Today, we’re going to use the Standard match-up of Bant Company vs G/W Tokens to study and discuss two of the most important concepts for analyzing a match up: tempo and lining theory.

    Bant Company is a green/white/blue deck, that leverages its advantages with flexible and efficient creatures. Bant Company is not the fastest deck, but it can frequently overwhelm opponents in the mid-to-late game. G/W Tokens is a green/white deck that leverages its advantage using Planeswalkers. It is also not particularly fast, but it is both very consistent and very powerful. Both of these decks can play defense against aggro or offense against control. Both of these decks rely heavily on Sylvan Advocate, Dromoka's Command and Archangel Avacyn. Both of these decks occupy a similar space in the competitive environment, which is why they are considered the top two decks in Standard right now.

    Despite all their similarities, when the two face off, each is trying to win in a completely different way. Bant Company is trying to use tempo to achieve victory while G/W Tokens is trying to use lining theory. With a clear understanding of tempo and lining theory, we can dissect the match-up and figure out exactly what is important, how each deck will win, who is favored and become more in tune with how Magic works on a fundamental level.

    There are many variations, but for the sake of a clear discussion, I will be referencing the Bant Company and G/W Tokens list that Devin Koepke and I played at the SCG Tour: Columbus stop, respectively. We are both Team Cardhoarder members and I just missed the Top 8 by finishing in 9th place, while Devin won the whole thing with Bant Company.

Bant Company by Devin Koepke


G/W Tokens by Andrew Boswell

Tempo and Lining Theory Explained

    I would like to define ‘tempo’ in the following manner: deploying a greater quantity of effective spells compared to your opponent. Simply put, you are trying to get ahead on an imaginary, multi-turn Storm count, one which only counts spells that impact the board. This is a core concept to win short games. If you know the game will be decided by Turn 6, the player who cast a greater number of relevant spells is always the favorite and the loser will almost always have cards in hand and/or resources which have not yet matured.

    Few cards in Magic's history embody the idea of tempo more than Reflector Mage. As a 2/3 body, Reflector Mage is about the same size as other three-mana plays. If your opponent is curving two-drop into three-drop but you are curving two-drop into Reflector Mage, what happens? You will bounce your opponent's three-drop and have a huge on-board advantage. The board will look as if your opponent chose to do nothing on his/her Turn 3. It will be your two spells, costing five mana against your opponent's one spell, costing two mana. Now, as we all know, Magic is a bit more complicated than this, but it frequently can be distilled down to the following, "How many spells were cast and was all mana used every turn?" Reflector Mage embodies tempo because it lowers your opponent's spell count while building your own.

    I would like to define Lining Theory as the following: Imagine taking your deck and your opponent's, flipping them both face up and then lining up all the cards to figure out how they might face off. Simply put, you are trying to develop a theory about how things will line up. This is a core concept to understand long games because as a game goes longer, you approach that imaginary scenario where you flipped the two decks face up. An understanding of Lining Theory can inform your deck design and your play.

    My favorite example of Lining Theory was taught to me by the great Ian Duke. At one time, Ian, Reid and I played a Jund deck with six creatures that had “Protection from White.” The U/W Control decks at the time had only white removal spells and white creatures. Their only way of answering our Pro-White threats was with sweepers, like Day of Judgement. The control decks only played five sweepers, which meant if our team only deployed one Pro-White creatures at a time, it would be impossible for our control opponent to answer them all. This completely changed how we played the deck. Originally, we would rush our control opponent and hope that we could rebuild post-sweeper. With the six Pro-White creatures, we could win a slower, longer game. While our control opponent could draw more cards, they were never the correct cards. There were only five sweepers to line up against our six pro-white threats and that was a huge advantage for us.

Jund by Ian Duke, Reid Duke, & Andrew Boswell

Tempo in Bant Company vs G/W Tokens

    When these two decks face off, tempo is the most important concept during the early game. The earliest way to gain a game-winning advantage is simply to cast more spells than your opponent. If you can get ahead on spell count, it frequently opens up opportunities and can cause the game to snowball in your favor. Let us imagine a game playing out in the following manner:

Bant Company on the Play:

T2: Sylvan Advocate

T3: Reflector Mage (Bouncing opponent's Sylvan Advocate)

T4: Collected Company (putting Tireless Tracker and Thalia, Heretic Cathar into play)

G/W Tokens on the Draw:

T2: Sylvan Advocate

T3: Nissa, Voice of Zendikar, (Making a 0/1 Plant)

T4: Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, (Making a 0/1 Plant and 2/2 Knight)

Each player is using all their mana to play some of the best cards they have access to, but the Bant Company player can get way ahead on tempo and acquire very real advantages because of it. Despite each player playing a Sylvan Advocate on their second turn, the Bant Company player gets to bounce his opponent's and attack for free on Turn 3. The G/W Tokens player can make a plant with Nissa, Voice of Zendikar, but on Turn 4, the Bant Company player can attack with his Advocate and Reflector Mage, forcing the plant to chump block and push two damage into Nissa. Let’s say that on Turn 4, the Bant Company player casts Collected Company on his pre-combat main phase. This would mean the tokens from Nissa and Gideon would both come into play tapped, which in turn means that on Turn 5, the Bant Company player could kill Nissa with Thalia, Heretic Cathar, kill Gideon with Advocate plus Mage, and push his Tireless Tracker into his opponent for another three damage. Without the Bant Company player casting any additional spells on Turn 5 we would have a board state that would look like the following:

Bant Company’s side of the board:

Sylvan Advocate

Reflector Mage

Tireless Tracker

Thalia, Heretic Cathar

20 Life

= Effective Spell Count of 4

G/W Tokens’ side of the board:

0/1 Plant Token (tapped)

2/2 Knight Token (tapped)

15 Life

Nissa and Gideon in the graveyard.

