Running a Magic Tournament

This is almost the first piece of content I have ever posted on the internet. Before this the last time I participated in the great forum of the internet was answering a few questions about a tournament I was running on For those who don’t know, mtgontario is an outdated but still useful website for Magic in the snowy province of Ontario, Canada which is where I currently reside. I still use it to keep on top of current local events.

Let’s get to the meat of this post. Running a tournament can be a lot of fun but it’s a mountain of work. And stress. Without my friends working for what was essentially lunch money it would have been a disaster. Between the venue, and acquiring the prizes, and getting judges, and getting an estimate to how many people would show up, and working with vendors for table space, and promoting the tournament so that players know about it, organizing a larger tournament can be a real bitch. All of these things have to be taken care of well before the day of the event if you as the TO (tournament organizer) want to achieve any success. It also helps to define what success means to you. If you’re considering running an event for the first time, I would recommend being comfortable with breaking even or less. Magic players are a tricky group to gain the trust of. If you don’t already have a reputation as an effective and efficient TO it takes a few well run events to gain their trust. I’m not saying you can’t make a profit on your first event because it is certainly possible. The first Summer of 69 Tournament I ran along with two other friends back in 2002 made nearly $600 in profit and had around 120 people show up, which was huge at the time. A lot of that success was luck, subsequent events were not so successful. Had we took the lessons we learned from that event and built a rapport with the local community, perhaps things would be different with the local scene. Hindsight and all that.

So you’ve decided to try your hand at running a tournament. Excellent. The first step is deciding on format and prizes. What format you choose has been largely simplified in the last few years. The only formats that actually matter now are Standard, Modern, Legacy, and the two limited formats Sealed and Draft. If you’re not a business with access to Magic product at wholesale prices, don’t bother with limited. It’s nearly impossible to make money with those formats because of two things. Either you price it low enough that your profit margin disappears or you price it too high and no one shows up to your event. Not to mention the huge upfront cost of acquiring multiple booster boxes of product. We’re trying to make money not get a boat load of inventory. This leaves the constructed formats. Each has it’s own merits and followings so whichever you choose could come down to preference. If you have an insight into your local community and what format is the most popular with them just go with that. Another good idea would be to go with whatever the current PTQ format is. The last option is to go with a less popular format like Vintage or to create your own. For many years there was a group of tournaments local to my area known as the SkiLs (Stratford, Kitchener, Listowel) events. Each one had it’s own banned and restricted list and deck construction rules. It made them interesting events for sure but they have been gone for several years now. I believe the wild west of Magic’s early tournament days have disappeared because being sanctioned has become more important than ever for a successful tournament. Not having a sanctioned format will likely relegate any event to being a casual (read not profitable) tournament.

Next up is the prize. What are you giving away? Cards or cash? Will it scale to attendance or will it be guaranteed regardless of how many show up? These are questions you have to ask and they are some of the toughest variables to set. Personally I believe the secret to tournament success is reliability. Whatever you say will be given out as prizes, you better make sure you stick to it. No Magic player will come to an event if the TO is known to renege on their promises for prizing. Most TO’s will likely make the mistake of scaling their prizes to the attendance. It seems like a good idea right? That way you can’t lose money if not enough people show up. Stop thinking that. Remember what I said about reliability? Imagine being the player who wins your tournament. He came ready and excited, paid the entry fee, joined the crowd of 30 or so people. He’s been practicing and he’s ready. He wants that Mox Sapphire, how cool would it be to win your first piece of power? The tournament starts and your judge makes the announcement that due to the lack of attendance everybody is now playing for the opportunity to win a super exciting Force of Will. They paid $30 for that? Boom, just like that you’ve disappointed everybody and tainted your rep as a TO.  Save yourself the horror. Part of the success of the StarCityGames open series has been their reliability (and their deep pockets). They put up huge prizes and give out those prizes regardless. Be like SCG and lock your prize structure in. That way your players know exactly what they are getting into. Even if the turnout at your event is sub par, you will be the TO that honored your promise. Either way you win, your turnout is great, and you make some profit. Or your turnout is not so great but your reputation as a good TO becomes known and your next event will likely benefit for it.

Now that you’ve got that decided, you’re on your way to a successful tournament. Venue is the next decision. There are a lot of factors in making a venue a winner. If you’re not currently running a business and don’t have play space easily available, get ready to spend a large chunk of your budget on a decent venue. Your going to need enough space to seat everybody comfortably with access to tables and chairs at a minimum. Another consideration is refreshments and food. Are there restaurants nearby? Magic players are a hungry bunch. If your tournament is scheduled for mid summer, maybe even spring or fall depending on your location, air conditioning will likely be a large concern. No one wants to spend 12+ hours jammed into a cramped space with a bunch of sweaty Magic players. No one. As for the math of profit making the venue could be the most difficult decision. Determining how many players will be coming to your event can be extremely difficult. Expect to miss the mark the first few times. Even so you don’t want to blow the budget getting a space that’s too big or screw your players and not have enough space for everybody. It can be a tricky balancing act.

That seems like a good start for a first attempt. I’ll go over the other factors in running a tournament in a future post so look forward to that. As a parting piece of advice that probably should have been stated near the top of this post remember that to be successful in whatever you are doing, whether it’s running a tournament or just going to work, over deliver. Don’t make the event about how much money you want to generate. Make it about being the most fun, most well run, and most enjoyable event you can provide. Take care of your customers and they will take care of you. The best businesses are about win/win relationships. Run it so well that your players will be demanding to give you their money for your next event. That’s all for now, good night.

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Thomas Traplin


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