Body Language in a Ruling

Written by Daniel Kitachewsky
Level 3, France

Written by Daniel Kitachewsky
Level 3, France

When you started your career as a judge, you often made wrong rulings. We all did. And you made rulings that were technically right, but weren’t accepted by the players. I know I have. It’s even more frustrating since studying rules and the IPG doesn’t seem to solve the problem. So what’s going on? Why is it that players will appeal correct rulings or argue with you?

Let me present you two fictitious scenarios to illustrate this phenomenon:


Bob is a very knowledgeable level 1 judge. He scored 92% on his test and everyone respects his answers on a local rules forum. But today isn’t his day. A player calls upon him and asks “can I attack with this as soon as I play it?” showing his Japanese Mutavault. Bob picks up the card, says “um, no,” and leaves. The player appeals to the Head Judge.

Charlene is an experienced level 2 judge, but it seems that the players never believe her rulings. Today, Isaac is playing against Oscar and forgets his Honden of Infinite Rage for one turn, and realizes it while choosing a target for its ability on his next upkeep. Isaac calls Judge Charlene, she thinks for a couple of seconds while looking at the ceiling, then she says Isaac has to put another instance of the ability on the stack. Isaac asks if it’s ok to target his opponent’s 2/2 creature twice. Charlene frowns, looks at her Head Judge, then says “oh yes, you can do that.” Oscar starts arguing in a belligerent manner.

What went wrong in these two rulings? I’ll tell you: the body language of the judges showed lack of confidence. In the players’ eyes, the judges didn’t appear to have the skills to handle the situation. Bob didn’t make eye contact with either player. Charlene almost ignored Oscar. By looking away while thinking, and by forgetting to make eye contact with both players, she betrayed that she was afraid to deliver what she knew would be a harsh ruling.

A psychology professor named Albert Mehrabian established that when communicating feelings and attitude, words account for 7%, while tone of voice accounts for 38% and body language for 55%. That’s right, 93% of your confidence in what you say will show through your body language and voice tone. Because answering a ruling is such a common situation, it’s the primary training ground for displaying confidence and learning to listen. Why do I speak of confidence and listening at the same time? Because these two concepts are fundamentally intertwined: one cannot exist without the other. Confidence without listening is pure arrogance. Listening without confidence is just being overwhelmed.

Now, what distinguishes a confident judge from a judge that can’t control a situation? A confident judge is someone the players will trust on first sight, and whose rulings they will accept most of time without arguing because the judge gives the impression that they know the correct answer. This doesn’t mean that the judge imposes a ruling. Instead, being confident, they can think more clearly and is never afraid of taking a few extra moments to make sure the ruling they’re about to deliver is the correct one. The players will notice this, even unconsciously, and be much more ready to accept rulings.

Let’s break down the elements of body language relevant to making a ruling.

Body Position and Relation to the Table

Most judges are tall enough that they have to look down to look at the players in the eyes. Because very often the players will be looking at the board while asking their questions, it’s not always easy to make eye contact. There are a couple solutions to this:

  • Rest your arms or elbows on the table
  • Squat down
  • Rest your hand on the table, but be a bit farther away from the players
  • Have the player look at you, for example by repeating his question or asking clarification (even if you understood perfectly)

Pick one that suits the situation and that you’re comfortable with. I find myself using all of these at various times. Squatting down will be adapted for young players and/or newcomers, but not for competitive players who might use this as an opportunity to influence the judge and to fish for penalties.

Let’s not forget also that some players will want to ask questions in private. For these, you can suggest that they get up and ask the question away from the table, in which case it will be easier to make eye contact because you will be at the same height.

The Eyes

Eye contact is the fundamental tool to say “I’m listening to what you are saying.” While you are speaking to someone, look at them in the eye, at least at the beginning of your sentence and at the end of a question.

When you look down at the floor or look at the board but not the players, you look nervous or lacking confidence. Players will be less likely to listen to your ruling and to call you again.

When you look up, it shows that you are searching for an answer or, possibly, that you don’t have an answer and are looking desperately for something to get you out of the situation. And I mean get yourself out, not get the players out of trouble. Remember, if at any point you’re unsure of what to say, you can always tell the players that you’re going to look for a confirmation and step away from the table, where you can consult with another judge, check with a document, or just take a few moments to think for yourself. This way, no confidence is lost in front of the players, who will continue to trust your ability.

