Tempo IS Interesting

Mike Flores speaking about tempo wrote “[m]uch as you would like, you can’t quite put your finger on it… but you sure know it when you see it.” Mike is more perceptive than he probably realizes. The difficulty in identifying tempo is that it has an effect that is different from what it is.

Mike Flores speaking about tempo wrote”[m]uch as you would like, you can’t quite put your finger on it… but you sure know it when you see it.” Mike is more perceptive than he probably realizes. The difficulty in identifying tempo is that it has an effect that is different from what it is.

Card advantage is simple to see in action. Drawing more cards off of Library of Alexandria or getting two-for-ones (casting Fire on two Goblin Welder) is easy to see and the result is obvious. You have more cards in hand than your opponent, or you have spent one card to get rid of two of theirs.

Tempo is getting Time Walks or fractions thereof. The net effect of it is far different.

To illustrate, consider two turns in a hypothetical sample game of TnT (Tools N’ Tubbies – a Mishra’s Workshop based Aggro deck) versus a generic Type One control deck.

Turn One:

Tubbies: Play Mishra’s Workshop and Mox Pearl. Drop Juggernaut.

Control deck: Drop Underground Sea and Mox Pearl

Turn Two:

Tubbies: Attack with Juggernaut. Control player is at fifteen life. Play Wasteland. Wasteland the Underground Sea.

The control player will be at a least at ten life before they get a second land. This simple play effectively sets the control deck back a turn. A turn away from playing Psychatog. A turn away from dropping Exalted Angel as a Morph. A turn away from getting Mana Drain up to counter spells and fuel answers. That is tempo – it was a Time Walk for the Tubbies player. But to what end?

Mike Flores says”Card advantage is nice, but when you’ve got the Tempo, you dictate the terms of the game. I like to talk about situations where you generate so much Tempo that you have such overwhelming virtual card advantage that your opponent can never win.” Flores is onto something, but he overstates his case. In other formats, tempo may be seen through virtual card advantage. This example between a Worldgorger Dragon Combo and Goblin Charbelcher, a great example of tempo at work, refutes that idea:

Worldgorger Dragon Combo v. Goblin Charbelcher

Dragon is playing first:

Turn One:


Play Bazaar of Baghdad. Activate it. Discard Worldgorger Dragon and two irrelevant cards.


Land Grant for Tropical Island. Play Tinder Wall. Play a Mox. Break Tinder Wall for RR. Play Chromatic Sphere. Break it for Black. Play Dark Ritual. Tap Mox. Play Goblin Charbelcher.

Turn Two:


Play Underground Sea and pass the turn.


Play a Mox. Tap both moxen and your Tropical Island to activate the Belcher. In response, Dragon taps the Underground Sea and plays Stifle. (The Belcher deck only has one land, so it would have won on the spot).

Turn Three:

Dragon plays another land and casts Animate Dead on Worldgorger Dragon. For those of you who don’t know what happens then, your board phases in and out untapped (because of the interaction with Dragon and Animate) as you generate infinite mana and discard your library into your graveyard with Bazaar of Baghdad. Then you switch the Animate to Ambassador Laquatus to mill your opponent’s library.

In this game Stifle was used simply as a Time Walk – just like the Wasteland in the first example game. Both Belcher and Dragon knew Dragon was going to win on turn 3 and it was just a matter of surviving to that point. The Stifle effectively turned off Belcher’s turn 2 and gave Dragon time to win first. I chose these examples for their simplicity, but Tempo does manifest itself in subtle and complicated ways in Type One. The reason I say that Flores overstates his case is because that game isn’t at all about card advantage – it’s about just winning. In Flores’ words it is”about dictating the terms of the game.”

I think I have come across a good simple phrase to describe the effect of tempo. The effect of Tempo is to create a situation where the opponent’s tactical options, and eventually strategic options, continually dwindle until the game ends. Generally speaking, this is what Flores means when he says you dictate the terms of the game. Explaining this definition of tempo is the task of this article. Let me break this down into its component parts, and then flesh it out through illustration.

Magic is constructed in a way that makes Tempo important. Each deck in Magic has a game plan – a strategy for achieving victory. Tempo is dictating the terms of the game by first taking away tactical options. The tactical maneuvers are the various plays that compose the broader strategy. For example, a Tog player wins by swinging with a lethal Tog. They are able to do this by drawing lots of cards. One key tactical play is to Intuition for Accumulated Knowledges. Another is to play Yawgmoth’s Will, refueling all the draw that has been played up to that point. A third is to Cunning Wish for Berserk.

