Nathaniel Graham

Hello Judges! In this week’s Judge of the Week article we will learn about a judge who is also a responsible store owner taking care of his community.

Nathaniel GrahamName: Nathaniel Graham
Level: 2
Location: Columbia, Missouri, USA
Judge start date: July 7th, 2012 and more recently leveled up on September 11th 2017
Occupation: Teacher + Dad + Store Owner
Favorite card: Blood of the Martyr. When I was playing competitively, I was very mechanically driven, that whole min/max thing. This card though, the art really speaks to me and makes me pause even today.
Least favorite card: Amulet of Quoz? I might play it if it wasn’t banned. Hedron Alignment, that’s pretty bad. I dislike bad rares printed so people will know what a bad rare is.
Favorite format: Now? Limited of some sort. In days gone by T1 and T1.5 (Vintage and Legacy).
Commander General: Sliver Queen? I play other peoples’ EDH decks now, but before I’d grab WUBRG so I could play what I wanted.
Favorite non-Magic Game: Hard one… The Hobbit Deck Building Game with Smaug expansion? I like the Cerberus deck-building engine, I like the skin on the game (go go gadget Ameritrash!), and it’s a quick play at 60 – 90 minutes on “Impossible” mode.
Best tournament result: Heh… FNM? Never Day 2’d, and most of the things that exist today weren’t around when I was playing.
Random fact about yourself: I like to joke around that I’m a “Mail Order Bride.” I met my wife while I was in the Canadian Navy over the Internet, Yahoo! chat rooms no less. We got to know each other, and decided it was easier for me to go south.

Why do you Judge? You had been known for being a store owner, but you have also upped your game as a judge, certifying for L2 last year. Is it just a natural progression towards a superb community care?
I met an amazing PTO (Premier Tournament Organizer) and his event staff many years ago, back around Mirrodin. They were in Kansas City, about 2.5 hours west of where I live. The events there were just so much better than what I was experiencing locally. Living in a new city, in a new country, Magic really was my social activity and was the catalyst to many of my friendships back then. There were a handful of stores back then, about half of them are gone now. A bunch of us used to meet-up and play at Sub Shop (much like a Subway) and play for store credit with a comic shop that also had singles.

I started working with a few of the local stores to improve in-house play somewhere around 2005? I’d drive to Kansas City every month or so for Feral Event events, and try to figure out the path of where my local community was and where I wanted it to be. It took time, in fact it’s still ongoing. I think an essence of what we Judges are is that we are stewards. We have taken on a duty and obligation of providing excellent game experiences and “correct” games (oooh back in the day how my buddy Phil would cheat). So in part I judge because to me it is in part like service (remember I was in the Navy?) and some people do need others looking out for them.

So why L2? That was a frustrating journey 8) A small part being business, I run a lot of Star City Games IQs and I really believe that they will require L2 judges for those firmly here in the future. The Nerd Rage series requires L2 or approved L1. But I also wanted to be able to test candidates, rather than telling them to go some hours east or west. Columbia had zero judges and I’ve seen 7+ now. I am the third L2 in the city since I started this whole thing, but the only one still remaining… maybe there is a curse where local L2s quit…. we will find out in a few months I guess 8)

Since making L2, I don’t really see that I am doing anything differently than I was say a year or two ago, but perhaps I have a bit more weight behind my words? Meaning my thoughts are heard more? In any event, my players are better taken care of be they local or those that drive from surrounding cities/states for our CREL events.

What’s the best part about your local Magic community?
The community itself, by far. We have some really phenomenal people here. From top tier players (one is a few points away from Bronze, and Caleb Scherer played here when in school), to the more “kitchen table” folks. They are all very supportive and share knowledge and experience. I am very proud of them all, and glad I was able to play my small part. Especially with pre-releases around, this is very exciting to me. That they will fill a room and laugh and vie for position against each other, where most weeks they are like oil and water.

Coffee at hand
Nat’s regulars and fellow judges know his tastes well. He was served a cup even just as he came on shift at GP Indy.

Recently a trio started a podcast called Dead On Board, and it focuses on their experiences as players. To me this is great, a creative endeavour spawned from what they are passionate about, Magic, that shares that same passion. Also I’d be remiss without mentioning Josh Heeter. He is the powerhouse behind our amazing League, coming up with mechanics and interesting offerings for casual play. He does a lot behind the scenes with me on top of that too. I am very lucky to be able to call him a friend.

I like that my people take care of each other. Competitive players help each other with card selections, everyone is welcoming to new players. Some even take care of me! People will bring me coffee or other drinks when they come in for events. It’s nice to be taken care of.

