This is Part Four of our “Getting Started: Magic the Gathering” series. You can find parts 1-3 here: Getting Started, Commander, and Arena. In this article we’re going to discuss how you can take the next step in paper Magic, moving from kitchen table games with friends to playing competitively at a local store.
Welcome back! At this point, you’ve gotten comfortable with the game and have a respectable collection of cards you’ve built up playing with your friends. Now you want to expand to broader play environments and test your skills against more experienced players and better decks. It’s time to step into the world of competitive Magic: The Gathering. In this article we’re going to cover the basics of Competitive Play, the different formats you need to know about, and how to get started with each.
Why Play Magic Competitively?
That’s a good question. The short answer is that Magic is a game built for and around competitive play, where players can test their skills as deck builders and players. Competitive formats are some of the most fun you can have playing Magic, and tournaments and events like Friday Night Magic are a great way to become involved in and participate with the game’s community and build a larger play group. It’s also a great way to support your local store.
At higher levels, there are also major prizes to be won, though “professional” level Magic play is beyond the scope of this article. For now, we’re going to stick to playing local events.
Competitive Play Formats
The first thing you need to know about competitive play is that competitive play is based around formats, or sets of rules that define the cards you’ll be playing with and how you’ll be able to use them to build decks. There are two types of formats in competitive play: Constructed formats, where players build decks from their own collections prior to the event based on a pool of allowed cards, and Limited Formats, where players are given sealed, randomized packs of cards which they then use to build the decks they’ll be playing with (and aren’t permitted to use any other cards for).
Limited comes in two popular varieties: Sealed Deck and Booster Draft. Limited formats emphasize building the best deck you can with a random or semi-random selection of cards and reward the ability to make smart, quick decisions about card valuation and understand a set. Compared to Constructed play, Limited is much cheaper to get involved in, since the cost of playing in a given event is usually going to be the cost of the cards you’re opening plus a small entry fee, and you keep the cards you open/draft. Almost every local store runs regular booster draft events, usually on Friday nights.
The easier of the two limited formats, in Sealed Deck, players are either given six unopened booster packs to open and build a 40-card (minimum) deck with. The cards they don’t use become their sideboard and they play with their built decks during the tournament. Just focus on building the best deck you have with the cards you get.
Sealed deck format is the primary format for Prerelease events, which typically take place the weekend before the release of a new expansion. These events often mix the format up a bit by giving you a special Prerelease pack, which will usually contain a spindown life counter and may swap out boosters for special seeded boosters with a theme related to the set. For example: In the Guilds of Ravnica prerelease, players were given the option of which of the five guilds they wanted to represent. Each guild had a separate prerelease pack with a custom box, and spindown counter, and each contained five unopened booster packs plus one seeded booster with cards specific to that guild’s colors.
Because they’re reliant on the cards you open, Sealed Deck can be a bit more luck-dependent than Booster Draft, where the ability to select cards can mitigate the impact of luck. On the other hand, they’re much easier to learn with and the connection to Prerelease events makes them easy to get involved with, and has the added bonus of meaning that everyone around you is likely playing with these cards for the first time. If you’re interested in giving limited play or competitive play a shot for the first time, this is where I’d recommend you start.
On the other side of limited play, you have booster drafts. In a booster draft, players are seated in eight-player groups called “pods” and each is given three unopened booster packs. Each player then opens one of the packs, chooses a single card from the pack to keep, and passes the remaining cards face down to the player on their left, who then does the same. This progresses until every card has been selected. Then, players repeat the process with the second pack, this time passing to the right. And after all those cards have been taken, players do this one more time with the final pack, passing cards again to their left.
In draft, players have to make quick decisions about card value and plan ahead for the type of deck they’ll build – a rare that may be valuable but won’t work in your deck isn’t likely to win you many games. Drafting also adds an entire layer of strategy to the game around “signaling,” or making it clear to other players what colors you are picking and picking up on those signals in turn, to ensure that you aren’t competing for the same cards as 5 other people.
Once players have their selected cards, they build a 40-card (minimum) deck with the cards they have and any basic lands they want to add and their unused cards become their sideboard. Then they play with their built decks, usually in a three-round, single elimination tournament bracket.
Tips for Playing Limited
Whole articles can (and have) been writing on playing limited and while there’s a ton to say we’re going to stick to a few basic tricks here. If you’re looking for more we recommend checking out DailyMtg and ChannelFireball’s posts on the topic.
