Only You Can Prevent Game Losses

Do you ever feel that your true potential is squandered because of silly procedural errors that cost you games? Do you find yourself blaming judges for preventing you from being a contender?
Time to face facts, my friend: Only you can prevent game losses.

I don’t know what it is about tournaments, but something always controversial tends to happen during one of my matches. At least it gives me something to write about that is a little more interesting than a tournament report.

It is the last round of Swiss of a Grand Prix: Milwaukee Trial. Whoever wins this match determines whether my opponent or I will go on to the Top 8. We get deck-checked. As my opponent and I are sitting there, looking on at the other matches, I begin to wonder what is going on; it seems like the deck-check is taking longer than usual, and I begin to wonder if something is wrong. Being the usual worrier that I am, I figured it was something with my deck… Especially after I had just double-checked my sideboard before shuffling, and found that I had forgot to switch out one of my sideboard cards.

A few minutes later, I get my deck presented back to me – no problems. Then my opponent gets called over to the judge’s table, and the judge talks to him for a few minutes. Apparently, he has a one-of card in his deck, and since he’s playing with white sleeves, the dirt marks are much more visible on this particular card – enough so that the judge could easily pick out this card every single time. The judge had to give my opponent a game loss.

My opponent is decidedly angry, especially after I go on to defeat him in our one-and-only match.

My opponent feels cheated, as if that game loss was the difference between winning and losing; never mind the fact that I actually had to beat him at least once to go on myself.

Does this scenario sound familiar to you? Do you ever feel that your true potential is squandered because of silly procedural errors that cost you games? Do you find yourself blaming judges for preventing you from being a contender?

Time to face facts, my friend: Only you can prevent game losses.

Although you may find yourself the victim of carelessness, it is better than the alternative of leaving open the possibility of cheating. Even now, with the strict penalty guidelines in place, the DCI still has to ban at least a few people every quarter for cheating. I don’t think there is anyone out there who wants to see that list grow longer as players try to cheat other players out of their rightful fame and fortune with a relaxation in the Penalty Guidelines.

Think a judge is cheating you out of your money when you forget to write down one card in your sideboard? How would you feel if your opponent decided to play with one extra card in the sideboard that they didn’t bother to list? At least in the current situation, you have control over your own destiny.

Yes, only you can prevent game losses.

Before I start in on my diatribe on what you should do in preparation for and during a tournament, I will let you know that most of these things should be obvious to those who play in large-scale tournaments on a regular basis. For those who know what I am going to say, I challenge you to look at my list and ask yourself: Do you do this religiously…. Or do you just know what you should do and are too lazy to implement it?

How much of your laziness has resulted in game losses? For those of you that are beginning the plunge into the tournament scene, absorb what you can. Only you can prevent game losses.

The biggest weapon you have in your arsenal against game losses is knowing and understanding what judges look for before they hand out penalties. So let’s just dive right in.


During the first round or two of a big tournament, judges are focused on the task of checking out every player’s decklist, whether it be for a Constructed tournament or for a Limited event. Since Limited just requires you to be smart enough to count and mark properly (double-check your work, people!), I am only going to focus on Constructed for this section.

Judges perform the following checks on decklists:

  1. The number of cards registered in the main deck is at least 60.

  2. The number of cards registered in the sideboard is 15 or 0.

  3. There are no more than four of a card registered in both the sideboard and the main deck.

  4. The full English name of the card is printed on the decklist.

I should probably go into a little more detail on this last one; the reason the full name of a card needs to be printed on your decklist is that there are some cards out there with the same portion of a name. For example, we all tend to shorten the name Urza’s Rage to Rage… But there are actually more cards out there with Rage in the title that are tournament legal and of the same color, like Maniacal Rage. In a speed red deck, both of these cards could be viable. This allows the possibility for you to switch between Urza’s Rage and Maniacal Rage, depending on the deck you are facing without using up precious slots in your sideboard. Too huge a potential for cheating.

Result: Game loss.

