The Justice League – On The Level

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Friday, February 26th – Readers of my previous article on Pro Tour: Austin are familiar with how important socialization is to the Pro Tour experience – as much so for judges as it is for players. San Diego was exceptionally good, in that many of my favorite judges were on staff. However, this Pro Tour would be slightly different in content and context, as this was the Pro Tour at which I would test for Level Three.

When I was a younger version of myself, I was fascinated by air travel. Having spent many of my family vacations in the back of my parents’ Subaru, riding up Interstate 89 to Upstate New York, the idea of getting in a winged, metal bird seemed so exotic and luxurious that the prospect of being on a plane was extremely enticing. Having now traveled to multiple Pro Tours, Grands Prix, and World Championships – almost all of them by plane – the illusion has been mercilessly shattered. Despite my disenfranchisement with the airline industry, I was still extremely excited to fly out to San Diego for the Pro Tour last weekend.

Readers of my previous article on Pro Tour: Austin are familiar with how important socialization is to the Pro Tour experience – as much so for judges as it is for players. San Diego was exceptionally good, in that many of my favorite judges were on staff, and that I would be free to spend lots of time with them, discussing things both related to and completely unrelated to the judge program, not to mention some quality time with the one-hundred card decks. However, this Pro Tour would be slightly different in content and context, as this was the Pro Tour at which I would test for Level Three.

In some ways, the process of testing for L3 is identical to the process candidates go through when testing for L1 or L2: there is a written exam – fifty questions, all multiple choice – followed by an interview. The difficulty of the written exam increases as the candidate progresses further in the judge program, and the nature of the interview is more thorough at L3 than it is at the previous levels. This has much to do with the amount of trust and responsibility the program places in a candidate when they test for L3: the standards we set for L3 judges is extremely high, and not exercising due diligence in ensuring that a candidate is up to snuff would be an egregious disservice to the judge program, let alone the candidate. We want L3s to be experts, both in their understanding of the rules and their comprehension of the philosophies of the judge program, and the rigorous nature of the test reflects that.

This was not the first time that I’d taken the exam, either. Back in March of 2007, shortly after Grand Prix: Massachusetts (read: Fitchburg, located a good 45 minutes outside of Boston) I was approached on IRC by none other than Sheldon Menery. “I have a suggestion for you,” he said. “Test L3 at U.S. Nationals.”

My answer was atypical: “No.” I didn’t think I was ready. Anybody who plays competitive Magic – by which I mean to say PTQs and such – understands the prestige and the reputation that comes with being L3. By that point, I had been judging actively for roughly three years, and I had a pretty clear idea of the potential challenge of taking the test. This isn’t to say that I didn’t want to be L3 – I certainly did, and had already begun talking to some higher-level judges about the prospect – but I didn’t think I was there yet.

Despite my initial refusal, Sheldon encouraged me to think about it, and so I did. I consulted with a few senior judges who were familiar with my work, and talked with my mentors to gather their opinions. The general response was supportive, but hesitant: the judge who certified me initially put my chances of passing at around 60%, but mentioned that he felt my chances of passing on a second try were closer to 90%. With that information gathered, it would have been wiser, in retrospect, to decline testing at Nationals and, instead, hold off until sometime later. Of course, I benefit from the luxury of hindsight, and being ambitious comes with drawbacks as well as advantages. A few days after Sheldon’s suggestion, I e-mailed Andy Heckt, the DCI Community Manager, and requested the opportunity to test at Nationals.

