Chatter of the Squirrel – Sealed Redux, and a Little Bit of “Judge!”

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Wednesday, December 17th – What I really want to call attention to today is a certain situation that, if left unchecked and uncurbed, could legitimately threaten the future of competitive Magic as it exists today. I am not, for once, employing hyperbole. The issue is that of inept, counterintuitive, self-interested, or ineffective judging at the Grand Prix or Pro Tour level.

I was planning on going all literary this week, but I wanted to clarify some of the points I made in my last column that (ideally) would elevate it above the level of Simply Complaining A Whole Bunch. Pacifically*, I feel like it’s important to grasp the nature of why the format is quote unquote terrible to understand how to maximize your own chances despite the circumstances, and in retrospect I ought to have spent more time articulating what you can actually do about it rather than hoping those lessons flowed naturally from my observations.

Incidentally, I finished second at last week’s PTQ, and despite remembering anew a) how hard it actually is to get back on the tour once you’re off, b) how loose it feels to finish second at a PTQ, and c) how thrilling it is to “almost get there” and regain, again, the sort of mystical illusions about PT play that I believe will help me to appreciate the opportunity more once I get back on the train. Despite the finish, I still think the Sealed format is awful. It’s not particularly skill-intensive, very open-dependent, and it has large amounts of variance even in well-constructed manabases. But my deck featured Elspeth, two Agony Warps, three Windwright Mages, a Sanctum Gargoyle, a Tower Gargoyle, two Bull Cerodons, an Oblivion Ring, a Bloodpyre Elemental, three tri-lands, four two-drops that I could actually cast on turn 2, five three-drops that I could probably cast on turn 3, and oh by the way an Empyrial Archangel that I never drew. Don’t need. The only match I lost involved back-to-back mulligans and back-to-back Battlegrace-Angel-Into-Caldera-Hellion-Nuking-Your-Team plays. I am fairly certain that you could go to the acute-brain-damage wing of the trauma ward, select an individual at random, hand him or her my deck, and expect that person to make the Top 8 at least fifty percent of the time. Maybe sixty, and wow wow wow if you’re lucky enough for that person to actually understand the rules of Magic.

I think I built my deck in a fairly innovative and probably optimal fashion, right down to some last-second decisions on the manabase, but as I mentioned last week you could probably make some serious errors (including playing the incorrect Obelisk) and still get there anyway. The card most people questioned was Grixis Battlemage, since Black (I suppose) was a bit of a splash (though still with six sources plus a sack-land), and my only way to generate actual raw card advantage was a single Esper Charm**. My card quality was through the roof, sure, but that doesn’t help if I am just sitting there drawing lands, and the Battlemage ensures that never happens. Almost every one of the Battlemages is underrated, actually, but he’s particularly brutal in Sealed.

I’d post the list, but I didn’t keep it together. Had to windmill slam those Mythic Rares. I was actually two for two against resolved Broodmate Dragons, largely because people were playing right into Agony Warp. My favorite moment was when I was at two life, Lootered a Windwright Mage into the yard to give my other Windwright Mage flying, Warped both dragons to kill one and only take a single damage, Lifelinked up to three, then Gargoyled back a Mage and played it to stabilize. Sanctum Gargoyle is incidentally probably one of the most underrated cards in the set, even though people pick it pretty highly, just because looping them doesn’t even start to resemble fair. The fact that it is vulnerable to Branching Bolt is certainly awkward, but the awkwardness is mitigated by the fact that, for example, it’s pretty difficult to lose once you have recurred any kind of Capsule.

Anyway, if you’ll remember from last week, one of the biggest problems I have with the format is the fact that almost any deck can get a draw that positions itself very solidly into the aggressive role, and because of the nature of the format’s manabases as well as the generally-high quality of the aggressive creatures – and an entire evasion mechanic in Exalted that also happens to make creatures hit even harder – it can be difficult to recover. Some people at this last PTQ jibed me plenty for complaining, but then asked me to look through decks featuring exactly zero potential for aggression. Obviously, the point was lost, so I’ll take the time to reiterate it:

If it makes you want to rip your hair out when the opponent curves out his aggro nut draw while you sit there unable to cast your spells, you really ought to give yourself the potential for that kind of opening as well.

