What’s A World Head Judge Do?

Sheldon Menery will be judging his last tournament at Worlds in San Francisco. In this article, he gives you a peek of what it’s like to Head Judge a major tournament like Worlds.

Many of you already know that I’ll be Head Judging the 2011 Magic: The Gathering World Championships in San Francisco, and I’m pretty sure some of you also know that it will be my last event as a professional Judge. I’ll be retiring from active judging and accepting Judge Emeritus status at the end of the year. It doesn’t mean I’ll be going away; it means my role will move to more of an advisor to the Magic Judge Program than being involved in the day-to-day operation. I’ll still be involved as the face of the best format ever, and you might be surprised where I turn up next in the Magic world (let the speculation begin).

I thought that I’d give you a picture into what goes into Head Judging a World Championships. This will be my third (Yokohama 2005 and Rome 2009), which happens to mean I’ll have done more than anyone in the modern era. It will also mean completing the continental trifecta.

There are three general functions for a Worlds Head Judge: Staff Management, Event Management, and Tournament Management. Staff management is taking care of all (in this case) 60 judges who will be present for the weekend: scheduling their shifts on both Public and Main Events, making sure they each get level-appropriate leadership opportunities, and making sure their bigger-picture Judge Program needs are taken care of (seminars, interviews, 1-on-1 time with senior judges). Event Management is making sure that all scheduled events are taken care of (like ensuring the PTQs are appropriately staffed and that there are enough judges for the 8-person drafts) and that all the ancillary and programmatic things are staffed (promotion interviews, the Judge Booth). Finally, Tournament Management is actually running the World Championship tournament. That includes all the normal HJ things like scheduling judge teams, taking player appeals, and keeping the tournament running on time. As you can see, it’s a pretty full responsibility.

My Worlds began months ago as we (that we also includes Judge Manager Andy Heckt and all the worldwide Regional Coordinators) started selecting staff. I won’t bore you with the details of staff selection, but it’s always the most difficult thing we do in the Program, mostly due to the awesome quality of the people in it. There are usually twice as many qualified candidates for sponsorship as there are slots. It means saying no to people who we honestly hate saying no to.

Once staff selection is done, I start making the schedule. The first input I get is the Public Events schedule, the final version of which Scott Larabee shipped me a few weeks ago. The schedule is a Tetris puzzle at best. As I mentioned, we try to make sure there are appropriate leadership opportunities (such as Team Leader positions) for everyone. That gets balanced with making sure all the scheduled Public Events (like the Draft Challenge and the aforementioned PTQs) have Head Judges and that everyone gets a balanced amount of time on the Main Event and Public Events sides. I generally like having three shifts on the PE side (like 10-5, noon-9, 4-midnight) so that days aren’t too long and the numbers are available when and where they’re most needed. Sometimes the scheduled events dictate how much judges will need to show up at which times. On Thursday, for example, there’s no need to overload the early shift since the first scheduled event doesn’t fire until 1100. On Friday and Saturday, however, there are PTQs promptly at 0900. Friday’s is Constructed, so it needs a little less manpower than Saturday’s Sealed. These considerations and more go into assembling a coherent whole. I’ll probably spend in the neighborhood of 10 hours putting together the schedule.

The schedule isn’t just a matter of plopping names into spaces on a spreadsheet. I spend some time looking over the reviews of all the judges on staff, especially those whom I don’t know all that well. It gives me some insight in how to both reward folks for sustained superior performance and to offer those who need some experience in certain areas opportunities for success (preparing others for success being one of the primary responsibilities of leadership IMO).

Once all the leadership positions are filled for each day (Team Leads for the Main Event, Head Judges for the scheduled events), it’s a matter of making sure each person has an appropriate amount of time on both the Main and Public Events sides of the house. Given that there are three shifts, we also have to make sure folks aren’t in the hall too late (at least working—I know there’s going to be playing EDH and drafting) before having to get up for an early shift the next day.

The schedule made, the lion’s share of my pre-event preparation is done. I’ll ship it out for review to some of the Senior Judges just so there’s a second set of eyes on it, then post it for the staff, giving them most of a month to prepare for their assignments. There will a few assignment swap requests, although they’ll mostly be due to travel and hotel considerations—like sharing rides—and not “I don’t want to HJ Legacy!!!” One of the additional pre-event things I’ll do is set up a Format Briefing, where a judge prepares a presentation covering the formats we’ll play in, the tricky card interactions we’re likely to see, as well as some thoughts on common Infractions and how to deal with them. That way, we’re on the same page from the beginning and we have the most consistent possible application of both the Penalty Guidelines and any fixes for those situations.

