PV’s Playhouse – Tempo

Grand Prix: Oakland!

Thursday, January 28th – The Tempo debate rages on, with Magic minds on both sides doing their level best to define or debunk the theories presented. Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa lends his considerable brain to the argument, suggesting that a definition of the concept isn’t of the utmost importance…


Not long ago, there were a couple of articles that touched the subject of Tempo – particularly Richard Feldman piece, which you can find here. In this article, Feldman said that we should kill the expression “Tempo” because people simply could not agree on what it meant. There was a reply from Patrick Chapin, and then a small discussion. In the meantime, a lot of people tried to give their definitions of tempo, which were mostly different, as Feldman said they would be. I think there isn’t much room for disagreement here – people do not have the same idea of tempo. What you can disagree with (and what was Chapin’s point, if I recall) is that the name or idea must be killed because there is no agreement on it.

The main point here is this: a lot of people disagreeing on something does not mean that something is “vague”. If I ask a lot of people what quantum physics is, I will probably get different replies, but that is not a problem with the term “quantum physics” but with people’s intimacy with it. So, as an alternative to killing the term, you can try explaining to people what it means – and this is what my article is trying to do today. Of course, this is not supposed to be the “definitive article on tempo” – even among informed and intelligent people, you will probably never get the same 100% copy/pasted answer, but the meaning will be almost the same. So if you ask LSV, Tomoharo Saito, Martin Juza, and Kenji Tsumura what tempo means, they will probably give you different answers, but I assure you that in their heads they have concepts of Tempo that come very close to being the same, and they apply those concepts every time they play, consciously or not. The goal of this article is to help you build the concept. If, after that, you think the name Tempo does not really apply, then be my guest and call it whatever you want, as the name is completely irrelevant. What is important is that you incorporate it to your play style.

So, for starters, what is Tempo? Technically speaking, tempo comes from the Latin Tempus, which means time. It is also the word for time in Portuguese, Italian, and probably in some other Latin languages. Just for the record, the English dictionary definition says this:

1. Music. relative rapidity or rate of movement, usually indicated by such terms as adagio, allegro, etc., or by reference to the metronome.

2. Characteristic rate, rhythm, or pattern of work or activity: the tempo of city life.

3. Chess. The gaining or losing of time and effectiveness relative to one’s continued mobility or developing position, esp. with respect to the number of moves required to gain an objective: Black gained a tempo.

Even if we don’t use the word, we use the concept of Tempo a lot in our daily lives. For example, when I used to play Volleyball at college, there was a middle ball that was supposed to be very quick and was called the “tempo ball”. For that, the middle player had to jump before the setter actually threw the ball to him, at which point he would meet the ball in the air and instantly hit it. It was not the easiest thing to do in the world, and many times the player would jump too early, too late, too high, too short, or the setter would send the ball too far, too close, and then it wouldn’t come out as a very powerful attack. Whenever we did that, the coach told us we missed the tempo – that is, the timing – of the ball.

When you are playing an instrument with someone else, if you are not in synchrony with the song, then you have missed the tempo of it. If you want to make a joke about something someone did, then you have to tell the joke when they actually do it – if you tell it later, it won’t be funny, and if you tell it beforehand then no one is going to understand it – you’ve missed the tempo of the joke. From those examples and definitions, we can see that 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.

In Magic, it means essentially the same thing: time. Good tempo means that you have the time to play your resources in a way that is beneficial to your end goal (i.e. winning the game).

A lot of the time, when people talk about tempo, I hear the expression “make the best use out of your mana”. That is true to some extent, but it is not actually a good guideline – with that logic, we would be Lightning Bolting people turn 1 all the time, since we had an untapped Mountain, or we would Counterspell everything that moved because we have UU up. Remember, to have good tempo we do not necessarily have to play things as soon as possible – we need to have the ability to play things at the time we need to play them.

To make good tempo plays, you need to plan the game ahead. You need to know that you have to play this card now, not because now is the time you can do it, but because you will not have the opportunity to do it later. Imagine this example:

You are playing UWR versus Vampires, both stock lists. Your hand is Mountain, Island, Plains, Essence Scatter, Divination, Ajani Vengeant, Lightning Bolt. Your opponent leads with Swamp; you draw Earthquake, and play Mountain and pass. Then your opponent plays a Vampire Hexmage and passes. Do you Bolt it? Now, in some circumstances it would be correct not to Bolt it – you do have Earthquake after all, and it is going to kill it at some point or another as a bonus. More importantly, there are creatures in this match that you want to kill, and Lightning Bolt kills them but Earthquake doesn’t. However, with this hand, if you analyze how the game is going to play out, it’s easy to see that if you Bolt it, the game will probably go:

Turn 2 – Island, pass, creature into Essence Scatter
Turn 3 – Divination, he plays a guy
Turn 4 – Ajani Vengeant, kill the guy he played

Which is a pretty good scenario for you. If you, however, decide to hold onto that Bolt, hoping to Earthquake the Hexmage away and then play Ajani Vengeant, you will have lost precious tempo – you will then on turn 4 have to Earthquake instead of Ajani, and then he gets to untap with five mana – sure enough, you still have the Lightning Bolt, but he might play either Malakir Bloodwitch, Mind Sludge, two creatures, or you might not have drawn another Red mana, and in that case the Ajani is not going to do nearly as much as it would have if you had Bolted the Hexmage straight away. Notice that if you do not Bolt the Hexmage then, due to the way the game is probably going to play out, you will probably never have another chance – you must see how the game is going to play out on turn 1, to see if you need to use your mana whenever you can or not.