- Aim to build a 40-card deck – keep to the minimum required number cards to reduce variance in your deck’s play.
- You should generally aim for a mix of 23 spells and 17 lands. You can mix this up a little based on the format, but this is pretty commonly accepted as the correct ratio when building a 40-card deck.
- Generally, you should aim to build your deck should have around 15-17 creatures. More than that and you won’t have enough answers or versatility; fewer, and you won’t have enough attackers or ways to win.
- The majority of the spells in your deck should cost 2, 3, or 4 mana. Try do avoid having more than 1-2 spells that cost 6 or more mana. This helps ensure you’ll be able to cast the spells you draw during a game and stay “on curve.”
- When you’re drafting, try to look for “signposts” in the set. Wizards has done a lot of work to make drafting easier by putting in cards that clearly mark the strategies and color pairs they’ve built into the set for drafting archetypes. Many sets have two-color uncommons that signal these themes and can make drafting easier – look for cards that fit this theme in what you’re being passed and you can prioritize building toward a supported strategy. A good example of this is blue-green in Core Set 2021, which is focused around cards that provide lots of value and have draw triggers. The signpost here is Lorescale Coatl and is supported by cards like Jolrael, Mwonvuli Recluse and Tolarian Kraken, and there are many cards such as Opt and Frantic Inventory that act as enablers for the theme.
- If you’re walking in completely blind, then there’s a general order you can consider taking cards in that doesn’t hold up as well as it used to now that enters-the-battlefield effects are more common and removal tends to be weaker, but it’ll get you through OK in a pinch. This order can be remembered with an acronym: B.R.E.A.D.
- B – Bombs. Large, splashy spells and creatures with lots of power that will win you a game or get you significant card advantage.
- R – Removal. Spells that remove your opponent’s threats. Includes direct damage that can take out creatures.
- E – Evasion. Creatures and spells that get around your opponent’s natural defenses. Usually this means creatures with flying, but unblockable and protection also fall into this category.
- A – Aggro/Attackers. Cards that play quickly and help you be aggressive. Usually this means creatures that can turn sideways and attack.
- D – Dregs. Everything else.
Major Constructed Formats
Maybe you want to play competitively, but you don’t want to mess around with random pools of cards. No, you want to demonstrate your deckbuilding prowess to the world! Well then constructed formats may be more your speed. Then constructed formats are for you! Constructed formats in competitive Magic are defined by the cards players can use to build a legal deck. This ranges from using recently released sets (Standard) to every card in the game’s history (Vintage). There are generally four “major” constructed formats in paper magic. Most local stores that run events run Standard events – typically on Friday nights but many stores will also run more events – though Modern events are also pretty common.
The most popular constructed competitive format, in Standard players build decks using cards from the most recent sets. Four Magic sets are published and added to the Standard rotation each year, and the four oldest sets rotate out, usually in September of that year. As a result, Standard is the most accessible of the constructed formats, since it uses cards that are currently in print and available. If you’re a new player then competing in Standard means you only have to buy cards from recent sets and overall the power level of Standard decks is lower than formats that allow more sets.
Standard has more regular upheaval than any other format. Every new set makes a significant impact on the metagame and dominant strategies won’t stay that way for long as the sets containing the cards they rely on will rotate out. Staying on top of a constantly shifting pool of cards can make Standard expensive, particularly if the best decks happen to rely on a large number of Mythic rares.
The second most popular constructed competitive format, in Modern players build decks using cards printed in sets from Eighth Edition and Mirrodin through current day. That means that Modern players have access to seventeen years worth of expansions and core sets for Magic: The Gathering, a period which makes up more than half the game’s lifespan. This gives players a lot of options to work with, and there’s a lot of depth to Modern when it comes to the kinds of decks you can build and the strategies you can employ. Sets never rotate out, so your older cards are always useful. New sets typically add cards that are worth playing in Modern, but as the power level of Modern decks is higher than that of Standard, fewer new cards will be powerful enough to make an impact in Modern, and so the format is a bit slower to change.
