Silvestri Says – The Issues of Slow Play

With the rise of CawBlade and RUG as the top decks in the format, playing Jace mirrors has become more common and the common sight of WU Control decks going to time every round has returned. Because of this I felt a quick refresher on slow play would be useful for the newer generation of players. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover so let’s get started.

What is slow play?

From the Universal Tournament Rules:

Slow Play
Players must take their turns in a timely fashion regardless of the complexity of the play situation and adhere to time limits specified for the tournament. Players must maintain a pace to allow the match to be finished in the announced time limit. Stalling is not acceptable. Players may ask a judge to watch their game for slow play; such a request will be granted if feasible.

When to call a judge
Call a judge to watch for slow play when you feel your opponent is taking advantage of the clock whether it’s purposely or inadvertently through slow play.

Myths about Slow Play
That complexity affects the amount of time you should be given: It’s spelled out quite clearly in the definition of slow play that it will in fact not take this into account when levying penalties. Now since these warnings and penalties are doted out by judges who are (as far as I know) human, this means more often than not you will get a slight benefit of the doubt when it comes to this. Just my experience, but I find many judges hold off when giving slow play warnings when they themselves get caught up in the flow of the game. However the rule is quite clear about this and you shouldn’t bank on it saving you from a warning.

If I play quickly throughout the match, I should be able to use some of that time I’ve saved to tank on extra hard decisions!: See the above. In an ideal world this is the case and in fact when two competent players are playing a brisk pace, often one will allow the other this luxury with the understanding that they’ll receive the same. If their average pace of play outclasses another match and they have some extra time to burn, who cares if they take advantage of it? Unfortunately the judge has no way of knowing any of this and if he sees you take too long to come to a decision, it falls under the previous discussion point.

Additionally quite a few people who don’t actually play quickly will abuse this liberally if you give them the opportunity. So unless you have an understanding with your opponent, don’t count on this courtesy and if you have to call a judge this option won’t be on the table. Sorry guys, chalk this one up to MTGO having the superior system in place for personal time management.

If I don’t mean to do it, I can keep playing slowly: What this really means is, even though I constantly go to time and get unintentional draws, it isn’t really my fault! Just because a lot of people are nice about this or aren’t exactly masters of time management themselves does not mean you are playing in the boundaries of the rules. Slow play is notoriously difficult to penalize and just because you aren’t racking up slow play penalties it doesn’t mean you’re off the hook. Remember that you aren’t just hurting yourself or your opponent, but you could be slowing down the entire tournament single-handedly. Just something to keep in mind…

Looking in the mirror
Now that CawBlade is king of the hill, we’ve moved to the point where many players are in the unenviable position of dealing with going to time nearly every single round. The biggest thing you can do other than the obvious planning ahead is to stay on top of the game state as it evolves. So many people take until they’ve untapped and drawn to fully reassess their board position and while sometimes this is appropriate, often it’s just time wasted because they were too focused on whether or not they would potentially do something on the opponent’s turn. You have to be able to plan ahead and still keep abreast of what’s going on or you’ll fall into a slower pace without even realizing it.

Not using shortcuts is one of the most annoying things you or an opponent can do in a CawBlade mirror. When you play a Stoneforge Mystic or Squadron Hawk on turn two and the opponent can do nothing, pass the turn to them so they can continue while you search and shuffle. Sometimes when appropriate I’ll also group actions like cracking a fetchland and another search effect so I don’t have to shuffle and present twice in a turn. If you feel that the opponent is somehow gaining an advantage from seeing what your play for the turn will be while searching, make sure they clearly announce what or how many cards they’ll be finding while searching.

One of the more annoying habits you can have is fiddling with your dice on a planeswalker after announcing the ability when you plan to immediately end your turn. Announce it, move to change the dice number and say go, there’s no need to waste ten seconds while you look for the proper number on your D20. Speaking of planeswalkers, Jace, the Mind Sculptor is one of the biggest offenders in terms of time wasted during the course of a match.

Eternal players can vouch for the difference between someone skillful wielding a Brainstorm and someone too nervous to make a decision using one. The people you really need to watch out for are those with only a semblance of a clue, these people will hem and haw and drain minutes off the clock constantly checking between cards they may want to put back and the board. Gentle nudging or a judge call is a must if this happens more than once, otherwise you’ll be hurting yourself. Worse still is often the slow player has no understanding of how slow he plays while the more competent player will speed up and play worse in order to compensate. I know of at least four players in the last two major standard tournaments that ultimately missed top eight due to a loss they racked up by playing too quickly to avoid a draw. One rather notorious slow player actually just made the top eight of Northern California Regionals this past weekend and I have little doubt had his opponents called judges in a timely manner he wouldn’t have placed.

