Abstraction: Tempo

Article written by: Francisco Mota | Article edited by: Dr. Tom

Magic used to be wonderful.

It used to be all about tapping out to play Mistform Walls, taking a couple of seconds to read its flavor text, and trading for Mistform Ultimus. Yes, I used to play the amazing Mistform deck, which somehow never made Tier 1.

Or round 2.

Somehow, the deck always stumbled upon a friendly Braids, and began being savagely punched in the face. I mean, how can you beat Braids and Squirrel Nest? Sacrifice a land every turn, and you won't be able to cast that juicy Mistform Mutant. Sacrifice a creature every turn, and you're soon going to get mana flooded, not to mention you're wasting your turns casting cards that will be sacrificed anyways.

Eventually I just scooped when Braids hit the table. Oh, the joys of being a newbie in the wonderful world of Magic.

Soon, however, this would change, as I began realizing the importance of mana. The first thing I realized about mana is that you're never going to get anywhere with two-hundred-card decks. The second thing that I learned, however, was much more relevant to what we're discussing.

What I learned was that mana is a limited resource.

What is meant by this? You can only have so much mana at any given time.

Don't talk to me about infinite combo madness; do I look like Magic's Rules Manager to you? For those that said yes, I suppose you might be a tiny bit right. But I'll never be as awesome as Gottlieb.

Barn much?
You bet.

Now, knowing that mana is a limited resource, what else is limited? Think about it for a bit, then unspoil the box:


Everything in Magic is limited. This includes, but is not restricted to:
  • Cards in Hand
  • Life Totals
  • Permanents in Play.

Once you get limited resources into the equation, though, a funny thing happens: you and your opponent start fighting over who has the most, and whose advantage in any one area of resource advantage becomes prominent. That sounds wordy, and it is, but trust me, it makes perfect sense. What I'm saying is that you'll be squabbling over who has the most of any one resource, and you'll also be trying to define which resource is the most important to have. But what I'm REALLY saying, is that Mono-Blue Control wants to have a hand full of cards, whilst Boros Deck Wins wants to have an opponent on a low life total. When these two decks battle, each will try to get the advantage over the other by making their advantage in one area much more significant than the other decks advantage in the other area. That's what Magic is all about, folks.

Now, what happens if you add the fact that the longer you play, the more you can enjoy your limited resources? Taking this fact, you can also extrapolate: the shorter the amount of time your opponent lives, the less he can use his limited resources. That is what tempo is all about: limiting the opponent's limited resources, by either taking care of him fast, or by slowing him down. Here's a quick definition:

A Tempo Increase is any of the following:-
  • An increase in your limited resources over time.
  • A decrease in all of your opponents' limited resources over time.

What exactly is a limited resource over time? Anything that gives you something over time, in that the longer you gain it the more you have of it. Small List:
  • Drawing cards each turn.
  • Dealing combat damage each turn.
  • Untapping your lands each turn.

Being able to draw more cards per turn than your opponent is often not listed as a tempo advantage, but you'll find that the tempo umbrella can just about stretch that far, especially when a game turns into a topdeck war, or when you're playing against Mono-Blue Control.

Tempo Increase vs. Tempo Boost

The terms Tempo Increase and Tempo Boost have been used interchangeably for many years without anyone complaining about it. Well, I'm here to put an end to it. Don't do it again, you foul-mouthed bastards.

Back on topic, Tempo Increase is what I have described above: an increase in your limited resources over time, in relation to your opponent. So, what is a Tempo Boost? A Tempo Boost is a temporary Tempo Increase (must . . . stop . . . repeating . . .). In other words...

A Tempo Boost is any of the following:-
  • An increase in your limited resources.
  • A decrease in all of your opponents' limited resources.

Notice the absence of the phrase "over time". What happens here is one-shot effects that affect your limited resources. Almost everything that isn't a Tempo Increase or a Tempo Wane (the opposite of a Tempo Increase) is a Tempo Boost or a Tempo Flop (the opposite of a Tempo Boost: it reduces your tempo (but may give you something else in return)).

For example, playing Seething Song gets you RRRRR for 2R: sounds like a simple Tempo Boost. Almost every situation can be explained in terms of Tempo Increase and Tempo Boost. In general a card that causes a Tempo Increase is better than a card that causes a Tempo Boost, especially when they deal with the same area. Why do you think Swords of Plowshares is so successful? Your opponent gaining life is a measly Tempo Flop for you, whilst your opponent losing his Darksteel Colossus is a devastating Tempo Income: all related to damage and life loss, roughly the same area when talking about tempo.

