Written by Myles Miller
Tempo is defined as “the rate or speed of an activity”, and you’ll usually find this term applied to music and how fast/slow it’s played. Tempo in the context of Magic refers to the advantage created by putting yourself ahead in a game, while setting your opponent back a step or two. The most effective tempo plays will add to your board while taking something away from your opponent: one of their creatures, a removal spell from their hand, or a chunk of their life total. Whether you’re adding a creature to your board, destroying one of your opponent’s threats, or creating a situation in which your opponent has to react to your plays instead of making their own, a game of Magic is all about the give and take of tempo. In this article, I will go through each color and discuss how each creates tempo in a different way. A blue deck plays very differently than a green deck, and the ways those colors generate tempo differ as well. Normally I’d start with White and move around the color pie, but I’d like to start with the color that most exemplifies tempo; that is infamous for finding ways to stall the opponent and wear them down over time:
Blue is the first color that comes to mind in the discussion of tempo. Blue allows you to counter your opponents’ spells before they even happen, return their creatures to their hand or make them ineffective in combat, or even take cards directly out of their deck with a mill effect. The thing that Blue does best is to identify the biggest threat your opponent has and attempt to neutralize it, generating tempo by using various tricks to keep your opponent one step behind you over the course of the game. Let’s start with perhaps the biggest tempo-maker in Standard right now.
U/B Control by Andrew Cuneo
3rd place, GP Providence
1x The Scarab God 8x Island
4x Torrential Gearhulk 1x Submerged Boneyard
3x Censor 5x Swamp
2x Commit//Memory Sideboard
4x Disallow 1x Arguel’s Blood Fast
2x Essence Scatter 1x Baral, Chief of Compliance
4x Fatal Push 1x Bontu’s Last Reckoning
2x Glimmer of Genius 1x Deadeye Tracker
4x Hieroglyphic Illumination 2x Duress
1x Negate 2x Essence Extraction
2x Search for Azcanta 2x Infernal Reckoning
1x Syncopate 1x Jace’s Defeat
4x Vraska’s Contempt 1x Negate
4x Drowned Catacomb 2x Vizier of Many Faces
4x Field of Ruin 1x Walking Ballista
If you’ve played against a control deck in Standard, you’ve probably seen this card a couple times. Torrential Gearhulk has been a staple of blue decks for almost the entirety of its time in Standard and has even made a bit of a comeback at recent events like Grand Prix Los Angeles and Grand Prix Providence. This card is a must-have in control decks because it allows you to get more value out of your instants by casting them from the graveyard for no additional cost, as well as providing you a huge creature that can end a game in just a few turns. Let’s take a closer look at how this card generates tempo.
-Flash. Torrential Gearhulk is a versatile threat because it can be cast on your opponent’s turn as well as your own. When your opponent isn’t expecting a massive threat like this, they might make an attack without considering that you might have a 5/6 blocker.
-Flashback. Look at Andrew Cuneo’s list above and count the instants that can be reused by Gearhulk. By getting an extra use out of any of these spells at the right time, you can generate a huge amount of tempo and swing almost any game in your favor.
Here’s a very common scenario when playing a deck like the one listed above: My opponent sees an open board and attacks me with two creatures. Before we move to the “Declare Blockers” step, I cast Torrential Gearhulk. I use its effect to cast a Vraska’s Contempt from my graveyard on one of the attacking creatures, and my Gearhulk blocks and destroys the other one while surviving combat itself. With a play like this, I have made a huge tempo play in several ways. I have played one card from my hand and removed two of my opponent’s creatures. I got to recast Vraska’s Contempt, one of the most powerful spells in my deck. My life total is higher than before, my opponent lost 2 creatures, and I now have a 5/6 that is free to attack next turn. With the tempo play I’ve just made, I can start my next turn in a much better position than I was in a moment ago.
Black cards will usually create tempo by destroying your opponent’s creatures or forcing them to discard cards from their hand. One of the things Black does best is single-target creature removal, and the finest example of this is embodied in the next card I’d like to highlight: Ravenous Chupacabra.
