How to Make a Magic Tournament a Great Experience

  • Boards
  • Print
Author Image

The letter M!agic has played an important role in my life since 1986; that's right, that was seven years before Magic: The Gathering saw print. I have been a magic performer for a long time, and now that I don't pull white rabbits out of top hats anymore, I started doing Magic. My experiences as a magician help me to better organize Magic tournaments, so I wanted to share some thoughts with you on how I make my audience happy.

It helps me to see a tournament as a show, and actually the differences are not that large. For a good magic show, you need to practice and prepare, run a good show, and not be afraid to improvise. Lots of small stuff makes the difference between a good show and a bad one, so here are some things I learned from performing magic, and how I've translated them into organizing Magic tournaments.

The Hardware

When I did a magic performance, I brought everything with me except for a large table to put all my tricks on. I used to borrow the dinner table, and most of the time that entirely suited my needs. But occasionally I ran into a very large table, too heavy to move; or a small round table, too unpractical. So when I discussed this with a colleague, he just smiled and said: "I used to have the same problems, so now I just bring my own foldable table wherever I go." So simple!

When organizing a Prerelease or any other Sealed Deck tournament, you typically end up with lots of booster wraps. So every time, I went to the bar, asked for a trashcan, waited for the waiter to get me something, then went back onto the floor and collected all trash. Nowadays, I just bring my own garbage bags, which makes life much easier.

One of the most asked questions during a tournament is "How much time is left in this round?" So Jan Raaphorst, a fellow Dutch judge, gave me the perfect tip: just print a sheet with "End of round 1: 12:50" and post it next to the clock. Which works fine as long as your venue has a clock... So nowadays I bring my own huge clock to tournaments as well.

A lot of players don't think of bringing a pen with them, so after handing out the registration sheets, a forest of raised hands pop up asking if they can borrow a pen. At my first tournament, players had to share pens and registration became a little messy. Luckily, pens are not the most expensive items, so now I hand out a pen to every participant. It is great customer service, my players appreciate it, and it costs me almost nothing. Likewise, I bring a big bag of dice with me that players can borrow. After the tournament, I collect all forgotten dice, put them into the bag, and am stocked again for next time.


As obvious as it may sound, double check that you have everything with you. If you hate surprises as much as I do, make sure to bring enough spare stuff with you; you might want to make a checklist, depending on the type of event and the equipment of the venue. The night before a tournament, I charge the battery of my laptop, make a test print, check whether the patch cable isn't broken, check the ink cartridge, and so on. I like to have copies of the latest CR, IPG, and other important documents on my desktop, so even if there is no wireless internet available, I can check any difficult questions I may encounter.

Of course, I myself don't always follow this great piece of advice. Usually, I have a spare zebra polo with me. But just once, I was too lazy to iron the extra shirt; I was just going to be a floor judge, so no need to take the extra precautions. Obviously, that day my vacuum flask with coffee decided to start leaking, so I looked more like a brown cow than like the well-known zebra. Luckily, the TO of that event did have the spare polo with him...

The night before the tournament, I call all judges that are on staff, just to check time and location with them. I like to start the morning with a judge breakfast, so everyone is well nurtured and in a good mood. Yes, scrambled eggs and fresh baked bread can do that! Also, if anyone comes in late, it will not cause the tournament to be delayed, just the breakfast to be devoured instead of enjoyed. It is also a great opportunity to chat with fellow judges, or to instruct them on specific items for your tournament.

And, most importantly, make sure the cat has enough food and fresh water available to her. This even makes sense if you don't actually have a cat; during the show, you don't want to be distracted by external worries, so take care of everything else well ahead of time. This will allow you to confidently switch off your cell phone during the event. Just like (good) players, take the tournament seriously: though EDH is very tempting, a good night's sleep is important, you want to be fit and on top of your game!

