It's nice to have an actual goal in playing competitive Magic again. While simply scratching the competitive itch is good, doing something for its own sake is a great way to induce burnout and/or TikTok memes. Therefore, I'm thrilled that we have a Pro Tour again. I'm less excited that they brought back the PPTQ system with extra steps and window dressing, but what can you do. At least it all makes sense, unlike the MPL system.
Normally, this would be the point where I'd transition into how to prepare for this upcoming season. This year presents two problems with that. The first is that we're already well into the season. That's what happens when you commit an article series and then have a scheduled column. In my defense, I was clueless as to when the RCQ's actually started until recently. Wizards and Dreamhack aren't doing a great job of telling players. Secondly, this isn't a qualification system like earlier ones. Most PPTQ seasons were one format, but these RCQ's are almost anything goes.
Consequently, I'm not going to do a general "here's how to prepare for a tournament" article. Those have been done to death, anyway. Rather, here are the things to be watching for this season in particular, and also some advice and tactics for the actual tournament.
I'm going out on a limb here and assuming that anyone interested in going to an RCQ knows that they need to put in testing time before they go. I also assume that you know how to design your sideboard and that food and water are essential. However, there are things that a lot of players know (or should know) but they don't think about prior to the tournament. Whether through habit or assumption, things slip the mind. So, I'll remind everyone of the common ones.
#1: Verify the Tournament Information
I realize how this sounds, but I'm absolutely serious. Make sure that you've got the right day, time, store, and (most potentially embarrassing) format before setting off to the tournament site. I know that this is as basic as it gets, but every year Magic twitter is full of stories about players messing it up. Sometimes, it isn't even their fault. Stuff happens, and stores need to make last second changes. Don't drive out there without making sure that the tournament is still happening.
Back in the PTQ days (which was also before smart phones, in my defense) there were several instances where severe weather ended up causing tournament cancellations after I set out for the site. Which I didn't know (nor had I a way to), so I didn't find out until I arrived. Don't be me, especially in this information age.
Of course, that doesn't protect you from everything. Road accidents are a thing, after all. Also, sometimes something goes wrong at the literal last second. I remember one PPTQ I drove an hour for to find the store employees standing around outside. The guy with the key hadn't shown up and it took four hours to locate him (don't ask me why). They were updating every social media outlet on the situation, but since I arrived right at the supposed start of registration, I missed the updates. And was the only player to show up to the store until late in the day.
Since then, I've made sure not to leave so that I'll be the first to arrive at the site. Let the employees get settled in and figure out if we're actually doing this first.
#2: Ask Around
You know that you're going. You also know whom among your crew is going. Ask around to find out about the store and who else is going to the RCQ. This will provide two critical pieces of information:
A) Is it worth going at all?
There are plenty of reasons to steer clear of a given tournament. Perhaps the site is in a really sketchy part of town or is itself alarmingly sketchy. Crooked TO's exist and don't always get the punishment they deserve. Other players may be able to warn you of a (potentially) bad situation.
Additionally, there may be no point in going to the tournament even if there's nothing obviously untoward. The tournament selling out to capacity happens often, so failing to preregister can doom plans. Sometimes the limit isn't advertised and the only way to know is word-of-mouth.
I was on the end of this one once (and allegedly the first one, too). A store running an early PPTQ didn't advertise that they'd limited entry to the minimum they could to get it sanctioned (16 players, I recall) and then quickly sold all the slots. Another player calling in to preregister learned this and told me. My informant's implication was they were trying to get friends of the owner qualified and were maximizing their chances. Finding this out saved me quite the trip and a significant parking fee.
More benign still, sometimes there's something non-Magic happening which is off-putting. Construction is the most common obstacle, but other events in the area may make getting there prohibitive or playing annoying. Folk music festivals, for example. It'd be great to know about a saturation of ukuleles, fiddles, and bongos before arriving and suffering through hours and hours of it all.
B) Who's Going?
This is the big one. Knowing who's actually going to a tournament (to the extent possible) is critical information. See, The Metagame is not going to be the actual metagame at the RCQ. The Metagame is the aggregation of everyone playing a given format globally and speaks to what is performing the best overall. It's only going to make an appearance at large events.
At an RCQ or any similar event, the metagame at the tournament will be a function of the players that actually show up. PPTQ's were 30-60 players in my experience, and I have no doubt that RCQ's are similar. This means that individual preferences and outliers will have a significant effect on the final population. For example, if your crew are all control players and you learn that several groups of combo players will be at the same event, slant your sideboard accordingly.
It's impossible to know exactly who will attend a tournament. Things happen; plans change. However, by knowing who, it's possible to guess what will be at a tournament. Which can provide an edge. Just don't go overboard; refer to the earlier disclaimer about uncertainty.
#3: Consider Pace-of-Play
Can you finish a typical round with your deck in 50 minutes in a competitive environment? Again, this should be really obvious, but at every single qualifier event I've ever been to, there is someone for whom the answer is no, and they ruin it for everyone by going to time. Every. Single. Round. Perhaps they've picked up a deck they're unfamiliar with.
