In a word? Everything.
Tempo is something you probably are intuitively already aware of – Maximising your Crystal Points each turn; playing efficiently; playing threats; and answering your opponents threats at acceptable or profitable trades. These sorts of things are all tempo oriented plays.
Tempo is the rhythm or speed each player is playing the game at. Is my opponent going fast or slow? What are my options? Do I need to match my opponents speed, go faster, or slow down? Can I do that with the cards that I’m drawing?
If you’ve been playing FFTCG a while, this is something you’re probably aware of on some level, and these aren’t questions you need to be asking yourself constantly, but it helps inform what tempo is in FFTCG.
“But not every deck is Tempo!”
There are and have been outliers, but as a general rule: your deck and gameplan in FFTCG is tempo, unless you have a very strong reason to believe it isn’t. Cards that have been banned in the past were seemingly done in because they broke this rule. Turbo discard was the main offender, but Rikku and Dadaluma created mid-late game board states that did away with tempo, and created next-to-no-win positions because there wasn’t a whole lot of counterplay, given the card pool surrounding the time of their bans.
Even the Locke decks of Opus XII, while they were heavily skewed towards a control gameplan, still had to primarily play a tempo game until hitting their conclusion of “replay Locke each turn, try not to die.” They happened at a time where there are better tools available for decks to go aggressive vs them, preventing their game plan from ever happening, and forcing them to expend resources so that they don’t die, unlike Dadaluma and Rikku of old.
So if everything is Tempo and the game allows me to be flexible, how do I use this to my advantage?
There are two major ways to gain advantage or, ideally, win the game when it comes to Tempo.
The first method is to go significantly faster than your opponent can, or is choosing to. You sacrifice some CP efficiency to field forwards and pressure your opponents damage total. You either threaten lethal very soon, or enable lethal before the opponent’s board and CP advantage are insurmountable. Even if this doesn’t outright win, it will allow you to recoup the CP advantage they’ve gained while you were getting a damage/pressure advantage, since your opponent is now forced to both play to board and block inefficiently in order to survive.
The second method is to play marginally slower than your opponent. This approach will chip away at your opponent’s resources, maximising your CP advantage while also keeping your options open to answer what your opponent is doing, ideally also at advantage. This is typically the most popular way people gravitate towards when it comes to playing in competitive environments, whether intentional or not. This is the kind of play pattern that gets reinforced by minimising risk, be that risk EX Bursts or playing around an opponent’s potential outs.
The goal is to identify if you are the fast or slow player given the matchup, initial draws, and current gamestate. I want to encourage being flexible, because your position can change on any given turn. Keep in mind, these are just the extremes of how tempo can work for or against you, more often than not, games will be playing out somewhere with both players around the same speed, going tit for tat, and that’s the normal course for most games of FFTCG. The main goal for understanding tempo is being able to identify where you can or cannot adjust your play speed, or more importantly when you should and shouldn’t shift gears.
The resource system in FFTCG enables most decks and matchups to bypass traditional TCG deck archetypes and stay flexible
The ability to discard for CP and the soft cap on your turn resources (backups and drawing 2 per turn) both allow a great deal of flexibility to any deck in any matchup. This can create dynamics where one deck will play the fast role versus one particular deck in the meta (typically a bad matchup,) and play the slow role versus the rest.
This flexibility also extends to what you’re drawing. As an example, let’s assume we’re playing some kind of Sophie deck. Sophie can be built in a variety of ways, with a fast skew (Monks,) and slow skew (3 colour.) In our example, we’ll say we’re playing a 3 Colour Sophie list, which is typically the slower approach. In this version, you love to play backups and try to survive until the late game versus what’s coming at you. But let’s say you only draw 2 backups early, while your opponent accelerates to 5 very quickly. This puts you in an awkward position of playing some low value forwards early to maintain hand size, and to chip in for a little bit of damage pressure. Hypothetically, let’s say the opponent’s 5th backup is a Shantotto, clearing your Nichol, Lenna and Sarah (Mobius) but this leaves them at 3 cards in hand on 4 damage with 5 backups on field versus your 5 cards, 0 damage and 2 backups.
You draw up to 7 cards for turn and draw a Sara. This leaves you with an awkward decision to make and it largely depends on what our opponent is playing. Your first inclination is to accelerate up to 4 backups in an attempt to catch up to our opponents position and grind out the game. However you’ve already assumed the fast role given your draws. Shantotto has reset the tempo, but the initiative is left to you in setting the ongoing tempo. Shantotto is the best card available to reset tempo and it’s already been spent, so if your hand allows, you can continue to play the fast role dropping forwards down, and squeeze in 1 or 2 damage in the following turns, forcing the opponent to answer you inefficiently from a lower hand size than is comfortable, allowing you to catch up in value at a later stage. You can keep Sara in your pocket for later, knowing that your opponent has used their sweep and is already on damage pressure, since you know you can always use Sara to fetch Sarah (MOBIUS) to close the game with Sophie later.
“Damage is a Resource, always take it”
I think in general it’s a good rule of thumb to be taking damage, it doesn’t cost you any CP and EX Bursts are a fundamental mechanic in FFTCG and that’s fairly well established by now, but I would much rather say “Damage is a resource, have good reasons to block”.
It is absolutely OK to block if you have good reason to, it’s not somewhere you want to be, sure, but if your goal is survival, if you are the slow player playing survival in the tempo game vs a faster player, your win condition very often means blocking. I don’t mean blocking when you’re at 6 damage, I mean blocking early when it doesn’t matter too much, and is equal or even disadvantaged. This way you’re not forced to block on their terms later, when you’re down to blocking or dying, and are blocking even when you’re afraid they have some trick to make the block a bad idea. When you assume the slow or defensive role in a game, you should be accumulating CP advantage over time. It is then acceptable to expend resources, even at a deficit, if it means surviving to later stages of the game, where your CP advantage slowly bulldozes the game. If you lose early, your investments see no payoff.
Minimise the threat to your life total when you are the slow player, because that is your lose condition. If you’re blocking, your opponent has to spend more resources to continue pressure. This either eases the pressure, or simplifies the gamestate for you, much like discard does. That’s an ideal place to be if you’re trying to survive. FFTCG allows you to expend resources on a dime; use it to your advantage.
Too many times I’ve seen games where one player will search a Belias, or add it back with Terra, and the opponent will just never block again. If you’re not calling out the Belias when a 7k is swinging at your 7/8k, the Belias only increases in value as your damage taken increases, and it can catch better forwards, or worse, threaten an extra attacker and a favorable trade later. If you have a plan to out the Belias in a turn or 2, and can do so while staying healthy, for sure carry out that plan, but if you’re playing the role of the slow or defensive player, you have to be calling plays like a known Belias, or they happen the turn you’re losing regardless. The same was true of Illua’s infamous Sheol when that was popular in the meta. This isn’t always applicable to a known card, but it’s a situation I see often so it’s worth calling out. Nathan Cross has a great article delving into it a bit deeper, definitely worth the read: Call the bluff.
Hopefully this helps clear up exactly what tempo is and how it applies to FFTCG. Understanding it is important, but it isn’t the be all and end all. It’s just an ever present aspect of the game. I can’t speak to what tempo is referring to in other TCGs because I don’t really have the competitive experience with them that I have had with FFTCG, but I know that this resource system allows us much more flexibility in general play, and that decks here aren’t hard stuck to archetypes like “Aggro,” “Midrange,” “Control,” and “Combo.” They can definitely skew those ways, and it definitely impacts matchups, but on a fundamental level, deck archetypes are more of a spectrum than a hard definition, much like tempo is.