Define This: Tempo


In the current set of chapters on Define This, we are going into more specific notions of the vocabulary. While some words are easy to define, some have a sturdy theoretical background, or are simply not easy to describe as such. After going through CA and tiebreakers, let's work on a notion that isn't properly defined: tempo.

Side Note on The Series


Last December, I wasn't sure where to go in terms of articles. To be honest, I felt like this series of articles was running a bit dry. CA (Card Advantage) has been covered, metagame wasn't complex enough for an article, and all in all, I wasn't sure it was the kind of article the public was expecting. So, I asked Twitter what they thought, and the results were very lopsided:

Twitter Post

So, as it turns out, both voters said I should keep the series up. And just to thank these two for taking the time to click on a button, I'm going to do just that.

Keep in mind though that the themes are running dry and I might not keep writing those articles for long. If you have any idea on what kind of articles you would like to see, please tell me in the comments down below. Or on Twitter since now you have my handle ;).

But without further ado, let's jump into tempo! That's what you came for isn't it?


The Issue with Tempo

The issue with the notion of tempo is that it has never been clearly defined. Unlike CA or deck categories, there is not one definition or calculus that everyone has agreed upon to define Tempo. This means that this article will be a little different as I will compare two definitions of tempo: my own and that of Jean-Emmanuel Depraz, who has kindly accepted to help out a bit for this article.

Karns Temporal Sundering

Anyways, given that there is no true definition to give, neither Depraz nor I are pretentious enough to impose our opinions as unquestionable (even though we are Frenchmen). The way that you feel tempo is just as valuable as that of a Platinum Pro or an FNM grinder, so please, take the time to share your thoughts on these definitions. There is still a lot of work to do, and you can be a part of it!

The Depraz Definition

If you've ever heard of me, you might know how I like to brag about being friends with Jean-Emmanuel Depraz. What can I say, I'm just that proud to have trained with the guy.

I'm going to start rambling on how great this guy is."

We've trained together for over a year or two and in that time, I have come to admire this guy like few others. His technical gameplay is exceptional, his read on the game is amazing, but it's his never-faltering determination that stood out to me. Back in 2016 and 2017, JE was not even Bronze. He had been trying to become a pro player for ten years, and while he was recognized to be one of the very best players to never have accomplished much, the fact remained that he only had one Pro Tour under his belt and bombed at nearly every GP. And then it happened as I hoped it would for him. Shortly after our separation as teammates, he went on to qualify for another Pro Tour via RPTQ, then won GP Warsaw 2017, proceeded to Top 8 Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan and eventually hit Platinum in January 2018.

As I am writing these lines, he has become world champion with team France only just a week ago (along with two other buddies of mine, but that's another story).

He has gone through some very low points, some of which I witnessed first-hand. Somehow, he never gave up on his childhood dream for twelve whole years before making it. I think of him as the reason I do what I like - the one who proved me that dreams can always come true.

According to Pierre Dagen, "he looks like he's playing Rock-Paper-Scissors against himself… and not achieving any better than a draw!"

On top of that, he's actually a genuinely good guy who is eager to share whatever he knows or has. Turns out we're still buddies enough that he would contribute to this article with a definition of his own! Translated from French:

"Tempo (or rather tempo advantage) is the advantage one gains by being able to do more things than one's opponents without dying. It can be described offensively as a way to limit the number of options for your opponents (which would then balance their CA, Sonic Assault being a good example) or defensively as a way gain more time to do more things later on (like Centaur Peacemaker)."

Tormenting Voice

I feel like J-E always had a knack for explaining things in a way everyone can understand, and the examples are well chosen. But this is still a tad complex so allow me to elaborate.

The center of this definition is in the fact that tempo allows for more actions. Basically, the more options you have the better for you, this much should be obvious. Hence the importance of tempo in a game of Magic. And even though dying is an option, technically, we'll not consider that a way to play the game. So basically, anything you can do to gain time to do more things (or reduce the time your opponent has) is giving you a tempo advantage.

Do take note that here, gaining tempo advantage is not doing more things but having the possibility of spending more resources for more actions. You might be at a tempo advantage while casting no spells. Teferi, Hero of Dominaria will do that...

The distinction between offensive and defensive tempo is only just the fact that you can do so by interacting with your opponent to deteriorate their game plan, thus giving you more time before they achieve said plan, or just improve your own situation. Discard, Ramp, bounces, most iterations of CA, QA, and even several iterations of CDA (Card Disadvantage) fits in a strategy focusing on gaining a strong tempo advantage.

According to this definition, a good example of a (defensive) tempo deck would be Martyr Proc in Modern, as you are gaining life to set a devastating late-game up.

The Moudou Definition

JE and I have discussed this notion on several occasions, and it turns out we don't really have the same sights. While we both agree on many core principles and/or consequences, I feel like this wouldn't really be my article if I didn't state opinions of my own.

Tempo always had a certain ring to me as the representation of the pace of a game. Everyone tries to impose their own pace, but as with CA, some are more willing to sacrifice resources to do so than others. So, what would be my definition exactly?

Tempo, to me, is the measure of how aggressively resources are used each turn by each player.

Squandered Resources

Now before we get all upset at one another, let's make sure the obvious is stated: at the heart, those two definitions are very close one to another. Depraz says that tempo advantage is gained by giving yourself options, and I say it is the amount of actions taken in a game. Naturally, the more options you have, the more actions and decisions you can take, so all in all we do have similar perceptions of tempo. Another point in common with our definitions is that the notion of Tempo, while independent from Card Advantage, does suffer from severe CDA.

