Hello, my name is Jacob Spear I’m 24 and I currently live in Lancashire. I learnt to play Magic: the Gathering in 2012 but I really started playing towards the end of 2015 with the release of Battle for Zendikar. I have spent a pretty large chunk of the 21 or so months since then either playing MTG, reading about MTG, watching MTG or just thinking about MTG. I have definitely learnt an awful lot about the game in that time and I recently felt inspired to share some thoughts. In my experience, improving at MTG has been a combination of practical changes and also changes in how I think about and approach the game. So I am going to include a bit of both in this article and any others that I write. My intended audience is people who want to win more at FNMs, beat their local rivals, perform a bit better at game days and PPTQs or even take the step of attending their first tournament. Having said that, MTG is such a complex and deep game that (I am hoping) even the more experienced players will be able to glean some insights or helpful tips from me about this awesome game.
I decided to write this article after a conversation I had with a friend over Facebook. We were discussing the Modern format and he was expressing a couple of nerves about a tournament we were about to play*. At one point during this chat he said “I need to speed up”. I responded with a mini essay/rant. The main thing I talked to him about was that play speed is all about time management but that in itself needed a bit of unpacking. I also think that when people have better play speed in MTG it improves their play experience, their opponents play experience and helps event organisers and judges who are running events enormously. Better time management is not just about improving your skill at MTG, it is about improving everyone’s experience so it felt like a great topic to start with.
By and large I am going to be thinking about constructed play but many of the themes and ideas are relevant and transferable to limited.
*The event was the team unified Modern event run by Manaleak on June 17th at which I went undefeated (4 wins, 0 losses and 2 unfinished 1/1 games) and my team came 9th on tiebreakers. It was a really fun event despite it being a stiflingly hot day.
6 Ideas For Improving Your Play Speed At Magic: The Gathering For Beginners
#1. Don’t waste time, you’ll need it for the important decisions
The tortoise and the hare
When we talk about time management and play speed in MTG, the first thing that springs to most people’s minds is slow play. Slow play can be really frustrating to play against, it affects the flow of events and it leads to draws which by and large don’t benefit either player so it’s pretty bad for everyone. It’s so bad in fact that players can receive warnings and even game losses at Competitive Rules Enforcement Level events for it. A big part of what I want to say today will go towards addressing slow play. However, when we are talking about improving personal play skill, avoiding rushing is possibly even more important. I know I have lost way more games because I have rushed a decision than I have because I played too slow and went to time. In the Aesop’s fable “The Tortoise and the Hare” the Hare loses because of his foolish overconfidence. The Tortoise wins the race because he continues going at a steady pace, not wasting any time. The use of this fable as a metaphor breaks down a little bit here as I wouldn’t advocate playing at the pace of a Tortoise. The lesson you can take away however is to not waste any time. If you can cut out the wasted time in your gameplay then you give yourself the opportunity to use it when you actually need it and you are not forced to rush crucial decisions.
This theme of ‘reducing waste’ is going to come up for the rest of the article as I think it is the key principle to consider.
#2. Always ask yourself, “How can I waste less time?”
Personal play speed: There is no hard and fast (pun intended) rule
Let’s think about the comment that my friend made. Making a general statement like “I need to speed up” is a really good way to lose a load of games unnecessarily. Now overall the sentiment is probably true and it is good that he has spotted that flaw himself. However, if he tries to impose that overarching statement to his game play it is probably going to lead to mistakes. MTG games are dynamic and have the potential to be incredibly complex, there are times where slowing down and thinking carefully about a decision are absolutely the right thing to do. Adversely, for people who think they need to slow down and not rush, they shouldn’t apply that to their whole game because that will lead to using up time when they didn’t need to. The lesson here is pretty simple, when analysing yours or someone else’s time management, the question isn’t “should I/they be quicker?” or “should I/they be slower?”, it’s “how can I/they waste less time?”. So let’s get into the nitty gritty and start talking about practical ways to reduce wasted time.
