My group had settled in for our usual Thursday night Magic games. After about ten minutes, the conversation had drawn everyone in as we were talking about the New Phyrexia cards that were slowly infiltrating our group. Then the fateful call rang out? “Who’s turn is it?” The answer to that question around my table is always the same. If someone is asking, it is always my turn.
Hi, my name is Bruce, and I play slowly.
This isn’t an intentional thing; I don’t mean to be the guy whose turns tend to drag. For whatever reason, I tend to take a long time. I am making efforts to fix that though, and this article is just one of those efforts.
Slow play in multiplayer games is a real problem. At its most basic level, slow play is time consuming. Over the course of an evening, a group will likely play at least one less game due to even one or two players who play slowly. We are here to play Magic, and more Magic in a shorter time frame is generally a good thing. Part of fewer games, means fewer turns. Slow play limits the number of turns each player takes. At some point, players will balk at the amount of time they spend sitting at the table not playing. I know there are instants and effects that happen on other players’ turns. I know that everyone should be watching the game state on every players’ turn. However, this is casual Magic and we all know that doesn’t always happen. The guy playing blue is expected to watch all the time. The guy playing red or green… not so much.
Most seriously for me though, slow play reduces the number of cool plays. Fewer turns and fewer games means fewer awesome plays. If you told me that all that was being lost was a few rounds of games where not much happens, then I probably wouldn’t care. A big part of my regular Magic nights is just spending time with a great group of guys. That doesn’t change just because of the pace of my play. However, the thought that I am missing a monster Storm Herd getting wiped out by Tsabo’s Decree saddens me. Cool plays must be allowed to thrive and live. Those stories live on in playgroups for weeks and years. Losing those moments due to slow play is unforgiveable.
The best way to determine how to eliminate slow play is to discover the reasons for slow play. Once we know why it is happening, we can take steps to remove or at least reduce it. I’ll go through the various reasons for slow play, and give the obvious way to correct the problem. I’ll wrap things up with a few other suggestions that are a little more outside the box.
Slow Play Reason #1 – Talking
The most obvious reason is talking. As a regular listener of the Avant Card Show, I know that Debbie is regularly guilty of telling long stories during her turn. While I have no doubt that these interesting and delightful stories are something everyone would like to hear, it undoubtedly forces everyone to wait endlessly for their turn to come around. I share Brian’s distaste for this sort of behavior.
Generally, this is something that doesn’t happen at my game nights. I don’t think it was ever officially stated, but it is understood that if it is your turn, you save your stories for later. It is also understood that if something is happening in the game, it gets precedence over the story. If three of us are talking about why referring to your significant other as a Screeching Harpy is not the best plan, and it becomes my turn, I drop from the conversation. If during my turn I cast something, I announce it, and the conversation holds up long enough for everyone to get a look at the Llanowar Elves or Darksteel Colossus I just cast, then returns to the conversation.
This is something that was very natural with my group, so I’m not sure if it would be difficult to implement it on a group that did not just do it naturally. It can’t hurt to try.
Slow Play Reason #2 – Loss of Focus
Loss of focus on the game is another reason for slow play. One player says “go” but the next player doesn’t hear them. The conversation continues and no one is actually playing the game. Eventually someone asks whose turn it is and everyone is looking at everyone else. Admittedly, this is not technically slow play, but the result, less actual Magic, is the same. This is another problem that drives me insane. It can be tough enough waiting for your chance to make the ridiculous play you have ready, but when you find out you were waiting for no one? Arghh!
