Jumping into the bigger world of competitive magic when all you've know is Friday Night Magic and other such smaller events can be intimidating. You're used to being the big fish and suddenly you're up against players that have been grinding tourneys for yours and maybe even have accolades in the form of GP wins, PT cash finishes, or national SCG open success and you barely even know what any of that means! But remember, all of them used to be you at one point. In order to succeed, there's a fairly exhaustive list of things you need to know and equip yourself with.
First things first, have fun. This is usually left as the last piece of advice and I never get that. It's PARAMOUNT that you enjoy competing and the grind or else you'll experience burnout and possibly be turned off on magic which would be a shame. On top of that, you may simply not be a competitive person despite what you thought and going to PTQs or Opens, or GPs make actually be a waste of your time. So know that you're in for a grind in these events and if that's OK with you, try to have fun with it. Otherwise, quite reading right here.
Alright, now that that's over with, lets get down to business. Before you even go to the event, have a plan and set goals. The plan has to do with mundane things like knowing what time your leaving to get to the event at a reasonable time, have hotel arrangements set up, making sure the carpool situation is figured out, etc. This stuff seems obvious, but it's actually one of the biggest failings of most magic players, myself included. Most tourneys I attend in fact, it's on little notice and I'm scrambling to get everything together at the last minute. DON'T DO THIS. A magic tournament is mentally and physically taxing enough as it is; don't needlessly stress yourself by juggling 10 different things the night before an event. You don't want to be the guy who's simultaneously looking for cards and finalizing sideboards as the judges come by to pick up decklists. In fact, you should have your deck finished a full day ahead of the event and packed to keep from second guessing yourself once you arrive on site. There's nothing worse then changing cards last minute in the name of hawt nu tek and getting eliminated seemingly because of it. You'll just beat yourself up and feel miserable. Have a plan and stick to it.
The second and easier part of this is setting goals. Your goals should be reasonable but a little ambitious in my opinion. I tend to err on the side of setting them to high as opposed to to low because it's happened to me where I set a goal, reached it, then proceeded to rest on my laurels and had a subpar performance for the remainder of the tournament. Depending on the size and competition of the event, a good goal can be anything from top 8, to X-2 to winning the whole thing. It's something you need to figure out for yourself.
So far, we've made our arrangements for playing in the tournament and we've set some goals. Now what? Now the magic sets in. Deck selection. I could write a separate article about the range of decks you should play, but I'll keep it brief. If you're goal is to win the tournament, play a deck that can WIN the tournament. Something high variance is find and maybe even preferred because you're gonna have to beat everyone which takes a lot of skill and a little luck. Going all in on affinity might be the right call. On the other end of the spectrum, if you're just trying to top 8 or finish in the money, playing something consistent with no bad match-ups is likely a good choice. But wait, you're knew to this competition thing so you may not even know what decks are good.
Research, research, research. People learn in all sorts of different ways, but I'm always a fan of familiarizing yourself with something you're trying to learn about. In the case of the wide world of magic, there's a ton of info that you can find online. When you go to any constructed magic tourney, you need to understand what we call the 'metagame' or more simply the composition of all the different deck types your likely to face in a tournament and which ones are perceived to be the best along with how often they win tournaments. You might be crushing your FNM with mono-green unicorns.dec, but if the metagame is flooded with mono-purple dinosaurs and you can't ever beat Barney, you might have to make some adjustments. This also ties into the 'fun' segment from the beginning. One big aspect of competitive magic is so-called, 'net-decking' or taking a decklist from the internet and playing it in a tournament. Surprise surprise, netdecks get played for a reason. They're good. This doesn't mean you have to net-deck, but you should be aware of it, and if you're deck brewing turns out unfruitful, it's possible that you should just pick the deck that one the last tournament and learn the ins and outs of it which should (hopefully) have the dual benefit of teaching more about the metagame and translate into an improved win-rate.
Now that we've prepared, planned, slept, build a deck, and know the format, lets play this damn tournament. You wake up at 6 refreshed from your 9 hour rest an arrive on site 9:30 after your 2 hour drive with your decklist printed and ready to go. You sit down for the player meeting nervous, but ready and check the pairings board. You don't recognize the name, but that's OK, time to game. As you sit down across from Luis Scott Vargas, you get called to the feature match area, pick up your deck and sit at the Chandra table where they have a camera set up along with a table judge and have tokens and dice ready for you. After chatting with Luis and discover his penchant for puns, you come to learn that he's a Hall of Fame magic player. Who knew this game even had a hall of fame? Luckily, in your ignorance, you're not too nervous aside from the camera, you win the die roll and lay your land for the turn. 20 minutes latter, you're already 0-1 and in the whole. How do you deal? This is where emotional control comes into play. A tournament can easily be derailed by tilt; it happens to all of us, even the pros. The way you combat this is by treating each match as an isolated event and developing a routine between rounds to maintain your focus. This could be music, this could be venting to your friends, then grabbing food or water, whatever works for you. Just don't carry it between rounds or games.
Lastly, FEED YOURSELF. I'll tell a story. It was an SCG open in LA that I was participating in, but I nonetheless was at hanging out with friends and observing rounds. At the end of the tournament, me and a friend who didn't do to well went to get tacos. He ordered two, I ordered five. He looked at me funny. I gave him the, 'just wait' look. 10 minutes later, he's eaten his two tacos, realizes he's starving and orders five more. Big magic tournaments are all day 10+ hour events where your using a lot of mental energy. It may not seem like much but this is heavily taxing and when your body runs low on nutrients, it performs worse, mentally and cognitively. This is why you'll see people caring around gallons of water and constantly eating trail mix and fruit. Don't think that a cup of coffee in the morning and an energy drink between rounds will do the trick. Actually take care of yourself and you'll see the rewards in your play over the course of multiple events and even within the same tournaments. I had a friend who went to his first PTQ and the next day he was asking me and our other mutual friends how we can grind these marathon events. Well, we know it's a marathon and we've not only gotten used to the grind, we've embraced it. When you're hydrated and having fun, those hours fly by and you feel amazing because competing is a great joy for some of us and if you view it this way, you'll experience it the same way.
Finally, the most helpful advice for improving your play is reflecting. Between rounds, after the event, while sideboarding, it's a constant thing. You learn most from your failures, but also from your victories. Always ferret out the mistakes you've made in your play and take note so that you aware going forward and can improve upon them. Magic is a game with lots of variance and luck. Often you'll make the correct play and lose because of it, but that doesn't make your play incorrect, it just makes you unlucky. Conversely, you can make a bonehead play and win because of it, but be aware that you made an error and went unpunished this time. Be honest with yourself. Don't blame luck for your losses because you can't control luck. Look for the things that you CAN control so as minimize the effect that luck has on the game. And for the times you're in the seemingly unwinnable games, develop the plan that requires you to get unfathomably lucky so that you can steal wins. What's the risk? You should lose those games anyways so take the high variance route that leads you to victory once every hundred matches cause that may just be the difference between possibly top 8ing and winning the tournament and elimination.
I've done my best to equip you with the knowledge to get you on the right track to competing. With a lot of work and a little luck, maybe the next time you head to a GP, it'll be you winning on camera vs. the hall of fame magic players.
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