U/B Midrange by Brett Sinclair
10th place, GP Los Angeles
4x Champion of Wits 4x Aether Hub
4x Glint-Sleeve Siphoner 4x Drowned Catacomb
1x Hostage Taker 4x Fetid Pools
1x Ravenous Chupacabra 2x Field of Ruin
3x The Scarab God 5x Island
2x Torrential Gearhulk 7x Swamp
1x Liliana, Death’s Majesty Sideboard
2x Arguel’s Blood Fast 1x Confisacation Coup
1x Cast Down 2x Duress
1x Censor 1x Essence Extraction
1x Commit//Memory 1x Gifted Aetherborn
2x Doomfall 1x Jace’s Defeat
2x Essence Scatter 2x Negate
4x Fatal Push 1x Search for Azcanta
1x Never//Return 1x Sorcerous Spyglass
4x Vraska’s Contempt 1x Spell Pierce
1x Supreme Will
2x Vizier of Many Faces
You can usually find Ravenous Chupacabra in a deck like this, alongside cards like The Scarab God and Liliana, Death’s Majesty. With the ability to get this creature back from the graveyard and use the ability more than once, you can get a lot of tempo out of just this one card. Look back at my initial definition of tempo: the advantage created by putting yourself ahead in a game, while setting your opponent back a step or two. With Ravenous Chupacabra you’re achieving both at once. You put yourself ahead by adding another creature to your board and set your opponent back by destroying their best creature at the same time. A 2/2 isn’t exactly a large creature, but when it destroys your opponent’s biggest threat as it comes into play, it’s probably able to block and trade with most if not all the remaining creatures.
Ravenous Chupacabra really shines with cards that can abuse it’s enter-the-battlefield ability. The more times you can make use of unconditional removal like this, the better! Just look at all the ways to reuse it in the decklist above:
-Cast normally from your hand
-Reanimated by Liliana, Death’s Majesty
-Eternalized with The Scarab God’s ability
-Copied by Vizier of Many Faces
-Taken hostage by Hostage Taker and then re-cast
Of course, these plays may not come up in a typical game, but you can see how a deck built to take advantage of an effect like this can generate a great deal of tempo in a variety of ways to let you stay one step ahead of your opponent.
Red is the most aggressive color, and as such generates tempo by dealing damage. I mentioned at the start of the article that one way to generate tempo is by getting ahead while hurting your opponent’s life total. Tempo plays with red cards will allow you to stay aggressive by either removing a blocker that would prevent damage or hitting your opponent directly with damage. Sometimes, if you’re very lucky, you get a card that can do both! What does that look like?
B/R Aggro by Logan Nettles
1st place, GP Los Angeles
4x Bomat Courier 2x Aether Hub
2x Glorybringer 4x Canyon Slough
4x Goblin Chainwhirler 4x Dragonskull Summit
2x Hazoret, the Fervent 14x Mountain
2x Kari Zev, Skyship Raider 1x Swamp
2x Pia Nalaar Sideboard
2x Rekindling Phoenix 1x Abrade
4x Scrapheap Scrounger 3x Chandra’s Defeat
2x Soul-Scar Mage 1x Doomfall
3x Chandra, Torch of Defiance 4x Duress
2x Abrade 2x Insult//Injury
2x Cut//Ribbons 3x Magma Spray
2x Heart of Kiran 1x Swamp
2x Unlicensed Disintegration
Goblin Chainwhirler is currently one of the most dominant cards in Standard and given the amount of aggressive tempo it can provide, it’s not hard to see why. For the low, low cost of 3 mana, you get to deal 1 damage to your opponent and everything they control, and you get a 3/3 with first strike. “But Myles, it’s only 1 damage, how does that help?” Think about all the times that 1 damage has made a real difference. All the creatures in Standard with 1 toughness (there are quite a few in the decklist from the Black segment). All the times one of your opponent’s creatures or planeswalkers have lived through combat where 1 damage would have destroyed them. All the times your opponent lived at 1 life and you just needed ONE MORE DAMAGE TO WIN THE GAME AHHHHH. Ahem. You see my point.
This card creates tempo just by forcing your opponent to play a certain way. Maybe they play their cards in a less-than-optimal order just in case a well-timed Goblin Chainwhirler would be too detrimental. Maybe they block in a way that’s not as effective since that one extra damage from a Goblin Chainwhirler played after combat would do some terrible, terrible things to their board state. Between making blocks awkward, limiting decisions, and removing cheap blockers, our chain-wielding friend here is exactly the kind of tempo an aggressive red deck is looking for.
Now we’ve reached the part of the color pie where the definition of tempo becomes a little different. With Blue, Black, and Red, you have easily quantifiable ways of creating tempo. Those three colors are arguably the best at directly interacting with the battlefield to create flashy tempo plays like the ones we’ve discussed so far. But Green (and White but we’ll get to that) tends to be less reactionary, and as such generates tempo in a more proactive way. Let’s look at how green decks create tempo in the current Standard environment:
G/u Stompy by Andrew Baeckstrom
16th place at GP Los Angeles
3x Greenbelt Rampager 2x Aether Hub
4x Llanowar Elves 4x Botanical Sanctum
2x Resilient Khenra 12x Forest
3x Rhonas the Indomitable 1x Hashep Oasis
4x Servant of the Conduit 4x Hinterland Harbor
4x Steel Leaf Champion Sideboard
4x Verdurous Gearhulk 3x Aethersphere Harvester
3x Vine Mare 1x Metamorphic Alteration
3x Walking Ballista 4x Negate
3x Adventurous Impulse 2x Sorcerous Spyglass
2x Commit//Memory 1x Spell Pierce
2x Heart of Kiran 2x Thrashing Brontodon
2x Vivien Reid
Given the discussion of tempo we’ve had so far, it may be tricky to immediately see how this list can generate it. Or why I have Llanowar Elves, a common, as the highlighted card. Well that’s because Llanowar Elves is exactly the card I want to talk about! Green is not the color of responding to your opponent’s threats, it is the color of being the threats. Green doesn’t have too many answers, but it sure does ask a lot of questions. I’ve talked about how a big part of tempo is setting your opponent back, but the other side of that coin is putting yourself one step ahead.
