Feature Article – Why We Need To Kill Tempo (And How to Replace It)

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Friday, January 15th – The concept of Tempo in Magic has always been difficult to describe. While other theories in our wonderful game offer themselves to clean and crisp analysis, the theory of Tempo seems nebulous at best. Today, Richard Feldman aims to banish the term from the game entirely!

The concept of Tempo in Magic: the Gathering is all of the following:

1) Not intuitive
2) Plagued with far-reaching and fundamental definition disagreements
3) Attempting to incorporate many disparate concepts while adding questionable value to any of them

By now, in 2010, we have witnessed countless forum explosions related to Tempo, attempts by many theorists on many occasions to define and redefine it, increasingly desperate insistences that it is more useful than confusing, and on and on and on. With each successive, predictable episode one thing has become increasingly clear: in reality, in the world in which we live, attempting to describe Magic in terms of the concept known as Tempo fundamentally does more harm than good to our ability to communicate with one another about this game.

The time has come to scrap it and try again.

Obviously the underlying interactions in the game will not change just because we stop beating our heads against the wall with this particular approach to modeling them, but our attempts to do so using Tempo have clearly, clearly failed.

Here is an example of how out-of-control godawful Tempo has become. Consider an extraordinarily simple board where my opponent and I each have out two Islands and a Plains, and one card in hand. The one card in my hand is Remand.

Scenario 1: My opponent casts Savannah Lions and I Remand it.
Scenario 2: My opponent casts Youthful Knight and I Remand it.
Scenario 3: My opponent casts Pegasus Charger and I Remand it.
Scenario 4: My opponent makes no play and passes the turn.

Based on the above, I pose a simple question: At the end of each scenario, has either player gained or lost Tempo – and if so, which player came out ahead?

Probably there are many of you who are thinking, “This is easy. I can answer all of those.” But even as you think this, you are aware that this is based on your understanding of Tempo, and that countless other readers will report back with completely different answers.

To visualize this problem, pretend you are seated among a dozen intelligent Magic players who read StarCityGames.com religiously. How would you like to bet a hundred dollars that all twelve players will give the same answer to the above question?

The proposition is laughable. Four extremely simple scenarios, and no rational person would take that bet. It’s a total joke.

Look at the first scenario: I Remanded your Savannah Lions. That should have been bad for me in terms of Tempo, right? I paid two, you paid one. But then again, you couldn’t replay the Lions; we each made one play, and even though mine was more expensive, you were unable to capitalize on your short-term mana advantage. Does that mean that we broke even instead? Or does the fact that you ended the turn with more mana up mean that you ended up with more Tempo because you could have theoretically used that mana for something else, even though you ultimately didn’t? But wait, wait, since you didn’t end up using that mana for something else, did you end up forfeiting that Tempo, meaning that at the end of the interaction we ended up breaking even after all?

Okay, that got out of hand pretty quickly. But surely the second scenario, in which we both paid the same amount of mana, would be easy to understand. If we both paid the same amount and ended up with the same number of cards in hand and same board position, we must have broken even on Tempo, right? Au contraire, says Patrick Chapin:

“In general, if you are consistently Remanding spells that cost three or more, you are gaining Tempo. If you are Remanding spells that cost two or less, you are losing it. Why is two a loss? Because your card is reactive and requires you to leave the two lands untapped before your opponent ever tries to cast a spell.”

Wait, so now having a reactive card that requires leaving lands untapped to cast can inherently make you lose Tempo, even if you and your opponent both end up actually spending the same amount of mana? So does that mean in Scenario 4, where neither player makes a play, I am actually losing Tempo by leaving mana up for Remand, even though both players end up spending the same amount of mana (zero)?

…And this was a simple scenario.

Tempo is a complete nightmare. A comprehensive nightmare – a nightmare of nightmares, if you will, among Magic Theories. At this point there is simply no hope left for the term, and in order to properly start fresh we must first kill Tempo; excise it from our lexicon, burn the corpse, and bury it in solid concrete. Its death as a part of our lexicon is long overdue, and only a nostalgic few will mourn its passing.

