The Justice League – Know Your Enemy

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Friday, July 31st – Magic is a useful game in that it tells us who our opponent is, what we’re fighting against. More often than not, it’s Faeries (or Kithkin, or whatever the Hot New Deck is nowadays). Sometimes it’s the fatigue of staying up until four in the morning playtesting, then waking up at six and driving four hours to a PTQ and getting there just in time to sign up.

I’ve noticed a disturbing habit when it comes to describing other people in conversation. Ninety-nine percent of the time I catch it, but every so often it’ll creep out awkwardly: instead of referring to “the other person” in a conversation, I’ll refer to “the opponent.” Maybe it’s (count ’em) almost fifteen years of being a part of this crazy game. Maybe it’s thinking about and explaining rules questions. Maybe I’m just a combative misanthrope who looks at everyone as the adversary.

Maybe I digress.

Magic is a useful game in that it tells us who our opponent is, what we’re fighting against. More often than not, it’s Faeries (or Kithkin, or whatever the Hot New Deck is nowadays). Sometimes it’s the fatigue of staying up until four in the morning playtesting, then waking up at six and driving four hours to a PTQ and getting there just in time to sign up. Maybe it’s mana screw, land flood, an excess of your opponent’s topdecks or an absence of your own. No matter what, there’s an enemy out there for you. If you defeat it? You might make the Top 8. You might get a free plane ticket to Austin, Texas, of all places. You might get an oversized check for forty thousand dollars with your name scrawled on it, and the attendant groupies that come with such a monumental achievement. Or you might end up 1-2 drop, only to spend the rest of the day in side drafts. Not that side drafts are a bad thing…

If I’ve learned anything from judging, it’s this: judges, the players are not your enemy. Also, this: players, the judges are not your enemy. Too often do I hear one of the two parties deriding the other, and often for completely undeserving reasons. What we seem to forget is that neither party can really exist without the other. Judges are only useful to Magic to the extent in which they help their communities — both on a local scale and on a global scale — while players need judges in order to ensure that things are being done correctly.

(An aside on things being done correctly: if you read the Infraction Procedure Guide — and, as I’ll explain later, you should, regardless of your relationship to the game — you’ll see that every infraction is both defined practically and explained philosophically. One of the major roles of the DCI is to ensure that sanctioned organized play is carried out in such a way as to maximize our ability to guarantee that things will be carried out fairly while still ensuring that players are having a good time. The policies instituted by the DCI are always at the service of players enjoying the game. If ever a policy works against this, then we probably ought to consider how we can modify it.)

Yes, I know how much it sucks when a judge punts a ruling. I’ve been there before — I definitely punted a ruling at a bubble match in the last round of Worlds 2007 between Guillaume Wafo-Tapa and Stuart Wright. Protip: when Trinisphere is in play, you have to spend 2B to evoke your Shriekmaw. Fortunately (and to their credit), each gentleman was gracious and understanding when I explained my error after the fact. Did I mention, by the way, that I performed said punt in the Feature Match area? Yeah. In case anybody was wondering, humble pie tastes like chicken.

Reciprocally, players make mistakes — and I’m not just talking about play errors, though my DCI rating is such that I’m probably not somebody who can speak authoritatively about play errors. It is very rare that such mistakes are done in an attempt to get one over on the opponent, or on the judge. For instance: sometimes — more often than I’d care to admit — players don’t fill out their match result slips properly. It’s understandable; after the Turbo Fog mirror match, I’d be hard-pressed to stay awake, let alone fill out a match result slip. Problems arise when the pairings for the next round are posted, and one player is the beneficiary of the error, while the other wonders why their win for the past round hasn’t registered. Now, it’s entirely possible to manipulate such an error in a way that benefits a player, but I’d like to believe that more often than not, it’s just an honest mistake. Granted, it’s the kind of mistake that can be very time-consuming to fix, and we’re loath to do anything that’s going to slow down or unnecessarily complicate the tournament, but we still try to do what we can to correct it and keep the tournament moving.

