Five Things You Need (Besides Your Deck) to Win a PTQ

I was planning to have this article be a GP: Manchester report, but I didn’t go. With the “move,” I haven’t been able to play much Magic (I haven’t even read the AVR spoiler in all honesty), but way too much time is spent on deck selection, so we can pretty safely ignore that here.

As much as everyone would love to believe that the best player at any given PTQ wins, that’s simply not true. There are a large number of variables that come into play that can affect tournament performance in ways you may not even be in control of.

1 – Persistence

Going into a tournament, no one is anywhere close to guaranteed a win. A hypothetical player who has an 80% probability of winning any given match (which is completely unrealistic) is only 30% to Top 8 a given PTQ (and would be barely 50% to actually win the invite from there). Therefore, it is critical to maximize the number of events you play. If we take the same hypothetical player above, we can see how much the probability of him or her winning an event increases as he or she plays more (the below chart is for a nine-round event):

MWP One PTQ Two PTQs Three PTQs Four PTQs Five PTQs
50% 0.219726563% 0.43897% 0.657732% 0.876014% 1.093815%
60% 1.306069402% 2.595081% 3.867256% 5.122817% 6.361979%
70% 5.338782206% 10.39254% 15.17649% 19.70503% 23.9918%
80% 15.46188227% 28.53307% 39.5832% 48.92477% 56.82197%
90% 28.24295365% 48.50926% 63.05177% 73.48704% 80.97508%
MWP Six PTQs Seven PTQs Eight PTQs Nine PTQs Ten PTQs
50% 1.311139% 1.527984 1.744353 1.960247 2.175667
60% 7.584956% 8.791961 9.983201 11.15888 12.31921
70% 28.04971% 31.89098 35.52718 38.96924 42.22754
80% 63.4981% 69.14198 73.91321 77.94672 81.35657
90% 86.34828% 90.20393 92.97063 94.95593 96.38053

As can be seen in the chart, unless someone attends a significant number of PTQs, his or her chance of winning any individual event is relatively miniscule. As a corollary to this, people focusing on records in individual events are extremely misguided, and they should be looking at performance as a whole. One PTQ is way too small of a sample size to judge anything on, so conclusions derived from just one event are most likely inaccurate.

Non-U.S. readers will probably take issue with this point, as the number of PTQs available to them is far lower when compared to those who live in the States, but in exchange for a smaller number of PTQs, you do have much easier WCQs.

On the other hand, just being persistent will rarely pay off on its own. Sometimes, you’ll travel long distances only to find out that you were misled about the tournament you were planning to attend, and you end up doing poorly.

2 – Playtest Partners

The only reason I’ve qualified for a PT is that I had friends who are good at Magic who want to see me improve. If I had never met Eduardo Borges (Shooter on IRC and EdB on Magic Online) or PV on IRC, I would have never been able to improve as rapidly as I did. Shooter helped me immensely with deck selection, while playing games with PV has brought a never-ending stream of, “Really?” and, “Why would you ever do that?” which have helped me to notice errors and not make them again (mostly to avoid mockery).

I remember one of the mistakes I kept making was casting Preordain after playing my land for the turn, and every time I did so, PV would yell at me, so I eventually corrected the habit, and every time I went to play my land in a turn in which I would cast Preordain, I heard PV yelling at me, so I mostly never did it again.

Granted, you might not be friends with one of the best players in the world (and be the unofficial president of his unofficial fan club), but you should go out of your way to network and be noticed by the best players in your store or area, and if you’re really serious, should try to get noticed by more prominent players either through Twitter, Facebook, or writing articles.

When trying to learn from friends, it is important to be careful with whom you playtest, as some friends aren’t as good as they seem. When you start playing with them, you’ll notice they view the game in a completely different way than you and that they aren’t as committed.

3 – Selecting a Deck Based on Matchups Required to Win the Event

One of the most neglected aspects of the examination of tournament results (besides sometimes being briefly mentioned amidst the thousands of words of gruelingly boring prose spent on useless tournament reports from week to week) is the impact of actual matchups played during the course of an event. When selecting a deck, you should not just keep the expected metagame in mind, but rather, make sure to account for the expected metagame at the top tables as well.

As a case study of this concept, let’s look at the top-performing deck with probably the most polarized matchups ever: Owling Mine. This deck was designed to only beat control strategies, and it would essentially scoop to any aggro strategy, but since the dominant decks in the format were all control, it managed to perform well. What kind of conditions go into making playing a deck like this profitable? Let’s assume that aggro decks and control decks are equally represented in the tournament; however, if you make it to the 2–0 bracket, you will play eighty percent against control decks for the rest of the tournament. Let’s also assume that you win the match against control 85% of the time and win against aggro 10% of the time.

Expected result:

You will 2–0 47.5% of the time, but when you do, you will win the event 25% of the time. By playing a deck that is so good against the best strategy, you are performing almost as well as the aforementioned hypothetical person with an overall 80% match win rate.

However, sometimes, you select a deck that you think is great for the upcoming tournament and think you match up great against the deck you expect to face the most, but you end up never playing against that deck and never have your chance to perform.

4 – Drink, Sleep, and Eat Well

Just kidding; every article you ever read on this is bullshit.

[Insert clever allusion to my life here.]

5 – Be Realistic

Unless you’re uniquely talented, you’re not just going to be able to show up at an event and crush, so you should be realistic with your expectations, and if you’re not happy with where you are now, go back to Step 2 (or, if you’re forever alone, feel free to turn on Magic Online) and keep practicing until you make it there.

At any given PTQ, a maximum of 10% of the entrants have a shot, making the other 90% essentially dead money, and being in that 90% is not where you want to be. By choosing to play in a PTQ, you are giving up the financial benefits of playing other tournament series (like StarCityGames Opens) in exchange for the opportunity to qualify for the Pro Tour, and because of this, only one place matters: first.

Did you Top 8 and win a box of product? That’s great; you could have earned almost as much flipping burgers at minimum wage for the same financial gain.

Did you get a pretty pin to put on your play mat? I’m sure that makes you smile at night.

Does your passport have another stamp on it? Good for you; did what you went there for work out?


PTQ success is not measured on a tournament-by-tournament basis. It’s not even measured on an average-performance metric. It’s graded in a binary scale: Did you get the blue envelop or not? All your focus should not be placed on individual matches or events, but on the bigger picture of actually succeeding to qualify.

If things have started off poorly for you this season, keep trying, and don’t give up if you feel that you have a chance. Just try to form a clearer picture of where you stand, and see how things go. Maybe there are good things ahead. (But realistically, ninety-nine percent of the people reading this won’t win a PTQ this season. The author also will probably join you in your pit of despair, although not for the same reasons.)

Chris Mascioli (Facebook)

@dieplstks on Twitter (follow me for a not-so-good time)