Tempo - Neon
This article was originally written December 2016
Hey Friends! Today I wanted to touch on a subject I have been thinking about often as of late – tempo. The three fundamental “advantages” in Eternal that can be leveraged to win the game are card advantage, health advantage, and tempo advantage. One of the most difficult aspects of card games is understanding how important each of these resources is, and when to trade one resource for another. I may spend time in future articles to discuss health and card advantage, but for today we will focus on understanding tempo, as I feel this is one of the most misunderstood of the three.
What is Tempo?
The term comes originally from music, but the application of the term to chess seems like the actual origin for the purposes of card games. A “tempo” is basically a turn. If you make a move in chess that forces your opponent to react, your opponent has now “lost a tempo”. Take for example the following board. An overeager white player has advanced their knight to B5. When black moves a pawn to C6 the knight is now put in an awkward spot where it must either waste a turn retreating (sacrificing tempo) or lose their knight at no value (sacrificing board advantage).
I introduce the concept from chess because I feel it is a “cleaner” concept there compared to cards. Although each player has a defined turn in a card game, the value of each turn is very different. I would define tempo as being a function of both power usage and board advantage. If Player 1 plays a Sandstorm Titan for 4 power, and Player 2 removes that creature from the board for 2 power, Player 2 has generated a tempo advantage since Player 2 spent less power than Player 1. A peculiar element of this scenario is that Player 2 could have cast Annihilate to actually kill the Titan, or Teleport to bounce it to generate the exact same tempo advantage. In the “philosophy of tempo” the only cards that really matter are the ones that are actually in play. Spells like casting Wisdom of the Elders or Sabotage do not impact the board at all, and therefore do not affect the tempo of the game.
The player who has a tempo advantage is sometimes said to have “the initiative” which implies that the other player is forced to respond to what the player with the initiative is doing. There are many game states where neither player has the initiative, though this can mean a clear board, or a cluttered ground stall. For the purposes of this discussion, the “board state” includes Relic Weapons being equipped. The player that goes first has a tempo advantage to begin with, but this will diminish over the course of the game.
Tempo and Power Advantage
As was stated above, tempo is chiefly about power. You and your opponent make many exchanges over the course of the game, each of you trying to get better value than the other. Any exchange in which you spend less power than your opponent is favourable to you in terms of tempo. Fairly straight-forward stuff.
There are some wrinkles to this, as power is a resource that you actually have some control over. The most obvious example is Initiate of the Sands or Secret Pages. These allow you to skip ahead in the power race, and get to bigger plays faster. What is interesting about Ramp strategies is that you often sacrifice power early to get ahead later. Secret Pages is a tempo neutral card, as it doesn’t influence the board at all. If you were to spend all your time casting Secret Pages your opponent could get far ahead of you on tempo. But, by skipping ahead in power, you can play big monsters faster than your opponent, such that you overtake your opponent’s board position. Now you’re ahead on tempo! For anyone who has played with or against Ramp decks in Magic or Hearthstone you can probably recall the bizarre tempo-warping nature of these decks. They often take multiple turns to increase their power, but start dropping haymakers almost every turn once they have their mana developed. As many of you will know, the danger of playing this style of deck is either falling too far behind on tempo in the early game, or that your opponent has the perfect answer to your big play. Looking at ramp decks in this way, we can see that the play patterns of the deck revolve around tempo gains and loses.
Another aspect of power that relates to tempo is actually the composition of your powerbase. Mono-Fire and Mono-Justice aggro decks have a couple advantages over 2 faction decks, but one of the major gains is a power base that always behaves itself. Compare this to something like Icaria Blue. The combination of Seats, Seek Power, Eilyn’s Favor, and difficult influence requirements leads to a powerbase that is exceptionally clunky at times. By playing a deck such as this you need to accept the fact that you will be taking a hit in your early tempo in some percent of games by either having depleted power, or having to Seek Power for the correct Sigils, or just not hitting your influence needs on time.
