Playing at the Speed of Magic

Regardless of platform (MTGO, Magic Arena or good ol’ fashioned cardboard) the speed of your play is a contributing factor to performance in a competitive event. Today, I’d like to share my views about how your play speed is likely to impact performance, ways of thinking about and improving your speed and also some advice to keep in mind when thinking about and evaluating your own ability to play quickly, and more importantly, competently. 


Header - What is Play Speed?

For the purpose of this thought exercise, I’ll define “play speed” as “the pace at which a player can perform play functions that progress the game.” 

Your opponent passes the turn and you untap, draw a card and evaluate your options. How long does it take to get from Point A (evaluating your options) to Point B (performing all of the processes and functions necessary to execute them to progress the game)?

I would also say that while “play speed” is an aspect of play that can be improved and can be a source of competitive advantage (faster players will “clock out” less frequently). Simply playing faster isn’t particularly useful if you’re not also playing “competently” within your ability.

For the purpose of this thought exercise, I’ll define “competence” as a player selecting the best line of play that they’re able to decipher according to known information based on their previously learned knowledge of Magic. 

In order to maximize one’s quality of play and achieve the best result, there’s always a sweet spot. This is where a player is playing at a pace where their speed and competence are both relatively high on a spectrum that reflects their natural and learned abilities. 

“What does this mean?”

It means most people likely play their best Magic when they’re taking enough time to make the most competent plays they have the ability to make, but not overthinking or expending too much MTGO clock or Arena timer. In cardboard form, round clock (or, allotted time for a match – typically, 50 minutes per round) is a shared resource between two players. However, in online Magic, it’s useful to think of the clock as a resource that often contributes directly to deciding the outcome of a match. 

On MTGO, if a player runs out of clock (regardless of who is ahead in games or ahead on the board), the entire match is forfeit. In a sense, “time itself” can ultimately be viewed as the most important resource on these platforms, since if you run out of it, you lose the entire match regardless of all other factors. 

So, using time wisely, effectively and to the best of one’s ability is an important aspect of playing timed, competitive Magic. 


Header - Increasing Speed and Competency

The ideal state of competitive play is negotiating the ability to play at the fastest speed possible but where competency is not compromised. You don’t want to play too fast and make plays that are beneath your competency to make, but you also don’t want to waste an important resource in a match. 

In an ideal situation, you want to achieve a state where you can play with perfect competency and perform all of your game actions at the fastest speed possible. The closer a player is to this “ideal” state of play, presumably they can maximize their potential to achieve the best results. I want to emphasize this is an ideal and not a reality. We should not evaluate our own human play relative to an abstract notion of hypothetical circumstances that could or would produce better results. We’re human beings and we operate and play games in reality and not in some ideal or hypothetical realm.

I’d also like to stress that when I talk about “competency,” I mean relative to each individual player’s best ability to make the best play they can make. I’m not implying any other player is “incompetent” relative to another player’s ability. What I mean specifically, with regard to individual competency, is that a player is making the best possible plays that they can make based on what they’ve learned about playing Magic. A mistake refers to if they had the prior knowledge to prevent an error beforehand.

For instance, if I were rushing and I forgot to play a land for my turn (which I’ve done many times), this would be an example of playing beneath my competency level. I know I’m allowed to play a land, should have played a land, but for whatever reasons I did not perform that function properly. “We’re human beings and we operate and play games in reality and not in some ideal or hypothetical realm.”

We always want to play in a way where we avoid making mistakes that are within our ability to be corrected if we had thought about it a second more. I think we’d all agree that saving one second of clock is not worth forgetting to play a land at a critical point in a game.

The knowledge that allows us to recognize play patterns we’ve seen before, as well as interpret situations that we haven’t seen before and choose a line of play, are learned over time. Our ability to process and recognize information (and the speed at which a player can do these things) is also improved upon over time. 

What I’m describing is achieving a state of fluidity with regard to one’s play, where a player is able to identify what they determine to be the best play or plays (to the best of their ability), assess and formulate a response, and then quickly perform, execute, and implement that response. 


Header - The Ideal Setting

In my mind, a relaxed, casual setting is often ideal for practicing a new Magic skill, such as speed of play.

