Why Bad Things Happened to Good People at the SCG Fort Worth Legacy Open

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Thursday, January 14th – I’m sure by now everyone heard about the tumultuous Top 8 playoffs this past weekend in Dallas/Fort Worth at the StarCityGames.com Legacy Open. Not only was I there, but I was Head Judging the event. Ultimately this means that I had to assign both Game Losses that players received during those rounds. A lot of people are talking about those situations, and there is a lot of misinformation and vitriol, both to the players and toward the judges at the event. That’s why I asked SCG for the opportunity to set the record straight.

I’m sure by now everyone heard about the tumultuous Top 8 playoffs this past weekend in Dallas/Fort Worth at the StarCityGames.com Legacy Open. Not only was I there, but I was Head Judging the event. Ultimately this means that I had to assign both Game Losses that players received during those rounds. A lot of people are talking about those situations, and there is a lot of misinformation and vitriol, both to the players and toward the judges at the event. That’s why I asked SCG for the opportunity to set the record straight.

The Swiss rounds of the event actually ran very smoothly. As I reported on Twitter, in some respects the tournament was kind of boring. This is a little surprising because the event was Legacy. Wizards of the Coast is making an effort to support Legacy with high level play, but at the end of the day, most Legacy players just play Legacy. By and large they don’t attend Pro Tour Qualifiers, and they’re not used to playing events that use certified judges or are run at the Competitive Rules Enforcement Level (Competitive REL). The players at this event were very good, and we had no serious problems during the Swiss. My judge staff was also phenomenal, and they made the event run smoothly.

Before we get further into the story, a little background on DCI Judge Policy. This event was run at the Competitive REL. This is appropriate for most events with substantial prizes. Players are expected to be familiar with the rules of Magic and general tournament policies. It’s not acceptable to not know the rules. PTQs, Day 1 of Grand Prix, States, and Nationals are all run at REL Competitive. The other REL players regularly play under is Regular. Friday Night Magic, weekly tournaments at stores, booster drafts, and most events are run at REL Regular. Judges expect less knowledge and technically correct play from players at REL Regular.

Why do you care about Rules Enforcement Level? The Magic Infraction Procedure Guide (IPG) (available here) is one of the three most significant tomes of the Judge Program, along with the Magic Comprehensive Rules and the Magic Tournament Rules. It contains a list of almost every way a player can break the game or tournament rules, and it outlines a penalty and a fix. A bunch of very smart judges have spent years refining this document. The penalties are broken out by rules enforcement level based on factors like potential for advantage and difficulty to catch. When a judge issues a penalty, it isn’t because they think a player did something that is “worthy of a Game Loss.” They go to the IPG, look up the infraction, and issue the given penalty.

Consistency is the watchword of the Judge Program. The goal is for the judging at every tournament to be the same whether you are in Forth Worth, TX or playing in a sanctioned tournament on the International Space Station. (Has that ever happened? Because that would be awesome!) It would hardly be fair for a player to commit an error and receive a Game Loss only to see their least favorite person commit the same error and have a different judge give them just a Warning instead. So the DCI program standardizes penalties, infractions, and remedies. The Head Judge has the option to deviate from the IPG, but only in the case of “significant and exceptional circumstances or a situation that has no applicable philosophy for guidance.” These situations are rare, and the best example is a table collapsing. We don’t deviate based on experience or age of the player, because there is a lot riding on this match, the game count, or other similar factors. Every player should be treated equally.

There are two penalties that we care about in this story: Warnings and Game Losses. A Warning is official recognition that a player committed an error. It is tracked throughout a tournament. The next most severe penalty is a Game Loss. It ends the game immediately, and is applied in situations where a player has a higher probability of gaining an advantage. Most penalties players receive over the course of a tournament will be a Warning; players only receive a Game Loss when something has gone very wrong. Both of these penalties assume a player committed the error unintentionally. If a player breaks the rules intentionally to gain advantage, they are Cheating and will be Disqualified.

Now, as a brief note before I talk about the specific situations: I have nothing personal against Andres Suarez or James Palaima. We don’t believe they cheated or committed their infractions intentionally. And they certainly earned their Top 8 slots and their prizes. A lot of people watching at home find it easy to hate on these guys, but I was there at the tournament. 10 rounds of Magic is mentally and physically draining. Their infractions do not reflect on their playskill or their character. They’re just a couple of guys who made a few unfortunate mistakes at the end of a long day.

The first situation occurred in the Quarterfinals match between Andres Suarez and James Palaima. Going into the third game, Andres Suarez drew his opening hand, said “Mulligan,” put his hand on top of his library. Then he simply performed a pile shuffle and presented for his opponent to shuffle. The match was stopped, and the Floor Judge came to get me. Jared Sylva, event manager, briefly investigated and determined that there was no intent to cheat. Three Level 3 judges and I had a conference to discuss the situation.

