The Riki Rules – Anatomy of a Slow Play

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Monday, January 12th – Slow Play is one of the most difficult calls for a Judge to make because of the subjectivity of the infraction. The truth of the matter is that Slow Play happens a lot more often than it gets penalized for. Too many Judges are reluctant to pull the trigger on giving the penalty, figuring the player is “just about to make a play. I’ll give him just a few more seconds.”

You are a Judge. Not just any Judge, but you are Riki Hayashi, Level 2 from California. You are judging at the 2008 World Championships in Memphis. It is Day 1 (Thursday) and you are on the Main Event during the Standard portion of the tournament. You are on the deck checks 3 team, which means you are done shortly after 1pm. With only a couple of hours on the floor, you are looking to maximize your time.

With just over ten minutes left in the round, you are patrolling the floor. You come across fellow StarCityGames.com writers Gerry Thompson and Luis Scott-Vargas sitting next to each other. You spotted those two next to each other earlier in the round, but didn’t want to peek in on them for fear of seeming biased or being accused of just watching your friends.

Now things are different. There are only so many tables still playing, and you need to make sure that they all finish on time.

Gerry looks bored out of his mind. He’s watching the match next to him. This is usually a sign that his opponent is taking a long time. You zoom in on the match.

It is a B/W Tokens mirror match. You’ve seen this deck floating around all morning, but this is your first up close and personal look at it. Both players have Bitterblossom out and their token armies appear to be about equal – at least in number — though Gerry has the edge with a Glorious Anthem in play. Using that edge, Gerry has just taken the offensive and his opponent is trying to make the least bad blocks. That explains Gerry’s birding of the neighboring match. Presumably that means that the opponent has been at it for some time now already.

You let thirty seconds tick off on your watch. Gerry’s opponent is still shuffling his blockers around trying to find the optimum block. It’s time to step in. That’s thirty seconds on top of however long he’s already been at it while Gerry has been watching his neighboring match.

“I need you to make a decision,” you say to the defending player. It’s a fairly standard verbal “hurry up.” The hurry up is basically a notice to the players that you are there and you are watching their pace of play. With Slow Play, if you watch covertly and jump in with a Warning the player will often feel ambushed. The verbal hurry up is a good way around this and is often enough to keep the pace of play quick and reasonable.

The player looks up at you, nods, and completes his blocks in ten to fifteen seconds. All well and good. He takes some damage and loses a handful of creatures. On his turn the player puts a Bitterblossom token into play and plays Spectral Procession for four new blockers.

You step in when you notice a discrepancy in the recorded life totals. They both have each other at one more life than the other. Since they both have Bitterblossoms, it is very easy to figure out that they each forgot one of their opponent’s triggers. The two players confer and correct their life totals to your satisfaction.

It’s Gerry’s turn again, and he confidently sends in his 2/2 token creatures. His opponent is in the same situation as last turn, but worse, since his life total is that much lower. His un-Anthemed 1/1s don’t stand a chance. Again he takes well over thirty seconds and it is time to issue a Slow Play Warning. But you don’t step in immediately.

The natural inclination of a player who receives a Slow Play Warning is to complain about it, or make some kind of commentary about the complexity of the game state and how many decisions they have make. Given the number of creatures in play, it seems very likely that Gerry’s opponent will stop to discuss things. When issuing a Warning, the last thing you want is a conversation, especially when the issue at hand is Slow Play. If you were to interrupt the player to issue the Warning, their thought process will be disrupted, and it is likely that they will have to start all over after arguing with you.

A full minute goes by, and Gerry gives you the look. You’re quite familiar with the look. Players always have their own idea of what Slow Play is, and will try to get Judges to enforce it by giving them the look. You give Gerry a look back that hopefully conveys “Yes, I’ve seen your look and I understand that you think your opponent is playing slowly. I believe so as well as I have already conveyed that sentiment to your opponent. This has gone on long enough, and I will be giving him a Slow Play Warning as soon as he finishes his blocks.” It is a really good look.

A minute and a half after he began, Gerry’s opponent completes his blocks, and you make your move. You step in and say, “I’m giving you a Warning for Slow Play.” As expected, he makes a minor stink about it, saying, “I am trying to save my life here,” in a thick Eastern European accent. His appeal is understandable. He is on the ropes, and he certainly doesn’t want to lose here by making a mistake.

“I am trying to ensure that this match is able to finish on time. You took over a minute to make your last block, which is too long,” you explain, adding, “What is your name?” as you pick up the match result slip. “Nicolay Potovin,” he says, apparently resigned to the penalty. That’s good for you. Given that Nicolay is a well-known Russian Pro, you might have expected him to appeal to the Head Judge. If he were to appeal, you would have told the players to keep playing while fetching the HJ, since the outcome of the appeal would have no effect whatsoever on their ability to keep going. No need to slow things down even more.

After filling out the infraction and penalty information on the back of the match result slip, you take a few steps away from the table. You’re still watching the match for Slow Play, but you feel it best to give Nicolay some space. You don’t want to hover over him and cause him any extra anxiety over the Judge hanging over his shoulder.

A few yards away from the table you get a different perspective on the match, mainly LSV and his opponent watching the match after finishing their own. You ask a nearby Judge, Casey Hogan, to politely ask those two to leave. He does so without incident, and when he comes back, you ask him to watch the Gerry/ Nicolay match with you, explaining what has gone on so far with regards to Slow Play.

Casey watches for a few turns and agrees with you that the pace of play is very slow. You tell him that you are very close to giving another Slow Play infraction. Because another infraction would be upgraded to a Game Loss, you ask Casey to confirm the infraction. Then, mercifully the game ends.

