Disclaimer: This is only the shared opinion of a pair of L2 Judges (Josh Silvestri & Marina Kay Fagundes) and competitive players. It is not representative of the judge program’s view of slow play on the whole, nor should these be considered official guidelines.
Slow play is one of the least called penalties in Magic. Despite everyone agreeing that slow play is a serious issue at competitive-level play, it remains one of the penalties that’s awkward to talk about with players and other judges. For the most part we’ve eliminated the stigma but slow play is given a huge degree of latitude. Why is this?
From our experiences, it comes down to two primary reasons:
1) Judges have no useful guidelines in place other than the all-encompassing, “When you get bored.” Since many judges aren’t competitive players, many have no real sense of how long players should and shouldn’t take. Obviously once you watch enough of a format, you’ll learn it, but that’s no substitute for actually playing with a deck like Pod or Storm.
2) Judges are loathe to get into arguments and slow play almost inevitably ends in one. The DQs I’ve been a part of have gone more smoothly than slow-play calls. In essence, calling a player on slow play is often interpreted as, “the judge just called me stupid.” There’s just no other way to explain the sheer anger I’m confronted with as the result of the equivalent of a simple poke.
My goal with this article is not to address the second point, as I honestly don’t know a sure-fire answer to it. If anyone else does, they should share the secret. Judges far kinder than us have gotten reamed for calling the same penalty. So let’s focus on the first point and draw up some useful guidelines.
There are only 50 shared minutes in a match. Assuming that you play 3 games and you split the time evenly you get about 8 minutes per game to take your turns and do your cool stuff. This time also includes things like shuffling, sideboarding, hand shaking, and table talk, but notice that there is only 2 minutes left for these activities. Realistically these things take longer, especially if one player is taking a lot of mulligans or doing extensive sideboarding. A match that used 8 minutes per player per game would most likely go to time.
There are steps that players can take to eliminate some of the time spent during pre-game activities. One huge waste of time is pile shuffling between mulligans. Pile shuffling should be used as a method to verify that you are presenting the right number of cards, not as a randomizing tool. Having a sideboard plan takes out a lot of the chaos out of the experience, since you already know what goes in and goes out. If you don’t have one, then you’re actually thinking about multiple things at once.
1) What’s your plan of attack in this match?
2) What cards best serve that?
3) What cards least serve that?
4) Oh, my opponent got done in less than a minute and is staring at me while I sideboard. I need to hurr- Oh and I just dropped my cards everywhere, I hate life.
Please don’t ever pile shuffle when resolving a fetchland or Birthing Pod activation. If I see you do this, I’ll ask you nicely never to do it again, since it’s really easy to stall by taking advantage of these effects, and even if you aren’t intentionally stalling it slows down the game. Another mechanical action that wastes a lot of time is the candy bar unwrap—slowly peeling the top card, siding it along the table, looking at it puzzling as if the card entered the deck via faerie magic and then adding it to their hand. This experience can easily take 5-10 seconds and all you did was pick up and look at a card. Add that up over the course of a game and you are wasting your opponent’s time because of a silly physical ritual you have.
It should go without saying, but showing up to the table round one while still sleeving is completely unacceptable. This is slow play and no different than being late to your match. Yet people will appeal this even though their hand is in the cookie jar.
Here’s a breakdown of a normal game of Magic to illustrate how small 10-15 second delays can add up over the course of a tournament match.
Playing slowly can take away your opponent’s opportunity to do their own cool stuff and result in a drawn match. When matches go well over time it delays everyone else in the tournament and costs both players the opportunity for maximum prizes.
In this situation nobody wins. Both players are frustrated because they didn’t get to finish their round, judges are frustrated because the tournament is running late, and everyone else is frustrated at the remaining players and the judges because they really want to play their next round.
If a judge asks you to play faster it’s not because we don’t like you or that we think you are stupid or mean, we just want everyone to have the opportunity to play. When someone, your opponent or a judge, asks you to make a play or tells you that you are playing too slowly it’s easy to feel unjustly pressured and singled out.
Can’t you see that my back’s up against the wall!? I could win or lose at any moment! Just let me think man!
In this situation it’s important to remember that a sanctioned tournament of Magic is a shared experience. By treating the time as your special time you are taking away from everyone else’s experience by literally taking their time as your own.
