Judging makes you a better playerDavid Lyford-Smith, and I’m something of a Magic grinder. I’ve been around the PTQ circuit for years, with a couple of finals near-misses to my name – I’m qualified for the Sydney RPTQ and am aiming to get that monkey off my back. Otherwise I’ve got a smattering of GP Day-2s, and I have a berth booked at next year’s Super Sunday Series Finals. I’m mostly a Limited specialist (1900+ rating back in the good old ELO days), but had some success with Bloom Titan in Modern, before the banhammer fell.
People I trust tell me I’m a pretty decent player. I’m also a judge, and in this article I’m going to talk about how pursuing judge certification and experience has helped me as a player and has made a difference to my playing career.
You know all the rules
This is the obvious place to start – as a judge, you spend a lot of time actively studying the rules and trading tough questions with other judges. You also see a lot more different matches, so you get a chance to see more unusual interactions come up more often (especially as you’re much more likely to get called over when unusual stuff comes up).
This has a few benefits. Firstly, it means you can spend more time thinking about strategy in your matches, because the technical play becomes very second nature as you practice the rules more and more.
Personally I am a very tight technical player, but don’t have to spend much mental effort on keeping the rules side of things running and can focus more on picking the right line or making the right blocks.
Secondly, you’re more likely to see the uncommon or unusual plays, because you are used to thinking about games in a different way and encountering unusual situations. Often the quirky lines aren’t worth it – they’re cool or interesting rather than strategically optimal – but having that experience going ‘outside the box’ can help you spot things you might otherwise miss.
A favourite example from my own experience was an unusual Bloom Titan line – I had cast a Summoner’s Pact in the turn, and ended up attacking with Primeval Titan with just one land drop remaining. I searched up my only basic Forest and a Vesuva, knowing that the rules wouldn’t let me copy the Forest, but that I could copy a Simic Growth Chamber. I then replayed the Vesuva as a Forest postcombat, also knowing that Vesuva isn’t affected by Blood Moon and this line was the only one that protected me from losing to Blood Moon out of my opponent’s deck.
Knowing the rules very well also lets you take advantage when others have less tight knowledge. If your opponent forgets a trigger or misunderstands an effect, knowing the timing rules perfectly can make a big difference to your ability to use that. For example, did you know that you always choose a target when attacking with Wolf of Devil’s Breach, but only choose if you’re paying mana and which card to discard on resolution of the trigger and after your opponent has lost their chance to respond?
This goes beyond just game rules – if you work towards Level 2, you’ll also gain knowledge of the Infraction Procedure Guide, the document that guides judges’ actions at Competitive REL. Knowing this document inside out lets you know what to expect out of a judge ruling, what to watch out for from your opponent, and when to appeal if a judge makes a mistake in your match.
Now, you can learn the rules better without becoming a judge for sure. But the judge community has some great tools for teaching and practicing these things, and actively judging gives you a ton of experience applying them to real games. It’s a great fast-track to upping your technical game.
You get different experiences
One of the cool things about judging is getting to spend a lot of time watching Magic. Plenty of people enjoy watching coverage, and being a judge can mean getting some compensation to do that from the best seats in the house – right next to the matches. You can even see more of the tournament than someone at home would do.
Level 2+ judges have opportunities to see some of the best players in Magic at Grand Prix, but at any event, getting to watch the key turns of game is something you don’t often get to do as a player.
It can be really educational to put yourself in a player’s shoes and think about how you would play differently to them, and if it would work out well or not. You can also see a lot more different matchups playing out than you would as a spectator at home or as a player, and see what different things are going on in the format (with access to decklists!).
It can prevent you getting burned out
A change is as good as a rest – and we’ve all sometimes found the grind of competitive play has been getting us down. Playing Magic is the best, but it has a lot of swings in it – the swings of fortune and matchups, changing formats and mentally exhausting competition. Judging stimulates a lot of the same Magic parts of your brain, but stretches different muscles – like your actual muscles, but also your community- and customer service-oriented skills. It’s a great way to mix things up and stop yourself getting tired out. Or just serve as a good way of keeping in touch with your friends if you’re already qualified for an RPTQ or don’t have the cards for that Legacy tournament.
And of course, the compensation doesn’t hurt when you’re looking to fill out those last slots in your Standard deck.
Judging can make you a more effective competitor, a more rounded Magic player, and give you a way to keep involved with Magic when competing becomes tiring. It’s an essential part of the Magic equation for me.