My name is Nicholas Sabin, and I’m here to shamefully announce that Eric Levine trounced me solidly in a heads-up EDH game — my Kresh, the Bloodbraided against his Kangee, Aerie Keeper — at three o’clock on the Monday morning immediately following Pro Tour Austin.
Bets being settled, I’m back from the Pro Tour and I’m incredibly pleased to report that I had a fantastic time. As the majority of my involvement in Magic these days revolves around tournament organization rather than judging, it was surprisingly relaxing to focus solely on being a judge for four days. I missed getting my hands dirty in giving rulings and answering questions. Even deck checks were fun again. Go figure.
Austin was a terrific choice for a Pro Tour location: of all the cities to which I’ve traveled, Austin was, by far, the most laid-back and relaxing. There was tons of good food close to the venue, the weather was warm during the days (when I was safely inside the air-conditioned convention center) and pleasantly chill in the evening when I was off. I would strongly encourage Wizards to go back to Austin at some point in the near future — if not for another Pro Tour, then definitely a Grand Prix.
In e-mails leading up to the event, Head Judge Riccardo Tessitori asked what kinds of things we wanted to do while at the Pro Tour. Part of my answer involved playing as much EDH as humanly possible. Sadly, this did not occur. Aside from getting trounced by Eric and savagely beaten by German judge extraordinaire Ute Kronenberg (who ended a three-player game between her, Aaron Hamer, and myself by using her general, Mayael the Anima, to flop Rith, the Awakener onto the table, subsequently using Rith’s triggered ability to generate fifteen Saprolings, and then dropping a Titanic Ultimatum to force Aaron and I to pack it in), there was only enough time for some pick-up games against fellow Virginia judge and all-around Good Man Ryan Stapleton. Otherwise, I strictly played limited. A draft here (in which I was on a three-man team composed entirely of Nicks: myself, Nick Short, and Nick Rzezckowski), a Sealed there, and, to top it all off, a four-player Invasion draft on Magic Online. See, Wizards has taken to bringing a cluster of rather shiny and nice computers to major events to show off how fun and enjoyable Magic Online is. It’s a fine showcase and good marketing idea, but speaking as somebody who doesn’t interact with MTGO more than once or twice, it’s not much to do with me.
Fast forward to Sunday afternoon, where I’ve returned from Jason Lemahieu’s excellent seminar on Out-of-Order Sequencing to report to Public Events manager Jeff Morrow for my assignment for the rest of the day. He advises that I check out the MTGO station, and informs me that the WotC folks are holding free tournaments for any judge who cares to show up, including what I understand to be the pinnacle of MTGO play: Invasion draft. Now, I’m no genius when it comes to playing the Magical cards, regardless of deck size (40, 60, or 100), so my draft deck was nothing special, but it was so nice to be able to kick back and enjoy something so cool. I don’t know who at Wizards was responsible for this but, if I was wearing a hat as I wrote this, it would be firmly tipped in that individual’s direction.
One of my main goals for the PT was to spend some time meeting judges from other countries. One tendency I’ve noticed in working major events is that judges tend to stick to groups in which theirs is the common language. While I can certainly relate to the fear and intimidation that comes with being outside of your linguistic comfort zone, I felt like the PT might be a good opportunity to work against that, even if just a little bit. My first night of judging found me at the head of the Last Chance Qualifier, with a staff that included judges from such exotic locales as Brazil, Australia, Denmark, Japan, and … Los Angeles. While I’m fairly accustomed to the way tournaments run in my own area — usually because I’m the one running them — watching the methods other judges used to approach tournaments was very useful.
For example: it’s the end of the first round, and there are still some number of tables playing their matches. We obviously want to get the round finished as quickly as possible — judges hate lengthy downtimes just as much as players do — so it’s important to make sure that all the tables are covered in order to watch for slow play and to get the result slips to the scorekeeper as soon as possible. DCI Reporter has a handy-dandy feature that allows the scorekeeper to produce a list of outstanding tables, so we’re obviously going to take advantage of that. What I’m used to is gathering judges and assigning them to individual tables. For this event, we try something different: when we reach the end of the round, one judge stands in front of the result-slip basket with a copy of the outstanding tables list and verifies each slip as it comes in. This has the advantage of giving me a continuously-updated idea of which tables are still outstanding, and allowed the logistics team to have a better idea of what tables still needed to be covered. According to Andreas Jepsen, the judge who suggested and then implemented this technique, all the European Grands Prix use this method; I plan on shamelessly stealing it for our future events.
