Defining Tempo


A few weeks back our Lord Commander Elesh-V had the following to say on Twitter: “What is tempo? I don’t know that I’ve ever heard two people define it the same and the vast majority of definitions aren’t useful.”

I have to admit I was intrigued. As I went through the comments I realized that many people had an idea of what tempo didn’t seem to be or were unable to say much beyond the obvious. People mentioned how you gain tempo when you bounce an expensive creature, or when you can make two good plays to an opponent’s one. As someone who is writing an article on the topic, my favourite responses were the ones that said “are you crazy? You can’t define tempo in 140 characters.”

But word counts aren’t the only difficulty in defining tempo. Many magicians better than myself have tried (in case you’re looking for background reading, try Reid Duke’s and PV’s articles, both called “Tempo”). These guys certainly put forth some convincing arguments, but I don’t think they exhausted the topic. After all, if the world’s leading burrito enthusiast thinks tempo is still worth talking about, then the problem is about as solved as Unglued Sealed is (hint: [Miss Demeanor] is very good).

My goal here isn’t to be the last word on the topic altogether but rather to add something new to the discussion. In so doing I borrow from a number of great magic thinkers, and aim to provide a survey of tempo theory as well as draw some useful conclusions. To me the most interesting thing about tempo is that everyone has some idea of how it works, yet find it so hard to define. People use it all the time: “I got tempoed out,” “I’m playing RUG tempo,” “I play Spell Pierce because it’s a huge tempo swing.”

All of these statements share a common theme, but each ultimately points to different things. In one sense tempo is a characteristic of specific cards. In another it is a strategy. Tempo might also describe the interaction between cards, so before we start thinking about a general theory of tempo we should start with some definitions.

Tempo Is Board Presence

People have offered many different versions of what tempo is, and I want to start with the most simple or commonplace version. In the plainest sense, tempo refers to a certain pace of action over a period of time. In music this would be beats per minute.

This is how Scott Johns, in his article “Introduction to Tempo,” explains it: every time you use your mana or your attack step you produce a beat. If you can produce more of these then your opponent in the same period of time you get ahead in tempo. Eventually, once you’re far enough ahead, your opponent is “tempoed” out when they die with cards in their hand. Because of the efficiency with which you used your resources, you win before your opponent can even get off the ground. On a very basic level, this is why [Erhnam Djinn] is better than [Hill Giant]: for the same investment, you can (literally) apply more “beats.”

In another definition of tempo Reid Duke, in his article on the mothership “Tempo,” has the following to say: “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.” Duke pushes Johns’ concept a bit further by specifying board presence as indispensable in gaining tempo. We can gain tempo only when our board presence compares favorably to that of our opponent.

We should pay special attention here to how tempo is derived in Duke’s version. Tempo, whatever it is, is a consequence or effect of cards, rather than something printed on the cards themselves. If tempo comes from our permanents and the spells we cast with them, then tempo is also, almost always, uneven: it is always measured by how your resources “match up against” those of your opponent. But what then is board presence? How do we leverage board presence to gain tempo? Well for one we play permanents from our hand in the form of creatures, artifacts, enchantments, lands, and planeswalkers. These “permanent” resources are important because they allow us to progress the game without additional mana investments.

Permanents gain tempo because of the way they interact with what I would call the natural resources of magic. These would include our untap step, our upkeep, our attack phase etc. From a certain perspective, permanents “turn on” the resources we already have when we start a game of Magic. When we play a creature we activate a game ability that we didn’t have access to before: we “turn-on” our natural ability to do combat damage in our combat phase. think of it this way, when we play extra lands we increase the value of our untap step.

Similarly, Duke is arguing that we gain tempo when our utilization of these natural resources exceeds those of our opponents. When we get more out of a resource, that doesn’t cost mana, we gain tempo relative to our opponent. If our attack step “works” in ways that our opponent can’t match it increases our tempo advantage.

What does Delver of Secrets really do? Well for one it adds a line of text onto your combat step that says “your opponent loses 3 life.” If that text is differential, (something you have that your opponent doesn’t), then you are gaining “tempo.”

In this sense, the combined abilities of our permanents represent our total productive capacities: what we get out of each of our natural phases. This is clear in the example of creatures, but even a card like Relic of Progenitus adds to your resources by adding a line of text to your untap step (“Target player exiles a card”), making Relic, at least in some applications, “a tempo card.” As long as that line of text that it adds to your untap step has a meaningful effect on the board you are gaining tempo through it.

But here we run into a snag. How can we know if a card is producing tempo or not? If there aren’t any cards in graveyards Relic is no longer giving us much of anything. We already know that “tempo” isn’t something you find printed on a card, but how do we figure out how to use tempo to our advantage? More importantly, how do we convert gaining tempo into winning games?

Tempo Is Sequencing

If board presence is the key to tempo then gaining tempo depends not only on what spells we cast, but the order in which we cast them. We should already familiar with how this works when we curve out. By playing all our spells such that we are tapping all our mana, we gain tempo by being efficient and using all our allocated resources.

