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Making the Move from FNM to Competitive Events

Written by LegitMTG Staff on . Posted in Competitive Magic

Imagine that Johnny Casual, a regular at his local game shop, is playing an FNM tournament at his friendly local game store. He has his trusty Birthing Pod deck tuned and ready to smash some face. Johnny just finished beating his opponent quickly in the first round. Johnny considers the match time left in the round and runs over to the local fast food burger joint to get a bite to eat. Now full and satisfied after a delicious burger, fries, and a shake, Johnny is fueled up and ready to finish taking down the tournament. As he comes back into the shop, Johnny looks up to see that the round clock has already started for the second round! He rushes to the pairings board and finds his table. The judge might give him a little slap on the wrist and tell him to pay better attention to the time if he’s going to leave the store. But, Johnny can go on and play his match and have some fun.

Fast forward a little bit: Johnny has gotten to the end of the night and taken first place. He’s feeling happy, he’s feeling good, he’s feeling like he can take on the world. Now it’s time to take down that PTQ on Saturday morning. But what if the above scene happened to Johnny at the PTQ? What would happen? Well, Johnny wouldn’t be quite as happy as he would be getting a visit from a judge and receiving a game loss penalty for being late to his seat. Making the jump from FNM Regular to PTQ Grinder means you need to learn the differences between FNM and higher level events. Not taking the time to educate yourself about competitive tournament procedures can be just as bad as not testing with your deck first—it can lead to some unfortunate game losses.

Competitive REL

In sanctioned Magic: The Gathering tournaments there are three RELs or Rules Enforcement Levels. The lowest and most casual level is Regular REL which covers FNMs, Prereleases, Game Days and your weekly sanctioned draft. Competitive REL is used for Grand Prix Trials (GPT), Pro Tour Qualifiers (PTQ), Day 1 of a Grand Prix (GP), and SCG Opens. Professional REL is used on Day 2 of a Grand Prix and on Pro Tours. For now, you won’t need to worry too much about Professional REL. The jump between Regular REL and Competitive REL is what you should learn about more. The changes from Competitive REL to Professional REL are relatively small.

Within the last few years, a major change was made for Regular REL to promote a more fun and welcoming environment. There were penalties set up for different infractions in the Infraction Procedure Guide (IPG) that covered different problems with penalties ranging from verbal Cautions to Disqualifications at events of all levels. With the changes, most penalties for Regular REL were done away with (though cheating still gets you DQed from an FNM) and replaced with a stern talk and education. Wizards of the Coast doesn’t want to drive people away from the game that were just looking to have a good time. FNMs and Prereleases are also the frontline for sanctioned Magic. Having a positive experience at these events encourages players to continue coming back. For Competitive events, however, these infractions and penalties are set out to prevent shenanigans from occurring and to maintain the smooth running of the tournament. Let’s move on to specific infractions that carry a Game Loss Penalty.


As mentioned earlier, if you are late to your seat, you’ll be getting a talk with a judge. For most events the first Tardiness penalty comes when the round is started and the second when 10 minutes have passed. The Head Judge has the discretion to set the first Tardiness at 3 minutes into the round. Pay attention during the opening announcements so you know which it is. The default is start of round and that is what is used for most large events such as Grand Prixes and SCG opens. At PTQs and GPTs it’s more up to the Head Judge’s discretion and each judge is a little bit different in their opinion of when that is appropriate. If you’re at the event with a group of friends, look out for each other and make sure to let the smokers know that time is running out. There will almost always be a small amount of time to turn the round over after the clock has run out. This can take anywhere from 3 to 15 minutes depending on time extensions and matches going long. When the clock hits zero, it’s a good time to start getting back into the event hall so you don’t miss the start of the next round. You can use a timer on your phone to let you know when the time has run out by syncing it with how much time is left on the clock.

Often times, large events go for 7-9 rounds without any kind of break. This makes getting food a difficult proposition. Be aware of how much time is left before you go wandering off to get food. An even better idea is to get one of your friends that have scrubbed out of the tournament to fetch food for you towards the beginning of the round. This way you can eat as soon as you are done with your match and don’t have to leave to get it.

