Knowing when to offer a draw, when you need to play it out, and when you can safely drop is a complex—sometimes unpleasant—aspect of playing a tournament. But it’s important. What a waste to pour your heart and soul into practicing for an event only to draw yourself into 9th place in the final round! Why risk knocking yourself out of prize money when you can guarantee it with a draw? Where you’re going to place at the end of the tournament doesn’t need to be a mystery.
Part I covered the basics of tournament structure. If this topic is new to you, then you should start there. You might also find it a helpful reference as you read Part II. But what you really want to know is what these things mean for you, and how they should affect your behavior in the last few rounds of a tournament. That’s what I’ll cover here.
Draws and Tiebreakers
Getting a draw is a bad thing in tournament Magic, because a draw only gives 1 match point where a win gives 3. While that single match point can be useful, I like to think of draws more as simply being a “super-tiebreaker.” Before you even begin to think about opponent match win percentage (OMW), you must also consider which players have draws. In other words, if my record is 4-2-1, I think of myself as being 4-3 with the best tiebreakers or 5-2 with the worst tiebreakers.
I find this perspective to be helpful in the last round of a tournament, where I might be deciding whether to try and draw into prize money, or (even better) draw into Top 8. If you already have good tiebreakers (a high OMW), then you shouldn’t expect to pass a lot of players in the standings by drawing. Again, going from 4-2 with the best tiebreakers to 4-2-1 doesn’t change much. You might maintain your position relative to other players who take a draw, but you won’t pass many people.
On the other hand, if you have poor tiebreakers, then a draw can be more helpful. If you’re 4-2 with the worst tiebreakers and you take a draw, you will pass all of the players above you who are 4-2 and lose the final round.
Consider a tournament with prize breaks for Top 8, Top 16, and Top 32. Here are a few examples:
- Your record is 5-3 and you’re in 14th place with the best tiebreakers of all of the 5-3 players. Generally speaking, you should try to win your final match in this case. If you take a draw, you won’t pass anyone because 5-3-1 is very similar to 5-4 with the best tiebreakers. But all of the 5-3 players who win the last round will pass you, and you won’t finish in the Top 16. Depending on the situation, you have a great chance to make Top 32 even if you lose, because your tiebreakers are strong.
- Your record is 7-1 and you’re in 6th place with the worst tiebreakers of all the 7-1 players. But here, your goal is simply to maintain your position and make the Top 8, so you should probably draw. If you play and lose, the 6-2 players with strong tiebreakers could win and pass you. If you draw, you will be 7-1-1, which you can think of as being 7-2 with “unbeatable” tiebreakers.
- Your record is 5-3 and you’re in 28th place with the worst tiebreakers of all the 5-3 players. You won’t make Top 16 with a win because you’d simply wind up at the bottom of the pack of the 6-3 players. But a draw looks good here, as you get to go from the bottom of the pack (worst tiebreakers) to the top of the pack (“unbeatable” tiebreakers). More specifically, it means that the 4-4 players cannot pass you and bump you out of Top 32. You will even pass the 5-3 players who play it out and lose, meaning that you’re likely to finish slightly higher than 28th place by taking a draw. For the same reasons, there are even some rare cases where you can take a draw in 33rd or 34th place and finish in the Top 32! This technique was taught to me as the “sneaky draw.”
Even for an experienced veteran, looking at the standings and figuring out tiebreakers can be overwhelming. I’ll share a couple of simplistic techniques that can help you cut through the confusion and see what you need to see.
Cutting the Number in Half
If you’re wondering how many places you’ll rise with a win, or how many places you’ll fall with a loss, one easy and useful technique is cutting numbers in half. This is as simple as it sounds. Count the number of players with your record. Since players with the same record are paired against one another, you can count on very close to half of them to winning, and very close to half of them losing. So if you’re one of sixteen players with a record of 4-2 and you win your round, then you’re guaranteed to wind up ahead of the eight 4-2 players who lose their round.
Note that tiebreakers can matter here as well. You might additionally pass some of the players at 5-1 who lose their match and have poor tiebreakers. (Or if you lose, you might get passed by the 3-3 players who win their match and have strong tiebreakers.)
Cutting the number in half is useful when trying to figure out how many players will finish with a certain record, or what record you’ll need to finish in a certain prize bracket.
Counting By Table Numbers
Another technique that I find helpful is to think of things in terms of table numbers. This is made possible by the power pairings system of the final round.
