The Top 5 Most Common Penalties in Magic: the Gathering, and How to Avoid Them
“Judges must beware of hard constructions and strained inferences, for there is no worse torture than that of laws.” – Francis Bacon
Not long after I started playing Magic: the Gathering, there was pressure from more established players at my local store to play in tournaments. To begin with, this was because it would provide them with another warm body to fill their draft pod, then to get more people in the car to go to the prerelease (back then prereleases were pretty big events. My home town is the 4th largest city in the country and it didn’t get one in the late 90s), then to more competitive events such as PTQs.
For those who know me it will likely be a surprise that I was initially very reluctant to go to any tournaments because I thought they’d be full of people who’d try to take advantage of me, be rude to me, try to rip me off in trades and so on. While this was an issue to some extent, with some opponents (and likely more so back in the Wild West of the late 1990s and early 2000s…) it was rarely the players that represented a barrier of this nature to me, but the judges. Back then the rules were pretty harsh – so many things that are now a Warning were a Game Loss back then – and the criteria for being a judge was significantly more rooted in understanding the rules than it was other aspects of running tournaments and …well, fundamentally dealing with people. For me the biggest problem was deck registration errors, for which I have around 20 Game Losses, while I tended to be more on top of the in game stuff.
You’re considerably less likely to get a Game Loss now (as many things which were once game losses are now warnings) but this can still be a fairly daunting aspect for many players looking to make head way into the tournament scene beyond their local environment – it just doesn’t feel good to be sanctioned, even if that sanction is a fairly inconsequential Warning!
Before writing this article I asked veteran level three Irish judge Oli Bird what he thought the five most common Game Losses related to, so that I might offer some insight into how they might be avoided. So without further ado, here are the five most common penalties in Magic, and how to avoid them!
1. Deck Registration Error
As you might have guessed from the name, this is where you make a mistake with your deck list. It also applies to mistakes made registering sealed pools, which were responsible for a large number of my early Game Losses. For sealed pools, I find it very useful to sort the cards into colours, then alphabetise them, then register which cards are in the pool. The order of this is important because each of these makes the next part easier, which saves you time. I’m dyslexic and I used to be one of the people who needed a judge’s help as time was running out, but doing this stuff in the right order made a big difference.
After you’ve done this, count the number of cards registered in each colour and write it down on the sheet below all the boxes, then count the number of physical cards in your possession in each colour. Once you’ve done this for each colour and you’ve got the correct number of cards, everything is done, but if it turns out there is a card missing, you can check the discrepancy more easily.
Call a judge if you mess up with the little boxes, too. Normally the solution is very obvious – it’s going to involve scoring out what you messed up – but the point of calling a judge here is to get their initial on the sheet because this means they said to do it. This removes your responsibility from the matter should there be some issue down the line with the player who gets the pool you registered.
For constructed always write out your deck the night before. This way you have a good clear area to lay it out and make sure it’s actually correct on the sheet. Sort the cards out in casting cost order, then move them from one pile to another as you write it out. After you’ve done that double check the sheet by going back through the cards from the bottom up.
Once you’ve done that make sure the names you’ve written down are the names on the actual card. It’s really easy to mispronounce a card, or keep mistakenly calling it a card from a previous set with a similar name, but this sort of thing is a big problem for registering pools. I recently registered Damping Matrix when I meant Damping Field, as a case in point.
2. Deck Error
This is where you play the wrong deck for the event and people have a go at you about it. This is when there is a discrepancy between the deck you present to your opponent and the deck you registered. Commonly, this will be due to a missing or additional card due to your previous opponent’s Oblivion Ring effect, where people typically put your card face down under theirs, often resulting in it being in your deck. It can also happen because you failed to de-sideboard after the previous round. The Oblivion Ring mistake is trickier as it’s mostly just a matter of remembering, but the de-sideboarding issue is most easily fixed by always taking the time to fix your deck back to the right configuration immediately after your match, rather than waiting until the beginning of the next match. This can at times be difficult if you’re the last table to finish. In these situations don’t let anything distract you until you’ve had a chance to fix your deck – sign the slip so the judge can get on with things, then fix your deck as quickly as possible.
One thing that will help with this is having a second copy of your deck list so that if you’re unsure you can simply fix it so that you have the right cards in your sideboard, because this will mean you also have the right cards in your main deck, unless you’ve lost cards. It can be confusing when you’re playing a deck with multiple copies of cards both in the main and the sideboard, and this will commonly come up with control decks.
