Quick Guides: Tempo

Quick guides is a series of articles that are mostly aimed at new/intermediate players. Goal of those guides is to explain common terms, strategies etc. in a concise and understandable manner. If you’re looking for more in-depth guides, deck lists etc. – check out other articles on the site! Second article is about tempo. It’s a […]


Quick guides is a series of articles that are mostly aimed at new/intermediate players. Goal of those guides is to explain common terms, strategies etc. in a concise and understandable manner. If you’re looking for more in-depth guides, deck lists etc. – check out other articles on the site!

Second article is about tempo. It’s a term that might be pretty confusing for new players, that’s why I’ve decided to explain it. What is tempo, how to calculate it and how to use tempo advantage in your favor.

What Is Tempo

Tempo is one of the main resources in Hearthstone. But it’s not a clear-cut one like Mana or Health. You don’t have a tempo meter anywhere, game doesn’t show what is your current tempo. That’s why it’s a resource a lot of new players are completely missing. You have to calculate it yourself (trust me, with experience you won’t even have to calculate anything to see which move is high tempo one) which might be problematic for people who don’t even know how to do it.

But, what exactly is tempo? To explain it in most understandable way – it’s the speed at which you play the game. Basically, tempo is a relation between the amount of things you do this turn and the amount of mana it costed you. When talking about tempo, you don’t care about “value” or “card advantage” or “health” concepts. When you do a tempo play, you usually sacrifice those resources in order to gain the board advantage or put pressure on the opponent.

The player having more tempo (=playing faster) is usually the aggressor, while the other one is defender. That’s how you determine two most basic roles in each match. Even if you play Aggro vs Aggro game or Control vs Control game, one player might be the “proactive” one and the other might be the “reactive one”. The first one pushes the tempo, but in order to do that most likely sacrifices some other resources, like card advantage. The second one tries to defend himself and starve the opponent out of resources OR tries to swing the tempo in his favor and switch the roles.

Tempo is most apparent when you see an Aggro deck playing against Control deck and then watch a Control mirror. The Aggro will constantly try to put pressure on the board, play as much minions as he can in order to overwhelm the enemy, trading up with his high attack (but low health) minions, avoid Hero Powering (because it’s too slow) – he’s constantly doing the tempo moves. In the Control mirror, however, both players are trying to get maximum out of every resource – assuming the game might go to the last card in the deck, it means that every each of them is important, every Hero Power is important and you can’t just throw away resources. If you see Control Warrior vs Control Warrior match when both players Hero Power + pass the turn 3 times in a row, that’s the polar opposite of tempo play, as they’re wasting a lot of mana every turn.

Understanding Tempo

Now that we know what is the tempo, time for a more practical lesson. How can you determine if a certain move is a tempo move? How do we recognize high tempo cards in general?

That will be easiest to explain on examples. First of all – high tempo move is a move that does stuff for as little mana as possible, disregarding other resources. You’re on turn 2 as a Paladin. You play Hero Power. You put 1/1 on the board for 2 mana. That’s NOT a high tempo move, because 1/1 stats for 2 mana is almost nothing. But, that move didn’t cost you any other resources – no health, no cards etc. Now instead of Hero Powering on turn 2, you play 2x Selfless Hero. That move is a much higher tempo one – for 2 mana you put 4/2 stats on the board (as opposed to 1/1) + two quite strong Deathrattles. But in order to do that, you sacrifice “card advantage” resource – to make that move, you played 2 cards.

Card advantage is not the only resource you might be sacrificing for tempo. For example, Warlocks might sacrifice their own health in order to gain tempo. Flame Imp is a very popular Warlock card. It’s 3/2 for 1 mana, meaning the stats are really high for the mana cost. For 1 mana you might put 3/2 stats on the board – that’s a high tempo move! But once again, it doesn’t come for free – that 3/2 body costs 1 card AND 3 health. It’s the same with another Warlock card – Pit Lord, although this one isn’t really played in any deck. Another similar example is using weapons. Most of the commonly used weapons are high tempo cards. Once again, let’s give a most basic example – Fiery War Axe. Probably the strongest weapon in the game. It’s so good, because for 2 mana you get 2 swings of a 3 damage weapon. Let’s say enemy plays a 2 mana 2/3 minion, you play Fiery War Axe and kill it. Then opponent plays a 3 mana 3/3 minion, you swing again and kill it. You’ve traded 2 mana and 5 health for 5 mana from the opponent’s side. That’s a really high tempo move. It’s also a value move, because you’ve traded 1 card for 2 (that’s the reason why FWA is so amazing), but it doesn’t matter when we’re talking strictly about tempo.

