Responding to John Davis’s

Level 2 Judge (and all-around hipster) Seamus Campbell responds to John Davis’s article yesterday with a reasoned look at the complaints in the article and the responsibilities of judges in general.

John Davis sends us an elaborate tale of his recent woes at the hands of some questionable judging calls at a recent event. Some of his complaints may well be legitimate, but his conclusions are well off the mark. I’d like to take the opportunity to address some of the complexities of judging and clear the air about some popular misconceptions.

But first, since this is, after all, Star City Games, let me introduce myself. I’m a level 2 judge out of Portland, OR. You’ll find me on IRC (as “conform”) in #mtgjudge or #mtgwacky deriding people who drink Corona, or listen to bands with unfortunate names like “Hoobastank” (just typing that makes me slightly queasy… It’s one of the rare upsides to the recent lack of output from Mr. Aten).

That said, let’s first consider the specific concerns that John had about rulings that were made. As a responsible judge, I will disclaim slightly: not being there, I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the claims he makes. There may well be details that escaped him, or that he has forgotten, or issues of fact that the ruling judge would challenge. But we can still discuss some generalities about how these situations might be handled.

During the day, a player had Gutwrencher Oni in play and forgot to discard a card during the upkeep. He proceeded to draw the card, pass his first main phase, and play a spell during the combat step… The ruling was that the player forgetting to discard was allowed to tell the judge which card he drew. That was now considered to be a fact by the judge. The judge then would decide if there was a definite card that any player would discard… The judges decided that there was no definite card that any player would discard, so the gentlemen in question received a game loss.

Is this how I would handle the situation? Almost certainly not (though, if I had specific and clear instructions from the head judge to rule this way, I would — the head judge is the final arbiter of the rules at a PTQ. In a sense, it is not possible for the head judge to be wrong…). If I had determined what card the player had drawn (sometimes both players will agree, if the mistake was caught quickly. Other times it will be obvious, like if a player has been stuck on one or two lands for several turns and suddenly has one in hand), and this was the first time the player had been called on the mistake, and (this is rather important) absent other, complicating factors, I would rewind the game to the upkeep, ask the player to discard a card, and write up a warning, probably for Proceedural Error – Major. Many players will recall similar situations with Braids, Cabal Minion.

What are the complicating factors, here? Well, if, based on my interviews with the players, I believed that the player had intentionally skipped the discard, we would be looking at a DQ for cheating. Any intentional rules infraction is grounds for a DQ. If the drawn card reveals crucial strategic information, which will have an immediate and irreversable impact on the game, I might decide that the game state has been prohibitively and unalterably disrupted, and end the game — not so much to penalize the player more than in the previous case as to recognize that the game can’t productively be played further. Let’s take a brief peek at the Penalty Guidelines:

112. Procedural Error-Major

  • A major procedural error occurs when a player performs an unintentional, disruptive action at the tournament.

  • Penalty: Warning

113. Procedural Error-Severe

  • A severe procedural error occurs when a player performs an unintentional, extremely disruptive action at the tournament.

  • Penalty: Game Loss

Both of these have the following annotation:


Procedural errors vary significantly. The judge should adjust the penalty appropriately to reflect the level of tournament disruption.

Now, I happen to agree with John that in this situation, having the judge make a determination about what card ought to be discarded is suboptimal. I would, generally speaking, either allow the player to make discard choices, or end the game. But the process in making that determination must inevitably involve a judgment call based on the specific details of the situation. A player who draws without discarding, who had three lands in hand and plenty in play, may bear watching for further signs of shady behavior, but has probably not ruined the game state to the point where it is necessary to terminate the game. Pushing for a policy like that will, on balance, create more problems than it solves, and punishes people overly harshly for what will often be a meaningless mistake.

John’s second complaint is about a match loss for insufficient randomization. In the circumstances he describes, I agree that a match loss is unwarranted, and that the judge seems to have some misunderstandings about randomization. He’s right to be bothered by this, but wrong in the conclusions he draws. To explain why, let’s take a little diversion through DCI policy on deck sleeves:

The DCI, largely speaking, doesn’t make policy on sleeves, with exception of a) specifically allowing them, and b) restricting sleeve use at the Pro Tour and Grand Prix to opaque, solid-backed sleeves. While many judges will enforce personal prohibitions on particular sleeve brands or types (famously some UltraPro metallic sleeves that were highly reflective, and more recently, Gallery sleeves, with their elaborate artwork), the DCI has refused to ban sleeves or even specify problematic sleeves. Why? There are many manufacturers of sleeves and hundreds of particular sleeve models. Identifying bad sleeves in a constantly changing market would be a Herculean (or perhaps a Sisyphean) task. And the alternative, prescribing acceptable sleeves, leaves many of the DCI’s customers cold — players want cool sleeves, shop owners want to sell them; there are many nontraditional sleeves that are just fine, and in the end, at a FNM event it just doesn’t matter that much if the 8-year old is playing with his brand new 5-dimensonally holographic Alf sleeves. The potential for abuse, the impact of abuse, and the impact on the health of the game all have to be taken into account.

