It’s never been a better time to be a Magic player – Wizards went full-blown flavor-tastical on Greek/Roman-styled Theros; Standard is finally well-balanced (compared to the past 3-4 years); the Internet is packed with articles and reviews on deck strategies and play styles; And there are more competitive and serious tournaments than ever.
The number of Grand Prix events in North America has doubled, the StarCityGames and TCGplayer circuits have exploded, and local games stores have found comfort in organizing high-stakes tournaments (ex. there was just a Standard tournament with a first place prize of a Mox Ruby in Baltimore a few weeks ago). What used to be the domain of only hardcore players is now offering opportunities for all players.
In most regions of the country, there is a serious event nearly every weekend – a TCGplayer or SCG invitational qualifier, a PTQ, or even a Grand Prix, depending on where you live. Lots of events, and lots of chances for the average player to try their skill and luck at becoming a true Magic competitor. As a result, the big event concept is becoming less intimidating to many players, and tournament attendance is shooting through the roof.
I’ve been going to big events like Grand Prix tournaments for just over a decade (yet I’m still bad at this game…go figure). GP Detroit in 2003 was my first one, and I still remember how crazy it was compared to my local Friday night local store tournament (Friday Night Magic wasn’t a thing yet). Since then I’ve picked up a few things that make my big-event experience a lot more pleasant than it used to be, and I’m happy to share them.
I apologize a little for how long this article is, but I wanted to go into some depth on each tip. For those of you with short attention spans, here they are in list form:
1. Watch Your Stuff
2. Get Food & Gas Before Entering the City
3. Arrive Really Early
4. Drink Water and Eat Protein, Not Red Bull and Candy
5. Sleep the Night Before
6. Bring Cash
7. Double Check Your Deck List
8. The Player Meeting Happens Before Round 1
9. Use Actual Dice, Pen/Paper, and Tokens
10. The Judge is Your Friend, Your Opponent is Not
11. Take the Event One Round at a Time
12. Relax Between Rounds
13. Have Fun!
PRIORITY #1: Security
I’m writing this one at the top because it’s the most important part of any Magic event, big or small. Watch your shit. I cannot begin to tell you how much it SUCKS to have the bulk of your magic collection stolen at a Grand Prix. Trust me, it’s terrible and nobody should have to experience that. Ironically, Grand Prix DC is coming up in a few weeks at the same venue where I had my backpack full of cards swiped from underneath me four years ago at the last GP DC. I wasn’t watching my stuff as much as I should have, and I paid for it. Watch your stuff.
You’re on your own to keep track of what you bring into a venue. Your friends have their own things to worry about, and won’t be as vigilant as you are in protecting your stuff. Don’t bring cards you won’t need, and keep your car keys, wallet, and phone in your pockets – the only thing worse than losing your cards would be losing your cash, credit cards, driver’s license, cell phone, and access to your car. There are a ton of things you think you might want with you at a tournament, but only bring what you know you’ll need. And whatever you do bring, watch your stuff.
During rounds, keep your bag wrapped around your leg in a way that would make it obvious if someone was trying to move it. Make sure all the pockets are zipped up. I know this sounds like I think you’re an elementary school student, but trust me, Magic thieves are good at what they do. They’ll find a way to get your stuff if they want it, so make it tough for them. Better plan: don’t bring anything but the deck you’re playing with, and dice/paper/tokens. I know that this isn’t always feasible (especially with GP’s being such awesome opportunities for EDH and side events of other formats), but just make sure you watch your stuff.
At SCG Philly last month, I was very surprised to see the convention center had instituted a backpack security program for us. We had to wear a wristband with a number on it that corresponded to the number on a wristband attached to our bags. Whenever we left the ballroom, we had to show a security guard that our bands matched. This is the only time in the uncountable number of events I’ve attended I’ve ever seen security like this, and I don’t expect to ever see it again. When it comes to security at Magic events, we are on our own.
I don’t mean to convey a condescending tone with these tips, but when it comes to some of these more serious issues, I’m trying to save you a ton of trouble and stress by sharing from my own experience. Trust me, and watch your stuff.
