Why do we use Swiss pairing for most events?

Jun 9, 2024

I’m getting ready for the events we run at San Diego Comic Con (SDCC) and was asked why Swiss pairing? Why not use single elimination or another method of pairings? So here is the answer with how we try to fix some of the issues at the end.

What is Swiss pairings?

Swiss pairings is the most popular tournament format used in tabletop competitive events, including Pokemon, Magic: The Gathering, and most other TCG’s. Swiss is designed to pair opponents of similar skill levels as the tournament progresses.

  1. Round Setup: In the first round, we pair players at random. As the tournament goes on, players are paired against opponents who have the same or similar score.
  2. Scoring: After each round, players are awarded points based on their results.
  3. Pairing Algorithm: We use a computer with a pairing algorithm designed to pair players who have similar scores. It tries to make sure players do not face the same opponent twice.
  4. Number of Rounds: For major events, the number of rounds in a Swiss tournament depends on the number of participants playing.

The goal of Swiss pairings is to provide a fair way to run tournaments, ensuring that participants compete against opponents of similar skill levels while minimizing the chance of unfair matchups.

So what’s the problem(s) and how do we address then issues? 

  1. Event length: A typical Swiss event runs all day and sometimes all day and into the night. This just doesn’t work for once a year conventions. If most of the players want to get a chance to play and win a prize then go the he coolest panel discussion, then we can’t have event run all day. So we adjust at SDCC by reducing the number of rounds.
  2. Best 2 out of 3 games = match win: Typically at bigger events a match is best 2 out of 3 games. Unfortunately this takes far too long more than an hour per round with time extensions. So we adjust by playing 1 game matches and that turns out to be a better fit for casual events but it does have the drawback of inserting more randomness in the the event.
  3. Pairing Algorithm: It takes multiple rounds for players to be paired based on their actual skill. If we are at an event where we can’t play 6+ rounds then the pairing algorithm is much less accurate. At SDCC we just can’t ask players to play 6+ rounds. There are far to many fun distractions. So we run 4 round events and this reduces precision but makes the events more fun.

So why use Swiss at all?

The reason we use Swiss is that it’s better than the other options. Single elimination isn’t fun if you have a flukey loss round one any then your done. Double elimination takes far too long and is swingy as heck. So were left making small to medium sized alterations to Swiss to make it work.

And the good news, the alterations we make really do improve things. What we call Fast Format really does improve the player experience at SDCC and other conventions.