Oops I PTQed – How to Host Magic Tournaments

In case you haven’t heard, the Hairy Tarantula PTQ on June 15th at George Brown College was attended by 367 players. That makes it the largest independent PTQ (one not attached to a Grand Prix or other major event) in over 15 years and the largest of all-time in North America. For those who are curious, here is a little guide as to how I attracted that many people, and then once they arrived, how we held it all together.

Let’s be clear: When hosting tournaments, no one can ever know just how many people are going to show up. There are so many factors that play a role and it’s always a toss-up. As the boy scouts and my boss, Leon, say: be prepared.

Now more than ever, we need to take these words to heart. GPs this year have been huge, with numbers regularly over 1500 and record breaking highs in Charlotte, and now Vegas… oh that Vegas. PTQs and other local store events have also been growing dramatically when supported well.

With Wizards opening up PTQ solicitations to a larger variety of local stores you are going to see much more potential for your LGS to try really hard to make a good impression on the community. Eastern Canada will agree that we are happy to see these changes. This year alone we have seen rookie TOs put on awesome shows: Face to Face Games drew some 250 players to their Montreal PTQ in the winter, 401 Games in Toronto hit 181 in March which they smashed a month later with 216 players. And that was on a Sunday! All these events were well-advertised, well run and people left smiling.

But with this new, broad reaching spread of tournament organizers now looking down the barrel of a PTQ, we certainly have a high risk, high reward potential. What is going to happen when a store that has never hosted anything larger than a 75 person pre-release is awarded a PTQ? What if they have only ever hired a level 1 judge to run a 16 person GPT?

Rest assured, there are fail safes in place to make sure disaster doesn’t strike: Wizards can help a TO find a good head judge, or at least the regional judge coordinator who will put the right person on the job. Wizards will also offer estimates as to what kind of attendance you should expect based on recent PTQ history in your area. But these days, can Wizards even guess what is going to happen?

When I was contacted by Wizards back in January with a letter saying “Congrats, you get the privilege of hosting a PTQ!” they told me that with past trends, I should expect 150 players. I have been a judge at half the PTQs in the Toronto area in the last 12 months, and when they said 150, my first thought was “We can do better than that…”

Here are my tips for getting people to show up.

First tip: Location, location, location. Your event will only be as good as your venue lets it be. Simple enough. Again, out of the box thinking goes a long way. Hotel banquet halls are nice, but they are often in the ball park of $3000 for a day. They often don’t allow outside food or drink either, which makes for cranky players. Recreation centres, schools, legion halls, college and university campuses are all venues worth looking into. If you spent less than 4 hours trying to find the best venue, you probably didn’t find the best venue.

Second tip: Be upfront about prizes: far too often a TO will advertise “Good Prizes” with no details about what “good” means. Good for the players or good for the TO’s pocket book? Even when a TO will say “A box for each of the top 8 and half a box for 9-16. Prizes will increase past 100 players.” There are often not enough details attached the “beyond 100 players” instruction. Sit down, do some math. Figure out your venue cost, the cost for judges and event staff, factor in gas, parking, transportation, pens, printing and even lunch. Once all your costs are totalled, then come up with some math and a clear detailed formula as to how much prize support you want to promise. Taking a risk on prizing can work well. I built a guaranteed prize structure that had me losing money if we had fewer than 180 players, but that leap of faith took us to wonderful places!

Don’t be afraid to make a profit, just be upfront and clear about it. The community understands there are costs associated with these events and they understand that a TO is in business to make money. However they can also do the math and will not be afraid to call you out if they can see you are trying to take home a barrel full of money. These events should be good for everyone, not just the TO.

Third tip: Get creative with the prizes. As TOs we all know that the profit margin on current sealed product is awful, so think outside the box. At our PTQ, we advertised that each of the top 8 was going to get a box of Modern Masters. We also promised ½ a box of Dragons maze to 9-16. But I also factored almost $3,000 worth of door prizes into the guaranteed prize support. This was in the form of complete sets of magic, dual lands and duel decks. We offered great prizes that were good value to the players but also had higher profit margins for the store, so we could afford to give more without losing money. We also offered players the option of trading back their packs of Dragon’s Maze at $3.33 in singles trade, so the players got what they wanted while we got to give away high margin singles rather than low margin sealed packs.

