(Metagame Archive) Tournaments – A Primer

By Tim Willoughby

I love going to tournaments. I was very lucky to fall in with a card trader when I went to university, so for the last four years, I have had the opportunity to go on road trips to some tournament or other for some game or other just about every weekend. While I know that a road trip in the US can constitute quite unfeasibly large amounts of time in a car, they do still kind of work in the UK. No matter how many tournaments you go to, though, you’ll never forget your first one. The aim of this little article is to make sure that your first tournament (for all of you who are thinking of making the leap into organized play) is as positive as possible.

As I have received some feedback recently that my “English-isms” add something that isn’t seen in other Vs. literature, I’m going to have a go at playing them up a little bit this week. Feel free to read this article out loud in your best Dick Van Dyke (or, more recently, Don Cheadle in Ocean’s 12) accent. It isn’t really how I talk at all, but it could be a bit of a laugh.

Tim’s Top Ten Tips for a Tip Top Tournament!

1. Getting There!

My very first tournament was a Sneak Peek held quite a long way from where I lived, and as I couldn’t drive at the time, I was on the good old choo-choo train the whole way. Well, nearly the whole way. As it turned out, I had somehow gotten the location of the event slightly mixed up (who knew that Cambridge had more than one community college? Not I!), and had to walk a bloody* long way, pretty sharpish, to make it to the venue on time. Being knackered before you get to an event isn’t exactly ideal, and even though it made me determined enough that I eventually made the Top 8, I would much rather have just gotten there early and been able to do a bit of trading and so on. Make sure you know where the venue is and that you plan out how to get there in plenty of time. Take the tournament organizers’ contact phone number and give them a bell (call them) if you get lost or are going to be a little late.

2. Trading

If you only regularly play amongst a few friends, trading is something that you probably have a bit of an idea about, but it’s amazing how quickly that can all go out the window once you get to a big tournament site. Many’s the time that I have seen things all go a little Pete Tong (wrong) for newer players who get overawed by the number of people eager to trade with them as soon as they show up. I would recommend, for the sake of your sanity, and your collection’s general health, that you don’t go mad with trading at first. Work out a want list before you go to the event and try to stick to it. If you can find out the rough value of what you have and what you want before you go, then you can be a more informed consumer who is a little less likely to be “ripped.” Ideally, try to get someone who you trust and who knows about card values to watch trades and give you an idea of what does or doesn’t seem fair. Remember that you can back out of trades at any time. Also, there are some rapscallions out there who would happily half-inch (pinch) your precious rares. They aren’t particularly common, but it is worth only trading with one person at a time and paying attention so that you can be sure you follow everything that’s going on. With a little care, trading at a tournament can rapidly fill out your collection and holes in your decks. Make the most of this opportunity. Don’t assume that everything will always be available, though. It is a big gamble to try to finish the deck that you are playing in Constructed by trading before an event. Trading can be fun and profitable, just take care that you don’t get seduced by the joy of trading.

3. The Tournament Organizer is Your Best Mate!

Obviously, don’t tell your real best mate this (unless he/she is the TO), as you don’t want to get into a barney (fight). However, if you ever have any concerns at an event, the tournament organizer can generally alleviate them with minimal fuss. If you want to know how long you have before the next round starts, the TO should be able to let you know. If you are concerned with how high the C value of the event is (so that you can work on polishing up a formidable UDE rating), the TO will know. If there are any shenanigans onsite that make you in the slightest bit uncomfortable, the TO is your first port of call. Everything non-rules related that involves the tournament itself is ultimately the domain of the TO, and his or her word is law. The tournament organizers should make themselves know to everyone at the start of any tournament, and they tend to be pretty friendly individuals, so I would recommend saying hello to them in return. Also, if you have a good event with them, let them know about it. Keeping tournament organizers feeling chipper is a great way to ensure that you get to play in more tournaments! By contrast, you should probably try not to interrupt the scorekeeper too often unless you have a problem with your results or want to drop from the tournament. The scorekeeper has a pretty tough job making sure that all the logistics of scoring go right, and if he or she can do the job quicker, then the rounds will turn around quicker. This gives you more time for lunch!

4. The Judges are Your Mates, Too!

While playing in a tournament, rules are naturally a little stricter than in home games. As anyone who has sat the level 2 test can attest, every now and again, pretty much regardless of who you are, you will encounter a rules situation that you don’t feel a hundred percent about. If you ever get into this situation, call a judge. These guys and gals are there to make sure that everyone plays the game at the same level within the rules. If you are ever unclear on the rules, just raise your hand and call “judge,” and keep your hand raised until one of the floor judges comes over. Explain the situation you’re unclear on, and the judge should be able to sort it out for you and your opponent. Sesame Street suggests that learning can be fun. As I am now in my final year of university with mountains of work, I’m not a hundred percent convinced . . . but in this sort of game, learning a little more about the game is never a bad thing. If you ever feel unsatisfied with a judge ruling, you have the right to call for the head judge. Head judges represent the highest authority on the rules in any given tournament. You can disagree with them if you wish, but ultimately, their ruling on a situation will be final. Try to keep judges happy by not flying off the handle when at all possible, and respecting their authority. Happy judges will come back and judge more tournaments and make tournament-land a generally happier place.

