When I write Magic strategy, the first question that I ask myself is: What do I wish I had been taught back when I was new to the game?

Once in a while, the answer that comes up doesn’t have to do with Magic strategy at all. Sometimes it has more to do with the lifestyle of a tournament player, how to make the most of a tournament, or what to do outside of the game in order to increase your chances of doing well.

Along those lines, I’d like to offer some advice on a topic that many players find intimidating. I can remember being new to the tournament scene and puzzling over the standings to figure out what place I would finish with a win, a loss, or a draw. I didn’t know what tiebreakers were, I didn’t know how many people I would pass, or how many people would pass me. I felt like Neo from The Matrix being told that that mysterious screen of green numbers was supposed to represent the world as I knew it!

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. Today, I’ll teach you how to stop seeing a jumble of confusing numbers and start seeing the Lady in the Red Dress.

This installment covers the basics of tournament structure. If you’re already a seasoned veteran, I’ve got Part II coming up soon.

Tournament Structure

There are many ways to structure a Magic tournament, and your local store might have their own way of doing things. But the most common structure for a big tournament is called Swiss. In a Swiss-style tournament, all players play out a set number of rounds—that is, all players who would like to. Players can drop at any time if they’re doing poorly or not having fun. The key is simply that you aren’t eliminated by having a bad record.

Sometimes, it’s a simple as that—you play some rounds and then earn prizes based on your final standings. Other times there’s a cut, such as a cut to a Top 8 playoff, or a cut to Day 2, like in a Grand Prix.

Players earn 3 match points for a win, 1 match point for a draw, and 0 match points for a loss. You can get an unintentional draw by running out of time in the round, or you can get an intentional draw if both players agree to it. For a number of reasons, it’s in everyone’s best interest to finish matches in time. You earn more points by winning one round and losing one round than you do by drawing twice. Intentional draws usually only come up in the final rounds of a tournament.

Your standing in the tournament is determined first by your number of match points, and then by tiebreakers, which I’ll explain a little later. The important thing is that if you have 7 match points, you cannot, for any reason, be ranked lower than a player with 6 match points.

For most normal events, the number of Swiss rounds is based on the number of players in the event. Here’s how it’s usually done:

  • 5-8 Players = 3 Rounds
  • 9-16 Players = 4 Rounds
  • 17-32 Players = 5 Rounds
  • 33- 64 Players = 6 Rounds
  • 65-128 Players = 7 Rounds
  • 129-212 Players = 8 Rounds
  • 213- 385 Players = 9 Rounds

It’s not necessary to remember this, but one way to easily do so is by powers of two. (Eight is two to the third power, sixteen is two to the fourth power, etc.). This is the number of rounds it would take to have at most one undefeated player remaining. Although you’ll note that we break from this system when the number of players becomes very large.

This is the way that PPTQs, Magic Online Premier Events, and many other events are run.

Grand Prix

Grand Prix tournaments use the Swiss style, but with a few twists. For one thing, it’s possible to earn byes by winning a Grand Prix Trial the day before, or via a handful of other achievements. Byes count as automatic wins in the first few rounds of the tournament.

On Saturday, everyone plays eight rounds (if you have one bye, you would automatically win the first round, then play seven more), and only players with 18 or more match points (that’s a record of six wins and two losses) advance to Day 2. Records do not reset, so there’s a world of difference between being 8-0 and being 6-2. All advancing players play seven more rounds on Sunday, for a grand total of fifteen rounds. Finally, the Top 8 players advance to a single-elimination playoff while everyone else earns prizes based on their Swiss standings. The structure is the same regardless of the number of players.

What to Expect

If a non-GP tournament has a cut to Top 8, it’s usually structured in such a way that all players with only one loss (we call this an “X-1 Record”) will make the Top 8. With one loss and one draw (X-1-1), you might also have a good chance to make the Top 8. Knowing whether or not you’ll make it with a draw in the final round can be very important, and is a big reason for this article!

Like all Magic tournaments, Grand Prix can vary hugely in size, but for a typical GP in the United States, you can expect about 1,500 players. About one-sixth of them will make Day 2, and the Top 64 will earn prizes. You’ll need a record of about 13-2 to make the Top 8, and a record of 11-4 sometimes will and sometimes won’t earn prize money.

Normal Pairings

You cannot be paired against the same player twice in the Swiss rounds. You are paired randomly against others players with the same number of match points, so long as the “same-opponent-twice” restriction is not broken. If there are an odd number of players with a given record, then someone will be picked randomly to be paired up or paired down. In other words, if your record is 2-1 (two wins, one loss), then you will typically be paired against another 2-1 player. Though it’s not common, it’s also possible to be paired up against a 2-0-1 or 3-0 player, or paired down against a 1-1-1 or 1-2 player.

