The Justice League – Active versus Passive Judging

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Thursday, April 16th – Judging is at times a careful balancing act. We want the players to have fun, but fun means different things to different people. Spike has fun by winning, and if his opponent plays fast and loose he’ll look for an opportunity for a free game win, no matter what the personal cost. However, forcing the casual player to play a precise, technical game whilst at an FNM held at a pub with alcohol at most games is an exercise in futility.

I’m writing this article as I head down towards Devon on the train to visit my girlfriend’s family. I’ve noticed that my train will be calling in at Exeter, and grab the chance to pop in to a game store I used to visit when I lived down this way – a game store that, rarely enough for England, actually runs it’s Friday Night Magic on a Friday night.

I don’t know what I’m expecting to find when I walk in, but I do know I’m the closest level 2 judge to the store, and I also know that whilst there used to be PTQs in Plymouth, some 45 miles further into the South West, I haven’t seen a PTQ level tournament in the area in some time. This may just be down to the number of PTQs in England being cut back (we generally have 6 or so each season, usually in Bristol, Manchester, Birmingham, London, Leicester, and Reading) but I realise that I don’t know anything about the player or judge communities in these parts since I left them.

I do know a gentleman by the name of Michael Herbert who seems interested in learning the judging ropes, indeed I’ve invited him over to a few Bristol PTQs where his help has certainly been appreciated. However, we’ve gotten a bit out of touch and I’d like to learn how interested he still is in donning the stripes.

What can I do to help then? My main aim is to sniff out someone who would be interested in training to become a judge. My understanding is that the store owner himself runs the FNM as a ‘passive’ judge – my observations tonight will hopefully give me a better picture of the local scene.

Judging is at times a careful balancing act. We want the players to have fun, but fun means different things to different people. Spike has fun by winning, and if his opponent plays fast and loose he’ll look for an opportunity for a free game win, no matter what the personal cost. However, forcing the casual player to play a precise, technical game whilst at an FNM held at a pub with alcohol at most games is an exercise in futility.

Removing the pub and alcohol would likely destroy my playgroup – I don’t know how it is in the rest of the world, but we Brits socialise around beer, and if there’s nothing stopping a certain activity from happening in a pub, then it looks weird if it isn’t! For this group, passive judging is clearly the right choice, anything else would be seen as needlessly antagonistic.

There’s a flip side to this discussion, of course. My girlfriend runs a group that plays Pokemon on a Sunday morning for 2 hours. (Not quite long enough to get a draft going, natch. Plus, it’s on a Sunday morning which is unfamiliar territory for some players…) The vast majority of her players are 10-12 years old, and they need constant supervision. Some of the kids will try outrageous cheats if their opponents aren’t paying attention, and many experienced players will rush their opponents through turns at a ridiculous pace if given the opportunity.

Aside – Amusingly, the Pokemon penalty guidelines contain an infraction for Rushing to complement Slow Play. It makes me wonder if Rushing has never been a problem at Magic tournaments before! Unsporting Conduct applies if the opponent is insisting on a Slow Play penalty, but actually playing so fast as to try to cause mistakes by the opponent? There isn’t a specific infraction that covers it. Not that that’s a bad thing – many unwanted behaviours can be curtailed by a stern word from a judge, and if you want to get PG-lawyer about it then refusing to follow a direct instruction from a tournament official is a prime example of Unsporting Conduct – Major and should lead to a game loss.

In my experience, this has never been necessary. A firm word and the behaviour stops. In fact, with some players talking about the possibility of issuing a Game Loss for Unsporting Conduct will set them off into further Unsporting Conduct itself! This is where your personality is really put to the test as a judge. I can think of only three times I’ve really been tested in this way, and in each occasion I not only survived the encounter but ended up with a happy player.

So after that aside, is there then a balance to be had between active and passive judging? I’ll clarify my terms before I continue by examining the extremes:

Active judging – Judges are actively looking for correct play. They’ll perform deck checks to spot illegal decks ahead of time, and watch games for infractions. When they look at a game, the first thing they look for is duplicate Legendary permanents (usually land), then having satisfied themselves that they’re not looking at an illegal game state, they’ll watch for clear communication, slow play, and legal play before moving on to another table.

Passive judges do what they need to in order to get the tournament rolling. They enrol players, print out result slips, and do what they need to get the players playing, but once they are playing, the responsibility for the game rests on the players themselves. Essentially, this judge will only give out an infraction if the opponent calls him over for a penalty. In this environment, players are encouraged to sort out disputes in a friendly manner between themselves, and judges only usually get involved if the players cannot agree, which usually comes down to rules confusion. If it was something like a life total dispute, the players probably realise that they’re better equipped to resolve the problem than the judge is – and are motivated essentially by peer pressure to resolve things amicably.

Active judges step in to penalise players who commit an infraction in the name of tournament integrity and consistency. Passive judges only issue penalties to resolve a problem that has been brought to their attention by another player, which usually means the implications of the infraction are worse. I didn’t often see people calling judges for missed triggers such as forgotten Thallid tokens, but when judging at the PTQ level I saw it so often that it must have been happening at all levels of play. Does passive judging automatically lead to a disregard for the rules of the game? I don’t think so, but it is worth bearing in mind. If you want your playgroup to improve technically, then a strong judge can be instrumental.

