Embracing The Chaos – Judging and EDH at Pro Tour: San Diego

SCG Open Richmond!

Wednesday, February 24th – Pro Tour: San Diego was a pretty good weekend for Judges. Two of them made Top 8, one of them won the whole thing, and we promoted the clean sweep of judges all the way from Level 1 to Level 5.

Pro Tour: San Diego was a pretty good weekend for Judges. Two of them made Top 8, one of them won the whole thing, and we promoted the clean sweep of judges all the way from Level 1 to Level 5.

If you think that Thursday Night EDH League is full of Chaos, then try Head Judging a Pro Tour. You’d be surprised at the number of moving parts that go into putting together the greatest show in Magic. Of course, during this report, there will be some EDHing interspersed with some behind-the-scenes look at the Pro Tour.

A large part of my job is done well before I show up on site. The most difficult parts are deciding the sponsorship list (whose way we’re going to pay to come) and then the schedule. The sponsorship list is difficult because there is a limited budget, and it has to be spread around judges of various levels from around the world. We need to ensure we cover the needs of the event, first and foremost, but also consider the needs of the judge program, and the needs of the individual judges.

After the sponsorship list is done, we have to put together a staff schedule. Public events need to be covered as well as the main event, and we run several larger PEs, like massive PTQs and Super-FNMs, so they need to be HJ’d by judges of appropriate experience. It’s a bit of a puzzle to get everyone an appropriate amount of level-based leadership opportunities and make sure they have a little fun along the way too.

Meetings for me start on Thursday, so I flew to San Diego on Wednesday, since it’s quite a long trip. I got in late in the afternoon, and since I hadn’t had anything appreciable to eat all day, decided on an early dinner. I called Scott Larabee, who was in a similar situation, so we agreed to meet at 5pm at the Fleming’s Steakhouse right between our two hotels. We drank some bourbon (although I found there’s a dearth of Wild Turkey in Southern California, so it was Maker’s Mark, a reasonable substitute, all weekend), ate some steak, and drank some wine. Since Scott is also on the EDH Rules Committee, we chatted a little about the format, which seems to be pretty healthy at the moment. We haven’t completely firmed up our March announcements, but you can expect a rather small list of changes, if any. We also talked baseball, and how his Seattle Mariners seem to have had a good off-season, as have my dreadful Baltimore Orioles. Here’s hoping the O’s can climb above .500 for the first time since the 80s.

Being jet-lagged and having a full meal in me, I knew I had only one or two games of EDH in me, so we headed back to the judge hotel and found some space in the lobby. We called scorekeeper Federico Calò, but he was still at dinner. We ended up finding Finnish L3 Johanna Virtanen and U.S. L2 Justin Hovdenes ready and willing to play.

Scott and I busted out our Night of the Living Dead decks, him with Garza Zol and her Vampires, me with Lord of Tresserhorn and his Zombies. Unfortunately for us, Johanna brought Ashling, the Pilgrim, and his flames burnsed us! I think Justin had Horde of Notions, but I’m failing on the recall right now.

The game progressed along in the early turns with a little of this and a little of that. Johanna’s Ashling got pretty big a few times and did some savaging. Creatures came and went until Scott and I dropped Grave Pact on subsequent turns. The next turn, I drew Vicious Shadows, which was still in the deck from League night, but I had intended on taking out to play a more friendly game with the gang. It was an appropriate situation to play it in, so I dropped it. People started dumping their hands pretty quickly, which was fine. Scott also gained some life to get him out of dangerous territory. Things stabilized a bit until I topdecked Tombstone Stairwell. Bringing in a dozen Zombies every upkeep and then dealing damage when then left play quickly drained away life. By the time it got back around to my turn, I had killed Johanna and Justin. My next topdeck was another card that I had intended to take out for playing at the PT—Sorin Markhov. Dropping Scott’s life to 10 meant he couldn’t deal with the Zombie onslaught any longer, and we were done. I was happy to see that there were several other matches going on in the lobby by that point. I considered staying for another game, but thought that the responsible decision was to get some sleep and be well-rested going into Thursday’s Day o’ Meetings.

