From Magic Arena to Paper – Playing in a Magic Tournament

You know how to find a good LGS, you’ve got all the stuff you need to play, you’re aware of all the stuff you need to keep in mind for paper play. You’re ready to play in your first Magic tournament – but what does it involve? Today, we’re going to get across the types of tournaments, the physical mechanics of things like drafting, pairings and reporting results, and of course how to claim your prizes. Let’s get to it!



Header - Types of Tournaments

Generally, there are two types of tournaments – Constructed or Limited. In Constructed, you bring your own deck and sideboard and play a number of matches, usually three or four at most FNMs. In Limited, you firstly draft and build a deck, then play three rounds against some of the people you drafted with.



Which one should you pick? It’s entirely up to you, there isn’t a “correct” answer. If you don’t have much of a paper collection and can’t borrow a deck, drafting is a good way to pick up new cards. You generally get to keep all the cards you draft, although definitely check that before signing up. Sometimes there’s a rare re-draft based on final standings, so make sure you know what the rules are ahead of time. Ask the staff.

If you already have a deck ready to go, there’s nothing stopping you from jumping straight into Constructed. Just remember – especially if you’re a Best-of-One grinder – that the majority of paper matches you’ll play are Best-of-Three, so don’t forget a sideboard. Don’t have a sideboard? ChannelFireball will sort you out there (coupon code KNIGHT at checkout). 

Remember, Limited tournaments tend to be more expensive than Constructed, even if the prize structures are largely similar. This is because you usually get to keep the cards you draft – this is reflected in the entry cost.


Header - Competitive or Casual?

The overwhelming majority of tournaments held at LGSs are casual, not competitive. This means that the emphasis is on learning from mistakes, not punishing them. You won’t get in trouble for messing up, and a judge will usually be on hand to help fix errors and make sure games run smoothly.

Good-natured opponents will allow you to take back silly mistakes (like not remembering triggers that MTGA handles for you, for instance), but they don’t have to, so don’t get too upset if they don’t. Likewise, you can and, in my view, should generally be forgiving of newer, inexperienced players – no one likes getting rules lawyered at their first FNM. 

If the tournament is competitive, however, errors won’t be forgiven so easily. Opponents don’t have to and shouldn’t let you take back mistakes, and if you mess up something (drawing an extra card accidentally, getting outside assistance), a judge may issue you with a warning.

A warning isn’t a big deal by itself – they’re used to track mistakes to make sure people aren’t deliberately cheating. If you get a warning for something, don’t panic, as it’s not the end of the world and you’re not a terrible person. Just take a second, try to move past whatever got you the warning and keep playing. 

Competitive tournaments usually attract better players and have bigger prize pools with spikier payouts. If you think you’ve got the chops, you should absolutely play in one – you’ll have a good time – but if you want to warm up with more casual tournaments while you get used to things like remembering triggers and tracking life totals, no worries. There’ll always be more competitive tournaments to play at another time!


Header - Before the Tournament

Let’s say you’ve chosen a tournament to play in. The tournament will have a starting time advertised – let’s say for the sake of example it’s seven o’clock. That doesn’t mean you get there at seven! Arrive with enough time to register, pay the entry fee and settle in and relax before the tournament begins. Half an hour is plenty of time, 15 minutes is about as fine as you want to cut it. As a new player at the LGS, especially, give yourself more time rather than less, in case they need to explain idiosyncrasies of the venue to you. 



Remember, the staff will be busy and might not have time for all your questions. If in doubt, get there even earlier. People will generally arrive half an hour or so before the tournament to register, trade, catch up with friends and prepare their decks, and the staff will be very busy throughout. 

Once you arrive, approach the staff and tell them which tournament you’d like to play in (we’ll cover the types of tournaments directly). They’ll take you through the registration process and take your entry fee. Drafting is almost always more expensive than playing a Constructed format like Standard, simply because you (usually) get to keep the cards you draft. 

Once you’re registered, it’s a matter of waiting for the tournament to start. If you’re feeling flustered, take a seat at an empty table, make sure your deck is ready and just chill out until pairings are announced. Relax – you’re here to have fun, and so is everyone else – and chances are, that’s just what’s going to happen. 

Hopefully, the tournament starts on time. It’s not unusual for them to be delayed, but again if the regulars seem used to the tournament getting underway half an hour behind time, that’s not great (often, close-knit LGSs will hold up tournament start times for a late regular who has called ahead, which I, personally, don’t like).


Header - Drafting

Note: If you’ve chosen to play in a Constructed tournament, this section doesn’t apply and you can safely skip down to “pairings.”

A paper draft has some similarities to a draft on MTGA, but there are some key differences to be aware of before you get underway. You’ll be seated at a table with (usually) seven other people, and physically pass the cards around the table, taking one per pack just like on Arena. To take a card from a pack, put it face down in front of you and add your next picks on top of it to make a little pile. Remember to start passing cards in the other direction for the second pack!



