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By: Sabi0, Kyle Lewis
Jun 26 2018 11:00am
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Hello readers, in this Back to Basics installment, we’re going to be finishing up our series on the three pillars of Magic strategy by talking about tempo.

What is Tempo?


Telling Time


Tempo can be difficult to conceptualize, and people’s attempts to define it can have stark contrasts(1). My attempt at doing so would read: tempo is the rate at which you can accomplish strategic objectives. The most common form this takes is spending mana to develop your board in order to kill your opponent.


Keeping Time


Temporal Manipulation


On the first turn of the game you typically have access to one mana; on turn two, up to two; on turn three, up to three etc. If you look at a finished game of Magic, such as a Magic Online replay, you can go back and calculate how much mana both players had access to over the course of the game. Using as much of this mana as effectively as possible lies at the heart of tempo.


People will often talk about tempo decks and tempo cards or plays. Unsummon is the classic tempo card in that for only one mana, you undo some of your opponents development and force them to spend even more mana to get back to where they were. True tempo decks don’t appear in every format; perhaps one of the most pure examples of the archetype is the Delver of Secrets deck which dominated standard back in 2011 and 2012.


Tempo as Not Card Advantage


One of tempo’s defining characteristics is that it’s often at odds with card advantage. Unsummon may be great at slowing your opponent’s development and making their mana situation more awkward, but that application will always result in card disadvantage. One way of conceptualizing tempo’s relationship to card advantage is that they are opposites that need to be balanced according to the needs of the situation. Card advantage is all about accumulating resources, and tempo is all about spending them to win the game. Divination is a great way to get ahead on cards, but it does nothing to develop your board or put your opponent any closer to death; while Unsummon might put you ahead on the board, it leaves you behind on cards.


In another frame of mind, however, this dichotomy is overly simplistic. If a control deck is spending its turn casting Pull from Tomorrow for seven, can you really say that’s wasted tempo if it shuts their opponent out of the game. Similarly, is a mana spent playing Serum Visions a mana wasted if it sets up for a lethal storm combo the following turn? For the time being, let’s not focus on these exceptions. I mention them here in part to highlight that tempo is a somewhat nebulous, complicated, and contested part of Magic theory, and in part to justify my definition of tempo as a rate of accomplishing strategic objectives rather than simply the rate at which you can spend mana or develop your board.


Big Money


Llanowar Elves


Another interesting relationship between card advantage and tempo is: while card advantage generally goes up in value as the game goes on, tempo generally gets worse. On the flip-side, early tempo is incredibly powerful, and any tempo based strategy needs to be carefully managing its resources right from turn one. One way to use tempo to your advantage is to simply have more mana then your opponent. Playing an early Llanowar Elves is an example of such a play. A 1/1 for one mana, isn’t a card worth playing, but a turn one elf is the beginning of a gambit the tempo player hopes to ride to a swift victory. The strength of playing an elf on turn one is that on turn two, the elf player will have three mana to their opponents two, then four to there three, etc. The reason hitting an elf on turn one is so important, is because the aim of the card is to provide a mana advantage which compounds on each of those early turns.


Though if you stretch this thought experiment out, the elf player will always have one more mana on each successive turn, it doesn’t take that long for this advantage to cease to matter. Eventually, both players will have had access to more mana than things they could have spent it on. This is why an elf on turn one is outstanding on turn one, but only mediocre on turn three and disappointing by turn five. Moreover, once the elf player has established their mana advantage, the onus is on them to either win the game outright or covert that mana advantage into some other, less surmountable, advantage.


A Game of Inches




Like card advantage, even if your deck doesn’t revolve around gaining tempo, it will still have a major impact on how the game plays out and is a resource which can be fought over. A common expression of this struggle is how creatures are played and dealt with. For example what’s the cost relationship between two creatures which trade in combat or between a removal spell and its target. If your opponent spends five mana to play a creature, and you spend one mana to kill it with a card like Dismember you have effectively got your opponent for four mana.


While this is a very common form of positive tempo exchange, there is another important point to keep in mind. That four mana you saved is only a victory if you actually did something with it. For example, in the above scenario, if you spent four mana on your turn playing a creature, leaving up one mana on your opponent's turn which you use to kill their five mana creature, you’ve succeed in making a big (possibly game winning) tempo swing. If, however, you didn’t do anything with your mana on your turn, you’ve basically wasted four mana and the exchange is a wash.


This highlights perhaps the most important concept behind tempo which is: spend your mana. If you take nothing else away from the article take away the fact that the player who spends more mana in a game of Magic usually wins, and spending all your mana every turn is good. It can be a worthwhile experiment to play a few games (particularly of limited) and say to yourself, “I’m going to play all my spells on curve.” If you have a choice between a three drop and a four drop on turn four, always play the four drop etc. While this won’t result in 100% correct play, it will result in play that’s right much more often than not. In fact, I would argue that if you are someone who typically doesn’t do this, your win percentage would be better following this method.


