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 Core Theory: Tempo

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PostSubject: Core Theory: Tempo   Wed Dec 01, 2010 10:06 pm

Core Theory: Tempo
Jason Grabher-Meyer
12/1/2010 9:10:00 AM

This is an article that's been rolling around in the back of my head for at least five years now. While previous core theory topics that I've discussed here on TCGPlayer are relatively clear-cut, with agreed-upon terminology and lots of general consensus, tempo is the big exception. When I say “card presence” you know what I mean (if you don't, do yourself a favor and hit up my article archive and check that out). It's a well-defined concept, and the same can be said of simplification, complication, synergy, and utility. We all know what those words mean in a Dueling context.

But if I asked you to define tempo, could you do it?

Probably not, which is intriguing because the concept of tempo gets tossed around on a regular basis, especially when discussing big plays or high-impact cards. To be honest, if you asked me to define it without giving me a minute to think, I probably wouldn't have an eloquent definition either. When a Duelist talks about “establishing tempo,” or “stealing tempo,” they're largely talking about a Shift in gameplay that they can perceive, but can't break down into numbers, or even words. It's a set of terms that often come down to a feeling of general advantage (or lost advantage) in the middle of a Duel. Tempo is much more abstract than simpler concepts like card advantage or simplification, and while you might not be able to define tempo, you'll probably know when an opponent breaks yours and starts beating your face in.

So Let's Fix That Problem
Generally, when Duelists talk about Shifts in tempo, they refer to the impact of one or both of the following:

-A change in the expected pace at which cards are being exchanged or eliminated from the field.

-A change in the expected pace at which cards are being committed to the field.

If two Duelists are duking it out, and both are biding their time looking for openings and combos, that creates a situation of complication: they'll be reluctant to make attacks and won't use many basic 1-for-1's like Mystical Space Typhoon. That's because they're saving cards towards something bigger, and by keeping the game complicated, they threaten reprisal that in turn reinforces the conservative trend. This creates a tempo in which each Duelist is drawing a card each turn, building their card presence and options. If all of a sudden one Duelist activates Icarus Attack and makes a 2-for-2, that steady tempo has suddenly changed: because the expected pace at which cards were being exchanged or eliminated was altered. The tempo is suddenly faster than it was moments before, owing to the quickened rate of card exchanges.

At the same time, if each Duelist is summoning one monster a turn and attacking into either a defensive 1-for-1, or making a trade of monsters in battle, this steady 1-for-1 pace with minimal commitments to the field is relatively quick. It either prevents complication by creating an equilibrium of cards drawn and cards eliminated, or it creates simplification; either the the number of cards on each side of the table is staying the same despite each turn's draw (equilibrium), or the number of cards is decreasing (simplification). If that's the situation, and each Duelist is only playing one card and losing one card per turn, then the expected pattern of commitment to the field takes a big swerve when all of a sudden one Duelist sets three cards. In this case, tempo has shifted due to a change in the pace of card commitment to the field; not in the pace at which cards are being exchanged.

Note that expectations, and the adherence to or departure from them, are largely what define tempo. Tempo is about establishing a pattern of play, and Shifts in tempo are made when those patterns are changed. With this understood, we can begin to define the psychological reasons for why tempo as a feeling is so often discussed, and why it's so perceptible – even to Duelists who don't have a solid definition for it.

'Kay, So This Matters Why?
Understanding tempo and the forces that define it is important, because every deck, and every Duelist, has tempos that are better-suited to their range of options at different times. One of the common pieces of advice you might hear in this game (or really any game of strategy), is to play your game, not your opponent's. If you're playing Gadgets or Gravekeepers, you want to create a quick tempo with lots of card exchanges, because that simplifies the Duel and allows your resilient, self-replacing monsters to make game-winning direct attacks. If you're playing X-Sabers or Blackwings, you'll often play to a slower, more complicating tempo, because it buys you time to put together combos, and get to power cards that give you a superior range of options. You want these particular tempos because they give you an advantage. And when you establish them, you expect to keep them in place until you win, or until you're given an incentive to break them.

And that's where tempo becomes important: because when your expectations are broken and you don't see it coming, you're suddenly at a disadvantage. If you expect the game to be relatively slow, you'll play and set the cards that best fit those expectations. If you expect the game to be quick, you'll play your cards accordingly in an effort to both shape that situation, and to take advantage of it. But if the tempo changes without your say-so, you could suddenly have the wrong cards on the field, keeping you from achieving your goals and allowing your opponent big opportunities. Establishing tempo is all about creating the play environment that favors your strategy and your actual range of in-game options. Stealing tempo is about breaking away from that play environment to create opportunities, and deprive the opponent of the same.

