The head judge assigned me to be the deck checks leader. We met the ten percent deck check objective. Nine tables (eighteen players / 13% of total attendance) were checked. On the other hand I only finished verifying 56 of the 137 lists before the end of the swiss rounds. I was the only judge verifying deck lists because the other judges were busy covering the floor. It was more important to have adequate floor coverage between two rooms than to check deck lists for errors.
Verifying all the deck lists should not be a high priority in any tournament. Adequate floor coverage to provide efficient customer service, and deck checks to potentially catch cheaters are more important than scanning piles of papers for occasional mistakes.
The 14-card Sideboard Mystery
During round two, I found one deck list that had fourteen cards written in the sideboard and no number written in the total box. There was also a row at the bottom of the list scribbled out and made illegible. It looked like the player initially registered fifteen cards but then changed his mind and wanted to play with fourteen. Or perhaps he changed his sideboard in a last minute decision and forgot to write down the new card he was playing with. Whatever the reason was, it looked suspicious to me. It didn’t make sense for a player in a competitive tournament to not use all of his or her available sideboard slots. After all, the more cards you have in your sideboard, the more options you have and thus the greater your chances are at winning all your games. Furthermore, in my experience judging at competitive REL, players who write down less than fifteen sideboard cards actually play with fifteen cards but have forgotten to register some of them.
I deck checked the player with the fourteen card sideboard at the beginning of the third round. To my expectations, I found fifteen sideboard cards in his deck box. The card that wasn’t registered on his list was Arc Lightning. Upon investigation, the player told me he was verifying his deck list during the player meeting while judges were collecting lists and he counted sixteen sideboard cards on his list. Seeing the judge approaching to collect his list, he hastily scratched out the bottom-most line on his sideboard, which was the “ 1 Arc Lightning ”, to make his list legal before submitting it to the judge. I scrutinized the scribbled out line at the bottom of his list and I believed it was Arc Lightning swathed underneath the dozens of pen marks. That’s when I raised an eyebrow and asked him…
“You erased Arc Lightning from your deck list but you didn’t remove it from your box before playing the first round?”
He stared at me flabbergasted and replied he didn’t think to do it. The thought of taking Arc Lightning out of his box didn’t cross his mind (awkward!). Although this situation looked sketchy, it didn’t sound like cheating to me. The player was playing with a legal number of sideboard cards after all; the problem was all his sideboard cards didn’t match his deck list. The player unfortunately earned a deck/deck list problem infraction for his mistake and he was awarded a game loss. Wow! This was the first time I ran into a player who actually listened to the head judge at a player meeting and followed their instructions but managed to make an already correct situation into an incorrect one.
Investigate deck lists that contain incomplete sideboards and no total number written at the bottom because it’s most likely an error.
Misplay? Sorry! No Take-backs!
During the second game of the final match in the tournament, the active player (AP) controlled Doran, the Siege Tower[card] and two [card]Noble Hierarchs. The non-active player (NAP) controlled seven 1/1 Spirit tokens and a planeswalker. AP attacked the planeswalker with only Doran. NAP, without hesitation, picked up six of his tokens, dropped them on the table in front of the Doran, and leaned back in his chair. AP looked surprised and said, “Okay.” NAP immediately reacted with, “Oh!” as he leaned forward and slid his seventh token in front of the Doran. AP turned to me and protested NAP’s new blocking decision.
I witnessed everything that happened; I was sitting at the table next to NAP. My immediate response was the blocking assignment couldn’t be changed and AP had to choose his damage assignment order for the six blockers. NAP expressed disappointment with my ruling. He argued he didn’t verbally mention that was his final block to AP. His reasoning against my ruling made me reflect what I had said. I realized I made an impulsive ruling. I had the opportunity to slow down and think but I didn’t do that. I was exhausted from judging since the morning and as a result my brain was working on autopilot throughout the finals. “Bad move, Eric. Bad move.” I thought to myself. I replayed the event in my mind to see if I made a mistake or if I actually made the right call. I remembered NAP stared at AP as he leaned back after placing his spirits in front of the Doran. That was the action which signaled an intent to give AP priority before combat damage. As I quickly played that part of the turn in my head over and over, with the players and spectators curiously watching me, it became clearer to me that NAP looking up at AP was the main reason for why I ruled that way.
I informed NAP that when he looked up at his opponent after choosing his blockers, he was waiting to see if AP was going to take an action before moving into the combat damage step, thus letting AP have priority and ending the declare blockers turn based action. NAP was clearly unhappy that he gave up all those spirits without killing his opponent’s giant threatening creature but it was NAP’s mistake in the end. He simply miscalculated how much damage he needed to kill the double-exalted Doran. NAP obviously wanted to kill the attacker otherwise he would have just blocked with one token instead of six. Both players continued playing with AP now having an advantage. It was a significant advantage considering AP had won the previous game in the match. Eventually AP was able to play more threatening creatures than NAP and end the match victorious.
Spectators began talking about the game after both players picked up all their cards and left the table to collect their prizes. A few of them were particularly discussing the ruling I made. Some disagreed with it. Some didn’t. One of the spectators who agreed with my ruling was a former Magic judge. He told me AP definitely looked committed to his blocks after he counted out exactly how many tokens he wanted to block with and dropped them in front of the Doran. He just made a mistake and wanted to see if the absence of verbal confirmation from his end could earn a take-back. The head judge watched the match from the scorekeeper station. He told me he didn’t see everything in detail like I did but based on what he understood happened he would have most likely sided with me if there was an appeal. I also had a conversation with NAP before we left the tournament hall. He commented again that he wasn’t happy the ruling was made against him but he admitted it was his mistake and he wouldn’t hold it against me for arbitrating a match fairly.
I felt more relieved after hearing opinions that my ruling was correct but nonetheless I felt awful about impulsively making a ruling without thinking it over first. There are two pieces of advice we as Magic judges of any level can take away from this story:
We always have the time to think about our rulings before issuing them to players. We’re never too busy and we shouldn’t let fatigue get in the way of our judgment. The next time you are faced with a decision to make in a match, take a moment to breathe and gather your thoughts before speaking. You might want to refer to the rule-books or a colleague as well if necessary. Read the cards in question even if you think you remember what they do (sometimes what you ‘remember’ is different than what is actually written on a card).
Any ruling we give can be correct as long as we give it with 100% confidence. Everyone can see the same situation differently from one another and form completely different ‘correct’ opinions. Judges are no exception to that. Yes, we do make mistakes at times. Yes, we naturally question our decisions when we feel there’s doubt from others. However, the most important thing to do is make the best judgment we possibly can and stick to it. If we happen to be proven wrong, then we’ve been proven wrong. Period. Accept the fault, learn from the mistake, and move on. Never let errors or doubt get in your way of making confident rulings.