We need to start fresh, to approach the problem from a different angle, to describe the interactions that Tempo attempted to model, but to do so in a way that is actually cohesive and consistently understandable. If someone ever wants to take another stab at describing a concept they perceive to be “Tempo-esque,” at this point they are better off making up a new name for their term and not even calling it Tempo at all. There’s too much baggage and leftover insanity.

All right, so we’ve started over. No more Tempo. A clean slate. Where do we go from here?

Though others will likely have different approaches, I want to start with something simple, useful, and easily understandable. Although it will not attempt to simultaneously model everything that Tempo once aspired to – something I consider a plus at this point – what it will do is intelligibly incorporate the concept of mana as a resource into some of the traditional Magic Theories to which we are all accustomed: card advantage, the Philosophy of Fire, and so on.

Today I will focus on one of the two fundamentals which, to me, are the broadest concepts Tempo tried unsuccessfully to mash together. The first is Net Resources, a method for tracking the flow of various resources in Magic, inspired by Patrick Chapin most recent article.

Net Resources in the Short Term

I have always preferred to learn by examples, so I will lead with a few of those instead of with a formal definition. Net Resources can be broken down any number of ways, but here are what I consider the three most common worth considering:

Net Cards
Net Life
Net Available Mana

If I gain two life and you gain one, my life has gone up by one more than the amount yours went up; I got +1 Net Life in the interaction.

If I resolve a hardcast spell that says “Draw 2 cards,” I expended one card and drew two more; I got +1 Net Cards in the interaction.

If I resolve a hardcast Seething Song I got +2 Net Available Mana and -1 Net Cards.

See the pattern?

Net Resources measures how much more of a given resource you have gained than your opponent across a given period of time.

I can explain the basic interaction between these three specific metrics – Net Cards, Net Life, and Net Available Mana – using only two cards and three examples.

Example 1: I cast Sign in Blood targeting myself. It resolves.

Net Cards: +1, because I gained two cards, lost one, and my opponent lost zero.
Net Life: -2, as I lost two life and my opponent lost zero.
Net Available Mana: -2, as I expended two points of available mana to cast the spell while my opponent expended zero.

Example 2: I cast Sign in Blood targeting my opponent. It resolves.

Net Cards: -3, as I expended a card and my opponent drew two.
Net Life: +2, as my opponent’s life total went down by 2 and mine did not change.
Net Available Mana: -2, as before.

Example 3: I cast Sign in Blood and my opponent Spell Snares it.

Net Cards: 0, as both players lost one card.
Net Life: 0, as neither player’s life total changed.
Net Available Mana: -1 for the interaction, because I spent two mana and my opponent spent one.

At their simplest, these metrics measure relative changes in the players’ resources over a given period of time. In the above cases I chose the period of time from casting a spell to its resolution, but you can use this technique to examine any period you want – the whole game if you like. Even if I get -2 Net Life over the course of resolving Sign in Blood, if that ultimately drops my life total to 10 when yours is at 6, I could still claim a Net Life over the course of the entire game of +4.

Now I am not normally one to reinvent terminology, but I think it is of significant value in this case to use Net [Resource Name Here] instead of, say, Card Advantage, The Philosophy of Fire, and Tempo. Whereas those three concepts are complexly interrelated theories and philosophies, I want to be crystal clear that what I am discussing here are just metrics – nothing more.

Moreover, calling all three of these by very similar, recognizable names signals that they share common properties: they represent a change in one player’s resources, they are independently measurable, they do not claim to offer more insight than mere metrics, and so forth.

There is further value in this convention’s impact on future metrics; having acquainted yourself with these three, if you were now to read about Net Poison Counters, you would instantly know what that term represented: an independently measurable metric computed just like Net Life, Net Cards, or anything else, except counting Poison Counters. Simple. A foundation on which to build theories.

Finally, before moving on, a quick note about Net Available Mana. As anyone who has ever debated which spell to cast into untapped blue sources can attest, there is certainly inherent value in available mana, even when it goes unspent from turn to turn. I chose in this article to focus on the resource of Net Available Mana rather than something like Net Spent Mana (which you could just as easily count in your average RemandSavannah Lions application, for example) because available mana has inherent value as a resource in Magic even when it goes unspent.

