Last updated on January 10, 2023
Slow Motion | Illustration by Todd Lockwood
The official tournament rules of Magic are a byzantine mix of gameplay directions and guidelines for conduct during play. Taking in every rule and possible infraction all at once is a daunting task, so let’s focus on a single element: the concept of “slow play.”
What is slow play? What should you do if your opponent is playing slow? And how can you avoid it yourself? Read on, and let’s find out!
Extremely Slow Zombie | Illustration by Emrah Elmasli
Players are required to play at a reasonable pace. According to the official Magic Tournament Rules 5.5:
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.MTG Rules
The Magic Judge’s Infraction Procedure Guide elaborates on slow play and gives some examples of slow play situations. Sometimes a player might be lost in thought, thinking only 10 seconds has passed when in reality it's been 50. In these situations, a “nudge” or cautionary warning is recommended rather than an official warning. If a player continues to play slow or their matches continuously run out the clock, a slow play warning may be issued.
Note that slow play is different from stalling, a more serious and unsporting infraction. Stalling is intentionally playing slow to get some advantage using the round timer, either by slowing the game to force a win or draw when the timer ends or slowing down the pace of play to prevent a loss.
Slow play is technically against the rules and can result in a stalling infraction if a judge deems it necessary.
Rules against slow play were introduced for a number of reasons.
First and foremost, players are expected to maintain a pace of play that would allow them to finish their match in the allotted time limit. Time isn’t split evenly between players, meaning that a player who’s taking too long to play is stealing time from their opponent. This can give them an unfair advantage or degrade an opponent's play experience. It's generally considered unsportsmanlike.
If a player is intentionally slow playing then that becomes stalling, a more serious offense. In timed matches a player might play slowly to force a draw or secure a match victory after winning their first of three games.
There’s no exact time limit in paper Magic for when a slow play warning is issued. Declaring an arbitrary number, say, 30 seconds, wouldn't be acceptable. Players could stall legally by taking exactly 29 second turns, and no one wants to play a game with that sort of technicality.
Instead, the IPG offers two guidelines from judges on how to determine slow play:
- If you’ve had time to assess the board, figure out what to do, and then get bored, it’s slow play.
- If you start wondering if you should give slow play, you should have already given it.
Roping is the term for stalling out games on MTG Arena. The term has its origins in Hearthstone where a fuse “rope” starts to burn across the screen if a player is taking too long on their turn. When the fuse-timer ends the game automatically passes to your opponents.
This is usually a reminder to hurry up with your turn or pass priority if you’ve forgotten, but lately, it's been weaponized against MTGA players.
Getting roped is no fun on Arena, so there has to be a reason your opponent is acting so maliciously towards you. Like stalling, forcing a match to go to time may be advantageous to them, or they may be frustrated that they’re losing their lead.
Maybe they’ve been pulled away on some altruistic mission, though; there’s a cat stuck in a tree outside, or a child has fallen down a well. There are tons of reasons you could be getting roped on Arena, and they might not all be bad.
Magic Online’s solution to slow play is a bit contentious. MTGO uses a chess clock-style system with an allotted amount of time split evenly between two players. Each player’s timer only ticks down when they have priority, and when a player is out of time, they lose.
While some find this to be the perfect solution, it does have its drawbacks. Some decks just require less time to play, while others have complicated combos with a lot of activations and targeting. It may not seem like much, but those extra clicks and hotkeys add up. A combo that would take seconds to resolve in real life can take minutes in MTGO, eating into a player’s limited time resource.
Commander has a reputation for being a longer format. Three or more players per pod means a lot of abilities and priority passing to keep track of. And as a social format there’s inevitably going to be some side conversations and distracted players from time to time.
So how do you deal with slow play in Commander?
First, make sure you keep stock of the board state. Things change quickly in EDH, and the board rarely looks the same as it did when you passed the turn. Knowing what’s changed each turn is paramount to making decisions on your turn.
In that same vein, know what threats your opponents have played and how you plan to respond to them before your turn comes back around. Do you even have a response? Knowing the cards in your deck will help you make quicker decisions when responding to threats.
Keep all this in mind when tutoring through your library too. If you already know what threats are on the board and what cards can respond to them, you won’t need to spend five minutes looking at every card in your 99 to determine what to grab with Diabolic Tutor.
Players may request a judge to observe their game if they think their opponent is playing slow. This might not result in a stalling infraction if the judge doesn’t believe the slow play is intentional, but they might issue a warning regardless.
The chess clock solution doesn’t translate well to paper Magic any more than it does MTGO. Any given turn can have dozens of priority passing, and forcing a player to tag a clock each time they need to think will inevitably make the match run longer than if they were left out.
Besides that, Magic aims to be an accessible game, and some players with physical challenges may find chess clocks difficult to use. The chess clock is a good idea, but ultimately not functional for the purposes of MTG.
Rule of Law | Illustration by Scott M. Fischer
The play clock is part of the game in tons of professional sports. It’s common practice to slow down the pace of play once your team is ahead. These plays are part of the game, and stopping them is another puzzle for the opposing team to solve.
But slow play in Magic is unsporting. The winner should be determined by the best player, not the player with the quickest way to run out the clock. Hopefully, this gave you some insight into the concept of slow play in MTG, how to avoid it, and how it manifests in online formats.
Have you ever been on the receiving end of slow play in paper Magic? Can you even count how many times you’ve been roped on Arena? Let me know in the comments or over on Draftsim’s Twitter.
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