Is there sometimes a conflict of interest with being a judge and a store owner?
Yes, it does happen. Everyone’s favorite category: Marked Cards. I’m very careful handing out that one. Typically this shows up in the sleeves, and it’s important to me that players understand why they need changing. Lands, by the way, seem to get marked sooner than other cards. I think it’s all the tapping that creases the sleeve corners. Otherwise I think the goals of each of those hats – judging and store running – live in harmony. We don’t want dirty cheaters, we want best play experiences, we want staff to enjoy their day alongside the players.

What challenges have you faced with becoming a better judge, and how have you worked to overcome them?
So one day I’d like to be a better judge. I’d like the label “good”, and when I apply for things for those managers to say to themselves “Oh hell yes.” In a dreamland, I’d like to be asked to join/work events but that’s a long ways off and not something I really have control over. I listen to JudgeCast frequently, revisiting episodes even, as I spend a fair amount of time driving. I dig into the Holy Trinity (CR, MTR, IPG) pretty much daily too. Being active in my regional Slack keeps me aware of things in formats and often we uncover the reasoning behind answers. I also produce learning materials which helps me buckle down and understand things. I’ve been presenting at conferences for a few years, have hosted a few (not [O]fficial ones), and am currently mentoring someone to L2 right now. So I write, I have a “judging cookbook” in progress, and I practice. My shop runs multiple CREL events each month, and I apply for GPs when they are in driving distance. The Central region doesn’t really get them, but there are events within a 6-8 hour drive. Just a matter of figuring out which ones I can get to while balancing my family, students, and store needs.

There are times when I feel as if I’m on an island. There is a wide world of judges and experience out there, but it is so far away. The Internet does help with that, and there are great study groups for progression to L1 and L2. I read forums and am active on our Slack, but there are times where I still feel like I’m out in the ocean. I know I’m not alone, there are some great L1’s here in the city and my friend Darren (L2) comes up and helps with events.

So yeah, the Internet helps I guess is what I’m saying here.

What has been your favorite Magic event to judge?
Hrmmm, I’m going to say GP Vegas 2017. It was a great five days, that were particularly trying (I wrote a report if folks want to learn more). I met amazing judges from all levels, learned more towards my judging goal (L2 Team Lead certification), learned more towards L2. On top of all that I got to meet Jess Dunks who has been a companion for many months unknowingly (that sounds a little creepy). It’s my opinion that the greatest strength of the program is the people, and I got to meet so many and learn much last summer.

Who have been some of your biggest mentors in the Judge Program, and what did they teach you?

Nat and Jess Dunks
Nat and Jess Dunks who is one of the personalities behind JudgeCast – a podcast that really helped Nat to make L2.

Can I plug JudgeCast again? Seriously though, I would say it is the cabal that runs events in Kansas City had the largest influence. Steve Ferrell (owner of Feral Events) has an excellent stable of judges which include Lloyd Dodson, Alex Jacques, and Matt Jacques. While Steve isn’t a judge, he sure has all the soft skills down for events and surrounds himself with highly qualified people. This is a thing that I attempt to emulate but perhaps with a bit better personal rules knowledge. The rules knowledge, compassion, and a “get it done” attitude among these gentlemen is really inspiring. Maximilian Schroeder worked with Darren Horve and I for months with direct mentoring. Darren made L2 much earlier in the year so poor Max had to spend an additional 6 months helping me fine tune my knowledge.

It’s the minute details presented on the test that trip me up, but a few years ago I was able to sit down with David Rappaport for an hour or so. That was a really empowering event and a catalyst for me. While we haven’t met since that evening on on-demand events, I carry his advice with me.

So to circle back to the original question, mentorship comes in a variety of forms. While mentoring, teaching, and coaching are all distinct things, I believe the heart of these types of questions ignores that and so shall I. I look and listen at events, not really much of a talker in the general (one of the reasons my family was shocked when I changed professions to teaching… they said “You know you’ll have to talk all day right?”). I like to mull things over, but I don’t let that paralyze me from action. There is time after the fact to return to the situation and examine it. I had a judge take minor issue with an expression that I frequently use, and I could have brushed it off right there and then. I listened to their thoughts, considered it and we troubleshooted the expression. I’ve since dropped that particular one and have modified it to “Resting Serious Face.” At GP Indy Summer 2017 I was asked to essentially flip the room from Day 1 to Day 2. I really liked this because it allowed me to use more of my skillset, but in terms of this question I got to interact with veteran judges and learn from them. While I feel my team and I did a good job, there were lessons learned and room for improvement. John Temple (stage manager there?) didn’t come right out and say X, but being able to ask questions and perform higher functioning tasks allowed for that opportunity for growth.

I think an erroneous concept is that one must be of a higher level to mentor. I have learned, and continue to do so, from L0’s to L3’s. People have so much to offer, it’s a matter of listening and applying.

