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Careful Consideration – Tournament Mistakes

Since last fall, I’ve been cataloging all the different types of mistakes that I could think of, adding new mistakes as I identify them to the list. From time to time, I review the list, which has helped my game, as I’ve been able to identify situations where I would have potentially made a mistake before I make it, and subsequently have avoided making that mistake.

Some mistakes are very subtle and exceedingly difficult to phrase or categorize, and those have not done a great job of making the list because there is no good way to phrase it. However, even without those types of mistakes, the list is well over 100 mistakes, and I’m constantly adding more.

This article would be quite lengthy if I went into every single one, so I’ll break this into chunks and revisit major categories from time to time over the next few months/years.

So for today’s exercise, let’s look at all the mistakes I’ve recorded for tournament that are REL: Competitive and up. This would be for PTQs, Grands Prix, Grand Prix Trials, and other similar events. For an FNM, most of these still apply, but others aren’t as stringent.

However, if you don’t do any of these things at your local FNM, you would probably be okay.

Before the tournament starts

Mistake: Not getting enough sleep
This one is pretty self-explanatory. I know some people who can do well on little sleep, but they’re overcoming a disadvantage they’re giving themselves. Maybe the time spent testing until 2am gives them enough information that it’s worth not sleeping, but for the most part, if you’re up really late the night before the event playing video games or hanging out at Denny’s talking about politics, you’re doing yourself a disservice. Go to bed early and get some sleep.

Mistake: Not eating
This can be tricky, as PTQs can run very long and often there isn’t enough time to go between rounds and get something to eat, especially if you’re playing a slow deck. If you’re playing the Teachings mirror in Time Spiral Block, you’re probably not going to be finishing that match in twenty minutes.

Go to sleep early, get up early, and give yourself time to eat a good breakfast before the tournament starts. And keep some sort of nutritional bars with you. Some of them may not taste the best, but I’m willing to sacrifice taste for having a clear head throughout the day. And bring water as well. Not drinking enough water can affect performance adversely.

Mistake Not getting new sleeves for an event
This one isn’t that important at an FNM, but at a PTQ it’s pretty important. Sleeves get worn when you test/play with them, and it’s best to avoid any issues or questions about sleeves. Bring brand new sleeves for the event. Just be careful, as brand new sleeves can be a little slippery, so there’s more of a tendency to have cards slip off the stack and reveal to your opponent what you’re playing.

Mistake: Not using tournament legal sleeves
Sleeves should not be reflective or have any patterns or pictures on the back. The only exception to this are the Magic: The Gathering branded Ultra-Pro Sleeves. (I’m a big fan of solid textured Ultra Pro sleeves, as I think they shuffle very well and hold up well over the course of a tournament.) The reason for this is that there are ways to cheat with reflective sleeves, and it’s easier to mark a sleeve indiscernibly on a sleeve with a picture of some awesome dragon on the back, as the markings won’t be as obvious to those who aren’t looking for them.

Mistake: Not shuffling your new pack of sleeves before you sleeve
There are sometimes problems at the factories and you can have a run of sleeves that have a small mark on them. If you just open the package and sleeve your alphabetically sorted deck into the sleeves, then there’s a good chance that the run of marked sleeves will correspond to something like all lands or all spells, and that creates a situation where if a judge inspected your sleeves, you could end up with a Marked Cards – Pattern penalty, which is usually a game loss.

Mistake: Being reckless with your use of foils in a deck
This one takes a bit of explanation. If you go to a PTQ and your cards are entirely non-foil except for your playset of foil [card]Paths to Exile[/card]s, then you run the risk of getting a penalty. Foil cards tend to bend over time, and the acceleration of the bending process can happen throughout the day as cards get shuffled. What this means is that if you’re fortunate enough to be making the Top 8 and they do a deck check (or if they do a mid-round deck check) and the judge finds it possible to cut to the foil Path to Exile every time, then you’re looking at a Marked Cards – Pattern penalty and again, that’s usually a game loss.

That doesn’t mean you can’t play with foils. On the contrary, you can play with even more foils! If I want to play my foil Path to Exile in my deck, I also have a stock of foil basic lands in my foil binder, as well as various other foils I collect throughout my Magic career. Having four foil Wraths of Gods in your deck and no other foils is bad. Having four foil Wraths of God and a foil Lightning Helix and two foil Plains and a foil Blood Crypt and a foil Bloodstained Mire and a foil Ghost-Lit Stalker and foil Ranger of Eos in your deck”¦well, that’s probably going to be okay.

