Practical Approach to Slow Play

Posted in NEWS on September 24, 2007

By Wizards of the Coast


Slow Play is an infraction as per the Penalty Guide. A player is guilty of Slow Play if he fails to perform game actions in a reasonable period of time. Note that time in the round is not a factor of Slow Play, and Slow Play can occur in the initial portions of a round or in the untimed turns. If a judge watches a table where a player is thinking for a long time, the judge should probably pay a bit more attention to this game. If that amount of time becomes unacceptable, he should intervene.

Objectivity and Subjectivity:

Slow Play and Stalling are the only infractions described in the Penalty Guide that do not rely on definite criteria. If Game Play Errors can be identified as soon as the Comp Rules see print, if Unsporting Conduct is described pretty accurately, Slow Play is defined with notions like, "longer than reasonably," or, "quickly enough." Slow Play is therefore a subjective notion whose evaluation is all up to the judge.

Different types of Slow Play:

  1. During the first 50 minutes in the round (or 60 at a PT), Slow Play is a pain for both players. Having played slowly, they end up having been able to play fewer turns, the game's rhythm having been slowed down by the players' reflection. Within a game, the rules do not specify any amount of time allowed to make a play. Between two games or before game 1 starts, rules do indicate a time limit: each player has three(3) minutes to complete all his shuffles and present his deck to his opponent. If that time limit were to be exceeded, a judge should intervene.

  2. During additional turns, Slow Play causes a disruption of the tournament itself. If turn 0 and each additional turn lasts at least 2 minutes, that game will likely finish about 15 minutes after the end of the round—an unacceptable situation!

Identifying Slow Play:

How long is "too long?" Practically, what does that mean?

As soon as a player takes a 20-30-second-reflection without any action, this is worth issuing a caution, so that he knows he's taking too much time. Sometimes, in spite of this remark, the player still won't have moved in the following 10 or 20 seconds. This is the perfect moment to issue the infraction of Tournament Error — Slow Play. The penalty is a warning at all RELs.

Theoretically, the rhythm a player plays at should be evaluated without taking the game state into consideration. In a draft tournament, it is possible both players control a bunch of creatures, making the game state almost impossible to understand perfectly. Even if a player faces an incredibly and extremely complex situation, thinking for too long is an infraction. Magic is a game where one has to take decisions within a reasonable time.

The typical time a player will seek additional reflection time is when they believe they are faced with a complex situation (like a board with 10 creatures on each side). What both player and judge need to realize is that this situation is usually the result usually of a less complex situation last turn. Unless the game state has radically changed (such as Armageddon has resolved), complex situations arise over time and are not an excuse to play slowly.

The aforesaid time limit needs to be changed with the situation. A player that performs an action every 5-10 seconds for a total of two minutes is unlikely to be guilty of Slow Play, provided his actions aim at having the game state to evolve. On the contrary, a player who would think for 30 seconds, drop a land, think for 20 seconds, announce a combat phase, then think 20 more seconds before declaring attackers definitely plays too slowly. Despite the fact that he spent "only" a minute a 10 seconds on his turn, it is unlikely the game state has evolved enough to finish the game within reasonable time. Every action was not significant enough to make the game state progress.

You can evaluate Slow Play through techniques that don't use quantified time limits. For instance, you may try to understand the game state. When you think you've understood, let 5-10 more seconds pass and issue a caution. You have to be careful if you want to use this technique: you may be far better than the player you're watching and therefore understanding too quickly what's happening; or your playing skills in the format may not be good enough, so you won't intervene quickly enough. Be aware of what your skills are.

Finally, be aware that a player who called you to watch his opponent for slow play can himself be playing too slowly.

Slow Playing and Bluffing:

There is a thin layer that separates bluffing and playing slowly. For instance, a player has the right to think a moment with two lands in hand and an empty board. He's indicating his opponent that he has options. If this is perfectly acceptable one or two turns in a row, the player can't keep doing that every turn.

Nothing in the rules prevents players from bluffing. This has to be respected. This is a reason why the content of the players' hands is irrelevant for Slow Play. It becomes relevant to deal with intentionality.

Issuing Slow Play Penalties:

You're certain a player isn't playing fast enough, and you've already issued him a caution. Then it's time to tell him he's guilty of Tournament Error — Slow Play! As usual, write all the relevant information down on the back of the Results Entry Slip.

Players also get two extra additional turns per warning. This is a major change that came with the new Penalty Guidelines. There is an exception to this rule: if you're issuing a Tournament Error — Slow Play Warning during the additional turns, players do not get extra turns.