Get Food and Gas Before You Enter the City
Many events are held at convention centers in the middle of major cities. Often, there aren’t many options in terms of fast (and cheap) food surrounding the venues, other than the crazy expensive and terrible sandwiches or hot dogs sold by the venues themselves. Do yourself a favor and stop at McDonald’s or whatever before you enter the city limits. Get gas if you need it too, since that’s also a tough find when you’re running on fumes and stuck in traffic trying to leave the city. That last part might seem like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how often I’ve heard stories of friends running out of gas on their way home from a GP.
Being an East Coast player, I frequent the Baltimore and Philadelphia convention centers. I know that the Baltimore CC’s cafeteria thing charges like 15 bucks for a shitty sandwich and not much is close enough to grab in between rounds, especially when I’m often playing a go-to-time control deck. Philly has a sweet Amish deli mall next door to the hall, but the hall is about a mile long (not an overstatement, it’s massive) and there’s never time to run down to grab anything.
An alternative on the food plan is to bring a friend who isn’t playing in the main event be your group’s food runner. Pay them to go get Jimmy John’s or Subway for you in between rounds. This isn’t always an option, and don’t bank on the worst player 0-2 dropping and becoming your bitch.
There’s No Such Thing As Too Early
It’s amazing how long it takes to find parking sometimes. Once in a while the road will be blocked off and you will have no idea how to get through the city to the hall (like when SCG Baltimore was the weekend the Baltimore Grand Prix race track was installed, blocking the street in front of the convention center). Other times the 5-minute, two-block walk to the center didn’t include getting lost for 20 minutes on the wrong floor of the building. And lest we forget the random last-minute super secret tech discovery your friend made on the drive in, requiring you to scour the vendors for three obscure cards (usually cards that most people don’t even know what they do).
You can show up for an FNM five minutes before it starts, but you’re asking for trouble cutting it that close to an Open or GP. There is nothing wrong with being an hour early, and it won’t ruin your day like being late will. Give yourself some extra time for problems before you arrive, and some extra time to put out fires at the venue. If you’re in a rush, you are more likely to make an error that could lead to a game loss (see deck registration tips below). Plus the ticking clock adds unnecessary stress that you don’t want that early in the day – it’ll quickly drain all that energy and focus you arrived with.
Leave early, arrive early, and relax until go time. Spend that extra time watching other players frantically running around getting their decks ready; it’s a funny sight.
Water and Protein, not Caffeine and Sugar
Look, I’m not a nutritionist or a doctor, but I know how I feel when I eat good food versus bad food. Argue all you want about how Red Bull and M&Ms will power you to victory, but I’d rather chug water and eat granola bars during a long day of sitting around relying on my brain.
Bring a big water bottle and fill it up between rounds at the fountain (some places even have fancy giant water cooler things!). Some kind of sciencey stuff tells us our brains work better when they are well hydrated. Energy drinks don’t actually keep us hydrated, just ‘energetic’ (read jittery enough to make you think you’re alive) from all the sugar and caffeine. You need to be at your best when playing 9-10 hours of Magic, and having the high-powered type of energy to sprint across the room is not the same kind of alertness and awareness you want to make good play decisions. If you hate water that much, at minimum just drink Gatorade instead. Close enough.
Eating fruit and protein-based foods like peanuts will keep you full and prevent annoying thoughts like how much it sucks that you don’t have time to grab a famous Philly Cheese Steak. A couple apples and a jar of peanuts fit easily into your bag and can be yanked out and chomped on between rounds.
Don’t lose games because you’re hungry or dehydrated. Plan ahead and bring the solution with you. Then when you’ve won the tournament, celebrate by eating a whole pizza. Or eat the pizza while sobbing over your key misplay in Round 6. Either way, think healthy during the event.
I don’t care how many people say they only need 4 hours of sleep before a tournament, it’s still stupid. Would you stay up all night before the SAT or your final exams? Then why do it before a major Magic event? I’ve read several books on Texas Hold’em by World Series of Poker Winners, and the same piece of advice is in all of them – get sufficient sleep the night before a tournament. Sure, we might not be playing for a million dollars like a poker star, but with the large amount of money and time we’ve spent on the game it seems like a good call to give it a few more hours and count some sheep.
