Feature Article – The Three Easiest Tournament Game Losses You Will Ever Avoid

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Friday, April 16th – Some articles will tell you the latest pro tech to incorporate into your deck. Some articles will tell you how to prepare for a tournament, or reveal the shape of the metagame. This is not one of those articles. I can’t tell you how to win. Instead, I’ll tell you how to not lose.

Some articles will tell you the latest pro tech to incorporate into your deck. Some articles will tell you how to prepare for a tournament, or reveal the shape of the metagame. Some articles will tell you how to pull a win out of a situation you should, by rights, lose.

This is not one of those articles. I can’t tell you how to win. Instead, I’ll tell you how to not lose.

This is a small difference, and one that matters more to we judges than most players. After all, as a player, a loss is a loss. Ask yourself: does it matter, after you scrub out, if you lost to Tendrils of Agony, or a Tarmogoyf, or getting your library Mind Sculpted away? Whatever happened, you owe it to yourself to improve your game and get better, hopefully preventing that loss from ever happening again. So you practice, and you discuss decks. You talk about what’s going to be played, and how you’re going to sideboard in each match-up. Rarely do players try as hard to avoid losses that hit just as hard: the disappointing (and much more preventable) Game Loss penalty.

Nobody likes earning a Game Loss. Judges hate giving them out just as much. In my two years of judging, I’ve never met a judge who enjoyed telling a player that they’ve lost a game. They’re not done for fun, and they’re not done capriciously. When they’re issued, it’s done with an eye towards protecting the tournament as a whole. There are specific rules on just when Game Losses are issued, spelled out in a public document called the Infraction Procedure Guide, available here. Knowing these policies is worthwhile for any player serious about tournament play, but to get you started, here are the three most unfortunate and avoidable Game Losses that judges issue.

#1 — Tardiness

Easily the most common game loss any judge will ever give out is the game loss for tardiness. Players used to FNM or other local/casual events might be surprised by the seemingly-strict way that Tardiness is often enforced. Let’s take a look at this infraction, and see why just thirty seconds can be the difference between a well-fought game and an instant loss.

We all know that being late happens. Sometimes a player is in the bathroom, or in the middle of a trade. Maybe something more exciting happened, and he or she is playing the wrong opponent. Maybe the poor player lost his or her deck! People miss the start of round for a lot of reasons, and most of them are easily understood. Everyone knows what it’s like to be late from time to time. If the only affected party was the tardy player, a reasonable person could probably agree that it isn’t a big deal.

What makes tardiness a big deal is the fact that if a player arrives late to his or her match, there’s always someone else involved: the opponent. If we simply start a match when a player shows up, then we are effectively issuing a time extension. Time extensions should be issued sparingly, as tournament rounds end only after every match result slip is in. Ideally, a round should never take more than the fifty minutes for play, and another five or six minutes for administrative staff to set up the next. If it takes any longer, a hundred or more players, judges, and staff have to stay that much later that day. Even running behind three or four minutes per round in a 7-round (relatively small) PTQ adds up to 100+ people waiting around for more than twenty minutes each.

Consider what might happen if we didn’t issue Game Losses for tardiness, and we didn’t issue a time extension for fear of tournament delay? If we instead simply say that a shortened round is its own punishment, the tardy player’s opponent still suffers for someone else’s mistake. Each minute of tardiness is one less that each player has to work with, and that’s simply unfair to the player who was on time. Consider what might happen if your opponent showed up a few minutes late, suffered no penalty, and your match went to time just before you could win. That scenario is unacceptable.

The only way to be fair is to be strict and hold players responsible for getting to their seats on time. Most Competitive-level events have a “0/10” policy, meaning that if you’re not in your seat when the round begins, you will receive the most easily avoided Game Loss you will ever get. If you’re not in your seat ten minutes into the round, you’ll earn a second Game Loss, and almost certainly be dropped from the tournament. Some events, usually Regular REL events like Prereleases, have a “3/10” policy. This means that there’s a three minute grace period before the first Game Loss, but you’re still subject to the same 10 minute penalty.

The solution to this is simple situational awareness. If you need to go eat or run to the bathroom, make sure you know when the next round starts. Keep a close eye on your deck. When you’re checking the new round’s pairings, double-check the table number and opponent’s name for your match, and when you get there introduce yourself to your opponent. Aside from being just plain good manners, you’ll know that, if the name doesn’t match, one of you is in the wrong seat.

#2 – Deck/Decklist Mismatch or Illegal Decklist

Of all the avoidable Game Losses, this one is probably the most tragic. It happens to at least one scatterbrained player at almost every event: their decklist doesn’t quite add up. Some people register a sideboard of neither 0 nor 15 cards, or registered a deck of fewer than 60 cards in the main. Others will register decklists with highly ambiguous names: is a Standard deck with “2 Emeria” referring to a pair of Angels or Sky Ruins? Is an Extended deck running “1 Darksteel” referring to a Colossus or a Citadel? If the judges can’t tell what you’re playing from reading your list, your deck has not been registered properly.

