Beginner’s Luck: Truths, Tempo and Resources

Welcome back.

Last month, I looked at card advantage in its various forms, and made some promises- some of which I’m going to fulfill now, and some I’ll put off until next month. This article is dedicated to tempo; it’s easily the most complex and technically demanding subject I’ve wrestled with so far, so strap in!

I think most players have a pretty good idea of what card advantage is and a rough grasp of why it’s a good thing; last month, all I really tried to do was fill those ideas out and make them clearer. Tempo, on the other hand, is a more elusive beast. Those of you who have been playing for a long while or taken an interest in Magic theory may have quite a clear picture of what is meant by tempo, but I suspect you are in the minority. I think most players will fall in to the category of being sure they know what tempo is, until they try to actually explain it (go ahead and try this now). The main aim of this article will be to put together a clear explanation of what tempo is; I think the questions about why it’s good and how to get it will begin to fall into place once we have a better idea of what it is we’re after. I’m going to try to reach this understanding by the tried and tested philosophical method of picking out things that seem to be true and then smashing them together to see what breaks.

The Aim of the Game

So, let’s go over some basics: leaving enjoyment out of the equation, the point of a deck is to win as many games as possible. The vast majority of games are won by reducing the opponent’s life total to zero. These things seem irrefutable. Let’s add that tempo is a measure of something which, if you have more of it or make better use of it than your opponent, wins you games. One natural way to define tempo would be in terms of how close one player is to taking his opponent’s last point of life, but I don’t think this tells us anything like enough about the game to be useful. For example, imagine you are playing a mono-red deck full of burn spells against a blue control deck. You have reduced your opponent to four points of life, while you are still on 20; our simple analysis would say you are hugely ahead on tempo, so should have a good chance of winning. If you have no cards in hand, however, you have as good as lost! This is because the goal of a burn deck is to reduce the enemy to a smoldering corpse before you run out of cards; the goal of a control deck, on the other hand, is to stall for long enough to inherit control of the board from a beleaguered opponent who is presumably without a hand.

It seems that tempo must be to do with progress towards a goal, but that goal is not just winning the game; it is winning in the way your deck is intended to. This would mean that wins from nowhere would not be reflected in the ‘tempo graph’, as it were, but this seems right; a win that your opponent could not see coming (not just does not, but could not) must not be predictable on the basis of tempo (or else he could have seen it coming, but just didn’t). Let’s be more specific; if tempo is progress towards winning in a particular way, then it is also progress towards a point from which you can win the game in that way, but have not done so yet. You have to stand on the edge of the diving board before you take the plunge. I think this is what was really missing from the first stab at a definition; it’s not actually taking that last point of life that matters, it’s being in a position to do so (in the manner dictated by your deck). Again, this means that if your opponent escapes your deathlock by a feat of incredible flukery, this will not show up in the tempo graph; this must be right, since the goal towards which tempo measures your progress is decided by your choice of deck. By definition, no deck is designed to win by a lucky accident. The closest would be something like an Erratic Explosion deck with a single copy of Draco; the chances of you finding that one big old dragon when you go off is slim to none, so if it does happen, you have been lucky. However, if Draco is the deck’s only realistic win condition, then winning by throwing him at your opponent is not a win by accident, it’s a win by design; masochistically slipshod design, but design nevertheless.

Tempo is a measure of your progress towards a point at which you can win in the way your deck is designed to. I like the flexibility this definition gives us; it doesn’t say how soon you need to win after reaching that point, or how specific your win condition has to be. A control player with ample mana and plenty of cards in hand might be well ahead on tempo even though he has no intention or means to close the game inside the next ten turns. Aggro decks, on the other hand, cannot really be considered to have hit their goal state until they are very close indeed to winning the game, because they are so much more fragile. Pure aggro decks often do not have a plan B; there usually comes a point in an aggro player’s game where he can look at the board and think ‘if I haven’t won by now, I’m probably not going to.’ I think how well this can be made to mesh with our expectations must mean the definition is pretty close to the mark.

