Playing The Clock, and How To Avoid Going Into Time

Jason Grabher-Meyer

9/23/2015 11:02:00 AM

Doug Zeeff and I brought you a lot of stories as we conducted the live reporting from YCS Toronto a few weeks ago. The rise and fall of Performage Nekroz and Performage Shaddolls; the return of Dale Bellido, exploding into the Top 32; rogue successes, from decks like Kozmos and Heroes; new tech from Clash of Rebellions; and Marcus Carisse's near-miss performance that saw him dominate a string of Champions, only to be bested by Gabriel Orosan-Weine. It was a busy weekend with a ton of big names… and even bigger upsets.

But there was one story we didn't highlight, and that was the ridiculous number of matches going into time. I don't think I've ever seen a YCS or WCQ where such a high percentage of Feature Matches went into end of match procedures, nor where so many players were still seated and competing when time was called. There was what felt like an inordinately high number of draws, and while that might induce a few snickers, none of the draws I saw seemed remotely intentional.

The reason? A combination of slow play, and competitors who didn't know how to stop it.

The reality is that unless you're trying to game the system and score wins by going into time on purpose – a practice that's prohibited by tournament guidelines, punishable as cheating, and frankly almost never successful anyways – going into time is bad. It's bad for the tournament, it's bad for round times, and more importantly it's bad for your win record.

The moment you get into a situation where you're playing under time, there are two big problems: playing on a limited number of turns ups the luck factor and kills your ability to combat variance, because you see so few cards. The game isn't allowed to run its course, which means just one lucky topdeck can determine an entire match. And decks that play to a slower pacing or which look to make particular combos inevitably suffer.

Second, entering into time often introduces the risk of a draw, and in many cases a draw's just as bad as a loss. Yes, if you had to choose one or the other you'd choose a draw every time, but while a loss is worth 0 Points a Draw is only worth 1 Point, compared to 3 Points for a win. You'd really, really rather not drop those 2 Points just because you needed a couple more minutes to finish the match. Taking a draw and losing 2 Points when you're in a winning position in Game 3 is a painful experience you want to avoid.

How Do You Do That?
Good question. There are lots of ways to avoid going into end of match procedures, but they can generally be divided into two categories: those that focus on your behavior, and those that help you police your opponent's. You need to avoid wasting your time just as much as you need to keep your opponent from wasting it. Let's start by talking about what you can do yourself.

Basic awareness is really the first step. The first tip here is that if your table has a clean line of sight to the round clock, ensure that you're sitting on the side with the best view. In an ideal world you'd always come equipped with a stopwatch or a countdown function on some sort of tournament-legal device as well, but regardless, you always want to be able to see the round clock. At the end of the day your devices may fail you, but the round clock's immaculate; as far as the tournament's concerned it's an infallible LED god. Make sure you can see it from whichever seat you pick.

…Because not only does your clear view of the round clock benefit you, the right seat may also deprive your opponent. If they can't see the clock they're at a disadvantage, leaving them to operate without key information about the match they're playing. Yes, if both players can see the round clock they could, in theory, both police their own time making decisions better. But realistically unless your opponent's just as responsible as you, they may be more likely to use their knowledge of the clock to defend their actions and their perceived “right” to take their sweet time. In addition, having a monopoly on information about round time lets you engage some other concepts that can give you an edge. More on that later.

The next way to ensure you don't waste your round time is to know what you're doing playing your deck. The reality is that the longer you take to make your plays, the longer your match will go and the higher your risk of going into time. Your decisions need to be as rote and systemized as possible; practice doesn't just make perfect, it also makes precision and speed, and that can have huge payoffs if it means you score more full wins and avoid draws or losses due to time.

It's inevitable: the more complicated your deck is, and the more branching choices it offers turn by turn and the more challenging your decisions are. Sounds harsh, but if you don't know a deeply complicated deck like Nekroz inside out, you probably shouldn't be playing it in a competitive tournament. And beyond knowing your own deck, understanding the strategies you're likely to face can help you make correct decisions on an expedient basis as well. Put in the hours to learn which decisions should be obvious, and which ones actually deserve more of your attention.

For your sake and the sake of basic courtesy; don't waste time just by being inexperienced with whatever deck you're running. “My deck's harder to play than my opponent's” has never and will never be a valid reason for taking up more round time. If you're playing competitive Yu-Gi-Oh, you need to be able to play to a competitive standard.

