With an Extended PTQ season looming on the horizon, talking about time management seems, well, timely. There are plenty of matchups that are hard to finish in the time allotted, even when both players know what they are doing and play at a decent pace, which is often not the case. Of course, this topic lends itself to any format, although it is more relevant to Constructed than Limited. Zendikar Limited is pretty insanely fast; you have to work hard to get a draw, so I’ll be focusing on Constructed.
The number one way to improve your pace of play is to test. Practice really does make perfect, and even though you can’t anticipate every situation during playtesting, with enough testing you can get pretty close. Plus, not only does testing increase your pace of play, it even makes your play better. Astounding!
So, let’s assume you do not have infinite time to play every matchup possible. First, you ideally want to figure out as soon as possible which deck you will be piloting at upcoming events. The whole point of practice is to familiarize yourself with the deck you will actually be using, so the quicker you get that figured out, the better. Still, don’t be afraid to switch decks if whichever deck you chose turns out to be a dud; there is no reason to cling to a sinking ship.
Now that you have a deck, you need to make sure you know how to play it. Obviously you should play against the decks you expect to face in a tournament, but learning how to play the deck at a reasonable pace goes beyond that. Even if you have practiced enough that you know how to play your deck quickly, or at least at an appropriate speed, there are always matchups that take longer. Identifying and practicing problem matchups is very important, especially if you are playing a slow deck or if your natural pace of play is on the more deliberate side. A relevant example of this would be the Tezzeret mirror in Extended.
Unless both players know what they are doing and are playing at a brisk pace, the Tezzeret mirror seems like it takes about an hour, possibly a bit more. Even under ideal conditions, sometimes going over time is nearly unavoidable in this matchup. That means if you are planning on playing Tezzeret at an upcoming PTQ, practicing the mirror is crucial. It is a matchup that is likely to occur, and unless you have practiced it and can play it rapidly, finishing three (or sometimes even two) games is going to be difficult. Practice will tell you what cards are important, what to fight over, when to make a move; in short, it will tell you not only how to play, but it allows you to do so faster. You should definitely avoid going on autopilot, but if you have practiced the matchup enough, you really should not need to think about everything for very long.
Sitting there and thinking about every variable anytime someone takes an action is not only detrimental to your overall strategy, since by trying to think about anything and everything you just distract yourself, but it will make it impossible to finish the match on time. This is true of any matchup, but since the Tezz mirror is such a slugfest, it is of greater importance than in the Zoo vs Zoo matchup. Practice will help you avoid that, since you should have encountered the vast majority of basic situations during your test games, letting you save your thinking time for the tough decisions.
Of course, practice isn’t the cure-all. Even if you are playing fast enough, it doesn’t guarantee that your opponent will. To make sure that everyone is playing at the right speed, call a judge as soon as you think it will be an issue. If my opponent is taking too long, I will usually try to hurry them up once gently, once perhaps a little less gently, then I call a judge to watch for slow play. Don’t feel that you are accusing them of cheating or even breaking the rules; the whole point of calling a judge is to make sure the match proceeds at an appropriate clip, which benefits both players. I am always courteous, and find that one reminder to play a little faster generally does the trick. I’m sure that most of you have heard this before, but getting over the fear of calling a judge is extremely important. The earlier the better too, since calling a judge about slow play with five minutes left in the round won’t really help matters, even if you inform the judge that the pace has been slow the entire match. The judge can’t do anything at that point, unlike if you had called the judge 10 minutes into the round when the slow play started. The length of time left in the round doesn’t excuse slow play, and nipping the problem in the bud will yield the best results.
Ok, so you have practiced and practiced, and you can play pretty fast. You even are good about calling judges, so your opponents will at the very least be playing at a reasonable pace. Still, you can’t seem to reliably finish a particular matchup, or at least not when it goes to three games. This is a situation that has come up a few times over the years in Constructed, and it’s shaping up to look like it might again be the case in the Tezzeret mirror. Despite both players’ best efforts, some Tezz matches just take too long to finish. I think roughly half of the Tezz mirrors I have seen so far have gone to time, although I have managed to avoid doing so, even if just barely. If that’s the case, there are a few things to consider. Game one becomes extremely important, since if you win game one, you will escape with a draw at the very worst, and winning 1-0 is a definite possibility. That means you should practice game one until you know exactly what to do; there isn’t much of a margin for error with similar or identical lists, and I have found that you see almost every card in your deck at some point during the game.
The addition of even one card for the mirror could be enough to swing it, and if winning game one is that important, it may be worth it. I’m not saying that Tezzeret is necessarily going to be so common that you should specifically metagame against it, but any time you run into a matchup that takes a lot of time, that is one of the options available, whether the matchup is the Tezzeret mirror or anything else.
Another option to consider is setting up for faster post-board game. This is a decision you could make either when constructing your deck and sideboard or during individual matches. For example, you could decide that you want a faster kill available postboard, and put in Baneslayer Angels to fulfill that role specifically. On the other hand, you might have Baneslayers in your sideboard for other matchups entirely, but still side them in when there are only six minutes left in the round. Going back to Tezz, I like siding in Angels in the mirror and built my sideboard accordingly, but normally wouldn’t bring them in against something like Scapeshift unless I was concerned with the time left.
