Customer Service

Written by Billy San Juan

Written by Billy San Juan

Customer Service

Why do people play Magic: The Gathering?

Some play for competition. Some play for the community. Some play to collect cards and some play to angle-shoot. Some play for sport. Some play to relax. Some play to win and some play to forget. Some play for the pretty art. Some play for the cool mechanics. Some play because they are social butterflies. Some play because it’s hard to make friends. No matter what the reason may be, players all have one thread in common.

They are customers.

I offer a general philosophy on customer service. I hope to follow this article with specific methods of customer service.

General Philosophy

There is a concept in Psychology used for Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. It states that our cognitions (thoughts), emotions (feelings), and behaviors (things we do) are interrelated and directly affect each other.


I would like to adapt this to our experience as Judges. We have studied the Comprehensive Rules (thoughts). We know the tournament procedures (behaviors). But how well is the third aspect implemented? The third aspect is implemented in customer service. Customer service deals directly with the emotions of the player (feelings). Performing at a level where all three of these areas are accounted for provides players with the best experience possible. It also reflects well on the Judge community.

I offer to you the Judge Triad:

Judge Triad.png

It is imperative that we value the feelings of the player. This does not require compromising our implementation of the IPG. It does not require “soft” rulings or changing the comprehensive rules document. It merely requires understanding a few aspects of human nature.

A Symbiotic Waltz

The Judge-Customer relationship is a symbiotic waltz. Customers rely on us to run tournaments in an organized fashion. We are the keepers of the rules, the guardians of integrity. Likewise, Judges rely on customers for their very existence. Without the customer, we do not have purpose.

As with every symbiotic relationship, interactions are complex. Judges are seen as authority figures. Most people fear authority figures. Some people even rebel against authority figures. The internet hosts articles and comments galore from the community. They are criticizing Judge actions and challenging the integrity of the Judge program. So how do we please the customers without compromising our internal integrity?

We improve customer service.

Here are a few quick tips I’ve used in my own experience.

1) Winning is awesome. Losing sucks.

At a recent PTQ, three customers came to the scorekeeper. They stated the intent to drop, and slowly walked away. Their heads were held low, their voices were solemn, and arms hung limp at their sides. I approached the three gentlemen and thanked them for playing. I consoled their losses. I asked if they had fun. They shared a quick story or two about their games, and left in a much better mood. Not bad for three minutes of my time.

Going out of your way to thank a customer can have a huge impact. First of all, it makes sure that they leave on a positive note. A customer isn’t likely to return if they leave with a negative impression. More importantly, it conveys appreciation. It shows that the customer matters. It fosters a relationship between you and the customer. Whenever a customer fosters a relationship with you, they foster a relationship with the entire Judge community.

2) Players aren’t the only customers.

We’ve all seen it. Some of us are guilty of it. I know I am.

We’ve all seen the significant other who was dragged to a Magic tournament, and who has no idea what the hell is going on. They’re usually clinging to their partner or reading an outdated magazine on the stain-spotted couch in the corner. Unfortunately, this person is also the most likely to be ignored by Judges. They aren’t part of the tournament, so why should we care?

We should care because that person plays a very large part in our customer base. They influence the customer’s decision to return. They share their experience with other friends. They may even be a potential new player. Taking a minute out of your time to say hello and introduce yourself may be a small inconvenience for you… but it means the world to that person. It also shows the customers that Judges aren’t robotic authority figures. We’re human beings who engage in social contact.

3) Mistakes happen to good judges and bad judges. But great judges acknowledge them. And the best judges? They learn from them.

Did you know that exalted triggers occur individually, and that it is possible for a creature to have multiple instances of exalted? I sure didn’t, at least not during my first PTQ. That’s right. I, Billy San Juan, the epitome of good looks and utter awesomeness, made an incorrect ruling.

Well, let me rephrase that: I made a ruling and I wasn’t 100% sure it was correct. I double checked with another judge… and sure enough, I had made the wrong ruling. At this point…

Two rulings diverged in a yellow wood
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one judge, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could 
To where I did not go back and fix my ruling.

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better customer service
Because it was exalted and exalted stacks;
Though as for the what ruling made
Was wrong and not really about the same.

And both at that PTQ equally lay
My esteem no step had trodden black
Oh, I kept the first for never a day!
Yet knowing how way leas on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sign
Somewhere ages whence this article is published.
Two rulings diverged in a wood and I-
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

For the non-Frost fans, I essentially swallowed my pride. I approached the players as soon as possible and reiterated the correct ruling. I feared they would get mad or call me incompetent. The players instead thanked me for coming back. Not every corrected ruling will go smoothly and your ego will take a hit every time it happens. So why do we have to correct the ruling at all?

From a customer service standpoint, we must ensure that the players trust us. In the short term, correcting a misruling lets the players know that you’re looking out for their best interest. In the long term, and contrary to initial belief, it increases confidence in judge knowledge. It’s much better that you tell them you’re wrong now before they hear otherwise from a different source.