Deck/Decklist Problem

Deck/Decklist Problem (DDLP) is one of the most common infractions that results in a game loss and it is the easiest one to avoid by paying attention. For Competitive REL events, deck list registration is a requirement to ensure that players aren’t changing their deck during the course of an event. Judges will do random checks throughout the tournament. We check the deck you’re playing against what you have registered to make sure you haven’t switched cards out. DDLP comes in a variety of flavors, each one of them avoidable.

One of the first things Johnny will do when he gets to the PTQ is sit down and get his deck in order. Once he’s satisfied that he’s made all the right choices and he’s ready to take on the tournament, he’ll need to record what he’s playing. Johnny would be wise to write clearly. The judges working the event do need to be able to read what he’s playing. He’ll need to hang on to his list until the player meeting before the first round where he will hand it to the judges. During the first round, the majority of the judges will sit down and go through every deck list to make sure that they are legal both in terms of cards listed being in the format as well as the number of cards listed. Here we have the deck list that Johnny has filled out:

Right off the bat, we can see that Johnny has done a few smart things. He wrote his name along the left side. That’s awesome! We need to know who the deck list belongs to. If you don’t put your name on your deck list and we can’t figure out that it belongs to you, we’ll be searching for you at the beginning of Round Two. Please don’t waste time with something silly like that.

All of the stuff in the top right isn’t really essential as far as the judges are concerned, though some tournament organizers like to post the deck lists with this information included. Johnny has also written clearly with a few spelling mistakes here and there. We don’t expect you to be a perfect speller so long as you’re pretty close. Take a closer look at his main deck. Do you see anything wrong with it?

First we’ll do a quick count and see that Johnny has listed at least 60 cards for his main deck. So right there we’re doing pretty well. Three other things stick out to me in this list. First is ‘Birds.’ Now, for me as a player, I recognize that he probably means ‘Birds of Paradise’ and most others would do the same. However, as a judge I cannot immediately make an assumption about what card he means. Luckily for Johnny there is no other card in Standard that has ‘Birds’ in the name of the card. So with that distinction, we’ll correct the list to Birds of Paradise and move on.

The next bit I see is ‘Glissa.’ Uh-oh! Three cards in Standard start with ‘Glissa.’ Well, Johnny lucks out again. In the case of named characters and Planeswalkers, you can get away with just their first name. Here we will assume that it is Glissa, the Traitor. If we can, we will double check with the player to make sure that the card is indeed Glissa, the Traitor. If it is, there’s no problem. We’ll correct the list and move on. However, if it happens to be Glissa’s Courier or Glissa’s Scorn, then we will have no choice but to issue a Game Loss for Deck/Decklist Problem. There are a few cases where this doesn’t work out quite as well, like Mikaeus. Because there are both Mikaeus, the Lunarch and Mikaeus, the Unhallowed, we can’t assume that it is either one and will have to issue a penalty. The same applies for Garruk, since we have Garruk, Primal Hunter and Garruk Relentless.

The last thing I see is ‘Woodland’ down at the bottom of his list. Johnny may or may not be in trouble here. That will greatly depend on the Head Judge’s opinion. There is one other card in Standard that starts with ‘Woodland’ and that is Woodland Sleuth. There is a clause in DDLP that could allow for a downgrade. It basically says that if there is a truncated name that is not unique it may be downgraded to a Warning at the Head Judge’s discretion if they believe that the intended card is obvious and the potential for abuse minimal. This is where it gets iffy and will vary from judge to judge. Johnny may catch a break and have the penalty downgraded, but he may also get a game loss here. The moral of the story is that it is always best to write out the full name of the card to make sure you don’t put yourself in that position.

Now that we’ve covered the main deck, let’s look at what the sideboard has to offer:

Right off the bat, we have an issue. Johnny has only listed 14 cards in his sideboard. In Magic, you must have either zero or fifteen cards in your sideboard. No more, no less, no in between. In this case, Johnny has forgotten to write down his 1-of Hex Parasite in the board. Unfortunately, there’s no getting around this one and Johnny will receive a game loss for DDLP.

