When I judged Magic tournaments (I was never a level 1 judge, but I often judged PTQs that I couldn’t play in), the hardest part for me was always slow plays. There were moments in which I felt like the person was playing too slowly, but I couldn’t tell if this was just my impression because I was bored, or if they were actually taking too long. I also couldn’t help but think, “well this is a complicated turn, let him think.” Most of all, I didn’t want to be a jerk. Most of the players were my friends—I felt awkward telling them they had to play faster, and they always looked at me as if I was accusing them of cheating. I inevitably told them, if they took too long to leave no room for argument, but not nearly as much as I thought I should have.

I understand that judging Magic is tricky, and slow play is harder than almost anything else, so mistakes will invariably happen. Yet, I’ve seen it consistently, over the years, approached sub-optimally. My goal here is to elaborate on what I think the current problems are and how I believed they can be fixed. You’re never going to get perfect slow play rulings, and that’s OK, but there are some mistakes that I think are being repeated too much and I believe we can solve those if we talk about them.

Problem #1

If someone tells you you’re playing slowly, that means you are playing slowly. It does not mean you are cheating, do not take it as such.

The first way to solve the slow play problem is to remove the stigma attached to it. If I ask you to play faster, I am not saying you’re cheating. In Magic, you’re expected to make decisions at a reasonable pace. That’s it. Most Magic players will be offended when told they’re playing slowly by an opponent or by a judge, and many judges and players will refrain from asking the opponent to play faster because they think it’s an awkward situation. It should not be.

Solution

Start treating “please play faster” as what it is, and not as a cheating accusation. Don’t be afraid to say it if you’re a player or a judge, and don’t be offended if you’re told to do it.

Problem #2

Slow playing warnings are extremely inconsistent.

Take, for example, this video from the TCGPlayer Invitational:

This turn, I took about 50 seconds, and it included playing a land, fetching, shuffling my deck, casting a spell that made me reveal a card, and passing. Did I take too long? I don’t think so, but perhaps I did. The judge thought so, and issued me a slow play warning.

Now look at the very next turn of the same match.

This turn, my opponent took 55 seconds. That’s 5 more seconds than I did, and he didn’t have to shuffle his deck like I did because of the fetchland. This was the same judge watching, and he didn’t tell my opponent to play faster, let alone issue him a slow play warning.

Now look at my match against Chris Fennell:

I passed the turn at 27:40. I was tapped out. Fennell passed the turn back to me at 31:55. He took 3 minutes and 15 seconds on a turn and, although he did a lot of things, the bulk of the turn was spent thinking about attacking or not, and not taking actions. That is over four times longer than I took when I got my warning, yet he wasn’t even urged to play faster.

Now let’s fast-forward to my match against Matt Sperling at the last PT:

This moment is the point I get a warning for slow play for taking a little less than a minute to attack.

This is the part after I make my attack.

You can see that Sperling takes about 70 seconds to block, and he is not urged to play faster. This is right after I’ve been urged to play faster for taking 55 seconds.

Now let’s go back to 8:00.

I think for a while and attack. Sperling is tapped out. He says “block” at 9:17. That is 77 seconds that he took on one decision—roughly 20 more than I did. Yet, again, he was never told to play faster.

Why was I told to play faster? It’s not that his board was more complicated than mine—if anything, it was probably less complicated, as mine was possibly the last turn of the game (though I understand that judging complexity is very hard, and it’s possible he had to consider more factors than me even though the board was smaller). In the second video, the board was mirrored, though with less counting.

The slow play penalties and warnings are not consistent, even across matches. I do not think this is OK. There will be some variation, of course, since we’re all humans and not robots, but there should at least be some standard—the same judge shouldn’t issue a “play faster” command for someone who takes 55 seconds and then not say anything when a player takes 70 seconds right after that, on the exact same board.

Problem #2b

Judges do not enforce slow play warnings early on, and then try to compensate later on.

This is, in my opinion, a big problem. I think that, because slow play is hard to judge and there is a stigma about it, judges are too lenient in the beginning of a match. They probably think there’s a lot of time in the round and it’s not a big deal. When I watch SCG coverage, I wonder how the players don’t get slow play warnings.

When the end of the round starts to approach, judges get very aggressive with slow play calls. If you feel like you’ve been too lenient with slow play, that’s unfortunate, but going on a slow-play-warning rampage doesn’t make up for it. It’s better to accept that you made one mistake by not calling it early than trying to compensate for it later on. I should not have less time than my opponent to make my decision because his complicated play happened to be in game 1 and mine in game 3.