First, take a look at how many players can safely draw into the Top 8. If 1st-6th place are the only players with a record of 7-1, and everyone else is 6-2 or worse, then it’s relatively simple. The top 6 players will be paired against one another at tables 1, 2, and 3, and they will draw. This means that six spots in the Top 8 are taken, and the remaining two spots will probably go to the winners at tables 4 and 5. (If you’re a 6-2 player at table 6, you still have some hope! Remember that tiebreakers can be unpredictable, and there’s always the possibility of a change in your favor.) But if you’re at table 7 or 8, then your prospects of making the Top 8 are poor, and you might begin to consider drawing into Top 16.
But what happens if there are only five players at 7-1? Tables 1 and 2 will still draw, but the unlucky player in 5th place will get paired down against a 6-2 player that won’t want to draw with her. That means that you can expect table 3 to play it out, and now it’s possible that the winner of table 6 can get into the Top 8 also!
By way of example, let’s look at the standings of GP Oklahoma City going into the final round of Swiss.
When considering the Top 8, the players in 1st-11th (35 match points of more) are the major players. Before explaining my thoughts, I’ll pose this question: If you were in Brian Heine’s position (6th place), would you intentionally draw your final round, or would you play it out?
If you count by table numbers, then one possibility is that tables 1 and 2 to intentionally draw into Top 8, and then the winners at tables 3, 4, 5, and 6 also make it.
This particular situation is complicated by the player in 12th place—Joshua Hoffeld—who only has 33 match points. If things play out as expected and he wins his match at table 6, then he gets to 36 match points, his opponent gets nothing, and only seven players will finish the tournament with 37 or more points. Someone at 36 points will make Top 8—it might be Joshua, but it might also be a higher ranked player who loses his match, or a lower ranked player who wins his match and jumps ahead on tiebreakers.
Thinking about this possibility, it is an option for table 3—Nathan Smith and Brian Heine—to consider drawing. It would be more risky for Brian than for Nathan because his tiebreakers are lower, but he would make Top 8 if Joshua Hoffeld won his match, or if he got lucky and his tiebreakers improved.
Personally, if I were in Brian Heine’s position, I would offer to draw if (but only if) I had a severely unfavorable matchup against Nathan Smith’s deck. Otherwise, I would play it out and hope for the best.
The way it turned out is that table 1 and table 2 drew, Nathan Smith and Brian Heine decided to play it out at table 3, and Joshua Hoffeld lost his match. Exactly eight players finished with 37 or more match points, and that was the Top 8. Brian lost his match and didn’t make the Top 8, but he probably would have finished in 9th with a draw, so at least he took his best shot. These were the standings after round 15.
Booster Draft Tournaments
Booster Draft tournaments are notoriously the most difficult events to evaluate the standings. The reason is because the Draft pods are created with three rounds to go, so pairings are effectively “locked in” at a point where there’s still a ton of uncertainty about how things will break. 1st place will not be paired against 2nd place in the last round unless they’re in the same draft pod. Things get really wild when players in a draft pod don’t all have the same record!
At one Limited Grand Prix last year, I declined a draw in the final round and lost the match, only to realize after the fact that I would have made Top 8 with a draw. At a different event, I took a draw in the final round even though there was a scenario where I could have ended up in 9th place. Mastering these situations can improve your tournament equity, while bungling them can ruin it.
Similar to counting by table number, I like to evaluate these situations by considering how many players are likely to make it from each Draft pod. Consider a Limited GP where, going into the final Draft, there are 40 players with a record of 10-2 or better. (We’ll consider these as the players that still have a chance of making Top 8.) That means that five Draft pods (pod 1 is players ranked 1-8, pod 2 is players ranked 9-16, etc.) can send a player to the Top 8 when all’s said and done.
If you’re in pod 4 or pod 5, you won’t be able to draw the final round into Top 8 because there aren’t enough places for all of these pods to send two players each. The most likely outcome is that pod 3, pod 4, and pod 5 each send one player to Top 8 (the one who goes 3-0 in the Draft), while pod 2 sends either one or two players and pod 1 sends either three or four players. The situation will be the trickiest for the players who find themselves at 12-2 in pod 2, as they’ll have to decide if their tiebreakers will be strong enough to make it at 12-2-1.
Let’s consider one of these challenging examples from GP New Jersey. Here are the standings after round 12, when the Draft pods are created.
Pod 1 has seven players with 33 match points, and one player with 31 match points. Pods 2, 3, and 4 are straightforward with all players at 30 match points. Pod 5 has three players—Alan Breitman, Kevin Place, and Kevin Thanaklit (let’s remember these names)—at 30 match points, and the rest have worse records. These are the players who can realistically make the Top 8.
My prediction from this point is that the “winner” (3-0 player) from pod 3 and pod 4 will make the Top 8. If Alan Breitman, Kevin Place, or Kevin Thanaklit from pod 5 goes 3-0, he will make it also. Pod 1 will probably send four players to the Top 8, and pod 2 will send either one or two players.