The Show Itself

Performing a magic show is not about doing some tricks; it is about entertaining your audience. People will not count the number of tricks you did, they will remember how much fun they had. The experience they had will last a long time after the last trick is over, so I made sure to be able to react to my audiences' specific needs instead of just doing whatever I had prepared. Entertainment is about people, not about tricks; one of my most successful tricks was mindreading, and it's a trick you can do, too! When I performed at a birthday party, I set up all my stuff in an empty room, then let the children enter. That is the moment to keep your ears wide open: children will talk and call each other by their names. So later in the show, when I needed an assistant from the audience, I would point at a girl and say "Please, Nadia, would you like to help me?" Knowing her name without her having told me made a great impression.

The same is true for Magic contestants: instead of seeing them as paying DCI numbers, see them as persons, and treat them accordingly. Greeting a player by name makes him feel welcome, and will contribute to his experience of the tournament as a whole. Knowing your players can also help you solve problems. A while ago, a player whom I got to know as a very friendly and easy-going person started acting like a jerk. It would have been easy to just give him a Warning for Unsporting Conduct, but I wanted to know what had happened that made him act in this unusual way.

He started explaining why his tournament went so bad: his Sealed pool was the worst ever, he got manascrewed all the time, his opponents topdecked every removal spell they needed; in short: the usual complaints. But then came out the real reason: the last four rounds, his games all had gone into extra turns, so he had had no time to eat, and his hemoglobin level had dropped below critical. So instead of giving him a Warning and just making the situation worse, I sent him on a ten-minute break to recover. He came back, finished all remaining rounds well within time, enjoyed himself and treated his opponents the way he usually does. The IPG is a very important guideline, but it should not withhold you from talking to people and looking for extraordinary solutions that better fit specific situations.

The most important parts of a magic show are the first ten seconds and the last trick. In the first few seconds, people decide whether they like you or not, and the last trick is the image that will remain on their retina for a long time. For a Magic show, the same is true.
The first impression a player gets, is when you welcome him to the tournament and enter his name in DCI Reporter. Smile and be sincere when you say "welcome," it has a greater impact than you may think. If you announce that your tournament will start at 11:15 AM, make sure it does start at that time. If you are not reliable enough to watch the clock, how do you expect your players to trust you when you make a ruling?

Make sure the grand finale is a special moment. I once judged at a tournament where after the last round the Head Judge just posted the final standings, and announced that he would figure out the prizes in ten minutes. In my humble opinion, that's just lame. After an otherwise great and smooth tournament, this was a very disappointing finish, which was not needed at all. During the last round, I usually have quite a good overview of what the possible outcomes of the tournament are, and make prize schemes accordingly. Typically, when your floor judges are covering the last few outstanding tables, you have all the time to take a good look at the provisional standings. So when the final standings are known, it takes me just a couple of seconds to figure out how to distribute the prizes, and I can proceed to dramatically announce standings and award boosters within a minute after the last game has finished.

Final Thoughts

If you have any doubts, do not be afraid to ask your players for advice. The show is intended for them, so let them tell you their needs and preferences. For example, when I have ten players for my weekly Magic Sunday Draft, I let them vote democratically whether we play 3 or 4 rounds. Occasionally, we have exactly 11 players, so we can do one big draft table, or split up in two small tables of five and six players. Which of these two solutions would you as TO prefer? Well, unless there are any physical or practical restrictions, I think that your preference as TO is only of secondary importance. I let my players vote, because it is their tournament for which they paid.

The key concept is to make an honest evaluation after a tournament is over. Even if everything went well, there are almost always tiny things that can make the next tournament even better. Look for small inconveniences, and think of ways to solve problems before they can even be noticed by your players. After all, it's a show, and you want your audience to enjoy it to the max.

The most important thing has not been said yet: Remember to have fun! We all judge because we like to do it, so don't be afraid to show it. Players will notice that you are having a good time yourself and act accordingly. A happy judge/TO makes for happy players, so the same is true as on an airplane: take care of yourself first, so you are able to take care of others, too. When you are well prepared, you will have plenty of time to take a break, chat with players and fellow judges, and enjoy a great experience at your own tournament!

Thanks for reading, I hope this article will help you to make Magic magic! Any feedback or additional thoughts are very welcome; you can contact me via email at or in the forums.

  • Planeswalker Points
  • Facebook Twitter
  • Gatherer: The Magic Card Database
  • Forums: Connect with the Magic Community
  • Magic Locator