“Why yes, I am a Heretic. Thank you for asking.” — The Chess Clock Debate

Stalling has been a topic we’ve seen writers adress frequently on these pages, but an in-depth look at the viability of using chess clocks is a new one. That’s exactly what Judge Riesland addresses today, and it might even be a better idea than the skeptics initially thought.

This is my “coming out” as a heretic when it comes to one specific DCI policy. I have never denied being a heretic on this issue, but I haven’t been as forceful about it in a public forum as I will be now. The issue in question is whether chess clocks should be used in Magic tournaments. (For those of you who have seen me begin a post with, “I won’t go into my usual rant about using chess clocks in Magic,” this is it.)

Throughout the history of Magic there have been people who have suggested chess clocks. Each time, the suggestion has been rejected, for various reasons. I have never understood the arguments, and I think that clocks would solve more problems than they create. This is an attempt to examine the situation as it stands and offer reasonable answers to the objections against their use.

There are several standard reasons given for not using chess clocks. One argument is based on inertia, claiming there is no need to do anything when the current system works. Some objectors cite cost issues, claiming that we shouldn’t place a high cost burden on organizers or on the players. But the main complaint is that chess clocks won’t work in Magic, and it runs along the lines of, “Given all the times a person can pass priority during a turn, there is no way that clocks can be implemented. If you don’t believe me, try doing MTG Online with all stops enabled.” I will examine each of these in detail.

Do we have a sufficient system already?

In bridge tournaments, there is no chess clock governing each team’s bidding and play. You are given approximately seven minutes per hand to bid and play it (except during major events, where more time is usually given). When the time is called, the current hand is finished, and if there are other hands that haven’t been played yet, the director (i.e. judge) can either assign a “late play” (meaning the missing hand will be played after the usual session) or an artificial result (which is normally the average score a player can receive, possibly modified up or down by 10% based on a judgment of who is at fault for the problem).

Although this has been the way of the world for bridge, it’s not a perfect solution, even there. If you limit yourself to one “problem round” per session, it’s not that hard to run one “late play” that happens after the match is over and be “a bit late” on several others. Furthermore, bridge can get away with this, as most of the events don’t have Swiss pairings. Each team and each hand moves in a defined pattern, which you can continue into the next round while the slower players finish the previous one. The policy, in effect does not punish slow play so much as play around it.

So does this really convert to Magic? Some games of Magic are over in a single turn, while others take 100 or more. Some games are stalemates where neither player can do anything until they draw the one card that wins, and if it’s four cards from the bottom of the deck, whose fault is this that the game lasts 40 minutes? Should a person resign just to leave enough time for another game (or two)? What if one person attacks “meaninglessly” into a Solitary Confinement? Should he be punished for taking an action whose only result seems to be to tap his creatures and “burn” up to 30 seconds off the match time? Should the opponent be punished for building a deck that can’t win in under 15 minutes? These are the questions that come up in tournament events now, and they can all be directly attributed to the fact that both players are drawing time from the same match clock.

It is true that we’ve been playing without clocks for several years now, and that there haven’t been major meltdowns. But anyone who has a deck that plays quickly and is running up against time pressure because of the opponent knows the situation is problematic. So, while the current system hasn’t blown up yet, it isn’t so error-free as to preclude looking at alternatives.

Who is going to pay for all these clocks?

If the organizers want to, they can provide clocks. I am not expecting that to happen, though, as this doesn’t even happen at chess events. However, a valid chess clock (see below what I mean by that) can be had new for under $50, which you can’t say for a box of any Standard-legal set. The cost for a player isn’t that much more than what is already being paid.

Of course, all this assumes that the chess clocks were mandated. I don’t have to assume that. I would allow anyone with a valid clock to request that all their matches use a clock, and run the normal method for the other matches. After seeing both methods in action, I am convinced that clocks would become more popular.

So how do you handle all those passes?

This is the most common objection I receive against clock use. It usually is phrased something like, “Take a situation where a person is sitting on less than one minute on their side. What stops the opponent from moving through every single change of priority, forcing that person to waste time reacting to each one?” or “In MTG Online, you can get the person who uses their Seeker of Skybreak to untap itself. Since you would have to respond to each activation (even if the board position appears unchanged), a person who falls behind on time can be drained to nothing and lose.”

The answer lies in three related ideas. First, we already have procedures in place for dealing with people who deliberately waste time. Judges are already capable of handling the extreme cases by means of penalties for slow play, stalling, and trying to take advantage of a time limit. These rules work just as well when a chess clock is involved.

