The Riki Rules – Why I Judge

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Tuesday, September 16th – Today, I’m going to take a little time to tell you a little bit about myself, because one of my messages is that judges are human. Playing in that PTQ three weeks ago got me thinking about my Magic career and the constant seesaw battle for my soul. Play or Judge? Clearly I’ve chosen a path, but it wasn’t always so easy. My story began, like so many others, with a botched Judge call…

This is my 17th column here at StarCityGames.com. That’s nothing special, especially when you put it up against the 250 (!) that Abe Sargent has written, with Pete Jahn not far behind. But it’s been four full months of adventures in judging here. Today, I’m going to take a little time to tell you a little bit about myself, because one of my messages is that judges are human, and I feel like there’s some stuff I need to tell you about me before moving on into the next four months.

Playing in that PTQ three weeks ago got me thinking about my Magic career and the constant seesaw battle for my soul. Play or Judge? Clearly I’ve chosen a path, but it wasn’t always so easy.

My story began, like so many others, with a botched Judge call.

It was an Onslaught Sealed PTQ, only my second PTQ ever. The first was an Odyssey Block Constructed affair where I picked up a Mirari’s Wake deck the night before and proceeded to embarrass myself thoroughly. I may or may not have said to one of my opponents that day, “I’m sorry, but I have no idea what I am doing,” as I Compulsioned ten times at the end of his turn.

I had opened a sufficiently busted Sealed pool that would have taken a better player straight to the Top 8. Dragon Roost and Starstorm provided the bombs, while triple Wirewood Savage gave me the best card drawing in the format. As it was, I started out 4-0 before some of the seasoned veterans in the room started showing me how real Magic was played, ending my day.

On my way to my 4-0 record, I had plenty of fantastic draws. At one point, I got the ideal curve out for my deck of turn 3 Wirewood Savage (whenever a Beast comes into play, you may draw a card) and turn 4 Snarling Undorak (a Beast). As I went to draw my card, my opponent stopped me and said, “I’ll use Imagecrafter to make your Undorak a Wizard. You don’t draw a card.”

I disagreed. We called a Judge. The Judge delivered his ruling: “Since he is changing the creature type in response, the creature is a Wizard, not a Beast when the ability resolves.”

Relative noob that I was, I knew that wasn’t right at all. Ample time on the original MTGO Beta had taught me a thing or two about the rules. The ability had already triggered, and drawing the card was not contingent on the creature being a Beast anymore.

Knowing my rights, I appealed to the Head Judge. Strangely, I don’t remember exactly who the HJ was, but he got it right and I got to draw my card. It was probably Don Barkauskas. That guy’s been HJing forever. Given the time frame, I don’t think it would have been Toby Elliott yet, which is an odd thing to say about a Level 5, but he really has had a meteoric rise in the past few years.

Anyway, after the match I was a bit steamed about the original judge call. “I could do better than that guy,” I thought. It took me over a year before I finally put my money where my mouth was. I was still very much a player first. I wanted to live the Pro Tour dream. Actually, I had little to no idea what the PT was, with only vague stories of glory told by one Scott Johns who hailed from our little town of Davis, CA during his formative years on the tour.

Onslaught Block Constructed even gave me my one and only PTQ Top 8, so I was well on my way to greater glory (roll eyes here). It was at GP: Oakland that I finally took my Level 1 test after an unceremonious dismissal from the tournament. Toby Elliott administered the exam, an auspicious beginning to our relationship.

I yo-yo’d between playing and judging for the next few years until the string broke. For most of my life I’ve been a somewhat stereotypical lazy gamer. You probably don’t know the type, so let me explain. I took far too many years to slog through college (but was a standout in my social circle for actually graduating). I worked, or maybe that’s “worked,” at the local card shop. Mostly, I disappointed my parents to no end, particularly so being an only Japanese child.

The judging was nothing special at that time. I did it mostly as an excuse not to play in formats I didn’t like (particularly Sealed deck) while still hanging out with my friends, and the guaranteed product for working was a nice bonus. Basically, it was all the classic reasons not to be a judge.

A few years ago I hit rock bottom. I quit my job at the card shop and parted ways with my girlfriend on the same day. My disappointed parents took pity on me and took me back in, and I proceeded to do even more nothing with my life. I sat around, gained weight, and was generally unhappy. I didn’t have a job and I didn’t have a plan. No, that’s not rock bottom yet.

Rock bottom came on my best friend Courtney’s birthday. She was celebrating out of town and I was flat broke. Not working for a year will do that to you. Gas, dinner, concert ticket, forget about it. It was humiliating, and to hide my shame I made up a lame excuse and didn’t show up. This sparked a cold war between us. She didn’t call me, I didn’t call her, I didn’t go to her graduation party, and she moved away to LA.

My shame and self-hatred finally drove me to action. I think I went out and got a job a week after her birthday. It was just a temp job in an office, pretty much the only thing an ex-lazy gamer could get, but it was something. It was progress. Money went into the savings account, my parents lightened up noticeably, and most importantly I felt better about myself. A few months later I finally went back out into the Magic world and judged a tournament. Then another. Then another. Things were getting on track.

