This primer was written by Phrosume and edited by the archon.page team. You can find the original primer and decklist here.
Welcome to my first Archon primer, which delves into the Grixis Tempo strategy. It contains an introduction to the tempo strategy in general terms, some reasons as to why Grixis is a good color combination for tempo, and advice on how to build and play your deck.
The Tempo Archetype
In general terms, a tempo deck is one that is looking to win the game before the opponent can react to its gameplan. The term comes from chess—yes, that game with funny figures that you don’t even get to paint before playing with them. There, it is used to refer to a unit of time, either a turn or half a turn, and often in the context of threatening the opponent’s king while simultaneously developing your own position, effectively forcing the opponent to lose their own turns reacting to your actions.
In MtG terms, tempo decks try to threaten the opponent’s life total early on by quickly developing a board state and protecting it. To this end, they play a combination of efficient threats and spells to hinder the opponent’s actions. The main goal is to trade cards in a way that generates a mana advantage. If your opponent, for example, cast a 3-mana value creature and you are able to get rid of it for just 1 mana, you would generate tempo. In a way, you’re both playing a reactive deck and being on the beatdown at the same time. On the flipside, this means that if you are ever cornered into a defensive position you will have a hard time getting back into the game.
A note for our German players: tempo does not just equal speed in MtG!
If you want some extra time between rounds while the rest of the players have to suffer against boring control decks, this might be the archetype for you. This deck, however, is a bit slower than most other tempo lists.
What Makes a Card Tempo?
There are some main characteristics that tempo cards usually present:
Creatures: they need to be very mana efficient. The most desirable features in a tempo creature are a power of 3 or more, some sort of protection, evasion, and a mana value of 1. Of course, most creatures won’t tick all of those boxes at the same time, but you want your threats to be as close as possible to doing so. Usually, tempo decks will play anywhere between 18 to 25 creatures. You won’t need more, since you can use cantrips to reliably find them and you’ll have your commander(s) available at all times.
Non-creatures: this category is a bit harder to describe, but it is the glue that keeps the deck together. Every card in your deck that isn’t either a creature or a land should be an instant or a sorcery and, due to their flexibility, you should play way more instants than anything else. They can be divided into four types:
- Counterspells: the easiest way to make your opponent’s turns worthless is by countering their stuff. As always, mana efficiency is key here. Ideally, you want your opponent to spend their whole turn to cast one card that you counter for zero mana. Getting permanently rid of the countered spell isn’t as important as simply gaining enough time to win the game.
- Removal: again, you want it to be as mana efficient as possible. The more flexibility your removal spells offer, the better, which means that burn spells are best because they also help you shorten the amount of turns you need to kill your opponent.
- Cantrips: cards that replace themselves and filter your draws. They help you find specific game pieces and answers to your opponent’s actions, and they allow you to play a slightly lower number of lands in your deck.
- Utility: cards that have more than one purpose and give your deck extra flexibility. They often are less mana efficient, but sometimes their versatility is worth the extra mana.
When it comes to lands, their main function is to generate mana. While you can play a few utility ones, you shouldn’t get too greedy. You should play around 36 lands.
Colours and Commanders
In order to choose which commander to play, it’s important to have a good understanding of what each of the five colours does:
- White: the color of order. White has the two best removal spells for creatures, can handle everything after it’s resolved, and has some interesting threats.
- Blue: it has some really important tempo tools, like cantrips, counterspells, and a bunch of efficient threats. Due to how reactive tempo decks are, blue will be your main color. This is non-negotiable.
- Black: it has some of the best removal spells, a fair number of good beaters, and the best tutor in the format.
- Red: it has burn spells, which usually are the most flexible type of removal, as well as some spicy utility cards.
- Green: it has the best beaters in the game. It also offers some interesting top deck manipulation.
As you can see, every colour can be used for a tempo deck, as long as you play Blue. In the Legacy format, for example, almost every 3-colour combination with blue has had its time over the last few years. However, the focus of this primer will be on Grixis decks, which use Blue, Black, and Red.