Where things do get different though is that if you take no decision but have the liberty to do so, you are still at a tempo advantage according to Depraz, whereas in my mind, you are just at a tempo stalemate at best. This situation is typically attained with Teferi Control decks in Standard, where you eventually reach a game-state with a Teferi drawing an extra card a turn but doing little else with your grip full of cards. That to me is not standing on a tempo highpoint, but just a tempo stalemate and a won battle of CA. Conversely, casting Time Warp using all your mana will most likely not really improve too much of anything, but it is a tempo gain in my mind, whereas if it allows nothing more than drawing a card, Depraz might not consider it a strong tempo play.

A good representation of a Tempo deck to me would be Izzet Drakes in current RNA Standard, as you are using your mana to cast and cycle cards at every point in the game.


So that's that. Whose opinion do you value more? The four lifetime pro points occasional streamer who tried half-heartedly to quit the game or the Platinum MPL-competitor world champion? I mean, this is almost a rhetorical question of course - I know you obviously value my opinion :)

All jokes aside though, Tempo is not a well-defined notion. While discussing this matter for the tenth or twentieth time, we both did acknowledge that neither of us had a rock-solid definition to give, and we could let ourselves be convinced that we were both wrong, given solid argumentation.

The situation being as it is, I value more than ever your opinion and feelings towards the definition that have been given in this article. Please, do take the time to comment and share how you would define it. I am sincerely looking to expand my insights and interpretation of the core concept of Tempo, so feel free to help out!

Tormenting Voice

As usual, I can only encourage you to ask for the next term you'd like covered. No question is sillier than not asking it and then later saying something stupid. So please, ask away, comment, ask on Facebook, Twitter, feel free to let me know where (if) I was wrong! I still have not quite settled on what I'll go through next time, but we'll figure it out. You also can help me out by asking for new notions to dig into

La bise!

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.


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Moudou(2019-03-06 10:06)

Hi here everyone!
Sorry for being a tad late tot the party, but I really wanted to thank you all for your participation. Your comments were alle incredibly insightful (no pun intended) and your suggestions for future articles have been duely noted.
I never had such amazingly structured comments on any of my articles throughout my writing "career" so I am a bit speechless and very thankful to you guys :)

T-Bone(2019-02-04 16:29)

Well, I'll start by saying I thoroughly appreciate your articles and you should definitely keep it up!

Regarding the definition of tempo, I agree on both views, each representing a slightly different aspect of the concept. To me: Tempo is the ability to do more, or in the opposite side of the spectrum, less than your opponent in the same amount of time. I'm coming back to the musical aspect of tempo, which implies that you would play a larger (or smaller) amount of notes in the same allocated time slot.

So, a good example would be mono-blue, which lets you have huge tempo swings in your favor, putting up a board, drawing cards, countering the opponents strategy. All of these are tempo swings, card advantage, strategy hampering, etc.

As for articles, I totally agree with Neirgara. Archetypes and resource management would be amazing! Especially for aggro, I know most people think it's brainless. In my opinion you have to be much smarter to actually suceed with aggro than with control, because the strategy lends itself to being misplayed. While control reinforces deep thinking as an archetype.

Thank you, and keep it up!

Spinefist(2019-02-04 15:58)

I'd say Depraz is essentially more on point with this. His definition of tempo is more wholly about the entire game of magic you are playing at the moment, and so tempo advantage / disadvantage is more useful metric than Moudou's "goldfish" point of view. Also, I think Depraz's Teferi example is very good, both because control deck having steady CA plays into it's game plan and therefore quickens it's eventual victory, and because ticking up planeswalker towards it's game winning ultimate is as real clock as creatures attacking for damage.

Panthera77(2019-02-02 01:45)

Even if this kind of concept is sometimes confusing, I really like this article and read even more things as it interests me a lot. My tempo definition is closer to yours. Thanks

Neirgara(2019-02-02 01:40)

Language evolves, and the definition of words or expressions is set by the majority.

So Depraz would be right, considering his definition is the most used (which meets my personal experience).

Still, I tend to find your definition more agreeable, as it is more intuitive. (Though I would put more focus on "progress by taking action" than action itself).

"Tempo" is a word, that in other areas is used to describe pace. So using it to describe the pace of a deck or playstyle makes for better understanding even when you hear the term for the first time. But Depraz's version describes more of a quantitative quality (time and the possible number of choices that you could take within it), which is more like "turn advantage", the equivalent of CA only for turns.


Depraz would be right by agreeing with the majority, while more people would intuitively understand your definition. But since these technical terms are mostly used in a more competitive environment, where players are used to adapt terms from articles with a competitive audience, Depraz definition would be the only relevant definition, as the environment where you would need to use it, would agree mostly on this definition.


Nice articles, by the way. I think, the most difficult thing for newer players to get into competitive play is understanding strategical depth. And for that there are not many detailled explanations, that a lesser experienced player can understand without problems.

I would like to see more articles, that explain terms and / or strategic depth, especially with simple but usual examples. Good things would be Archetypes and Decktypes (and the difference between both I have met a good number of newer players, that confused both and did not understand, that an Aggro deck does not necessarily be a Mono Red). Also, I could see much use for articles, that explain alternative plays, like when to use a card not in the way, it was primarily designed for, or that explain choices and thought processes.

If I could make a wish, I would say "Life" would make for a very good and useful article, telling players how to use that resource. One of my greatest improvements was being able to not to block or use removal, so I would be able to get a better trade later or even CA.