Hopefully, as a competitive player you understand the point structures behind every match you play. You win and your score grows by 3 points, while a loss nets you a goose egg, a whopping zero points toward your dreams of a top 8 and tournament title.
However what does a draw get us? While it is better than getting zero points the untimely draw gains you only one point! Is this better than a loss numerically? Sure, obviously one point is better than zero, but it is far closer to a loss than a win in points as well as tournament impact.
Early in a tournament a draw will traditionally lead you down a path of slower decks, and toward the slower players. There are no players who sit down and want to draw a match, but we all know players that are far more prone to this result than others. In many tournaments taking a second draw is virtually equivalent to hoping for some cash, but knowing the trophy is already out of your grasp.
The only time you should ever WANT a draw is when this locks you into the top 8 of a tournament, learning how to identify that from a standings report is not the easiest task and worth an article in it’s own right for another time. For now we will focus on avoiding the unintended draws both from our own game play, proper communication and interaction with our opponents.
Reducing your draws have a number of benefits, most notably you get to keep the decision making in your hands. With most tournaments such as PPTQs you can only afford one or two losses or draws if you want to top 8, and in these very narrow situations having a draw or loss only impacts the seeding, not as often the qualification. For example, in a five round tournament if the math says you need 12 match points to qualify this means you need five wins and the sixth result is irrelevant. If you drew you have 13, if you lost you have 12. So you just need to get those four wins, but if you draw by mistake in round two it is the same as taking a loss, you now have to win every other game and on top of this you are now in the draw bracket and often playing others who have shown they are capable of going to time with their similar record.
In addition, a tournament typically will take a toll on your mind, playing to the five-turn rule every round means you will have no “cool down” time to rest throughout the day. Your mind will continue to get taxed and in the vast majority of players your ability to play cleanly will suffer. Often these players make mistakes, miss trigger or commit a handful of other mistakes that would otherwise not occur, and even worse with the fatigue and frustration they won’t even identify the error to correct for the next round.
As a lover of slow, grind your opponent out, go to a tournament with the purpose of your opponent not playing the game style decks, I am going to walk you through some tips to reduce the amount of games you draw throughout a tournament. Some of the decks I run most frequently are very often some of the slowest, Sphinx’s Revelation/Elixir of Immortality cycle and modern Lantern of Insight control. These decks are built to grind an opponent into a saddened and angry mess. These are not the fun interactive decks that Wizards of the Coast wants players to play because these are built to create a sense of absolute dismay and helplessness in the opponent, make them regret signing up to the tournament. In addition with the slow nature these decks win, many players, especially new to the list ones, often go to time and get draws leaving the pilot and opponents to rant about “how slow and terrible” the decks are instead of realizing it often comes to the pilot clock management.
Below are some of the steps you can take to fill your score with properly decided games and not join a Snorlax bracket:
Step 1: PLAY MAGIC!
“Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice reduces imperfection.”
Beyond everything else, if you want to win at Magic and you are going to commit the money, resources, and time to tournaments. You HAVE to commit more of that time to practice.
If you are reading articles about a game, about a collectible card game, then you want to do well at the game, you want to win. As with most things in life there is no magic pill or quick fix. You have got to practice the game to improve, along with this improvement your game play will become crisper and the ability to assess situations quickly and identify important variables will take less time.
You should always have a plan for your turns and your overall game. As new cards are played and drawn you do not recreate the plan, you merely adjust. An aggressive deck has the purpose of winning as fast as possible before other slower decks play their more powerful cards. This plan should very rarely change, and with frequent testing is second nature.
Imagine you are playing Mono-white humans and your opponent is on Esper Planeswalkers. You’re on the play and play a fourth land; your board state is Thraben Inspector, Dragon Hunter, Thalia’s Lieutenant and Kytheon, Hero of Akroas; Thalia’s Lieutenant has no counters while the others all have one. In hand you have Thalia’s Lieutenant and Always Watching that you just drew.
Over testing you should know that playing another creature into that board state opens you to being blown out by Languish, you don’t have the ability to cast both cards and with no blue mana untapped your Always Watching is safe to cast, optimally using mana and saving a follow up for your next turn. The worst possible turn to follow up an opponent’s Languish would be land, Lieutenant and sacrifice the Clue that the Inspector left.
