The Justice League – New Year, New Prerelease

Grand Prix: Oakland!

Friday, January 29th – Prereleases tend to hit a sweet spot in terms of the best atmosphere for a tournament: casual players come to crack open new packs and play around with cards they’ve never played with before, experienced players come to trade or draft (in hopes of accumulating packs for later, private drafts), and we judges get to work our way through the wrenches thrown into our rules knowledge by new mechanics and peculiar interactions.

Wow. My first article in 2010. Happy New Year, everybody.

2009 was a wonderful year for me, and I have been busy counting many blessings. Professionally, I have had the opportunity to travel the country running shows and meeting new judges (and new friends), and organizing some of the most exciting tournaments Magic has to offer. There are many things for which I can be grateful.

To top it off, we have a new set coming out in a whopping eight days. This seems like the optimal way to ring in the new year, and I’m sure that many of you are as excited about the upcoming Prerelease as I am. Every midnight is like a small Christmas when I dutifully click over to the Mothership to catch whatever secrets are unveiled to us. As with many things Magic-related, my relationship with Prereleases has changed and developed over the years — from player to judge to scorekeeper — and, looking back, it interests me to think about what a Prerelease meant to me as a player and to contrast that with what a Prerelease means to me as a judge. If my memory serves me correctly, the last Prerelease in which I played was Dissension, but I think I’ve participated in every Prerelease since then; sometimes as a floor judge, sometimes as a head judge, sometimes (as I will be doing this weekend in Richmond) scorekeeping. Regardless of what you’re doing, a Prerelease is a very exciting place to be.

Prereleases tend to hit a sweet spot in terms of the best atmosphere for a tournament: casual players come to crack open new packs and play around with cards they’ve never played with before, experienced players come to trade or draft (in hopes of accumulating packs for later, private drafts), and we judges get to work our way through the wrenches thrown into our rules knowledge by new mechanics and peculiar interactions. Sets and blocks can develop a reputation with judges for what they try to teach us — what sections of our rules knowledge are most tested by each new set. If you were a judge during Lorwyn/Shadowmoor block, for example, you couldn’t swing a Hundroog in a crowded room without thwacking a judge who was eager to explain to you how Mirrorweave interacts with Mutavault (Answer: the original Mutavault stays as it is. All other creatures in play are unactivated Mutavaults.), an interaction which requires an adequate familiarity with layers (section 613 in the most current iteration of the Comprehensive Rules, and definitely worth your time). Mercifully, Zendikar was very easy as far as complex sets go, and there’s nothing in the Visual Spoiler that really makes me scratch my head. Part of the reason Prereleases work so well is that they take the casual enjoyment of Friday Night Magic and kitchen table gaming and put it in the same room as the PTQ road warriors … and everyone gets along. As a general rule, the prize support at a Prerelease is flat, and deliberately so. It’s not as though anybody ever qualified for the Pro Tour by winning their flight at a Prerelease, and the chances of anybody fighting over a pack or two is absurdly low (or so I hope). Prereleases are not competitive endeavors, and if you approach them as such, you shouldn’t be surprised if your experience seems vastly dissonant with that of everybody against whom you’re playing.

Better players than I will, I’m sure, hold forth on how you should build your decks, or point out what cards may or may not be good. My only contribution to this line of thinking is that the Prerelease promotional foil is insanely good. However – as has been the case with every Prerelease as long as I can remember – no, you cannot play it in your deck. Non-foil versions that you open in your Sealed pool are another story entirely, and are perfectly suitable for your deck. My areas of expertise are judging and tournament organization, and when it comes to Prereleases, I do have some wisdom that I’m happy to offer you in the interest of furthering Fun Times. What I have to say may not help you win more matches but, at a Prerelease, winning really isn’t the point.

