The first time I heard the term “Grand Melee” was at dinner after a TCG event in Vegas. I was sitting at the table with Steven Briggs and 4 others. The 2015 GenCon staff list was due to be posted within the week. When Grand Melee was first mentioned, I must have looked confused, because I was asked if I’d ever heard of it before. I answered that I hadn’t. That was my first mistake. Briggs suddenly got a gleeful look in his eye as he pulled out his phone and proceeded to read me the entire section of the comp rules on Grand Melee. If you haven’t read it, go to section 807 and read it now. The rest of this report will make more sense once you have.
After Briggs was done reading me the description, he and the other judges at the table took some delight in the fact that my response was a combination of confusion and “It sounds fun”. They decided that I should be the one to work Grand Melee at GenCon this year. I kinda thought they were joking, but, at that point, I was just happy to get accepted to judge the event.
The GenCon staff list came out and I was on it. Then the list of individual shifts and assignments was posted. Thursday . . . Looks like I’m working Grand Melee, 6pm-3am. Cool. Friday . . . Grand Melee again, this time 8pm-5am. Ok, sure. Saturday . . . Grand Melee a third time, 7pm-4am. So, it’s going to be three days of Grand Melee. Well, ok then. It wasn’t until I arrived at the event that it was pointed out to me that my name was first on the list of Grand Melee judges, signifying that I was head judging the event. All three days.
The first reaction that I got from every judge who had worked GenCon before, upon hearing that I was assigned to Grand Melee for all three days, was, “Oh, I’m so sorry.” The cringing expressions that they showed when I first told them my shifts filled me with a combination of amusement and dread. The anecdotes from past Grand Melees, tales of 150+ player events which started out with gran maul seizures and ended with DQs, made me want to shout, “I will make this event run smoothly, AND I’ll have fun doing it!” while also secretly making me quail with trepidation.
For the first two hours of my shift on Thursday, I was floating. I spent the time checking on a few tables to see if matches were still going on, but there were enough judges assigned to events that I wasn’t really needed. Then, the floating was over and I was thrown into the deep end. It was time to sink or swim. In case you didn’t feel that I’d used enough aquatic metaphors in this report. I used my half hour prep time to take my two floor judges aside and read through the entire comp rules section on Grand Melee. Since none of us had ever judged one before, and the rules are a bit confusing, I felt this would be a helpful use of our time. We also realized we had no turn markers, so we made those out of cardboard.
I ended up giving two Grand Melee HJ announcements for each Grand Melee event. The first was before deck build. I introduced myself and my fellow judges. I explained that each player would get a certain number of prize tix (30 for Thurs/Fri, 40 for Sat), which would be given to the person who killed them. Yes, they could kill themselves to get their tix. The only way to get prizes in this event was to kill people. There was no top prize. Milling out was a possible way to die. Since this was one huge game of Magic, the game would likely go long. Keep that in mind when building decks. Everything else I left for after deck build. At that point, I explained about turn markers and sphere of influence. I explained when sphere of influence contracted. I explained that each player could only attack to their left and block to their right. I told the players to call for a judge when they died, so we could keep count to know when to remove turn markers, and also so we could make sure the prize tix were correctly passed on. I explained that, when someone died, they should get up from the table, so they didn’t confuse the count. And how this would leave holes in the circle. And how we would fill those holes by having players still in the game scoot down. And how this was so much easier if they used playmats. Please, if you have them, use playmats! Yes, that was important enough to swap tenses mid-paragraph. By Saturday night, I had this down. The HJ announcement was a little bumpy on Thursday.
Thursday’s Grand Melee was Sealed. We handed out packs and let everyone build. During which time the judges discussed the rules some more. We had 27 players for Thursday night. In all honesty, everything went smoothly. The biggest complaint was that one player got screwed over by the turn marker being removed right before their turn four times in a row (by their count). They were extremely unhappy by the time they finally died. But there was nothing we could do about it.