In a casual setting, where the clock and results don’t matter, speed has little to no relevance on gameplay. You can take as much time as you want to think through plays and assess game states, situations or lines of play. In this environment, it’s often practical or useful to discuss the situation with an opponent and explore possible lines of play (if both players are testing for a tournament together). 

I would argue that a “casual” or “fun” setting is the ideal setting to learn and improve one’s competency, speed and all-around game. When I think back across all of the years I played Magic, casual or competitive, the times where my competency and knowledge of Magic increased and often peaked likely resulted from playing and practicing in a casual context. 

There’s a clear correlation in terms of tournament finishes when I performed well and played my best Magic and when I was enjoying what I was doing the most. Whenever I felt a lot of pressure to perform well, either because I felt like I needed to achieve specific results-oriented goals or because I felt like I needed to justify the fact that I was given the opportunity to write articles – my play either plateaued and often regressed. 



It was never for lack of effort. I tried extremely hard, I played Magic constantly and I read every article available to me. I tried to implement every possible strategy I could think of to give myself the best chance of winning every single time I shuffled up in a tournament. 

“When I think back across all of the years I played Magic, casual or competitive, the times where my competency and knowledge of Magic increased and often peaked likely resulted from playing and practicing in a casual context.”The harder I tried, the more consistently my results and finishes plateaued and the more stress and anxiety I felt about playing Magic. 

Something I’ve recently learned about as a teaching strategy is called an “affective filter.” It’s a concept that I think is directly applicable to learning Magic and I thought it would be a useful thing to share. 

An affective filter is determined by a number of factors. Stress, anxiety, comfort level and anything else all contribute to how receptive a student is to receiving, processing and internalizing information when learning a skill. 

Essentially, individuals who have a low affective filter (feel comfortable, confident and relaxed) tend to be more receptive to taking in, processing and retaining information as well as being able to recall and perform on what they learned later on in a real-life situation. Learners who have a high effective filter (meaning they’re stressed, anxious or uncomfortable) tend to learn, retain and recall less information when asked to do so later on in a real life situation.

How a person feels actually plays a role in how receptive they are to the processes associated with learning a skill.

Even though I’m often in a teaching position when I write articles, I have never ceased to be a student of Magic. The game itself is always changing, which means that while the basic rules tend to remain the same, the context (format metagames, rules minutiae and B&R lists) are always evolving. This requires constant adaptation on the part of the player. We can draw upon fundamentals and generalizations we’ve learned in the past and apply them to similar situations, but the situations themselves are always unique. 

The way I see these variables pertaining to increasing one’s speed of play relates to learning to play with a higher degree of fluidity through a higher quality practice. If we’re more likely to learn, recall and be able to perform our best Magical play when our filter is low (relaxed), it makes a lot of sense to practice and hone our game under conditions where we feel at ease. There, we are more receptive to learning and retaining information. 

I would argue, from experience, that I learn and understand more from playing a few matches with a friend than I tended to learn when I played a dozen games trying to rank up on Arena ladder. 

I would argue from my own experience that I learn and understand more from playing three matches with a friend than trying to jam a bunch of leagues in a row. Clocks and timers stress me out. I tend to fixate on them. I already feel anxiety about my ability to produce plays at the same speed as other more experienced online players. Thus, I spend more time worrying about my clock, relative to my opponent’s clock. It not only detracts from the competency of my plays but makes me less receptive toward recognizing and learning from mistakes because I’m playing in a state of anxiety and unease. I may also be playing too quickly to even recognize mistakes that were within my competence to have recognized if I were not stressed or distracted. “Learners who have a high effective filter (meaning they’re stressed, anxious or uncomfortable) tend to learn, retain and recall less information when asked to do so later on in a real life situation.”

It may sound counterintuitive but the way I increased my speed on MTGO was that I decided that I didn’t care about it anymore. 

I was sick of losing matches and tickets because of timing out and feeling bad about it, so I stopped playing them altogether. I don’t have any further professional Magic ambitions and I can learn the information I need to satisfy my own curiosity and write informed content by playing games against other players in the practice rooms without having to ante up. 

