The Competitive Judge: How to Judge a Judge

Since my first article, I had always intended this to be a series; a sort of sharing of my perspective as someone who identifies both as a high-level judge and as a competitive (albeit currently still amateur) Magic player. With the departure of PPTQs, the previous topic has become rather dated, though many of the ideas contained therein about your personal obligation to accept last-minute offers to judge still hold true.

I enjoyed the opportunity to play in two Grand Prix main events recently, being GP Madison in May and most-recently GP Minneapolis. My experience, particularly at the latter event, reminded me of something Riki Hayashi wrote a while ago concerning how judges treat other judges who are playing in their event. I figured this was a good opportunity to rehash some of those ideas, but from the perspective of what I consider to be best practices when dealing with a judge who is playing.

They are a player

If everyone sufficiently internalized the idea in those four short words, I could stop writing now. In case that doesn’t happen, allow me to expound.

When I’m playing in an event, my focus is on my play and on my match. I act as a player, because in those situations I am. That is what I came to the tournament to do. I did not come to help solve disputes between players, or answer rules or policy questions from judges and players, nor necessarily discuss the latest updates in the judging world in general. Now, often I will engage in such situations anyway, but that is a personal choice that I make. It is still somewhat jarring to be asked a question when there are people on staff being paid in part to answer questions.

Of course, there comes a time in a judge’s career where “the black” as it were is never really off. I’m never not a judge, nor is it reasonable to expect someone to treat me as if I did not know the things that I know. The thrust of this point is what the judge who is playing came to do. Namely: play.

…so treat them like a player

There is a fair amount to unpack in this statement.

First, treating a player differently than other players can send the wrong message. If you’re buddy buddy with one of the two players at the table, that can make the judge-player’s opponent question your objectivity/potential for bias.

Second, there is sometimes an inclination to razz judges who are playing. We’ve all heard the jokes. Statements like “those who can’t play, judge” or “Oh, you lost? I guess that’s why you judge.” aren’t really welcome. Riki’s blog post highlights this aspect of it very well, so rather than retread on those ideas I would encourage everyone to give it a read if you haven’t already. Thankfully I have personally seen a lot less of this type of thing since the post was created, but that doesn’t make the underlying ideas any less true.

My final point in treating them like a player comes from a perspective of when a judge breaks a rule. Yes, we can skip the “do they know how this works?” question most of the time here, and that’s reasonable. However, and here I speak from personal experience, knowing the rules very well does not translate to perfectly precise play at all times. Judges are human and make mistakes. This also occurs when those judges aren’t judging, but doing other things in life like math, cooking, typing, and yes, even playing Magic. It is incorrect to assume that, because you know the player’s body of knowledge is vast due to being a judge, they obviously know exactly what they were doing and were breaking the rules on purpose.

All that being said, it is equally important to treat them like any other player in this situation from another direction. That is, the judge who is playing is not beyond scrutiny and you should not assume no cheating and shortcut past an investigation you would otherwise conduct, even if you personally know them. This is true regardless of the certification level of the judge or their status in the program. Even if you are personally convinced from the onset that the judge would never cheat, imagine how it looks to the other players, particularly the judge’s opponent, when you just make that assumption rather than doing your due diligence in investigating.

I’ll give a real-life example from GP Minneapolis. I’m playing Eldrazi Tron versus Hogaak. We get to a point in the game where I’ve got a Chalice of the Void with one counter in play, played last turn. I make tron (3 lands in play) and play an Ugin, the Ineffable (noting the 1 colorless mana floating). I minus to destroy my opponent’s Hogaak. I then think about the rest of my hand, drop two copies of Expedition Map into play saying “these are free,” then cast a Walking Ballista X=1, then go to clear the floating mana and pass the turn. This is when I notice my Chalice, go “oh, right” pick up the maps and say “these are countered” and put them in my graveyard.

It is at this point that judges intervene. I get asked “why are those maps in the graveyard now?” to which I respond that I have a Chalice X=1 in play, so they should’ve been countered.

The questions I was subsequently asked were very apropos, and what I would expect to be asked in this situation. Even though I was clearly willing to annihilate all game advantage I could’ve gotten from my error, by not calling a judge I could’ve been trying to avoid a penalty. I gain an advantage here if I later miss a trigger from my own Chalice on purpose and this previous one is not captured nor tracked. Judges would not be aware I had missed one earlier to alert them of the need to investigate with additional suspicion.

To be clear, my intent was not to avoid the penalty. Honestly, it wasn’t even on my mind until a judge got involved, at which point my “judge brain” kicked in and went “oh right, I should get a Warning here, and so even though we’re agreeing as players to fix it there is still a reason to get a judge involved.” This is directly related to what I mentioned above; when the focus is on playing, someone who is a judge is not necessarily thinking like one in the moment.

The point here is that, by conducting the same investigation that he would have with any other player in the event, John Brian showed the players and other judges on staff that he was treating the situation seriously and was not treating me as if I were somehow immune to suspicion due to my status.

So when you see that you’ve got a judge playing in your event, do them and everyone else a favor.

When you’re interacting with them as a player, treat them as you would any other player.