Tips for Improving Your Tournament Performance

By Paradox

First, a quick announcement: I will be doing a full set review for Set 2, both for constructed and draft! Expect them as soon as we have all the cards. Secondly, I am working on coming up with a name for my column. 

Tournaments are hard. Ladder, while difficult in it’s own way, is much more forgiving in the long run. Organized tournament play does not offer that luxury, where just one small mistake can mean the difference between going to top 8 and walking away with 9th place. I’m going to discuss the tips that have helped me the most in improving my tournament play. Some of these will be general for all sorts of tournaments, while others will apply specific to the Eternal Tournament Series run by RNG Eternal, our current premier tournament series.

1. Have Pen And Paper

When playing face-to-face against other people with paper card games, it’s difficult to write notes down; you don’t want to write down things they could see, and you’ll often be busy shuffling and setting up the game. Digital games like Eternal don’t have this problem, so take advantage of it. I have a notepad in front of me at all times and I write down all useful information.

Before every tournament match starts, I look at my opponents deck list and write down all the cards I need to watch for and how many copies there are of each. For example, if I’m playing aggro, I’ll note all the removal spells in their mainboard, their notable blockers (such as Combrei Healers), and anything else of note. After we keep our hands, I’ll note if they redrew or not; if they didn’t redraw, they likely kept a good hand, and it’s easier to guess what they might have as they play. For the post-board matches, I’ll think about what they’re liking bringing in and what they’re taking out. I’ll also write down really important things that I might have a tendency to forget; my notepad is often cluttered with phrases such as “PLAY AROUND CABAL COUNTESS”—in all caps, of course—to make sure it’s something I’m considering it the entire match.

The other incredibly important part of having a pen and paper is writing down what you think your opponents hand is as the game goes on. While you should obviously do this when using Sabotage or Slow, you can also determine a lot by just observing their line of play. Playing against Big Combrei and they passed on their 4th turn against your board of units? There is a good chance they’re holding a Harsh Rule. Did you see them have a response window at the end of their turn but not in response to your torch? Their is at least one Desert Marshall in their hand. Write it down! It will prevent you from making a careless mistake, something that is easy to do in a tournament lasting several hours. If you’re really on top of it, you can sometimes know exactly what’s in their hand without ever seeing it.


2. Play Slowly

Perhaps the biggest advantage of tournament play is the lack of a turn timer. While you will likely never need more than 10 or 15 seconds over Eternal’s generous ladder turn timer, those few seconds may be the ones you need to really think over a difficult turn. Before you start to do anything, consider how the turn will go. By thinking about all of the ways the turn can go, you prevent yourself from getting blown out from half-baked decisions. Play slowly. There is a drastic difference between thinking out your turn and trying to draw the round by intentionally playing slow. No one can fault you for trying to think in a turn-based strategy game.

One area taking your time matters the most is with your power drops. When I was first getting into the game, I always played my Diplomatic Seals incorrectly, thinking they were just rainbow influence whenever I wanted them. I lost a game in one of my first tournaments because I didn’t play the Diplomatic Seal for my 3rd power drop, and ended up with only two Fire influence. I spent the rest of the game with two Flame Blasts staring back at me and watched as my opponent beat me with only five life left. I would go on to lose the match 1-2, where I could have just gone 2-0 had I played a bit slower and planned my turns out.

It’s one thing to feel salty about a bad draw. Losing a match because you were playing on auto pilot will make you feel saltier than the Dead Sea. Save yourself the pain and earn the wins right in front of you by taking your time.

3. Sideboard Before The Tournament

You’ve likely heard the importance of sideboarding before, and every bit of that advice is worth repeating a hundred times. To take advantage of Eternal being digital, make copies of your mainboard tournament deck, and edit them to make post-board versions of the deck against as many match ups as you can. When you go up against that deck in tournament, you can spend less time crafting the deck (and thinking about what to sideboard if you hadn’t already thought about it) and more time thinking about the game you’re about to play. Note that you should still look at your post-board deck list before you play and make any last minute considerations, especially if their list has significant changes from standard stock lists. By having your deck list constructed before hand, you’ll save yourself time, you’ll give yourself a good place to start should you need to adapt to a non-standard list, and you’ll ensure that you at least thought about how to play the whole match-up before you face it.