When I find particularly talented players with good decks, I ask to run it back and practice the matchup. I’m able to discuss the matchups and plays with players in a way that would likely not be possible in a League. When there’s nothing on the line, I’m able to focus more on learning what I want to know. I can play at a comfortable pace that makes me more receptive towards learning information, and all without stressing about losing tickets to the clock.  

Once I stopped stressing about the clock and how I stacked up against other online players, my speed naturally increased on its own. Instead of trying to frantically try and figure out how to perform a new MTGO function on the fly, I simply took my time and figured it out. The key is that by taking my time, I actually learned the information and I’m better able to recall what I learned in new situations. 

For me, the key to speeding up was actually to slow down and more importantly stop worrying about it so much. 



Header - Using Knowledge to Develop

My next lesson pertains to using broad knowledge to develop specific knowledge.

If playing or practicing is making you feel anxious or experience stress: it’s okay to take a break!

Do something else or play some other version of casual Magic that doesn’t stress you out or make you feel anxious. Magic always changes. The specific knowledge informing a particular format at a set point in time may only be relevant for a week or so and then it’ll change as the metagame changes. Some knowledge is specific to a context, and other knowledge is broad and can be applied to solve problems that we haven’t seen before. 

Specific knowledge – knowing that writers have been championing a specific sideboard plan for a popular deck that week. 

Broad knowledge – understanding that your opponent is struggling to develop their mana out of the gate and identifying plays that take advantage of the resource they are having difficulty developing. 

Specific Magic knowledge matters today but it’ll likely become irrelevant within a short period of time as formats shift and change. However, broad knowledge is concepts that you can draw upon over and over again in any situation. 

Specific knowledge is derived from broad knowledge. It’s likely the case that the reason writers are championing a specific plan is because, having played a particular matchup that broad knowledge has been applied to, they develop specific knowledge applicable to a specific match up.




It may be the case that players are championing playing more Thoughtseize in the sideboard to shore up a matchup against a particular combo deck that’s been performing well. The decision to play more Thoughtseize because the combo deck is popular is specific to a particular context. However, bringing in Thoughtseize against combo decks is broad knowledge that has been used by players for a decade before Thoughtseize was even printed. 




Learning broad knowledge about Magic allows players to make not only better card choices for their deck, but it can also be applied to play. Again, it comes back to achieving a greater fluidity of play and having the confidence that comes from being able to apply broad knowledge to a specific situation. 

If I have a 15-card sideboard and I play against a deck full of cards I’ve never seen before, I can use broad knowledge concepts (for example, Duress against a deck where specific cards matter a lot) to inform my sideboarding. I can understand the role that leveraging more mana-efficient spells will have on the match. I can use my broad knowledge to inform specific choices. 

Also, when it comes to fluidity of play we can make these decisions with confidence because we understand larger contexts of playing the game in the abstract. Most importantly, we can “trust our stuff” even in situations where it might be unclear what the exactly optimal sideboard plan would be. 

The players who struggle the most to win are the ones that rely on others too heavily for guidance. They want somebody to tell them exactly what to play, how to play it and how to sideboard in each matchup. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with seeking out knowledge or learning from somebody else, but at the end of the day you can’t replace gaps in broad knowledge with specific knowledge. 


There will always be matchups you haven’t prepared for. 

There will always be people with plans you haven’t seen before. 

There will always be situations where it is unclear which play to make. 


Stronger players constantly fill gaps in specific knowledge by applying their broader knowledge of the game to new situations. 


Header - Better Learning

In my experience, better learning comes from more comfortable practice.

Casual formats like a Cube, Battle Box or any other wacky format can be an excellent way for players to get out of their own personal comfort zone. They can zone out of the particular deck they happen to own and play and explore new types of play patterns they might not ordinarily see or experience with a new perspective. Also, because these are “casual” formats (and thus don’t technically matter), they tend to allow players to play (and, more importantly learn) with a lower affective filter. 

If a player goes 1-4 with their personal deck in a League that they’ve played for months, they’re likely to feel pretty bad and judge themselves, their deck and their plays quite harshly. The takeaway for many players may be “I’m bad, I played bad, my deck choice sucks, whatever.”

