The Basics of Competitive Magic

Hi Everyone, My name is Fabian Peck and I am a Level 3 Judge from Melbourne Australia. I have judged many events over the years including numerous PTQs, PPTQs, WMCQs, GPs and occasionally you’ll see my dorky head in the pro tour coverage. I wrote this article to give everyone a better understanding of competitive level events and how they run. This article is pretty simple and aimed at those who know very little of the structure of competitive events. The Gray Merchants will be posting another more math-based breakdown of how to calculate tiebreakers soon.

How Magic Events Work – Structure/Maths

Magic tournaments are complex beasts, and the details of how we get to the final results can be confusing to even experienced players. Here how the Swiss pairing structure works, used at most Magic tournaments, followed by what that means for you in terms of making top 8.

In the Swiss pairing structure;

  • The number of rounds is based on the number of players.
  • Each round players face an opponent with the same number of wins in that event as them.
  • There’s no seeding.
  • Players may play all rounds.

The Swiss system is more forgiving than single elimination. It’s great for a game with some random elements like Magic, and way more fun as you get to play more matches even if you lose. It scales well for a large number of players.

First of all, the most important tournament rules.

  • Never offer your opponent any incentive for any match result.
    “Hey, I really need 3 planeswalker points, I’ll give you 2 boosters if you concede to me” or even “I’ll give you a lift home later if you agree to draw with me now” are both really bad.
  • Never improperly/randomly determine the outcome of a match. You’re there to play Magic, not rock-paper-scissors, not Dice: the Rolling. If your match is going to be a draw, just let it be a draw.

Doing those things will result in your swift disqualification from the event. If your opponent attempts to do them call a judge immediately or you could be in trouble too.

  • Your opponent may not have your best interests at heart.

If you have questions about these, or anything else in the event, CALL A JUDGE. It’s ok to talk away from the table if you need to, and if you’re asking if you can say something to your opponent I’d recommend it. Judges are there to answer your questions and help you have a fun and fair time. Don’t be shy about asking, you’re not dragging them away from anything, they’ll be happy to help.


From the Magic Tournament Rules (MTR), here are the recommended number of rounds based on the number of players.

Players Rounds
8 3
9-16 4
17-32 5
33-64 6
65-128 7
129-226 8
227-409 9
410+ 10

These brackets are structured so that after all the swiss rounds a maximum of 8 players can have 1 or no losses.
Most large Magic events cut to the top 8 players advancing to single elimination after the Swiss rounds, so winning all but one of your matches guarantees you’ll make the cut. Not just gives you a good chance, but mathematically guarantees you will be one of the top 8 players after the Swiss rounds. If you’re not then either the event had the wrong number of rounds or the scorekeeper made an error.

Let’s start with some terminology to make these concepts easier to discuss and understand.

Match Points

A win gets you 3 match points
A draw is 1 for each player
A loss is 0
Players are ranked in the standings by the number of match points they have.


Draws are generally bad for you, play quickly to avoid them! If your opponent is taking a long time to make decisions it’s ok to politely prompt them to speed up with something along the lines of “I think we need to speed up to be able to finish our match”, “what’ve you got?”,

One of the judges or the event organiser will announce when you’ve reached the time limit in the round, and you begin the end of round procedure.
Finish the current turn and then play 5 additional turns between you.
So if it’s Ajani’s turn he’d have turns 0 (the rest of his current turn), 2, and 4
His opponent Nissa would have turns 1, 3, and 5.
At the end of those 5 turns if that game is still going the game is drawn. If a player is ahead on game wins (i.e. it’s game 2), that player wins the game. If game wins are tied (i.e. it’s game 1 or 3) the match is a draw.

If it’s clear to both of you when time is called that game is going to end up in a draw it’s fine to just agree to draw it and save everyone some time. If you want to play it out that’s fine too, just remember that all the other players in the event are waiting on your match, so be quick.

Intentional Draws (IDs)

Draws are an unfortunate but necessary part of event Magic. The need for everyone involved to go home at some point means rounds need to have a time limit, and can end in draws. As a corollary of that, the fact that there’s no way to force people to play well/to actually win, and no accurate way to distinguish if a player is intentionally playing poorly; players could easily engineer a result of a draw where it was beneficial by winning a game each and then going to time.

That’s pretty clearly a miserable thing to have to do so the Magic rules cut out the mess, players can mutually agree to draw a match (or a game within a match) whenever they like. Players can agree to ID before they even start shuffling up or play any Magic at all.

Many other games don’t follow this logic, or have game rules or event structures that enable them to circumvent it, so be careful applying this to any other game.

If you agree to intentionally draw with your opponent just write “ID” in big letters on the result slip, or talk to the scorekeeper if you’re not using slips. An ID is usually recorded as 3 drawn games, but if you’ve already completed any games you must include them.
E.g. you agree to ID as you’re starting game 3, record it on the slip as a win each, plus a draw.