There are only a few good tempo commanders in Grixis, of which I like Kess, Dissident Mage the most. While she is a mediocre threat, she has both evasion and an integrated value engine that allows her to protect herself. All of that for a reasonable mana value. The rest of the Grixis commanders are more suitable for control decks. If only Vial Smasher the Fierce wasn’t banned as a partner…
Card Choices: Lands
I will divide the lands between purely mana-fixing and utility.
As mentioned before, the main function of lands in this deck is mana-fixing. Most of them should enter the battlefield untapped most of the time.
- Fetchlands (Polluted Delta, Scalding Tarn, Bloodstained Mire, Arid Mesa, Prismatic Vista…): the bread and butter of the deck’s mana base. They are so good that you want to play every single one available to the Grixis colours, even those that only search for one of the three. If you think your opponent might be playing Blood Moon or Back to Basics, you should use your fetchlands to get basic lands.
- Original dual lands (Volcanic Island, Underground Sea, Badlands): these lands come from a time when many cards were overpowered, and they are extremely powerful. You can fetch them and they always enter the battlefield untapped. Since they are very pricey, you might want to consider proxying them.
- Shocklands (Steam Vents, Watery Grave, Blood Crypt): slightly worse than the original duals, but a lot cheaper and still very powerful.
- Command Tower: perfect fixing on an untapped land with no additional cost and it has tons of reprints.You should play it in every Archon deck with more than two colours.
If you aren’t playing Tainted Pact, you could call it a day here and simply add a bunch of basic lands and a Wasteland, but you can also add any number of the following. If you do plan to play Tainted Pact, however, you will need to add all of them, as well as some snow-covered basics, in order to eliminate the possibility of revealing the same card twice.
- Fastlands (Blackcleave Cliffs, Darkslick Shores, Spirebluff Canal): the best non-fetchable dual lands for tempo decks, since you always need your first two or three lands to come in untapped.
- Painlands (Shivan Reef, Underground River, Sulfurous Springs): these always enter the battlefield untapped too, but their fixing comes at a price.
- Mana Confluence and City of Brass: the best painlands, since they can produce mana of any colour. While both have corner cases where they’re slightly better, Confluence is the best of the two by a little bit, in my opinion, as City of Brass will deal damage to you even when an opponent forces you to tap it with something like Rishadan Port. On the other hand, the life loss from City of Brass is a trigger that you can respond to, which can very seldomly be relevant if, for example, you’re at 1 life and you only need to cast a Lightning Bolt to kill your opponent (you can tap City of Brass for red mana, leave its damage trigger on the stack, and cast the Bolt in response, ending the game before the trigger ever resolves).
- Creeping Tar Pit: this manland is the only land in the deck that enters the battlefield tapped. While it’s garbage if you draw it in your starting hand, its evasion and protection from sorcery-speed removal make it powerful enough in the late game so as to make it worth playing.
- Fiery Islet: another land that deals damage to you in exchange for fixing. This one also offers flood protection. Once the cycle is complete, you should probably also add its Dimir and Rakdos versions to the deck.
- Reflecting Pool: it comes in untapped and has the potential to produce every colour of mana, which pretty much makes it a Command Tower with a small drawback: if it is the only land in your starting hand, it is useless.
- Filterlands (Sunken Ruins, Cascade Bluffs): while they can’t tap for coloured mana on their own, they provide very good fixing.
- Pathways (Blightsep Pathway, Clearwater Pathway, Riverglide Pathway): I don’t like these as much, but they always enter the battlefield untapped and they can still fix your mana.
You could just play mana-fixing lands and Wasteland, but you also have the option to add some additional utility lands.
- Wasteland: one of the most punishing cards in the game. Its use is tempo-neutral (unless you hit a land that produces more than one mana, like Ancient Tomb), but you profit from it by having a lower mana-curve and taking advantage of having extra cards in your graveyard to feed your delve spells. A must have. If Strip Mine ever gets unbanned, play both.