Net Resources in the Long Term

Above, we were considering Net Resources in terms of how resources change over a set period of time – that is, the short term. But what about in the nebulous long term? What about effects that continue to alter certain resources, turn after turn, until the game ends or those effects are neutralized?

Consider Phyrexian Arena. In the small window of time between casting and resolving it, the following short-term resource exchanges take place:

Net Cards: 0, as it has simply moved from your hand to the battlefield.
Net Life: 0, as your life total is still right where it was when you resolved it.
Net Available Mana: -3, as you paid three to cast it and your opponent paid zero.

So far so good.

But Phyrexian Arena is a card that is all about resources – especially in the long term – so we can likely benefit from considering its long-term impact on our resources. A simple way to accomplish this is to break down the short-term impact it will have across each turn:

Net Cards: +1, as you draw a card for free while your opponent’s hand remains the same.
Net Life: -1, as your life total decreases by one while your opponent’s remains the same.
Net Available Mana: 0, as nothing mana-related happens.

Of course, the above exchange only repeats indefinitely if nothing ever removes or affects the Arena. Naturally, when considering real-world long term scenarios, it is absolutely critical to consider what actions both players might take, but making this assumption gives us a baseline from which to start – e.g., if the above is how Phyrexian Arena works against a goldfish, how much less valuable is the card if opponents are commonly packing four copies of Kami of Ancient Law? Likewise, how much less consistent is Calciform Pools than its baseline capability of generating +1 Net Available Mana per turn when you can often expect to be tapping too low to afford to charge it?

Next let’s consider how this long-term versus short-term analysis allows us to compare Phyrexian Arena and Night’s Whisper in terms of resource flow.

First Turn – the turn you resolve the spell:

Net Cards: +1 for Night’s Whisper, 0 for Phyrexian Arena
Net Life: -2 for Night’s Whisper, 0 for Phyrexian Arena
Net Available Mana: -2 for Night’s Whisper, -3 for Phyrexian Arena

Second Turn – examining the cumulative effects of both cards, between their resolutions last turn and the present turn:

Net Cards: +1 for Night’s Whisper, +1 for Phyrexian Arena
Net Life: -2 for Night’s Whisper, -1 for Phyrexian Arena
Net Available Mana: 0 for Night’s Whisper, 0 for Phyrexian Arena [an Untap step has now passed and these cards are no longer draining your available mana]

Third Turn – examining the cumulative effects of both cards, between their resolutions last turn and the present turn:

Net Cards: +1 for Night’s Whisper, +2 for Phyrexian Arena
Net Life: -2 for Night’s Whisper, -2 for Phyrexian Arena
Net Available Mana: 0 for both

Now remember, these metrics have allowed you to compare certain select aspects of these cards, but you must take the results of that comparison with the grain of salt that these metrics are simplifying the situation, and in so doing are necessarily leaving things out. This is not the whole picture, and your knowledge of Magic must compensate for this to arrive at a truly valid analysis.

For example, is it fair to say Phyrexian Arena has generated the same Net Cards as Night’s Whisper after one turn? Yes, because you have a new card in hand and the Arena itself is still on the table – providing a valuable role for future turns, one might add.

However, it’s not fair to say that both cards have had the same card drawing power at that point. Importantly, one of the two cards the Arena had generated on the turn after it resolved was guaranteed to be a Phyrexian Arena, whereas the two cards Night Whisper generated could have been anything. When digging for that clutch Damnation, the latter is obviously far more desirable, and it’s critical to consider such things on top of a quick-and-dirty analysis of the metrics.

What These Metrics Do and Don’t Do

None of these metrics will inherently tell you which play or strategy is best. That’s okay, though, because they are not intended to. In fact, they are not intended even to help you illuminate what matters in a given game; you have to figure that out independently. They’re just terminology; their value lies in facilitating analysis and discussion, and rarely any more than that.

Really, part of the beauty of these simple metrics is that they don’t claim to model any more than one resource at a time, so you know that they are not painting you the whole picture. They are a shortcut, not the whole journey, and so you must apply the rest of your body of Magical knowledge in order to reach your destination.

