Tournament Fundamentals: Your First Event

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There are many ways for players to enjoy Magic. Some are tournament grinders, others are FNM warriors. Many kitchen table players never even step foot into their local game store. There is no wrong way to play, but casual players can sometimes feel intimidated when trying to branch out into higher-stakes play. Here are a few tips for those taking these first steps into unfamiliar territory.

Selecting your Deck

The first step of the process is finding a deck that's legal in the format you plan to play. There are plenty of resources to help with this. MTGTop8 and MTGGoldfish are two sites hosting databases of some of the most popular high-performing decks for you to browse and review.

Newer or more casual players are often apprehensive about copying a decklist from the internet, a practice commonly referred to as "netdecking." In reality, nearly every deck idea a player can come up with has already been explored. Lists that continue to perform well and populate a metagame are ones that have been iterated upon by countless other players with robust understandings of their respective formats. We can save ourselves the hassle of trying to solve a new format solo by finding a tried and true deck that fits our preferred play style. As we grow as a player and learn more about how to target specific weak points in a metagame, that's when a homebrewed deck can be the right call to take down an event.

Rules Enforcement Levels (REL)

Playing with friends doesn't usually come with a time limit, and rules are often more relaxed. Take backs are allowed if they make for a better play experience for all. Tournament play on the other hand does have time limits, and players are held to higher standards of play. In fact, there are different levels of rules enforcement depending on how competitive a tournament is, and the stakes involved.

Per the Comprehensive Rules, Rules Enforcement Levels (REL) are a means to communicate to players and judges what expectations they can have of the tournament in terms of rigidity of rules enforcement, technically correct play, and procedures used. The Rules Enforcement Level of a tournament generally reflects the prizes awarded and the distance a player may be expected to travel to reach the event.

  • Regular REL is what we'll typically encounter at our local game store for an event like Friday Night Magic. Players are generally expected to know what they're doing, but the emphasis is on fun over procedure and technical precision.
  • Competitive REL is something you'll find at something like a Regional Championship Qualifier (RCQ). Players are expected to have a reasonable understanding of the rules, but judge staff is typically present to answer questions. Generally speaking, Competitive REL is where there are no take-backs.
  • Professional REL holds players to the highest standard of behavior and technically correct play. This level of play is typically reserved for events like the Pro Tour, with massive prizes on the line. Sometimes multi-day tournaments utilize Competitive REL on the first day and switch to Professional after the first round of eliminations.

All of this is to say that there are different strictness levels to the rules, but as long as we know what our cards do, have a general idea of what the other top played cards do, play at a reasonable speed, and can make it to our seat on time, everything should go perfectly. A judge or the tournament organizer will communicate the rules enforcement level at the start of a tournament if it's at Competitive REL or higher.

Call a Judge

Speaking of judges, they're our best friend at a tournament. Have a question? Call a judge. Need to use the bathroom? Call a judge. Think the opponent is playing too slowly? Call a judge. Do we suspect cheating? Absolutely call a judge.

Judges are present to ensure a tournament is run with integrity and in a timely manner. It's common for less seasoned players to feel like they're tattling, causing a fuss, or bringing unwanted attention. The truth though is judges are there to help us and to make sure everyone has a good time, especially the newer folks.

Deck Lists

At Competitive REL and up, players are required to submit decklists to the tournament organizer at the start of the event. This is a safeguard to ensure there's no funny business mid-tournament with players swapping to more favorable decks and card choices. The penalty for an inaccurate decklist, if found, is typically a game loss in the round it's discovered. Judges conduct deck checks at random throughout the tournament, so this may happen at any time.

There are many ways a decklist error may manifest. Sometimes it's forgetting to list a card, putting down the wrong number of copies, or accidentally using the wrong card name. I can't count how many times I've gotten Emrakul, the Aeons Torn and Emrakul, the Promised End mixed up or how many times I've written Forest instead of Snow-Covered Forest.

Remember to be like Santa—make your list and check it twice.

Don't Forget to Eat and Hydrate

Tournaments can go long, and while they're a ton of fun, they can be taxing on the mind and body. An RCQ with a modest turnout of 40 players will run for six rounds at roughly an hour each, followed by an additional three rounds in the top eight. MagicFest main events typically run for nine rounds on the first day with an additional six rounds the following day for those who do well enough to advance.

That's a long time for our brains to run on all cylinders. Bringing snacks and hydrating throughout the event will give us the fuel needed to continue performing at our best for the full duration of the tournament.

One of the great parts of traveling to events with friends is if someone finishes a round early or doesn't do well and drops from the event, they're able to do a food run to help out the rest of the team. Sometimes all a person needs is to scarf down a quick food delivery from the sandwich shop down the road to bring their health bar back up to full.

Don't Base Success on Performance

This one applies to new players and veterans alike. Do not base success or the fun of the event on how well the tournament went for you. Magic is a game of probability and variance with the player only helping to guide their deck to the final result. Even the top players in the world maintain only a 60% win rate.

As players continue to test their mettle against other strong opponents, they'll similarly improve. Try to identify what strong plays you made throughout the event and, more importantly, what mistakes were made and how they could be avoided. Learning from blunders is the best way to minimize future mistakes.

At the end of the day, this is a game. Don't be hard on yourself if the tournament doesn't go well. Some days the chips fall in our favor and other times they don't. The goal is, and will always be, to have fun.

End Step

This is the second article in my series of Tournament Fundamentals geared for players just starting out in the competitive scene. Let me know if there are any essentials that you think I may have missed and if there are any topics you'd like to see covered in future installments. I'll catch you all next week!

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