This is the second part of this piece, so I recommend checking out the first part here before continuing. Last week, I explained how devastating unintentional draws are and thus how important clock management is, then went over some ways to avoid running out of time including controlling the pace of play and utilizing shortcuts. This week, we’re looking at making strategic decisions with clock considerations, Magic Online chess clocks, and lots of examples and stories, starting with this one:
The De Facto Champ
The go-to example for the “never scoop” movement came out of an SCG Open in Dallas. Let me set the stage:
It’s early in 2010, January in fact, and the Legacy Open finals in Dallas is underway. A semi-known and vastly underrated man by the name of Tom “The Boss” Ross is making his return to the competitive scene after a quiet couple of years following his Top 8 performance at Pro Tour Honolulu. Always the aggressor, Tom is playing Zoo and is squaring off against a nightmare matchup of Lands, called ‘43 Land’ at the time. Behind those lands was 14 year-old James Palaima in one of his first forays into Legacy.
Tom wins the roll and steals a game on the play, but the horrific matchup only gets worse post-board. Compounded by mana troubles in game two, it all came down to a single game. James had a slow but solid start including a Zuran Orb and a Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale followed by the dreaded Glacial Chasm and Life from the Loam lock. The game would be over if he could find a way to stay ahead of himself on land drops with Glacial Chasm loop needing, each turn, both a land drop and to sacrifice a land. Speaking of land drops, at this moment the game takes a small break as judges are told by spectators that James played two lands in a turn, which they realize he did and issue him a warning, and play resumes. Tom tries to attack James’ mana by hitting Mox Diamond and Chrome Mox with Qasali Pridemages, but a Gamble for Manabond (discarding a Maze of Ith) means the lock was completed. An Exploration off the top for good measure meant that Tom was drawing dead.
But Tom fought on unphased. James built up his board while maintaining the lock until he finally decides it’s time to start winning the game and begins attacking Tom. Only problem is, he didn’t sacrifice his Glacial Chasm before attacking, which is a Game Rule Violation, and James would receive a warning. However, along with his double land drop warning from earlier and another he received in his quarterfinals match, the third GRV warning is automatically upgraded to a game loss, and Tom wins the game, match, and tournament despite being completely hard-locked.
It’s an amazing story, and one that is often pointed to when discussing how one should never scoop because you just never know what could happen. So how could I so vehemently disagree with the lesson being taught? Because it’s not applicable to nearly any position other than the specific one that Tom found himself in.
The “Never Scoop” Fallacy
Casters often praise players for never scooping, lauding them for making their opponents go through the motions and actually kill them. This is misguided and misguiding.
Conceding when a position is lost is not a sign of weakness, but a strategic consideration of external factors (such as time).
To be clear, I am not advocating scooping prematurely, but that “never” [or “always”] do X in regards to Magic is a poor and damaging way to go about things. Absolutes are for Sith, not players of a dynamic and uniquely complex strategy game. And before you ask, Reid Duke is about as far away from the dark side as one can be, despite being the poster child for not scooping.
The main argument [if you can call it that] for not conceding is, “you never know,” but the truth is, you often do. There are a number of factors that made Tom playing on correct that don’t apply to almost any other situation. First of all, it being a game three meant that there was no consideration for clock time for that round. In fact, it was an untimed round anyway, so that isn’t a factor twice over. It being the last game of the finals specifically means that this is it; there’s no more Magic after this, and saving your time and mental energy is pointless as there’s nowhere else for it to go. This was also 2010, and since then the rules have greatly softened up and the number of such game-losses have drastically decreased. Lastly, his opponent was young, inexperienced, and already had two warnings by the time Tom was hard-locked. These are all very specific circumstances that make playing on worthwhile that are so rare that you’re likely to go your entire Magic career without ever being in that situation.
So yes, it was correct for Tom not to scoop there, but that is not an applicable lesson for the rest of us. Personally, it’s fairly unlikely to find myself in game three of an untimed finals against a player younger than the cards he is playing while he’s sitting on two warnings in an era of stricter rules enforcement. But maybe that’s just me.
Strategic Time Decisions
Far more common circumstances you may find yourself in dictate that it is in fact correct to scoop lost positions with regularity.
For starters, if you are not in game three, preserving time for the rest of the match is almost always going to be higher EV than playing out lost positions. Think of it this way, a fraction of a fraction of a percent to win a given game where you are entirely defeated has far less expected returns to your tournament equity than 5 minutes more on the clock for the rest of the match.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen a pro or grinder play out a lost position against an amateur at their own cost. Something about the sense of entitlement of victory or underestimating/not respecting the opponent and presuming they’ll make some egregious error and let you get back into a game that you have no chance of winning. Conceding does not mean you are weak just like playing aggro doesn’t mean you are dumb. All we are trying to do as competitive Magic players is maximize our chances of winning and get the most out of our tournament equity.
Even in game threes, it can often be correct for many people to scoop those lost positions, because the odds that getting to relax for five minutes and use the restroom, get some water, consider how you sideboarded, etc before your next round is worth far more to your overall tournament expected value than playing out a lost position. It’s not good for your mental game to be losing (read: lost) for 8 more minutes before you actually die, and can have adverse effects on your confidence in the rounds to come.
