A Beginner’s Guide to Magic: the Gathering Part III – Tournaments

Ryan Normandin
July 14, 2017

Hey, everyone! It’s me, Charlie! After my last two articles, in which I drop some knowledge on the fundamentals of Magic and Magic’s many formats, the people have been begging for more! It’s not surprising; as a near-pro, I have plenty of wisdom to share with the masses. In fact, just this past weekend, I went 5-3 between the two prereleases I attended. It’s results like this at a card game that has nothing to do with writing that qualify me to get paid righting strategy articles that you can always count on being write!

            Today, we’re going to look at the different types of Wizards of the Coast-sponsored tournaments that anyone can play in on their ascent to near-prohood!

Friday Night Magic ( FNM )

            Just last week, my father dragged me from my abode in his basement, grunting things like “jobless bum,” “disappointment like your mother,” and “rather buy shiny cardboard than pay rent.” As I lay in the street, surrounded by my clothes, Magic cards, and Doritos, I realized that his verbal assault came from a place of love. He wanted me to Level UpTM.

Basically my father

            Just like I leveled up in life, blooming forth unexpectedly and unwillingly from my dad’s unfinished basement, so too will you feel the urge to one day level up in Magic, bursting enthusiastically upon the competitive scene! Tired of playing the same group of friends on the same decks over and over at your kitchen table, you’ll migrate to your local game store (LGS), where you can play the same group of friends on the same decks over and over at a slightly nicer table! (Or sometimes not; I’ve seen some pretty questionable “tables” in my day.)

            When looking for an LGS, keep in mind that they’re not all created equal. Some are big, some are small. Some are competitive, some are more casual. Some have a couple of highly competent children who will beat down your self-esteem with cardboard while you wonder how your life decisions led you, a 26-year-old man, into a basement on a Friday night playing a card game CLEARLY LABELED 13 AND UP against Josh, who is obviously not a day past seven and a half. Just remember: murdering children is frowned upon.

Judges prefer to be referred to by their full title, as above. 

            One upside of playing at an LGS is that Danny is no longer the Ultimate Arbiter of Rules Disagreements simply because he started playing before you, back “before we had to battle through any of those scarring return blocks, mere shadows of their original selves.” (Danny was always a tad melodramatic.) Judges work at events and get to enforce the rules, which is cool because unlike Danny, they actually know what they are. Judges can also answer the really hard-hitting questions about life, the ones you’ve always wondered, but Danny always hand-waved: “Can I respond to a Morph turning face-up?” “Which cards are exiled when I Abrupt Decay a Rest in Peace?” “My friend just handed me this deck and told me that if I resolve an Ad Nauseam while having a can’t-lose-the-game effect, my opponent should scoop, but this dude won’t. Can you explain what I’m supposed to do with these 60 kind of random cards that I’ve just drawn?” Aside from rules questions, judges also run events, hand out prizes, and make sure that no one dies during the post-FNM Fight Club.

            Just remember that FNM is a learning experience, a way to improve! So whether you’re losing to scummy netdeckers who’ve just copy-pasted the most recent Pro Tour list, or to scummy brewers who are running jank when your deck was metagamed to beat the Tier 1 lists, always try to figure out why you were so unlucky. That’s how you grow as a player.

            As you play more and more FNM’s, you’ll notice that your win rate starts to rise. It started off as a respectable 40 percent, but after a few weeks, rises to a bold 45 percent. And not only that, but you’ve got an itch that your usual anti-fungal cream won’t take care of. An itch that only more Magic at a more competitive level will satisfy. Luckily, I have just the way to scratch that itch.

Preliminary Pro Tour Qualifier ( PPTQ )

            You’ve heard the whispers. You’ve seen the playmats depicting a cityscape merged with card art. “Play the game, see the convention centers world.” That’s right. The Magic: the Gathering Promotional Pro Tour. There are two ways to qualify for Magic’s biggest, baddest tournament, and PPTQ’s are where most people start. You see, if you manage to win a PPTQ, you will have earned the right to pay more money to compete in another tournament which, if you do really well in, will then qualify you to play in the Pro Tour!

