Up to Eleven: Learning to Play Faster

Are you a Quiet Speculation member?

If not, now is a perfect time to join up! Our powerful tools, breaking-news analysis, and exclusive Discord channel will make sure you stay up to date and ahead of the curve.

It is often surprising which parts of my articles and other comments resonate with readers. This isn't a problem as a content creator. It's all about putting out material and hoping something, anything, sticks and keeps the views coming in. However, there have been plenty of times where what I get feedback on is not at all what I was expecting. Today's article stems from exactly that scenario.

About a month ago in my RCQ Prep article, I mentioned that it's advantageous to play up-tempo. Not just because it helps prevent unintentional draws but because it exudes confidence and can make opponents make mistakes. I then followed up with my actual RCQ experience and mentioned that I already play quite fast and play fast decks. Since then, I've fielded a number of questions about how I play faster. The past week one player asked how I was able to play so quickly without mistakes. Another was surprised I could shuffle so quickly in-game. So, I guess now's the time to dive into how I play faster than most and how you can too.

The Basics

A lot of my techniques aren't anything new. I picked them up reading articles by pros in the mid-to-late-2000s, articles that are obscured in the internet's back archives. I had no luck with Google-fishing for the older articles, though there are some newer ones accessible. However, all agree that there are a number of fundamentals to keep in mind.

1. Practice, Practice, Practice

This one should be quite obvious. There is no way to play Magic faster without practice. A lot of practice. In fact, the primary reason that I see players play unintentionally slowly is inexperience. It takes a lot of goldfishing to get the ins and outs of a given deck to be able to competently pilot the deck. It takes a lot more practice games to actually play that deck well. There's no shortcut to this step. To play faster, it's critical to know the available plays intuitively and not have to puzzle through every scenario. The better the pre-game practice, the faster a deck can be played.

There was an error retrieving a chart for Practiced Tactics

With the caveat that it should never get to the point of playing a deck on autopilot. Just because a scenario during testing happens in an actual game does not mean it is the exact same scenario. The opponent always has a say in what happens and may be reading from a different playbook. Context always matters, so never just turn your brain off.

2. Deck Selection Matters

There's a minimum amount of time each turn takes. Regardless of other factors, players must always untap, go to upkeep, then draw. Beyond that, the additional amount of time is different for every deck. This should also be obvious, but it affects the pilot's ability to finish a game in the desired timeframe. For Modern Burn, that time is only a few seconds. Play a land, attack, decide whether or not to throw burn during the main phase, done. A goldfished game shouldn't take more than a couple of minutes total.

There was an error retrieving a chart for Goblin Guide

For Modern Enchantress, the length of a turn is much longer. There are more decisions around spells to cast, their targets, and all the triggers associated with all of that. Which land to play when can be a relevant decision depending on the need to cast On Thin Ice or Utopia Sprawl. Then there are all the draw triggers to keep track of. Even an experienced pilot will require a minute or more per turn to goldfish this deck.

There was an error retrieving a chart for Enchantress's Presence

Therefore, players need to be realistic about their ability to pilot a deck and choose one that works given their play speed. A player that is naturally slow picking a naturally slow deck makes for very long, frustrating tournaments. A fast player with a fast deck gets plenty of time for lunch and rest. The easiest way to speed up play speed is to just pick a faster deck.

3. Thinking Ahead

Don't just react. Plan your turns out before you take them. Have contingencies for what the opponent might do. Spend the opponent's turn thinking about your next turn. The more planning and thinking that's done before a decision needs to be made, the less time needs to be spent deciding.

There was an error retrieving a chart for Well-Laid Plans

4. Don't Play Too Fast

Speed is a means to an end. If speed causes you to miss that end, you're playing too fast. There's a limit to how fast anyone can play with accuracy, and this limit is different for each player. Magic is not an easy game and it's easy to make mistakes. Forcing one's self to go faster than they're capable will lead to more mistakes and ultimately more losses. Know yourself and don't try to play too fast too quickly. As with any skill, it takes time to learn. Let yourself have that time.

My System

If that's the wisdom of the ancients, what do I do that makes my speed stand out? To be honest, before it was brought up, I hadn't really thought about it. I've been playing since Odessey-block and over time have built up so much muscle memory and experience that a lot is second nature. Frankly, I'm fast because I've been playing so long that I can be. I know the motions I need to make, intuit my land drops well in advance, and think through things quickly because I've done it so many times. I'm a fast player because I don't need to think through a lot of the game basics.