There are other ways that you can end up with a game loss for a DDLP. Previously, I mentioned that judges randomly check decks throughout the course of a tournament. If we find a problem during one of these checks it can lead to a game loss. The most common example of this is sideboarding incorrectly. If you happen to sideboard wrong–say you put in 5 cards and took out 4 cards–and you realize this before you start your game, call a judge immediately.

Recently, at Pro Tour Avacyn Restored there was a rather high profile case of this happening in the Top 8. A player had sideboarded cards in, but didn’t take enough out and end up with 10 cards in his sideboard and 65 cards in his main deck. As soon as he realized this, he called for a judge. Since this happened before the game had started and before he could gain any possible advantage, the penalty was downgraded from a Game Loss to a Warning. Once the game has begun, if you draw a sideboard card you need to call a judge immediately. You will still receive a Game Loss. However, not calling a judge can end up with you being disqualified and removed from the tournament for Cheating. It’s better to take your lumps there than to try to hide it.

Don’t Cheat, Don’t Bribe, Don’t Randomly Determine a Winner

I know this seems like it should be something obvious, but DON’T CHEAT! Don’t lie to a judge, don’t think you can outsmart us, don’t be stupid. At a recent event that I was a floor judge at, a player was disqualified from the event because he lied about something that had happened. This was a case where the head judge was probing to make sure nothing shady had happened and if the player had been honest he probably would have finished the event. However, he thought he was in trouble and lied to try to get out of it. He ended up being caught in his lies and was sent packing. Being honest with the judges when something happens is your best bet. You may still end up being out of the tournament, but your actions and attitude during the investigation will determine if you are allowed to stay and do side events or are allowed back to the tournament organizer’s venue. They may even impact whether you are suspended from playing sanctioned events in the future. All disqualifications are reviewed by the Investigation Committee which is made up of some very smart high level judges. They determine if any further punishment is necessary.

Bribery/Wagering and Randomly Determining a Winner are two other infractions that happen more frequently than they should in events. Sometimes players are (wrongly) allowed to do some of these things at their local store for FNM and think that it’s alright at competitive events too. Specifically what I’m talking about is offering packs for a player to concede or randomly determining the winner of a match, like with a dice roll. These are not allowed at FNM and are not allowed at Competitive REL events and should result in a disqualification at both levels. Furthermore, if your opponent makes such an offer, call for a judge immediately. Just saying ‘no’ is not good enough as you then become just as guilty as the opponent for not reporting it to a judge. If there is a question about prize splits and how you can do it without getting yourself in trouble, get a judge involved. I promise we will help you figure it out and do what’s within the rules.

Get Some Practice Time In

One of the easiest ways for you to get acclimated with Competitive REL on a lower stakes stage is to play in Grand Prix Trials. These tournaments are fairly numerous in most areas and are the lowest level events run at Competitive REL. You will have a certified judge that knows the Infraction Procedure Guide and can help you to make your way through the obstacles that you might face in your transition from FNM Regular to PTQ Grinder. If you have a weekly draft or Legacy event or some other sanctioned event like that, you can also talk to your local certified judge about running an event at Competitive REL one week. Keep in mind that you cannot do this with FNM or a Prerelease. Those events are required to be run at Regular REL. You also need at least a Level 1 or higher judge to run a Competitive REL event.

Exit Stage Right

As a judge, my goal is for you, the player, to have a positive experience at any event that I am working at. Judges spend a lot of time outside of events preparing and learning the knowledge needed to run these events successfully. With the amount of time that we put in beyond events, the compensation that we receive for our time is somewhere south of minimum wage. You may see the special judge foils that we get from time to time that are a bit of a boost, but those usually come from events where we spend a good sum of money to travel to get there. The next time you’re at an event with a hardworking certified judge, make sure to say ‘thank you.’ We really do like to be appreciated by the people we are there to help.


George FitzGerald
@geofitz4 on Twitter

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