The situation is much the same for shuffling. There are a whole lot of perfectly reasonable ways to shuffle. There are a whole lot of really bad ways to shuffle. Demanding a particular shuffle sequence would be a nightmare to enforce and teach (imagine your next prerelease) and it really wouldn’t solve much at all. The ideal solution is well-educated, competent judges, and I can promise you that the DCI is working toward that goal. The likelihood at a PTQ today of an arbitrary or capricious ruling is vastly lower than it was eight, five, or even two years ago.

Ultimately, what John wants is “rules should be set in stone. Judges should be there to make decisions based on objective […] rules”. That’s neither a practical nor a desirable outcome, frankly. Most of the hard stuff, judge-wise, involves situations with specifics too specific or too vague to be anticipated in any useful way. We can strive for clarity and broad applicability in the rules, but in the end it is the judges job to apply her or his best subjective determination as to whether Player A passed priority before announcing a response to his own spell. Or whether Player B really did shuffle her deck adequately after mana-weaving. Or when Player C, pondering blockers, has taken “longer than is reasonably required to complete game actions”.

We need everyone involved in the game to have a functional understanding of how the game and tournament rules work. Judges need an even better understanding. And the way we get there is not by writing down every situation and its mandatory outcome (This is Magic! Situations aren’t supposed to be limited!), but by education and refinement and thought and experience.

Let me note here that the DCI does take the quality and performance of its judges seriously, and if you have a situation where you believe you have observed innapropriate behavior on the part of a judge (especially situations where you have clear evidence that a judge is singling out a player for punishment without merit), you can send your detailed (let me say that again: DETAILED) description of the event to [email protected], who will investigate the situation.

With the messy stuff behind me, I’ll now pretend I’m a regular here, and attempt to let my impeccable, Knut-reccomended taste rub off on the rest of you, with the following brief, non-Magic content*:

5 Punk Albums That Were Released Before You Were Born, That You Ought To Have, But Don’t, Because You’re Too Busy Listening To Commercial Radio

1. Gang of Four, “Entertainment” (1978).  This is blisteringly on-message political invective, at a time when the most political thing most punks were doing was spitting at each other (some things haven’t changed, eh?).  This is also the album that, more than any other I know, marks the beginning of “angular” as an adjective for applying to underground rock.  Rock solid dub- and soul-influenced rhythm fronted with twisted guitar.  Gang of Four went complete *#&$ in the early 80s, but this is the complete package.

2.  Elvis Costello, “This Year’s Model” (1978).  You can argue all you want about whether EC is punk, but the truth is, he’s got more passion than any of you and the musical sense to turn them into an incredibly charged record that will jerk you to your feet and demand that you feel it with him.  The Man didn’t want him playing “Radio Radio” on Saturday Night Live but he told the Man where to stick it and did it anyway.  Some of you may have seen a recreation of this event involving the Beastie Boys, which is funny, but at the time it was a big deal. 

3.  Buzzcocks, “Singles Going Steady” (1979).  One of the best compilations of all time, by one of the finest singles-releasing bands of all time (kids, ask your parents about 45s).  The Buzzcocks sprang into being at a time when wanky album rock and 7 minute guitar jams dominated the radio and music charts, and made the profoundly defiant, punk-rock stand of writing classic 2 minute pop songs about love and angst and trying to sort the world out for yourself. Sounds rather trivial, but at the time it blew a lot of minds and to this day it’s a great listen. 

4.  Big Black, “Atomizer” (1986).  Through the 80s, punk bands struggled to push envelopes of louder, faster, more.  Big Black somehow managed to step back from details like “louder” or “faster” and just push more.  Somewhat like Tool’s older, cranky brother, only without the angst or melody.  Sort of. 

 5.  Jawbreaker, “24-Hour Revenge Therapy” (1994).  Okay, most of you were born when this came out.  And some of you may have even heard of Jawbreaker, because the singer, Blake Schwartzenbach, has gone on to some notoriety as a member of Jets to Brazil.  But this album is, for my money, the finest example of East Bay pop-punk to be found.  It’s Green Day plus Kerouac; bold, sad, introspective and loud.  Find yourself an MP3 of “Boxcar”, turn up the volume, and sing along.  Then buy the damn album. 

* If I was really a regular here, I’d have tucked this up into the introduction.  In time, dear readers.  In time.