Hall of famer Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa, in his article “Tempo,” shows that mana efficiency isn’t the whole answer to the tempo riddle. He notices how playing on curve can produce a gain in tempo but doesn’t always. His example is Lightning Bolt. We all know that just because we can cast Lightning Bolt doesn’t mean that we should. In many situations we gain even more tempo by waiting to cast it rather than using all our mana on the first turn.

PV says that using tempo requires careful planning and the correct use of all of our resources at, as he says, “the right time.” He reasons that if we confuse the goal of “curving out” with winning, we may put ourselves into losing positions as often as not. In his words, “tempo does not mean you do things as quickly as possible. It merely means that you do things in the speed you are required to do them.”

So casting our spells on curve isn’t always the best way to gain tempo. PV doesn’t offer a hard and fast rule here for figuring out when it’s “the right time.” How then do we find the “required” speed of a given interaction? Are there rules for figuring out when it’s the right time, or is it always dependent on the situation at hand?

I think because PV is so experienced he skips over an obvious and helpful assumption of his argument. In highlighting his point, using so many specific examples, PV illustrates how tempo is always lost or gained in the interactions between specific cards. He doesn’t point to a “tempo card” that illustrates his point because there isn’t one. The “right time” depends on so many things that in order to show tempo in a general way, PV has to use all sorts of specific examples that don’t really illustrate how tempo works in a vacuum. This is the important part (bring out your highlighters!). The reason why PV can’t come up with a hard and fast rule is because there is no “tempo” in a vacuum. This is because tempo happens in the interaction between spells on the stack or in the interaction between different board states. It is gained or lost when I have something that my opponent doesn’t, or when my opponent gets to make two plays to my one. Tempo is only ever found when there is a difference between what you and your opponent are doing.

Tempo Is Winning

PV stresses how we should always think about tempo in terms of how it helps us win the game, rather than as something we always want to have. This is something that Michael Devine develops at length in “Progress Theory: A New Way of Looking at Magic,” which we can turn to next.

Michael’s version of tempo is quite a bit different from the above, as he calls tempo “the difference in progress between two players in a game of Magic.” For Devine progress is your real chances of winning the game. While it might be impossible for us to really know what our odds are during a game there is, in theory, a hard number at every point during a match that reflects our odds of drawing/casting a game winning spell, or making a game winning play.

Think about it. If there were a computer that could process all the information from our decks, and could account for individual play style, preferences, and our likelihood of making mistakes, it could probably predict how likely a given person is to win at any point in any game. Of course this is impossible in reality, but what it shows is that tempo can always be expressed in terms of how it affects our chance to win.

That is, gains and losses in tempo always impact our odds of winning a game whether we realize it or not. Just as we can’t really define tempo outside of a given context, so too would it be pointless to describe tempo outside of its implications for a given game. When a control player doesn’t use her 11 untapped lands she is certainly losing tempo, but we shouldn’t really care about that unless it is losing the game. As PV insists, we should only consider gains or losses in tempo in the context of winning.

Importantly, players always share the odds of winning a game, such that our gain is their loss (and vice versa). When we are “drawing dead” our opponent’s odds of winning the game are 100 to our 0 even if the game hasn’t ended.

I think tempo operates in a similar way insofar as you can’t create tempo on your own. You need to steal it from your opponent or you have to give it away. As I’ve hinted at earlier tempo is always uneven. This is because the game is structured in parallel, with each player starting with the exact same productive capacities (excepting play and draw). We all have an untap step and an upkeep. Ideally we use the cards in our hand to make good use of our natural productive capacities. If we play a deck without creatures we are giving up on one of the prime sources of game winning tempo production: the attack step. There is a reason that control decks with few creatures rarely use tempo as a path to victory. They tend to win on the back of raw card advantage and quality. This is why so many control decks feature planeswalkers. After an initial investment of mana, your main phase begins to operate like a combat step. It is suddenly capable of gaining tempo. It only does this, of course, if you have a superior board position, and if your own productive capacities exceed those of your opponent’s.

While this is more obvious in a game like chess, where the game pieces are identical, the same basic principle applies in magic: we cannot create tempo, we can only redistribute it. Just as in chess, each move or play opens up different lines of interaction and expands the number of available decisions. This increases the total available amount of tempo as it allows for a greater difference between the productive capacities of each player. It is easy to win in chesswhen you have twice as many available moves as your opponent, and this is exactly what can happen when you gain a dominant advantage in tempo. This sort of development is only possible after an expansion of the total available tempo. In chess, as in Magic, this begins to happen slowly as the number of potential lines expand (either by moving pawns, or by playing lands).

Stimulating I know! But the real takeaway here is that producing a difference in tempo is great, but that production only matters if we are able to leverage it: if we are able to use tempo to produce concrete advantages, either in terms of raw materials (life points, cards) or even the ability to produce more tempo. Tempo is only useful if it increases our bare odds of winning the game.

