Simplified Guide to Tempo

There are many ways to get ahead in card games. One of the ones that you will hear about often is tempo. What is tempo? Why does it matter? Do I have to learn to dance?

No, but you will have to learn to count beats. OK, maybe just need to feel the beats. Like Card Advantage it is an important skill to understand. Let's start at the beginning though.

What is Tempo?

Tempo has a lot of potential meanings and misunderstandings. Here is what it boils down to for us. It's a race. A race to bring our opponents health to zero before they do the same to us. Making plays that put us ahead in tempo and keeping that lead is one way to think about winning.

What is a Beat?

The key to understanding tempo is breaking down the actions in the match. We will call these actions beats. Like in music these beats represent a moment in time.

Just like with music you can be behind the beat. On the other hand you can be ahead of the beat. Which is bad if you're playing music, but great if you are playing a Trading Card Game.

These beats are how we're going to keep track of who is "in control" of the match. For right now lets say each beat we get a +1, 0, or -1. We are going to walk through a few examples. We are going to keep as simple as possible. So we are going to reduce the cards we are working with in our examples.

The Cards

Dryder Sailweaver


Turns P1 Actions P2 Actions P1 Beats Total P1 Beats P2 Beats Total P2 Beats Beats Up
0-Pregame _ _ 0 0 0 0 0
1-P1 Play Dryder _ 1 1 0 0 1
1-P2 _ _ 0 1 0 0 1
2-P1 Attack Face w/ Dryder, Play Warlock _ 1 2 0 0 2
2-P2 _ Play Warlock 0 2 1 1 1

So what is going on here?

  • P1's first turn they play a Dryder and get +1 beat for that action.
  • P2's first turn they don't play anything, maybe because they don't have anything in hand with a low enough mana cost.
  • P1's second turn they attack P2's face with Dryder and play a Warlock. +1 beat for playing the Warlock.
  • P2's second turn they play a warlock. +1 beat for them.

Notice how by the end of round 2 P1 is up a beat. Each action gained that player a beat during their turn.

So what counts as a beat?

Well. That is subjective. That is it depends on when in the match you take the action. Playing a 2/2 for 1 mana on turn one would count for +1 beat but playing only the same card on turn 5 may not count for +1 it might only count for +0.5 or maybe less.

Gaining Tempo

Mana-Efficient Attackers

If you can play an 1 mana vs. 2 mana for basically the same 2/2 creature you will inevitably have more chances to gain tempo during the match since you will have more mana that turn to do more things with.

Inexpensive Buffs

Playing cards like Deadly Arsenal on one of your creatures then clearing a creature that previously would have resulted in both of them being moved to the void. Now your creature survives and theirs is gone from the board. This improved board position, places your opponents on a more reactive footing. Allowing your future plays to have more impact.

Cheap Removal

Using a removal tool like Auric Rush is almost always superior to using a buff that ties up one of your creatures in the clearing process. The opponent has one less creature that they can use to react to your plays. However, the removal itself doesn't result in you being up a beat. To get that beat you will have to take another action.


Playing cards like Trapdoor will often feel like +1 tempo, but they are really not since the same creature will often return to the board the next turn. Leaving the board in basically the same state it was on the previous turn plus the additional damage you slipped through to the opponents face.

Even with all that, maintaining your tempo is far better than letting them stabilize and swinging the tempo back. Since you being up on tempo means that they are the one taking the most damage. The longer you're up the closer to dead they are going to be.


Playing creatures that require more than one action to remove can help stabilize the board when you are behind on beats. Like playing Skeleton Heavy when they have 2 2/2's on the board. This is a form of virtual tempo which is a bit out of scope for this article. Remember as much as it stabilizes your board, losing it will destabilize your board at least that much.

Last Call

Hopefully this has given you a quick glimpse into one of the concepts that give players the edge. If you want to learn more you can take a look at Introduction to Tempo in the Magic: The Gathering archive and Controlling Tempo from the Sideboard archive. Both of which were articles that inspired and informed this article.

See you next time.

Comments 1

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20.01.2020 23:05