In my match against Sperling, I do believe we were both playing slowly—from the beginning of game 1. I thought he took much longer than I (since he was taking time on his turn and on my turn, whereas I was only taking time on my turn, but that might be just my perception. For example, there’s a spot in which he takes 47 seconds just at the end of my turn—I pass the turn at 6:05. Sperling untaps at 6:52), but I also thought I was playing slowly. I wouldn’t have objected if the judge had interfered in the beginning to tell us to play faster, but he didn’t. I did not think his later interference was reasonable, however, considering I thought my opponent had taken much longer than I was taking in several turns of the game and nothing had been said.

This type of thing will happen on a micro and a macro level. When a tournament is severely delayed, judges will be more aggressive with slow play calls. I do not believe this should be so—either someone is taking too long, or they aren’t. It’s not OK to issue a slow play warning that you wouldn’t have issued normally because the previous round went 20 minutes past the clock—that’s not the player’s fault.

Incidentally, we also notice that when tournaments are delayed, we have less time to shuffle. Normally I can sit down, shuffle, draw my hand, and then start playing when they tell me to. If a tournament is delayed, then I’ll be able to sit and, as I’m in the middle of shuffling, they’ll tell me to start playing. This takes a good 2-3 minutes out of game time, which is almost irrelevant in the grand scheme of things (because it’s a small amount of time and because extra long rounds are usually investigations or appeals, and those ignore the clock anyway) but very relevant for whoever is playing in those extra 2 minutes. I do not think it’s fair that players will suddenly have 2 fewer minutes than announced because the tournament is late—suck it up and finish 10 minutes after you otherwise would.

Solution

Give more slow play cautions/warnings earlier, so that you don’t have to do it later. If you do not give them earlier, then do not overcompensate—what’s done is done, and you’ll cause more problems by trying to fix it.

Problem #3

A judge telling a player to play faster in the middle of a play will cause the exact behavior that he is trying to prevent.

If a player is taking a long time, that’s usually because the play is complicated. Then, as the player is on the verge of finding a play, the judge steps in and tells him to play faster, and he loses his train of thought completely. The player now can’t think things through again, because he knows he has to play faster, but he likely just forgot what he was thinking to begin with.

Take the same match against Sperling.

I’m in a very complicated spot—one where I can cast a spell and then counter my own spell to trigger my Nettle Drones and hit him for lethal through his blockers and his Vampiric Rites (which could potentially draw him into an instant, which I also have to consider). There are, however, a lot of numbers involved (he has a lot of life gain), and the potential for catastrophe is enormous —if I miscount by 1 point, I end up losing my spell, my counterspell, and I tap all my creatures, which likely loses me a game that I’m in a commanding position to win.

After thinking for a minute, I was told to play faster. Once that happened, I lost track of the numbers and had to count everything again. I ended up taking 2 minutes 25 seconds to make an attack, though part of that was spent arguing with the judge about the slow play comment. I think this is actually an unreasonable amount of time to spend, and that I should get a slow play warning for it, but I do not know how long I would have taken were I not interrupted. By telling me right then to play faster, the judge actually caused me to play more slowly.

By making me play faster on my attacks, and not doing the same to Sperling when he is blocking, even though he took longer than I was taking, the judge is actually giving him a big advantage in a very tense moment—my train of thought is interrupted and his is not. In other spots, I can imagine just rushing a play because I’m told to play faster, and losing because of it.

Solution

Wait until a player has finished a play to tell him he played too slowly, unless they are taking an extremely unreasonable amount of time. This is what the TCGPlayer judge did, and I thought it was great—he didn’t interrupt my train of thought and I could appeal the ruling without it looking like I was fishing for more time to think.

Problem #4

Making an action resets your timer.

I think that, by most standards, I am a fast player. I would expect that in the majority of my games, I retain priority less than my opponents do. Yet I’m often urged to play faster, while my opponents are almost never notified of this. I believe this happens because I like thinking about everything before I do something.

I’ve argued with judges before that “30 seconds is not that long,” and they reply “yeah but it was 30 seconds doing nothing.” I received a warning on turn 1 of the Zoo mirror (against LSV at Worlds, no less), because I took too long “doing nothing,” even though I was going to do everything all at once after thinking.

Imagine a player that knows they’re going to play a land and attack with their creature, but have to decide whether to cast Lightning Bolt or not. If a player thinks for 10 seconds, plays a land, thinks for 10 seconds, attacks, thinks for 15 more seconds, and plays Lightning Bolt, they’re very unlikely to get a slow play warning. If they think for 35 seconds and then play land, attack, and cast Lightning Bolt, they are much more likely to get the warning. In both situations, it took the exact same amount of time to complete the actions. Scenario #2 is making the strategically-correct play, as it doesn’t give away what you’re thinking about. Imagine a spot in which I end up not casting Lightning Bolt—I could just have spent the 30 seconds thinking about the land or attacking. I’m generally player #2, my opponents are generally player #1, so I get urged to play faster more often.