When the tactics that are important to the broader strategy are no longer available, then the strategy itself begins to falter as the deck must spend its resources on defense. They do this in an effort to stabilize. Instead of playing Intuition for AK, the Tog player may have to play Intuition for Force of Will to save its butt. Or instead of attacking with your creatures, you have to hold them back to save yourself from a Phyrexian Dreadnought. By forcing a deck to forego its tactical and strategic options, it loses its natural flow and becomes much weaker into the mid-game and late-game than it would be otherwise. Therefore, even if the defending player stabilizes, they are vulnerable. If tempo is maintained, then the winner is inevitable. No options are open and no play or amazing topdeck will pull the game out for your opponent, and you are the inevitable winner.

This generally plays out in two ways. The first is that you get tempo simply from the brokenness of your threats. Your opponent will have to go through all kinds of contortions to stop you and forego its own game plan in the process.

Here is a great example of that with Psychatog v. Worldgorger Dragon Combo:

Turn One:


Play Bazaar of Baghdad. Draw two cards and discard Worldgorger Dragon, Squee, Goblin Nabob, and Undergound Sea.

Psychatog: Play Underground Sea, pass the turn.

Turn Two:


Return Squee to hand. Play and break Polluted Delta for Underground Sea. Tap Bazaar to draw two cards discarding Squee, Squee, and Compulsion. Play Mox Emerald. Play Animate Dead. In response, Tog plays Brainstorm. Tog then plays Force of Will removing Psychatog from game.


Play Polluted Delta. Break it for Volcanic Island. Play Mox Pearl. Tog has Intuition, Mana Drain, and Cunning Wish in hand. Generally, Tog plays Intuition for three Accumulated Knowledges and Cunning Wishes for Coffin Purge or Blue Elemental Blast to kill the Dragon Combo.

Turn Three:

Dragon: Return Squees to hand. Play Swamp. Tap Bazaar of Baghdad and draw two cards. Discard Squee, Squee, and Bazaar of Baghdad. Pass the turn.

On Dragon’s endstep, Tog could play either Intuition or Cunning Wish. If it did, Dragon could play Necromancy (of which it generally has three in the deck and very likely has seen one by now) and win on the spot. Therefore, Tog has to use its resources inefficiently. It must to sit tight and wait until it has more mana to play it’s draw engine and Wish + Purge/Blue Elemental Blast at the same time. Arguably, Tog shouldn’t wait. But if it doesn’t, it will likely lose on the spot. The Tog player must hope that if it waits, it can drag the game into the midgame where it can make its grab for Accumulated Knowledge with enough mana to stop the Dragon player at the same time.

Turn Four:

Dragon: Return both Squees to hand. Activate Bazaar discarding another Worldgorger Dragon, Squee, and Sliver Queen. Play a Polluted Delta and break it for Underground Sea. Play a Mox Ruby. Dragon has five mana available. Dragon plays Animate Dead – in response, Tog goes to get a Blue Elemental Blast and plays Blast on one of the Animated Dragons with the Comes into Play Ability on the stack. In response, Dragon plays Necromancy on the other Dragon. Dragon has Force of Will backup by this point (having drawn so many cards).

What you can see from this game is that Dragon gained tempo just from the threat of having Necromancy. This meant that Tog had to waste its mana on turn two and play defensively on turn three. Dragon thereby gained a Time Walk. The effect of this was that Tog couldn’t play the draw spells it needs to draw more countermagic. Therefore, its game plan was constrained and its viable options dwindled with each turn, while Dragon’s game plan grew stronger. By dictating the terms of the game, Dragon won.

The second way to get tempo is by disrupting your opponent in other ways so that your threats become more dangerous. Here is an example of that with Fish (and U/r Aggro-Control deck) and Psychatog:

Turn One:

Fish: Faerie Conclave, pass the turn.

Tog: Polluted Delta. Break it for Island now. Pass the turn.

Turn Two:

Fish: Flooded Strand. Break it for Volcanic Island. Tap Conclave and Volcanic Island for Cloud of Faeries. Untap both lands. Tap Volcanic Island and Conclave for Spiketail Hatchling.

The critical play for Tog on turn 2 is either Psychatog or Intuition. Psychatog turns off a lot of Fish’s key cards such as Standstill. But Intuition permits Tog to power through Fish. Which ever the case, Spiketail Hatchling is a pain in the rear because it effectively slows down the Tog player an entire turn. He must play another land in order to resolve his key spell.

Tog: Play Underground Sea. Play Mox Emerald. Pass the turn.

Turn Three:

Fish: Play Wasteland. Attempt to Wasteland the Underground Sea.