Now, you could simply follow these rules above to at least catch some of your mistakes before you begin playing. Ah, but this doesn’t cover the final test of mettle: Deck checks. Say you accidentally write down ten Plains instead of ten Mountains. It’s the proverbial creek and paddle for you. These are some things to keep in mind when you get ready for the tournament and have to fill out your decklist:

  1. Come early. Give yourself enough time to write down your decklist, check it, and then check it against your cards. A person tends to get sloppy when racing against the clock. If you’re already pressed for time, you’re more than likely going to skip some of the checks you should do. Checks that would catch your errors. Just don’t chance it; come ten minutes early. Some would also argue to write up your decklist the night before and then hand it in – but if you’re like me, you’ve got a sideboard that you want to finish at the last minute, depending on what you see floating around at the tables. Changing your deck after completing the decklist could land you in some trouble, especially if you forget to change a card or two on your decklist. Don’t even bother starting to write something on paper until you are sure of what you are playing, both in your deck and sideboard.

  2. Don’t write your deck down from memory. It is a good thing to know your deck by heart for play purposes; you want to know what possible answers you can draw to counteract a problem on the table. However, your brain doesn’t think in Full English Language. Do you remember a Birds of Paradise as”Birds of Paradise”? I doubt it. You probably call it a”BoP” or”Birds” or”Mana Birds.” Problem is, your brain is moving your hand. You’re more than likely not to write the correct name on the paper. I caught myself this last weekend just writing”Roar” on my decklist. Fortunately, I looked at my cards and made sure to spell out”Roar of the Wurm.” Always look at your cards when you are writing out your decklist.

  3. Always sort your deck and compare it against your decklist. I personally don’t like to sort my cards after my deck is all randomized and ready to go… But I think that this is the most important step of them all. Why? Your decklist will be your bible for the tournament. It doesn’t matter what is in your deck or what you intended to write on the decklist… What you put down is the record. If the judges find a possible mistake, they have no recourse but to force you to play what you wrote down. In less than a year, I’ve been to two Premier events where players have written the incorrect basic land type on their decklist. One was checked by the judge in the Top 8, the other right at the beginning of the tournament: Do you think it is worth paying $20 or so just to face the challenge of playing your B/G deck with Plains instead of Swamps? No? Then check your decklist.


The dreaded deckcheck. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t feel a twinge of fear when the long arm of the law swoops down to steal your deck. You really shouldn’t fear these if you are aware of what to watch out for: Deck checks are performed by judges throughout the tournament for one purpose – to stop any possible cheating. The unfortunate consequences, though, are that even the honest can get punished for their own oversights. All the same, a necessary evil to keep any possible cheating in check. When a judge checks for your deck, these are the things that judges look for:

  1. Proper randomization. A judge will usually look at the cards face-up and make sure that the deck isn’t stacked or manawoven.

  2. Marked sleeves. After looking at the decks face up, a judge will usually turn them over and look at each card one by one and pull out ones that have distinguishing marks on them. If the marked cards can be pulled out repeatedly, a judge will then verify if there is some connection between which sleeves are marked and which cards are in those sleeves. For example, if you have a single Upheaval in your deck and that sleeve is the only one with a nail mark in the upper right corner, then your deck will be considered marked and subject to severe penalty.

  3. Deck verification. The judge checks your sideboard and deck against the decklist you turned in. Any errors will result in penalties and a possible unexpected modification of your deck.

What can you do to prevent possible problems with randomization, sleeves and decklists? I think we’ve covered what to do with your decklist, and, unless you really are cheating, you should never have to worry about the randomization checks. Then there are sleeves.

Sleeves are probably one of the most contentious penalties that get applied in the game of Magic. Why? Because sleeves are easily marked. Either through several rounds of play or miscuts straight from the box, sleeves just don’t hold up to the roughness of tournament Magic like titanium-coated safes. Distinguishing marks on sleeves (like a bent corner or nail mark) give a significant advantage to the player who knows what the next card in the deck is. Stay clear of this nasty area of potential cheating by following these simple rules when sleeving your deck:

  1. While you are sleeving each card, look at the back of the sleeve. See any crease marks? Noticeable dents? Dirt marks? Don’t use that sleeve. Go for the next one.

