Fifteen Years, Fifteen Thoughts

Newly-minted Judge Emeritus Sheldon Menery reflects on the lessons he’s learned after a decade and a half of service to the Magic community.

As most of you already know, I accepted Judge Emeritus status after Head Judging the 2011 World Championships, completing fifteen years of service to the program. It’s been quite a ride.

Accepting Judge Emeritus means that while I’ll still work with councils of the program’s leaders and available to them at a moment’s notice, I won’t be involved in the day-to-day operation and decision-making within the program. This will be a significant mindset change for me, a retreat to the theoretical instead of the constant demand of the practical.  

Retiring caused me to do quite a bit of thinking about both my career in the program and the game in general. I’d like to share a few of those thoughts and memories as well as some of the philosophies I’ve developed as a direct result of being a judge.

It’s always been primarily about the people

The game itself is obviously the common thread, but the people that we meet are the glue that binds us. The thing we like puts us together, but the people we like keep us together. Some of my best friends in the world are in my life as a direct result of the game. I’ve certainly enjoyed providing a service to the community, but without the great relationships, I would have stopped showing up a long time ago—and I know I’m not alone in that sentiment.

It only takes one person to start something

We do nothing alone, but that doesn’t mean we need to wait for others to do things. There was a time when the judge community was insular and exclusionary, a true culture of haves and have-nots. The community stagnated. Many other folks felt exactly as I did, but no one had yet taken an aggressive stance. As soon as I did, I saw that there was an army of like-minded folks behind me. Since then, the program has grown in leaps and bounds. It only took shaking loose a pebble to start a landslide. I suspect this is applicable to life in general.

Seize epiphanous moments

Back when I was rising up in the program, somewhere around the time the “Ask the Judge” column had started getting some traction, I’ll confess that I felt pretty good about myself and the ego of being a “star” (however micro-niche that celebrity might be) began to creep in. I don’t necessarily remember what the conversation was about, but I said to someone, in regard to the Judge Program, “It’s not all about me.” The light came on, and it was the turning moment of my career in the program. I realized that the path I was on was okay, but that it wasn’t really going to get me much further. It was a realization that in order to be a leader, I had to think differently. I took that basic lesson—that leadership is about serving others—and ran with it, forming several foundational philosophies of the program. One moment, one lightning-struck moment, helped create something special.

Magic culture and society are great because the game itself is great

There are moments over the years that stick out regarding the game, brought to mind by David Williams’ unbridled joy at playing the EDH deck I handed him at Worlds. The most significant was watching Kai Budde get handed the trophy and giant novelty check for a Pro Tour win, get the photos snapped, and then go about twenty feet away—trophy and all—to sit down and start drafting with his friends. I’m pretty sure this didn’t happen at the professional level for other games. There is a raw enjoyment in playing the game of Magic that can’t be understated. People have fun playing the game, and people who are enjoying themselves form societies that enjoy themselves.

Not everything is part of a greater plan

I didn’t set out to make EDH a wildly popular format. Introducing it to friends, playgroups, and judges was simply, “This is fun, let me share it.” Sure, once it grew into something larger, we took more active control, but in the beginning it was all about the fun. I’m a big believer in letting things develop organically, and sometimes all a plant needs is a little water and light.

Don’t believe your own myth

One thing I think has kept me grounded all this time is that I never drank my own Kool-Aid. Sure, I had some notoriety, but it was an unyielding belief in the responsibility that notoriety brings that was my personal difference-maker. I never believed that “celebrity” entitled me to anything other than the opportunity to do more things for more people. When someone thanks me for a positive influence I’ve had on them, I don’t see it as an opportunity to pat myself on the back, I see it as reinforcement that I’ve done the right thing. Yeah, I’ve had some “it’s good to be the king” moments—and it’s a shame I can’t find more space for Mel Brooks references—but in the end it was all about understanding, once again, that it’s not all about me.

There are those moments…

Friday, September 28, 2001, I got on an airplane leaving Anchorage. The airports had just opened back up, and traffic was light. The nation was still in the grips of dealing with the horrific events of two weeks prior. I hadn’t yet had a day off from work, but I had a commitment that was important for me to honor: Head Judge of Grand Prix Minneapolis. I resolved that we were not going to let the terrorists take away our way of life. I found out that there were four hundred players—an excellent turnout for those days—and judges who agreed with me. I remember looking out over the hall at midday on Saturday, hearing the gentle flick of cards, seeing the calm about the room, and thinking, “We’ve won already.”

Musical Interlude: Greatest Metal

I have a fair number of play lists that involve “Best of” artists, but this is the first one I put together for a genre. This list was culled from the greatest metal tunes I already had. I didn’t hop over to the iTunes store to shore it up, so I’m willing to bet there are a few tunes missing here that would make most “Greatest Metal” lists, like the two Slayer cuts, “Angel of Death” and “Raining Blood.” Also missing is any Judas Priest because although I find them good, I find them more pop than metal.

In looking up other lists of greatest metal songs, I notice they’re full of Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, and of course, Metallica. I can’t really argue with too much of that. Since I already have Best of Maiden and Metallica lists, I tried to spread things out among other artists a bit. I could have just slapped those two lists together and added a few classics and we’d be done. On the list, I chose two cover versions of songs, both off of Nativity in Black, a 90’s Sabbath tribute album. The first is only half a cover, since it’s Ozzy doing “Iron Man” backed up by Therapy? instead of Sabbath. The second is a 25-years better production of “Sabbath, Bloody Sabbath” by Bruce Dickinson, who is a million times the vocalist Ozzy is.

