Deck Spotlight: Mono-Blue Tempo

Since writing this article, Turjo AKA xcblaze used this list to take himself to Top 1000 Mythic on Arena. This deck may not receive the fanfare it did pre-WAR but it is certainly still viable. Better yet, it is the cheapest tier deck in Standard currently. Today Turjo presents his build, his reasoning, and advice to succeed with Mono-Blue Tempo.

Lands (20)
20 Island
Creatures (19)
1 Pteramander
4 Siren Stormtamer
4 Merfolk Trickster
1 Warkite Marauder
4 Surge Mare
4 Tempest Djinn
1 God-Eternal Kefnet
Spells (21)
4 Curious Obsession
4 Opt
3 Dive Down
4 Spell Pierce
2 Essence Capture
4 Wizard’s Retort
Sideboard (15)
3 Deep Freeze
1 Disdainful Stroke
2 Exclusion Mage
2 Entrancing Melody
1 Narset, Parter of Veils
1 Narset’s Reversal
4 Negate
1 Jace, Wielder of Mysteries
75 Cards Total

I of course do not claim to have singlehandedly pioneered the Mono-Blue Tempo strategy in Standard. There have been many variations of this deck from the time Curious Obsession and Tempest Djinn have been in standard. This particular list, however, with 4 Surge Mare and a God-Eternal Kefnet in the main deck, is my baby. A brief introduction to the deck: this is a mono-blue deck that tries to end the game reasonably quickly by attacking with mostly fliers. It protects its threats with countermagic, has ways to tap or block enemy ground attackers, and closes games well. Either by accruing card advantage with Curious Obsession, which finds more countermagic and more disruption, or by hitting someone really hard a couple of times with a massive Tempest Djinn.

This is a textbook example of a tempo deck, one that tries to win by playing on the offensive and keeping the opposing deck off balance long enough to finish them off. This primarily involves efficient trades of mana and keeping the appropriate answers flowing with card draw from Curious Obsession and Opt. While the deck certainly can play longer games, where it shines is on the offensive, with countermagic and other disruption holding down the fort.

Stock lists for Mono-Blue Tempo often involve some number of Pteramanders and Mist-Cloaked Heralds, alongside the Siren Stormtamers in the one drop slot. This is to make the one two punch of turn one unblockable threat, turn two Curious Obsession as likely as possible. If that combo is also backed up by a Spell Pierce or a Dive Down in order to protect the little card drawing monster, the game will often just end. All of the opponent’s relevant spells will be countered, and they will neither be able to race nor answer the early pressure.

I have personally eschewed this strategy in favour of a more rounded game plan. The reasoning behind this was simple. Often, you don’t get to assemble Voltron on turn two. The opponent might have a Shock. The opponent might be on the play and have access to other removal spells or discard. Sometimes, you simply won’t draw Curious Obsession. In all of these cases, a one mana one/one with evasion is simply underwhelming.

Furthermore, Mist Cloaked Herald is extremely underwhelming at later points in the game. By contrast, Pteramander has the potential to become a massive, hard-hitting threat and Siren Stormtamer double-times as protection from discard, burn spells, and removal while making Wizard’s Retort into Counterspell.

Very well, no Mist Cloaked Herald for me. Why the only one Pteramander? Do I not want to play an attacker on turn one? Of course I do. Allow me to play six Siren Stormtamers, and I happily will. In fact, several iterations of this deck I tested had significantly more Pteramander. The issue with Pteramander is how aggressive it is. As a one mana one/one with flying, it really just wants to attack, but by itself, those stats are underwhelming. To take full advantage of multiple Pteramanders being a central part of your game plan, you’ll need to be able to fill the graveyard with instants and sorceries quite quickly. The itty bitty sally mander can also get Shocked or Lightning Struck or Tyrant’s Scorned or Angrath’s Rampaged into oblivion before you have the mana to make him a real drake, and unlike Siren Stormtamer does not protect itself on turn two with Wizard’s Retort.

