Winning a Magic tournament takes more than simply finding the best move every turn. Matches can end in heartbreak when deck registration errors,
misclicks, or anything else that we don’t normally consider part of the game becomes involved. Of all the hazards and challenges of a Magic
tournament, the clock may be the greatest. It’s tragic to see a tournament end for someone who has worked hard simply because they weren’t
able to manage the clock well enough. Don’t let it be you!
Even though I’m known more for playing online, I played real-life MTG long before I ever made an online account, and I still prefer to play live
whenever I can. As someone who frequently switches between real life and online play, I can tell you that time management takes practice and needs to
be treated differently for each. I’ll cover the ins and outs of both, and hopefully I can save someone from making the same mistakes I’ve
The Magic Online Clock
Magic Online uses a chess clock; each player has his or her own time bank. Your clock ticks whenever you have priority, and if you run out of time, you
lose the match. There are no draws on Magic Online.
Recently, the chess clock has been impacting more games on Magic Online than ever before. The time bank, which had thirty minutes for many years, is
now twenty-five minutes. Additionally, the most popular decks of the Standard PTQ season—Caw-Blade and R/U/G—can take an extremely long
time to win.
Magic Online has a feature that allows you to watch replays of completed matches. Watch them! Gaining information about your opponent’s deck
gives you a huge advantage. However, there’s a balance between watching replays in detail and saving time on the clock. Keep a replay open for
the duration of your match, and watch it if your opponent takes a long time to think or if you feel like you have time to spare.
Time is a resource on Magic Online, much in the same way life total is. It can be used to find superior lines of play, or it can be converted to
information when used to watch replays. I recently timed out for the first time in a MTGO PTQ. My opponent and I both had about one minute left on our
clocks and about fifteen life. He attacked me with a 3/4 creature, and I activated my Celestial Colonnade to block. I’m used to drawing
comparisons between life total and card advantage or life total and mana. What I didn’t see at the time was that the five seconds it took for me
to block was more valuable than the three life I was going to lose. My move cost me the game and changed the way I’ll think about online play forever.
I use the term “resource” because time isn’t something to be prized and hoarded; it’s something to be used to your advantage.
In an ideal world, you would finish every match with one second left on your clock. Unfortunately, that’s unrealistic because as you get low on
time, you have to rush, which often leads to bad play. The thing to remember is that it doesn’t matter how much time is on your clock as long as
you stay above your opponent. Whether you have fifteen seconds or fifteen minutes left, if your opponent gets to zero, you win the match.
Anyone who enters a Standard MTGO PTQ should respect the clock. Be on time to every match, stay focused, and don’t multi-queue (don’t enter
two events at the same time). If you play Caw-Blade, expect time to be a factor in every single match. If you play R/U/G or B/U/G, you can win more
quickly, but Lotus Cobra triggers and library manipulation takes a long time, so you’ll often find yourself behind your opponent in time remaining.
Time is valuable and shouldn’t be used frivolously. You can use your time to watch a replay; you can use your time to think through a complicated
play; or you can use your time to get your burrito out of the microwave. Only in extreme circumstances is the last correct. Decide which is best for
you in your given situation.
Ask a Grinder
I contacted four of MTGO’s standout Caw-Blade pilots for an interview about time management. I can’t say where they rank among the
world’s best Caw players, but I’d pick any of them to win an online tournament over a Hall of Famer who wasn’t used to the MTGO chess
clock. My story of timing out was from a mirror match against Jaberwocki. He used the clock to beat me and another player on his way to the top 4 of
that PTQ. In my opinion, only a Caw-Blade player with excellent time management will be able to win an online PTQ this season.
(me): The time bank was recently changed from thirty minutes to twenty-five minutes. Has this made a noticeable difference?
(Jarvis Yu): Yes.
(Logan Nettles): It has made a noticeable difference in that events end much sooner now, and rounds start sooner. There is also significantly
more timing out, which is a negative. Overall, though, I think the time decrease has been a positive change for MTGO.
(Bing Luke): It’s been fine. I tend to play faster than my opponents, so I haven’t noticed pressure on my clock, but the shorter rounds are way better
for long events. I haven’t tried heavy double-tabling yet though.
(Brandon Burton): I have won a lot of Caw-Blade mirrors on time.
Is time more of a factor with Caw-Blade than with other decks?
It is to a certain degree. It’s not as big of a deal for me, since I tend to play too quickly more than anything else.
Yes. It does take longer to play than most decks from the past, but there’s still enough time.
Online I don’t really think so. I haven’t really had too many games go to time. It helps that for every game that goes to turn twenty, there’s one that
is over on turn five. It’s not like the Psychatog mirror where it was basically impossible to kill someone before turn ten.
Yeah, just the mirrors.
Do your opponents sometimes run so low on time that it affects their play?
I’ve timed out several opponents. I have no idea the exact number, but it feels like almost ten percent. It’s tough to say how it affects their
play, but I’m sure it does a lot. For me, it basically makes me not play around anything; I don’t use triggers like scry triggers, don’t gain
life off life gainers, etc.
Definitely, though it’s a different type of rushing than what happens in real life, so it’s hard to quantify. Unless you have some time-consuming
combo, you’re generally doing the things you otherwise would be doing, except faster. In real life, you deliberately take suboptimal plays, for
example, to finish a game before time is called.
No, it doesn’t affect their play, but sometimes they just lose because they’re bad at managing their clock.
If you had a friend who was an excellent player, but had never played Magic Online before, what deck would you recommend for his first MTGO PTQ?