Metallica, “Enter Sandman”

Ozzy featuring Therapy?, “Iron Man”

Iron Maiden, “Run to the Hills”

Bruce Dickinson, “Sabbath, Bloody Sabbath”

Pantera, “Cemetary Gates”

Queensryche, “I Don’t Believe in Love”

Black Sabbath, “Paranoid”

Metallica, “For Whom the Bell Tolls”

Dream Theater, “Pull Me Under”

Metallica, “Creeping Death”

Dio, “Rainbow in the Dark”

Helloween, “I’m Alive”

Iron Maiden, “Flight of Icarus”2

Dream Theater, “In the Name of God”

Megadeth, “Holy Wars…Punishment Due”

Dio, “Holy Diver”

Iron Maiden, “The Trooper”

Manowar, “Heart of Steel”

Metallica, “One”

Iron Maiden, “Fear of the Dark”

Twenty songs, two hours of some of the greatest metal ever.

I find myself in rarified air

It’s a little humbling to join the ranks of Judge Emeritus, alongside greats like Gis Hoogendijk, Jaap Brouwer, Mike Guptil, and Collin Jackson. It’d be pretty easy to write thousands of words about the impact that my fellow Level Es have had on the game. They are absolute giants as both judges and men.

Be aware of what you don’t know

My first Level 3 interview (back in the day, there was no written test, just an interview) came at midnight after the sixteen-hour Day 1 of my first Pro Tour, PT Mainz. I knew I was going to go in, knock out the interview, and move on. Instead, then-L4s Carl Crook, Mischa Donders and L3 Ken Bontinck, the latter two also Wizards of the Coast Belgium employees who had significant impact on the Judge Program, took me into a room, stood me on my head (figuratively), and proceeded to demonstrate what I didn’t know about judging and Magic. It was a classic lesson in the danger of overconfidence. Fortunately, I learned the lesson, and a year later at GP Antwerp—along with future L5s Gis Hoogendijk and Jaap Brouwer—made L3. We certainly learn more from our failures than we do our successes.

Leadership is about preparing others for success

Judges who’ve been in the program a while will have heard me say that time and time again. Not only is preparing others for success a primary responsibility of leadership, but helping them achieve that success is a primary benefit. I’ve had fewer better feelings in all my time in the program than promoting someone else to Level 5, and now I’ve done it twice.

Own your actions

I’ve made a few high-profile mistakes, like getting rulings wrong in print, punting them in front of the ESPN2 cameras, or saying the wrong thing about someone, but the thing I’ve learned from those experiences is to never make excuses. I’ve used them as an opportunity to figure out how to not make the same mistake again, to examine what led me to that mistake, and to create a process by which I avoid future errors. Most importantly, I learned there’s no one to blame for my mistakes but myself.

The philosophy of “own your actions” applies when we’re playing the game, too. The example that leaps to mind is rolling a die to determine who you’re going to attack/kill in a multiplayer game. It’s a way to avoid responsibility for what’s about to happen, and I think people should take more responsibility, not less.

Relationships don’t happen—they’re cultivated

I didn’t earn the trust of Magic players by being a rules expert, I did it by demonstrating that I actually gave a damn about them. I saw this great divide between players and judges and felt that it could be bridged without destroying the integrity of the competitive game. We’re all part of one large community, not two divided ones. I simply started talking to players. I let them know that we actually had the same goal: fair, well-run tournaments. Once we established that we were on the same page, cultivating trust came relatively easily.

The bad boys were never good for the game

There was a time when there was this idea that the professional game needed to create stars, both heroes and antiheroes. There was quite some effort in promoting the heroes—from the early Shawn Regnier to the later Jon Finkel—and there was some effort in protecting the antiheroes. The thing is that they didn’t need to be created—they were going to create themselves anyway, and simple promotion of the game and professional play would have been enough. I firmly believe that the bad guys actively kept players away from the game. I’m sure there were kids thinking, “I want to be like Finkel,” but the idea that there were also kids that wanted to get to the Pro Tour in order to defeat the evil Mike Long was, at best, naïve. If I’d been in charge in those days, the infamous would not have flourished. I strongly believe that the aggressive anti-cheater stance I helped institute once I reached Level 4 was a turning point in the modern game and led to the relatively clean Pro Tour we have today.

You’re not quite rid of me

I’ll still be writing this column, and I’ll still be the face of EDH. I’ll also be traveling to events, mostly as a spell-slinger, to bring the message of the format to players everywhere. And for the Pro Tours in 2012, I’ll be joining Brian David-Marshall and Rich Hagon in the broadcast booth, bringing you play-by-play and features on all the action at the game’s highest level.

Magic will still be around fifteen years from now

Excepting the Zombie Apocalypse, the game of Magic will still be being produced in 2026. The design space is effectively infinite. The success of Innistrad shows us that thematic sets can be done, especially when they’re backed up with great design. The Pro Tour will wax and wane and wax again, as one of the very clever people at Wizards of the Coast will come up with a ground-breaking idea revolutionizing professional play. Super-regional communities will grow to the size of our current global community, and we’ll have multiple competing cash-prize circuits. The Judge Program will become privatized and will branch out into supporting multiple charitable foundations.  And of course, EDH will have risen to be the most popular format everywhere.

These are only a few of the highlights of my time as a Magic Judge. To say that it’s had a major impact on my life would be a complete understatement. I look forward to many more years of being involved with the game, and all the great experiences that will bring.