“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it without a sense of ironic futility.”
Game Losses are optional, and you should never choose to get one. Receiving a Warning as the result of an infraction at a Magic tournament is easy: make a careless mistake, perform a Game Play Error, and receive a Warning. That is why those infractions only cause a Warning; they are less serious and a player can easily make a mistake and commit an infraction. You actually have to work to get a Game Loss, or at least be careless or lazy. With just a little effort, you can make sure you never commit an offense that carries the penalty of a Game Loss.
What infractions carry the penalty of a Game Loss? As of the new Penalty Guidelines, at REL Regular: Illegal Decklist and Unsportsmanlike Conduct – Major. At REL Competitive, Illegal Deck/Decklist Mismatch, Failure to Reveal, Tardiness, Insufficient Randomization, Drawing Extra Cards, and Marked Cards – Pattern will also earn a Game Loss. Only two of these infractions, Drawing Extra Cads and Failure to Reveal, stem from actions taken during the game. The rest of these infractions are all what Michael Flores likes to call “Operations in Magic.” The rest of this article will tell you how to prepare for tournaments to make sure you never commit any of these infractions.
If you want to be ready for your next tournament, start preparing now. The best tournament preparation I have ever found is to make sure you are familiar with the rules of Magic, as well as the Penalty Guidelines. Start out with these two links; the Comprehensive Rules and the DCI Document Center. The Comprehensive Rules teach you how to play the game, and are the first source for most of your rules questions. The Comprehensive Rules tell you that your Brainstorm will not be put into graveyard until you have drawn three cards and put two back, and they also tell you how Humility works (rule 418.5: Interaction of Continuous Effects).
Besides all that, why do you care about how the rules works? If you go to a Legacy Grand Prix or a SCG Duel for Duals, the judge staff will be extremely good, but at many lower level events around the country, especially in the Eternal formats, the judges might get something wrong. Forums are flooded with tournament reports that include a bad call by a judge that the player only realized when they got home and talked to their friends. The Penalty Guidelines are not some arcane document only eligible to be studied by level nine Wizards; you’re thinking of Power Word: Disqualify. Everyone can and is encouraged to be familiar with the DCI documents, and the best way to never get screwed out of a tournament by a judge getting a call wrong is to learn the rules. Never forget, you have the option to appeal to the head judge. After the floor judge has completed their ruling you have the option to say, “I would like to appeal to the Head Judge.” One tournament report in particular stands out in my mind where the player was given a Game Loss when the infraction only called for a Warning. If you are familiar with the Penalty Guidelines you have the ability to say, “Excuse me, but isn’t this a Game Play Error – Game Rules violation? The Penalty Guidelines suggest a Warning for the infraction instead of a Game Loss.” If you do not know the rules, you do not have that option. Remember, the Head Judge’s word is final. Arguing or being belligerent with any judge is a good way to impede the flow of a tournament, and you are probably committing Unsportsmanlike Conduct at the same time.
Probably the most often committed infraction in the Penalty Guidelines is Slow Play, and yet Slow Play is also one of the most avoidable infractions. I include Slow Play even though it only results in a Warning because Slow Play warnings accumulate very quickly. You are unlikely to change your habits during just one tournament; if you commit Slow Play once, you are in danger of committing it again. The amount of time that passes while you are considering a decision is far more than you realize. Many players think that they have a certain amount of time to make a decision (the number varies), and they are all wrong. There is no set amount of time as a definition for slow play, and the amount of time for a decision is irregardless of the complexity of the game state or how close you are to death. The other thing to note about Slow Play is the pre-game procedures. You have three minutes to perform pregame procedures; if you go over three minutes you are committing Slow Play. If you shuffle quickly and have already desideboarded your deck before you sit down, you will not be in danger of running over the limit. It will help if you have a timer to countdown the round time, especially if you are in a venue where you cannot see the clock. This will help you avoid all Slow Play issues and make sure you do not get a draw because a game went too long. And if your match is in danger of going to time because your opponent is playing too slowly, call a judge. When the judge arrives, you simply say, “Please watch this match for slow play.” The judge will not stay at the table for long, but if there is not an immediate slow play issue, they will probably keep an eye on the match occasionally. It is very rare for a match to go to time and for slow play to not be involved.
