To win Magic tournaments, you have to be good at Magic. But you also have to be good at winning, and good at tournaments. Tournament skills are discussed very little in strategy content, and when they are, it’s usually a retreading of “stay hydrated” and the like. One of the least discussed tournament skills is clock management. This is an extremely relevant factor for players, and has only become more important in recent times. Especially for yours truly, as my pace of play has greatly slowed since my Pro Tour days due to lower card/format familiarity as well as just getting older and having my brain slow down. But you don’t care about that, nor should you. What you should care about is how this seemingly tiny aspect of tournament play always seems to matter more than one would think.
In live tournaments, when time runs out and the five extra turns are played, the players will either decide a winner or both receive a draw. What you will often see is the player who is behind–if not dead–will concede to their opponent. This is a common courtesy but by no means a necessary one but the fact that it is such a regular occurrence illustrates this next key thesis:
An unintentional draw is a tournament EV catastrophe.
Before elaboration, I should clarify that your expected value in a tournament is a calculation of your expected finish or record (which would be offset by the cost of entry and participation). Every time an unintentional draw happens, it is an outright tragedy for that equity for both/all players involved. The first argument to this effect is obvious; instead of 3 match points being given out total (3 to the winner, 0 to the loser), only 2 are given out (1 to each player). A full third of the tournament equity of that match instantly vanishes and is unrecoverable. People cognitively think of a draw as half a win, but in Magic, it’s really only a third at most, and usually much less.
It goes even further, as at most large tournaments–the ones that readers of this article are likely to be participating in, such as Grand Prix and Opens–a draw is damn near equivalent to a loss, as the cuts are often at match point scores of multiples of three. For example, to qualify for a Pro Tour at a Grand Prix, you need 39 match points. With 3 points per win and 15 swiss rounds played, that comes out to a 13-2 record. If you were to unintentionally draw in the first round, you would have to pick up two more draws and win every other single round to come out with 39 points. In reality, that draw can be chalked up as a loss in terms of reaching that all-important 13-2 mark. A loss isn’t the end of the world, but a draw means that both players are getting that effective loss!
I could go on about how devastating unintentional draws are, such as being stuck in the nightmarish draw bracket, its effect on tiebreakers, and more. Suffice to say, it’s really bad. Instead of wasting more breath (ink? pixels?) on that, I’d prefer to discuss factors for avoiding them in the first place.
Clock Equity and Management
There is a looming threat to your equity from round-start to match-finish, and that’s the clock.
Losing a life affects your in-game equity (to some difficult to measure and often marginal degree). Losing a game affects your match equity. Losing a match affects your tournament equity. Resource management is the name of the game, and it’s about time more players recognized time-on-clock as a genuine resource with a direct impact on your tournament expected value.
If I am first player to my match, I will always sit facing the clock. It is something I genuinely think about and try to enact, and I know I am far from the only one. It’s not some sort of huge edge, but I know that if I’m more cognizant of the time left in the round, I can make the proper adjustments more easily. Humans are infamously terrible at telling how long a period of time has been, particularly when distracted by, say, playing a difficult and complicated strategy game. If I’m not facing the clock, I check it at the end of each game and often again while shuffling for the next. It’s not worth the brainpower to count in my head, but it’s well worth the calories to turn my neck and look.
Clock management falls into the following categories/factors: Strategic time decisions, effective time usage, and pace of play management which breaks down into your own and your opponents’.
Pace of Play Management: You
You know going in what deck you are playing and in what format, which gives you a ton of information about how your pace of play needs to be according to how much of a threat you are to go to time. By turn 2 or 3, you generally know your opponent’s deck, and whether they are a threat to go to time, as well as if you are in a matchup that is prone to going to time. This means that if any of those red flags were up, you have no excuse to have played at a lax pace until there’s 5 minutes left and you’re just starting game three; you knew all along!
Utilize that! There is no punishment for finishing a match early, but there is a hefty one for not finishing in time.
Ideally, you would always be in your seat shortly after seatings are posted and ready to go by the time the round starts. That means shuffled, presented, shuffled each other’s decks, and resolved mulligans (yes, you can do mulligans before the round starts, so do it when you can!). While that is the ideal, it’s not always realistic nor necessary. Know that if you are playing a slow deck and/or are a slow player, you need to utilize your time well.
Pace of Play Management: Them
Most players will mirror their opponent’s pace of play to some degree, so if you are playing quickly and sharply, they will often reciprocate. Beyond that, the key is what it always is when dealing with human beings: communication. If you find yourself in a matchup that can stress the clock, saying as much will go a long way. It’s not like they don’t know the Nahiri Jeskai mirror often ends in draws, so you’re not giving away anything strategically, and it brings your opponent to the point of recognizing that time is a factor, even early.
