Investigating like the Pros

Hi all,

Today, guest writer Steffen Baumgart tells us what he learned about investigations from senior judges Matteo Callegari, Jurgen Baert, and David de la Iglesia. Enjoy!


There comes a moment in every judge’s career where they will be thrown into an investigation for the first time. You might have read some articles about it or you might have just passed your Level 1 exam, but no matter how well prepared you are, you will most likely feel lost. What questions do you ask? How long do you investigate? When should you wrap up your investigation and let the tournament continue?

“Investigations” are one of the 9 qualities that are explicitly tested in Level 3 candidates, which means they are important (and tricky) enough that they warrant their own category, in addition to being hard to run and master, even for experienced judges. That’s why I took the opportunity to pick the brains of three senior Level 3 judges of the judge program and shed some light on how they approach an investigation. I wanted to figure out what someone with hundreds of investigations under their belt would do differently than the aforementioned first-time investigator. My interview partners were Matteo Callegari, L3 from Italy and the last judge to certify for Level 4 before the NNWO, Jurgen Baert, L3 from Belgium and Head Judge of more than a dozen GPs, and David de la Iglesia, former L3 from Spain and the Sphere Leader for the Web & Social Media Sphere.

Approaching an Investigation

The first thing that I wanted to know: how to approach an investigation? Before I could answer that, I had to determine what an investigation actually is. My conclusion from the interviews is, that every judge call should be treated as a possible investigation and every investigation should start with the basics: figuring out what has happened. For this, you should take a look at the board state, make sure you understand what the players are calling a judge for and gather some basic data like life totals, number of cards in hand and similar relevant information. Investigating doesn’t necessarily mean that somebody is cheating, often you’re simply investigating whether someone has played a land or missed a card draw. Those are the basic skills that every judge should bring to a tournament and they make up the majority of judge calls.

The investigation becomes a lot more challenging when you discover that a mistake has been made, for example when an extra card has been drawn or a game rule has been violated. Mistakes like these usually create an advantage for one of the two players and it should be your goal to find out how big the impact on the game state is and whether one of the players would have a compelling reason to cause the mistake intentionally. Matteo suggests to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Did one of the players get a serious advantage?
  • Did the player survive or win because of the mistake?
  • Was the mistake called for by the player or the opponent?
  • Was the mistake small enough to possibly go unnoticed?

Depending on the circumstances, there are different strategies you can follow to get a better chance at uncovering the truth. When both players disagree strongly with each other, you can treat that as a sign that there might be something fishy. Separating the two players from each other helps you get a statement that is not influenced by the other player.

David’s most common strategy is to establish a “most likely” timeline of actions and see how the players’ stories match to that. His approach is both about finding the “what” – understanding current and past game state / actions, but also the “why” – understanding the players’ motivations. The former means asking the right questions, with which you need to identify where the problem is quickly before the players get their stories diluted or have time to rethink them. The latter means understanding why someone would take an illegal action at a specific given point. This is especially relevant with opportunistic cheating, which he believes is the most common type. David pointed out how the floor judge is your most reliable source of information, but you should always take into account the possibility of spectators having relevant information too. If you have established a timeline of actions that would lead to a (severe) penalty for one of the players, try to think of evidence that would confirm (or refute) your theory. Eric Shukan has written an excellent article about these so-called “collateral truths” a while ago, that still contains valuable information.

In the end, what I learned from Jurgen is that you need to figure out three things:

  1. Did the player do something wrong? Usually, this is a rule that has been broken.
  2. Did the player gain an advantage from it? This should be your first focus.
  3. Did the player know it was wrong to do so? This is the hardest question, where a lot depends on your investigation techniques and experience.

Oddly enough, David has experienced that confronting a player with the facts straight away sometimes will lead to an immediate resolution, for example when the player suddenly admits the attempt to cheat, so keep that in mind when you’re unsure about number 3. Even in these cases you should be careful to not miss anything that might be relevant for the disqualification report later.

Event Size and Judge Level

Tournaments vary greatly in size, attendance, atmosphere and prize payout. Similarly, the tournament staff can consist of dozens of experienced Level 3 judges or a single Level 1 judge. Each of them could be confronted with an investigation, so I wanted to know if the size of the event or the Rules Enforcement Level changes how they approach an investigation. They all agreed that the techniques and strategies are independent of the REL or event size, while the available resources are not. Matteo noted that you might have additional judges to help with your investigation at larger events and that the risk vs. reward analysis should take these factors into account, as there may be a higher incentive to cheat when the stakes are higher. On the other hand, ignorance of the rules is much more likely at casual and small events, so assessing whether a player deliberately broke a rule should consider the circumstances. David suggested to take more time to explain a ruling or investigation at Regular REL events, but to cut straight to the chase at larger events to save time. This doesn’t mean that you should deny them a detailed explanation if they request it, but better do it after the match has ended so they can finish it in time.

Something else I wanted to know was, whether they think if investigation techniques are sufficiently taught to Level 1 and 2 judges. The common answer, one that I have experienced myself, was that investigations are a common area for improvement among Level 1 and 2 judges. Even though each judge call can (and should) be treated as a potential investigation, a lot of judges don’t see it that way. There are great resources available online to read about investigation techniques, for example on the conference content blog, but all the reading material in the world won’t replace practicing in a real tournament. Jurgen suggests that the investigations training, like workshops with the Random Situation Generator at local judge conferences, should have a bigger focus at least for Level 2 judges, because they are more likely to head judge competitive events, while David believes that another feasible solution would be to have someone shadow you when investigating, which might not be practical at smaller events.