I’m not saying do exactly what I did. I know not every PTQ can jump on the Modern Masters Bandwagon, but if you try something different that is good value, the players might just appreciate it. Who really needs more Dragon’s Maze anyway?

Fourth tip: Invite your neighbours. Inviting other local stores to come and vend at your event will help you in many ways. First, you get to make them pay you, which is awesome: who doesn’t like money? This money will help cover some of the costs associated with renting space and compensating judges. Second, it gives people a reason to come out and buy, trade and sell cards. Players seem to be more willing to check out vendors when there is more than one. But third and most importantly, it helps you reach other customers! I’m sure that at least 100 people at the Hairy PTQ were there because their local store told them about it. And their local store only bothered to tell them because they were coming to vend! One of the best moves we made in planning, by far.

Fifth Tip: Side events worth staying for. Everyone will come for the main event, but if you don’t give them events worth staying for, they won’t. You rented the hall, you hired the judges, you booked the dealers; you may as well take advantage of it all. Do whatever you have to and make the side event schedule worth players shelling out more cash for.

Sixth Tip: Pre-Registration! I failed at this, but I’m sure it’s key to a good event… if anyone has figured out how to get people to pre-reg, let me know. It saves time in the morning and it helps you gauge attendance. Just look at Grand Prix Vegas. How screwed would they be if they were about to get sneak attacked by 4,000 magic players? The intruder alarm is a great tool to help know what to expect for the event.

Those are my major tips for getting people to show up. So now you have 367 players at your PTQ… now what? When I saw 200 people in the event and well over 100 still in line, my first thought was “We are screwed… we are going to finish at 5am, it’s going to be a total disaster..” but I kept it together, and we got through it. Here is how.

Seventh tip: Don’t skimp on the judges. Get the best and the brightest. Make sure the top 1/3rd of your team are all-stars, then make sure you have some grunt labour and ensure you have a good balance of experienced judges and novices. If you don’t give the juniors a chance, they will never grow up big and strong. And feed them too: judges work better when well fueled with premium, just like a sports car.

Even if your attendance is low, you will just have a well-staffed event with good floor coverage that move along at a good speed. If your attendance is high, then you will have the support you need! For specifics, Wizards says 1 judge per 32 players plus a head judge as a ball park. Personally, I want 1 per 24 players plus head judge at my events. For our 367 players we had 14 judges plus me and I would have taken another 2 at least if we had them.

Eighth tip: Basic stuff that should go without saying, but you will forget something every time. I should write a song: Blank paper, printer ink, deck lists, extensions cords, tape, pens, tape, pens, sharpies. Have a runner on hand to go out and get you emergency back-ups. Know where your closest dollar store, office supply and grocery store are.

Ninth tip: Learn your venue if you can. Go meditate there for a few hours if the janitor will let you in. Have a floor plan already done up before you arrive. Where are the vendors going? Where is the judge station? Where is table 1? Feature matches… so on. When I had an extra 120 players show up that I wasn’t expecting, I still had an idea of places to put them and how that was going to work, but only because I knew my venue.

Tenth tip: Hydration. Easy to forget until it’s too late.

And last but perhaps most important tip is phone a friend, look to your elders, listen to the community, whatever you want to call it… Don’t try and do this alone! I’ve been doing the judge thing pretty seriously for over a year now, and I’ve gotten really good at running tournaments at the store, but I gleaned so much from others around me. My boss at the last minute saying “Rent an extra 8 tables… just in case.” Or when I first posted the prize support and the players said “Lame! Try again.” So I did, and they were happy. There are so many people out there who have done this before, better than you. Listen to them and you just might learn something.

Remember that you are serving Magic players. They know what a good tournament looks like and they will line up around the corner next time if they can count on you to throw a good party.

Kelly Ackerman

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