Tournament Error — Slow Play


Slow Play is an oft misunderstood infraction in the Magic Infraction Procedure Guide. It is one of the few infractions that are largely subjective. How much time is too long to take a game action? What if the board state is extremely complicated? What if it’s an empty board? Before we start answering these questions, we need to take a look at how the MIPG defines Slow Play to get a starting point.


By Matteo Callegari

There are three different infractions in the MIPG about consuming time in an incorrect way. While they may look similar at first sight, there are clear differences on when a player is committing one of them.Slow Play involves consuming too much time within a match, while Tardiness involves consuming too much time before the match actually begins. For example, not being ready to start the match (i.e. player is outside the venue, or player has lost cards and he’s looking for replacements, or player sits at the wrong table, or player is finishing to complete their decklist after judges collected them…) does not involve any game action and is thus considered a Tournament Error — Tardiness. The philosophy of both infractions look very much the same, where players are responsible for not wasting each other’s time.Slow Play exists whenever a player unintentionally takes too much time to complete a game action. What if he or she does so intentionally? The player is no longer committing a Game Play Error, but he or she is Cheating. A player commits Cheating — Stalling when he or she plays slowly in order to take an advantage of the time limit. Usually this involves a change in the pace of the game whenever they want to use the time limit to avoid a loss in the game (i.e. mulligan to zero, slowing up the pace after winning game 1, bluffing repeatedly with no options just to eat some clock time, …). Judges should always be very careful when a player changes the pace in the game, since it should often lead to an investigation about the reasons for this change. 


By Matteo Callegari


Time belongs to both players

Time is a precious resource that allows player to reason about the game state and plan their strategy for the next turns. Being able to device the best strategy in a short period of time is a skill that rewards the best players.Nonetheless, time is a shared resource for both players. In real life tournaments usually players have 50 minutes to complete their match and there is no stopwatch to keep time for players separated, as in Magic Online or in Chess. Both players should be allowed to use it evenly, so that no one is disadvantaged. Whenever a player is consuming some time, he or she is taking it away from his or her opponent. 

Using stopwatches?

The best way to regulate the use of time would be to use stopwatches as in Magic Online or in Chess: In this way both players have their own amount of time they may choose to spend however they wish. However, this is logistically impossible to achieve in real life matches.

  • Think about how many times you pass priority each turn: Each and every time you would do so, you would need to stop your own clock and start your opponent’s. More time would be spent on stopping and starting clocks than playing!
  • Also think about the amount of money the organizers should spend in order to purchase and maintain all the clocks needed to play.

We therefore have to apply a policy that should minimize the disadvantages of using a shared clock for the match. This policy must apply to all events once a match has started. Defining an amount of time per action?While it would look very simple to simply define a maximum amount of time for any game action (i.e. 30 seconds for declaring attackers or 45 seconds for a whole turn), this would lead to more problems than solutions:

  • The game state, the deck types and the game decisions are very different in every game. What could be a good time limit for an aggro deck, may be a very bad one for a control deck. Same goes for game actions in the first turn or in the tenth turn.
  • It would confuse players as they could believe they could use up that quantified time limit for any of their actions, even if they don’t need to use that amount of time. (for instance, no creatures to declare as attackers or a simple draw-land-go for the first turn). Such a behavior would be Stalling.

The policy then adopts a more quality-like approach: “a player takes longer than is reasonably required to complete game actions.”Reasonably is a simple but very difficult word, because it requires each single judge to evaluate what the required time in each specific scenario should be. Unlike most of the infractions described in the MIPG, the Slow Play infraction is essentially subjective. Let’s see how to apply this policy in real life matches. 


