Gearing Up for Competition

If you have found yourself wondering if you would like to start chasing after the Pro Tour or just want to take your game to the next level, you’re in luck. I have fielded questions about going to competitive events for awhile so I’m going to take the time to tell you about a couple of tips and things I know about competing in large events.

This article is mainly for the the totally new competitive player for your first couple times in these higher level events. For the more seasoned player who just wants to see some of the stuff I do to prepare for an event you can probably skip this article. It’s likely I’ll write a guide on what I do for competitive events so you can look forward to that at a later date.

First Steps:

The first hurdle players have to overcome is deciding what events they want to participate in. I’m going to assume that many of you have already went to events hosted by a local store and I’m just going to focus on larger events that have a more regimented sign-up and competitive rules enforcement level (REL).

In the age of the internet there are a multitude of ways to find larger events that are scheduled near you. There are a couple of Facebook groups I have joined to let me know what is going on. The easiest resource to use is the official Magic: the Gathering website. This website will have all the sanctioned events on their searchable database that you can find at the bottom of their homepage. Now it is very likely you already know this exists because this is the way many people find out what local game stores are near them. So to find competitive events you will want to filter your results to those events you will want to play in. Now the Magic event database can be a little difficult to navigate if you are not sure about what the difference is between all of these events so I will explain these differences quickly here.

Generally competitive players participate in a variety of local and national events. The most popular, as least in my experience, are the Preliminary Pro Tour Qualifiers (PPTQ), Grand Prix events, and larger shop tournaments (Star City Games for instance). Each of these events have basically the same set up though there is a notable difference in how top-tier prizes and invitations to larger events are handled.

The PPTQs are perhaps the most popular and certainly the most numerous competitive event. In fact these are the easiest to get to because many are hosted by local game stores. The purpose of this event is essentially to start the Magic Pro Tour journey. The winner of the event is announced after multiple rounds and a separate cut to the top 8 players to determine who will get an invite to a Regional Pro Tour Qualifier (RPTQ). At the RPTQ they will play in another event with other PPTQ winners to secure an invite to the illustrious Pro Tour. This multi-step process is fairly grueling and generally needs a lot of preparation before a player is comfortable in events like these. The benefit is that these events are generally more local so they are easy to access.

I personally didn’t start playing competitively at PPTQs but instead went to the 1-2 day Grand Prix and tournament events. These events are not held as often and there are fewer of them but they can be a little better for people starting competitive play. One of the reasons I believe this is because there are usually a lot more people, usually hundreds, playing at these events. By in large these events typically cater to a less serious crowd but still exhibit competitive REL atmosphere so players can adjust to this higher level of playing. I also recommend this type of event for someone trying to transition to competitive play because your opponents will be a little more forgiving of mistakes and missed triggers. This is anecdotal and by no means should be taken as pure fact. Some opponents can still be very rigorous in abiding by the rules at these events especially if you are in the higher brackets. At these events prizes are generally going to be much larger cash pay outs and the top players at these events shortcut the PPTQ steps and are automatically awarded invitations to the Pro Tour. A notable point here is that Star City Games has their own version of a Pro Tour for their events that top players can win an invite to. This is of course completely separate from the official Magic Pro Tour but there are many top tier players that run this circuit instead of the Pro Tour.

If you are participating in a two day event you should know that only a select number of players are asked to come back for the second day according to their record. The cutoff point varies according to how many players signed up and how many rounds there are. There is usually an announcement about which standings make the cut but you may want to ask a judge the first couple times to see if you made it. If you haven’t, then there will usually be smaller events the second day that you can sign up for which are separate from the main event.

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Sign In and Deck Lists:

Of course whatever event you choose to go to you will have to make sure you sign up to participate. Larger events like GPs will have online registration for the events and also more recently online registration for your deck. I would recommend doing everything you can online because it will make your sign in experience easier. If there is no sign in or online deck registration there will generally be a sign up booth right were you enter the event space. There you should also find forms for your deck list or you will find them at a judges’ table. If you aren’t doing online sign ups you should try to be at the event as early as possible so can to give yourself time to fill out paperwork and make sure you are signed up for the event. With some of the more popular events or in areas where there isn’t a lot of room there will be an attendance cap so get there sooner rather than later.

In competitive REL your deck needs to be registered online or in person. This is a critical part of your participation in the event! It’s best to lay out your deck in front of you to make sure every card is accounted for, including your sideboard. If you are filling this form out on the day of the event judges will come by to collect the lists during a players meeting or before the start of the first match. Make sure your list is turned in before you start playing. The judges will have access to these lists and will do random deck checks throughout the day to see if these lists are accurate. Make sure they are accurate! Often if a judge finds a minor mistake on the list there may be a game loss. For larger infractions you could lose the match or even be disqualified if the error is especially heinous and looks like outright cheating. I find this is where I often make mistakes at competitive events because there are times I forget I made a minor change in my deck or sideboard only to find out later during the event. In cases like this where there is an honest mistake it is best to call over a judge for the event and abide by whatever ruling they provide. This is much better than them finding out later.

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Judges:

This leads me to another important part of competitive REL that I would like to talk about; judges. Judges will take a much larger role in competitive events than in events like FNM. Many people are made very nervous by this fact but they forget one critical thing; judges are there to help. They give us  access to information during our matches, rulings if no one knows what to do, and assure that we are all playing a fair game of Magic. If you find that there is a chance that your opponent didn’t play something by the rules or even if there is a rule you’re unsure about you can, and should, call for a judge. This is done by simply raising your hand and shouting “Judge” during the match. Keep your hand up and a judge will be around to assist. There have been many articles written about how and when to use judges but my rule of thumb is if at any time you’re confused or not 100% sure about something, it’s time to call a judge.