#3. Try to manage your time throughout the whole round, and not just near the end of the round
Time management starts at the start
The subject of time management often doesn’t come up until the last 10-15 minutes of a 50 minute round. At this point people are starting to get nervous about the clock, they are looking out for slow play more vigilantly and people rush and make the most mistakes. The truth is though, that you should be thinking about your time management and reducing waste from the very start of a round. Time doesn’t move faster or slower at the beginning or end of a round (technically this is not necessarily true, see Einstein’s theory of general relativity) and wasted time at the start of a match is what causes most rounds to go to time. You should also feel very free to remind your opponent the same thing and if necessary call a judge over. Every judge I have ever met advocates this principle and will back you up if your opponent is playing too slow even in the first few minutes of a round. This is probably a topic for another time but it is a huge fallacy that calling a judge is a rude and unsocial thing to do, they are there for a reason and you should have no qualms in using them.
#4. Save yourself time by being prepared!
You can steal time
Unfortunately (or probably fortunately) we don’t all have access to a TARDIS or flux capacitor. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t steal time from outside of our 50 minute rounds and use it in them. What I mean by this is preparation. Effective preparation before a tournament can help to inform or make decisions in game and save you both time and thinking space. This is probably the biggest way you can improve in time management and that is because it comes in so many forms. Preparation can be anything from reading articles, watching coverage, testing matchups to checking sleeves and bringing the right tokens, it covers a whole host of things. Right now I am going to focus on one example where preparation is really helpful which is sideboarding. I have chosen this because sideboarding wrong can easily lose you a match, so you want to devote time to it, but you generally don’t have enough time during a match to effectively make those decisions. A relatively small amount of preparation before an event will go a long way.
It is quite often that I see people sitting and staring at their sideboard and their deck for minutes and minutes and clearly have no idea what to do. Now don’t get me wrong sideboarding is really really hard and I am definitely not the person to give advice on how to do it right, but there are countless resources out there which can help you. If you are playing a known deck there will for certain be a sideboard guide for different matchups on the internet. You are allowed to bring and refer to notes in between games so you can just copy that and cut out the decision making process completely. Even if this isn’t the case and you are playing your own brew, every card in your sideboard should be there for a reason and you should have an idea of when they should come in and when they shouldn’t when you are building that sideboard. Trying to make sideboard decisions on the fly during a match is really difficult to get right even for pro players so you should do your best to avoid that as much as possible by getting some prep done.
#5. Try not to agonise over every little decision
Don’t be scared of decisions
Realistically in a game of MTG, you will have maybe 1 or 2 key, game changing decisions to make. This means that you probably have 10+ decisions to make that are not key or game changing*. So really, you don’t need to agonise over every line of play you take because most of them won’t drastically change the course of a game. Working out which decisions are the key ones is a topic for another day and is probably one which is more advanced than I can tackle. The point I want to make here is that agonising over every decision is usually a waste of your time which you can cut out by just being decisive in your plays. This might be the most difficult piece of advice to put into practise because it involves a big change in mindset. This point highlights the fact that sometimes you have to sacrifice something to stay within the time limit. Sure, sometimes your decisions will be wrong, and you will lose, and those are the memories that stick with you. But these times are also the ones which allow you to learn. If you consider that every decision is either one that didn’t matter very much, or one that did and you get to learn a lesson from it then you can see it as a win/win situation so there is no point at all in stressing and second guessing and wasting time.
*It is worth noting that proper sequencing and decision making for every decision you make in a game will give you an edge and increase your chances of winning so this statement isn’t strictly true. However, for simplicity’s sake I am putting aside small edges and just considering the big decision points you find in many games.
#6. Pay attention to your game, and not whats going on around you
This one is real simple. Pay attention to the board state, pay attention to what your opponent is saying, don’t get distracted by the game next to you or something out the window, don’t root around in your bag looking for gum. Even when it is your opponents turn and you don’t have any plays, that is no excuse. If you are paying attention you can be planning your next move in advance and you don’t have to waste time catching up with what has happened in the game and working out how to respond.
I am sure there are loads of other ways to improve time management during games of MTG but I hope that these thoughts and ideas help you to approach time management in a more meaningful way. Who knows, one day we might live in a world where going to time every round of an event is the exception and not the rule.