Time and Energy

So, if tempo is a measure, we now know what it is a measure towards; we know what is at the top of the stick. What are the units? In other words, we now know how to tell when we have a tempo advantage, but no way of seeing how much of an advantage has been accrued or how to increase or decrease it.

In researching this article, I learnt that tempo is a term borrowed from chess; in chess, you gain tempo over your opponent when you force them to make moves that do not improve their board position or bring them closer to winning. This inheritance from chess has led some writers, like Ian Lippert from Star City Games, to try to find a standardized tempo unit for Magic. Lippert opts for something in the region of “number of possible plays per turn.” The difference between chess tempo and Magic tempo is that chess comes ready equipped with a measure of time that is constant; each turn, one player moves one piece. There is always symmetry between what the players can do on their turns; it’s blindingly obvious that this is not true of Magic.

Lippert’s definition starts by doing justice to the time asymmetry; I don’t think this is the best way to go about it. What we are really interested in is quality, not quantity. It’s better to make one clever, efficient play than six poor ones, especially if those half dozen blunders do not get you towards that crucial point at which you can end the game. In fact, you can see right there that if the definition of tempo I’m working with is even remotely correct, Lippert’s time-standardized units cannot be units of tempo; the number of plays you make in a turn is not necessarily connected with how far you are away from being in a position to win. You could, after all, play really badly. Or make your plays reactively, like most control decks. Or just fizzle, like a Storm deck that runs out of juice before it hits a lethal storm count.

Another basic truth: Magic is a game of resource management. What are the resources? The list usually includes available mana, life total, hand and library (library and cards in hand are sometimes lumped together). I agree with life total being there since it’s a measurable value, and you can expend it either explicitly, with cards like the delectable Sign in Blood, or implicitly, by allowing things to hit you rather than expending cards and mana to stop them. Tempo must take into account life totals as both resource and goal-definer; your life total is a resource to be exploited in reaching your goal, and reaching that goal necessarily involves reducing your opponent’s life total to a point where it can be extinguished at your leisure.

The resource-value of your library is based on the number of each of your cards you have left; that is, it is not related to the total number of cards you have left to draw, but to the actual cards that are included. If you have cast one Day of Judgment and have three left, that’s better than having cast all four. As much as I like the idea of uniting hand and library under the heading ‘cards’, I think they should really be kept apart; to continue the example, there’s definitely a difference between having three DoJs in your library, and having two in your library and one in your hand. In the same vein, we should say that the value of your library is dependent on the usefulness of the cards in it, given the game in question; therefore a valuable library is one where most of its cards are good in most games. This description of a generally valuable library is almost the same as how I would describe a generally good deck; score one for the theory! (In case you’re wondering, I would say that whenever your graveyard can be considered a resource at all, it can be thought of as an extension of your hand.)

The effect your library has on tempo is that it influences how easy it will be for you to get to that golden game stage; winning requires certain cards, and once those cards are gone, winning will no longer be possible. Since tempo is a measure of how close you are to being just about to win, depleting your library of useful cards reduces tempo. Therefore cards like Haunting Echoes are massive tempo killers. Decks with a high degree of redundancy (that is, decks that have lots of different cards that can do the same job and are therefore less bothered about drawing certain cards) are able to increase their tempo more easily; this is exactly what Zoo type decks seek to achieve by having an array of quite similar creatures. Cards that allow you to search for other cards increase your tempo, because they make it far more likely that you will ‘draw’ a card which pushes you towards your goal state.

Available mana is the one I’m least sure about; certainly it’s important, since if you don’t have enough of the right kinds of mana to cast your spells, you are going to lose eventually. But even if your pool is brimming over with mana of every conceivable color (probably you even have some of the fabled purple), if you don’t have the spells you need, you are just as vulnerable. I think mana only matters when it is matched to a relevant card in hand. What we should be interested in is not available mana, but usable mana. In fact, not merely usable mana, but optimally usable mana; that is, mana that can be used to cast spells that get you closer to the point at which the outcome of the game is in your hands. In other words, virtual card disadvantage decreases your tempo; if any card in your hand is unplayable, or represents an undesirable or useless play, then mana that can only be used to cast it is wasted. That’s obvious when you think about it; the significance is that if we limit our units of tempo to taking into account only optimally usable mana, we’re building that fact into the system. We’re making it one of the rules of tempo that virtual card disadvantage and unusable mana are bad things.

