Time to meet Rob McKenzie, a Judge whose talents – from his charisma to his intelligence to his friendly demeanor – are legion. Which is appropriate, because he has been a big contributor to Legion Games, one of the United States’ premiere tournament organizers. He has also been credited with being one of the most prominent leaders in the Midwest judging community.
Without further ado, here’s Rob, this week’s rock star!
Name: Rob McKenzie
Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota
Judge start date: August 2004
Occupation: Some Nebulous Untitled Role for Legion Events and IT temp
Favourite card: Today it is the Future Sight printing of Boldwyr Intimidator. His first line of rules text is better flavor text than 99% of flavor text ever printed.
Least favourite card: Today it is Rasputin Dreamweaver. He has his own state-based action. This frustrates me quite a bit.
Favourite format: Commander, followed closely by Team Trios Constructed. (I pine for a GP in Team Trios Constructed.)
Commander General: Most recently I built Alesha, Who Smiles at Death. I have something like 30 Commander decks. I think my favorite I have ever had was Chorus of the Conclave.
Favourite non-Magic Game: Battlestar Galactica.
Best tournament result: 3rd/4th at a Team Trios Constructed PTQ
Random fact about yourself: I was a playtester on the Daybreak expansion for Battlestar Galactica. My most useful feedback during the playtest was “none of the abilities of this Cylon Leader should be printed.” The final version of that leader bears no resemblance to the test version I smashed the humans with.
Why did you become a Judge?
I was attending a PTQ at Misty Mountain in Madison, and the store was super packed. The only Judges were Chris Richter (head judging), plus Peter Jahn and Ingrid Lind-Jahn floor judging. The event seemed understaffed, and I knew the rules pretty well and had organized LAN parties and other events in the past. I really enjoy being useful and doing work to keep the things I like to do running, so I walked up to Chris and asked if he needed help running events.
Chris invited me to work a GPT two weeks from then, and when that was done he asked me if I was interested in working Gen Con, which was three weeks out from the GPT. I had no idea how staffing worked, so I said “sure,” and Chris talked Alan Hochman into putting me on staff for the weekend.
I worked Gen Con, tested for L1 there, and have not stopped judging regularly since.
What is it like to work full-time for a premiere tournament organizer? What are some of the highlights and some of the biggest challenges?
It’s fascinating, and frustrating, and wonderful, and terrible.
Being trusted to make big decisions and small ones about events is awesome. Realizing that those decisions are really constrained in a lot of cases can be very frustrating. Knowing that those decisions are actually lots of money puts a lump in the pit of your stomach.
I’ve made some good and bad suggestions, and Steve has made some large purchases based on my recommendations. We spent a bunch of time figuring out the Judge comp for Omaha, and I spent a while searching for Judge gifts for events. Getting the bags we used for San Antonio and Omaha was fantastic.
Having to make very mathy decisions that make some of my friends not able to attend events (either due to not accepting them as Judges, or making their travel numbers not work out) hurts, but is necessary.
Being on good terms with the TO is also a good thing. After Omaha, Steve and I discussed the way San Antonio and Omaha went, and the big takeaway is that having one person doing all the stuff I did does not work. (It was about a full time job and a half.) So things have changed. I still work for Legion, but not full time any longer. We really have not defined the limits of the part time role yet, but that is because planning events is pretty fluid. I am something, but not Judge manager/stage manager/full scale event coordinator any longer.
What are some things you think would surprise the average Judge about running a Grand Prix?
How much work a lot of the hidden pieces take. Building a GP kit is a ton of pre-work. Optimally you want everything you will use, with backups of the crucial bits. So you need to really figure out what possible crises can come up, and either head them off or have tools to deal with them.
There are a lot of random things, like booking flights and hotels, that have “gotchas” I never knew about. Every venue and every hotel is different, and you can’t depend on them having any idea what things a Magic event needs.
If I remember correctly, you wrote an article about the process of becoming L3 and what it meant for you. How would you summarize what you said there, and how you’ve improved yourself through judging?
I did! It actually started as a Facebook post I made mostly to explain what the big deal was to the non-Magic people in my life. I started a Judge blog specifically to post it.
The very short version of it is: You can view L3 as a professional level certification in running Magic events. I ran through the core parts of the process and how much work they are, and why they are important for the process, so the non-Magic folks could see how much work it was and what it was certifying me as being good at.
I’ve improved myself a ton through Judging. Group management and leadership, planning, writing and speaking skills, mentorship, and presentation skills are all things I have either built out, or honed through Judging. The 10 Qualities of Regional Judges could very well be the 10 Qualities of Successful Adults.
Since I’ve made L3, I’ve also built out a network of friends and colleagues that is so amazing I have a hard time comprehending it. Getting to spend time with friends everywhere, going on pineapple mazes in Hawaii to eating barbecue in Kansas City is just incredible. Having friends all over the country and world I can talk to, ask for help, and just be part of a shared community with feels amazing.
