From the Kitchen Table to the Competitive World of Magic: Part 1

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When looking back to their origins, many Magic the Gathering players will remember learning the game at a friend’s house.

Once the basics were learned, the kitchen table became a battlefield for unique decks full of cards with cool art and wacky combos. Creatures like Angelic Wall could keep you honest for turns while dropping a Fire Elemental would ensure a groan of defeat from your opponents.

At some point, you started to get an urge to play competitively. Maybe it was a lack of opponents or maybe you had been at your local gaming store and saw an event going on. There are plenty of reasons to want to try your hand at the tournament scene.

In my case, I’m a sports junkie, and the idea of a structured event with standings and rules really intrigued me. None of the guys in my gaming group played FNM. They were content playing casually, but I knew I wanted to take the next step in the hobby. My decks had started to get more competitive, and power level at the kitchen table was becoming lopsided.

So I made my decision to keep playing casual decks with my friends but try my better builds against players who were there for the win. Unfortunately, I was attending my first FNM by myself at the Wizard’s Tower in Ottawa, Ontario and had no idea what I was getting into. The only thing I expected going into the tournament was to get destroyed, and although that did happen, I didn’t see the next thing coming – competitive magic players are really awesome people!

I had told one of my opponents, Tony, that it was my first FNM, and immediately after the match he sat down with me and went over my deck. He explained the metagame and why certain cards that you wouldn’t normally play in casual can actually be important in Standard.

I had finished with a misleading 2-2 record at the event thanks in large part to a bye in round two. My second win came in the fourth round against an opponent who didn’t seem to be having any card luck so I knew I had a lot to learn to be competitive. There is a fast food restaurant next to my local store and Tony invited me to play there with him and his friends after the tournament finished, to help me get used to Standard.

The amount of help and encouragement Tony and his friends gave me put me miles ahead of where I would’ve been otherwise, so shout out to Tony in Ottawa, Ontario.

I have no idea if I would have continued going to tournaments if it hadn’t been for their guidance, and that is why I wanted to start this series of articles. Getting into competitive magic can be a daunting task, and I want to use my personal experiences to provide some useful tips on how to get started and then get into how to overcome the challenges that tournaments can present.

Even if you have been playing FNMs or higher level competitions for a while, I hope this series can offer some fresh perspective on the tournament grind.

I will be along for the ride, making a deck that players just getting into the competitive MtG world can afford without buying an entirely new deck. Over the course of the articles I will expand on the decklist by using a reasonable budget. Don’t worry; I’m not trying to recreate what Jonathan Medina and so many others have done through FNM Hero. The correctness of the decklist is secondary to my navigating the world of competitive magic.

However, first things first: when attending FNM, you need a deck. Chances are, if you’ve been playing casually, you don’t have a Standard deck ready to go. No need to panic – I suggest turning one of your decks into a Standard deck and going from there. Don’t dump a bunch of money before your first tournament. Just fill out your deck with Standard-legal cards that fit your strategy. Your first tournament isn’t about winning; it’s a recon mission.

Just play colors that you are comfortable with and you will quickly learn how to shape your first Standard deck into something that can compete locally.

I played a lot of green and white decks when I first got into Magic. My first deck that I piloted to consistent success at FNM featured value mana costed creatures and finished with an Overrun. Green and white are still the colors I enjoy playing the most and have the biggest collection of, so that’s where I’m going to start.

If you have a card or two that you really like the idea of but it’s not feasible to go out and buy the rest of the playset, don’t worry. Use the one- or two-ofs that you have and work on building onto them later. You may end up deciding that some of them don’t fit into your strategy once you’ve refined your list after the tournament.

Here is the list I’m starting with:

I decided to try and keep cards that cost more than $5 to a minimum. For example, Fiendslayer Paladin is currently at $10 while I write this, so I only have one in the deck to start. If I find he is a beast whenever I see him then I will definitely look into buying more for next time, as my budget allows.

The mana base works the same. I think it’s safe to assume that if you’ve been playing a two-color deck casually, you will have a set of the core dual lands but probably haven’t picked up the current shock lands. You were most likely using older, cheaper cards to fix your mana. I suggest picking up a playset of the shock lands that fit your deck, but you might not be able to grab four before your first FNM. I’m starting with two and will buy them as I go.

In terms of sideboarding, you won’t know what you have to tailor it to beat until you have some matches under your belt, so look for any weaknesses to certain colors or strategies and try to have some quick fixes in the extra 15. Just like your deck, the sideboard will develop over time.

Looking at the list, it is a loose build but can go a lot of different directions and has some tricks to work with in the meantime. Rootborn Defenses can act as a board wipe, and once the opponent has seen it once I can start to play some combat-phase head games. Ajani, Caller of the Pride, can also win games by allowing my creatures to get damage through a deadlocked board state.

The rest of the deck is pretty straightforward: make my creatures work together to keep my life total high while trampling over for damage. As always, this deck will present some strengths and weaknesses throughout the first tournament.

To finish things off here are a few tips for your first tournament. If you’ve been playing for a while, it can also help tremendously to get back to the basics. Here we go:

1. Write down both life totals.

I find that writing down my life total along with my opponent’s keeps my head in the game. You can quickly lose track of what’s happened during a game by only tracking your life total with dice. Plus, it helps clear up any questions should a problem arise.

When I first started playing competitively, I used spindown dice, and in one of my first few tournaments, a player in the match next to me knocked my dice. I couldn’t remember my exact life total so my opponent and I recounted the game to figure it out. If I had been using a pen and paper that problem never would’ve happened.

2. If you don’t know what it does, read it.

Your opponent shouldn’t mind you taking a second to read a card for clarification. Even if you have an idea of what the card does, take a look to get the exact wording. I often read cards just to make sure I’m not walking into a bad play because I’ve missed something.

I remember winning a match with Mirran Crusader because my opponent forgot about it having protection from green. He swung in with his only non-green creature. I let the damage through before untapping and ending the game. Even though the mistake benefitted me, it was a good lesson to learn; even if you think you know the card, it doesn’t hurt to double check.

3. You aren’t any less of a person because it’s your first FNM.

Letting an opponent know that you are new to competitive play is often a good thing. They will probably slow down their play a little and explain what their deck is doing. Afterwards they might give you some advice that you can use for next time. Remember, it’s a recon mission.

During my first FNM opponents were happy to see another local player getting into the game and made sure the experience was enjoyable.

4. Just play your game.

Try to stay focused on your game and don’t let the atmosphere intimidate you. If you make a misplay, forget about it for the time being and work on overcoming it in the particular game. You can always reflect on it after the tournament and take steps to cut down your future misplays. We all make bad plays; the key is to learn from them.

5. Get to know the local players.

Although there are always exceptions to the rule, Magic players are usually good people. Getting to know people at the local gaming store can lead to some really fun times, so even if you go with friends, don’t exclude yourself from meeting other players. If I had kept to myself I wouldn’t have met Tony and his friends, and I wouldn’t have enjoyed the tournament scene half as much at first.

After all that I think I’m ready to try this deck out at FNM and see what happens. Thanks for reading everyone. I hope players both new and old have been able to take something away from this article. If you have any questions or thoughts on where to take this deck (don’t say the garbage!) then please leave a comment!

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