Owning Your Mistakes

Written by Derek J. Barbee
Washington (USA)

Written by Derek J. Barbee
Washington (USA)

I recently worked one of the most difficult, awkward, and humbling events of my judge career. There were a number of player interactions and policy applications on which I feel I could have done better, and if I had the chance to do the event again, I would do many things differently. While I obviously don’t have a Time Turner to go back and do it again, I can attempt to learn from my mistakes in hopes of becoming a better judge.

In my judging history, I’ve noticed that the majority of what I would characterize as mistakes, like those I encountered during the aforementioned tournament, have similar root causes.  If I make a error, it’s frequently because I’m anxious about the way my ruling will impact me, the players, or the tournament, causing me to rule in a certain way (that may not be correct).  I think most judges share or experience these deceptively subtle fears. In the context of this challenging event I judge, I want to discuss three such fears: letting down the players, looking foolish, and letting down yourself.

Fear #1: Letting down the players.

In a story that I imagine is far from unique, I became a judge to help others.  I discovered early on that I found enormous satisfaction in helping other people enjoy this game that I love so much.  It’s important to keep player satisfaction in mind as you go on, but I think it’s also important to consider how a motivation like this might cause you to occasionally do a disservice to your events at large.

I just want everyone to have a good time, be happy, and play Magic.  Because of this, I have struggled with the concept of delivering bad news to players.  This struggle often leads me to deliver overly soft rulings when it probably shouldn’t.  Being the Head Judge of an event does give you the power to deviate from the IPG, but just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

The event in question was a Pauper event, and many of the players had never played the format before (since it’s normally a Magic Online format).  One player nervously came up to me after an early round and admitted to me that her deck had a rare card in it.  Her brother had suggested playing this card before the event began, and the player had crossed out another card on their decklist and written in this new one.  After the match against her round 1 opponent finished, they were looking through her deck, and the opponent pointed out that the card in question wasn’t legal.  The card had not come up during the game, and this player had lost the match.  She and her opponent immediately came to talk to me once they realized the issue.

She was clearly very nervous and uncomfortable, and it was the first competitive event she had played in.  Because of her inexperience, and the fact that she had approached me (as opposed to me finding the issue in a deck check), and the fact that her brother was the one who told her to play the card, I rationalized that it was okay to downgrade the Deck / Decklist Problem from a Game Loss to a Warning.  Some of these things are the right reasons to downgrade, and some of them are not.  Player satisfaction is very important, but there has to be a line between allowing everyone to have a good time and ensuring that potentially sketchy behaviors are dealt with appropriately.

I was afraid of giving her bad news (i.e. a harsh penalty), so I ruled in a way that I probably shouldn’t have.

Potential Remedy #1: Remember why the penalties exist.

The entire purpose of penalties isn’t just to dole out punishments to players who have been “naughty:”  

The purpose of a penalty is to educate the player not to make similar mistakes in the future. This is done through both an explanation of where the rules or policies were violated and a penalty to reinforce the education. Penalties are also for the deterrence and education of every other player in the event and are also used to track player behavior over time.

It may be tough to reconcile, but one of the major purposes of giving out penalties is to help players; that is, not only to help the opponents of players who do something against the rules, but also to guide people into playing the game better.  I played at the casual level for a long time before I ever entered a sanctioned event, and there were a lot of things that I did incorrectly because they didn’t seem like a big deal in casual play.  “Oh, I accidentally drew an extra card, I’ll just put one back.”  The first time I was informed at an event that I had just lost the game because of that, it made an impact on me.  I became a better player and paid more attention to my play because of it.  Sometimes it requires losing a few games or a judge not allowing you “takesy-backsies” before you improve as a player.

As a judge, when you have to deliver some really bad news, players can unsurprisingly be frustrated, disappointed, or even angry.  They may occasionally direct that anger towards you, and if some part of you shies away from that aggression, it can be difficult to hold your ground.  The folks who wrote the IPG are well aware of this, however, and it’s worth rereading this paragraph from the General Philosophy section:

The Head Judge may not deviate from this guide’s procedures except in significant and exceptional circumstances or a situation that has no applicable philosophy for guidance. Significant and exceptional circumstances are rare – a table collapses, a booster contains cards from a different set, etc. The Rules Enforcement Level, round of the tournament, age or experience-level of the player, desire to educate the player, and certification level of the judge are NOT exceptional circumstances.

