The Justice League – Avoiding Misplays Outside Your Match

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Friday, April 2nd – Judges watch a lot of Magic. That’s one of the main things we do at tournaments. At my last PTQ, there were 119 players playing 341 matches of Magic. So we also see a lot of mistakes. While you can make a misplay within a tournament and lose for it, you can also fall behind for mistakes made outside of a game of Magic. My goal here is to present the most obvious of these mistakes, so you can avoid ever making them again.

Apparently, I don’t know how to say no to my friends. It’s easy enough to turn down people you don’t know. But the best form of coercion is somebody convincing a friend to do something they’ll enjoy. And that’s the short version of how I became a writer here on The Justice League. Consequently, I’m also on staff for GP: DC and GP: Portland. Like I said, when all my friends are going to be at a tournament, it’s hard to say no.

Some of you know me, and maybe a few of you have read my name on Star City Games before, writing about Legacy. I also judge Magic. Like, a lot of it. In 8 different states: California, Texas, Arkansas, Kentucky, Illinois, Virginia, Georgia, and North Carolina. Traveling for Magic judging is cool because you see all the same people in different states. I’ve worked in five states with at least three different judges. In a way, that’s why we call it the DCI Family, because going to tournaments feels like a family reunion.

Judges watch a lot of Magic. That’s one of the main things we do at tournaments. At my last PTQ, there were 119 players playing 341 matches of Magic. So we also see a lot of mistakes. While you can make a misplay within a tournament and lose for it, you can also fall behind for mistakes made outside of a game of Magic. My goal here is to present the most obvious of these mistakes, so you can avoid ever making them again. Winning at Magic is hard even if everything goes perfect for you.

The first piece of advice is probably one you’ve heard before. Check your decklists. Most judges now give you a minute or two before they collect lists to check over your deck. Make sure to count to 60 and 15; everybody knows that. The important thing is to read over the deck and make sure the cards are the ones you want to play. In the past month or so, I’ve been forced to issue as many penalties for ambiguous or wrong cards as I have for just missing cards. If you want to play Path to Exile, you probably shouldn’t write “Path of Peace”. Heck, even just writing “Path” can get you into trouble.

Sometimes players ask why the penalty for an ambiguous name (Illegal Decklist) is a Game Loss. We penalize this action because it’s possible for players to take advantage of it in a major way. If you just write “Ajani” or “Jace,” theoretically you could switch between them depending on which is better in the matchup. And maybe it’s obvious to you which version of the card you intended to play. But judges aren’t tasked with making strategic decisions for players. Even if there’s only one “Path” in Standard, it’s not a good habit to get into. After all, Path of Anger’s Flame exists in Extended. At a public event at Pro Tour: San Diego, a player who was playing a Mono White deck with no sources of Red mana registered “Ajani Vengeant” in their sideboard.

Now it’s true that sometimes you can get away with an ambiguous name. The IPG includes this phrase: “Use of a truncated name that is not unique may be downgraded to a Warning at the Head Judge’s discretion if he or she believes that the intended card is obvious and the potential for abuse minimal. When determining if a name is ambiguous, judges may take into account the format being played.” At a recent Standard event, a player wrote “Kabira” on their decklist. There are two cards named “Kabira” in Standard: an Evangel and a Crossroads. The player had clearly separated their lands and nonlands in their deck, and this Kabira was listed right in the middle of all their other allies. When we checked the player, they ran Kabira Evangel. In this case I issued the infraction and downgraded it. Imagine the case where the player listed their lands and nonlands in no particular order, or if the Evangel just happened to be the last nonland they list before the lands? Then it’s possible the player isn’t eligible for the downgrade. The player could be literally one word away from a game loss.

If you have bad handwriting, you should strongly consider typing your decklist. StarCityGames.com offers such a resource here. If your handwriting is bad, you and your friends may not be able to easily check the list. Worst case scenario: it might be so bad we have to deckcheck you to clear it up, or because we come up with the wrong number. We’ll eventually get the right answer, but the extra judge scrutiny may uncover extra problems. The best answer is to generate your decklist in something like Magic Online, and write the decklist directly from there.

