Chatter of the Squirrel – Slow Play, or, How Not to Become a Victim

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Tuesday, February 24th – A lot of players talk in the forums about how decks by authors like Chapin, GerryT, and myself are light on ‘win conditions.’ Without a big tap-out fatty to end the game quickly, they worry they won’t be able to finish their matches on time. This sentiment isn’t entirely unreasonable, but there are so many ways to solve the problem of time limits without having to resort to making your deck worse. This article will outline a few of them.

I played the following deck last week at an FNM:

4 Tezzeret the Seeker
3 Broken Ambitions
4 Cryptic Command
4 Esper Charm
1 Scepter of Fugue
2 Scepter of Dominance
4 Wrath of God
1 Hallowed Burial
2 Path to Exile
2 Courier’s Capsule
1 Marble Chalice
1 Cumber Stone
1 Pithing Needle
4 Mind Stone
1 Mistveil Plains
1 Exotic Orchard
4 Reflecting Pool
1 Springjack Pasture
3 Vivid Meadow
2 Vivid Creek
4 Arcane Sanctum
1 Fetid Heath
2 Sunken Ruins
3 Mystic Gate
3 Island
1 Plains

2 Celestial Purge
2 Terror
1 Negate
1 Scepter of Dominance
3 Mind Shatter
1 Broken Ambitions
1 Hallowed Burial
1 Sculpting Steel
1 Relic of Progenitus
1 Rings of Brighthearth
1 Dispeller’s Capsule

This deck is very good. The format is packed with creature removal, and the fact that you can dodge that entirely is a tremendous asset. Moreover, the existence of Tezzeret as a potent tap-out threat for two (and effectively three) fewer mana than Cruel Ultimatum means that you can gain initiative earlier and, more importantly, start trumping the Five-Color Control deck without being too far ahead of them on mana. That said, there are some factors that constrain the upper limit of how good this deck could ever be in practice. Playing Path to Exile and Broken Ambitions in the same deck is kind of awkward. But there are a certain quantity of answers you need to Mistbind Clique, a certain quantity of answers you need to Bitterblossom and Blightning, a few concessions you need to make to the obsolete Demigod of Revenge, and most importantly there is the need to gain initiative at some point by playing two spells in a turn. Unfortunately, with the Tezzeret shell intact, there’s only a limited amount of space you have to do that. This means that sometimes you’re just going to fall too far behind.

The biggest lesson I learned from testing and developing this deck is how utterly unreal Scepter of Dominance is in the control mirror. I’m convinced – and Kobe players, take note – that the best possible plan for the mirror is to tap people down on their upkeep with a Scepter or two, untap, tap them down again, and hit them with a big Mind Shatter on their second main phase. It’s almost impossible to recover from that. Typically, they need a Cruel Ultimatum off the top and they need it right away, or you’re just going to start locking down their Reflecting Pools again.

I could write a primer on the deck next week if anybody’s interested, because the numbers are well-researched and the deck is, if nothing else, pretty fun to play. But what I wanted to focus on this week it something else I learned from playing the deck, something that you’ll definitely need to know before you play it at a casual tournament like FNM, and something that will help you in every tournament you play from here on out.

There’s a reason I rarely play in casual Constructed tournaments. Most of the decks that are fun to me involve going for the long game or piecing together some wacky combination of cards. Don’t get me wrong, I love to bash with animals – but if I wanted to do that, I’d draft! Typically, then, when I’m entering an FNM with sixty cards it’s because I’ve woken up in the middle of the night with some kind of crazy idea, and I’m trying to see if it works.

The problem, though, is that about halfway through round 1 it dawns on me that I’m having very little fun.

It’s not that I don’t like the format, or that I don’t enjoy what I’m doing. It’s that, at lower RELs, with players more oriented towards the casual side of the spectrum, faced with cards that they’ve in all likelihood never seen and have certainly never seen together, games move slooooooooooooooooowly.

I almost never have trouble finishing games at an official tournament like a PTQ, GP, or Pro Tour. There are infinite judges around you can call to watch for slow play, most of the players know exactly which cards are in a format and are aware of how they work, and I’m not afraid of ruining someone’s experience by being very hard-line about playing quickly. In a casual tournament, though, it’s different. Frequently the TO is hosting the event with nigh a judge in sight. Frequently someone’s seeing many of the cards you’re playing for the first time – in fact, sometimes they’re playing with a few of their own cards for the first time. And frequently, unused to the rules of tournament Magic, many players simply don’t know how long it’s supposed to take for them to play. A lot of the time this isn’t a big deal. But when you’re playing a deck like the one I posted above, or a deck like Tenacious Tron, or a deck like the Baron, you stand to lose a lot of games to matches simply not finishing on time.

