Taking the next step from events like FNM into Competitive Rules Enforcement Level territory can be daunting, but it doesn't have to be! Here are some tips to help you understand how (and why) Competitive REL can differ from Regular REL events.
What is Competitive Rules Enforcement Level?
Rules Enforcement Levels (REL) are designed to provide Magic Judges guidelines on how violations of the Comprehensive (and very, very long) Rules and Magic Tournament Rules should be enforced at different types of events. Not every event is a Pro Tour, where even a slight departure from the rules could be the difference between a player making or losing thousands of dollars. Most of us actually play in casual events at local stores with a couple of booster packs on the line. So it makes sense that we should enforce rules to varying degrees depending on the nature of the tournament.
There are three levels of rules enforcement: Regular, Competitive and Professional. Regular REL are used at events such as pre-releases, FNM, Game Days and Gran Prix Trials. The focus at these levels is educating players about the rules. Professional REL is used at the highest level events, such as Pro Tours. Competitive REL is somewhere in the middle. At Competitive REL, players are expected to have a good (but not necessarily comprehensive) understanding of the rules and so the focus moves towards ensuring that games play out in a way that is fair and consistent with the rules. This means that while it might be fine for your opponent or a judge to let you take a move back without penalty at FNM, at Competitive REL events, once a player commits to a play, be it choosing what to attack with, what to block with, which lands to tap for mana when casting a spell or targets for a spell, that play is final. For the most part, however, if you already have a decent understanding of things like the phases of a turn, the stack and priority, you're probably ready to play at Competitive REL.
The Infraction Procedure Guide
But even if you know the rules and do everything you can to follow them, mistakes will inevitably happen and we need a way to deal with them in a consistent and fair way. The Infraction Procedure Guide (IPG) is what judges use to decide what to do when a rule is broken at Competitive REL events. If you want to know exactly what to expect when rules are broken, feel free to dive into the annotated IPG and find out.
The IPG is essentially a list of common rules infractions and what penalties, if any, should be associated with them. But why do we need penalties at all? From the IPG:
"The purpose of a penalty is to educate the player not to make similar mistakes in the future. This is done through both an explanation of where the rules or policies were violated and a penalty to reinforce the education. Penalties are also for the deterrence and education of every other player in the event and are also used to track player behavior over time."
The important part here is that penalties are not about punishment, but about getting players to understand and follow the game rules. They're about making sure games play out the way they should, according to the rules. Penalties are also an important way of protecting those who play fairly because a history of, for example, drawing extra cards or breaking other game rules can help Judges determine whether a particular player is cheating.
There are four types of penalties you can receive: a warning, a game loss, a match loss, or a disqualification. A record of all penalties is kept against a player's DCI number.
Warnings are designed to let players and judges know that a player has broken a rule. Warnings are used in situations where only a small amount of time is needed to correct the error that has occurred. Examples of infractions that carry warnings are looking at extra cards, incorrectly mulliganing (e.g., drawing 7 cards instead of 6) or casting a spell with the wrong colour of mana.
Game losses are used in situations where correcting the error would be highly disruptive to a tournament or the infraction has a high chance of giving a player a large advantage. Game losses end the current game immediately as if the offending player lost the game. Game losses can result from submitting or presenting an illegal deck or being late to a match.
Match losses are used in cases where a match simply cannot be completed because there isn't enough time to correct the error or something else means the match cannot continue. Match losses can be issued in cases where a player is acting in a way that makes others feel threatened or harassed (e.g., offensive slurs, bullying) or when a player seeks outside assistance during a tournament (e.g., asks spectators what they should do during a game).
Disqualifications are reserved entirely to cases of "Unsporting Conduct", which includes behaviours such cheating, bribery or being aggressive or abusive – behaviours that, thankfully, most of us will never engage in at a Magic tournament.
Phew! That's a lot to Take in!
But now you know the important details that make Competitive REL different from Regular REL. The IPG is very detailed and it's something worth at least skimming if you plan to play at a lot of Competitive REL events. In the meantime, here are a few things to keep in mind at your next event…
Quick and Dirty Tips
Get your deck right
- Make sure you have at the right number of cards in your main deck (60 minimum for constructed and 40 minimum for limited) and in your sideboard (15 maximum for constructed).
- Get your decklist in order. Carefully double check the decklist you submit at the beginning of the tournament to make sure it matches the mainboard and sideboard you are playing exactly.
- Make sure that you've listed card names on your decklist in a way that they couldn't be confused for another card. For example, "Ulamog" in a Modern tournament is not specific enough – use "Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre" OR "Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger".
