"Well, yeah," I shrugged. "We want to play more than one game an evening."
"All the other multiplayer games I've been to move slow," he said. "We were lucky to get one game in a night. It just went well, is all."
Then it occurred to me that really, we have spent a lot of time working out a fine-tuned procedure to ensure that our games are both lightning-fast and as fair as we can make them. As a result, we get a lot done in an evening, usually fitting three to five six-man games into a three-hour session.
I'm going to share my tips with you, but first a disclaimer: You can have 100% speed, or you can have 100% fairness, but you can't have 100% of both. One of the reasons that Magic Online can be slow and tedious at times, particularly for combo decks or large multiplayer games, is that everyone has to click a button to pass priority. And even then, you're most likely skipping certain segments; I've lost a game or two because I really needed priority during my opponent's draw phase, and I didn't have the stop set on MTGO.
In a perfectly fair real life multiplayer game, you'd ask every opponent to pass priority through each of the umpteen phases, stopping each and every time. And that would take forever.
So you handwave and say, "All right, we'll assume you're passing priority unless you say so." And then there will be situations where someone accidentally declares his attackers before you can stop him to tap something in response.... and that's unfair, because now everyone knows who he WOULD have attacked if you weren't holding him back. (Which is very, very relevant in multiplayer sometimes.)
Every attempt to speed up your multiplayer game will lead to some clashes, where there will be confusion. It can't be avoided. But the important thing is to remember that your watchword should be "fairness." If you're speeding up the game but shafting your players by removing strategic options from them, then you have failed.
You want more speed. But that speed should never, ever come at the expense of stripping strategy from the game, or by robbing smart players of the ability to make smart moves. And that's not always an easy, or clear, line to draw. There will be disagreements, and hopefully you'll all be mature enough to know that those disagreements do not stem from pure evilness, but reasonable men trying to come to a conclusion.
Also, these are purely casual ways of doing things. It works because there's nothing at stake but pride and occasional cheap bets. At a tournament, where actual prizes are on the line, some of these shortcuts would be crazy. Don't take this for what you should do at a PTQ.
That said, let's move on!
Announce Every Card, Loudly
A large game of Magic can get too chaotic, and things can get lost in the mess. To help combat this (especially since you're trying to play at a reasonable pace), make sure that everyone who lays an interesting card says, "I'll play a Sky Diamond."
(An "interesting card," for the record, is any nonland card, or any land card that does something other than produce mana.)
By making sure that any changes are properly called out and registered, players don't feel like they're going to miss out if they don't pay constant attention. Your goal? Bring anything relevant to their attention so they can concentrate on decision-making, not bookkeeping.
You Do Your Own Bookkeeping
As a player, your goal should be to make it as convenient as possible to know exactly how large that Pride of the Clouds is. You shouldn't spend time thinking about it; mark it instantly so others don't have to do the math for you.
You're responsible for your stats. If you have a Glorious Anthem out and an Immaculate Magistrate that's been going to town on a Darksteel Colossus that someone dropped a Takklemaggot on five turns ago and you don't know exactly how large that Colossus is, then do nothing else until you do know. Your turn should read, "Untap, upkeep, calculate"—so if someone asks the question, then you can tell them right away.
Note that this involves being honest. Don't lie. If your vanilla 1/1 Elf token is now a 3/3 thanks to that Muraganda Petroglyphs, then you should tell them. But if you have an active Immaculate Magistrate that can drop another load of +1/+1 counters on anything at will—and they're foolish enough not to ask what that Magistrate does or whether it's online yet—then it is an honest answer to say that that Elf token is a 3/3. It just won't be once they try to Lightning Bolt it, is all.
(And likewise, it's your job to know exactly how many counters that Immaculate Magistrate can bestow at will. Remember, you do all the math for your dudes. That said, asking for a count—"How many fliers does everyone have?" for retallying your Pride of the Clouds—is a perfectly acceptable shortcut. The other players can, and should, answer quickly.)
If necessary, put dice on things so you can keep track. But keep track.