- Maze of Ith: while it doesn’t produce any mana, it can neuter the attacks of your opponent’s creatures. You can also give your creatures pseudo vigilance by untapping them in the end-of-combat step, once they have dealt damage.
- Desolate Lighthouse: it helps you filter your draws and has some utility with Kess, but you won’t have enough extra mana to activate it often.
Card Choices: Creatures
- Death’s Shadow: if you play Legacy or Modern, you should be familiar with this bad boy. Since the deck plays a pretty greedy mana base, as well as some spells that deal damage to you as an extra casting cost, this is one of the best creatures to play in the mid- to late-game. It blocks very well and can kill an opponent in just a couple of attacks.
- Delver of Secrets: the best tempo creature, as it is a 1-mana 3/2 flier. Playing this guy on turn one is a safe road to victory.
- Dragon’s Rage Channeler: a little weaker than Delver of Secrets, as delirium is not very easy to achieve since the deck mostly has instants, sorceries and lands and your creatures aren’t meant to be killed easily. However, if you get to activate it, this creature becomes even better than Delver. Its first ability synergises very well with Kess.
- Grim Lavamancer: while this card might not be the most aggressive, it’s still very powerful since it synergises well with the reactive plan of the deck and it can easily destroy your opponent’s blockers. The anti-synergy with Kess and the delve spells doesn’t really matter.
- Pteramander: a little gem in a deck that consistently fills its graveyard with instants and sorceries. Good in both the early and the late game.
- Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer: while it isn’t the fastest clock, it provides a lot of resources.
- Curious Homunculus: it provides ramp for instants and sorceries and it becomes a beast in the mid-game. It synergises with Kess and can hit really hard.
- Dauthi Voidwalker: both an unblockable threat and a hate piece. An excellent creature.
- Dreadhorde Arcanist: a very slow clock, but it can replay burn spells, cantrips, and removal for free.
- Snapcaster Mage: this card provides huge flexibility and, being a flashy creature, it fits perfectly into the reactive game plan of the deck. Sometimes, you’ll just want to play it as a threat even if you don’t flash anything back.
- Sprite Dragon: the combination of flying and haste is awesome, and this creature can quickly become huge by simply doing what the deck already wants to do.
- Young Pyromancer: very versatile creature that can provide evasion (in the form of having more creatures than the opponent can block), speed up your clock, and usually generates value even if it’s killed right away.
- Bonecrusher Giant: a pretty bad removal spell attached to a creature with a good power-to-mana ratio that generates card advantage results in a great card. It also has a little removal protection.
- Brazen Borrower: bounce spells are a key component in tempo decks, as are 3-power creatures with flash and flying.
- True-Name Nemesis: 3/1 threat that is almost impossible to kill. As long as your clock is faster than your opponent’s, TNN will run away with the game.
- Vendilion Clique: Another 3/1 for three mana, this time with flying and flash and therefore pseudo-haste. It can also proactively worsen the opponent’s hand or improve yours.
- Skyfire Phoenix: I’m still testing this little bird. Flying and haste make it a powerful threat in the mid- to late-game. If you can mill or discard it, it becomes one of the strongest, most resilient creatures in the deck, as it will keep coming back.
- Subtlety: four mana for a 3/3 Flying is a bad ratio, even with flash. But a tempo counterspell for zero mana can create huge swings and it has some flexibility.
- Fury: this is a free removal spell or an expensive removal spell on a huge stick. Both options are powerful in different situations.
- Ethereal Forager: 3/3 for UU is pretty good and it generates value over time.
- Gurmag Angler: while it is possible to play it on turn 2, it will usually enter play by turn 3-4. Nevertheless, it’s a very efficient creature that benefits from using your removal spells aggressively to clear the way for its attacks.
- Murktide Regent: another powerhouse for tempo decks and the best clock in the deck, as even its floor is high and it can easily become huge.
- Flametongue Kavu: The good old Kavu. It can both kill the opponent’s creatures and present a fast clock. Be careful not to play it on an empty battlefield, or it will kill itself!
