I greatly enjoy organized Magic tournaments, both playing in them and judging them. If you’ve never had the opportunity to attend a larger Competitive REL (Rules Enforcement Level) tournament, I can’t recommend it enough. As this is the first of many articles for my judge column, I’ll go over some major points that should help you if you’re preparing for a competitive Magic tournament.
Preparing for a major tournament can begin weeks or even months in advance. I could spend an entire article just talking about play testing tips and things you want to consider while play testing, but I’ll just hit the high points here.
First of all, know your deck very well. You’re going to be playing for several hours, running into numerous board states, and you’re going to need to know how to react and what to do in various circumstances. You should be able to pilot your deck in your sleep. Not only that, but just be aware of what the cards in your deck actually do. At GP Dallas last year, two seats down from me in round 3, a guy called a judge because his entire deck was completely foiled and in Japanese and he couldn’t remember if Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas impulsed for four cards or five. How embarrassing.
Second, know the format you’ll be playing. If you’ll be playing in a Legacy event, be prepared to see plenty of Maverick, RUG Delver, Stoneblade variants, and something involving Show and Tell. If it’s Standard you’ll be playing, expect to see plenty of Blue-White Delver, Black-Red Zombies, and Birthing Pod variants. Also, be prepared to play against those decks. Chances are you’re not going to play your deck the same way against a Zombies opponent as you would against a Delver opponent, or against a Solar Flare opponent, or against the mirror match. Being aware of a deck’s existence isn’t enough. You also need to know what those decks can do and what you need to do against them.
Finally, you should be aware of any important interactions that can arise and how they work. Know what happens when both players’ Huntmasters trigger on the same upkeep. Understand why a Lightning Bolt can’t kill a 2/3 Tarmogoyf if there are no instants in the graveyard. An undying Phantasmal Image can also lead to some uncommon board states. Be aware of these unique interactions and don’t be afraid to call a judge if there happens to be a dispute between you and your opponent.
Break bad habits
Playing Magic casually can sometimes lead to bad play habits that you’ll certainly want to break before going to a major tournament. Again, I could spend an entire article on this, but here are some more important ones that are relatively simple to fix:
Use pencil and paper to track life – Dice can get knocked around and phones can fall off a table. It’s a very good idea to be keeping track of both players’ life on a sheet of paper because there is less room for error. I would also suggest notating what causes each life change, because if there is ever a dispute in life totals, a judge will side with the player presenting more information.
Shuffle your opponent’s deck - Sure, you know all the people at your local FNM and none of them would try to cheat. You can’t really say the same thing when a Pro Tour invite is on the line. In competitive REL tournaments, not only is it a good idea to thoroughly randomize your opponent’s deck, but it’s expected and part of the rules. A quick pile shuffle and some side shuffles should be sufficient and don’t take very long.
Don’t excessively flick your cards – This is a habit players develop after watching more experienced players, but it can sometimes be dangerous. Quickly randomizing your hand to protect information after drawing a card or after your hand has been revealed is certainly fine, but just constantly shuffling your hand can develop into a nervous tick and increases the chances you’ll accidentally drop or show a card.
There are numerous advantages to traveling with friends. First, your cost becomes so much lower. Nine guys to a hotel room may not sound very comfortable, and if often isn’t, but when you come away paying only $25 for the hotel for the entire weekend, you may not mind it so much. Same with the cost of gas. 10-12 people can travel somewhat comfortably between two fuel efficient vehicles for a pretty small price tag.
In addition to the lower cost, traveling with your friends makes the entire trip more fun. Road trips are no fun by yourself. When traveling over night, my friends and I try to arrive a day or so early so we won’t be so rushed and we can have some time to hang out and possibly enjoy the city we’re going to (if it’s a major city, like for a GP.) We basically make a vacation out of it.
Your friends will also be there to act as a support group, encouraging you between rounds, praising you every time you get a win, and cheering you on once you make day 2 or even the top 8. Moral support can actually go a long way and is incredibly valuable.
Take care of yourself
Get plenty of rest. Another benefit of arriving early is that you’re not going to be in a huge rush and you’ll have some time to rest and mentally prepare for the weekend. I’ve heard stories of people driving all night, then pulling into the venue 30 minutes before the players’ meeting starts, and that just doesn’t make sense to me. Nine hours of Magic is a lot of Magic. You’re going to need rest. If you make day two of a GP, don’t go out partying with your friends. Seriously, go back to your hotel room and sleep. It will make a tremendous difference in your performance.