Tempo and Board Advantage
Although making exchanges where you are paying less for your actions than your opponent is good for “tempo” this only matters if you are actually able to leverage your power advantage into board advantage. Take the exchange discussed above, where Player 1 plays a Sandstorm Titan on turn 4. Player 2 then plays Annihilate on her turn, and passes. In this case, has Player 2 actually generated a tempo advantage? No, not really. Since Player 2 didn’t use this extra 2 power, this exchange is essentially tempo-neutral. Instead lets imagine that Player 2 spends her extra 2 power on an Argenport Instigator. Now that is a great tempo-positive turn!
In fact, I would argue that a play is only tempo positive if it manifests in some board advantage. We could take a snapshot of the board after every turn cycle and say who has gained/lost tempo. The player with a board advantage could be said to have a tempo advantage, and if the board state is unchanged after a turn cycle than we could say the tempo of the game is unchanged. Of course there are countless ways a “tempo neutral” turn cycle could take place. One player could play a unit, which the other kills or bounces, both players could cast card draw spells, or both players could just do nothing! It is only by looking at the composition of the board for each turn cycle that we can adequately assess the tempo gains/losses of each player. It doesn’t matter if you cast the most efficient card-draw spell every printed, if there is no change in the board state there is not real effect on tempo.
Tempo and Card Advantage
The relationship between card and tempo advantage is quite neat. Most often, the two are actually in conflict, and it is often possible to trade one of these resources for the other. Lets return to the example of Player 1 developing a Titan on turn 4. Player 2 takes her turn 4 to cast Teleport and remove the Titan, and develops a Crownwatch Paladin. Here Player 2 has developed a tempo advantage, but has actually sacrificed card advantage for this advantage. All other things being equal, Teleport causes you to spend a card for the purpose of developing a board advantage, but if you pay attention to the resources each player has access to, the player casting the teleport is down a card.
Anyone experienced in card games will know that bounce spells are very high variance. In a fast format defined by tempo efficient bounce spells are extremely powerful, as the card advantage lose is almost irrelevant, since the game will often end with one or both players with cards still in hand. In more normalized formats the tempo advantage is irrelevant in the long run, and the tempo lose is more important. For those who have played Hearthstone, you would be very familiar with the Rogue spell “Sap”, which returns a unit to the opponent’s hand for 2 mana. This is almost identical to Teleport from Eternal, but Sap has seen play continually in Rogue lists, while Teleport is a fringe role-player. Why is this? The mechanics of Hearthstone are very rewarding to being ahead on tempo, as the combat system favors the attacker. In a game such as this sacrificing card advantage for tempo advantage is often a great strategy.
Bounce spells are not the only example of trading card advantage for tempo. Combust allows you to sacrifice a unit to kill (presumably) a bigger unit. If we assume you spent a card on the sacrificed unit, you have used 2 cards to kill 1.
So we can trade card advantage for tempo advantage, but what about the other way around? That one is easy – card draw! Wisdom of the Elders is a staple in almost every Primal deck but if you were to read this card from the perspective of tempo is reads “3PP – Do nothing”. The same thing applies to Devour, although on steroids as you are actually sacrificing a unit (board presence) to get ahead on cards. This is one of the hidden reasons Devour is so much worse than Wisdom of the Elders. On the surface, it is a 2-for-2 in terms of card advantage, as you sacrifice a unit and use a card to get 2 cards. Usually you are not even spending a whole card on the sacrifice, so it is closer to a 1.5-for-2 for only 2 power right? Well that 2-power cost is deceptive. You needed to play a unit that you later sacrificed. Sure, you are making an OK exchange if it is a Grenadine or whatever, but you usually are spending more power total for your card draw than you should be, and as a result you can get way behind on tempo.
The Jito deck actually embraces a very different approach to this question. I would never classify Jito as a “Tempo” deck, though it certainly embraces some of the philosophy of tempo. Card that are still in your hand when the game ends didn’t matter, so are functionally “countered” by not making a difference in the game. If I play a deck with all 1 drops, I should be able to flood the board with units. Even if they are weaker than the average unit in your deck, by being so ahead on tempo in the early game, Jito gets to virtually answer all the cards in your hand by not allowing you to use them. My 1/1 in play is better than the 5/6 in your hand because only one of the two is actually in play! This form of “card advantage” is neat to consider, and shows the bizarre relationship between tempo and card advantage in a unique light.