Steven Briggs, the Midwest Regional Coordinator, has frequently referred to you as the Riker to his Picard. How did you develop that working relationship? And what is your “Best of Both Worlds” moment?
The Picard/Riker dynamic on the show had to grow organically across years, and this has too. I am a very regionally/area focused Judge, and spent a lot of my time growing MN judging prior to making L3. Steven Briggs had been pushing me to take a wider of a view prior to making L3, and had been talking about bigger and wider plans with me while I was on my L3 run-up. A lot of my growth into L3 was Steven pushing me to be better and to grow into where he knew I should be.
From there, Briggs started bouncing ideas off me, and included me into his planning more and more, including putting me into the core group of state captains he was assembling. Then Dan Stephens stepped down as the Regional Coordinator for the Central region. Briggs stepped up and took over that region, merging the state captains Dan had started doing as well into the state captain group that was already running.
While this happened, I just kept on doing more and more things – hitting lots of regional events and conferences, doing more and more L2 development, and acting as Briggs West, because with the big lake in the middle of the region we have some very strange geography.
We are at the point now where we are really colleagues more than mentor/mentee. He and I talk most weeks about about something judging or regional related, and he and I both trust the other to solve problems and make things happen. (I autonomously make L2s without getting his stamp of approval, for instance.) I’ve served as his backup on a couple RC related things, and we have split up community duties at a couple regional GPs.
I don’t feel like there has been a real “Best of Both Worlds” event yet. I’ve not had to rescue Briggs from anything catastrophic, nor him me, and I’ve not had to give my uppity temporary first officer Ken Bearl orders to fire all weapons on Briggs yet. Actually, stepping down as Minnesota state captain might have been the closest we have gotten. Steven tried to convince me not to for a while, but I felt like the state was suffering with me trying to focus on both it and on more regional and TO focused goals. Ken has done a remarkable job since stepping in, so I feel vindicated in handing off the role to him.
How do you balance your Magic and gaming life on the one hand and “real” life?
I am amused by the implication that you think there is a distinction. I work for a TO, I have a spreadsheet of every GP, Open, and other random major Magic event in the country (so I can plan which I am attending), have a weekly board game group, and when I go to visit my parents my wife and I bring a big bag of board games to play with my family while we are there. Gaming is “real life” to me. My best friends are my gaming buddies and Judge buddies.
How did you get involved in Magic in the first place?
I grew up in Haward, Wisconsin, a small tourist town. There was no game store, just a t-shirt shop that sold cards on the side, with no play space. A friend played a few games with me with some decks he had, and the next week I bought three boosters, and traded him the rares from them for two decks of entirely commons and basic lands. Both of us won on that trade, I am pretty sure.
How has being a Judge influenced your non-Magic life?
It has had a huge impact. I work for a TO, most of my friends play Magic (or other games), and I schedule a lot of my life around Magic events because of how much fun I have at them.
What motivates you to continue being a Judge?
People. Specifically, friends that run events, friends that Judge, friends that play, and getting to see the actual people having fun as a result of what I am doing.
What is one tip you have for other Judges?
Don’t do the things you feel obligated to do purely out of obligation. Everything is voluntary, nothing is mandatory. If you hate doing something…don’t do it. If you love doing something, do it enough so you keep loving it, but not so much it is a millstone around your neck. Tell people what you like and dislike, and you will probably get to do the things you like more than the things you dislike.
What’s the best part about your local Magic community?
Minnesota is really nice. You may have heard of Minnesota Nice, and it is a real thing. Stores communicate and cooperate.
Ken Bearl and Mike Combs did a fantastic job of getting PPTQs Judges, in part through getting stores to talk to each other about scheduling. There is a master PPTQ calendar schedule sheet that each store posts up with a list of all the stores that are a part of it.
Stores will coordinate their Legacy nights so they don’t all happen on the same night of the week. There is always a little friction, but we aren’t out for blood. We compete, but we don’t fight.
What is your favourite non-Magic hobby?
Board games. I had a description here of my board game shelf, but decided a photo would be better. I also have a closet where games get relegated to if they are not good enough to make the shelf. It has a similar number of games. I probably need to do a purge at some point.
I have a weekly board game group, and we do a monthly “big game” on weekends that I usually miss. (Advanced Civilization, Here I Stand, Twilight Imperium, etc)
I have playtested for Fantasy Flight Games in the past, and did editing and playtesting on the board game Legion Supplies released last year, Foretold: Rise of a God.
What’s the biggest rule-breaking play you’ve ever made as a player?
At a PTQ in old old 7-block extended with Invasion block, I was playing Wish Rock. I Living Wished for Kataki, War’s Wage game 1 to beat Affinity, and put the Wish back into my deck for game 2, and shuffled up.
