Tales from the Con (Gen Con 2018 Tournament Report)

For those of you who aren’t from the midwestern United States, Gen Con is a gaming convention that takes place every year in Indianapolis. Cosplayers, gamers, and geeks of all types come from all over the world for “the best four days in gaming.” Gen Con has special significance for Magic players because it’s where Magic first debuted. This year’s con was especially significant because it marked the 25th anniversary of that event.

Gen Con is one of my favorite Magic events to judge every year because it’s just so different from an ordinary Large Scale Event experience. The convention atmosphere changes the character of the event in many ways, some subtle, others obvious. This tournament report explores some of those differences and how judges at a convention atmosphere can change their approach to meet those special challenges.

Know your Audience

Like me, fellow judge and JudgingFtW reader Zbexx is used to saving the world. See more of her cosplays by searching @Zbexx on social media or click the image to see her Facebook page.

At an ordinary Large Scale Event, such as a GP or SCG Open, everyone who came is there to play Magic. At a convention, that’s not the case. Most of the people at Gen Con weren’t Magic players; in fact, over 4000 people visited the Learn to Play booth over the course of the weekend. All these people were interacting with Magic for the first time or close to it. The large number of new players gives conventions like this a character unlike anything you’ll experience at a GP or SCG open, but it brings with it special challenges that you should adjust your approach for.

  • Less experienced players mean less familiarity with standard Magic and tournament procedures. Expect more judge calls about basic stuff and give a more detailed explanation than you normally would when launching an event. It’s not advisable to assume that players will know, for example, that limited events have a 40 card minimum deck size; what results slips are for; or how zone drafting works.
  • Customer service focus: Fair enforcement of Magic rules and policy and making sure players are having fun are the pillars of the job of judging. At an ordinary LSE, these goals are on roughly equal footing, with a bias towards keeping things fair at the main event and a bias towards keeping things fun at the side events. In a convention environment, with no high-stakes main event to accommodate and even the spiky players looking primarily for a good time, the focus judges have when interacting with players has to shift accordingly.
  • First impressions count: At an ordinary Magic tournament, you’re dealing with mostly established players. At the very least, everyone in the main event at a GP is enfranchised enough to spend $100 for the experience of playing Magic for a weekend. In contrast, when you’re dealing with an audience of people who play only occasionally, don’t own their own decks, or even haven’t heard of Magic before today, it’s important to make sure their experience with the game is a good one. It could make the difference between the player eventually reaching enfranchised status or leaving the game, never to return.
  • Expect the unexpected: Because convention-style events like these are comparatively rare, it’s likely that even the most experienced staff only work about one per year. With so many players, judges, and even stage staff working through situations that are new to them, there are bound to be some issues that you’ve never seen before come up.

Task Overview

For this event, I was an ODE lead. That means my team was responsible for:

  • Launching on demand events
  • Maximizing the amount of Magic that could fit into the designated on demand area

In addition, as the team lead, I was responsible for morale, the breaks schedule, and coordinating with scheduled sides and registration to make ODE’s run smoothly.

Let Them Eat Cake

Given that this was Magic’s 25th birthday, of course there was a cake. WotC had arranged for a multi-tier cake to be brought in and distributed to players in a special ceremony. While waiting for their event to launch, two brothers, approximately in the 8-12 age range, heard from some of the other players that there was a birthday cake and asked me if they had missed it. The birthday cake cutting ceremony had been about half an hour before that, and the cake was long gone. Telling them that didn’t mesh well with the awesome convention experience I wanted these players to have, though. There were also several boxes of cupcakes that we were distributing to players in “birthday qualifier” events. I got a box from the judge lounge and gave them each a cupcake, then kept the rest of the box behind a table at the front stage to give to anyone else who was caught in the same predicament.

Lesson learned: Customer service is all about understanding what the customers want and finding a way to give it to them. Sometimes what they want isn’t related to playing Magic.

Spatial Contortion

Gen Con always has an enormous number of Magic players. The hype surrounding the 25th anniversary celebrations drew even more. In fact, on Saturday evening, the tournament organizers announced that we had surpassed any previous Gen Con, and we still had the rest of Saturday and Sunday to go! Unfortunately, we had a limited amount of space to put all these players. In fact, the number of tables we had for ODE’s was surprisingly small, accounting for less than 150 seats total. In practice, the number of players we accommodated was typically less than this due to 8 player events not using all 8 seats during the semifinals and finals. Another thing that limited our space was that scheduled side events were seeing record attendance. Their space was similarly limited, but with the added pressure of needing to seat all the players who had already signed up. Because it’s easier to tell someone they can’t play before they pay for a spot in an event than after, scheduled sides has priority over ODE’s when it comes to the space we had, which meant that they occasionally needed to use tables originally allocated to ODE’s for their events.

This all factored into the problem that we did not have enough space for everyone to play ODE’s. Several times throughout the con, we had to stop accepting registrations for on demands, often for hours at a time. Of course, one responsibility I had as an on demand lead was to minimize this time. This required keeping a close eye on how many open tables we had access to and communicating this information to the registration leads so they knew how many more players they could take.

The first technique we used to do this was increasing throughput by moving the finals matches. The ODE area was divided into tables that had eight seats, enough for one draft or two commander pods. Because the drafts were single elimination, players who lost in the first and second rounds no longer needed space, but their event was still taking up the full eight seats. In order to be more efficient, we reserved the entire first row of ODE tables for people to play finals matches in (actually we had reserved it to play specialized events such as learn to play’s and one round constructed events). By asking players to move the finals of their events to this area, we used that space more effectively and freed up the eight seats allocated to their event an entire round earlier.

At certain points in the day, we were given permission to use tables adjacent to the ODE area, as they were not going to be used at that time by the exhibitors who had bought them. This obviously aligned very well with our goal of having the most number of people possible able to play Magic, but it brought challenges of its own. First, these tables weren’t registered in our reporting software, making the events there a bit harder to keep track of. We managed by putting in a dummy area in the software and communicating to the ODE judges a standardized coding system for how events at those tables would be entered in.

The bigger problem was that the tables weren’t always adjacent to our area. In fact, in one case, the tables were clear on the other side of the convention room. Because it was a busy time, we had to use them, but it was logistically challenging to have events so far away from our home base. We addressed this by having one of the floor judges permanently stationed at the far tables for floor coverage and results reporting. To launch an event there, a judge would lead the players across the hall and pass them off to the judge stationed at the far tables. A Facebook chat between that judge and the ODE leads was used to keep track of how many players and open tables there were. It wasn’t ideal, but we made it work, and it worked very well.

Switch it Up

In the old days, keeping track of the on demand events space and reporting results were done manually and necessitated lots of table space, organization, and attention from one person throughout the event. These days, we have software that pretty much takes care of all of that for us. Kefka was written for judges by judges and does a wonderful job of handling those tasks. Unfortunately, during one of our busy times, something went wrong and five people who registered for one event were showing up in a different event. Kefka has a lot of capability to fix problems, but this was one that had to be fixed from the scorekeepers’ terminal rather than the judges’. Because it was a busy time, everyone involved was stressed and wanted the problem resolved quickly.

The floor judges who were handling the affected events both independently reported this issue to the scorekeepers’ stage. After I learned what had happened, I reported the issue also. It took quite some time to resolve, which was compounded by the fact that all three of us were at the scorekeeper’s area throughout the time it was being fixed. A better thing for me to do would have been to send the two floor judges back to their events and call them back only when their information was needed. Having everyone there caused a “too many cooks in the kitchen” situation and put undue stress on the scorekeeper tasked with getting everything straightened out.

Skittering Invasion

Saturday is easily the busiest day of Gen Con, as you could probably expect. Sunday has far fewer people, which had some practical consequences for the organizers. For example, the prize wall was extremely busy at the end of the day Saturday as people clamored to exchange their prize tix before they headed out. Although the prize wall was scheduled to close at 11PM, as they had on all the other days, the line stretched far back with no end in sight. Coincidentally, 11PM was also a pretty non-busy time for ODE’s, but the fact that earlier in the day was the time with the highest traffic meant I had a team full of judges. I sent one of them to the prize wall and had the judge working that area train him. That way the prize wall could be open an hour later for all the players and the judge scheduled to work this area could leave at the time he was actually supposed to.

Remember Why You’re Here

The real reason I came to Gen Con: campaigning for the unban of Deathrite Shaman. Search for more of TarmoKat’s awesome cosplays by searching for her social media or clicking on the image to see her Facebook page.

The shifts at Gen Con were 12 hours principally composed of standing and walking on a concrete floor. It took a toll, especially given that there was great temptation to spend breaks enjoying the con, which would entail yet more standing and walking. We were advised by the organizers to consider refraining from such activity in order to actually relax during our breaks. In this case, I will break with conventional wisdom. Cons are only fun when you can participate in them! It’s true that 12 hours of standing is hard, but do you know what else is hard? Spending 11 hours standing and one hour wishing you weren’t missing out. It’s very easy to underestimate how much fatigue affects your performance on the floor, but it’s even easier to underestimate how much of an effect your morale can have too. You have to be able to make a call which of these moves your needle more.

As a team lead, you’re trying to get the best performance out of your team as you can. Of course, encouraging the team to work hard is part of that, but keeping their spirits up is another part of the equation. It can be appealing to encourage behavior like sitting in a quiet spot during breaks that ostensibly helps our teammates’ performance while potentially hurting morale. And it’s easy to get judges to do things like that because we love being seen as hard working and are used to self-sacrifice. If we want judges to be excited about the convention, though, I think it’s extremely important that they are actually able to enjoy it as participants too. To that end, I made sure judges on my team could do that and led by example by doing the same thing myself. I asked judges for break preferences and offered to work around events they wanted to see. I talked about interesting things I did during my breaks and encouraged teammates to check out booths I thought they would like. I had a great time at the con while also working hard, and gave them that opportunity too.

Lesson learned: Remember why you’re there. I’m about as straitlaced and down to business as they come. Although I live only 2 hours away, I’ve never gone to Gen Con as a guest, and not a lot of the things going on there are things I would normally be interested in. If even someone like me can have fun, so can you!

Gen Con is a truly remarkable event, and convention events are great fun to judge. Even if you’re not sure a certain convention is for you, I encourage everyone to try it out. While there’s a lot of fun to be had, there are a lot of unique challenges to face, too (which is actually part of the fun). I hope this report gives you a framework to meet those challenges if you’re on staff at a convention event in the future! Expect the unexpected, and when the unexpected comes up, here’s one last piece of advice:

Lesson learned: Remember the goal you’re trying to achieve, then think about what you can do or change in your process to best meet that goal. This is a common thread throughout this article, and it applies to every one of the situations I discussed. How well or poorly I handled any of those situations can largely be judged by how closely I followed this rule. If you aren’t sure what the goal is, consult your team lead.

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