SLOW PLAY — Why I stood up & left the table

Disclaimer: This was meant to be a long and thorough article about Slow Play in Magic, particularly in Legacy. Unfortunately, I never had the time (pun unintended) to finish my earlier draft of it, but still really wanted to get the word out there. I have never been this pissed about a situation in a tournament ever before, so not talking about it seemed wrong. So here’s what happened and why for the first time ever I just stood up from a table and walked away.

In July I played in the Bazaar of Moxen Strasbourg, the series’ third stop of the season. While I usually focus on both the journey as well as the gameplay, I want to emphasize a different aspect of Magic in this report. In round 6 of the Legacy Main Event, I had one of the worst experiences in my competitive Magic career, which eventually led me to just stand up from the table and leave both my match and the opponent behind.

What is Slow Play?

According to this website, reading the above (non-italic) paragraph should have taken you about 30 seconds. This of course isn’t a completely accurate metric as reading speed varies between people, but it is meant to show you how quickly time can fly when we’re focussed on something and how oblivious we will become to the time we’re spending. Why did I choose 30 seconds? Because that’s the time after which you should become aware that your opponent is about to overstep his boundaries with regards to his pace of play. I usually try to always seat myself in a way that allows me to observe the round clock to easily keep track of my opponent’s pace of play. If need be, I will also use my wristwatch. The usual rule of thumb I try to stick to is to always remind my opponents about their pace of play past 30 seconds and then call for a judge if no play has been made at 45 seconds. For a while, I tried sticking to this really hard, but it’s really tiresome and unless it’s an important game, I don’t always have the nerves to keep doing it. In Strasbourg, this ended up costing me.

For the record, the Magic: The Gathering Tournament Rules define Slow Play the following way:

5.5 Slow Play
Players must take their turns in a timely fashion regardless of the complexity of the play situation and adhere to time limits specified for the tournament. Players must maintain a pace to allow the match to be finished in the announced time limit. Stalling is not acceptable. Players may ask a judge to watch their game for slow play; such a request will be granted if feasible.

Why I stood up & left the table at BoM Strasbourg

In round 6 of the event and still live for Top8 at 4-1, I played against a guy on Eldrazi.  From the start of the game I noticed that he was taking a lot of time on literally every single decision. Even rather basic turns where he’d only play a land and smash into me without any blocks would regularly take between a minute or two. Literally a minute or two without action before he declared attackers. It annoyed me quite a bit but I didn’t call judge. In hindsight I really should have, I know.

Over time the board state of game 3 became increasingly complex with him actually having less good attacks than one would think at first glance, while I had the common tricky board that regularly causes headaches for inexperienced opponents. Between several activations of Deathrite Shaman, attacks with Pendelhaven-support and potentially game-breaking Abrupt Decays, my opponent was still in a lead — but only if he avoided the about five complex mistakes he could have made each turn.

And he surely took his time to avoid those mistakes. An awful lot of time. Every turn, it was agonizing. And in a way, this not only helped him play better but even allowed him to use my frustration against me. In order to speed up the game I announced a Wirewood Symbiote activation targeting Deathrite Shaman in order to produce the mana needed for an important spell. Following the activation, I looked into my opponent’s face for a good 4-5 seconds, who just looked back at me like a stone. I untapped DRS, tapped it for mana and put the spell on the table. My opponent thought about the situation a good deal more, then calmly announced that he would like to respond to my Wirewood Symbiote activation by Dismembering my Deathrite. I knew he was within his right to do so as I never asked for actual confirmation of the ability to resolve but COME ON. It’s probably about this time when I really should have called a judge for Slow Play, but unfortunately, I didn’t.

Two turns later the game entered the decisive turn of the match in which my opponent needed to make a very precise attack on a board of about 5 creatures on each side with both players on low life. It was a really complex situation with only a single correct attack for him that he desperately tried to figure out.  At this point, I was already constantly checking the time he was taking and you could probably tell that I was reasonably pissed. This is somewhat surprising to me since I usually always pride myself on not “being a dick” about opponents playing slowly, because I’m well aware that the majority of people, including myself, often don’t recognize when they’re taking too long. But if your opponent plays like a stone and doesn’t acknowledge your concerns about his pace of play at all, you feel bad.

After a little over 30 seconds had passed without any action following his draw step, I once again reminded him to soon make a decision. I got no response at all, so I asked a judge who had just answered a call on the next table to please stand by and watch our match for Slow Play. You could immediately tell that he felt very awkward and didn’t really want to be there but after a short “uuuhm” he reluctantly agreed. I told him that there had now been over 45 seconds without action to which neither my opponent nor the judge replied with anything. I mean, not even a denial or anything, just silence. I felt like in a reverse Muppet-Show. So I felt all that was left for me was to call out the time every now and then. After 1 minute there still was no action. I then announced the 1:30 minute mark without action. Then 2 minutes. At 2:15 minutes without action, I asked the judge whether he was going to do something about this. The response I got is why I’m writing this article:

“It’s a very complicated decision, it’s ok.”