I remember sometime ago LSV asked me a question regarding this Lorwyn Limited scenario:

Your opening hand is 4 lands, Fertile Ground, Wort, Tarfire. Do you Tarfire them on turn 1?

Now, normally, Tarfiring them on turn 1 is a horrendous play. With this hand, however, you know that the game is going to go Fertile Ground into Wort, and then you’ll be able to recur the Tarfire if Wort lives, so in this case you know that if you don’t Tarfire them now, you will not have the opportunity to recur that Tarfire ever again (i.e. that two damage will be lost forever). In this case specifically, the mana you do not use on turn 1 will be wasted forever – if you play the Tarfire on turn 1, you will be making the “tempo” play of using all your mana every turn. Does that mean you should play it to get ahead on Tempo? No, it does not – in this situation, if Wort survives and you get the opportunity to recur Tarfires, then you are very likely going to win regardless of the two damage you’ve dealt or lost… and if Wort does not live, then the play is really bad. Therefore, even if you are using your mana in the best possible way, it does not necessarily make it the right play. I believe that, in this case, simply wasting the one mana to keep the option in your hand is worth more than spending it.

Just as you want to maximize the usage of mana when it is convenient (though not always!), your opponent also wants to do that, and there are a few things you can do to stop him from doing it. I remember when we were playing Invasion Standard against decks with Counterspell, Absorb, and Fact or Fiction, most of the time we would hold our three-drop in hand until turn four. The reason for that is that if you play it right away, it plays right into their curve: they Absorb into Fact or Fiction. If you pass turn 3 without doing anything, then they are also not going to do anything. Both players waste their turns. Then, on turn 4, you play your three-drop, and if they counter it, that means they are not playing Fact or Fiction that turn. If you have no follow up originally, then doing that gives you another turn to draw something interesting to play the turn they will end up playing the Fact or Fiction – you mess with their curve, and with their tempo, by not letting them play the spells at the time they want.

Other scenarios in which you need to be able to plan ahead to see if you will have the opportunity to play the card later include those in which you have something like a turn 2 Kavu Titan. Kavu Titan is a card that is really good with Kicker (or it was… it probably wouldn’t be that good today) and pretty mediocre without it, but that did not mean it was not correct to play it boldly on turn 2 sometimes, for the simple fact that you would not have the opportunity to play it later. Imagine the situation where your opponent is playing an aggressive deck and he plays a two-drop. You refuse to play your Kavu Titan, because you don’t want to trade – you want to overwhelm your opponent with your superior cards. Then, finally, on turn 5, after taking a billion damage, you manage to play your Kavu Titan with kicker, hoping that it is enough to deal with all of your opponent’s guys – it is bigger than all of them, after all. Then it gets Repulsed back to your hand, and you take another attack. You get to replay it, but your opponent has too many guys, and Titan cannot hold them all… and you die.

In this scenario, there are probably cards in your hand that you did not get to use – if only you had played that Kavu Titan on turn 2 and traded, then you would have had time to play your new spells. Imagine, for a moment, that the card you drew the turn your opponent bounced your Titan was another Titan, one that you never even got to play. In this case, the fact that you withheld the Titan meant you got a 5/5 instead of a 2/2, but if you had played the Titan, you would have gotten BOTH a 5/5 and a 2/2. Of course, you’d use two cards instead of one, and if your play had worked you’d be left with two 5/5s, which is better than a 5/5 and a 2/2, but, as it was, the other 5/5 never got into play. In this case, tempo trumps Card Advantage completely, though it could be argued that there is actually card advantage in playing the 2/2, since the 5/5 in your hand, that you never even got to play, is worth exactly zero!

Another interesting scenario (yes, I like examples) was when I played Yuuya Watanabe at GP: Minneapolis (I think). It was Zendikar Sealed, and in game 1 I started somewhat aggressively, and he had some Islands but only one Swamp. Then he drew his second Swamp and promptly played Gatekeeper of Malakir. I know a lot of people in this situation would think that, since they are behind on board, they need Gatekeeper to arrive and kill a creature. Other people are simply too fond of Card Advantage to let go, and they fail to realize the implications in the big picture. If you play that Gatekeeper of Malakir on that turn and then draw a Swamp, then you will have missed the opportunity to kill a creature, so you have thrown away Card Advantage. But if by playing the 2/2 unkicked you get to block and kill my guy and survive for some extra turns in which you can then play three different cards in your hand, it is just like it drew you 3 extra cards, cards that you couldn’t play before but now you can… much better than the one you missed!

