On the Clock – Time Management and Magic

Have you ever ended up with an unintentional draw or a loss when you felt like if only your opponent would have played faster, you would have had a chance to win? That’s the topic that Zvi tackles today, first tackling the legality of slow play, then giving you signs that will tell you whether your opponent is deliberately wasting time, and last providing advice for what you can do to prevent this. If you ever have played or plan to play tournament Magic, then this article is a must read.

This is an article I’ve been planning for a while, but the timing never seemed right. It looks like I won’t get another chance, so I’m going to tackle it now. Note of course that the views expressed here are mine and mine alone, to make sure no one gets the wrong idea. The topic I wish to address is time management, which leads to some sensitive issues. It is hard to talk about time management without tackling issues of legality. Magic’s rules on the subject survive based on the same two principles as many locks and secret codes. The first reason is that most Magic players consider the idea of cheating disgusting. There would be no value to them in winning a match if it meant they wouldn’t be able to look themselves in the mirror afterwards. The other reason is security through obscurity. I don’t believe in security through obscurity. I believe that the more people know, the better off everyone will be. For that reason, I won’t be trying to dodge the issues implied by the topic I’ve chosen. I beseech you, use any powers granted to you for good rather than evil.

I will tackle the topic in two parts. In part one, I’ll deal with the strategic issues involved in time management. In part two, I’ll describe methods and techniques for playing fast. Part one can be seen as an introduction to the issues involved; dealing with them in the depth they deserve would be beyond the scope of what I have time to tackle.

The Rules

You get three minutes to sideboard and shuffle. You get one minute to shuffle inside the game. Those are the easy, hard and fast rules. They’re broken all the time, and when there’s no time trouble that’s fine with me. More times than I can count I’ve given my opponent the green light to take all but unlimited time because we were in game three with thirty or forty minutes on the clock. At the same time, you should always be aware of both of these rules. The primary advantage to knowing these rules is that many players are not prepared to sideboard and shuffle in three minutes. When you go into a tournament, you should know in advance how you intend to sideboard against every deck you expect to face. Unique situations can come up, but in those you should figure out most of your plan during the game. In Limited, only color changes should require three full minutes. By enforcing this rule, you can prevent opponents who did not come to the tournament prepared from taking the time to figure out the correct sideboard plan. You have to decide whether this is something you want to do, but the rules are the rules. Also keep in mind that anything that increases the amount of time remaining is good for both players most of the time, as long as both are honest.

More Time Is Good, Except When It Isn’t

The vast majority of the time you’ll be looking to maximize time on the clock. When matches do not finish, they have a good chance of ending in a draw and an unintentional draw is bad for both players if they had a reasonable chance of winning a completed match. The only reason you would not want to finish the match is if you can get a better result (a win from a draw or a draw instead of a loss) if the match does not finish than you would get if it were to finish. It is important to recognize these situations, so that you can know when your opponent no longer wants the match to finish.

If you win game one, you win the match if game two does not finish. That means that the moment either player knows he is likely to win game one, he suddenly has an interest in not finishing game two. Most of the time this will not be realistic, because there is no reason the match should not finish, but there are matchups that naturally make finishing even two games problematic. The other potential advantage is if you draw a match you would have lost by failing to finish game three. This is a similar situation: Once a player knows that he is likely to lose the games that might not finish, he has an interest in not finishing them. Note that it does not matter who will win the games that will finish no matter what. That means that it is not just players who can’t win the game who want the clock to tick down. It is also those who can win quickly but are unlikely to win a long game. For example, if you’re playing White Weenie against Tooth and Nail, you can certainly win quickly but if the game goes, long things don’t look so good. Purer examples like Sligh have existed in the past.

Of course, there’s also the purest situation of all: A player who would have accepted an intentional draw into the Top 8, but whose opponent could not draw.

Fast Deck, Slow Deck

Consider this scenario. The match is starting, and one player has an aggressive creature deck while the other is playing a slow control deck. If a game ends in five minutes, the creature deck won. If it takes thirty, the control deck probably won. That means that if the match fails to finish, it is highly unlikely that the beatdown deck would have won it. That would require the game to have started within the last ten minutes, which makes it far less likely that time has run out. Even if time runs out at a random point, the control deck would be a solid favorite to be winning the current game simply for the reason that it has not yet ended. Being above zero does wondrous things for your chances of winning when you have inevitability.

The conclusion, of course, is that the control player wants the game to be played as fast as possible while the beatdown player has a more complicated problem. If there is an extreme enough difference in roles his interest can swing back to wanting to take time off the clock, especially if a draw is useful in the tournament.

