There is a legend amongst us judges. It is about a man. Some say that he breathed fire. Others say that he lost an eye wresting a bear. He was most certainly a much-revered and well-respected judge—until one day he committed the most heinous atrocity known to tournament judging and now is no longer a judge.
In the waning minutes of a round of play at a Grand Prix, a judge (not our anti-hero) was sent to a table to watch a match. If you’re familiar with judging, this is what is commonly referred to as the End of Round Procedure, the hunt for delinquent matches. But this one match could not be found. Judges were sent to the table in question multiple times, but to no avail. There were no players. There was no match result slip.
"Is it a feature match?" asked one of the judges. Ah. The common trap. When looking for a delinquent table, always check to see whether it is a feature match. It wasn’t a feature match, so it was time to put a call out for the players to report the stage. Without a slip in sight, getting the match score from the players is the next best thing.
Luckily players both showed up and reported the same match result, and the tournament went about its merry way. But what happened to the match result slip? The players said that a judge had picked it up. Which judge? Well, players never remember this. On the floor, the black shirt renders us anonymous.
It was only later that the bear-wrestling judge came forward sheepishly.
"I know where the slip is."
"Oh, did you wrestle a bear for it?" asked the Head Judge.
"No. Here it is," he said and pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket. The Head Judge gasped.
This actually happened. Perhaps not quite in the manner of this dramatic retelling, but a judge once put a match result slip into his pocket and it caused quite the ruckus. I wouldn’t say that being a judge is easy, but some people make it harder than it should be, on themselves and also on the staff around them, by committing innocuous blunders like slip in pocket. These are things aren’t in the judging handbook (there is no judging handbook), nor will you find them among the top ten things you need to know in order to be a judge. They are small things that you can do to avoid being that judge—the judge that puts a slip in his pocket.
A quick caveat here. All of these things have happened at tournaments. I’ve met that judge multiple times. However, if you’re that judge, do not despair. For one thing, I’ve encountered each of these things more than once, so at least you aren’t alone. Maybe I’ve even been that judge, although I’ll never admit to it. Oh, and the slip-in-pocket judge was none other than former L4 Adam Shaw. That’s some good company for being that judge, and the part in the story about him only having one eye was true. 😉
The very thing to do in order to avoid being that judge is to never ever fill out a match result for a player. Ever. I’ve seen this happen multiple times when a judge comes across a no-show table where one of the players is not present after ten minutes. Since there aren’t two players present to fill out the slip, the judge fills it out instead . . . and gets the result wrong or drops the wrong player. (No-show players are dropped from the event because it is assumed that they left.)
This brings to mind a quote from my favorite movie, Back to the Future: "Do you know what would happen if I turned in my homework in your handwriting? I’d get kicked out of school. You wouldn’t want that to happen, would you? Would you?!" No, Biff, of course not. I often tell players that it is in your best interest to turn in your match result slip rather than let your opponent when you win. You won! You want those three match points recorded. Your opponent doesn’t care.
On a similar note, judges do not have a vested interest in your match result, at least not whether you specifically won or lost or who is dropping. It also happens that judges don’t know you or your name as well as you do. One of the most bizarre cases of a judge flipping the slip happened in a match with two Michaels. It’s an easy mistake to make, especially when both players have the same name, but an easy one to avoid. My MO when I arrive at a no-show table is to say, "You win the match. Please fill out the flip in your favor 2-0 and sign it." Then I sign "No Show" in the other box and drop that player.
Another important thing to do when you are a judge is to read out the result of any match slip that you take. Verbally confirm with the player(s), "Okay, Bruce won 2-1 over Jared," and wait for some kind of verbal confirmation or head nod. Why? Because a far more common error than a judge flipping a slip is for the players to do it. While I’ve only seen a judge do it two or three times, players do it two or three times per tournament. That part about things being in your best interest when you win a match—getting the correct result on the slip is surely one of them. And yet players frequently get this wrong and sign the slip anyway.
