The Justice League – Three Simple Things Judges Wish Players Knew

Read The Justice League every week... at StarCityGames.com!
Thursday, February 12th – Each tournament is a collaboration between the judges and the players. The players are responsible for competing fairly but competitively, and also responsible for picking up their trash. The judges are responsible for helping out when mistakes – whatever they may be – occur, and for telling players where the bathroom, ATM, and nearest cheap food are located. Seems pretty simple, right?

Hello. My name is Nicholas. I ask questions.

I was extremely pleased that Riki asked me to join the Justice League; StarCityGames.com has a tradition of hosting some excellent judge articles, and I hope my writings here will meet those standards.

As Riki mentioned in his introductions, I reside in Roanoke, Virginia. I started playing Magic in the months preceding the release of Fallen Empires and, after some attempts at becoming a successful semi-pro, I was lured away to judging, and I haven’t looked back since. I started judging in 2004, and haven’t looked back since.

I’ve been doing this for nearly five years. Wow.

Beyond that, I work as an Event Coordinator for StarCityGames.com. I travel the Mid-Atlantic running tournaments for the various card games Star City supports, answering rules questions, and ultimately, trying to ensure that people have fun.

If you’re reading this, there’s a safe chance that you’ve played in a Magic tournament. By their nature, tournaments are chaotic environments: combine a large number of players, a small (but proportionally appropriate — or so we hope) number of staff, and enough tables and chairs for people to play, trade, and deposit their food wrappers, and you’ll soon come to understand that controlling such a mess is impossible. The best you can do is make sure that the wheels don’t fall off the bike.

Each tournament is a collaboration between the judges and the players. The players are responsible for competing fairly but competitively, and also responsible for picking up their trash. The judges are responsible for helping out when mistakes — whatever they may be — occur, and for telling players where the bathroom, ATM, and nearest cheap food are located. Seems pretty simple, right?

Nothing could be further from the truth. Nonetheless, we still run events, we still play, we still judge. Players play for a multitude of reasons: competition, social interaction, and boredom come to mind. Most judges judge for one reason: raw, unlimited power.

Kidding. Any judge who judges solely for the “power” of being a judge is doing it wrong.

Like players, judges judge for different reasons. Some judge because they like working through complex rules interactions. Others judge because they no longer compete at a high level, but still want to be involved in the game. For those keeping score at home, this is where I came into things, almost five years ago.

We — meaning the judges — also want to make sure that players are having a good time. If the players aren’t having a good time, chances are we’re doing it wrong. In the interest of advancing good times for everybody, I’d like to offer some suggestions on what players can do to enhance their own good times and simultaneously ensure that their judges aren’t pulling at their hair and gnashing their teeth by the Top 8.

1. Fill out your decklist correctly.

We all know what it’s like to be uncertain about your deck choice. Players audible all the time — that Mono-Red burn deck that thrashed your entire testing gauntlet raw during last-minute playtesting sessions at three o’clock this morning may be completely cold to the hot new Green/White lifegain deck you’re hearing about. Switching over to Mono-Black Control seems advisable. With such uncertainty baked into every tournament, what’s the point in filling out your decklist any earlier than you absolutely have to?

The answer is simple: You don’t like getting game losses.

Seriously, folks. In the first two rounds of each tournament, you’re going to play anywhere from four to six games. How many of those games are you willing to concede? If you answered anything other than “none,” you’re a bald-faced liar (or just really fond of going 0-2 drop). Any player who has played in more than a few FNM events will know that screwing up your decklist will typically result in getting a game loss. Suddenly, that 50-50 match-up you’re facing in the second round becomes all the more stressful. Why tempt things?

As a corollary, I would imagine that most of you have pet decks, or love certain archetypes. I fell in love with Goblin Bidding when it was at its prime — trying to figure out just how much damage I could squeeze out of a Skirk Prospector, a Goblin Sharpshooter, a Siege-Gang Commander with three tokens, and a Goblin Warchief was the exact kind of math equation as board position I loved. Strangely, I’m pretty terrible at math — infer what you will about my play skill — but I digress.

The point is that it’s likely you already have an inclination toward playing a certain deck. There’s something you’ve been clinging to throughout your playtest sessions, you know it inside and out, and even if there’s some Hot New Deck in the format, chances are you’ll do better with the 60 cards with which you’ve developed the most familiarity than with the 60 cards the Internet tells you to play. The choice of what deck to play isn’t much of a choice at all: just go with what you know. And write it out.

When you’re writing out your decklist, please use your best handwriting. I wear glasses, and there are still times when I’ll see a list with something that looks, generously, like “Flarghf ub Deod”. Also, try to refrain from writing short names. I know that writing out “Tomb of Yawgmoth” was a real pain in the ass when Time Spiral block was Standard-legal, but it can save lives — or, at least, game losses. I’ve definitely given out game losses to players who neglected to write out “‘Shaper Savant” when running Venser – how could I be 100% sure that they weren’t playing the five-mana 3/3 Sliver from Time Spiral? If I’m checking your deck, don’t leave me to make guesstimates on the contents of your list.

