Good Beats: Speed of Thought

I plan in pointing out to people when I feel their lack of speed is jeopardizing the match’s outcome. Maybe they’ll see the errors of their ways.

Given enough time, a computer programmer will figure out how to debug a subroutine, a rat will figure out a course through a maze, and rogue nations will figure out how to assemble nuclear arsenals.

Given enough time, a lot can be accomplished… But time is a resource that cannot be taken for granted. The programmer that can fix his runs the fastest is usually considered a better asset to his company than a slower, more deliberate colleague, just as the quick-thinking rat is what biologists are hoping to study. And the most rapidly-developing rogue nations”force” our politicians to make ludicrous decisions pertaining to national defense.

In essence, the entities that can make decisions and solve problems the fastest are those that are regarded with the most praise, envy, or concern. Thinking quickly is generally considered a good thing. Except, unfortunately, in Magic.

Given enough time, most Magic players will be able to figure out the right way to block, or deduce what color to Addle for, or calculate how many cards to set aside with Necropotence. Now, this really isn’t an issue when playing for fun or practicing among friends; it usually doesn’t matter too much that the absolute correct decision is made every time, or conversely, no one should really care at what pace the game is played.

But it’s a different story in tournaments, whether Friday Night Magic or the World Championship.

Did I ever mention that I dislike slow play? I’m not even talking about stalling, which most everyone obviously objects to; I’m talking about your ordinary, every day, slowwww playyyyyy. I define slow play as a combination of analysis, decision-making, and general wasting of time by, say, flicking your hand around a dozen times before attacking, that generally serves to drag games out.

The DCI has imposed a time limit on rounds in all tournaments because matches need to end in order for the tournament to progress. Duh. That makes sense, and should be apparent to anyone who has ever played in such an event.

What might not be as obvious, but is every bit as true, is that said rule makes each match of Magic into a timed event, not unlike a football game. You have to win before time runs out.

Now the problem with the time issue arises from Magic’s basic nature – it is not a time-driven game. Magic, by its normal rules, is much more like baseball. Each side takes a turn of an unspecified length, and the game (or match) ends when a certain condition is met – either one team is ahead after nine innings have been played, or one player has defeated the other in best two-of-three duels. And like baseball, Magic games can tend to last a long, long time if no one is clearly winning.

But baseball games are played one-per-stadium and almost always one-per-night. They can afford to take their time.

Magic tournaments have no such luxury. In a hundred-person tournament with Swiss pairings, 357 matches will be played over the course of the day (if no one drops) to determine the winner. If a round-one match takes longer than normal, 98 people have to wait around, and 307 future matches will be delayed. That, my friends, is why time limits need to be strictly enforced.

Now, knowing that time limits are in effect, players need to break out of the baseball frame of mind and start playing some football. You have fifty or sixty minutes to play three matches, so get hopping. You can’t take all day to declare attackers. You can’t stare at a pile of Fact or Fiction cards for ten minutes. You can’t fidget with your Rishadan Port for nine years during my upkeep. The tournament structure is not set up to accommodate such behavior.

But people still do it — and what kills me is the number of professional-caliber players that drag games out like this. Some of them are trying to actively stall the game out; have those people killed. But most of the time, these players actually do have decisions to make, and they proceed to take way too long to make them. That’s what bothers me.

As I see it, there are four problems associated with slow play, and these are countered by two possible benefits.

The minuses:

  1. Playing slowly limits your opportunities to finish your matches.

  2. Playing slowly punishes your opponents needlessly.

  3. Playing slowly denies you any chance to rest between rounds.

  4. Playing slowly is similar enough to stalling that by doing so you run the risk of being penalized and/or damaging your reputation.

The plusses:

  1. Playing slowly allows you to analyze all the ramifications of any particular decision, and should improve your odds of winning.

  2. Playing slowly gives your opponent the impression that you always have important decisions to make.

The problem is twofold: One, the state of the game is currently such that the added together, the four minuses don’t even begin to balance out the first plus. Second, most slow players aren’t even aware they are doing something distasteful.

But they are. There is no reason why I, a person who plays the game at a speed just below reckless, should be penalized with draws against more”calculating” opponents. Plus, I’d like to be able to get a soda between rounds.

In my first round at Grand Prix Boston, I was playing against Bryan Manolakos (a fine player who had been to Worlds the previous year), and he was having a hell of a time taking turns in what I’d consider a timely fashion. I reminded him of the clock during game three.”I’m not going to make a mistake,” he said, alluding that increasing his play rate would cause him to make poor decisions. I didn’t say anything else to him, and the match eventually ended in a draw.

I thought about that for a while afterwards, and I think I let him get away with something unnecessarily. Now, I hate to use Bryan as an example, but that particular match is what got me thinking about this issue in the first place. The floor rules are set up so that we have sixty minutes to finish a round (three games) of Magic. As players, we are obligated to play at a pace that allows us to finish in that allotted time. Now Bryan was out of practice, didn’t know Invasion cards very well, and needed to think about plays and decisions that I’d consider mundane. I felt that if he had played faster or the round was longer, I would have beaten him, so that when the match officially ended in a draw, I felt that I got the short end of the stick. Why is that?

I didn’t open my mouth soon enough. Sure, slow play might seem innocuous with 47:15 left on the clock, but that’s unfortunately when you have to set the tone for the match. It’s too late to expect anyone to change their pace with 9:00 to go, so you have to be on your toes early. A gentle,”We need to finish three games,” should get your point across; if not, feel free to ask”Done? Done? Done?” every five seconds. Just kidding on that one. Stay tactful.

