DarthJacen’s Declassified Tournament Survival Guide

With the return of in paper events like SCG Cons, NRGs, and soon to be smaller PPTQ style events leading into Regional Qualifiers for the Pro Tour, now seems like a great time to go over some of the tips of the trade in how best to survive those challenging tournament days.

Survival Guide to: The Pro Tour

With the return of in paper events like SCG Cons, NRGs, and soon to be smaller PPTQ style events leading into Regional Qualifiers for the Pro Tour, now seems like a great time to go over some of the tips of the trade in how best to survive those challenging tournament days. While some of these tips might seem basic for more experienced grinders, given the presence of COVID-19, even for someone like me who traveled to large events monthly, it has been years since I last went out of state for an event and a refresher has never hurt anybody. 

Pre-Tournament Preparation

Today’s events no longer just run through a program that a scorekeeper tracks solo. The modern tournament runs through MTGMelee or the Companion app depending on the tournament organizer’s choice and the scale of the event. Be sure to make an account on Melee and download the Companion app before going to a tournament. 

Next up, be sure to confirm the start time and location of the event. I can’t tell you how stressful it can be when you’re running behind in the morning of a tournament and you still need to look up basic information about the tournament. I always double check the start time, the location, and how long the drive to the event is from my house or how far a walk the event site is from my hotel the night before the event. The less you must do morning of the event, the smoother your day will start and that will immediately put you in a better headspace to play an event. 

Once you know when and where you’re going, confirm all the particulars about your deck and tools for the event. Do you have your full deck, or do you need to borrow cards from others attending the event? Do you need to buy or pick up cards from vendors at the site? Is your deck sleeved, do you have your playmat, dice, and other accessories packed? Do you need a decklist? If so, have you pre-written or typed it out? All of these are small tasks that could be done before the event, but a laundry list of small tasks quickly becomes overwhelming when there’s a hard deadline to get it all done. I try to ensure that the only thing I need to do on the day of a tournament is wake up, shower (Editor’s Note: Please make sure you do this, too. And wear fresh clothes), feed myself, and get to the event. Everything else is the job of my past self. 

Lastly, before the event starts, be sure to eat, drink, pack snacks, or confirm you can get food at the venue! Many Magic players, myself included, will forget to take care of their basic needs while at an event. Whether it’s due to stress, anxiety, or just enjoying friends’ company,  if you forget to eat and drink water, your odds of playing well plummet, especially in the later rounds of an event. 

At the Venue

Well, now that you’ve arrived, your deck and decklist are set and you’re ready to play some Magic, right? Well, first you’ll need to either enter the event or confirm your entry if you pre-registered and ensure you are in the event via the Companion app or MTGMelee as mentioned above. Then, try to orient yourself of all the major spots in the store or venue. Where are the bathrooms, is there food available at the store or nearby, where is table one, how do the table numbers go so you can find your seat easier for matches, all the small things that you can take care of before you fully go into play mode. 

I personally like to put in earbuds and jam out to some pre-tournament music but finding your own pre-event ritual is an important way to ensure you start the event in the right headspace to come out swinging in round one. While some people read, pile shuffle their deck, draw test hands, double check their decklist, play board games, check Reddit, read articles, write out their sideboard plans, whatever it is that gets you fired up to play Magic, it’s an important part of preparing your mindset for competition. 

Once the Pairings go up

Some places will run a players’ meeting to collect decklists or do announcements, other places will collect the decklists during round one. Assume you are sitting across from your opponent and don’t leave your decklist face up! Once you sit down for your match, be kind, be courteous, we are all part of the same community after all but be prepared. Tournament Magic naturally feels different than more casual Magic that you may have played before. When the stakes rise, the pressure rises, and people are generally a little on edge. This comes up most often during round one and during the last few rounds of any tournament. Take a deep breath and remember that this game of Magic is no different than the hundreds you’ve played before this moment. 