If in doubt, check with the head judge. I’ve played foils and have been deck checked and have had them come through “clean” with no problems. Just be careful how you distribute them and you should be okay.

Before the game starts

Mistake: Misregistering your deck
This is just a matter of paying attention to detail. Make sure your deck registration sheet is correct. Count the cards on the sheet. Count your deck. Make sure everything is right. Check it again.

If possible, print out a deck registration sheet the night before and register it then. Then you don’t have to worry about having your deck laid out in front of you and having passersby getting a clue about what you’re playing.

And use the full name of the card. Write it out. Don’t use shortcuts. If you’re playing [card]Dark Confidant[/card], write “4 Dark Confidant” and not “4 Bob.” I got a free win against someone at a PTQ when they wrote “4 Krosan” in their sideboard when they meant [card]Krosan Grip[/card]. Deck registration errors result in game losses and they are 100% avoidable with just a little bit of care and effort.

Mistake: Using dice for life totals instead of paper
You don’t see this too often at the PTQ level, but it’s worth mentioning. Dice are a very unreliable way to keep track of life totals. Twenty-sided dice can get knocked over and then you’ve got a nasty situation if the players disagree on what the real life total was. Paper is much cleaner and nobody can accidentally knock your life total from an 18 into a 12 just by a flick of the hand.

Mistake: Not bringing dice, pen, and paper
There is almost no excuse for this ever. People spend so much time on their Constructed decks, whittling down card choices, building a sideboard plan, testing for hours on end”¦but won’t take the time to bring dice and paper. When someone asks me for paper at a PTQ or if they can use my dice, I want to set them on fire. Take the extra thirty seconds to grab a notepad and a pen. Bring an extra pen if the first one runs out.

I’ve been known to be a little snarky at PTQs to those who ask to have a piece of paper, and although it’s a departure from my normal, polite demeanor, I stand by it. There really is no excuse to not come prepared, and I dislike using up my resources (the paper I paid for or the dice that I lend out that sometimes doesn’t come back) because someone else decided it wasn’t worth the time to take along the essentials for an event.

Mistake: Not shuffling enough
One of the comments I hear a lot is that when someone sees a professional player for the first time, they notice how much more they shuffle than the average player. I don’t think this is a coincidence. Shuffle, shuffle, and shuffle some more. Riffle shuffles and pile shuffles and riffle shuffles and maybe a few more shuffles. You have three minutes, so use them wisely. I’ve seen some players take their deck, do one riffle shuffle, and present. I don’t even know if that’s entirely legal, but at the very best, it’s still just begging to get flooded or screwed.

Mistake: Not shuffling your opponent’s deck every time they manipulate it.
I don’t trust my opponents, and if I play against you at a REL: Competitive event, chances are I won’t trust you either. And you shouldn’t trust me, for that matter. Any time someone touches their deck, there’s an opportunity to cheat or manipulate their cards, and my shuffling of a deck when put in front of me helps thwart those opportunities.

At the very worst, at least cut the deck. I see people tap the top of the deck as if to say, “I trust you.” Don’t trust me! You don’t know me! I could be a filthy dirty deck-manipulating cheater.

When the game starts

Mistake: Not calling out changes in life totals
Every time there’s a change in life totals, I call them out. If they hit me with a Knight of Meadowgrain, I’ll say, “I’m at 18 and you’re at 22″ as I write down the change. This has prevented a lot of situations where discrepancies in life totals would have occurred, but we caught it early and were able to correct the situation immediately. It’s more difficult to correct these situations a few turns later when your opponent thinks you’re at 8 but you think you’re at 10, and nobody’s sure when the departure happened.

Mistake: Not writing down changes in life totals
Even when you are calling out life totals, sometimes there is still a discrepancy. This may be due to your opponent not paying attention to life total changes as you called them out, or they could be cheating, or you could have made a mistake, or any number of reasons.

This sounds more tedious and time-consuming than it really is. I’ve developed a shorthand for life total changes and it adds almost no time at all to the matches and doesn’t really change the flow of the game. Here’s an example from my opponent’s side during an Extended PTQ last season:

20
19 Mire
17 SGround
13 Cat
16 Helix
12 Goyf
8 Char
2 Cat + Goyf
-1 Helix

Cat is Wild Nacatl, Goyf is Tarmogoyf, Helix is Lightning Helix. This isn’t a novel, but it’s pretty clear to see what happened.

I’ve had more than one game determined by a judge ruling in my favor when there has been a discrepancy in life totals. If the person says they were at 4 instead of 2 when I Helixed them, and the judge is looking at my opponent’s piece of paper that just says “19 17 13 16 12 8 4 1″ and mine’s got the details of how the life totals changed, who do you think the judge is going to side with?

