Hosting a Magic Charity Event – Past, Present, and Future

Hi there! Some of you might know me as the guy who once wrote an article for ManaDeprived.com after winning a PTQ; others might know me as “that guy who bellows for judges really loudly at tournaments”. Today we’re going off the path a little bit and I’d like to talk to you about my experiences as organizer of a local charity Magic Tournament in Ottawa, Canada. I’d like to discuss the history of the event, what makes a charity tournament a success, what problems may arise, and my plans for the future of the event in Ottawa and across Canada.

Just under six and a half years ago, while I was still in school, I was doing some thinking about fundraising for charities and groups that were under-reached for charitable campaigns. Fortunately for me, my bus ride to the booster draft at my local store, the Wizard’s Tower, serendipitously ended and an answer fell into my lap. I began to consider the idea of running a charity Magic Tournament and eventually proposed the idea to the owner of the Wizard’s Tower, Dave Tellier, who instantly became an enthusiastic supporter.

Six Years of Giving – The History of the Charity Tournament

The initial tournament was a fairly simple event – a sealed deck tournament that awarded a set of Antiquities, donated by Dave, to the winner, and a couple of side drafts for players that were eliminated early. My mother and sister wanted to participate and baked some holiday treats that were distributed to participants. The event ended up raising around $300 for CHEO, the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, and everyone who attended had a great time. Overall, it was considered a success and I was determined to follow it up again the next year.

The second charity tournament followed the same basic formula – sealed deck and booster draft side events. That year we did not have a set of Antiquities to use as a prize, so booster packs were provided to the top 8 competitors instead. The players once again had a good time and I was told by many people that they were looking forward to the next year’s event. The major problem was that the price for the event had been set too low and the tournament only raised $150 for CHEO.

Over the next few years, we began to experiment with different options to increase attendance and raise more money for charity. In the third year, we raised the price for the tournament and began holding a variety of additional side events, most notably an auction for entry into a “retro” draft at the end of the tournament featuring a draft format from several years ago (I believe Invasion block was the first retro draft). Local artist Evan Berry also became involved and provided an altered-art Baneslayer Angel that was auctioned off at the event. The third year raised over $650.

These innovations were expanded on in subsequent years and the Charity Tournament began to build momentum with more players being aware of it and volunteering to help out in any way they could. People began donating cards in greater quantity, many people worked at spreading the word, making baked goods, running side events, and even shaving themselves bald if we raised over $1000 – ask local judge Vincent Johnston for the pictures from the fourth event! The fourth year came in around $1,250 and the fifth year made over $1,500.

The sixth annual Charity Tournament was run this year and it was the biggest success to date. Sixty-four players played in the main event with many more dropping in to support the event by playing in side events or bidding on auction items throughout the day. Canadian Magic Superstar Alexander Hayne volunteered his time to come and gunsling at the event and Face to Face Games generously sponsored Alex’s travel costs. In total, after the many generous donations, a little over $2250 was raised for the charity.

So, what’s my formula for running a successful Charity Magic Tournament?

1) The Format (Sealed Deck) – Limited formats are a great way to broaden the reach of an event. Charity Tournaments appeal to many people and you want to make the event accessible to them. Constructed events are great and are a lot of fun, but they also present an intimidating barrier to the more casual players who might want to participate in a good cause.

I would recommend Sealed Deck in particular over Booster Draft because, again, it is the less intimidating of the two formats. Dedicated tournament players may find this hard to believe, but drafting will scare some people away. If you can tell people that the event will be “like a pre-release, but for charity” you can tap into much of the goodwill that Wizard’s has created through some amazing pre-release experiences and combine it with the good feeling of helping a charity.

Side events are a critical component of a Charity Tournament; they do three major things for the event. First, they provide an opportunity for players to participate if they are unable to make it to the main event. This has proved to be more common for charity events than regular events in my experience as people will make the effort to participate for the good cause even if circumstances prevent them spending the entire day there. Secondly, side events give players who are eliminated early the chance to do something else. Third, they raise more money for charity and who can really complain about that?

A good mix of side events is also important. Regular booster drafts are normally the “bread and butter”, but take any opportunities you can get to do things that are a little more unique. Cube events, old draft formats, two-headed giant, pauper constructed – anything you can think of!