It occurred to me that it would be a fun idea to make the turn markers physical prizes, like Funko Pop Planeswalkers, that could be given to the player who died to mark the turn marker for removal. I figured that this would be a small investment into the prize pool by the TO, but the players would really like it. I pitched this idea to some of the powers that be, and it turns out that John Alderfer had already independently thought of a similar idea. His idea was to use a pack with a spindown counter on it as the turn marker and to give the marker to the person whose turn would have been next but wasn’t because the turn marker was removed. We ended up doing this for the Friday and Saturday tournaments, and the players really appreciated it. I have a feeling that the guy who missed his turn 4 times on Thursday would have felt much better about it had he received 4 packs and 4 dice for his trouble.
The most common questions asked at the Grand Melee tended to relate to what counted as a kill. The rule that was announced was that the player who controlled the effect that caused the death got the credit for the kill. If the kill was from damage or loss of life, the player who controlled the effect that caused the last point of life to be lost got the kill. If the death was from drawing out of an empty library, the player who controlled the effect that caused the last card to be removed from the library into another zone got the kill. And if the death was from some other effect, the controller of that effect got the kill. It seemed rather straightforward to me, but that didn’t stop players from asking. If a player had a 0/1 creature attack the player to his left, and the player to his right cast Titanic Growth on that creature, causing it to deal lethal damage, who got credit for the kill? The creature’s controller. Another common question was about when the sphere of influence contracted, and did it happen mid-turn, if someone died. No, it doesn’t contract until the current turn passes.
There were a few times, however, where my floor judges understood the priority rules for Grand Melee better than I did. There was at least one time where I gave a ruling and my floor judge had to correct me. I appreciated this because I was the first to admit that I wasn’t very familiar with this format. I would rather have the correct ruling given so that it was fair to the players, rather than focusing on my pride at the expense of the tournament. I think that this also helped the tournament run more smoothly, because there was no tension between the judge staff.
Friday’s event was a Draft. This was interesting because the packs never circled the table, and each player never saw the pack they opened again. Friday night’s Grand Melee had 26 players. This even went the smoothest, I would say. We had one interesting question at the end. There were three players left, and two of them had forged an alliance. One player had flip Gideon, Battle-Forged out as a planeswalker, and he had used Gideon’s middle ability to give one of his ally’s creatures indestructible until the beginning of his next turn. But he died before his turn came around again. When does the indestructibility wear off? Everyone was offering opinions. The creature’s controller obviously wanted the answer to be that it never wears off. I knew that wasn’t right. I ruled that the ability wears off at the point when Gideon’s controller’s turn would have begun, had he still been in the game. Once they began playing again, we looked up the rule, and it turned out I was right.
Another situation that came up was that one player had Sentinel of the Eternal Watch, and he pointed out to those near him that the Sentinel’s trigger was not a may ability, so he was required to tap a creature on the combats of each opponent within his sphere of influence. A spectator mentioned that another player down the table, out of earshot of the conversation, also had a Sentinel of the Eternal Watch, and they were not tapping a creature on each opponent’s beginning of combat. They were treating it like a may ability. The ability is definitely a must ability, but it’s a trigger. It’s also Regular REL. So, if the Sentinel’s controller doesn’t remember the trigger, and neither do either of the players within her sphere of influence, should someone else say something? I erred on the side of not saying anything, as reminding players of missed triggers is not something judges or spectators should be doing.
Saturday had the most waves (to keep up the aquatic metaphors) of all of the Grand Melees. We had 21 players signed up. I had really been hoping for a larger event, but, alas, it was not to be. A few players were congregating around the tables before the event was actually called, and one of them had an beer that they were openly drinking from at the table. When my floor judge asked him about it, he insisted that it was legal to have open containers in the state of Indiana, and it was not against the rules of the Indiana Convention Center, GenCon, or the Magic area. I honestly didn’t know if it was or was not allowed, so I decided to let it go so long as the player in question was not causing trouble.
