A Guide to Your First Magic: The Gathering PPTQ (Preliminary Pro Tour Qualifiers), by Dave Shedden

19th at GP Manchester 2014 by Chris Vincent
Image by Anna Przywecka

5 Point Plan: A Guide to Your First Magic: The Gathering PPTQ (Preliminary Pro Tour Qualifiers)

Well, Planeswalking Padawans, we asked for suggestions on which topics should be covered in upcoming 5 Point Plans – and you did not disappoint. With plenty of material now lined up for future weeks, I’m going to start on a subject that was particularly popular: entering the PPTQ circuit.

I’ve already mentioned Preliminary Pro Tour Qualifiers, or PPTQs, in a previous article; they are the gateway to Magic: The Gathering‘s greatest stage, the Pro Tour. As such, they are fiercely contested – but if you have an interest in competitive Magic, they are an environment in which you will inevitably spend some time.

By the end of this article, you’ll know enough to let you attend a PPTQ with clear, realistic goals and without making any daft blunders. After that, it’s all about how you play on the day – which is the fun part, right?


A word about fierce, honourable competition

Before we get started, I think it’s really important to clear up an aspect of PPTQ play: competition and rules enforcement.

If you’ve played a lot with friends before your PPTQ experience, you may be accustomed to a certain flexibility: for instance, if you make a poor play and realise after announcing it, your mates might let you take it back and continue the game.

This won’t be the case at a PPTQ – and you shouldn’t expect it to be.

Competitors at a PPTQ are playing for a shot at the highest achievement in Magic: The Gathering. The rules don’t require them to let you reverse your mistakes – and it’s unfair of you to ask it of them. They turn up to play their ‘A’ game, taking responsibility for the best and the worst of their play and expecting you to do likewise.

If you make an error, like missing a trigger or declaring a sub-optimal target for a removal spell, accept responsibility honourably and own your mistake. Your opponents will respect that approach and it will help to make you a better player.

Accept the challenge of playing to the highest level – and I guarantee that over time, you’ll grow to become a much more accomplished player as a result.

With that out of the way, let’s get onto the plan.


1. Know what you want to get out of the event

To a long-term competitor on the PPTQ circuit, this point is probably moot; what they want is to win the tournament.

For a new player, things aren’t so clear cut. If you’ve never been to a PPTQ before, it’s entirely reasonable to prioritise other things over winning the tournament: experience of the competitive environment, or networking with other local players are fine as primary goals.

As an indicator, in my first PPTQ, I had two goals:

  1. Get a feel for the tournament scene
  2. Put as many players of the hated Affinity deck out of contention as possible

I hate affinityI’m happy to report that I left with a very good understanding of how a PPTQ worked; and I also made the only Affinity player I was paired against wish he had stayed in bed. Mission accomplished.

It’s also cool if you want to win, of course! All that’s important is that you set realistic goals for the event, which will satisfy you when you achieve them.


2. Practice… then practice, practice and practice some more!

My apologies if this seems obvious, but the more you practice, the better your chances of success.

Practice the format

For a Limited format, this means playing in as many drafts or sealed-deck events as possible before the PPTQ, while talking to players you respect about their experiences of the format and its various strategies or decision-points.

For a Constructed format, this means playing with and against the important decks in the format, in order to get the broadest possible understanding of how everything works; then deciding which deck you want to take to the event and playing as much as possible with it.

In the past, I have picked up many decks the night before a tournament and decided to have a bash; while I’ve had a few notable successes, they are grossly outweighed by the number of times I have crashed and burned.

By contrast, in the few tournaments for which I have put in real, organised practice, I’ve had an exceptional success rate. It does not take an enigma machine to decode this particular mystery.

Learn from my mistakes and my bad attitude: don’t show up and expect to do well. Put in the hours and reap the rewards.

Practice playing precisely

Precision is very important in Magic Tournaments. If you miss something, or make a play mistake, there are no take-backs.

This isn’t something you should be intimidated by: all you need to do is keep your focus and calmly execute your plays in the right order.

Here are some things you can do to help avoid daft mistakes:

Pause at the start of your turn and THINK

I’ve said this before, but it’s even more important now: think through your whole turn before you take a single action. Once you are sure about your plan for the turn – and the order in which you need to take your actions for that plan to work – you can start to press ahead.

The first time you ignore this advice and play the wrong land before you realise what you’re doing, or go to the attack step without playing your haste creature, you’ll be furious with yourself. Don’t be that person.

