My quick and dirty definition of a tempo deck is an aggressive deck with disruption. This style of deck tends to become more powerful as a format becomes more degenerate given traditional aggro looks pretty pathetic when you’re getting turn 3’d with regularity.
Most of us have a good idea of what an aggro deck is, but disruption is more ambiguous. It’s best to think of disruption as effects that stop or slow down the opponent’s gameplan. Disruption typically comes in the form of clean, one-for-one answers like counterspells, discard, or removal, but not always. Tempo decks are different in that they don’t care about answering everything, but only want to keep the opponent off balance long enough to deal lethal. Tempo aims to be king of the early game with efficient answers that often trade card advantage for superior board position. Mana denial is another common theme as it can preemptively answer certain cards, and constrict the opponent’s ability to cast spells. Accomplishing these things in Modern is more difficult than in Legacy, however that’s not to say it’s impossible.
Giving Credit Where It’s Due
UW Tempo is an experiment in combining Modern’s best disruptive cards all in one shell. There are three main tempo strategies that the deck draws inspiration from: Merfolk, Death & Taxes, and RUG Delver.
Fish and D&T are Tempo..?
On the surface these two might look like just dumb, beatdown decks, but at their core, they’re built around leveraging mana to out tempo opponents. Aether Vial is inherently card disadvantage, but in exchange it grants a pseudo mana boost that is used to overwhelm the opponent with a horde of creatures. In addition, the ability to play those creatures at Instant speed can lead to impressive blow outs. Flickerwisp turns into a counterspell on a stick against removal, and Harbinger of the Tides at the right time can be brutal against a deck that relies on pump spells like Infect or Suicide Zoo.
Aether Vial allows each deck more explosive in the early turns, but to really capitalize upon this, they have a few ways to then conversely hinder the opponent’s mana development.
A Thalia, Guardian of Thraben or Cursecatcher on board can be the difference between winning and losing against a combo deck, and also severely limits the opponent’s ability to kill key creatures. Outside of putting a tax on spells, another way to indirectly answer them is by simply making them uncastable. Spreading Seas out of Merfolk does more than just turn on Islandwalk, and Leonin Arbiter turns Ghost Quarter into Strip Mine. While neither hold a candle to Wasteland, these effects range from shutting on an opponent’s color for a while, to neutering Tron lands and Eldrazi Temples.
An early Leonin Arbiter alone can completely turn off an opponent’s fetch land heavy hand, especially on the play. Add in a Ghost Quarter to tag their first mana producing land, and it reminds me a lot of what I like to call “Blood Moon games”.
This package alongside Spreading Seas is a brutal combination of cheap land disruption that will have you saying, “I don’t want my opponent to play Magic, they might beat me.” A playset of these three are great additions to our deck trying to tempo.
Of Course the Most Efficient Creature in Magic is Blue
RUG Delver in Modern in many ways looks like a port of its more robust Legacy cousin. Both decks boil down to twelve threats, burn, and counterspells. The Modern version lacks the all too important land destruction package of Stifle and Wasteland, but it still remains a viable deck with merit in a metagame full of unfair decks. My favorite description of what this deck tries to accomplish is given by Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, “Even the disruptive [elements] are used towards aggression, every time. Sure, some games you will have to sit and counter something; but ultimately every card in your deck is geared towards killing them, hopefully as fast as possible, and to stop whatever it is they are doing to stop you from killing them. This, to me, is an aggro deck” – Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, “Aggro-Control”
This contrasts with Grixis Delver in Modern, which plays more lands, more Snapcaster Mages, and more permission. RUG Delver doesn’t play for the late game like Grixis, simply because it doesn’t plan on there being one. An important tool in pulling the whole deck together is Disrupting Shoal. The card does a decent Force of Will impression in allowing the deck to have countermagic up at all times. Delver decks are most exposed the turn they cast their threats, Shoaling a removal spell might be card disadvantage, but the tempo gained is worth it when you untap with a hand of all countermagic.