Other than small course corrections, most of what I’ll do between putting out the schedule and showing up for the event is communicate with the judges via email. I’ll be sending out occasional “here are some notes, ideas, things to remember” emails, and keeping in touch with everyone to make sure their preparations are trouble-free. We’ll chat a little about leadership, about creating opportunities for folks, and how we might make it a great event, both professionally and socially.

The story of what I’ll do during the tournament is generally only interesting if there are interesting events. If everything goes smoothly and according to plan, the tales are limited to “these are the people I hung out with, and this is what I ate and drank.” Of course, nothing ever goes according to plan, so there will likely be some very interesting things to report.

I’ll hit the ground on Tuesday night, then head to the Judge Conference on Wednesday for a full day of briefing, seminars, and social activities. I’ll briefly meet with all the weekend’s Team Leaders sometime in the afternoon for a quick review of how we’re going to do things, but these folks are some of the most experienced judges in the world. I don’t need to do much more than point them in a direction. They already know how to do the rest. The primary reason for meeting with them on Wednesday will be so that we don’t have to meet in the mornings. I’d much rather give everyone that extra half hour of sleep.

I have a few rules for myself when I’m Head Judging, the primary of which is that my time belongs to the event. I’ll socialize when I can, but I feel responsible for working while I’m there, and setting a positive example. To that end, I want to be the first judge to arrive (although since there’s a late shift on Public Events, I can’t be the last to leave and still function efficiently the following day). When I’m HJ’ing, I don’t bring a whole pile of EDH decks. I’ll bring one or two on the off chance that I have an hour to play at some point, but for the most part, I feel like my time should be spent taking care of the responsibilities I’ve been entrusted with, and it always feels like there’s more work that can be done on behalf of the great folks who make up the Program.

Thursday morning at 8 am sharp, we’ll start. Judges will gather; we’ll talk as a large group for a few minutes and then break into teams to plan dispatching the day. Then the madness starts. Worlds is pretty much a Pro Tour with one major difference: there are more different languages spoken. Since the qualification process includes National teams, we have in the neighborhood of 50 countries represented, the players from some who don’t regularly play at this level. Unlike the Pro Tour, where the common language of English is spoken by everyone, we’ll occasionally need a translator. Fortunately, we have plenty of Judges and staff fluent in many languages, so we always seem to get along quite nicely.

Thursday we’re playing six rounds of Standard and two Team rounds. In the Team competition, each National Team member will choose to play a different format: Standard, Modern, or Legacy (and they can choose to play a different Standard or Modern deck than they’re playing in the individual portion). There are some small logistical concerns for us keeping the decklists separate. You never want to cross the streams. We’ll do something tricky like color-code the sheets we hand out so that it’s pretty clear which part of the event they’re for.

Friday is Draft day. It means we’ll only be playing six rounds (two drafts of three rounds each), but the day will be just as long because of the drafts themselves. This is where the Logistics team comes to the fore. Setting up draft product and tables for 400 or so players is time-consuming, even when you have a large team on it. Draft product is stamped to prevent any shady behavior, and each pack is also marked with seat and draft number. What observers might not notice is that each table is set up identically. If Seat 1 on Draft Table 1 is at the 3 o’clock position, it will be at 3 o’clock on every table. This makes it easy to resolve any problems with irregular packs or missing players. As we call the draft, there will also be a judge floating between tables carrying extra packs so that if there is a problem, it will get resolved quickly.

I’ll have few quiet moments during the weekend, but during the draft will be one of them. It will give me the opportunity to review our performance so far and make any administrative adjustments we need. It might also afford me the chance to chat with some folks—normal chats, as opposed to the directive conversations we’ve been having so far. Instead of “Can you please do this task?” it will be “How’s the job/school/new EDH deck coming along?”

Although it doesn’t have any impact on the event itself, my wife will arrive Friday evening, so we’ll probably get together with some group of friends for dinner. It’ll likely be some high-level folks, and we’ll pretend that we’re not going to discuss work, but we will.