Don’t rush to announce your spells or pass the turn

Once you say that you’re casting Putrefy targeting your opponent’s Boros Reckoner, that’s it. You can’t change your mind and hit their Hellrider instead.

Once you say ‘Your go‘ to your opponent, that’s it. Your turn is over.

I’m not writing this to paralyze you with indecision – you need to cast your spells and pass your turns for the games to progress, so it’s something you’ll be doing a lot. I’m simply suggesting that you shouldn’t rush.

Once you’ve attacked, for instance, clear your head and think about whether you had planned  to play any spells in your second main phase, or whether something has happened in combat that should change your plan.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve absent-mindedly said ‘Go‘ because I was busy thinking about my opponent’s likely next moves… then realised as they untapped that I still had a creature in my hand I’d intended to play as a blocker. Again, don’t be that person.

Remember that you need to declare your triggers in order for them to happen

If you activate Jace, Architect of Thought‘s +1 ability, you’ll want to get the benefit of that attacker-shrinking effect during your opponent’s next turn.

However, a live PPTQ is not Magic Online. The triggers won’t jump onto the stack at the right time; you need to indicate clearly to your opponent that you are placing them on the stack, or they’ll never appear.

Again, don’t fret about this. All you need to do is remember that you’re due a trigger or two, then when your opponent attacks, say: “Jace triggers.” Point at your Jace, gesture at the attacking creatures – job done.

Triggers are crucial

This goes for any other triggered ability, such as the life you’ll gain if Thragtusk enters play under your control, or the +1/+1 counter which you’ll place on an Evolve creature when a larger monster joins your team.

It won’t be hard to remember these triggers – half the time, they’re the whole reason you play the cards. Just stay clear-headed and announce them, so there is no doubt about what is happening.


3. Prepare in advance anything that you reasonably can

PPTQs are busy affairs which are timed tightly. Each thing you can prepare ahead of time is one more thing you don’t have to worry about on the day.

Essential materials

There are several items which make a typical PPTQ experience run more smoothly:

Prepare in advance

  • Card sleeves – whether you’re playing Limited or Constructed, you will want to sleeve your cards. It will make them resistant to wear-and-tear, protecting your investment in the product, and easier to shuffle. Having them in advance – and for a Constructed PPTQ, sleeving them in advance – will make the mechanics of getting ready to compete significantly simpler. Make sure you have enough for your Deck and Sideboard, plus a few spares in case one of your sleeves splits during the course of the tournament. You can get a great selection of Magic: The Gathering card sleeves here.
  • Deck box – now that you’ve sleeved your cards, you’ll need a convenient and secure way to carry them around: enter the humble deck box. Using a deck box makes keeping track of your cards as simple as holding one object… and it all but eliminates the nightmare scenario of dropping them all on the floor of a crowded room as pairings are being called. You can get a great selection of Magic: The Gathering deck boxes here.
  • Dice and/or tokens – numerous situations in matches of Magic will require you to keep track of counters or tokens. Be ready for them with a neat little bag or box of dice. As someone who has scrabbled in his pockets for change more often than he would have liked, I can attest to the value of this preparation. You can get a great selection of dices and life counters here.
  • Notepad and pen – at a PPTQ, each player is expected to keep track of the life total movements in the game, in order to help ensure the game-state is maintained and provide judges as much information as possible in the event that they need to unpick some thorny problem. Your notepad will come be essential for this – and as a bonus, it’ll allow you to note down in-game information such as what cards my opponent had in her hand when I resolved a Duress. Don’t, however, use your notepad to take notes into a match – the rules say that your note sheet should be empty at the start of each round. You can get all your gaming accessories here.


This applies only if you’re playing a Constructed tournament, but it’s extremely important.

mtg Deck registration formThe rules require you to submit a list of every card – and the quantities of those cards – in your deck and sideboard, marked with your name and DCI number. This rule is designed to make sure that players can’t simply ‘sneak in’ whichever cards are best for the match they are playing at the time.

The judging staff will conduct a small sample of deck-checks throughout the day, taking decks after they have been presented to the players’ opponents at the start of the first game and comparing them against the lists which have been submitted.

If you are the subject of a check and your deck does not match the list you submitted, you’re likely to be awarded a game loss, which means your opponent will effectively start the match with one free win.

Don’t let this happen to you. Follow some simple steps to prevent disaster:

  • Decide on your list, including sideboard, the day before the tournament.
  • Write out or print a copy of that list.
  • Carefully lay out the deck on a table and count the copies of each and every card, ticking them off against your decklist.
  • If possible, have someone else check the deck in exactly the same way immediately afterwards.
  • Correct any errors you have found in the deck’s composition.
  • Pack up the deck and decklist, then go to your bed, confident in the knowledge that no-one will be getting any free wins from you tomorrow.