The opposite also happens, when you throw away actual Card Advantage in the hopes of it simply killing your opponent fast enough so that he cannot play all the cards in his hand, which results in Advantage for you too. I remember I was once playing a Team Draft with Tomoharo Saito, and I curved one-drop into two-drop, and my opponent played land into land. Then I untapped, drew my card, and Saito opened his mouth to say something, but by then I was already playing my Torch Slinger. Then he simply smiled and said “good… bad players don’t play that.” And it’s actually true – most people fail to realize that if the Torch Slinger kills them, then it’s just like it killed every single card in their hand, instead of just dealing two damage to a creature. Basically, Lightning Bolt might not kill Baneslayer Angel directly, but plenty of times you might argue that it has done just that when it has killed the opponent before they could attack with said Angel.

Another great Tempo card we are familiar with is Bloodbraid Elf, and also Bituminous Blast – those are the cards that, by putting something directly onto the battlefield at no other cost, give you back the time you lost by playing a lot of lands that enter the battlefield tapped and some discard spells, for example – if it was not for those, a lot of the games you would simply be dead with a bunch of cards in hand. I have a friend who plays Jund a lot on MTGO, and he keeps insisting that I try out Elvish Visionary, but my rational brain simply cannot accept that this is good, because of Tempo purposes. Sure, you get to draw an extra card, so it won’t ever be bad, but you very rarely lose because you don’t have enough spells to cast with the Jund deck. More often than that, you lose because you simply do not have time to play those spells. You NEED those cascade spells to put something onto the battlefield, so that you have time to play everything you have… you don’t need more things that you can’t play. That is, incidentally, the reason I dislike Rampant Growth. You need something to give you back the tempo you lost by not doing anything in the early turns, and sometimes Cascading into a blank is all it takes for you to lose.

Yet another card that is characteristic of the word Tempo (it is probably the quintessential tempo card) is Remand. The conception that Remanding a spell that costs more than two mana results in gain of tempo is common, but I do not agree with it, as you are only gaining tempo when you are gaining time. If your opponent played a Progenitus and you Remanded it, he spent 10 mana to your 2, but if you have nothing to do with your extra 8 then you’ve not actually gained anything. If your opponent plays a three-mana card with six mana and you Remand it, he is simply going to replay the card – you are “up one mana” on him, but you haven’t actually gained anything again. If your opponent plays a two-mana spell and you Remand it, theoretically you are even, but if in the meantime he is attacking you for seven, then you have no interest in being even – you are going to lose! At the same level, if this two-mana spell is Lightning Helix when you are on three life, then Remanding it gives you a whole new turn, which might be just the turn you needed to Scapeshift him to death, for example.

It is clearly (or I hope it is) hard to see who is actually at an advantage by just looking at the mana spent, but there is a whole different point that bothers me a bit, and that is this: why do you even want to see who is at an advantage when Remand is played? There is no judge that decides who wins a game by who came ahead on Remands, there is no math you can make (or should make) to see if you are up or not – “I lost five mana but came up two cards and three life points, and each two mana counts for a life point, and each card for two life points, so I am 4+3-5/2 = 4,5 life up!” How do you even define how much each of those is worth? How is that useful? I’d like to see you trying to convince the guy whose opponent is at two life that two life is only worth a card – he would probably discard his entire hand and sacrifice all his permanents to deal those two damage. The question isn’t who is at an advantage when Remand is played, but simply if you should play Remand or not, and there is no exact formula for that – you have to work that out based on the game. When you both have no cards and 20 mana and your opponent plays Ornithopter, go ahead and Remand it – there is probably no formula that will tell you to do that, but it is quite obvious that you should.

So, my conclusion is that Tempo is just what is at the root of the word — Time – and nothing more. You want to have time to play all your spells, and to do so you must play each of your cards in the right opportunity – that includes concepts such as mana curve and mana economy. At the same time, you want to deny your opponent the opportunity to do that, either to play his spells at the time that is convenient for him or simply the opportunity to play them at all – pressure and virtual card advantage come to mind. To do that correctly, you must always try to see how the game is going to play out with each of your options.

If I had to write one paragraph on how this helps people, I think that basically you try to make the most out of each of your cards, but not the most individually – the most in the context of the game. If the most your Kavu Titan can do is allow you to play every other spell in your hand, you do that – I’m sure Kavu Titan has no hard feelings if you are sacrificing him for the sake of your game. The turn 1 Lightning Bolt on Hexmage might not feel like the best use of a Lightning Bolt – in fact, it might feel like wasting it in a guy who is going to die to Earthquake soon enough – but if it is what is allowing Ajani Vengeant to survive and dominate the game, then it is a noble cause. In the end, each of your cards are in your deck to help you win the game, not for any other reason – you might think Torch Slinger and Gatekeeper are there to kill creatures, 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.

I understand that I might have deviated a little bit from the idea that most people have of Tempo, but that is fine. As I’ve said, the idea of this article was never really to define Tempo (though I’ll admit I tried in the beginning) but to incorporate the concept that I have of it into your mind. I know the concept is correct, and you should absorb it, even if the name is not!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this, and actually absorbed something. See you next week!