How to Deal With Slow Play and Stalling

April 21, 2016

Emilien Wild

Level 3 Judge that judges a lot of GPs.
Also judges in all sorts of events in Belgium.
Top 16 GP Lyon 2012

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Unfortunately,it is common to hear players complaining about Unintentional Draws in tournaments. They often accuse their opponent of being responsible and sometimes even hint that it may have been intentional. Because draws are worth only 1 match point (compared to 3 for a win), they are often devastating for standings. For this reason tournament players need to know how to predict such an outcome and how to deal with it.

Know Your Enemy: Stalling
For logistical reasons, each match has a time limit. However, a player who won Game 1 should not be allowed to hinder the progress of the match until the clock runs down. This would defeat the whole point of a Magic tournament, which is why the penalty for such an infraction (stalling) is disqualification.
Stalling could be defined as voluntarily preventing the game from progressing in order to abuse the existence of the time limit. One of the ways to do this is to voluntarily indulge in Slow Play; another is when a player starts to make time-consuming game actions for no tactical reason (such as using Sensei’s Divining Top numerous times every turn just to waste time).
It is important to note that making the game progress toward an unintentional draw isn’t stalling if the player is making strategic decisions to avoid defeat. For example, playing a Day of Judgment to prevent your opponent from killing you isn’t stalling.
Stalling only makes sense in two specific situations:
1. A player who is about to lose the third game may want to stall so that the match ends in a draw, getting 1 match point instead of none.
2. A player who wins the first game may want the match to end before the conclusion of the second game, assuring his victory.
Your opponent will rarely start stalling out of the blue.
This means that the best way to recognize that you’re the victim of stalling is to spot these situations – where your opponent wants the match to go to the time limit for strategic reasons. This is often accompanied by a change in behavior. If your opponent suddenly has to read every card or count graveyard cards, starts taking far more time than before to perform certain actions after losing the second or third game, or after winning the first game, your inner alarm should be ringing.

Know Your Enemy: Slow Play
If there was no time limit, every game would look like a chess game, with players thinking for several minutes before every move, pondering on every implication of each of their decisions. These games would be a logistical nightmare, not fun to watch or play and really different from the “Kitchen Table Magic” that most casual players enjoy.
In Magic Online, there is a time limit represented by the “chess clock”, which counts every second played by each player and automatically awards a Match Loss to anyone taking more than 25 minutes. As these clocks aren’t viable in paper Magic, the Slow Play infraction was created.
So, the next question is “How long is too long?” The tricky part is that there isn’t a specific amount of time dedicated to each action (if we tell players they have 1 minute to search their deck some of them will take full advantage of the entire 60 seconds). It’s a matter of flow: the game should progress smoothly,and pausing for a substantial amount of time should only occur when something dramatic happens (a resolved Warp World for example) or a few times leading up to and during the “big turn”. More than that is abuse.
You have to keep in mind that almost anyone would play Magic better by taking twice as much time to think. What is tested in a tournament isn’t the player’s ability to solve a puzzle given infinite time but to play the best Magic he can within a reasonable time frame.
Please note that the kind of deck played isn’t taken into account. First, contrary to a Magic urban legend, aggro decks also need a lot of thinking to be played optimally. Second, your opponent and the other players in the tournament don’t have to suffer as a result of your deck choice: if you’re not able to play your deck in a smooth way, you probably should have tested it more before bringing it to a sanctioned event and stick to a simpler deck in the meantime.
If you have the feeling that it’s impossible to finish three games by playing at your opponent’s pace, you might be a victim of Slow Play. Because the causes of slow play are structural (a player uncomfortable with his deck, a player trying to make the absolute best decision regardless of the time it takes or a player overwhelmed by the complexity of the game), Slow Play can even happen in the first few minutes of a match. Detect it and act on it as soon as possible!

Time is Subjective
We tend to think of time as something objective and easily measurable. Be we, as a species, don’t perceive time this way. We feel time in very subjective and different ways. An hour in dire pain and one hour watching a good movie don’t pass at the same speed at all, just as one minute contemplating a strategic decision as opposed to one minute watching an opponent doing exactly the same thing just don’t seem to be equally as long. This is what makes slow play really tricky, both for players and, let’s be honest, for judges too.
A player may honestly feel that he is playing at a decent pace while his opponent is agonizing over the slow play. Simply asking your opponent to speed things up might genuinely upset him because he sincerely believes that his game pace is normal. For example, during the last World Magic Cup in Amsterdam, a player from team A called me away from my table because he was concerned about the time that team B was taking. I stayed to watch them play,and later also watched them from afar, and noted that team B was actually faster than team A. Team A, however, was really impatient to close the game while team B was struggling to avoid defeat: time felt like it was moving slower for team A!
This subjectivity means that just because you feel there is a problem doesn’t mean that there is. Keep that in mind if the judge doesn’t penalize your opponent. Also, it could mean that you may be slow playing yourself without realizing it. Don’t take it to heart if in such a situation a judge intervenes.

If you suspect that your opponent is stalling, immediately call for a judge. If you don’t want to accuse your opponent of cheating in front of him, keep in mind that you can always ask to talk to the judge away from the table. Tell him exactly what makes you think your opponent is stalling: why your opponent would get a strategic advantage from the time limit being reached and what in his behavior makes you think he is doing it. Be precise and factual. If he’s now doing something he didn’t before, say it. The same goes if his behavior changes after a certain event. You have been present from the start of the match, not the judge: fill in the details. The judges will then keep an eye on the match (the fact you can’t see any of them doesn’t mean that none are watching, as some of us are sneaky) and stalling in your match should now be impossible.
If you suspect your opponent is slow playing, there is no harm with sharing your feelings with him. As we’ve seen, contrary to stalling, slow playing is involuntary and your opponent may not have noticed he was being slow. No need to be confrontational. Politely asking for priority (like, “Is your attack final?” or “Is it my turn?”) should be enough. You could also say something like, “I think we should play faster if we want to finish the match.”
However, don’t wait for the end of the match to react: nobody will give you back 10 minutes of time lost, so be active before you’re in trouble! If gentle reminders aren’t enough, again, call for a judge. If slow play happens during the first minutes of the match, however, I’m afraid you’ll have to be more direct about your concerns.
Because the judge can’t penalize your opponent for something he doesn’t witness, it’s unlikely he’ll immediately hand out penalties. However, judges will do their best to accommodate your request, but because there are many other matches being played, they won’t be able keep a constant eye on your table – but enough to detect any further slow playing. If a judge determines a player was slow playing, he will issue an official warning to the offending player and a special compensation to both players: if the match goes to time, he can extend the 5 additional turns to 7 (or even to 9 if both players were slow playing). If the game’s result has been seriously affected by the slow play, the head judge can upgrade the penalty to a Game Loss for the offending player.

You should know everything there is to know about stalling and slow play: when it is likely to happen, how to detect it and how to help judges stop it.
From now on, may all your matches reach their natural conclusion!


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