Playing the nice guy or gal every time you need to give a player a harsh ruling is not good judging.  The penalties exist for a reason, and it’s important to keep that in mind.  If you try to play softball every time, you are setting a bad precedent for your players.  If you let them off the hook every time they make a mistake, you’re not actually sparing them a harsh experience – you’re just delaying it, potentially even magnifying it.  The first time they go to play at another store, and a judge informs them that what they just did merits a game loss, they’re going to be even more upset and confused than they would normally have been because you told them that it was okay.  Even though it sucks to be the bearer of bad tidings, it truly is better for your players and the community at large if you enforce the penalties the way the IPG intends.  Players will be stronger for it and will not be in for a rude awakening when they play in another event, out from underneath your overprotective rulings.

Fear #2: Looking Foolish

My floor judge at the Pauper tournament was a Level 2 Judge.  My Scorekeeper was also a Level 2 Judge.  One of the casters that was doing commentary on the stream was also a Level 2 Judge.  Even before the event even began, I knew that if I were to make a mistake, it would not go unnoticed.

If you want to Head Judge, you have to be willing to stand up in front of people and speak the answer confidently.  No, you won’t be 100% correct every single time, but you can’t let the fear of looking foolish for a moment lead you to hedge your bets.  When players call you to a table for a ruling, they want to hear a firm “The rules functions this way,” not a “Well, I’m pretty sure that things like this work that way.”  You need to display confidence, even if you’re only 95% confident in your answer.  If players get rulings from someone who doesn’t seem convinced of what they’re saying, they will justifiably feel uncomfortable.

When I first became a judge, people in my local shop instantly looked at me differently.  This felt great. I felt respected. I felt valued.  But I also felt incredibly nervous. Years later, someone would tell me about Imposter Syndrome, but at the time, I hadn’t heard the term.  Because of the newfound position that I had, I felt I wasn’t allowed to ever be wrong – people expected me to be right, so I had to be.  This resulted in some unideal situations where I held firm to a ruling when it may not have been correct, and it also led me sometimes to side with someone else in discussions of rules or policy, simply because they spoke their answer with more conviction than I did. These tendencies are obviously not optimal, or even remotely helpful as a judge, and have been the biggest behavior I have tried to eradicate over the years of judging since first becoming certified.

Potential Remedy #2:  Swallow your pride.

You may have been judging for a long time.  You may have read the Comprehensive Rules back to front.  You may feel like everyone looks up to you.  Well, unfortunately, you’re still human, and you can still make mistakes–indeed, you will still make mistakes.  It is not helpful to live in fear of this moment, and far better to be prepared for what you need to do when it happens.

If you are wrong, tell the players.  If there is time to correct the mistake in the match they are playing immediately, do it.  If not, then talk to them after the game ends.  It is far better that they hear it from you, right then, rather than someone later informing them and creating a moment where players shake their heads about how crappy judges are and end up less inclined to call for a judge when they need one.

After moving to Seattle, the first PPTQ in which I played went very well for me until what would be my win-and-in match.  Something came up in the match that my opponent wasn’t familiar with, even after I explained it to him, so I suggested he call a judge.  He did, and the judge came over and listened to my opponent explain what happened.  This judge is someone I have since worked with at numerous events, and he is known for being spot on in his rulings.  Despite that, when he gave his ruling, it was blatantly incorrect.  I was a little bit surprised, but I informed him that I would like to appeal to the Head Judge.  The Head Judge came, listened to the story from both sides, and then upheld the Floor Judge’s ruling.  I was more than just a little bit surprised at this point, but didn’t argue, and played on from there.  The second the match ended, the Head Judge sat down next to me, and said very directly: “I was wrong.  You were right.  I am sorry.  Unfortunately, at this point the match has ended, and there is nothing we can do to fix the situation.”