This is for when games are 0% to 0.01% but can occasionally apply to much higher numbers as well. For example, Grand Prix LA I played Nahiri Jeskai in Modern, a very slow control deck with a glacial mirror match. In one mirror, my opponent conceded as early as turn 8 in a matchup that always goes at least 15 turns. My Ancestral Visions had resolved and his did not, I had Nahiri in play and a great hand. My opponent was behind on cards, land drops, and on board, and his hand was presumably poor (probably lots of removal and such, which aren’t relevant for that matchup). Now, the game was still very much winnable–I’d put him at about 5% to make that comeback–but the cost of playing on versus the likelihood of actually winning determined that he was better off sacrificing that small amount of equity in exchange for a significant chunk of the clock. Especially since he was losing that game; if he had any hope of completing two more games in order to win the match, he would need every minute he could salvage. (For the record, he won game two and we timed out and unintentionally drew about 10 turns into game three.)
Time Favoritism Fallacy
Time isn’t on your side. Or theirs. In fact, it’s about as neutral as it goes in terms of abstract concepts or Magic resources. You hear it less and less these days, but one principle of clock management that is sort of grandfathered in is the idea that time is more valuable to one player than the other:
“If one deck can win in 7 minutes and the other needs at least 12, the faster deck’s pilot is incentivized to play more of game 2 out so their potential game three results are just “win or draw” rather than “win draw or lose.”
On the surface, this principle is sound. The problems come only when you examine it a little more closely. The first issue is with the presumed perfect knowledge about time needed. What if you plan it out so you have 8 minutes for the game so you can finish but they can’t, and then time gets wasted? Say the opponent takes a minute to resideboard, then a player mulligans and takes 30 seconds to shuffle again, and then a complicated series of plays gives the players a moment of pause to consider, adding up to another minute of unexpected time usage. Now you only have five minutes and thirty seconds when you need seven to win, and have turned a potential win into an assured draw.
The other argument against the time favoritism strategy is that it presumes a draw is better than a loss. We’ve illustrated to some degree last week that this is almost never actually true in practise. It very well might have been back in the day when this concept was first explored, but the tournaments are so huge and the cuts [by record] so sharp that draws are just not what they used to be.
Much more useful than the absolutes spoken in the illustrative example given is that the more time there is, the more likely the match is to reach a natural conclusion. Your red aggro deck might need that extra minute to get an extra draw step or two to find a lethal burn spell. That seems much more likely than that extra minute letting your control opponent miraculously aggro you down and finish you off AND that the match point you miss out on by not getting a draw has a significant impact on your tournament equity.
More Strategic Options
Besides scooping lost positions for time considerations, there are a couple of other in-game decisions that can be made and actions that can be taken to increase the probability of finishing your matches in time. Here are some examples:
Call a Judge to Watch for Slowplay – I touched on this last week, but I want to reiterate that calling a judge is a legitimate and real option for everyone. A judge is not the principal that you’re tattling to, they are a resource–a tool for the players to make sure the game is played the way it is meant to be played. And one of the defining factors for how games are meant to be played is in a timely fashion. The negative connotations surrounding calling a judge need to be dispelled for the sake of the game. These are people who volunteer their time for minimal reimbursement in order to partake in the game we all love and to uphold the validity of the tournament they’re working.
If an opponent calls a judge to watch you for slowplay, that does not make them rude nor imply that they are suspicious of you in any way. The goal for that action is single-minded and should be treated as such: to ensure the pace of play is reasonable in order to finish the match in time. That’s it. Anything beyond that is projection and should be cast aside. On multiple occasions in my career, I have called a judge to watch the match for slowplay, and then had that same judge hurry me along because I was taking too long. Again, finishing the match in time is the Nash Equilibrium; both players should be striving for that same shared goal because it is in both of their best interests, and oftentimes having a judge present helps facilitate working towards that goal.
Play (and Sideboard) to Win – Sometimes you will be stuck in a situation where you are low on time going into game three and have to try and win in a shorter timeframe than what your deck normally requires allotted. In constructed, control decks can sometimes bring in some incidental creatures and/or planeswalkers they have in their 75 even if they aren’t inherently good in the matchup at hand because the clock has shifted the dynamic so much that they now give the player the best chance of stealing a win before time runs out. In limited, controlling decks can often board out a couple of slow, inevitability cards for more 2 and 3 drops because by the time those endgame cards would matter, the game would be over as a draw.
The same principle can be applied to your play as well as sideboarding. Sometimes it would be strategically correct in a vacuum to play slower and be patient with your best threat, or hold up mana for a trick or counter instead of tapping out for a creature/planeswalker. However, when the clock considerations come into play, it can often become correct to take the higher risk line, as it greatly increases the likelihood of finishing in time, and some percentage of the time wins you the match when they don’t have the feared response. This comes back to a draw being nearly equivalent to a loss. Consider the following hypotheticals: If you make Play A, you are 20% to win, 10% to lose, 70% to draw. If you make Play B, you are 30% to win, 60% to lose, 10% to draw. If that match point doesn’t matter (and it rarely does) the second play is much better even though it’s much riskier.