Discussing tempo without mentioning 0 mana cards would be pointless. 0 mana – it means that you can play that card for free. Every 0 mana card is a great tempo move – you don’t pay ANYTHING and you do SOMETHING. Even if that “something” is as small as putting 1/1 minion – it’s still some advantage for 0 mana. The only thing that keeps those in check is card advantage. No deck has infinite card resources. If you started with a hand full of 0-1 mana cards, yes, your first turn would be insane tempo turn. But then getting a single card per turn means that every other turn would be really weak. But, back to the cards. Three most popular 0 mana cards are Backstab, Innervate and Preparation. And they’re all insanely powerful in terms of tempo. Backstab often takes down a 2 mana minion for 0 mana – it means the card gains you 2 mana of tempo for free. Innervate is also 2 mana worth of tempo you can use on literally anything – you can play a removal, you can play a big minion, whatever. Preparation is even better, because it gets you 3 mana worth of tempo, but limited to spells only – in reality it’s closer to 2 mana, as it’s sometimes used on 1 or 2 mana spells if necessary. Every of those cards basically turn a card advantage for tempo. One more notable card that usually gets you zero value, but shines in terms of tempo is Sap. You can get rid of any minion for 2 mana, that’s insane in terms of mana advantage. But then, the minion doesn’t die – it goes back to opponent’s hand. It means that he can replay it next turn. But for example, if you Sap an 8 mana minion you’re gaining 6 mana worth of tempo just like that. And since tempo advantage is really important for those decks, they’re all staples.

How To Calculate Tempo

There is no clear formula for calculating tempo, because somethings are just impossible to calculate. While the minions stats can be compared to the vanilla ones, it’s impossible to calculate the mana cost of some effects and such. Like I’ve said before, when you become more experienced, you’ll easily notice how “quick” a certain play is. You will easily recognize the tempo moves from value moves. But until then, you can use a simple mana calculation.

Take some random turn from your game. To see how much tempo you’ve gotten, you need to calculate the mana you’ve gotten off the board + the mana you’ve played on your side on the board. A simple example – you have used a Fireball to kill a Drakonid Crusher. That’s 4 mana used to remove something that costed 6 mana. It means that you’re 2 mana head on the tempo by doing this play. Of course, if you float that mana, there won’t be any tempo advantage – to see a move as a tempo advantage you have to actually use the mana you’ve gained. So if it was turn 10 and you’ve spent your whole turn Fireballing the guy, you’ve gained zero tempo.

Now, to a more complex example. Let’s say that you play a Zoo Warlock vs Midrange/Tempo Warrior. It’s turn 5 and Warrior has a full health Bloodhoof Brave and full health Frothing Berserker on the board (the situation doesn’t have to be likely, it’s just an example). You have a Flame Imp, Abusive Sergeant and two 1/1’s. Now, you play Imp Gang Boss, Power Overwhelming on your Abusive Sergeant, trade it into 2/6 and then you play a second Abusive Sergeant and trade both of your 1/1’s into the Frothing Berserker. This is what you can call a high tempo turn. You’ve used 3 cards to accomplish that, but you don’t really look at that when it comes to the tempo. You’ve removed 7 mana worth of stuff from the opponent’s board, so that’s already +7 when it comes to the tempo. You’ve put about another 4 mana worth of stuff on the board (in form of Imp Gang Boss and Abusive) – that’s +11 mana. But then, you had to sacrifice 2/1 and two 1/1’s – that’s about 2 mana worth of things. 11 – 2 = 9. It means that your tempo for this turn was 9. Considering that you were at 5 mana, it was a high tempo move.

Those calculations are quite off, obviously (for example, it’s hard to calculate how much mana is worth the Abusive Sergeant’s body and how much worth is his effect), but I wanted to keep things simple.