The above line of play is a pretty easy example, but as such with testing should take a fraction of a second to pull the trigger on, with only BB mana or WB mana open for the opponent the worst outcome is they kill a creature on this large attack and proceed to Languish the remaining or you get to attack, hit for 12 and flip Kytheon. These decisions should be swift and streamlined through testing, but often players will “tank” and debate all the outcomes in their head for 30 seconds, if everyone takes this long on rudimentary plays then draws would be more common than results.
There is merit to representing decisions, but in the above scenario you are only looking inexperienced. With four mana there is not a stronger play to make facing the threat of Languish. As fast as you get priority the enchantment should be on the table and creatures moving into the attack phase swiftly. Taking time opens up the door to draws with a deck that should never draw, and what is worse you only give your opponent more time to realize that they need to kill Kytheon before he flips.
In summary testing makes the majority of each match second nature to preserve energy, convey ability, and streamline gameplay.
Step 2: KNOW THE MATH
Similar to above, you should have a plan at all times. I personally subscribe to the idea that in Magic you should always be asking yourself how you will accomplish the next step of your game plan first and foremost. If you look at the Modern format, decks are frequently streamlined for game ones and will have “interactions” in their sideboard. Accomplish your goal as swift and efficiently as possible is often the effective strategy.
If you have two 4/4 creatures and your opponent is at three life with one 2/2 creature you should know what you will do based on their subsequent vanilla plays. Meaning if they play anything smaller than my creatures do I attack? If they play something larger than my creatures can I afford the attack.
In the above scenario, if the opponent is top decking and draws a 2/2 creature with no relevant abilities and plays it, your combat doesn’t change. If the opponent moves to double block they die, so you can reasonably know the only option is to chump both creatures and have one draw step to get out of the hole they are in.
Sure the example is simple, but most of the game truly isn’t as complicated as many players make it. Needing to learn how to identify the important moments takes practice, but with enough repetition the decisions should flow smoothly and only require time tanking a few times a match.
You should always be asking yourself, whether you are ahead or behind, “How am I going to win this game?” By always having this in mind you know which of your cards matter and which don’t. As well as what you have to answer from your opponent.
Step 3: SET THE PACE
If you want to learn how to play with a clock in mind, a slow deck like Top Lock or Lantern Control teaches you a lot. When Lantern of Insight and Codex Shredder are the ways you plan to put games away time management is vital both in your own play and your opponents, but contrary to popular belief these decks do not have to go to time frequently. Knowing what matters and doesn’t from testing and having a game plan by doing the math regularly and reevaluating as your opponent is making decisions will save a ton of clock.
Many times, when you watch a match that is running short on clock, both players are playing at a slow pace and the tone for the match reflects it. Each player is tanking over every decision and aiming for their Oscar with every draw step. People by a large margin tend to follow a lead, watch people doing the wave at a sports or chanting a team slogan. By nature most players do not want to stand out as “different” and you can use this to your example. When your pace of play is crisp and deliberate with a good speed your opponent in most situations will speed up if even slightly. They won’t try to mirror your exactly, but as a faster speed player I have watched countless slower players in other matches go notably faster versus myself simply by playing crisp and making my moves purposefully. I don’t shuffle my deck and slowly pass it across the table, small things like presenting it quickly and as much into their reach as reasonable shows going to time is not something I will condone.
By testing and knowing the math you get to make decisions in manners that catch opponents off guard and has many times lead to a misplay. Often in limited events an opponent will consider their attacks deeply for a long time, then the moment they pass priority on attackers you can tell they expect similar though, but if you know the blocks based on each method of attack while they think you get to snap off blocks quickly. Making self-assured movements like blocks or attacks without taking 30 seconds to decide sends a nonverbal message to the opponent and sometimes causes mistakes in future attacks and blocks.
Step 4: COMMUNICATE
This is likely the single biggest means of reducing your draws as well as cutting down on the amount of judge warnings. Some people prefer not to talk much during games and that is completely fine, you don’t have to pal up or make jokes, but if you are avoiding any communication you are leaving the door open for many mistakes.
We aren’t playing solitaire, this is a two player game and communication needs to be clear to save time. When you communicate intentions, phases and so on you make certain that time is not lost on the mechanics side of the game. Hiding that information does not gain you much advantage in most games and can frequently cost you value.
