A few weeks ago at the StarCityGames.com Columbus Open Weekend, I had the opportunity to sit in the commentary booth with Cedric Phillips. It was a
fantastic event and an honor to get this opportunity. Prior to this, I had stepped into the booth for a few break rounds at a smattering of Opens, and had
my trial run commentating the Legacy Open on Sunday in Baltimore last December. To use a baseball analogy, I feel that those were September call-ups and I
still had my rookie eligibility for Columbus. It’s hard to rank all of the great moments that I’ve had in Magic; I’ve been a part of this community for a
long time and I’ve had some great opportunities. And yet, this was definitely a new and exciting experience for me.
Being a judge is about creating great customer service experiences for players. As an SCG Show Lead, I get to watch a lot of different people Head Judge
tournaments, and many of them focus on things like round turnaround time. That matters some because a slow tournament is often perceived as a bad
tournament. Players notice egregious delays. But can the average player in a hall tell the difference between 60-minute turnaround and 62-minute
turnaround? What does that stat really mean to people?
I prefer to focus more on my interactions with the players when I Head Judge events, especially my microphone announcements. If you can entertain people
and convince them that they are having a good time despite it taking two extra minutes per round, you’ve won the battle for perception. I look at coverage
the same way. I am not the most accomplished player in terms of results, but a commentator’s job is equal parts information and entertainment.
There’s a saying that those who can’t play Magic, judge the game, and there are various follow up jokes about the general play skill of judges. I find
these sentiments a little disingenuous. Yes, if I play 100 games against Gerry Thompson, I am going to lose a majority of them regardless of the matchups,
but I would counter by asking how good of a job Gerry would do judging on the floor of a StarCityGames Open.
The real question, at least in terms of this article, is whether judges make good commentators? Currently, there aren’t enough examples to make more than
Sheldon Menery, former Level 5 Judge, currently Emeritus (basically retired with honors), and Godfather of the EDH/Commander format is a GP and PT
commentator for WotC. A lot of his focus comes back to the format that he helped pioneer. I like to say that “you get what you get” meaning that everyone
knows that Sheldon is the EDH guy, so it’s not really a surprise for him to focus on it. Also, every day is another day further removed from his active
Joe Bono is a Level 2 Judge and an avid Legacy player, and probably more of the latter than the former. I don’t know if Joe has judged anything at the GP
or SCG Open level. So far he’s commentated one Open in Seattle.
That’s it. A few other commentators may be Level 1 Judges, a certification level that is for store events like FNM and Prereleases, not exactly the same
thing as large Competitive REL events like Opens. That puts me in a unique position as the most active judge currently involved in commentary.
Overall in Columbus, my judge-iness came into play a few times. Cedric was great about setting me up for these with a quick “So you’re a judge. Tell us
about this interaction.” It’s the same way that commentators will set up their ex-player partners with questions about “how things were back when you
played.” I also got to explain the Missed Trigger policy in a match where a player missed their Sire of Insanity trigger. This was Round 5 of the Standard
Open, Randy Keathley versus Jeff Hoogland. Randy cast his Sire of Insanity, then emptied his hand by casting Pillar of Flame and playing a land. He
followed up by swinging with Obzedat, then made the open-palm “go” motion and exiled his Obzedat (and actually made a second go-gesture). Jeff drew his
card for the turn, and at that point, Randy pointed to his hand and most likely said something like “You didn’t discard for Sire” because Jeff separates
the card he drew in an attempt to keep the game state clear as they talked to the spotter judge.
A good ruling in this case hinges on what, if anything, Randy said. Assuming the answer is nothing, the correct ruling here is to call the trigger missed
and move along. Technically, the rules state that the opponent should be consulted about whether they would like the trigger to be placed on the stack.
Players no longer get Warnings for Missed Triggers unless the ability is “usually considered detrimental to the controller.” That means it’s a drawback.
And no, being able to shoot concussive rays from your eyes is not “usually considered detrimental” even if it means you can never look at your girlfriend
without special glasses.
A lot of people get tripped up by this language of “detrimental.” They think that because the Sire also causes the controller to discard, the ability is
detrimental to them. So why are you playing a Craw Wurm with a drawback? In a vacuum, you play this card because you want the ability to happen, even if it
is sometimes bad for you. It’s kind of like dating in high school.
In Round 9 of the Legacy Open, we covered an Elves player, Riley Curran, who made a series of errors that can only be classified as punts, as he himself
made the hand gesture to indicate this. In Game 3, he cast a Thoughtseize on turn 2 and passed the turn without playing a second land. It’s likely that he
reached for his pen and notepad to write down the rest of the cards in his opponent’s hand and while doing that indicated that he was done with his turn
without reconsidering the board state and whether he had, you know, played a land that turn.
