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Systems and Magic: Tempo and Equilibrium


Tempo is one of the hardest things to explain to someone who doesn’t already get it. Some players have a good natural grasp of the concept, but the vast majority of players do not understand how tempo actually influences the game. The goal of this article is to deconstruct tempo and to showcase how this conceptual element of the game works. I believe that thinking about Magic as a system aids this process greatly.

The critical thing to realize when dealing with systems is that, given infinite time, all systems trend toward equilibrium. What is crucial to realize for all systems (Magic included) is where this equilibrium lies. Let’s take a look at a basic example.

Acid-base chemistry is a very good example of a simple system. Whenever a compound (an acid or a base) is added to water, it affects the self-ionization reaction that water undergoes. This is water’s self-ionization reaction:

We take advantage of the equilibrium of this reaction all the time—it’s a value called “pH”. This value shows us where the equilibrium is in our acid-base system and gives us information about the chemical system in question. This is a very basic example, but we can use similar principles in Magic. So, how do we apply this idea to Magic in general?

Magic Matches Are About Controlling Equilibrium

Like pH, tempo is a measure of the location of a Magic game. However, unlike pH, tempo is not a measure of the long-term equilibrium of a game. It is a measure of the current status and location of the game. Thus, another way to think about tempo is like the concept of market share in economics. In this sense, the two decks are like two competing companies, and the market-share distribution is representative of how each company is doing. Tempo is a good analog to that. A deck that is “doing well” is like a company that is “doing well.” It will have an increased market share and thus more “tempo.”

The important thing to note from this example is that tempo can grow, be sustained, or atrophy based on the actions of its controller (the player or company). It’s important to note that tempo can be actively or passively acquired, but it can also atrophy from a lack of activity. Whether a player has to act to sustain his tempo is a function of the location of the game at the current moment relative to the long-term equilibrium of the game or matchup.

Having said this, it seems fairly obvious that if we want to use this concept of equilibrium to our advantage, the most important thing is to understand where any given equilibrium lies. In a general, Magic sense, I believe it is fairly obvious that only two possible situations can exist for the location of the long-term equilibrium of a Magic game:

  1. The equilibrium can favor one player or deck.
  2. The equilibrium can be roughly in the middle.

There really isn’t any other possibility. So, how is this information useful to us? Well, the final piece to remember is that a system trends toward equilibrium over longer time (turns) and number of iterations (games). With these two things, we can see how the equilibrium, and thus tempo, becomes a weapon in a practical sense.

Looking at Scenario 1: Equilibrium Favoring One Player

When the equilibrium of Magic favors a single player, that player is obviously at an advantage. Why? Because the natural force of the game is behind that player. Because more time will improve that player’s position, in order to “improve,” that player only has to maintain the status quo. By the nature of the system, that puts that player in better position.

Let’s look at a Magic example. Why do so many “good” Magic players like playing control? The answer is that, usually, the more controlling the deck, the more the long-term equilibrium favors that deck. This isn’t always the case, but it is very often true, and if you have control of the long-term equilibrium, all you really have to do is buy enough time, and you will win the game. The quintessential example of this is the aggro-versus-control matchup.

Consider the following situation in Magic:

Player A is playing mono-Red and it is his turn.

Player B is playing U/B control.

Situation 1:

Player A’s board: Mountain

Player A has seven cards in hand.

Player A is at 20 life.

Player B’s board: Island

Player B has seven cards in hand.

Player B is at 20 life.

Situation 2:

Player A’s board: Seven Mountains

Player A has seven cards in hand.

Player A is at 20 life.

Player B’s board: Two Islands, two Swamps, two Drowned Catacombs, Nephalia Drownyard

Player B has seven cards in hand.

Player B is at 20 life.