On a similar note, when I first come to a table with a missing player, I will ask the player who is seated what his or her name is and read off the other name from the slip. "So you’re Nicholas Sabin, and Jason Reedy is not here. Jason Reedy!" I make it loud enough for people seated around me to hear because one common reason for players to be missing, especially at larger events, is that they went to wrong table, found an empty seat (because that player was a no-show), and just sat down to play. If they are nearby, hopefully saying their name loudly will get their attention. If I’m judging a smaller tournament, making an announcement to the entire room might be feasible, or I could go outside and see if the player is smoking. While this isn’t required and not doing so doesn’t make you that judge, I find that a little extra customer service is appreciated, especially if it helps people play some Magic.
Luis Scott-Vargas once told me that the number-one ruling that he has had to appeal in tournaments has been "can I go to the bathroom?" A surprising number of judges have answered LSV (and others) in the negative. The reasoning? I struggle to come up with a reason. I suppose it’s because judges are conditioned to save time in tournaments. There’s also language in the IPG that suggests that getting up from your table is no bueno, but that’s about going to look at the standings while you are actively in a match. We’re talking about the bathroom, ladies and sirs, a basic human function. I don’t know if a famous person has ever said this, but if not you can quote me on it: "Let the man pee." Don’t be that judge.
Personally, I love it when a player asks to use the restroom because I get to sit down in their seat while they’re gone. I often chat with the opponent about how their day is going and what the status of the match is. It’s a nice way to get a break while working the floor.
Deck checks are a normal everyday operation at Magic tournaments and another area where simple mistakes are made that could be avoided. These mistakes often have to do with information being revealed to the opponent. Nothing as extreme as plopping a deck on the table face up and splaying the cards out, although that has probably happened somewhere. The biggest problem I’ve seen that’s continued to crop up is writing a card name on the back of a match result slip to record an infraction. For example, a player receives a Game Loss for a Deck/Decklist Problem, and the judge writes, "Did not register 4x Loxodon Smiter." While this very well may be what the player did wrong, the back of the match result slip isn’t private information. The opponent is allowed to pick it up and look at it, and now you’ve just informed him that the player is playing G/W or Naya. Whoops! Don’t be that judge.
On the flip side, judges who have made this mistake or heard about this mistake get it into their heads that they should never write down a card name on the back of a slip, instead filling out an infraction with something like "Missed Trigger: forgot an upkeep trigger." (Back when Missed Triggers were more of a thing.) If an upkeep trigger was missed, I’m sure that both players are well aware of what card it was for. It’s okay to write the card name and in fact very helpful to do so in case the player picks up multiple infractions and we want to investigate them further.
Another problem that I’ve seen from time to time is the old desideboard. When we swoop for a mid-round deck check, we collect the decks in a sideboarded state and are supposed to return them in that very same state. However, the decklist itself is in maindeck configuration, so it can be confusing to try to cross-reference and check the cards off. Confusing, but not insurmountable. When I return decks to players after a mid-round deck check, I always tell them, "Double check to make sure that it is still correct." You aren’t allowed to change your mind and sideboard differently after the deck check ("oh, I just remembered that I wanted to bring in my Leyline of Sanctity."), but if the judge has legitimately mixed some cards up, you can change it back. If the judge didn’t mess up, you can’t say he did and use that as an excuse to switch your sideboarding after the fact. That would be cheating. Don’t be that player.
That’s all for this week. I hope these anecdotes will help some of you be better judges by avoiding simple head-smack-type errors. Players as well since some of these pertain to you. In two weeks I’ll be back with some exciting Theros-related rules content. While I’ve heard that the entire set has been spoiled, I haven’t had time to sit down with the spoiler. Plus, as a judge, it is always a good idea to wait for the full Comprehensive Rules and/or FAQ to come out before speculating on crazy things like creature enchantments and new mechanics.