What’s worse is changing your deck significantly and trying to test it at 2am the night before a Grand Prix, and expecting to dominate against the tried and true. Yes, there are cases of pro players winning SCG Opens and Grand Prix with hardly any sleep and switching decks 30 minutes before the event starts, but we’re not pro players. We need the most advantage we can get, and getting a full night’s rest will give us one over the players who are running on fumes.
Again, we’re talking about events requiring 10+ hours of focus and attention (in the case of a Grand Prix, 2 full days!). You might have been able to cruise through FNM after working a double shift, but this isn’t FNM.
Bring Cash Money
Sometimes the credit card machine isn’t working, and there is no ATM within a 10-minute walk. Sometimes there are food trucks outside the venue with insanely delicious food that only accept cash. Once in a while you’re forced to pay for parking up front with cash.
Go to the ATM ahead of time and bring enough cash so you don’t get stuck begging your friends for a twenty-spot to play the game, or have to sprint 4 blocks to the nearest ATM with five minutes left in registration. I’ve done both of these things, and it’s not enjoyable. Learn from my bad life plays.
15 Minutes Now Could Save You a Game Loss or More
Deck lists are a requirement at virtually every competitive event. I have been to 10-player competitive-REL events that still required deck registration, and just expect to do it for all tournaments. Write legibly, and if you can’t, pay a friend 5 bucks to write for you. Make sure you write out the full name of the card; only writing “Jace” in Standard could mean Architect of Thought or Memory Adept, and the judges won’t give you the benefit of the doubt as to which one you were running in Round 1 versus the one you have in your deck when they check it in Round 5.
Double-check, triple-check, and quadruple-check your deck list compared to your physical cards. Then have a friend check it again. I like to sort the deck by spell type/lands and put them in the same order as I have listed on the deck registration sheet. It makes it easy for you (and your friend) to quickly and competently ensure what is in the deck is actually what is written on the sheet. Then check it one more time just to be sure.
I know it sounds overkill, but you NEVER want to lose a game because you wrote the wrong name down, or wrote 5 islands instead of 4. If you lose a game of Magic that day, it should be the result of your opponent playing better than you (or getting lucky), not because you screwed up something unrelated to gameplay. I have never received a game loss for deck registration, and I don’t ever plan to, but I have been given plenty of free wins because of my opponents’ sloppiness.
The Player Meeting is NOT the First Round
At most large-scale events, there is a pre-tournament Player Meeting that takes place before the start of the first round. At the Player Meeting, the head judge and tournament organizer make general announcements regarding the tournament structure (how many rounds), the process for getting a judge’s attention (“JUDGE!”) and how to appeal his/her ruling, and terrible, awful puns to describe the importance of keeping drinks and food off tables (ex. “We don’t want any Jace, the Sprite Sculptors in play today”).
The person whom you are “paired” against is not your opponent, and this is not the first round. When the Player Meeting is done, new sheets will go up and everyone will find their actual Round 1 seatings, so don’t bother taking out all of your crap and ironing out your playmat – you’re gonna move. Just chill there and listen to the same announcements you’ll hear at every event you’ll play in forever.
These meetings may seem like a waste of time to players, but in reality, they play a huge role in keeping the event organized and running smoothly. As you can see by looking at “pairings” sheet for the Player Meeting, everyone is seated in alphabetical order. As a result, when the judges come around to collect deck lists, they are conveniently already alphabetized, making it extremely easy for the tournament organizers to find your list if you’re randomly deck-checked or when you make the Top 8.
The point: don’t get too excited about that first seating list, it’s just a meeting.
Play With Real Things to Avoid Conflicts
You might be used to keeping track of life totals with spindown dice, using ripped pieces of paper as counters, and the cards in your graveyard as tokens. However, in serious events, that will only confuse you and your opponent, and lead to terrible results for both of you. Confusion during a competitive tournament can lead to warnings, which lead to game losses, along with the obvious problem that you may make play mistakes relying on a life total that isn’t guaranteed (dice are liable to move when the table shakes).
Bring paper and pens/pencils to keep track of life, and write clearly so it’s obvious to everyone where life totals sit. Announce to your opponent what the life totals are whenever you change them. Carry plenty of six-sided dice to use as counters, but don’t use them for tokens.