You’re also going to want to shower. Now, all jokes about Magic nerds’ hygiene aside, a shower will wake you up, make you feel better, and help you concentrate. There are few worse feelings than having to suffer through nine hours of being filthy and sweaty surrounded by other guys who aren’t in much better condition. So shower, not just for those around you, but for your own sake as well.
Eat and stay hydrated
This may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how easily it can be overlooked. Furthering the effort to take care of yourself, drinking plenty of water and making sure you have a chance to eat something throughout the day will go a long way in fighting fatigue. Most venues don’t object to your carrying around a bottle of water, but double check with the TO about any food rules they may have. When I’m at large events, the first one or two people of my group to scrub out are the ones to go on a food run for everyone still playing (another benefit of traveling with friends.)
Understand that the rules will be more strictly enforced
There’s a distinct difference in how an FNM is judged and how a PTQ or Grand Prix is judged. FNMs are casual. They are the entry points for competitive Magic, and are very much social events. So if a player makes a mistake, draws an extra card on accident, forgets to de-sideboard or whatever, it’s not going to be a big deal at an FNM. As judges, we deal with penalties differently at a casual event. New players make mistakes and I’m not going to rules-lawyer people at an FNM. I’m there to help them learn.
At a competitive REL tournament however, the results will be much different, ranging from a warning for failure to maintain proper game state, to a game loss for drawing extra cards, to a match loss for being 10 or more minutes late for your round. Please understand, judges aren’t there actively waiting for you to screw up so they can slap you with penalties. They are there to help keep things as fair as possible. The most common judge calls come from poor communication between players, so make sure you have clear communication with your opponent and you may never even notice the judges are around.
If you’re not used to having judges patrol the game tables, don’t be intimidated. While they obviously can’t give you any strategic advice, don’t be afraid to call one if you have a question about the current board state.
Any time you have a large group of people in the same area, there will always be the opportunity for theft. Unfortunately, Magic events are no different, and the larger the event, the greater the chance. There are several high profile examples of theft ranging from Legacy and Vintage decks being stolen all the way up to entire cubes disappearing. I am in no way faulting victims of theft, nor do I wish to discourage anyone from attending a large event, but I do want to caution you and offer some advice to help prevent this from happening to you.
If you feel like you won’t need something, don’t bring it with you. If you know you’re not going to have time to get in a cube draft, don’t bother bringing your cube. If you’re not going to trade, don’t bring your trade binder. It’s just that much more you’d have to keep up with. Bottom line is be aware of your surroundings, don’t leave your stuff unattended even for a few moments, and don’t bring with you something you don’t anticipate needing.
I don’t go on a whole lot of road trips, but when I do, it’s usually to a PTQ or a GP with some of my best friends. I will never forget 9 hour car rides, passing the time by playing three-card blind or Vintage Rotisserie draft. Or the time we walked 17 blocks in downtown Dallas to get to a BBQ joint that was “just down the street” according to a friend (it was Famous Dave’s and it ended up being totally worth it.) Or the time Brian David Marshall asked me for recommendations for a good local restaurant. Or staying up til 4am playing Dominion and drafting my friend’s custom cube because nobody made Day 2. Or the time I came this close to winning a PTQ and going to Pro Tour Philadelphia.
My point is, while I’m obviously not the most decorated player and I’ll probably never win a Grand Prix or even play on the Pro Tour, I wouldn’t trade any of these experiences for the world. Every single trip was well worth it, and then some. If you’ve never been to a large Magic event, I highly encourage you to do so at least once because it’s a very unique and memorable experience.
Return to Ravnica is upon us!
Hopefully I covered at least one thing in this article that you’ll find beneficial if you’re preparing for a big upcoming Magic tournament. Join me again in two weeks, the day of the Return to Ravnica prerelease, when I’ll be reviewing all of the new set’s mechanics as well as explaining some rules questions and concerns that may arise over the course of the day. If you’re planning on going to the prerelease, I highly recommend you to read this.
As always, thanks for reading and feel free to leave your comments below!