Ultimately after a bit of digging I found the best advice coming from my friend and level three judge, Eric Levine.

“Players not playing blue spells and players who are tapped out on their opponents’ turns are frequent offenders because they zone out on said opponents’ turns. They’re not casting spells, so obviously there’s not thinking to do, right?”

Wrong. You should be planning your next turn (and really, turns) not just because it encourages speedy play, but because it encourages better decisions. The best players see decision trees that extend beyond what many of us can comprehend, certainly further than I can comprehend. That’s part of why we can’t take your hand into account. If we were good enough to play on the Pro Tour, we probably would be doing so. judges should not have to evaluate your hand – we already have enough to look for!

One of the complaints I hear a lot when I give a slow play warning (or even a prod/caution) is that “I’m trying not to lose the game!” I am well aware that you don’t want to lose, and I sympathize, but if you can’t identify which play is the best one in a reasonable amount of time, it is my job to give you the prod (or penalty, depending.) Turn 3 or turn 33 is the same to me, as I have to think about the health of the tournament and not just your match.

Food for thought: Many players slow down when they hear the “that’s time, play 5 more turns” announcement. What many people don’t think about is that slowing down at this point is holding up the tournament for the other 100+ players in the room. This isn’t because players are inconsiderate. In my experience up here in Nor-Cal, quite the opposite is true; people are nice! It’s just that people are not programmed to think that way when things are down to the wire. 5 turns does not mean we suddenly don’t have to get the round turned around quickly.

When discussing slow play, I always remember something Sheldon Menery said about slow play in a fairly famous judge center article: “If you think it might be slow play, it already is.” It’s hard to call Slow Play well across an entire room full of players at a PTQ, GP, or PT, but we try very hard. Arguing the ruling won’t get you anywhere, trust me. We’re doing our job and keeping the tournament healthy. You should do yours, which is having fun and winning!”

Speeding your own play up
I cannot stress enough about knowing all the basics of your deck and making sure you have all the actions down pat. It shouldn’t take thirty full seconds to find something off a Stoneforge Mystic, you shouldn’t need to only consider your Valakut targets after the triggers go off and you should have a basic sideboard plan in mind for every match. Past these another thing people do that wastes infinite time is shuffling their hand when it’s their turn and they start to think. Don’t scoop your lands up and play around with them when trying to tap things for mana (I fall into this trap often), it just slows you down. If you want to put them into neat rows wait until you’ve passed the turn to start playing with yourself.

If you ever want to know how quickly you play in a non-MTGO setting, take out your phone, set the stopwatch and actually time your turns and average it out. The results may surprise you.

Trying not to be an ass
The number one reason people get away with slow play is because you’re nice or your opponent is nice. It feels bad to call someone on something like time over something that feels arbitrary like time, without an exact breakdown who am I to say that you’re the slow one? There’s no easy way to call a judge on some people, but if it’s any reassurance I have only twice seen anyone call a judge for slow play out of spite versus actual thoughtfulness for finishing games on time. The fact is while you worry about reducing your opponent’s fun, especially at lower level events, the fact is their sapping yours and possibly stalling the entire tournament.

Typically I follow the one tank a game rule unless we have a large excess of time and are in no danger of timing out. What this means is if my opponent pauses to make a difficult decision and takes 60-90 seconds I’ll let them have it, but if they slow down again I’m going to ask for them to make a decision and/or speed up their play. I also modify this rule based on general pace of play; I’m less content to let certain people tank than others when I feel like they’re wasting that time on other parts of the game. If people shuffle a lot when going through the motions and do the same to my own deck I’m also far less likely to give them this exemption. Why? Because at some point you just waste time in the round over any possible randomization or anti-cheating benefits you may receive.

See even I’m not super quick to call a judge even though I know on some level it’s usually the right move to make and would save me some grief. Even with this knowledge though, I still call judges faster than the majority of people I’ve run into and this includes pro players. At some point it becomes a necessity for politeness to move aside and let THE LAW take over, be civil about it of course, but you need to make your worries known to the opponent and a judge.