Encourage Out-Of-Turn Thinking
If you're a new player, and you only wait until your upkeep to begin imagining what you'll do, you're wasting valuable time. Yes, the new card you'll draw may alter your tactics, but in general you should be paying attention to what's on the board as it's being played.
Chatting with other Magic players is part of the fun. But don't do it until you've formed at least a rough idea of what you're going to do when your turn rolls around! Do the tactical thinking in your down time, bro.
Allow For End-of-Turn Library-Searching Speediness with Questions
In any given game, searching and shuffling libraries is going to consume an inordinate amount of time, and ideally people can do it while the game proceeds apace. This is, or should be, a perfectly acceptable question at a casual table when someone is taking the turn before yours:
"Are you going to attack me this turn?"
Does that give away a bit of your strategy? Absolutely. But it also allows two people to work simultaneously—while Player #1 is deciding what he's going to play in his main phase, Player #2 is doing the grunt work of flipping through his deck and reshuffling. (And to be fair, Player #1 has to stick to his word—he can't say, "Well, now that I know you'll be going for a Vampiric Tutor at the end of your turn, I'll attack." Whatever you say, you do.)
Considering that most of the library-manipulating stuff done at end of turn consists of generally boring effects like land-fetching, putting stuff on top of your deck, searching up Rebels, and so forth, it's not a big deal to give him time to do it.
Sometimes, of course, it is a big deal—in which case you should speak up. If you're Player #3 and you want to do something in response to that Vampiric Tutor (like, say, countering it), then just say, "Hold off on that," at which point Player #2 will wait, expectantly, until the end of the turn actually arrives.
(Or Player #1 could say, "I might attack you." At which point everyone knows you have a Vampiric Tutor in hand—a slight strategic disadvantage, to be sure, but the very rare number of times you wind up at a real disadvantage are generally more than outweighed by the fact that you aren't trapped in glacier-slow games.)
Likewise, if it's turn five and someone's in the middle of Briberying another player, you can ask, "Are you going to do anything else this turn now that you're tapped out?" And the answer is, "Probably not—go ahead," thus allowing the next player to take his turn while the Bribery player flicks through someone's deck, deciding upon the proper creature to choose.
Again, there will be situations where this gets slightly messy. If someone Bribes out a creature with haste that he didn't notice at first glance, he might want to attack this turn.... at which point you may have to rewind for a bit so he can do what he would have done. But this happens so rarely that it's hardly worth saying. Or the next player may want to wait for the Bribery to resolve to see what exactly the Briberee gets, which is perfectly fair.
As always, "speed" should never take a back seat to "fair play." But often, you can have both with a little understanding that you're all there to move the game along.
If You Have a Potentially Active Effect, You Must Be Active
Waiting for the guy with the blue to approve every spell? That's madness. So if you're packing counterspells, it's your job to watch everyone who's casting and yell, in response, "HOLD!"
You might not counter it. That's fine. But it's your job to seize the attention of the table to let them know that the past five spells were no problem, but this is going to involve thinking.
(You can do that even if you don't have a Counterspell—just like a good blue mage should!)
Likewise, if you have an Eyeblight's Ending and someone's playing an Armadillo Cloak you don't want to see resolve on a non-Elf creature, then it's your job to let the entire table know that you have an effect. You must be loud and clear, because the default will be that it does resolve unless someone says something.
And if you miss it? Well, that's your fault for not watching. Dude, get your hands off the Cheetos and your mind in the game.
Rule by Intent, Not Action
A game of multiplayer can be complicated, and sometimes people will miss things or get confused. That's almost impossible to work around once you start getting six or more players around a table. So we have an informal rule that we try to respect what someone was trying to do.
"I attack you."
"Did you remember that I played my second Propaganda last turn?"
"No, I missed that. Okay, I guess I won't attack you, because I don't want to pay four mana, but attack Phil instead."
"Fine. That's what you would have done, had you known."
Is that judge-perfect? By no means. It wouldn't fly in most tournaments. But as long as it's done quickly, you can often head off a large number of fights and squabbles.