The last option is something that Josh Silvestri talked about extensively in his last article. Sometimes you just need to be realistic about how fast you are as a player or how much time you have to spend testing. If you either don’t have the time to really test a complicated deck as much as you need to in order to play it rapidly, or can’t play as fast as is needed to pilot the deck, your best option is to just pick a different deck. There is no shame in realizing that you aren’t going to play fast enough to finish most of your matches with Tezzeret, and picking a different deck instead. Similarly, if you just don’t have the time or desire to practice the amount you need to feel comfortable with the deck, play a deck that suits you or your schedule better. Playing a deck optimally is going to be vastly better than playing a more powerful deck less optimally, especially in a format like Extended where most decks are pretty close to each other in power level. Similarly, if you are naturally more comfortable with a certain kind of strategy (aggro, control, combo), look for decks that play to your strengths instead of fighting against them.
Efficient use of time in-game is also important to learn. Even a simple thing like thinking while your opponent is taking their turn can save a good amount of time. Sitting there blankly until your opponent makes an obvious attack, and then thinking about how to block is just wasteful, and even makes you lose focus. You should be considering how to respond to what they might do next while they are thinking about it, and if you don’t know what they are doing, at the very least try and think of what they might. In current Standard, you should be able to narrow down the opponent’s options pretty easily, and thinking of responses is a good use of your time. If you are playing UWR Control against Grixis, the only big threats they have on their turn are Sorin Markov, Cruel Ultimatum, and Sphinx of Jwar Isle. If they are in the tank during their turn in the middle of the game, you should know what your response to each of the above cards is going to be. This even has strategic value, since if you already know that Sphinx isn’t a threat, you won’t need to think about countering it, which will make it less obvious that you have a counterspell in your hand.
When to Concede
Sadly, sometimes the right play is to scoop’em up, but getting the timing right is tricky. This probably isn’t new information, but the strategic concession seems to be pretty misunderstood, so I see no reason not to mention it. There are only two reasons to concede a game in progress: to save time and to avoid revealing information.
Conceding games you can’t win to save time is crucial, but you never want to concede when you still have a reasonable shot at winning. Again, practice will help you figure out how far behind you can get and still have a shot, since if anything people seem to concede too quickly, but proper use of concessions will help your overall winning percentage. If the matchup isn’t one that takes a long time, like pretty much any match involving Jund, there isn’t really a reason to scoop under most circumstances, but if you are battling Turbo-Fog with a control deck and the situation changes. You might want to consider packing it up to a Jace on 7 and three Howling Mines if you don’t have a threat out, and you almost assuredly don’t want to let them mill you for 20 and see the contents of your deck, which also falls under the “revealing information” umbrella.
The less information you give the opponent the better, and sometimes it is even worth enough that you should concede to avoid giving them more. If you are playing UWR and don’t draw a Red source until you are almost dead, you should give serious thought to whether you should even show them that you are playing Red. If you are facing down a Broodmate Dragon and two Thrinaxes, playing an Ajani isn’t going to save you, so you might as well let them think you are UW control. More important is hiding sideboard cards/strategies. If you won game 1 and have a semi-transformational sideboard, sometimes conceding game two when you are really far behind is better than showing them that you boarded in Tombstalker and Tarmogoyf in your Dredge deck.
There is actually one more reason to concede: when the match is going to be a draw and that would hurt both players. Asking for and receiving concessions is a tricky business, but there are definitely times when a draw is basically a loss for both players, like when playing for Day Two of a Grand Prix or Top 8 of a PTQ. If the situation is such that a draw causes both players to lose, I think good etiquette is for the losing player to concede. If it is the last round of Day 1 of a GP, and a draw will knock both players out, if you are at 1 life vs their six creatures on the last turn, I personally think you should concede. I have conceded in losing situations before, and would prefer to see at least some good come out of the situations. Bear in mind that this is just my opinion, and I by no means think anyone is required to adhere to it. One of the other things that I believe is that nobody is under an obligation to concede or draw a match; I just think that being kind in situations like what I outlined above is going to serve you better overall. This is the least important part of my article, so hopefully the comments don’t dwell on this section. These are my personal beliefs and I’m not particularly interested in debating them, but I figured I would share them since they seemed relevant to the topic.
I play pretty fast, and it has always been that way. My “natural” speed of play is pretty rapid, so I have rarely had problems finishing my matches on time. I know that isn’t the case for everyone, and I think if you follow what I’ve outlined here you should be able to finish the vast majority of your matches without incident. If you practice enough, know your deck, think at the right times, and make sure your opponents play fast enough, that should handle things. In the event that it doesn’t, try adjusting your decklist or even switching decks completely, and consider conceding games you have little chance of winning. If all of that doesn’t work (and you are being honest about practicing enough), well, can I interest you in a Zendikar Booster draft? I hear they have this neat card called Plated Geopede