Pteramander is a card that is low impact in the early game, but can get in for chip damage or trade with x/1s. Its power comes from being an early drop that can attack and carry a Curious Obsession well. It flies, so it is almost never being blocked early on. It is an aggressive card that becomes much more powerful later on in the game. While this flexibility is powerful, it does not come up as often as one would like. The mana requirement for adapting is very steep until at least turns five and six. Stormtamer, by contrast, can always protect us from burn and targeted discard, and act as another set of Dive Down’s for our Curiously Obsessed creatures or Tempest Djinns.

But this is not a deck that aims to count down from 20 life as quickly as possible. It wants to pressure, pressure and keep the opponent off balance, then keep going and win before the opponent can really get their sea legs under them. As such, just turning creatures sideways is not always the best plan of action. A deck going Ghitu Lavarunner, Viashino Pyromancer, Goblin Chainwhirler will care about Pteramander on turn one about as much as the fossil fuel industry cares about human-driven climate change. Drawing multiple Pteramanders early on in matchups where the opponent exerts more pressure than us or can stop the chip damage reasonably easily is really bad.

Four one drops is a little too few for my liking in Game 1, where I do want to be on the proactive plan and if possible get an early Curious Obsession going, but because I almost never wanted multiples of Pteramander and didn’t at all want Mist Cloaked Herald, I ended up at one li’l Terry. In order to get around problematic cards like Kraul Harpooner, Kitesail Freebooter, Rekindling Phoenix, God-Eternal Kefnet and Niv Mizzet, Parun, there’s a Warkite Marauder in the list, but I would not fault anyone for wanting to play another Pteramander in this slot. I personally like all-in aggression from this list a little less, and hence opt for the card that can apply pressure while dealing with some of the more problematic cards for this deck.

This removes some of the pressure to play a lot of instants and sorceries, allowing us to play more creature-based threats. God-Eternal Kefnet usually dominates the board when he comes down, but he is a little expensive, and in this list, has very few cards to copy, hence the one of. Between him, a Terry and four Tempest Djinn, there are six very hard hitters in the mid-lategame that give this deck a bigger punch than lists composed of cards like Ghitu Lavarunner and Viashino Pyromancer.

Let us take a brief moment here to talk about the way I constructed this deck. Conventional wisdom dictates having as few one or two-ofs as possible to improve consistency. But that consistency refers to the consistency of drawing specific cards; consistency does not have to consist of drawing a particular set of cards every game. For instance, I have one Pteramander, one Kefnet, four Tempest Djinn currently listed; this comprises six cards I can draw that will have above four power past turn five or so. I have one Warkite Marauder, four Merfolk Trickster as ways to deal with things on the board that I might not be otherwise able to fight through. I have one Pteramander and four Siren Stormtamers as one drops that might carry an Obsession turn two.

Though there are multiple one ofs in this list, the one ofs each perform several different, important functions, meaning they add to the consistency with which any of those individual roles can be performed by this deck, even though the actual cards drawn might vary. “You only have one Warkite Marauder, you’re very unlikely to draw it” is a true statement, but not one that detracts from its presence in this deck; in cases where a Rekindling Phoenix must be answered, drawing Warkite Marauder or Merfolk Trickster will do the job; in cases where a flier is required to carry an Obsession or deal a few points of extra damage, the Marauder joins with all the other fliers in the deck to be a viable choice for that exact circumstance. I could for that same reason see some other flexible card occupy this slot.

Having flexible cards that fulfill various niches, then, if carefully curated, will not result in an inconsistent deck. It will result in a deck that draws different combinations of cards, but is able to do a greater variety of things more consistently with any of those combinations than a deck that relies on drawing particular copies of an exact card. Think Chord of Calling or Birthing Pod toolbox decks, or control decks constructed by Adrian Sullivan. While this Mono-Blue Tempo list is certainly not a deck composed of singletons that fit into a tutorable toolkit, it does not strictly adhere to the “four ofs only please, and maybe a couple threes” rule either.

