A Beginner’s Guide to Magic: the Gathering – Tournament Etiquette

Ryan Normandin
March 13, 2018


Hey, everyone! It’s me, Charlie! Since eating up all the wisdom bombs dropped in my first few “Beginner’s Guide” articles, n00bs everywhere have been ramping up their attempts to achieve the kind of near-pro skill that led me to the quarterfinals of my most recent Game Day. That’s right, I finished that tournament in 7th place out of nine players. It’s consistent, odds-defying results like these that imbue me with the ability to write very, very good.

This week, we’re going to be dealing with a topic that leads to a lot of confusion and hurt feelings in the community: etiquette in Magic tournaments. After reading this article, you will become an Etiquette Warrior, able to protect the holy, unspoken norms of Magic communities everywhere.

Players’ Meeting

Tournaments typically begin with what is called a “Players’ Meeting.” While these meetings may seem like time-wasting affairs where judges make announcements and collect decklists, both of which could easily be done at the beginning of Round 1, they actually play an important role in signaling.  

This is where scrubs who haven’t played in a competitive tournament before will signal as such. They’ll be the ones pulling out their playmats and dice, pausing, then asking whether the person across from them is also their Round 1 opponent. This will be your first opportunity to brandish your mighty Sword of Etiquette. Should one of these players be sitting in your vicinity, assure them that you are not their Round 1 opponent, and that you would be happy to make sure that their decklist doesn’t violate any rules. After you rip the sheet of paper from their protesting hands, a quick scan will tell you what they’re playing. If you’re really good at sleight of hand (perhaps you’re a Storm player), you can even change a “4” to a “3” on their decklist without them noticing. Then, if you play later, you can pull that game loss out of your back pocket and kindly hand it to your opponent. 

Pre-Match Signaling

Once you sit down to play a round of Magic, every player will be desperately trying to signal to their opponent that they’re the best player in the room. Of course, it’s rude to say this up-front, so, as an Etiquette Warrior, you want to find as many ways as possible to both interpret the signals of others and signal in as many, non-verbal ways as possible, that you’re basically Jon Finkel.

The lowest tier of player is easy to spot. They don’t have playmats, as they don’t really want to spend even more money on nonessentials, nor have they managed to actually win anything. They likely don’t have dice either, as they were under the impression that they were playing a card game, not craps. They will probably have cards, but the cards will often be sleeved in garbage Wizards of the Coast sleeves with art of Saheeli Rai or Angel of Invention on them. They don’t know about Tolarian Community College’s official ranking of sleeves yet, so they just bought the cheapest ones at the store once they realized that everybody else had sleeved their cards.

The highest tier of player is also easy to spot. We’re talking Pro Tour veterans, former World Champions, and SCG Pros other assorted good players. They don’t have playmats because, since playmats are often awarded for a certain tournament, bringing a playmat from their tournament would signal that it’s their biggest achievement when it’s not. For example, you wouldn’t want to bring a Game Day playmat to the Pro Tour because OMG WHAT A SCRUB!!! In fact, even at GP’s where they give out playmats as part of the $10,000 entry fee, real pros just throw them in the garbage. They wouldn’t want their opponent to think that this is their first GP or something! They probably won’t have dice either, as they’re used to being handed giant, oversized ones by the table judge at their on-camera feature match. They will probably have cards, but the cards will often be sleeved in garbage Wizards of the Coast sleeves with art of Saheeli Rai or Angel of Invention on them. This is because they need to make sure it doesn’t look like they’re trying too hard, so they just use the free sleeves that WOTC hands out at the Pro Tour for all their sleeving needs.

The middle tier of player is the largest. These players signal extremely aggressively because they do not want to be mistaken for the lowest tier of player, but are too insecure and not-well-known to use the elite lack of accessories that pros are known for. As such, expect these players to either use a playmat from their biggest accomplishment or a playmat with a funny, look-at-me-I’m-relaxed-and-not-trying-too-hard joke on it. They have multiple sets of dice that include D6’s, D20’s, and a couple of cast-iron D17’s that weigh 20 lbs each, forged by hand in their metalworking class. As for sleeves, well… they have the latest and best Dragon Shields/Eclipses/KMC’s and will gladly engage in a spirited debate over why Dragon Shields/Eclipses/KMC’s are better than your choice of sleeve.

