In chess, tempo is the concept of time. More specifically, a “turn.” A player gains tempo by being efficient with their moves. Conversely, if a player creates a board state in which the opponent unwillingly has to respond, it’s said the opponent has “lost tempo” (specially called a forcing move).
To relate Magic to chess requires a bit of finesse. For one, chess is arguably more balanced than Magic. For the small advantage that white has by going first, the game is fairly matched, given no incorrect moves. Even to the extent that modern Chess theorists have challenged the first-move advantage of white. Claiming that over the course of the game, white’s advantage dissipates.
Why should you care? Because identifying tempo is often the key to victory.
However, analyzing tempo is a learned skill. To make matters worse, the term is often misused. To understand the concept, we need to illustrate where it’s seen and its utility.
The typical tempo article uses examples from limited play and for good reason. Limited by its nature has the most opportunities to provide examples of tempo. Tempo's still a factor in other formats but sometimes requires greater attention to spot it. Just because your opponent “stormed” off on turn three, because he played
Baral, Chief of Compliance, does not mean tempo didn’t exist - you just missed it.
In limited, the games are slower and tempo is more pronounced. Both players play a land and
Fanatical Firebrand on their first turn. Lead player then attacks, forcing a trade with his opponent, second main phase he plays
Hardy Veteran. The lead player now has one creature to the opponent’s zero. The lead player has used tempo to gain an advantage. The tempo, in this instance, was the second creature. The tempo was created by the trade. The lead player’s tempo has prompted an advantage and if unchecked will result in a win.
While not the most involved example, this scenario illustrates gaining an advantage using tempo as a tool.
And this leads us to the major misconception of tempo. Terms in the English language are often used relatively and the concept of tempo is no exception. In reality it’s a defined and specific occurrence . Rather than saying, “I have a tempo strategy.” or “Tolarian tutor has a video on tempo decks.” It is correct to say, “I’ve capitalized on my opponent’s loss of tempo.” or “Playing first gives me the tempo to be ahead on board.” The distinction seems nuanced but definitions matter. Noting the contrast between concepts leads a player to victory.
Another way to illustrate the idea of tempo is to use the financial concept of equity. While it can vary based on context, generally speaking, equity is the difference between an asset (something you own) and the cost (what was used to get the something). Cards are our currency to settle up the cost part of the equation. Our asset is tempo. When we subtract our assets from our cost any positive difference is equity, which in this case equals advantage.
Advantage = Tempo - Cards
Using our previous example, lead player starts the game with a goal - he/she wants to win. They know in order to do so they need to be at an advantage relative to their opponent. They play a series of cards (cost) that, ideally, will gain them tempo (asset) which will grant them an advantage and if they maintain this difference they will accomplish their goal. See how we came full circle?
Understanding tempo - as far as Magic is concerned - is really an exercise in assessing board states. As many of us learned early on, not paying attention to what’s on the board has lead to (at least in my case) losses. Identifying who is gaining tempo is part of this but nuanced and easily missed. If you opponent swings in with two
Legion Lieutenants and you incorrectly decide to trade off while they have
Fatal Push mana up, you lost tempo.
Often times when we are in a match and that feeling of “being behind” is a recognition of the opponent having the advantage. They gained the advantage through a series of moves that gained them tempo, at some point, which they maintained until you caught on. Often if you are realizing it now, it’s too late (unless you have a
Assessing board state and in-turn tempo is really a series of questions. However, the answers are only as good as the information provided. What’s commonly referred as “public information.” Questions such as, “Cards in hand?” or “Who’s ahead on board?” are all part of the reasoning process. We can add up the sum and make an educated assumption.
All of these subtle moments result in exercising your evaluation skills. During your next match, make it a habit to start asking the question “who has the advantage?” Than assess how they got to that point - trades, cards, etc. The questions will foster a better recognition of tempo. Mix it all together and you have an improved Magic player.