Let us wrap up our discussion of the maindeck by talking about the card choices not heretofore discussed. Curious Obsession is probably the most powerful card in the deck, allowing it to continue finding pressure and disruption. Without it, the mono-blue deck can peter out and fizzle, unable to deal the last points of damage or stop the opponent from finally enacting their own game plan. It is a cheap way to accrue repeated card advantage and deal extra damage, and as such can be thought of as one of the linchpin cards of the deck.

Tempest Djinn is big. He flies. He hurts. He defends against little ones very well too. He does not die to Shock or Lightning Strike. He is a cheaply-costed card that is good when played on curve and becomes significantly stronger as the game goes on, at the measly cost of playing lands. Being able to convert lands, extra copies of which offer no utility past a certain point, into some other resource has always been an extremely powerful effect in Magic, and this is no different. Tempest Djinn can often end the game in one or two attack steps later on in the game, and I have never sided them out.

To tackle one of the primary unconventional choices made in this deck – the four Surge Mare. This card is singlehandedly responsible for taking the Mono-Red aggro matchup from difficult to favourable. It blocks Jadelight Rangers, Gruul Spellbreakers, Adanto Vanguards and just about every commonly played one-three drop creature. It locks down the ground while our fliers do their work, and it actively eats anything less than a two/three. Even in situations where its blocking skills are not called for, such as Control, it can turn into a hard hitting threat that helps us churn through our deck to find the cards we want most and chuck the less important ones.

Surge Mare is almost impossible to kill early on with targeted removal other than Tyrant’s Scorn. Shock, Lightning Strike, Lava Coil fail miserably or require other burn spells or a combat step, in the absence of Spell Pierce and Dive Down. It is quite difficult to block if it gets a Curious Obsession, and can act as a removal spell even against bigger creatures in conjunction with Dive Down and mana. It is a two mana card that provides powerful early defensive capabilities, while turning into a threat to be reckoned with that also offers utility in the mid-late game. That kind of growth is not something to be turned away lightly, and features heavily across several cards in this deck. Rightfully so, your cards becoming stronger and more valuable without you having to actively do much to make it that way is a very sweet deal and one you should always be happy to take. If your opponent is forced to Vraska’s Contempt your two mana 0/five, you’re doing something right.

Surge Mare has been a staple of mono-blue sideboards, primarily because of the red matchup. I think people are sleeping on this card, however, and should definitely be maindecking it. It just does too much for a low, low cost. You can always swap it out for cards more streamlined to the matchup in games where it’ll just be fine but not phenomenal. Negate does a better job than it against control and combo, for instance, but its versatility has made it an easy maindeck inclusion for me.

Merfolk Trickster is the other powerful two drop that joins Surge Mare as a playset. It can be flashed in, often making it immune to sorcery speed removal; once you untap with a threat in this deck, it proves quite difficult to kill. It carries a Curious Obsession really well on turn three by tapping down whatever would have blocked it when it came into play. It turns Wizard’s Retort into counterspell and it helps push through damage or helps us race by buying us time to avoid damage. By shutting down all abilities, it can make Rekindling Phoenixes killable, Steel Leafs blockable, Judith a bad three mana two/two, Enigma Drake into an 0/four; the list goes on. Like Surge Mare, the Trickster does several different things well for a low mana cost, making it an easy maindeck inclusion.

One of this deck’s prime advantages is its mostly low-cost spells. This allows for a low land count, increasing spell density and decreasing the risk of flooding. What little risk remains of being flooded can be further mitigated with Surge Mare and Curious Obsession. What risk remains of being screwed is dealt with by Opt.

I cannot stress enough the vital role of the four Opt. Being able to find lands or spells as needed at instant speed for one mana is powerful at every stage in the game. Without four Opt, the deck loses its capacity to consistently go threat, protection, countermagic, and to do so without mana issues. If I could play six of these, I probably would. Cantrips like these for lean decks that want to function as smoothly as this one, with no clunky spells and several different components it wants to assemble, are very, very powerful. Opt helps us find what we need it to find, allows us to play as few as two0 lands in a deck that does want to consistently go up to at least four lands, can be cast in place of countermagic if the countermagic was not required on a particular turn, and in general is an important ingredient of the glue that holds it all together.

