L3 Qualities – Stress and Conflict Management

Written by Sean Catanese

Written by Sean Catanese

Why is this a quality we care about?

In a Magic event, conflict is a natural state. Think about it like The Force in Star Wars, here.  Not the midichlorian-induced hooey of the new episodes, but the way Obi-Wan describes it: “It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us, it penetrates us, it binds the galaxy together.”

Players win and lose. Their outcomes fail to meet their hopes and expectations. Personalities clash. Players misunderstand how their opponents’ cards work, how their own cards work, or how the tournament operates. Even Judges make mistakes.

If the only things involved in a Magic tournament were the simple mechanical duties of posting pairings, collecting decklists, distributing match slips, picking up trash, and pushing in chairs, we probably wouldn’t care so much about this quality. However, the supermajority of a judge’s day should be spent interacting with players, other judges, and spectators.

Stress and conflict really are part of everything in the tournament, all around us, within ourselves, and it’s why a tournament comes together in the first place. If you’re going to take on a leadership role in one of these events, your ability to resolve stress and conflict effectively will weigh heavily in your success or failure.


How do we evaluate this quality?

Here’s the definition from the list of qualities of a Regional Judge:

“Regional Judges can perform under pressure, maintaining a calm and focused demeanor at all times. They can handle leadership duties without allowing stress or pressure to adversely affect performance. They are capable of managing conflict as it arises between players, judges, event staff, etc, and they can do so without displaying signs of stress, doubt, or panic.”

Deficient behavior:

A deficient judge is unable to handle the varied demands of an event while in a position of authority without having stress or pressure affect his or her performance. When under pressure, the judge may become noticeably affected, unable to maintain his or her composure or focus. He or she goes “on tilt” easily.

Exemplary behavior:

An exemplary judge is one whose performance actually improves under stress. He or she thrives when under pressure, making effective decisions while maintaining attention on numerous aspects of the tournament. He or she rarely, if ever, appears to be negatively impacted by the pressures of an event and all its challenges.

I can’t really say it any better than this. Do the exemplary things and avoid the deficient things. What’s that? You want to go deeper? Good. Read on.


How do you manage conflicts?

There are five basic styles of conflict management. Terms vary depending on your textbook and specialized field, but here are the five I’m using:

  • Passive
  • Accommodating
  • Confrontational
  • Collaborative
  • Compromising

I’ll go into each of these in some detail, but keep this in mind: Each of these will eventually resolve a conflict, but not all of them will arrive at an outcome we’re happy with for our players or our event. The “correct” style to adopt varies by circumstance, and applying the right one at the right time is essential to arriving at the outcome we want: Ensuring players can continue to play Magic in a fair, fun environment.



This technique really isn’t a technique at all. It’s more like the act of doing nothing. It’s taking a “wait and see” approach and allowing the other actors to continue unimpeded and without your involvement. If they have a conflict between one another, it will eventually be resolved, but you won’t have any part in it.

When does this work?

Not often, but one exception to this is when a player is outside of a match and simply venting frustration to others, especially if a previous conflict involved you or another judge. A passive approach might actually be fine here. It’s a natural part of every event that some players’ outcomes will fall short of their hopes and expectations. We want these players to be able to blow off steam, and we shouldn’t feel compelled to intervene any time a player appears the least bit unhappy. If there’s no hazard or reason to be concerned, stay above it and let them express their emotions naturally.

Successfully managing conflict passively can also happen (but rarely) in a situation where you’re overwhelmed by multiple competing priorities at once. In a Grand Prix environment, Regional Judges may have many things going on at once. They lead teams in complex tasks. Area Judges approach them about reviews or advancement recommendations. Local Judges approach them about advancement and mentoring needs. They might be thinking about checking in for their flights home, getting off their tired feet, whether their colleagues have been hydrating enough, and hard-to-find cards they saw at a dealer table.

Sometimes something has to give. The ability to prioritize competing demands is a skill, and one in which we expect Regional Judges to excel. If one of the things on this list needs to be dropped in order for the others to be executed effectively, then putting it out of mind (dealing with it passively) can be an acceptable method. Note that this only works as long as the outcome of consciously letting it go doesn’t compromise your other objectives.