Dealing with casual / FNM level slowplay is a difficult topic to discuss for this very reason. Calling a judge for nearly any reason can be seen as a dick move by some people and implying that perhaps they have a time problem can really push some people over the edge. I find many players are receptive to nudging them along with a “please” followed by asking for them to make a decision or to speed up their play a bit. If you can point out in a civil way how speeding up helps them as well as you, then they often take it better than other approaches.

Honestly I think the best way to handle it is just to nudge them along and if you’re lucky and have a good judge, they take notice and point it out to the player on their own. Not coming off looking like a jerk is tricky in these situations, but sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and finally say it. It isn’t just you worrying about the opponent’s reaction, the judges are too!

From judge Kevin Desprez:

“Dealing with player reactions:
You have to keep in mind the difference that exists between a player involved in the game and the judge noticing from an external point of view that player is playing too slowly. Time passes much quicker for the player than for the judge. This is why the judge should expect reactions from players who are issued penalties for Tournament Error — Slow Play. Most of time, they will not understand what’s happening to them. That is, of course, not an excuse for any unsporting behavior. It seems better to explain calmly the reasons why you intervened than issuing a penalty for Unsporting Conduct – Minor (slight disruption of the tournament).”

One of the best descriptions of this dilemma comes from a judge, Nick Fang.

“But I’m not doing it on purpose…”
Let’s get this one out of the way right off the bat. When a player is confronted with a charge of slow play, their usual first response will be that they didn’t do it on purpose. Because it wasn’t on purpose, players (especially new ones) tend not to understand why there’s an issue at all. The mere fact that we’re talking about slow play, however, dictates that we know that it’s not happening on purpose. If we believed that we were talking about an intentional offense, we’d be talking about Cheating / Stalling, not Slow Play, and the potential ramifications would be dire.

This is actually one of the simplest and best demonstration of one of the core principles of the Magic penalty guidelines in general, a violation of some rule is penalized in accordance with the possible advantage gained, assuming that the violation wasn’t intentional. A violation that was committed willfully (generally to gain some advantage, though this isn’t strictly necessary) by a player that knows that they’re committing an infraction, however, is cheating and is usually grounds for disqualification. Simply put, rules violation + intent = cheating. In this case, playing slowly with the intent to gain advantage = stalling, which is a disqualifiable offense.

Like slow play itself, stalling is not as rare as it should be. In fact, many of the cases you’ll hear about and many of the cases that judges get called for under the guise of slow play are actually about stalling. The usual case—somebody is up by a game in a match and the round is almost over and suddenly their play slows down (not to be confused with playing at a reasonable pace, but in a way that makes it difficult for their opponent to win). In general, lacking extenuating circumstances, we’re talking about stalling —playing excessively slowly (the rules violation) in a willful fashion (the intent) to force the round to end in order for this game not to be finished (the advantage).”

Accepting the reality of the situation

Unfortunately what may happen is that you call a judge over, the opponent plays quickly for a few minutes and then returns to his slower pace once the judge needs to answer another call or wanders away. In these situations it can be crucial to either tell a judge to watch for slow play without alerting the opponent or, if necessary, recall for a judge if you’ve lost him. If you push it too far you’ll be skirting the line of unsportsmanlike conduct and the same goes if you begin acting condescending or sarcastically toward the opponent and his speed of play.

You also need to accept the idea that someone may be willingly preying on the natural reaction many players have to not call a judge and is stalling you. The recent high-publicity banning of Saito raised awareness of this type of cheat, but it remains one of the most difficult cheats to catch. If you aren’t protecting yourself then it’s all too easy for the opponent to do little things that many players won’t think out of the ordinary. These include:

Taking more than three minutes to sideboard and shuffle between games
Taking an excessive amount of time with mulligans
Pretending to take a long time with every combat phase
Excessive in-game shuffling
Trying to ‘bluff’ excessively after he runs low on cards

Players innocently do all of these at every single tournament and in fact everyone is guilty of doing so at one time or another. The key is that this player goes out of his way to abuse the clock and only speeds up when it benefits him which makes it very annoying. I remember one local player who used to play at a subdued pace, within acceptable range, but very deliberately. However once time started to run down if he held the advantage in games won or had a deck that had better chance of winning within turns than his opponent he would speed up for game three. Eventually this was settled and it may not have been intentional (though I doubt that was the case), but it fit all the stalling tropes to a T.

Until next time, may resolving a [card]Brainstorm[/card] not take three minutes.

Josh Silvestri


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