As a supplementary point, make sure you carefully de-sideboard your deck at the end of each round. Starting a match with sideboard cards in your main-deck is one of the most common ways to fail a deck check.

Food and Water

bottled waterOn PPTQ day, your body is a Magic-playing machine. If you let it run low on essentials, like water and blood-sugar, it will start to underperform; you’ll end up making silly mistakes; your tournament will end badly.

Make sure you take a bottle (or bottles) of water with you, plus some snacks (or better yet, sandwiches/pasta pot/other decent meal-on-the-go). Drink regularly, eat between rounds when you’re peckish and you’ll stay on top form.

A portable, secure bag

All of the above items combined are more than a person can reasonably expect to stuff in their pockets for a whole day. Take the smallest bag you can efficiently pack your supplies into, but which can be clipped or zipped shut – it’ll make your movements at the tournament much, much easier.

Most importantly, please don’t leave any of these possessions unattended. Magic cards are very valuable and, as much as I wish it wasn’t the case, theft is a genuine risk. No-one is safe from this kind of crime – I know that one of the most respected people in the Scottish Magic community was recently the subject of a deck theft, for instance – but if you take sensible precautions, you deny thieves the opportunity to target you. You can find great gaming bags here.


4. Lean on the Tournament Organiser and Judges

The Tournament Organiser (or TO) and Judges are out to make your day – and everyone’s day – as good an experience as they possibly can.

Let them!

Listen carefully to the announcements made by the TO and Head Judge. When pairings are posted, make your way over promptly and take note of your table number and the name of your opponent.

If there is some confusion about a rule, don’t speculate or agree a fudge with your opponent. Don’t let your opponent pressure you into accepting something you’re unsure of, either. Call a Judge – and don’t feel bad about doing it.

If your opponent is behaving in a way that makes you suspicious, you can call a Judge and ask to step away from the table to discuss a game situation with them; then, you can raise your concerns without causing a confrontation in the first instance.

The only way to play fairly is to stick 100% to the rules; if that means calling the person who knows them best, that’s what it means.

On the subject of the rules, you can find Magic’s Comprehensive rules here; you can also find the Tournament rules here.

Incidentally, we also run a really good Magic Rules Facebook Group where you can get answers and discussions to any questions you may have, pretty much instantly. If you have not done so already, please join the group – mtgUK Rules & Judges Questions


5. Learn

Sam Black, a noted pro player, writer and deck designer, recently said an interesting thing in one of his articles:

Sam Black quote

I think Sam’s philosophy is the most useful way for new players, in particular, to look at their tournament experiences.

If you’ve lost a match which contained interesting decisions to a player who seems relatively friendly, why not ask them what they thought were the important plays? What they might have done differently? You might just learn a new perspective on the match-up that will help you in later rounds.

If you meet a new player with whom you get on very well and whose play you respect, why not ask if they’re interested in testing at some point? They might have other plans, but equally you might start a friendship that accelerates your learning and helps you achieve your goals.

If you have an opportunity, think about and talk over with friends the critical situations which occurred in your matches. Be open minded about their observations and suggestions, rather than simply trying to defend your plays. You might end up believing that your lines of play were correct, but perhaps their insight will change your mind and leave you better prepared for the future.

The more you learn, about a principle, a format or a match-up, the more you’ll pack into your Magic toolbox. The bigger and better that toolbox, the more often you’ll win.


Go forth and enjoy the tournament life

In amongst all the testing, decklist-building and trigger-tracking, don’t forget why you’re doing it all. This is the most awesome game ever designed; it will offer you more opportunities to have fun and make memories than you can reasonably comprehend.

Just make sure you keep that truth at the forefront of your mind. Don’t get caught in a cycle of beating yourself up because you missed Top 8, or made a crucial mistake, etc. Negativity won’t help you improve your results: that way lies madness.

OK, I think you’re ready. Get out there and be your best selves. I’m rooting for you.

Thanks for reading, thanks for sharing.


A Guide to Your First Magic: The Gathering PPTQ (Preliminary Pro Tour Qualifiers), by Dave Shedden
By the end of this article, you’ll know enough to let you attend a PPTQ with clear, realistic goals and without making any daft blunders. After that, it’s all about how you play on the day – which is the fun part, right?

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