Tempo Law

For a more modern example, equipment is generally poor because it’s a turn where you don’t do anything. A maxed-out Opaline Bracers on turn 4 may sound nice, but if your opponent is attacking for five and playing another guy, you didn’t really do anything. Sure, in the late game your guys are demi-gods, but getting there will be a serious feat. God help you if your next creature you play gets bounced or killed. You’ll be so far behind you’ll start the next game at fifteen life. Speaking of modern examples, let’s examine one of the most potent tempo cards available in Champions of Kamigawa for a moment and see where it can be applied.

Tempo is interesting. I like magic theory. I wanted to write.

These are the only reasons I can give you on why this article exists. I can’t match the deftness of Flores or EDT on this stuff, but hopefully I can contribute something from my take on the whole affair. Tempo is a crazy useful concept to understand and apply, yet I see a lot of people – experienced people even – miss out on opportunities or simply misunderstand what tempo is. Maybe this piece will help clarify some of the gray areas for those who just haven’t quite integrated the concept yet.

For me, tempo is hard to truly define. Instead what I’ve done is create three rules to help recognize the existence of it in a game. They are:

Rule #1: Tempo isn’t card advantage, although they have similar effects in the short term.

Rule #2: All tempo advantage is lost over time.

Rule #3: Tempo is meaningless without some way to exploit it.

Now that all the preamble is out of the way, we can get to it.

How exactly does tempo work? Essentially, tempo is the description of the process of having more threats out than your opponent. One could differentiate between proactive and reactive, but they end up at the same place, that of you having a more developed board. Tempo doesn’t refer to being faster than someone; rather it represents having more time to play stuff, or them less.

Rule #1: Tempo isn’t card advantage, although they have similar effects in the short term

Cards and opportunities for tempo exist all over the place, but generally aren’t worth it, or at least not worth it consistently. Blame affinity or blame Wizards making cards that aren’t so exploitive in this domain. However, for the purposes of this piece, we’ll examine one of the first and best tempo cards ever made:

Man O’ War 2U

Summon Jellyfish


When Man-o’-War comes into play, return target creature to its owner?s hand.

This guy was great in Limited because he was a threat and tempo rolled into one. As rule #3 implies above, if you aren’t doing threatening things while having tempo, it ain’t worth much. Let’s say you played a bear on turn 2, Man O’ War their first blocker on turn 3 and did it again with another Man O’ War on turn 4. That’s phenomenal tempo. They have (essentially) only laid lands while you play threat after threat. That’s like multiple Time Walks.

The card advantage-esque aspects can only be explained if we examine why card advantage is so useful. This is probably pretty intuitive, so I won’t go into too much detail, but essentially, every card is a threat or answer. Drawing more threats means you’ll win faster, drawing more answers keeps you alive longer, etc. All else being equal, whoever draws more cards will win.

The similarities of card advantage to tempo exist with production of threats. If you have five creatures out to their two, it sure looks like you cast Ancestral Recall. Whether those missing creatures from your opponent are in their hand or still in their deck is pretty irrelevant. Bet on the guy with five creatures out.

Ss we can see, tempo has a lot of power. Mimicking power 9 cards seems good, I believe. But it’s not all peaches and cream. Rules 2 and 3 illustrate the flaws associated with this potentially amazing plan.

Rule #2: All tempo advantage is lost over time.

This seems obvious if you think about it, but it’s a big barrier to the inclusion of a lot of tempo cards. Essentially, the later the game is, the worse tempo is. That’s because everyone’s mana is so developed that they can play every threat they draw or have in their hand, always. Man O’ War is still fine if there’s an Empyrial Armor on something, but otherwise on turn 20 it’s fairly mediocre. Bouncing a key blocker is nice, but that’s just removal. Playing it for tempo i.e. to stunt their growth is a wasted effort when they have ten lands out. Tempo is early game, when everyone is short on mana and development. The longer things continue, the worse pure tempo cards are (although as mentioned, there’s still uses for card advantage or temporary removal).

Rule #3: Tempo is meaningless without some way to exploit it.

We’ve all read articles on this subject. Some authors illustrate their points talking about card advantage, or mana, or time, or whatever. These are all valid of course, but I prefer threats. It’s how I think when I’m in the game.

In that regard, tempo is all about maximizing threat. In the jellyfish example above, it was such a great start because it involved a succession of threats. For a more modern example, equipment is generally poor because it’s a turn where you don’t do anything. A maxed-out Opaline Bracers on turn 4 may sound nice, but if your opponent is attacking for five and playing another guy, you didn’t really do anything. Sure, in the late game your guys are demi-gods, but getting there will be a serious feat. God help you if your next creature you play gets bounced or killed. You’ll be so far behind you’ll start the next game at fifteen life.

Let’s look at a potentially great tempo card out of Champions: Yosei, The Morning Star:

Yosei, the Morning Star – 4WW

Legendary Creature – Dragon Spirit


When Yosei, the Morning Star is put into a graveyard from play, target player skips his or her next untap step. Tap up to five target permanents that player controls.


Is this guy a bomb in Limited? Hell yes. If all it did was fly, dayenu. But it certainly has a very interesting death ability. Assuming you have some threats in play, it’s a great when it’s alive and worth a Soulblast when dead. At the very least, it buys you a turn. But more likely, it will tap a couple blockers and a few lands for the turn. It’s tempo in the purest form. There’s no long-lasting advantage – your opponent will eventually untap. But you get an extra attack step, an extra main phase to play more threats etc. It’s great, and I’m going to go out on a limb here and recommend picking it fairly highly if you open it and are White. I sure take the tough positions, huh?