Speaking of deck errors, here’s something related that is easy to fix. Bring extra sleeves. They come in either packages of 50 or 100. Decks need 75 sleeves. If a sleeve breaks during a tournament and you only brought enough to sleeve your maindeck, you’re going to be in trouble.

Okay, enough about decks. Almost everyone I saw at my last PTQ made one simple mistake: they didn’t keep good track of their life totals. Let’s face it: dice, calculators and cell phone life counters are pretty poor ways to track something as important as your life total. Heck, some players didn’t come ready at all. Now sure, most of the time this won’t be a problem at all. What if there’s a discrepancy in life totals? You and your opponent can’t figure the situation out, so you call a judge. The first thing that judge is going to do is look at the record of life totals. It’s not really on purpose, but it’s hard for the judge to believe your story as much if there’s no written record. If we can’t find an obvious source of the discrepancy and we can’t solve it any other way, the judges are going to have to side with whichever source is more credible. And that’s going to be the person with a more credible history.

At the Coldsnap Prerelease this exact situation came up for me. I kept track of my life total with paper, and my opponent kept track of his life total with dice. When the judge asked us about the history of the game, I had a perfect record to point to. My opponent’s story kept changing because he had to go entirely by memory. Unsurprisingly, the judge ruled in my favor.

Actually, there are a lot of ways to avoid a lot of trouble with life totals. Every time the life totals change, you should verbally confirm life totals with your opponent. You don’t want the first time you discover a discrepancy in life totals when your opponent thinks you’re dead. And even worse: they might be right! At the most recent PTQ, I was called over for this exact scenario. The Zoo player attacked and cast two burn spells, dropping his opponent to zero. His opponent said, “No, I should be at 1.” The dispute basically came down to, “Did the opponent lose a life from each of their fetchlands?” This should be an easy investigation; just check the number of the fetchlands in the graveyard. Of course, the opponent is playing Dredge! Nothing should be so easy. Still, when I investigated I discovered that yes, the Dredge player fetched twice and only recorded taking the damage once. “Sorry, you are in fact at zero.” Oops. If the Dredge player had ever confirmed life totals, he would have discovered and fixed the problem earlier, and maybe been able to block one of the creatures, preventing lethal damage.

As a judge, I tend to get four types of calls from players. The first is “What time does the round end?” I encourage all players to note the time on their watch when the round begins. Not only can you save yourself some effort, but if your tournament doesn’t have a clock or you can’t see it, you can keep tabs on things yourself. You don’t want to realize there are only ten minutes left on the clock as you’re trying to come back from behind in game 1. The second type of question involves simple penalties: things like accidentally flipping over a card while shuffling or missing a trigger. These are very straightforward, as are the third type of call: rules questions.

The fourth type of judge call that we get is a bit more complicated. Players are ambiguous and screw up in their communication all the time. And here’s a simple secret that may save you some trouble in the future: if you’re unclear in your communication, it can only hurt you. At Pro Tour: San Diego, a match called for a judge. Before combat, the active player cast Lightning Bolt targeting Noble Hierarch. The nonactive player tapped Noble Hierarch and then untapped it. After a delay, the Hierarch ended up in the graveyard. That much is clear. The players could not agree over whether the Hierarch had tapped again for mana. The Hierarch player, in his own defense, admitted that he might have mumbled the color he chose while tapping Hierarch. I ruled that the player hadn’t activated Noble Hierarch. If the best a player can say in their defense was, “I barely muttered a color, I don’t know if it was audible,” they haven’t activated Noble Hierarch. I don’t know who won the game, but I doubt things went well for the Noble Hierarch player. Most of the communication issues that spring up come from sheer laziness.

Honestly, the word I hate most in all of Magic is “Okay.” Players use this word to mean everything from “I acknowledge you cast that spell” to “That spell resolves.” Sometimes it means “I’m just saying something here so you don’t wave that spell in the air some more while I think” or “Yes, please get me food.” If you want to do yourself a favor, never say “Okay” again. About once at every larger tournament, I’ll get called because two players can’t acknowledge what “Okay” means. One player will say that it clearly indicates that the removal spell resolved. And the other player will say it clearly indicates that the spell was on the stack, and they have a response to the removal spell. This is one of the trickiest calls I’ve ever been asked to make as a judge because it’s very much about gauging the situation and trying to decide what players actually mean. So save yourself the trouble and use an extra syllable: say the spell “resolves.” Because syllables are free, but life points are precious.

