I’m being driven home in a late night taxi, drunk. A drunk that culminates in a strange moment of clarity. There I am, bent over, writing into a new blank note on my phone all these disjointed phrases about ‘timing’ and ‘article’ and ‘terminate.’ The ride home, the paying the taxi fare, the getting into bed… I don’t remember much of that. But when I wake up the next morning with the strange clarity still intact — a rarity lemme tell ya — I begin sketching out what the hell exactly it was that I was going on about.

Drunk realizations can be false gods. But this time, over and over, was the holy throne of insight. I remember the word that finally brought it all to a head that next morning.



Tempo is perhaps the most overused and misunderstood word in Magic strategy lingo. It’s a word both overwrought or underconsidered by many who speak it, and I have not yet read or know of a convincing article or explanation as to what, exactly, the concept of tempo demonstrates in a game of Magic.

But I’m not here to tell you all about what tempo definitively is. I’m here to tell you what thrust itself before me in my drunken cab ride home. I’m not experienced enough to have the answer. But I am coerced enough to present the ideas.


When we measure tempo, we are looking at how a players actions have enabled the furthering of their objective, against their resources. Magic, to me, is a game of resource management and tempo. Resources are all the potentials: your mana, cards in hand, and permanents on the board. Tempo is the manner in which they are executed — speed, weight, etc — to attain your objective and disrupt your opponents objective.

Decks are designed to utilize tempo differently. An aggressive deck, for instance, plays a quick tempo game with a lot of light and quick spells off minimal resources. A control deck, conversely, requires a slow tempo game with disruptive elements — removal, countermagic — to keep pace with aggressive decks, then plays a catch up card — a sweeper, lets say — that can ‘swing’ the tempo in the control players favor.

These tempo plays have different characteristics: light, quick, heavy, slow, big, small. They take shape, can be visualized, and to me, have a very musical quality to them.


Tempo is a concept guided by resources and rhythm. Actions players make are visualized as beats. Every time we cast a spell, attack with a creature, we are taking an action that forwards the rhythm of how the deck we are playing wants to resonate. If left to it’s own devices, and the deck fully resonates uncontested, the deck will achieve its objective. When we talk about tempo, we talk about playing the song our deck wishes to play. There’s a momentum to each game both players fight over; this momentum is tempo.

But we all know magic is a game of interaction  — well, most of the time it is — and disrupting our opponents game plan is a big part of how we win. Attacking our opponents permanents, mana, cards in hand, even their deck…. these are all crucial to winning. As such, disruption can be considered furthering your objective by way of disrupting your opponents.

Knowing your deck and what it wants to do is crucial to understanding how you are winning, so knowing the pace of your deck — when you are ahead, when you are behind — is important to evaluate.


Often when you hear someone commenting as they play magic, you’ll hear them talk about being ahead or behind in the game. This comment refers to several things: resources, board presence… but it also speaks to the games tempo. These are each pieces of the same puzzle and can be superevaluated as being ‘ahead’ or ‘behind’ in the battle to acheive your decks objective.

If we are an aggressive white deck, our investment is in a maximum number of light, early beats and to disrupt the opponent by keeping their game plan just off balance enough that they are priced to awkwardly manage their short number of resources on preserving their life total. Often, a good aggressive deck will overwhelm the slower decks ability to keep up with early tempo plays, and games where the aggressive white deck wins the opponent is stuck with cards in hand and the slightest resistance on the board.

As an aggressive deck, we are ahead when our rhythm continues to develop without our opponent keeping pace. Our beats, and our song, plays out. We are behind when our opponent matches our tempo on either a 1 for 1 basis — thereby keeping pace with our tempo — or by resolving a catch up spell that negates our investment in our many light, quick beats.

If we are playing a control deck, we focus on resource development and trading rhythm until catch up spells create a resource advantage. We are ahead when our opponent cannot disrupt our development and 1 for 1 tempo, and we overwhelm them with resources. We are behind when our opponent can attack our resource development or overwhelm our ability to trade beats.

Midrange decks have an interesting rhythm. They are fluid in that they have a lot of flexibility in card quality. Often a midrange deck wants to dictate the rhythm of the game by elegantly switching between the control deck and the aggressive deck. Each beat in a midrange deck is very big and wide, their plays very powerful. If we are playing a midrange deck, we are playing both a resource development game and a board presence game, so being ahead or behind is actually dictated to us by the opposing strategy.


Aggro-Control decks, or tempo decks, seek to exploit tempo by maximizing disruption after sticking an aggressively costed threat. If we are playing Canadian Threshold, for instance, most of our spells cost one mana, we play 18 lands, and our deck plays optimally when we have two lands on board. Our objective is to stick a threat and aggressively disrupt the opponents ability to build rhythm. Our deck is ahead when we have just enough pressure to clock our opponent. The tempo advantage, the beats, come in resource denial and spell disruption. We are behind when we are not pressuring our opponent, as they can simply draw out of our disruptive element.


There are cards, many of them creatures, that hold inherent tempo advantage. Flametongue Kavu is my favorite example. Flametongue is a 1 for 1 beat in disruption, and another beat in board presence. If we can untap and swing in with him uncontested, thats another beat in our decks rhythm. If our opponent untaps and 1 for 1’s our Flametongue, we have cost our opponent resources and rhythm in their attempt to slow our tempo advantage gained from the Flametongue transaction.

Cards like Flametongue Kavu are tempo positive as they cost our opponent rhythm and resources to squelch. We pay four mana for our opponents threat and their removal spell, and a projected loss of rhythm.


The last little bit of this i’ll get into is the situation in which I found myself pondering drunk in the taxi.

We are playing Modern, Grixis control — Patrick Chapin’s list — against a Grixis Delver deck (a common occurance these days, the grixis on grixis slugfest) and our opponent has just resolved Tasigur, the Golden Fang with one mana, leaving two mana untapped. We cannot interact with him, as we have tapped out to play Snapcaster Mage and Serum Visions, which we bottom-bottomed our scrys. So we untap and draw — we draw Terminate for the turn — and play our fourth land. We have Spell Snare and Mana Leak in hand.

We want to remove his Tasigur, but he has two untapped mana and several cards in hand. We know he can disrupt us at least once. So how do we best ensure we can swing the tempo in our favor? When do we best time our Terminate?

On our main phase?

On his end step?

On his upkeep?

The old ‘have removal, will cast’ during your turn is the worst tempo play. We are behind, and we need to constrain his mana if we are to stop him from continuing to resolve pressure.

On his end step is also poor, as it allows them to draw a card for the turn — giving them another opportunity to disrupt our attempts to swing back the tempo — and get an attack in with Tasigur. Sure, we can chump the Tasigur, but then we are in the same position as last turn, and our opponent has gained even more tempo, as he took an action and removed our card from the battlefield, all without spending any mana. Now if we are to fight over Tasigur, we have a bigger chance of losing the battle and are stuck relying on the top of our deck for an answer, putting us further behind.

The upkeep is the best answer. He is on three mana, the worst he could have is Spell Snare or Dispel to disrupt us. But more importantly, through the lens of tempo plays, is forcing him to use his resources on his turn, constraining his ability to follow up with another threat. We have enough disruption to stop a potential follow up play if the Terminate resolves, and the rhythm of the two decks is best played when our opponent has to tap their mana on their own turn.

When we strip down the scenario to beats, rhythm, the answer becomes clear: force our opponent low on resources so as to win the potential war on tempo. If we can force the Tasigur off the board, untap and play a threat, we have completely swung the tempo in our favor.


I would love some feedback! Do you agree? Disagree? Need more?

Derek Gallen lives and writes in Brooklyn, New York.


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