The Tog player has a choice. He can Intuition now and let Spiketail counter it or wait. The Fish plan has effectively narrowed the options that Tog might pursue. And the one-two punch of Spiketail + Wasteland has created a very nice tempo advantage for Fish. The Fish player is dictating the terms of the game. How important that is depends upon how well Fish capitalizes.

Fish taps Conclave for Blue and plays Curiosity on Cloud of Faeries which attacks along with Spiketail to draw a card. Fish taps Volcanic Island for Grim Lavamancer. Each attack with Cloud is now far more than a point of damage, and Grim Lavamancer attacks the strength of Tog itself as well as your life total directly.


Tog plays Volcanic Island and passes the turn.

Turn Four

Fish: Play Mishra’s Factory. Attack with Cloud and Spiketail Hatchling. Tog is at fifteen life. Tap Factory and Conclave to play Standstill. This maneuver would effectively attempt to seal the current game state with an active Lavamancer and man-lands on the Fish side, and a severely stunted Tog board on the other.

Tog attempts to Mana Drain the Standstill. Fish plays Force of Will pitching Stifle. Tog plays Force of Will pitching Cunning Wish. Fish floats a Red with Volcanic Island and plays Daze to return the Island to hand. Tog taps the Mox to pay for the Daze. Fish sacrifices Spiketail Hatchling to Force Spike the Mana Drain again. This time, Tog cannot do anything about it. Fish uses the floating Red to activate the Lavamancer and removes Force of Will and Flooded Strand from game to do two damage to the Tog player, who is now at thirteen.

The problems here are various. Tog really needed that Mana Drain mana to fuel its own spells. Fish has four to five damage a turn from its men on the board, one of which has Curiosity. Fish will continue to play Wastelands and countermagic to defend its game state, and Tog is still waiting to play a spell it wanted to play two turns ago – Intuition. Being at thirteen life and with a barely advanced game plan, Tog has no choice at this point but to break the Standstill, permitting Fish not only to draw three new cards, but also play more men. Tog can wait until Fish’s endstep, but by then, Fish will have seen two new cards from the Curiosity and the draw step on top of the three it will have drawn off of Standstill, dramatically increasing the chance of seeing Force of Will.

The point of this game is to illustrate that Tog has few good options, and this is because the Fish deck completely stole tempo from Tog with every play. It is easy to see how Spiketail Hatchling slows the Tog player down a turn. But the effect of tempo is the important lesson here. The Fish player began controlling the terms of the game as Tog’s tactical options diminished as did its strategic options until no good options were left as it struggled to mount a defense, too late:

Turn Five:

Fish draws a card. Fish animates Mishra’s Factory and attacks with Cloud and Factory. Fish draws a card. Tog is at ten. Fish plays Polluted Delta and breaks it for Volcanic Island and passes the turn. On Fish’s endstep Tog plays Intuition breaking Standstill. Fish draws three cards. Intuition resolves finding three Accumulated Knowledges.


Plays Underground Sea and Accumulated Knowledge. Fish plays Force of Will.

On Tog’s endstep, Fish removes Daze and Spiketail Hatchling to do two damage to the Tog player with Grim Lavamancer. Tog is at eight.

Turn Six:

Fish plays Volcanic Island and animates Mishra’s Factory. Fish taps the Factory down to give itself +1/+1. Fish taps Faerie Conclave and another Volcanic Island for another Cloud of Faeries untapping Mishra’s Factory and Volcanic Island. Fish attacks with Cloud and a 3/3 Factory. Tog is at four. Fish draws a card. Fish plays Null Rod and passes the turn.

Tog: Tog is in a hopeless position. Tog plays Psychatog and passes the turn. Eot, Lavamancer removes Force of Will and Polluted Delta to do two damage putting Tog at two.

Alternatively, Tog could have Wished for Fire / Ice or Firestorm – either attempt would have been equally pathetic.

The point is to show that Tempo is about decreasing your opponent’s tactical options – in effect stunting their game plan to the degree that they cannot address yours either.

Aggro-Control (and Tempo) Killed Pure Control

The rise of Aggro-Control happened at the same time that Tempo displaced Card Advantage in this format.

The guiding principle behind aggro-control is board advantage at the expense of card advantage. This is in line with the idea of tempo. The principle of control historically has been use your superior card advantage to answer all threats. Don’t get me wrong, aggro-control usually ends the game with a massive amount of cards in hand, but that is a function of board advantage, not vice versa.

Now this is key; the reason pure control doesn’t exist is because once Aggro-control has as much permission and as good, or even better draw, then control can no longer beat aggro-control with a) any consistency or b) without completely bastardizing the deck.