Let’s imagine a match that goes to three games and both players use the maximum amount of time. We’ll say that 5 minutes were used for all pre-game procedures so that leaves only 45 minutes for actual game play. The remaining time per player per game is only 7 minutes and 30 seconds. The first few turns of the game are going to go by pretty quickly. It might take just 10 or 15 seconds for both players to play land-go or land and a mana creature. If both players use 45 seconds each on their first 3 turns, that leaves 6 minutes per player for the rest of the game.
Six minutes per player seems like a perfectly reasonable amount of time, but if we track where the seconds are going it’s easy to see how the clock sneaks up on people so quickly. If someone takes even a single two-minute turn, that’s a huge amount of time from the collective clock. It’s also a notable advantage for one player if the other player continually plays at the same pace, while the other took one or two long thinking turns.
Notice how in this game with only 4 minutes of “overtime” by one player we’ve already accounted for the extra time and turns that would’ve brought the game to a natural conclusion. If game one takes an actual 30 minutes to complete, you can easily understand why finishing game three is a pipe dream and how unfair it is if one player has even 10% more time than the other. It’s a huge advantage!
People who play more slowly than this do exist, so against them you’ll likely never get a real game three or one player will enjoy the equivalent of 3-4 extra “turns” time-wise.
This also isn’t a commentary on skill, anyone can fall into slow play every now and then. I know a number of Gold/Platinum/Hall of Fame-level pros that have less-than-sterling reputations because of their pace of play. Marina and I have both been given pokes about our speed before at competitive REL. You can be good at Magic and be thinking for too long in your matches. The fact that so many games are essentially done around the 7-turn mark or less in many formats helps cover this fact up.
Hopefully this clears up why some people are so touchy about enforcing slow play and why it’s such a big deal. Slow play is inherently a selfish act that takes time away from your opponent, gives you an advantage (deliberate or no), and can cost everyone else in the tournament their time. Remember that every minute we go over time is a minute you’re taking from every other player, judge, or staff member in the room. I would say if we had a stricter end-of-round policy and more judges that were better at enforcing slow play, the average 200-man tournament would end 45-60 minutes earlier. The average GP? Anywhere from 1-3 hours.
Now that isn’t happening, so I appeal to players and judges to do their best so we can keep tournament times reasonable even as they grow at an unprecedented rate.
All right we’re taking a break from the player side of things, now here’s where you come in Judge!
A Judge’s Guide to Slow Play
(Disclaimer: Once again, this is not official policy, it is simply a pair of judges’ general barometers on slow play.)
This assumes maximum amount of time for Comp REL in a vacuum, so don’t freak out, since context of a given board state does matter. Some of these are also likely a bit too lengthy, but since this isn’t Magic Online and physical actions require some time we are more lenient.
Making a mulligan decision: 20 seconds
Note that within the first 5-7 seconds of seeing a hand, many players have already made a decision based on its contents. They simply hem and haw about it or sometimes wait purposely to throw their opponents off. Some hands require legitimate thought, however, and 20 seconds should be plenty of time to fully process a hand. Remember that with a mulligan and shuffling, we’re now extending the opening hands process by at least 30-40 seconds and possibly a minute.
Remember that time graph? Losing a turn or two to this is miserable.
Playing a land turn one: 4-5 seconds, Eternal formats 10-12 seconds
You may wonder why I’d even include this as a moment. But players can take an absurd amount of time in Eternal formats picking their land. This is a weakness of unfamiliarity with the deck. While it’s unfortunate for these players, the opponent should not be penalized.
Better players may be setting up their sequencing and that’s all well and good, but the fact remains that all you’re doing is putting a land onto the table. Making one game action.
Playing a land later: 10-15 seconds
Deciding on a play: 30 seconds
This is essentially, “Someone is staring off in the space, I should bring them back to the reality that they are across from an opponent.”
Choosing attackers: 15-20 seconds
Choosing blockers: 15-20 seconds
Blocking always gets the benefit of the doubt in these circumstances.
Searching library: 20 seconds
Note this should be based on if the player is actively thinking about what to fetch for when tutoring. Shuffling should not be counted in this unless they’re taking an inordinate amount of time.
