Why would you want to play faster? Playing faster has 5 main benefits:

  1. You get to finish your match. Drawing in a Magic tournament is usually very bad, but you can almost always avoid it if you play quickly enough.
  2. You get much better at making complicated decisions. Someone who is slow doesn’t have the time to evaluate the entire board before making a play, but if you’re fast you can consider more variables.
  3. Your opponent has less time to think. There’s a limit to how long they can take on their turn, and if you take close to zero on your turn, then they may not have as much time as they want.
  4. You get more practice games in the same amount of time, making playtesting more efficient.
  5. You get to look cool. People who play slowly are very boring.

Now that we’ve established that playing faster is better (sorry Frank Karsten), here’s how I think you can improve in this regard:

1) Think while your opponent is thinking

Just because one player has priority doesn’t mean the other player can’t be thinking. Most of the time, when my opponent is taking a while, I’m also thinking about something. Things you can be thinking about include how you’re going to block if they attack, what spell you’re going to cast if you draw Swamp, and so on. It’s impossible to think through all the permutations, of course—sometimes they just play a haste creature you weren’t expecting—but most of the time you can plan for whatever is going to happen. As I mentioned above, this not only speeds up the game but also robs your opponent of time to think, because they can only take so long themselves, whereas you can still think more on your turn if you have to.

Another good time to think is at the beginning of the round, when the clock hasn’t started yet. You get to see your opening hand to resolve mulligans, and then you have ample time to think through the first turn(s) of the game. If you’ve kept your hand and they’ve mulliganed, you can also use the time while they’re shuffling to plan your first turn. This is especially relevant with decks that have a lot of decisions on turn one, such as multicolored decks with fetchlands, Legacy combo decks, and Affinity.

2) Look at your opening hand immediately rather than waiting for your opponent

This is similar to the previous point, but I felt that it was important enough to deserve a category of its own. There are many people who do not look at their hands before their opponents have decided whether to Keep or Mulligan, and I think this is a mistake. I understand that it’s done so that you won’t give away information about your hand with a facial expression, but I think this is a vastly overstated phenomenon and that it pales in comparison to being able to finish your game in time. Perhaps it’s just not the kind of player that I am, but I’ve been playing competitive Magic for over 10 years and I can’t remember a single instance where I changed my decision on anything due to the face my opponent made when they saw their opening hand.

A mulligan decision can take a while, and if I have to think, and then you have to think, we waste precious time. It’s better to just have both thinking at the same time. My recommendation is that you just look at your hand as soon as you can unless you’re a ridiculously transparent person.

3) Practice

If you’ve seen a situation before, then your brain will recognize a pattern and you won’t have to think much about it. Take, for example, Luis’s Bant Heroic What’s the Play? Here’s Luis’s optimal solution:

“With the first Command, target Battlewise Hoplite and Thunderbreak Regent with the fight mode and Lagonna-Band Trailblazer with the +1/+1 counter mode. Let both heroic triggers resolve, but don’t let the Command resolve. Once the heroic triggers have resolved, use the second Command to target the Hoplite with the +1/+1 counter mode and the Trailblazer with the fight mode, targeting Soulfire Grand Master.”

This play is not exactly complicated. It does, however, rely on the knowledge that you can target a creature with Command, let the heroic trigger resolve, and then do something before the Command resolves. If you have never played the Heroic deck before and you’ve never seen the interaction, then it is still possible that you will think of it—after all, it’s all there—but it will take you time. You have to think of all the possibilities, you have to think of how the cards even work together. Someone who has never played the deck before will likely not arrive at the optimal play in the time allowed in a tournament. Someone who has to read Dromoka’s Command has almost no chance of coming up with that, because they’ll be overwhelmed by the different possibilities.

Now, take someone who has played the deck before and has seen this interaction. They will look at a hand of two Dromoka’s Commands and will automatically think that they can target their guy and then do something before the Command resolves. They may or may not find the play, but they will be looking for it—which is a drastic difference than someone who is looking for any play.

This kind of thing will happen with any deck. For someone who has played many games of Esper, Bile Blighting your Ojutai in response to an Elspeth -3 is second nature—you’ll pass the turn with the intention of doing that. For someone who has not played the deck and seen the interaction, it will take a long time to even consider casting Bile Blight on your own creature. Even if you find the play, you’ll have wasted time figuring that out, whereas an experienced player will make the same play in half a second, and will therefore have more time to finish their match.