I also tried to make some inroads on the language barrier. Trying to explain a game of Magic to somebody is a challenging feat even when you both share a language, but when verbal communication is ruled out almost entirely, things can get even more challenging. During one round, I was called to rule on a life total dispute between a player who spoke only English and a player who spoke primarily French, with only scant smatterings of English in their vocabulary. I studied French for six years whilst in Junior High and High School, so I can communicate on a very basic level, but trying to perform an investigation on what may or may not have happened several turns ago is another matter entirely. Based on what I was able to deduce through my choppy French, I thought the matter came down to a missed Kitchen Finks trigger, and ruled as such. On appeal, Riccardo was able to surmise that the discrepancy actually owed to one player’s failure to write down a life total change from Tarmogoyf connecting. Long story short: when in doubt, call for a judge. When the judge is in doubt, ask for a translator who speaks the right language to help clarify the situation.
Another interesting interaction I had with the language barrier involved two Japanese judges with whom I worked at the PT: Shin’ichiro Tachibana and Satoshi Miyamoto. Neither Shin’ichiro-san nor Satoshi-san spoke much English, but I still wanted to interact with them and ease down the formidable Japanese-English language barrier. To assist me in my goal, I had two tools: an embarrassingly rudimentary understanding of a few Japanese phrases which I had gleaned from watching Anime in college, and a desire to learn. Laughter is a pretty common language, so I made absolutely no hesitation to use pidgin Japanese Anime phrases to evoke laughter in my fellow judges — Japanese or otherwise. I also asked Shin’ichiro-san and Satoshi-san to educate me in some common phrases that Japanese players use to communicate during games. I’ll make no claims to having them mastered, but I do have them written down, and that’s a start. Amusingly enough, my roommate for Austin — Hans Wang, possibly the most energetic judge I’ve ever met — walked in on my impromptu Japanese lessons and proclaimed me to be a Japanese judge in disguise.
The Pro Tour was also a useful education in some of the things that I miss out on from spending too much time on the event stage and not enough time on the event floor. A situation arose on the main event in which a player tapped three Forests and one Plains, put a Kor Sanctifiers on the board, and pointed at one of his opponent’s enchantments. The opponent immediately called for a judge to draw attention to the fact that the player couldn’t kick the Kor Sanctifiers with the mana available to him. My ruling was that the player had technically made a legal play — cast the Sanctifiers without kicker, one Green mana remaining in his pool — and wouldn’t be allowed a take-back. At the end of that round, I raised the situation for discussion with the rest of my team, and we came to a 50-50 split on whether that was the correct ruling or not. In retrospect? Yeah, I definitely screwed that one up.
The correct fix is to back up completely: let the player put the Sanctifiers back in their hand and untap their mana. The trick here is that additional costs are chosen before any mana is created. (CR 601.2b) If the spell can’t be completed legally, it is all rewound. (CR 601.2) The spell was announced with Kicker, then the player was unable to legally play the spell as announced. The player in question has committed a Game Rule Violation, which is a warning at Professional REL. When players commit GRVs, we undo whatever illegal actions they’ve committed — including an incorrect mana tap — and resume the game at the last point before said action took place. More competitive players might argue that the player should be required to keep their lands tapped. I’d suggest that this interpretation of policy is strict to the point of being obsessive. The important thing to keep in mind here is the decision the player is trying to make, and not the physical motions the player makes in order to enact that decision.
It is entirely possible that the way Professional Rules Enforcement Level is represented doesn’t accurately describe what we expect of players at that level. You don’t need to know how to play a technically perfect game of Magic in order to compete on the Pro Tour. Far from it. You do need to understand that you’ll be held to a higher standard in terms of technical play, but Professional is not an excuse to rules lawyer your opponent. In an ideal world, the best player at each tournament wins. The “best player” is not determined by one’s ability to nitpick at the technical correctness of an opponent’s play. Heck, we’ve codified specific sections of policy to excuse players from having to play with perfect technical precision (Out-of-Order Sequencing, for those of you who might be curious). In short: Professional REL does not entitle you to rules-lawyer your opponent.
