Do you remember what it was like playing in your first tournament? For some of you, it was a long time ago. For me, it's been nearly twenty years. Do you remember feeling totally overwhelmed and intimidated? Looking back, do you wish someone could have given you some advice to make the whole experience a lot better for you?
Most people who ask me for advice have been playing in Magic tournaments for a long time, so most of what I write is tailored to that audience. However, there's a huge group of Magic players out there aren't looking for my thoughts on the Standard metagame, proper sideboarding, or deckbuilding theory. They're just getting their feet wet in the tournament scene. Magic has been growing by leaps and bounds over the past few years, as we can see in the massively increased attendance at Grand Prix and similar events.
My girlfriend has been coming with me to play in a number of events recently, and she is one of these newer tournament players. A lot of people ask her if she's learned a lot from me, and she tells them that most of what I write and talk about when it comes to Magic is just too advanced for her to really get much out of. So Natalie—and all of you out there who might feel the same way she does—this article is for you. If you're a long-time tournament player, a lot of this may already be second nature to you, but even grizzled veterans can use a refresher on the basics sometimes.
Before the Tournament
There are a lot of things you can and should do before a tournament to make the whole process a lot easier. Here's a few of them that I think are important:
Bring all of the accessories with you that you'll need.
This includes your deck (for a Constructed tournament), extra sleeves, any counters or tokens you might need, and a pen and paper for life totals. You might be inclined to use dice or one of those fancy life tracking applications on your phone to keep track of life, but using pen and paper is the best way to keep a record of life total changes over the course of a game and also gives you the materials you'll need to take notes during your matches if you're so inclined. Some of the apps have features that keep track of all life total changes—I know Natalie swears by hers because it means she doesn't have to do as much math—but good old pen and paper really can't be beat.
If you have them, I highly recommend bringing tokens for the actual token types your deck is capable of creating.
As flattering as it might be that you want to use my StarCityGames.com player token to represent your Beasts from Thragtusk, your Wolves from Garruk, or your Vampires from Sorin, it's best to have the tokens that you need to represent everything clearly so there is no confusion between you and your opponents over the course of the tournament. I have seen many judge calls that could be avoided because one player was representing a token creature with something like a slip of paper, and I've personally simply forgotten about tokens I had in play because they weren't clear. Do yourself a favor and avoid those potential problems.
If you have the opportunity, write or print out your decklist prior to the event, but if you can't, be sure to double and triple check it prior to handing it in.
Deck registration errors are absolutely avoidable with just a little bit of due diligence. Be sure to go through the individual cards and not just count up the total. I got a match loss in a single elimination qualifier for the old Masters Series because I wrote one spell on my decklist twice and forgot to write a different spell down. My deck was still 60 cards, but I didn't register all of them correctly. A nearly identical deck to the one I was playing won the tournament. These days, I write my cards down in sections by casting cost—creatures, then spells, then lands—so I can easily notice if something is missing and avoid the risk of duplication.
Find a deck that you enjoy, and practice playing it.
It's more important to play a deck that you're comfortable with and that you have fun playing than it is to find the perfect deck for a tournament, especially when you're just starting out. Listen to the advice of more experienced players when they make suggestions about your choices, though. It's easy to get caught up in the idea of doing cool things or get blinded by the time your deck worked exactly how you wanted it to and forget all the dozens more times it didn't.
Have a realistic view of your expectations for the tournament.
Why are you going? Maybe you just want to have fun, or maybe you're looking to learn something and improve. You might do well in the event—and you should certainly strive for that—but realistically it's not something you can expect when you're just starting out. Having the right expectations will put you in the proper mindset to make the most of your tournament experience.
Bring snacks and drinks.
Tournaments are long events, and most of the time they won't have breaks for meals. You'll play a lot better and have a much better time if you're not hungry and dehydrated all day. I tend to pack protein bars and bring a water bottle with me, which do wonders to keep me alert through a long day.
Refresh your knowledge of the rules.
While you may be able to take back plays because you didn't understand what would happen with your friends, you aren't going to be afforded this luxury in tournament play. If you have any questions, don't be afraid to ask a judge. Which brings us to…
During the Tournament
Always call a judge any time you're unsure of something.
Judges are there to answer questions and resolve disagreements. Some people have the impression that calling a judge is tantamount to accusing your opponent of cheating. It is not. Judges are there to ensure that the tournament runs smoothly and accurately, and you should never feel ashamed for calling one any time you have any kind of disagreement or confusion. A judge can't give you gameplay advice, but they can explain any rules to you that you might be unclear on so don't hesitate to ask if you ever feel the need.
Don't let your opponents rush you.
While most players will be courteous and understanding that you're a newer tournament player, others may attempt to rush you through your decisions. You do need to play in a timely fashion, but what that entails is up to the judges, not your opponent. If your opponent is playing too quickly or rushing through things that you don't understand, ask them to slow down. Your opponent has to give you opportunities to respond to what they do and can't prevent you from doing so simply by playing quickly. If your opponent tries to rush through situations where you want to make plays, call a judge and let them sort it out.
It's important to be clear about what you're doing at all times in a tournament. If you're going to attack with three of your creatures, be sure to announce them all together or at least communicate to your opponent that you're still declaring attackers after you tap two of them but before you tap the third. If you want to get a visual sense of combat when your opponent is attacking, tell them that you're just thinking and not declaring blocks yet when you move your creatures around the board and then clearly state when your blocks are final.
Keep your options open.
Strategically, it's important to give your opponent as little information and options as possible when they're making their decisions, and you want to have as much information and options as possible when you make yours. This is why experienced players will tell you to attack before playing creatures on your turn. If you tap out to play a creature before combat, your opponent will know that you can't play anything and will be able to block without fear. Keep them guessing and give them the opportunity to make mistakes.
