My overview of the Mono Blue Tempo deck seemed to be well received (thanks for the kind words!), so I thought it would be worth doing another post or two drilling into some of the nuances of playing the deck. One thing that a few people asked about was how to beat it. There is a simple answer: pick up an aggressive deck. However, this advice comes with a caveat. Mono Blue Tempo matches up poorly against some aggro decks and well against others. The interesting part is that, in my experience, it matches up better against the better aggro decks while it struggles with the more fringe aggro decks.
I’ll walk through a deck list that I find usually beats me when I’m piloting mono blue. I’ll then walk through a deck list that I usually handle pretty well. I’ll try and explain the difference in results. Finally, I’ll walk through a play by play from a competitive league game on MTGO that I think exemplifies how it looks when Mono Blue Tempo is taking care of business against an aggro deck.
Two very similar lists have posted 5-0 competitive league results playing Gird for Battle. I’ll focus on the most recent: https://www.mtggoldfish.com/deck/1448981#paper
3 Legion’s Landing
4 Duskborne Skymarcher
4 Healer’s Hawk
4 Rustwing Falcon
4 Skymarcher Aspirant
4 Adanto Vanguard
4 Remorseful Cleric
4 Benalish Marshal
4 Venerated Loxodon
4 Gird for Battle
3 Pride of Conquerors
I have literally never won a game against this deck when it curves out. It can throw up some hands that I think mono blue couldn’t beat even if our opponent allowed us to stack our deck. One drop -> double one drop -> Vanguard + one drop + Loxodon -> Benalish Marshal… they can send a ludicrous amount of power and toughness into the red zone on turn four.
The only way we have to interact with them in the first couple turns is by blocking or perhaps trickstering something. Even if you’re running main deck Essence Scatter, are you really going to pass the turn without casting anything in the face of three one drops? If you have the Scatter and make the read to counter the Loxodon, their board presence is still substantial.
Blocking is made difficult by their alternate line of play of one drop -> one drop + gird for battle. Mono blue can’t do anything but chump block a Girded Rustwing Falcon until it gets up to a Tempest Djinn. Just getting a Girded Healer’s Hawk or Duskborne Skymarcher off the table requires trading with a two drop. And if you tap out on turn two intending to offer that trade then you’re just asking to get blown out by Benalish Marshal hitting the table on turn three. Or a second Gird for Battle giving you flashbacks to Travel Preparations. Chump blocking a Rustwing Falcon with your Tempest Djinn is a bad feeling.
This deck pounces on the vulnerability created by the fact that Mono Blue really wants to spend the first two turns developing its board without worrying about what the opponent is doing. It creates a board state almost immediately that forces the Mono Blue deck to tap out in order to stabilize. This basically blanks the Mono Blue countermagic for the first three or four turns of the game.
Why isn’t this 18 plains deck taking over standard? Two reasons: (1) consistency; (2) other matchups. The deck is running 18 plains and 19 one drops. It’s not always going to bring things together in the right ratios. Usually when I’ve gotten game wins against this deck it’s when they got stuck on one land or they hit their first five land drops. Also, the deck is somewhat vulnerable to spot removal and extremely vulnerable to sweepers. Deafening Clarion will routinely be a three for one (or worse), as will Ritual of Soot. It’s hard to outrace a three or four mana sweeper that kills all of your guys.
In the latest 5-0 deck release, the White Weenie representative has dropped the Gird for Battle and gone up to 19 plains: https://www.mtggoldfish.com/deck/1454707#paper
The natural evolution of aggro decks is to get slightly bigger over time, as exemplified in the next deck. This is exactly what a Mono Blue pilot likes to see.