Please, check your match slips. I know, it would be more convenient if a judge could collect them. Even better: what if, once signed, the match results slips magically teleported themselves onto the scorekeeper’s desk? Wouldn’t that be awesome?! And for 99% of Magic players and 100% of judges who want something more interesting to do at a Pro Tour than collecting match slips, it would be. The unfortunate thing is that sometimes players fill out match slips incorrectly. Many players have accidentally signed on the line for Player 1 instead of Player 2; sadly, sometimes the match result gets filled out that way too. The reason we instruct the winners of the match to bring up the match slip isn’t just because we want to let you take a victory lap. That minute long walk up to the scorekeeper’s station is your last chance to catch a mistake. If you turn in a wrong match slip, we may be able to correct it, but we may not. Literally this is the easiest way to prevent losing a match in the history of the DCI.

Sadly, this also happened to a friend of mine. At Atlanta Regionals 2008, I lent my friend cards for a deck. He started out I think 2-0, and won his third match. They mistakenly filled out the match slip wrong in round 3, and predictably, my friend wasn’t the one to bring the match slip up. By the time we noticed, we were unable to fix the error. He ended up losing round 4 and dropped from the tournament at 2-2 instead of having a shot at winning out. The moral of the story is “Win the games you’re supposed to win.”

Atlanta Regionals was an important tournament for me in two respects. It was the first time I met Justice Leaguer James Elliott, who has been a big influence on me and opened a lot of doors for me. I have actually worked with him in 5 states: Georgia, Virginia, Arkansas, Kentucky and Illinois. This weekend at the upcoming GP: Houston will be my first chance to work with him in a state where I actually live. Doing a good job at Atlanta Regionals also opened the door for me to get on staff at GP: Atlanta in 2008, which helped give me the fire to make Level 2, which put me where I am today.

And finally, when something goes wrong, call a judge. Yeah, yeah, I know you’ve heard this advice before. But it’s true. One of the things I hate most is when a player comes up after a match to say, “My opponent won the game because we thought it worked X way, does it?” Or “I think my opponent stalled me out that game.” If you had called us during the match, we might have been able to help. At one Grand Prix I was at, we disqualified a player. He definitely had a lot of things stacked up against him, but I think the factor that helped seal the disqualification was that he had a long history of shady behavior. A few people called a judge because of shifty behavior, and it all came together to paint a convincing story.

To illustrate this one in another way, here’s my favorite Magic story. Before I got into judging, I was a casual player with some friends in Atlanta. In 2005 the Pro Tour visited us, and my friends and I decided to try and grind in. This was our first competitive as a group; my last big Magic tournament was the Alliances prerelease. The format was three person sealed Team Champions/Betrayers Sealed. (Spoiler Alert: we end up last place at something like 0-5). I attacked with a 3/3 trampler, and my opponent blocked with a 1/1 and a 2/4. I chose to assign all three damage to the 1/1, so that two would trample over to my opponent. Confusingly, my opponent said this wasn’t legal; I supposedly had to kill both creatures before doing trample damage. He was clearly wrong; I’d killed tons of Scryb Sprites this way. So I called a judge; the judge sided in favor of my opponent. Being the savvy tournament player and sometime article reader I was, I appealed to the Head Judge. Sheldon Menery, Level 5 judge and Head Judge of the Pro Tour, came over to my table and explained trample and the sixth edition rules to me. Apparently Shandalar is not the be-all end-all of Magic (and neither is Magic Online)! Luckily we never understood the batch system all that well to begin with, so it wasn’t really a change.

That’s all I have for this month. I hope to see all of you at GP: Houston this weekend. Please feel free to come up and introduce yourself to me. I always like meeting people, especially people I’ve talked to online!

Kevin Binswanger
DCI Level 2 Judge
Austin, TX