Tournament structure

Written by Alberto Laurenzi
Level 2, Italy

Written by Alberto Laurenzi
Level 2, Italy

Hello! Are you new to Magic and/or are you about to compete in your very first tournament but you don’t know how it works? Or maybe you are a long-standing player that just got back to the game after a long pause? Well, in these cases this article suits you, seeing as we are going to talk about tournament mechanics.

Tournaments are split in two big groups: DCI-sanctioned tournaments, the ones that earn players planeswalker points, and DCI-unsanctioned tournaments.

How is a tournament structured?
A tournament can either have single-elimination rounds (i.e., if you lose you stop playing), in which case it’s easy to decree the winner and the top ranked players, or some numbers of “swiss” rounds can be played (i.e., you can play all the rounds both if you win or lose). In the latter case, the tournament has a number of rounds based on player attendance, during which each one of them will face an opponent with their same score in the ranking list (as far as possible). In simple terms, at the beginning of the tournament, being all the players at the same score, the computer makes random pairings. From the second round onwards, winners of the previous one get paired with others that won and vice versa.

The number of rounds will be announced by the Tournament Organizer or by the Head Judge before the beginning of the first round, once done it cannot be changed anymore. At the end of the Swiss rounds, there may be a single elimination portion of the tournament, where only the top players will continue playing. In the case, the cut for the single elimination portion will be announced by the Tournament Organizer or by the Head Judge before the beginning of the first round. The top 4/8/16 ranked players after the Swiss portion will play to see who will reach the higher steps of the podium.

Types of tournament and match duration
There are two major tournament formats: constructed tournaments, where players must have their own decks to compete, and limited tournaments, where players can build their decks using booster packs given out by the tournament organizer.

A time limit of 50 minutes is recommended for each round of the Swiss portion of a tournament, both for constructed and limited tournaments. Additional time limits will be applied to specific procedures of the limited tournaments (e.g., deck construction), and will be announced by the Head Judge at the beginning of each specific procedure.

Rounds and Tiebreaker explanation
So far, we have seen that a tournament is composed by several rounds of 50 minutes during which games between two players (or teams) are played. A Magic match consists of a series of games that are played until a player (or team) has won a set number of games, usually two. Drawn games do not count toward this goal, and the players have to start a new game. If the round ends before a player has won the required number of games, the winner of the match is the one who has won the most games at that point. If both players have equal game wins, the match is a draw.

Players earn 3 match points for a win, 0 points for a loss, and 1 point for a draw.

We said earlier that once the Swiss rounds are finished the top 4/8/16 players may proceed to single-elimination playoffs, but how can we determine who are the highest positioned players? The ones who have accumulated the most match points mentioned above proceed. It can happen that more players have the same amount of points, so we need other criteria to determine who’s the highest on the ranking, and that’s why tiebreakers exist… but what are they?

The tiebreakers are parameters according to which we can establish a ranking order, they are formed by four columns that, in order of importance, are:

  • Match Points
  • Opponents’ match-win percentage: the average match-win percentage of each opponent players face.
  • Game-win percentage: the total number of game points players earned divided by the total game points possible.
  • Opponents’ game-win percentage: Similar to opponent’s match-win percentage, a player’s game-win percentage is the average game-win percentage of all that player’s opponents.

So, if two players have equal match points, we have to compare the second column: who has the highest percentage, has played with opponents that have won more matches and will end higher on the ranking. If the second column is still equal, we proceed to the 3rd one and so on. For further info on how tiebreaks work, you can have a look here.

Pregame Procedures

Before any game begins, players agree on a random method (such as a die roll or coin toss) to determine who chooses to play first or to play second. The winner must state this choice before looking at his or her hand. If the winner states no choice, it is assumed that he or she is playing first. The player who plays first skips the draw step of his or her first turn. This is referred to as the play/draw rule.

After each game ends, the loser decides whether to play first in the next one. He or she must state this choice before looking at his or her hand. If the previous game was a draw, the player who decided to play or draw at the beginning of that game chooses.

In playoff matches of premier tournaments like Pro Tours, Preliminary Pro Tour Qualifiers, Grand Prix, etc. a different play/draw rule is applied. The player that was ranked higher in the Swiss rounds chooses either to play first or to play second in the first game of each match. For the second and subsequent games, the loser of the previous one decides whether to play first in the next game. This play/draw rule may be also used in other single-elimination tournaments, provided that this is announced to the players before the start of the tournament.

The following steps must be performed in a timely manner before each game begins:

Magic Tournament Rules 2.3

If game actions were taken during a previous game of the match, players may exchange cards in their decks for cards in their sideboards. Players may not sideboard during games that have been restarted.
Players shuffle their decks. Steps 1 and 2 may be repeated.
Players present their decks to their opponents for additional shuffling. The sideboard (if any) is also presented at this time.
After the first or subsequent game of the match, the relevant player must decide whether to play first or second at this point, if he or she hasn’t done it so already. If that player doesn’t choose before looking at the cards in his or her hand, then he or she is considered to have chosen to play first.
Each player draws seven cards. Optionally, these cards may be dealt face down on the table.
Each player, in turn order, may take mulligans. (Rules on mulligan can be found here). If a player takes a mulligan, they repeat the shuffling and presentation process described above.

The game is considered to have begun once all players have completed taking mulligans. Pregame procedures may be performed before time for the match has officially begun. In the past players had 3 minutes to complete the first two steps, but the fact that there is not a time limit anymore doesn’t allow them to take an excessive amount of time! Players must present their decks as quickly as possible, that’s why a timer is not needed.

End-of-Match procedures

If the match time limit expires, and a winner is not determined, once the active player (the one whose turn it is) finishes his or her turn, five additional turns are played in total. This usually means that one player takes three turns and the other two.

At the end of additional turns, if the game hasn’t finished yet, it is considered a draw. In single-elimination rounds, matches cannot end in a draw. In these cases if all players have won the same number of games during the match, the one with the highest life total wins it. In the event that all the players have equal life totals (or are between games and have the same amount of wins), the game/match continues until one player
is on a higher life (also called “sudden death”).

Dropping from a tournament
Players may drop from a tournament at any time, they only have to inform the scorekeeper using the means provided for that tournament before the pairings for the next round are generated, like filling the specific area on the entry slip or communicating it directly to the scorekeeper.

If players drop after the Scorekeeper has created pairings for the next round, they will still be inserted in that round. If a player doesn’t show up for the match, he or she will be automatically dropped from the tournament unless they report to the scorekeeper. To avoid players waiting 10 minutes alone at tables, and to diminish the amount of judge calls, if you don’t have time or don’t want to play, it’s highly recommended to show up and inform the opponent that you concede the match.

Players that repeatedly and/or intentionally drop from tournaments without informing the scorekeeper may be the subjects of DCI penalties including suspension, so remember to drop before leaving! It’s quick and saves you a lot of trouble!

If a player drops from a tournament after a cut has been made, such as top 8 playoffs in a Preliminary Pro Tour Qualifier, no other player is advanced as a replacement and a bye is assigned to his opponent.

Players who have dropped may re-enter a tournament at the discretion of the Head Judge. Players may not re-enter a portion of the tournament that requires a deck they did not draft or build, nor can they after a cut to top 4/8/16 has been made.

Players may not drop from a tournament in exchange of any offer, reward or incentive. Doing so is considered “Unsporting Conduct” and provides a disqualify for both players.



Marco Boccalari

Marco Boccalari

Fabio Pierucci
Translation review

Fabio Pierucci
Translation review