On the whole, Modern is more expensive to play than Standard; while cards stay relevant for longer, competitive Modern decks tend to rely on a number of “staple” cards that can be very expensive. This is particularly true for the lands used to power Modern deck manabases, which often rely on the Zendikar enemy-colored “fetch” lands, which can be particularly expensive and difficult to acquire. While a player who already owns these is well-situated to build decks, it means that for new players, there’s a significant price barrier to entry in competitive Modern play. Wizards of the Coast occasionally releases new sets such as the Modern Masters sets which help with this issue by reprinting key cards for Modern play.
As Modern aged and it became more difficult for new players to get started with the format, it became clear that there was a good opportunity to create a more “modern” version of Modern. Enter Pioneer, where players build decks using cards printed sets from Return to Ravnica through current day. This non-rotating format gives players the ability to enjoy some of the benefits of Modern–being able to hold on to and use powerful cards that have rotated out of standard and access to a large card pool–with a lower cost to entry thanks to the format’s younger age and banning of the allied “fetch” lands. At the same time, newer sets have a bigger impact on the format, helping keep it fresh.
Going deeper than Modern, Legacy reaches all the way back to Magic’s earliest sets. All but the most powerful cards are in Legacy. Unlike Modern or Pioneer, cards from any black- or white-bordered set are legal in this format, including cards from supplemental sets like the Commander series. While cards that define Magic’s earliest days, like Black Lotus, are banned, the format utilizes cards that have not seen a new printing since the early and mid-nineties that are on the reserved list like. Obtaining these cards is extremely costly but are necessary for efficiency such as the original dual lands and Force of Will. Budget options exist, but being competitive will set back anyone new to the format thousands.
If you just wanted to have access to every card in Magic’s 25-year plus history, then Vintage is what you’re looking for. In Vintage, players can use cards from any tournament-legal set, going all the way back to 1993’s Alpha. This is the only format with a restricted list, a list of cards that players can only include one copy of in their decks, and is by far the most expensive format to play, since competitive decks can often rely on cards that have been out of print for more than twenty years and sell for thousands of dollars individually on the secondary market. Thought not as popular as it once was, the power level of Vintage decks is extremely high, and it can be a very fun format to play.
Tips for Playing Competitive Constructed Events
While you could fill multiple books and websites with advice on constructed play, here are a few tips and things to consider about playing constructed events that focus more on the format:
- Test Before You Build. Constructed play can often be an endless (in a good way) loop of testing and tweaking decks, and if you buy the cards for every iteration of your builds, that cost is going to add up fast and lead to a lot of wasted money or worse, using cards because of sunk costs. Test the cards you’re considering before you go out and buy them–grab a few basic lands or pack insert advertisement cards, write the name and cost of the card you want to test on them, and use that as a proxy. Then if the deck works, go out and get the real cards.
- Build a Team. You can do competitive play events solo, and your games are going to be one-on-one affairs. But that doesn’t mean that the tournament experience has to be solo. Coordinate with your friends and build a team that you can test decks against and trade/borrow cards between. Being able to pool resources together can make building killer decks easier and having someone at an event with you to watch your stuff while you go to the bathroom or help carry things just makes life much easier.
- Learn the Rules. Most people learn to play from a friend. And that’s great! But if your’e gonna play for serious, you should take the time to read the basic rules and learn how the game’s basic mechanics and processes work. There are a lot of players who don’t know what the basic process for casting a spell, and while you can get by fine at lower levels like this, at higher levels of play it can matter. Take the time to read the basic rules.
- Stay healthy! A lot of competitive events mean sitting down for an extended period of time, usually right after work or on a weekend. Be sure to take the appropriate breaks, stay hydrated, and eat right.
Serious Tournament Play
So far we’ve talked about formats and the kinds of small events you’re likely to see at your local game store on a weekly or monthly basis. But Magic also has a circuit of major tournaments with real cash prizes such as Grand Prixs and Premier events. Participating in these and doing well takes a lot of time, energy, and money. Like any other extremely competitive endeavor, you should expect to spend the equivalent of a full time job or more honing your skills and working at it to compete successfully against people who are doing the same. The scope of how to get involved in and compete in serious tournament play is beyond the scope of this article but know that if you’re going down this road, you have a long, difficult road ahead of you. Good luck!
Taking the First Step
That wraps up our look at competitive play for Magic: The Gathering. If you’re still on the fence, consider starting with a prerelease event or testing the waters with a booster draft at an FNM. Then as you get more comfortable with the environment, consider moving to constructed play based on the events your store runs.
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