How did you get involved in Magic in the first place?
I was introduced to the game a few times. Once back when it was just first starting, which I brushed off, and then again in the mid 90’s. I started buying packs and what not around Ice Age/Mirage? I was very much casual back then playing my Rampage creatures and Chub Toads. I had a pretty rocking Knight deck, and Griffins were a favored tribe. It was a good social activity. I got out of the game around Mercadian Masques and missed the middle ages of Magic (as I term them). I started back into the game with Legions and really liked the set design of all “creature/spells.”

What is your favorite non-judging moment that happened with other Judges (or after event story)?
Food! So a few stories from the last GP Indy.

Friday night, Darren and I leave the event hall and are hungry and want drinks. We decide to go back to the hotel up the street. We put a call out over Slack, and a few other regional judges were supposed to join us but never did. Darren gets us a table in the back of the restaurant, and I order us a round of drinks to educate his taste buds. We order some food, and Darren has the waitress cracking up. A bit later a lady is seated behind us, so now there are three of us in this forgotten section. Darren’s turn to order beverages, and I wouldn’t really call it a success. As we eat and chat, we also talk with Ruth (the lady behind us). Eventually Ruth agrees to join us, and we chatted for hours. She also was from Missouri and was in Indy for a conference about an illness one of her children has (Turner syndrome I believe). It was a fun evening of questionable drink choices (looking at you Darren and the dirty cherry) and conversation.

Nat, Scott and Billy Willy during GP Las Vegas
Scott Neiwert, Nat and Billy Willy during GP Las Vegas ODEs.

Saturday night there was a regional meetup at Harry & Izzy’s. I got there a bit late as I was finishing up the room flip at the GP and had let the rest of the crew go ahead. I arrived just in time for drink orders, and said goodbye to some of the first wave of judges. We are talking and chatting, many conversations going on, order food etc. The usual stuff. Raoul asks for a photo, so we all group up at the same end of the table I’m on. Chase Shank had me sit on his lap so we could all get in closer for the photo. Immediately after that, he turns to his left (he is at the head of the table, I’m on his right) and asks Darren “Do you know that Nat guy? I need an in for Regionals.” Darren pauses and nods at Chase, then looks across the table at me and starts with “Hey Nat, this Chase guy…”. Mind you I was just on his lap, and for the hour or so prior we had been converting the hall. Fast forward a bit more, Chase asks Raoul about testing availability stating he had been keeping his calendar free for the first weekend in November. The same weekend as Regionals. Yeah… I’m not going to let him live down that night any time soon. Oh, and Lauren Wiltgen shared her asparagus and it was very very good.

What motivates you to continue being a Judge? What are you looking up to in your Judge future?
I like good events, more so providing than playing in. I have a pretty full life, so rationalizing a weekend of play time is a bit tricky to do but rationalizing providing play time is more palatable. And with that, there are always ways to improve. It is important to examine your environment from different angles, and to leave it and explore others. When I take family vacations we always stop at gaming/hobby stores and check them out and see what makes them special. And it is the same when I go to a GP. There is the way things are to be done as told by the organizer, but in some parts the “how” is up to the event staff. So I get to learn from people from all over. I can then bring that back and improve how I do things locally.

My long term goal is to get my Team Lead certification. I’ve had the L3 conversation quite a few times with folks, and that answer is simply “no.” I don’t really know any L3’s, the closest was 6 hours away for many years and just recently one moved in about 2 hours away. I can’t really say what makes a good L3 or what their role really is outside of leadership, it is a mystery to me and they are a coven of mighty archmages or something. Now I know what the L2TL is, I can point to it and speak towards it. I feel that I can act in that role and would be good there with my background.

Future judgy things would include finishing my writings. I have a book for judges that is around 80 pages now and missing large sections of thought. I haven’t touched that for a few months now as life has been pretty busy since Regionals in November. I’m also working on a book/manual for the Judge of the Week team. To solidify all the information together, help produce a style guide, things of that nature.

Let’s not forget GPs! I am on Indy and Memphis this winter, and I’m looking forward to applying for São Paulo even though I fear that the compensation is in booster boxes. I’m also part of the Conference Education team for the region, so at some point reworking learning materials there and maybe presenting at a few. June and July are my “Judge months”, as I have the time to go out into the world more then with school being out of session.

What is one tip you have for other Judges?
If it is the right thing to do, do it. Steven Briggs gives this advice often: “You don’t need my permission to be awesome.” If there is a problem, or something that can be improved, then take care of it. To quote a favorite movie, “See a need, fill a need.

If you could chat with one person, real or fictional, dead or alive, who would it be and why?
(choking up here a bit) My mum, I miss her.

Two Truths and a Lie
Two of the following statements are true and one is false. Figure out which!

  1. I once cooked for the mayor of Boston.
  2. I sailed around the Horn.
  3. I was in the middle of an engine room fire.
The answer to the last Two Truths and a Lie...
Kali Rainwater did write her first novel, but she was seventeen when she did that.

If there is a judge who is also doing something exemplary, please nominate a judge TODAY!

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