While in many cases victories emerging from these kinds of draws may feel like “undeserved” victories***, the fact remains that they allow you to mark “W” on your match results slip. This means that you probably ought to be playing your Wild Nacatls, obviously, but it also entails giving special priority to cards like Jhessian Infiltrator, Tidehollow Sculler, Hissing Iguanar, Deft Duelist, and Steward of Valeron that are excellent at any point in the game but particularly vicious on turn 2 or turn 3. It also means that you can consider even cards like Knight of the Skyward Eye on the splash, because sometimes you just might get there on the second turn, and he’s always going to have at least the potential to be a 5/5, which is nothing to sneeze at.

It’s not just about playing the cards themselves, though. “Being aggro” or at least “possessing the potential to shift into an aggressive strategic moment” also has plenty to do with your mana. Specifically, if you have multiple Squires or Nacatls or Deft Duelists or whatever you really want to prioritize playing basic lands of those colors of mana and letting your sac-lands and Obelisks do the dirty work for your splash colors. A lot of it is luck, sure, but it’s not like you can’t gently urge luck to go your way more often than not.

This last point seems obvious, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people running Obelisks in Sealed Deck that encompass their two main colors and one of their splashes, and a lot of the time this is just wrong. Of course, sometimes you don’t have any other options and you play with what you get / what your mana demands, which once again the format is awful when you’re forced out of necessity to play a certain set of cards to have a chance, only to be forced to salvage barely-adequate manafixing that justifies your color selections in theory but subjects you to the cruel and final whim of variance even more than Magic does normally. In my Sealed pool from the PTQ, I was base White-Blue and ran one Obelisk. Obviously, it was a Jund Obelisk, and the decision wasn’t particularly close. Black and Red were my two splashes, and I wanted Green for Empyrial Archangel and Knight of the Skyward Eye. All of my two-drops demanded White mana, so why was I going to want an Obelisk that provided access to a color too late to make it relevant?

In essence, my ideal Obelisk fixes both my splash colors while providing a means of, say, activating a Sighted-caste Sorcerer or a Knight of the Skyward Eye**** or a Battlemage, or cycling a Resounding Whatever, without requiring me to devote an actual slot to doing so. This provides (obviously) the tremendous potential for added value on cards you’re going to be playing anyway, without sacrificing the mana consistency that’s required to win a certain threshold of games.

All of that is good, and all of that is nice, but what I really wanted to call attention to today is a certain situation that, if left unchecked and uncurbed, could legitimately threaten the future of competitive Magic as it exists today. I am not, for once, employing hyperbole. The issue is that of inept, counterintuitive, self-interested, or ineffective judging at the Grand Prix or Pro Tour level.

I’m going to analyze three separate cases today, and before anyone asks, yes I have spoken with all the players involved. In the first two cases I’ve actually witnessed the events firsthand, while the third I gleaned from event coverage and actually spoke to the coverage reporter about the incident personally*****. Such rulings, in my view, seriously undermine the competitive integrity of the events in question, and introduce another uncontrollable variable into the equation that jeopardizes the value of an individual’s Grand Prix attendance, particularly for players who have committed quite a bit financially to the trip. Above all, they make clear the need for a uniform judging policy that prioritizes the integrity of the game state as would be dictated by the cards, e.g. a policy that holds nonintervention as a maxim, holds artificial alteration of the game’s natural outcome as a last resort for when the state of the game, deliberately or otherwise, has itself become altered by an irreversible game rule violation.

Situation 1: The Disqualification of Tiago Chan at Grand Prix: Taipei

I will begin by saying I have no particular affinity (and no particular antipathy) for Tiago. I enjoyed hanging out with him at GP: Taipei, largely after the incident in question had taken place. Prior to that I had met him maybe four or five times, and hadn’t really had a conversation with him, ever. But he’s not, like, a homeboy of mine, or whatever. This is not at all a case of “pros trying to protect one another.” This is, very simply in my view, a case of national favoritism******.