The Boros Weenie deck that 8-0’ed the MOCS has been popping up a lot in the competitive leagues lately. It is still very aggressive, but it’s undeniably more consistent and balanced than the all in deck discussed above: https://www.mtggoldfish.com/deck/1444555#paper
3 Legion’s Landing
4 Dauntless Bodyguard
3 Healer’s Hawk
4 Skymarcher Aspirant
4 Adanto Vanguard
4 Knight of Grace
4 Benalish Marshal
4 History of Benalia
4 Heroic Reinforcements
3 Conclave Tribunal
4 Clifftop Retreat
4 Sacred Foundry
Where the other deck was looking to curve 1 into 1 + 1 into 1 + 2 or 1 + 1 + 1, this deck is content to curve 1 into 2 into 3. It features more individually powerful cards and it even has a little bit of interaction. This deck will not lose to itself nearly as often as the 18 plains deck will. It holds up better after a Deafening Clarion. It also has a much harder time running Mono Blue Tempo out of the building.
I believe the key difference is that Mono Blue Tempo is much more comfortable facing one spell per turn than two. Even if that one spell is better than the two spells. Mono Blue Tempo actively wants to deal with threats one card at a time. It doesn’t really have the capacity to deal with multiple threats at once. It also tends to spend a similar amount of mana to deal with a threat regardless of what it is. Teferi and Gird for Battle both eat a single Spell Pierce.
You sometimes hear sports commentators talk about how an attacking team “asks questions of the defense.” If you ask Mono Blue Tempo questions one at a time, in an orderly fashion, it has a good shot at coming up with the right answers. Even the really tough questions. On the other hand, if you can put it into the lightning round and start firing questions left and right then it can flub some easy ones.
There’s a similar dynamic with mono red aggro. Go low to the ground and start attacking the life total on turn one and on the Mono Blue Tempo side of things I’ll start figuring out where I’m going to go eat lunch after the loss. Go Big Red and try to win with four and five drops and I’m at least in the game. The red matchup is of course worse overall because of the cheap removal that lines up well with Team Blue.
I know that the plural of anecdote is not data. I don’t offer this specific game as proof that this is a good matchup. However, the discussion above is pretty abstract. I think it helps to have a more concrete example to illustrate what I’m talking about. For what it’s worth, in my experience this game is a fair representation of how it feels to pilot Mono Blue Tempo against mid-sized aggro when you both have good hands.
This is game one of a three game match in a competitive standard league. I am on my usual list. I lost the die roll and am on the draw:
I keep seven: Island, Island, Island, Trickster, Trickster, Djinn, Spell Pierce
Not an exciting hand, but I’m not going to mulligan a three lander. Especially if it has Tempest Djinn.
Opponent mulligans to six and leaves a card on top.
Opp T1: plays Plains, casts Skymarcher Aspirant
This gives me a sinking feeling. My initial thought is that I’m up against the eighteen plains deck with no one drop of my own. I do take some comfort in the Tricksters.
My T1: draw Curious Obsession, play Island
This really puts to the test the idea that you’re always happy to draw Curious Obsession. The good news is that now if I’m able to stabilize then the Obsession makes sure I can pull away. The bad news is that I can’t play anything on turn one.
Opp T2: plays Clifftop Retreat, casts Adanto Vanguard; attacks for 2
My T2: draw Merfolk Trickster, play Island
I am very thankful not to see the dreaded double one drop play on turn two. With multiple Tricksters in hand I’m not worried about the Vanguard.
Opp T3: plays Plains, casts Benalish Marshal, attacks with the team; I flash in Trickster and trade with the Vanguard
For those of you scoring at home, the Trickster blanks the Vanguard’s abilities. This includes the pump from being on the attack and the ability to make itself indestructible (if the opponent pays four life before the trigger resolves then the trickster also wipes out the indestructibility). The pump from the Benalish Marshal sticks around and makes the Vanguard into a vanilla 2/2 that trades with the Trickster. The Aspirant gets in for 3, making the life total score 15-20.
Opponent has two cards in hand, with three lands, Benalish marshal, and Skymarcher Aspirant in play.
I have two islands in play. My hand is Merfolk Trickster, Merfolk Trickster, Tempest Djinn, Curious Obsession, Spell Pierce, Island.
My T3: draw Siren Stormtamer, play Island
Opp T4: plays Clifftop retreat, casts Knight of Grace; precombat I flash in trickster and tap marshal, he passes with no attacks.