 Nekroz of Brionac
Nekroz of Brionac96083
Set The Secret Forces
Number THSF-EN014
Level 6
Type Ritual/Effect Monster
Monster Warrior
Attribute WATER 
A / D 2300 / 1400
Rarity Secret Rare
Card Text

You can Ritual Summon this card with any "Nekroz" Ritual Spell Card. Must be Ritual Summoned without using "Nekroz of Brionac", and cannot be Special Summoned by other ways. You can only use each of these effects of "Nekroz of Brionac" once per turn.
- You can discard this card; add 1 "Nekroz" monster from your Deck to your hand, except "Nekroz of Brionac".
- You can target up to 2 face-up monsters on the field that were Special Summoned from the Extra Deck; shuffle them into the Deck.

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On that note, feel free to take short cuts in your play actions if a) they don't affect the integrity of the game state, and b) you ask your opponent first. The big example? Search effects in Nekroz. YCS Toronto was full of players who would do stuff like Summon Manju of the Ten Thousand Hands, search Nekroz of Brionac, shuffle their deck, offer it for a cut, pitch Brionac to search Nekroz of Clausolas, shuffle their deck, offer it for a cut, pitch Clausolas to search a Ritual Spell, shuffle their deck, and then offer it for another cut.

That takes a ridiculous length of time, and while just asking your opponent, “Hey, I'm going back in, do you mind if we wait to shuffle until I'm done searching?” isn't technically playing the cards as written, no judge in their right mind is going to give you a penalty for it. Provided you asked your opponent and they understand what you're doing, the most a judge is going to ever have to hit you with is a warning. From there you should play the cards as written just in case, but generally speaking everyone – your opponent, spectators, and the judge staff – is going to appreciate your trying to keep the tournament on track. Double check with your opponent, and then opt for the time-saving route. Repeated shuffling is the enemy.

Finally, when an official has to be involved with your match, politely ensure that appropriate time extensions are always given. Whether it's a delay for a ruling, a feature match, or a quick few questions from a judge, don't be afraid to ask for a time extension when needed. You're entitled to a fair split of the total round time between you and your opponent, and as long as you ask nicely, any judge worth his or her salt will have no trouble ensuring you get it.

Make sure that when a time extension's offered, it's noted on the match slip. Tournaments are busy and straining for judge staff, and on very rare occasion, something may be promised to you but not properly noted. There's no guarantee you'll ever need to claim a given time extension, but if you do it must be clearly recorded on the slip or you risk running into confusions later on, especially if a different judge winds up covering your match in time.

And that's basically it. Stay aware of the round time; don't be slow making basic decisions; and be sure to respectfully ask for time extensions when appropriate. If you can do that, you've got half the job in the bag.

The Other Half Can Get A Little Messy
Yu-Gi-Oh! players aren't always the friendliest people, but fascinatingly enough, the average duelist is wildly generous with their opponent's slow play. I've seen countless players be really forgiving, not wanting to feel like the bad guy when their opponents are making long, complicated thought maps about the results of each of their possible decisions. It's especially common today with Nekroz, since the deck offers so many possibilities.

The killer part is that I'll watch the same player who encouraged their opponent to take their time, then fly through their own turns to try and keep the match on track. And that's bloody mystifying to me; it's the precise opposite of how you should be approaching time management in a competitive event.

There's a big stigma against “playing the clock” in Yu-Gi-Oh, but let's be honest – managing your round time is a big part of any tournament. It's a skill just like any other, and it can decide who wins or who loses. While the boogeyman of the player who cheats by purposefully stalling and guiding a match into time is exceptionally rare, the actual problem – one that's infinitely more common – is just the player who eats more than their fair share of the round, taking all the time they need to make their decisions well while then actively pressuring their opponent to make their choices on a less complete basis.

In the competitive TCG world it's a basic tactic called rushing and stalling: you want to rush your opponent on their turn, then take your sweet time on your own. It can be pretty innocuous early in the round, but as the clock ticks down the pressure builds; a player who was forced to make their choices too quickly finds themselves the victim of a snowballing set of pressures, where sub-par decision after sub-par decision all stack up to create a crushing momentum. Soon they're forced to use less and less time to make increasingly challenging plays. And that's the real problem: it's not the threat of some dude playing you into time to deprive you of your Side Deck, nor is it the possibility of someone stalling you out to bring in burn cards as a cleverly manipulated Game 3 sudden death ploy. The biggest threat is just the Timeater who mongles the clock to try and make perfect decisions, leaving you with insufficient time to make yours.