I asked the judge whether he was serious but he just shrugged his shoulders. My opponent meanwhile still continued his Snorlax impersonation. I didn’t know what to do, I felt betrayed. A big deal of equity of playing Magic (especially Elves!) comes from your opponent playing suboptimally because they can’t figure out the correct move. By granting them a completely unreasonable amount of time to work out what to do, that equity shrinks in what I perceive to be an unfair way. In a perfect world where tournaments can run forever because we’re all super-rich, immortal and live off the work of our robot slaves, that would be fine. But yeah, not there yet. Even in chess, a game of practically no variance, players aren’t allowed to take forever to figure out the perfect move for any given situation. Instead, you have to also rely on your experience, intuition and general ability to analyze a situation in a timely manner.

After the judge had just shrugged his shoulders, I scooped up my cards, stood up from my chair and walked away. At that moment I wanted to tell the judge he was a disgrace to the game but I’m happy I didn’t because I really don’t think he actually is. After all, he was judging the tournament because he probably really likes doing what he does and we couldn’t ever run any big tournaments without volunteers like him. I’m just mentioning this to give you an idea about how angry I felt on the inside regardless of how composed I tried to be about the whole situation.

Looking Back

Should I have appealed? Or called a judge for Slow Play much earlier? Probably. In 2014 and 2015 I would have done both as I was really trying hard to “be the change you want to see in the world”, as they say. Slow Play is not a massive, but a very real problem in Legacy right now. I’m not only talking about people taking too long with e.g. playing Miracles, but also against it, as well as figuring out generally complicated situations brought about by the complexity of the format. But as I initially mentioned, holding people true to playing in a timely fashion is incredibly tiresome and nerve-wracking. You don’t want to be the guy calling the judge on your opponent for Slow Play five minutes into a match. But you probably should. Hell, people might even need to call the judge on me for Slow Play, who knows? Even if I disagreed with them, I’d be comfortable with leaving the decision as to whether my opponent or I am playing fast enough to a judge. And this is why I felt so betrayed in the above situation in Strasbourg.

Complexity of the board is pretty much a non-factor. A couple of judges I talked to about this while writing this article have mentioned that unless the current state was created out of the blue (e.g. through Warp World), a complicated game full of potential interactions is no reason to start playing too slowly. Just like a Facebook relation status, the vast majority of times “it’s complicated” is the result of a long series of a gradual increases in complexity, allowing for both players to keep up with everything and adapt to the situation. It only appears overly complicated to outsiders just stepping up to the table.

What do I take away from this? I actually don’t know. Which is part of why I’m writing this article. Right now I feel a bit lost. Does anyone remember Ross Meriam’s literally 5-minute Brainstorm at SCG earlier this year? From everything, I know Ross is a great guy, but it as he himself acknowledges, the judges should have really stepped in way earlier. I remember another Top8 situation in one of the Opens where a Slow Play Warning following a Liliana of the Veil ultimate resulted in a Game Loss. We need more of that. In our circle of friends, we’re already giving anyone a lot of (friendly) shit when they’re playing too slowly. If you know me there’s a good chance you know which players I’m referring to. But in the end, there’s only so much the community of players can do. In the end, it’s also up to judges to enforce Slow Play policies more strongly; and if needed even raise awareness of how to handle the issue amongst the judge community itself. As a result, there’s probably gonna be a couple of players who’ll feel treated unfairly, but that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make if their reaction is based on false assumptions about how Slow Play works. Gotta start somewhere if you really wanna make a change to general behaviour, I guess.

Funny enough, I faced the same guy all of this happened against again at the Bazaar of Moxen Super Finals in Paris the previous weekend. This time he decided against wasting so much time with thinking and just wrathed my board with All is Dust twice. Sometimes the simplest solutions are the best.

So long,

PS: As far as the tournament goes, this was my worst event of the year. I started out 4-0, winning both of my feature matches. Then I lost the 5th round to Jund on a really stupid mistake of not Surgical Extractioning his Punishing Fire right away, which after untapping allowed him to play the one he had in hand and turn the game around. This was followed by the above mentioned Slow Play situation, getting turn2’ed by OmniShow twice and finally losing game 3 of the last round to an Ad Nauseam from 3 life. Oh well. At least our crew again did really well again. Just like in Annecy, the finals of the BoM Strasbourg was once again played out between two of our guys 🙂

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