If you ever played a Magic tournament with playoffs, it probably followed this structure:
This structure has two issues: intentional draws and overweighting playoff results. In this article, we will propose a different system that reduces or eliminates those two problems.
When the penultimate Swiss round in a Magic tournament takes place, most of the time we see a strange phenomenon: the highest tables are empty. Those with the best record up to that point decide to draw intentionally.
Players decide to do that because the advantages of ending among the first players in the Swiss phase are minimal, so it is better to secure their spot in the playoffs phase instead of potentially not qualifying for it.
Generally, there are only two advantages for finishing in the highest places in the Swiss phase, and the second of them does not apply to every tournament. First, on average, you should be playing against slightly worse opponents as you did better in the Swiss rounds. Second, you may choose to play first on your first games. The first benefit is negligible in a game with high variance like Magic. The second one is more relevant but still not that much.
Drawing is the right choice under the typical tournament structure. If getting either one point or three qualifies you for the playoffs but losing does not, playing would only be right if you expected to win that match a very high percentage of the time, which is not realistic.
The regular structure leaves the highest tables on the last rounds empty, which should be the most interesting matches at that point of the tournament. This is especially bad when events are broadcast, as it is often the case nowadays.
To avoid this, some tournament organizers propose making the last Swiss rounds untimed. The first problem with this is that there is an extra cost, the tournament is longer than it would be otherwise. The second problem is that you are forcing players to play a game that should not be played, a game which under the tournament structure should be drawn. This typically happens in Table 1 in the last round. They are qualified no matter what, and they have almost nothing to play for, so it is not an interesting match, it is a match that would normally be drawn.
Other organizers ban draws. This has the same second problem we saw before and, on top of that, encourages participants to make strange game decisions, like trying to make games longer, or playing more defensively, as their goal is to either draw or win while lowering the likelihood of losing.
Instead of using a bad tournament structure, that encourages people to draw, and not allowing them to do so, it would be better to use a system that encourages participants to play those games, as the one we propose.
Overweighting Playoff Results
The way tournaments are typically structured, with very small advantages for the one that ends first in the Swiss phase, it is almost as if they consist of two separate tournaments. The Swiss part is there just for you to qualify for the second tournament, which is the playoffs.
The regular structure does not properly reward those who did well in the Swiss phase. Considering that draws were not allowed, the first quarterfinals could see an undefeated player, with a 5-0 record, playing against a 3-2 player. If the 3-2 player wins, which is expected to happen almost 50% of the time, it means that someone with a 5-1 record is out, while a 4-2 player is still there. That is a flawed system, which overweighs what happens in the playoffs.
Our Proposal: The Spanish Tournament System
At the 2023 Old Frame World Championship, we tried something different. We were 20 players, but, instead of playing the typical 5 Swiss rounds plus the top 8, only 7 players qualified for the playoffs, and the one that ended first after the Swiss phase had a bye, directly qualifying for the semifinals.
This structure lowers the likelihood of drawing being the optimal choice, as ending first was very valuable, it did not just mean qualifying for the top 8 and having a slight advantage there, it meant qualifying for the top 4. It also made every match interesting, as they were fighting for something. No intentional draws took place.
Two Premodern tournaments in Alicante (this and this) followed the same structure, Swiss plus top 7. The result was the same, no voluntary draws occurred as finishing first in the Swiss phase was worth playing for. The first Technomonstrual also used this structure, where it encouraged Table 1 on the last round to play.
Here is the table we propose to use for tournaments of different sizes, which we will call the Spanish Tournament System (STS), in honour of its origins: its creators, César Garrido and Vedast Sanxis, and because it was first tried in Valencia, Spain.
How does this work? Let us ignore the orange rows for now. As we can see, we are granting a bye to whoever ends first after the Swiss rounds. When we are giving a player a bye in the playoffs, it is as if that player took 2 “spots” in that phase. Therefore, instead of top 4, we would have top 3. And instead of top 8, top 7.
