Flow of Ideas: So You Want To Win A PTQ?

Monday, December 27th – I’m not going to tell you how you should playtest rigorously, get a good night’s sleep, drink more water. These are tips that will help you win.

The “tips article” is well-trodden territory. It’s become a Magic writing cliché. Every few months, a new article boasting a list of tips to help you win tournaments pops up — sometimes because a new writer enters the fray, other times because some established writer is scrambling for a topic.

Rest assured. This isn’t that article.

I’m not going to sit back and let Grandpa Gavin tell you about how you should playtest rigorously, get a good night’s sleep before events, and drink more water at events. (In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever won a PTQ when I slept well the night before.) These pieces of advice are really no more than
pieces of common knowledge your mother probably could have told you. And yes, you probably should follow them — but no matter how many times you

that you should get plenty of sleep before a PTQ, you either are or you aren’t. Nothing I say is really going to change that.

I don’t want to just be the Surgeons General’s Warning on the side of a cigarette box. I would much rather hand out some information you might not already think about, even if it helps my prospective opponents. Put these techniques to good use and I guarantee you’ll end up closer to a free flight on Wizards’ dime.

1. Watch how your opponent plays

Magic is a game with two players — yet so many players play like it’s the single-player mode of Super Mario Bros. They expect the opponent to continue coming at them in a linear fashion and just focus on their own game play.

How often while playing have you found yourself focusing on the cards flicking through your hand, or looking down at your board while it’s your opponent’s turn? Be honest.

People are just handing out information like candy. All you have to do to plunder their sweet stock is
just look up.

Reads are very specific, and there are other articles that will tell you what to look for, so I’ll narrow my focus a little and look at the specific area I really want to hit: playing their game for them.

As a competent PTQ Magic player presumably facing down other competent (more or less) PTQ Magic players, you can expect your opponent to play rationally. You need to not only be playing your own game, but also your opponent’s. Every time they make a play, you have to ask yourself

they’re making that play.

One of the most important articles I think I’ve ever written was
my third
Flow of Ideas article
, nearly two years ago. It investigates this more in depth, and I recommend you click on the blue text in the last sentence for a lengthier perspective.

One great example of what I mean (which I also used in the above column) was a playtest game between Paul Cheon and Luis Scott-Vargas. Luis was tapped out, but had Ancestral Vision on one counter. Cheon passed the turn, let Luis untap, and then cast Pull from Eternity on the suspended draw spell. Luis began to move for his countermagic, and then froze.
Why would he be doing this now instead of while I was tapped out?

Luis finally let the Pull resolve.

The card Cheon was trying to set up? Imp’s Mischief.

This kind of game play happens all of the time.

What does it mean when your opponent Cryptic Commands your Thoughtseize?

What does it mean when your opponent “forgets” to untap his Rust Tick after the creature it was tapping left the battlefield?

What does it mean when your opponent tanks on his opening hand then casts a Preordain?

What does it mean when your opponent ticks his Aether Vial up to four?

What does it mean when your opponent is willing to trade a mana Myr with you?

When you understand why your opponent is doing something, you can deduce his hand and strategy. It’s free information up for grabs that most people don’t choose to take.

Finally, over the course of the game you should be sculpting the image of not only your opponent’s deck, but your opponent’s play style. When your opponent has a choice, remember which choice he makes — and then look for abnormalities in his play.

Did he make risky blocks game one, or did he block conservatively? Did he overextend in game one? Did he use his countermagic early, or tend to hold onto it? Which creatures of yours did he feel were important enough to spend removal on? Did he play aggressively or defensively?

If any of that changes as your match continues, alarm bells should start clanging like membrane wind chimes.

This isn’t just over the course of one match either. If you’re playing in local PTQs, you’re going to face the same people over and over. I keep a mental black book of how local players tend to play in my head, and then make sure to watch for any deviations when they sit across from me. There’s always a reason for them doing so.

2. Think!

Assuming you are a strong PTQ player, you will eventually reach a point where you know what all the right plays are and make them, yet still can’t break through. Many people reach this plateau and begin to get frustrated. You’re making the right plays, practicing, and playing good decks week in and week out… What’s stopping you from winning a PTQ?

When you’ve finally reached the plateau, you need to grow wings.

What do I mean?

Pop quiz: what separates you from Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa?

Well, aside from having natural Brazilian good looks, the majority of it is consistently making the correct play over, and over, and over again.

“But,” you might be thinking, “I make all the right plays too! I follow along with Paulo at home and we make the same plays at each opportunity.”