I was briefly blown away and just kind of sat there.  After a moment, I realized I wasn’t even particularly angry.  The wrong call had ended up being the reason I lost the game and match, but because of how honest and straightforward the judge was about it, I didn’t even feel anger towards him.  He was just a guy who had made a mistake, which unfortunately had some major consequences on my experience.  But that’s the way it goes sometimes.

If that judge hadn’t come up to me afterwards and acknowledged his mistake, I would have found out about it sooner or later, and when I did, I would have been furious.  I would have told people, I would have been tempted to do irrational and petty things like seek him out and berate him for it, and I would have been left with a significantly more negative experience.  For me, that lingering negative experience is crucial, because in the times when I worried about looking like a fool in front of a player, I was only trying to protect my own fragile ego.  If you truly care about the players that you’re helping, you can’t be afraid to take a blow on the chin every now and then in order to prevent a worse outcome.

Additionally, by acknowledging his mistake and informing me what the correct ruling was, he helped to maintain the sense of trust that is so important between judges and players.  If I had later discovered his mistake, I could have not only walked around with a chip on my shoulder, but also with a sense that I had been somehow deceived.  In that brief moment where he sat down and apologized, he also made sure that I understood what the correct ruling was and did not walk away leaving me with incorrect information.  The goal of judges is always to educate, even if at the cost of momentarily looking foolish.  That embarrassment will pass, but giving a player the wrong information could cause negative side-effects that persist much longer.

Fear #3: Letting down yourself.

Even while I admit that no one is perfect, and no judge will get every call correct, in my heart, I still want to strive for that unobtainable perfection.  Like a lot of people, I’ve discovered that I hold myself to a higher standard than I do others.  That desire to be The One Who Knows The Answer means I am really hard on myself when I make a mistake, even if it is an easy one to make.

Potential Remedy #3:  Focus on improving, not being perfect.

Repeating “I’m only human, and I can make mistakes” can help in some regard, but only does so much. The most helpful mindset I have tried to adopt has been one focused on improvement and not on current perfection.  I don’t need to be the smartest guy in the room, I just need to be actively improving my knowledge.  Mistakes are worth examining, but not dwelling on – as soon as you have learned all that you can from a blunder, it is time to stop beating yourself up about it.  When you make a mistake, first determine what you should have done, or what you would do when presented with a similar situation.  If possible, rectify your mistake.  If not, then accept it and move on.  If you’ve determined what should have happened, and know how to handle it next time, then dwelling on it further serves no practical purpose.  You’re just making yourself feel bad for the sake of feeling bad.

It’s tough not to regret mistakes, but few things will help solidify your understanding like making a very large and memorable blunder.  When you make a mistake, focus on what you can learn from it, rather than dwelling on how “you should have known that one,” or other unhelpful thoughts.

Steps for Success:

Action #1:   Get feedback.

Before that Pauper tournament began, I spoke to my Floor Judge – who was a very experienced Level 2 – and told him that I was looking for feedback.  This created an open atmosphere that allowed him to come chat with me multiple times throughout the day and also informed him about my mental state.  I was looking to improve, not to pretend that I was some sort of Super Judge who was flawless in every way.

I have my own list of things I want to improve during events, but getting input from an outside source can be incredibly productive.  Some of the most helpful pieces of feedback I’ve ever received were about things that weren’t even on my radar.  The first event I ever head judged, I felt confident that I nailed the opening announcements.  I later asked the scorekeeper for any input he had on my performance, and he pointed out things that I hadn’t been focusing on, such as my physicality and presentation.  I was literally wringing my hands during the announcement, fidgeting in place, and I hadn’t even realized it.  So even though I said all the correct words, if someone looked at me they would not have seen a prepared judge; they would have seen someone who looked so nervous he might die.  There were no mirrors in the tournament room, and if I hadn’t solicited input from an outside source, I would never have noticed what I was doing.

Action #2:  Take advantage of available resources.

There are a lot of resources out there for judges, and you’re only shooting yourself in the foot if you don’t take advantage of them.  The long running Ask A Judge IRC Chat is a very easy tool to have open and running on whatever computer the tournament software is already open in.  If you get a call you’re not sure how to handle, ask the players to pause for a moment, step away from the table, and get some assistance.  Most players are happier to wait for a correct answer than to get an immediate one that may be incorrect.