The first official meeting of Thursday is the Staff Meeting, led by Show Manager Witney Williams. We got to meet all the folks who were working their first PT, as well as old friends. We got the rundown on the events of the weekend, like the barbershop quartet (and even got a preview) and the fact that the Robot Chicken folks would be there playing Massive Magic on Saturday. After that, it was L5 meetings, L5+L4 meetings, small meetings with individual judges we wanted to talk to, and I met with the Team Leaders for Friday’s Main Event. In the past, I had held this meeting at breakfast on Friday, but I figured getting everyone the extra 45 minutes of sleep was better. Finally, we had High-Level Dinner, which is a working meal with all the L4+ and Andy Heckt and Reid Schmadeka, who is the Corporate Programs Manager for Organized Play. You’ll be hearing a great deal in the near future about where we’re taking the program and how. Our discussions were certainly focused on what we’re going to do with the Judge Program, but the downstream impact that you’ll see is how things get even better than they already are in your local play communities and in organized play of Magic as a whole. HLD ended late enough that there was no time for me to play. As HJ for the event, I have to be sharp from the get-go, so it’s a full night’s sleep for me.

It’s extremely important to me that the Head Judge of the event set the standard for the rest of the team, which is why I show up onsite an hour earlier than I’ve asked everyone else to be there. It also gives me time to review my plans for the day and have a little “alone time” so I can just gather my thoughts and make the emotional preparation for how the day is likely to go.

All in all, Friday was a pretty smooth day. There were seven appeals to the Head Judge, none of which I overturned—telling me that our Floor Judges are continuing to exceed expectations on knowing both the rules and the IPG. I’m happy to report that the quality of the judging that gets done on the floor at the Pro Tour is even better than ever and is continuing to improve.

In fact, the only mistake we made all day was with Searing Blaze. A player had asked if the creature became an invalid target, would he still take the damage. The judge answered “no,” which was incorrect, since Searing Blaze has two targets—the creature and the player. A spell is only countered on resolution if all of its targets are illegal/invalid (rule 607.2b). When the situation finally arose a few minutes later, I got called over when the opponent called a different judge after the original player cast Brave the Elements and told him that he wouldn’t be taking the damage. The judge that got called back to the situation made the correct ruling. I had to tell the player that we had answered his original question incorrectly, but that the play was going to stand, since his play was still legal. “I’m sorry, we made an error,” is one of the most difficult parts of the job. Fortunately, I’ve had to do it fewer and fewer times the more PTs we do.

Right after we did our team debrief, we did the now-customary “Meet the L5’s” seminar. Although judges are the primary audience, I’d like to invite any player who wishes to attend one of these to come along. They’re generally on Friday evening of the Pro Tour, and there are no questions that are off limits. They’re designed to both get to know a little better the program’s decision-makers on a personal level, and also to get to know things about the program you always wanted to know. We’d really like to close the distance some between the L5s and the rest of the judges in the program and between the judges and players. We’re all part of one big community, the community of Magic, not two separate ones. We’d rather the L5s not be some shadowy, distant body making arcane decisions for incomprehensible reasons. Although there are going to be a couple of things that we’ll keep close to the vest, we’d really like as much transparency in the program as possible. The three times we’ve done them now, the nature of the questions asked took on three very different characters, so we’ll continue doing them. The best part of this one was announcing that two seats at the table (me and Toby—Riccardo didn’t attend this one) weren’t enough, and adding one for David Vogin.

There was a little more chaos on Saturday than on Friday. The first incident was on the first round back to Standard after the three rounds of draft. A player sat at his table, dutifully shuffled up, and presented—his draft deck. The Infraction here is Deck/Decklist Mismatch, and the appropriate penalty is Game Loss. Since I was comfortable that there was no way for him to gain any advantage by mistakenly presenting his draft deck, we applied to appropriate fix (restore the deck to what’s on his decklist, meaning fishing out his actual Standard deck), and I downgraded the penalty to Warning. Someone asked why we didn’t downgrade for presenting a 59-card deck, like from forgetting to return an Exiled card to the deck, and the answer is that there can be an advantage to playing with 59 cards rather than 60. We downgrade penalties (or sometimes upgrade) in circumstances that are exceptional and unusual. Presenting one’s draft deck in a Standard tournament fit this definition. Presenting a 59 card version of the deck you’re already playing does not.