This is powerful stuff, because it's completely universal. Every deck plays best under certain conditions, and will, if piloted properly, strive to create a particular favored tempo. And every Duelist that does that can be thrown off his game when a new tempo is established: even by a less experienced opponent, or a statistically weaker deck.

And Things Get Even More Interesting When Things Get Murky
If you're comparing a deck that wants to create an aggressive tempo, to a deck that wants to create a conservative one, that's one thing: it's clear what everybody wants. The aggressive tempo deck wants to trade or commit lots of cards to take a quick win, while the conservative tempo deck wants to defend itself, build options, and let the aggressive deck play all its cards to the field so it can take advantage. But where things get really fascinating, and where the biggest advantages can often be found, is when two decks with similar (or perhaps even identical) tempo goals go head-to-head. Because while decks and strategy make huge contributions towards defining tempo, the Duelist piloting that deck almost always has the choice to play the deck differently in a bid to change it.

And remember, that's powerful because this concept is entirely invested in either following, or defying, expectations. While a weaker Duelist will usually let the cards he draws and the routine shape of his strategy define tempo, the stronger Duelist understands that barring truly terrible hands, the tempo he plays to is a matter of choice, all the time. Those choices may involve other pieces of core theory like card advantage, which serve to shape tempo on a strategic basis; but with every move made, that strong Duelist can defy those other pieces of core theory, and choose to play differently. The risks, of course, are card disadvantage, consolidated card presence that can be exploited by the opponent, and more. But the reward is the shattering of opposing expectations and a new gamestate that the opponent isn't prepared to deal with. Some of the best plays, made by the most skilled Duelists, are the ones that depart from the expected, to explode out from under the opponent's expectations and create a totally different Duel than what was being played moments before. And we're not just talking about aggression: we can also make similar statements about carefully calculated plays tempered by discipline and restraint, constructed to leave an opponent without any answers.

As an example where a brilliant Duelist exploded through an opponent's expectations, look no further than Sorosh Saberian's double Black Rose play in the Swiss Rounds of YCS Toronto; Lazaro Bellido's field wipe against Roy St. Clair in the Finals of that same event; or Thanh Nguyen's winning pair of Book of Moon's to stop his opponent's Effect Veilers in the Finals of YCS Philadelphia. For an example of reserved plays, where a kill wasn't attempted until all possible answers were considered and addressed, look at Jerry Wang's restraint in Duel 1 of his Top 16 Feature Match against Bryan Ortiz at SJC Edison, or Jack Hoyt's Side Event Finals win with a near-superfluous Cold Wave over Alex Vansant at Philly. Both Duelists would have placed themselves in bad positions if they'd made the simple, aggressive plays their opponents had hoped for. And both overcame their opponents by defying those expectations.

Often, the philosophy boils down to this: play aggressively when you're outmatched, and play carefully when you're in a winning position.

Of Course, That Doesn't Mean “Play Like An Idiot”
You can't make all of your play decisions simply by trying to surprise your opponent: do that, and you won't advance your own core strategies. You'll just sort of flail around making weak “gotcha!” moments and then get blown out as your opponent puts together his combos and wonders why you're not playing your deck properly. Mastering tempo isn't just about learning one concept: it's about learning how it interacts with other concepts, and how to choose when to prioritize it over other guiding pieces of core theory.

That's not easy. Not only does it require a thorough knowledge of the theories that you're measuring tempo against, it requires the ability to see the guiding forces behind a Duel when you review it post-match. That's something that takes years to really figure out, as well as the requisite courage to explore your own mistakes and Question them thoroughly. It's not a simple matter, and it's not for beginners. But it's something that separates the good Duelists from the great Duelists, and the greats from the true legends. When you're reading Feature Match coverage, you should be looking for those moments where top competitors defy expected tempos, create their own, and win because of it. It's actually one of the best reasons to read that coverage in the first place, and it can really make you a better Duelist.

I've said it before, but it really bears repeating here: It's one thing to play the game, the deck, and the cards. It's another thing entirely to play the man. Establishing and stealing tempo is all about the latter, and it's a universal concept that spans individual decks, strategies, and matchups. Use your newfound understanding to develop your skills, and study your matches in this context ( as well as the Feature Matches of recent YCS tournaments). If you've never observed match review from this perspective before, you're going to be surprised at how quickly it changes how you see things, and how quickly you see the benefits.

-Jason Grabher-Meyer
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