Ah, and that’s right. You do know what the right plays are. And you always make them…

…Except for those two times at the last PTQ.

You know the times I’m talking about: the ones where you snapped a card into position, then two seconds later immediately realized your blunder. That time when you led off with the wrong land, or made an attack with your 1/1 only to be cracked back by his 3/1, or attacked with an unnecessary creature, only to have it blown up by a Sunblast Angel.

As soon as you made the play, you knew it was wrong.

If you had just thought for another couple of seconds, you would have made the right play… But you didn’t. Just because you immediately saw your mistake doesn’t mean you didn’t make one.

Do whatever it takes to always use that extra second. Sit on your hands, put a pen in your hands, but your hands on your head, set down your hand of cards, routinely survey the board before making a play to think — whatever. It’s not stalling to do so, nor is it slow-rolling — it’s just playing correctly. There’s no reason to make mistakes you know you shouldn’t be making.

To top it all off, it even helps you bluff better if you consistently take that extra second instead of taking it only when you need it.

Few things are more frustrating that making mistakes you know better than to make. Do yourself a favor and don’t make them in the first place.

3. Learn how to properly use judges

Most people see the judging staff as some omnipresent entity at events. They get called over for rulings, issue warnings, and occasionally hand out game losses. But other than that, they’re just there and you don’t need them most of the time.

Those people are wrong.

Judges are a force for players to use against any kind of sketchy behavior.

It’s good for players and judges alike if players know how to use judges more often — and, more importantly, to know how

and when

to use them. Judges are there to help the game be played fairly. If anything goes awry, you have to know how to properly explain the situation to a judge.

First of all, you should have a rough understanding of how the intricacies of Magic work and the penalty guidelines. Many players know what works and what doesn’t, but not how — and that can cost you in the case of a bad ruling.

At Grand Prix: Houston earlier this year, Michael Jacob was in his last round playing for day 2. He desperately needed the pro points from this event, and so for him making day two was crucial.

He had the game won. All he had to do was cast Congregation at Dawn at the end of his opponent’s turn, set up the top of his library, and then untap and draw. After his Congregation resolved, Mike’s opponent cast Path to Exile. Mike declared that he wasn’t searching, but his opponent informed he had to.

What followed was a long debacle that eventually involved the head judge. It was eventually (incorrectly) ruled that Mike had to shuffle, and he went on to lose the game and his bid at day two.

While I wasn’t intimately involved with the situation, I was told later that Mike knew he didn’t have to shuffle, but was unsure as to why and didn’t know how to explain it. Sure, the head judge made the wrong ruling and ultimately that was the main problem — but maybe Mike’s case could have been stronger had he known exactly where the problem was.

Arguably more important that knowing the rules is knowing what penalties are given out for and why they are handed out.

There are two reasons why.

First of all, you want to defend yourself. Whenever an investigation occurs, a judge is going to ask you questions. Just like understanding why your opponent does something in a game of Magic is important, understanding why a judge is asking you a question during a ruling is just as crucial. You don’t want to receive a penalty you don’t deserve.

If you’re asked a question you need to explain things truthfully, but in a manner that lines up to answer the question they’re asking.

For example, let’s say you have Cryptic Command in your hand and your opponent draws, thinks, and then pushes all of his creatures into the red zone. You say you had beginning of combat effects, showing him the Cryptic Command, and he says he declared combat, gave you plenty of time to think, and then attacked.


The judge comes over, hears the situation from both of you, and then pulls you away from the table and asks you a question:

“When did you decide to play that Cryptic Command?”

This answer is easy — just tell the truth! The judge is asking this question to see if you were waiting to see what he attacked with before casting Command. Make it clear that it was your intent to cast the command the entire turn. “I was holding Cryptic Command and just waiting to tap all of his creatures as soon as he declared his attack step.”


under any circumstances say anything about waiting to see what your opponent did or not paying attention. Not only is it untrue (I don’t know what you would say that), but you’re likely to immediately lose the ruling if you inform the judge you wanted to see what he did.

“Your opponent says he declared his combat step and gave you plenty of time to think. Didn’t you hear him?”

The judge is asking this to see if there is any doubt. The answer to this is not, “I don’t think so,” or, “I didn’t hear him, but I could have been mistaken.” The answer is a firm, “No, he never declared his attack step.” You didn’t hear him say it — there’s no reason to give the judge any reason to think otherwise!

“Why would your opponent be doing this?”