A word of caution about constructed side events: these have been extremely hard to find enough players to get the event running. Don’t assume that everyone will have decks available and if you decide to run something a little crazy (like pauper for instance), try to have some decks available to lend out to players who are interested in playing but may not have had the opportunity to put together a deck. Loaner decks are not recommended for vintage events for obvious reasons.

2) Sponsors and Support – A charity tournament will not be successful unless you can bring in sponsors and supporters. I’ve worked at creating partnerships with several retailers; these partnerships are absolutely vital to making the Charity Tournament a success. The basic recipe is simple – the sponsor provides support in the form of play space, prizes, reduced cost for product, and celebrity appearances. In exchange, the sponsor gets to advertise their business and generate goodwill among Magic players (it also turns out that the vast majority of sponsors really care about maintaining and growing communities that are fun to be a part of – kudos to Face to Face Games and the Wizard’s Tower).

Local supporters are also a key component of success. People are often willing to be extremely generous and will donate large portions of their time and resources to charity events. The key here is to let people know that the event is happening and how they can help. My events have received donations of all sorts in the past; rare cards to be auctioned off for charity are the most common (and among the most needed) but we have also received items ranging from baked goods, card alternation services, board games, hockey tickets, and even lessons from a Pro Tour Champion. Many thanks go out to all those who have donated.

3) Embrace the Spirit of the Event – A charity event needs to stand out from regular events and one of the key ways to do this is to embrace the “spirit” of the event. You want to evoke a strong feeling of community and charity; everyone should be having fun and focusing on something beyond their own personal success. I chose to run the event during the holiday season to tap into the theme of giving and it has worked well.

This is also reinforced through some of the extras thrown in to the event. Complimentary baked goods put a smile on everyone’s face (putting out a dish for generous people to leave a donation will also help raise a few dollars). Door prizes or gunslingers also allow everyone to have a chance at leaving with something regardless of their personal record.

4) Pricing – It may seem somewhat crude to talk about pricing and charity events at the same time, but in order to be a success the tournament must be priced appropriately. It’s very easy to err on the side of being too generous or too stingy and both have negative impacts. You can run an event that is remembered fondly by all the players who attend by offering a low price and ridiculous prizes but that raises little money for charity and will have your sponsors and donors wondering why they participated. On the other hand, you can run an event with high prices and low prizes, but you will suffer in attendance, raise little money for charity, and not leave your players or sponsors with positive memories.

The most successful charity events hit the sweet spot in the middle that maximize attendance and the amount of money raised. Offer prices that are competitive, but set a point that is high enough so that you will raise money – people are generally positively disposed to help out charitable causes. Offer prizes that are memorable and that people will be interested in playing for, but don’t be foolishly generous (I have found that a “high ticket” item like a Mox Emerald works well to draw attention and a reasonable amount of booster packs for other high finishers works well, but this must obviously be adjusted for your expected attendance).

5) Build the Brand – Having one charity event is good, but it’s always better if you can establish your event as a tradition. I found that as people became more aware of the event, the amount of people interested in donating to, helping with, and attending the event increased dramatically. Focus on making sure that everyone (or as many people as possible) enjoyed your event and make sure they know you are planning a “next year”.

Advertising is also key to building your brand. Use everything available from social media, printed posters, endorsements from well-known Magic celebrities, and anything else that can make a positive impact. Word of mouth is the hardest thing to generate, but will also be the most important – make sure that players leave your events wanting to tell their friends about how much fun it was.

That brings me to the question of what’s next for the Charity Tournament. The continued success of the event for six years has shown that there is a great deal of interest and support in the Magic community for this type of charity tournament and the interest that Face to Face Games had in providing support indicates that there might be an opportunity to expand this tournament series across Canada. My goal is to expand this series of charity tournaments to other Canadian cities. Does this sound like something you or your local community might be interested in? Contact me via e-mail (charitymagicottawa at gmail dot com), through Twitter (@CharityMTGCAN) and make sure to Like our Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/#!/CharityMagicCanada).

(Didn’t I tell you advertising was important?)

Best wishes (and foil mythics) to you all in the New Year.

Andrew Noworaj

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