By George Fitzgerald


In-Game Slow Play

Magic is a complex and intricate game. There are many actions and interactions that continuously occur during a game. Magic is also a game of skill and one of those skills is the ability to keep up with the evolution of the game. We will very rarely arrive at a complex game state out of thin air. Rather these tend to come about from incremental changes from progressively less complex game states. A player may argue that there are a lot of things going on, but that is not an excuse for Slow Play since they are expected to keep up with the changes and play at a reasonable pace. Warp World and Genesis Wave are two examples of cards that in one turn can drastically change the game state and warrant more time to give the players a chance to absorb this new information and analyze it. But what is an “unreasonable” time to think between game actions? There is no single answer to that question as it will vary from judge to judge all the way from brand new judges on up to the Level 5s. Ask five judges and you will get five different answers. One method is to examine the game state and go through the decision making process that a player might take to decide their next move. If you would have made a decision by now, it might be time to caution the player. Be careful with this method as you may be more or less familiar with the decks that are being played. With less familiarity, you may take longer, but if it’s a deck you’ve played for years you might be able to make a snap decision on a play when the player may have only been playing it for a few weeks. If this is your preferred method, make sure that you can identify when you are really familiar with a deck and when you are not so familiar so that you can adjust your expectations appropriately. There is also a bit of a handicap for the player on the other side of the table because you cannot see what cards are in that player’s hand. Be mindful of what you are doing and this process can work well for you. Another method is the “am I bored yet?” test and alternatively “is the opponent bored?” and “are the spectators bored?” A lot of the time, this is good as a starting place. If you feel that you are getting to that point or being bored because actions aren’t happening, then caution the player. Remember that a caution is fairly harmless and it lets the player know that you are paying attention and there is something they need to fix. Make sure that you aren’t falling into the trap of being bored because one player is taking a lot of actions that are moving them towards an attempt to win the game. This is most common with combo type decks, such as Elves or High Tide in Legacy, or Eggs/Second Breakfast in Modern before it was banned. All of these decks will do a lot of things when they are attempting to go off and win the game. Sometimes these turns can last several minutes or more. As long as the actions are doing something to advance the game state and there isn’t excessive thinking between actions, the player is in the clear. One of the examples given for Slow Play in the MIPG is that of a player that repeatedly reviews their opponent’s graveyard without any significant change in game state. That is not to say that looking at your opponent’s graveyard is wrong, but that repeatedly doing so without significant changes can be interpreted as Slow Play. Another example of this would be repeatedly reading a card on the battlefield. Caution the player and if they continue with this behavior, then it is time to move to penalize. You can also watch for a player that goes into the tank to think about their play, makes a play, and then tanks again. We expect that when a player is thinking about what to do, that they are thinking about a line of plays, not a singular play. We cannot allow a player to use playing one card in a potential line of plays as a reset button on the clock to allow them more time to think. My personal method is to keep a count in my head, though you could also use the round clock or a wristwatch to help you keep time if you are unable to keep the count and concentrate on the game. Keeping a count helps me to keep track of how long it has been between game actions and allows me to be more consistent with both players in a match. I typically set a target number somewhere between 25 and 45 seconds depending on the complexity of the game state and amount of recent change. I want to stress that this is ONLY A GUIDELINE and should not be interpreted as a strict rule of how much time a player has to make a play and as stated above, making one play doesn’t necessarily reset my count. While it is still subjective and done a lot by feel, I’ve honed my sense for it over time through experience and practice. When I reach my “target” number for a player to make a play, I will caution them and then penalize if the player does not make a play soon after being cautioned. What that target number is will vary with the game state and how things have changed. If a lot of things happened last turn, I’ll move that number higher; if nothing has happened I might lower the number a little bit. I want to give the players adequate time to think about the play or to bluff about making a play if that is what they choose to do. I also will give a little bit more time in Top 8 matches and featured matches on camera. The players are often under more pressure during these times. While I do not want to give them an undue amount of time, I also do not want to compound the pressure they may already be feeling.Another example given in the MIPG is a player that has used Thought Hemorrhage (or Slaughter Games to use a more recent example) on their opponent and is writing down the contents of their opponent’s deck. It’s ok for the player to take a few notes as he’s searching his opponent’s deck, but it is not alright to copy down the entire contents of the deck. There is some room for debate of how much time should be allowed to search the opponent’s deck and review it. Use your best judgment and keep in mind that the player is digesting a lot of new information all at once and should be allowed the time to take it in. 

