Besides choosing what deck to register and what plays to make, managing time can be one of the most important factors to succeed in a competitive tournament. Whether your last event was a 15 person PPTQ or a 2000 person Grand Prix, you probably faced many of the same questions about time management:
- Do I have time to get food before the next round begins?
- The round ended 15 minutes ago — where are pairings?
- Why won’t my opponent just make a play already?
- This is the crucial turn of the game! Why won’t this judge let me take my time to think it through?
This article will explain what Slow Play is, answer some questions on what we do and why we do it, common misconceptions and what Stalling is and why you do not want to do that.
What is Slow Play?
The Infraction Procedure Guide, the document that governs anything going wrong during a competitive game of magic and instructs judges on how to fix issues, says that a player has committed the infraction Slow Play if “A player takes longer than is reasonably required to complete game actions.”
- A player repeatedly reviews their opponent’s graveyard without any significant change in game state.
- A player spends time writing down the contents of an opponent’s deck while resolving Thought Hemorrhage.
- A player takes an excessive amount of time to shuffle their deck between games.
- A player gets up from their seat to look at standings or goes to the bathroom without permission of an official.
The penalty for Slow Play is a Warning for the first infraction and Game Loss if repeated.
As the wide variety in examples illustrate, Slow Play covers a wide range of behaviors and may be very subjective. Despite the many potential actions that can earn a warning for Slow Play, however, they all fall under the umbrella of “not playing fast enough to finish three games in 50 minutes.”
What are the time limits?
The Tournament Organizer (TO) for the event can set the time limits to nearly anything they want. While 50 minutes per round is the standard for competitive play, if Wizards hasn’t dictated a round time (as it does for GPs, PPTQs, and other premier events), the TO can set it to as low as 40 minutes if they wish, or higher.
What happens if a match is still going when time is up?
The players in the match will take a total of five additional turns, starting with the first turn after the round ended. If the game has not finished by the end of those turns, the game will become a draw. If both players have won the same number of games, this will mean the match is a draw. However, if one player has won a game and the other has not, ending the current game in a draw will give the match to the player already ahead. In a tournament, a drawn match is worth 1 point, while a win is worth 3 and a loss is worth 0.
Why not let everyone play at their own pace?
Tournament matches have a time limit to keep the tournament moving forward for everyone. Without a set time limit for the match, it would be impossible to predict when the event would finish, making for a far worse experience for both players and judges.
Why is Slow Play so subjective? Why not have set, specific time limits?
If there was a set policy of “30 seconds per play” or similar, it would open the door to abuse (abusing the clock is called Stalling and is cheating — more on this later). It would also break down at times, as different scenarios require differing amounts of time to think through. It may be unreasonable to take even 15 seconds to decide whether to attack or not in one game, while a full minute wouldn’t be unreasonable in another. The context of the game state, recent plays, and more are all variables that factor into a judge’s decision to issue a Slow Play Warning.
Why not use clocks, like chess or Magic Online?
Besides the costs involved in providing and replacing thousands of clocks, trying to use a clock is simply not feasible for real life Magic. A given turn can have dozens of priority passes, in quick succession, and players have enough to think about without trying to remember to hit a clock after every play. Just try tapping your lifepad every time you pass priority during your next game, and you’ll quickly realize how tedious that would be!
Using clocks would also make the game less accessible for players with physical challenges, such as a broken arm, being in a wheelchair, or blind. It’s important for Magic to be open to everyone, which includes keeping the game a mental stress, not a physical one.
There are a number of common myths surrounding Slow Play, in part because it is so subjective, and because it is not a commonly issued penalty.
“The battlefield is very complicated — I should get more time to plan my combat phase.”
This depends a lot on the recent plays. Suppose two players in a limited match reach a board stall on turn four, then each play one creature a turn until turn ten, never attacking. In this case, the battlefield has barely changed from one turn to the next. Neither player should be thinking for extended periods on each turn. They have already determined whether they can attack or not; a new turn should not require them to think out every possible combat scenario again and again and again … They only need to determine whether anything relevant has changed.
If the battlefield has changed significantly from recent turns, however, it would be more reasonable to take a longer period of time to think. If the game recently saw a Warp World or The Great Aurora resolve, or some other spell that had a significant impact on the board state, it is understood that players have to start thinking through combat from the beginning again, so what counts as “reasonable” would change and more time would be awarded before issuing a Slow Play Warning.
“I’ve been playing fast all game; I should be able to think longer now.”
If you’re playing baseball and run from one base to the next faster than you need to, so you arrive well ahead of the ball, do you get to use that extra time when the next batter steps up, and you start running to your next base? Of course not! Each turn, and in fact each action should be considered independently of each other one. Playing faster in the earlier turns is good — it means you have more time in the match in case the games drag on — but it doesn’t give you Protection From Slow Play.
“Maybe I’m playing a little slowly, but I’m still going faster than my opponent was all match. I shouldn’t be able to get a warning.”