“If we’re more likely to learn, recall and be able to perform our best Magical play when our filter is low (relaxed), it makes a lot of sense to practice and hone our game under conditions where we feel at ease.”If the same player goes 1-4 with some wacky Cube brew in a League, the takeaway will likely be quite different. They may frame that experience as “I pulled one out with my wacky deck! And, if I could go back in time, I could have made some picks differently that would have allowed me to win a few more games.”

Keep in mind, these both examples of players practicing for the same stakes with the same record.

In this hypothetical abstract example…

Who do you think likely learned more? Who’s practice do you think is more likely to improve their broad knowledge and their play more? 

Experiencing judgement matters, even if you’re sitting at a desktop by yourself. We judge ourselves. Often, we’re our own harshest critics. When you are being hard on yourself it is not conducive to learning, it’s actually conducive toward developing bad habits and results oriented thinking that will hinder your growth as a player. 

What I’m suggesting is that if you’ve hit a plateau in your play, jamming 20 matches and likely getting the same result may not be the most productive or effective use of your time. 


Header - Applying Concepts to Speed

Let’s apply this concept to improving one’s play speed. Improving play speed is a function of improving your all-around competency as a player. It’s being able to understand what the situation is and apply what you know to the situation with a high degree of fluidity. 

Fluidity of play is really important and something that players who are winning a lot tend to have in common. Have you ever gone on a winning streak? How about a losing streak? How you felt at the time likely had a lot to do with that success or lack thereof. Results may impact your mood (it feels good to win and bad to lose) but it’s also true that mood informs and impacts performance. 

When you feel good, confident, and relaxed you’re able to play your best. When you feel bad, unconfident or anxious, you play worse. 

You should always play at the speed at which you feel comfortable and confident that you’re playing up to your competency level, especially when you’re practicing and trying to learn and improve your skills and knowledge so that you can apply it in the future. 

“The speed of Magic is the speed at which you feel comfortable.”

You may lose games to the clock on MTGO and it may feel bad. The infernal fuse may freak you out, fluster you, blow up in your face and cause you to experience distress and that your play is inadequate. Practice at your own pace, soak up everything and the skills will come and eventually translate to fluidity. Don’t rush, don’t doubt yourself, don’t feel bad about it and don’t feel like it’s just you. 

I’ve played Magic for over two decades and the timed features of online Magic have always caused anxiety for me that detracts from my enjoyment and engagement while playing. I play poorly when I’m rushed and don’t have ample to to apply my Magic knowledge based on my competency level. It makes me feel bad when I play beneath my competency and I don’t learn anything from my play because I fixate on the role of the clock in my matches. 

When I’m playing with a high degree of fluidity, I’m confident and enjoy my games for the sake of the games themselves. I’m engaged in what I’m doing and the plays tend to come to me much more effortlessly and naturally. 

I was a grinder for many, many years and I understand the mentality and how it feels to work so hard and feel so bad. Trust me, I know the sacrifices people make to try and elevate their game. 

“The key is that by taking my time, I actually learned the information and I’m better able to recall what I learned in new situations.”

When it comes to speed, or any other facet of your game that you seek to improve, the best advice I can give about how to approach those goals is to practice and learn in a way that makes you feel comfortable. If you’re a new player, or even an experienced player looking to transition to the next level of play, it’s so important to recognize that your competition at the highest levels has decades of experience to draw upon, a high degree of confidence and has mastered the ability to play with a high degree of fluidity. 

Magic is a game of infinite complexity. It’s incomprehensible and it’s not a game that you can ever truly complete because it never ends and always changes. It’s an experience that will mean different things to you over time as you continue to learn and expand your knowledge of it.

However, one element of Magic that I believe is true, has always been true and will always be true is that if you’re enjoying your play, you’ll learn more from it and be better able to apply that knowledge when the moment calls for it. Magic is an ongoing experience, so even as you set goals and expectations for what you’d like to accomplish or where you’d like to end up with your play, it helps to recognize that you’ll learn, retain and be better able to recall information that you’ve taken in when you’re comfortable, confident and feeling good. While hard work, focus and  dedication are also assets, be sure to recognize that genuinely enjoying your play experience is also a highly relevant factor that informs learning, retention and improvement when learning and honing a skill.  


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