How to Win a PTQ – What Works for Me by Matteo Orsini Jones

How to Win a PTQ – What Works for Me by Matteo Orsini Jones

It’s been a while since I did this.

Before heading off to Manchester for the PTQ/WMCQ weekender last week, I asked Tu if I could borrow some Standard cards from Manaleak. Those cards were actually for my brother Marco, who ended up not playing due to real-life commitments,  but that’s not the point here — in exchange for the lends I promised Tu a tournament report.

Thing is, tournament reports are boring. I was handed the deck on the morning of the tournament, so I’m hardly qualified to give a metagame and matchup analysis. I didn’t take detailed notes of any of my games, so any match write-ups will be cloudy at best. And, even at the best of times, a tournament report is just a well-written diary with casual namedrops and a family-friendly take-home message.

I’ll cut to the chase — I won the ~280 player PTQ on Saturday. I also came 4th in the ~240 player WMCQ on Sunday, picking up my first loss of the weekend in the semifinals (having gone 7-0 ID ID in the Swiss portion of each event). I realise variance is a thing, and on a rerun I might have gone 0-2 drop in both events, but I’ll be honest — it was too easy.

I live in the Lake District, so I pretty much only play online drafts nowadays. I can’t even remember the last time I played a game of Standard or Modern. I picked up both decks on the morning of the tournament and sleeved them during the player meeting. I didn’t even know my decklist for the PTQ until I was handed the physical cards.

bigfishsmallpondGuys, you really need to pick up your game.

Honestly, I’m not trying to brag. Ok, maybe I’m trying to brag a little, but mostly I’m trying to help you. If you think you’re at the level to be winning PTQs already, but variance has yet to swing your way, then this article is not for you. If you’re still looking for the right formula to make it onto the tour, and would like the advice of somebody who’s already won 7 PTQs, then read on. I’m your man.

Having said that, I’m not going to talk strategy or decklists. I’m not going to teach you how to read your opponent or get better at deciding whether or not you’re the beatdown. That’s all on you to figure out. Play loads, read articles, watch people better than you and ask them useful questions. Assuming you have the baseline required talent, you’ll get there.

I’m going to talk about the little things. The things you might not have considered. The things that you might not realise have an effect on your game. They might not work for everyone, but they work for me. They also, from an observational point of view, don’t work for others who don’t do them. If you get what I mean.

Assume You’re Going to Win


This one’s been done to death, but it still holds as true as ever. If you go in with a losing attitude, you’ll probably lose. So often I hear my opponents say things like “well, I’m happy to be here — it’s my first top 8 and that’s good enough at this point.” And guess what happens after they say that? I beat them.

It’s not necessarily that you play better when you’re planning to win, or that your arrogant mindset puts opponents off, but it definitely affects some decisions you make. If you’re just happy to be there, you’ll probably keep a sketchy hand because, hey, what’s the worst that could happen? If you’re there to win every single game, you’re more likely to work out whether that particular hand can win you this particular game. You’re more likely to think about whether or not your opponent has an answer to your combo, rather than thinking “well, I’ve got this far, so here goes”.

Which brings me to my next point.

God Owes You Nothing

I’m neither religious nor supestitious, so I’m using God as a metaphor here, but your mileage may vary. The Universe, Karma, Law of Averages — call it what you will. It doesn’t have your back. You’re an insignificant speck in a vast network of other insignificant specks, and Heliod has better things to do with his time than fix up your next 3 draw steps.

Heliod wallpaper

He couldn’t care less that you mulliganed to 5 in your last 3 games.

The past is irrelevant, and has no bearing whatsoever on the randomised cards in your deck. Treat every decision, every analysis, every thought process, like it’s your first game of the day. And, don’t forget, this holds just as true for situations in which you feel you’ve probably had enough luck already.

Don’t keep a sketchy hand just because you won game 1 and your opponent’s already mulliganed. Don’t kill your opponent’s turn 1 mana elf because it worked so well in the last game and they got mana screwed. Think about what you’re likely to lose to, whether the extra mana a turn early will impact your plan, and whether your removal spell could be better used on a real threat later on. By all means kill their elf, but do it on your own terms. Not those of lady luck.

Have a Routine

things to doAt tournaments, I have a routine. Between each round, I eat one ‘thing’ (never things from different packets), and drink a decent amount of water. The things are all roughly the same size (e.g. an apple, 4 sushi rolls, half a sandwich), and I have no meals. At the start of each round I shuffle the same way. I prepare my scoring sheet in the same way and place it in the same place. I shuffle and cut my opponent’s deck in the same way. I say “good luck” at the same point and I draw my cards in the same order.

The thing is, as established above, I’m not superstitious. So why do I do these things in exactly the same way each time? Because it helps you isolate exactly what went wrong, and removes any potential scapegoats you might want to create. If you did everything outside the game exactly the same each time, you know that your loss came down to something inside the game.