Some deck boxes are really not very good. I’ve got one of the white ones from GPs which were discontinued 12 years ago. It’s got a crack in the bottom, it’s worn, and the clasp isn’t what it used to be, but one thing it doesn’t do is clip cards so that I end up presenting a 59 card deck. Honestly, get a nice deck box – they’re not that expensive and the hidden quality of life benefits on them are so high.
3. Tardiness (Not Being at Your Table When the Round Starts)
This is where you don’t turn up on time for your round. The main reason that this happens is that a player ends up a little too far from their event. Some reasons include smoking, going for food, or going to the toilet. For smokers, it will help to go for a smoke in the same place the other smokers do, because you will see them going back, and not lose track of time. For food the best thing to do is bring some food with you so that you’re never in a situation where you are sufficiently hungry that you feel it’s worth taking the risk on being late in order to get food. If you need the toilet, no one is going to stop you, realistically. If you ask a judge towards the end of a round and they tell you there is enough time, you’re very unlikely to get a Game Loss if you appeal to the head judge. If they say there isn’t enough time, then wait until the round starts and call a judge, asking if you can go to the toilet and get a time extension. If they give you any trouble over this, tell them you asked another judge beforehand and they said there wasn’t enough time. *Don’t* just go the toilet and hope for the best, because you might actually get a Game Loss in that situation while practically all other options will result in you going to the toilet and not getting a Game Loss.
If you’re just wandering about with your head in the clouds and end up late often, though, I can’t really help you.
4. Game Rule Violation Upgrade
This is – as I understand it – generally messing up over and over until you get enough Warnings to get a Game Loss. While on one hand the Warnings ought to be a clear indicator that you’re being pretty slack and you ought to pay more attention, for many this will only exacerbate the nervousness which is causing them to make these mistakes in the first place. Naturally, this is even more true for newer players. The big thing to remember is that while the rules enforcement level has changed, and the judges and players likely have too, bigger events still have the same *game rules*. There is nothing to be scared of – you’re still playing Magic: the Gathering. Just slow down, and play the game you already know how to play. Moving and thinking more slowly will likely result in you becoming calmer, but it will also just give you a chance to notice if you’re about to mess something up.
Communicate clearly with your opponent, and with judges. Ask questions if you need more information about something – it’s very easy to get shy and embarrassed. At my first Pro Tour I asked Jerome Remmie “how many cards do you have in your hand, sorry?” to which he replied “four, but you don’t need to apologise for asking.” I was extremely nervous and must have been apologizing for everything under the sun. From the kitchen table to the Sunday stage at the Pro Tour, the rules of Magic: the Gathering remain largely unchanged.
5. Missed Triggers
One of my first articles for this site was a primer on how triggers worked after a major reworking at the time. Responsibility, accountability and corresponding penalties relating to triggers have changed a fair bit, and it’s worth reading up on that from an up to date source, but what ultimately matters most is that you notice when they happen, both for your cards and theirs. If you’re on three life and you miss the trigger on your Phyrexian Arena, then you’re likely to get a Warning (or possibly more, depending on how the judge sees the situation). But penalties aside most cards which have beneficial triggers are good because of those triggers (e.g. you’re playing them because they have them) and so it’s very important that you actually get full use out of them.
Some of these issues are down to the individual. For me, having my cards clearly laid out is very helpful because I tend to scan left to right with my eyes as things happen over the course of the game and “check” developments in the game against the cards both my opponent and I have in play. Having them all piled up and in total chaos would be rough for me – I’d definitely miss more triggers. Others might benefit from putting all their cards with triggers in one place, though, so that when something happens that might trigger one of their cards they can just check those. Having a system of sorts will likely help, regardless of how you design it.
Loads of triggers happen between the untap step and the draw step, typically. For this reason many players will put a die on their library so that they don’t just draw a card and forget a card that triggers in their upkeep. The problem with this for me is that if you forget to put the die back, you might then forget your trigger, so it’s unclear how effective this is. I was always taught to repeat “untap, upkeep, draw” in my head when my turn started, and that made a massive difference for me early on. Now it’s so ingrained that it might be that I’d miss every trigger without it.
Hopefully this article was helpful for anyone with concerns about attending events. For the most part tournaments are the same as Magic elsewhere, only you need to pay attention more to what’s going on. When you’re practicing at home, try and keep this stuff in mind and replicate the tournament environment as much as possible. Most new players play too quickly at big events, too (only to later become glacially slow, but that’s for another day), so try and slow down… a little.
That’s it for this week, I’ve not being writing loads recently but I’ve got a few things I’ve been thinking about which I’d like to get in before the New Year. Thanks for reading, and all the best.