Yet still they can help guide and improve a discussion. For example, the strategy of a certain burn deck mirror match could be neatly summed up as: Focus on Net Life. This conveys at once the importance of burning the opponent’s dome, of sacrificing creatures when necessary to preserve one’s own life total or decrease the opponent’s, and of valuing cards more highly than usual which do nothing but boost your own life. Likewise, Maximize Net Available Mana in the opponent’s main phase is a concise piece of advice for how to play defensively in a control mirror where you expect a counter-war as the opponent tries to force through a big creature.

Another thing these metrics do not do is demand rigorous standards of common definition. Tempo was so complex that different interpretations of corner cases could vastly alter the core of what it was trying to describe – look no further than the earlier “Remanding a two-drop loses Tempo” case for an example – but with metrics like Net Cards, what they are describing is simple enough that you can homebrew your own resolutions for corner cases without devolving into a death spiral of second-guessing that ultimately hijacks whatever discussion you had been attempting, as so often happened with Tempo.

Consider a classic debate: should tokens be counted when tallying up Net Cards?

The solution simple: if you think tokens matter, count them. If you think they don’t, then don’t. In the end, you will need to consider everything in terms of quality before you can render judgment anyway; surely you would not say “Baneslayer Angel and Chimney Imp are both 5 mana for 0 Net Cards and 0 Net Life on resolution, therefore they are identical, case closed.” Quality matters, and your final appraisal of the effects’ relative qualities will ensure the tokens are not left out of the equation in one form or another.

Martial Coup does not become any more or less good a Magic card just because you are choosing to count its tokens as extra cards or not. Either way you decide, you are just as ill-served to think “Martial Coup for four gives me +3 Net Cards just like Mind Spring for four does, so their effects are equivalent!” as you would be to think “Martial Coup for four gives me zero new cards, because tokens do not count, so I must have effectively gained nothing from having played it!”

Instead you should be thinking “resolving Martial Coup for four is just like resolving Mind Spring for Four, except keep in mind I get 1/1 Soldier tokens instead of random cards in hand” or “resolving Martial Coup for four gives me no new cards, except keep in mind I get four free 1/1 Soldier tokens as a side benefit.” Exactly which approach you choose might make a comparison of Martial Coup to actual card-drawing effects take more or less time, but deciding which approach to use should in no way be a relevant enough sticking point to torpedo the whole discussion.

Of chief importance is that you and your intended audience (even if that audience is just you, and you’re trying to think something through) are crystal clear on agreeing upon what will be counted. These terms are handy time-saving tools as long as everyone is on the same page, but they can devolve beyond usefulness if the wielder of the tool does not make sure everyone is on the same page.

Why This is Better than Tempo

For illustrative purposes, I will repeat the question I posed at the beginning of the article, and discuss each scenario in terms of how the three most common Net Resources end up when the dust settles.

Consider a board where my opponent and I each have out two Islands and a Plains, and one card in hand. The one card in my hand is Remand.

Scenario 1: My opponent casts Savannah Lions and I Remand it.

Net Cards: 0 all around.
Net Life: 0 all around.
Net Available Mana: -1 for me across the interaction. I now have two fewer available whereas my opponent has only one fewer. Naturally, the fact that the opponent never spent his extra mana is not captured by this metric – but then, the metric does not claim to capture it.

Scenario 2: My opponent casts Youthful Knight and I Remand it.

Net Cards: 0 all around.
Net Life: 0 all around.
Net Available Mana: 0 all around.

Note that Remand’s drawback of requiring that you keep mana up to use it still exists, even though – unlike with Tempo – none of these metrics attempts to model it. Thankfully.

Scenario 3: My opponent casts Pegasus Charger and I Remand it.

Net Cards: 0 all around.
Net Life: 0 all around.
Net Available Mana: +1 in my favor for the interaction. Again, the fact that I never spent my extra mana is not captured by this metric, nor should it be.

Scenario 4: My opponent makes no play and passes the turn.

Net Cards: 0 all around.
Net Life: 0 all around.
Net Available Mana: 0 all around.

Not only was it quick and easy to break each of these scenario down in terms of Net Resources – who would prefer to bet a hundred dollars that a dozen intelligent SCG-hounds could come up with the same answers to this version of the question? – but it’s also relatively easy to see what is not being captured here: what impact does the unspent mana have (none), how does Remand’s drawback of requiring you to keep mana up change the counts (it doesn’t), and so on.

