L3 Qualities – Penalty and Policy Philosophy

Written by Emilien Wild

Written by Emilien Wild


While players associate judges to our rules knowledge, judges have a greater role and are involved in a lot of situations. What we do is codified in tournament documents: the Magic Tournament Rules, the Judging at Regular REL and the Infraction Procedure Guide. But these documents don’t only require memorisation, but understanding and interpretation.


The goals of mastering the Penalty and Policy Philosophy

While the Comprehensive Rules, which deals with the game very mechanics, are able to cover almost every situation, the tournament documents only give outlines of the most commons or most grave scenarios. That makes them much shorter in comparison, but means that some cases a judge will be confronted with aren’t covered in detail. To deal with these cases, judges will have to rely on the documents philosophy to find the most fitting ruling.

The level 3 certification progress page define this quality as :

Penalty and Policy Philosophy: Regional Judges understand the underlying philosophies that inform the MTR, the MIPG, the JAR and other policies relevant to tournament operations and judging. They can effectively critique these philosophies and policies in the context of improving the Judge Program. Regional Judges know the importance of adhering to policy, but can also identify circumstances where policy is unclear, absent, or contrary to the spirit of the Judge Program’s practices. A deficient judge applies policies incorrectly or has philosophical views regarding policies that run contrary to the Judge Program’s most basic principles. He or she may be unable to explain policy to players and other judges, and may have little to no grasp of why policy is written the way it is. An exemplary judge has an impressive knowledge of penalties and policies and demonstrates a careful consideration of their underlying philosophies. He or she is capable of offering critical analysis of policies and judge practices that is particularly constructive and helpful.”

It is important to understand that the current documents are the result of almost 20 years of evolution, of adaptation to specific situations, and of suggestions from many individuals. They are organic documents that could be analysed and criticized. However, for this, it is essential to understand the goals they try to achieve in order to estimate the efficiency of the current means and see if and how they can be improved.

Also, many players and judges will not take “because the documents say so” as a valid reason for a ruling. They will ask for reasons, and they will expect regional judges to know them and be able to explain them. Without explanation, players could perceive our procedures as unfair, and a mentored judge could misunderstand and misapply them.


Philosophy: the art of asking “Why?”

Every rule is here to protect someone. Almost every rule could be tracked to some events that led to their creation or wording, or to deal with situations that were thought as likely to arise. Discussing with veteran judges could even lead you to the exact event, or even match, that led to the creation of specific rules. A recent example is the rewording of MTR section 2.10 Dropping from a Tournament for Grand Prix Las Vegas 2013: as the event was featuring really sought after cards, guidance was needed about how to deal with players who didn’t want to swap a really enticing pool, and the practice got officialized at this occasion.

A way to understanding the philosophy behind documents is the art of understanding what events could have led to the creation of our rules, and who these rules protect and from what.

To achieve that, it is important to question why a rule exist, and what is the goal this rule is trying to achieve. This may need to entangle several layers of explanations, going from the root goals of the program to the specific of the rules and policies described in our documents.


The trap of deviation

It is really important to understand that while the current documents aren’t perfect and could be improved, they are still the ones used by every judge. Because consistency is valued in the program, deviations are strictly forbidden except in exceptional circumstances not covered by the documents and for which they don’t provide any solution (which is different than providing a solution we don’t like). Because they are the result of a couple of decades of experience, such situations are extremely rares nowadays . As such, a judge should never deviate based on the excuse that he thinks he understands the underlying philosophy better than what the documents prescribe.

On the contrary, judges should use their knowledge of the philosophy to be able to produce consistent rulings and decisions that, for the covered situations, match the prescribed actions, and for uncovered situations to match the spirit of the documents in order to produce rulings that could reasonably be similar to the ones that other judges would take in identical situations.

That means that a good grasp of policy philosophy is actually the opposite of a push for deviation, but instead a force allowing to produce consistent and solid rulings.


The need for critical analysis

A good chunk of the philosophy behind policies is already in the documents – it’s even a part of each infraction segment in the IPG. However, philosophy isn’t something we could simply memorize – it’s something we have to understand. A good exercise is to find areas of the documents that are mostly similar and to try to explain the reasoning behind their differences (like the difference of fixes between the drawing extra card and looking at extra card infractions, or the difference of penalties between drawing extra card and improper drawing at start of the game), or to find things that seem illogical at first thought and find the reason behind their existence.

Another way to analyse policies are thought experiments. Take some policy or rule and tweak it. You can imagine it being removed, or change the penalty for breaking it, or even rewrite totally how it would be dealt with. Then think about the consequences. What kind of behavior would this promote toward players? Toward judges? What kind of impact would this have on events? Would we drift away from the basic goals of the program? Or would it improve things?

For example, once upon a time, illegal deck lists were disqualification-worthy. Thinking about what would be the impact to go back to this penalty could give you insight of why the current penalty is a game loss.

Then, it’s time to gather your reasoning and move to the next two tools to confront it:

1. The importance of discussion

Because human beings aren’t the most logical creatures, it’s easy to fall on bias or fallacies and get a reasoning wrong. A good way to avoid these issues is to submit such reasoning to the critical analysis of peers. That’s one point in which the judge program excels, through its means of non-judgmental, constructive communication devices such as JudgeApps forums, Irc channels, and of course face-to-face discussions during events.

However, be aware that the goal is to get a solid, logical explanation and understand it. That doesn’t mean that the explanation will be something we have to agree with. In fact, understanding why some parts of the policies are the way they are could also give us insight on what could realistically be changed, and what depends on factors that are outside of our reach.

2. The opportunities for research

Another way to progress in philosophy understanding is to research the reasons decisions have been taken. Fortunately, level 4+ judges are quite open about this process, and currently three blogs gather thoughts and explanations on recent changes. They are written by:

Scott Marshall: Do Not Question Uncle!
Kevin Desprez: What’s Up, Docs?
Toby Elliot: Policy Perspectives

At the end, a solid penalty and policies philosophy knowledge will allow you to not only understand what we do as judges, but why we do them, and why we do them this way. This will make it easier to provide consistent and solid rulings confronted in unexpected situations, and to educate players and fellow judges by pointing out goals and logic behind our documents. And it will allow you to be a constructive and active contributor to the ongoing amelioration of our practices.