Fortunately, there are a lot of things you can do about it.

A lot of players talk in the forums about how decks by authors like Chapin, GerryT, and myself are light on ‘win conditions.’ Without a big tap-out fatty to end the game quickly, they worry they won’t be able to finish their matches on time. This sentiment isn’t entirely unreasonable, but there are so many ways to solve the problem of time limits without having to resort to making your deck worse. This article will outline a few of them.

1) Call a Judge

Alright, I know in the hypothetical I put forth just a second ago, I went ahead and said there wasn’t a judge. You got me. But it’s essential to reiterate, first and foremost, that if there is a judge available anywhere you absolutely positively most raise your hand and ask him to watch for slow play. Judges are trained at this. It’s part of their job. It flows in their blood. Somewhere. In varying amounts depending on the level of cholesterol clogging their arteries. But point being they’re really the most qualified people to ensure that play proceeds at an effective pace, and are the only people who have enforcement authority to do something about the problem if it isn’t. If you refuse to call a judge, you really have no right to complain if you feel the match isn’t proceeding at an appropriate pace. It’s as simple as that.

2) Start Early

Like we talked about, though, sometimes a judge is simply not going to be in the room. Other times, a judge is going to be standing there right next to the table and your opponent is still going to be playing slowly. Whatever the situation, it’s going to be important sometimes to prod your opponent into action – and, crucially, to do so without being unsportsmanlike.

Obviously, one of the most straightforward ways of doing this is to simply ask the opponent to play faster. It’s important because most people who are playing slowly really aren’t trying to screw you over. They just aren’t thinking about it. But what you can’t do is decide all of the sudden to start being a speed-demon because there are five minutes remaining in the round. It doesn’t work that way.

First of all, it’s not all that likely to accomplish anything, since by that point the sum total of whatever effects were slowing the game down have already done their damage. More importantly, though, it just isn’t that convincing. It looks like you’re all of the sudden worried about finishing the game because you think you’re in a winning position, and you’re trying to hustle your opponent into giving you the victory. Even worse, it’s likely to make you play poorly because you’re spending all your focus trying to speed the game along. Many of the times I see players punt arise because they’ve put themselves into a situation like this.

Instead, you have to start as early as turn 1. If you’re playing Standard, for example, there are almost no situations in which your opponent needs to think for more than a few seconds to play a land. Call him on it – especially if he’s in the tank for several seconds to do something like Forest into Noble Hierarch. It’s really easy to be asinine in these situations – something of which I’m guilty more often that I’d like to be. To say something like “that was a really difficult,” or whatever. Don’t fall victim to that temptation. Instead, a very basic “Hey, sometimes it can take awhile to finish three games, so let’s try to play a little bit faster,” or whatever, can seed the idea into a player’s mind well enough.

3) Focus on Mechanical Actions

Often, when we try to think up ‘time sinks’ in a game of Magic, we focus on game actions like shuffling, using repeatable effects, drawing multiple cards, resolving a difficult spell like Gifts Ungiven or Fact or Fiction, etc. These certainly can occupy a large amount of time, but if your deck is designed to cast a card like Gifts Ungiven (for example) you’re not going to be able to just refuse to do that, nor is it in your interest to rush through the motions and potentially make a mistake. You need to do everything within an acceptable timeframe as dictated by the rules, and so does your opponent, but one of you can’t just like instruct the other not to crack sac-lands. Certain actions are going to happen regardless.

What you can do, though, is pay strict attention to how those game actions are taken mechanically.

Have you ever noticed that some people, before they untap their lands, kind of scoop them into a pile and lay them down one by one in a nice set of vertical lines? Or how, when it comes time to draw a card, they’ll pull it from the top of their deck without looking, slide it gently across the play surface, and draw it up to their hand with a flourish? How they pick their creatures up and drop them forcefully into the red zone so hard you can audibly hear the sleeve bending, how they pick up each one of their blockers and place it deliberately over an attacker as if answering a challenge, how they shuffle the deck again and again and again? All of this is cute, but all of it is also unnecessary. Game actions need to be clear, precise, and unambiguous. They do not need to be dramatic. You don’t win Tony awards for the dance number playing across your playmat. Each one of these actions wastes time, and it’s up to you as a player not only to eliminate them from your game, but also to tell your opponent when he’s doing the same thing.