4. Take Breaks In Between Rounds

As soon as you finish your round and report, stand up and relax for 2-3 minutes. Tournaments are marathons, not sprints. I make most of my mistakes in the Top 8 (on stream, of course) and many of them are just careless mistakes because I’m exhausted. Being digital means you don’t have to navigate a room of thousands of people just to get some fresh air, like you would in a paper card game tournament. Stand up, drink some water, eat some food, pet your dog/cat/bird, and take your mind off the last match.

5. Remember That Other Players Are Smart

It’s always safest to assume your opponent knows what they’re doing, and this holds even more true in games as competitive as Eternal. Always presume your opponents are smart, even the ones that are just playing in their first tournament. This matters in two very big ways.

First, if you’re trying to metagame and plan a deck for the next week, remember that almost everyone else is as well. Have the last two weeks been dominated by Rakano Plate? Expect to see a lot of Armory and Big Combrei for the next week. Players tend to adapt very quickly. Some players will even recognize that everyone will go the next logical step and try to be prepared for that (i.e. bringing the scissors to the paper that everyone will bring because of last week’s rock.) While thinking about what to bring is a deep and complicated process, know that everyone will at least be aware of last week’s top placing and popular decks.

Secondly, play games as though your opponent knows what they’re doing, because they probably do. You’ll gain almost nothing from supposing they don’t know what they’re doing. If you happen to see one small line of play your opponent could make that would make you to lose, it is likely correct that you should play around it (if you can) because they probably see it.

6. Practice, Practice, Practice.

The best thing you can do to improve both your tournament play and your abilities as a player in general is to play with other good players. You need not have a fancy team or a strict group—just put yourself out there and find other competitive players to play with.

Most importantly, practice with tournament lists and practice both mainboard and sideboard games. Discuss the games, find out what went right, what went wrong, what play you were worried they were going to make the whole time, what plays won you the game, and so on. You will learn so much more about your deck and your match-ups in an hour of concentrated testing than you will in hours on ladder. In my experience, most players are willing to practice because they want to improve as well! Using Discord or other chat platforms to plan and talk about deck lists is also highly beneficial.

7. Don’t Try To Reinvent The Wheel

Brewing may be my favorite part of any card game, but I’ll be the first to admit that it’s often not the best choice if your goal is simply to win. There is no shame in playing established tournament decks. The game only has so many possible combinations of cards, and most of the best lists have been discovered and get discovered quickly. Unless you’re particularly good at brewing, you’ll do a lot better by playing a list you know is strong. Moreover, if your goal is to eventually brew a rogue list that will take down a tournament, using lists that are already good help you discover why certain things are good in the first place. You may get a lot of glory for creating a monster that levels a playing field, but you’ll get no glory at all if you never make top 8 by fiddling with un-tuned decks. Speaking of using established decks…

8. Beat Your Fear Of Mirror Matches

It’s very easy to talk yourself out of using the best deck because you don’t want to learn the mirror match. I’ve known many players who have done just this—myself included—out of idea that mirror matches are horrible match-ups that are out of your control. The thinking usually goes like this: we’re playing the same cards, so its all draw dependent. As such, it’s coin flip whether I win or lose, and those are bad odds for me.

han solo
                                                      “Never tell me the odds.”

Most mirror matches will not be that draw dependent, or at least not anymore draw dependent than the rest of Eternal. You’ll still be making choices and considering lines of play like any other match-up. Perhaps most importantly, you’ll have post-board games where you can bring a trump-card for the mirror. You might have a theoretical 50/50 match-up against the same deck, but if you’ve invested hours of practice into learning it, it may be one of the best match-ups for you as a player.

9. Realize That You Can Win The Tournament

This last tip might seem silly, but I think it’s the most important thing to remember. I’ve met a handful of players across multiple games that lost tournaments before they even started. Going with a winning mindset is paramount. Every top player was just another player before their first tournament win. No one is necessarily more lucky than any other person. By playing every game out to it’s last moment, practicing all your match ups, and staying on top of your game, you give yourself the opportunity to be lucky.

That said, getting top 8 does ultimately require a bit of luck. Recognize that each tournament is a fresh slate. If you play as many tournaments as you can, playing your best and always trying to improve, you’ll eventually hit a day where the cards align and you can take down a tournament.

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