Why Is Tempo So Important

Tempo is important, because that’s how you win the games. I don’t have any stats, but I assume that most of the games in Hearthstone are won through the tempo. Since Aggro, Tempo and Midrange decks are most popular ones in the current meta, even Control decks had to adapt and play much higher tempo lists. I remember the times when playing 5 big Legendaries in your Control Warrior list wasn’t greedy at all, it was standard. Some greedy decks have played up to 7-8. Those were just packed with value, but really low on the tempo. Right now, those decks would struggle to win anything outside of the slow matchups. And since slow matchups are in minority, those decks would struggle to win in general.

Tempo can only be fought with the tempo. It can’t be fought with value. I mean, yes, you will eventually outvalue the enemy when you play a slower deck. But if you play too slowly, you will just die before that. You win the game by killing your enemy and 30 health isn’t much. If you play against a very fast deck that has 10 attack on the board by turn 4, it means that they have tempo’d out really well. And 10 attack means that they threaten to take 1/3 of your starting life (and probably about 1/2 of your current life) by just swinging with each minion once. That’s why high tempo moves like Fiery War Axe, Doomsayer or the comeback mechanics like Brawl or Wild Pyromancer + Equality are necessary for slow decks to even stand a chance.

High tempo means playing proactively. It means that you force enemy to have the answers and you don’t have to worry about answers yourself – after all, when he has to spend his turns removing your minions, you can freely develop more. It also means that you constantly threaten opponent’s life total. The only price you pay for all of that is usually running out of cards faster then enemy does. So while you put him on the “damage clock”, he puts you on a “card clock”. But if you kill enemy fast enough, that won’t be a problem at all. From my experience, the player who gets total tempo dominance in the early game usually wins the whole match. It’s not true only against the decks that are specifically designed to play from behind and play strong comeback mechanics. But even those don’t always save them – while yes, clearing your 10 mana worth of board with 4 mana (e.g. Pyro + Equality) is great tempo-wise, you still have the initiative and get to refill the board after that.

Once one player completely loses the tempo, it’s very hard for him to regain in. The player with tempo lead dictates how the game goes – he decides how fast it will be, when will it slow down. He decides which trades he wants to make. Dropping a high attack/low health minion when you’re ahead on the tempo is good – it threatens more face damage, it can trade up etc. But it really sucks when you’re behind. For example, a 6/3 minion when you’re ahead is a big threat, but when you’re behind it can be taken down by a 2-drop which would result in a even bigger tempo advantage for the trading player.

One of the most common mistake of novice players is focusing on value and negating the tempo. For example – you play the Mage vs Mage game and it’s turn 2. Enemy has dropped a 2/1 minion. You can either play a 2/3 minion or you can ping it. If you ping it, you get a free value. When you play your minion, enemy can trade and ping, meaning his 1-drop has traded with your 2-drop. That’s true! But tempo wise, in the first scenario (you ping), you pay 2 mana to deal with 1 mana minion and you leave enemy with tempo advantage and initiative. Now he drops a 2-drop and you’re behind once again. But when you drop your own 2/3 – you might get a free trade and force the enemy to do the same thing. If he wastes his turn on ping, now you come on top in terms of the tempo – you play a 3-drop and now he is behind and has to deal with it. The second scenario is better most of the time, but I’ve seen a lot of players being “greedy” and going for the value route.

So my last advice is – DO NOT make a strictly value moves unless you’re sure that enemy can’t outtempo you. By strictly value moves I mean prioritizing Hero Power over developing something, drawing cards etc. – something that doesn’t put you ahead on the board. If you do that and enemy has a high tempo hand, he can punish you heavily. There are obviously some exceptions, but take this as a general rule, especially if you feel that enemy is playing a faster deck. If you’re both playing very slow decks, only then you might ignore the tempo altogether.


That’s all folks. As you can see, having the tempo lead has a lot of advantages. Since now you know what is the tempo, how can you determine which move is a tempo one and what are the advantages of having it, I hope that it will improve your play. If you still have any questions, feel free to ask in the comment section below.

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Good luck on the ladder and until next time!