The colossal life failure of my best friend’s birthday changed me. Once the motivation faucet had been opened, I couldn’t turn it off. I didn’t just have a job; I worked hard at it. I developed some very odd OCD tendencies. If I didn’t finish my workload for the week, it would bother me all weekend. The same thing happened with my judging. One judge task is to clean up after players, picking up opened wrappers and discarded soda bottles. Although most judges do these tasks and give lip service to them being necessary, they secretly wish that players would just pick up after themselves. Suddenly, I didn’t care. There was trash and I needed to pick it up. Or else. There may have been some twitching involved.

Last June my OCD-driven hard work paid off and I was finally hired on permanently at the office at which I had been temping. This was an all-around positive for me because it gave me some financial security, gave me vacation days to play around with, and finally stabilized my life in a way that I hadn’t had since losing my best friend (we still weren’t talking, eight months and counting).

Susan was the new manager of my department. Like many new bosses she came in with a lot of gusto and ideas for how to make the employees better at their jobs. She’s the kind of boss that established employees dread because “if it ain’t broke.” For me, she was exactly what I needed at that moment: focus, direction, and a friend to talk to.

Susan and I struck up a friendship and I tried to stop by and talk with her as much as possible without looking like I was neglecting my work. She gave me all kinds of advice on crisis management, setting and achieving goals, and dealing with interpersonal conflicts. It was all the stuff I needed to know to become a better judge and didn’t know I needed to know. The first time through I was focused almost solely on the rules because it was the rules that had gotten me into judging. I didn’t realize how much more there was to judging until I started talking to Susan and applying those skills.

Susan took an interest in my judging and enjoyed hearing my stories about how I was applying myself to the task. In my first run through judging I was more of an introvert, sticking to the work and my circle of friends. Now I was going to tournaments and interacting with other people. I took to the mentoring aspect, at first learning from others, but eventually passing on my own knowledge to other judges. I also started to interact with players more and not just on rulings.

I worked my first GP that summer (San Francisco) and everything clicked at that event. Seeing some of the best judges from around the country in action, including my hero John Carter, opened my eyes to not only how far I’d come, but far I needed to go. Susan had told me to set unreasonable goals for myself, and after this event I started to set my goals for the future. Some of them are minor goal posts along the way that I’ve hit: Level 2, PT: Hollywood, Nationals, StarCityGames.com columnist.

Later that year, Susan left work for health reasons. Two weeks before PT: Hollywood, Susan died of complications relating to lung cancer. We hadn’t really received any updates at work, so the announcement hit me like the proverbial sack of bricks. I cried – no, I wept – and between bawling episodes, I managed to get out that I needed to go home. I’ve lost some family members, but they have all been far away people in Japan that I haven’t known that well. In comparison, Susan was equally distant in some regards, but in other ways she was the closest person I’ve lost.

PT: Hollywood was a bittersweet tournament for me. I had reached a milestone, my first Pro Tour, and yet it felt empty. Susan had been such a huge impetus for me to work up to that level. Not being able to share the joy of that personal victory with her is something that continues to haunt me. Hollywood was also important for me for another reason; I saw Courtney for the first time in a year and a half. She had moved to LA to teach and be closer to her boyfriend, and after a year-and-a-half of our cold war we finally reached an understanding and the PT gave me an excuse to see her.

When Evan Erwin posted his video on Richie Proffitt death and what Richie meant to him, he said, “We gotta do something. We gotta do something for Richie.” Those sentiments led directly to the Richie Proffitt Memorial Tournament. From everything I’ve read and heard, it was an amazing event that really showcased the power of our community. When I saw Evan’s video, I had a strong connection with his “we gotta do something” feeling since that was how I felt about following Susan’s death. When the date of the tournament was finalized, I looked into going to judge, but there wasn’t enough time to get a reasonable flight. It sounds like the tournament was successful enough to warrant an annual event, so hopefully I can make it to the 2009 event.

Why do I judge? There are all the usual reasons for which many other people judge. The big personal reason that keeps me going is Susan. It was a kind of an Uncle Ben moment for me when I realized what my responsibilities should be. I’m not saying I’m some kind of judging superhero, but the motivation to maximize what I get out of myself as a living tribute is the same.

Above all, I do it because this community is worth it, and I want to do everything in my power to make it the best it can be. And when I say this community, I’m talking about all Magic-loving folks, judges, and players alike. That’s been my mission since the start for this column, to connect players and judges in a more productive way for both groups. In the coming weeks I’ll take a closer look at Shards of Alara, letting you know what cards you might want to call a judge about, explore the various problems relating to slow play and stalling, and retell some more instructional rulings from tournaments.

For me, the journey continues to PT: Berlin. While writing this article I got the confirmation that I would be working that event, my first international tournament. It’s another milestone for me. And it’s one where I need a little help from my friends. You see, I have a little collection of foil Rule of Laws signed by judges. I currently have just over 50 cards signed by 149 levels of judges. It’s a fun way to see where I’ve been and who I’ve worked with. Berlin will be excellent opportunity to round out my collection with some European judges. But I only have ten unsigned cards left! If you have any foil Rule of Laws, either Mirrodin or Xth Edition, and our paths will be crossing in the near future, let me know so we can make arrangements for a trade. I would particularly be interested in picking up a bunch of European copies at Berlin.

For Susan.

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