Shuffling: 20 seconds
This is so important with fetchlands returning to Standard. If you see someone crack a fetch, pick a land, and shuffle, and this adds up to 60+ seconds, fire off that warning. I can’t stress how much wasted time, unintentionally or not, is wasted by multiple shuffles and way more side and riffle-shuffling than needed. This is exacerbated when these same players show a lot of urgency and sloppy shuffling when time is running down. Shuffle at a reasonable pace and both players reap the benefits.
Sideboarding: 90 seconds
I mainly refer to actual thought during the sideboarding process with this time frame. I think the physical action of shuffling is separate and should be judged by itself, since that’s also an easy place to lose time.
This is actually very important to enforce, because shuffling can take a very long time in between games. Portland-based L2 Jeff Higgins commented to me that he once had two players shuffle up for over five minutes during sideboarding. Also look for players who sideboard, shuffle, and then re-sideboard.
Cards in play while both players drift off into space with no one clarifying: 7-10 seconds
This isn’t ever a warning, this is just a simple matter of clarifying the situation to snap people back to attention.
Scrys: 10-15 seconds, depending on number of scrys.
You should never have a 45-second scry. Either you want the card or not and if you signed up for the tournament, you’ll have a pretty good read on things.
Obviously these lack the nuance of other factors, which is why the IPG leaves it up to your own judgment. Still, a good rule of thumb is that any turn that goes into the 60-second mark with 0-1 plays being made should earn a slow play warning, or at the very least, a poke about making a play.
Remember as well that while some of these may sound short, if you actually time yourself while making decisions, you’ll be amazed by the actual time involved. It also doesn’t take into account that often the judge will be rolling up on the situation, which means this self-imposed timer wouldn’t even start until after some amount of time has already passed. Having a disagreement about slow play is one thing, but I think we should all be able to agree that if a judge comes up while you’re already thinking, times off 30 seconds, and then pokes you, that’s on the player. Part of the skill in tournament Magic is making decisions in a reasonable amount of time.
Dodging the Backlash
Carry around a timer or stopwatch or your phone. Many stopwatches also helpfully come with something to wear around your neck, which is not only convenient for use, but also to strangle yourself with when watching the Turbo Time Warp mirror. What it also does is show players that you aren’t just imagining things.
In fact, this may be the solution to the latter problem I talked about in the beginning. It can be really hard for players to hear they play slowly, but being able to show them proof gives you a huge amount of leeway before an argument breaks out. it doesn’t stop many of the other popular arguments, but if they honestly didn’t realize they were playing that slowly, this is a great wake up call for them. It usually just focuses them and gets them set on a course of action.
Another course is to stress that they can talk to you about it after the match, but you really need them to make a play right now. Keeping them focused on the game at hand is the primary objective, not racking up bonus points for the “Most Warnings Given” pool at your local PTQ. Thank Riki Hayashi for this one.
Why These Rough Guidelines Will Help You
You can blame us for all the fallout when you give these slow play warnings.
Seriously, do that. It’ll ease your mind when pulling the trigger.
It is much easier to make a call when you can point to a document or Toby and blame them for the result of a call. Slow play is one of the only points in the IPG where the judge is left to his or her own judgment.* This is scary because it means that if you just blow the call it was because your own subjective judgment was wrong. Thankfully instead of ruining some players tournament, the worst that can happen is you issue a warning.
This means we should have an overabundance of slow play pokes and far more warnings handed out per event! You can safely blame us for your newfound assertiveness toward the growing epidemic of slow players. The kicker is that I’m hard on slow play and if I fired off 50 pokes and 30 slow play warnings, there’s likely only 1 or 2 that wouldn’t have been justified.
At your next competitive tournament, we challenge you to please bring a stopwatch or a timer. As a whole, slow play is the weakest aspect of all floor judging at Comp REL. Even the players realize it at this point, and more than one grinder has told me they don’t even bother calling judges over because they simply don’t do anything.
Judges, please do something, even if it makes you feel uncomfortable. If you’re a player, call for a judge if your opponent is playing slowly. If you end up the recipient of a poke or warning, please don’t accuse us of trying to make you lose the game or drag the game (and tournament) out longer to argue. Just discuss it with us after the match. These things can all make for a better and quicker tournament experience for everyone involved.
Thank you and please play at a reasonable speed.
Joshua Silvestri & Marina Kay Fagundes
L2 Judges @ Channelfireball