Another thing I want to note about judges and rulings is that you should be respectful of whatever a ruling a judge gives you even if it seems unfair. For example, at my first SCG tournament I accidently read the wrong table number and sat in the wrong seat. When the judge came over and realized that I was seated at the wrong table I was given a game loss. Even though I was prepared and was just sitting one chair over from where I should have been I had still kept both my opponent and myself from playing Magic for 10 minutes because I didn’t sit in the right seat. So it is expected of you take these rulings in stride and abide by them.

Match Slips:

A common oversight that players new to competitive Magic make is to forget about the match slip. As a result of having so many players and having such large prizes judges can’t just trust players to report their results. The match slip is a way for you and your opponent to report the result of a match fairly to whoever is keeping track. This slip is also the way a judge will officially mark if you have been giving a time extension or other ruling. There really isn’t much to the match slip just make sure it is completely filled out before you or your opponent leaves the table. You can give a filled out match slip to a judge from your event or there will be a drop box at the judges’ table.

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Gameplay:

Though you should be familiar with the rules of Magic there are a couple of big differences you will see when playing competitive REL. First, is you must write everything down. Many casual players will come to an FNM with countdown die to keep track of their life total and energy. This is expressly forbidden in competitive REL. It is also useful to have everything written out so you can appropriately check with your opponent to make sure you know what everyone’s current life total is during the game. Dice are still appropriate for use on individual cards including creatures like Arcbound Ravager, and other permanents like Gemstone Mine, and Khalni Heart Expedition. Tokens are also valid as long as all of the appropriate information is clearly visible on them.

Also, in a more casual setting I notice that many people breeze through their turn order but you must not do this during competitive play. Make sure you announce every time you wish to pass priority. You have to make sure you give your opponent time to respond if they wish. The three most important times you should make clear you’re passing priority is your draw step, your combat step, and your end step. These are the spots where your opponents are most likely to want to react and you should be aware of this. On the same note, you should make sure you do not move too slowly. Give your opponents time to respond to your actions but also don’t take 5 minutes deciding what spell you want to play. No one wants to be the person everyone is waiting on at FNM so you know you don’t want to keep hundreds of people waiting.

Final Thoughts:

A couple of other things to think about when you are preparing for your first competitive event is the condition of your card sleeves, cutting opponent’s decks, and knowing general courtesy. Card sleeves are required in competitive REL and you have to make sure that they are clean, and unworn. I generally buy a new set of sleeves before each other competitive event. This is very important because dirty or smudged sleeves can be seen as a form of card marking and you want to be free from any suspicion of cheating. I also always make sure I have at least 5 extra sleeves in my deck box in case one of the sleeves in my deck splits (despite the fact that it’s highly unlikely I prefer to be prepared).

It is also important to fully shuffle your opponent’s deck during these events and not just cut the deck in half like you would normally do at FNM. While we like to think our opponents wouldn’t cheat it’s best to do a quick shuffle to insure they don’t.

This may seem like an odd addition to this article but professional courtesy is as much a part of the game as playing Magic. Once you get to the table you are assigned immediately go to your table and check the match slip and ask if who you are sitting across from is the opponent stated on the slip. It’s generally accepted that at this point you introduce yourself and offer a handshake if you wish. Then, as swiftly as you can, prepare your space for the match (get out your mat, your deck, ect.). You cannot start until the match timer starts so at this point it’s usual to have some polite chit-chat with your opponent. My favorite ice breakers are usually, “Where are you from?”, “How long did it take you to get here?” ect. Do not ask them about their deck because that can be seen as you trying to cheat. I try to stray from talking too much about Magic because that can be seen by some as milking your opponent for information. Of course asking things like how long they have been playing is completely fine. During the match, some opponents are fine talking throughout the game while others prefer not to talk during play. Keep this in mind if you try to carry on a conversation during the match.

It will inevitably come up that you are unsure about a play that your opponent has made. You can ask your opponent to stop and explain what they just did. In competitive matches you are allowed to move back one step and replay in many circumstances as long as there isn’t a major change in board state. If you or your opponent notice that there is something wrong with the board state and you have passed multiple steps or have made multiple plays you need to call a judge over for a ruling. Game state is something all players are responsible for. If you see a mistake regardless if it benefits you or not a judge needs to be called. I mention this here because it is neither rude nor improper to call a judge in these instances. There are some salty people that may make you feel bad for calling a judge but they are wrong. The same goes for your response on having a judge called for something you have done. Your opponent has every right to ask for clarification or make a judge examine a play. This helps keep the game fair and everything above board.

At the end of the game, regardless of the outcome, it is always polite to tell your opponent, “Good game” or some variation and shake hands with them. Believe it or not the match ending handshake has come under some controversy. Some players believe that the loser of the match should offer the hand shake while others believe that it doesn’t matter which player offers. I’m not going to weigh in too heavily on this controversy other than to say some form of polite concluding remark or gesture should be made by both players, winner or loser.

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To conclude this introduction into competitive play, I would like to say that I have found the best way to play competitively is in groups. Many people like to organize a travel group with a bunch of other players that they like to play with. Some even form test groups that gives them access to a bunch of decks and allows them to hone their skills to get ready for competition. Traveling in groups also makes it easier on your wallet if you have to stay overnight for a multiple day event.

Playing Magic competitively can be really fun. It’s exciting to play against opponents that are the best of the best. I hope by next week to have a shorter article about some things that I do that are useful for managing the stress of traveling and playing at these competitive events. In the meantime, if there is something that you see that I have missed feel free to leave a comment below.