Sometimes it’s not practical to do this. I gave this up entirely when I played Martyr of Sands control. At that point, because time was at such a premium anyway, writing down changes in life totals would have added too much time, as there were massive life total swings anyway between fetchlands, Phyrexian Arena triggers, Martyr activations, Lightning Helixes, and anything my opponent is doing to me. But that’s the exception, not the rule.

Mistake: Not using sideboard notes if you aren’t sure about your sideboard plan
Before July 1st, referencing notes between games led to harsh penalties. It used to be an automatic disqualification. Then in March of last year, they changed it to a match loss. Now it’s completely legal! You may reference outside notes between games, as long as the notes are put away when the game starts. So if you’re not 100% sure on your sideboard plan, then take advantage of this change in rules. Some players look on this with disdain, as a good player should be able to know their deck well enough to sideboard without help. But I think that’s silly. Sure, you should know your deck well enough, but it’s a tool you can use if for whatever reason you don’t.

I have my own set of notes that I reference between games which include things like, “Relax, take a deep breath, and focus.” Secret tech!

Mistake: Forgetting to desideboard
This habit was driven into me after I played a deck with Burning Wish. I was so paranoid about having a 14 card sideboard that I made a habit of checking my fifteen cards after each game and made sure I had the correct sideboard. After the match, I make it a point to go back to the original configuration.

There are few feelings worse than sitting down for game one, drawing your opening hand and seeing the Krosan Grip that was supposed to be in your board and having to take a game loss for it. It’s such an easily avoidable situation and it’s silly that it would ever happen.

I need more time!

Mistake: Not calling your opponent on slow play
If I’m looking around and I’m watching other people’s matches, chances are, my opponent is playing too slowly. I’m actually pretty bad at this part, and only ramped it up when I had to – when I was playing Martyr. Gently saying to your opponent, “I need you to make a decision,” or, “We aren’t going to finish at this rate,” is usually enough to speed things along. If not, calling a judge and asking them to watch the match for slow play may be necessary.

Mistake: If a game is going long and you have no realistic chance to win, not scooping so you’ll have time to finish a different game (and the match)
You’re playing an aggro deck and your opponent is at 48 in game two. Neither of you have any cards in hand but your opponent has double Wall of Denial on the table. You have double Ghitu Encampment on the table.

You could try to grind it out, but it’s probably going to take forever and if they draw anything, then you’re back to being behind. They’re at 48 and if you need to attack 12 times with double Ghitu Encampment in order to win AND deal with their two walls AND hope they aren’t going to draw anything, it’s best to concede the game and move on to game two. Your chances of winning that game are so small that it’s more likely they will eventually win game two and not give you enough time to win game three, giving you a draw in a match that you would have otherwise been able to win.

Mistake: Not being aware of time
This ties in with the previous mistake. Know how much time is left on the clock. I like to get to my seat early and face the clock if possible. If not, I note what time the round started and I’ll glance at my watch from time to time to determine how much time I have left. If things are chugging along at a fast pace, then you have nothing to worry about. But if you need to pull out a win and you’re starting game three with only ten minutes left, you should be aware that you may need to change your play based on how much time is left.

Mistake: Not asking for a time extension when you can get one
When there’s a legitimate reason to get an extension, then ask for one. Your opponent lost a card and had to look around in his bag for a minute or two before he could present. Or perhaps he left to go to the bathroom. Or there was a ruling that took a while and the judge forgot to give you a time extension. Ask for one. You don’t want to get an unnecessary draw because you didn’t ask for the five minutes you lost because of something that was out of your control.

Mistake: Not writing down your opponent’s cards and crossing them off when you
play some “look at their hand” effect

If you Thoughtseize your opponent and you see their hand, write it down before choosing the card. Then cross off each card as they play it, so you’ll be able to narrow down their hand based on what they played. If they have one card in hand and you know they haven’t played that Cruel Ultimatum you saw, then you probably should leave countermagic mana up if you’re worried about them casting Cruel Ultimatum. I see people just look at my hand and then take the card and move on with their lives, then walk into a trick they knew was in my hand. That could have been totally avoided.

Mistake: Accidentally touching cards to your hand when using a Sensei’s Divining Top/Ponder effect
I’ve seen this happen a few times, and it’s mostly just due to sloppiness. You play Ponder, look at the top three cards, look at your hand, and one of the cards from the Ponder touches one of the cards in your hand. This may seem ridiculous, but you can get a game loss for drawing extra cards for doing this. The cards should not touch under any circumstances. I put my hand down on the table when I’m manipulating the top of my deck. If I need to look at my hand, I put the top three cards down on the table, pick up my hand, look at it, then put it down and look at the top three cards. That way there’s no confusion on anyone’s behalf.