If you don’t have access to the computer running the event, then your smartphone can be all the help you need.  Many regions right now have created communication channels on services such as Slack.  I use the Pacific Northwest Judge Slack Channel, and it’s enormously helpful.  I can go on and get a response to my question incredibly quickly.  It’s worth investigating if your region has a similar channel.  If it doesn’t yet, then maybe you should talk to some other judges in your region and create one?

A basic step to take before any event you judge is to make sure you have access to Oracle text and the IPG.  There are a multitude of apps available on any type of phone that offer these resources. I have an Android phone, so I use the MTG: Judge Core app and MTG Familiar.  Anytime a player asks me a rules question about a card, I will look up the card to make sure I know the exact text of the card.  The difference in so many rulings can come down to a single word in that rules text, so having it visually in front of you before you make a ruling can be pretty important.

Making sure you have access to the IPG can be great, as well.  Even if you don’t have a smartphone, you can print it out and have it with you at the event – did you know that the IPG is only 29 pages now?  Being able to step away from the table and refer to the exact text can be extremely helpful in those moments where you’re not sure if this should be ruled as Mulligan Procedure Error or Hidden Card Error.

The most obvious resource (that is is still easy to forget about, however) is other judges that may be working that event alongside you.  If you’re working alone, then you can lean on judge chat or Slack, but if you have even a single other judge on staff with you, it’s worth discussing things with them, regardless of the levels involved.  Sometimes just having a sounding board can help you come to a conclusion that otherwise eluded you.  Multiple times, I have started to explain the specifics of a ruling to someone, only to realize partway through that there was a detail of it I previously had been missing.

Most L1s are familiar enough with the idea of asking the players to pause for a moment while they step away to confirm something with the head judge.  I would suggest that even if you are the head judge, you shouldn’t feel as though you cannot take a moment to discuss a scenario with a floor judge.  It is much better to swallow your pride and admit to a fellow judge that you’re not 100% about your potential ruling, rather than to charge ahead and give a ruling that may be incorrect.  Take advantage of the resources and options you have in order to provide your players the best experience possible.

Action #3:  Take a moment to connect with the players.

When you’re trying to project the image of professionalism and authority, it can sometimes be easy to come across as impersonal.  At this recent event, I had to inform a player that his match was over before it even began, due to two separate issues arising from his deck check.  He was a very casual player, new to the format, and was understandably crushed.  After I got the tournament stuff out of the way, I sat down with him and offered to help him resleeve his deck.  We sat there for a bit, just chatting, and by the end of it, he was in a much better mood.  This was time that I was not on the floor, but I feel strongly that it was time well spent.

You will frequently have times where a player is not satisfied with your ruling, perhaps even upset when it does not go their way.  In these moments, it’s a good idea to inform the player that you would be happy to discuss the ruling with them after the match.  It gives them a chance to vent their frustration in a calmer environment while also enabling you to make the specifics of a potentially complex ruling clear to them.

Taking a moment to have a heart to heart with a player can help reestablish a human connection between players and the judge community.  I’ve known people who were uncomfortable about calling for a judge, and I repeatedly have people apologize when they do actually call me.  Being able to sit down and talk with players reminds them that you’re human, and that you’re there to help.

Wrapping Up

From a big picture perspective, dealing with one’s own mistakes is mostly about attitude.  There are the immediate steps you can take when you make a mistake (e.g. determining the correct answer, informing the players, fixing what you can), but those are mostly for damage control.  How you mentally digest these mistakes is arguably even more important because it dictates how likely you are to make similar ones in the future.

Despite all your best intentions, you will make a mistake again (and that’s okay).  Making mistakes is not the end of the world, as long as you are able to learn from them.  In my opinion, the only mistake that’s worth dwelling on is the one that you make more than once. When you do make an error, just follow these steps:

Step 1:  Determine what your mistake was.

Step 2:  Determine what you should have done instead.

Step 3:  If possible, fix the situation.

Step 4:  Determine what you can learn from this.

Step 5:  Move on.
Am I a perfect judge?  Definitely not.  But am I a better judge than I was at my last event?  Absolutely. And that, above all, gives me the drive to keep improving.