Investigation techniques

Each investigation is unique, but they often include similar elements, which you can handle with common techniques. All 3 judges agreed that there is a lot of experience, gut feeling and natural flow involved and Matteo provided some techniques to keep in mind during an investigation:

  • Understand the game state: During an investigation, players or judges may change things at the table and lose relevant information, so make sure you are aware of all the details before that happens.
  • Get all the facts: This may include counting cards and lands to determine if there were extra cards drawn or spells cast with the wrong mana, ask spectators or former opponents, (after letting the players continue their match, as these investigations can be very time consuming) try to verify statements given by the players.
  • “Why” over “how”: Time is often of the essence and it is more important to ask the players why they did something rather than how, as the latter can be easier fabricated and the former requires more thinking and planning. If necessary, make sure that players are unable to influence each other’s statements, for example by talking to them away from the table (Note by Daniel: I often prefer sending a player away and talking to the other at the table, so that we have all strategic elements available. This also lets me check the opponent’s hand and understand each player’s plans.).
  • Collateral truths: When you have a strong feeling or discover the first hard evidence, don’t stop there. Try to look for something that would change your mind and be ready to accept it if you find it.
  • Separate players: When both players disagree with each other, separate them as soon as possible, so they don’t influence each other’s statements. This will also assert your authority and the players will realize, that you’re serious with your investigation.
  • Evaluate risk vs. reward: Players usually have a threshold for opportunistic cheating. Make yourself aware of how low the risk and how high the reward is in the current situation.
  • When you don’t have hard evidence: that’s also okay. Sometimes, there is no definite answer to an investigation, which is where you have to rely on deduction, witness statements and your gut feeling.
  • Be honest with players: Don’t try to trick them into being disqualified or pressure them for a statement. You’re there to collect information and make a reasonable choice in order to preserve the tournament integrity.

Body and Mind

When you’re talking to a player, you shouldn’t only consider their statement, but also how they presented it. Were they nervous? Did they glance to their friends for confirmation? When asked, how important non-verbal clues like body language are versus player statements, I received mixed answers. While Matteo thinks that the body communicates a lot (and that it’s more difficult to lie through it), David says that there is a strong cultural component to it. All three of them however agreed that you should take “body language” with a grain of salt. It is okay to take nonverbal clues into account when making a decision, but the basic facts like the risk vs. reward estimation or the evidence you’ve discovered should be more important. Unless, as Jurgen noted, you’re well trained in reading body language – then it can be a valuable tool. Also keep in mind that your own body language can influence how the players react to an investigation a great deal, too!

When you might be wrong

Making a ruling under time pressure is hard. Sometimes you’re torn between two equally likely scenarios and don’t get it right. Matteo suggests to be open with the players and tell them that the situation is difficult (as there is maybe no hard evidence of what happened) and that you cannot be 100% sure of what happened, based on the what they told you and what you were able to collect. Being honest with players is always a good strategy. Jurgen had a situation where he mistakenly disqualified a player that he later found out was innocent, which he handled by amending the DQ report afterwards and letting that player know about what he found out. It is human to make mistakes, as long as you’re open about it, the players will most likely understand it.

Wrapping up the Investigation

When you don’t have much experience with investigations yet, you’ll probably like to take at least an hour or two in order to figure out all the little details, get all the statements and verify all the claims. Unfortunately, that’s not possible in a real tournament where taking longer than 10 to 15 minutes is often frowned upon – the players want to continue with their tournament, rather than wait for your investigation. So I wanted to know: when should I stop with my investigation?

I learned that the answer is: when you stop gaining new information. A good sign for this is, when you’re going in circles, asking the same questions you’ve asked before. That should be your soft limit, at which point you step back and see if you’re missing a piece of information to make up your mind (and if you can get it in time) or if you are able to make a decision at that point. If you announce your verdict and find new data afterwards, your investigation was probably too superficial or short. There should also be a hard time limit, Matteo says that it is usually 10 minutes at Grand Prix events, at which point you should stop investigating as a precaution to not delay the tournament too much. You always have the option to tell the players to keep playing and continue your investigation in the meantime, though this would require a very good understanding of the game state beforehand. Sometimes this could even be the best way to continue the investigation, for example when the game state is less relevant than the way a player looks at their cards or shuffles their deck and you want to watch them do that in an inconspicuous situation.


There are many different paths through an investigation, many techniques to be applied and many facets to figure out. Certain aspects, on the other hand, should never change – no matter if it’s your first or your 100th investigation. The responses from Matteo, Jurgen and David have shown a lot of similar cornerstones to investigations, things like: estimate risk versus reward, separate the players, understand the game state, apply the rules at all RELs similarly, don’t value body language over factual evidence, be honest to the players and tell them when you’re not 100% sure, stop investigating when you’re going in circles and don’t forget to educate the players! While the details may vary, based on experience, I hope that this article gave you a good overview over what you could learn from someone that has judged at hundreds of events in all sizes and shapes. It definitely has helped me. 🙂

Thanks again to Matteo Callegari, Jurgen Baert and David de la Iglesia for their detailed answers to my lengthy questions, Nicola DiPasquale for the mentoring during this project and Ivan and Dustin for proofreading.