- Looter il-Kor: this could be an option to keep in mind. It’s not much of a clock, but it helps filter through draws and fuels the graveyard.
- Kira, Great Glass-Spinner: a slow clock, but it protects your board and helps you come out ahead in top deck wars.
- Dark Confidant: a draw engine for decks with low curves and some amount of top deck manipulation. I don’t play him due to the amount of higher-mana value spells like the delve cards and Force of Will.
- Tombstalker: one of the worst delve creatures, but it can still be a very efficient threat since it has evasion.
- Magus of the Moon: if your meta is full of greedy decks and you aren’t playing too many non-basics, this card can win games on its own.
- Baleful Strix: more like a removal spell on a stick that replaces itself and acts like a lightning rod for removal. While it doesn’t hit hard, the evasion is the cherry on top.
- Malevolent Hermit: another lightning rod for removal as well as an evasive threat once it comes back that has the additional benefit of sometimes messing with your opponent’s gameplan.
Card Choices: Instants and Sorceries
Counterspells provide a lot of utility, as they allow you to waste your opponent’s resources. Once more, flexibility and mana efficiency are key, which means that you want your counterspells to hit any type of spell and to cost two or less mana.
- Force Spike: it might not look like much, but it can hit the opponent’s curve hard. It becomes weaker the longer the game goes on.
- Mental Misstep: narrow, but hard counter for zero mana. It hits some of the most important spells in the format. This deck, for example, runs 28 cards that can be countered by it.
- Spell Pierce: it can get rid of some powerful cards for very little mana.
- Spell Snare: similar to Mental Misstep, but a bit narrower. It still has plenty of targets against any deck in the format.
- Wash Away: this spell allows you to counter your opponent’s commander for just one mana, as well as a plethora of other commonly-played cards like Kroxa, Titan of Death’s Hunger or any spell flashed back by a Snapcaster Mage.
- Counterspell: in my opinion, the second best counterspell ever printed. Use it only when you really need it, since the best counterspell is the one you don’t need to play.
- Daze: a free Force Spike. Its drawback doesn’t matter much when you play a deck with such a low mana curve.
- Delay: another 2-mana hard counter with a small twist that doesn’t matter much, since it still buys you plenty of time, although sometimes you’ll need to find a second answer for the delayed spell. Particularly good in counterspell wars, since the targeted counter will always fizzle once it comes back.
- Mana Leak: often another hard counterspell for two mana. If your opponent can pay for it, you’ve probably already lost the game.
- Remand: another temporary counter that provides a lot of tempo and replaces itself.
- Force of Negation: only free in your opponent’s turn, but very powerful.
- Force of Will: a free counterspell is the best tool a tempo deck can have.
- Misdirection: interestingly, this only ever really works as a counterspell when targeting your opponent’s counterspells, but it can redirect your opponent’s removal to protect your own creatures and get rid of theirs.
- Miscalculation: a good tempo play that you can cycle away once the game has run for too long for it to be useful.
- Flusterstorm: a meta call that is great against storm and in counter wars, since it’s very hard to stop.
- Memory Lapse: very similar to Remand in that it provides a tempo advantage, although instead of replacing itself it neuters one of your opponent’s draws.
- Negate: cheap tool against control and combo decks.
Removal keeps the board clear so that your own creatures can attack. You should always keep in mind that not all of your opponent’s creatures will need to be killed as long as your clock is faster.
- Lightning Bolt: the best card in the deck due to its versatility.
- Chain Lightning: very close to the power-level of Lightning Bolt, but it has a couple of downsides.
- Flame Slash: extremely efficient creature removal.
- Forked Bolt: potential two for one that can also hit the opponent’s life total. A great choice for aggressive metas.
- Fiery Confluence: very versatile card that can act as a one-sided board wipe and hit your opponent’s life total, as well as get rid of dangerous artifacts like Batterskull or Shadowspear.
- Burst Lightning: a strictly better Shock.
- Fatal Push: premium black removal that benefits from playing fetchlands and can hit most relevant threats.