How to Value Tempo
One of the most difficult aspects of understanding tempo is assess how to value it from game to game, as well as how the game advances. In the early game, both players are extremely tight on power, and often need to just make whatever play is the most power-efficient for the first few turns in order to stay at parity in terms of tempo. In the ultra late game, each player has enough power that tempo becomes almost irrelevant. In aggro mirrors tempo is exceptionally important, as both decks are best suited to play from ahead, while control mirrors can often ignore tempo entirely. I doubt any of that is news to you, but the more important challenge is understanding the in-between times.
Unfortunately I can’t give hard and fast rules on the subject, since every match-up and every game plays out so differently. If you know a given match up usually ends before one of the two decks has had a chance to play all of its cards, tempo is probably important. Second, it is useful to understand if there are cards that can cause big tempo swings. My favourite example of this is Predator’s Instinct in decks like Xenan Killers. Turn 5 play Sandstorm Titan + Instinct > kill opponent’s 5/5? That is a big tempo swing in many games. Combat tricks are another example of this. In a matchup defined by tempo if someone is able to use Rapid Shot or Finest Hour to eat an opponent’s unit they can often leverage this to a tempo advantage. I have been thinking a lot recently about combat tricks in relation to tempo, as they are extremely powerful forms of interaction in games where power is tight. The 2-for-1 fear is much less pronounced when the defending player needs to power down every turn.
Although different match ups have different sensitivity to tempo, I find the role of tempo to be very game dependant. Here is one common play pattern that I have run into a number of times. Lets say I am on Combrei, and my opponent is playing Rakano. On turn 2 they play a Champion of Glory (fully powered), and I respond with playing Siraf. On their turn they attack. For anyone who has played this matchup many times you should know that this means the Rakano player is representing a Torch (or occasionally a Finest Hour). If I block with Siraf they can play Torch and she will die before damaging the Champion. So what do I do? Well, it depends on my hand. If I I allow Siraf to trade with this 1-power spell, I am in danger of being out-tempoed over the course of the next couple of turns. With that said, it is not like the Torch is going to disappear just because I don’t block. I will be in the same position next turn. If my hand consists of another Siraf, I will often just bite the bullet now, and hope my opponent doesn’t have a strong follow up this turn, so that the second Siraf can block profitably. If I have a Silence unit like Desert Marshal in hand, I am more likely to let the damage through, and set up a better block next turn. There are many situations where you need to weigh whether a tempo loss, life total, or on-board material is most important.
One unique twist on this whole tempo question is in the case of Relic Weapon battles. Anyone who has played a lot of Armory or Icaria Blue will tell you that going second in equipping your Relic Weapon is a big advantage. The first player to attack sets themselves up for a massive tempo loss when their opponent retaliates with a weapon of their own. In this case, being behind on tempo somehow allows you to get ahead.
The definition of tempo decks tends to be more controversial than other decks, owing to the often misunderstood concept of tempo. “Aggro” decks being aggressive, “Control” decks being controlling and “Midrange” decks being in between is super simple. If you read Patrick Chapin’s book “Next Level Deckbuilding” he does not have a “Tempo” section. Of the decks discussed there the two archetypes that best fall under the “Tempo” moniker would be “Fish” and “Aggro Control”. If you read these sections you will see that Chapin feels these two decks archetypes have some important similarities. Drawing from these, I will assemble some characteristics that make a deck a “Tempo” deck.
Plays a number of hyper-efficient low cost threats.
Attempts to establish early advantages, which it leverages with tempo-postive plays.
Has an aggressive slant, but tends to be slower than linear-aggro decks.
Is far more interactive than dedicated linear-aggro decks.
Prefers to protect premium threats rather than overwhelm with interchangeable threats.
Often uses evasive threats.
Enjoys functioning at fast speed.
Tends to be weak to linear aggro decks, but strong versus combo and control.