My first suggestion is one that I would make to any player at any tournament, but which holds particular weight at tournaments where new cards are involved: if you don’t know how a card works, ask a judge. I’m not spoiling anything for anybody by telling you that there will be new mechanics in Worldwake and, while they seem pretty straightforward, not everybody is going to pick up on them right away. Judges have a bit of an advantage in this regard in that we’re familiar with card templating and tend to read the set FAQs released prior to the Prerelease itself, and we’re more than happy to leverage that familiarity to help you figure out how things work. Don’t be shy about asking questions – these kinds of interactions are enormously valuable to judges, as they allow us to learn about what things are commonly confusing players, and makes us aware of the card interactions to which we may need to pay special attention. I know that, as a judge, I’d love the opportunity to better understand what issues are going to arise most frequently at tournaments, and answering questions about the new cards definitely helps with this. This also extends to hypotheticals about how your new cards might interact with your favorite Standard deck. When judges are asked hypothetical questions about spoiled cards prior to the release of a set, we decline to answer; rules text on a card isn’t official until Wizards says so, either by spoiling it or by uploading the cards to Gatherer, and we’d hate to give an incorrect answer that sticks with you long after the correct answer becomes evident. Once the set is out in the open, though, we’re more than happy to tell you how Jund deals with the hot new chase rare you just busted, or how a new mechanic interacts with some other commonly-played archetype.

Another suggestion I would offer is a fairly simple one: be nice. Conversely, do not be a jerk. It bears noting that all Prerelease tournaments are run at Rules Enforcement Level (REL) Regular, just like Friday Night Magic and, if anything, might be considered even more casual than other events at that REL. As I mentioned, Prereleases are an environment where new rules interactions are going to come up, and the potential for players to make mistakes based on their uncertainty of the rules is even higher than it would be at other events. The challenge in playing a complicated deck at FNM is definitely mitigated by repetition and familiarity — not to mention the availability of infinite articles discussing common card interactions and strategic advice. If your opponent seems uncertain about how their cards work, or how your cards work, I would humbly suggest that patience might be a better approach than using that uncertainty to your advantage. It’s one thing to insist on technically tight play in the finals of a Pro Tour (or, as we witnessed a few weeks ago, the finals of a Legacy Open), and another to require your opponent to play correctly when the prizes at stake are a few packs. My own personal experience reflects this: several years back, I was playing in the Planeshift Prerelease in Boston and, during one round, my opponent played some card that required her to make a color choice. She named one choice and, realizing it was an obvious play mistake, immediately corrected herself to name something different. I insisted that she be held to her original choice. Judges didn’t get involved but, if I had ruled on my former self’s situation, I definitely would have allowed the player to name the choice she intended. My excessively (and inappropriately) competitive behavior set the tone for the remainder of the match – which I lost – and I left the table feeling like a jerk, rather than feeling happy that I’d played a good, fair match.

My opponent in that situation, by the way? None other than New England pro Melissa DeTora. Yeah, there was no way I was winning that match. If you’re reading this, Melissa, please accept my apology for being a tool.

A common question that we judges encounter at Prereleases has to do with the composition of your main deck. It used to be the case that players in a Sealed tournament had to keep the composition of their main deck consistent between matches (but not between games). For Prerelease tournaments, this seems somewhat suboptimal – if you receive a bunch of shiny new cards to play with, why not play with as many of them (and in as many different permutations) as you like? Section 2.2 of the Magic Infraction Procedure Guide informs us that players competing in a Limited event that does not use decklists are free to alter the composition of their decks between matches. If your Black/Red build isn’t working for you and, in Round Two, you want to try a Blue/Green build instead, that’s totally fine. Let me emphasize, though, that this is only allowed at Limited tournaments (Sealed Pack and Draft) that do not use decklists. Do not try this at your local FNM, lest you find yourself having a long discussion with the Head Judge about why you chose to switch from Jund to Vampires halfway through your PTQ. For the Prerelease, however, feel free to play around with whatever configuration of your deck suits you best.

As I say to other judges – stolen so shamelessly from Sheldon Menery that I suspect he’ll soon charge me royalties – if you’re not having a good time, you’re doing something wrong. This holds true for players, too, and especially at Prereleases. These are events where Wizards of the Coast finally unveils their new toys for us to play with, experiment, and break. Resist the urge to rules shark in the pursuit of just one more prize pack or you will be robbing yourself of a much better opportunity and a deeper enjoyment.

Until next time, thanks for this time.

nicholas dot sabin at starcitygames dot worldwake
NicholasAtSCG on our forums, and pretty much everywhere else.