Furthermore, the central rule: Sixty card minimum maindeck, zero or fifteen cards in the sideboard. This is the easiest way to get a game loss, bar none. Trust me on this — I’ll typically spend the first round of any Magic tournament counting to sixty, then counting to fifteen, then being very confused when I can’t count to sixty on the list in front of me. Then again, I’m sure my confusion is nothing compared to the frustration of the player I have to game loss in the next round.

2. Sleeves, sleeves, sleeves.

It’s pretty easy to be rough on your sleeves. Spend enough time shuffling up your favorite EDH deck (mine is currently Kresh, the Bloodbraided) and you’ll see how quickly scratches, folds, and other stresses will accumulate to an obviously marked deck. It’s pretty easy, over the course of a seven- or eight-round PTQ, to rough up your sleeves so much that, when you get deck-checked, you’ll be asking yourself whether or not it was a good idea to continue using the same sleeves you had back when you started playing in 2004. Yes, I have had players tell me that they’d been using the same sleeves for years. It happens.

A solid rule to go by is that you should probably get new sleeves every other event. If you’re playing at the more competitive levels of the game — such as a Grand Prix or Pro Tour — it’s probably a better idea to get new sleeves for each day you’re playing. One truism I’ve learned from checking infinite decks over infinite tournaments is this: if you want to find markings on sleeves, you will. We assume that most players are honest and sporting, and therefore do not merit suspicion when their sleeves are inordinately marked.

Nonetheless, if your sleeves are beat up, there’s a good chance you’ll be asked to replace them. The standard penalty for Marked Cards — No Pattern is a Warning and, once you’ve replaced your sleeves, that should solve that. The tricky part is when you get to the point where your sleeves are marked in some kind of pattern. The penalty for that infraction (Marked Cards — Pattern) is a game loss. As we’ve established that nobody likes getting game losses, what can we do to avoid these from occurring?

The answer is to be very deliberate about how you sleeve your deck. When you’re sleeving up, do you sort out your deck first, and then sleeve groups of cards together? If so, you may want to consider trying an alternate method. Some sleeve manufacturers will produce defects that appear only in a certain group of sleeves. What happens, pray tell, when it turns out that your four Path to Exile are all in sleeves with a small nick on the corner?

If you guessed “game loss”, then you’re probably correct. When I sleeve up a deck for the first time — albeit a rarity, as judging is just more fun to me than playing — I tend to shuffle the deck, then shuffle the sleeves. This may seem a bit paranoid, but I assure you that it’s worth missing out on a game loss when you’re on the bubble and trying to get into the Top 8.

3. Your opponent is not required to help you play better.

Last year, I had the privilege of serving as the Head Judge of Virginia States. During one round, a player approached me with some questions about Demigod of Revenge and his responsibilities regarding its “When you play Demigod of Revenge …” ability as far as countermagic is concerned. For example, what would your reaction be to the following scenario?

Player A: “Demigod?”
Player B: “Counter it.”
Player A: “Okay. Triggered ability from Demigod resolves. Put Demigod back into play?”
Player B: “JUDGE!?”

The keen-eyed among you will notice that Player A never made explicit mention of Demigod’s triggered ability. Should Player A have done so? Is Player A responsible for telling Player B that the trigger is on the stack?

The answer? Not really. Those of you familiar with the Shortcuts section of the Penalty Guidelines might remember the following passage: “Whenever a player adds an object to the stack, he or she is assumed to be passing priority unless he or she explicitly announces that he or she intend to retain it.” In normal-speak, this means that if you play a card with an ability that triggers upon the card being played, said ability is assumed to have gone on the stack without the player explicitly stating as such. Therefore, a player attempting to counter Demigod with the intention of keeping it in the graveyard would have to cast their countermagic after the trigger had resolved.

The above is only one of the myriad situations in which players can use nuanced communication and partial omission to gain an advantage. To the sporting player, this may seem distasteful — whether it is or not is solely up to the reader. Nonetheless, it is important to remember that the spectrum of player behavior is not an either/or proposition. There is sporting behavior, there is unsporting behavior, and there is everything in between.

To be clear, let me state that it’s not my opinion that players have much to learn from judges without the same education flowing reciprocally. Nothing could be further from the truth. Judges can learn incredible things about their own work and their role in their community by listening to the players they serve. I’ve just written a handful of things that I wish more players knew, but I’m certain there are a million things I could learn from the players for whom I judge. I’m sure you’ve got some ideas of your own, and I’d really love to hear them. Use the forums, shoot me an e-mail, whatever you like. Players and judges can work together to make Magic even better, but only if we’re willing to try.

After being introduced as the asker of “Nicholas Sabin Questions,” I feel it only appropriate for me to offer one to you here. Renowned Magic judge Sheldon Menery is fond of telling judges that if they’re not having fun on the floor, they’re doing something wrong. While Sheldon is absolutely correct here — I’ve shamelessly stolen that quote from him on many occasions — I think we can also extrapolate that to the players. If you’re not enjoying yourself at a Magic tournament, why? I’ll leave you all to chew on that question for now. Until then, thanks for reading.

Nicholas Sabin
[email protected]
NicholasAtSCG on AIM, the SCG forums, and pretty much everywhere else, too.