Here are a few little tips for dealing with judges and rules decisions. Often in my experience with Vs. System rulings, things come down to a miscommunication between players and player management as often as the rules themselves. Both players keeping track of endurance on paper helps with this, and if a judge is called in, be sure to remain calm, make your case heard, give your opponent time to do the same, and then give the judge time in which to make a ruling. There is nothing to be gained from talking incessantly once you have made your point.

5. Your Opponent is Your Mate!

Now, technically you won’t be friends with every person that you sit down opposite from at a tournament. Depending on your viewpoint on such things, it could be considered a little unlucky to always play against people you already know, as it rather implies that somebody will have to be a loser in each confrontation.

Wherever possible, try to be courteous to your opponents, though. There are always those who will argue that you can get some sort of a tactical advantage from making opponents uncomfortable. To those people, I say “take a blinkin’ look at tip #4, you spanner!” If your opponent is making you uncomfortable, then in the first instance, politely request that he or she stop doing whatever it is that he or she is doing. (If you are a beard-o-phobe or something, it isn’t reasonable to expect opponents to shave, but I’m sure you get the idea.) If the opponent continues in the face of this, then you can always call a judge. Unsportsmanlike conduct isn’t something that UDE condones. Anyone that heard Jeff Donais’s excellent speech at the start of the first PC will know this to be fact.

You know what’s better than all this, though? Just be excellent to one another. You don’t have to give anyone any slack during games (and you shouldn’t expect any), but nonetheless, being polite and friendly costs nothing. If your opponent is playing a deck that blows your mind, let him or her know about it. If you feel that your opponent might know enough about the game to give you a few pointers about your play or deck, then ask. In my experience, it’s quite common for opponents to be forthcoming with help after a match is complete if there’s time. This can be a great way to learn. If you look up to tip #4 again, you’ll see that learning is fun!

6. Be Sure to Eat!

This might seem obvious, but it is amazing how many people manage to slip up on this one. And not in the comedy “banana-trip” way, neither. After 22 years of experimentation, I have come to the conclusion that the human body functions best when it has fuel. Much like a race car, you don’t want so much fuel that it makes you really heavy, or so little that you stop working. On a personal note, I find that I work best when I have healthy food and not too much sugar or caffeine. This does on occasion make life a little tricky at tournaments, where there will often not be ample supplies of healthy snacklets. Wherever possible, get somebody else to make you a tasty packed lunch. If this isn’t an option, I guess you could do it yourself, but I tend to find that food tastes loads better if I didn’t have to make it. If you get really stuck, ask your best mate the TO where you can find something to gobble on. Once he or she has made some unsavory joke about gobbling on something (which in my experience will happen one hundred percent of the time), the TO is normally pretty helpful in this regard.

I spoke with Matthew Tatar at the last Pro Circuit and he recommended peanuts as a good food to include in your tournament diet. Losing salt if you are tense and sweating is pretty bad, as is losing water. At the very least, I recommend having a bottle of water with you at events. You might think you’re fine not drinking during the day, but dehydration will make you feel pretty wretched the next day.

Apparently, Andre Müller insists that butter is the most important foodstuff at tournaments. That or würst.

7. Write Your Decklist Before You Leave for the Event!

I was rather saddened to read the note in the $10K Orlando coverage about the number of players at the top tables who received game losses for mis-registering their decks. I’m sure that this didn’t come anywhere close to their feelings on the matter. Those cunning foxes at UDE have rather conveniently made the standard deck registration sheet available from their website. Assuming that someone isn’t reading this down the phone to you (hopefully in a cockney accent, my old treacle), then you should have internet access. If you are reading at work or in school, then you might even be able to print it out on their paper! Just don’t tell anyone I told you to or blame me if you get in trouble. Write out your decklist when you have plenty of time and get a friend to check through it. Be sure to include all version information, such that it is clear which character you are listing. Saying “Tim Drake <> Robin (2 drop)” is just too vague, unfortunately. Avoid abbreviations, as well. Don’t worry about losing the ability to tweak your deck at the venue. In my experience, changing the configuration of your deck at the last minute isn’t a good idea, anyway.

One final thing. If you are handing in a decklist at a sanctioned tournament, then you are in effect making the list available to UDE. If you play in a $10K, you cannot request that your deck be kept secret in the coverage if all lists are to be made available online. And please think of the poor Metagame.com staff members that have to type up decklists. Write out version names rather than just giving set numbers. We don’t always have the facilities to quickly and easily look up set numbers, so your Thing could be any Thing as far as we are concerned.