One final basic truth; card advantage of any kind is a very good thing. Your hand, as a resource, is all about card advantage. I think the relationship between tempo and card advantage is far too complicated for me to explain at the moment, both with my level of expertise and the number of paragraphs I can justifiably cram into this article. It’s definitely a topic I’d like to revisit sometime in the not-too-distant future, though. For now, I’ll leave you with this thought: the most difficult part about understanding tempo is finding some sensible way to measure it; card advantage is a vital part of tempo, and card advantage is very easy to measure. For that reason alone, I think card advantage should be the backbone of our measurements of tempo, even though some decks don’t generate it or rely on it. At worst, this might not truly reflect what goes on at the beating heart of the game; but at best, it will make it possible to calculate tempo changes mid game. As I say, I’ll come back to this with a vengeance once I’ve figured out the fine details.


I have argued that the goal of any deck is to reach a point at which it can end the game, in a specific manner, and that tempo is a measure of how quickly you are approaching that point. I have tried to persuade you that units of tempo must be marked out in terms of the resources consumed to gain them. I have vaguely suggested that the central part of a tempo unit should be the card advantage it represents. There are two things I have left out; the exact relationship between tempo and card advantage, and the relative nature of tempo. I’ll revisit both of them one wintry night this coming season.

Well, that was tough! I must say, I learned a lot through researching and concocting what you have just read. I hope I’ve piqued your interest in Magic theory, no matter whether you’ve been playing the game for ten minutes or ten years. A deep understanding of the game can’t help but make you a better player, but if you, like me, are the kind of person who experiences an irrepressible desire to take things apart and see what makes them tick, that’s not really the point anyway. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this as much as I have writing it.

These last two articles have been pretty dour and technical, so next month I’m going to swerve off the dusty road of Magic theory and into the menacing jungle that is multiplayer. I’ve never played MtG:O against more than one person before, so this should be exiting for both of us! I’ll bring back tales of intrigue, derring-do, and probably dragons.

Until then, good luck.


  1. Great thoughts about an important topic. As a chess player I can easily connect to your examples. I do believe that tempo is an important element in many other board games as well but often more subtle or hidden (resource management can be tempo in camouflage).
    I am looking forward to your thoughts about card advantage because, as you already indicated, the connection is often not as straightforward as it seems.

  2. nice article, I dont have much time to comment right now but I would say that my original article was supposed to be part of a series. I did an article on card advantage, the tempo one, and I had a third one that I had wanted to write about card quality. The goal of magic is to play the largest number of quality cards the fastest, how choose between these three different resources is what makes magic an awesome game. It also makes the game very resistent to theory, at least past the basics.

  3. Thank you both for the feedback! I’m pleased this article went down well; it gives me the confidence to attempt something similar in future.

    Ian- Great to hear from you! I hope I’ve not misrepresented your views too badly. I have read your article on card advantage (or at least, an article you wrote about card advantage), and our ideas seem pretty compatible on that score.

  4. I’m glad to see someone writing on this topic. Your article has got me thinking about this. I’m not so sure from my own experience that I agree that tempo is a measure of your progress towards a point at which you can win in the way your deck is designed to. I think perhaps it is perhaps more a combination of presenting your opponent with inevitability and forcing them to expend their resources in a subotimal way that does not further your oppents win condition. Maybe an example to help my point is two people playing combo decks that do not interact with each other. In this case it is simply whoever assembles the pieces faster, however without the two sides interacting to prevent this I don’t think we can talk about tempo in this situation. Perhaps this is what you where saying and I misread you article, or maybe I’m way off base either way I would like your thoughts on this. Thank you, and thanks for writing this article.

  5. This is an excellent article even if I will have to read it more then once to fully understand it. I believe it will greatly improve my deck building skills though. Magic theory is something I never new existed until just recently, and I am glad to find an article such as this to help better my understanding of it.