- Vapor Snag: one of the best bounce spells in the game, since it also deals one damage to the opponent.
- Incinerate: not as good as Lightning Bolt, but the exile clause can sometimes be relevant. The best of the 2-mana value bolts.
- Dismember: the flexibility of this spell makes it useful in almost any situation and it synergises very well with Death’s Shadow.
- Pyrokinesis: a free removal that can trade up to four for two.
- Snuff Out: another free removal spell that synergises with Death’s Shadow, although this one is more meta-dependent.
- Ghastly Demise: in the right meta, this is a great removal spell since you can fill up your graveyard very quickly.
- Chain of Vapor: extremely flexible bounce, since it can remove any non-land permanent for just one mana, although its downside can be a deal breaker sometimes.
- Snap: a free spell that requires you to keep two mana open. It allows you to bounce and counter on the same turn.
Cantrips and Looting Effects
- Faithless Looting, Frantic Search, and Careful Study: these cards are good to find specific cards and fill the graveyard at the same time.
- Gitaxian Probe: this card basically allows you to play a 98-card deck and it also gives you valuable information about your opponent’s hand. You should almost always pay the life cost.
- Brainstorm, Ponder, Preordain, Serum Visions: the best four cantrips in the game. Being able to shuffle your library with fetchlands synergises very well with them.
- Consider, Thought Scour, Mental Note: again, these cards help you fill the graveyard and find specific cards.
- Reanimate: the flexibility of being able to reanimate any creature from either graveyard is great. Being able to do it twice with Kess is even better.
- Demonic Tutor, Tainted Pact: the best two tutors in the game. Bear in mind that Tainted Pact requires you to tweak your mana base.
- Expressive Iteration: essentially a draw-two for two mana that looks at an extra card.
- Fire // Ice: a highly flexible card that can tap lands, get rid of attackers or blockers, and potentially two-for-one your opponent.
- Izzet Charm: another extremely flexible spell.
- Prismari Command: similar to Izzet Charm, but with different modes.
- Kolaghan’s Command: the only discard spell I play, since it has huge flexibility and it’s almost always a two-for-one.
- Sign in Blood, Night’s Whisper: efficient card draw, if you need it. I don’t play them, since Kess already provides enough card advantage. Sign in Blood can also kill your opponent if they’re at two life.
- Drown in the Loch: pretty flexible spell, although it needs your opponent to have enough cards in their graveyard.
How to Play the Deck
Since I’m not the most experienced tempo player, I will base this section off some primers I’ve read. The most important thing to know with a deck like this is your role. At any given time, you have to consider whether you’re the aggressor or the defender, and you have to remember that your role isn’t static. Some general matchup advice:
- Against aggro, bear in mind that you will often be in a defensive position. Try to keep your opponent’s board clear and only switch to an aggressive role once their resources are depleted.
- Against control, play as aggressively as possible, but keep some creatures in your hand to avoid overextending into a board wipe.
- Against midrange, stay flexible and try to win quickly. Use your removal to attack their mana production by killing their mana dorks, as well as to stop their value engines.
- Against combo, pressure your opponent and keep up counters and removal to stop their combo pieces.
Another important thing to keep in mind is that your starting hand should always contain two or three lands, at least one creature, and enough interaction. Remember that you are a reactive deck and you should wait to play your spells until you really need to. Critical thinking, therefore, is crucial, especially when playing counterspells and cantrips. Tempo decks are taxing to play, so don’t give up if you have some trouble at the beginning.
Why don’t you play discard?
While discard spells are powerful, it is also tempo-negative. You spend a card and one mana to get some information and a card from your opponent’s hand. Your opponent loses a card, but no mana, and the additional information rarely is important enough to make up for the disadvantage in mana.
Why don’t you play Stifle effects?
While they are common in formats like Legacy, where they are used as mana denial by countering the opponent’s fetchland activations, they are a lot less effective when you are only playing one Wasteland in a 99-card deck. Since your opponents will also have fewer fetchlands, proportionally, this type of cards will be a lot less consistent in a format like Archon.