Bring actual tokens with you (the cool officially-printed ones come in booster packs now for a reason), or use some other obvious token-like card. The tournament rules prohibit using Magic cards as tokens, so you can’t just bring cards from your sideboard or graveyard onto the field to represent creatures; you need something unique. Some people bring cards from other games – you’ll see tons of Pokemon showing up as soldiers and spirits – and there are always artists on hand who create custom tokens that you can use for a couple bucks a pop.
If you can’t think of anything cool to use, my BMP.com business cards are designed to be used as tokens (you probably have one if you’ve met me in person), but just e-mail me (firstname.lastname@example.org) with your mailing address and I’ll send you a bunch free of charge.
The Judge is Your Friend, Your Opponent is Not
Don’t be the player who took his opponent’s word for a rules question and lost the game because it was wrong. Your opponent wants to win, and it’s amazing how many players are cutthroat and borderline-unethical when it comes to Magic. Even pro players have been caught cheating.
There is absolutely no problem calling a judge to answer your question during a match. Judges are volunteering their time because they like helping players understand Magic. Your opponent may act all frumpy that you’re not taking his/her word for it, but it’s likely because they know they’re wrong. Be nice to the judge and he/she will be more than willing to assist you. Don’t assume the judge knows anything about your game, and clearly explain the issue from the beginning.
Also, remember that you can appeal the judge’s ruling to the head judge. Everyone makes mistakes and there are a billion, trillion rules in Magic, so it’s always possible that the judge answering your question didn’t see the random Gatherer ruling made four months ago on a card nobody really plays with. Just tell the judge politely that you wish to appeal his ruling, and they’ll take it from there.
In addition, these events are COMPETITIVE events, so it is acceptable to take it much more seriously than your local game store’s tournament. At FNM you might let your opponent play a different land than he/she did for the turn, or let them take back a spell when they realized how bad a play it would be. Don’t allow that in a competitive tournament. NO TAKE BACKS! You might feel a little guilty for it at first, but it’s a different level of play there. Your opponents aren’t going to let you take back a play, so don’t let them – not to mention it technically violates tournament rules to give take-backs at a tournament.
One Round at a Time
Around the 5th or 6th Round of a day-long tournament, it’s easy to start thinking about how many more wins you need to make Day 2 or the Top 8. You might be 4-0 and just need to go 7-2 to make 7th and 8th place. But that means you still need to win at least three rounds, and that takes three separate, hard-fought rounds of Magic. Take the event one round at a time, and focus only on the round you’re facing. If you’re thinking too much about the future, you’re more likely to make a mistake in the present. Win this round, then you can worry about winning next round.
Relax Between Rounds
As a control player, I don’t generally have much time between rounds. But for a mid-range or aggressive player, the extra time waiting for the next round to start can be incredibly boring. It may be tempting to play a few practice games against a friend who also finished early. Avoid playing more games with the deck you’re playing in the tournament than necessary. If you have to play Magic, play EDH or something completely different, so that your mind can reset .
If you jam in a few games with the tournament deck, you might create a bad habit you’ll bring into the next round. You’re likely not playing as seriously and thoughtful as you would during a real match. It’s possible your friend crushes you in the practice games, causing you a bit of discouragement you certainly don’t want to take to your next game. Get away from what you’re doing in the tournament and just relax during the precious break time. Soon enough you’ll be back at the table fighting fiercely and seriously for victory.
My last tip is simple: remember why you play Magic in the first place. No matter how competitive the event is, or how much is at stake in the prize pool, we’re still there because we love to play Magic. Magic is a fun game. Many of my tips above have a serious nature to them, but they’re still just part of the game.
You’ve probably spent a lot of money traveling to the event, paid $30+ for registration, and who knows how much cash on acquiring your deck. Get value out of those expenses by enjoying your experience and having a good time playing Magic. We can’t win every event, but we can definitely have fun trying to. And the more fun you’re having, the better you’ll play. A little optimism goes a long way. (That’s primarily why I have this blog – I can make fun of my mistakes and move on from them, instead of tilting and doing worse in the next match)
And if all else fails, heart of the cards, baby.