I Still Have All These – Another example from my GP:LA experience with Nahiri Jeskai, this one was a feature match against Affinity. I mulligan to five and lose game one, and regret not scooping much earlier. Game two, I have my opponent all but hardlocked with a hand full of gas and Nahiri on board. My opponent is playing on, and instead of just waiting three or four involved turns to win naturally, I showed my opponent my stacked hand and said something to the effect of, “I’m pretty sure I got this one, and we should start soon if we want to finish a game 3.” My opponent agreed to both points and conceded on the condition I show him that Emrakul is still in my deck. I oblige and we save precious minutes for the third game. (This is the match where I ultimate Nahiri with Emrakul in my hand to get a Snapcaster Mage to burn my opponent out over a few turns, winning the game on turn 3 of the five extra turns. We would have definitely unintentionally drawn if we had not agreed to end game 2 early.)
Do You Have It? – The inverse to the above scenario is also something that can be very useful. On one of the rare occasions when Sphinx’s Revelation was legal and I wasn’t playing it, I was up against the control deck, and when they Rev’d for 5, I would simply ask if they hit another or had lots of gas, etc. I am behind enough that I have to play like they have nothing anyway, so not showing me their hand because it’s all lands doesn’t really give me any advantage. However, if they do have the goods, they can show it to me and we can save a lot of time by having me scoop then and there. I’d often do what my Affinity opponent did by asking what the Sphinx’s Revelation player planned on killing me with (it was usually Aetherling), and they were always happy to show me in exchange for the concession. Again, no information is gained, as I’d know their win condition eventually if we played on since they would use it to kill me, but by shortcutting the whole back half of the game to just that, we can save up to 10+ minutes in a matchup that is likely to go to time.
Shields Up – Sometimes a control mirror will have game one go deep into the round, so deep that it is clear that three games won’t finish. If you are the victor of that epic first game, your goal is no longer to finish the match on time, but rather to not lose the second game before time runs out. You absolutely can not slow your pace of play or stall in any way, but you can sideboard and play more conservatively. Leave in some removal that you would normally sideboard out, and don’t bother bringing in your alternate win condition 6 drop because you’d rather have something cheap and interactive. This is only for the most extreme time scenarios, and I can not emphasize enough how horrible and highly illegal it is to mechanically slow down or stall, but strategically in-game you can absolutely sideboard and play as defensively and conservatively as you wish, and sometimes that becomes your best chance to come out of a round with the coveted 3 match points.
Magic Online Chess Clocks
Magic Online has the advantage of automated chess clocks that are just not feasible for real life play (this has been discussed to death so I won’t bother here, but for doubters, just think about how many non-verbal passes of priority have to happen for IRL Magic to function). The way that it works is when one player has priority, their individual clock is ticking, and remains paused when priority is on the opponent. You are given a set amount of time for each match (usually 25 minutes) and a separate countdown for sideboarding (about two minutes). Only two things happen regarding a player’s chess clock:
If you run out of time, you lose the match. And if you go 10+ minutes without taking an action, you lose the match.
This means that, of your 25 minutes, you could use 9 of them for a single decision (and even more time if you do something like tank, play a land to reset the 10-minute shot-clock, and tank some more) if you really wanted. This makes time utilization a very different animal for Magic Online.
Most people play pretty close to how they play in real life, but I have a tendency to do longer tanking online, especially when I’m streaming. Most decisions in Magic are fairly straightforward–so much so that your brain and hands make them automatically–such as playing your first land, and then playing your second land and your only two drop on turn two. Then, on a crucial turn, a weird draw or an unexpected attack sets off a red flag in your head. At these points, I like to take my time, think through the decision, talk through my thought process for the viewers, maybe even taking the time to explain why I prefer my chosen line over one suggested in the chat. This can take 2+ minutes, which would certainly be considered slowplay in real life, but thanks to the nature of chess clocks, I can do it online.
This type of clock management isn’t necessarily strategic in the sense that it will prevent you from unintentional draws (since those don’t exist online), but rather will help you improve as a player to examine difficult spots rather than just having to go with your instincts and snap-judgement because the clock is ticking.
As for avoiding timing out online, many of the same principles apply such as if you have less than 5 minutes on your clock, maybe you need to lower your curve and board in more creatures. And the inverse is similar to when you win an extremely long game one in paper Magic; if your opponent is low on time, it can behoove you to sideboard and play more defensively. It is [in my opinion] a scummy move to try and burn their clock with pointless activations and priority passes, but it’s legitimate to utilize a time advantage in-game.
And lastly, for playing faster and thus timing out less, I highly recommend using hotkeys. You’ll get faster at Magic the more you play (both in general and in a specific format/with a specific deck), and you’ll get used to Magic Online the more experience you have with it, but unless you actively teach yourself to use hotkeys you will always be wasting time that could otherwise be saved.
I did a video of a full introduction and tutorial to Magic Online which you can find here which includes how to remap and use hotkeys just after the 30 minute mark. If you’re interested in improving your Magic Online know-how, I highly recommend checking it out.
Thanks for reading, and keep your eyes on the clock.