A Beginner’s Guide to Paper Magic Etiquette – Sportsmanship in Magic: the Gathering, by Theodore Southgate

Handshake-magic the gathering pro players win shake hands

Tips on How to Handle Your Wins, and Your Losses in Magic: the Gathering

There has been much debate recently surrounding the behaviour of a pair of players at SCG Cincinatti last weekend. In the finals of the event, with the eyes of the commentators, the coverage team, the spectators and the whole Twitch community on him, Sam Berkenbile refused to shake the hand of winner Ben Nikolich when he offered it. Ben, assuming Sam hadn’t seen his hand, offered again and Sam very deliberately rejected it. This has led to a community-wide condemnation of Sam’s actions, and a small contingent defending him, saying that Ben was the rude one for offering the shake as the winner, not once but twice when he should have left Sam alone.

Of course, there are a lot of different and very viable ways to look at this. Both Sam and Ben have been on Reddit since explaining their points of view. Ben says that he simply didn’t realise Sam was upset and was extending the hand to show respect for his opponent regardless of the game’s result, and that he genuinely hadn’t realised Sam didn’t want to shake the first time. Sam stands by the fact that there is a social stigma about the winner extending the hand under any circumstances, and he thought Ben was being rude by doing so, and especially so after he refused the first one. He was still digesting a tough loss and didn’t appreciate being made to look bad on stream.

The origins behind this stigma are interesting. For example, in sports such as football, it’s normal for the winners to walk over to the losers and shake hands after a match, even in junior divisions. In eSports too, such as League of Legends, the winning team will walk over to the losers and offer handshakes. So why, in Magic: the Gathering, is it considered to be the other way around?

The answer is that it comes originally from the online game StarCraft. In this game, the loser has to disconnect from the game after conceding before they actually get to chat. Therefore, normally games are finished by the loser saying ‘GG’, waiting for the reply from the winner, and then conceding. Saying ‘GG’ early when you are winning, the electronic equivalent of offering a handshake, is deemed incredibly rude because you are essentially saying that the opponent has no way out. This has translated itself into some other online games and eventually pervaded its way through the community to Magic.

Thus, the ‘winner’s handshake’ somehow became known as a bad thing in Magic, a symbol of arrogance, in contrast to some other eSports. Hence, when Ben Nikolich extended his hand to Sam Berkenbile to offer a ‘good games’ handshake, the refusal of such a seemingly innocent gesture blew up to a full-on raging debate with pros and casters alike sharing videos and opinion articles on the whole debacle.

Now, I’m not here solely to discuss this particular instance. Rather, it struck me that for someone new to Magic who wouldn’t know or understand these unwritten etiquette rules, especially since this one is so different to how normal sports operate, they could end up causing offence to someone at FNM without meaning to and end up having a bad situation all round. Therefore, I’m hoping to explain a few of the best ways to deal with your opponent at FNM, so that these situations come up less often.


A Beginner’s Guide to Paper Magic Etiquette

Always introduce yourself to your opponent

Firstly, when you sit down at the table it’s polite to ask your opponent’s name and introduce yourself if you don’t know them, especially at larger FNMs where you might be assigned by table number. A friendly ‘hello’, a handshake and an introduction can go a long way to dissolving a frosty or tense environment. It may seem elementary but sometimes people are too nervous or don’t know what to say or are so focused on what happened last round that they might just simply forget, and this can really change the atmosphere of the game.

Always ask for permission before shuffling your opponent’s deck

Secondly, when you are shuffling and cutting your opponent’s deck, you should try to do it as gently as possible. If you are going to riffle shuffle, ASK PERMISSION. Some people don’t think twice about it and just riffle shuffle away, but you are bending someone else’s cards and potentially damaging their property, and I personally am very uncomfortable with someone shuffling my deck this way. If they aren’t fine with it then you should either shuffle differently or find a judge to do it for you. There is definitely a non-zero chance that your opponent’s deck is worth something to them, either sentimentally or financially, and you should be careful how you handle their property. The same goes for picking up cards to read them or move them – a little care goes a long way!

Do your best to communicate as clearly as possible throughout the game

During the game, ensure you have clear communication at all times. Judge calls for things like ‘he said he was tapping for X and now he’s casting Y’ can tend to sour the atmosphere at the table. Of course people can make mistakes and it’s right to call a judge if you need to, but try to avoid these situations in the first place by clearly announcing everything you are doing and making sure your opponent knows what’s going on.

This is all fairly elementary, and most players will know this already, though. The hard part comes later on.

At the end of the game…

The most important part to be aware of is the end of the game; the part when one person has won, and one person has lost. This is where the term ‘sportsmanship’ is thrown around all over the place, in a very vague way which doesn’t cover each specific situation and set of people involved. There can be an end-of-game ritual which goes anywhere from laughing about misplays to table flipping depending on the individuals involved, and it’s hard to navigate if you don’t know what you’re doing.