Another hindrance to delivering confident rulings lies in the fact that often you’ll need to think for yourself for a few moments while reading the board. As long as you remain half-active, touching or reading a card from time to time, it shouldn’t be much of a problem. Thinking aloud can be helpful for situations where you have to figure out a complex stack or add up several numbers to calculate a creature’s power/toughness. Thinking out loud is less useful when you’re trying to remember what the IPG says.

Finally, when you look away or when your eyes stray all over the room, it betrays that you’re not really interested in the ruling (I’m not saying that it’s the case, it’s merely the message that your eyes deliver, consciously or not). It’s not really fun to speak to someone who looks away from you because you get the impression that they are not paying attention to you.

All in all, make eye contact at all crucial moments: when you meet the players, when you listen to a question or seek a clarification, and when you deliver your ruling.

If there is one thing to remember from this article, it’s this: make sure to make eye contact with both players – when you meet them, when you listen to them, and when you deliver your ruling.

The Voice

A shaky voice betrays a lack of confidence. A voice that’s too fast or too low will be hard to understand, and the players will make you repeat what you say. Here’s how to adapt:

  • Use a louder voice when players are complaining that they don’t hear you.
  • Speak slower when players don’t understand or make you repeat.
  • Use simple words and sentences.

Players have a different perspective on the game than you have. They will use less technical terms, more nicknames for the cards and the concepts, and sometimes just don’t know about detailed rules. Why speak of layers when all they want to know is the size of their creature after Giant Growth and Humble? If you use too technical terms, you also run the risk of having the player say “ok” just because they don’t want to look stupid. Let’s help them and make sure they understand the ruling. You can also ask them “do you understand what I’m saying?” and, when the ruling is done, step back but remain near the table for a few moments, just to make sure everything’s going fine.

If you’re unsure of the voice tone or the word choice to use, imitate the player you’re talking to. Using their own vocabulary and speed of speech will help him understand you better. It’s even more important if the language you speak isn’t their mother tongue, as they can have a limited vocabulary or can have trouble understanding fast speech. A confident judge is a judge that rarely has to repeat.


Smile! A ruling can be complicated; the players not always polite. But that’s what you are here for, so make it the most enjoyable experience you can. You will often be surprised at how the tension suddenly disappears when you smile at the players. It will calm down angry players and relax competitive players who want an answer immediately. Remind them gently that yes, they will get additional time.

Avoid showing nervousness through tics, fidgeting, or by playing with an object. Anything that distracts players when they speak or listen reduces your impact. If they have to look at your fingers tapping onto the table, and they will since looking at a moving object is done unconsciously, they will have a lapse in concentration and maybe miss an important word. Similarly, tapping the ground with your foot could convey the message that you’re not really interested in the ruling, nor in the players. Showing extreme calmness is a sure way to gain the players to your side.

Listen to the players without interrupting them. If you have to stop them because both players try to speak at the same time, make sure that both get a chance to tell their side of the story. The most frustrating thing that can happen to a player is that they are complaining and the judge keeps interrupting them to offer unrelated answers or to say that there’s no problem. If the player’s complaining, it’s almost always because they want to be heard. You have to listen to them. You will often lose much more time if you cut short a 30-second speech than if you listen to it till the end.

When the player finishes talking, agree with them. This will remove all the frustration they might have. In a recent tournament, a player was complaining to me that his opponent was so sloppy when he drew cards, that he didn’t know if he drew one or two cards at a time. I immediately agreed that his opponent’s technique was confusing. And because I wanted to listen to the opponent too, I asked him “what can we do so that your opponent doesn’t think you’re drawing two cards at a time?” Once I had listened to both players, they very quickly agreed on a solution (put the top card from the library onto the table before putting it into the hand) and continued their match in a relaxed atmosphere. All this just because I had listened to them and they felt their concerns were important.


If you’re friendly and smiling, if you speak with confidence and show respect to the players – literally show them with your body language – you will find that your rulings will be much easier. Remember those rulings you got right but still got appealed because you weren’t confident enough? By using the above tips I’m sure you will be much more effective and the players will trust your rulings more.

I would like to thank Claire Dupré, Sébastien Grass, and Pierre Laquerre for their contributions, and Kevin Desprez for proofreading. You are wonderful people!