Lately, the bulk of my Magic thought has been on speed. I've said it before and I'll probably say it again, but this Standard format is mired in time issues. When the Eternal fetch/dual style mana bases are combined with the high number of turns typical of Standard games, a format with intense time issues is the result. Personally I am eagerly anticipating the rotation of Khans of Tarkir just because I can't wait till the fetch lands are once more relegated to the realms of Eternal formats and Modern. This Standard format is great and has some really interesting games, but I can't concentrate on any of that with how much of my mental energy is constantly devoted to ensuring my matches reach a natural conclusion. But rotation doesn't come for another several months yet and, for all I know, the enemy-colored fetch lands may just be reprinted, prolonging the life of this mana base style in Standard.
So today I will be sharing my thoughts on how to best ensure tournament matches reach natural conclusions.
My favorite magic card is a miscut basic Mountain that was a gift from my boyfriend. It is the gem of my collection, and I go out of my way to play it whenever I'm running a deck with red in it. Last weekend I played Jeskai Black, a perfect opportunity to show-off my favorite card. And yet, before the tournament, I made sure to take that mountain out of my deck, replacing it with a more boring basic. Why? I have found that something like 60% of my opponents who see that mountain will comment and/or ask me questions about it, and in this Standard format I don't feel like I can afford to waste precious match time on that diversion. It's a shame, but that's the world we live in right now: a world where we have to respect the increased potential for draws in this Standard environment and adapt. Tournament Magic has always been about adapting, and this is no different. So, how do we go about ensuring that we lose as little equity as possible to the clock?
Abandon your Purist Ideals
The first step to finding a solution is admitting that there's a problem. A lot of people I talk to hate the fact that time is an issue in Magic tournaments. They argue that the game of Magic itself does not have a real-time component, that speed is not one of the skills being tested in the game itself. In their way of thinking, the clock is a necessary evil introduced by the logistics of tournaments. The goal of the tournament is to find the best Magic player, and players should try to enable that goal occurring by ignoring the clock as much as possible. These people often advocate for tournament participants to just play Magic as normal and, in the unfortunate event that the clock comes into play, to concede to the player who likely would have won had this been kitchen table Magic.
This idealism doesn't sit well with me. To a tournament regular the clock is not a surprise. It is a constant, just like the fact that we start at 20 life and seven cards. It is known prior to the beginning of the tournament and, thus, it is something that can be prepared for. Tournament Magic is different than 'pure' kitchen table Magic and treating it as such isn't delving into moral relativism, it's just using simple common sense. Whether you like it or not, one of the skills being tested in tournament Magicis your ability to reach accurate decisions quickly.
There's not much for me to say about how to how to speed up the time it takes for you to reach accurate decisions. As you get better at Magic, both the accuracy and the speed of your decisions naturally improve. What I can say is that it's important to remember in your untimed preparation that speed of decision is in fact a metric that matters, even if it isn't while preparing. If you are getting good results with a deck while testing, but only by going deep into the tank on nearly every decision, you aren't ready yet to play a tournament with that deck. If you do play a tournament with it, your results there will likely be a good bit worse than your testing results.
There are, however, things I can say about how to maximize the time in a tournament round with which you get to think. These are important things that, while they might not make you better at Magic per se, will make you better at tournament Magic. Before that though, there's still one more place where we need to abandon our idealism: deck construction. Not only is it conceptually possible for the best possible decklist of an archetype to be different in an untimed tournament than a normal one, it is likely. Blitz chess has different strategies and common wisdom than chess games with slower time controls, why wouldn't Magic? The existence of a time element fundamentally changes the game, and I can't say it enough: it is critically important to respect that change. Move past your anger at your perfect no-win-condition control deck being forced to add win conditions to be tournament viable and accept reality.
Let me be very clear though: the clock is not a weapon. While thinking about the clock as an aspect of the game, we have to be careful to only seek to minimize its negative effect towards ourselves and never cross the line and start maximizing its negative effect towards our opponent. This is defined as cheating, and rightfully so. Your goal should always be to ensure that the match finishes within the allotted time. The reason for this is simple math -- never taking a draw is plus equity, as long as at least one-in-three of the matches that would have been draws had you ignored the time aspect of the game are wins instead. And with how Magic tournaments reward players, even if less than one third are wins instead, it's still probably beneficial to you. Playing slower deliberately to make a match you are losing not naturally finish is not only unsporting, it is cheating.
