Tournament Format Changes

Published On: August 11, 2023

“Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care”.
– Theodore Roosevelt

Christian from Team Ghost Galaxy here with some thoughts and an update related to KeyForge tournaments.

A month has gone by since our first Ghost Galaxy’s Vault Tour stop in Philadelphia, and less than a week has passed since our first KeyForge National Championship at this years’ Gen Con in Indianapolis, IN. Both tournaments were successful, with many satisfied players, exciting matches, and happy moments. Not only have these events allowed our team to get our organized-play (“OP”) gears running in a real way, but we have put the Playstile software through its paces, continually asking its developer to add features and fix bugs. My appreciation goes out to the many players and to our own hard-working staff at those events.

During the last two events, we’ve carefully listened to player feedback as how to improve our tournaments. Much of this feedback has been taken from players during the event, some from our webform here, and other feedback gleaned from online comments in various social media forums.

One consistent piece of feedback we’ve received is that many players have asked us to move away from the Double Elimination Bracket system that we are running at the moment. In their view, the combination of format and the relatively (~45 min) long rounds for KeyForge, causes too much downtime for players in the 1-Loss bracket of play. We have taken this feedback to heart and have put a great deal of thought and effort into an alternative system that would make sense. I’ll provide some news on that today.

When considering tournament formats, a prominent candidate is always the “Swiss” tournament: a popular system in which round-over-round winners are paired against winners, and losers paired against losers. You may lean more about the Swiss tournament format here.

Swiss Has Holes

I’m no stranger to slices of Swiss. I’ve been both directly and indirectly involved with organized play for many OP games for the last 25 years using the Swiss tournament system (games such as A Game of Thrones TCG/LCG, Call of Cthulhu LCG/TCG, Android: Netrunner LCG, Star Wars: X-Wing, Star Wars: Destiny, and more). These many tournaments have given me a keen appreciation for the problems that come with playing Swiss in the tabletop game category. I’ll highlight some of the most serious problems listed below.

Dead Player Walking

Swiss tournaments consist of a number of rounds (the number being related to the size of the tournament). As the tournament progresses, players with an elevated loss rate (say, 3-4 losses) no longer have any chance to qualify for the final tournament round (i.e. they can no longer “make the cut”). This results in a growing number of participants that become “dead players walking”, that is: players participating in the tournament with zero chance to win.

Most contestants know when they become a “dead player walking”, which causes the tournament to experience a number of unpleasant side-effects.

Player Drops

After the first few rounds of play, as the pool of players who no longer can win grows, the amount of “player drops” increase substantially.

It is common sense: as any chance of winning is eliminated, player motivation to continue participating is severely affected. Some simply choose to drop out (for many different personal reasons).

However, to function smoothly, the Swiss tournament system relies on everyone’s continued participation in additional rounds. Unfortunately, as we live in the real world, players drop regardless. As rounds continue, an increasing number of “opponent no-show” matches are won by the player that did show (and is therefore automatically the winner). Such matches, resulting from player drops, have several unfortunate consequences, the severity of which may vary by personality type:

1) “No Show” wins can feel unfair and arbitrary to those players that face a real and challenging match on their own

2) Such easy wins can have the effect of diminishing a player’s actual accomplishments, as they may feel (or be seen as) to be relying “lucky” rather than skill

3) “No Show” wins may impair the winning players’ future “strength of schedule” calculation (needed in case of a tie in final cut determination) at no fault of their own

4) Some players are simply unhappy with these wins, as they’d much rather be playing, but instead are forced to wait out the round

Shadows of Collusion

We at Ghost Galaxy love seeing “player teams” show up to tournaments. These “teams” are typically members of the same local community or online club. They arrive together, cheer each other on, share hotel rooms, engage in long-distance car-pooling, etc. At times these teams will wear custom made “team” t-shirts or hats, or brandish team-playmats. Such groups often share decks (as is made possible in the KeyForge Master Vault) and will celebrate any victory for their “team”.

To see such “esprit d’corps” is a wonderful part of tournaments, and something that Ghost Galaxy encourages.

Unfortunately, in Swiss tournaments, suspicion often arises regarding such teams (and sometimes towards individuals not part of any visible team) –– conjecturing that a team’s “Dead Players Walking” purposefully will lose matches to “teammates” who are still in the running. Such accusations, made either directly to judges or often whispered among players, are common, and in most cases impossible to prove (for what it is worth, I suspect actual real collusion is very rare).