So how has this terminology helped us better understand the above scenarios?

Simply put, what we can take away from these scenarios are a few illustrative examples of how and when Remand is good. When you cast it on more expensive spells, you gain Net Available Mana – in other words, you have netted more available mana than your opponent, meaning you have more mana available with which to cast your other spells than he does to cast his. (Ideally this means you can cast a Remand and another spell in a turn in which the opponent only casts one spell.)

However, simply by understanding what Net Available Mana means, and its long-term implications (namely that although you are at +1 Net Available Mana for this turn, after both players have untapped this resource advantage will disappear as you both revert to having three untapped lands), we instantly observe that it’s not inherently beneficial to Remand something more expensive than Remand. If the board is empty and you do not make use of the mana you have saved by your next turn, it is possible to return to the same levels of Net Cards, Net Life, Net Available Mana, and every other relevant score you had before either player cast a spell.

As with any terminology, this is something you unquestionably could have figured out on your own, but saying “When you Remand a three-drop on an empty board and both players untap, you end up with 0 Net Cards, Net Life, and Net Available Mana, and nothing else relevant changed, so you really didn’t get ahead” is easier to communicate and considerably less wordy than would be substituting the full definitions of those terms in their places.

In Summary

• The term Tempo is unsalvageable and needs to be dropped from our lexicon.
• The metrics of Net Resources allow you to easily compare the flow of any resources you can think of, the three most common likely being Net Cards, Net Life, and Net Available Mana.
• When you are comparing metrics, make sure you and your audience are clear on exactly what those metrics are counting.
• Theory and terminology are useful as long as long as you do not try to use them for more than they claim to explain.
• Theory cannot show you what matters; at best, it can help you discover that for yourself.

Good luck at those PTQs…

Richard Feldman
Team :S
[email protected]

Bonus Section for Theory Geeks: Regarding Board Position

I mentioned above that I think there are two elements of Magic that Tempo tried unsuccessfully to encapsulate. One was resources and the other was Board Position, which is in and of itself an elusive beast to pin down. I have not yet found a way to adequately define it, and so in the spirit of Do No Harm, I will not attempt to in this article. However, for those interested, I will at least briefly discuss where I have gotten stuck. Consider the following two scenarios.

Scenario A: I have ten Plains and you have five Plains.
Scenario B: I have ten Plains and you have five Plains and a Savannah Lions.

Who has the superior Board Position in each scenario, and by how much?

I think everyone would agree that in Scenario A, I have the superior Board Position, but in Scenario B it is very nebulous. Some might argue it depends on life totals, contents of hands, and deck composition, but that can quickly devolve into the uselessly broad “all things considered, which player is more likely to win this game?” definition.

Things get even murkier when you consider technicalities like Bridge from Below, Proclamation of Rebirth, and Illusions of Grandeur. Which of those can be said to be advancing one’s Board Position? A Bridge in the graveyard isn’t on the battlefield proper, but it sure is affecting the game. But then where do you draw the line? Proclamation of Rebirth is in your hand, of all places, yet it affects the battlefield in more or less the same way as would a Goblin Trenches on the battlefield: it’s all potential, and none of it is immediate. Then there’s Illusions of Grandeur. When you play it with intent to Donate, does the fact that you’ve played it actually count as advancing your Board Position? Or is it the opposite, a liability that will tie up your mana because you haven’t drawn a Donate yet? Or are we allowed to consider whether you’ve drawn a Donate yet?

No doubt about it, defining what constitutes a superior Board Position is a tricky business. For my money, it would be a major breakthrough in Magic Theory just to figure out how to discuss Board Position in a coherent and comprehensible way.

But that’s a subject for another day, as are (assuming anyone cares to hear about them) the multitude of interesting observations (few of them practical – but most, like I said, interesting) I’ve unearthed about the game based on looking at things through the lens of Net Resources, observations I omitted from this article both for brevity’s sake and for the sake of avoiding information overload when introducing a concept that counts simplicity as one of its chief virtues.

Death to Tempo!