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Honest Player, Other Player

The less time is on the clock, the greater the dishonest player’s advantage over his honest opponent. In the extreme case, which applies to most matches, there would be no practical way to fail to finish three games; in these cases, the dishonest player enjoys no advantage. No matter how much he stalls, it won’t accomplish anything. As failure to finish becomes a more real possibility, his advantage grows up to the point where he will determine the outcome of the match. If he stalls, he prevents a loss or seals a win. The honest player in the same position won’t have that option. An honest player may even speed up to help the match finish when he is unlikely to win it. The more stalling the dishonest player is prepared to do, the more running out the clock is to his advantage. For this reason, particularly savage players will seek to stall the match starting on turn one of the first game. They know that if they want to, they can return to their normal pace as if nothing had happened, but they can also lay the groundwork for stalling later in the match. This isn’t even risky, because the best defenses can at best minimize the damage done.

It is vital to understand this point, especially when it is combined with the previous one. I will use a real example: I was playing in Grand Prix: Milan with Alex Shvartsman and Michael Pustilnik. My opponent in an early round was Ryan Fuller, and I can safely say that he was a savage cheater in every way you can imagine. Ryan makes you feel dirty after the match. He made you hate Magic, and over time he grew more and more bold until finally he was so far over the line that he was caught. He knew that I was both one of the fastest players on the planet and not about to try and stall him out, so he started stalling before the game began. Knowing that you have three minutes to sideboard and shuffle, waited until almost three minutes into the round to present his deck. From there, it was clear that he was taking far longer than he could possibly have needed. I called over a judge, but it’s very hard to keep their attention on slow play ten minutes into the round because they don’t understand why someone would do that. This is why.

Call a Judge, Keep a Judge: Playing Defense

Time can be thought of as another field of battle during a match. Even if the match does not involve what we euphemistically call a “black hat” it can become necessary to play defense. There are three forms of defense. Method one is to alter your pace of play and/or your strategy to try and win the match faster. Method two is to request that your opponent alter his own pace of play. Method three is calling a judge. Method two is the easiest to deal with strategically, because it is so simple. If your opponent is an honest man, or it is not in his interest for the match to end in a draw, informing him of the fact that the match is behind on time will often get him to speed up his pace of play if you are playing substantially faster than he is. The only reason not to try it is if your opponent is either playing at least as fast as you are, in which case you have to right to talk, or if you are convinced that he is dark. Even then, you lose very little by making the request.

Calling a judge is a trickier proposition. There are several contradictions involved in this process. Contradiction one is that only that which is observed by the judge counts towards anything he does, but obviously if nothing had happened yet he would not have been called over. There is the implicit understanding that even if you can’t use it as evidence that the player who called you over thinks the match is moving too slowly. Calling a judge has substantial costs, and it should not be done lightly. You also shouldn’t hesitate to do it if you need to. Note that calling the judge over will often get opponents to speed up as a more pointed version of method two even when no one is doing anything wrong. The second contradiction is that the judge will only care if you are behind on time. Again, for him to keep track of bad behavior there has to be a bad situation already in place whether or not it is anyone’s fault. If you are not behind on time in a significant way, the judge will generally watch for a minute or two and walk away. There are not enough of them to watch every match. Therefore you have to try and get all the evidence while understanding that you can’t get a search warrant without probable cause… but that the probable cause will then be inadmissible in court.

The third contradiction is that calling a judge takes time. Even if you do it in the most efficient possible way, you’re going to lose some time each time you interact with a judge and they’re not going to give you that time back. So to get out of time trouble you need to spend more time. The fourth contradiction is the punishment process.

“I Forgot To Cheat.”

That lament came from Steve OMS after one U.S. Nationals. We were talking back at Neutral Ground. I had not been invited, so I was relying on tournament reports. Steve was explaining the punishment process that simply did not work. The top tables had played to intentional unintentional draws, since the players weren’t allowed to shake hands. Extra cards were drawn, decks were stacked and anything else you can think of. What happened when you were caught? You were given a warning. That’s right: The first time you were caught, nothing happened! The punishment for being caught cheating was to force you to stop cheating by giving you a real punishment if you were caught again. The rules were radically tightened to fix this problem, then loosened over time as conditions improved. Since Steve had no intention of cheating, his first cheat would have been free: The worst they can do is catch him.

