What’s good, Spirit Squad! Or today, I suppose you can be Young Pyromancers.

Today we’re gonna talk about a thing that has always seemed obvious to me, but that’s coming from the point of view of someone who’s been playing games at a competitive level for 25 years… and that’s not exactly everybody. I’d bet that almost half the people reading this don’t even have 25 years of actual life in you yet (note to self: take your Ibuprofen for your knees).

The thing we’re talking about today is how to approach attending your first IRL event!

Paper Magic has a ton of ways to enjoy the game and, as the name of the game implies, gather. But it doesn’t exactly come with a rulebook on what to do at a tournament. I mean, yes. There is a rulebook. But hear me out, OK?

Organized paper Magic is new concept to a large percentage of the player base.

  • Paper Magic play has slowed since the advent of COVID, which doesn’t really need to be expanded on, but during the same time period Magic: the Gathering Arena (MTGA) came out. Now that we’re in a “post-COVID” world, a lot of those players who started the game on Arena are now looking to branch out into local gaming stores, and maybe even beyond!
  • Among these events are a whole slew of major Magic events, or even events at larger conventions, that people want to be able to enjoy. Just as one example: Dreamhack is a convention series in the US that has hosted Regional Championships, but also has tons of other events for games like Street Fighter. There’s LOTS of appeal to those who want to live the full nerd-weekend experience, and lots of people who will be doing so for the first time!
  • Finally, the fact that Pioneer is the most competitively relevant format right now bodes well for paper Magic. Aside from being a relatively new format, which always lends itself to being a bit of a “brewer’s paradise”, it’s a format that has a little something for everyone. There’re great Aggro, Control, Big Mana, Combo, and (of course) Tempo options. But more importantly, it’s a format that doesn’t rotate like Standard does, and doesn’t have the prohibitive price tags that keep players away from formats like Modern and Legacy.
  • Lastly, Wizards of the Coast has finally figured out that Commander players and people who love other intellectual properties (Doctor Who, Lord of the Rings, etc.) make them the most money. To be fair, this was probably true in 2013 as well, but with such a huge focus on those two points, a lot more eyes are on the game as a whole than there were in 2013. We should expect a lot of growth in the next few years as a community, fingers crossed.

Now that we know just why paper Magic is a new ordeal to a ton of players, what should we expect from a first tournament experience?

The first thing I usually find myself telling people is that, while it’s not obvious that you’re not playing at home, it’s not really obvious until you go and do it yourself. Things that you’d consider basic at home don’t really apply to a public setting, and Magic events are very, very public.

  • If you’re at a convention and the venue allows it, bring snacks and drinks. If you’re at a local game store (LGS), it’s nice to buy snacks and drinks from them to support. They are, after all, giving us places to play the game we like.
  • Magic is, in my opinion, first and foremost about the “gathering”. Scout the area you’ll be playing in and see what restaurants will be around you since you’ll be in a new place out of the house—and who doesn’t like a nice meal with the homies! Anyone who’s been places with me, for example, knows that I am absolutely on the lookout for Indian food at all times.
  • There will be time in between tournament rounds. Figure out how you want to spend that time. I’m a socializer and try to make time to speak with everyone I know, but you may not be. If you know you aren’t, or even if you just wanna be prepared, bring something to entertain yourself: a book, an iPad, a Nintendo Switch, whatever.
  • BRING A PORTABLE PHONE CHARGER. Most venues don’t have enough outlets to satisfy the needs of everyone at a tournament, so be prepared. You will especially need your phone since most tournament organization is now done using the Companion app.
  • If you’re a lady or someone who was Assigned Female at Birth (AFAB), the sad truth is that you should not expect gaming venues to have sanitary items, and the chance of someone else having extras at a Magic event is incredibly low. On the off-chance this needs saying, remember to bring your own.

Now that we’ve covered some of the basics from just-plain-being-at-a-venue-that-isn’t-your-home, onto the Magic-specific points of being at a tournament venue.

  • Triggered effects are a large part of competitive Magic, and the rules around them have changed a few times in the past. You are expected to keep track of both your effects and your opponents’, but note that there are “invisible” effects like Prowess that both MTGA and MTGO automatically show you, but an IRL opponent is not required to mention until they’re relevant.
  • Both MTGO and MTGA keep track of just about everything for you. This is not the case for IRL events. You should bring paper and at least one writing utensil to keep track of things like life totals at minimum. Note that if you’re playing a deck that contains cards like Thoughtseize or Duress, you are allowed to write down the contents of an opponent’s hand once an effect allows you to see it.
  • I do not say the following to say that cheating is a regular part of the experience—It’s really not—but it is beneficial to you to know the rules. By this, I mean the advanced tournament rules. A lot of the time in casual Magic games, for example, people will shortcut or simply mix up the Upkeep step and Draw step, and that mistake almost never matters. In competitive Magic, it comes up fairly often and the fact that you don’t draw a card before your upkeep matters a lot more than you’d initially think it does.
  • Speaking of the rules, if you have a question: ask a judge. Seriously. They’re there to help, and your opponent does NOT have your best interest in mind. For example, Pithing Needle is a card that sees a decent amount of tournament play. If you want to know how an interaction works, a tournament judge can tell you. But! They are not there to help with strategy. In our Pithing Needle example, let’s say you’re playing Mono-Green Devotion in Pioneer and I’m playing my signature Spirits deck. You resolve a Karn, the Great Creator, get Pithing Needle, and name Nebelgast Herald so that I can’t play Spirits and tap your Cavalier of Thorns. It’s not my job, as your opponent, to tell you this play doesn’t actually accomplish the result you want. I can legally play my Spirits, continue to tap your creatures since Nebelgast’s ability is triggered, not activated, and continue to proceed business-as-usual. A judge would not have told you that your play was illegal, because it wasn’t, but if you’d asked “How would Pithing Needle interact with Nebelgast Herald’s ability?” a judge could have told you that there is no interaction with a triggered ability.
  • For IRL tournaments like Regional Championship Qualifiers and other Competitive-level events, you should expect to have to submit a deck list. These can be printed out and filled out before you even leave the house. https://decklist.org is incredibly handy for pre-filling out a deck list and printing it, so you don’t even need to worry about someone not being able to read your writing!

Lastly, you should expect to lose. A lot. Remember, this is your first event. Even if you’ve been playing online for 5 years, it’s still a new environment and you should assume that everyone in the room has more IRL experience than you do on your first foray. That’s completely OK. Use it as a learning experience and one day soon you’ll find that you’re the Seasoned Pyromancer (full-circle!) and maybe you can pass along some of these tips to the next generation of players!

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