Set Duel Terminal 6
Number DT06-EN013
Level 6
Type Effect Monster
Monster Machine
Attribute DARK 
A / D 1900 / 1700
Rarity Common
Card Text

If this monster destroys a monster on your opponent''s side of the field in battle, your opponent skips his/her next Main Phase 1.

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And that's where “playing the clock” becomes so important. Because at the end of the day, you'd rather be applying pressure to your opponent to force them to play faster, rather than let them do whatever they want, for as long as they want, so they can play for the best results possible. Notice that I didn't say, “play to the best of their ability.” Playing for the best results possible by taking more time than you're entitled to, whether you do it on purpose or not, is effectively tilting the playing field to garner results beyond your own best ability.

And that's garbage, even if it's not intentional. You should feel indignant about that, and while you shouldn't display annoyance or disrespect your opponent, it's perfectly okay to be “that guy” and hurry them along a bit. The alternative is to accept losses and draws not because you're bad at the game, but because your opponent is.

How far you take that mindset is up to you; the fact is, rushing and stalling in subtle ways can win games, and while most think that doing it on a mercenary level is “un-gentlemanly,” there are convincing arguments to be made that defending your time and attacking your opponent's is part of the “game surrounding the game.” I'll let you make that call yourself. But at the very least, prodding your opponent to play as quickly as you when you're playing at a moderate pace is nothing to shy away from. Be polite, be professional, and know that if you can't get the match on track yourself, tournament protocols have your back.

Frankly, most slow players will speed up their pace of play if you encourage them to do so. But sometimes they won't, and that's when you may need to call a judge. Frankino discussed this a bit in a recent article, but here's the gist from a player's side: the moment your opponent's pace of play is problematic, and they demonstrate unresponsiveness to a reasonable request to pick it up? Immediately call a judge, and politely let them know that with all due respect to your opponent, you believe their slowness is impacting the fairness of the match. Doing that is important for three reasons.

First, most judges will respond to this kind of call with observation. They're going to stand there and watch, to see if there is in fact a problem and to determine if the pace of play is reasonable. They'll also be watching your pace of play, but since you made the call that hopefully won't be an issue. That observation immediately places pressure on your opponent, who's going to either play faster, crack and make bad decisions, or continue playing at a problematic speed and then incur a warning. Those are all good things for you, and while they might sound a little heavy-handed, you're entitled to a fair playing field.

Second, the first thing a judge is going to ask is whether either player has received a previous warning for slow play in this tournament. If your opponent has, the judge is going to take the call very seriously and if your opponent doesn't speed up, they may get knocked with an escalated penalty. Again, it might feel bad to wind up benefiting from a player management call, but it's not your fault. You're not a bad person for being one in a chain of people reporting inappropriate play habits. If you happen to benefit from it in some way, that's your opponent's fault, and tournament protocols are designed to work this way. The entire tournament benefits when slow play is eliminated; delayed round times hurt the event as a whole.

That ties into the third benefit, which is that if your opponent takes a warning as a result of your calling a judge and it's their first such warning in the tournament, you won't directly benefit, but the tournament at large will. You're protecting the speed and integrity of the event in its entirety, and if your opponent winds up slow playing somebody else later on and they call a judge, the appropriate actions will be taken at that point. You're literally protecting other people in the future, even if you can't protect yourself in that very moment. You're not being a jerk; you're just doing your part.

Slow play's a vicious problem in tournaments, and in format like this one where the top decks have all been the top decks for a long time and often demand constant, complicated decision-making, it's a plague that ruins events (as well as the personal experiences of players like yourself). Be responsible in your own behaviors; police your opponent; and know when to pull the trigger, asking for assistance from a judge. If you want to let things slide go ahead, but know that you're going to cost yourself results, and you're effectively letting everyone else down.

Yu-Gi-Oh! players usually err on the side of caution and not wanting to “be the bad guy” in the issue of slow play, but as long as you're being professional and respectful you aren't the bad guy. And honestly, if you have to pick between feeling a bit awkward or mercenary in pressuring your opponent, or wasting your time, money, and emotional investment by throwing away potential wins? I know what choice I'm going to make. I'll be “that guy” before I'm the person wandering the tournament floor fresh off a loss, looking to tell his bad beat story about how his opponent slow played him.

Just don't let it happen. You have the tools, the understanding, and the tournament policy support on your side. The truth is that 95% of the time, you control whether or not your match goes to time. So grab the bull by the horns and don't let someone else's lax behavior – or purposeful manipulation – take the game out of your hands.

-Jason Grabher-Meyer

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