To avoid this problem, first count the cards in your deck. At Competitive-level events, your tournament organizer will have deck registration sheets for you to use. Use them to subtotal your deck by card type: creatures, lands, spells. Double-check your arithmetic and make sure your numbers registered add up to sixty (or more) maindeck and either zero or fifteen in the board. If this seems really simple, that’s because it is. And still, every time, someone makes that mistake.

To avoid this mistake, there are a number of things you can do. Type up your deck list ahead of time, review it for errors and omissions, and bring a printout with you. When you’re there, consider swapping your deck list with a friend for verification. Just don’t hold up the player meeting to do so: if you don’t hand your deck list in when asked, you can get a Game Loss for Tardiness!

A relatively new custom is for Head Judges to allow a minute during the player meeting specifically to double-check the list. The single best piece of protection you can give yourself from this game loss is to take advantage of that minute.

#3 – Unsporting Conduct — Major

“Unsporting Conduct” is complicated and worth discussing in some detail. USC is a very broad category of infractions, and it may not mean what you think. It does not mean “being a jerk,” or “playing mind games with your opponent.” It means “creating an atmosphere disruptive to other players and the tournament as a whole.” Just as you might expect, such a broad category is divided into different levels of severity.

Inappropriate language and minor disruptions to the event are considered Minor, and carry a Warning as penalty. These things include off-color offensive remarks: an occasional curse word might be overlooked, but blatantly offensive statements won’t be. Interrupting a judge before he or she can give a ruling, too, is considered Minor. A single accidental slip of the tongue won’t cost you a game, but the second might. Warnings can be (and often are) upgraded to Game Losses (and eventually Match Losses) if you continue to commit the same infraction.

An example of USC-Minor at a recent PTQ to illustrate this point, used with permission of the player in question: a player was overheard loudly commenting on something he didn’t like as being “retarded,” and wanted to “make the token black guy do the work.” When confronted for his inappropriate language by a judge, his immediate reaction was a derisive “that’s gay!” The player earned himself a Warning for his inappropriate language, and was encouraged to watch his language in the future. Fortunately for everyone involved, there were no further incidents, and the player played through the rest of the tournament with a (slightly) cleaner vocabulary.

This is quite different from USC-Major, because while this is offensive and disruptive, it’s not as severe as it could be, and more importantly, it’s not directed at anyone. Directed speech, and more severe disruptions to the tournament will earn the Game Loss.

Another example, also used with permission, from the same PTQ: A player who had finished his match was sitting a few seats away from a judge — in this case, me — watching a match. This player, while talking with another player, called him a six letter epithet for gay men starting with “F.” My obligation as the judge on the scene was to swiftly correct the situation. I took the player in question aside, and discussed his use of inappropriate language before issuing the penalty. The Head Judge became involved, and discussed the matter with him for a little while longer before the next round began.

It’s worth pointing out that, while this player in question earned his infraction, he showed remarkable character by maintaining his cool through the incident. He approached both the Head Judge and me later to shake hands and be sure there weren’t any hard feelings. I was pleased to have the opportunity the next day to chat with him about the incident.

USC-Major infractions are issued for not only offensive language, but also tournament disruptions. Judges have a responsibility to the entire tournament, and interfering with a judge trying to do his or her job can lead to this infraction. If a judge asks a question or gives a tournament instruction, be respectful and helpful. If you think that the question or instruction isn’t fair or appropriate, you can always make an appeal to the Head Judge before a ruling is final. If it’s the Head Judge you have a problem with, you have the option to report an incident to the DCI after the fact. In the middle of the tournament, though, testing your will against a judge’s won’t get you anywhere you want to be. Unfortunately, one of the most common causes of USC-Major is continuing to argue with the Head Judge after he or she has given their final ruling.

Other examples of USC — Major include creating an offensive, hostile, and disruptive atmosphere. Insulting someone else for reasons of their race, color, religion, national origin, age, gender, disability, or sexual orientation… whether the person really is a member of that group or not, these topics can get you in unnecessary trouble.

The last type of USC – Major to mention is aggression. If you’ve got a temper, you should take steps to keep yourself in check when you’re at a tournament. Threatening another player, even by implication, will get you disqualified. That’s worth repeating: if you threaten another player, your day of card-playing will be over. Even undirected outbursts of anger, such as throwing your cards or punching the walls when you lose, can lead to a Game Loss for USC — Major.

Remember, Unsporting Conduct penalties are game-related penalties, but can be earned even when you’re not playing a match. Maintaining a minimum level of decorum is necessary from the moment you walk in the door to the moment you leave. Here’s the key point: it doesn’t matter if anyone is offended, it matters if someone might be offended. Maintaining a welcoming and inclusive environment that everyone can enjoy is the responsibility of the event staff, and the DCI has policies that can ruin your day if you get in the way of that.

If you take nothing else away from this article, remember this: Game Loss penalties are always avoidable.

Allison Medwin

(Always hoping she’s given her last Game Loss penalty.)

Bonus Extra Section! The Easiest DQ to Avoid: Lying to a Judge

Don’t. Just don’t.