Human nature in a competitive environment being what it is, this concern leaves a portion of players with a bad taste in their mouth, either because they believe themselves or their friends (fairly or unfairly) to be the victim of collusion, or because they have been unfairly accused of such. This is, of course, is a direct consequence of “dead players walking” phenomenon that arise in non-elimination formats


Filling the Holes

The issues detailed above are two prominent ones in the traditional Swiss tournament format.

So, if one wishes to improve on these flaws, how does one proceed? As the reader knows, we first landed on traditional double-elimination bracket tournament style in which players continue to play until they either lose their second game, or they “make the cut”. Yet, as mentioned above, we received a clear player desire to find an alternative structure due to some of the downsides (primarily player downtime) of that particular format. To this end, after the Philadelphia Vault Tour stop, we put on our thinking caps alongside the Playstile team to decide on an alternative KeyForge tournament format with the following two goals in mind:

1) That any player remaining in the tournament must have a chance at winning the tournament (i.e. no “dead players walking”)
2) To eliminate, to the greatest extent possible, any “byes” (and resulting player downtime)

Tournament systems are deceptively complex. They must take into account a great variety of participating player numbers*, they must be able to handle in-game player drops (while it is much rarer for a player to drop out when they still have the chance to win, drops happen), and they must be able to reasonably solve any rare situation in which several players tie for next-round qualification.

* Most tournaments strive for an easily divisible player count by factor of 2, being 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, etc. However, due to the uncertainties of life, few tournaments actually manage to hit such a precise number at the time of tournament start, and therefore must use systems that accommodate numbers outside a clean factor of 2.

Many times, it makes sense to rely on systems already existing in the world, but other times the situation calls for innovation. To that end, in collaboration with the Playstile team, I’m very proud to announce a new tournament format that we believe will meets our goals above: one we think players will love.

We call it Playstile 2L0

Playstile 2L0 (“two-el-oh”) is a new tournament format that works like a variant of the Swiss tournament format.

As with traditional Swiss tournaments, Playstile 2LO winners are paired with winners, and losers with losers across game rounds. Unlike traditional Swiss, players that lose two games rounds are eliminated from the tournament (thus “2LO” = “Two Losses Out”). The system elegantly handles drops, pairings, and will only have a single natural “bye” in rounds with an uneven number of players. Additionally, Playstile 2LO arrives at the final cut in one round less than most Swiss-format tournaments.

Playstile 2LO also contains a sophisticated “strength of schedule” ranking (to handle ties in making “the cut”), will handle pairings to maximize opponent variety, and will assign byes on a rotating basis—meaning that any player receiving a bye (caused by an uneven number of players), will not receive another bye until all other eligible players each have received a bye.

Playstile has been hard at work to implement this new tournament format into their software, and we have run tens-of-thousands of simulated tournaments as tests. Ghost Galaxy will start using this new format at the Roseville Vault Tour ’23 on August 18 – 20.

To ensure a stable experience, we will not only be running the tournament through Playstile software but also manually (as a backup). In addition, we will have the Playstile engineers on-hand to repair any issue the software may have during the tournament.

Today, we have updated our organized play section to reflect our use of Playstile 2LO going forward. We have also created a comprehensive explanation of this new format, which may be found here. When Playstile is officially opened to the public later this year, players, retailers, and tournament organizers will have free access to running the Playstile 2LO format on their own.


While I’ve detailed some of the real downsides of the traditional Swiss format above, one great argument exists for running traditional Swiss tournaments. That argument goes something like this: “When I go to an official KeyForge tournament, I go because I love playing KeyForge. I don’t want to go to an event, travel far and pay for lodging and admission, to perhaps only play two games.” We agree with this notion.

This is why, alongside the principal elimination tournaments, we run a “Second Æmber” tournament at official Ghost Galaxy events. Players may drop into the “Second Æmber” event at any time, which offers a pool of prizes to a selection of winning players. As such, any players that attend a Ghost Galaxy event whom wish to keep playing against other event attendees after elimination, is able to do so. The Second Æmber tournament is therefore very important to us, and we are happy to take suggestions for making Second Æmber ever better.


The Ghost Galaxy team continues, on myriad levels, to move the great game of KeyForge ever forward. We’ve come a very long way since last summer when we took over the game from Fantasy Flight Games, and we’ll continue to press ahead with the game and its supporting activities as best we can: KeyForge fans deserve nothing less. We appreciate all your feedback, your enthusiasm, and your patronage.

Christian T. Petersen
Ghost Galaxy

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