Slow Play is one of the most difficult calls for a Judge to make because of the subjectivity of the infraction. The truth of the matter is that Slow Play happens a lot more often than it gets penalized for. Too many Judges are reluctant to pull the trigger on giving the penalty, figuring the player is “just about to make a play. I’ll give him just a few more seconds.”

A lot of my own technique comes directly from Kevin Desprez’s Judge article on the subject “Practical Approach to Slow Play.” This is a must-read for any Judges who have concerns about how to give Slow Play Warnings. For players, you should call a Judge anytime you feel that the pace of play in the game is not fast enough to complete the match within the round time.

For example, I played in the last Shards Sealed PTQ and called a Judge to watch for Slow Play. The first game in our match took a glacially slow twenty minutes. We both took some long turns to think about some things; I felt that my opponent was taking more of the time, particularly because of his very precise nature. For example, he would ask if I had any effects before declaring attackers.

Now I’m all for playing the game correctly, but Shards is not a very tricky format. I had no tappers in play, and if I had any effects in hand, it would have been an easy matter for me to say “hold on” as he started to tap his attackers. It’s a very small thing to do a quick back and forth – “Effects before combat?” “No.” – maybe five seconds at most. But when you do this every turn, you’re losing close to a minute over the course of the match. Add to that other minor stops like “Upkeep?” and there’s even more lost time in the rigors of a precisely played match. I’ll be covering this more in my future article on chess clocks.

For now, suffice to say that I called a Judge while we were shuffling up for game 2 and asked him to watch for Slow Play, explaining that our first game had just taken twenty minutes. One thing to note is that I did not blame my opponent. I asked the Judge to watch the match for Slow Play. I was at least partially responsible for the pace of play, and I have certainly had situations where I called a Judge to watch for Slow Play and subsequently received a Warning myself.

The pace of play picked up significantly after that. The next game took about ten minutes, and it wasn’t just because I got my Flameblast Dragon going good. I was happy since it was very likely that we would now have enough time to finish our third game, and the Judge reported that the pace of play was fine.

There are a few misconceptions regarding Slow Play. The first is that a complicated board position entitles a player to more time to think; sometimes players who have been in the tank for two or three minutes will try to claim this. This is patently ridiculous. You are not entitled to minutes at a time. If the board is truly complex, I might give a player anywhere from an extra 15-30 seconds, but that’s it.

The second misconception is that players are entitled to their “full thirty seconds.” Imagine a player taking thirty seconds to make his first land drop. Then he thinks for another thirty seconds before playing a Wild Nacatl. On his second turn, another thirty seconds to play his land, a Mountain to pump his Nacatl up, thirty seconds to decide to attack with his Nacatl, then another thirty to play a Cylian Elf. Does this sound acceptable?

Thirty seconds is not the standard for the maximum amount of time you get per action. It is a recommended guideline. Indeed, Kevin’s article states to give 20-30 seconds before making a move on Slow Play. Certainly deciding which land to play should not be a full half-minute decision, and the first turn land drop should be an almost immediate decision that you have been thinking about since you kept your opening hand.

This applies to bluffing as well. I’ve seen several forum posts where someone claims the right to draw a land and bluff for thirty seconds. This just isn’t the case. Find a clock and watch it for thirty seconds. That’s a long time to be doing absolutely nothing. I agree that bluffing is an important part of the game, but it shouldn’t take longer than 10-15 seconds to perform an effective bluff. Draw your card, pretend to read it over, look at your opponent’s board position, and maybe ask how many cards they have in their hand.

In fact, I would really recommend these shorter bluffs. As someone who watches a lot of matches with such perfect information from behind a player, I can tell you that there’s no easier way to spot a bluff than a player overdoing it for their “full thirty seconds.” Which brings us to yet another issue. When I tell players to hurry up or actually give them a Warning, they will show me their hand. Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn… for the most part.

Judges need to be as detached and impartial as possible from the individual decisions that players are making. Sometimes I will take a quick survey of the board and try to think about what the player is possibly thinking about to give myself a baseline for how much time should be taken in each situation. However, this isn’t always the best methodology. Despite my general rust as a player, I tend to think faster than the average person. Conversely, there may be times when it will take a Judge longer to think than the player. For me, this will be a situation with a deck that I am unfamiliar with. I’ve watched Elves players go through decision trees much faster than I would be able to because of their practice with the deck.

When I say that I am willing to give a player a little extra time to think, it is for additional decisions and actions, not to think for longer about one action. With Nicolay, I gave him some bonus time due to there being half a dozen attackers and him having an equal number of blockers. But again, he wasn’t going to get the minutes that he wanted because he should have been thinking about those blocks all along. That’s where the notion of the “evolving game state” comes into play. You’ve read about it other Judge writings before. The idea is that the supposedly complex game state did not appear out of thin air. Gerry played those attackers on previous turns as did Nicolay with his blockers. Every time a new creature is added to the board, players should be reevaluating the game state. What happens if he attacks? How would I block? Don’t wait to think about your blocks until your opponent actually attacks. When your opponent is thinking about what to do, you should be thinking about what to do as well.

For additional reading, I would definitely recommend Kevin’s article and Nick Fang Feature Friday article. For Stalling, stay tuned as it’s a subject I plan on writing about next month or so. This weekend I’ll be in Los Angeles for the first GP of the new season. With Extended getting into full swing, I should have some notes on the more complicated card interactions in the format.

Until next time, this is Riki Hayashi telling you to call a Judge.

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