Four Spell Pierce and three Dive Down protect our threats, with Spell Pierce being in greater quantity because it has more versatile application and will almost always trade up in mana. While I could see only two Dive Down be played in favour of something else for certain metas, I have found the extra toughness and hexproof to be extremely strong and versatile. Extra toughness can help our creatures survive combat and hexproof is, well, hexproof and negates so many different effects it would take an article to list them all.

Two Essence Capture and four Wizard’s Retort round out the crew, offering us more protection from whatever our opponents might be doing. Depending on the meta, I could endorse differing numbers of Essence Capture, though its narrowness means I am not too inclined to play too many more of it; Wizard’s Retort is okay as Cancel in several situations, and amazing as Counterspell in almost any situation. This list does not really have a way to permanently deal with resolved creatures in Game 1, making the additional countermagic against creatures very very important. Spell Pierce is a four-of because removal spells and planeswalkers are noncreature; but because this list is running four Spell Pierce main, the Negates are all in the sideboard.

The sideboard is where we either deal with things that are difficult for us to deal with in the main or where we streamline or add to answers that we already had in the main. In particular, four Negates in place of the four Surge Mares to start with, for instance, when sideboarding against Grixis control.

Disdainful Stroke and Narset’s Reversal add to the four Negates to form a powerful countermagic package against all things midrange and control. three Deep Freeze serve to neutralize problematic creatures like the ones mentioned above, while two Exclusion Mage and two Entrancing Melody either help do the same or stabilize effectively against lower-curve creature-based strategies.

Jace, Wielder of Mysteries and Narset, Parter of Veils are additional ways to gain card advantage in games where we are unlikely to be pressured by the opponent early. Narset, in particular, is fantastic against decks playing cards like Discovery, Growth Spiral, Opt, Hydroid Krasis, and so on. When she is good, she is so good that playing multiple copies of her in the side is not an unworthy idea.

Naturally, none of this is fixed. That is not the nature of sideboards. Sideboards shift and change as the decks you expect to face change. You might want more Disdainful Strokes because you’re facing all the Phoenixes and Nicol Bolases. You might want to try Ashiok, Kasmina, a second Narset, a second Jace, or Jace, Cunning Castaway. You might not want Entrancing Melody at all. However, stealing Krasis and big Wildgrowth Walkers is massive fun, and tokens cost only two to Control Magic, and by default the card is a two for one because you are dealing with one of their threats and deploying one of your own with the same move. Try what you like best and what does the most work for you across the matchups that you feel yourself being weakest to.

While these numbers are not set in stone, I do think they provide a good idea of the vicinity the best balanced Mono-Blue Tempo decks should find themselves in for the current format. With this deck, you have the tools to fight through anything; put the reps in, figure out what combinations work best against what lists. As you become a better pilot and sideboarder, this deck will reward you with much higher win percentages for knowing your cards inside out and stringing together an intricate plan of action. It is always worth taking the time to analyze your mistakes, identify optimal lines of play, and in general learn to make the best possible decisions for any given game state. This is especially so with this deck; it rewards finding tight lines of play very strongly, and gives you the tools you need to find winning lines against anything you face. You will find your win percentage going significantly higher if you continue to ask yourself what you could have done or how a different set of plays might have changed the outcome. You do not only play your own hand and the current board; you also play the top of your deck, your opponent’s hand, and your opponent.

We do hope that you enjoyed this write-up and will give the deck a shot. There are months of Standard still to go and at under $100 you can do no better than Mono-Blue Tempo. Why do you think Mono-Blue is getting little attention at the moment? Do you have any secret tech to put it back on top? Come share it with us in our discussion group. Or if you would like to take a swing at writing content for the site you can contact us directly here. We will be back tomorrow with an article on post-Horizons Modern Slivers. Until then my friends.

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