This is your opportunity to go on the aggressive. Your opponent is lying about what happened, after all! First, I would state my intention again. Then I would inform the judge that my opponent probably knew I had the Cryptic in hand, and was trying to push through damage. I would tell him that I felt the judge call was him trying to cheat through extra damage, and that I believe my opponent was cheating.

Once you have stated all of these claims, do

change any of your claims if the judge pulls you aside again. Often they will ask you the same question in different ways to see if you change your story. It’s a good tactic for catching cheaters — but if you’re not careful, it can seem like you’re the one making up a story. Don’t let that happen to you.

Finally, it’s important to know penalties so you can use judges to beat the small cheats.

Some of you may have read Sam Stoddard great article, ”
The Danger of Small Cheats

” a few weeks ago. What’s important to remember is that those “small cheats” are still cheating. While hard to catch, if you find your opponent doing any of those things they can still be disqualified.

Here’s a good example involving a stupid blunder of my own.

This summer I played in a local unsanctioned event for a thousand dollars. It was three rounds before the top 8; I was playing Jund and my opponent was playing Grixis. We were both x-1 and needed to win both this match and the next to draw in.

Game three I managed to battle my opponent down to a low life total and few cards. I had a Sprouting Thrinax and a Lavaclaw Reaches, and I was threatening lethal. He untapped, cast Cruel Ultimatum, drew three, caused me to sacrifice my Thrinax, discard the land in my hand, and mark the life changes. He passed to me, I cracked with my Lavaclaw Reaches to drop him to three, then said go. He cast Sedraxis Specter and passed back.

I untapped, drew a land, tanked… and then looked at my graveyard.

I looked up dejectedly. “Yeah, you forgot those Thrinax Tokens, huh?” said my opponent with a grin.

I raised my hand and call for the judge.

I already knew the ruling. He’s going to make sure I wasn’t trying to abuse this, I’m going to get three 1/1’s, and then we’re going to get warnings. But that wasn’t what I cared about.

The judge came over, did exactly that, and then I calmly asked to talk to him away from the table.

“I believe my opponent is trying to cheat by failing to reminding me of a mandatory trigger,” I told him. “As soon as I noticed a problem — before I even mentioned the Thrinax — he immediately knew which trigger I had forgotten and didn’t seem surprised about it. I believe he knew I should have received tokens and didn’t tell me. If I had those Thrinax tokens, I would have won last turn, and it was very advantageous for him to allow me to forget.”

What did I do here? Instead of being unclear about the situation, I mentioned specifically what the problem was, what I believe my opponent’s intent was, and my evidence. I provided the specific information the judge needed to begin an investigation.

The judge came back and pulled my opponent aside. I only caught bits of what was going on — my opponent was a loud talker — but he clearly didn’t know what to say. He mentioned remembering the tokens, and then when the judge pressed further, he backpedaled his story. He changed it to say that just he forgot to say something, and that he wasn’t thinking about it at the time. He basically did everything he shouldn’t have done if he had honestly forgotten the tokens.

The judge seemed ready to throw down a penalty. When he went back to converse with the head judge, the head judge eventually overruled him and decided to leave it as-is due to lack of evidence — but still, it makes for a good example.

Some of you might view this as “cheap,” as me trying to make up for my mistake. You might see me as a rules lawyer. However, I don’t tend to be a rules lawyer, and I certainly am willing to accept my mistakes.

However, if I think there’s even the possibility of my opponent cheating I will call a judge. Otherwise, how are you supposed to battle back against the small cheats? At worst, nothing happens. At best, you catch a cheater.

Learn what to say. Understand what you’re being asked. Figure out how to phrase things to answer the questions and fit the mold of infractions. And most of all, never lie to a judge. Don’t manipulate the system — but definitely use it whenever it applies.

4. Fight your brain

Winning a game of Magic involves playing well, making reads, and knowledge of the opponent’s strategy. The mental toll a single game might take isn’t gigantic.

Winning an entire tournament, on the other hand, is another matter.

Your brain badly wants you to lose your PTQ. In fact, it works incredibly hard to help you play poorly and make mistakes whenever possible. It tenses you up, sends you off on emotional flings, and puts you in positions where you feel it’s okay to play sloppy.

To win a tournament, you have to force your brain to cooperate.

Maybe you’ve heard the maxim, “take a tournament one game at a time.” You’ll then be told about how you shouldn’t think about “X rounds until top 8” or “I just have to win one more game!”

That sounds great in theory. But you know what? That’s really, really hard to do.

Your brain will fight you at every juncture to try and make you think about it. You can’t help but think about how it’s round seven, and you just have to win this one to draw in, or how if you lose this match you’re going to be out of top 8 contention.

