“I feel like something’s going to happen Sunday.” I told friend and fellow judge Elliot Raff, while eating in Chinatown on the eve of SCG Washington DC.
“If it does, I’m sure you’ll know how to handle it.”
Well, foreshadowing aside, something – rather, multiple somethings – happened on Sunday while I head judged the Modern Premier IQ in Washington, DC. I’m here to talk about those things, and more importantly, the takeaways of my experiences so that you, the reader, can approach similar situations more confidently.
Let’s get the numbers out of the way first. 225 players registered for the Modern Premier IQ, stretching 8 rounds of Swiss to the absolute limit, and making this the largest event of which I was at the helm. My 7 judges (2 leads, 5 floor judges) and I were pushed to the max. At the end of the day, round turnover sat just shy of 65 minutes. I had hoped for slightly less, but given some of the tribulations I encountered, I can’t be disappointed with that figure. To be honest, I was worried that turnover would be worse (69-70 minutes), so I’ll walk away with it only being 65 minutes feeling, at minimum, satisfied.
There were 2 appeals during the day – one involving a player’s understanding of priority during the combat phase, and another involving a spell being cast in a… odd form of incorrectness. In the first case, this was an easy appeal to uphold – the player appealing simply needed a more concise explanation of how priority worked while activating abilities in combat, and the judge’s ruling was completely accurate. The second case is actually quite interesting – we’ll talk about this and its resolution later.
Nothing in DC would be complete without a breakdown in communication, and exactly that happened early in the day; at the very least, this one was far more fixable than most things on Capitol Hill. Pre-round 1, my team leads for the event (one for Deck Checks, one for…not Deck Checks) were preparing and handing out product for the day. A need arose in the Standard Premier IQ – running alongside my event, ahead by 30 minutes – for an extra body, and my Deck Checks team lead offered his assistance. That bit of assistance turned into a lengthier need, and was not communicated clearly between him and the other team lead (and myself). Needless to say, tasks such as token distribution and decklist collection attempted to be handled on the fly, and were slowed down with a lack of direction. When paper came off the printer for round 1, I was left holding it, wondering where the folks delegated to handle that task were. Sure enough, they were working to handle the earlier issue. Luckily, I found a judge nearby and they made sure paper was sent to the pairings boards, albeit a bit delayed. When the folks responsible for paper came to the stage, I informed them it was already handled, and we had a chat about what went wrong during the early stages of the day. I encouraged them to keep pressing forward, and they did so amiably.
Feedback vs. Effective Feedback
Giving feedback is hard. Giving effective feedback is harder still. I was given a lesson in effective feedback after an interaction with one of my team leads went sour. During the day, I had heard through an outside party that one of my judges felt less utilized than they would like. I approached said judge, and discussed why they felt that way. They were, in essence, told simply to handle “anything that came up,” rather than be given specific or more clear instructions. Then, I made a critical misplay. I approached the team lead to discuss this, and acted as an intermediary for feedback, rather than suggest that the two judges talk directly. How I presented this concern came off very …well, let’s just say non-diplomatically and more offensively than it should have. The reaction by the team lead solidified this thought, as I could tell that he felt less than positive over what he had just been told. Later, after consulting for advice from a few others over how this could be fixed in the future, it was clear that I had acted in a poor manner with regard to this feedback session, and I re-approached the team lead to apologize, emphasizing that my critique should have been more effectively constructed.
Remember – when providing feedback, an avalanche of negativity will not help foster an effective relationship with your leads, or anyone on your staff. Remember the good things that each staff member brings to your event. For example, in this case, this judge bounced back extremely well in handling the issues at the beginning of the day which arose, and still gave 100% effort in making sure tasks were completed afterwards. Had I mentioned this while still suggesting, from the start, to talk to the affected judge about their concerns of being underutilized, a far more effective feedback session would have occurred, in my opinion.
The takeaway from all of this – a tl;dr, of sorts – is to balance constructive criticism with positive reinforcement anytime you are able to do so.