If there’s a cut to a single-elimination playoff (Top 8), you can then be paired against the same opponent for a second time.

Power Pairings

The final round of a tournament is special, and often uses power pairings, which means that players next to one another in the standings get paired. This is, in part, to help make sure that the stakes are the same for both players.

For example, imagine that the players in 3rd and 4th place only need an intentional draw in the final round in order to make the Top 8, but the players in 9th and 10th place need a win in order to make the Top 8. Under normal (randomized) pairings, 3rd place might be paired against 9th place, and the players’ goals and incentives would be different. Under power pairings, 3rd and 4th place will be paired (and probably decide to draw) and 9th and 10th place will be paired (and play it out to see who makes the Top 8).

Note that the last round of a tournament is usually paired this way, but not always. It never hurts to double-check.

Unusual Cases

Pairings can wind up looking strange when two of these requirements contradict each other. For example, power pairings would have the 1st place and 2nd place players paired against one another in the final round. But in some cases, they will have already played each other in a previous round, and therefore cannot be paired for a second time.

In this case, the 1st place player will “look for an opponent” as close as possible in the standings. The 2nd place player is not a valid opponent, so instead they will be paired against the 3rd place player (if possible). Next, the 2nd place player will “look for an opponent.” The 1st place and 3rd place players already have opponents, and maybe the 2nd place and 4th place players have already been paired in a previous round. Now the 2nd place player will be paired against the 5th place player.

In this way, pairings can become unpredictable when many players close to one another in the standings have already been paired. This comes up most often in tournaments that have a very large number of rounds or a relatively small number of players.

One important exception to the “same-opponent twice” rule comes from Booster Draft. In a Booster Draft tournament—say, Day 2 of a Limited GP—you will draft with the seven players closest to you in the standings. You can only be paired against players that you drafted with, and you can be paired against a player you’d previously faced in the tournament. (But still only once within the Draft pod.) Playing within your Draft pod also supersedes power pairings, so the 1st and 2nd place players in the last round of a Booster Draft tournament will only be paired if they’re in the same Draft pod.

Tiebreakers

Tiebreakers determine the rankings of players with the same number of match points. Remember that a player with 9 match points can never be ranked higher than a player with 10 match points for any reason. Tiebreakers, as the name suggests, only break ties.

The tiebreaker in a Swiss Magic tournament is opponent match win percentage. You might have heard the same thing referred to as strength of schedule in sports or other types of competition. In concept, it means that if you had stronger opponents, then you had to work harder for your wins. In practice, it means that if your opponents won a lot in this particular event, your tiebreakers will be better than if your opponents lost a lot.

Your opponent match win percentage (or OMW) is the average of the win percentage of all of your opponents. If your round 2 opponent finishes the tournament with a record of 3-3, then they contribute 50% toward your OMW. If your round 5 opponent dropped with a record of 2-3, then they contribute 40% toward your OMW. (Since they don’t play round 6, it doesn’t count as a loss). One special rule is that the floor for a particular opponent’s contribution is 33%, so if there’s an unfortunate soul who plays out every round and goes 0-6, they will still contribute 33% to your OMW.

The most important thing to know about OMW is that your tiebreakers will generally be higher if you win the early rounds than if you lose the early rounds. Tiebreakers are complicated and unpredictable, so this is a general trend and not an ironclad rule. But I would generally expect a player who started out 4-0 and then lost rounds 5 and 6 to have higher tiebreakers than a player who started out 0-2 and then won rounds 3 through 6.

In the extremely unlikely case that two players are tied in both match points and OMW, the second and third tiebreakers are game win percentage and opponent game win percentage. In my experience, the second and third tiebreakers never come up except in tournaments with a very small number or rounds or a very small number of players. I recommend ignoring these completely.

Byes and Tiebreakers

Recall that earning a bye means being given an automatic match win without having to play. You can earn byes for Grand Prix tournaments. You also might be given a bye if there are an odd number of players. (After round 1, byes are usually given to players at the bottom of the standings.)

When you get a bye, no number is contributed to your OMW for that round. Nonetheless, getting a bye in an early round usually winds up being better for your tiebreakers than if you had beaten a real opponent. Instead of factoring in a player who starts 0-1 into your OMW, you instead get to skip that part and start the equation with your next opponent (who will have also won round 1).

When your opponent gets a bye, it does contribute to your OMW. Let’s say one of your opponents in your next Grand Prix is the #1 ranked player in the world—Seth Manfield. (Bad luck for you, I know.) Seth will have started the tournament with three byes, but if his final record is 12-3, he will contribute 80% to your OMW—those byes are counted the same as any other wins.

Now you know the basics of tournament structure, and you understand why players move up and down in the standings. In Part II, you’ll learn tricks for reading the standings, predicting outcomes, and maximizing your chances of getting the finish you want.