Let’s walk through the tournament, from the day before until the end of the event.
The night before a tournament, you should already have your deck idea mostly if not completely together. Go ahead and print or write out the decklist if you can. At this point, pack a bag with water, snacks, cards, decklist, pen and paper, counters, and directions.
The morning of the tournament, you want to plan to arrive at the venue during the first half of registration. If you arrive late, you still have a good cushion, but if you arrive early it will give you time to scope out the field and the area; it helps to know where the food, vending and facilities are before the tournament. Plus the less rushed you are, the better.
There is actually a good formula to follow for putting your deck together. Hopefully you already have your planned decklist on paper (write legibly to avoid any questions), and you have your sleeves and your deck in front of you. If there is any possible concern, show the sleeves to the Head Judge before the tournament begins and have them make sure they’re not unplayable. Avoid sleeves with borders that may be unusable, and remember that even if your sleeves are okay at the beginning of the tournament, they may wear unevenly during the day. You should also get new sleeves before each major tournament to prevent any issues from arising. If you try to reuse sleeves they may become marked during use, and you will find yourself replacing the sleeves anyway. First, shuffle your sleeves (without cards in them) and shuffle your unsleeved deck. This breaks up any pattern that might otherwise appear. Then sleeve the deck. After I sleeve my deck, I sort it and verify it against the list. Then pile shuffle the deck and make sure you have the right number of cards; if you pile shuffle in seven piles, the 60th card will fall on the fourth pile. When you are done with this step, pass the deck and decklist to a friend and get them to verify the deck and decklist match (if you have time) and that both deck and decklist have the appropriate number of cards. When you fill out your decklist, you should also mark the appropriate boxes for how many cards you are playing maindeck and how many cards you are playing sideboard. This can only help prevent trouble later on. At this point you should also memorize the cards in your sideboard; it may help to put them in a particular order. If you need, keep an extra copy of your decklist in your bag you can consult between rounds to desideboard.
There is no excuse for ever receiving a penalty for Insufficient Randomization. It is more common to see players shuffle their decks insufficiently and lose because they received a poor draw because cards clump together. Pile shuffling helps declump a deck; I recommend shuffling in piles of 7. If you shuffle in piles of five or six, the cards in the deck keep the same patterns; a relative prime number of piles will break up the patterns. This step will also help you count the number of cards in your deck. If you shuffle in piles of seven, the sixtieth card will fall on the fourth pile. Pile shuffling alone is insufficient randomization (as is any other method that stacks your deck), so I combine this with side shuffling. Side shuffling or riffle shuffling, both accomplish the same purpose, should be performed before and after pile shuffling. Remember that the first round and any round after a deck check require extra shuffling because your deck started stacked; I recommend extra shuffling after long games where you saw most of your deck. In those cases, I would recommend two pile shuffles; one at the beginning of your shuffling routine and one at the end. Proceed and follow both pile shuffles with side/rifle shuffles. This is one of the operations you can practice; sort and shuffle it until the draws look random again. Then you know what level of shuffling you’ll need. In general if your draws tend to be uneven or bad consistently, you’re not shuffling enough.
You should have a pen and paper for keeping track of life totals, so at the beginning of each round I also like to jot down what table I am sitting at and the name of my opponent. When you get to the table, verify the table number and check your opponent’s name and make sure they expect to play you. Nothing spoils a day like losing a match because you played the wrong opponent. You need to shuffle your deck fully; everyone knows that. At Competitive and Professional rules enforcement levels, you also need to shuffle your opponent’s deck, and this is a good habit to be in even at a Regular REL. As part of this process, count the cards in your opponent’s deck; I do this by pile shuffling. You can also ask to count (face down) the cards in your opponent’s sideboard. If either count is amiss, call a judge.
You can easily avoid Missed Trigger penalties with just a little preparedness. Remember that it is (and has been for a little while) legal to put a non-game object on top of your library as a marker to remind you of something. You should always do this; even if it helps you only once it would be worth it. One suggestion I heard was to use different markers depending on the trigger. You could use different coins for different classes of triggers, or even a die set to a different number depending on the type or number of triggers you have to remember. If you have 3 triggers, place three coins or a die set to three on top of your library, and count down until you account for all the triggers. Some triggers can be easy to miss, but Missed Trigger is an entirely preventable infraction.
