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The Dragon's Den
What Can Your Rating Do For You?
By DeQuan Watson - 3.17.05

More people are starting to play competitively again with the banning of Ravager and his buddy (Disciple of the Vault).  This is no surprise.  This is what everyone wanted (and expected) when the bannings were announced.  When attendance creeps up, I almost always get questions regarding ratings.  What is your rating good for?  Is it worth working on?  How do you get a higher rating?  Well, if you can follow along today, I'll tell you.
Before getting into details about what your rating does, let me explain how it is calculated.  Here is the ELO system and how it applies to Magic: the Gathering as stated in the DCI Floor Rules:
The Elo player-rating system compares players' match records against their opponents' match records and determines the probability of the player winning the matchup. This probability factor determines how many points a players' rating goes up or down based on the results of each match. When a player defeats an opponent with a higher rating, the player's rating goes up more than if he or she defeated a player with a lower rating (since players should defeat opponents who have lower ratings). All new players start out with a base rating of 1600. The DCI uses the following equation to determine a player's win probability in each match:
Win Probability = --------------------------------------------------------------
                       10^((Opponent's Rating-Player's Rating)/400) + 1
This probability is then used to recalculate each player's rating after the match. In the equation below, players receive 1 point if they win the match, 0 if they lose, and 0.5 for a draw. Players' new ratings are determined as follows:
Player's New Rating = Player's Old Rating + (K-Value * (Scoring Points-Player's Win Probability))
For those not too good at math, let me explain what this all means.  Your rating is going to up or down after each match.  The number of points it rises or falls is determined by two factors.  The first is your opponent's rating.  If they are higher than you, you stand to gain more points and risk losing as many.  On the flipside of things, if your opponent's rating is lower, you stand to gain less and risk losing more.  In theory, in a perfect world, if everyone played up to (or down to) their potential, as based on rating, this is the fairest system there is.  The other thing that determines your points is the K-value.  This number is set at the start of the tournament.  This is anywhere from 8K to 48K.  There are various guidelines that determine each level.
Now we need to talk about what a rating can to for you.  Ultimately, what you can do with a rating is get byes or invites in large events.  That's the goal.  For instance, once your rating reached 1800 in the appropriate format, you get a first round bye in Grand Prix events with the matching format.  So, if you reach 1800 in constructed, you have earned a first round bye in a constructed format Grand Prix.  If you have reached 1800 in limited, you have earned a first round bye in a limited format Grand Prix event.  The next two major plateaus for byes are 1900 (second round bye) and 2000 (third round bye).
People look at byes and want to shake their head.  When you put things in perspective, these byes are huge.  Let's say the event you are attending has 400 players (honestly most GP events have more).  If you get even a first round bye, you will basically be starting one win ahead of almost half the field (excluding others with byes of course).  That saves you a lot of trouble.  I'm sure you can see how the second and third round byes can really effect your performance. 
But that aside, the real big deal is getting onto the Pro Tour.  That's the big stage for Magic where the good money is.  It's hard to get there.  And I'll tell anyone that the hardest way to get there just might be to qualify on rating.  To get to the Pro Tour on rating you have to possess at least a 1950 rating.  If you aren't that high, don't expect your name to appear on an invite list any time soon.  After factoring all other invites, the top rated players in the format corresponding to the event in question get an invite.  This usually results in the top 75-100 players in that format being invited to the event.  So, I'm sure this easily explains the level of competition at a Pro Tour event.
With all of that explained and out to rest, let's assume that you never plan to play in any major event for Magic.  I think everyone should at least attempt to if they like competition. The prize money is great and I have had lots of good experiences that have created many memories at large tournaments.  However, large tournaments and high competition may not be your thing.  If you aren't planning on playing in these large events, does your rating still mean anything to you?  That's for you to answer.  However, I think that it can mean a lot.
More than anything your rating proves consistency.  It shows how you are doing on a long term basis.  I always tell players not to check their rating every week.  We know that your rating is going to go up or down a few points with every update, assuming you play every week.  So you aren't going to learn much check weekly.  If you look at your rating monthly, you will have a better assessment of how well you are doing.  If you play every week and your rating goes up 25 points over the course of a month, that shows that you had consistently good success over the course of the month.  Obviously, reviewing over longer stretches yields event truer results.  I take this a step further and post ratings for the top 20 players locally in each format on a bulletin board in my store.  It's fun.  It encourages competitive play.  Players work to get ahead of each other.  So, in addition to making the competitive environment more fun, it helps people gauge their own progress.
But, I have to tell you that you won't get your rating up real high by ONLY playing in Friday Night Magic tournaments.  Don't take this the wrong way.  I think Friday Night Magic is the single best way to try out new decks, ideas, and strategies in a competitive environment.  I remember driving to stores to play on Friday nights before big Saturday events.  This was long before the term "Friday Night Magic" was even being used.  The thing is, you can't work your rating up real high playing in just those events.  Remember that whole ELO thing we discussed up top?  Well, FNM is the lowest on the rung for K-value events.  It's only 8K.  That's why it's a good place to play and practice.  You don't risk gaining or losing more than eight points per match.  And for the average player, that loss or gain is likely going to be in the range of two to four points.  However, the MINIMUM that any other tournament is sanctioned at is 16K.  So if you want to work your rating, a good suggestion is to keep attending those FNM events, but also attend another event AT LEAST every other week.  I also think that non-FNM events is the best way to test how good you are as well.  You will be competing against more dedicated players and proven decks usually. 
Well, I hope this gives you all the information you need on figuring out the usefulness of your rating.  It can be a lot to absorb.  Just remember, knowledge is power.  I know that locally I plan to so some events that are only open to players of 1700 rating or higher for some big prizes.  So maybe that's something other stores or judges should organize for fun.  It will also encourage players to work harder.  But now I'm just musing and rambling.
Until next time,
DeQuan Watson
a.k.a. PowrDragn
at Pojo dot com

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