There is no pure control either. The closest deck remaining viable in the format to pure control is probably Landstill. The reason is that Nevinyrral’s Disk is a tremendously strong anti-tempo card much like Wrath in Type Two. The Deck’s answer to tempo has been Exalted Angel, which inadvertently transformed the deck into a control deck that can go Aggro-control more quickly and effectively than it ever could with Serra Angel or Morphling.

Decks like Mono Blue were premised on the idea that they could counter every threat you would play and be able to do this because they would find very small ways to eek out card advantage (with Ophidian, Misdirecting Ancestrals, Powder Keg, etc) or virtual card advantage (with cards like Back to Basics). They were designed to be able to counter every threat and essentially hold the opponent in a wall of counters – not significantly different from a Stax or Stasis prison lock.

Pure Control isn’t viable for two reasons. First, because so long as there is enough acceleration in the format, some decks will be able to go first and play multiple threats on turn one and two before you can get your counterspells online (even with Moxen and Mana Leak – you can’t always get the right answers (remember, no bad threats, only bad answers?)). Second, the shift to tempo-oriented decks often means that decks are designed to win short term counterwars at significant cost to their hand so that Mono Blue has a very difficult time dealing with Fish and old GAT. That is extremely important.

If Pat Chapin’s Gro deck wins the first short-term counterwar over his Dryad at the expense of his hand, he only needs to maintain that foothold on the game as his Dryad goes the distance. The amazing draw with Gush and cantrips built onto an extremely light mana base made it more likely that Gro would be able to capitalize and topdeck more quickly than a mana heavy control deck with much less search. Than Gro would simply attempt to win one more counterwar and the game would be over.

I played Pat Chapin at a Columbus PTQ in 2002 when I first saw his Gro deck and he savaged my Mono Blue deck. The games often went something like this:

Turn One:

Chapin: Land Grant for Tropical Island. Sleight of Hand.

Me: Mox, Land.

Turn Two:

Chapin: Island, Quirion Dryad. In response, Mana Leak. Chapin: Force of Will. Me: Misdirection having Force of Will target Misdirection. Chapin: Gush. Foil discarding Island and a Mox.

At this point I’d have three cards in my hand. Chapin would have three cards in hand as well, but he’d have resolved a key permanent despite having no mana on the board. He would recover quickly because his next turn would involve playing a land and a cantrip to pump his Dryad. In the meantime, I’d be sitting on counters hoping to find a way to kill the Dryad by finding Powder Keg, Morphling, or Capsize before it was too late. Almost every game, it would be too late.

The Mono Blue deck simply was antithetical to the very concept of tempo. It thrived in an environment where Time Walk was a regrettably played cantrip that often simply cycled. It sought to get virtual card advantage over long games with Back to Basics and real card advantage with Ophidian. It would parlay that card advantage into control over the game. When faced with a deck that did not care about card disadvantage in order to achieve a short term board advantage, mono blue had no good answers.

Keeper had the same problem against GroAtog. Except GroAtog was a genuine monster. It comboed out very quickly and was quite potent at controlling the game as well as focusing on board advantage. It has stronger card advantage than the control decks (just like Chapin Gro before it (Chapin Gro had Ophidian and Gush) and four Misdirection against the Ancestral central control decks)). But it also had more countermagic to protect itself. Foils, Force of Will, Misdirection and later Mana Drains instead of Foils in GroAtog. Keeper has evolved into Germbus, which now uses Exalted Angel as an anti-tempo card – stealing life is something Flores pointed out as a strong tempo-denial card.

The reason board investment at the expense of hand size is useful is because there is generally a direct correlation to winning. If Angel steals back that life and makes the board investment worthless to that goal, all that tempo has been taken back, and the direction of the game shifts as suddenly with victory out of sight, a 4/4 beatstick requires a defensive plan. Of course, it’s too late though.

Twenty Life is A lot

Frankly, you don’t need twenty life. Think about it. Twenty Life in Limited is spread over many, many turns. It’s often turn 3 before the first point of damage is dealt. In Type One, a good deal of the decks can win by turn three. How can the same life total be even remotely similar, qualitatively, in both formats? In Type One, twenty life is more than you need.

This is the”aggro” flaw. In terms of pure goldfish math, aggro cannot survive this format because it is slower than combo. Undisrupted, most good combo can win on turn 3, and often on turn 1 and 2. Few aggro decks focus entirely on speed regardless, but it’s worth making the point that even if one wanted to, it would not be able to compete with combo.

The mana acceleration that separates this format from the others raises the bar for Aggro decks, as an archetype, to compete. The inherent brokenness, speed, and large card pool that enables so many combo decks (and enables non-combo decks to combo out) is a second strike against Aggro, making it even more difficult for pure aggro to compete.