You can’t blame it on feeling full and groggy from that Big Mac meal. You can’t blame it on being dehydrated. You can’t blame it on being distracted by having your pad of paper and deck on different sides. It might have been bad draws, it might have been a bad matchup, but it was sure as hell something to do with the match you played.

Find what works for you, and stick with it. It might even be that it does have a positive impact on your game — there’s really nothing to lose.

Don’t Let Preparation Cloud Your Judgment

In any match of Magic, you should be incredibly adaptable. You should be constantly thinking about how the game is panning out, and how this affects your decisions. A common mistake I see is people making terrible judgment calls because they think they’ve seen the situation before, or because they’ve read it described in an article.

The most common source of this, I believe, is sideboarding decisions. Opponents often recognise my name at UK events, and so show me how they sideboarded and ask what I think of it. [quick point  – chances of me having tested for the event, or having good knowledge of the format, are close to zero.] Although I try and usually be at least a little constructive, it’s often clear their decisions have just come from the approved convention for sideboarding in the matchup.

This past weekend, I was playing TarmoTwin — a deck that is incredibly versatile pre- and post-board, and so this particular problem was highly noticeable. Many of my opponents showed me grips full of combo disruption at the conclusion of the game, while I packed my Tarmogoyfs back into my deck box and signed a win on the match slip.

tarmogoyf wallpaper

Think about what your opponent might do. Think about what you want to achieve from the game. Even if Gerry Thompson told you to sideboard in a particular way, think about how comfortable you are with the new, post-board deck. Think about what your game plan will be — should you focus on completing your own combo? Or maybe killing all of their important creatures? Or maybe just bringing their life total to zero as quickly as possible?

Chances are, if you asked 5 other pro players they would give you different sideboarding plans to the one Gerry wrote about. By all means, use it as a guide, but don’t just write it down and make the exact advised switches between each game. Be prepared to switch up your deck again after the second game, based on what you just saw (something that I do pretty much every round, but that very few of my opponents do at this level of event).

In other words, think on your feet. Take active decisions, not passive actions.

Don’t Use a Playmat

Bear with me for a second while I get up on my soap box.

Playmats are the worst thing to happen to Magic since, well, the last really bad thing. They used to be a fairly niche thing; a way of letting your kitchen table opponent know that your favourite animé character is Lady Orinoco of Hamazuma. People used them, and I didn’t have to deal with those people for the most part.

But now they’re everywhere. When did this happen? Was it because they’re being given out as top 8 rewards, or was the reward a response to increasing popularity for them? When is the new trend going to stop?

They’re incredibly rude. When the two people either side of me are using playmats, my available playing space is reduced by approximately 50%.  And this isn’t an exaggeration.

men_taking_up_too_much_space_on_the_train_tagroom_2At your FNM, on your kitchen table, fair enough. Space may be ample, and your playmat-using friends can hardly complain. But at 200+ player PTQs in rooms designed for far fewer people, they’re the table-top equivalent of placing your bag on the only free seat on the train, and doing your best to discourage anyone else from sitting next to you. You don’t deserve more table space than me just because you top 8’d the last PTQ and have a playmat to prove it.

I was genuinely shocked on multiple occasions this weekend by the people around me shifting the table number towards me, with me right there, to make room for their playmat. As though I need/deserve less table space than them just because I’ve chosen not to display my PTQ top 8 prowess in rubberised form. I’d like to say it was just the rude few, but it really wasn’t — every person with a playmat seemed to be running on the assumption that they deserved a minimum table width equal to the width of the playmat, regardless of actual table availability

And the reasons people give for using them? They protect the cards. The tables are dirty. They feel nicer to play on.

Oh get over yourself.

Card sleeves protect your cards, stop them getting dirty, make the deck easier to shuffle and play with, and display absolutely no obnoxious properties. You shouldn’t care about your sleeves getting dirty, because you should replace them at the end of every competitive tournament. And you shouldn’t care about your elbows leaning against a mucky table, because you’re not a princess.

And, besides, surely you don’t want your gameday champion playmat getting mucky?

Seriously, if “keeping my cards clean” or “showing off my lovely new playmat” are amongst your PTQ priorities, then you’re not going to win the PTQ. This is genuine advice. Please take it.

And Relax

Most importantly, relax. Don’t stress. It’s unlikely you’ll win the first tournament of the season. It’s unlikely you’ll win any tournaments in the season. I’d say the best player in the room only has about 1 in 20 chance of winning any particular PTQ, 1 in 10 at most. Sometimes you get there first go, and sometimes you don’t get there at all. Relax, don’t let it get you down, and turn up to the next one with the same winning mentality. It’s a grind, but it’s worth it if you’re willing to put in the time.

Thanks for reading,

Matteo Orsini Jones

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