Slow Play and Time Management in MTG
I’ve wanted to write about this topic for a while but I’ve been putting it off because it’s a reasonably contentious topic. In the first draft of this article I was going to discuss the difference between stalling and slow play in terms of the rules, then use the rules as the core of my argument, but upon consulting a few level 3 judges I found that this topic is very different from a judges point of view, and that I was out of my depth.
Instead I’m going to discuss some of the reasons why players play at different speeds and why this is a problem, and then suggest some ways in which this can be helped, and finish with some overarching solutions and considerations.
People play at different speeds for different reasons, and not all of them are strictly a product of their innate ability. Each Magic player fits the game in around the rest of their lives, and prioritizes it accordingly.
If you’re in your first year of university, you’ll have an easier time fitting it in that you will in your forth, and in each of these years you’ll have more time at the beginning of the semester. Once you get a full time job you’ll have less time still. After you have kids, you’ll have even less time. You might also be a single parent, care for an elderly relative, become unemployed, or any number of other issues that can occur during a person’s life.
These factors will impact on how familiar you are with the decks or format you’re playing, and perhaps even distract you while you play, making you less able to process information quickly.
This is common sense, and people can generally relate to this. Often people can be quite apologetic for their life circumstances in respect to this, and they oughtn’t to be; you’re not due your opponent an explanation of your life circumstances. Where it becomes problematic is that tournaments are confined by time, and playing more slowly negatively impacts upon other people, and this is why people apologise for their circumstances.
Ultimately time is a resource in the game much like life or cards in that just as you can’t just draw an extra card, or take 3 damage when you’re supposed to take 5, you can’t take a ludicrous amount of time to think about things at PTQ level. Even if you’re new. Even if you’ve not played the deck before. Even if you’re busy at work.
It’s problematic that we stigmatise this sort of thing I just said as being unreasonable or unfair because it reinforces the tendency of some people to play slowly. Instead we have a situation in which players are reluctant to call a judge when someone is playing slowly, instead asking several times before doing so, or simply accepting it as a “natural” outcome of that particular game.
It’s much less of a big deal at Friday Night Magic or Prereleases because these events don’t have massive stakes, are are intended for a less demanding style of play. That’s the whole point of having different Rules Enforcement Levels – allowing people to play in circumstances in which they are comfortable.
At PTQ level players have a *responsibility* to play at a reasonable speed, both in the rules and as a social contract. “I’m sorry, I’ve got a lot on at work” shouldn’t be a means of excusing slow play, but as a reason to actively pursue better time management skills to allow you to remain competitive despite these restrictions.
Draw, then think. On a number of occasions I’ve been playing against someone who is ponderously slow, who stops for 5 seconds every upkeep to think about their turn before drawing a card. Needless to say, they then start thinking again about their hand in light of their new card. This is redundant, and maddening.
It would be one thing if they had things going on in their upkeep like a Masticore trigger to remember, and I realise that sometimes they might have something in their hand that they might wish to play in their upkeep, but it is also often not the case. This is terrible practice, and should be eradicated simply for how annoying it is, let alone the actual problems it causes.
Don’t space out during your opponent’s turns. Ignore the table next to you, don’t day dream about your lunch. Concentrate on the game you’re playing. I’ve played games where I’ve actually needed to draw my opponent’s attention back to the game (e.g. “Excuse me, it’s your turn.”). This is really pretty rude and definitely not “fine” as far as the rules are concerned.
If you have trouble concentrating, I’d suggest that maybe you need to build up your mental stamina a bit before playing PTQs. you might be playing 9 rounds of swiss against reasonably good opponents, playing a complicated game; there is no shame in playing smaller tournaments until you’re ready. A good trick might be to think about your turn during theirs; this will keep you focused, give you longer to think about your plays, and is just fundamentally more reasonable.
Do your best to clearly vocalize passing priority. I’ve often played games where I’ve been playing against a soft spoken player, and every other turn I’ve had to ask if they had finished. Some players don’t realy even say they’re done each turn, just assuming it’s fairly obvious. The problem is that the rules of the game don’t really allow for this, so I am required to ask if they’re done each turn because they might not be, even if it seems obvious. Some people find it difficult to speak clearly for various reasons, and this is understandable, but it is important that you do your best to communicate clearly.