The resolution to this problem is to simply make the active player responsible for ensuring the next player knows he/she is done. “Go” is just not enough in a multiplayer game where there is table talk and other distractions around the table. Perhaps a tap on the arm, followed with a “Go” when the player is looking directly at you would be sufficient. The Comprehensive Rules suggest, during a larger game where two or more players are taking their turns at the same time, passing a disk to show who the active player is. While sticking a red disk on the next player’s playmat would get their attention, I recommend a Magic conch a la Sponge Bob Squarepants. Or if you want to add another dimension to your multiplayer games, and all your players are of legal age, passing a shot glass. Although if you think a loss of focus is a problem in your group currently…
Slow Play Reason #3 – “Sprawl”
The next reason comes from the Seedborn Muse. He referred to it as “sprawl.” The idea is that your battlefield is covered with token creatures and counters all over the place. It takes you a moment to determine if the die showing a 5 on your Elf token represents five +1/+1 counters or that there are five Elf tokens. Add in -1/-1 counters on some creatures and things can get very complicated. Sometimes you just have a die representing a single token, and you are unsure if it is tapped or not. The “sprawl” covering your playmat slows your play to a crawl as you try to determine what you can and can’t do. I’ve seen this happen to others and it has happened to me.
Solving this problem is simply a question of organization. Wizards makes enough token cards that there is certainly someone in your group collecting them. Use them rather than a glass bead or a die. They can easily show when they are tapped or untapped. They are also easy to mark, showing +1/+1 counters or any other counter. I have taken to using different styles of dice to show different things. The yellow dice are +1/+1 counters, the smaller dice show how many tokens I have in play, and the black beads are -1/-1 counters. Sprawl still happens, but I can tell quickly what I have, so time isn’t wasted.
Slow Play Reason #4 – Board State Analysis Paralysis
The extension of sprawl is something I call Board State Analysis Paralysis. You see this when the active player is trying to determine who to attack. They are looking all over the board at the permanents in play, trying to decide how each person will use the permanents, then looking at their own permanents. Then they look at the cards in everyone’s hand, or graveyards to get more information. At this point they realize that they don’t remember the permanents in play, so it starts all over again. At some point, the player finally stops and either gives up the turn or simply attacks all in, disregarding everything on the table due to Analysis Paralysis. Instead of simply dealing with the sprawl in front of you, you are trying to deal with the sprawl in front of each player. Not surprisingly, your turn can drag on.
Solving this dilemma requires a different route than solving sprawl; others will likely be annoyed if you start rearranging their permanents to better suit you. The solution to this problem will unfortunately demand you to pay attention to the game. All the time. Not just on your turn. If you are watching as each player is playing their cards, you won’t have to analyze a brand new board at the start of each of your turns. You will see a slow, gradual change that is much easier to track. This will change your Board State Analysis Paralysis into a Board State Action Reaction Plan.
Slow Play Reason #5 – Careful Play
Not all the reasons for careful play are due to the active player are negative. Another reason for slow play is careful play. This is one of my problems. I make enough mistakes in the course of a game, that making a mistake due to carelessness is something I know I can prevent by playing deliberately and carefully. I have a couple of cards to play so I want to be sure I play them in the correct order. Or I want to make sure that everyone believes I can counter a spell (even if I can’t) so I try to leave Muddle the Mixture mana up while casting my other spells. The goal of the careful player is to maximize their turn, but it ends up leading to slow play.
This is a difficult problem to solve. I don’t want to encourage anyone to play faster and make more mistakes. The solution oftentimes depends upon the flexibility of your group. If you know you have the mana to play your spells, play the spells and worry about the mana afterwards. It gives you one less thing to be concerned about, and will likely increase the pace of your play. I don’t think this is an ideal solution, since by the time a player sorts out their manabase, the chance for you to play an instant because they don’t have the mana to play Path to Exile is gone. However, this may work, depending upon your group.
Slow Play Reason #6 – Failure to Prepare
Finally, what I think is the most common problem relating to slow play, is the failure to prepare before your turn starts. So often you’ll see a player snap out of their reverie, or wrap up their conversation only to find it is now their turn. They draw their card reflexively and start to look around, figuring out what they are going to do. They look at their cards in hand, and after a couple of minutes of thought, simply pass the turn.
As horrible as it is to say, this is me. While sometimes it is because I’m the host and I’ve gotten up from the table to retrieve a pizza, or yell at my children or simply go to the kitchen for something, many times it is because I’m not paying enough attention to the board. This is something that can be fixed.
