Tips for the Aspiring Tournament Player
You’ve decided that you’d prefer competitive over casual play, but what now? There is a lot to consider before you rush the tables at the next Grand Prix event.
Please Sign Here
The first step to getting into the tournament scene is registering with DCI (at some point this stood for Duelists Convocation International but you’re not likely to hear it referred to as anything other than its acronym now), which is responsible for tracking your scores, enforcing rules and organizing tournaments. Any brick-and-mortar shop that’s hosting a tournament should be able to sign you up. You’ll fill out a form and get a membership card—yes, it’s actually that simple. Better yet, it’s free.
Get out of the House
You’re registered, now start playing! Friday Night Magic (sometimes just FNM) provides a great opportunity to play against new opponents and get familiar with the general feel of competitive play. If you find you’re not up for the competitive side of play after all, FNM events can be a great place to recruit players for your casual games.
Do Your Homework
One of the things that makes Magic: The Gathering such a successful card game is the complex web of rules that holds the whole thing together. You don’t need to be an expert, but you’re going to want to have a good grasp of the rules that make Magic work. If you don’t know about the Stack and how it functions or the difference between counters and counterspells, you might want to brush up. Of course, learning from people who already play competitively can be a huge benefit—just make sure they’re patient and willing to help you study.
There are other rules too. Playing with friends in a casual setting, you’re likely not too worried about starting right at 7:00pm or card sleeves being in pristine condition; organized play is a different animal. DCI enforces rules for timeliness (playing slow on purpose or showing up late), card condition (a bent or marked card can actually be a way to cheat), and against bribery (yes, this does happen). There are different levels of rules enforcement that correspond to the level of competition. Something minor that results in a warning at a FNM event could cost you a game in the Pro Tour. Appropriate behavior and good sportsmanship are subject to penalties too, so if you’re the kind of person who likes to throw tokens and counters and tables every time your Archangel of Thune gets countered, it’s a good idea to get that anger under control. DCI can and will disqualify you from a tournament for things like that. Theft and gross misconduct can get you suspended or barred for life.
Just as you wouldn’t want to jam a VHS cassette into a Betamax recorder (or jam an Ethernet cable into an USB port if you were born this side of the millennium), you want to make sure you know which DCI-sanctioned format you’re playing in before you show up with a deck that you won’t be allowed to use. There are three major formats right now, each with their own sub- categories: Constructed, in which you bring your own cards in a pre-built deck (Standard, Block Constructed, Extended, Modern, Vintage, and Legacy), Limited (Sealed Deck and Booster Draft), and Two-Headed Giant (a two-on-two team variant).
Check out our article on different formats here
All Hands on Deck
Once you know what format you’re playing, you can build your deck. In tournament play, you’re hopefully playing for fun, but you’re also really playing to win. As much as I’m a proponent of building decks for flavor and alternate wins, anything you can do in a tournament to exploit your opponents’ weaknesses and bolster your victories is more important. Building a deck for a tournament should be a two-sided approach: offense and defense. Don’t only think about what your deck can do; consider what your opponents might be using against you. If you think it’s a good combo, someone else probably will too. If you aren’t using a good card in your deck, consider how you might be able to protect yourself from it. Formats like Vintage and Legacy allow for an almost endless choice of cards with few exceptions—and Modern isn’t far off— but most of the other formats are more restrictive. The smaller the pool of cards to choose from, the easier it can be hone in on an efficient strategy (you’re not only considering your combos, but everyone else’s). Search around the internet or ask to take a peek at your friends’ decks to discover new strategies and see what works and what doesn’t. If you’re playing a lot, you’ll be able to refine your deck and also craft a highly effective sideboard.
On the flip side, if you’re playing a Limited format, you’ll have to build your deck on the fly and just run with it. This can be rewarding and challenging and luckily, everyone else has to do it too. In the Limited formats, you’re usually opening new booster packs and building your deck on the spot. Win or lose, you’ve got some new cards to take home.
There Can Only Be One
FNM events can end up with a few people or a few dozen. Depending on your location, other events can end up with participation in the thousands. It may seem intimidating to enter a tournament with literally hundreds of other players all vying for first place but remember that you don’t have to triumph over everyone in a tournament, just your opponents.