This is a textbook case of Tournament Error – Insufficient Randomization, which carries the penalty of a Game Loss. Players receive Insufficient Randomization penalties when they fail to shuffle their library well enough before presenting. There’s no clear line between “randomized” and “insufficiently randomized,” and as a result judges don’t often give the penalty out. It has to be blatant. The DCI defines a deck to be randomized when a player has no knowledge of the ordering of their library. Pile shuffling of any kind does nothing to affect randomization in the eyes of the DCI. It is too easy to track cards through a pile shuffle because there’s no variance to where cards end up in the deck. An unrandomized deck that is pile shuffled a million times is still considered unrandomized, and a randomized deck that is pile shuffled a million times is still considered randomized. This also echoes Example B of Insufficient Randomization: “A player searches for a card, then gives the deck a single riffle-shuffle before presenting the deck to her opponent.”

It was therefore obvious to the four of us that this was obviously Insufficient Randomization. The first question is “Do we deviate from the IPG and downgrade?” There aren’t really any significant or exceptional circumstances here; the only difference is that a judge was nearby. That doesn’t absolve the players of the responsibility to play the game legally, and players had been playing in the feature match area all day with no issues. One player had already received an infraction in the Top 8 for a Missed Trigger. So there was no reason to downgrade.

One judge raised a possible work-around. We could rule that the Floor Judge had stopped the player from presenting their deck. While judges are trained to avoid coaching or helping one player unfairly during a match, the restrictions on judges are eased during rounds. A judge can point out that you accidentally dropped a card on the ground and save you from getting a Game Loss for Deck/Decklist Mismatch. That’s a much nicer solution than being unable to say anything, and just waiting for you to finish shuffling to receive a penalty.

That workaround is certainly nicer to the player, but myself and some of the other judges were uncomfortable with it. Technically, it didn’t happen. Yes, we could pretend it happened that way, but there’s no way for a judge to know a player is going to present his insufficiently randomized deck until the player does it. At that point, it’s too late.

The real problem with the partial fix is that it isn’t fair. It’s nice to the player who shuffled his deck poorly, but it’s not fair to everyone else who was ever received an Insufficient Randomization penalty. They shouldn’t get shafted just because we really wanted to avoid giving out a Game Loss in the Quarterfinals. The whole point of standardizing penalties is to avoid a judge changing the penalty just because they didn’t agree with it. This is basically coming up with the penalty you want to give, and making up an infraction to fit. We already decided not to deviate, and this was basically deviating. We already I raised the point that if this came up during the Swiss rounds, there would be no doubts at all, the player would simply receive a Game Loss for Insufficient Randomization. And the DCI has already made the point very strongly that a Feature Match doesn’t protect you from IR. Karim Bauer received a highly publicized Game Loss in a Feature Match at Grand Prix: Hanover for shuffling with the faces toward him. In the end, I decided that the only fair thing to do was for the player to receive Insufficient Randomization and a Game Loss. The judges I was conferring with backed me up, and they agreed with and supported my decision, but I was the Head Judge. Ultimately, it was my decision to make, and I’m confident I made the right call.

That situation dealt with, I went over to the GGs Live area to watch the video and see what people were saying in the chat. At one point, I watched James Palaima activate Engineered Explosives with one counter on it and a Manabond in play. His opponent put his creatures into the graveyard, and James passed the turn. At this point I think Rashad was saying on the coverage, “Put Manabond into the graveyard. Don’t forget to put Manabond into the graveyard.” Of course, James can’t hear Rashad, but he’s another set of eyes to help the judges out, and he’s a judge himself. I rushed over to the table; James’s opponent Kevin Ambler was starting to take his turn and the Manabond was still in play. I stopped the match and determined that yes, James had forgotten to put Manabond into the graveyard where it should be, and Kevin missed it. James received a Warning for committing a Game Rules Violation, and Kevin received a Warning for Failure to Maintain the Game State.

The most common infraction committed by players is a Game Rules Violation. This is a catch-all infraction for Game Play Errors (breaking the rules of Magic) that doesn’t involve Drawing Extra Cards, Looking at Extra Cards, Missed Triggers, Failure to Reveal, or Improper Drawing at the Start of the Game. It carries the penalty of a Warning, and two possible fixes. The Head Judge can choose to back the game state up completely to the point of the error and proceed correctly. If that would disrupt the game too much, we leave the game state as it is and continue. Leaving things as they are has the potential to benefit one player more than the other, but at least it’s consistent. Several years ago, you had judges engineering their own fixes, and that risked players getting a huge advantage. At least if you miss an error your opponent makes and they benefit from it, it was under your control. Because Game Rules Violation infractions (and other Game Play Errors) are so common and easy to make, we make them less severe. Other infractions upgrade from a Warning directly to a Game Loss, but Game Rules Violations upgrade to a Game Loss on the third infraction.