Shortly thereafter, I was called to handle an appeal on a Slow Play warning. Being so early in the round, I assumed that it was a player was in his seat on time, but had exceeded the three minutes to shuffle up and present. It was slightly more complicated.

About a minute and a half into the round, a judge had decided that a player, who was still sleeving his deck, wasn’t going to be able to finish sleeving and shuffle in time to present by the three minute mark. The judge, being a good guy, decided to jump in and help the player sleeve. This was the first mistake, since it’s the player’s responsibility to be ready to play. Being helpful is one thing (and if this were a local FNM, I would definitely suggest jumping in and helping, but this was Day 2 of a Pro Tour), but accepting responsibility on behalf of a player is trouble. It’s also a service that we can’t provide to everyone, and it’s unfair to provide it to just a few. Even with the judge helping, the player exceeded the 3 minutes, and when he went to shuffle, they discovered one of his cards was missing. They eventually found it having slipped under the crease in the table cloth. The judge wanted to apply the penalty, which I overturned because of two reasons. First, the judge got involved BEFORE the player actually committed an infraction (he still had a minute and a half left, and you never know, he might have gotten there on time), and second, there is reason to believe that it may have been our fault that he was late, especially with the card having gone missing. I overruled the infraction, gave the match the additional time, and had them play on. As a side note, if the situation were that the player had gotten to the 3 minute point and gotten the infraction, I would wholly support the judge stepping in at that point and helping him finish sleeving so that he could get playing. I view this less providing customer service to him and more providing customer service to his opponent and the rest of the players in the event by slowing down the event as little as possible.

The other tricky issue was a deck check team coming to me with a Greypelt Hunter with “+1/+1” written on it. There was quite some discussion over whether this was Outside Assistance (the illegal notes kind) or not. The verbiage is clear that brief text and minor strategic advice is allowed to be written on cards (“Swing with me!”), so no penalty was issued. I did chat with the player and asked why he had written it, and he said that during the first match, he kept forgetting, so he wanted a reminder. Repeating what’s already written on the card in larger letters is fine with me. I’ll caution you to completely read the section on what kind artistic modifications you can have on cards before taking them to sanctioned events.

There were two DQs on Saturday, both of which I can talk about a little bit, since the Investigations Committee has already reviewed the cases. The first was a pretty straightforward one, where a player either intentionally drew an extra card early in the game or unintentionally drew it and then tried to hide the fact that he had it. Either way, it was a relatively easy situation to adjudicate.

The second was a little trickier, and I’ll say that it didn’t start out as a DQ investigation. The floor judge made the ruling, and then during the appeal, I uncovered a few things that made me suspect. The silver lining in all this was that it occurred to me that if I didn’t play Standard with some regularly and have some familiarity with the environment and the motivations for using certain cards (not just their mechanics), I might have missed what happened.