The trick is not to avoid thinking about it — there’s really no way not to — but just
not to care.

When I’m doing well at a PTQ and sit down for each round, I let my brain take in the fact that it’s X rounds until top 8 or whatever. I let it wash over me like a cool wave, and then it’s over. That’s it. I breathe out, and it’s time to focus on the match at hand.

I have played much, much better since I began to use this technique. I’ve noticed it both in my play as well as in how I approach the game. I’m not setting myself up for success or failure, it doesn’t matter how much effort I’ve put into this event, and it doesn’t matter what beats have been delivered. It’s simply time to play some Magic.

But that isn’t the only time your brain tries to attack you.

You screw up game one and lose it, and then grab your sideboard still mad about how you lost. As you shuffle, you think about what you could have changed. You’re losing a game, and instead of thinking about how you’re going to battle back from a situation, you begin thinking about how you’re going to tell your friends about how you lost. You’re way ahead, but a few topdecks from your opponent have prevented you from getting in the last two points of damage — and every draw step fails to cough up one of your two Galvanic Blasts.

Thinking like that is a recipe for tilt. Yet, your brain tries so hard to make it your focus.

You absolutely must ignore this urge to be successful.

I used to think like that all of the time. My mind would be elsewhere during a match, and my keen senses would be numb. In my mind, I had already lost. I knew it was bad, but I couldn’t stop.

Finally, I figured out how to snap out of it.

As soon as you feel yourself thinking about these things, you have to redirect your focus immediately. If you invite this vampire into you’re home, it’s not going to leave you alone. Sometimes I’ll jerk my head and try to rattle it a little, others I’ll stare directly at my opponent and the board state, and in some cases I’ll even slap myself, Saito-style. It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you can cut it off whenever it tries to enter.

You know all of those games where you’re winning, and then suddenly they’re slipping out of reach? Or those games where you’re behind and need to play perfectly to get back in it?

I have won more of those games in the past few months than I think I’ve won in my entire Magic history.

Lastly, fighting your brain means not carrying each past round with you. You have to detach yourself from your losses. I have lost the second round of a ton of PTQ’s I made top 8 of. In fact, in the very first PTQ I ever won I picked up a round two loss… and then
just kept winning

. Some people would say that I “battled back,” but that’s the wrong way to look at it. I lost a match, accepted it, and then played the next one. And the next one. And the next one. Until finally, I had overcome the finals.

Conversely, a lot of people are mentally defeated if they pick up an early loss. They stay in the event out of necessity, but their mind isn’t in it. They’re not fighting as hard as they could.

Don’t be that person.

If you’re still alive in an event, you can still win it. If you’re not going to play as hard as any other round, just drop. All you’re doing is throwing away rating points and wasting your time.

5. Be confident, not cocky

There’s one thing I can be sure of every Saturday: when I log onto Facebook, about half of the status updates on my feed are going to be, “going to X, winning this PTQ, NOT CLOSE.”

I’m sick of seeing this.

We’ve been taught that confidence is good, you have to believe you are going to win to be able to win, and so on. In Jon Becker best article, ”

,” he talks about this phenomenon and its power at length.

I’m not saying it’s all untrue. Confidence is definitely crucial to winning. But let me ask you a question. Out of all those people posting their status update on Facebook that they’re going to win the PTQ, how many of them
actually believe

they are going to win the PTQ?

In my last university poetry class, we spent an entire day looking at W.H. Auden’s September 1, 1939. I had read it before and delved into the thought process behind it, but this time around the professor pointed out something new.

There’s a line that goes, “The dense commuters come, / Repeating their morning vow; / ‘I will be true to the wife, / I’ll concentrate more on my work.'”

He leaned back in his chair with a smug grin. “How many people go around chanting, ‘I will be true to the wife,’ if they are confident in their marriage?” he proposed. “You don’t go around saying you will do something if you firmly believe it.”

Similarly, I don’t think many people go around chanting, “I’m going to win this PTQ, nobody else stands a chance” when they actually believe the have what it takes to win the PTQ the morning of.

Those words have no value. Confidence is born and kept inside of yourself. Loud boasting is just being cocky. There’s a gigantic difference between the two.

I think back to every time I have qualified for the Pro Tour. Not a single time did I enter the event thinking, “Yeah, I’m going to win and none of these guys stand a chance.” Instead, I entered with the mentality that I knew how to play my deck, I was one of the best players in the room, and I felt like could probably play better than most of my opponents. If everything went well, I knew I could qualify.

Do you see the difference?