Saturday we’ll go back to Constructed, playing two Team rounds then six individual, this time in the Modern format. If we’re going to have any tricky rules calls, I suspect that it will be here, since the format is pretty wide open and still somewhat undiscovered. I also suspect that the Format Briefing we’ve had will help a great deal—and the fact that the best judges in the world are present will head off any difficulties we haven’t thought of.

If I’m not called away to deal with appeals, while I’m keeping an eye on the workings of the tournament, this will be the time that I start making serious notes on the activities of the weekend—the kinds of things that will go into my tournament reports and judge reviews post-event. It will be things like “Judge X was awesome because he did ABC,” or “We lost some time when I let an appeal discussion go on too long.” I’ll also review the notes from the previous two days’ XO to see if there’s something I want to add.

The XO position was something I created back at Pro Tour Hollywood. The intent of the position is to have an up-and-coming L2 get exposure to the big picture of how we run Professional events, likely something they have yet to see. What they give is some administrative support to the Head Judge—taking notes, triaging appeals, running errands, etc. They’re not there to fetch me coffee or do personal stuff, they’re there to help support the event. It’s intended to be a true symbiosis, and it’s worked out pretty well so far.

As you might imagine, the last few Swiss rounds can be tension-filled. This is when we’re historically at our most vigilant looking for any kind of disruptive behavior. We’ll slightly reduce the number of other administrative things we’re doing to put more eyes on the floor and keep things running smoothly.

Sunday can be either the easiest or most difficult day, and there’s generally not much in between. Quite often, it’s pretty smooth, but when it’s not, it’s a big deal (like Karsten-Mori 2005). The first thing I’ll do is a run-through of the awards ceremony with all the principals. My job is pretty easy—handing people trophies and the giant novelty check—so I don’t really need too much practice. Still, it helps the production crew if I know how to hit my mark. We’ll run through it two or three times until the producer is happy.

For the Top 8 and Team Finals, I’ll be sitting just off stage, right next to Scott Larabee. We’ll both have on headphones, listening to both the webcast and the internal chatter. We’ll have top judges right there to help the players. Before play starts, I’ll brief the players on the basics (“we’re right here if you need us, please be clear when you communicate with your opponent, play fair, etc.”) and that things are a little different on camera. There’s a chance that they’ll be starting and stopping their matches, or even moving tables between games, for the benefit of the webcast and viewing audience. Sunday is very much about producing a show in addition to playing Magic.

One of the things I’ve started doing on Sunday is asking each individual judge to write down the name of another person who made a significant positive impact on their weekend. The criteria are their own. In the past, we’ve given out extra rewards (like foils and other materials) for the top vote-getters, but it’s really about knowing and understanding how folks can improve the experiences of their peers. In Philadelphia, we took it to the next level: the rewards for the top vote-getters were sponsorships to an upcoming Grand Prix (2nd place) and Pro Tour (1st place).

Once the closing ceremonies finish, I’ll still have a fair amount of work to do. I’ll be talking to individual judges with whom I haven’t had much of a chance to see over the weekend, running through some L5 stuff with Toby, Riccardo, and Andy Heckt (the other L5, Scott Marshall, will spend the event secured in an undisclosed location, in case something horrible happens), visiting with some of the non-Judge staff to say thanks, and making sure that everyone whose hard work has gone into producing the show knows that their efforts are appreciated. If there’s a special artist signing for the judges, I’ll swing by and say a special thank you to them for going the extra mile. I’ll make a few final notes on what’s happened over the weekend, finish up any needs-to-be-done-now paperwork, and then try to relax a bit before Judge Dinner.

Judge Dinner is certainly the exclamation point on the show. In addition to getting to let down our hair, relax, eat, drink, and socialize with our friends, we get to recognize and reward great performances (like the aforementioned “Made a Difference” award). We’ll announce promotions from the weekend, perhaps have a few special gifts for folks, and generally have a great time. There will be sense of accomplishment that we’ve done a good job, and a sense of sadness that it’s all ending in a few hours—which for me will be quite literal, since I’m taking the red-eye home just after midnight.

Hopefully I’ve given you an interesting view into what goes into Head Judging a World Championship. It’s Embracing the Chaos in a different fashion, for sure. It’s one of the most difficult and rewarding things I’ve done in my years of the Program, and I suspect this year’s will be no different.