I wouldn’t recommend any specific deck, just a deck he is comfortable with. But I would recommend he practice using the interface to get used to it
since it is not one-hundred percent intuitive all the time.
Caw-Blade. I’d recommend the same deck if he were playing live. The differences in live and online aren’t big enough to influence what kind
of deck you should play in my opinion.
Eldrazi Green or Valakut. Being a main phase deck helps with the interface to simplify combat and figuring out multiple stops, and it’s pretty hard to
imagine a misclick that will make you auto-lose, whereas I can think of like two that can happen every turn with something like Caw. Then again, for
all the bad press the UI gets, the play interface isn’t that bad, so I would probably just tell him to jam a bunch of two-mans to learn the system.
Caw-Blade. The clock isn’t that big of a deal. I’ve never lost on clock.
Anything you’d like to add in regard to avoiding problems with the clock?
There is still a bug with MTGO that sometimes your opponent appears to be losing time, but in actuality you are. This is the most egregious and
irritating thing that I can think of.
Just don’t be greedy with your time. Don’t join another queue if you know your next round is going to start soon, and it will get you into
I’d say it’s generally best practice to have more time on your clock than your opponent. If you’re more than two minutes down, even late in a match,
you probably should be playing faster.
If I’m up on clock, I don’t scoop, even if I can’t win. Stop brainstorming when you’re way ahead and low on clock.
The Real-Life Clock
The Magic Online chess clock is stressful, but it can be your friend if you know how to use it. Not so with the real-life clock; if you’re using
it to your advantage, you’re probably cheating. More so than any single player or deck, the clock will be the most important adversary to
overcome in your real-life MTG career.
The unintentional draw is the Boogeyman of our game, and I have more nightmares about it than I do about Ghosts, Zombies, and Uncle Istvan combined. It
would truly be impossible for me to overstate the danger of getting draws for time. If one out of twenty of your wins turns into a draw, it will
greatly lower your chances of winning a tournament. It should absolutely be factored into your deck choice, and it should constantly be on your mind
when you play live tournaments.
At this point, it would be simplest for me to say how important it is to pressure your opponents to play quickly and to call a judge right away if
they’re too slow. That would be simplest, but it wouldn’t be very helpful except to robotic, emotionless players. Many people, myself
included, don’t like rushing somebody during a match that’s otherwise fun and friendly.
Even though it shouldn’t, being asked to play faster offends some players. It’s normal to feel bad when you’ve offended someone.
Everybody gets over it, whether it takes ten minutes or an hour or a day. It’s not feeling bad that needs to be avoided, but that temporary
feeling of discomfort or awkwardness that can come from calling a judge on your opponent, which takes you out of the game and breaks your focus.
My solution is that I try to play in a way that makes me feel justified if I end up having to call a judge. This means being polite and friendly but
also setting the bar right away for a well-paced, by-the-books match. If I play at a consistent and reasonable pace, then I have no problem calling a
judge on an opponent who plays too slowly. I have no problem drawing with an opponent who might have beaten me in sixty minutes but couldn’t do
it in the allotted time. If I myself play slowly, then things aren’t so clear-cut.
You should ask your opponent to play at a fair pace even if you aren’t worried about going to time. Just like online, time is a resource, so why
would you give your opponent more time to make a decision than the rules of the game offer him? This goes for untimed Top 8s as well.
Last year, I found myself playing the top 4 of a live PTQ with Zoo against Elf Combo. Like anybody would, I felt nervous and pressured. On turn three,
I had an extremely difficult decision of whether to play Elspeth, Knight-Errant and speed up my clock by a turn, or to hold up a removal spell to
reduce his chances of comboing off that turn. I thought for so long that the judge watching our match told me “you need to make a play.” It
was the first time a judge had ever said that to me. I panicked and picked a move without deciding which one was better—I passed the turn with
Bant Charm mana up. As it turned out, he wasn’t able to combo that turn, but he set up a bit of a defense and comboed off through my removal
three turns down the line. Casting Elspeth was the better move, and I’m certain that I would have come to that conclusion given more time. As a
kicker, on a later turn, my opponent took a similar amount of time on a decision, and the judge likewise said “you need to make a move.” My
opponent didn’t make a move but continued thinking for a while. Then he killed me. I feel that the way my opponent, the particular judge, and
myself handled time contributed to my losing the game and the match.
So what happens when the shoe is on the other foot, and you’re the one being rushed? If a judge asks you to make a play, then you have to make a
play, but you don’t have to panic. Keep your cool, and remember that judges are there to make sure the game is fair, not to intimidate and bully
If your opponent rushes you, and you feel like it’s undeserved, then volunteer yourself to have a judge watch the match. You’re entitled to
a reasonable amount of time to make your decisions, and you’re entitled to have it without being badgered by an annoying opponent.
Most importantly, do not let your opponent dictate the pace of the match. I’ve asked my opponents to play more slowly! Some opponents might
intentionally play fast in an attempt to draw you into a lightning-speed game that you’re uncomfortable with—and it often works. It’s
natural to subconsciously match your opponent’s speed, but you need to make a conscious effort to maintain the pace that you’re most
Be especially wary of players who speed up and slow down at different times in the match. They may speed up when they want you to miss an optional
trigger. They may rush through a situation to draw you into making the obvious play when there’s a better one available to you.
The clock is an important part of the tournament experience. Typically, it’s a stressful and frightening part. It doesn’t have to have
control over you. You can control the clock; all it takes is acknowledgment of its importance and awareness of how it’s influencing your