How many times do you hear about Paulo boasting he’s one of the best players to ever play the game and that nobody has a chance against himself? Do you think he’s thinking to himself as he plays, “my opponent doesn’t deserve this, should be an easy win”? No. But what he does have is utter confidence in himself. He knows he is a good player, he knows he is making good deck choices, and he knows he has put the testing in for the event. He doesn’t constantly have to reconfirm this fact by letting everybody else know.

Confidence is having an unshakable belief in yourself and your ability. It is not the worthless mantra of, “I’m going to win.” One of my psychology teachers once told me, “Telling yourself to focus isn’t focusing.” Similarly, I think that can be expanded to include, “Telling yourself to win isn’t winning.”

When people tell everybody on Facebook they’re going to win, they’re just saying it as some kind of ritualistic plea they futilely think will help them or to show off their American entitlement. When you have honest confidence in yourself, you won’t need to do that. You’ll just know. It’s something you can feel. You’ll play better, not get tilted, and look for every opportunity to win. But if you don’t have confidence, being cocky isn’t going to help you.

Bonus Roundtable

Immediately after completing this article, I went on Facebook and updated my status to ask the question, “
What is the largest mistake that PTQ players consistently make?

” I wanted to see how many people had opinions that lined up with mine, as well as just hear what people thought in general.

The response was overwhelming, and I received nearly sixty replies. Many of them could be boiled down to “sleep more” or “test more,” but I wanted to share eighteen of the most unique, interesting, and relevant snippets as a companion to this article. Hopefully these little tips are things you can keep in mind throughout the PTQ season.

Ben Weinburg:

Not listening to advice from others.

Kyle Sanchez:

Not managing their anxieties.

Dwayne St. Arnauld

: Underestimating their opponent/overestimating their own abilities.

Brandon Nelson

: Not listening to GerryT’s sage advice.

Ben Winterhalter:

Poor awareness and control of emotional needs.

Sean McLeer

: Playing last week’s deck for this week’s tourney.

Glenn Godard:

Not managing their expectations both before and during the event. Then, when it doesn’t go exactly to plan, either hitting tilt or self-doubt. The best players (speaking as an observer of lots and lots of PTQ winners) seem to simply play each game one at a time and zone out the rest of the distractions.

Luis Scott-Vargas:

Mental focus is one of the biggest hurdles people need to overcome, and honestly one of the reasons Magic Online is so awesome. If you play a lot of Magic Online, you rapidly get used to losing
a lot

, and that helps minimize the tilt that normally occurs when people lose, for whatever reason.

I mean, you need a fundamental skill set and good prep to win a PTQ, but none of that matters if you fly off the handle when your opponent “sacks you out” round three or whatever.

Michael Noel

: Not playing Jace, the Mind Sculptor.

Jed Dolbeer

: Lack of preparation/overconfidence. [Players] fail to realize that, regardless of how good they are, there are people that are putting in forty-plus hours of work a week on this game and have learned things that skill may never teach you.

Anthony Avitollo:

Not playing enough Magic in order to minimize the mental/emotional impact of misplays/lucky draws/losses. When you only play in a few events a month, each loss is magnified.

Gabe Carleton-Barnes

: Refusing to take responsibility for results.

Mike Turian

: People don’t practice playing Sealed deck often enough.

Brian Six:

Overvaluing playtesting. So many people tell me “I have to test card x in matchup y” when you can simply think about the matchup and its needs and decide it is good/awful. Playing ten games gives you misinformation as often as it gives you something worthwhile.

Zac Hill

: Thinking that deck selection > tight technical play.

Noah Weil:

Not figuring out the holes in your game and working to solve them.

Bryan Gottlieb:

No sideboard plan thought out. Constructed is 70% sideboarding. It’s actually why Jund was the best deck.

Tom Martell:

Not winning.

With the Extended PTQ season just around the corner, hopefully some of you will manage to pull off a PTQ victory. Every time I’ve qualified for the Pro Tour but once has been through Extended, and I feel it’s consistently one of the most challenging formats with a lot of room for innovation and enough difficulty that the best player in the room has a distinct advantage. Put this advice to good use, and you might just end up being that best player in the room.

If you have any feedback, please post it in the forums, send me a tweet

, or send me an e-mail at Gavintriesagain at gmail dot com. I look forward to talking with you soon, and I’ll see you next week.

Have a happy New Year, and have fun preparing for the first wave of Extended PTQs!

Gavin Verhey
Rabon on Magic Online, GavinVerhey on Twitter, Lesurgo everywhere else