand for a mana utilization advantage.

Tempo is Maximizing Mana Utilization

In Limited, we can often see the extremes of poor mana utilization illustrated so well. Why is mana flood bad? In addition to your opponent probably drawing more spells than you (virtual card advantage), it’s not actually considered flood until that extra potential mana you can now produce is useless to your deck. Why is mana screw bad? The cards in your hand require a higher mana cost than you are able to pay. The concept of maximizing mana utilization accounts for those aggressive decks that only want to draw three lands and  the ramp decks and control decks that really need their sixth or higher source of mana to gain an advantage. Basically, if your deck is constructed to maximize a specific mana utilization, then falling within that range of mana utilization gives you an advantage, and that advantage is tempo.

In Constructed, we see pillars of all formats that trade up in tempo and those that trade down in tempo. Wasteland, for example, is negative tempo. I trade my future ability to have my land produce mana for your land that you have already had the opportunity to use. This can still be good for me because I have decided that your target mana utilization for your deck is higher than mine, so I can afford the tempo loss. I believe I can convert that tempo loss into virtual card advantage when you are unable to cast your spells or must stall the game long enough for me to capitalize on a slim board advantage. This is still only a 1-for-1 trade, but the tempo that I gain via mana utilization makes this a good play for me. Following this stream of thought, Stifle is even better because I can trade a card in my hand for your future mana utilization. My 1 mana spent this turn prevents you from having your 1 mana on all of your future turns!

The Convertibility of Mana into the Other Resources of Magic

Tempo = cards

If we look for examples of the convertibility of mana into other resources, we really have to look no further than some of the most broken cards of all time. Library of Alexandria (and its newer iterations such as Sea Gate Wreckage and Arch of Orazca), allows you the flexibility between access to mana or cards. You must choose if you want to convert the potential mana utilization into card advantage. Even cards which permanently trade down in mana and tempo can be found in the form of The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale and Maze of Ith, which require an opportunity cost of tempo (they don’t produce mana) for a powerful effect which often results in card advantage. This requirement for an exchange is why Boseiju, Who Shelters All is a much better designed card than Cavern of Souls. The cost of life and tempo is a real payment for the card advantage of uncounterability where Cavern of Souls only constrains deck building.

Cards = tempo

Other classic cards such as Dark Ritual and Lotus Petal offer the same tempo for card exchange, but in the reverse direction and without the same degree of flexibility and repeatability of the lands listed above. Kaladesh block had many good examples that saw a lot of Constructed play like Authority of the Consuls, which allowed slower decks to trade a card for a tempo (and life) advantage, Baral, Chief of Compliance gave a discount on future spells and sparked a powerful Modern deck, and even Inspiring Statuary has increased in play recently because of its ability to greatly increase the mana utilization from that point forward. This highly desirable conversion of tempo for cards is the reason that the potential is so high for Mox Amber. We know that if it is good it is going to be very good.

Life = tempo

This tradeoff has become so iconic in the game that this website was named in-part after a card that allowed for this resource exchange. The next obvious example is Ancient Tomb, which also allows you to convert your life resource into a mana advantage and boosts your potential mana utilization. If your life total does not matter and your deck is constructed to utilize the additional mana potential, then this is a good deal. The Ravnica shocklands are more examples where you can pay for the tempo of a dual land coming into play untapped with your life total resource.

Tempo is a zero sum game

In the recent past of Legacy, one of the biggest mistakes I would see of otherwise skilled players is to Wasteland the opponent on turn 1 after they put a Deathrite Shaman in play on their first turn. Yes, you can argue that since they are playing a mana Elf then they must value their own target mana utilization as higher than average, but this is a level one fallacy where many players become trapped. The concession of tempo to your opponent is such a significant cost because you are allowing them to cast a 2-mana spell before you have any source of recurring advantage in play. Or worse, you allow them the potential to cast two 1-mana spells and expand their already superior board position. This mistake still happens in today’s Legacy environment if we are instead talking about a Wasteland when the opponent has a Delver of Secrets or a Nimble Mongoose. You are playing into their strategy! If nothing else changes for the rest of the game, your opponent is winning. This is not the time to concede more tempo to them. Tempo is easily lost, and difficult to regain because of its tendency to snowball. In Limited, if you miss your second land for the turn and your opponent casts their 3-drop on the turn you cast your 2-drop, this is a hole from which you can recover if you hit the necessary lands from this point out, but if you miss another, and in a few turns they are casting a 6-drop when you are leaning on a 3-drop, you are likely too far behind to come back.

The idea of tempo is that it is the king of resources. As long as you maintain a tempo advantage, none of the other resources matter. You may have noticed that I skipped the “tempo = life” convertibility in my equations above. Well, that’s because I could not think of a single example of a Constructed played card that only sacrifices tempo in exchange for life. These cards do exist though, such as Dosan’s Oldest Chant, Fountain of Renewal, Implement of Improvement, Last Caress, Pendulum of Patterns, Resupply, Revitalize, Reviving Dose, Ritual of Rejuvenation, and Touch of Death. While these have historically only been novice traps in Limited, two of the most recent ones (Fountain of Renewal and Implement of Improvement) have actually been the most playable versions in Limited, maybe suggesting that Wizards of the Coast is finally approaching the completion of the convertibility of mana into other discrete resources in Constructed. Tempo is a zero sum resource between you and your opponent, and exchanging it for a resource that does not matter as long as it is non-zero is not a strategy that will likely find success.

How can I practically apply this?

Much of the Magic philosophy of the past has gained some criticism because it sounded great but in the grand scheme did not help us to be better players. I want to embank The Way of Water from that stream of comments so I have come up with some general applications and tempo deck specific strategies.

Mulligan more:

Well, the first takeaway from this article should be that you should probably mulligan more aggressively, especially (but not exclusively) if you are playing Modern. Everything from Limited to Legacy, the number of games where a player gets ahead early and rides that across the finish-line is much higher than the amount where you are both top-decking for the win. If the game ends and you have more cards in hand in your opponent, did card advantage matter?

Be aware of tempo imbalance:

If you sacrifice tempo to your opponent, it’s best to do so when you are either at parity or you are ahead. If we hold card economy and life total equal, this means not using Wasteland when the opponent has already landed a threat and not casting Memory when your opponent has more lands available. If you are at parity, ceding tempo to your opponent can put you behind and it can be difficult to stop an avalanche.

If you convert your life-total or card resources into tempo, make sure you can actually capitalize on it:

There is not much of a point in casting Exclusion Mage if you are at a board stall and your opponent can just re-cast their creature again and put you in the exact same state. Hold the Mage until your opponent either casts an Aura, exposes themselves to an attack, the 2/2 body becomes relevant, or you are desperate. If you keep a hand with True-Name Nemesis as your only threat and need to create a clock in the matchup, consider keeping your Daze for once you have established a superior board, then create a mana utilization advantage.

Maximize mana efficiency:

Unless your options are limited to something like casting a Hostage Taker with no targets or casting a Steel Leaf Champion and leaving a mana unused, make an effort to use all of your mana on all of your turns. Instead of playing the 4-mana spell that you just topdecked when you have 5 lands in play, play the 2-drop and the 3-drop so next turn if you draw a land you can play your 4-drop and hold up your 2-mana combat trick. Maximizing your mana utilization is a way to generate tempo.

How do you think about tempo? What do you think I left out about tempo? Which resources in a game of Magic do you think are the most important? How many water related puns did you count in this article? Let’s discuss in the comments!