The Three Axes to Victory: Tempo, Card Advantage, Combo

In Legends of Runeterra, decks win in one of three ways: through tempo, card advantage, or some combo/alternative win condition.

In Legends of Runeterra, decks win in one of three ways: through tempo, card advantage, or some combo/alternative win condition. For the rest of this article, I will be referring to these three win conditions as “axes” (as in – the plural of “axis”, not Draven’s axes).

While they can operate on more than one axis, all decks attempt to win on their primary axis while outpacing the opponent’s ability to win on their axis or preventing them from doing so entirely.

Understanding the axes your deck plays on is important because it helps you identify your win condition, determine what resources matter (and which do not matter), and ultimately influences what the correct line of play is in a given game state.

Without further adieu, let us explore these axes further.


Tempo

Tempo is a concept that many players – myself included – find difficult to define. The best definition that I have come up with for tempo is describing it as the relationship between your mana and your cards.

Decks that stick to their mana curve and rarely burn mana are said to be mana efficient or high-tempo. Examples of such decks include most aggro decks (Discard Aggro, Azir Darius Burn, Spider Aggro, etc.), Overwhelm, Thresh Nasus, and Ashe LeBlanc.

Tempo is the axis that board-based decks operate on, and so it is the axis that most decks in LoR use as their main win condition. These decks aim to place our threats on the field efficiently, protect them with cheap combat tricks, and use those threats to chip away at the opponent’s Nexus health.

Tempo decks often have a pretty low mana curve (with the most expensive cards costing no more than 7 mana) and aim to win the game relatively quickly. Also, these decks are often willing to sacrifice some Nexus health if it means that they can create a board the opponent cannot deal with.


Card Advantage

Card advantage refers to how your cards trade for other cards.

Many cards have the ability to trade for more cards of your own – or for more of your opponent’s cards. For example, when you cast Whispered Words, you trade this spell (-1 card) for two draws (+2 cards), meaning that you have gone net +1 (-1 + 2 = 1) in card economy. Another example is how casting Withering Wail (-1) to clear an enemy board of Legion Saboteur, a Precious Pet, and a Stygian Onlooker (+3) is a net +2 (-1 + 3 = 2) in card economy. Both of these plays gave you card advantage.

Note that card advantage can also be gained in combat. Any time you kill an enemy unit in combat and your unit survives, you have gone +1 in card economy, whereas if both you and your enemy’s unit die in combat, you have broken even in card economy instead. For example, a Brutal Hunter that challenges and kills a Zoe has gone +1 in card economy, whereas a Merciless Hunter that killed Puffcap Peddler has gone even in card economy.

Card advantage matters because if you have more cards than your opponent, you generally have more options available at your disposal than your opponent does.

For instance, say you are playing Zoe Vi against Spider Aggro. You have nine cards in hand and a leveled Vi on the field, while your opponent has no cards in hand and on the field and is relying on topdecks. Even if they will topdeck a Legion Saboteur – we will trade 1-for-1 with it using our Mystic Shot. After that, we will still have close to a full hand of cards to work with, while they will be out of options again. This is an extreme scenario I’ve described, but it illustrates that having more cards at your disposal than the opponent generally puts you in an advantageous position. This the reason why, for example, Ashe LeBlanc runs Trifarian Assessor.

Decks that win on card advantage are often quite slow and attempt to answer opposing threats, then capitalize on the opponent’s inability to deal with the card advantage they have generated once those threats have been nullified. They also often have access to healing, which allows them to tank early damage and creates opportunities to maximize their card advantage generation abilities (such as with an engine like Aphelios, AoE removal, and board wipes like The Ruination) without having to worry about their Nexus health. 

While many decks play on the card advantage axis to some degree, very few decks in LoR actually win on it. The most notable decks that are capable of winning on card advantage alone are Invoke-centric Targon strategies (such as Zoe Vi, Zoe Karma, or Karma Lee Sin) and Thresh Karma (also known as Spooky Karma).

Other decks that start off playing for card advantage end up pivoting to the tempo (e.g. Draven Ezreal) or combo (e.g. Trundle Lissandra) axis at some point in the game. This is because card advantage does not take into account card quality or the mana needed to cast and leverage your cards; in other words, card advantage does not matter if the player cannot use it to close out the game.


