What is Tempo?

David Kaliski "El Turko"
07/12/2022 · 10 min read

Going back in time

Ever since I started playing Magic, between Nemesis and Prophecy, I was always drawn to the expansive language that exists within it. As a fourteen year old, I would jot down words that I felt were important to learn more about the game.

Some of these terms included: "Mana Screw", "Top Deck", and "Win Condition". Words in English that represented common situations, but that did not lead to learning, but rather to a description of the given moment.

Until I had the chance to play against a UG Tempo deck with this card:

Temporal Spring
0.03 Tix

Yes, this card is incredibly old and, for some reason, it was never reprinted. It was a staple of the deck that gave me so many headaches. What is truly amazing is that it took me years to understand that "tempo" was not just referring to the name of a card, but rather the entire deck strategy.

The notion that there is a rhythm within the game, and that both players are competing around this, is a compelling one. This card specifically was the one that conditioned the "TEMPO" in favor of the player who played it first.

But why? What does this card have that is so closely associated with this concept?

Toward a definition of tempo

First and foremost, let's define what tempo is in terms of Magic the Gathering, so that we can further break down the stats of Temporal Spring and gain a full understanding of this phenomenon. To do so, I will reference three separate articles with varying approaches to the concept.

In 2014, Reid Duke stated the following in one of his articles :

 "Tempo, in the most basic form, is board presence. It's derived from how your creatures, lands, Planeswalkers, artifacts, and enchantments match up against those of your opponent, and the consequences that follow from it. We call it <tempo> because of the way the two players jockeying for the resource dictates the pace of the game”

What Reid is saying here, in other words, is that tempo is always associated with how my board presence interacts with my opponent's, and the implications that arise from that.

Next, he adds that, as a resource, tempo is related to mana. And here we pause to analyze our beloved "temporal spring".

How much does this card cost for 3 mana?

It could be a Stone Rain , it could be a spot removal, but what's most concerning is that it's both, and also denies your opponent a new card.

In order to fully understand tempo, we need to comprehend that resource exchanges in Magic are not usually perfect. That is to say, for every Llanowar Elves killed, there is not always an equally-costed spell from the opponent's side.

Tempo, Goblins and Elves

Goblin Chainwhirler

Nightmares, Elf Player?

Let's imagine that this goblin takes two one-mana creatures when it enters on turn three.

Essentially, we made our opponent lose 2 mana, plus 1 point of damage, plus presence on the battlefield. However, those two creatures that died dealt me a total of 4 points of damage.

Is it a favorable trade? The short answer is yes, however, the longer answer will take a bit more to answer.

To understand who has the tempo advantage, we just have to look at the relative position on the table. Playing a 2x1 with Chainwhirler can be enough to close out a match, as once one player has the tempo advantage, the following associated phenomenon tends to occur: who is the aggro?

Who is the aggro?

The aggro player in a match is the one who "get away with it" in the early turns, often gaining a tempo advantage and putting pressure on their opponents with their strategy. Therefore, your opponent must respond in kind or they will be overwhelmed by the advantage and lose the game. In this case, Temporal Spring is not a great card when the "tempo" advantage is lost since we will only be delaying the inevitable and can't close out the match ourselves, as we will be at a 1 card disadvantage in the long run.

In an ideal world, every card would be answered by another of the same cost, and no advantage would be given. However, since Magic is a turn-based game and not an endless war of counterspells, the player who plays the first spell or puts the first permanent in the game gets a tempo advantage if the opponent does not respond, does not equalize the table, or plays a spell that is less relevant. The "on-tempo" player can then execute a strategy based on this small superiority.

Tempo and Music

In his article "What is a Tempo Deck?", Nicholas James invites us to reflect on "tempo" as the rhythm associated with music (something Reid Duke also commented on eight years prior)

“Tempo decks derive their name from the musical concept of tempo, the speed of a given musical piece. High tempo is quick and rapid, while low tempo is slow and lethargic. When a song is on tempo, everything falls into its place and works harmoniously together, and if one is off tempo, it is disjointed and dissonant. This same concept can be loosely applied to Magic, as tempo decks want to rapidly deploy threats to keep themselves "on tempo" — while using cheap removal, permission, and interaction to keep their opponents on their heels and "off tempo".

This creature is the standard-bearer of the "tempo deck" also known as the "Delver Deck"  since 2011. Based on the idea that a deck that protects a potential 3/2 flyer can close the game with low cost spells, preventing the opponent's big threats from reaching port. Something we can easily associate with the concepts of on tempo and off tempo, as provided by Music.

The case of Phoenix in Pioneer

A great example of a current "tempo deck" is Phoenix in Pioneer .

Its goal is to act or react on tempo in the early game, then lay down a combination of spells and triggers that will leave the opponent far behind in the development of the game. Generally, when the Phoenix deck wins, it has 3 birds, 2 extra turns, and 10 cards left in the library. It has developed its speed of card selection, creating resources that generate resources.