When is this terrible?

Often. Almost always. Judges who approach conflict passively are probably going to be evaluated as deficient in this quality. Let’s illustrate with an example:

You’re walking past a table and overhear Aaron and Bob in a match discussing whether or not a combat trick works as Aaron believes it does. Aaron seems to be winning the argument because Bob seems confused. Bob looks up to you with a questioning look on his face, but you break eye contact quickly and move on to push in chairs down the row. Bob assumes you heard the exchange. He never formally called for a Judge. He also assumes if you had seen a problem, you would have intervened. He accepts Aaron’s version of how the situation resolves and continues the game.

It’s pretty obvious how being passive here is terrible. The conflict was resolved (it ended and the players continued the match), but we completely abdicated our duties. A judge’s primary concern is player experience, and Bob’s experience has been harmed by our passivity. He’s still confused, the interaction he experienced may or may not have been just wrong (we never figured that part out), and we’ve effectively handed our authority over to his opponent. In short, the passive approach to conflict often amounts to just not doing our jobs.



Most often this will look and feel like simple customer service or just being friendly. It can be as simple as listening patiently to a bad beat story and empathizing or talking down a frustrated fellow judge who’s just failed an advancement exam. For many judges, this comes naturally, but for some it’s a challenge.

An accommodating approach is most common in a customer service atmosphere where the prevailing philosophy is, “The customer is always right.” It has a place in the practice of an effective Regional Judge, but it won’t work in every case. In terms of outcomes, being accommodating can feel a lot like being passive, but it’s distinct because it actually involves engaging with another person to help them resolve something. By taking an accommodating approach to a conflict, the outcome you’re seeking is the validation and acceptance of the other person’s interest.

To effect an accommodating approach, consider the physical elements of how you present yourself. You and the person you’re interacting with should be on the same physical level (stages are awkward, standing at a table with a seated player is also unbalancing). Listen actively and maintain awareness of what you’re communicating even when you’re not talking (nod your head to signal understanding, lean in and make eye contact, keep your hands visible).

When does this work?

When serving the interests of person in front of you matters most. A Regional Judge is a focal point for feedback on other judges, events, and organized play concerns in general. Players will seek you out to provide this feedback, and their expectation is that you will be an effective, receptive audience for it. Your ability to empathize with a concerned member of the community and effectively defuse or resolve a tense situation can come down to an accommodating approach.

When is this terrible?

When you’re delivering a penalty. I screwed this up significantly in my first GP in Los Angeles in 2009. In the middle of a mid-day round, I watched a player, Charles, shuffle his deck with the cards facing himself, cut once, and present. Textbook insufficient shuffling. At the time, though, this was “Insufficient Randomization” and carried a game loss. Putting my judge program ninja training into action, I swooped in and gave Charles the penalty. Bad idea. Not only had I surprised him, the severity of the penalty came as a second shock. I had delivered the ruling poorly, and he took it in kind. We spent the next ten minutes discussing it. Ten. Minutes. I tried to talk Charles down, he tried to get me to understand and change my mind. I didn’t take it as the obvious-in-hindsight de facto appeal it was, but as an opportunity to make Charles feel understood, and an opportunity to help him understand policy better. Our circular discussion spiraled out far longer than it should have. Unfortunately for the rest of the players and judges, Charles and his opponent used every minute of the time extension. The misguided attempt to serve one customer ended up impairing the service to several hundred others.

An accommodating approach lacks the decisiveness you need here. When a player commits an infraction and earns a penalty, the outcome should be simple. If you approach an infraction and penalty by accommodating the player, you’re more likely to let the conversation degenerate into this sort of spiralling abyss of wasted time. If you find yourself heading down this path, cut the conversation short, reiterate the infraction and penalty, and ask the player directly to head back to their match. If they want to discuss more, offer to take it up once the match is over so the tournament can move on.

This is also the wrong tactic when you’re adjudicating disputes between players. When you’re called to a match to resolve a dispute, players are likely to present two different descriptions of what happened or the outcome they want. One of them might even be correct. However, there’s just no way to agree with two competing versions of reality. You need to be decisive.