In Eternal, I have seen some people describe this or that deck as a “Tempo” deck. Many of these classifications are somewhat loose, or in other cases outright wrong. For example, I once saw someone describe Stonescar Burn as a Tempo deck, which I feel is entirely incorrect. It certainly has hyper efficient threats, but very few of them are low cost. The deck also puts as little effort as possible into interacting with its opponent. Obliterate and Flame Blast are inefficient removal spells by the standards of the game. In fact, one of the reasons that I decided to write this article is because one of the most reliable routes to victory against Stonescar is to out-tempo them.
Of the popular decks in Eternal, there are 2 that stand out as having a true “Tempo” component – Combrei Tempo and Haunting Scream. Lets look at these lists and see why.
As you can see from this list, the pilot has built a relatively standard Combrei Aggro list, with a slight twist. Some cards that should stick out to you include Finest Hour, Protect, Slow, and Praxis Displacer. The first three cards are 1 power pieces of interaction that can completely disrupt an opponent’s plan. For example, casting a protect to counter an opponent’s Deathstrike is a hugely tempo-positive play. Finest Hour can often act as a 1-power removal spell, removing a blocker much more than 1-power worth of stats. Praxis Displacer is a very powerful Tempo card, as it allows you to remove a blocker while advancing your board (as well as having a nice synergy with slow). Decks of this type have a great match up versus Harsh Rule control decks, but can really struggle against Jito.
Haunting Scream is not a true tempo deck. It clearly has some void-synergy-combo aspects to the deck. With that said, it clearly has some powerful tempo elements to speak of, as it often leverages tempo-positive plays in the mid game to develop board advantage way ahead of schedule. This particular version (from Jeff Hoogland) seems to lean into the tempo aspects of Scream much more than many builds by playing 4 copies of Permafrost, Levitate, and Annihilate, each of which “answer” a blocker for minimal cost. Direwood Beastcaller is probably one of the most tempo-positive plays in the game, as it allows you to develop roughly 6-8 power worth of value for only 3 (or 2) power. Pretty sick! A final card in this deck that is really fascinating to consider in the context of tempo is Recurring Nightmare. I will touch on this in more detail in the following section.
Tempo in Eternal
As with many aspects of card games, Eternal has asked us to rethink tempo. There are several mechanics and cards in the game that specifically relate to tempo. Lets take a moment to discuss cost changing, Warcry, Infiltrate, as well as one specific card – Recurring Nightmare.
The backbone of any card game is costing things properly. Literally any (mechanically feasible) card imaginable can be printed on the condition that is had the correct cost. A card that literally just said “You win the game” could easily be printed, although it would probably need to be 15 power in cost to be balanced. With this in mind, cards that let you cheat on cost have always been an attractive. In fact, some of the most busted cards of all time have been methods of avoiding costs (see Treasure Cruise or Affinity in Magic the Gathering, or Preparation in Hearthstone). Eternal also has some cost-reduction effects, though nothing totally insane has been built with them (at least not yet).
Although several cost-reduction effects were removed from Eternal as we transitioned to Open Beta, there are 2 that remain. The first is Nesting Avisaur. This feathery dinosaur can reduce the cost of any card in hand by 2, but at the cost of card advantage. By putting a card from hand on top of your deck, you are essentially skipping your next draw step, but instead you get to save 2 power on another card. This trade off is very interesting, and obviously has spectacular synergy with Echo. In the post-Crown Nerf world there are fewer ways to abuse this ability, but I feel like there may still be some ways to take advantage of this cost reduction. One way or another, the choice of giving up a card for gaining 2 power is certainly neat.
The second cost-reduction card currently in the game is Trail Stories. In case your memory of unplayable Rares is poor, this is a 0 cost Fire spell that reduces the cost of another spell by 1. Gaining small tempo advantages with a card like this seems… lacklustre. I personally believe a card like this could be totally busted in some combo deck in the future, but as a tempo card this is not exactly doing anything exciting.