To me this is a pretty clear indicator that the opponent has a Benalish Marshal or Heroic Reinforcements in hand. If he’s holding blanks then the natural move is to attack with the Skymarcher to clear the board for his big guys to get in next turn. Keeping the Skymarcher back makes sense if he’s holding a pump effect that will let the Skymarcher attack through a Trickster. He probably would have played the Marshal if he had it, so I’m expecting (hoping for) Heroic Reinforcements next turn.
A mono white deck might be holding Pride of Conquerors, but Boros usually doesn’t run that card.
My T4: draw Dive Down, pass
Opp T5: plays Mountain, casts Heroic Reinforcements; I Spell Pierce; precombat Merfolk Trickster taps Benalish Marshal; he sends Knight of Grace into the red zone; I double block so it trades with one trickster.
I don’t love the attack there. I suspect the opponent didn’t appreciate how much trouble I would have blocking the Knight of Grace as a 3/3. On the other hand, by trading off it does set the Benalish Marshal up for an attack next turn.
Opponent is now hellbent with Marshal, Skymarcher Aspirant, and five lands; I have trickster and three islands in play with djinn, obsession, stormtamer, and dive down in hand. Life total is 15-20.
My T5: draw Warkite Marauder, play Djinn
I don’t want the Marshal getting into the red zone and chipping away at my life total. I’m hoping to fade a draw step here. The Boros Weenie decks are usually very light on removal, and I’m a little worried that if the game drags on the opponent can chain Marshals, histories, and four drops to put me in trouble. If the opponent does draw removal right away it isn’t great, but I can still salvage things. If the opponent draws a land or a little creature then I should be golden. I just really don’t want the opponent to draw Heroic Reinforcements.
Opp T6: casts Heroic Reinforcements, attacks with Benalish Marshal, Skymarcher Aspirant, and two tokens; Merfolk Trickster chumps Marshal and Tempest Djinn eats a token; I take seven going to 8.
My T6: draw Wizard’s Retort, play Stormtamer
The Heroic Reinforcements means that I have to abandon the dream of suiting up Tempest Djinn and getting in while my little guys sit back and block. Fortunately, keeping the Tempest Djinn on defense means that my opponent doesn’t have good attacks. The Retort offers some security against any future heroics.
Opp T7: draw, go
My T7: draw Wizard’s Retort, put Curious Obsession on Stormtamer, attack, draw island; play island
From this point I was firmly in control of the game. The opponent didn’t resolve another spell while I gradually built up a larger and larger attacking force.
Obviously my hand was quite good. I want as many tricksters as I can get against aggro, one Djinn was exactly what I needed to fortify my defenses, Spell Pierce was clutch, and Curious Obsession sealed the deal at the end. On the other hand, the opponent was on the play and after going to six they got pretty much what they would have asked for out of their deck: a one drop, two two drops, Benalish Marshal, and two Heroic Reinforcements, all coming down on time with no mana problems. The opponent didn’t make any blatant misplays. And the opponent never really came close to winning.
I’m pretty sure that if you gave the 18 plains deck a six card hand as good for it as this hand was for the Boros aggro deck then I would have been run over. What’s the difference? Well, look again at what the Boros player was doing. If you notice, they only ever cast one spell per turn. It’s very hard to beat Mono Blue with one spell per turn.
I think you can generalize this to other deck types to some extent. It might not always be two threats. It might be a threat plus an answer. Or a sweeper plus a counterspell. However you’re doing it, if you want to thump Mono Blue then you really want to be double spelling as quickly as possible.
Conversely, I think this game shows how there’s more to piloting Mono Blue than just slamming Curious Obsession ASAP. You don’t need to make any sick reads or leaps of genius. You just have to recognize you’re on the defensive and then try to line up one for one trades and spoil your opponent’s attacks. Eventually the goal is to start connecting with either an Obsession or a Djinn, but you don’t have to be in a hurry to turn your guys sideways. Just ride out the initial onslaught and you should get a chance to turn things around.
Unless you see Gird for Battle. Then you’re in trouble.