A Very Polluted Round Two
A situation occurred during round two involving a decklist that included an incomplete card name. Consider the following decklist (similar, but not a replica, of this player’s list):
A player approached me asking to see his decklist to verify the contents of his sideboard. When looking for their list, I encountered it in the “Problem Decklists” pile that our deck checks team had assembled. I took a moment to look at the list, found the issue (the writing of “Polluted”), and explained this to the player. At this point, while allowing the player to reference his sideboard, I also issued a penalty for Deck/Decklist Problem (DDLP), which is, by default, a game loss. The player asked for a downgrade, noting they they felt this was an obvious clerical error. While an “obvious” error (yes, it was quite likely this card was a Polluted Delta, and I even said this to the player), I did not find it to be unambiguous, and maintained my initial issuance of a game loss. I’ll talk more about this shortly.
Fast forward a bit to the end of round two. I was consulted by a floor judge and was told that a spectator had potentially provided assistance in a match that was presently in turns. After talking to the judge initially handling the issue, I was fairly certain I would need to intervene for issuance of Outside Assistance. Here’s a brief outline of the situation (AP = Active Player):
1. AP controls several lands and a copy of Keranos, God of Storms.
2. AP begins the process of drawing a card for the turn, laying the to-be-drawn card face-down apart from the rest of his hand.
3. A spectator, who is enrolled in the tournament, says “Keranos” before the card draw is complete. A judge is called at this point.
I took a moment to talk to both players to get a consensus on exactly how the situation, both visual and verbal, occurred, and talked to the spectator individually. As it was clear that neither player had solicited any kind of outside assistance, I instructed them to finish their match. Upon talking to the spectator, he owned up to exactly what was described when talking openly to the table, mentioning that he was worried the Keranos “trigger” would be missed. Feeling that this was cut-and-dry Outside Assistance (the intent was for the player to remind the active player of their “triggered” ability), I proceeded to issue a Match Loss for the infraction. The interaction was pleasant, the player understood the infraction and penalty, and that was – what I thought would be – the end of that situation.
Let’s rewind just a bit to the issue regarding the player with the word “Polluted” on his decklist. During round 4, said player approached me to re-discuss the game loss I had issued in round 2. Obviously, this player disagreed with my issuance of the penalty, and when we sat down again to discuss my penalty, I tried my best, at the time, to explain why I issued the Game Loss rather than choose not to issue the penalty. Let’s look at the IPG’s stance on downgrading DDLP:
“Ambiguous or unclear names on a decklist may allow a player to manipulate the contents of his or her deck up until the point at which they are discovered. The Head Judge may choose to not issue this penalty if they believe that what the player wrote on their decklist is obvious and unambiguous, even if it is not the full, accurate name of the card. This should be determined solely by what is written on the decklist, and not based on intent given the actual contents of the deck; needing to check the deck for confirmation is a sign that the entry is not obvious.”
Now, if we remember earlier, I had mentioned to the player that “Yes, this is probably a Polluted Delta.” I hadn’t looked at the deck, but I was fairly sure that Polluted Dead and Polluted Bonds weren’t going to be in the player’s deck, even if I couldn’t be 100% certain, as they are legal cards in Modern. I explained to the player my interpretation of “Obvious and Unambiguous,” and, I’ll be honest, I have a very conservative interpretation of the policy (and the IPG, in general). Essentially, when I look at the phrase “Obvious and Unambiguous,” I look at the terms literally: if there is any one card in addition to the intended card that could legally be played in the format of the tournament, regardless of position on the decklist, I will issue a Game Loss for DDLP, as that is, by definition, not unambiguous, even if improbable. In this case, there are 3 legal cards in Modern that begin with the word “Polluted” – Polluted Bonds, Polluted Dead, and the intended Polluted Delta. The player, who I found out after this interaction was a judge, clearly differed from me in their interpretation of policy and its underlying philosophy regarding DDLP. The player was quite vocal, and frankly, fed up, that I maintained this stance, and was quite vehement on letting me know that he disagreed with my interpretation and conclusion.