There was an error retrieving a chart for Scars of the Veteran

However, that isn't the whole story. I may play fast thanks to experience, but I've also learned to speed up just by wasting less time each turn. This gameplay efficiency, combined with my mindset during games, forces me to be faster. I'll freely admit that both efficiency of play and mindset may take a lot of practice to learn (and I wouldn't say I've fully mastered them myself), but at least efficiency of play is something that every player can pick up right away. Let's talk about the two biggest aspects of gameplay efficiency, mechanical efficiency, and shuffling efficiency.

Mechanical Efficiency

The easiest change to speed up your gameplay is to drop unnecessary actions. How much time does the average Magic player waste by fiddling and futzing around rather than actually playing the game? I don't know, but I'd wager most players have some extraneous motions and fidgeting that just drags the game out. Fidgeting with cards in hand, combing through graveyards, rearranging lands compulsively, the list goes on. These take time, and when done on your own turn are just a waste of time. Doing it on the opponent's turn necessarily isn't harmful, but it isn't contributing either. So, stop doing needless things.

There was an error retrieving a chart for Brainstorm

I used to snap and shuffle my in-hand cards constantly. It was a fidgeting reflex for me. There was a vague hope opponents would be distracted too, initially. However, over time I realized that it was taking my mind off the game and lulling me into a stupor instead. So, I've stopped. These days, when it's not my turn I place my cards face down on the table and watch my opponent's actions. If I'm going to do something on the opponent's turn, I'll wait until I take the action to pick them up. This has forced me to pay closer attention to what's happening and play better. I also don't have to stop fidgeting to start my turn.

There was an error retrieving a chart for Hesitation

On that note, don't hem and haw over everything. If you're going to make a play, make the play. Only fiddle around if you have a complicated line and manipulating lands or writing it out helps you make it correctly. Otherwise, just play the spell and be done with it.

Shuffling Efficiently

Being told that I shuffle impressively fast was rather unnerving. After all, I'm just doing a standard mash shuffle. However, a lot of players do struggle with shuffling, and shuffling is such a time sink that Wizards tries to minimize it these days. Here's how I shuffle and why it's (apparently) so fast.

Misplaced Frugality

First and foremost, sleeves matter. Better sleeves can take more shuffling before getting damaged. Never cheap out on sleeves, paying more up-front saves money down the line. Good sleeves don't have to be replaced. After many years of experimentation, I will only use Dragon Shield matte sleeves. With my shuffling style, Dragon Shield sleeves never split, mash well after years of play, and the matte finish gives extra grip. More importantly, they never stick together. Which happens all the time with glossy sleeves, in my experience. Altogether, it means that I have confidence while shuffling and can just do it without fear of breaking sleeves. I've found that double sleeving doesn't affect anything, shuffle-wise, but it does add longevity to the cards themselves.

The Shuffle

Next, don't pile shuffle. It is a waste of time. It's not a shuffle per the official Tournament Rules, just a way to count cards and only allowed once per game. In practice, the only reason to ever do so is if cards were exchanged between you and your opponent and something may have gotten lost. Otherwise, it is quite noticeable when a deck isn't the expected number of cards. It will feel wrong when held, in which case then a count is warranted.

There was an error retrieving a chart for Flooded Strand

For my actual shuffle, I simply pick up my deck and start mashing. I always mash half-to-half, lower edge tip inserted into the middle of the other cards. I find that the cards flow better that way. How you hold the cards will impact the flow and you have to hold them firmly but loosely enough that each card can move freely. I tried to describe it in greater detail, but after numerous attempts, I just confused myself. It's a matter of feeling. After seven mashes, I'm done. There's no benefit to more than seven shuffles of any type.

There was an error retrieving a chart for Scalding Tarn

If it's the shuffle to start a new game, I will throw in some cuts as well. These aren't shuffles, just ways to reorder the deck after cards were clumped together last game. Generally, I open with a few random reordering cuts, then a couple more after a few mashes. I'll do the same for the opponent's deck at the start, with a random cut before returning their deck. All the in-game shuffling will just be swift mashing. No need to do more. There is nothing to be gained with special shuffles except for additional wear and tear to the cards.

Pre-Tournament Planning

Next, there are certain things that I decide upon before going to a tournament. These aren't typical preparation steps, or at least I don't hear other players discussing them. They save time by preventing me from agonizing over certain decisions during games.