If you believe your opponent is not playing quickly enough, call a judge and ask them to keep an eye on your match. Be sure to call a judge as soon as it happens, as waiting until the end of the round will be too late.
“But I’m playing faster than they were!” is not an excuse for taking too long with your own decisions, and the speed of your opponent has no relevance to whether you are playing too slowly or not. It is not uncommon for both players in a match to be guilty of Slow Play.
This myth partially stems from players not being fully aware of just how long they were taking to think. It’s easy to underestimate how long you’ve taken to figure out a scenario (because your attention is focused elsewhere) while overestimating how long your opponent took (because you had to just sit, bored, while they thought things through from their side). Luckily, judges will provide an external and less subjective view on the play pace, so do not hesitate in calling one if you think it is needed.
“Time has been called and we’re on our five turn extension — that means I can take as long as I want.”
You can still receive a Warning for Slow Play in extra turns, or in an untimed match. It’s important to keep the match (and with it, the tournament) moving forward, regardless of where your game is occurring. In fact, playing slowly during extra turns can be lengthening the event for everyone involved. Before, you were playing on your time. After everyone else has finished and is waiting for you, you’re on everyone’s time.
“Control decks are Slow Playing all the time! I often see them do nothing on their turn.”
It’s easy to feel like control decks “aren’t doing anything” for turns on end when you’re playing against one. So why aren’t they being issued penalties for Slow Play so frequently they’re not viable for tournaments?
Because players don’t have to “do something” to avoid being issued a Warning, they just need to make their decisions at a reasonable pace. Control players don’t get extra time because they’re playing a counterspell deck, but they also aren’t going to be punished for not casting a creature until turn 20. As said above, it’s important to keep the match and the tournament moving forward, but a player choosing not to cast a spell or attack when they seem to have a win available to them is not enough to earn a penalty.
There could be any number of reasons for a control deck to choose not to cast their win condition, or for a player not to want to alpha strike for the win. The player may know or suspect a crucial card is in their opponent’s hand, they may have simply miscalculated the math and not realized they could win, or any number of other factors could be playing a role. The important thing is not whether a player is ending the game as fast as possible, but whether they are making their decisions in a reasonable amount of time.
Slow Play vs Stalling
So far, this article has focused on Slow Play — the Warning that comes from unintentionally not playing quickly enough. Slow Play has an ugly step-sibling, however: Stalling.
Looking to the Infraction Procedure Guide again, we can see Stalling occurs when “A player intentionally plays slowly in order to take advantage of the time limit.” The penalty for Stalling is Disqualification.
- A player has two lands in his hand, no options available to significantly affect the game, and spends excessive time “thinking” about what to do to eat up time on the clock.
- A player is ahead in games and significantly slows down his pace of play so the opponent has little chance to catch up.
- A player playing slowly appeals a warning in an attempt to gain advantage by having more time to make a decision.
- A player intentionally mulligans slowly before the third game in an attempt to make it harder for his opponent to win in time.
- A player losing a game starts slowing down the pace of play in an attempt to run out the clock.
In each of these cases, the problem is the player is deliberately moving slowly to abuse the clock. They are not simply reaching a decision and deciding not to act; they are reaching a decision, then continuing to pretend to think to remove time from the clock.
This is different from bluffing. Judges are aware that Magic is a game of hidden information, and sometimes you have to convince your opponent your two lands in hand are actually a Cryptic Command and a Doom Blade. You can take an extra moment to sell that you have options when you don’t; you just can’t take an excessive amount of time. The other factor here is the rationale for the decision: if you are pretending to think to run out the clock, that is not the same as pretending to think so you can bluff something. Judges are pretty good at figuring out which is which, so trying to test the line is *not* recommended.
Stalling is a Disqualifying offense. The winner of a match is meant to be whoever can win the most games in the time allotted, not whoever can win the first game, then slow down significantly so no other games can finish. Stalling harms the tournament integrity and is unequivocally cheating.
What about less competitive tournaments?
Tournaments run at Regular Rules Enforcement Level, like Friday Night Magic or Prereleases, don’t use the same system of Warnings and Game Losses when players accidentally break the rules in some way. That doesn’t mean that Slow Play is allowed, however!
Regular events are intended to be more casual and friendly than something like a Grand Prix or Regional Pro Tour Qualifier, but players are still expected to play quickly enough they can finish three games in the allotted time.
In these circumstances, if you believe your opponent is playing too slowly, a gentle nudge and mention of the time left in the round will hopefully be sufficient. If it isn’t, don’t be afraid to ask a judge to watch your match. Stalling is still an illegal action and can result is a disqualification, even at Friday Night Magic.
Whatever the setting for your match, make sure you play at a pace that will allow three games to finish in 50 minutes. If you believe your opponent is not playing quickly enough, whether intentionally or not, call a judge and explain the situation. Remember that you are not obligated to end the game as quickly as possible, just to make your decisions at a reasonable pace.