You would have to say that Player B is much better off in Situation 2, even though his relative situations (from a game perspective) are identical. The players have identical amounts of mana, identical numbers of cards in hand, and identical life totals. So, why is Player B much better off than Player A in Situation 2? The answer lies in the natural equilibrium of the matchup, and thus in tempo. Because the long-term equilibrium of the game favors Player B, all Player B has to do to gain positioning is to have nothing happen. If both players remain on completely equal footing, Player B’s position will improve.

Backing off from this specific example, what do we do in a more general situation if we are like Player A? What do we do if we are tempo-disadvantaged?

The answer lies in the fact that Magic games don’t have to go long. A tempo-disadvantaged player cannot fight a protracted war against both the system and his opponent, and thus he has to try to end the game quickly. The result is that the player has to devote resources to two ends:

  1. Establishing an early tempo lead
  2. Sustaining that tempo lead long enough to kill his opponent

Why does a tempo-disadvantaged player need to do both of these things? The answer lies in the nature of the system. If we go back to the market-share analogy, the disadvantaged side must seize some increase in tempo (market share), or else it is impossible to win. Reduced to its most basic form, you can think of the following statement: If both players are in identical situations, neither player can win. This, by nature, has to be true. A completely identical situation results in a draw. Thus, in order to win, one player must have an advantage at some point.

The second thing to realize is that the inherent construction of certain strategies and decks can, in fact, give them control over the long-term equilibrium of the game. This forces the player to go in the other direction, and thus kill his opponent earlier. The reason is that the player is fighting both his opponent’s resistance and the natural tendency of the system (Magic) toward equilibrium. This is a fight the player cannot win for a protracted period. However, Magic is awesome because it doesn’t force a player to win that fight for a protracted period. It only forces him to win it long enough to end the current game.

Thus, his objective becomes to try to use tempo in his favor. By focusing an attack on his opponent, he attempts to overwhelm the opposing defenses, creating a breach long enough for the player to push through and end the game. This requires momentum, since he is likely unable to end the game in a single blow. That means that the player needs to generate enough momentum that his later actions will support his inertia and thus lead him to victory. This is why we have the twofold condition to winning early—generate early momentum and tempo while using inertia to sustain it.

Looking at Scenario 2: Even Long-Term Equilibrium

If the long-term equilibrium lies in the relative middle, it becomes important to try to use a more short-term approach. In a sense, it becomes profitable to understand how to operate like a tempo-disadvantaged player. Why? Because the system will trend toward parity in the long term.

If any given player is advantaged, the long-term equilibrium will, in theory, favor his opponent. This should be true because the long-term equilibrium favors neither player, and thus, given enough time, both players will draw to even parity. While this can be difficult to see in some situations, it is, for the most part, actually true. If both players continue to accomplish very little, the player who is behind will eventually catch up.

Thus, the player who is ahead needs to play as if he is behind in tempo. He needs to be aggressive in establishing a greater advantage and in holding that advantage. The most apparent recent example of this was in Jace, the Mind Sculptor wars. In many ways, untapping with Jace, the Mind Sculptor in play gave you a tremendous advantage. However, if you did nothing with it, you would eventually allow your opponent back in the game. He would find some way of killing your Jace (usually by playing his own), and you would return to square one. Once you put Jace on the table in a mirror, it became important to be aggressive with Jace.

Think about this from what I stated in the previous section. Your goals are to:

  1. Establish a tempo lead
  2. Sustain that tempo lead

Goal 1 is already accomplished just by having resolved Jace. Now you have to sustain that advantage. From a game standpoint, this is simple: You have to protect the physical card Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Because that is your “advantage,” sustaining it becomes very simple. All you have to do is make sure it stays on the board. Luckily, Jace goes a long way toward helping that strategy by drawing you extra cards and controlling one of the major avenues of attacking him—creatures—with his Unsummon ability. If you can successfully defend Jace by doing this, you will win the game because your momentum will carry you to that end. If you can’t, your opponent will get back in the game.

