by Warren Mullenax
We have all heard the term “tempo,” but many of us don’t really understand what it is. New players not only don’t understand it, they have never heard of it. Therefore, understanding tempo is an important part of not only playing better Magic but also in deck construction. A player who gains the tempo advantage has a stronger chance of winning the game than the player who does not. So important is tempo, that when a mirror match of certain decks are being played a player will concede within the first five turns when he lost tempo. This was a frequent occurrence in Caw Blade matches a few years ago.
What is tempo? The short answer is that it is a term that explains how quickly a player can deploy threats that must be answered. The term is used in Magic: the Gathering, but its roots are taken from music and chess. You would think, at first, that all aggressive decks are tempo based because they are deploying threats quickly, but that’s not exactly true. Some aggressive decks indeed are tempo based, but not all aggro decks are. One of the best examples of a tempo based deck is the universally proclaimed best deck in Standard U/W Delver and also RUG Delver in Legacy.
What defines a tempo deck or making a tempo play is when tempo is“gained when a player is able to play more or stronger cards in a shorter period of time due to efficient resource allocation.” Resource allocation then is one way of separating a typical aggressive deck from one that is a tempo based aggressive deck. If we use U/W Delver as an example we can clearly see that the deck is built around tempo and uses tempo strategy to win games. First, it deploys early threats that must be answered such as Delver of Secrets. Then it uses efficient resource allocation like Phyrexian Mana to protect it’s early aggressive creatures or to gain card advantage by using life as a resource instead of spending actual mana to achieve its goals. Moreover, the opponent may spend any amount of mana to deploy a threat or an answer only to have it undone with a Vapor Snag which cost only a single mana. Therefore, the U/W Delver player gains tempo by utilizing their resources more efficiently – in this example they are spending less mana than their opponent to gain an advantage.
There are other ways to gain tempo in a game of Magic. Mana acceleration is a method to gain access to more mana faster than the other player. Access to more mana allows you to play bigger and stronger spells at a higher rate of speed than the opponent. Typically, each player is allowed to play only one land per turn. However, if you are able to play more than 1 land per turn or to play spells and permanents that generate extra mana, you have gained tempo. Conversely, the opposite is also true. If you can destroy mana resources of an opponent you have also gained tempo. In Legacy, Stifle is a card that allows a player to gain tempo. For example, in the Legacy format a player will try to use a fetch land to get a land from their deck only to have the activated ability of the fetch land countered by Stifle causing the player to miss a land drop for that turn.
Card efficiency or the mana cost of two comparable cards with different statistics is yet another way to gain tempo. Lets say your opponent casts Walking Corpse that has 2 power and 2 toughness. On your turn you cast Elite Inquisitor, which also has 2 power and 2 toughness, but it also has first strike, vigilance and protection from Zombies. You have negated your opponents card and resources by playing a stronger spell for the same mana cost. If on every turn a card you played outclassed the card your opponent played, you would have a tempo advantage because you are weakening or negating your opponents cards and resources.
Mana curve, which was discussed here, is potentially a way for a player to gain tempo. When one player is playing a deck with a low mana curve and another player is playing a deck with a higher mana curve, the deck with the lower curve has the ability to create an overwhelming board presence that the slower deck may not be able to overcome. The lower curve deck may deploy a threat on turns 1, 2 and 3. If the slower deck doesn’t have an answer then he is behind on tempo. For the faster deck to deploy threats early is a result of the efficient use of resources, whereas the slower deck is spending no resources at all, is not developing the board state and therefore is losing tempo. However, it is possible to be ahead on tempo and to then lose it. Lets say the slower deck was a control deck that was holding the new Return to Ravnica wrath effect Supreme Verdict. If the faster deck spent their mana on each turn they would have spent a total of 6 mana. However, when the slower deck casts Supreme Verdict for 4 mana, they would have regained tempo by spending less mana than the total amount of mana spent by the opponent, which would negate all of the resources the faster deck spent to gain tempo. Remember, tempo is not static. It can be had, lost and regained.
Tempo is one of the more important parts of Magic that involves the pace of deploying threats, efficient mana usage, card efficiency and undoing the resources spent by your opponent. A lot of emphasis throughout Magic’s history has been placed on card advantage, but tempo is just as important and it frequently trades card advantage to gain tempo. Understanding tempo, how to achieve it and how to use it will help you become a better Magic player and deck builder. Since the Standard rotation is finally upon us, explore how using tempo can help you achieve the success that you want within the tournaments that occur in the early season. Tempo usually shines in the first few weeks of competitive Magic after a rotation so use it to your advantage.
If you have any questions, comments or criticism, please feel free to let me know, and I’ll gladly listen to what you have to say. My e-mail is WhiteLotusMagic@gmail.com or WhiteLotus on MTGO. Comments to the article are also greatly encouraged. Happy Gathering!