Situation is as follows: Tiago has a lot of creatures on the board and a Sigil of Distinction, which he is about to attempt to equip to a Sanctum Gargoyle. The opponent is dead if Tiago attacks with the team. The opponent has a Necrogenesis out with enough mana to make two creatures, and if the opponent survives then Tiago is low enough on life to die to the opponent’s counterswing, assuming he fails to play a creature. Assuming he manages to play a creature, the opponent’s counterswing, again assuming the opponent survives, will put Tiago at one.

The problem arises when Tiago attempts to equip Sigil to Sanctum Gargoyle. The opponent immediately announces whatever the equivalent is to “Hold on!”, and casts Naya Charm. I do not know if he said “in response” or simply “Wait!,” but the telling aspect to me was that he physically (like with his hands) prevented the Sigil from touching Tiago’s Gargoyle, like the Sigil was sitting in the middle of the table, and the opponent also proceeded to start manually tapping Tiago’s creatures.

This is where it got sticky. Tiago, obviously wanting to act before the opponent manually tapped his guys, said “float two mana” from his Drumhunter and a Steward of Valeron. He had five lands untapped, and was intending to cast a Mosstodon. Obviously, though, it was preferable to float mana from the creatures that were about to be tapped, so that if he drew anything off the Drumhunter that would allow him to survive the counterattack assuming his Mosstodon was removed, he wanted to leave mana up to cast it. But when Tiago went to cast the Mosstodon, his opponent said “No, you mana burn!”

A judge was called to the table and ruled in favor of the Taiwanese player. The ruling was appealed, and before the Head Judge arrived to make a decision I asked another judge what the proper role of a spectator was in this situation, since at no point in the discussion to the table judge was it mentioned that the Taiwanese player was manually manipulating Tiago’s permanents. The “side-judge” told me to speak with the head judge and table judge, which I did. This didn’t appear to affect the ruling, though, because – and here’s the really audacious part – the head judge announced, after forty-five minutes of deliberation, that Tiago was being disqualified for, get this, “lying to a judge.”

The reasoning? That different spectators had different opinions, the players gave different stories of the game state, the head judge didn’t see anything unfold, so the only word the head judge could go by was the word of the table judge. And because Tiago’s story disagreed with that of the table judge, the head judge concluded that he was lying to a judge.

Despite the fact that, you know, the whole reason you appeal a ruling is because you very obviously disagree with the table judge.

What was very obviously the case, to me, was that the opponent got excited that his Naya Charm was about to win him the game, and acted too hastily. A lot of players, especially players newer to the Pro scene, don’t declare the timing of when they are doing things and frequently say “in response…” before they need to do so. Then, when it was clear that he had made a mistake, he was trying to backpedal and mise a win by forcing Tiago to take mana burn. The point at which, to me, you cede the argument, is the point when you start tapping the opponent’s permanents and doing things for him. Even if the Sigil wasn’t in the middle of being equipped to a creature – and bear in mind it’s sitting in the middle of the table, which if you think about it makes even less sense because never is an equipment “in transit” from one creature to another – and therefore even if it was somehow ambiguous which phase you are in, it seems like you’re doing nothing but muddling the situation and contributing to the confusion by physically messing with the opponent’s cards and absolving him of the opportunity to respond.

So not only is it abundantly clear that we’re in the main phase, it’s abundantly clear that even if there is some kind of ambiguity about what’s going on, it’s the Taiwanese player whose actions are the source of the ambiguity. Assume all of that for whatever reason doesn’t matter. Still, you’re in a situation where one person thinks it’s the middle of the combat phase, and one person thinks it’s the first main phase. Assume, despite the evidence to the contrary, that you’re going to rule that it’s the middle of the combat phase. Doesn’t it at the very least make sense to allow the opponent to undo the actions that were made conditionally upon it being the combat phase? I understand that it’s not a judge’s role to make (or understand) gameplay decisions made by a player. But cannot you simply ask, “during what phase did you add mana to the pool?” and if the opponent says, “I intended to add that mana during my main phase,” either rule that the mana has been added during the main phase and that the main phase has yet to end, or rule that the action is now illegal because the game has passed the main phase and therefore such action cannot be taken. This would have had the side effect of allowing Tiago to cast the creature in his hand without dying first, but I could foresee there being situations where failing to float the mana would lose the player in Tiago’s position the game anyway, so it’s not about me wanting a particular person to win the game. But what seems totally counterintuitive is for a player to say “I added mana in my main phase,” and for a judge to say “actually it’s the combat phase, and although it’s a completely different phase of the game and you’re actively denying that you did ever or would ever add mana to your pool during that phase, I’m going to force you to add it anyway.”