The player, however, decided to cause trouble anyway. Drafting and deck build had finished, and the players had been reseated. I had just concluded my second HJ announcement, which went long due to various questions. The player with the beer called for a judge almost immediately after I told the group they could begin. He claimed that the player to his left had looked at a hand, mulliganed to 7, looked at another hand, and was about to incorrectly draw a third 7 card hand. And that beer-guy had been asked to cut between each mulligan. The mulligan player didn’t seem to think this was right, as I hadn’t told the table to begin play yet when he drew the first two hands. I thought about it, and sided with beer-guy. If mulligan-guy had just been test-drawing hands, why would he ask his opponent to cut? And even at Comp REL events, player may resolve mulligans before time begins. I couldn’t see it being fair to be more strict for a Regular REL event than I would at Comp REL. But I didn’t appreciate beer-guy’s abrasive attitude. Mulligan-guy kept the 6 card hand and they resumed play.
Later in the tournament, the player to beer-guy’s left had a Caustic Caterpillar, and asked if beer-guy controlled any enchantments. Beer-guy replied that he had a Weight of the Underworld enchanting a creature controlled by the player on his right. Caterpillar-guy said something like, “I can’t target that, it’s out of my sphere of influence,” and was about to move on. I happened to hear the interaction, and I replied with something like, “You actually can target the Weight of the Underworld, if you want to. It’s controlled by beer-guy, so it’s within you sphere of influence, even though it’s enchanting a creature that is outside your sphere of influence.”
Beer-guy became furious and immediately told me that I wasn’t allowed to give play advice to his opponents. I replied that I wasn’t, I was clarifying a rules interaction. I wasn’t telling him whether he should or should not target the enchantment, only that he was legally allowed to. Beer-guy shot back with, “Did he ask you?” “No, but he doesn’t have to–” “DID HE ASK YOU A QUESTION? NO!” This went on for a few more back and forths, with me trying to reason with him and he not wanting to hear a word of it. Definitely a USC – Minor at Comp REL. Which this wasn’t. Eventually, I just told them to get back to playing. A little later, I walked by and saw a piece of paper with my name circled on it in front of beer-guy. He clearly was planning to complain about me after the tournament.
Another judge went and got a TO, and the TO talked to beer-guy. I couldn’t hear exactly what was said, other than that he should put the beer that was by his feet out of sight in his bag, but the TO stood behind him and watched him so I think he was encouraged to leave. Soon after, he was being attacked for lethal damage, and he said, “In response to attackers, I scoop.” The only reason to do this and not let the guy kill him was to purposefully not let the attacking player get his prize tix, which instead went to me to hand out later. He then picked up his stuff and left in a huff. By TO and table consent, I gave the prize tix to the attacking player anyway. Because he should have earned them. The entire table seemed happy to see the last of beer-guy.
The player who won Saturday’s Grand Melee had an awesome Thopter deck. He had one creature that pumped fliers +1/+1 and another creature that pumped artifacts +1/+1, and a Thopter Spy Network. So, he was pumping out 3/3 Thopters every turn. He ended up with 380 prize tix. That’s over a box. Pretty impressive for Grand Melee.
I had a lot of fun Head Judging my three days of Grand Melee. I learned a lot and became a lot more comfortable with the format. I think making the turn markers physical items that could be given to the player whose turn was skipped worked out really well, and the players really seemed to like it. If I were to make recommendations for the future, I would say that the item chosen as the turn marker should be taller and/or more brightly colored, so players can easily see where the turn markers are around the table. I would also give out playmats with entry, which I know has been done in the past. This would make sliding players down the table to fill in holes a lot quicker and easier. I would also have a prize for the last player standing. It wouldn’t have to be something huge, like a foil uncut sheet, as it’s been in past years, but something like maybe 100 prize tix would be nice. This would give players the option of getting prizes for building whatever type of deck they are most interested in playing, even if that deck is not aggro in design. The current prize structure of only getting tix for killing opponents makes a deck based on fortification instead of attack not pay out at all. So, those are my suggestions for next year.
Thanks for reading! Hopefully you’ve learned something from my experiences judging Grand Melee at GenCon 2015!