4) Don’t take a long time to make mechanical actions that don’t require any thinking

I understand someone thinking for a long time on a complicated play, I really do. What I do not understand are the people who take a very long time to make a mechanical action. If I pass the turn and you’re tapped out, I expect you to be untapped with a card in your hand by the time the sound “o” from “go” leaves my mouth. If you’re going to cast a Fireball for 15, I expect you to grab 16 lands, tap them in one motion, and throw that Fireball at the table. People who carefully untap land-by-land, draw, look at their card, place it on their hands, then tap each land individually, and finally cast Fireball are usually just wasting time, even if unintentionally.

Of course, the fact that I dislike it doesn’t mean you necessarily have to speed up—I know you couldn’t care less about how I feel personally—but I think you should speed up because slow mechanical actions will make you draw games that you otherwise wouldn’t, and they’re the easiest thing to fix. All you have to do is make an effort to move your hands faster, to make full actions rather than individual actions. You’re drawing a card? Draw it! Don’t drag it on the table, then peek at it, then put it in your hand—just draw it in one motion. With time, this will be automatic too—if you’ve ever watched any of my matches, you’ll see that I take almost zero time between my opponent passing the turn and my main phase.

You probably also want to learn how to shuffle a little bit faster, and that includes getting rid of pile shuffling. Pile shuffling has one main purpose: counting the cards in your deck (or in the opponent’s deck). Once you’ve done one, there’s no need to do another, and all it does is take extra time.

5) Have a continuous train of thought

Magic is a complex game and there are situations that we simply cannot properly evaluate in two minutes. Luckily, we don’t have to, because unless something radical has happened (say, someone cast a Genesis Wave for 10 and there are now 10 new permanents on the battlefield), both players have been there for the entire process and can just keep updating it in their heads.

Imagine that you’re counting cards in blackjack. You see a Jack—you go “-1.” Then you see another Jack and go “-1 again, so -2.” Another one? -1, you’re now at -3. A Queen? -4. You can go on forever, because you’re only doing increments of +1 or -1. If I tell you “count is -12, card is a 4, what’s the new count” you’ll immediately say “-11.” If I tell you “cards so far have been JJJQ45678J3JA7KKJK2234, WHAT’S THE COUNT?” then you’ll probably take a while to figure it out. Now, imagine that after the 4, there’s an Ace—and that now you have to count everything again. It’s maddening.

In Magic it’s the same. If you just randomly look at a complex board every time something happens, then it’s going to be too much. If you keep track of the board, however, then any new addition is just one more piece of information. Do not constantly reevaluate the board—just add to an existing board in your head. If I figure out that it’s safe to attack this turn because you only have one extra attacker and, after that, you play another guy, I don’t need to count the whole board again, I only need to know what your guy does to my previous evaluation (he’s an extra attacker, so now you have two attackers. I can no longer safely attack).

6) Play faster decks

This is a bit of a bummer, but it is a valid piece of advice. Sometimes, decks are just too slow and there’s nothing you can do about it. I remember at Worlds 2003, in Berlin, a team came up with a great piece of sideboard tech for the control mirror in Cabal Interrogator, but they figured out that it didn’t matter, because if they lost game 1 they would not have time to finish the match regardless of how good their sideboard was. They ended up not playing it.

At GP São Paulo, Pedro told me that he liked Esper, but he wouldn’t play it because people were slow, and he didn’t trust his ability to finish matches in time with it. Once you get one draw, things get significantly worse, as you’re then going to play against someone who also has a draw, so they’re more likely to be playing a slow deck or to at least be a slow player (because, really, you’ll be surprised at the decks people manage to draw with). He was afraid of getting a draw and then drawing multiple more times after that happened, because the deck was slow, opponents were slow, and he wasn’t particularly fast himself.

This is an aspect that almost no one considers, but one that I think you should. If a deck can’t finish matches in time, or if you can’t finish matches in time with it, then you might simply have to play a different deck—it is a factor, just like everything else.

Well, that’s about it! I hope you’ve enjoyed this, and I hope it helps you avoid unintentional draws in the future.