Combo

Some decks do not operate on the tempo or card advantage as their primary axes, and instead, win through an OTK (one-turn kill) combo or an alternative win condition. Examples of these decks include combo-oriented variants of Zoe Lee Sin, All-in Fiora, and Trundle Lissandra (when it goes for Spectral Matron -> Watcher). 

Decks that win on the combo axis often aim to interact with the opponent as little as possible and possess counterspells (e.g. Deny, Nopeify!, and Rite of Negation) or “pseudo-counterspells” (e.g. Glimpse Beyond, Spirit Journey, Noxian Fervor, etc. – cards that can reactively punish removal) to stifle their opponent’s ability to stop their combo.

Additionally, they tend to prioritize survival, caring about tempo only to that degree – they need to find and play their combo pieces in a timely manner.

For example, Zoe Lee Sin tends to stabilize in the early game with repeated Eye of the Dragon procs while drawing cards with Deep Meditation, Guiding Touch, Pale Cascade, The Messenger (created off of Zoe’s Supercool Starchart/The Fangs), and Shadow Assassin. Aggressively digging through the deck maximizes the deck’s odds of finding a Lee Sin and a way to give him Overwhelm (Zenith Blade or Gifts from Beyond -> Infernum).

Trundle Lissandra does something similar: it stabilizes in the early and mid-game by clearing the opponent’s board with a variety of removal options, but also wants to tutor its combo pieces with Babbling Bjerg (for Spectral Matron) and Entreat (for Lissandra and Trundle) so that it can execute the Matron -> Watcher combo in a timely manner.

Understanding when to shift gears between survival and assembling combo pieces is part of the reason why combo decks are some of the hardest in the game to pilot well, and a single mistake can often be extremely punishing if not outright lose the game on the spot.


Examples

As mentioned in the intro, understanding the axes your deck plays on is important because it helps you identify your win condition, determine what resources matter (and which do not matter), and ultimately influences what the correct line of play is in a given game state.

Just like how misassignment of role = game loss, playing along the wrong axis = game loss. Here are some practical examples:

  • when playing Zoe Lee Sin against Trundle Lissandra, the only thing that matters is winning on the combo axis (i.e. finding a Lee Sin, protecting him, and killing the opponent with a buffed Lee before you die to their Watcher). As a result, survival tools like Eye of the Dragon and Sparklefly would be instant kicks in the mulligan, while cards like Zenith Blade, Deny, and Bastion may be keeps if you already have a Lee Sin. There’s even an argument that Deny and Bastion should be kept regardless of whether or not you have Lee because this is how you push through Vengeance and Flash Freeze.
  • when playing Trundle Lissandra against Thresh Nasus, playing too greedily on the card advantage axis with Avalanche or Blighted Ravine can be fatal, as wiping the board while Thresh is on the field will count towards his level-up progress. As a result, you may have to settle for using your AoE removal early, even if it does not kill as many units as you would like it to.
  • when playing Draven Ezreal against Trundle Lissandra, attempting to win on the card advantage axis with extremely efficient Rummages and Sump Dredgers (i.e. only choosing to discard created cards) can be a mistake, despite it is often correct in other matchups. If you’re aiming for pure card advantage at the cost of sacrificing tempo and not playing the role of the beatdown as effectively as possible, you will reduce your odds of winning the game.
  • when playing the Ashe LeBlanc mirror, it may be wise to allow an attack or two through and tank some damage if it means you can set up a game-winning Trifarian Assessor or a huge attack with a levelled Ashe and multiple freeze effects. With Assessor, you will win on the card advantage axis, while with Ash you will win on the tempo axis (assuming your opponent has a narrow-enough board and their Nexus health is at a range where Ashe will threaten lethal).

Further Reading

The next time you play a game of Legends of Runeterra, think about the axis your deck wins on, and see how you can apply the knowledge presented in this article to your gameplay. If you can do so, your win rate will increase and you will ultimately become a better player.

If you would like to learn more about the concepts presented in this article, I have linked some additional resources below:

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Morppadorp

Angus "Morppadorp" Lam, or simply Morpp for short, grew up playing Yu-Gi-Oh! during his teenage years. While he would eventually lose interest in the game, his love for competitive TCGs and CCGs never truly disappeared. As a writer for RuneterraCCG, Morpp aims to share his knowledge and passion of card games with the rest of the world and help players of all skill levels step up their game. When he's not competing in LoR tournaments, Morpp can usually be seen behind the analyst desk, working towards his Media Production degree, or rooting for his hometown Toronto Raptors.

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