Slow Play Loops

A relatively recent revision was made to the Slow Play infraction to handle certain types of loops.“It is also slow play if a player continues to execute a loop without being able to provide an exact number of iterations and the expected resulting game state.”This paragraph refers to loops in Magic which often come up in the form of a shortcut, such as “infinite creatures”, “infinite mana”, or “infinite mill.” If we forced a player to take every step through a loop (and other processes), it would take up a lot of time and games would not get finished which is why shortcuts are encouraged as long as they are clear and defined. What this line means is that a player needs to be able to clearly define the desired outcome and the number of needed iterations to reach that outcome to be allowed to suggest such a shortcut. “Mill until your deck is gone” is an acceptable shortcut as there is a quantifiable number of times needed to get to the result that the player desires.If something occurs that changes that outcome, the loop ends immediately. For example, during the process of milling, the player flips an Emrakul, the Aeons Torn. The loop immediately ends as Emrakul’s trigger is put on the stack (When Emrakul is put into a graveyard from anywhere, its owner shuffles his or her graveyard into his or her library.). What is not acceptable is to give a desired outcome where you can’t give a count of how many iterations it will take to get to that end result. Saying “mill until you have one Emrakul left in your deck” is an example of an unacceptable shortcut. While this is theoretically possible to achieve, you cannot determine beforehand how many times it will take to get to that end point.A common argument that is made is that the certainty of the outcome of the « loop » can be proved thanks to a mathematical demonstration. This is sometimes the case. However, the R&D clearly stated that the outcome of a game of Magic should be decided by cards being played and not by a conjecture that requires a degree in Mathematics. If you were a player who has never studied maths, would you be happy to hear from the judge that you lost, even though your opponent cannot demonstrate it with certainty but only with a couple mathematical formulas ?That’s why a player needs to show he can physically perform the actions. However, it could be 5 times or it could take 5 million times. Should we allow the player to spend the next 6 hours trying to get to that result? The answer is a clear no, either in the timed or the untimed portion of the tournament :

  • Consider a 100-player tournament with a single table still playing: it means that 98 players are waiting for them to finish and they have the right to play their next round within a reasonable time frame.
  • Consider also the venue restrictions, as the TO may need to give the keys of the venue back by a certain time.

Even if it is important to us to allow the players to explore such a loop, they can’t be allowed to spend an extended amount of time on it. Use your gut feeling to allow the player to have an opportunity to use the loop, but do not let it go for a long time. Let the player know that it is time to move on to something else. A dozen of iterations seems like a grand maximum.

Out-of-Game Slow Play


The pre-game time limit

The Magic Tournament Rules section 2.3 lists the steps for Pregame Procedures. This includes sideboarding after game 1 and game 2, shuffling, presenting the deck, and taking mulligans. The MTR also states that players should perform these in a timely manner. There used to be a hard pre-game time limit which gave an excuse to player to use all of that time in order to get closer to the time limit. Intentionally using all the allotted time just in order to use up time was Stalling, which partially defeated the reason for that limit.Because the potential advantage and disruption of sideboarding and shuffling for a long time vary so much according to context, the time limit was removed from the documents and assessing Slow Play for the pre-game procedure is now more similar to what you do in a game. Either the player knows what they’re doing and sideboarding shouldn’t take more than the physical actions; or the player has to think and it shouldn’t be longer than a complex in-game decision plus the time to execute the actions. Overall, sideboarding shouldn’t take more than a minute or a minute and a half. If the players are too indecisive and take too much time, you should caution them, and, if they’re not done quickly, say 30 seconds, after that, issue them a Warning. Note that if the players are under a thorough process of shuffling their decks, you may want to not issue that penalty as we care a lot that presented decks are randomized enough.You may want to give more time if a player is switching colors between games in Limited, a process that often involves switching 15-20 cards, resleeving, or even asking the judge for necessary basic lands. You may also want to give less time for game 3 sideboarding if there isn’t much time left in the round and the game could be a draw if one or two more minutes are spent on shuffling.You can also watch for slow play when you are on Deck Checks and have targeted a table. If one or both players have taken too much time to shuffle and present, then when you return you should assess a Slow Play penalty to the appropriate player(s).Even though the 3-minute limit has been removed from the documents, it is still customary, when deck-checking, to give the players extra time equal to the time taken plus three minutes, in order to allow for thorough shuffling. 