= Effective Spell Count of an estimated 1(?)

    So what exactly happened? Both players had strong plays on Turns 2-4 while also using all the mana they had access to. Given this description, each player should be on equal footing, but as we can see, Bant Company dominates our imagined board state. So often, a description of a game gets put in terms of "My Advocate got bounced and I tried to play defense with my planeswalkers but couldn't get there." I would bring a different perspective to analyzing this game and ask "What did you have access to during combat?" Inside of combat, the Tokens player only had access to a single 0/1 Plant token. Using this metric of "What did you have access to during combat?" slices to the heart of the situation. Bant had such effective tempo plays while the G/W player only had access to a 0/1 Plant despite using all of his/her mana every turn. This shows how tempo can get you ahead in a game, pressure your opponent, and even lead to other advantages. In this case, that other advantage is card advantage. Nissa and Gideon are in the graveyard at little expense to the Bant Company player.

    The Bant deck is designed to get ahead on tempo, but there is a flip side. The G/W Tokens deck has access to some powerful five-mana plays that catch-up on tempo. Let’s go back our imaginary board state. On Turn 5, if the Tokens player can cast a Tragic Arrogance, he/she will be back on equal footing. The same might be said if the Tokens player can cast Archangel Avacyn and a Hangarback Walker for 0.

     The swings are real in this match-up, with the Bant deck using tempo to win the game and the Tokens player using it to try to stay alive. Tempo plays will almost always have some effect in a long game but their power diminishes over time. Once the G/W Tokens deck is able to catch up after falling behind in the early-game, it will use lining theory to win the late-game.

Lining Theory in Bant Company vs G/W Tokens

    As the board starts to lock up and players have an easier time maintaining parity, lining theory becomes the deciding factor. There are many different ways to view how things line up. One method, which I will call the reduction method is to trim away everything that is mirrored in each deck list. If we do this, rather than having full sixty card decklists, we are left with the following:

Bant Company

4 Selfless Spirit

3 Duskwatch Recruiter

4 Reflector Mage

4 Spell Queller

3 Thalia, Heretic Cathar

3 Tireless Tracker

4 Collected Company

G/W Tokens

4 Oath of Nissa

4 Hangarback Walker

3 Noose Constrictor

4 Nissa, Voice of Zendikar

1 Nissa, Vastwood Seer

4 Gideon, Ally of Zendikar

2 Archangel Avacyn

1 Angelic Purge

2 Tragic Arrogance

    This simplified perspective isn't without flaws, but is still a valuable tool. In this match-up, creatures on the ground will start to bounce of each other in the mid-game and attacking in the air is Bant Company's last lane of attack. Cards which impact the air battle are the following:

Bant Company:

4 Selfless Spirit

4 Spell Queller

= 8

G/W Tokens:

3 Noose Constrictor

1 Angelic Purge

2 Archangel Avacyn

2 Tragic Arrogance

= 8

    

While each has access to eight cards that impact the air battle, there are some notable difference. First, a single Noose Constrictor, Arachangel Avacyn, or Tragic Arrogance can blunt the entirety of Bant Company’s air force. If the Bant Company player can line up his/her four Spell Quellers to counter the three Noose Constrictors and one Angelic Purge, the Bant player can gain a slight advantage. That is, until the Tokens player draws an Archangel Avacyn or Tragic Arrogance and then things become very bad for the Bant player.

    If G/W Tokens is able to lock up the ground and air, the next thing to line up are cards which profit in a board stall. The cards that can generate this value are:

Bant Company:

3 Duskwatch Recruiter

3 Tireless Tracker

=6

G/W Tokens:

4 Hangarback Walker

4 Nissa, Voice of Zendikar

1 Nissa, Vastwood Seer

4 Gideon, Ally of Zendikar

= 13

    Here we see that the Bant player only has access to six ways to profit in a board stall against the Green/White player's thirteen. Also worth noting, the Bant company player needs to sink significant amounts of mana into its cards to generate value, while the G/W cards generate value much more efficiently. Not only does G/W Tokens have access to more sources of value, but its sources are more efficient.

Closing Thoughts

    While I did not cover every detail, I do believe I made a few things clear. Bant Company is effective at using tempo to pull ahead in the early-game. G/W Tokens has some ways of using tempo to catch up in the mid-game. Given how the cards line-up, G/W Tokens is likely to dominate the end-game. These ideas of tempo and lining theory can and should be applied to every match up. They are the cornerstones of my perspective and my success. When deliberating tempo, my favorite question to ask is "What did each player have access to during combat?" When deliberating lining theory, my favorite tool is the reduction method. A player can play thousands of games to develop a feel for the match-up, but without a clear understanding of these concepts, much of the detail and nuance will be missed. To quote Bruce Lee, "The successful warrior is the average man, with laser-like focus."  To be a great player, you need to combine practice with a focused study on fundamentals so you can see through the surface of game play.

Good luck and have fun, my friends. May you smite the foes with a golden axe!

- Andrew Boswell

(@KaolinTiger)