            However, you should be aware that PPTQ’s are played at Competitive Rules Enforcement Level (REL). At FNM, a mistake resulted in a smile and a reminder to please be more careful next time, but at Competitive REL, a mistake will result in a more apologetic smile and an official Warning on your match slip, which is an official reminder to please be more careful next time. But most important of all, beware of what you say. If you say anything at any time that can be construed as offering your opponent prizes in exchange for a concession, you will be taken outside and shot. At least, that’s what I’ve gathered from the events that I’ve been to. Instead, you should talk to a judge so that they can coach you in which precise, magical words to utter in which order such that you can offer your opponent prizes in exchange for a concession. All of this is so that Wizards of the Coast can continue to operate its tournaments outside of gambling laws. Gambling, of course, is “to play games involving chance for money.” While the paltry prize offerings that Wizards offers its top competitors hardly qualify as money, is there chance involved? Luckily, Pro Tour player Towen Urtenwald told me that there is no chance whatsoever in Magic, and that’s why he wins so much. Pure. Skillz.

In order to win, you must have NO MERCY... in your sealed pool. Everyone knows good players open bomb rares. 

            At PPTQ’s, you’ll encounter for the first time an archetype of player known as a grinder. A grinder is defined as “an individual incapable of remembering or imagining what a weekend without at least two Magic tournaments is like.” However, there are two classes of grinder, and it is important to determine which class you’re dealing with as soon as possible when you meet one at a PPTQ.

Choose one. 

            The first class is called an enthusiast. Enthusiasts are so-called because they like playing Magic. A lot. They’ve probably had a taste of some success in the past, and think it would be fun to achieve it again. They play every weekend because the game is a fun, friendly competitive outlet that challenges them intellectually. It’s also an opportunity to see old friends and make new ones. Enthusiasts have things in their lives other than Magic, so topics of discussion such as careers, hobbies, school, or that time that you had lethal on an empty, tapped-out board, but swung at their planeswalker instead are all safe. You’ll likely have a fun, friendly match and some good conversation.

            The other type of grinder is called a masochist. Masochists are so-called because they hate playing Magic. A lot. They’ve probably had a taste of some success in the past, and have been chasing that high ever since. They play every weekend because they just want to feel something, and maybe the next tournament will be the one. When masochists aren’t playing Magic, they’re reading about it, talking about it, or sniffing freshly opened booster packs. And no matter which they’re doing, they’re always flicking cards. Flick flick flick. They vaguely remember the days when they didn’t need the card flicking to focus. Flick flick flick. To concentrate. Flick flick flick. Their coworkers give them curious looks as they flick anything vaguely card-shaped. Flick flick flick. But they don’t care. They won’t be at this job for long; it’s temporary, a way to buy Magic cards and food until they make it big. Flick flick flick. They’re only a couple of tournaments away from the Pro Tour… Flick flick flick.

            For masochists, PPTQ’s are an opportunity to see old enemies and make new ones. Topics of discussion such as careers, hobbies, and school are all pointless, as they all point back to Magic. Misplays are not spoken of, as you should never show weakness to an enemy; rather, misplays are discussed seriously after each event with other masochists in order to better understand what causes them, how to prevent them in themselves, and how to exploit them in others. You’ll likely have quite an intense match, though there is one upside to masochists; if you ever have a gum infection, unseasoned popcorn, or the oceans have gone fresh, there’s no better supply of salt anywhere in the world! (Be sure to never attend a Magic tournament with fresh wounds exposed.)

            Overall, PPTQ’s are a good time, and a great way to experience Level Up MomentsTM. They provide a roomful of players who are simultaneously convinced they’re one tournament away from making it, while also Bolting their opponent’s planeswalker with their opponent at 3 life.

Grand Prix ( GP )

            Before we can talk about what a Grand Prix consists of, we need to deal with a pressing topic that has plagued Magic players for years: what is the correct pluralization of “Grand Prix?” There are generally two schools of thought. The first is that “Grand Prix,” like “moose,” is its own pluralization. The statement, “Charlie attends many, many Grand Prix every year,” would be correct. The second is that “Grand Prix” is pluralized just like any other good ol’ fashioned ‘Murican word, which is by adding an “s.” Thus, the statement, “Charlie not only attends, but absolutely crushes all the Grand Prixs he attends,” would be correct. Well, I am here to settle this debate once and for all. According to funtrivia.com (and also the far more boring Merriam-Webster Dictionary), Grand Prix is French for “Grand Prize.” While the plural of “prix,” or prize, is indeed itself, the corpuscular adverb “Grand” needs to match the tense and polarization of the transcendental noun that it’s modifying. (As I’ve said before, I’ve done alright at Magic; this qualifies me to be a writer, and basically means I have an English degree.) As such, the correct pluralization of “Grand Prix” is, in fact, “Grands Prix.” So, the true correct use of this in a sentence would be, “Charlie has never not utterly dominated every opponent at all the Grands Prix he’s attended.” Perhaps the strangest outcome of this correction is that, if we wish to shorten “Grands Prix,” we should say “G’sP” instead of “GP’s.” Be sure to correct all whom you encounter moving forward.