The rules for stalling are a lot like that. First you get to do whatever you want because no judge is watching. You can’t even be given a warning for that ten minute turn if no one has called over a judge yet. That’s like a free pass, with the punishment for abusing the pass being that you lose it for the rest of the round. After that, it depends on how blatant you are. The judges use a high but not impossible standard of proof, and unless you make it obvious they’re going to warn you at least one more time before anything real happens to you. A smart cheater will back off when the heat comes down on him, living to cheat another day. Going for too much is how they get caught. The good news is that it is very hard psychologically to be a cheater and then not go too far – the very things that make you willing to cross that line will over time lead you to get more and more aggressive until you are caught.

That brings us to the last contradiction. How do you call over a judge? You ask him to “watch this match for slow play.” That means one of two things. It could mean exactly what you said, which expanded means: I think this match isn’t going to finish and I want to see if we can get some extra time or if my opponent needs to speed up. There’s nothing wrong with that, but sometimes you’re saying something else. You’re saying: Stop, thief! This evil man is a savage cheater who will give a huge tax cut to the rich and lie to lead us into war. Or alternatively, he’s stalling his ass off so help me. You’re my only hope. It’s up to him to figure out which one you meant, and which one applies. It would be “unsportsmanlike” to actually say what you’re thinking, so you can’t say it. You certainly can’t ask for any sort of sanction directly no matter how just your cause.

Showtunes Going Off In Your Head (Gotta Love That): Sure Signs

Judges know that they can’t understand everything there is to know about the match, so it’s hard to tell exactly how much thought is justified. Even if they’re as good as the players, they haven’t been watching the whole match and didn’t test/draft these particular decks. This can’t be helped. What they can do instead is watch for some key signs, and you can sometimes “help them along” by pointing to them. Consider these to be tripwires. Your opponent is trying to break into your home and steal your prized match win, so you need to make sure that when the alarms go off someone hears them.

Sing #1 that you might be playing Mike Long.

The first alarm bell is tapping and untapping mana. If your opponent taps his mana and then untaps it again without doing anything, it gives the often correct impression that they’re up to nothing at all and doing it slowly. It’s fine to correct which lands are tapped, but a little note that your opponent is engaging in this behavior can help focus the mind of those observing. A second alarm bell is when a player is thinking but has no options, or no options that make any sense at all. Ironically, asking how much time is left is a bad sign as well if there are other contributing factors. The problem is that the most effective stalling involves just sitting there and thinking for far longer than you need whenever there is anything worth thinking about. It’s hard to pin down when you’ve crossed over a line. It is also very dependant on what judge you get. Some will aggressively go after a slow player, others almost never will.

Sitting Down: Consider the obvious

When you sit down to the round, about half the time you get to choose a side of the table. You should have two primary concerns. The first is that you don’t want to expose your hand to the crowd, if you’re at an outer table of a spectator event. The second is that you want to be able to clearly see the clock. Asking for time alerts your opponent (and the judge if there is one) that you consider time left to be important right now. Seek to hide that information and make it possible for you to find out how much time is left without spending any of that time.

Speeding Up: Do What Thou Must

Altering your pace of play because there is not enough time on the clock is a dangerous decision, because it means you’ll be playing worse. If you could play faster and still make the right plays, you would have done so before. However, perfect play only goes so far. Remember the wisdom that often a good plan now is better than a perfect plan later. That goes double when the clock becomes your enemy. If you are clearly going to win the game but might not finish in time, then make a good play once you see one rather than looking for the perfect play. You might make a mistake, but spending the time to avoid it would be a bigger one. All the time players will think about the perfect set of attacking creatures and time themselves out of a win. As long as you know you are safe from losing, or down 1-0 where losing does no harm, be aggressive and hope for the bet once you run low on time. You don’t have to be perfect.

You also sometimes need to alter your strategy. It is in no way unethical to choose to play in such a way that you would lose the games that don’t finish for another thirty minutes in exchange for giving you a chance to win now. Consider creature transformations that would normally make no sense in the matchup, or that your deck was never supposed to use in the first place. It’s even okay to play defense in this way. If there are only five minutes left and your only kill card is Millstone, you can’t win that way so don’t even try. Sideboard in other cards and hope to draw the game. If you need to win the game within a certain amount of time, start with the assumption that you can and then ask how that would happen the same way you would if they had an indestructible enchantment that wins them the game in ten turns. There is remarkably little difference.