The key to remember here is that rushing your opponent is not an evil thing to do and doesn’t make you a bad person. Try not to interrupt their thought process (this often ends up taking longer since they have to start over), and be polite when probing for faster decisions. You and your opponent both want the same thing–to finish the match without having to draw–so adding something like, “going to time doesn’t do either of us any good,” can be a useful reminder as well as a way to soften what they may see as an aggressive action by you to hurry them along.
If your opponent responds negatively and/or continues to tank too hard, calling a judge can be a useful tool. There are a couple of things to note, however. First of all, the judge themself is not likely to be of much help to you in the short-term. Dealing with slow play is hard enough, and most judges are frankly not interested in enforcing it ever let alone before the end of the round. On multiple occasions after I asked them to watch for slow-play, I’ve had judges simply walk away before the active turn had even finished. No, the judge call is more for the benefit of your opponent, as a call to authority can often get the message across that you mean it to people who don’t take your initial push seriously.
Effective Time Usage
This is a bit of a generic phrase, but what it boils down to is being smart about how your time is spent. While this is something you should apply to your real life as well, I’m only going to be preaching its value in regards to Magic tournaments.
Your time has value. Maximize it.
This means that if you are a slower player or playing a deck which has matchups that drag on, be cognizant of that when you finish a round. Don’t stand around doing nothing when you can be getting water, using the restroom, and otherwise preparing physically and mentally for the next round which could be 50+ minutes of intense decision-making. Prepare yourself to be ready for seatings so you can start quickly.
Another example of effective time usage is taking care of things that need taking care of before the tournament, aka when the clock isn’t on so you don’t have to do it when the timer is ticking. For example, you should already know how to sideboard in most if not all matchups. This should theoretically already be true according to how you built your deck, but is doubly so for matchups that are threats to go to time where every minute counts! Another example of pregame time-saving tech is making sure replacement sleeves are in your deckbox with your sideboard rather than in a separate box that you have to dig out from the bottom of your bag which is on the floor. Little things like this become second nature when you start doing them and the time they save really adds up.
As for in-game time utilization, another that is just technically correct and you should be striving to do it anyway is to think when your opponent is thinking. Rather than sitting slack-jawed until an action happens, run through the most obvious possibilities and your potential continuations. A simple example would be if your opponent is thinking about whether or not to attack with their 3/3 into your 3/3, know by the time they decide whether or not you’ll block if they do. This serves to not only save time, but also masks your hand because your pauses to think don’t give away information.
One more thing worth noting is always be sure judges give you the proper extensions. Oftentimes a judge will make a ruling that takes over a minute but will neglect to give an extension, and the players don’t notice it until time is called and the new table judge says it’s turn 0 instead of setting their clock for 2 minutes. Whenever a judge is called, note the time so they can give you the correct amount of time back, and always reconfirm with the ruling judge about that extension.
Another way to save a lot of time in-game is to shortcut when possible.
Some shortcuts are fairly universal and should pretty much always be followed. The easiest example of this is when players are deciding on mulligans. Technically speaking, one play chooses to mulligan, and then the other does, but only the tryhardiest of tryhards sit with their 7 face-down on the table and watch their opponent make a decision before pulling them up (often one-by-one for extra time-wasting) and making a decision of their own. This type of thing is nothing short of irresponsible when rounds are timed.
In a similar vein, piling (aka “pile-shuffling” which is a misnomer since it isn’t a shuffle) with time ticking is pretty much inexcusable. This has been discussed to death (and I’m thinking of doing an episode of Avant Card about it at some point) so I won’t go too much into it here. All I will say for now is that, if you absolutely must pile, do it between rounds. When you’re at the table, count your sideboard, and present your deck after shuffling.
Other shortcuts are becoming more and more universal, which I’m really happy to see. I’ll explain four easy and useful ones here so you can incorporate them into your own game, particularly for matchups where time is likely to be a factor.
- “Odd or Even” instead of “high roll” – Flipping coins has controversy (where do you start it, “lemme see that coin…”, do you flip it after the catch, what if you don’t catch it, etc) but doing “high roll” has the possible outcome of a tie, and anyone who has tied multiple rolls in a row knows it is a real waste of time. Using more dice doesn’t help, as you diminish the likelihood of a tie but increase the time needed to add them together as well as increase the probability of a disagreement. People use Rock Lobster, Paper Tiger, Scissors Lizard or similar but some people don’t grok that immediately and are suspicious of foul play with a set-up so akin to 3-Card Monty.
