Max Kahn: The XYZs of Magic Tournaments

Max Kahn   June 12, 2017   Comments Off on Max Kahn: The XYZs of Magic Tournaments

Just as every single game of Magic is different, every single Magic tournament is different.

The reason for this is the remarkable number of variables that goes into any tournament, and how much those variables change from tournament to tournament. Let’s take a look at some of those variables to see how they cause judges to prepare for and run tournaments differently.

Rules Enforcement Level

As I’ve talked about in previous articles, Rules Enforcement Level refers to the “strictness” of the guidelines we as judges use to help answer your calls, assess penalties, and apply fixes. As a brief review, Regular REL is the most relaxed of the three levels, and, because approximately 90 percent of Magic tournaments are run at Regular REL, it’s likely the one you’re most familiar with. Most weekly events at your local game store are held at Regular REL, along with events such as Friday Night Magic, Game Day, and Prerelease.

Competitive REL has more strict guidelines than Regular, and you’ll likely see events with larger prize pools run at this level, including PPTQs, NRG Championship Series events, and Day 1 of a Grand Prix. Professional REL is used for Grand Prix Day 2, Pro Tours, and Worlds, so we aren’t going to discuss it in this article. As a judge, preparing for a Regular REL event and a Competitive REL event are insanely different.

For a regular REL event, judges follow the “Judging at Regular” (JAR) document, a two-page guide that describes best practices for running small, local events. Regular REL events place an emphasis on learning the game rules rather than harsh penalties for when they get mistakenly broken, which cultivates a more laid-back and friendly environment. I always remind myself of this when preparing for an event at Regular, because for a majority of Magic players, Regular REL events are the highest-level tournaments they’ll experience. While it’s nice to think that everyone will get the opportunity to go to a Grand Prix someday, it just simply isn’t reality. Players who only go to Prereleases and the occasional FNM don’t care about minuscule differences between a ‘Hidden Card Error’ or a ‘Looking at Extra Cards’, they just want to have fun playing Magic after a long week at work or school. At Regular REL, when a judge encounters a situation where a player made a mistake, they should:

  • Explain to the players what the mistake was;
  • Teach the players what should have happened and make sure they understand why;
  • Fix the situation and get the players back to their match as soon as possible.

Competitive REL events are a whole different beast. Instead of a two-page document describing the philosophy of the tournament, the Infraction Procedure Guide is a 30-page document that describes infractions, penalties, and fixes in great detail. While some sections of the document are rarely used (I’m looking at you, Limited Procedure Violation and Insufficient Shuffling), other infractions listed in the IPG, like Decklist Problem, Missed Trigger, and Game Rule Violation occur in nearly every Competitive REL event.

Competitive REL events are much more time-consuming to prepare for than Regular events, because every set release introduces or simplifies new philosophies for infractions and reasons to penalize players. Because of this, nearly every judge I’ve worked under at Competitive REL reminds their judges to read through the IPG before they step onto the floor of the event. Since these tournaments are played for more prizes and often qualify players for larger tournament, it’s important that the way that judges deliver rulings is consistent from event to event. We rule based on what the IPG prescribes in order for tournaments in both Pittsburgh and Paris to be officiated consistently.


While it seems like every tournament nowadays is Modern, thanks to rising Legacy card prices and the sad state of Standard, there are four major formats that judges work with, and they all require different types of preparation.

Limited events are usually the easiest events for judges to prepare for. The average card quality is the least complex in Limited events, so many of the judge calls are based on game play errors rather than card interaction questions. There are always a few weird interactions in each Limited format, but the Release Notes for each set are a great resource that judges use to brush up on the format before the event begins. Other complexities of running Limited formats involve timing. Especially at Competitive REL, there’s a lot of numbers to keep track of, including time for deck registration and building, and possibly a called Top 8 draft with different time limits for each pick.

Standard is the format most frequently seen at the PPTQ and Grand Prix level, so most judges are familiar with the common interactions in the format. Because the card pool isn’t too large, many of the players are also familiar with the common interactions between the one-and-a-half top tier decks at any given time. Many players also have their first Competitive REL experience while playing Standard, so it’s important that judges at Standard events help to ease players into playing at a higher rules enforcement level.

Modern is a format full of new and experienced players alike, and there will be 20 playable decks at any given time. This is the format where you’ll likely hear the greatest volume of card interaction questions, since there plenty of mildly playable rogue decks and tons of wacky sideboard cards. When preparing for a Modern tournament, I always encourage judges to take a look at Top 8 decklists from recent events to get a sense of the most popular decks and learn how the decks work. A majority of my time spent preparing for Modern events also includes watching archives of coverage to see how certain decks play out, such as the new “Counters Company” deck. Having a baseline level of experience with Modern will help you deliver rulings more confidently and correctly while on the floor.

Legacy will have the oldest cards, and, as such, some of the weirdest rulings at any tournament. If you haven’t read my entire article on a single Chains of Mephistopheles judge call, you should; it’ll give you a good taste about what judging a Legacy event can be like. While not every Legacy tournament involves a Chains (and some other things) call, judges should be prepared to answer a lot of requests for Oracle text. Nearly every deck will play cards where the printed text doesn’t match the Oracle text, and players at Legacy events know to call a judge when they want to make sure they understand how the updated text affects their gameplay decisions. In this format, like Modern, having an understanding of what the most popular decks are and how they work is a key to success.

Player Knowledge

We also expect and prepare for different types of players at different rules enforcement levels and for different formats. Generally, as rules enforcement level increases and the format gets older, player knowledge increases. For example, at a Regular REL event, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear the following judge calls:

“What’s the difference between first strike and ‘regular’ strike?”

“Do first strike and deathtouch work together like how I want them to?”

“Can an Ultimate Price destroy an artifact creature?”

“Can an Ultimate Price destroy a green Planeswalker?”

While you may think these questions are silly, every Magic player has asked these questions at some point, and events like FNM and Prereleases are where you likely had these questions answered. However, we would expect players in events such as PPTQs and Grand Prix to already know the answers to these questions. That’s not to say that we wouldn’t answer these questions if they were asked, but judges would assume that players entering these level of tournaments should be able to answer them. Questions that you’d more likely hear asked at Competitive REL include:

“How does the resolution of Searing Blaze work if the creature is bounced in response?”

“Do you draw first or get the land first when you cycle a Krosan Tusker?”

“How do Aftermath cards work with As Foretold and Brain in a Jar?”

One of the biggest differences apparent in player knowledge can be seen in different formats. In my experience, as the size of the card pool increases, so does the average player knowledge. In other words, Legacy players tend to know more than Modern players, who tend to know more than Standard players. And for anyone who has played in a Competitive REL event before, this shouldn’t be a huge shock. It’s a big step for players to invest into Modern and Legacy, so they’ve generally have been playing the game longer than a typical Standard player, and have put more resources into learning rules and strategy.

Hopefully, this article has helped both judges and players some of the key variables that make every Magic tournament a new experience. There are certainly more differences to be covered, so let me know if you’d like me to write a follow-up to this article if you found it helpful. Either way, make sure to reach out to me on Twitter @MaxPlaysMTG or in person at Grand Prix Las Vegas all week if you have any questions. Until next time!

Max Kahn is the Event Manager for the Nerd Rage Gaming Championship Series and the Judge Manager for all Nerd Rage Gaming events. When he’s not answering your judge calls or working behind the scenes at your local event, he splits his time between Chicago, Seattle, and Twitter.