4) Eliminate Bad Habits

Flick flick flick flick flick. Sshp Sshp Sshp Sshp Sshp. Pause. Rest chin on hand. Flick-swish. Straighten up in chair a little bit. Commence tapping lands.

This was more or less exactly what happened every single time I cast a spell prior to 2001. I flicked and flipped and fanned and collected and combined and permutated the cards in my hand into orders varied enough to reverse-engineer an LSAT logic problem. I don’t know why this happened. It was a nervous habit, sure, but it was a nervous habit that also annoyed me. That little card-swooshing noise to this day triggers some kind of Pavlovian tic in the back of my neck. I think we finally kicked it by having Tim Kopcial literally slap me in the face whenever I’d start, a tactic I would go on to replicate years later with a certain Cody Peck after his third game loss to his own Dark Confidant. Point being that you can do whatever to break the habit, but this type of thing wastes a ton of time. Literally nothing is taking place. And card-flicking is just the tip of the iceberg. One prominent habit that persists heavily here in Malaysia – and is even worse in Singapore – is this little topdecking ritual that has stirred such violent feelings in me that I have to be physically restrained. It’s so obnoxious and is yet basically omnipresent. Basically, someone who needs to topdeck takes the spell from the top of his library and places it face down onto the rest of his hand, which is usually resting on the table, without looking. Then he picks up the stack and very slowly, I am talking tortoise-ain’t-got-nothin’, old-person-in-a-Buick-at-rush-hour, potentially-useful-as-model-for-glacial-drift slowly, drags the card away from the rest of his hand as if to withdraw an imaginary curtain, or something.

I am told that this tradition is rooted in old Chinese card games, or something, but at any rate it (and rituals like it) are the most useless wastes of time on the planet. I want every single player who does something like this to have lethal on the table to an opponent’s empty board on Turn 5 and nevertheless suffer a draw. In the ideal vision, a choir of angels then flies overhead with a banner declaring “JVSTICE” in big Roman characters, and Adam Yurchick on a fiery golden chariot proceeds to burst through the banner like a football team on Friday night and set ablaze every rare in the opponent’s library. The point is not to rag on any specific tradition. We simply have to realize that bad habits waste time, whatever those habits are. Some people sit there and tap or untap lands compulsively like meth addicts. Others are obsessed with like picking up lands and laying them back down in different groupings, color-coordinating their mana mosaics for some arcane end. It doesn’t matter. If you’re doing something like this, or your opponent is, it’s your duty as a player to make it stop.

5) Concede

I’m going to end with something simple. Many Magic players really enjoy the ‘underdog feeling,’ the feeling of struggling against overwhelming odds to only to pull the game out with masterful play and a series of overwhelming topdecks. I myself really enjoy playing against this kind of player, because it usually means a match win. I’ve reached game states with the Baron where my opponent could Demonic Tutor literally every turn and it wouldn’t make a difference. In these situations, I have an obligation to play at a reasonable pace, but I have absolutely no obligation to play the Oona, Queen of the Fae that’s been sitting in my hand for half the game. So I would just sit there and cycle Gaea’s Blessings into Careful Considerations and Cryptic Commands, ensure that I could stop literally anything my opponent could try, and pass the turn. This would continue until a few minutes before the end of the round, where I’d finally cast the Oona and mill my opponent’s library in a single turn. I have no obligation at any point to reveal my win condition, and so why shouldn’t I just sit there and gain more and more advantage until the rules of the game require me to take some action?

Every one of these matches would have been salvageable had my opponent just packed it in.


I went to time with the Tezzeret deck every single match, largely because I felt uncomfortable pacing my opponents along. In two of those matches, I was literally watching other games at my table because my opponent played so slowly I couldn’t take it. I didn’t say anything, and I should have. The end result? I had less fun, had less data with which to evaluate my deck, and earned myself some entirely unneeded draws. The final lesson, then, should be clear: it’s not enough to merely know or understand each of these principles. You have to actually execute them in practice. Hopefully, as more and more players begin recognize what an acceptable pace of play really entails, fewer players will make the mistake of including theoretically-unsound win conditions in their deck on the basis of necessity.

Until next week…