Trading card games are inherently competitive. Yes, it’s great fun to collect and trade cards, but the main attraction is undoubtedly sitting down across from another player and putting your carefully crafted deck up against theirs.

In fact, a TCG isn’t a game at all if you don’t have opponents to play against, so what is a budding player to do? The good news is that the people who make these games really want you to have others to play against. Competition is the driving force that makes them money and keeps us playing. The major TCG makers all have some sort of official tournament or league system. They have designed their games for tournament play and encourage players to register as part of the system.

Since Magic the Gathering is the biggest and best known competitive TCG, I’m going to use its tournament structure as a basis. However, most tournaments have the same basic rules, with the devil being in the details. In fact, even within the same TCG you’ll find tournaments that have different rules. This is mainly because many tournaments are not sanctioned by the creators, but are run privately. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. You could host your own tournament at your house with local players, but it is important to know if a tournament is official or not.

Let’s take a look at the tournament journey from the bottom up so that you know what to expect.

Pokémon League

Local Flavors

As with almost any national or international game, you can’t just sign up for the big leagues right off the bat. To get a spot at the champion’s table you have to earn that place. This happens by playing in official local tournaments. Local tournaments are held in local stores.

These stores have to register with the TCG maker in question if they want to make your performances official. In the case of MTG you pay a small fee to become registered and get your own unique player number and card. Whenever you come to play at the store (or any other registered venue) your wins and losses will be recorded along with who you played.

Qualifying to Be a Pro

In the case of MTG, the first thing you need to worry about if you want to play at the top is to qualify for the Pro Tour. Some people get an automatic invitation. If you placed high at a previous Pro Tour or are a Hall of Fame player then your seat is assured. That’s not you and I, though. To climb from newbie to Pro champ you have to follow the long road, at least for the first time.

For MTG players this first step is taking part in a Pro Tour Qualifier. You need to win a preliminary Pro Tour Qualifier – a small local store competition. You’ll get multiple chances to win one of these, since there will be a few of them. Winners of preliminary qualifiers get to go to the regional qualifiers. These are pretty big events themselves and can have more than 100 players, by all accounts. If you win the regionals then you qualify for the next stage, known as a “Grand Prix”.

Grand Prix is almost like a tournament and a Magic convention rolled into one. It may have thousands of players, including both pros and amateurs. One major distinction between a Grand Prix and preliminaries is the presence of prize money. You can win quite a wad of cash at these things. This is also a tournament which runs over multiple days. Each day more and more players get knocked out. The top 8 players get Pro Tour spots, as well as players who won a certain number of matches during the Grand Prix.

The Pro Tour: A Whole Different Game

I’ve read the accounts of a few pro players in MTG and learned it really makes a difference when you’re playing for a massive prize pool. When the stakes are real, the game takes on an entirely different feel. It’s an experience I will never have, but listening to players talk about it you quickly learn that there’s as much psychology that influences the game as technical skill and luck. If you place high enough, you can expect some sweet, sweet cash, although you’d probably only buy more cards with it.

Card game

A Note on Tournament Formats

All TCGs have multiple formats that they can be played in; various tournaments will either support a certain number of them or not. For example, a “wild” format allows the use of any card in your decks – with the exception of cards that have been banned from tournament play, that is. Standard formats only allow cards from a certain time period, usually the last two years. This makes it easier to keep the game interesting every year and also to keep it somewhat balanced.

In MTG there are several popular formats. Standard is as just described, but there’s also Booster Draft and Sealed Deck. A draft-style format is one where you draw cards along with other players to build a deck; you don’t have to come with a deck at all. The same goes for the Sealed Deck format, where you don’t draft, but just get a bunch of booster packs with which to build a deck on the spot.

Familiarize yourself with the various formats the specific TCG and tournament provides for, and pick one that’s going to help you do as well as possible in your first tournament. If you choose a format that does not allow you to bring a deck, then you are on a level playing field.

Tips for Tournament Play

Full disclosure: I have never made it beyond the local games at my neighborhood comic book store, but I have looked into what makes a good tournament and there are a number of tips that keep coming up. So here are the bits of good advice I’ve picked up while daydreaming of being a TCG superstar.

Watch Tournaments!

Thanks to the magic of internet streaming video, you can now watch pro-level tournament matches for just about any TCG. It’s important to learn how top players think. Look at the strategies they craft and how they read their opponents. To inform your own style, use any insights you get from watching the best players doing their thing. It’s also important because you need to have an idea of what the meta game for your chosen TCG is at the moment. The meta game is simply the thinking and fashion around the game at the time. Certain decks and strategies become incredibly popular and you need to prepare for them when building your decks.

Watching tournaments also helps you learn one of the most nerve-wracking things: etiquette. It can be very embarrassing if you don’t know how to conduct yourself during a match, which can be different from one tournament to the next. This is especially true if you’ve only played small local tournaments where they aren’t such sticklers for doing things the “right” way.

Carefully Verify Your Decks

Each tournament will have a list of banned cards that cannot be used for play in each format that the tournament supports. Often you will have to submit a deck list ahead of time so that the organizers can make sure your deck is legal. If this is required be sure to actually do it, since not doing so is a dumb way to get disqualified.

You can save yourself the trouble of a rejection by carefully verifying that each card in your deck is allowed. Even more importantly, check the list of rulings for every card that you want to put into play. Make sure that the way you interpret the card is the same as previous judge rulings. Sometimes key strategies may depend on a particular interpretation of its text.

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Read the Rules and Then Read Them Again

Tournaments usually have a comprehensive set of rules. These don’t just cover gameplay itself, but how the whole tournament operates and what’s expected from each player. Even if you’ve been to plenty of tournaments, you need to read the rules each time, since even a small change can have a big impact if you run afoul of it.

Put in the Hours

You wouldn’t enter a marathon without having trained properly, right? The same principle goes for TCG tournaments. Play as much as possible, test out your decks, and make sure you are as sharp as possible. If you try your best to prepare and you still get destroyed, you have nothing to be ashamed of. However, you are only disrespecting your own time if you’re just entering tournaments on a lark!

Try Your Best, But Be Realistic

It’s unlikely that you are going to be a world champion the first time you make it to the pro level. Instead, it’s better seen as a chance to gain experience and learn. Just making it to a pro-level tournament is a privilege that money can’t buy. So try to enjoy the experience as much as possible.

Keep Trying!

There’s a reason we play best out of three to decide who wins in many TCG games. It’s because there’s an element of chance, which can have a major impact on your game. Even the best player is going to lose if Lady Luck gives them a really bad draw.

The same applies to the game as a whole. It’s not about losing or winning, but about how much you win on average. Getting a string of defeats doesn’t necessarily mean that you suck. Rather, it’s better to keep playing so that the law of large numbers comes into play. If you have a better than chance level of play, then it stands to reason you’ll make it up there with the big boys eventually.