This is actually very reminiscent of a play that Todd Anderson made earlier in the day. He cracked a fetch land and passed the turn to his Maverick
opponent when he had a chance to cast Detention Sphere on 3 opposing Noble Hierarchs, putting his opponent back down to one land. It’s always hard to tell
these things from the booth since we don’t get any audio from the players, but it seemed like Todd fetched and passed the turn before picking up his hand
again (and seeing the Detention Sphere in hand). Anytime I put my hand down during a match—whether it is because of writing something on my notepad,
resolving a search effect, or just because I am bored and don’t want to be holding my cards the whole time—I try to make it a habit to look at my hand
again before making any major decisions like passing the turn. (It’s also possible that Todd had a strategic reason for waiting on his Detention Sphere.
Perhaps waiting for his opponent to tap out of white so that he would not have Swords to Plowshares mana up to “fizzle” his Detention Sphere.)
The next mistake that Riley made was even worse. After casting two Glimpse of Natures, a clear sign that he was going for a combo turn, Riley tapped his
Deathrite Shaman targeting a land in a graveyard… when his opponent Ryan Hovis had an active Deathrite of his own. Cedric and I had discussed this exact
interaction earlier in the day, with Cedric leading the way nicely with a “So you’re a judge. Tell us about this Deathrite interaction…”
Well, Cedric, I’m glad you asked. Despite the fact that it makes mana, Deathrite Shaman’s first ability is not a mana ability because the ability has a
target. Thus, it is just a normal activated ability and it goes on the stack and can be responded to. If the target is made invalid, perhaps by an opposing
Deathrite targeting and exiling the very same land in response, the ability is countered on resolution. This is exactly what Ryan did to Riley. If this was
all that Ryan did, Riley might have still made a go at salvaging his turn because he still had a Gaea’s Cradle available that could make two green mana,
but what happened next sunk the Elves player for good.
With the mana from his Deathrite, Ryan cast a Vendilion Clique, and when he targeted Riley with the ability it revealed just one lonely Nettle Sentinel as
Riley’s only creature in hand. When Ryan elected to have that card go to the bottom of Riley’s library and a sad Forest was drawn as a replacement, Riley
could do nothing but pass the turn having drawn zero cards off of his two Glimpse of Natures.
Hindsight is 20/20 in cases like this, and the fact that Ryan used the Deathrite mana to cast a Vendilion Clique makes the sequence seem that much worse,
but the fact is that activating a Deathrite when an opponent has an active Deathrite is kind of asking for trouble. It’s one of the most critical card
interactions in Legacy right now. Had Riley sequenced things differently, he could have at least cast the first Nettle Sentinel and drawn two cards, or
forced Ryan’s hand before going all in with the two Glimpse of Natures.
Of course, mistakes happen for commentators as well. At various points during the weekend, I did the following:
Called Cedric by another name. Just a random brain fart.
Pointed out a line of play for a player that was completely irrelevant. If you’re wondering, it was a 6-power double striker with trample (some form of
Bant Hexproof Voltron) being blocked by two Boros Reckoners. The normal play, which is what happened was for the double striker to trade with the two
Reckoners and deal no trample damage due to being offed by the Reckoner triggers. I said that he should have dealt all six damage to the first Reckoner
only so that he could deal trample, completely forgetting that this would have still resulted in a 6-point Reckoner trigger instead of two 3-point
Bungled a Blood Baron of Vizkopa interaction because I forgot that the opponent had to be at 10 life or lower in addition to the controller having to be at
Made subtle miscues when describing what cards do. For example, I said that Glimpse of Nature card draws trigger off of green creature spells; it actually
triggers off of any creature spell. I also said that Nettle Sentinel untaps off of green creature spells; it actually triggers and untaps from any green
spell, not just creatures.
That last one highlights what I felt was a serious weakness for me. While I could recognize the names of 98% of the cards I saw, I did not have anywhere
close to in-depth knowledge of the cards. While it might be fine to say that most of the miscues with cards like Glimpse of Nature didn’t disrupt the flow
of the commentary, someone did notice the error and take the time to tweet about it. When it comes to the discussion going around about how to improve
Magic coverage, commentators like me becoming stone cold encyclopedic masters is a must and I’m looking forward to the challenge of becoming the best
commentator in the business.
Finally, I want to thank everyone for their kind words and feedback regarding the broadcast. The beauty of the booth is that it just felt like me and
Cedric watching Magic and talking. The response on Twitter and in person at the last few events I’ve attended has been humbling and a little overwhelming
for me. I guess a lot of people were watching! I’m glad you enjoyed the show and look forward to being even better next time.