The Rule of Five
Sitting on my couch with my fiance (sorry ladies) reluctantly watching Real Housewives I decided to grab my laptop and play a few casual Magic Online duels until Top Chef came on. To my surprise, my fiance actually wanted to watch me play. I started a random game and began to duel. Believe it or not, she actually knows how to play Magic, but after watching the screen for a couple of minutes she said, "It's too fast, I can't tell what's going on." Less than thirty seconds later, the game was over and she commented with, "Thats it?" (Insert "That's what she said.." joke here) To us, it's just another day in the MTGO tournament practice room but to a more casual outside observer, Magic the Gathering is a mind-numbingly fast paced game. Whether this speed is bad or good isn't the point of this article. But if you hope to compete, you must remain keenly aware of the pace of the game at all times.
The number of turns in any game is of critical importance. Imagine if football had five quarters.. or three? When would you go for the two point conversion? What if baseball had 15 innings? How would that affect your pitching rotation? Sports teams are built and managed with an eye on the clock. So too should your Magic deck. Of course the average number of turns in a standard game of Magic has fluctuated over the years but that should be even more reason to understand the current meta's specific timing.
We could go back and fourth in perpetuity trying to establish an acceptable "average number of turns" for a game of Magic but I propose a more versatile rule to hold on to: The Rule of Five. Five turns is the gold standard in Magic the Gathering today for several reasons:
5 turns is the speed at which 20 aggro damage can be dealt, uninhibited. I can already hear the red wizards out there scoffing at the idea of needing a sluggish five turns to toast my blue wizarding ass. Wizards has done a great job of keeping this number fairly consistent over the years. Mathematically, based on converted mana costs of even the most hasty creatures and spells, it will take about five turns to deal twenty damage. Of course, cards like Fireblast can shave a turn off of the rule but think of it it more as an average number of turns when it comes to damage. If you can kill them in four it's like not having to play the bottom of the ninth in baseball. If it takes you six it's like extra innings. After turn five, you're both on borrowed time and you should play like it. While you will rarely be able to pull off a turn five red-deck-wins burn, it is an important hinge point to consider when building your decks.
5 mana is when the big threats are made and answered. Cantrips and utility spells are part of any balanced deck and you should expect them in any meta. A big turning point in any game is when a player is able to both put out a threat and retain enough mana for an answer. For example, instead of playing Malakir Bloodwhich, a great turn five could be: Vampire Nighthawk, pass the turn, Doom Blade their Baneslayer on their turn and then play Malakir Bloodwhich on your next turn. Playing two spells per untap step can be much more devastating than any bomb. After five mana, you can pretty much expect your threats to be answered if they have the mana. If you don't have an answer to their BSA, the game may not end that turn, but it most likely has been decided on turn five.
5 is the maximum converted mana cost players are willing to pay while risking the counter or immediate destruction. If your opponent plays a bomb for five, and you counter for one, they've pretty much missed their entire turn. Thats risky enough as it is on turn four but after that the game can be won and lost by answers as opposed to threats. When Baneslayer Angel first came out, many Spikeish players turned up their noses and grumbled something about Doom Blades and Path to Exiles. Five mana was too much even for the best 5CMC creature ever printed! Today, players have come around and used BSA as their "main bomb" in several pro-level decks. But even then most players will nervously grit their teeth as that Baneslayer Angel hits the table. Every turn after the fourth can conceivably end the game. Many players aren't willing to tap out that late in the game to play anything that costs more than five mana. Answer me this: Would pro players still play Baneslayer Angel if it cost six mana? Another mathematical aspect to consider is the fact that you may not even draw five lands by turn five. Though the odds are in your favor in a deck with 24 land, each turn's chances of drawing another land goes down exponentially. Particular after turn five.
After 5 turns your hand begins to deplete and luck starts to come into play. Even the most advanced deckbuilders get themselves into topdecking situations. An over-committed board, a missed gamble or a failed combo on turn five can leave you with few or no cards left in your hand. Normally, players utilize their mana ramp and plan on playing something every turn. If you play a land and a card each of those five turns you'll be looking at two cards left in your hand. Hopefully your opponent is in a similar situation, as well. If not, card advantage might have just decided this game. If you're both still alive on turn five, you're probably topdecking, hoping for another bomb. After turn five, luck starts to come in to play more than most spikes are comfortable with.
On turn 5, even if the game isn't over, it's probably over. By the fifth turn, everyone's strategy has become clear and has probably either succeeded or failed. Even if you're talking mill, turbo-fog or discard, the direction of the game is often clear by this point. I challenge you to play a competitive standard match, look back at the game and ask yourself: around which turn did this game hinge? Even delay decks are keenly aware of the five turn rule. They embrace the idea that bombs will be coming around turn five and do everything in their power to stop them.
Number of turns is the main factor that distinguishes between the various formats. Legacy's three or four turn clock as compared to EDH's ten turn clock is pretty much the entire difference between the two formats. In standard, the average number of turns fluctuates with each expansion but always respects the Rule of Five. Lately, the attractiveness of bombs such as Baneslayer Angel, Warp World, and Cruel Ultimatum have taken games into extra innings. But to really understand how they're getting these huge bombs on the table, you need to have a firm grasp on the Rule of Five. Players attempting to play Cruel Ultimatum will almost certainly play a number of turn killing, delay cards such as Marsh Casualties, Earthquake and Counterspells. They fully understand the rule of five and are attempting to bend and break that rule by building an entire deck around the concept of delay.
The turn five rule isn't to say that every game is over on turn five, all the time, no matter what. The rule is simply an answer to the question "how long is a typical game of Magic?" The answer to that question is more important than many novice players realize. It comes into play when building decks, when deciding when to try and swing a combo and when attempting to de-cog your opponent's strategies. Use this rule as a hinge upon which to pace yourself. If you're playing Luminarch Ascension, you still need to understand that a red burn deck has the power to deal twenty damage in five turns. You are the one extending play by casting Angelsong and Safe Passage. And even though the game may drag on for 10 or 11 turns, the Rule of Five has still applied. Your opponent's mana ramp (and probably yours) was built around it and only your knowledge of what to expect is what extended the game.
The point of this article isn't to declare that "5 is the average number of turns in a game of Magic." In fact most of your games probably run a tad longer, in practice. What you should take away here is the fact that most decks are built around doing twenty damage before your opponent does twenty damage to you or- as fast as possible. Five turns simply represents "as fast as possible" and also represents a huge turning point in any given game. Keep this in mind when building decks and while on the battlefield.
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