- Check your sideboard before each match. Avoid painful game losses by making sure you haven't left any sideboarded cards in your maindeck from previous games.
On top of that, only bring what you're playing to the tournament. Have some random cards or draft picks lying around in your deckbox? Get rid of them! Especially if they're in the same sleeves you plan to use at the event. Cards in different sleeves won't be considered part of your deck, but any extra cards stored with your sideboard that could be played in your deck will be considered part of your sideboard. Easiest solution – only bring the cards you'll be playing with on the day.
Penalty for Deck/Decklist Problem: Game Loss
Shadows Over Innistrad special: Marked Cards
If the backs of your sleeves are not completely opaque (like regular Dragonshield sleeves), use checklist cards for all double-faced cards! If the double-faced cards can be detected through the back of your sleeve, they count as being marked and will result in a game loss.
Penalty for Marked Cards: Warning, upgraded to Game Loss if the marked cards follow a pattern (e.g., only double-faced cards!) that could give the deck's owner an advantage.
This really goes without saying, but be on time to your games. If you need some time to do something important (using the bathroom counts as important) or know you'll be late to a game for a good reason, call a Judge and let them know. They can give you 10 minutes to get done whatever it is you need to do without penalty.
Penalty for Tardiness: Game Loss if more than 5 minutes late, upgraded to Match Loss and dropped from the tournament if more than 10 minutes late.
Triggers are assumed to be remembered until something happens that indicates that they are not. This means you (and your opponent) don't have to acknowledge triggers until they actually impact the game. For example, Prowess triggers don't need to be acknowledged until the power or toughness of the creature whose Prowess ability has been triggered becomes relevant, such as at the damage step or when the creature is the target of Prey Upon.
Timing is important here – some triggered abilities are delayed, and must be announced at the stage in the game when they have effect, such as the transform abilities on most Werewolf creatures. Similarly, you must acknowledge that Archangel Avacyn's flip ability has been triggered at the next upkeep. If you don't, and draw a card first, you have indicated that you have passed the upkeep step and have missed the trigger.
Most importantly, you are responsible for all of your own triggered abilities, but not your opponents. Forgetting a trigger has no penalty unless it is generally detrimental (e.g., sacrificing The Gitrog Monster or a land on your upkeep). Intentionally missing your own a trigger is cheating. You are never obliged to announce your opponent's triggers, however, if they miss one that you would like to happen, you should call a Judge.
Penalty for Missed Trigger: None! Upgraded to a Warning if the result of the triggered ability would normally be considered detrimental. If intentionally missed, penalty for Unsporting Conduct – Cheating applies: Disqualification!
Improperly determining or influencing the outcome of a game or match
Magic tournaments are about testing our skill at playing the game, not our ability to negotiate a game's or match's outcome. Accordingly, making offers for an opponent's concession, such as prize money, boosters, or anything else, or using an out-of-the-game method to determine who wins a match, such as a random dice roll, are strictly against the rules. If a match is going to end with a tie, you must accept this and let it happen, even if a tie is a bad result for both players.
There may be situations in which you or your opponent want to ask for a concession. These situations need to be approached very carefully. It is legal to ask an opponent to concede to you, but you can never make or accept an offer to determine the outcome of a game or match. That is, you can ask for a concession, but you can't say that you'll give your opponent something if they concede to you. Similarly, you can't say that you will concede to an opponent if they give something to you.
Penalty for Unsporting Conduct – Improperly Determining a Winner/Bribery or Wagering: Disqualification.
Call a Judge
Some things are the same at all rules enforcement levels. If you ever need clarification on rules or are unsure about something your opponent has done, don't hesitate to call a Judge. While they can’t give you strategic advice, as long as you ask your question clearly, they can help you understand how certain cards work or interact.
The above are just a few examples of things to keep in mind at Competitive REL events. Chances are that you probably know most, if not all, of the rules that matter, but the challenge is remembering them and making sure that you don't do anything that puts you at a disadvantage. This could be by breaking a rule and being penalised (e.g., forgetting to de-sideboard between games) or making a play that causes the rules to harm you (e.g., drawing a card at the start of your turn and missing the transform ability on Duskwatch Recruiter).
So, playing at Competitive REL isn't exactly easy. But that's also what makes it rewarding. Because the stakes are higher and there's less room for error, Competitive REL pushes us to play tighter and smarter. And the more we find ourselves in events that expect these standards of us, the easier it all becomes and the better we get as players.
Thanks to Simon "Fry" Freiberg for his valuable input on this article.