By doing this, participants are less likely to be in a situation where drawing is the best choice, as getting a bye and skipping a playoff round is very valuable. And those that do very well in the Swiss phase have more margin of error in the playoffs.
For 9 to 16 players, we can either play 4 Swiss rounds and 3 playoff matches or 5 and 2, respectively.
What happens in the orange rows? When that is the number of players, if we want to make sure that everyone who wins every round except for one, every “X-1”, qualifies for the playoffs, but we do not want or cannot make the tournament longer, we have to use the usual tournament structure.
Double-Bye: No Intentional Draws
Does the previous table, what we are calling the “light” version, prevent every intentional draw from happening? No, there are still scenarios in which drawing is optimal. What could we do if we want to make sure that voluntarily drawing is never the right choice, and we do not mind making the tournament longer? Then we would use this structure:
In this case, the player that ends first after the Swiss rounds would have 2 byes in the playoffs. And those that go X-1 or better would get a bye.
If we do this, participants should always play, either because it is the only way to continue in the tournament or because winning one or two byes is very valuable.
In every case except for the orange ones, this system only adds an extra match to the tournament, in the playoff phase. Why are we adding 2 rounds in the orange cases? If we do not, a player with an X-1 record may not reach the playoffs, it is the same reason why we proposed using the regular top 8 structure in those cases before.
Appendix 1: 64-Person Tournament
Let us analyze a particular case, a 64-person event, and see how the regular tournament structure compares to STS. Typically, that would mean 6 Swiss rounds and top 8. In STS, 6 Swiss rounds and top 7.
Assuming no draws, after 4 rounds we would have 4 4-0 players and 16 3-1 players.
After that, using the Magic Judges system, the 4-0 would voluntarily draw the last 2 rounds to secure their place in the top 8 as they do not have any reason to play those games. On the other hand, there would be 8 4-1 players after the fifth round, and then 4 5-1 players at the end of the last round, which would fill the rest of the top 8.
In STS, the 4-0 players would play the fifth round. As there are only 7 spots in the playoffs, intentionally drawing both rounds and ending with 14 points means one of them would not qualify, so they have to play. When the fifth round ends, we would have 2 5-0 players and 10 4-1 players. Then, in the last round, the 5-0 players would play again. By playing they have an approximate 75% chance of reaching the semifinals, instead of just slightly higher than 50% if they drew. From that match, we would have a 6-0 player and a 5-1 player, and, at the same time, from tables 3 to 6, 5 more players would end up with a 5-1 record. So a total of 1 6-0 and 6 5-1 would reach the top 7.
Therefore, in STS there are no intentional draws in this case, while in the typical structure, the 4 most important Swiss phase matches would not be played.
Appendix 2: Table for X-2 or Better
What if you want to make sure that everyone who has won every round except for 2 qualifies for the playoffs? In that case, you would use the following table:
In most cases, a double-bye is given to the winner and one bye to every X-1 or better. This longer structure reduces variance, so it may be appropriate for tournaments in which there is more at stake.
Appendix 3: Playoff Charts
As most organizers are used to tournaments with just 3 playoff rounds, we are sharing some charts for more complicated structures. First, charts for tournaments where players have either 0 or 1 bye.
For example, for a tournament with top 15, the first playoff, where the first player would play against the 16th, does not take place, the first is directly qualified for the quarterfinals.
Now let us see what happens in the playoff phases when 2 byes are granted to the first-place finisher in the Swiss phase:
If we go back to the 128-people tournament we saw that the first player went 7-0 and got 2 byes, 7 6-1 players got one bye and 14 5-2 players qualified for the playoffs. In that case, what would happen is that in the first playoff round the second player does not play against the 29th, the third against the 28th, etc., as the chart shows. Instead, the first to 8th qualify for the next round, and the matches that would take place are those between the 9th and 22nd, 10th and 21st and so on until the 15th against the 16th.