8. Check Your Sleeves

First off, I would recommend that you do play with sleeves (or card protectors/card condoms/protective sheathes of TCG cards, whatever you want to call them) the majority of the time that you play. It is a sad thing to have tradeable cards that are functionally not going to get traded because of wear and tear. It is better that your sleeves get worn out by proxy. There is the issue that sleeves will, on occasion, get marked, though. Much like cards getting worn out, sleeves will get little nicks and folds in them from time to time, or have little printing errors. As soon as you can tell one card from another by its back, it is a marked card. This counts for the sleeve, too. Playing with marked cards is cheating. As you are clearly not a cheeky scamp looking to steal wins with shady tactics, it is best to rise above possible suspicion by having pristine card sleeves for any tournament in which you play. These should generally be available at the event. Before it starts, it is probably a good idea to get one of your good buddies the judges to check your sleeves. They get a lot of practice at this and are pretty bloody good at it.

9. Don’t Let Yourself Get Cheated Out

In my experience, the vast majority of players in this game are fine upstanding citizens who would never go so far as to even think about the possibility of bending or breaking rules for some sort of advantage. Unfortunately, there exists a tiny minority who will be attracted by the fame and fortune of the TCG high life** who might try to pull some sneaky tricks.

Conveniently, the arsenal for various pranksters is pretty limited. If you follow my simple system, then it will be pretty tricky for a would-be charlatan to walk away with your share of the prizes.

First off, be sure to shuffle your opponent’s deck thoroughly. This isn’t any sort of insult to your opponent—you aren’t tacitly suggesting that he or she is up to anything—it is simply good practice. Do this on every occasion where you have the opportunity (that is, whenever your opponent shuffles it him or herself). If your opponent is David Blaine, then it won’t matter—he could have done some incredible false shuffle. But ultimately, your real shuffle still wins.***

Next up, watch your opponent as he or she shuffles your deck. Most opponents (practically all of them) won’t be David Blaine, so if the opponent is doing something ropey with your deck (like looking at cards while shuffling), you have a reasonable shot at spotting it. If you do see anything untoward, call a judge. Even if guilt cannot be proven, it helps judges to know if there is someone they might need to watch, and you have sent a message to your opponent that you are on to his or her devilish ways.

Believe it or not, I have actually been into magic (and card magic in particular) for longer than I have been playing TCGs. After much hypothesizing and fiddling about, I have come to the conclusion that if you shuffle your opponent’s deck every time he or she does, it is practically impossible for the opponent to do anything to his or her deck to gain an advantage.

During game play itself, I would strongly encourage you to keep track of both players’ life totals with pen and paper. Dice can easily get knocked over and are a potentially huge distraction from the game (I am awful at finding the next number, even on dice specifically designed for people like me with “dice issues”). You don’t want to be distracted, because in theory, a sneaky opponent might try something dodgy like switching resources or drawing extra cards while you aren’t looking. What’s the easiest way to stop this? Make sure you are looking. Be vigilant.

If everyone does this, then cheats will have a really hard time at any tournament, and will hopefully pretty quickly learn the error of their ways and stop, or face the consequences.

Let me just repeat. If you ever see anything untoward (i.e. cheating), call a judge immediately. Even if you are a spectator, go and find a judge. With the possible exception of Alex Charsky (a force whose name I barely dare speak in judging), judges cannot be expected to be omnipresent. We can be their eyes and ears, too, and it is our duty to act as such.

There clearly have been a few cheaty issues since this article was written, but the bulk of what’s written above is still bang-on for making the lives of cheats as tough as possible. If you can keep track of the number of cards in hand, resources in play, and so on for opponents all the time, that’s great. But there is a point at which doing all of that will throw you off your game. Don’t let that happen. Just remain vigilant to possibilities of shadiness and don’t be afraid to inform judges if you have any concerns.

10. Have Fun!

I know things got a little heavy in tip #9 there, but really, tournaments are places where people that love to play games get together to enjoy themselves. They are like parties, only instead of bringing drinks or presents, you get prizes! If you go into them with a bright attitude and looking to have a good time, then regardless of your performance, you cannot possibly lose. They are a great way to meet people, learn new things about the game, and see new decks. Ultimately, they are one of the best ways of making sure that this great game we have grows and prospers.

I could have made tip #10 a boring one, like “make sure you’ve had a shower so you don’t stink out the tournament venue” (which might perhaps not be an awful idea, either), but aren’t you glad that I went with that one, instead?

As always, if you have any comments or questions, drop me a line on the email address below my name, or indeed look me up at a tournament. They are a great place to meet people, I’ve heard.

All the best,

Tim “Gor Blimey Guvnor, It’s All Gone a Bit Pear Shaped” Willoughby

timwilloughby (at) hotmail (dot) com

* I hate to be dispelling myths, but bloody really isn’t considered swearing in the UK anymore. It wasn’t even really considered swearing back when those old WW2 information films for acclimatizing Americans to England were made.

** For all those interested, I am not especially further with my ultimate plan to wed Britney just yet, though I do now have a little badge that says, “I heart Britney” on it. Everything is slowly coming together. Okay. So that one didn’t work out. Quel dommage. To be honest, I was never quite as enamored with the pop princess as Richard Edbury was, anyway. I think that if we’d have gotten together, it might have caused some rather awkward moments. It’s probably just as well that she ended up with that fellow who put a baby in her, really.

*** If your opponent is David Blaine, I would be more concerned that he might make you, me, and the whole tournament disappear at any second. Don’t tick him off!

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