But sometimes, someone will go, "Wait, you have a Goblin Bombardment on the table? So that hitting your guy with this Lash Out wouldn't even have a chance of doing you 3 damage? Well, heck, I wouldn't do that." And if you genuinely think they wouldn't have done that, then sometimes you let them take it back. Likewise, if you're really sure they didn't understand that a Verdant Embrace put a 1/1 token into play every turn and would have Lightning Helixed that creature before the enchantment landed, then it's fine to back up a turn and say, "Okay, wait, that wouldn't have happened."
That said, there have to be reasonable limits. If dude-with-Lightning-Helix realizes how Verdant Embrace is worded right after the enchantment came into play, then I'd almost certainly back up. If he realizes it the upkeep immediately after it came into play, right after the first 1/1 token is churned out, then I'd probably let it happen 80% of the time. And if he realizes it seven turns later, well, c'est la vie, chum.
Those limits also have to respect the player. Would I let me take back the Verdant Embrace? No. I've played the game enough that really, I should know better. Would I let Adam, a much newer player, take it back? Probably yes, because he doesn't know the cards the way I do. You have to try to make some distinction, no matter how fuzzy, between "Errors that someone could reasonably make" and "Errors that someone shouldn't have made." For me, that Lightning Helix should have been on the stack stat.
Also, the limits you set on takebacks have to respect where you are in the game. If it's early in the game, when everybody's at 20 and there are seven players and things are chaotic, then it's not that big a deal. But if you're down to three players and everyone's at 5 life and this is going to make the difference in how the end game turns out, then err on the side of strictness.
After all, everyone should fall to their own mistakes.
Will there be disagreements? Sometimes, yes. In that case, take a vote, respect the majority opinion, and move on. That's what being a grownup is about sometimes—maintaining dignity in the face of not getting your way is a strength, folks! (And if you can't do it, well, then "no takebacks" should be a rule for you.)
Handle the Dogpiles
Sometimes, someone will play a big, splashy spell (like, say, Insurrection) and everyone will have a response to it. It can get pretty messy if you don't get explicit.
What we do is to stop everything, remove the welter of half-announced spells and effects from the stack, and literally point at each player counterclockwise as priority passes around. "All right, you. Do you pass?" And we walk around the table, allowing people to play the spells they need. When everyone's done, the spell resolves.
This is particularly handy for resolving potential conflicts where two or more people can counter something, but it's not certain who's going to blink first. There has been more than one "surprise" situation where Counterspell Player #1 really didn't want a spell to resolve, but he thought that Counterspell Player #2 would handle it, so he passed the buck. And the look on his face when Counterspell Player #2 passes priority and everyone else down the line has nothing to do and the spell resolves.....
It's still a little messy, since sometimes spells will be played in response to other spells (starting the circle of priority again all over again with the activity), but it works for us.
Keep a Laptop Open....
There are several automated places to get rulings on cards or current errata. We keep my laptop open just in case. And if there's an issue, we have several places to go to get archives of judge rulings on card interactions, so it's done quickly and cleanly. In this day of Internet connections, you've always got resources.
...But Sometimes, Punt On Rulings
Occasionally, though, we wind up in odd situations where we can't find a ruling in time. (Multiplayer games will often have four obscure cards working in ways that nobody expected to see.) At which point we get a consensus from the most experienced players, make the call, and then make a note to ask a real judge the next morning.
When we get the ruling, we distribute it via email, so we know for sure the next time.
Encourage Quickness when Options Are Slim, but Respect the Silence
If someone doesn't have a lot of options, a little bit of mild razzing to speed him up isn't out of line. But if there's a complicated board position, sit back and shut up.
Sometimes, someone needs two or three minutes to really think. If he needs it all the time, then yeah, he needs to be a little quicker. But we've had ten-minute ponderings, and they were entirely justified.
Not every pause is stalling, nor every consideration the sign of a slow player. Your goal should be to get everyone on-board with playing fast—and if they feel like they're being nagged or browbeaten into playing poorly, then they're never going to do it.
Remember: Fast, but fair. And fair trumps fast. It's a fuzzy line, but one well worth treading.