One die, 6 sides; three are even, three are odd. I roll the die, you call odd or even. Very simple, not breakable, faster than high roll and without the chance of a tie. This should be the go-to way to decide play-or-draw.
- Meaningful shuffle/cuts – When you shuffle and/or cut your opponent’s deck, do not waste actions. What I mean by that is even though it looks cool to pick the deck up and do a couple of fancy cuts, your opponent is going to draw a card or two and then crack another fetch and none of it will have affected the actual cards. Not only is it irrelevant and a waste of time, it is also highly suspicious as it gives so much more opportunity for shadiness. If you pick the deck up and fiddle with it a bunch, you have more chances to see their cards and manipulate them. If you simply make one meaningful cut, you insure yourself against stacking while saving clock time and not being shady. I am not saying don’t cut their deck, nor am I saying always make one clean cut in the middle. Both of those are abusable and should be avoided. I’m talking about the people that count out 7 cards and move them to the bottom, or cut into 5 piles and rearrange them seemingly at random. This superstitious behavior has no place in a timed match of competitive Magic.
What I do is some quick side shuffles and present back in a cut (usually at start of games or if they were manipulating their library as they searched or I wasn’t looking). Or, if I am watching and they shuffle effectively, I will simply make one clean cut, and vary that cut between being thin (5-10 cards off the top) to thick (~80% of the library). No wasted time or actions.
- Leaving revealed hands face-up – If my opponent Duresses me in a matchup that could go to time, I will often leave those cards face-up on the table and play on rather than waiting for them to take their pen and paper and laboriously write down the contents of my hand so I can pick it back up. The time I save is worth far more than the fraction of a percent chance my opponent forgets something and makes a dumb mistake by playing into a card they knew about and that ends up being the difference in the game. It’s just not realistic whereas the seconds ticking away are real and tangible. This is the type of thing that I see pros do a decent chunk of the time and amateurs rarely if ever do, and those are the often the types of things worth recognizing.
The inverse of this is that when I see my opponent’s hand, I remember them long enough to write them down, which I then do in shorthand. Nothing pains me more than when players write out full card names for notes, and if it’s a Duress or similar rather than a Gitaxian Probe, they will write the whole hand down, think about what to take, then take it and cross that card out. Just decide first and you’ll be able to remember the rest (your brain has to process them all to consider what to take) and will save having to write down a card that’s no longer there.
But I digress, shorthand is the way to go: W=Plains, UB=Underground Sea or Watery Grave or Drowned Catacombs or whatever the format’s blue black dual land is. BWf=Marsh Flats. URt=Temple of Ephiphany. You get the idea. Then creatures are usually just their stats but if there are lots of the same then initials can also be used, so Reflector Mage is 2/3 but might have to be RM since Spell Queller is also a 2/3 (so that would become SQ). Spells will get initials or abbreviations as well.
- Shortcutting fetches with irrelevant timing – Most pertinent of which is Evolving Wilds in Standard, but occasionally with classic fetchlands as well. This one is something I’ve been doing for years and have only ever once had an opponent even question it, and even they instantly understood with minimal explanation. It’s another example of something that we see pros do often and amateurs rarely if ever, but thanks to video coverage, the professionals are seen doing it on camera and the shortcut becomes more widely used. Now, it is one that you have to be a little careful with, as fetch timing sometimes does matter, and if there’s any chance that it could matter, you absolutely can not shortcut it or risk being accused of angle-shooting if not outright cheating.
The parameters should be fairly obvious for when it doesn’t matter and when it could. The most common example is when you play an Evolving Wilds and pass on turn 1 in Standard. You are absolutely not giving any information away, as both players already know you are cracking that land on their end step. So, you play it and indicate you are passing, then communicate that you’re fetching on their end step so they don’t get confused as to why you’re searching your deck. This way you can search and shuffle while they draw and play their land. If you find your land before they are done with their turn, simply put it face down on the table (Make sure it is very clearly separate from your hand!!) and when they officially pass the turn, flip it over. This way you can still shortcut it without giving away additional information. Another example of timing for this is when your opponent plays a Nissa, Vastwood Seer on turn 3 (or something similar) where their action is clear, your action is clear, and there’s no reason that you can’t both do your searching at the same time to save time.
I will re-emphasize how crucial it is that you communicate clearly with your opponent [at all times, but especially] when you are shortcutting something. Also, it’s on you to make sure there is no ambiguity about what is happening and what card is in which zone, etc. And lastly, always make sure your opponent has access and knows they have access to your deck last before you continue.
Join me next week when we look at strategic time decisions, the concession fallacy, and more. We’ll be looking at examples, case-studies, hypotheticals, corner-cases, and Magic Online. Don’t miss it.