It’s Hard to Play Optimally and Avoid Slow Play. Tough.

Some of you may remember a handful of articles I’ve written throughout the years on slow play in Magic. Why it happens, how to approach it, and my best remedies. Recently, I saw multiple posts about Lantern, and that reignited my passion for addressing one of the most difficult judgment calls in the game.

1) Social contracts, skillful plays, and slow play

Owen chimed in and mentioned that he had zero problems going to time at tournaments or on Magic Online, which prompted this response:

“But… everyone isn’t Owen Turtenwald. I’m gonna say probably the vast majority of people. If it’s a very popular deck, local doors will be flooded and they aren’t you.”

My goal isn’t to single this person out, but rather the continuing myth of, “you need to reach X level of skill to play three games of Magic in 50 minutes with this deck.” No, you just need to put in enough reps. You need to practice shuffling. You need to actually work at it instead of assuming every deck that isn’t Mono-Red magically requires a minimum of 45 minutes a round.

For Lantern Control, try to set up shortcuts with your repeated actions that your opponent will agree too. If you can, have your opponent agree to let you take actions while they resolve shuffle effects. Do it early when it’s in their best interest to do so—don’t try and convince them that they owe you something when there’s less than 5 minutes on the clock. Stop trying to figure out the 100% optimal play every turn and focus on what matters. Most players seem to have the checklist of survival first, redundancy against destruction effects second, and then winning the game in a timely manner third. The less time you have to finish the round, the higher in the priority list the winning portion becomes, which is probably hurting you more than minor leaks.

Rarely are those on the extreme end of the skill spectrum the sole cause of the problem. It’s almost always the 3rd wave of players to adopt an archetype and the grinders who see it as a top deck and switch over. They inherently take too long by switching to a new deck without enough practice, and it’s exacerbated when the deck wins slowly and features repeated mechanical actions. It happened with Sensei’s Divining Top, Birthing Pod, Rally, and now Lantern Control. Both of these types of players share a fatal flaw—they always want to figure out the best line on a turn instead of figuring out a couple of quick ones that’ll let them actually win the match. Watching people tank for that perfect line when they’re already 99% to win, instead of taking the good obvious line, is the pinnacle of this failure.

BBD summed it up perfectly:
“Here’s a tip for playing Lantern Control: It is better to play quickly than perfectly. A draw equals a loss in many events.”

I harp on this in every single article about slow play, but I want to make it clear—there are at least two people in a game of Magic. The more you abuse the social contract of the timer, the more you damage your own community and standing. There are plenty of players who stopped playing paper Magic when they realized how much faster it is to jam five games of Hearthstone for every one or two Magic matches. 50 minutes is a ridiculously long time, and it could easily change to 45 and affect only a small percentage of players. With enough of an adjustment period, 40 would even be perfectly fine for most formats.

Watch the last Swiss round of a tournament and be amazed at just how much faster everyone is, as if by some unseen force (a.k.a.: going home). There have simply been too many times I’ve had multiple tables go to time in the first few rounds and drag on, while for some mysterious reason the last round is done with 10 minutes to spare and most players are out the door by the 25-minute mark. I used to think this was just an illusion of my mind at the end of the day, but after watching so many events and talking to other judges, I’m reasonably sure this is true.

So ask yourself again why you can’t show that same level of quick thinking every single match.

2) There’s a difference between slow play and stalling (both are bad—one is worse)

Stalling often blends into slow play when you are near the round end. People are often too scared to call it because they look identical in many cases unless one player has a clear pattern of clock abuse. In Modern this becomes more obvious when people make plays under the guise of, “I’m doing stuff!” rather than something that will have an effect on the game.

Reminder: You don’t need to try to win games of Magic, but you can’t take an inordinate amount of time to do so.

Recently, I’ve had to talk to a couple of players about stalling at regular REL, which I’d never had to do before in 5+ years of running tournaments. One of the keys to remember is that there are two of you playing and you both agree not to abuse an imperfect clock system. This is doubly true at regular, where there are many people who are unfamiliar with it. You can’t intentionally throw away time because you’re 1-0 and want to try and win via clock. You aren’t on Magic Online.

If you feel someone is doing this (and it usually becomes pretty obvious) then you need to talk to the judge or to whomever is in charge. Also, if you play a lot of GP side events, I highly recommend staying on your toes for sudden play speed shifts. More than any other type of tournament, I believe slow play goes on at these types of events more than anywhere else.

Just because stalling isn’t called very often doesn’t mean a lot of players aren’t tiptoeing up to the line, and if it were easier to prove, I know a lot of grinders that’d be enjoying some vacations from tournament Magic.

3) Self-reflection is good

If you want to be the arbiter for how fast your opponents are playing, I highly recommend taking a good hard look at how you play Magic. I’ve had players complain to me about their opponents being slow when they were not the only cause. Even worse, when timed, they end up playing slower than their opponents on average.

Back in the the 2010-2013 era, there were three PTQ grinders that used to really stress me out because I knew when I played them that it was going to be a struggle to finish if we got to three games. They were methodical, which meant every normal turn was within what I’d consider reasonable, albeit long. Unfortunately, it meant on the tank turns, we’d go from “taking a reasonable amount of time” to “you just stole 4-5 minutes of our shared clock.”

For a while I just went along with it. They were firm in their own way of playing and judges rarely ever called slow play even if watching the match. I even childishly played some of them at their own pace, which typically lead to 1-1-1 results and I would almost always refuse to concede to them when we went to time. This was bad for them as well, but they rarely ever considered their own actions and how it led to this mindset or result.

What can you do about it? For me it was in pushing them to make a play. See, usually I started to think on their turn and then I’d get bored and my mind would wander. Once I started trying to keep active interest in the game, even by essentially just asking, “where are we in this turn?” we’d started finishing more games. My key turns were much faster and by pushing them immediately, I often would shorten their other actions.

PV wrote about a number of things you can do to improve in this area, and I highly recommend reading his article on it.

I feel like we’ve made strides toward combating slow play, but we can and should be doing better. Judges can only do so much. It’s on each of you to think about it. Report it when you feel there’s a consistent issue with one player. It’s easier to apply a solution when it isn’t out of the blue or when one individual isn’t targeting that person.

As I sign off, I’ll ask the crowd, what are your tips and tricks for finishing matches of Magic on time?

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