Perhaps they can win in time at FNM, but with actual stakes on the line they slow down too much. Maybe they've never played the mirror before and it's going to come up a lot. Or they're playing Lantern Control. It's doing no favors to the community nor yourself to take multiple unintentional draws. If there's a question about being able to finish in time consistently, please consider playing something else.
Once at the venue and registered, don't get complacent. There are a number of things to do on-site before the tournament.
#1: Scout the Field
Look around at who's there. See what kind of test games are being played and what cards are being laid out as players register decks. This is the field you will be playing against. What do you need to be ready for, and what is the likelihood of certain matchups. If there's one deck that's unexpectedly popular, best adjust for it. If an expected deck hasn't shown up, drop cards for it instead. In short, take what I said in point 2B and actually apply it.
Also, look around for who to watch out for. This can be in the positive sense such as pros and Hall of Famers at the RCQ (which is a frequent concern in the Denver area). In the more negative sense, are there known angleshooters, grifters, and/or accused/convicted cheats? If so, I'm sorry. That really sucks. However, it's good to know so you can be extra vigilant.
#2: Plan Your Logistics
Once the number of rounds is announced, take a moment before play starts to mentally prepare for the day. If there's going to be a lunch break, great. If not, when and what will you eat? How many wins do you need? If you scrub and want to leave, can you given your crew's travel arrangements? Will your phone battery survive all the rounds so you can use the Companion app? Make sure you know the answer and have a plan so you don't get caught flatfooted.
Also, how will you destress after rounds? You need to have an outlet or ritual to clear the mind. It could be as simple as telling war stories to friends and recapping the match, but the quicker the old match is processed and moved on from, the better.
Knowing how to play the expected matchups and sideboard should have been set before the tournament. However, have you also considered these tournament tactics?
#1: Increasing Play Speed
When the pressure is on, it is natural to want to take more time to think decisions through. Sometimes this is justified because a situation is very complex. Sometimes it's all down to nerves. So many players get scared and needlessly play slow that it's become a peeve of mine.
So deliberately play faster. Don't rush plays; that's how mistakes get made. But is that decision actually a decision? Stop agonizing over a land drop with only one land in hand and no card drawing. Don't consider an attack when overmatched or fret over what the opponent may draw if they're empty handed. It won't do anything but waste time, and the clock in no player's friend. Time saved now may be used for a more meaningful decision later.
Additionally, playing more quickly can be strategically advantageous. It projects confidence to take a turn swiftly which can put the opponent off their game. Make them be anxious instead of you. I'm a very experienced player and I play quite quickly. It makes my opponents think that everything is going according to plan even if it isn't, and makes them play around cards I don't have occasionally. Sometimes it also lets me back into games. Stress and nerves cause bad plays.
Don't ever deliberately make the opponent uncomfortable or stressed. That's not cool and is unsporting. And possibly bannable. However, if they do it to themselves as the result of their perception of you, that's fair game. Give opponents the opportunity to psyche themselves out.
#2: Disguised Sideboarding
The standard way to sideboard is to visibly take out a number of cards from the maindeck, put them on the table, and then replace them with sideboard cards. That's a great way to keep track of everything, but it also tells the opponent how heavily you're sideboarded against them. They may or may not be able to use this information, but it is free information.
Instead, I recommend shuffling the entire sideboard into the maindeck and then removing 15 cards. The opponent can't know how many (if any) sideboard cards you're playing now. As a bonus, it will add some wear to the sideboard's sleeves they wouldn't otherwise get and might save you from a Marked Cards penalty.
A Final Note
Most experienced players know this intuitively, but newbies need to learn. And I'm tired of having to spell it out every tournament. So, I'll do so here:
While the exact circumstances of your RCQ may differ, the rule of thumb for the final round is:
- IF you are X-0, you're locked for Top 8. Congratulations! You should take an Intentional Draw (ID), get your deck sorted, and then take a rest until the formal announcement. The benefits of being actually undefeated over X-0-1 are quite marginal 99.99% of the time while dropping from X-0 to X-1 might be a disaster. You've earned a rest, take it.
- IF you are X-1, you're in Top 8 contention. Depending on how many other X-1's there are and your tiebreakers, you may be able to draw in. Consider very carefully whether you need to play.
- IF you are X-2, you're not dead for Top 8 but it's not good. Your odds of making it depend on the number of X-1's above you, your tiebreakers, and winning this round. It can happen, but a lot needs to go right for you to make elimination rounds. Definitely stay in if there are Top 16 prizes, but if not you may not want to bother.
Unintentional draws during the Swiss rounds can complicate this basic math, but most of the time, this guide will be correct.
With that, enjoy the qualification season and may you or a teammate make it all the way! Join me again later this week to see how this played out for me at last weekend's RCQ.