While I can’t go into too much detail about the test – candidates are strictly instructed to refrain from disclosing the contents of their written exam or talking in detail about one’s interview, as that would ensure that said interview would be the candidate’s last – I can say that my initial assessment was correct: I was not prepared, and it showed. While I managed to pass the written portion of the exam, my interview did not go quite so well. I can tell, looking back, that there was absolutely no way I was going to advance at that time. I lacked the experience and perspective that comes with being a leader in the judge community, and my positions on how we should use philosophy to implement policy were too absolutist. In addition to these shortcomings, my panel also felt that there was a major difference between how I perceived my skills as a judge and where they were in context of being a candidate for L3. With that in mind, they decided to take a rather blunt approach when informing me of their decision to not advance me, and carried that approach into their feedback on what I needed to do in order to improve. The general thrust of the evaluation was supportive, and I was assured that I’d eventually make the necessary improvements and advance, but their assessment of my attitude told them to be very direct and straightforward, and so they were.

I feel comfortable stating, as a generalization, that nobody likes failure. This applies doubly when you are possessed of both a strong sense of ambition and a high opinion of your own skills. I’m not proud to admit that I took the feedback that I was given and withdrew from the judge program for a while. I still attended Worlds that year, and U.S. Nationals the year after that, but I wasn’t challenging myself, I wasn’t growing, and I certainly wasn’t ready to admit to myself that my panel was absolutely right, and that I was wrong.

I mention this story for two reasons: to emphasize how useful it can be to have an accurate appraisal of your strengths and your weaknesses, and how valuable it can be to possess the humility to admit when you are wrong. The whole purpose of this article — and of my involvement in the Justice League — is to offer you, the players, my observations on how you can make your own play experience better. I can’t offer you decklists like Patrick Chapin or Manuel Bucher might and, as pedantic as I sometimes get, I know for certain that I don’t have the judging version of “Who’s the Beatdown?” in me just yet, I’ve judged enough tournaments and I’ve seen enough bad things happen to good players that I can offer you some ways to succeed in your pursuit of Good Times — whatever that may be — in the context of playing Magic. Part of that comes in being able to analyze why you’re dropping games and losing matches, and in finding (and listening to) stronger players about what you can do to win.

In order for me to become a better judge, I had to think about why I was making the mistakes that I made, and I had to acknowledge that people who knew a lot more about judging than I do were pointing out specific areas in which I was flat-out wrong. It took a long time for me to honestly look at myself and see that their appraisal of my work was spot-on and, while I would never have said this back in 2007, they were absolutely right, and I’m grateful to them for making the effort to help me out.

But that’s the past – the distant past. Last weekend was Pro Tour: San Diego, and I re-tested for Level Three.

I’m sad to say that, once again, I did not pass. My bugbear on this attempt was not the interview, but the rules exam. In order for a candidate to pass the L3 exam, they must score at least 80%, and I’m sorry to say that I fell short. Candidly, let me tell you, friends: the Level 3 Rules Exam is a beast. It is an incredibly difficult and tricky exam, and passing it requires both one’s strict attention and a thoroughly precise understanding of the Comprehensive Rules. To say that I was disappointed when informed that I didn’t get there would be an understatement. Because I did not pass the exam, I was given a short debriefing rather than a full-on interview – the program requires that a candidate pass the rules exam before they can interview for advancement – and, while I was still embarrassed that my rules knowledge precluded my advancement, I did my best to be open and receptive to what my panel had to say.

Their feedback was both positive and constructive, and I left it with a few really solid ideas about how I can improve my rules knowledge and finally achieve my goal and become a Level Three judge. Some of these ideas should manifest themselves here at StarCityGames.com very shortly, and I’m very excited to reveal them to you when the time comes. Until then, what I have to offer is this: sometimes, failure is our best teacher, and humility is the only way to get out of it. To be fully honest, I feel slightly awkward in discussing my failures with all of you but, as much as I’m proud of the successes that I’ve had in the judge program, I’m grateful for the times that I’ve screwed up and have been able to use it as an educational opportunity. My hope, in writing this, is that some of you might take a more analytical eye the next time you make a misplay, understand why it happened the way it did, and get it right next time.

Until next time, as always, thank you for this time.

Nicholas Sabin
DCI Certified Area Judge
nicholas dot sabin at starcitygames dot sandiego