Judges are not just the people there that give out pairings and perform deck checks; judges are there to serve you and to make sure the tournament runs smoothly. You and your opponents are all at the tournament because you want to win; you are biased. If you have any questions during a game, you want to ask a judge. Your opponents will take every chance they can to mislead and trick you; judges want to make sure the tournament is fair for every competitor. I have seen players ask their opponent a rules question, see their opponent get the interaction wrong, and the player lost as a result. Don’t let that happen to you.
There is only one reason to concede a game during a match. If a game is running too long, you are losing, and you want to make sure you have a chance to win the next game or two, you might consider conceding. I would never recommend conceding a game three, or conceding just because you are about to lose. I once watched a player declare an attack, see the opponent play a Sudden Spoiling, and the active player conceded despite having a still lethal attack. Your opponent may try underhanded tricks to convince you to concede prematurely. Remember when Mike Long convinced his opponent to concede to ProsBloom when Long had removed his single Drain Life from the game to Prosperous Bloom? That cannot happen if you make your opponent show you the game winning play. As long as the game is still going, you still have a chance to win; your opponent still has the chance to screw up the game. At Grand Prix: Columbus, multiple players did not actually know how to go through the Protean Hulk combo and lost games they should have won. You can also get free information just by sticking in the game a little longer. If you play at an appropriate pace, your matches will rarely go to time, giving you less reason to scoop prematurely.
I recommend sideboarding using the 15-in, 15-out method. If your sideboard is sleeved with the same type of sleeves as your maindeck, put all fifteen cards from your sideboard into your deck, shuffle your deck a few times, and then remove the fifteen cards you want to leave in the sideboard for games two and three. This helps keep your sideboard cards from wearing unevenly from lack of use. This method conceals from your opponent the number of cards you are sideboarding in as well as whether you changed sideboarding plans from game two to game three. This also helps you make sure you have the right number of cards sitting on the sidelines because you physically count them. Then as you shuffle, make sure you have fifteen cards in your sideboard and the appropriate number in your maindeck. If you counted your opponent’s deck before game one, you can verify the count stayed the same for games two and three.
Now your round is over. De-sideboard now before you get up; you may be rushed for time at the beginning of the next round and you do not want to forget. Check the match slip for correctness and then sign it; signing a blank match slip is like signing a blank check. Then the winner should take the match slip up to the judges’ station (or call the judge to collect it at certain classes of tournaments). If you sign the match slip for a round you won and it gets reported as a loss for you because you or your opponent goofed on the match slip, the error may not be fixable. Taking the match slip up yourself gives you an extra chance to verify the game and match results. Importantly, there is a drop box on the match slip. Mark it if you want to drop; if you do not want to drop, leave the drop box empty. Otherwise you may be dropped when you did not want to be.
The last bit of advice I have for you seems trite, and it is: don’t commit Game Play Errors. If you find yourself not playing the sharpest technical game, test better. The last week or few days of your testing should be under tournament conditions. Don’t allow takebacks. Keep track of how many errors you are committing; if you are missing one trigger a game, something is wrong. If you test under lax conditions, you are not going to be used to playing technically tight, and you will lose games to penalties.
Warnings matter. Why? Because of upgrade paths. Upgrade paths are what convert Warnings into Game Losses. This section will be either reassurance if you worry a lot about Warnings, or a caution if you tend to accumulate Warnings. For all non-Game Play Errors, the second Warning for the same category of infraction will usually be upgraded to a Game Loss. Two Tournament Error – Slow Play Warnings will usually earn you a Game Loss, but two different Tournament Error Warnings, for example Tardiness, will not upgrade. Game Play Errors are different. The third Game Play Warning for any infraction in that category will generally be upgraded to a Game Loss. This means that a Missed Trigger, a Game Rules Violation and an Illegal Game State, all different Game Play Errors, can earn a Game Loss. The moral of the story is to play technically smart and try to minimize your Warnings in a tournament. You can receive a Warning and have it not ruin your day, but it is like a parking ticket warning: you do not want to use it because the next one will hurt.
For extra information on this topic, read “Thirty Common Mistakes Players Make.”