But Disrupting Shoal is more than just a free Turn Aside. Bogles goes from unbeatable to a bye, Merfolk become a whole lot easier when you can commit threats the same turn you counter their way to play unfair, and a “turn one Plating draw” from Affinity turns into draft chaff even when on the draw.
The biggest strike against Leonin Arbiter is that it’s susceptible to just about every removal spell in the book. Casting it with Shoal backup is a complete game changer, four in UW Tempo is a requirement.
Building on a Core
While UW may lack efficient beaters or burn, one of the best reasons to be in these colors is Meddling Mage. Besides making combo matchups a complete cake walk, Meddling Mage can play a role similar to Disrupting Shoal. You’re able to play a clock and disrupt the opponent in the same turn, often naming a Lightning Bolt or the card you’re scared of most. Pikula’s best friend Gitaxian Probe is a natural inclusion and together are a perfect complement to what UW Tempo is trying to accomplish.
Every fair deck has to play some form of removal, and the most obvious choice might be Path to Exile given its synergy with Leonin Arbiter, but another stellar choice is Vapor Snag. On the surface, Unsummons and tempo have always gone hand and hand, but a potent land disruption package alongside Meddling Mage have Vapor Snag looking more like a one mana Terminate.
The last critical piece in tempo is a huge threat. It would only be natural to splash Green for some beef in the form of Tarmogoyf, but Leonin Arbiter eliminates the option of a fetch, shock manabase. This is definitely the biggest point of contention in deckbuilding, and there are a few lackluster options that all make me wish Stoneforge Mystic was legal. Thing in the Ice doesn’t flip as fast as usual with Spreading Seas taking up four spell slots, but it does provide early defense and synergizes well with the ETB triggers of Meddling Mage and Snapcaster Mage.
The rest of the deck is largely left to preference and anticipated metagame. Any fair deck should be playing at least six pieces of removal, and adding in some Spell Pierces and Mana Leaks help you stay ahead. Remand could certainly be played over Mana Leak, it has more synergy here than in most tempo decks, but hard answers are better when you’re playing a “protect the queen” strategy.
Going over the sideboard, the main consideration for a field as wide as Modern is favoring versatility when addressing weak matchups. When creating a sideboard for Modern decks, I find it most useful to view the deck at the macro level. Looking at UW Tempo, I can say:
Aggressive decks come in many forms, but in general, get more difficult the more redundant they are. Some considerations need to be made for “wide” aggro decks.
Put simply, Combo matchups tend to be easy for the counterspells and Meddling Mage deck.
Control comes in many forms, these matchups vary between unlosable and unwinnable. The ease of the Control matchup largely depends on how much cheap removal they’re packing.
On the Big Mana side of things, UW Tempo is practically preboarded against Tron, while Valakut matchups are typically good as long as some Hatebears show up.
Lastly is Midrange. These games tend to play out just like Control, a quick, disruptive start will steal most games, but the more drawn out it becomes, the more difficult it gets.
Extra removal and a full playset of Monastery Mentor are the most important cards in the sideboard. This package comes in to help shift towards more of a Midrange role, which is where you want to be against this deck’s weakest matchups: removal heavy decks and wide aggro. Hard removal and threat density matters most against both and typically come in while tempo elements move out postboard.
To round things out, Vendilion Clique and Surgical Extraction add additional resilience against Combo and Big Mana strategies. Clique can often feel like Thoughtseize attached to a Delver of Secrets, and Surgical asks you to only answer that Ad Nauseam, Living End, or Urza’s Tower once to deal with all of them all, and also helps against many of the various graveyard decks in the format.
"If you're not at least 25% brews you've got no heart. If you're not at least 25% netdeck you've got no brain." – Patrick Chapin
Good ◻ Bad ◻ Sweet ☑ is just as much about building and testing fun, interesting decks as it is throwing darts at the corkboard. While I enjoy jamming the latest iteration of Jund or Jeskai, there’s something refreshing about seeing an idea work in practice. Modern has slowly become a race to the bottom, and if there’s a deck to punish a field of people trying to turn three everyone, it’s the guy playing dorky Hatebears and Disrupting Shoal.