I’m obviously not suggesting that the best play is always to cast the most expensive spell you can regardless of what else you could do, but rather to highlight that proper allocation of your mana resources is really really important. (The idea for this experiment comes from Limited Resources episode 335 on Heuristics(2). The whole episode is worth listening too, but I really think this idea in particular cuts to the heart of gaining advantage through tempo and can be of very real value even to someone who’s been playing forever--it was certainly valuable to me).


Addressing a Possible Counterargument


Psychic Rebuttal


I can almost hear the voices of angry control players out there saying, “but muh counterspells. I didn’t grind up to 300 IQ binge watching every season of Rick and Morty just to play all my spells on curve like some Chainwhirler playing casual.”


One of the merits of trying to curve out every turn is to help build understanding of the risk you take by reactivity leaving up removal or a counterspell then not using that mana. If you take a turn off from developing your board to hold up a reactive card, and your opponent doesn’t let you use it, you’ve wasted a full turns worth of mana. Often they will be subject to this same penalty, but if they are already ahead on the board, you may quickly find yourself in a situation where you have to do something or you’ll be dead and lamenting all the wasted mana.


Again, I’m obviously not saying control is unplayable, but control in the modern era of Magic design can’t afford to neglect tempo. Successful standard control decks have ways to spend their mana with instant speed spot removal, cycling cards, and activated abilities. This is a change from “the good old days” when the reactive cards like Counterspell and Swords to Plowshares where so inexpensive. It turns out it’s pretty easy to win on tempo when two mana can stop your opponent from doing anything. Now, we control players are forced to play with the likes of Syncopate while the beatdown decks get things like Carnage Tyrant. As a consequence, playing control usually means getting in your answers when you can more than when you like, and relying on powerful finishers like Teferi, Hero of Dominaria to actually start getting ahead. With WOTC putting powerful removal higher up on the mana curve with cards like Vraska's Contempt, they are clearly moving away from reactive cards inherently providing tempo advantage--the effect that will have on control as the game develops remains to be seen.


Tempo as Board Control


Flametongue Kavu


Tempo can get a little convoluted because it covers both how your mana is being spent and how you are controlling the board (when that’s how you plan on winning, which as we’ve discussed isn’t always the case). In “normal” games like those you commonly see in limited, how the mana you spend effects the board is of paramount concern.


In limited, you want the vast majority of cards you play to have a direct impact on the board. Fortunately, all creatures meet this criteria. One of the (many) great things about limited is it highlights the important relationship between a creature’s cost and its effect on the board. Having your two drop trade for an opposing four drop is always good, but in limited you can really see this effect brought to bare (as discussed, however, you are only really capitalizing on this if you are left with a four drop yourself).


If you and an opponent simply play vanilla creatures turn after turn, you can see the direct relationship between mana spent per side and how the balance of board power fluctuates back and forth. When you factor in creatures that do something when they enter the battlefield, you can start to see some major swings in tempo. As stated, every creature you play is positive tempo for you, when that creature also immediately does something like kill an opposing creature, or make one of your creatures bigger, or bounce an opposing creature, it’s like you played two cards in one from a tempo perspective. If you want to do a fun experiment, look at a replay from one of your limited games and watch the relationship between total mana spent per side and who’s winning on the board.  


Giving the Game Away

(or a word on mechanics)


The inverse of the Llanowar Elves example we talked about earlier is missing an early land drop. Missing your second or third land doesn’t just put you behind for that turn, it puts you behind for the rest of the game until the mana disparity stops mattering. I’m sure you don’t need me to sit here and tell you to not miss land drops, but you should really try to not miss land drops. In terms of actionable advice, this means being smart with what sorts of hands you keep and how you approach deck construction. If you look at decks from ten years ago, or twenty years ago, you’ll notice many of them are playing fewer land than a similar deck would play today. The main reason for this, is deck builder's respect for how much of a disadvantage sacrificing that early tempo really is. Additionally, decks with cards like Adventurous Impulse, Serum Visions, or cheap cycling effects all have an easier time smoothing out their draws and hitting their land on those critical early turns.


Conclusion: (Spent) Gold Wins Wars

(and a small conclusion for this series)


Because they simply aren’t very common, you may never find yourself playing a really dedicated tempo deck, but thinking about tempo is a great opportunity to improve and approach the game in ways you otherwise might not. Magic as a whole is developing into a much more fast paced game than it used to be, which makes tempo considerations that much more important. Thinking about how to spend as much mana as possible as quickly as possible and how to do so in a way that accomplishes your goals (often controlling the board) with maximum efficiency is valuable regardless of what format or archetype your playing


I hope that you’ve gotten some use out of this Back to Basics series on the three pillars of Magic strategy. In examining the game through the lenses of card advantage, tempo, and The Philosophy of Fire, my goal has been to give you the tools to assess your play from various perspectives. If you’d like to leave feedback on how well this series met that goal, or to suggest other Back to Basics topics, please do so in the comments. Until next time, thanks for reading and good luck out there.


End Notes: