I love working events just after a new set joins standard. Like the players, you get to learn for the first time what interactions you need to prepare yourself for, and enjoy being surprised by new scenarios and decks. Sunday October the 18th was my local store’s first PPTQ of the Battle For Zendikar/Khans of Tarkir standard season, and though I’ve run many PPTQs for this store, the event proved to be a learning experience – including a particularly challenging situation with two players halfway through.
In fact, that situation was so complex and difficult that it is the main reason I am writing this report. None of the player names used are their real names.
The event had 31 players, and thus 5 Swiss rounds and a cut to top 8. I was the head judge, and was assisted by Spencer Carver (who was providing floor coverage and doing deck checks as a judge candidate) and the store staff (who were our scorekeepers).
There wasn’t really any set-up to do, so I mostly just double-checked my plan for the day with Spencer, then we went to mingle. Many players were familiar faces for me, but many were new – one player, Adam, told me it was his first “standard tournament” (which, I’ve learned, is usually code for “first tournament at competitive REL”). I welcomed him to the store, and invited him to call for a judge for anything he might need help with during the day.
After a little bit more smiling and friendly banter with players (including trying to help a player who showed up thinking this would be a sealed event), we were ready to start. With help from Spencer and the staff, the first couple of rounds sailed by, and soon enough the event was halfway over.
At the end of round 3, time is called, and there are still 5 matches outstanding. This is more than the two of us can watch at once, so Spencer and I go around the room, making sure that each match knows that time has been called, and knows which extra turn they are on.
I arrive at one match to find Adam (the player at his first tournament, who appears to be in his 30s) having a very agitated argument with his opponent, Nemo (who appears to be about 13-14 years old). I sit down beside them, ask if they heard that time was called (they did), and whose turn it is – and Adam gives me a rambling answer that starts with “Well, that’s the thing” and then mentions a life total discrepancy, and the fact that Nemo keeps “touching my cards”. I’m a little caught off guard, so I ask again: Who’s turn is it, right now? Adam again answers, upset: “It’s his turn, but that’s the thing! If he weren’t touching my cards, this wouldn’t have happened!” Nemo agrees it’s his turn (he just drew a card), but can’t get a word in edge-wise over Adam. I try asking what happened, and I get another incoherent answer from Adam, meanwhile Nemo starts talking over Adam, and – you guessed it – touching his cards. This isn’t working, and I start realizing that this situation is escalating, emotionally. It’s time to pull the players apart.
I have Spencer sit with Nemo, while I go talk to Adam first – since he is far, far more upset than Nemo, he is my priority. The store was not spacious, so to get the players apart, I have to take Adam to the other end, facing away from the play area, and have him tell me what’s going on. It takes a lot of repeated questioning to get a full story from him – Adam is very upset, and is fixating on the things that are bothering him, rather than on communicating or cooperating. I’ll shortcut the whole back-and-forth, and tell you the story as I understood it:
Adam and Nemo hear me announce that time is called in the round. Adam is at 10 life, and controls a Retreat to Kazandu and a lot of lands. Adam casts Animist’s Awakening. He sets aside his hand, and then picks up the top several cards of his library, and holds them facing himself, looking for the lands. Nemo then reaches over and grabs the cards, while Adam is still holding them, and puts them down on the table, face-up. Nemo finds the copy of Mortuary Mire that he knew Adam was looking for, and moves it from the pile of cards to Adam’s lands.
All the while, Nemo is saying things like “Are you done yet”, “Come on”, “Hurry up”, “Let’s go”, etc. Adam resolves the triggered ability from the mire, putting an Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger from his graveyard on top of his library. Somewhere, amid the repeated flurries of “Is it my turn yet?”, Adam relents and says “yeah, sure, fine”. Then, as Nemo is drawing a card for his turn, Adam points out the Retreat to Kazandu triggers he should be getting from all the lands that entered the battlefield from the Awakening. This is why Adam was answering my earlier questions with seemingly unrelated responses about touching cards and life totals.
Details from Adam’s Side
Adam acknowledges that he did say he passed the turn, before he pointed out the Retreat triggers. He also admits that he missed Retreat triggers earlier in the match (he claimed to have “accepted” that, but was clearly very upset about it). However, he insists that the reason why he missed those triggers is because Nemo was harassing him the whole time, including grabbing his cards, rushing him, etc. Adam claims that Nemo had been rushing him all game, and that this moment was the boiling point. He is very, very upset at Nemo, and feels very flustered.
While talking to Adam, I remember something: At the beginning of this round, after I put up pairings, I had heard Nemo say to his opponent “Come on, let’s go – I’m gonna crush you” or something to that effect, though I assumed it had been in jest. So, I ask Adam if he’s ever played against Nemo before, and get this bombshell dropped on me:
“Yeah. He’s my son.”
I’m thunderstruck. The situation has instantly become a lot more complicated, and a lot more unpleasant. I am also stunned at Adam’s reaction to this whole situation – his emotional response to Nemo’s actions was excessive just as an adult playing against a child; as a father playing against a son, it’s unreal. Adam had been describing Nemo’s actions to me as if Nemo were an intimidating, bullying stranger – not his son, who is half his size and half his age.
Adam tells me that he and his son have played together all the time, and they have never had a fight, much less one this severe. So, I send Adam back to the table with Spencer, and bring Nemo to the other side of the store.
Details from Nemo’s Side
Nemo is a little agitated, but much less so than his dad. He also seems a little nervous to be having this discussion with a judge, and I can only imagine how he feels now that he and his dad are the center of an emotional scene with all other matches having been concluded already.
Nemo basically confirms the same story that Adam told me, though when Nemo tells it to me, he was less harassing. While he admits that he grabbed the cards that Adam was holding from Animist’s Awakening, he claims he set them down gently, and explains that he did that because Animist’s Awakening says to reveal the cards – and Adam hadn’t revealed them, he was holding them just facing himself.
Nemo explains that he and his dad have played for fun, and his dad had always been sloppy with triggers, but Nemo never really called him out on it. However, Nemo understands that this is a competitive event, and you can miss your triggers here. Nemo also understands what happens when time is called in the round. When I ask why he was rushing his dad after time was called, he explains that he felt his dad was playing slowly all match, and he was frustrated.
Lastly, Nemo gives me another bombshell: He has a 4/4 land creature on the battlefield, and a Kolaghan, the Storm’s Fury in his hand. So, if Adam missed his Retreat triggers, then he is now very much dead. However, if he gets his triggers, then he is out of range of this attack, and then will get to draw and cast Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger. So, my ruling will decide the outcome of the match. Fun!
The Decision-Making Process
This was very difficult for me. I came into this situation thinking that all I needed to do was calm the players down enough to finish their match. Now, my ruling is what will finish the match, and whatever the ruling is, it is likely to lead to bad emotional moment between a father and son, in the middle of the event.
The ruling that seems correct to me at first is in favor of the son – the dad didn’t demonstrate awareness early enough. However, I know that because the dad was (inexplicably) so upset by all this, a ruling against him might escalate the situation even more. While this doesn’t affect what the correct ruling is, it does mean that I need to prepare myself emotionally for that, and be absolutely certain that it is correct before delivering it. I would also need to prepare for one particularly nasty outcome: The dad was the one who brought both of them to the event. If Adam’s mood worsens after the ruling, there’s a real chance that he might drop – and tell Nemo that they’re leaving, forcing Nemo to drop as well.
I needed to take a moment in order to do this right. I have the staff keep Adam and Nemo separate, and step aside to discuss the ruling privately with Spencer, my candidate who has been assisting me. First, I ask what the players said while sitting with him at the table, and find out nothing new. Second, I tell Spencer what I’d learned from talking to them, and he agrees that’s what he heard too. Despite the quick exchange, it meant I had all the information I needed to make a decision.
To help calm myself down, and also to help reach a decision, I tell Spencer that I’m going to think through the ruling by talking through it out loud. This is a technique I use to make sure that I don’t get lost in my emotional reaction to a situation: after all, I will have to explain my ruling out loud to the players, and talking through it with a judge allows me to find out beforehand if I am actually able to produce an explanation and reasoning that make sense. As I do this, I end up changing my mind – and reaching a good amount of confidence in the ruling I’m about to deliver. Spencer didn’t notice anything glaringly wrong or strange, so we head back in to bring both players to the table and deliver the ruling. So far, this entire scenario has taken about 20 minutes and only about 3 of which were spent discussing with my co-judge.
I know this report is long as is, but I’m including this for a reason: Many of the lessons of how to handle difficult players are here, and have little to do with the ruling itself. If you need to prepare yourself to make a ruling, prepare yourself. If you need to take a breather and ready yourself for a potentially difficult situation, do it – even if you’re 20 minutes past the end of the round. And, importantly, if you have another judge that can help you, and you think you have a difficult task, reach out for help, no matter who the other judge is. Spencer was a candidate, and I was a relatively experienced L2 – and still, being able to work through the ruling with him, and knowing he was there to support me if I needed it, may have made a huge difference in how I was able to reach a place of confidence and control of the situation, and reach a ruling I would not regret.
My ruling was that: Adam got to resolve his Retreat to Kazandu triggers. We were in Nemo’s draw step, during turn 1 of 5 extra turns. No infractions were committed.
The biggest basis for my ruling was that Nemo was inappropriately interfering with Adam’s play decisions, by grabbing his cards and badgering him to end the turn. This is above and beyond normal impatience, and was enough for me to consider that Adam didn’t actually get a clear opportunity to announce his triggers – and that he did announce them as soon as he finally got breathing room to do so.
As I was working through the ruling with Spencer I had realized that the interaction between Adam and Nemo over the resolution of Animist’s Awakening was exceptional – as was the personal relationship between the players. I also realized that there would be no guidance in the IPG for that specific situation. There was only some philosophical guidance, in the section about Missed Triggers which mentioned that a player cannot cause their opponent’s triggers to be missed by rushing through game actions.
To me, this meant that I would likely be able to come up with a justification for ruling either way. So, rather than get paralyzed about how to decide, I considered what the consequences of each ruling would be – specifically, what the ultimate message of each ruling would be:
If I ruled in Nemo’s favor, then my ultimate message would be: “Sorry, Adam, but Nemo is not responsible for your tilt, and for the play mistakes you may have made as a result. Your opponent’s actions may have upset you, but they didn’t constitute an infraction, so you’re on your own here.” This is all technically correct, however, it is obviously deeply unsatisfying.
If I ruled in Adam’s favor, however, my ultimate message would be: “Although you are held to a high standard of technical play at competitive events, the fact is that handling your opponent’s cards and actively harrying them to move through their turn is just going too far, and these behaviors aren’t appropriate at Magic events. You must respect your opponent’s boundaries, and involve a judge if you have any issues with their play.” This is a far more satisfying message, and has the undeniable added benefit of being less likely to escalate the situation.
Having found the more appealing ruling this way, I probed further to see if it actually made sense given my understanding of the IPG – to make sure that it was the correct ruling, not just the most appealing one – and came to the conclusion that it was: I was able to justify this ruling with a fair and reasonable understanding of policy.
I delivered the ruling to the players, and to make sure my ultimate message got across, actually spelled out my message for them, and encouraged the players to talk me to later on if they wanted to.
The Consequences of my Ruling
Nemo promptly conceded from the match, and dropped from the event. Adam didn’t gloat, but also didn’t seem apologetic nor sympathetic towards Nemo. Fortunately, there was a draft being offered by the store, and Nemo was able to sign up for it in time. Adam continued to play the remainder of the event, but didn’t earn any prizes.
Later on, they seemed to mend their relationship. Nemo started showing his dad what his draft picks were between rounds, and the two didn’t seem angry at each other. Adam later told me that he felt that, “if you look at it logically”, his son was right and he had missed his triggers. This was phenomenally frustrating to hear, because it showed to me that Adam hadn’t really listened to nor understood the ruling, and it also showed that Adam was capable of calming down but did not do so when it mattered. However, I politely explained that the ruling was based on what I thought was correct, not on appeasing players, and I would be happy to explain it in more detail. Adam wasn’t interested. They left the event together, with smiles, and thanked me and Spencer for the event.
There’s so much to unpack here! I could write an entire other report about my reflections after the fact, but instead, I’d like to just touch on some of the key points here, and invite you to reflect and discuss this yourselves, should you ever find yourselves in an emotional situation with difficult players:
What is your priority going into a tough situation?
When something goes wrong, what is the first thing you find yourself trying to do? In my case, when I find myself in a situation with emotional players, the first thing I want to do – emotionally, personally, and as a judge – is try to calm the situation, and diffuse the emotions involved. This isn’t a bad impulse, but it did lead me to take too long to separate the players, in this case. Knowing that my reaction to emotional players is to try to help comfort and calm them helps me realize what important things I need to focus on.
Where is your emotional attention?
This is a corollary of the first question. Mine is to identify and focus on whichever player is more upset. I have realized that I will always try to talk to that player first, even if they’re not the player I should be talking to first, because I want to try to make the situation better. Knowing that this is my focus, again, helps me actively work to make sure I don’t lose sight of what I actually need to do to control the situation.
What power dynamic is at play between the players concerned?
It was very important that Adam and Nemo were father and son. This introduces an entirely new set of considerations, and ways to read their actions. For example, I came to realize that Nemo was not being malicious by touching Adam’s cards. He did so because he felt comfortable, because his opponent was his father. However, it also meant that one of these people was in a larger position of power than the other, and thus more capable of bullying the other player albeit unknowingly. Although Adam was the more upset player, and at first glance appeared to be more of the “victim”, the reality is that Adam had the potential to have much more control of the situation – both within the game and outside of the game – than Nemo: Adam was an adult, was an authority figure to Nemo, and was not surrounded by his friends and thus not afraid of “looking bad”. Moreover, he was capable of ending the tournament for both of them, if he wanted to, without committing any infractions whatsoever. While I think I made it clear that I wasn’t simply appeasing Adam’s tantrum, I do wish I had found some way to impress upon Adam that he needed to be more in control of himself during that situation. Perhaps that wasn’t my place, as a judge – but as a person, I wish I had made what was an important moral point.
Get help as you need it, and get control of the situation.
While this whole situation took a long time to handle well, I was able to have Spencer assist me to make it much faster than it could have gone. Part of reaching a satisfactory conclusion in the amount of time that I did came from being able to call on Spencer immediately, as I needed help, and thus focus on doing what I needed to do as the head judge. The result was that as soon as I took an active role – i.e. as soon as I pulled the players apart – the situation began to be under my control. A corollary of that is the fact that, while I never announced to the rest of the players in the event what was going on, they saw me as being in control of the situation, and things didn’t spiral. Players understood that an important situation was going on, and being actively worked on by both judges on staff – and this left a strong impression on them. Despite the long turn-around times, and 20 additional minutes added onto this round, Spencerand I received consistent feedback from the players that the event was well-run and that they had a good time.
Do what you have to do, and don’t feel that you must do it alone. We’re all in it together, and taking the resources that you need to do a thing right will really, really make the difference for everyone. It will help you, it will help players, it will help the event.