PV comes to roughly the same conclusion in his article. He notices that the value of tempo varies from game to game. Accordingly the in-game decisions that we make, that result in either a gain or loss of tempo, should always be decided by whether or not they help us win the game. In PV’s words, “Lightning Bolt is there to kill Nighthawks. Kavu is there to be a 5/5 that dominates the board, but the truth is that all the cards are there to win the game and for them to do that you must play them at the right time and try to prevent your opponent from doing that. This is Tempo.”

Tempo isn’t good on its own, and it’s easy to forget that sometimes we choose to lose tempo in order to win the game. Inquisition of Kozilek is a good example. When we Inquisition of Kozilek we go down a mana in order to stay even on cards, which isn’t a great deal in terms of tempo. In some scenarios this is good because the number or quality of cards in our opponents hand matter. But against Burn decks we need to stay even on tempo. We need to use Lightning Bolt on T1, or some other spell that interacts with what our opponent has done with their mana in a way that interferes with their “productive capacities.”

If tempo is determined at the intersection between two different board presences then it is important to avoid thinking of tempo as something that we always want. Instead, we should think about tempo as a guiding principle that informs how we choose to try to win a game. As PV says, “[t]empo is just what is at the root of the word – Time – and nothing more.” Much like life in general, it isn’t the amount of time we have that matters, but rather what we choose to do with it.

The other big takeaway here is that “tempo” is never a quality that is found on a card, but is instead found in how we use a card in a given context. This isn’t to say that every card can produce tempo (though this might be true). It doesn’t matter how much mana your, unplayable, big dumb wurm costs so long as it turns your combat step into a win condition. You may have paid full retail for it, but if that investment of mana gives you the attack steps you need to win it is gaining you tempo by invalidating your opponent’s board.

The very fact that tempo still operates in games of magic where the cards are just awful, overcosted junk, (COUGH…Stan…COUGH…dard) proves the point. It doesn’t matter how much they cost. It only matters how the costs of spells work relative to your opponent, and how the card affects your ability to win the game. Taken to the extreme, there can be no such thing as “tempo cards” because the production of tempo is always context specific: tempo isn’t printed on cards, it is only ever found in their interactions.

Typically when we think about what our opponent might play, and what we want to play around, we judge what our opponents can do in terms of mana: what they can cast given the number of resources they have available. This is probably why most people associate mana with tempo. Because we can measure 99% of interactions in magic using mana it is the most obvious “cause” of tempo. But what about Misstepping a Mental Misstep? What about the 3 mana you don’t have to spend to pump your Savage Knuckleblade? These interactions are absolutely capable of producing tempo but can’t be properly measured in mana. At least in some cases, an implied advantage in tempo (or in other words, an implied advantage in productive capacities) can provide the same advantages of “real” tempo.

What this means is that mana, while usually an effective way of thinking about tempo, does a better job of describing the effects of tempo than describing tempo itself. Every gain or loss in tempo can be described as mana, but not every gain in tempo involves gaining or losing mana. It can involve any situation in which your productive capacities change relative to those of your opponent.

Have you ever cast a really good Brainstorm? You know the blow out ones where you win the game on the spot? Yeah, those gain tempo too, especially when you put back two uncastable 4 drops and draw into Spell Pierce + Force + Blue card. You just turned 0 good plays into 2, making Brainstorm an instantaneous source of tempo for the low low cost of U.

Just remember: your fancy, shiny Brainstorm is only as good as what you do with it. If your opponent just casts a Stoneforge Mystic through a Cavern of Souls your sweet tempo play amounts to nil. So again, you can only ever gain or lose tempo in relation to something else.


So when you Vapor Snag your opponent’s 4 drop what are you really doing? Well for one you are redistributing tempo by altering your, and your opponent’s, productive capacities. If removing that creature lets you attack with an extra creature, or if it stops your opponent from playing two spells, then you have gained an advantage by altering the game’s tempo. If they need to play the creature again, you have reduced the value of their untap step. If their blocks are worse then you have increased the value of your attack step. If you can use either of those to increase the raw percentages of a game win then you are tempoing right!

Of course you don’t need to gain any advantage in tempo to win a game, but it’s rare that there is a game of Magic in which tempo doesn’t come into play. Knowing where to look for “tempo” plays and when you can use it to your advantage is a great skill to have.

I don’t think this is everything there is to say about tempo, but hopefully it gets people thinking about what tempo is and isn’t, and maybe how best to use it. There are still many complex questions left here, and these involve application first and foremost: how might we use tempo differently? Does it matter for deckbuilding or for strategy? Can it change the way we sideboard, or does it change the picks in our draft order? These are the sorts of questions I would like to turn to in a later article, but feel free to sound off in the comments and throw in your own ideas on tempo.

Thanks for reading!