Not one part of this entire situation made any sense to me, except within the context of a judge wanting to either a) save face at having failed to consider important variables at the time of making a ruling, or b) help out a player that the judges had biases towards for whatever reason.

Situation 2: The Martin Juza Decklist at GP: Taipei

If a passing fancy urged you, on a whim, to merge the words “anal” and “retentive” and apply them to Martin Juza’s scrutiny of a deck registration sheet, you would find that via sheer accident of fate you’ve succeeded in attaching an astoundingly apt modifier to a noun. The man is crazy. Once, twice, three times he looks over the little ticks of twos and ones, counting everything like a crazed actuary, like the second-grader with his 200-count box of crayons who wants to make sure that the ginger kid who sits two rows over from Samantha didn’t steal his Burnt Sienna yet again. I would seriously let this guy manage my finances. So when a judge came up to him and said he’d get a game loss for registering a 38-card decklist, I was more than a little skeptical.

Feel free to imagine the following sequence of events as happening either in classical slow motion or in bullet-time, if you’d like. Judge and Juza count the sheet, forty cards. Juza flicks through the deck he presented, flick flick flick flick flick, shhhp shhhp shhhp shhhp shhhp, forty cards. Down the rows one more time, forty. Fan cards, count down, shuffle up, forty. The look on Juza’s face is the look of concern one exhibits around an older person who may, you fear, be losing his or her mind.

I will pause to say that at this point I kind of want to down-high-punch uppercut the judge anyway, because he’s one of those people that looks quickly to his left and then to his right before he says anything, anything at all. Check, swish, slight lunge forward like the road is clear, speech. It conveys the effect of someone who might just jump behind a bush, behind some shrubbery, at any point in time. So head swisher is sitting there under the spotlight, might as well be sweating, because he’s just wasted a ton of time and there’s very obviously nothing wrong with the decklist. I kind of chuckle, because Juza’s shoulders shrug like that gesture Daria makes when she doesn’t want to return the volleyball. Judge man, though, can’t take it gracefully and duck out.


He asserts that what was wrong was that Juza’s 1s looked like 0s, that they were zeros, that Juza registered a 38-card decklist, and that therefore he’d get a game loss.

Juza’s turn now to look left and then right, only this time into the eyes of disbelieving onlookers who literally cannot believe what is happening, and I say ‘cannot believe’ as in ‘think there is something deficient with their eardrums and are contemplating phoning medical professionals to resolve the problem, because certainly the situation couldn’t have progressed as they felt they had perceived it.’

Juza argues, obviously, and I mean argues like a person who is not going to take “no” for an answer. After what was at least five more minutes the judge offered to “let him off” with a warning, but admonished him that “he should be grateful” and that he should “be more careful in the future.”

Despite the minor detail that there was nothing at all wrong with the decklist. Despite the fact that Juza’s 1s didn’t look anything at all like 0s. Despite that why on earth would you for some reason mark “0” in the played column of a deck registration sheet in the first place. Despite that even if you are unsure about whether or not something is a zero or a one, there is a guy sitting there telling you that something is a one with exactly no evidence that would suggest anything to the contrary.

I understand that players have a self-interest in their own well-being and that someone could be attempting to cover up an error by saying “no, that’s a one, yep yeah it is, see I registered forty cards, don’t give me a game loss.” But Juza’s deck was sitting on the table right there and contained exactly one copy of the lands that Juza asserted on the registration sheet he was running singletons of.

Again, I have no idea why this unfolded except that a judge was trying to save face and refuse to admit that, shockingly, he was a human and had made a human error.