Most LGSs don’t mind if you look at your picks during the draft, but some are a little stricter with this frown upon it, so just ask if you’re unsure. Some LGSs also prefer players not to let packs “stack up” behind players – this means that if the player you’re passing to is taking a long time, don’t pass them any more than one extra pack. This can cause traffic jams, but it’s a lot less stressful for players who have a long queue of packs waiting for them like you see on MTGA. There’s no timer for picks like on Arena, but you still should draft at a reasonable pace. 

Keep your eyes on your cards. It’s very bad form to let your eyes wander, especially if people might think you’re looking at their cards or picks. This not only will put you offside with other drafters, it will get you disqualified in competitive tournaments. Avoid making a habit of it, and keep your eyes forward. 

Similarly, don’t ruin the draft with a running commentary of what you’re drafting. You’re not allowed to talk about the cards or colors you’re drafting, but don’t be that person at the draft table saying idiotic stuff like “how is this still in the pack!?” or “well this draft just paid for itself.” People who have played paper Magic for years still do this, and it sucks. Don’t be an annoying drafter!

Once you’ve assembled all your picks, it’s now time to build your deck. You can either get up and move to another table to do this, so you don’t reveal the cards you’ve drafted (you’ll be playing the people you drafted with, so if you want to hide your removal suite or bombs you might want to move away from them). Some people might think this is a little spikey, but it’s not that weird. Once you’ve built your deck, take the basic lands you need from the basic land station (you can also bring cool basics of your own if you like, many people do). If you use land station basics, remember to put them back after the draft. You’re now ready to play!


Header - Pairings

Once everyone has registered, has a deck prepared and is ready to go, the staff will announce pairings. Depending on the size of the event, it’ll generally be done in one of two ways. 

For smaller events, the staff might just shout out pairings – you’ll hear something like “Sam Smith is against Alex Anderson” and so on. Finding Alex Anderson shouldn’t be too difficult, especially at a small LGS – everyone tends to know everyone, and if not people will just go about asking “Alex? Alex?” until they find the Alex they’re after. Once you’ve got an opponent, you find an empty table and begin to play.

For larger events, pairings will usually go up either on paper or on a mounted TV screen – often with table numbers, so you know where to go. It will say something like “Sam Smith v Alex Anderson, Table 12” – make your way to table 12, and eventually, your opponent should do the same. If they don’t, inform the staff, and they’ll take it from there (worst case scenario is you get a free win for them not showing up. Nice!). 

You’ll generally be paired with someone on the same record as you. It’s random for the first round – everyone is 0-0 – but if you win round one, in round two you’ll probably also play someone who won. If you then lose, for example, you’ll likely play against someone who is also 1-1. This is called Swiss pairing and it’s overwhelmingly popular as a pairing method. 


Header - Playing the Round

You then play a Best-of-Three match (remember, it’s almost always Best-of-Three in paper; if nothing is said otherwise assume Best-of-Three). You have 50 minutes to complete the match, and there are no chess clocks like on MTGA – you just share the time pool together, so don’t play too slowly! Once the match is over, the winner reports the result to the staff – sometimes this is done with a match slip where you write the score and sign your name, but most commonly you just verbally confirm the result with the staff. 

What happens if the 50 minutes are up before the match finishes? You then go to “extra turns.” You play a total of five extra turns, not including the one you’re on when time is called. At the end of those turns, if there is still no result, the game is a draw. If you won game one and draw game two, you win the match, whereas if you split games one and two 1-1, then the match is a draw. 

Sometimes, your opponent will ask if you want to concede to them at the end of extra turns, especially if they’re in a dominant position and probably would go on to win. It’s up to you whether you do this. You absolutely do not have to, and if they get salty about it, that’s not them. Some people will tell you you’re being rude, but you’re under no obligation to concede to someone for any reason. Make up your own mind, and don’t let people dictate how you feel about it. 

Once everyone has completed their matches (sometimes extra turns take a long time, especially in control mirrors), pairings for a new round will be posted, and the process begins again – find your opponent, play another match, etc. This continues until the predetermined number of rounds has been reached (again, usually three or four at FNM) and then the tournament is over.


Header - After the Tournament

At the end of the tournament, prizes are distributed to players based on the final standings. As we talked about in a previous article, the prize structure should be clear and unambiguous, and you should have a rough idea of what you’re going to receive based on your performance. If the prize is store credit, you can usually “bank” it – you don’t have to spend it then and there and the store will keep a tally which you can use to save up for more expensive stuff. 

Approach the staff when your name is called to collect your prize (if you were fortunate enough to win anything), collect your loot and that’s it – you just got through your first paper tournament! Simple as that.

Next week, we’ll be back with some important etiquette tips for paper play – stuff that isn’t always necessarily covered by the rules, but is still a big part of Magic culture. Don’t miss it!



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