I’ve read a few articles talking about Yosei for Constructed. If you can set up a hard lock, that’s great, but generally speaking, it’s a poor idea for pure tempo purposes. A few reasons for this. Well first, exactly what deck are you putting her into? The card is pretty top heavy for White Weenie, a deck that would most benefit for the tempo help. Plus of course there’s the problem of it dying at the right time, and not along with everything else in a Wrath-like manner.

Additionally, it’s pretty terrible as a White finisher when compared with Pristine Angel in any type of control deck. It might kill faster, but it will certainly die a lot more. Plus, unless you have some other guys in play along with it (and not dying), the tempo aspect is completely wasted. Again, if someone can figure out a lock with it (Recurring Nightmare… yawn), that’s great. But if you’re using it for its stats, you can do better.

For my final bit on this fairly complicated topic, I’ll go over some past and current tempo-oriented cards and discuss their effectiveness.


The quintessential tempo card. It has a cheap mana cost, useful effect, but it generally doesn’t do enough for tempo purposes. Setting them back one guy for pure tempo usually isn’t worth it, because it’s rare you’ll have enough threats out to make it worthwhile. Still, that aspect plus its use in countering removal and saving your own people usually makes it worth including in a sealed. But often enough, you’d just rather have another fellow. It can be a solid trick if you’re lacking those however.


Now this was one sick tempo machine. The cheapness of it compared to the costs of the cards you were bouncing made for huge swings. The only way to combat the number of threats this set you back was to leave all your people on defense, and anyone doing that won’t be winning anytime soon. It’s even sillier on Bull Elephants, but that doesn’t really come into play much these days. I think it is very unlikely Wizards will print something this swingy ever again.

Early Frost

Alternate ways to tempo include stunting their threat growth via mana disruption. I am 100% certain people will and have lost to this card for that reason alone. Under the right circumstances, it will give you a great tempo boost. Tap their lands when you have a better army out and swing in again. Unfortunately, this alignment of the planets won’t happen often; certainly not often enough to warrant inclusion. Unsummon is good because of the other stuff it can do besides create tempo. This can do one thing, which is only useful for a very small amount of time during a game, if ever. For every one time it’s useful, nine times it would serve you better as another land or another creature.

Fallow Earth

A card I’m particularly fond of, it’s never dead and often very debilitating. It’s cheap enough to follow a Jolrael’s Centaurs and have an effect, and it’s not card disadvantage, unlike most good tempo cards. Stunt their hand and their mana, it’s a good card that I think would be better received these days than it was when it first came out.

Blinding Beam

Whoops, they did print a card as swingy as Undo. If you’re looking for threat/blocker suppression, look no further. The appeal of this card is that it’s actually quite useful at all stages of the game, as opposed to just early. Like most of the good tempo cards, the card disadvantage is somewhat mitigated by winning the game.

The stuff mentioned above are all Limited cards for a number of reasons. One, Constructed decks in general are built better, so can handle disruption easier than an average draft deck. They’ve also stopped printing really cheap, effective tempo cards like Winter Orb and Armageddon, which certainly did see a lot of Constructed play in their days. And of course, Affinity makes the whole process almost impossible. It’s hard to stunt the growth of a deck that has every permanent in play by turn 4.

Still, here’s a decent tempo-oriented decklist which one could play right now. It’s actually okay, although it couldn’t possibly beat Affinity in a million years, so it’s trash. Still:

“Quintessential Type Two Tempo-based deck that couldn’t ever win a game against Affinity.dec.dec”

4 Early Frost

4 Boomerang

3 Isochron Scepter

4 Talisman of Dominance

2 Stifle

2 Future Sight

4 Spire Golem

4 Thieving Magpie

4 Voidmage Prodigy

2 Quicksilver Dragon

4 Spiketail Hatchling

23 Islands

I built this on Magic Online and I admit it’s kind of fun to play. Slow them down with cards, get some card advantage back, and try to set up the lock. Boomeranging their turn 1 land is great fun, especially when they have to discard.

That’s all I got this time. If anyone has questions or comments, please drop me a line or post in the forums. Good luck.

Noah Weil


Noastic on Magic Online

Bonus Section!

“How to draft Fallen Empires”

I get a lot of letters about a lot of different ideas and themes. One question I keep getting over and over is advice on drafting FE/FE/FE. Well friends, wait no longer, I have the answers for you.

The trick with Fallen is too avoid cards that do little, or do very little. Delif’s Cone may look good on paper, but you should probably only side it in in case of an emergency.

This format is generally removal light, so creatures that do useful stuff are fairly important. In that regard, my pick for the best common isn’t Hymn to Tourach, as many have suggested, but Combat Medic. This little fella won’t win directly, but it will make a lot of alpha strikes work out.

Also at the top of the list is Thorn Thallid. All the thallids in general are decent, but this guy does some serious damage twelve turns after you cast it. Needless to say, Fungal Bloom is a first pick, should you be so lucky.

Green and White are the two best colors, but Blue isn’t awful. Merseine needs to be dealt with, and in the meantime, it may give you more strikes with Vodalian War Machine. Deep Spawn can also be quite scary. You probably won’t need to use the ability, as nothing in the entire format short of three Aeolipiles can kill it. Oh, and you should take Aeolipile really high.

Black has some good guys and some adequate tricks, but it’s just a little outclassed. The rares are solid, with Ebon Praetor winning games all by its lonesome, but for the most part the guys are a little too small. A few lucky Hymns could be excellent though.

Finally, I’d strongly against Red in this format. A quick dwarven assault followed by Goblin War Drums is a sketchy plan at best. Your chances lie with Goblin Grenade, but you die horribly to any Black strategy or Elvish Farmer. Stick with the other four, and enjoy this amazing drafting experience!