Also, I can’t close the book on my Pro Tour Austin tales without touching on one of the biggest highlights of the Tour. Pro Tours and other Professional-level events are significant in the judge community in that they’re where the majority of high-level judge testing occurs. At every Pro Tour, you’ll usually find a group of L2s who spend more time studying than playing EDH, vanishing from the event floor for hours at a time. These are the Level Three candidates, and the rest of us are always excited to hear news of those who passed the exam-interview juggernaut successfully, and ready to offer condolences to those not quite ready. Even more rare are the occurrences where L3s or L4s get promoted — I’ve seen it happen all of four times in my judge career, if memory serves.
The L3 promotions are usually public knowledge as soon as the candidate passes their interview. Conversely, higher-level judge promotions are kept under wraps. The advancing judge usually doesn’t find out about it until the judge dinner that formally marks the closing of a Pro Tour for the numerous judges working at it. I can still recall the look of surprise on Toby Elliott face when his promotion to Level Five was announced at US Nationals back in 2007, and the subtle way in which Sheldon Menery introduced us all to “Riccardo Tessitori, Level Five judge from Italy” at Worlds last year, casually going from one EDH table to the next at the hotel bar.
Watching somebody get that kind of recognition from the program is always inspiring. What sweetens the experience is watching it happen to somebody you happen to know well. There were two promotions to Level Four at Pro Tour Austin (along with a well-deserved promotion to Level Three for Eli Shiffrin of Arizona. The astute among you might recall Eli’s name from the back of the Comprehensive Rules, where he is credited as one of the contributors to that august document), and the method by which each was delivered bears mentioning, if only because it will illustrate the bond and the camaraderie that justify all the travel and studying and hard work that we judges invest into the program.
The first Level Four announcement was made for Ingrid Lind-Jahn, a judge from Wisconsin whom I’ve known ever since Grand Prix: Madison, back in 2006. When Sheldon announced Ingrid’s advancement — to the surprise of the whole room, Ingrid included! — the entire room went up. Where there had been attentive and respectful silence preceding the announcement, there was now raucous applause and cheering. I would like to retroactively apologize to the waitstaff at the restaurant. We’re usually not that loud, but in this case, it was entirely and unflinchingly appropriate. Recounting the event after the fact, some confessed to shedding a few tears of happiness. For my part, I don’t know that I’ve ever gotten choked-up at a judge dinner before.
The second announcement was somewhat unorthodox in its delivery. After we’d all finished clapping and cheering for Ingrid, Sheldon once again asked our attention Carlos Ho, of Panama and Spain (and wherever the next major Magic event is being held — the man travels to shows as if it was his job), Sheldon explained, would also be leveling up to four. However, Carlos was unable to attend the judge dinner, as he’d been assigned to oversee Public Events on Sunday evening. In order to fully ensure that this would come as a surprise to Carlos, Sheldon requested that the announcement be kept off anybody’s cell phones, Facebook accounts, or Twitters. Instead, we all walked together back to the Convention Center to give Carlos the good news. As it turned out, Carlos had already left the venue to try to join us back at the judge dinner, but had somehow missed the parade of judges marching to greet him. When we finally managed to call him back to the venue and somebody — I don’t recall who — introduced the players and judges in the hall to Level Four judge Carlos Ho, there was another cacophonous burst of applause and cheering. Pictures were taken — including one of Carlos in a rather silly dragon hat – congratulations given, and plenty of joy to go around.
Being at Pro Tour: Austin solidified my enthusiasm for and my commitment to the judge program. It’s not for the infinite deck checks, or pushing in chairs, or throwing away half-eaten meals. If for anything at all, it’s for moments like these.
Until next time, here’s hoping that your next tournament is as good as this.
nicholas dot sabin at starcitygames dot austin
NicholasAtSCG on our forums and … pretty much everywhere else.