Another aside on active judging – a friend of mine believes that if Missed Triggers were enforced absolutely according to the penalty guide at PT: Berlin, then there would likely be no Elf combo decks in the Top 8. Why? You can be disqualified for forgetting your 5th Missed Trigger if the Upgrade Path of WarningWarning-Game Loss-Match Loss-Disqualification is applied. To get to the Top 8 of PT: Berlin you need to play 16 Rounds of Magic. 5 Missed Triggers in 16 rounds? For that Elf combo deck at that stage of its development, that doesn’t sound merely possible, I’d go as far to say it’s actually likely! And at the PTQ level? There are fewer rounds to mess up in, but it still sounds feasible to me.

So what did I see on my trip tonight? Passive judging. And I truly believe that both types of judging have their place. I saw 12 happy players engaged in a booster draft. I saw no disputes that required a judge’s intervention. At one point, a player recognised me as being a judge, and asked me a rules question to do with power and toughness layers that he’d been meaning to ask for some time – it hadn’t come from the tournament that night.

My philosophy? Different events call for different judging styles. In my experience, many stores that run FNM have it as their only organised Magic each week. There is no level lower than FNM for new players to join at, other than play at home. I believe at the FNM level that players should have it impressed upon them what the role of the judge is, but that broadly speaking they should be left alone to get on with their game. This is an environment where active judging can quickly become viewed as zealotry, and that player’s likely only link with the DCI is irrevocably damaged from then on.

However, this doesn’t of course change the rules at any level. “Profane Command for all my legal targets” is a legal play at whatever level. The interaction between Demigod of Revenge and the timing of counterspells similarly doesn’t change, though in my experience, players themselves are likely to be far more forgiving of such timing errors. (If you don’t know about the Demigod-Counterspell scenario by now, ask about it in the forums).

In England, there isn’t much that goes on between the FNM and PTQ levels. At PTQs then, players are getting their first taste of real competitive Magic. At this level, judging is more active – I prefer to wear my stripes at this level, not at FNM, to reinforce the reason for me being in the room. I make sure in my announcements as Head Judge that players are not to resolve disputes between themselves – and that I will be on the lookout for infractions as this is Competitive REL.

I truly think that my players respond to this very well. They understand the more casual nature of 12-player FNM tournaments, and sort things out for themselves. They also understand the more competitive nature of PTQ tournaments and adjust their behavior accordingly. Does this match up with your experiences in your part of the world?

On last week’s poll, I should apologise for making a bit of a faux-pas by referring to uncertified judges as being unqualified. I certainly didn’t intend to slight the judges who judge uncertified by implying that they’re not up to the job. That’s how the DCI works… you have to first prove your worth to the programme before being certified. Many people act in the same capacity as L1 judges without being certified as such, and similarly experienced L1s will be doing L2 duties before they are recognised as such.

However, fully 75% of respondents showed that their FNM tournaments are run by uncertified judges, and 62% expect it to stay that way. That’s more than I imagined, I have to say, but it isn’t so surprising. It certainly gives the remaining 25% percent of judged FNMs something to think about regarding active and passive judging, and those players who travel to your tournaments from outside your area. They might be FNM players, but have they ever truly interacted with a judge before?

This month’s poll:

None of the above answers fit me and I’ll tell you about it in the forums.

Bonus: The Stages of Judging

Inspired by Olivier Ruel article on player levels, here’s my take on a similar scale applied to judges. To avoid confusion with the DCI judge levels, I’ve called them stages.

Stage 0: A beginner player. He plays casual decks with own rules.
Stage 1: An improving player, he can get through simple games and knows about the starting hand size, turn order, and a broad idea that pretty much anything you do can be responded to by your opponent in such a way that their thing happens first. Begins to realise that there are special situations that they cannot handle with their intuitive grasp of the rules.
Stage 2: Can begin to guess what the judge is going to say when they call them to a table. Has heard phrases like “state-based effects,” “priority,” “layers,” “timestamps” but can’t necessarily define them.
Stage 3: A knowledgeable player rules-wise, starts to realise that judging isn’t just about the rules of the game, but also tournament policies and sometimes penalties. Players will approach you with rules questions with some confidence that your answer will be correct.
Stage 4: Knows enough about DCI reporter to actually run a tournament to completion, with enough confidence in rules and policy knowledge to deal with any problems that may occur.
Stage 5: Local players trust your judgement, and know that if a situation comes up that you don’t know how to handle, you’ll deal with it in a good way, and come back with the ‘correct’ answer later. Has probably been on the staff of a PTQ or GP.
Stage 6: Has Head judged at an event where they weren’t the only judge, is becoming known on the GP circuit or the wider judge community. Begins to mentor judges at a stage earlier to their own.
Stage 7: Can head judge PTQs and lead teams at GPs. Becomes aware of their influence on the local and national judging community, and does their best to affect it positively. May have been sponsored to the Pro Tour.
Stage 8: Actively contributes to building the judging community, usually leads teams at larger events and head judges PTQs. May be called upon to head judge some Nationals, shadow GP Head Judges, run Side Events for a day or similar. Probably has been sponsored to a Pro Tour event and certified a judge to Level 1.
Stage 9: Contributes to DCI policy and tournament logistics. Is trusted to try out new ideas at large tournaments based on their phenomenal experience. Head Judges Grand Prix tournaments.
Stage 10: Top of the pile, you are DCI policy, you are the Pro Tour Head Judge, you are the face of the worldwide judging community.

I’ll be talking about these stages further next month, including how to identify which stage you are at, and what steps you might need to take to move on to the next level. If you disagree with any of these identified stages, sound off in the forums, or, if you’re a judge in my part of the world, I hope to see you at the UK and Ireland Judge Conference this weekend!

Paul Smith