This isn't the same rule as "wait until the last possible moment to do anything," which is a trap that some players fall into when they start to feel clever. If you have a removal spell and you wait until your opponent attacks to use it, they may have some kind of Giant Growth effect, a Restoration Angel, some kind of counterspell, or even a bloodrush creature to keep it alive. Remember, you want as much information as possible, but you also want your opponent to have as few options as possible. If you wait until the last moment, you have additional information, but you may be giving your opponent more options. If your opponent taps out for a creature that you really want dead, you should generally kill it on your own turn since letting them untap is just giving them more options to potentially keep it alive.
Don't give everything away.
Bluffing is as central to Magic as it is to poker. You may have just drawn your fifth land in a row, but your opponent doesn't know that unless you slam it down on the table in exasperation and complain. On the flip side, don't give up future options just to bluff. If you have two lands in your hand, you should usually play one of them rather than hold them both to bluff because down the line you might need all of the mana you can get.
Don't compound your mistakes due to embarrassment.
Many times, players will make a mistake and then realize it but choose not to make a play that would reveal that they made a mistake. I once forgot to play a land before attacking with a creature that got +1/+1 for each land I controlled and decided not to play my land after combat because I didn't want to look foolish. The next turn, I drew another land, and my opponent was able to double block my creature and use a pump effect to exactly kill it, which would not have been possible if I hadn't foolishly tried to save face by concealing my mistake. Everyone makes mistakes, and you can learn from them better once you acknowledge them.
Remember that you can find information everywhere and so can your opponents.
Be sure to use a new piece of paper for each match you play because your life pad from a match can reveal all kinds of things about what deck you're playing. If my opponent's life pad has a bunch of card names as notes, I can generally deduce that they're playing a deck with something that lets them see their opponent's hand like Thoughtseize or Duress. If their life total goes up in five point increments regularly, they're probably playing with Thragtusk. If their opponent's life total never goes down, they're probably playing Esper Control and winning with Nephalia Drownyard. Most people don't pay attention to that kind of thing, but don't run the risk that your opponent is one of the few who does and give them unnecessary information.
On a related note, be sure to be careful when you're shuffling.
A lot of players—even those who are more experienced—are sloppy shufflers and will frequently reveal cards in their deck to their opponent. While it's illegal for your opponent to intentionally try to look at your deck while they're shuffling it, there's nothing preventing them from just looking straight ahead while you're shuffling your own deck and catching a glimpse of some of the cards you're playing if you're shuffling poorly.
Always pile shuffle your deck at the start of a round.
This is less a randomization tool and more to ensure that your deck is the correct number of cards. It's easy to misplace a card or accidentally reset your deck to the wrong configuration between matches and end up with 59 cards in your deck. If you pile shuffle your deck before each match and count out the cards, you should always notice if your deck is the wrong number of cards before you present and receive a penalty.
Similarly, always check your sideboard at the start of each match.
Count that it's fifteen cards, and make sure that it's the correct fifteen cards. Failure to desideboard carries with it a game loss penalty, and it's one that is easily avoided by taking a few moments at the start of each match to check. If you do forget and draw a sideboard card in game 1, call a judge and explain the situation. If you draw it in your opening hand and call a judge on yourself, you will frequently be allowed to reset your deck to the correct configuration and continue without a penalty other than a forced mulligan. If it's discovered later that you knowingly concealed the fact that you failed to desideboard, you will face a much harsher penalty. Honesty is the best policy in such things.
Be a good sport in victory and defeat.
Don't gloat, and don't get down on yourself. I've won more matches than nearly all of you reading this, but I've almost certainly lost more too. Magic is a hard game, and you're going to do a lot of losing no matter how good you are. If you want to succeed in Magic tournaments, you have to get good at losing because it's going to happen a lot more than you'd like. Some newer players have the impression that tournament players are jerks who get mad and complain when they lose, but the reality is that the best players are mostly all very good sports and don't have the sense of entitlement that seems to exist among middling competitive players.
Don't drop from the tournament without a good reason.
Playing in tournaments gives you experience that can't be duplicated elsewhere, and if you plan to continue playing in tournaments, it's better to get that experience now while you can. Even if you're long since out of contention for prizes, you can still get a better sense of playing in a tournament environment and learn things that can improve your chances in future events.
Be careful with your stuff.
Not everyone at every tournament is going to be as honest as you are, and some people will take any opportunity to steal a deck or bag left lying around. At a Grand Prix in Germany a few years ago, I had just put all of my valuable cards into a binder to organize them and make trading easier. At some point during the day, I realized it wasn't in my hands. I thought I had maybe set it down on the coverage desk when I was talking to the staff because I couldn't think of any other time that I would have let go of it, but no one had seen it. It never turned up, and I was out quite a bit of money. That kind of experience can go a long way toward making an otherwise fun tournament experience into a nightmare. Don't let it happen to you. Watch your stuff.
The best way to improve in Magic is by playing with people who are better than you, and the best way to meet those people is by attending tournaments where you can find them. Most players are friendly and will be happy to answer questions you might have. Even outside of getting better, Magic tournaments are great places to meet like-minded people. Virtually all of my best friends these days are people I know because of Magic. And frankly, I wouldn't have it any other way.
Even if you're there to win, Magic is still a game. No one has gotten rich playing Magic. No one has gotten truly famous playing Magic. Those of us who play Magic do so because we love the game, and we wouldn't love it if it weren't fun above all else. Never forget that.
I hope this was a valuable guide for those of you newer players out there and maybe a good refresher for the veterans. For those of you who are old-timers, what advice would you give to a newer player looking to get involved with tournaments? Share your tips in the comments!
Until next time,