Situation 3: The GP Auckland Game Loss, As Lifted From The Coverage

Ray’s take on the situation:

Brumby kept his hand, while Thompson went back for six, before dropping a turn 2 Tidehollow Strix and moving Brumby’s Bant Panorama to his graveyard, preempting the sacrifice.

‘Oh, thanks man!’

“Just trying to speed up the process,” Thompson replied with a smile.

As if in agreement, Brumby shuffled his deck quickly and presented it, when the table judge stepped in to inform him that two face-up riffles and an over-hand shuffle was not sufficient randomization, and issued a game loss, unfortunately ending what was shaping up to be an enjoyable match with these two animated players.

“Sorry man, I guess I got caught up in the moment,” was all Brumby could say.”

… what?

Issuing a game loss here seems to be about the most counterproductive conceivable action the judge could take at this point. First of all, the players are attempting to play quickly, and Gerry’s actually moving the land to the graveyard complicates the situation all the more, because they’re both very evidently trying to speed it along – and both, crucially, complicit in any shortcuts taken to speed up the pace of the game. Note that I don’t think this is a bad thing, per se. Especially since during in-game shuffles most people randomize the deck just well enough so that they aren’t aware of the order of the cards, given that the deck was randomized in the first place and they are under an obligation to finish the match.

But even if you think a simple riffle-and-cut isn’t adequate: why on Earth, why in the world, do you not simply ask a player to shuffle his deck more thoroughly and issue a caution, maybe just maybe a warning, if it’s particularly merited. This seems outrageous. If I was in Gene’s situation I would have probably gotten kicked out of the tournament, because I’d ask the judge how much my opponent was paying him to make that ruling. This is a situation that could clearly be resolved by a judging philosophy that aims to artificially alter the result of as few matches as possible, because even if the technical violation of insufficient randomization merited a game loss, this would be counterbalanced by how easy the situation would be to remedy as it happens.

I have been told that there was more to the situation than was detailed in the coverage, but what has been made aware to me does not make the judge’s violation in this case seem any less egregious.

The reason you have got to prioritize bringing these types of artificial alterations to the game state to a minimum is that players have got to have some guarantee that the consequences of their actual in-game decisions, first and foremost, determine the outcomes of their matches. The more arbitrary these kinds of judging decisions appear to be, the less confidence players can have in the integrity of the game-state, because it becomes possible (in the minds of players) for an “interventionist” judge to tilt the game one way or another. I cannot overemphasize how bad this is for organized play. Judges are supposed to be – and are, for the most part – objective arbiters who ensure fairness for all competitors. When necessary, they have the executive power to issue losses, disqualifications, and even suspensions if they must. But this power comes with a responsibility to the players that these kinds of decisions are not going to be made arbitrarily, and even more importantly are not going to be made with anything but the integrity of the tournament in mind. We like to think we have moved past the era of “Japanese Judge!” being a siren for ensuing shenanigans, but a few high-profile suspensions does not by any means ensure that the problem has been remedied.

Until next week…


* A guy at my office says this, and I just crack up every time because of how plainly articulated the lack of an S is. He similarly cracks up when I try to say just about anything in Malay. It’s like an Odd Couple meets a Noam Chomsky intro-linguistics class, without the acerbic humor but with the radical leftism.
** Best Charm targeting the opponent? Skullmulcher plus Sigil of Distinction on the draw step.
*** Whatever that means, which exactly.
**** One is obviously a better ability than the other, but do not underestimate Shroud.
***** And if the coverage reporting does not match the actual reality of whatever took place, that’s an issue in and of itself. I understand acutely that the reporting of WoTC events on the WoTC website is not “journalism” in the strictest sense and doesn’t demand the same kind of professional rigor and objectivity, but neither is it an excuse to fail to confront reality. Of course, I’m not saying that the coverage in question was lacking in anything, either, necessarily; I only want to account for that possibility on the front end.
****** Which, bear in mind, may not even be intentional. If you understand more clearly what one of the people involved in the incident is saying, you’re obviously more likely to view the other person’s story as muddled, unclear, or poorly-reasoned.