Editor: Does anyone else know what he is babbling about?

            Anyways, Grands Prix are the largest open Magic tournaments that Wizards of the Coast runs. If you show up to compete, you can usually expect between one and two thousand competitors in the main event, with many more meeting artists, dressing up in costumes, and taking pictures of people’s buttcracks (at least, this is what the internet tells me). After the first day of competition (nine rounds), only players who win six of their nine matches are able to continue onto Day 2, unless you’re a pro, then you only have to win, like, three of your matches. After six rounds on the second day, they cut to the Top 8 players, and do a single-elimination tournament. With so many players, you’re realistically not going to win, so here I’ve come up with a list of goals that work no matter where you are in your journey to near-prohood.


  • Have a winning record (5-4) on Day 1, AKA “Wow, you missed Day 2 by one match. Sucks for you.”
  • Make Day 2 with a 6-3 record, AKA “We feel bad for you, so you can keep playing, but it is mathematically impossible for you to make Top 8, let alone win the tournament.”
  • Make Day 2 with a 7-2 record, AKA “Lol, good luck going undefeated in the second day against a higher density of really good players.”
  • Make Day 2 with an 8-1 record, AKA “Okay, you’ve actually got a reasonable shot at this.”
  • Make Day 2 with an undefeated 9-0 record, AKA “Your friends are going to give you so much crap for screwing this up.”
  • Get an on-camera feature match, AKA “While fatigued and hungry, play a high-pressure, high-stakes match of a very difficult game in front of 500 trolls in Twitch chat all discussing how terrible you are, how much better they could be playing, and how physically (un)attractive you are. I’m sure those will be fun comments to read when you go back to see how your feature match went.”
  • Get a Pro Point, AKA “Get teased by all my friends every time I make a misplay from here on out. ‘Wow, for a professional you sure are sloppy!’”
  • Make Top 8, AKA “Dammit, they want me to answer questions on my profile about which Amonkhet god I most identify with? Which gods are those…? I wasn’t ready for this… ‘Raised Jewish, no longer practicing.’”
  • Win the tournament, AKA “This is never going to happen again. Better not screw up the pose with the trophy! Get ready, set - oh, that was the flash. Oh, well.”


If you do manage to make Day 2 of a GP, one thing to be aware of is that the REL goes from Competitive on Day 1 to Professional on Day 2. The biggest difference that you will notice between the two is that, on Day 2, the tables you are playing at will be surrounded by judges acting as bouncers, ensuring that nobody enters the aisles in which you are playing to watch. Unless, of course, you’re at the top table, which, being on the edge, has no aisle, and attracts the fifty to one hundred players looking to watch a game. Hope you perform well under pressure!

Actual photo of players getting to the Pairings Boards 

Aside from the change in rules enforcement, you’ll also face a higher caliber of opponent, on average. You might even get to play against some professional players who you’ve heard of before. I know some people are in awe when they play against pros, but remember that they look and act human. Their only superpower is to violate physics, your ability to concentrate, and the structural integrity of the cards themselves with the fast, loud, violent flicking of cards in their hand. Other than that, they’re pretty cool; they’ll probably sign something if you ask or pose for a picture. If you want to improve, you can ask them for their thoughts on how you played after the match; if you don’t, you can complain loudly about how unlucky you were and how well they drew.

While most are delightful, you do need to watch out for one or two pros who will expect you to concede to them if its late in the tournament, purely because they’re professional card players and you… well, relative to them, you’re basically human garbage. If you refuse to concede to them, they might write an article trashing you, but don’t worry – it’ll harm their image far more than yours.

Wow, what a whirlwind! FNM’s, PPTQ’s, and G’sP! Such a fun conglomeration of random letters, how can you not want to start attending tournaments to become a near-pro like me? That’s all we have time for today, but look for more Beginner’s Guides in the future!


Ryan is a grinder from Boston with SCG & GP Top 8’s and a PT Day 2. His fragile self-esteem is built on approval from others, so be sure to tell him what you think of his articles on Twitter @RyanNormandin.