  2. Mix up your deck before you sleeve. Sometimes, there are patterns in new sleeves that are not first detectable but tend to show after a little bit of playing. By randomly inserting cards, you won’t have to worry about all your Birds of Paradise containing the same mark. Random marked cards rarely warrant a game loss.

  3. Try not to sleeve your sideboard. Since your sideboard cards don’t get shuffled as much as your main deck, there will be a difference in wear between main deck sleeves and sideboard sleeves that could result in marked cards. This is especially true of brand-new sleeves. It might take a little extra time to sideboard, but protecting yourself from penalties is worth the time and effort.

  4. Don’t play with the”danger” sleeves. Danger sleeves are the ones that will guarantee you can possibly cheat with them. The most obvious of these are the clear or transparent sleeves. Unless all your cards are pristine, your Revised Llanowar Elf is going to stick out like a sore thumb. There’s also a new danger in town – reflective sleeves. Stay away from any sleeve that allows you to see your top card in the reflection on the back of the next card in your deck. Shiny is pretty, but don’t let your inner Gollum take over – shiny is also deadly.

Hey – where do you think you are going? Do you think you know everything you need to know to not get a game loss for silly errors? You aren’t there yet, buddy. What about game losses for failure to desideboard? Playing the wrong opponent? Recording your match results incorrectly? There are a few last things you should pay special attention to while you are playing to prevent the ever-present danger of an unintentional game loss.

  1. Always verify your deck before shuffling at the beginning of a round. This means checking to make sure you’ve desideboarded completely, and that you still have six (or whatever number you are playing with) cards in your main deck. Always, always, always. The last round of Swiss of that same GPT: Milwaukee I mentioned at the beginning of the article? Remember? You know, at the beginning of this article? Okay, I’ll repeat it here. I checked my sideboard before I started shuffling, and found that I had missed siding out one Krosan Beast. My deck was checked that round. Game loss averted.

  2. Never let the loser of a match fill out the results slip. Losers are not necessarily cheaters, but they don’t care about making sure they write down the correct results. Why should they? If you’ve won a match, be extra careful to make sure that the match slips are filled out correctly. Sometimes, you’ll find a judge who is willing to change a mistake that both players agree is incorrect, but a judge isn’t required to rectify the situation. A judge has every right to let the signed slip stand; after all, you signed it.

  3. Look at your points before each round. Not only can you make mistakes filling out the match slip, but the scorer can also make mistakes entering results. Just make sure you look out for yourself. In a well-run tournament where seating is performed by standings, you should be able to quickly tell if you’re last match was a win or loss by whether or not you’ve moved up or down in your table.

  4. Introduce yourself to your opponent. Verify that you are playing the opponent you think you are supposed to be playing. Yep; you can get up to a match loss if you don’t realize you are playing the wrong opponent until late in the round. Some judges will be a little more lenient when there is obviously some confusion (for example, there were two people with the same name in last year’s Regionals that I attended)… But why chance it?

  5. Lastly, but definitely not least, keep any cards that aren’t in your deck off the table or away from the playing area. I’ve seen everything from someone with a sleeved and unsleeved sideboard in their deck box to an unsleeved sideboard mixed in with a whole box of cards. Why open yourself up to the possibility of accusations? Take out your deck and sideboard for the round and put the rest of the stuff under your chair.

Whew! Seems like a lot to keep yourself honest, doesn’t it? Like anything else in life, just practice for a while and you’ll be doing it in your sleep. Gone away will be the constant embarrassment from missing out on Top 8s because you couldn’t count to forty when registering your sealed deck. No longer will your friends hear about how you got shafted by the DCI and their stiff penalties. Follow these tips and you’ll soon be regaling those pals of yours with the entertaining play mistakes that kept you out of the money.

Just remember…

Only you can prevent game losses.