One of the best tips I can give any aspiring tournament Magic player is to find out how you best handle stress and pressure. Do you love it? Are you someone who wants to take the last shot in a game of basketball? Do you prefer to set up the play so someone else can take that shot? Are you someone who has a tremendous amount of anxiety in stressful situations? While there are extremely talented players who can succeed with any of these mentalities, knowing how you ideally respond to the stresses of competition can allow you to account for errors you might otherwise make. I love pressure and always have, but that means that often round 1 is where I struggle the most, since the beginning of the day before we get into the real meat of a tournament is where I’m most lax. Just taking the time to know yourself in these situations will keep your sharper and ready to compensate for your weaknesses and accentuate your strengths. 

Once you finish your match, ensure you know how to submit the results. Does the tournament organizer use paper slips as a backup? Do they just have you submit on the Companion app? Do you submit on MTGMelee? Is there a confirmation required of both players for the result or does just one person need to input the results? Whether winning or losing, it’s important to understand what is expected of you as a player in the event. 

So, what is expected of you as a player in a tournament setting? 

Player expectations

Unlike at more casual events like Friday Night Magic, there are certain expectations on players in a tournament setting. While the behavioral expectations are the same – no unsporting conduct, no racism, no bigotry, respect your opponent and all people at the venue, etc. there are unique expectations that can sometimes lead to uncomfortable situations if you don’t know how best to handle them. 

First, judges are at the event, or they should be, and they are there as arbiters acting to ensure fair play and correct execution of the rules. Don’t know what a card does because it is in a foreign language, call for a judge and ask for the Oracle text of the card. Don’t know how a specific interaction works between cards? Ask a judge. You can even ask away from the table, ask the judge to do this before standing up, to ensure your opponent doesn’t get free information based on your question. Not quite sure why something works the way your opponent says it does? Ask a judge. If you have even the slightest uncertainty, call a judge. Remember that while your opponent might be the nicest person in the world, they do not have your best interest in mind, and it is your responsibility to clarify any questions you have with the judge staff.

Part of this comes from the expectation that at competitive tournaments, you are expected to know how the cards in your deck work and understand common interactions in the format. Obviously, you need to call a judge if you don’t know something, but part of the weight of responsibility falls on the players to have a basic understanding of how Magic works and how their deck functions. More than once I have seen players lose games by not understanding how their deck functions within the rules of Magic and when corrected, they no longer knew how to win. 

While not every judge ruling may go in your favor, in events where there is a specified Head Judge, you can always appeal a ruling to the Head Judge, but their ruling will be final. Be kind and understanding with judges. Much like anyone in a customer facing position, they have plenty of unpleasant individuals to deal with at any event and they’re not paid nearly enough for you to sass them. The best skill to learn in terms of handling judge calls and complicated situations in paper is to work on clear communication. Expressly state where you are in the turn if it is relevant. ‘I am in second Main Phase,’ that way there is no mistake that the Prized Amalgam you discard will come back during this end-step and not the next end-step. Clear communication saves misunderstandings and feels-bad situations from arising. 

Next, you are expected to be on time to your matches! Do not dally and wander around the venue as the round goes up. Pairings go up and usually less than five minutes later, the matches are expected to start. If you are not in your seat or did not get permission from a judge to be late for, say the bathroom, when the round timer starts, you potentially be penalized. Your actions otherwise could stall the entire tournament if they waited for you. This also goes for reporting your matches. Don’t sit around and chat with friends forgetting to submit your results and delay the event for everyone else. Be courteous of other peoples’ time at events. 

Wrapping Up

While there’s plenty more to consider at your first set of tournaments back, like what deck to play, what sideboard cards are good, and more, these are the best tips I can give any newer player to the tournament scene to ensure you have a good time venturing into the competitive landscape of Magic. Consult these tips above and your first few events will, at least from the parts you can control, go much smoother. Oh, and most importantly, try to have fun. While it can be discouraging having a rough event results-wise, especially after putting time and effort in, remember that this game we play is challenging and the Gathering and the fun we have is the thing that brings most players back decades later. 

Thanks for reading and stay safe out there at your upcoming tournaments! 

  • Competitive Guide

    Darthjacen has been playing Magic since Dark Ascension and plays Standard, Modern, Pioneer, and Limited. With a Grand Prix win in 2015 and an SCG Team Top 4 in 2019, he continues to pursue competitive Magic at every turn.

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