The solution for this problem is as obvious as the reason: prepare beforehand! Look at your hand and the cards on the table on the other players’ turns and determine what you want to do based on that. While there are times when this will change due to the card you’ve drawn on your turn, or because of the final spell an opponent played on their turn right before they say “go” to you, many times, nothing will happen that will change your plan. Drawing a land for the turn may simply mean that you can play another land this turn.
Other ways to speed up your games
The easiest method to speeding up games is to find ways to remind the slow player to speed up. “What are you doing?” can often be enough of a prompt to keep things moving. Keep in mind, just about all of these methods can be aggravating if overused or used improperly. If you really want your games to drag, try asking the slow player if they are done yet about ten seconds after they’ve drawn their card. Then again ten seconds later. It should ensure that your game will end quickly when they attack you, or their turn will drag even longer. It could even be both, so be warned.
Something I’ve tried is a stopwatch. When someone said go, I’d start the stopwatch and start my turn. When you see the time ticking off it worked to keep me focused on the turn and kept my turns moving quickly. Don’t bother trying to set a time limit on your turns, since some turns will end very quickly (the play a land, “go” turns) while others will take longer (penultimate combat phase). As long as you are aware of the clock and trying to end promptly, you’ve made a good start. I’ve stopped using the stopwatch, but I still see it in my head and it keeps things moving for me.
A different option is something I’ve heard Sheldon Menery recommend. If you are playing a Sensei’s Divining Top and are using it at the end of each turn, ask your group if they mind you using it in the middle of their turn. If something changes between when you use the Top and the end of your turn, you reserve the right to change it. This has worked well for them, and if your group is infested with Tops, it may work for you too. It can also work with cards like Thawing Glaciers, Journeyer’s Kite and other instant-speed tutors.
Keep any other end-of-opponent’s-turn abilities you want to use in mind. If you are pinging someone for one at the end of a turn, you should have already decided who is getting hit before the end of the turn comes up.
A couple more extreme options include changing the style of multiplayer and attacking slow play. Perhaps attacking right or left can reduce the Analysis Paralysis of the players. Perhaps switching to a format where two or more players take their turns at the same time will be what you need. If you don’t want to switch formats, attacking the slow player is an extreme option, but it is something to consider. There are times when the slow player is playing slowly because of everything they have in their hand. This would suggest that there are times when attacking the slow players is simply attacking the most dangerous player and it makes tactical sense to eliminate them. Other times you want to attack them to encourage them to play faster, or just eliminate them so you don’t have to wait through their turns. As I said, these are extreme options that I don’t really recommend, but I’d be remiss not to mention them.
Finally, I’ll end with a suggestion from Graveborn Muse: know your deck! Encourage the slow player to stick with the decks they know. If they know their decks inside and out, at least that reason for slow play will be gone. Building and playing new decks is great, but it can definitely slow things down when you play a tutor and don’t know what you are looking for. Play something you have played plenty before, or if you must play with a new deck, playtest it thoroughly before bringing it into combat.
 In a previous multiplayer group, several of the players regularly enjoyed the special cigarette that you can’t buy in stores during our games. Loss of focus was brought to a whole new level. Someone enjoying the influence would regularly look at their cards, the cards on the table and back at their cards before remembering to even draw a card. Funny, my win percentage in multiplayer was always so much better towards the end of the night back then.
 My Word document constantly wants to change “playmat” to “playmate.” I think the idea of playing Magic on a Playmate sounds very interesting, although I don’t think I would want her covered with much of anything, particularly Elf tokens and +1/+1 counters.
 Speaking of rearranging, I played with someone who regularly put his permanents into play upside down. This was very convenient when you wanted to read the card. He would flip it back around on his next upkeep, which was wonderful since you then knew which creatures had summoning sickness and which had been in play the turn before. Has anyone ever seen anyone else do this? It seems like a great idea to me.