What is Tempo?

     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!

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