That’s one reason why Fetchlands are so ridiculous. That one point of life doesn’t matter. In fact, that’s one reason that Necropotence and Yawgmoth’s Bargain are so good. They take as much advantage as they can over an overly abundant resource.

The real problem with Masknaught isn’t that there is too much hate with Null Rods and Rack and Ruins all over the place. The real problem is the inherent flaw that turn 1 Dark Ritual, Illusionary Mask, Phyrexian Dreadnought is simply slow. Dreadnought is neither large enough nor fast enough to threaten any combo deck, many decks like Food Chain Goblins, or be able to beat Tog. A turn 3 goldfish with the God draw is simply not competitive. Mask was best in a format with heavy control decks.

The fact that twenty life is a lot means that speed isn’t as important as development for beatdown decks. You can’t be faster than the fastest combo deck, so instead of trying to race, decks need to find ways to create tempo advantages.

Tempo Is the Defining Feature of Type One

Unless you think about Tempo, you can’t really figure out what’s going on in Type One. Every type one deck is heavily tempo-oriented. It’s most obvious in Aggro-Control. I’ve shown how Tempo works in Worldgorger Combo as well. But Tempo is visible in almost every deck and most of the best cards.

Here is a not-so-obvious another example of how insane pressure can lead to tempo advantages. This actually happened in a tournament.

I was playing Tog: (game two of the match)

Turn One:


Volcanic Island, go.

Goblin Charbelcher:

Mox Emerald, Tinder Wall, Mana Crypt, Chromatic Sphere, Wheel of Fortune. I played Force of Will pitching Psychatog.


Mox Emerald, Flooded Strand.

Turn Two:


Sacrifice Chromatic Sphere for Black. Cabal Ritual, Necropotence.

My hand at this point was Ground Seal, Intuition, and Accumulated Knowledge. I had no choice. The most potent two cards you can have together are Accumulated Knowledge and Intuition because together they mean you are holding AK for four. Unfortunately, in order to stop Necropotence, I had to Intuition for three Force of Wills pitching my AK. This is an amazing tempo advantage that severely strains my deck’s game plan and makes the deck much less potent.

On my turn I dropped Ground Seal and drew Mana Crypt, while he played Belcher next turn and killed me the following turn. My lack of draw meant that my ability to answer him was significantly diminished. And even if we were to go into the mid-game, I would be in a much weaker position of being able to topdeck to stop him because I lost a key draw spell, and a key tutor for my draw spells. His natural game plan kept me from being able to execute mine. That is the effect of tempo. While he wasn’t actually playing Time Walks, the effect of destroying my tactical play (Intuition for AKs) was to slow my deck down dramatically. With my deck at about half the speed that it otherwise would be, he is in much less of a hurry to topdeck well in order to win.

Recall my assertion that most Magic decks attempt to execute a specific game plan. I want to be clear that by being so disruptive that your opponent has to forego their best game plan, you have created a massive number of Time Walks for yourself. That’s tempo. The effect is that your opponent has lost their tactical and eventually strategic plan so that all they can do is watch you win.

Most of the most disruptive cards in the format are really tempo cards.

Workshop Prison v. Tog:

Turn One:

Workshop Player:

Mishra’s Workshop, Trinisphere. Go.

That simple play is a tremendous tempo advantage. It doesn’t permanently deal with any threat. If both players played land, go, for the next five turns, the effect of the Trinisphere would be nothing. In a tempo-based format, that is an insane play. The control player can’t even play a Mox to try and break out of the prison lock. Their only hope is that the Workshop player can’t capitalize, or that they can Force of Will the Trinisphere.

Almost all of the decks in Type One simply want to create a space in the game wherein it controls the game and maintains that threadbare foothold enough to play more threats and slowly dwindle the opponents life total and their range of options as the threat of a lethal swing or combo play becomes real. Concurrently, they play answers in the form of Force of Will and Stifle, or proactive threats which are really answers such as Chalice of the Void (for two), Pyrostatic Pillar, Blood Moon, or Null Rod. These cards aren’t intended to be permanent solutions – they are dropped into play long enough so that the opponent cannot recover.

Tempo is important because there is a direct relationship between winning and maintaining your tempo advantage (or successfully negating it). However, Tempo is interesting because it manifests itself in so many different ways. It isn’t limited to decks with creatures that attack or virtual card advantage. If you are utilizing Tempo effectively, you are keeping your opponent off balance and dictating the terms of the game.

Stephen Menendian

You can reach me at steve dot menendian at gmail dot com.