- "But Turko, they'll tell me on social media, Phoenix is a combo deck!"

Yes and no.

In order to gain understanding of this, we need to add further context to our definition of what 'tempo' is.

UR Phoenix has the best mana-cost efficiency per resource per turn used. In other words, each turn, depending on the context, it can play all available mana to exchange resources, solve problems on the board -on-tempo-, or propose a win condition, by turn 5-6. It is this deck's ability to adapt to the tempo and control it given its minimal mana costs that allows it to perform a 2-card combo that gives you 2 extra turns for the same 5 mana that would cost 1 extra turn. That is efficiency, that is tempo.

A confirmation

Tom Anderson confirms what we have just stated in his article , "What is Tempo?"

“Players gain card advantage simply by spending cards more efficiently than their opponents. You may each start with one card a turn, but you break that parity by killing two of theirs with one of yours, or playing one card which draws two cards. Of course, it’s possible to do the same with mana, since each player has a fixed income of it to trade with each untap step. If you’ve ever cast Edgewall Innkeeper with your turn one mana while your opponent just played a land and passed, you know you’ve gained some kind of advantage in the game! .”

Edgewall Innkeeper
0.03 Tix

Therefore, timing is not only associated with the table, not only with whether my deck is designed to go "on tempo", but also with what I am achieving while efficiently playing my cards.

Tempo and Mulligan: A Few Insights

Now that we've been able to connect efficiency and tempo, we need to be able to apply this knowledge to an important aspect of Magic: the mulligan. And, the mulligan essentially decides everything that will occur in the first 3 turns.

Drawing three taplands in your opening hand can hinder your ability to cast spells efficiently, thus giving your opponent tempo advantage and putting you in a reactive position in the game. Generally, we would swap out such slow hands.

Contrarily, if our opening hand has 2 lands, 3 CMC 1 spells, and 2 CMC 2 spells, I can play all of my spells, making me more efficient in proposing plays. I will gain tempo, which makes me the aggressive player.

Mental models while mulliganing: Examples

Clearly, for such straightforward cases, there's not much to think about. The problem becomes complex, but thanks to these analyses, we can conclude that when it comes to tempo, mulliganing should take the following into consideration:

1. Our opening hand needs to be on-tempo or off-tempo, meaning that based on what I can do with my deck, how my cards are aligning in some rhythm (this could also be associated with "curving the hand". This analysis can lead us to conclude that a hand is unviable even if it has a balanced land/spell ratio.



2. In relation to my initial analysis, in the case of the second and third matches, I must ask myself what I need, in my role as play/draw, in order to be competitive. If I have an "on tempo" hand, but that's counter-productive to my sideboard plan, I need to look for an "off tempo" and vice versa. This is important because if your cards that needed to shine "off tempo" are "on tempo" you won't be able to get the most out of them.

Off-tempo example on the play:

A curve, with Shark, Wandering Emperor, Teferi, and four lands can be a keep versus a control mirror, but it won't hold up against Mono Green's second game. While your sideboard had plenty of cards to fend off Karn and the acceleration curve, you're left with three permanents that can't do much to interact with your opponent's tempo, leaving you doomed to the dreaded "top deck".

In this sense, we can also conclude that being "off tempo" implies that you will need more "response" cards and therefore your "action" cards will be relegated until the problems are solved. For this reason, a hand of only "action" cards vs a Greasefang-style "combo" deck would not make much sense.

To wrap it up

The concept of Tempo is associated with the pace at which the game is played. The outcome of this pace will dictate who has the advantage and, thus, the traditional roles of aggro and control.

Timing is also related to what I'm doing as I play, efficiently, my cards. Thus, it's not just about playing spells because I have to match resources, but what advantage am I gaining by doing it on- or off-tempo.

Additionally, we can apply this knowledge to the mulligan decision-making process by using the fundamentals of this concept. A hand that does not meet the minimum requirements for "tempo" should be replaced.

However, many other questions arise as we start to understand the concept of "tempo". To name a few: How do you gain tempo and how do you lose "tempo"? How do I read my opponent based on their "tempo"? What decisions improve or worsen my "tempo"? Etc.

To answer this and other questions, be sure to check out my next article next week. Until then, I bid you farewell and thank you for taking the time to read!

If you liked this article maybe you will also find interesting on of the following ones Playing Around: 5 Actionable Tips to Win the Information Game

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David Kaliski "El Turko"
Game Theory Expert
David Kaliski from Chile, also known as “El Turko”, is a former National Champion, and Pro Tour competitor. His best performance is 39th at Pro Tour Guilds of Ravnica. He loves to explain anything magic related and quickdraft his way to Mythic in MTG: Arena.


Published: 2022-12-07 00:00:00

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