In my head, the floor rules require us to try to finish three games in sixty minutes, and if playing at that pace means you will make mistakes, then I’m sorry. You’re just going to have to make mistakes and then go home and work on your speed game. We have to try to finish the match, which should preclude trying to play flawlessly, and it is the responsibility of both players to ensure that they are comfortable playing at a speed that allows the match to finish.

“God, Randy, you think way too much.” — Andrew Cuneo to Randy Buehler

“I’m out of practice.” — Randy

Don’t people practice Magic at all? I mean, I’ve seen some really slow turns at Pro Tours. These are the best minds in the game; why is every situation treated as if it’s totally foreign? You drew your sixth land; freakin’ play it and cast Crosis. Quit trying to analyze every possible card in the entire block that might be in my hand, and let’s get the game moving.

Sure, I bet you’re saying that there can always be a reason not to play Crosis, or at least a good reason to mull it over. That would be the smart thing to do in baseball-paced Magic. But remember, tournaments are football-paced.

If you had infinite time, you could make a mental list of every card capable of dealing with Crosis, from Terminate and Hobble up to Empress Galina and Tsabo’s Decree. Then you could assign percentages to these cards based on their rarity, and then again based on whether you actually saw any of these cards in the draft. Another calculation would tweak the number based on the playability of these cards, another for the number of cards in my hand and lands in play, and after a few hours of math, you might deduce that there is a 3.1666666% chance that I have a card in my hand capable of neutralizing Crosis. Then you have to determine if you like those odds.

That sounds silly, but many people think that way. Sure, they don’t use all the numbers, but they still try to hash out as many scenarios as possible, and then determine how they can get around most of them, i.e,”Can I wait to draw Probe before I cast Crosis?”

The thinking part is good – it certainly helps to be a critical thinker in Magic. But the bogging down of the game as you slide your mental abacus beads around is really problematic. We have to finish three games, you know.

What people need to do is practice faster. It might be nice to practice under conditions where you have four or five friends watching over your shoulder analyzing your every move and pointing out alternatives, but how realistic is that? How does that transfer over to a tournament environment? If a practice match takes ninety minutes with lots of agonizing and long discussions, how can you be expected to play a match in fifty minutes at the PT or PTQ? The decisions in Magic all need to become second nature. You draw a removal spell – BAM – you know just who to destroy. I attack with three 2/2s – no problem, you block just so. Oh, I have three cards in hand and GGWWW untapped? Then you block like this instead.

Try practicing against Mike”Turbo” Turian and Andrew”Done? Done? Done?” Johnson for a couple weeks, and we’ll see if you’re decision-making isn’t pared down to an essential core. Use these little timed exercises if you need more help. (1) Resolve all Opts in three seconds or less. (1) Resolve all Duresses in five seconds. (3) Split all Fact or Fictions in one minute. (4) Declare all blockers in thirty seconds. And so on. It can be done, without pomp, circumstance, or invented agony.

There are more things you can work on. One is cutting down on the showmanship. I hate the fake decision-making people invent in order to look more intelligent:”Look at how long I’m deliberating over casting this turn-1 Apprentice! I must be one of the great thinkers of Magic!” Get rid of that habit. Another one is to quit acting like you might respond to a spell when it is physically impossible to do so. For example, I cast Root Greevil. You have a Serpentine Kavu in play, four cards in hand, and are tapped out. Do not mull over Root Greevil. You cannot do anything about Root Greevil. I’m not falling for it. Quit wasting my time, untap and take your turn. See, there are so many ways to shave unwanted seconds off your game!

There are high-level players out there that have probably crossed the 20,000-lifetime-games plateau. I cannot believe that these people have not learned to think a little faster over their careers.

Maybe they have, but they have no reason to stop gumming the matches up. It all comes back to the problem that you can’t enforce too many rules against slow play. Magic is a”thinking” game, and maybe the DCI is afraid they’ll mess it up if they take some of the thinking out and replace it with reacting. So I’m not perfectly sure how to fix the problem.

On a small scale, I plan in pointing out to people when I feel their lack of speed is jeopardizing the match’s outcome. Maybe they’ll see the errors of their ways. On a larger scale, all I can ask is for others to do the same. Well, I guess I could comb the PT archives and make a big list of all-time leaders in draws. That might raise some eyebrows.

Nah, instead of starting an anti-slow-play witch-hunt, which I would find perfectly acceptable, all that list would do is cause everyone to point fingers at me as a slanderer and defiler of”good” men’s names. I can hear it now.

“I’m not a staller!”

I never said you were a staller. The numbers indicate that you’re slow.

So instead, we all have to continue to tip-toe around the slow-play issue and keep using words like”cerebral” and”deliberate” instead of”detriment” and”saboteur” to describe out temporally-challenged brethren.

You may remember in my Boston report that I criticized Chris Manning for playing a slow match against me. (I used the term”Boston Slowness.”) Obviously, Chris didn’t like that label, and neither did many of his other New England compatriots, and I heard about it. But I wonder, why is the onus on me to not bring up such an issue instead of on the slow player to speed up his game? Maybe if we all stopped being so sensitive, some things in this game might get fixed.

Chris and I are on speaking terms, if you’re wondering, and he told me in Barcelona that he’s sped up his play a little. Glad to hear it.

Because, after all, we have three games to finish. And its time to start rewarding those of us that try to think fast, play fair, and end our matches.

Aaron Forsythe

Team CMU

Never needed”five extra turns” until last year’s Nationals