Conceding for Time

Most concessions occur because the position is hopeless. These decisions tend to be errors if time is not a factor. By not giving up, you can see more of your opponents’ deck, get a better read on him and perhaps rattle him or even get him to make a mistake. You never know what might happen, and what seems obvious to you might not be obvious to him. However, time is valuable. If time is a factor, it makes sense to give up once you know cannot win and sometimes even before that. If you have a 1% chance of winning but it would take twenty minutes to find out, and your deck can only win slow games, then it makes sense to give up the game to give yourself a far better chance to win the match. These decisions are hard to make, but they are still the correct ones. They’re kind of like extra credit. If you can do it, you’ll be better off, but it’s not expected. The flip side also applies. If the game is under lock and key, and you think there’s a chance your opponent can be convinced to give it up, go ahead and try. Often you’ll be rewarded by a concession, and at other times you’ll be rewarded with key information about the way he intends to avoid losing the game.

Deck Construction and Selection

A few things must be kept in mind here. First, life is not fair and time is not fair to all decks. It will be an advantage to some decks and a disadvantage to others. You need to consider this, and remember that others will as well. Many players will not run a deck that can’t finish its matches. Others will, because they consider it too good not to use, the deck is underplayed (often because of time issues), they like that type of deck or they’re so fast they feel they can pull it off. White/Blue control is the canonical deck that can’t finish matches, but there is almost never a viable deck that can’t finish most of its matchups most of the time in the hands of a fast player. It is only against other slow decks that you will have trouble. If you are not a fast player, you may need to stay away from such decks until you can learn to speed up, but if you are a fast player you shouldn’t let these issues concern you too much. More important is to understand the implications of the clock while building your deck and especially your sideboard.

For each matchup, you need to look at not only who will win before and after sideboarding, but also how long those games will take. A game three that will never finish does not matter, or only matters to the extent that you can change your deck to make it finish. A great example would be at least year’s Worlds where we managed to get Cabal Interrogator into the sideboard of White/Blue. This granted a large edge on other control decks, but it couldn’t be fully used because you only had so much time in the round. That third game you were dominating was often going to end up being a draw, so I concluded that the deck could not afford to spend the sideboard slots on the strategy, which in turn made the deck not good enough for me to run. It was not that the matches would not finish all the time. That was acceptable. It was that by planning to win games two and three in a slow matchup, you would inevitably lose a lot of wins to time and not save many losses. You also put yourself at the mercy of your opponent: If he wants to stall you out in such situations, there is little you can do about it.

The Long Term Plan

This is the situation where time becomes most problematic: You have a way to win the game, but it is stretched out over many turns. Often your opponent’s choices will all be false. Once at a Grand Prix I had a Circle of Protection: Red on the table against a burn mage who obviously had at most a handful of cards that could remove it or go around it. It wasn’t impossible that he could find a way to win since I did not know what his exact deck contents were, but it was highly unlikely he would win. However, what he could do is spend time every turn deciding how to discard. The first time you do this, it is legitimate: You are planning your long term strategy. However, doing this every turn is unacceptable and you need to put your foot down about that. Explain that while you don’t mind him taking three or even five minutes once to come up with a plan, if he spends more than a few seconds a turn to draw and discard after that it is unacceptable. Whether you get a judge to agree with you is another story. It won’t be easy. This is the situation most damaging to legitimate strategies, to the extent that it can make you choose another deck in borderline cases: You’ve made it clear you’re going to win, giving them incentive to stall, and he has “choices.”

Another important consideration is that when crafting your sideboard you should give yourself the chance to give yourself a chance to win a fast game if you can. It’s not a reason to use up a large chunk of your sideboard, but tutor decks can and often should give up one slot. It can also tip the scales in a strategy’s favor. Ravenous Baloth was a much easier choice for TurboLand’s sideboard because I knew that it would allow me to win games that otherwise I could not have hoped to finish.

The Bottom Line

In a perfect world time would not be a factor, but you need to be a realist. Don’t let it distract you when it is not important, but you should consider time when building and selecting your deck. Even if there are no in-match implications, some players can also be affected by fatigue over a long day so finishing fast can be an advantage for that reason as well. When you sit down to the match, think about where the clock is and try to be ready with your deck when they say you can begin. If your opponent is not doing his best to play at a reasonable pace, take appropriate action if you feel that the match might not finish. Act preemptively when you sense trouble; don’t wait for it to be on top of you. Later in the match, be prepared to speed up your play if you have to, knowing it means you may make a mistake. If it increases your chance to win the tournament, you need to do it.

Of course, that barely scratches the surface of these issues, but those are the basics. Part two will go into ways you can speed up your play and the match, and point out advantages to that strategy that are not at all obvious.