Repeatedly asking for an intentional draw is unsporting conduct, if you ask at the start of a match and it’s refused, just play some Magic, that’s what people came to do and it’s not unfair of them to ask you to do that.
Asking again maybe once later in the match, perhaps as it goes to a third game, is ok. Any more than that is pushing it.

Wins – Losses – (Draws)

When people talk about how they’re doing in an event it’s often abbreviated as “I’m 3-1”, meaning “I have 3 wins and 1 loss”. Sometimes a third number is added to represent draws.

4-0-1 – 4 wins, no losses, 1 draw
0-3 – 3 losses, not so good =(
2-1-1 – 2 wins, 1 loss, 1 draw

These are generalised to

In the present tense (“I’m X-1”), I’ve lost 1 match so far and won the rest. E.g. at the end of the 5th round this would mean 4 wins, 1 loss.
In the future tense (“I need to go X-1 to make top 8”) it refers to winning all but one match across the full number of rounds.

And further generalised to X-2, X-3, X-0-1 etc


Sometimes players are unable to, or don’t want to, play in the whole event. A player can drop from the event at any time and go home, they won’t appear in future pairings or on the standings.
You can drop by ticking the drop box on the result slip (don’t put anything here unless you want to stop playing Magic, any kind of squiggle and the scorekeeper will likely remove you from the event), or by talking to the scorekeeper in an event without result slips, or if your result slip has already been handed in.
If you’re done playing make sure you do one of these as a courtesy to the other players, waiting for someone you’re paired against to show up when they’ve left but forgot to drop from the event sucks, and by dropping you’re allowing more actual matches of Magic to happen.


You can concede a game or match at any time.


If the event has an odd number of players there’s not an opponent for everyone. The player who is lowest in the standings and hasn’t yet had a bye automatically wins their match.
In the first round of the event everyone is on equal standing so the bye is allocated at random. You don’t get to play Magic but you do get to win, and surely someone will give you a game when they’re done!


Sometimes you’ll play against a player with a different number of match points than you.
E.g. There’s 18 players in an event, which means 9 matches, and thus 9 winners and 9 losers.
There’s not an even number of players on the same match points to pair up with each other so one of the players who won will play someone who lost.

E.g. Two players draw a match. Player’s can’t play the same opponent again so unless there’s other players with a draw one of them will be paired up with someone who won and the other paired down.

Usually there’s some indication of your match points wherever the pairings are posted, check it each round to make sure it’s what you expect and your results weren’t entered incorrectly, it can be hard to fix if it’s caught later.

If you have a draw you’re likely to play other players with a draw, and if you’re both playing slow decks you may pick up even more draws! That’s really bad for your chances of winning the event so play quickly to start with.


Opponents’ Match-win Percentage (OMW)

If two players are tied on match points at the end of the Swiss rounds the first tiebreaker is their Opponents’ Match-win Percentage (OMW). Of all the matches that person’s opponents in the event played, how many did they win, expressed a percentage. Opponents are counted as winning a minimum of 33% of their matches, reducing the negative effect of playing someone who then does very poorly.

Contrary to what most people expect how much you won each match by (2 games to 0 vs 2 games to 1) isn’t the first tiebreaker, and rarely matters. How your opponents did, as a measure of how difficult your wins were, is what counts.

So, losing matches later in the event rather than earlier will result in you having better OMW.
If you win your first 4 matches and lose your fifth each of your opponents had no losses when you faced them, and the first 4 have 1 loss after you play them.
If you lose your first match and then win the next 4 each of your opponents in rounds 2-5 have at least 1 loss when you faced them, and least 2 after you defeat them.

Your opponents could go on to do well, or poorly, so there’s a lot of possible variance in OMW.

Tiebreakers are rarely needed beyond OMW, but here in order for completeness

Game Win Percentage (PGW)

Of all the games you’ve played, how many did you win, expressed as a percentage

Opponent’s Game-win Percentage (OGW)

Of all the games your opponents played, how many did they win, expressed as a percentage. Similarly to OMW count anyone winning less than 33% of their games as winning 33%.

Number of vowels in your name/order of entry into software/number of milkshakes drunk

You’ll never get to this point anyway, and how to proceed if all the above are tied isn’t actually defined.

Byes/Drops Affecting Tiebreakers

A bye in the first round (or first two rounds) positively affects your tiebreakers. Your OMW will be calculated with one less opponent, in this case without an opponent who has at least one loss, from losing to you. E.g. if you have byes in the first two rounds then your first and all subsequent opponents have at least two wins, and there’s no possibility of your OMW being dragged down by the first person you play doing poorly.

Drops are effectively neutral to your tiebreakers. That opponent can no longer keep winning to boost your OMW, but also no longer lose and bring it down.


  • Anonymous

    Very nice article!

%d bloggers like this: