Preparing for your first tournament

L1’s are considered local judges. The judge program won’t get upset if an L1 never sets foot outside his or her favorite local game store. On the other hand, L2’s are considered area judges, and are expected to judge at larger events. Judging your first major event is an exciting milestone in a judge’s career, but it’s also a time of uncertainty. To help you navigate through this experience, I’ve put together this guide.

How do I get staffed for a big event?

Unless you’re friends with the TO/judge manager, and they decide to manually put you on staff, you have to apply for it. The majority of these events have a page on JudgeApps advertising for judges to apply. If you don’t have a JudgeApps account, you’ll have to make one by going here and following the instructions.

Once you’re set up, check out events that are open for sign ups. By default, it will start out only showing you events in your area, but you can click on “All events” at the side to see them all. For your first tournament, I’d recommend looking for a PPTQ, 1K, 5K, or similar event in your area.

After you pick an event to apply for, you have to write an application. Here is an article with information you can use to write a good application. Be honest about your experience level. It’s very common for events like the ones I’ve listed to accept new judges in order to help them gain experience. If you do end up getting declined, don’t worry about it. It’s also common for good judges to not get staffed for an event simply because there aren’t enough slots available. Just apply for the next one. If you get declined a few times in a row, consult with your regional coordinator (find contact information here) and ask for help. If applicable, mention that you’re interested in leveling up and are having trouble getting experience.

OK, I got staffed. Now what?

The next step is preparation. Since these larger events will require knowledge of competitive REL, rather than regular, be sure to study the IPG (found here), particularly the sections on Looking at Extra Cards, Drawing Extra Cards, Missed Trigger, and Game Rule Violation, which are the most common. Add Deck/Decklist problem to that list if you’re on the deck checks team. The L2 prep section on this blog also has some example questions on these topics if you want to study further.

The head judge will also typically write a post in the forum for the event on JudgeApps. This post will cover the call time, expectations, and team structure, if applicable. Be sure to read through this information so you will know what’s coming on the big day.

The next step is to get your clothes ready. The expected judge uniform will probably be prescribed in the forum post as described above, but it will generally consist of some combination of the following:

  • Black judge shirt. If you don’t have one, and the TO isn’t providing shirts to wear, ask in the forums. Usually, they’ll tell you to wear a black collared shirt, and someone may have an extra shirt they can lend you.
  • Black slacks. Skirts, kilts, and tactical pants are sometimes deemed acceptable, sometimes not. Jeans are almost always discouraged. Again, check with the TO if in doubt.
  • Black shoes. Preferably nice shoes, although in my experience, enforcement tends to be relatively lax on this point. Many experienced judges use some form of insole or other orthopedic device to increase comfort since judging can involve standing and walking for long periods of time. I’d recommend considering the value of such an investment after your first tournament is over, taking into account how often you plan on doing bigger events and how you feel at the end of the day.
  • Black socks and a belt are nice to have, and are generally encouraged, but not required, by TO’s. Additionally, many TO’s will recommend wearing a dark undershirt with the judge shirt because it looks nice and is convenient for times when you’re taking off your judge shirt (like break rounds).

What else do I need?

Besides the uniform, there are some supplies you’ll want to bring to ensure your first tournament goes well:

  • Red pens. “Pens,” as in, at least two. Anytime you’re writing something judge-related with a pen, it should be a red pen. Examples include writing penalties (see next section) and writing corrections or other deck check information on decklists. Red ink makes these things look more official and makes them stand out better, since players generally write only in black or blue.
  • Notebook. There will usually be some occasion for notes in a tournament. Player names or other tournament information you don’t want to forget can go in here. Interesting rulings for discussion later and material for reviews and tournament reports are useful to record, too.
  • Nonred pens. These aren’t really required, but they’re useful. In my notebook, I like to write notes related to the tournament in red and notes for after the tournament in black to differentiate them. Players sometimes forget pens and ask judges for them, and it’s nice if you can oblige. During the tournament, you’ll usually be able to pick up some abandoned pens from tables to use for this purpose.
  • Water bottle. Some organizers will have bottled water on site for the judges. In these cases, a water bottle isn’t really necessary. If they don’t, though, you’ll be glad to have one. This saves you from needing to walk over to the nearest drinking fountain every time you take a drink, which should probably be at least once per round.
  • Judge app. One of the most common judge calls you’ll take is a player asking for Oracle text of a card. In the old days, the TO or head judge would need to have a book on hand with every card’s text printed out. Now, various smartphone apps have rendered this obsolete. A good judging app will include Oracle lookup; the text of the CR, IPG, and MTR; a counter for deck checks; and perhaps some additional functionality for other uses. Android users can download MTG Familiar or Judge Core for free. Unfortunately for Apple users, there isn’t yet a free alternative to paid apps like Guide.
  • Sharpie. Another item that, while not required, is very handy. Uses include marking bottled water bottles with your initials to distinguish them, making signs on the fly that players can see from a distance away (such as announcements of when rounds of side events will end), and marking boxes for trash or for players to return basic lands after a draft.
    • When making signs, use “two-dimensional” letters so players can see them from their seats without getting up
    • Having designated boxes for basic lands and draft chaff can encourage players to clean up after themselves rather than leaving these in the playing area

How do I fill out a penalty?

Match results slips are used at big tournaments to make it easier for the scorekeeper to enter all the results in. These slips have another use, too. If you assign a penalty to a player, it will be entered into the tournament report and submitted to the DCI’s penalty database. In order for that to happen, you will need to fill it out on the match result slip. The standard way of doing so has evolved to include the following:

  • “Penalty line” – written on the back of the slip, this follows a very specific formula. It begins with the judge’s name (first name, then last name). Next is the player’s name (last name, then first name; this is reversed because the reporting software looks the players up by last name). Then is the infraction the player committed. Abbreviations are OK, even encouraged here. For example, DEC instead of Gameplay error – Drawing Extra Cards. Finally, the penalty. Again, use abbreviations: W for Warning, GL for Game Loss, ML for Match Loss, DQ for Disqualification. If you’re thinking of assigning any of these besides a Warning, confer with the head judge (or other judge designated by the head judge) before doing so, and before telling the player that he or she will be getting a penalty. You may hear judges referring to these four elements – Judge, Player, Infraction, Penalty, as “JPIP”, which is a snappy way to remember them in order.
  • Penalty description – written under the JPIP line, write a brief description of what the player did. The purpose of this is to help the Investigations Committee identify patterns in player infractions. For example, if a players commits Looking at Extra Cards twice in one tournament, it’s probably just a coincidence. If a player commits Looking at Extra Cards one or two times in a few tournaments in a row, that could also be a coincidence, or it could be a major red flag, depending on what the circumstances are. The penalty description helps the Investigation Committee decide in cases like these. So be specific enough to let them know what happened, but not with so much text that the scorekeeper will hate you. Use specific card names if both players knew the identity of the card involved.
    • Bad: Tapped wrong mana – This is too broad. There isn’t enough detail to determine the context or seriousness of the error.
    • Good: Cast Supreme Verdict for 1UUW – This is an appropriate level of detail. Using the card name is OK here because the opponent would have seen this card, so it doesn’t give up private information.
    • Bad: Player went to cast Supreme Verdict, but tapped three Islands and a Plains. Opponent called a judge and noted that these lands do not produce the required 1WWU to cast Supreme Verdict. Player had the correct lands in play, but my investigation determined that she just forgot because she was playing fast due to time pressure. – This is too much. If you turn in a penalty like this, your scorekeeper will kill you, or at the very least, shoot you dirty looks while talking about you behind your back. Also note that there is no point in mentioning that your investigation determined that this was an accident. If you though it was on purpose, the penalty would be Cheating.
    • Bad: Had 3 Swords to Plowshares registered, actually playing 4 – This gives information to the opponent unnecessarily. If the opponent reads this penalty (which they have every right to do), it reveals the player is running Swords to Plowshares.
    • Good: Had a card in deck not registered on decklist
  • Front: Indication of penalty and time extension. Next to the name of the player who committed the infraction, write the abbreviation for the penalty the player received. This alerts the scorekeeper to the fact that there is a penalty on this slip that they need to enter in. In the top right corner on the front, write “+N mins” and your initials if you gave them a time extension, which you should do if the players lost more than a minute of game time getting a ruling.

What’s this I hear about teams?

At smaller tournaments, where there are only a few judges on staff, it’s possible for the head judge to oversee everything and delegate tasks as they come up. With more judges, this becomes impractical, so a team structure is often employed. The major groups of responsibilities are assigned to teams, with each team having a team lead responsible for coordinating their activities. The teams most commonly encountered are:

  • Paper team – In charge of cutting and distributing match result slips as well as posting (and taking down) pairings and standings
  • Deck checks team – In charge of collecting decklists, identifying problem lists, and performing deck checks
  • Logistics team – In charge of setting up tables and table numbers, running the round clock, and coordinating end of round efforts (making sure all outstanding matches turn their slips in as soon as possible when the round ends to speed up round turnaround time)
  • Breaks team/SOS team – Usually employed only at very large events, this team is called upon to help out other teams who are short staffed, either due to their judges being on break or due to periods of unforeseen increased demands.

These responsibilities are representative of what you will probably see, although the exact structure may be varied based on staff size and the head judge’s tastes. For example, the SOS team’s duties might be rolled in with the Logistics team. In smaller events, there may be no Logistics team at all, and those responsibilities will be reapportioned among the Paper and Deck Checks teams. Some head judges may experiment with nontraditional team structures to try new things.

Other concepts

  • Judging is harder work than it looks. In order to keep your energy up throughout the day, it’s important to remain properly hydrated. Of course, everyone’s different, but I find that a bottle of water every one to two rounds is a good benchmark. Some TO’s provide bottled water for their judges. If yours does, great; if not, you’ll want to bring a water bottle. In any case, dehydration can sneak up on you if you don’t stay ahead of it, so do yourself a favor and drink up.
  • One tradition many judges enjoy is going out to dinner with other judges after the event. While this is certainly optional, it is a great chance to interact with your fellow judges in a non-Magic setting, foster friendships, and unwind after a long day. This isn’t necessarily something to prepare for like the other things in this article, but it definitely is something to look forward to.

What, I’m not done yet?

After the event ends, you still aren’t done with the tournament. Aside from the drive back, which can be an onerous chore in itself, there are reviews and tournament reports to write. My best advice for these is to take good notes during the event so that you’ll be able to remember what happened more easily when you sit down and write them.