For judges who are tutoring L0s or L1s, I consider the first corrected ruling as a rite of passage. Anybody can handle being correct, but it takes a certain internal strength to keep your energy after making a mistake. Use this rite of passage as a way to tutor your apprentice on judge character. It’s a great learning opportunity.

4) Smile

No, seriously. Smile.

I had three paragraphs delving into the biopsychosocial reasons that smiling is important. But it was boring.


5) Self-Care

Sometimes it’s hard to smile. Things from our personal lives may be weighing on us. We may be in physical pain. At this point, don’t force it. Forcing a smile is like trying to watch the Lord of the Rings and not falling in love with Orlando Bloom. It is impossible. Those eyes. That hair. Those cheekbones.

If you’re having a rough day, be sure to let your Team Lead/Head Judge know. You don’t have to go into personal details, but letting your lead know where you are is an important step in insuring a positive experience for the customers. It also allows the Team Lead/Head Judge to help accommodate you with little expense to the overall tournament. It’s better that they know now instead of finding out when everything crumbles. Make sure to use your fellow judges as a support system to get through the tournament. We are a family on the floor, and each tournament is a battle we fight together.

One way to ensure self-care is to know your own self. I get grumpy when I don’t sleep. My energy diminishes when I don’t eat. That’s why I make sure to get plenty of sleep and have an in-pocket snack before judging an event. Every person has different needs, but you must make sure you recognize and accommodate these needs. After all, no customer wants to deal with a low energy grumpy Billy.

6) Personalization and Countertransference

As humans, we tend to think that we are in control of our environment. We see causal relationships between our actions and the things that happen around us. It follows that we sometimes attribute other people’s behaviors as a direct consequence of our own. This is a distortion of our cognitions known as “personalization.”

As judges, we often interact with people at a moment of high emotion. People are confused, irritated, or even outright angry. If we’re not careful, we can take the emotions that are directed towards the situation and misattribute them as towards us. And yes, it goes the other way too. It is equally as possible for a player to direct their strong emotions towards the nearest possible object. Remember that they’re not mad at you. They’re mad at the situation.

If the worst case scenario happens and you find yourself reacting to a triggered customer, call in another judge. Something about the customer or the situation is causing an unhealthy communication pattern which may devolve into something bad. For the sake of customer service you may need reinforcements. Let the customer know what’s going on, and be sure to mention that you’re calling in another judge so that they are treated fairly. For example, you can say: “I’ll be honest, I’m reacting negatively right now. I want to make sure you get heard fairly though, so I’m going to call another judge to help.”

Likewise, there is a concept called countertransference. Countertransference, in the judging context, means there is something about the person or relationship with the person that triggers a reaction in yourself. This reaction often goes unnoticed by us but affects our behaviors towards that person. If you’ve ever treated someone poorly but didn’t know why, it was probably countertransference.

Countertransference can happen in a variety of ways. You might be irritated or angry at someone. You may ignore or avoid someone. You may want to take care of or nurture someone. However it manifests, countertransference can directly affect customer service. Be sure to acknowledge it if it’s happening… though sometimes it may take another judge watching you to catch it.

7) Approaching a Call

As judges, the majority of our interactions with customers will occur during judge calls. This is what we are known for, and this is when we are watched. As such, we must approach judge calls with a certain level of decorum and grace. I offer the following steps to ensuring a customer-service-centric judge call experience.

1) Be on the floor looking for calls.

Make sure that you respond quickly to judge calls. Don’t run, but show hustle when walking towards the players. Acknowledge them with a nod or by raising your hand. If you are nervous or rushed, take this time to calm yourself. Pace your breath with your steps. Tips like this may seem trivial and almost patronizing, but they can be easily forgotten in the stress of a large event.

2) Make eye contact, get both sides.

Once you’ve arrived, be sure to make eye contact with both your players. This lets them feel acknowledged, heard, and understood. I’ve even seen some judges take a knee at the table, a technique which may be limited by the space around you. Be sure to make eye contact with both players, not just the player who called for a judge.

3) Separate if needed.

There may be many times when you will want to separate two players. We will mention two of the most common scenarios. Whenever you are separating players, be sure to call for another judge. You cannot be with both players at once, and you want another body present to keep an eye on things.

Asking for Separation

There will be times when a customer asks to speak to you in private. The reasons are this request are varied, and include suspicion of cheating or a revealing rules question. These types of separations are common and easily resolved.