Let me be the first to say that, as those who have played against me in the past will agree, from the very beginning of when I started to play Magic I have struggled a lot with coping with my emotions after a loss. I have had outbursts of salt that I am not proud of. In fact, I play Magic a lot less than I used to now, especially at FNM level and higher, because I know I don’t handle myself well and I don’t like the person I tend to become. This has been a decision I have had to make for self-betterment and more importantly for the community around me, because we all have more fun when I simply don’t play. So, this advice is coming from someone who knows how hard it can be to take a devastating loss, and who knows what she, at least, likes to hear from an opponent.

Being a good winner is as difficult as being a good loser, sometimes! It’s hard to find the line between respectful and what may come across as arrogant or condescending, but sometimes if you just leave the opponent will feel as though you don’t respect them enough to have a conversation. Though it’s difficult sometimes, I urge you to try, even if you don’t think bad losers should be pandered to, because making the effort for your opponent will make their play experience much better, and perhaps in the future they won’t be as salty.

The handshake has been a point of contention recently, but normally the rule is that the loser will extend their hand to offer the concession. If you are about to win, and the opponent is looking for their out, you should not offer your hand out to them as this will be considered premature and rude. Normally they will offer it to you, and if they don’t, you can choose to or not; but never do it before they have picked up their cards.

If you are the loser, the polite thing to do is to shake your opponent’s hand to show respect for them as a player and that you appreciate the match and their time. After all, now the game is over you are back on the same team, people that love Magic, so you should try to be respectful no matter how hard the loss may seem. That said, if you really feel you can’t, then it’s not obligatory, and if you are the winner and the loser doesn’t offer it and seems to be very upset, it’s advisable not to, lest you end up in the same situation as Nikolich.

Words matter

After a rough loss, some words that are meant to be harmless can end up affecting the loser badly. Most people will say something on autopilot if they have won, without thinking about how it will affect someone. For example, if you have only played six turns in the entire match and they mulliganed to four and never played a spell, saying ‘good games’ is just untrue and will probably make them more upset, no matter if you meant it as a platitude. Try to tailor what you say to the situation.

‘You played well’; ‘Sorry, that was rough’; ‘Thanks for the games’; all of these are more true and likely to be better received than a straight ‘good games’ in this situation. I personally try to reserve ‘good games’ for when it really has been a super tight match and I have enjoyed playing it. If your opponent really doesn’t seem to want anything to do with you after the match and is being particularly salty, then the best thing to do is not to comment on the match at all but just say ‘Good luck in the next round’, and leave them to it. They probably just need a minute to digest everything, and that statement is a universal one of goodwill which doesn’t comment on the bad luck or bad misplay that just led to their loss.

Try to reconnect on a human level – share your ideas and talk!

If someone seems upset, but not salty, then sometimes a good way to handle it is to point out the good plays they made throughout the game. Since I have been trying harder to handle my own emotions, I have taken up trying to chat to my opponents after the match, the key turns and the decisions I made and see if they agree. If they have lost and seem in a good temperament, this is a great way to handle it, because you will show that you respect them as a player and want their opinion on your sideboarding or your plays.

If they have won, it makes you look like a great sport and very graceful in defeat, as someone that just wants to learn, and even if inside you are very upset, it’s easy enough to put on a mask and chat about what you could have done differently or which sideboard cards you should bring in next time. It serves the dual purpose of giving you a little time to calm down before you part, so you can bring yourself to smile and shake their hand, and helping you learn more about their side of the matchup for the future. Generally I have found that after these chats, parting from my opponents is much easier and there are always more smiles, regardless of the result.

Generally, it’s very hard to give exact advice, because it all depends on the situation, the bad beat in question and how a person is reacting to it. It’s sometimes hard to read social cues, and if you are someone that struggles with this it can be hard to know what to do, particularly if your opponent isn’t handling a loss well. The important thing to remember is that win or lose, it’s a game, you’re all a part of the same community and when you leave the store that night, you will want people to remember you as a good sport and a good person to play with.

Sometimes, your opponent just needs some time and space

The best advice for dealing with difficult losers is just to let them lead you. If they seem to want to talk, then engage them and be sure to try to help them feel better. If they don’t, or they don’t answer when you wish them luck, just leave them be. At the end of the day, if they are feeling the losses that hard then they should probably take a step back and reexamine how they handle their emotions (this is coming from someone who has had to do just that.) If you are that person, try your hardest to hold it in and to be graceful in defeat, and you’ll find that a lot more people will want to engage with you, talk about sideboarding or even play extra games, and you’ll likely be a better player for it and have a lot more fun while you’re at it.


I hope this has been somewhat useful, and that you will have some new methods of dealing with difficult people at FNM. Remember, even if people aren’t the best losers sometimes, that doesn’t mean they aren’t good people, and all they need is a way to deal with it properly. If you are a winner, try not to brush off your opponent or make them feel worse by saying the wrong thing, and show them respect, as you would like to be shown if you were on the other end of the mulligans.

Community Question: What methods have you used to try and handle losses better? What do you normally say after a game? Let us know in the comments!

Thanks for reading,

Kerry Meyerhoff

A Beginner's Guide to Paper Magic Etiquette - Sportsmanship in Magic: the Gathering, by Kerry Meyerhoff
Tips on How to Handle Your Wins, and Your Losses in Games of Magic: the Gathering

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