Second, the shortcuts we already use are adequate for keeping most games at a reasonable pace. It is already common for a person to draw a card, possibly play a land and end the turn. We understand what this means, and if the opponent wants to do something during such a turn, we know how to make this happen. Furthermore, if an opponent insisted on declaring everything just to run out the clock, the judges are already poised to deal with it. If I saw someone repeatedly tap a Seeker of Skybreak to untap itself, I am quite willing and able to call a judge to deal with it. The presence of the clock doesn’t change that option. If a person who has been doing the “draw, go” turns above now suddenly wants to declare every single stop just because I have less than two minutes and he has five, that’s worthy of a judge call as well. Again, the procedures already in place handle these.

And third, we can take advantage of the newer chess clock technology. Many tournaments nowadays operate with “delay” clocks. These clocks, once the button is pressed to switch priority from one player to another, wait anywhere from 2-5 seconds (the exact time depends on the type of event – blitz games have a limit closer to 2 seconds, whereas games with very long time controls usually have a 5 second delay) before the time starts coming off the actual clock. So if the response is made (and the clock is pressed) before the delay period expires, no time is lost. If a person wants to do the Seeker of Skybreak trick, he needs to announce the ability, including the fact that it’s targeting itself, tap the creature to pay for the ability, and then hit the clock. All I have to do is hit the clock to send it back. Then, he has to untap the creature and repeat the process. Again, all I have to do is hit the clock. I know I can do my actions within two seconds, so a delay timer of at least that size means that I won’t lose any time. I can’t guarantee that the opponent won’t lose time, and even if he doesn’t, we’re still going nowhere. As I said above, this is already covered under current procedures, but even so, the delay timer means that I don’t have to worry about it.

In fact, if I am in a game with a delay clock and I get into a time crunch, it’s probably to my advantage to find as many stops as I can and use them. Each one gives me a few more seconds of time that is not coming off my clock, so I may, by doing the thing that supposedly harms me, find the time to think of something I wouldn’t have otherwise. This to me is the ultimate proof of the emptiness of the original argument.

Other derived benefits of using clocks

If clocks are used, we no longer have to worry about how much time we give for delays in handling deck checks and judge calls, as we can simply pause the clock and resume when the situation is resolved. Also, there would be a simple procedure for determining the penalty for not arriving to a match on time. The person who is there simply starts the game clock for each game. If the opponent arrives during that time, that game continues with that much time lost for the person who arrived late. If a game clock expires, that is a game loss for the person who has not yet arrived. Enough game losses will translate into a match loss. If neither opponent is there, the judge can note the time and deduct it from each person until one shows up, and assign double game loss or match loss as necessary. The five-turn rule would become meaningless and vanish.

For those who dislike the concept of players agreeing to draw their match, using clock might provide the solution. (I’m not saying it will work, but if there is an end to the ID, this is where it is to be found.) If we were to insist that everyone play out their matches, we could impose clock use on those matches where such draws are likely. The clock will cause one (or both) players to lose in most cases.

This works in a theoretical sense, but whether it would work in a real event remains to be seen. This is because the above solution doesn’t quite work at chess events. However, the reason that it doesn’t work at chess events is that it is quite easy for the players to maneuver a chess game into a draw. Magic games, played to their natural conclusion, have few means of obtaining a draw. Over 99% of decks have no way to do it, so there is a good chance that the match would reach a conclusion.

Rules for Using Clocks (version 1.0)

Here is my rough draft for how rules would be written to include the use of chess clocks in Magic:

C1. If a player has a valid chess clock (see Rule C2) and wants to use it, he or she may do so. If both players have a valid chess clock they are willing to use, the player who does not choose who will play first instead chooses which clock will be used. Rationale: The default option in this case is that a player who brings a clock will not be denied the right to use clocks (but see Rule C3).

C2. A valid chess clock is one which has one of the following features:

  • A delay timer, from which time is drawn before it is drawn from the player’s clock. In the rules that follow, this will be called a “delay clock”.

  • A feature called Bronstein timing, where an amount of time is automatically added to the clock after each move, but no more than the amount of time actually spent to make the move. In the rules that follow, this will be called a “Bronstein clock”.

If the clock in question has both features, the delay clock is the preferred option. Rationale: The delay clock is the preferred option in chess, because it is easier to explain. However, a Bronstein clock with the delay period added to it at the beginning functions identically to the delay clock, so it is allowed, but not preferred if the clock can do both.

