"Attention, Duelists – it is time on the round!"
This announcement rings familiar to anyone that's ever attended a major event. It swiftly cuts off any ongoing matches, ensuring the event can move on. That's the theory, at least.
Yet, this process also has a darker side. Ask any player who's been playing for a while, and they'll readily offer up stories of how they were "robbed of a win" by the clock. Think of the tales what you may – end-of-match procedures being a leading cause of player resentment cannot be dismissed.
Now, of course, events need to finish in a timely fashion. Venues have closing times. People need to sleep, or to travel home for work. Events can't get delayed for an hour just so the two Sky Striker players on table 198 can finish their private little fun-fest in peace. Some form of end-of-match procedure is a necessary evil.
Still, I'm here today to argue that their current incarnation is unnecessarily harsh, produces an undesirable incentive structure for players, and may well consume more time in investigations than it truly saves.
Do I have your attention? Then follow along.
I'm going to start out by positing a few basic theories. Some are anecdotal in nature, and I have no hard data to back them up -- but I suspect they will still sound agreeable to anyone with major event experience.
First – round times are driven by the slowest table. This sounds obvious, but it pays to stop and think about it for a moment. From an event-running perspective we care less about how long most tables take, but care a lot about how long the slowest table takes. Which leads us to…
Second – event times are typically driven up by outlier tables. I think we've all been there. It is round 8 of 9 on day 1 of a YCS. Everyone just wants to get it over with and go home. The wall clock is currently showing 67 minutes overtime, and there are two judges standing guard at table 728.
It might only happen once or twice in an event, but it's costing you an hour each time.
Third – outlier tables are often caused by investigations. Now this isn't always true, but if a table loses 10 minutes to a Deck Check, then goes the full distance, and finally you end up with the Head Judge needing to investigate for potential Stalling at the end, that's a ready-made recipe for one of these nightmare tables from earlier.
So, having established these basic assumptions, let's have a look at the incentives driving players as time approaches.
Players are, generally speaking, at a Yu-Gi-Oh! tournament to win. At a YCS-level event, players have spent hundreds of Euro (or equivalent currency) on travel and accomodation. They come equipped with the highest-power Decks their local community could collectively build. Most players will only get this kind of chance once or twice a year. A lot is riding on their performance in a small handful of games.
Keeping this in mind, put yourself in the position of a player. It is game 3 of an all-deciding round 11. Win, and you make top cut. You can picture your friends celebrating you when you get back. But – the game is getting away from you. You committed to an overaggressive push, but couldn't quite finish your opponent off, and now they are seizing control. Behind them, you can see the round timer ticking down. Two minutes to go. If only you can get to the end of these two minutes, somehow…
That is, more or less, how many investigations are made. In a desperate situation, with everything on the line, and a player's hopes slipping away – they make a decision to bend the rules a little. The celebration will feel so good, and all they need to do is give their opponent's cards an extra-careful read. Nobody will ever know, the player thinks. Sometimes, they might even be right. Judges are paying extra attention near the end of the round, of course, but there's only so few eyes for so many tables.
This internal conflict between winning and following the rules could almost be called cruel. Spend an extra second or three here and there, and win – or follow the rules, and lose. Of course, such a conflict isn't unique to end-of-match procedures – but here, specifically, I don't think it is necessary to have it at all. Instead of setting up the rules to reward playing slowly, they could just as easily reward playing faster.
Allow me to elaborate.
We Can Have Nice Things
First off, I'm going to posit that the turn player typically controls the pace of gameplay. While Yu-Gi-Oh! is a two-player game, and many cards let you interact with your opponent's turn, the turn player is still the one taking most actions.
The current end-of-match procedure ends the Duel after the current phase.① In other words, if the turn player plays slowly and delays ending their turn, they are taking a chance to play away from their opponent.
Once you realize this is an issue, the solution seems almost too simple. You simply let the Duel continue until the end of the next turn, rather than the end of the current turn. Now, if the turn player plays slowly, they're taking away their own next turn. If they play faster and manage to complete their turn before time is called, they gain an extra turn.
This simple tweak has completely flipped the incentive structure of end-of-match procedures on its head. The turn player is now rewarded, rather than penalized, for faster play. Of course, this is not without issue.
①: While my point mostly concerns itself with the opponent losing a turn, note that the current end-of-match procedure ending the Duel at the end of the phase produces a particularly twisted incentive structure, where both players are rewarded for slow play in different scenarios. ^
Can We Have Nice Things?
Those of you that have been playing for a while will recall – end-of-match procedures weren't always this way. Before June of 2018, once time was called, play would continue for up to five turns before the Duel was forcibly ended. As those who were around in this era will also recall – this wasn't exactly great. Events would routinely run into the wee hours of the morning. Players were tired. Judges were exhausted. Venue operators were furious. We definitely don't want to go back there.
So, we need to ask: would my proposed change, letting the Duel run for two extra turns②, take us back to those dark ages? I would argue that it wouldn't, and I think there are two factors in play.
First, recall the earlier discussion^ on outlier tables. If we prevent even a single investigation by nudging players away from doing self-destructive things in desperation, we're saving lots of downtime. But – how much time are we losing to do it?
Second, and this may produce a kneejerk reaction from some, but a turn shouldn't really take that long. I would anecdotally argue that many of the excesses of the old end-of-match procedures were exacerbated by slow play. Players would be making extra sure they were making the right moves, and thinking extra carefully during these turns. After all, they thought, time was no longer an issue. This is something that judges would need to counteract, strongly. Players are required to play at a reasonable pace, even and especially during these extra turns. If this is done consistently, which I have every confidence that it would be, I think that even the worst case scenario of two full extra turns wouldn't take more than five minutes to complete.
②: My proposal is to end the Duel at the end of the next turn. We need to compare this to current end-of-match procedures, which often lead to players not even playing out their Main Phase, because they know they have no way to inflict damage in it. In the worst case, this leads to the turn player playing out their full turn, followed by their opponent getting a full turn. That's where the "two extra turns" in this section are coming from. ^
Before 2018, events were routinely running over venue schedules. Players' tournament experience was suffering. This could not continue, and would've only gotten worse as tournaments grew. The new end-of-match procedures were a necessary, if drastic, measure to curtail this looming threat.
Yet, in review, it is becoming apparent that they produce an undesirable incentive structure. Players are rewarded for violating the rules and playing slowly. I argue that this is a design flaw, and can be remedied.
By having the Duel continue until the end of the next turn, the incentive structure is reversed, and the turn player is rewarded for progressing the game faster. I argue that the extra time taken, with proper Slow Play enforcement, would be outweighed by the time saved on investigations. This makes for a net positive for both players and event organizers.
Or, at least, that's my opinion.