It shouldn’t be this way. I shouldn’t just get more time just because I played a land in the middle of thinking—that land doesn’t change anything. Yet, it often changes a judge’s perception.

Solution

Don’t consider game actions as resetting the timer if no new information has been acquired. Again, wait for a player to make his play. You might think “he’s taking too long to do nothing,” like the judge that issued me a warning in the Zoo mirror, but you can’t imagine that I’m taking this long just to decide which land to play. If I think for 20 seconds, play a fetchland, and then think for 10 more seconds on which land to fetch, and 15 more seconds on which 1-drop to play, then you can issue a warning. But if I think for 20 seconds, without doing anything, and then just play a fetchland, fetch, and a 1-drop, I do not think that’s unreasonable. The only way to know which route a player may take is to wait.

Problem #5

Judges on feature matches have to be more vigilant about slow play.

Most of the time, players will get away with playing slowly in a feature match. I understand giving it a little more leeway, even if you aren’t supposed to, because you don’t want things like that to show up on camera in a round that is untimed, but sometimes it’s just too much. Part of playing Magic is making decisions within a time constraint, and, if you eliminate that for one player, you’re giving that player an advantage that they’re not supposed to have. It’s like saying you have a timed test and then providing an extra hour for a single student. Sure, they figured out the right answers and they get credit for that, but if their peers operated under the assumption that they had one less hour than the singled out student did, then it’s not really fair.

Let’s take a look at the 2015 World Championship Finals, between Seth and Owen. Take this turn of game 5:

Seth untaps, draws, and then takes about 4 minutes and 30 seconds to decide what to attack with! This is not reasonable. I can’t take 50 seconds, but Seth can take 270?

You might argue “it was game 5 of Worlds finals,” but again, part of playing Magic is making decisions in a short amount of time. Owen never took 4 minutes to make his decisions because he knows that the rules don’t allow him to do that— he had to make decisions faster, perhaps faster than he wanted to, but he still did. When the judges don’t stop Seth from taking over 4 minutes on an attack, they make it unfair to Owen, who never did that because he knows he can’t.

It gets worse because the opponent is generally helpless if it’s a feature match. When I’m in a normal match, I will sometimes tell my opponent to please play faster, and I’ll call a judge if they don’t do it. When I’m in a feature match with a judge sitting besides me, I feel bad doing that. Clearly the judge is watching—if the judge thought my opponent was playing too slowly, he or she would have said something, so maybe I’m wrong. I think I have authority to ask my opponent to play faster if there’s no judge around, but I do not have it if there is a judge watching. It’s like telling the judge that they don’t know how to do their job. The problem is that often the judge is just there, but not focused on the match, so the slow play goes unnoticed.

In this spot, what can we, as players, do? What could Owen have done? There were many judges watching that match, and no one did anything. My understanding is that Seth was urged to make a play at some point, but it wasn’t for another 2 minutes, and nothing happened. Owen is forced to sit and wait while Seth breaks the rules of the game to his advantage (not cheating, but an infraction nonetheless because he is most definitely not allowed to take this long on an attack), and he can’t do anything without calling every judge around incompetent, and perhaps even incurring the ire of the watching public.

Please note that this is not an attack on Seth. He was immersed in the game, making a tough decision, and likely did not even notice that this much time had passed. Naturally, if you’re being watched by a judge and the judge doesn’t say anything, you’re going to think you’re doing just fine. This is more on the judges—they should have stepped in and didn’t. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t commit an infraction. I know I’ve done the same thing many times, and I almost never notice that I’m taking an unreasonable amount of time because I’m busy thinking about what’s going on. Sometimes I do notice that I’m taking longer than normal, but it’s still hard to be self-conscious about when you’re taking a long time and when you’re taking too long. I didn’t present you videos of me with blatant slow plays because I don’t know where they are, but I’m sure that they exist. When I say I want slow play to be better enforced, that applies to me as well.

This conflicts with point #3 a bit, which is part of the reason why judging slow play is very hard. I think you shouldn’t interrupt a player in his thought process to tell him he should play faster, but you also can’t let that player take five minutes to make a decision because that’s a big advantage, so where do you draw the line? My inclination is that, if you merely feel like they should be playing faster, tell them after the play. If you get to a point where you decide you’re going to tell them after the play that they have to play faster and they take a while after that, then you should step in force them to make a play. Alternatively, if you’re going to caution them to play faster, wait until after the play. If you’re going to issue a slow play warning, then it’s likely that too much time has passed and you should interrupt.

Solution

Be extra vigilant about slow play in feature matches, because, once a match is being watched, it basically takes away the ability for a player to ask for faster play without it being very awkward. If you’re only there for life totals and you’re not going to focus on the rules or time aspect of the game, then let the players know beforehand so that it’s not awkward when they feel like they have to step in. If it’s an untimed round, you should still make sure that people make decisions in a reasonable amount of time.