I Wished for Kataki again in game 2…and there was no Kataki! And my sideboard only had 14 cards!
I had to call a Judge on myself to get a game loss for a game I had locked up if I actually de-sideboarded correctly. (If this seems weird, the sideboarding policy changed so you can have less than 15 in your sideboard a while back, and this story predates that change by…many years.)
We started it with a straight of faces as we could, and then ran it progressively further and further off the rails as the rounds progressed.
Every round the pairings were posted in another strange place. Some of them were:
- “Unglued players, your pairings are now posted on the L5R pairings boards.”
- “Unglued players, your pairings are now posted on the back of the Head Judge.”
- “Unglued players, your pairings are now posted in the women’s bathroom.” hurried conference with another concerned Judge “Unglued players, your pairings are now posted in both the men’s and women’s bathrooms!”
One round we gave all the players a bye. (The tournament software would not print this, so Lee Sharpe actually made up a fake sheet that looked like a pairings sheet for the event.) They all milled around very confused for a few minutes before we said “It looks like everyone has completed their matches, so the pairings for the next round are posted, Unglued players.”
During a beginning of round announcement, we had the Head Judge hauled off to the Klingon Jail’n’Bail, screaming. We then announced that if the Head Judge is arrested, a little-know clause in the Tournament Rules allows a Judge named “Rob” to take his place…but we had two Judges named “Rob” working the event! So we had to play rock-paper-scissors for the privilege. I was so tired I could not remember the pattern of plays we made in order to cheat me to win (it was Sunday, and GenCon is 4 days), so we when we were setting this up we gave up and I was scripted to just throw “rock” until I won. The Head Judge came back the next round during my announcement and physically kicked me off the stage to take his tournament back.
We had very active patrols of the tournament, because we made the rule that Chaos Confetti could impact any matches in the event, not just the match it was cast in. We had a player stand on a chair and sprinkle it over the whole table, and blow up a huge amount of random permanents across multiple matches.
What would you be doing now if Magic no longer existed?
Non-Magic life. That’s adorable. I mean, yes, I have one of those. It’s totally normal to have Magic events conflict primarily with each other for calendar slots months in advance.
Honestly, if it were announced tomorrow that Magic Origins is the last Magic set, I’d first panic a little, then be depressed a bit, then realize that change means opportunity. A lot of local stores would die, but there are positives to that. Stores dying is not great, but they would have lots of stock of gaming things left over that can be bought up cheap.
I’d approach a few friends and local store owners and put together a board game restaurant. My brother is a chef, and I think I could convince him to run a kitchen for me. I’ve cooked quite a bit in the past, so we could cover the kitchen between us, at least at the start.
I’d do this now, but I’d have to stop almost all of my Judge travel if I wanted the business to be successful, and I don’t want to do that.
What is the strangest card interaction you have seen in a tournament?
During Kamigawa block constructed PTQ season, Hand of Honor was an awesome card. The best removal was all black, and it just ignored everything. My friend Stacy Winchell (who is currently an L2 Judge) was playing a blue-black reanimator deck based around Goryo’s Vengeance. His deck was getting beat up by Hand of Honor something fierce. We stumbled across Evermind as a solution. At the time, Evermind had the text “Evermind is blue.” So you could splice it onto a black spell, and change the color to blue so you could target Hand of Honor. We had to “prime” the Judges at events by asking them about the interaction before the PTQ started in order to make sure they would not get the calls wrong.
If you were a Planeswalker what would be your ultimate?
-8: Target opponent gains an emblem with “Whenever you cast a spell from your hand, counter it. Each nonland card you own gains suspend 1. The suspend cost is equal to its mana cost.”
If you were a creature what would be your creature type?
What hobbies do you have outside of Magic?
As mentioned above, I play a lot of board games. I also play a number of video games (surprise), and read a ton of science fiction and fantasy. I go to WorldCon when I can, though I missed last year due to it being in London, and will not likely go this year due to scheduling.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
The more time that I spend as part of the Judge program, the more I find the program is people. Individuals make the difference, they will keep you excited, keep you engaged, and keep you caring. Long-term, the only reason to keep doing this is because you love the game and you love the people you work with and play with. Make sure to show people you care, and show people that you are making the effort to reach out to them one-on-one as a person, and they will connect with you as well. Everything I’ve done in the program is because people invested time in me, and all my successes are as much theirs as mine.
“Two Truths and a Lie” – Which of these facts about Rob is fiction?
1. I was once hit in the face with a 25 pound tube of ground beef while being chased by bees.
2. I was once trapped in a runaway truck that drove into a not-quite frozen lake.
3. I was once locked in an unplugged freezer until I turned blue from oxygen deprivation.
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