The final paragraph of Section 1 of the Infraction Procedure Guide states that all infractions are assumed to be accidental. Policy itself gives players the benefit of the doubt, even if that same policy has swift and efficient resolutions to any situation where such a benefit is undeserved. With this as the case, I think we judges would be well served to watch the attitude we take when dealing with players. They make mistakes. It happens. We correct, we penalize, and we move on.

There was definitely a time in my judging career where the true way to demonstrate one’s mettle was to discuss situations which could possibly lead to disqualification. I don’t know a single judge in the program who actually enjoys performing a DQ. Some enjoy the end result — making sure that the tournaments we run are fair and protected from the influence of those who might seek to corrupt it — but I don’t think any judge actually likes dropping the hammer. While it’s important to understand that sometimes it falls upon us to inform a player that they are being excused from the tournament (and, potentially, taking a mandatory vacation from organized play), there is a definite aftereffect that can be produced by such a mindset. In our vigilance, is it not possible that we cross the line from attention into paranoia?

To illustrate: before moving to Virginia back in 2007, I worked at a comic book store. In addition to filing comics and selling Warhammer kits, I was also the store judge. I was responsible for running our Wednesday night events, and then FNM. The player base at my store was a mixture of four or five decent, competitive players and a smattering of casual players who hung around with them. In roughly fifteen months of employment, I managed to erode the respect and trust my players had in me — rather than being a resource to them, I was a disciplinarian, so concerned with being a good judge (always knowledgeable on policy, runs efficient events, keeps everything fair) that I completely failed at being a Good Judge (knowing when to apply policy and when to show lenience, runs fun events, keeps everyone having a good time). The distinction between the two is very fine, but it does exist.

I remember one such incident where two players were competing in the early rounds of FNM. Player A was a competitive type, probably the best player in the store at the time, while player B was a younger guy who enjoyed competition but did not have a competitive attitude. Player B took the first game of their match and, while shuffling up for game two, player A noticed that one of B’s sideboard sleeves was particularly damaged. A picked up the sleeve, looked at the back of it and, before putting it back, looked at the face of the card. (It bears mentioning that this infraction occurred several years ago, and policy has changed substantially since that time).

I could tell from A’s expression after the fact that his action was more along the lines of “I’m rather absentminded” than “I’m going to cheat my way into a match win.” Still, I knew that something had Gone Wrong, and it felt like the best way to fix that would be to assign a penalty, so I did (for those of you who are curious, it was Unsporting Conduct — Major, which both at the time and at present comes with a game loss). In retrospect, this was definitely not the correct call. At an event like FNM, where the most you’re going to walk away with for going X-0 is a few packs and a shiny promo foil, where the focus is on having a good time with your buddies, a stern look and a “don’t do that” are likely sufficient. To be clear, if such an incident happened at a PTQ or a Grand Prix, it would be a different matter entirely.

Not every player is out to cheat. Most of them want the same things that we wanted when we played — to be able to compete and have fun with a group of people with whom we have a shared interest. I don’t know a single Magic player who walks into an event thinking “okay, how can I best screw over my opponents, the judges, and anybody else who walks by?” When you’re dealing with a player who ended his turn with eight cards in his grip after evoking Mulldrifter, invoking the Spanish Inquisition on the poor soul does absolutely nothing to make the tournament safer for anybody else. Instead, it makes your players distrust you because you’re acting like a power-hungry jerk more interested in being right than in being fair.

As I’ve said before — repeating Sheldon Menery — if judging isn’t fun, you’re doing it wrong. I might suggest add this: if you’re judging, and the players aren’t having fun, then you’re doing it wrong.

On Friday, I’ll be driving up to my ancestral homeland (well, sort of — I grew up in New Hampshire, which is close enough) and judging at Grand Prix: Boston. When I’m not working, I’ll definitely be looking for some EDH action — please feel free to stop by and say hello!

Until next time, this is Nicholas Sabin, still dreaming of swinging with Kresh and not having to play around Spore Frog.

Nicholas Sabin
nicholas dot sabin at starcitygames dot spanish inquisition
NicholasAtSCG on our forums, and pretty much everywhere else.