C3. A player who has a valid clock may use it if he or she informs the judge that 1) the player has the clock present, and 2) the player wishes to use a clock for each of his or her timed matches. Rationale: This is there to try to enforce an end to Intentional Draws. This prevents a player from using a clock for the early matches and then drawing the later ones by not using it. Again, I don’t know if this will work, but the rule is designed to give the idea its best chance.

C4. A delay clock should be set up to give each player 10 minutes for the game, with a delay time of 3 seconds on each pass of priority. A Bronstein clock should be set up to give each player 10 minutes 3 seconds for the game, with an add-on of 3 seconds after each pass of priority. Rationale: A person who lets all of their time expire on the opening move in either case has to run 10:03 off their clock. Note that this means that a three-game match, with both players running the maximum time each game, may run over one hour. This may warrant a smaller amount of time for each game, if this proves to lengthen rounds by a significant amount of time, but this good for the initial rule set.

C5. Activities that are part of the pre-game routine (shuffling and presenting decks, determining which player will play first, sideboarding between games, mulligans, etc.) are not part of the game clock. The game clock begins in the first player’s precombat main phase and proceeds from there. Rationale: The game timer does not reflect the pre-game events because they aren’t part of the game itself. All of the games need to be run anyway, so a delay in the pre-game events is meaningless. Nonetheless, a player who thinks the opponent is stalling can call a judge to handle the situation. The clock begins in the first player’s precombat main phase because that’s the first time the player can do anything meaningful.

C6. When a player passes priority, he or she passes the clock to the other player. The same hand that touched the last card to be played, tapped or sacrificed in playing the spell or ability in question must be the hand that touches the clock. Rationale: Without the rule about using the same hand, clever players can reach over to strike the clock early.

C7.1. When a spell or ability resolves, the clock of the person controlling the spell or ability runs as long as that player has actions to perform as part of its resolution. If that player finishes but the opponent still has actions to perform, he or she may pass the clock to the opponent for the remainder of the time needed to perform those actions.

Example: A player plays Wrath of God. For the amount of time needed for that player to remove his or her creatures from play and decide what order they go into the graveyard, that player’s clock runs. When that player finishes, if the opponent is still removing creatures and/or deciding their order, he or she may pass the clock to that opponent.

C7.2. If a player, by passing, would cause a spell or ability to resolve that would require that player to perform actions in its resolution, performing those actions counts as a pass of priority to let that happen.

Example: A player plays Shock on an opponent’s Birds of Paradise, then passes the clock. If the opponent has no responses, the next thing that would happen is that the Birds takes 2 damage and then is put into the graveyard. Putting the Birds to the graveyard would be considered passing priority and moving directly to the resolution of the Shock.

Rationale: A spell should resolve on its controller’s clock as long as that player is resolving it, but if actions are required from both players, mandating that the spell only resolve on the controller’s clock would create a situation where the first spell to cause a creature to be put in an opponent’s graveyard would result in that player losing the game, as the opponent would refuse to complete the action and run the clock out.

C8. When a clock expires, the player whose clock expires loses the game. Most clocks that meet the requirements of Rule C2 can be set up to not allow time to tick off a clock once one player runs out of time. If the clock otherwise meets the requirements but allows both players to run out of time before anyone notices, the judge shall decide the outcome of the game (usually by awarding a draw, but circumstances may warrant another resolution). Rationale: The point of a chess clock is to end a game where a person is taking too much time. If the clock is such that it allows the clocks to run after one person runs out of time, there is a chance that both clocks run out before anyone notices. Just as a person is expected to keep track of the game state, both players are responsible for the clock as well.

C9. A player may indicate that he or she wishes to pass priority repeatedly to a specific part of the turn (such as the end of his or her current turn). If the opponent wants to play a spell or ability at a time earlier than the specified time, he or she plays it, and the turn is backed up to that time. Otherwise, the turn moves to the time the original player specified, and the person who would have priority at that time should have their clock started. Rationale: This is an outgrowth of what we already do for shortcuts in Magic play. This formalizes the procedure when a clock is used.


I don’t see any reason why chess clocks can’t be used in Magic. However, there are many issues that are easily solved by them. Every time I sit across from someone with a deck who is spending a minute or more deciding whether to Mana Leak my Sakura-Tribe Elder, I wish I had a chess clock there. Every time I call a judge over during a time crunch I wish I could stop the clock and resume it instead of trying to negotiate how much extra time gets added to the match. It’s an idea whose time has finally come.