I stand by the infraction and penalty I issued, and I would do so again in the future. That being said, I know there are many judges and players reading this, who, for lack of a better term, probably think I’m a hard-ass, or even just wrong, for taking this approach. I respect that opinion, and I respect that many in the Judge Program would choose not to penalize this player. I feel situations like these can foster both effective and destructive conversations, and I would encourage judges to have effective and constructive conversations on how they interpret this portion of policy.
The only sure-fire way to ensure that a game loss isn’t issued is to write the full, English card name of a Magic card on a submitted decklist – please do so between 60 and 75 times. This is the most important reason judges allow about 1 minute for players to review their lists before collection.
Polluted Thoughts, Flooded Emotions
For readers that don’t know me, I am an emotional judge. At the end of the interaction regarding this decklist, I felt a ton of emotions – anger, sadness, and disbelief being at the top of the list. I needed to take some time off, as I was about to tear up on stage. One thing I hate is showing my stress and strife to the other judges on my staff – keeping them positive and motivated is hard when they see a leader crack under pressure.
I was cracking like an egg.
I had made a player’s day less enjoyable as a direct result of my actions, even if I felt those actions were correct. I will admit this – I acted less than professionally in my initial interaction with this player. I should not have chuckled, for instance, when I mentioned that the card was likely a Polluted Delta. I also shouldn’t have shrugged while doing so. This was a breakdown of diplomacy on my part, and I left this situation knowing that I’ll never do that again. I guess that’s the one takeaway from this situation that doesn’t involve having IPG-related discussions. When talking to players in your event, every facet of your discussion matters – verbal and non-verbal. I failed in that regard, and it really hurt to know that. It still does.
…And that was only the first blunder.
Now, taking a moment to re-discuss the Outside Assistance penalty I had issued earlier. Upon discussing this situation with several other judges, most actually thought that the issue regarding the spectator and Keranos was not Outside Assistance.
Great, I screwed up again.
For those of us that know Keranos, his interaction with the Draw Step is unique. The ability of Keranos replaces how the Draw Step is performed. In particular, the first drawn card of the turn must be revealed. Only at that point is any sort of triggering condition met. At the time the player said “Keranos,” the card to be drawn had not been revealed, nor had any action or mention of intent regarding what to do with Keranos’s ability been discussed. The spectator simply said “Keranos.” Now, from talking to the spectator, he had thought the entire ability was a triggered ability, not just the result of revealing a card. Given this intent, some may argue that Outside Assistance is still warranted. I disagree. While the player did take action that was beyond the scope of “Wait please, I would like to call a judge.” the word “Keranos” is not in and of itself assistance. The spectator did not provide the active player with any kind of strategic advantage that would not mandate judge involvement if not performed.
That hurt. I had actually issued the strongest penalty I could that doesn’t mean sending a player to Dairy Queen (DQ), and it was an incorrect assessment of the penalty.
And here I thought an accurately-issued Game Loss for DDLP was frazzling.
Patrick Vorbroker, who was working as stage staff at the time, suggested that I talk to the affected player. Typically, I will always talk to a player if I made a mistake in a rules interaction and apologize. In this case, though, a penalty had been issued that could not be reversed – by the time I had come to the conclusion that I was wrong, it was in round five or six; the penalty was issued at the end of round two. My worry here was that I would make a situation much worse by telling the player something along the lines of “Hey, remember that match loss? Shouldn’t have happened, can’t fix it, sorry.” In the end though, I didn’t feel I could in good conscience leave the event without sitting down with the player.
And sit down with him I did.
I explained why I initially issued the Match Loss, what led me to question that decision, and what ultimately made me reverse my thought process in the situation. While I did explain that, yes, what he did isn’t the smartest thing to do – always just stop the match and call a judge instead of mentioning specifics of the game-state that are wrong – it also wasn’t Outside Assistance. I apologized for the penalty issued in round two, and, as you could probably imagine, the player appreciated me talking to him and apologizing. This got driven home in the top 8, when a player eliminated in the semi-finals mentioned that this player, a buddy of his, really appreciated me apologizing for the incorrect penalty and discussing the situation a second time with him. A bittersweet takeaway from this interaction, for sure, but one that had to be done – don’t be afraid to admit that you are wrong. If that wrong affected a player, talk to them if at all possible. Thank you Patrick.
