The Power of Stories

Last weekend, I head judged the SCG Standard Open in Providence, Rhode Island. Providence itself holds a great deal of significance for me, and I have a lot of fun stories about Magic tournaments in the city. So even before the event started, I knew that it would be a special weekend.

The first Open weekend I ever judged was in Providence, in October 2012. At the time, there was no such thing as a Premier IQ, Standard was full of Angel of Serenity looping Thragtusk, Bloodbraid Elf and Birthing Pod were legal in Modern, Legacy players were just beginning to understand the power of Abrupt Decay, and I was a very new L1 who didn’t really understand what L2 meant.

That Sunday, after most of the judges had left, I stayed and listened, enraptured, as a bunch of really insightful judges discussed policy and philosophy. I stayed for several hours. I stayed so long that I missed the last train back to Connecticut and had to find a hotel room in downtown Providence for the night.


It was totally worth it, though.

A little over half a year later, the Grand Prix circuit made a stop in Providence. A few months prior to that, I had found out that Casey Brefka, a prominent Boston judge and one of my first mentors, would soon be testing for L3. Someone had recently stolen Casey’s Balance playmat (a very cool playmat featuring the judge promo version of Balance, sent out to all L2+ judges in 2012), so I wanted to get him a replacement as a gift. But this wouldn’t just be any Balance playmat! It would be signed by the various judges who Casey had impacted throughout his time as a judge.

As fortune would have it, Jared Sylva was able to hook me up with a spare Balance mat, and I took it with me to my next several events to have judges sign it. One of those events was GP Providence. I worked all three days of the Grand Prix, so I ended up with three booster boxes as compensation. For most of Sunday, I was lugging these around in the cardboard case they came in (I remember DLI drawing a bear on it), and at some point I threw Casey’s playmat in there as well.

After a long weekend of judging, I was ready to go home as soon as my shift was over, but our car had to wait for someone. Fortunately, there were some comfortable chairs right outside the convention hall. So I set my backpack and case of product down and relaxed for a little bit. Eventually everyone was ready, so I grabbed my backpack and headed to the car. A few hours later, we were back at my apartment in New Haven. I went to the back of the car to get my things…and realized that I had left behind my case of product, with Casey’s playmat inside.

To be honest, I didn’t care that much about the boxes, but the playmat was irreplaceable. I was the first person in my car to get dropped off, and the rest of the car had to get back to New York, so going back to Providence with them wasn’t an option. Fortunately, once again, luck was on my side. I was able to get a hold of Steven Zwanger, who was still in the area, and dropped whatever he was doing to go hunt for my case. Even though thefts had been a problem at the event, Steven was able to find my case…right where I had left it.

Whew. I remember Steven wryly observing, “Apparently binders get stolen as soon as someone turns their back, but boxes of product can sit out for hours without an issue.” That may be true, but now I’m extra careful about making sure I have everything with me before I leave!

During the judge meeting at last weekend’s Open, I told my staff that one of my goals was to overturn zero rulings on appeal. In actuality, I didn’t really care how many rulings I overturned; I knew that was largely outside my direct control. I told my judges that because it was a dramatic, even hyperbolic, way of expressing a deeper goal: I wanted each judge on staff to deliver consistently excellent rulings for our players.

When I set goals for an event, especially goals that I want others to keep in mind throughout the day, there’s no room for them to be boring or bland. Simply being the Head Judge means that I already have a tremendous amount of buy-in from my judges, but “do what I say because I say so” isn’t leadership. Leadership is when the staff is truly excited about and engaged by my vision, such that it no longer becomes just mine, but ours.

One way to do this is by turning goals into stories.

“Deliver consistently excellent rulings” is a goal. It’s specific. It’s relatively measurable: rules questions have a right or wrong answer, and many policy questions are clear-cut. It’s achievable: most judges have the ability to get most rulings correct. It’s relevant to our players’ happiness in the tournament and to our role as a judge, and it’s time-bound by being limited to the tournament itself.

“Overturn nothing” is a story. It is not meant to be certainly achievable or totally realistic. It is different and strange. It is aggressive, larger than life, even intimidating.

Stories matter. Stories have power. Stories inspire. Stories can unite people or divide them, build them up or break them down. Stories are the things that people remember when the event is done and memories fade. At Providence, not everyone found my story inspirational — but they did remember it.

When your next event is over, what stories will they tell?