One player may get the outcome he wants, but it should never be a matter of being friendlier or nicer to one player or the other. The ruling needs to be only a matter of game rules, tournament policy, and what you believe happened after hearing everything. If you’re too accommodating in this situation, you are more likely to alienate a player with a perception of bias.



Many people mistakenly understand a confrontation as “what happens when a conflict escalates out of control.” It’s not. There are plenty of scenarios where confrontation is exactly what’s needed to effectively come to a resolution.

Actively intervening and redirecting conflict toward yourself is not easy. It’s uncomfortable. It takes a presence and directness that some judges don’t naturally exude. However, the ability to adapt, step up, and take charge is important to the leadership roles in which Regional Judges are expected to excel.

When does this work?

When the moment requires an authority figure, and you’re it. Away from the kitchen table games of Commander, opponents are naturally inimical to one another. Winning at the expense of others losing is the game’s objective, so conflict is natural. When a conflict spirals beyond the game at hand and becomes personal, judges serve as the natural authority figures to step in and end the escalation.

The directness of a confrontational approach is often important to investigations where a cheating-related disqualification is likely. Tournament integrity is at risk in these situations, and the primary player you’re concerned with is responsible for creating that hazard. When you decide to confront the hazard, do so with a plan. Control the conversation. Structure your statements by owning them. Use “I” statements like, “I need you to hear me, and I need to know you understand what’s happening here,” or, “I believe you have compromised the integrity of this event, and I’m disqualifying you.”

When is this terrible?

Usually with other judges. Regional Judges are expected to lead events in the context of working toward a common goal in collaboration with their peers. Introducing a demanding or confrontational approach here is appropriate only when other methods have failed. In a public-facing setting, or where players, spectators, and uninvolved judges have visibility to the interaction, a confrontation with another judge is often counterproductive. This is embedded in the culture of judging in that our recognitions for a job well done or advancement are very public, but specific areas for improvement and personal failings in performance are reserved in a more private system of reviews.

Similarly, a player who has already admitted to cheating or apologized for an inappropriate action does not need or deserve a confrontational approach. Pursuing confrontation here is simply over-reaching. In this kind of situation, the conflict is likely already over, but that natural end to it may have been overlooked in the heat of the moment.



Collaboration is often seen as the “good” way to resolve conflicts. It’s the classic “win-win” approach. For this to work, it’s easier if everyone involved in the conflict understands one another as partners working toward a common goal, or at least not adversarially. Information is freely shared between everyone involved; help from all sides is offered rather than waiting to be solicited. Honesty is key.

These factors make collaborative conflict management an approach that Magic players don’t generally use with one another in-game, but one that Judges should utilize with one another often.

When does this work?

When players are getting along, but still have something to resolve. Often this comes up where a game state is complicated or compromised somehow, and both players are unsure of how the problem occurred but remain mutually interested in coming to a correct resolution. Some examples:

  • Two players realize their life totals or card counts don’t match, potentially after several turns of a discrepancy persisting.

  • Another judge is unsure of how to resolve a situation involving a complicated game state and older cards with outdated templating and asks for your help.

  • A player at FNM doesn’t understand how his opponent’s cards work, and his opponent is having a hard time explaining them.

  • Players in a booster draft notice an error in the number of cards being passed between picks.

A common thread in each of these cases is that there is a “right” answer. If it’s easy to find that right answer, jumping straight to it is probably fine. We do this all the time in resolving simple rules questions and providing Oracle text.

In the more complex scenarios, your approach should be open and direct with everyone else involved. For instance, if you’re figuring out a complex game state and actions from both players, walk through your thought process aloud. The players will catch things you miss or fill in the gaps and help you reconstruct what went wrong much more quickly than if you keep the dialogue in your head.

When is this terrible?

If the conflict is between players, they and you all need a common understanding of what the resolution of the conflict will look like. When one of the people in the conflict takes an adversarial position, or believes the other side to be adversarial. If either side is less than open in contributing to the solution to the problem, collaboration simply won’t be effective. Some examples:

  • A tournament with significant prizes can create a generally more competitive and potentially less friendly environment.