Players leaving the table

A player getting up from their seat in the middle of the match is also problematic. A player should not leave their seat without permission from a judge. We don’t want players to wet themselves because they need to go to the bathroom, which is why we allow that and even give them a time extension for the time they are away from the table. However, it is still their responsibility to let a judge know and get permission so that we can give that time extension. If the player leaves their seat without permission, assess the penalty and if they are going to the restroom stick around to give them the appropriate time extension so that neither player is at a disadvantage for the lost time in the match. If the player is getting up to try and look at standings or pairings, ask the player to return to their seat and continue playing their match in addition to the infraction and penalty. 


By Matteo Callegari

 Since there is no fixed maximum amount of time players are allowed to spend on game actions, it is not practical to determine exactly how much extra time they actually spent. For this reason, Judges should give no extra time for this penalty, but give the players 2 additional turns, 1 per player (if they are not playing in an untimed portion of the tournament, which includes a match’s additional turns). This means that when time will be called, if they are still playing they’ll have 7 additional turns instead of the regular 5 additional turns (or 9 additional turns if both players committed Slow Play during the match). In Two-Headed Giant, where there is normally 3 additional turns, it becomes 5 or 7 turns total. 


By Matteo Callegari

 The regular penalty for committing Slow Play is a Warning, but Judges may assess anything from a Caution to a Game Loss. If the Judge believes the player is taking more time than normal but he or she is still within the limit for a Slow Play, the Judge should issue a verbal Caution like “Please, I need you to play faster” and have the player take the decision. In this situation, Judges should not issue a penalty or give additional turns. If the player persists in spending a lot of time, he or she is committing Slow Play and he or she should be issued a Warning and additional turns should be given.The reason why judges are encouraged to remind the player he should make a decision quickly is the fact the perception of time by players, judges and spectators is way different. A player who is deep in his thoughts won’t see that time flies. The opponent, the judge and the spectators may have a completely different vision. Therefore, it is great customer service to remind the player he’s engaging in Slow Play before he actually commits it. When assessing a Slow Play infraction and issuing a Warning, Judges should make sure that they are not interrupting players reasoning, but they should step in as soon as the player takes his or her decision. If you interrupt a player while thinking over a game state, he or she will probably have to go back through the same things in order to complete his or her decision. At the same time, Judges should not wait too long until a game action is taken, especially when they believe the player is spending time without actively thinking about the decision to make (i.e. the player is going through a repeated set of actions like looking at the cards in his or her hand or at the cards in the graveyards, etc.). If the Slow Play has seriously affected the possibility of the other player to finish the match (i.e. a player left the table without asking a Judge and returns after 20 minutes), the Head Judge may upgrade the penalty to a Game Loss. Further, remember that a player committing Slow Play for the second time in the tournament should have the penalty upgraded to Game Loss, whatever the reason for slow play was.  

Getting Appealed

By George Fitzgerald

 In the event that a player decides to appeal a Slow Play infraction, which is well within their right to do as a player, ask the players to keep playing. If it’s feasible, make sure another judge is still watching the match to keep the player playing at an acceptable pace. Telling the players to continue playing is important so as to not allow the player to use the appeal and the time it takes you to get the head judge to continue to think about their play. We want them to move on and continue their game. The outcome of the appeal will also have no effect on the game being played. If they receive a Game Loss, then the game will end anyways. As best as you can, clearly explain to the Head Judge what you saw, what the game state was, and why you decided to give the infraction. The better you can describe it to the Head Judge, the better they will be able to assess if you made the right call when they talk to the player.  


By Matteo Callegari

 Slow Play is one of the most difficult infractions to assess during a match. Judges should be watching matches for a while in order to determine if one of the players is Slow Playing. Usually it’s the other player calling for a judge to watch the pace of the game; try to accommodate these requests while performing your other duties. Assessing a Slow Play involves some judgment, because there are no hard time limits that define the infraction and judges will need some experience in evaluating the pace of the game and sharing it with other judges helps the learning curve. Slow Play in a couple key points:

  • Slow Play, unlike most of the infractions described in the MIPG, is a subjective infraction that doesn’t need evidences to be identified.
  • It relies on what the judge feels. Therefore there is no quantified time limit to identify Slow Play.
  • Time is very differently perceived by spectators, judges and players. That’s why it’s very important to remind players they are getting slow before issuing a penalty for Slow Play.
  • The remedy for Slow Play is to add two extra additional turns if the match reaches the time limit. If both players receive the penalty at the same time, four turns should be added.

Matteo Callegari
George Fitzgerald