If an opponent does something illegal, they receive a penalty for it. If you also don’t notice they did something illegal, we issue a Failure to Maintain the Game State penalty, which carries a Warning. We never upgrade Failure to Maintain Game State errors because we don’t want players to fear calling a judge. But the Wizards Judge Coordinator is able to look up a player’s history and see if they have a history of missing their opponents’ errors that suggests foul play.

The rest of the Seminfinals match continued without incident. During the finals, the Floor Judge watching the match comes to get me because James Palaima accidentally plays two lands on one turn. With a complicated deck, especially the 43Land deck that utilizes Life from the Loam, this is easy to do accidentally. I investigate and determine that this is the case, and that James did not do it intentionally. Only the most hardened cheaters would try an easily-detected cheat like that on camera. Because only the Head Judge can authorize a backup, I confirm with the Floor Judge that it’s okay to back up to the point of the error because we caught it right away. A minute later I return and pause the match to deliver a warning. I remind James that he just received his second Warning for a Games Rules Violation, and that the upgrade path upgrades the next one to a Game Loss. I urge both players to play carefully and responsibly because I think everyone wants to see a good match of Magic. I want James to know how serious the situation is, and I hope he’ll make an effort to play well. If I do have to upgrade to a Game Loss, I don’t want to ambush anyone with it. The only thing worse than having to give a Game Loss in the final game would be to catch someone by surprise with it. It’s important to point out here that my job as the judge is just to enforce the rules, and I want to make those rules as clear as possible.

Watching the finals match on the coverage with the GGs Live guys was very nerve-wracking. I knew that the 43Land deck is very complicated, and it would be relatively easy to accidentally make any number of mistakes, any of which could cost James the match. I held my breath each time anything happened because I wanted this match to finish uneventfully. We had a near miss during the final game; viewers may be wondering why I paused the match, only to resume it without comment. One of the judges misremembered Glacial Chasm’s Oracle text and thought that the “sacrifice a land” ability had to happen before Glacial Chasm entered the battlefield. This would mean if you put Glacial Chasm and another land onto the battlefield at the same time, the other land could not be sacrificed. I paused the match and got the Oracle text of Glacial Chasm. Luckily there was no issue, and I let the match continue. And I got to poke a little fun at Rashad, who did a great job behind the microphone.

James had complete control of the finals game, but Tom Ross held on and refused to concede. I never asked him why he didn’t concede, but it’s entirely possible that he made James play it out to see if he would make a third mistake. That sort of behavior is not very sporting, but it’s definitely not Unsportsmanlike Conduct either. Unfortunately, James did make a third mistake, attacking with Glacial Chasm. Viewers watching the video doubtless heard Rashad saying “Please don’t attack with Glacial Chasm out. Just sacrifice it and attack for the win.” James did pay the upkeep on Glacial Chasm, animate his Treetop Village and Mishra’s Factories, and he attacked. This is his third Game Rules Violation. I stopped the game, and consulted with a few other judges for the last time. We all knew this was a possibility since James received his second Warning, and none of us wanted it to happen. I called the brief conference to say, “No one has any reason to deviate here, right?” And no one did. This scenario is even more clear-cut than the Insufficient Randomization one. There are arguments here as to why maybe one of the infractions shouldn’t carry the penalty of a Game Loss; they do. And as a judge, it’s my job to enforce the policies. Judges may disagree with policy in private, but in public it’s our job to enforce the policy as written. So I was forced to deliver a Game Loss to James Palaima, making Tom Ross the winner in the finals 2-1.

Why do we upgrade penalties? If we don’t, these infractions don’t have any teeth. Playing fair would be futile in a game where you got a slap on the wrist the tenth time you “accidentally” played an extra land. Part of what a penalty is supposed to do is to educate the player on what they did wrong and how to correct that behavior. If players aren’t improving their behavior, judges are forced to resort to more drastic means.

I didn’t want any players to receive infractions during the Top 8 matches. It diminishes the accomplishments of both players, and it makes judges look the bad guys. I know I did the right thing, and it still made me feel terrible to have to do it. But it’s my job to uphold the DCI rules. The only thing worse here than having to end the finals of a tournament with a Game Loss would be the anger of another player who received a Game Loss for the same thing in the finals of a tournament if I didn’t do the right thing. It’s this contract that every judge enters into. We all have to uphold the rules, because in the end it’s best for all our players.

Kevin Binswanger