Playing makes you a better judgeDavid Lyford-Smith, and I’m an experienced tournament judge. I’ve been a Level 3 for around five years, and am currently the Regional Coordinator for the UK, Ireland, and South Africa region. I’ve judged a few Pro Tours, dozens of Grand Prix, and several other high-profile events. I’m also a devoted Competitive Magic player, and in this article, I’m going to talk about how that’s made me a better judge – and how it can help you, too. I focus on playing competitively, but many of the gains are also attainable just by rocking up at your local FNM, too.
You know the cards better
Reading cards can only go so far in remembering what they do. Actually getting the cards in your hands and playing with them will make that knowledge stick far better, and will make your ability to answer questions that much better.
You’re more likely to know the key points of Oracle text – such as targeting restrictions – without having to look it up, which useful when you’re watching a game and suspect a mistake has been made, but need card text to know for sure.
Not only will you know individual cards better, but playing will also let you know some of the deck archetypes and key cards in a format. This will help you get ahead of the common interactions of a format, knowing a lot of the key questions before they even come up. It’s also invaluable in deck checking, where greater familiarity with card art can help you sort and check without having to spend a lot of time reading and comparing names.
You know how to think about strategy as well as rules
This is the big gain for me. Playing to win requires breaking games down and understanding the strategy underneath. As a judge, this skill is invaluable. First of all, it helps you when you’re coming in to a match – you can compress large board states more effectively, letting you assess what’s going on.
This can be vital for investigations – you will be better able to understand the context for the players’ decisions, and their possible motivations. You can know what the key cards are in a certain matchup and how to determine if a player’s version of events makes sense or not.
You’ll know when certain easy-to-miss cheats – such as playing additional lands in a long turn, or subtle shuffle-stacking – have an especially high value to the players, and hence when to look out for them.
In investigations that involve interviewing players, you’ll be better able to assess the truthfulness of their explanations of the situation. For example, I had a situation where a player with extra cards in hand claimed that they hadn’t noticed because they weren’t paying attention to their draws. However, I had noticed that they had missed some land drops, and therefore knew that the player would be especially attuned to new cards in that situation. This helped me identify that the player was likely to be lying.
Understanding strategy will also help you be better on Slow Play. It’s important to give players a fair amount of time to make their decisions, but how much time is ‘fair’ is going to depend somewhat on the game state. New information or sudden changes in strategic priorities mean that allowing a bit more time is reasonable – and knowing that nothing much has changed can help you spot a player who’s playing too slowly (or even stalling).
You can read players better
A key skill for competitive play is being able to read reactions. Picking up on body language, or just on changes in strategy, can tell you a lot about what a player is thinking and what their plans might be. Putting those skills to the test with prizes on the line is a great way to hone and improve them. The same skills are then vital in investigations situations.
It also helps you remember just how disruptive or uncomfortable a judge’s sudden presence can be when you’re playing.
This helps you not to read too much in to players’ nervousness – it’s important to remember that even an innocent player will feel nerves if they’re being grilled by the Head Judge.
You have more understanding of players’ needs
It’s easy to forget just how mentally tiring playing Magic can be. It’s also easy not to realise how full a player’s day can be, with few opportunities to eat or drink.
Playing keeps your feet on the ground and keeps your customer service skills sharp – because there’s no better way to know what a player wants out of a tournament than being one. It’s easy for long-term judges to forget what it’s like to be a player in a big event, and that can lead to coldness or arrogance. Keeping your feet wet is a great way to keep them on the ground.
This almost goes without saying, but – playing Magic is awesome! The game is incredibly deep and competitive play is a great way of challenging yourself to learn new skills.
Even when you’re not on top of the standings, getting the occasional tournament under your belt is a great, exciting experience.
Playing can make you a more skilled, more conscientious, and happier judge. It’s an essential way to round out your judging skill set while having some fun along the way.