Consider conceding un-winnable games to allow for a third. Draws are generally bad news for both parties, and so it’s a good idea to scoop if a loss is inevitable. This is always a fine line, and if I think my deck won’t be able to win in the remaining time while my opponents can easily do so, I won’t be scooping here (although, I wouldn’t stall either). I also won’t concede if there is a reasonable chance I can still win, or just hold them off (without stalling) to win 1-0. The point is to remember that this is an option.
No “poker movie” bluffs. If the board is stalled, and you draw another irrelevant land, it’s fair game to think for like 2 seconds before getting on with it (although I read an article recently where a high level pro got in trouble for even this…), but clearly thinking for 15 seconds while you pretend to read a mountain and stroke your moustache just ridiculous.
Don’t play decks you can’t realistically operate in a tournament. If between now and modern season you don’t play any magic, please don’t sleeve up a deck with Birthing Pod in it. Decks with complicated interactions, multiple ways to win, loads of singletons, which switch roles from match up to match up are very difficult to play at the best of times.
These decks are cool and are really interesting, but you do have to play within the rules, including the time rules. In a situation like this maybe it’s best to leave that deck for a local event, or a quite Sunday afternoon, but if you’re desperate to play it then please be conscious of time – it’s not your opponent’s fault you’ve been too busy at work to test.
Don’t get stuck in a loop. Sometimes thinking about a play requires you to consider a series of contingencies, and it’s possible to lose your place. I think sometimes people get stuck with this, thinking the same thing over and over. If you realise this is happening, you probably need to focus more. Do what you can to think it through, but realise that it’s not doing you any good to be on a loop – if you can’t process the subject matter, you’re going to need to just make a play.
Move cards around. This sounds pretty nooby, but I do it all the time. Ideally you would just be able to think through blocks and attacks perfectly, but I certainly find this difficult at times. If it’s complicated, I just say “I’m not actually blocking/attacking – just working it out” then line cards up. Once I’m happy with the blocks/attacks, I say “yeah, like this”. I find this really helpful, and hardly anyone does it anymore except on MODO, where it’s very common. It’s fine to do in real life too.
The game is complicated – don’t expect to work things out perfectly in all cases. Some people play really slowly because they’re trying to work out what the best play is on the spot with very little experience. This is fine in some cases, but other times it’s not, and it’s important to realize when you’re just wasting time.
The best example of this I can think of is one that Ross Jenkins always uses to illustrate this point. Say you’re at a sealed PTQ in a format you’ve not actually got to play yet. It’s your turn 2 and you have 2 bears, one with protection from green and one with protection from white. Your opponent has a plains and a forest in play. You can’t just “think through” which bear is the right one to play (you just don’t have the information), so just play one and get on with it.
It might be that there is actually a reason to play one or the other, but given the circumstances you can’t realistically work it out. This is one I’ve seen happen with players who used to play a lot, and used to be very good, and it’s born out of a will to still be that good. The thing is they often only would have known the right play because of experience with the format – you can’t just will that into being on the spot, round 1 of the PTQ.
Call a judge early. This might seem like a bit of a crappy thing to do, but if you wait, it will likely be too late. Just remember that you’re on the right side of the rules in doing so, so it’s probably fine. It’s also not fair of them to take up loads of time.
Solutions and conclusions
I think we need to get past the idea that because it’s “just a game” we ought to cut our opponents some slack, and let them take up 70%+ of the time if they need it. Slow play is universally loathed, and not just by players – judges do not like seeing the same people going to time every round, because they are slowing not just their opponent down, but the whole tournament.
I’ve wanted to play Warhammer 40k at tournament level for a couple of years, but I’ve never done it because I don’t think I play fast enough and that doesn’t seem fair to my opponents (the systems designed for tournament play are much worse than in Magic, so slow play, it seems to me, would totally knacker 40k). There isn’t really the variety of tournaments in that game that there is in Magic, either. If there was something like FNM, I would go along, say “sorry for being slow” and muddle through till I got a little faster.
I think it would help to encourage players to adopt a similar attitude in Magic, and go along to smaller events with the aim to becoming comfortable with their play skill and knowledge of the rules, including playing at an appropriate speed. Being a “slow player” shouldn’t just be a thing which we accept of our selves, or others, but something which should be seen as a factor to work on just like everything else.
It remains a difficult issue for players and judges, and is unlikely to be fixed by a change in the rules. To my mind slow play is a community issue, and one which should be addressed in a serious way. Community leaders such as store owners, tournament organizers, judges and prominent ought to be explaining this as the players around them progress so that by the time a player comes from FNM to PTQ they are fully aware of the difference.
All the best,