In the end, the strength of Jace proved to be his undoing. Jace proved to be far too easy to defend and thus put a stranglehold on the format. However, from a theoretical standpoint, he serves as an excellent example of this principle in action. When both players have a relatively even long-term position, all you have to do is generate an advantage and sustain it long enough to win.

Controlling Tempo and Equilibrium

So, tempo as a concept is the measurement of the current state of the game in relation to its natural equilibrium. I’ve also pointed out that we can use this knowledge of tempo to see how to interact with our opponents. I’ve shown basic strategic interactions in the previous sections, but I want to talk a bit about actively using the concept of tempo to attack your opponent. How do we accomplish this? There are three real ways of using the equilibrium of a game (and thus tempo) as a weapon.

  1. Deny your opponent the ability to gain tempo (advance his game plan).
  2. Deny your opponent the ability to atrophy your tempo (hinder your game plan).
  3. Force your opponent down a specific line of play which you plan to either counteract or defeat.

Options 1 and 2 relate to specific resources. They involve attacking your opponent’s ways of either advancing his game plan or hindering yours. Removal spells like Doom Blade and mass removal like Day of Judgment are examples of things your opponent can use to hinder your game plan. You can attack these with spells like Stone Rain and Mana Leak. Stone Rain attacks indirectly by delaying the spell (preferably until it is too late), while Mana Leak attacks the spell directly. You can also attack your opponent’s attempts to gain traction. Various planeswalkers, like Liliana of the Veil and Jace, the Mind Sculptor, alongside proactive spells, like Unburial Rites and Dungrove Elder, are examples of things your opponent is going to do to advance his own game plan. Even cards like Birds of Paradise, Solemn Simulacrum, Ponder, and Forbidden Alchemy can serve as examples of game-plan-advancing cards. Attacking these cards is a good way of fighting a tempo war. Note that a modern example of this is how U/B decks have moved to playing Wring Flesh to combat G/W’s 1-drop mana-accelerators.

Option 3 is another interesting way of going about this sort of thing. When you focus your attack on your opponent in a specific area, you can often force him down certain lines of defense, which makes him predictable. This allows you to gain tempo. An easy example of this is in chess, when you use a lower-value piece to attack a higher-value piece (for example, a pawn attacking a queen). Through this sort of action, you force your opponent to defend against the attack, and thus you give yourself the opportunity to gain tempo.

Magic has a similar sort of thing. If your deck is focused enough, your opponent will be forced to respond in a specific manner. Dredge is an excellent example of this principle taken to the extreme. Dredge forces your opponent to interact on only one front: the graveyard. If he isn’t prepared to interact on that front, he will usually lose. If he is, he can often beat Dredge. However, forcing the opposition down specific lines of play lends predictability from the Dredge player’s perspective. He knows he will really only have to worry about a few key cards, and as long as he can beat those, he is probably safe.

This example can be extended to specific situations. For example, if you have a Lightning Bolt on the stack and your opponent is at 3 life, he really only has two options. He can play an instant that gains him life, or he can counter the Lightning Bolt. This sort of option-limitation is a way of forcing your opponent into a situation that you can exploit for the benefit of tempo. The critical thing to remember is that by doing this sort of forcing, you can prepare a counterplay for whatever your opponent is doing. Because your opponent is in a predictable position, a prepared counterplay at this point can going to range from rather effective to completely and utterly devastating.


The goal of this article was to showcase an alternative explanation of tempo. I believe that the basic idea of tempo as a measure of the current location of a Magic game relative to its equilibrium point is the most applicable view of tempo. It forces recognition of the single biggest property of tempo—the fact that it’s a transient advantage—while allowing a conceptual framework to develop showcasing the proper usage of this advantage/resource. All in all, understanding tempo is crucial to improving your own gameplay and to understanding the overall forces at work in this game.

Chingsung Chang

Conelead most everywhere and on MTGO

Khan32k5 at gmail dot com

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