We can see that DWD doesn’t appear to be (too) afraid of cost reduction mechanics, and I would expect some cards utilizing this in the future. Interestingly, we also see cost increasing used as well. Slow is a fascinating discard-like effect. It is particularly neat card because of its limitations. Although you can hit a 1-power spell with Slow, who cares? Hitting a 2-cost spell is annoying, while 3-drop is very annoying. If you hit a 4+ drop, you have basically “discarded” the card, as it is unlikely to be played over the course of a normal game. This application of tempo is unique, as you are punishing slow decks by making them even slower, while being essentially meaningless against linear aggro decks. If tempo decks get more tools moving forward I would expect Slow to see more play as part of a tempo shell.
Overall, Direwolf Digital seems open to messing with costs which is an exciting axis. I look forward to seeing more cards in this space in the future, as it add a fascinating dimension to game, and rewards players that correct evaluate those types of effects.
I’m not going to get into this topic in great detail, as I wrote a whole article on “size advantage” in the past, which I originally posted on Reddit and later moved to RNGEternal. I made a fairly elaborate argument there about how Warcry triggers could be seen as a tempo advantage (as well as other advantages). The “TLDR” of that is Warcry allows you to play oversized units for less than you are supposed to, which can represent a massive tempo boost.
The infiltrate mechanic has a much louder tempo component. If I am ahead on board, or if I can stop my opponent from blocking, I can get value from my infiltrate dudes! This advantage usually comes in the form of board advantage, but can also come in the form of card advantage (Gorgon Fanatic). In draft especially people will play cards like Flash Freeze or Jarrel’s Frostkin to create a window to attack with infiltrate units. A good Feln aggro deck will often leverage tempo advantages and Infiltrate triggers in the early game to quick victories.
For my money, this is one of the coolest cards in Eternal. I see new players all the time asking about Recurring Nightmare decks, as it just seems so powerful and fun to play. Although technically an “infiltrate” card, I feel the way it plays out in the game is different enough that it falls under its own category. What I find most intriguing about this card is how it poses a strange sort of tempo problem to solve.
Lets assume for a moment that there were no card in the entire game that could interact with Nightmare. This is obviously not remotely true, but it is a handy assumption for the purpose of this exercise. Nightmare by itself represents a 5 turn clock (1+2+4+8+16=31). It is also possible to speed up this clock by 2 turns through the use of a single Rapid Shot. It will deal 5 damage the first turn, then have attack double to 10, but lose +4/+0 buff to fall to 6/1, and from there can do 6, then 12 (5+6+12=23, which is virtually 25). When looking at this kind of math, the card looks very scary.
There is a catch though, even in the world where nothing can interact with Recurring Nightmare. You are spending 3 power a turn to set up a kill several turns down the road. If you are playing against any aggressive or even midrange deck, you can’t just spend turns 3-8 doing nothing but going face, since they will be attacking you at the same time. You need to buy yourself time, and for cheap, since much of your power if going to be tied up in replaying your Nightmare. One of the most interesting parts of the Nightmare plan is how all-in it can end up being. The first attack does almost nothing, other than set up a better second attack, which still makes very little difference. Any card that only deals damage to the opponent is by definition tempo-negative, since it does not effect the board. Therefore, when you are on the Recurring Nightmare plan you often find yourself in very difficult tempo-related problem. Is my Nightmare clock faster than their clock? Can they play anything that changes that math? Do I have the tools in hand to disrupt my opponent’s actions so they cannot outrace me? Do I have any spare power to protect my Nightmare with spells like Backlash? What types of disruption is my Nightmare most vulnerable to? Do I lose if Nightmare misses a hit? Being successful with a card like Recurring Nightmare requires careful assessment of timing, and an acute awareness of your opponent’s ability for counter-play, all of which is tied up in a neat tempo-assessment problem.
I hope reading this article has been an educational look into the role of tempo in card games. I know that through writing it I arrived at several new insights into the role of tempo in games. This topic has been rolling around in my head for months, and I’m very happy to get it out on the page. Tempo is a fascinating concept, which manifests itself in many different ways. If you would like me to write similar articles about card advantage and health advantage later on, let me know. As always feel free to share your thoughts in the comments and the Reddit post. I love to discuss your thoughts on content such as this!