This normally would add a bit of time, so practice doing this dexterously and it shouldn’t make your games run long. I’ve seen two game losses occur where the “drawing extra cards by touching cards” situation has occurred, and both times it was pretty devastating for the game loss recipient.

Judge!

Mistake: Not calling a judge anytime something is confusing or seems wrong to you
Judges are your friends and exist to make the tournaments run smoothly. And they are trained to deal with strange situations. If something doesn’t seem right or if things just don’t make sense, don’t trust your opponent. Call a judge. Maybe the judge will say the same thing your opponent is telling you, but get it from the judge’s mouth. Opponents are often wrong about things.

On more than one occasion, I’ve said, “I realize it’s confusing, and you shouldn’t take my word for how this interaction works. Let’s call a judge and make sure everyone’s on the same page and understands how this works.” The opponent appreciates it, the judge is usually happy to explain the situation, and everyone’s satisfied that the game state is correct, even if the ruling is non-intuitive. (This came up more than a couple of times at the beginning of Lorwyn Block season when someone tried to Cryptic Command my Demigod of Revenge. My opponents were never happy with the ruling, but they also didn’t feel upset that I was trying to cheat them in some way.)

Mistake: Not appealing to the head judge when you think a ruling is wrong
Judges do get rulings wrong, and that’s why there’s an appeal process. Let the judge finish making his ruling and do not interrupt him, even if you’re fairly certain that his ruling is incorrect. But at the same time, don’t just accept a bad ruling and think, “Wow, I don’t think that’s right, but the judge ruled it that way so I have no recourse.”

If a judge makes a ruling and you don’t agree, the approach I’ve used in the past is to say, “I understand you’ve made your ruling, but I disagree with it and I am going to appeal to the head judge.” Maybe the head judge will agree, maybe not. But everyone must be their own advocate.

After the ruling, you’ll probably need to ask for a time extension. And do not immediately appeal to the head judge the second you see XYZ judge walk up to the table. You may not like a particular judge and he may have a history of making bad rulings, but that’s between the head judge and this particular judge. If a judge makes a lot of rulings that get overturned on appeal, the head judge will probably address it in their own insider-judgy ways. I’m sure Riki can elaborate on this point.

[Too tired from donating blood to comment on many of the Judge-related issues brought up in this article. –Riki]

Mistake: Not calling a judge on yourself when you accidentally do something that is an infraction
Realizing during your opponent’s turn that you forgot to discard down to seven cards? Call a judge. Don’t try to self-police. And under no circumstances should you just not say anything, even if you initially didn’t intend to keep eight cards at the end of your turn.

Mistake: Lying to a judge about anything
This may not technically be a mistake, but it’s so important to know. Do. Not. Lie. Ever. Just tell them the truth because it’s going to be better than lying. I promise. Good judges can see holes in stories and it’s going to end up very badly for you, which is usually a disqualification from the event without prize.

I’ve seen this go very badly. At a Grand Prix, a player was in day 2 contention and had played Venser, Shaper Savant to bounce a different copy of Venser to his hand in response to a removal spell. After a couple of turns both players realized that due to Venser’s legendary status, both would have gone to the graveyard. A judge was called, and the opponent gave his explanation. Then the Venser player got scared, thinking he was going to get into trouble for illegally playing his Venser, and concocted a convoluted story about what really happened.

Instead of getting a warning for the illegal game state, the player was disqualified from the Grand Prix.

Don’t lie. Just don’t do it.

Mistake: Offering or accepting anything in exchange for a concession
It’s not legal, and it can get you into big big trouble. There is an exception in the finals of an event, where one player can offer all the product/prizes in exchange for a Pro Tour invite and plane ticket, but that’s only in the finals. If you have any questions about how that process works, check with the judge and find out what is legal or not.

Otherwise, no prizes can be offered for a scoop. No packs, no agreement to give a ride home, no writing a special love ballad for the person who scooped you in, nothing. The penalty is disqualification and you’ll be facing a nice DCI investigation, and that whole process is an unpleasant one.

I’m sure I left out a few mistakes and I love feedback on these and I’m always expanding the mistake list. But if you can avoid all these pitfalls, your tournaments will go a little smoother and you’ll avoid situations that would end up in heartbreak.

Yours mistakenly,
-Zaiem

zaiemb at gmail dot com

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