The opponent had claimed that the offending player didn’t have the correct mana to play Sphinx of the Steel Wind. He had enough, but he didn’t have the right colors. This seemed odd, because with his Knight of the Reliquary and two Lotus Cobras, it was clear that he could have produced correct mana. I started getting deeper into the investigation and it was clear that the opponent and the Sphinx player were both writing down the mana in the Sphinx player’s pool. While the Sphinx player’s notes were a little vague, the opponent’s were pretty clear, and they had even agreed at one point on how much mana he had. What was confusing me was the opponent’s statement that the Sphinx player had “gone into the tank for a while.” If he could easily produce eight mana and the colors he needed for the Sphinx, why think so long? It was already clear that the Sphinx player, in his own notes, had only noted either one Blue or one Black (that was still unclear), but definitely not both. If he’s taking notes on his mana, I find it impossible to mistakenly cast something for the wrong colors. The answer to the mystery lay in the “going into the tank.” If he was thinking so long about such an easy answer, perhaps he was thinking about something else, an idea which was further encouraged by the three White he had noted. At this point, I looked at the player’s two-card hand, and one of them was Iona, and I had my answer. When I asked the opponent why he thought that the Sphinx player might have thought so long, he said “I’m pretty sure we was thinking about casting something different, probably Iona.” What I believe happening in this situation was that the player “went for it,” trying to get to 6WWW and Iona, and then when he realized he couldn’t get to the ninth mana, tried to cast the Sphinx, knowing he didn’t have both Black and Blue. Again, I’m really sure that without being around these cards and decks pretty regularly, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to think about what he was doing. And this is why I encourage judges to play as often as they can!

After the main event finished on Saturday, I was called away from my team debrief (again, apologies to the judges and thanks to George Michelogiannakis and Felipe Fernandes for picking up the slack there) to judge the Massive Magic event, where members from R&D took on the special guests from Robot Chicken, with oversized cards and audience participation. Massive Magic (what we used to call “Game of the Year” at U.S. Nats) is always good times, and the folks from Robot Chicken upped the ante a little. Eventually team R&D won, but as they say in the high school yearbooks, fun was had by all.

By that time, it was late, so a few of us bolted down to Rockin’ Baja Taco for some dinner. It was pretty crowded, so what should have been a pretty quick meal turned into something a little longer than it should have. Still, we headed back to the hall, where I sat down playing Kresh with Scott (Garza Zol), Toby (Teferi), Federico (Child of Alara), and Nick Sephton (Horde of Notions) for a game. Scott put Toby on the ropes early by hitting him with Sorin. Federico played nothing much besides lands, but they were all lands that did stuff. There was a point about 15 turns in when I could have killed him with Anathemancer. Early in the game I got Creakwood Ghoul and Spawnwrithe going, and I got some hits in, but bigger guys slowed me down. Most of the game, Toby was a little mana shy, and Nick drew cards and fetched lands and all he drew was more lands. There were multiple Mazes of Ith (or Vesuva making copies thereof) and a fair amount of board-sweepers, so the game drew out for a bit. I resolved a Defense of the Heart at some point, and when it came back around to my upkeep, it was still on the table, and there were enough dudes in play. I got Lord of Extinction and Bloodshot Cyclops. I already had Greater Good in play, so I was reasonably sure of being able to draw most of my deck, but I wanted a real rattlesnake with Boom Tube (it was bigger than 50/50 at that point). When it came around to my turn, Scott had really ramped up with his Vampires, so it looked like I needed to take him out. I attacked with Lord of Extinction and he chumped. I cast Berserk—and Toby Mazed it. Scott went “yay!” until I threw the Boom Tube at his face. I told him that was for using Sorin on his friends (which is exactly what I had done to him Wednesday night, but still!). We played a few more turns, and it started getting really late. After Toby countered my game-ending Living Death, we just decided to scoop it up. Federico may have been able to do something crazy by animating all his lands, but we were all just beat and called it a night.

Sunday was taken up with the Top 8, some administrative business, and then the icing on the cake, judge dinner. A room full of 80 judges who are letting down their hair and blowing off the steam of the weekend can be an exhilarating experience. The best part of my job there is to be able to recognize the folks who have done well all weekend, plus announce the folks that we’ve promoted. It was the first time that I’ve had the pleasure of the full house of levels, as we recognized that we had promoted several new judges to L1 and L2, Thales Bittencourt from Brazil to L3, the aforementioned David Vogin to L5, and finally Wisconsin’s Jason Lemahieu to L4.

I think I got a little hoarse from all the thanks, but they were extremely well-deserved. There is no family like the DCI Family, and no harder-working people in show business.

I’ll be back at Armada Games for EDH League this week, so here’s to Embracing the Chaos!