Tempo Advantage

When you have had overall more Tempo Increases than Tempo Wanes and more Tempo Boosts than Tempo Flops, you have almost certainly gained Tempo Advantage over your opponent, but only if the Tempo changes affect the most important area. These "Tempo Areas" are simply types of limited resources, such as Cards in Hand, or Life Totals, or some such. Since tempo advantage in the most prominent tempo area is much more important than tempo advantage in any other tempo areas, and also that the importance of tempo areas are subject to change, a deck must ensure the following to be successful:
  • It must force a certain Tempo Area to become the most important one.
  • It must have a contingency plan in case it can't get favorable conditions (talking about Tempo Area Importance here).

Some decks are legends at both. Like Mono-Blue Control...
Hmm, is that becoming a pattern? :tongue3:

Having Tempo Advantage is what wins you the game.

Tempo Usage

An interesting result of all this Tempo theory, however, is that it gets you thinking: what's the point of having so many Tempo Increases in one area, but not in any other, such that you can't take advantage of the gained Tempo? Really, there is no point. That is why you should always use as much mana as you can each turn, and that's why you should have a decent mana curve. It's also why being able to dump your hand is usually useful (though not always the right thing to do). This could be summarized into Tempo Usage, which is just about how much of a Tempo Advantage is being used to your advantage. Since tempo is impossible to calculate (or too complicated, at least), defining an exact value for Tempo Usage is impossible. We'll just have to swiftly move on. . . .

Tempo Relevance

Gaining tempo is only relevant to a certain point. Sometimes you have so much tempo in an area that your other limited resources can't keep up with it -- for example in a mana flood or a mana screw. These are prime examples of where Tempo Relevance comes into play: how relevant is a Tempo Increase or Tempo Boost at the moment?

There is a single factor which influences Tempo Relevance: how advanced you are in a specific Tempo Area. One of the consequences of this is that when one Tempo Area's Tempo Relevance is particularly low, other Tempo Relevances soar in value, and vice-versa. To get back to the mana screw/mana flood example:

- When you have a lot of mana, gaining more mana becomes irrelevant, but gaining more uses for that mana becomes much more relevant.
- When you have very little mana, gaining more spells takes a backseat to topdecking more lands. Good luck!

Hopefully this makes sense. Just one final topic:

Tempo Trades

"Tempo Trades" occur when two opposing actions cancel each other out, resulting in the loss of limited resources for both sides. Often one side has used more limited resources than the other to complete this trade, which also results in a Tempo Boost for someone.

There are two types of Tempo Trades: Immediate and Latent Tempo Trades. As the names suggest, an Immediate Tempo Trade has an effect straight away and is immediately noticeable. Unlike an Immediate Tempo Trade though, a Latent Tempo Trade might take time to actually happen (and may not even end up happening). These "Latent Tempo Trades" often can't be spotted as easily, but it isn't too hard.

An example of an Immediate Tempo Trade: Your opponent casts Char on your [CARD=Meloku, the Clouded Mirror]Meloku. In response, you play Mending Hands on the moonfolk. Do these actions negate each other? Check! Is the trade immediately noticeable? Check! An Immediate Tempo Trade it is, then.

An example of a Latent Tempo Trade is harder to convince people of, but it does happen. The truth is that most latent trades are often disregarded as insignificant, and for a just reason, too: they really are mostly insignificant all the time. What happens when you trade some Grizzly Bears with a Gray Ogre? You have completed the Latent Tempo Trade initiated when you both cast those underwhelming spells. The way the advantage works is that you have both traded your turns to canceling each other out, but the person who played the Bears just happened to trade a much more insignificant turn (Turn 2 as opposed to Turn 3). When these Potential Latent Tempo Trades remain unfinished, Card Advantage Theory would like to take over and rip the scenario to pieces. Silly Rabbit.

Tricks are for kids.

Tempo Tantrum

That wasn't so hard was it? C'mon, you know you just want a summary of it all at the end, right?
  • Limited Resource: Anything countable and well-defined within Magic, directly linked to the game rules.
  • Tempo Increase: An increase in your limited resources over time, in relation to your opponent's.
  • Tempo Wane: A decrease in your limited resources over time, in relation to your opponent's.
  • Tempo Boost: An increase in your limited resources, in relation to your opponent's.
  • Tempo Flop: A decrease in your limited resources, in relation to your opponent's.
  • Tempo Advantage: Having had more Tempo Increases and Tempo Boosts than an opponent in any one Tempo Area.
  • Tempo Area: A group of limited resources serving a similar purpose.
  • Tempo Usage: How much of your Tempo Advantage is actually relevant.
  • Tempo Relevance: The relevance of a Tempo Increase or Tempo Boost in any one Tempo Area.
  • Tempo Trades: When two opposing actions cancel each other out, resulting in loss of limited resources for both sides, also often resulting in a Tempo Boost for someone.

Anyway, I'll see you next time, hoping that you have realized the vast umbrella that is Tempo, and just how it influences the whole game, no matter what.

Until next time, may the Force tempo be with you.

- Francisco Mota


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