The Dynamics of the Shared Clock
The first step in finding a solution to any problem is to understand the constraints. So, the first step in working towards having less of our matches go to turns is to understand the clock. Magic's clock is deceptively simple. There are fifty minutes allotted to each match, after which end-of-match procedures will be used to decide the outcome. The key is that there is no individual allocation of time within the total fifty minutes. I'm not interested in proposing a different system or explaining why I think the system is bad -- as a Magic player, my results are influenced by how well my play matches up with the system that exists, not an alternative system that I personally think would be better.
The most important thing about the shared clock is that the slower our opponent plays, the less time we have. The advice that you should call a judge if your opponent is playing too slowly is often and freely given, and yet this hardly occurs. The social cost of calling a judge on your opponent for slow play is still rather high, even if it shouldn't be. Further, sometimes your opponent isn't playing too slow -- it is very easy, especially in slower formats, to play at a reasonable pace and still not be playing at a pace that allows the match to reach a natural conclusion. There are some matchups where both players have to be playing at a rather quick pace to be able to finish a three game match within fifty minutes. We can't demand that our opponent play at that quick pace as the judge-approved definition of a reasonable pace of play, as far as I know, does not vary with the needs of the current matchup and board state.
So if your goal, like mine, is to try your hardest to make sure that every match reaches a natural conclusion, you have to accept that sometimes you will just have less time than your opponent. No, it's not fair. And you don't have to accept this -- you can just decide to be that guy, always playing at the same reasonable pace of play, not caring if the match hits time. I believe that this strategy leaves some equity on the table, and I generally try to hasten my pace to a level where the match will finish. In doing this, it's important to keep in mind that you do have the right to some of the time on the clock. The small equity gained in avoiding draws is vastly outweighed by the amount you lose if you are punting games by refusing to take the time you need in complicated spots. The trick is learning to recognize when a spot is complicated enough to merit additional time spent on it while otherwise playing quickly.
Learning which spots you need to slow down for is something you gain with experience, but it helps to know that this is an important skill to have. The other main tactic I use when dealing with slower opponents is to do my thinking while they are thinking. This sounds obvious, but it really is something you have to train yourself to do. It is so easy to fall into a pattern of waiting for a response after you make a play, not thinking about the match until prompted to do so by their counterplay. But if you are prepared for the tournament and know the meta, you know what their likely responses are. Considering what you would do in response to each of their potential plays not only makes you a better player, it makes you a faster one as well. If you have thought through the current scenario and they are still thinking, think about what your possible draw steps could yield and what you would do with each possible draw. With practice, this kind of next step thinking will become second nature, and will vastly increase the speed at which you can play against slower opponents.
Maximizing Think Time
There's two main broad categories of time use within a match of Magic: mechanical time and thinking time. My goal is always to get through mechanical time as quickly as possible so as to maximize the time both players have for thinking. Thinking, after all, is the interesting part of the game, where our skills are tested. As enjoyable as I find shuffling cards, it's not why I go to Magic tournaments. Here's my list of tips and tricks to reduce mechanical time in a match of Magic.
- If you need to re-sleeve your deck, make sure to do so far enough in advance to have time to shuffle the 'newness' out of them. New sleeves can be very slippery, causing shuffling to take significantly longer.
- Arrive at the match early and start shuffling. If possible, have mulligans resolved before time in the round starts. This can add as much as two minutes to your round time.
- Avoid playing oddities like miscuts and alters. Cool as they are, these cards are prone to creating a distraction for your opponent and thus creating additional dead time in the match. This is a fairly minor effect normally, so if time isn't a huge issue for your archetype, it may be safe to ignore this tip.
- In fetch-heavy decks, consider playing full art or white-bordered basic lands (or other fetch targets, where applicable) to speed up the time it takes to find them in the deck (giving them an immediately distinguishable feature from the rest of the deck).
- Have everything accessible: tokens and flip cards in your deck box, dice on the table, etc. Avoid having to dig into your bag for a token or pen or what have you during the match.
- Have fluid mechanical movements. Most of us develop this naturally as we play, but if there's any mechanical action you find yourself slow at, practice it. Silly as it may feel, the time saved here adds up.
- If you really feel the need to pile shuffle to count, do so after each match and don't touch your deck at all between rounds. Pile shuffling while the clock is ticking is an egregious waste of time.
While performing mindless mechanical actions, think about the game. No reason to not be thinking while shuffling your deck.
- Develop appropriate fetch shortcuts and apply them liberally. Fetch while your opponent is fetching, announce the spell you intend to cast while finding the land to give your opponent more thinking time, etc.