  • Issuing the caution: The caution doesn't have to be presented as such. A sentence like, "please play faster," or, "you have to make a decision now" looks better than "I'm close to issuing you a Warning for Slow Play."

The reasoning behind that is the following: the player is not yet playing too slowly but is close. He may not be aware of it and judges should prevent problems from happening; so you're telling him he might end up committing an infraction. Since the judge simply wants to prevent problems from happening, a caution can be issued any time the judge wishes.

  • Issuing the Warning: When you're decided you will issue the player a Warning, you should try to avoid breaking his concentration and wait until he has taken an action to do so.

The reasoning behind that is the following: A player guilty of Tournament Error — Slow Play is honest, which means he doesn't realize he's taking too long or just having difficulty making a decision. Therefore, it seems more respectful to let him finish his reflection. Of course you will not allow him infinite time, but is there a point in issuing a double sanction to a player? Indeed, issuing a written sanction to a player will make his change his range of interests. He'll lose the path of reflection he was in, and is likely to make severe mistakes. This is why, whenever possible, I'd recommend not issuing a Warning while he hasn't made a decision.

If both players have chosen to play slowly, they're still committing an infraction. The whole process described above should still apply, with two warnings if they do not wish to play faster. Why? Consistency! How can a judge tell players they're playing too slowly in extra turns while he hasn't intervened in the first 50 minutes? How can a judge tell a player he's playing too slowly in round 6 while his rhythm was found decent two rounds earlier?

After you've issued a Tournament Error — Slow Play Warning, you're still not done. You need to remain at the table so that they keep playing at reasonable pace. A Warning is worth nothing if the player doesn't feel "encouraged" to play faster. Staying at a table is a good way to do so.

Dealing with player reactions:

You have to keep in mind the difference that exists between a player involved in the game and the judge noticing from an external point of view that player is playing too slowly. Time passes much quicker for the player than for the judge. This is why the judge should expect reactions from players who are issued penalties for Tournament Error — Slow Play. Most of time, they will not understand what's happening to them. That is, of course, not an excuse for any unsporting behaviour. It seems better to explain calmly the reasons why you intervened than issuing a penalty for Unsporting Conduct – Minor (slight disruption of the tournament).

Slow Play vs. Stalling:

Here's the big one. Stalling can roughly be defined as "Intentional Slow Play," but that would be wrong. It's a bit trickier than that. A player might be guilty of stalling without being guilty of Slow Play. Let's take the definitions and take a look at the differences. Both come from the Penalty Guidelines:

Slow Play: Players who take longer than is reasonably required to complete game actions are engaging in slow play.

This means a player is playing too slow to finish a game within reasonable time.

Stalling: A player intentionally plays slowly in order to take advantage of the time limit.

This means the player adapts his rhythm to optimize the time limit.

We've seen above that Slow Play doesn't have to the game state (although you'll probably end up taking it into account). Stalling, on the contrary, mostly does.

Therefore, the analysis of these two concepts rely on different basis. That's why one may be stalling without playing slowly.

Here's an example that occurred at Worlds in Paris: Player A (Adam) plays an aggressive deck. Player B (Billy) plays a control deck. Adam calls a judge to ensure nobody will be playing too slowly. Adam makes a strong start, playing very quickly. He complains that Billy sometimes takes time to think about his options. The judge doesn't react except by telling them to keep playing. By turn six or so, Billy has taken control of the game, and it becomes obvious Adam will not be able to kill Billy anymore. Billy's body language tends to prove he kind of agrees with this statement.

By turn seven, Adam draws a fetchland. He has lost all his creatures but two the turn before, and is facing four blockers. He cannot attack. He thinks for 20 seconds, and Billy asks him to play or pass. Adam reacts quite aggressively, saying he's the one who called for Slow Play (which is not an argument at all by the way). He ends up playing his land and passing.

Here's the new situation: Billy cannot die, but needs to kill Adam before the time limit is reached. So he quickly does some things and passes. Adam thinks for some time before deciding to sacrifice his fetchland. He takes time to find a land. He loses several seconds before untapping. He thinks before drawing a card. Etc.

Though he never met the criteria that would make him guilty of Tournament Error — Slow Play, he was still guilty of stalling. He behaved differently because he knew the game would be almost impossible to win, and that a draw was his last hope. And what was his last option to obtain it? The time limit!

This article is the result of a seminar that has been held at PT Yokohama and has been reviewed by Sheldon "French addict" Menery and Andy Heckt.

Kevin Desprez
DCI Judge Level 3