It hurts to be wrong. By this point, the Premier IQ had doled out a chocolate-flavored “tilt-shake” and I was on the cusp of breaking down. The folks on stage could see that. I could feel that. How in the world was I worthy of the red shirt that SCG’s head judges wear? In the span of 3 rounds, I had negatively affected the days of two players, and I felt the adage of “Red Shirts Die First” was proving to be true. I stepped off the floor for about 15 minutes, giving the reigns of the Modern Premier IQ to Standard IQ head judge James Kerr in the meantime. Those 15 minutes were pivotal if I was going to re-collect myself and have any chance of finishing this tournament in one piece. I couldn’t give up on my staff, SCG, or myself – even if there were moments where I wanted to throw in the proverbial towel.
After a quick bite, a few songs on my iPhone, and a phone call home to rant to my girlfriend and blow off some steam, I had an event to finish.
Tasigur, the Missing Fang
My interesting appeal of the day came during round seven. One of my floor judges came up to me to give me an appeal. First, an overview of the game as the situation occurred.
During a Grixis Delver vs. Jund match-up, a series of turns progresses as follows (AP: Active Player, NAP: Non-Active Player).
AP controls several lands (assume proper color), and has multiple cards in his graveyard.
NAP controls several lands (assume proper color), an Outpost Siege, and no other creatures.
AP taps a Swamp, moves 5 cards from his graveyard, and tanks for a moment. He then passes the turn.
The initial AP, currently NAP, sees a Tasigur, the Golden Fang in his hand at this point, and calls for a judge.
The initial judges who took the call were certainly believing a backup was possible here to bring the missing Tasigur into play, but one of those judges was concerned that the Jund player knew what the Tasigur player’s intent was in casting Tasigur, but chose to just let the moving of cards and tapping of Mana go since it was obviously to his advantage to not stare down the Golden Fang. Investigation mode, activate!
Internally: Please don’t screw another one up, Tom.
I approached the table and chose to separate both players after an initial run-down of the situation (see above). I started with the Tasigur player. I essentially asked what kept him from casting Tasigur, and his response was what I’d expect from a player after 7 rounds – he went through the motions of Delving and tapping Mana, and kind of just assumed he’d already laid the card down before realizing a bit later.
When I talked to the Jund player, I spent a bit more time getting to the crux of why he didn’t say something when he noticed Mana being tapped and cards being moved around. He explained that he thought his opponent was “tanking” after tapping Mana, and chose not to do anything with the tapped Mana. As for the moved cards, his view was partially obstructed by a deckbox and he wasn’t exactly sure what was going on.
Here is my dilemma, and I’m still pondering this. I couldn’t be sure that the Jund player was shady to the degree I would need to consider Cheating. I couldn’t just ask him if he thought his opponent was going to cast Tasigur, as that would just immediately prompt a “No” response (not helpful). At the same time, something rubbed me the wrong way about his response regarding the moved graveyard cards. I ended up erring on the side of caution and not issuing a Disqualification, but I did allow the backup to occur and let Tasigur properly enter the battlefield. I stressed proper communication and patience among the players, encouraged them to ask questions to one another if something didn’t make sense, and the players continued on in their match. Could I have spent 30 minutes dissecting this situation to possibly come to a stronger conclusion one way or the other? Sure – but that means slowing down the tournament for about 200 players by up to 30 minutes, and I couldn’t let that happen. Investigations should be concise and prompt, without impeding the other players in your event.
At the end of the day, the tournament did, finally, finish. The top 8 went smoothly, my judges went on their way, and I had some great chats with some folks on my staff to end the tournament. There were a lot of bumps for me in this tournament, but I was able to complete the tournament without falling apart, and I got a lot of reassurance from my teammates and friends after I got home to Rochester. I’m definitely curious as to others thoughts on some of the more interesting parts of my tournament, but I want to leave you all with this thought:
People make mistakes. Judges are people. Mistakes help us grow. Growth is necessary for success.