1. What Do I Play Around?

Whether to play around opposing cards has been an argument for as long as tournament Magic has existed. I recall an article where someone surveyed the pros at a Pro Tour about whether they played around anything or not. Roughly a third said play around everything, a third said don't play around anything, and a third said play around some things. My experience leads me into the play around some things camp, but all are valid choices.

There was an error retrieving a chart for Supreme Verdict

Since I believe in playing around some things, I make sure to know exactly what those things are and in which situations I need to/can play around them. Because sometimes, I can't afford to play around anything. I just have to hope the opponent doesn't have "it". These situations should have come up in practice games, so there should be no doubt when they arise. If you are going to play around something, do it. If not, don't. There should be no need to think about playing around something in-game.

2. What Should the Match Look Like?

How do I want a given matchup to go, why won't it go that way, and how can I get the actual matchup to look more like that ideal outcome? I think that it's obvious, but many players try to figure out how they want a match to go while the match is happening. Your deck does something. The opponent's deck does something. You should know how the two interact and how each player can win the match. Have a plan to make that happen before the game begins. Don't fight then seek to win. Know how you and your deck plan to win before the first card is played.

In-Game Mindset

The biggest contributor to my play speed is how I think about individual games. This is also the hardest to explain or teach. I have come to recognize that there is a lot out of my control in a game of Magic: the Gathering. Variance in its many forms is a factor, and the opponent's decisions are independent of my expectations and experience. This was infuriating at first because it was incredibly frustrating. Losing to the whims of the universe doesn't feel great. It still doesn't, but I've learned to take a more Zen approach and let it go. I can't worry about everything and trying to do so clouds my judgment. I just focus on what I can actually control. Two aspects of this stand out as ways to speed up play.

1. Some Decisions Aren't Decisions at All

Magic is a game of decision-making. However, not all the choices are equivalent. Many players act like every choice is between multiple equivalent options. This means they will think seriously about everything they do. This is unnecessary and wastes time. Many decisions in a game aren't actually between two equal options. They're Hobson's Choices. The choice is between doing one thing or doing nothing. Nothing can often be a valid strategic decision.

There was an error retrieving a chart for Multiple Choice

Frequently, players will agonize over every decision. However, thanks to mana constraints, there will be only one or two choices, of which one is better than the other in the game's context. Thus, the choice is just between that option and doing nothing. It's important in these situations to stop weighing these choices as if they're equal. They're not. Save the agonizing for the times when there are multiple equally good options. When the choice is just something or nothing, choose the one that benefits you more.

There was an error retrieving a chart for Illusion of Choice

One example that frequently infuriates me is watching players agonize over their last card in hand. It should be obvious if it's useful or not. There's no need to waste time planning out scenarios. It can either be used right now or it can't. Staring at the card isn't going to change anything.

2. Don't Depend on Multiple Unknowns

On that note, as I'm planning out my turn and future turns, I've learned to only focus on what I have and could have. The scientific method teaches that you should only test one variable at a time. Similarly, when making gameplay decisions, it's imperative to limit the number of unknowns under consideration. There's enough variance in Magic that trying to plan around a specific sequence of plays from both players is unlikely to pan out. Assuming nobody's been Thoughtseized recently, anyway. Perfect information alleviates many constraints.

There was an error retrieving a chart for Enter the Unknown

I know what's in my hand and in my deck. I don't know my deck's order (excepting Brainstorm or similar), but I know what I could draw. Therefore, I can make plans based on the current boardstate, my hand, and what I want/need to draw and the odds of doing so. Once I start adding in my opponent, things get more speculative. I don't know what's in their hand or deck. I can make reasonable guesses, but they are just guesses. If my plan requires multiple things to happen over several turns from both me and my opponent, that's not planning. That's wishful thinking. Recognizing this has saved me a lot of time and stress worrying about things I can't control. I simply focus on what I definitely know, not on what might happen.

Increasing Your Speed Limit

If you want to play your own turns faster, there is no alternative to practice. The more practiced and experienced a player is with a deck, the faster they can play. However, eliminating little extraneous time sinks goes a very long way to speeding up games. Being more efficient with mechanics and planning is most of the battle. What have you done to speed up your gameplay? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter.

Join the conversation

Want Prices?

Browse thousands of prices with the first and most comprehensive MTG Finance tool around.

Trader Tools lists both buylist and retail prices for every MTG card, going back a decade.

Quiet Speculation