The Traditional Rolling of Spotted Cubes

At the beginning of each round, you will need a random way to determine which player gets to go first (or second, Manaless Dredge FTW!). The most typical of these is rolling two D6’s and seeing which player rolls higher. However, you should be aware that there are some real edgelords out there who will refuse your offer of “high-roll,” instead counter-offering with something like “best poker hand,” “evens or odds,” “arm-wrestling contest,” “best go-fish hand,” or “sure, high-roll is good, but let’s use SIXTEEN DICE for the lulz!” Personally, I steadfastly refuse all counteroffers. I came to play Magic, not a ten-minute mini-game before each round.

Now, one thing to be aware of in these tournaments is that many of your opponents, especially in later rounds, will be looking for any excuse to share just how unlucky they’ve been throughout the day. Even an action as innocent as rolling two dice can lead to a five-minute rant about how not only have they flooded/mana screwed/drawn only Elves from their Sliver deck all day long, but they’ve also lost every single Traditional Rolling of Spotted Cubes. On the other hand, winning doesn’t guarantee you won’t get a: “FINALLY! You know, I’ve lost every die roll for the last six years! I know, hard to believe. But that’s the reason I just keep losing. Now that I’ve won one, I think I really have a shot at turning my life around! I doubt my wife will want to leave me after she’s heard that I won a die roll!” These responses are potentially more dangerous, for if you defeat them despite their dice-rolling victory, you could be facing a barrage of vitriol and rage, all seasoned with enough salt to preserve your soon-to-be dead body for many, many years.

This is all to say that, as you’ll find goes for many parts of tournament life, you can’t really win. No matter what you say, or don’t say, be prepared to be throttled by someone who top-decked one too many lands.

In-Game Etiquette

Once you actually begin playing your match of Magic, be aware of the time when your Crossbow of Etiquette will be necessary: when your opponent believes that they are getting unlucky. First are the cases where they actually are getting unlucky; perhaps they’ve mulliganed to four cards or have had severe mana issues. The key to being a successful Etiquette Warrior here is to conceal how you really feel about this luck. As your heart beats faster and your terrible keep of no-plays-until-turn-4 pays off as your opponent misses their third land drop for multiple turns, remember to frown instead of smile. Very easy to mix this up. But you want to pretend that you’re feeling sad for your opponent, even if you are internally congratulating yourself on that skillful keep based on the soul-read that your opponent would have nothing until Turn 7. This is all due to what I like to call the Golden Rule of Magic:

“My losses are due to an unfortunate confluence of my getting extremely unlucky and my opponent being an obnoxious lucksack while my wins are due purely to my tight, irreproachable, highly skillful gameplay.”

Just remember that your opponent also believes this rule (even though it’s false for everyone except you), and that’s why you have to pretend to agree with them when they blame luck. After all, tying up your self-worth in a game of skill and chance is a dangerous proposition, so tread lightly.

End-of-Game Etiquette

At the end of the game, you can abandon any pretenses. You, presumably, have won, and it’s time to show off your wittiness, basking in the glory of your skillful victory. I recommend the following one-liners to really make sure your opponent knows they lost:

“Would you like some ice cream with that scoop?”

“GG’s, get wrecked, scrub.”

“Good ga-, well it wasn’t that good right? I mean… I crushed you pretty hard.”

“Do you have any JTMS’s on you? No? Too bad… you really need to brainstorm a way to play better.”

But oftentimes the worst zinger of all consists of two dangerous words: “Good games.” Beware this phrase that is all-too-common in society as a display of respect and sportsmanship! There are many who will be convinced that you are sarcastically taunting them and, in fact, want to compete in a far more physical contest in the parking lot.

It’s good sportsmanship like this, at the end of the match, win or lose, that will really set the best players apart from the rest. How a player behaves when the match is over will often color their opponent’s impression of the match as a whole and that player. You only have one chance (per week… let’s be real, you’re a grinder) to make a good impression, so don’t waste it!

Study this guide well, and you shall become an Etiquette Warrior of the highest pedigree, brandishing your Etiquette Cudgel wherever you go!



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 and in his Twitch chat at twitch.tv/norm_the_ryno.