Take a moment to review the cards in the decklist above, especially their mana costs. Most of those creatures are very powerful, but they cost 3 or more mana. But, imagine a game that goes something like this: Turn 1 Llanowar Elves. Turn 2 Steel Leaf Champion. Turn 3, attack for 5 and add a Vine Mare. Turn 4 play a Verdurous Gearhulk and you can attack for up to 14 damage. Its turn 4 and your opponent has had 19 damage thrown at them. They’re overwhelmed, playing on the back foot, and you have no intention of slowing down. This, my friends, is how Green does tempo. Not with answers, but by asking questions. Large, heavy, 5 power questions.
I don’t like going through the colors out of WUBRG order, but I wanted to start with Blue and end with White. Where Blue is the primary color of tempo, I find it hardest to consider how White accomplishes it and wanted to save it for last. Hopefully by this point you’ve got a good idea of how tempo is an important factor in games of Magic and how each color approaches it in its own way. Take a close look at this final decklist and spotlight card, then see if you can determine where I’m going with this next point.
G/W Midrange by QBTURTLE15
7-1 result, Magic Online Championship Series
2x Angel of Sanctions 6x Plains
3x Jadelight Ranger 2x Hashep Oasis
4x Llanowar Elves 4x Scattered Groves
3x Lyra Dawnbringer 1x Shefet Dunes
2x Rishkar, Peema Renegade 4x Sunpetal Grove
4x Servant of the Conduit Sideboard
3x Shalai, Voice of Plenty 3x Baffling End
2x Thrashing Brontodon 2x Heroic Intervention
4x Walking Ballista 1x Karn, Scion of Urza
2x Ajani Unyielding 1x Naturalize
3x Blossoming Defense 2x Nissa, Vital Force
2x Skysovereign, Consul Flagship 3x Prowling Serpopard
2x Cast Out 1x Sentinel Totem
7x Forest 2x Thopter Arrest
As a control player, let me take a moment to say: Shalai, Voice of Plenty is the bane of my existence. Of all 5 colors, I spent the longest time on White trying to find the best tempo card to discuss, and then took even longer trying to decide if I really wanted to talk about this card, my nemesis. Ultimately, the reasons I hate playing against this card are exactly the reasons why it’s ideal to discuss how White approaches the concept of tempo.
So how does Shalai, Voice of Plenty put you ahead or put your opponent behind? How does she generate advantage? The answer lies in my previous analogy of questions and answers. Blue, Black, and Red are excellent at providing answers to your opponents’ threats (questions). Shalai asks a very specific question, one that you’ve probably heard from your elementary school teacher: “Did you bring enough for the class?” Let me illustrate what I mean.
I have a Ravenous Chupacabra in my hand, and my opponent has a very large threat on their side of the battlefield. Let’s say, to pull from the decklist above, a Lyra Dawnbringer. I can’t wait for my opponent to end their turn so I can get rid of that pesky angel and get back to winning the game. But before they end the turn, my opponent plays a Shalai, Voice of Plenty. So now I can’t target Lyra Dawnbringer with the effect of my Ravenous Chupacabra. Sure, I can kill Shalai, since she doesn’t give herself hexproof, but then my opponent still has this Lyra Dawnbringer and I’m fresh out of answers. White cards like Shalai create tempo by forcing your opponent to play a certain way. They can restrict your ability to play certain cards or protect the rest of the battlefield, which can set your opponent back by limiting their resources and keeping them off balance.
I hope this introduction to the concept of tempo has made you think about how you approach your games of Magic! How good or bad a card is in any given format is usually based on how much it can affect the tempo of your games, how it can generate an advantage for you or a disadvantage for your opponent. Do you have some examples of great tempo plays that swung a big game in your favor? Do you have more questions about how tempo works or how you can better incorporate it into your gameplay decisions? Do you want to know more about why I hate Shalai, Voice of Plenty? Let us know in the comments, or in person at Battlegrounds anytime. See you on the battlefield!