Here are the standings with one round to go.
Before I explain my own thoughts, I’ll pose this question: If you were in Seth Manfield’s position (5th place), would you intentionally draw your final round, or would you play it out?
The first pod to check on is pod 5, where Alan Breitman now has 36 points, but his rivals have fallen by the wayside. If he wins his last match, he will make the Top 8, but if he loses, then no one will make it from pod 5, and an extra slot will open up.
The next pod to check on is pod 1, where five players are still keeping hope alive. Daniel Weiser will make it win, lose, or draw. Mike Sigrist and Joshua Taylor are both looking for a draw, but have a good chance to make it even with a loss. Seth Manfield is in with a win, has a good chance to make it with a draw, but is out with a loss. Kale Thompson has a good chance to make it with a win, but is out with a draw or a loss. It is within the realm of possibility for all five of these players to make it, but only if Alan Breitman fails to win his match in pod 5. In pod 2, Valentin Mackl and Patrick Tilsen have the unenviable position (or perhaps having this good a record is enviable anyway) of deciding whether to play or draw.
Considering the possibilities in pod 1 is tricky for two reasons. First, we don’t know which players have already been paired. Given unlimited time, we could dig back into previous rounds’ pairings to see, but you don’t always have unlimited time when deciding whether to play or draw your final round. We can surmise that Mike Sigrist and Joshua Taylor won a match each, and then drew with one another. Daniel Weiser can’t have played against either one of them, because he won both of his matches outright.
So we can expect that Daniel Weiser will be paired against Mike Sigrist, and that both of them will make Top 8 regardless of the outcome. Joshua Taylor and Seth Manfield will be paired so long as they haven’t already played each other in this draft pod. That would leave Kale Thompson paired down and hoping to win.
Under this case, if Kale Thompson and Alan Breitman both lose, then both uncertain matches—Josh Taylor vs. Seth Manfield and Valentin Mackl vs. Patrick Tilsen—can draw, and they will all make Top 8. Unfortunately, these players won’t know the outcome of the other matches until after they make their decision.
Patrick Tilsen has the worst tiebreakers of the players in question. From his perspective, if two of the following three things happen, he will miss Top 8 with a draw: (1) Kale Thompson wins, (2) Alan Breitman wins, or (3) Seth Manfield gets either a win or a draw. Counting on Seth Manfield to outright lose his match would be a bad bet for a host of reasons, so the draw looks bad for Patrick Tilsen. He should play and try to win.
From Seth Manfield’s perspective, he can miss with a draw if: Kale Thompson wins, Alan Breitman wins, Mackl and Tilsen decide to play it out, and Seth’s tiebreakers don’t improve. That sounds like a good situation to be in, but he still has the toughest decision here. His chances of making it with a draw are greater than 50/50, but some players prefer to control their own destiny rather than risk drawing into 9th place.
Personally, if I were in Seth’s position, I would offer a draw unless my Draft deck was abnormally strong. Another thing that sometimes happens is that the players will play the first game of a match, and then reconsider the option of drawing.
What actually happened: Daniel Weiser and Mike Sigrist drew and both made it. Gerard Fabiano and Nicholas Mohammed won pod 3 and pod 4 and made it (they didn’t really need to consider drawing). Kale Thompson won his match and made it. Valentin Mackl and Patrick Tilsen decided to play it out and Mackl won—he made it. Joshua Taylor and Seth Manfield decided to intentionally draw and both made it.
Looking at the Standings With Two Rounds to Go
Often, the first time the standings are posted will be right before the second-to-last round. If you have a great record, you might consider offering a draw in this penultimate round.
Imagine you have a record of 12-1 with two rounds to go. You can see that a final record of 12-1-2 will make the Top 8, but you’re not sure about 12-2-1. It makes sense to try and draw the last two rounds, right? Well, not necessarily.
A huge risk of taking a draw with two rounds to go is that you’ll be paired against someone in the last round who doesn’t want to draw with you. Under these circumstances, you have given yourself one win-and-in chance for Top 8 when you could’ve had two win-and-in chances for Top 8.
For this reason and others, evaluating the standings with two rounds to go is very tricky. Make sure to be circumspect, consider all of the possible outcomes, and pay attention to how the behavior of other players might affect things.
Don’t be afraid to look at the standings and try to figure out what’s going on. There can be some confusion and uncertainty, but usually the answers are there if you take the time to figure it out. Knowing the right time to offer a draw is an important skill, just the same as knowing how many lands to play in your deck, or which cards to sideboard in a certain matchup. Cultivate this skill, and it will payoff in the long run.