It drives me crazy to see players simply snap their creatures sideways in combat without declaring the phase, then the opponent has to stop them, play their tricks, like Collected Company, and both players now have to spend more time to reevaluate the situation. The time lost in untapping the creatures and confirming the phase the opponent is wanting to cast in is small, but between shuffle effects, mulligans, sideboarding and then all the actual MAGIC time begins to slip quickly.
With communication this also relates to understanding you paid an entry fee to play a game in a time limit. Many players are afraid to address issues such as slow play from their opponent’s side of the table. Many think slow play speed is an innocent by product of a complicated game, and in most cases it is, but you should not be punished from an opponent’s inability to complete a game. You aren’t a bad guy or villain if you mention to an opponent the time frame it is taking at all if you simply do things the right way.
Traditionally I will watch the posted clock or have a watch sitting next to my score pad. In my experience being able to tell an opponent it has been 30 seconds since an action was taken traditionally shows them you aren’t arbitrarily thinking they are slow. Asking the opponent to pick to play a little faster and mentioning the time something took or how much time is left are both acceptable.
You never want to do it in a manner that indicates accusation. It is best to treat each situation as an honest mistake, it is easy to get lost when making a big decision and not realize the amount of time that passed. If things become regular or habitual you need to call a judge, don’t try to explain to the player this is the third time in as many turns, if it is high frequency just ask a judge to talk away from the table. Most judges will give a small extension while you talk to them and observe the game’s pace moving forward.
Now you are not the judge, so you never start the conversation with, “My opponent is slow playing.” That is the judge’s job to decide, not yours. You simply explain the situation, the events that have occurred and if you monitored the time of some of these slower plays you can mention this.
Also don’t have this conversation at the table. Calmly call a judge and and ask them if you can ask a question away from the table. Whether the opponent is doing this intentionally or in most cases by accident, no one wants to feel cornered or belittled, so simply have the conversation away from the table and let the judge handle the issue if it persists.
The biggest part of this and it is vital to remember! Do not call a judge with 3 minutes left on the clock and explain how the opponent has been slow the whole round. There is very little a judge can do in this situation. Traditionally if my mind has thought the phrase “he is moving too slow” twice in one cycle of turns I mention something to my opponent, if it continues I call a judge. Just remember this is rarely intentional from your opponent’s side so do not treat them as a cheater for something that everyone can be guilty of.
Step 5: YOU’RE NO LEO
The last point is simple, you are not an actor. There is a place for posturing and representing action, especially in limited formats or control style decks, but you should not be acting every time you gain priority, and definitely not when the act is plainly transparent.
Think of it this way, you’re playing Esper Dragons and have had a less than dominating start, stumbling on mana and the opponent with White Black Control slipping a number of threats in under your stumble.
This is a game one and despite the stumble on mana your counters and removal has drawn the game out, both trying to find a maintainable advantage. The clock has managed to dwindle down to 25 minutes left. On your turn you could posture, represent the Foul-Tongue or another removal spell and hope to bluff them out of a Shambling Vent activation, but with a win possible this is obviously unlikely.
The only line you can take is to play the Ojutai for a blocker and hope they have no way to activate the Blighted Fen. When the game is in such a live or die position the decision tree is small and posturing does very little. Save the clock to hopefully finish a game two and maybe even get a game three in. If this decision takes you more than a few seconds to make, you need to probably work on either testing more frequently so decisions become more clear, or focus more on doing math as your opponent is making decisions.
Finding ways to speed your play and close out games is a vital habit to pick up. Sometimes you simply need to pick up a faster deck, if in testing you are seeing a clock tick by too often or the deck causes a lot of mental fatigue from play you might need to consider another list.
While there are some bad seeds that slow play for competitive advantage or the purpose of tilting opponents, it is important to understand this is very often innocent mistakes. Don’t go into every slow match with malice and it will keep you from tilting and simply find ways to communicate effectively and if needed ask for judge assistance.
If you find yourself in frequent draws (more than once or at most twice every major tournament) then focus less on opponent play and more your actions. Play games on Magic Online to practice managing your decisions and triggers with a one sided clock. Pull out a kitchen timer or watch during testing to improve on that, and simply ask your play group to help monitor for times you slow down too much to start finding the reason of why.
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