Escalating Tempers

Magic tournaments can be highly competitive environments. Sometimes it is necessary to intervene when tempers are escalating. If this is the case, separating the players may be necessary for safety and the sake of a calm tournament atmosphere. Here is a stepwise outline to use when dealing with these situations.

a) Acknowledge their emotions. Saying something along the lines of, “I understand emotions are running high…” or “I can see you’re both frustrated…” helps allow the customers to ground themselves. It shows them that you understand the situation, and it also shows surrounding players that you are handling the problem.

b) Separate the customers before you ask what’s going on. Having them explain in the presence of the other may cause tempers to flare again. Be sure to call another judge, both to keep an eye on things and serve as a secondary source of information collection.

c) Make sure to speak with both players. Beware of appearing to take sides, even if you’re not.

d) Some conflicts are unresolvable. In a perfect world, the conflict would resolve perfectly. Unfortunately, we are human. If the misunderstanding cannot be fixed, make sure to give both players a direct instruction to play cordially. This gives you the option of issuing a penalty if there are any other player-related problems.

e) Make sure to let another judge know about the situation. Have them keep an eye on the table every now and then.

4) Don’t Play Dumb

Judges often come into a dilemma when taking a call. How do we answer a question without giving strategic advice? I’ve seen several ways of handling this situation. I’ve seen judges answer questions without regard to strategic advice. I’ve seen judges ask players to rephrase a question “in the context of the rules.” I’ve seen everything in-between. So what do we do from a customer service perspective?

To answer this question, I take us back to the origin of our title: Judge. To judge means to form an opinion or conclusion. Judges have played enough games of magic and volunteered at enough events to have a general sense of what’s being asked. This being said, if we know the context of the question, then we can and should answer the question to that effect. One of the things that makes us special is that we are not an FAQ menu. We are living, breathing beings who can interact with the customer and provide a custom-tailored response.

If you understand the question being asked and the player shows awareness of a strategy behind it, verbal acrobatics are not necessary. In fact, in this vein, it is not giving strategic advice. The player already knows the strategy they are taking, and we are not revealing any new information. “Playing dumb” and asking for a reduction of the question to simple rules terminology takes time and can frustrate many players.

On the other hand, if the player is actively seeking out strategic advice (or SOSA), then we must be wary not to answer their question in a way that prompts guidance. Though SOSA conjures the image of a cloak-clad shifty-eyed cheater in the Top 8, you will encounter most unintentional SOSAs from new players or those unfamiliar with Comp REL. In this case, it’s best to efficiently explain the policy. Remember that the customer may be confused. Judges are supposed to help us, so why is this judge not helping me?

5) Be Appeal-ing

Know what sucks? Having a ruling appealed. It makes you feel dumb. It makes you feel incompetent. People around you hear the appeal, and you start to worry if they’re forming an opinion about you.

Know what’s awesome? Having a ruling appealed. It helps you learn if you made a mistake. It helps your confidence if you didn’t. It lets players know that Judges are here to help them. It informs surrounding players about the process. It enforces the system of balances. It even gives you a reason to network with a higher-level judge later in the day.

If you see that players are unhappy or unsure about a ruling, don’t hesitate to ask if they want an appeal. You can ask in a direct way: “Would you like to appeal?” or you can ask in an indirect way: “It sounds like you want to appeal to the Head Judge.” The second method was taught to me by another judge, and it has never steered me wrong. In fact, players often decline the appeal when given the option.

6) Explain penalties

No one likes being punished. As much as judges understand the philosophy of the IPG, customers only see one thing… and it’s in red ink on the match slip. If you notice any sort of negative emotion while issuing a penalty, be sure to explain the philosophy behind it. Reiterate that this is not personal by using general and universal terms. “I’m giving you a game loss for tardiness,” is different from, “Any player who is tardy gets a game loss.”

I’ve heard some variance in the philosophy of apologizing for penalties. Some people take the “blame-the-higher-ups” approach to preserve the customer relationship. Some people consider apologizing for penalties as a degradation of the IPG. I suggest not apologizing, but relating. State that you understand their frustration or feelings. Some phrases you could use include:

“I understand. No one likes to get a penalty.”

“I’d be upset too. It’s frustrating.”

“The word ‘Warning’ can be pretty scary, but if you’re careful you should be fine.”

7) Reassure/Thank the Players

We must always be mindful of what calling a judge is like from a new player’s perspective. Likewise, the two parts that people remember most of any situation are the beginning and the end. Be sure to leave the table with a smile. Reassure new players by saying something like, “Good question” or “Anything else I can help you with?” The key to customer service is making sure the customer leaves satisfied. They may not leave happy, especially if the answer to a rules question is against their favor or they were issued a penalty. But if they leave satisfied, then you’ve done your job. Never leave a judge call without at least saying “good luck to you both.” We want the last impression to be one of support and service, not penalties and frustrations.

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I joined the judge program not for the game, but for the people. There is something special about a large group of people from different cultures, ages, races, jobs, sexes, and religions coming together to play a game. As judges, we ensure that this occurs. We are responsible for something that many governments struggle with and dream of. As such I believe that… like the governments… we must be responsible not only for the law but for the people.