  • A player has a question about how a card in his hand interacts with a card he believes is in his opponent’s hand.

  • One player has a question about how one of his opponent’s cards works, but he doesn’t want to remind his opponent about a trigger which he believes his opponent missed.

  • A player is agitated or angry with his opponent (obviously).

In each of these cases, effectively collaborating to solve a problem may just be impossible, and a different approach to resolving the conflict is more appropriate.



In order to arrive at a successful compromise, both sides need to be willing to express some degree of vulnerability. Both sides also need to have some interest in resolving the conflict amicably by seeking common ground. If one or both of these elements are missing, an attempt to seek compromise can be perceived as weakness on the part of whoever initiated it. Unlike other approaches like collaboration, seeking the “right” answer is not part of the equation here.

When does this work?

Between and within teams at a large event. All of the judges in a large event share common goals for the event (such as creating the best experience possible for players), but also have needs and priorities of their own. When an event’s needs require staff to adapt and change course, the event’s leaders are faced with multiple competing priorities. However, the core goal will remain unchanged. In this situation, each team lead has his or her team’s duties, breaks, and engagement in the event to consider.

To keep all of these priorities in line, all the members of each team in an event work together, as do the team leads. A compromising approach plays an important role when these Judges are figuring out lunch breaks, planning floor coverage, and addressing the inevitable unplanned complications that come with large events. Team leads especially need to understand how to prioritize, how to identify when something is a small detail they can let go to ensure the big picture stays in focus. That process of prioritization is an exercise in compromise.

When is this terrible?

When there is a “right” answer. In a compromise, it’s common for neither side of the conflict to get exactly what they want. Most often, a Judge’s “side” of an in-event conflict is representing tournament integrity, game rules, or the consistent application of tournament policy on the event floor. To be clear, there are times when we prioritize among these different goals within a tournament, but these should strike you as parts of the player experience that we can’t really approach in half-measures.

Another situation where compromise is the wrong tactic is in dealing with serious issues of tournament integrity. It’s not uncommon for a player facing disqualification after an investigation to apologize or try to mitigate the penalty somehow. Here it is easy to feel an empathetic impulse and try to find some way to soften the blow for the player, especially if the reason for the disqualification is a matter of the player’s ignorance of policy (as may happen with Cheating – Improperly Determining a Winner and Cheating – Bribery and Wagering). Empathizing with a player in this situation is natural, good even. However, you should be careful to avoid conflating that empathy with a deviation in policy.


Going Deeper

Throughout this article, I have used a highly event-focused definition of our desired outcomes, and used event-focused examples. I did that mainly because events are where you’re most likely to identify successes and failures in conflict management, and it’s easy to evaluate them in the context of, “Did I screw this up and contribute to the event burning to the ground or did I get it right and make the event more awesome?”

Regional Judges, though, lead well beyond the event floor. They manage projects and mentor others outside of events. They participate in the global community on a broader scale and in more depth than most other Magic Judges do. The conflicts they deal with absolutely scale to this, and the time and energy high-level judges devote to their craft is significant.

A key part of stress and conflict management for a high-level judge is balance. Magic is not real life. Event high-level judging for Magic events is not real life. It’s challenging and rewarding. It requires a certain level of dedication and expertise. It even has applications to build your own successes in the real world. But it is not the real world.

Find a balance between the real world (a meaningful livelihood, a social life, a romantic life, and non-Magic diversions), and this world where you’re a leader and an expert. Structure and plan your time in judging and the game. Just like a passive approach in a judge call is usually terrible, a passive approach to balancing your real-world needs and Magic judging will probably end poorly. Make your priorities a matter of intentional choices you’re making and not just comfortable defaults.

Strike this balance in events and away from them. Approach your conflicts by making conscious choices and planning your engagement. Understand conflict as a natural, organic part of what we do. Do these things and you will be well on your way to fulfilling the quality we consider in the Regional Judge advancement process.

More discussion about Judge Peacekeeping is available at Sean Catanese’s blog:
Guiding the Planes