Soon-to-be a decade ago, I used to be a player. A competitive player. I’d only judge PTQs if I was qualified for the corresponding PT.
This background means I love watching games. I get thrilled watching tense games. I still remember that quarter-finals between Eduardo Sajgalik and Shi Tian Lee at PT RtR: So many strategic choices to make each side, so many possibilities to screw up. So many chances to catch mistakes players make.
I’m likely an extreme example here: I know a few other judges who used to be hard core players, but I’m aware most judges aren’t.
In the last year, I’ve been promoting watching games during tournaments. Quite a few judges told me they don’t play Magic enough to understand what’s happening in a game and that watching games is extremely boring. Here are a few tips to make watching games interesting.
[BASIC]Checking life totals
That’s the easiest you can do. Stop at a table, look at both players’ life pads and make sure they match. With so many fetchlands, painlands, Shocklands or Thoughtseize being played these days, you’ll catch quite a few mistakes. Guillaume Beuzelin reported that as soon as he starts doing it actively, he can catch 5-10 discrepancies a round.
And even if both life pads match, you can go through a quick check that life totals are correct by taking a look at the cards currently in the graveyards. As long as no creature attacked, that’s a pretty easy thing to do.
[BASIC]Checking which game players are in
Especially towards the end of the round, knowing if a player is ahead on games is pretty important in assessing potential Stalling. Indeed, if the player who is playing slowly is down a game, you can exclude Stalling (but not Slow Play).
On a related note, assessing the pace of play as soon as you reach the table is a huge help: If you start thinking about Slow Play after players have brought your attention to it, it might be too late for you to efficiently act. More information on Slow Play and Stalling available here.
[BASIC]Checking for potential Sideboard cards in game 1
Color hosers aren’t usually played Main Deck. If you see a player with, let’s say, Glare of Heresy in his hand and we’re in game 1, that’s likely worth checking his decklist to make sure he’s not covering his mistake. Here’s a small story from GP Denver 2015:
Steven Zwanger was watching a match and noticed a Game 1 Glare of Heresy, then a second getting scried to the bottom. That seemed weird so he checked the player’s list and saw the latter wasn’t playing them Main Deck.
He therefore asked the player if he was playing Glare of Heresy Main Deck. Player said yes. He involved the Head Judge who determined that the player believed the penalty was a Match Loss so he intentionally didn’t call a judge to not receive a penalty.
Despite the player was intentionally not playing them while they may have been useful in the match-upthe fact he failed to tell us about it so he could avoid the penalty, he was disqualified for USC – Cheating (Hiding an infraction).
(courtesy of David Lyford-Smith)
In a big combat, proactively calculate combat damage yourself and see if it agrees with the players’ assessment. Indeed, on complicated boards, it’s easy to forget something.
If you end up with a different count, make sure you didn’t forget a hidden lifelink (or a non-hidden one like Whip of Erebos) or a +1/+1 boost or counter.
Also, that’s a great way of training your brain to count faster!
[BASIC]Monitoring land drops
(courtesy of David de la Iglesia)
Players have a habit to first drop a land then go deep into thinking, cast a few spells or activate abilities, attack etc. Then they ask “Did I play a land this turn?” And nobody can remember if they did or not!
Worse, as it’s been recently exemplified during PT Brussels Round 6 with Patrick Chapin, the seocnd land is played and nobody notices.
To monitor that as a routine task rather than actively, you can extend your right index finger when a player plays a land while remaining focused on the game. When it’s the other player’s turn, reset the finger and use your left index!
When you get asked the question, simply check the status of your finger and if players are unsure, perform a more thorough check with the procedure described here!
Especially if the game is at its early stages, it is possible to count the number of cards drawn by each player in an attempt to detect Drawing Extra Cards: If no draw/search effect has happened, the difference should be one card only. If there’s more difference than that, feel free to ask players if one of them mulliganed!
Interestingly, since most players shuffle their hand as a habit, that makes counting a player’s cards even easier!
A detailed procedure on how to count cards can be found here.
[ADVANCED]Check what’s central in the game being played
(courtesy of David Lyford-Smith)
Try to see if there’s an obvious vector that is directing the game, to understand player’s potential motivations for cheating – e.g. if there’s a flier that is clocking a player who is stalled on the ground, be aware that fliers/removal are tempting targets for shuffle cheating.
Let’s take an example of why this can be relevant:
AP has 7 lands, casts a morph, then taps only two Swamps and exiles all of the 3 cards from his graveyard to cast Sultai Scavenger (which costs 5B, leaving him two lands open to activate
This is suspicious. However, NAP’s main threat is an unblockable creature that the Ramparts are tapping every turn. NAP doesn’t have a flyer so curving the 3/3 is, of course, a benefit, but it’s not game decisive. NAP would be better with it but is not dead without.
This situation happened during PT Fate Reforged and, based on this, I chose to conclude it was a mistake rather than Cheating.
Now, you’ve got no excuse to not watch games 😉