Unless you’ve been ignoring the judge forums, judge blogs, judge podcasts, judge tweets, and so on this week, you are already aware of the coming changes to judge foil distribution. To be clear, I’m referring to the fact that they will no longer be just routinely handed out at every GP and that they will, instead, be part of a larger program called The Magic Judge Exemplar Program.

With all this talk of the future, why not take a look at the past of this particular aspect of judging?

The Saga Begins…

If you didn’t start playing (or judging) Magic until sometime after 1998, you may not be aware of some of the issues that plagued earlier releases of our favorite game. Starter Decks (not booster packs, starter decks) of sets would occasionally turn up having all rare cards. Printers shipped sets that should not have been released. Cards were printed with the wrong frame color and art. Cards were printed with the wrong power/toughness.

And a few foil copies of Lightning Bolt and Stroke of Genius snuck into packs of Urza’s Saga.

This was our first peek that something special was afoot. Those cards soared in price like no others before them–above even the power 9.

These foils started their existence in circulation accidentally, but then got shipped to judges with the intent of recognition — to say “Well done.” Sometimes it was for events, but others were just mailed without much specific mention or announcement. Though dated officially as 1998, I want to say that I received my copies of these cards (plus Gaea’s Cradle) a year or so later.

This was true of foils for a couple years–until 2000 or so. They would show up from time to time, without much notice or comment. Memory Lapse, Counterspell, and Vampiric Tutor appeared in my mail, just because I kept my address current. (HINT! Keep your address current!) Don’t get me wrong; I loved them. I just wasn’t always clear on why I got them.

Keeping the Balance

Starting in the 2001-2002 season, cards started being given out more regularly at events. Keep in mind that, at this time, a large GP was 300 people. Judges that traveled for these events did so with no real promise of compensation. They might get a box… they might not.

This pattern of giving a gift card continued for quite a number of events through 2006. A few cards were mailed to judges directly, and some of these were clearly because they had more cards than they needed for the specific event.

The important thing I’d like to note here is that at this point they were not an incentive or compensation. You couldn’t count on them. There might be something cool in your mailbox at any time… but more than likely not. In one of little ironies of life, the card for the first PT I ever judged was Tradewind Rider — which I still don’t have in my binder of judge promos. Yes, I have such a thing; I like that it shows where we’ve been and where I have been as a judge.

All in all, there were a number of these cards that appeared at times. The reach was uncertain, the reason they were received was occasionally not clear.

Growing Ranks

From 2006-2008, distribution was particularly hazy as GP attendance fluctuated pretty wildly. If you got a packet of foils, it could be most anything. It might be a current one, it might be an older one.

Around 2007-2009, you may have received a packet of foils at a Star City Games event. This was a nice surprise when it started! There was some talk of making these available for other large series-type events, but that didn’t happen. Instead, it stopped just as suddenly as it started and and the foils were reserved for Wizards’ events.

Johanna Virtanen reminded me that Europe for a while had a level-dependent system with numbered packs (1, 2 and 3). L3s got all three packs. The contents were not the same, sometimes the most valuable stuff was in the L1 pack that everyone got, sometimes it was in the L3 pack. You never knew.

I don’t know why this happened; all I know is that this is how foils were distributed. It seems that some experimentation was taking place, and they were still pretty special. Through this time, I kept my foils pretty close and would only trade them (or give them in some cases) to other judges. Foiled out decks were not in vogue; foils were still pretty novel but started to catch on toward the end of this period.

Around 2009, distribution shifted in favor of uniformity. At this time, each judge got the same packet, regardless of level; 10 foils for a Grand Prix (2 of the newest ones at a Grand Prix) and 20 (4 each of 5 promos) for a Pro Tour. This was pretty consistent for about 3 years (though not perfect; Aaron Hamer tells me that PT packets ranged from 18-22 and a few GP packets had 14 cards) as popularity of the shiny cards really started to grow.

In 2012, packs transformed into mini-packs where each judge received a number of packets equivalent to their judge level. This was amazing! Judge foils become an expectation, one that amplified the opportunity to work a GP. There were a lot of judges at these events, and a lot of foil cards handed out. I personally know judges who would open their backpacks and stumble across any number of packets that they just never opened. First world problems, to be sure.

This points out a key problem; a few judges got a lot of foils but the penetration — how far into the program the foils reached — was not particularly great.

Also, the significance of these foils morphed into something wholly different; they became an item that judges could use to finance their trips. They became something that just about anybody could acquire from a dealer, because judges would dump them to pay for their trip. I’m no exception; I’ve sold packets and single cards I didn’t need.

Contrasting this to when I would hold them for other judges, I can’t help but feel a bit disappointed. These foils just haven’t meant as much as those early cards even though they are clearly a fungible, sellable asset.

Infinite Reflection

Consider… being turned down for a GP, unable to travel to one, or just not enjoying GPs for some reason will no longer mean you have no shot at foils.

Consider… you don’t have to guess at what will be in a foil packet before making a decision on whether you can afford a GP trip.

Consider… foils as a milestone of your work in the judge program.

Think of the coming change to the foil program to be a reset; it’s a chance for recognition to be every bit as observable and tangible for those working locally as for those working at a high level.

We’ve seen a few foils sent as recognition recently. RCs have sent foils to those in their region for being awesome. High level judges have sent some out for special tasks or projects. Wizards directly mailed Force of Wills as recognition for helping the program grow. Each of these cases has been special.

I have to admit that I was shocked at the sudden deployment of this change. Yet, the more I think about it, the better I like the idea. As always, time will tell–but I like the idea of having more cards in my judge binder that I know why I have them.


For an awesome list of judge promos by year (and many other things), check out

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