What’s good, Spirit Squad!

Today we’re gonna talk about one of the most ambiguous words used in all of gaming: tempo! Tempo as a concept has existed in gaming for far longer than your favorite game has existed but is one of the hardest-to-define words in gaming. Today, as your resident tempo expert, I’ll be attempting to do just that.

My dude, dictionaries already exist.

This is why so many of y’all have problems now! Jokes aside, tempo is generally hard to define in the gaming world because of two main reasons. First, and probably most important, is that one definition hasn’t been able to fit all games, since there are many resource systems and sets of rules depending on the game you’re playing. Second, the literal word “tempo” itself has more than one definition. Here’s what happens when you look up the definition of “tempo” online:

As we can see, this may be one of the harder definitions to nail. Multiple definitions here even apply to different games! What’s worse is that, in the context of Magic: the Gathering, not a single one of these fully nails the concept of tempo as we know it.

…especially not the car shelter. I’m not Canadian, don’t ask me what that’s even about (aboot?).

Fine, I’ll bite. So what IS tempo?

Now we come to the crux of the issue. The idea of gaining or losing tempo depends entirely upon your game’s mechanics, but at the end of the day everyone is either trying to gain tempo or enact a plan that seeks to invalidate the concept of tempo altogether. Knowing your role in a game is something we discussed in our Who’s the Beatdown – Still Relevant after almost 25 years! article at length, but let’s come up with a real definition for what tempo in gaming means:

Tempo is using your resources to deny your opponent access to their time.

(You thought this was an article, but it was me, DIO! Dio can stop time itself!)

This is a definition that I believe will suit all gamers, and to prove this theory I’ll lay out a few examples across games that otherwise have little-to-nothing to do with each other.

  • In fighting video games, moves and animations are measured in frames (60 frames to a second). The math itself can get pretty complicated; there are entire websites devoted to move lists broken down by frame timings for each character in games like Tekken and Street Fighter! Anyway, in these games you can gain tempo by knowing which moves to throw at your opponent, and when. For example, if you’re playing Street Fighter and use one of Ken’s kicks that takes 10 frames to execute and his opponent takes 8 frames to block, Ken has lost 2 frames’ worth of tempo. Having lost 2 frames’ worth of tempo, the next time he’s gonna be able to block will be on the 10th available frame. If Ken’s opponent takes advantage of this gained tempo and does a move that takes 9 frames or less to execute, it’s gonna hit and there’s nothing Ken can do about it! The phrasing fighting game players use to describe this is called being “safe” or “unsafe”, but it’s really just gaining or losing tempo within the game.
  • Chess, unlike fighting games, always has a set turn order. Because of this, chess players will literally call a turn cycle “a tempo”. When a player does something that causes them to use an unnecessary turn to correct an action, that’s “losing a tempo”. For example, at the beginning of a game your pawns can move forward one square, or two if it’s that pawn’s first time moving. In most situations you want your pawn to move two squares, but if you’re in a situation where you have to move the pawn up a single square, and then up one later on in the match, you’ve lost a tempo since you could have gained two squares in one move instead.
  • In Magic: the Gathering, time is especially key because of the concept of mana, which directly represents in-game time since you only get to place one land per turn. A fairly common card in my trademark Spirits deck is Spell Pierce, and it’s very much one of my favorite tempo cards ever printed. If I’m playing Spirits against a Vampire deck and they use three mana to play Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord on their third turn, we’re both in a position to gain a massive amount of tempo. If I use a one-mana Spell Pierce to counter their three-mana Sorin, I’ve gained effectively two full turns’ worth of tempo since I can use my remaining two mana making another play (or two!), but if Sorin resolves then my opponent can use Sorin’s -3 ability to put a six-mana Vein Ripper into play, gaining them up to three whole turns’ worth of tempo!

(Nami from One Piece using her signature “Thunderbolt Tempo”, which is literally a Tempo Storm. Sorry, Straw Hats. Looks like she’s going from pirate to eSports!)

As we can see in each of the examples above, time is a key factor when playing just about any game. Knowing how the elements of time work in your favorite game will not only give you a better understanding of how and when to play your cards (or use your move, or move your piece—whatever mechanics are in your game of choice), but will also give you an understanding of the play style you would enjoy most. As always, I have a rule-of-three example for this as well!

  • Folks who may not want to devote brain cells to actively playing the back-and-forth game that comes with measuring tempo in their matches may enjoy more aggressive styles of gaming. This is where your Red players in Magic: the Gathering or your Wolverine players in Marvel vs. Capcom 3 live come in. Time doesn’t really matter if you don’t give your opponent any!
  • Folks who want to invalidate time in the other direction may enjoy more controlling styles of gaming. This is where your tanks in MOBA games like Leagues of Legends live, as well as your Azorius Control players in Magic: the Gathering. Who cares if your opponent slows you down, you already planned on being here all day!
  • Finally, folks who like having options generally migrate towards the tempo options in their game of choice. This is where I live! Players like myself generally enjoy decks like Spirits in Magic: the Gathering and characters like Tracer in Overwatch. Time is everything, and you enjoy being able to make the most of yours in any scenario!

(Time Wizard from Yu-Gi-Oh! You can also be a time wizard if you master tempo!)

Hopefully today’s read gave a good amount of insight on one of the most argued-over terms in all of gaming. I’d love to think that this might even lead a few of you to understand the role you want to take in your gaming spaces a little more. Speaking of time, that’s about all of yours I’ll take up today, but I’ll see y’all on the next one!

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