Perceptions and Intrepretations

CorrectionThe original post stated that the person who gave me ‘constructive feedback’ claimed to be a judge.  I misheard him during the interaction and have since edited the post to reflect that he was just a player.  Sometimes you don’t perceive things correctly; it happens. It doesn’t change the fact that they shouldn’t have done it but it’s also good to recognize that your own perceptions will always color your interactions as well.

Disclaimer:  As this post is about perceptions, what I write here is colored by my own perceptions of the incidents that happened during the below mentioned IQ at Victory Comics.  I have purposefully not included names as public shaming is not the way to fix a problem and instead hurts much more than it helps.  This post was hard to write because of emotions tied to it so if parts are unclear that may be why.

Most of the time when I finish an event I’m full of happy feelings and new knowledge to help me continue my journey towards Level 2.  Not every tournament is amazing, nor is every tournament smooth, but I have never finished a tournament feeling worse than when I started.

Until I judged an IQ this past Wednesday.

A lot of what we do in judging is supported by rules and policy that are explicit and can be followed easily.  But not everything in policy can be black and white because it would leave no room to bend before breaking.  Therein lies the places in judging that have to be left to the judge’s interpretation; whether or not we can perform a back up, if a player has been cheating, how much time must pass between actions before we call it slow play, as well as others.  While opinions on these may be similar they still differ between judges and situations.

Other aspects of what we do are tied up with concerns like making sure our tournaments run smoothly, that our scorekeeper has to deal with as little stress as possible, that players have a good of a time as we can manage, and that we perform well for the TO that is compensating us for running their tournament.  Players, unless their judges, often don’t know just what goes into a good tournament; to them we’re black or blue clad officials that help if there’s a problem, or more rarely give them a ruling they don’t like in which case we become ‘that judge.’

For most of the IQ, things went well.  I punted my first call (like you do) but didn’t let it get to me.  I had a lengthy investigation into a player discrepancy over whether a burn spell had gone to a player’s life total versus their creature (made more complicated by the players’ ages as younger players can sometimes be more intimidated by judges and get more nervous when involved with a judge call).  I even had a DDLP (Deck/Decklist Problem) game loss appealed to the HJ; it’s not every day a player thinks to do that.  All of these things would’ve made a great post but what happened in the last few rounds of the tournament stuck with me a lot more.

To give you some context, we had 80 players for this IQ.  That’s a staggering number for an instore event.  We activated our standby judge and also had to split ourselves up into two rooms.  For most of the day I hung out in the second room with the lower tables, something I’m generally fine with because most players at these tables have decided to stay in the event because they want to play Magic, and at seven rounds, it was at least two more rounds of Magic than most people get to play in a Comp Rel tournament for that price.

Round five or six (I honestly don’t remember other than that it was later but wasn’t the end of the tournament) I was sitting on a match that was in game three with about five minutes left before time.  The younger player realized he had no more outs and conceeded to their opponent.

Now, Magic players have a tendency to chat after a match, which is fine!  Part of what makes Magic such a great game is how social everything can be.  I’ve spoken several times about how Magic has brought so many wonderful people into my life.  However, when you’re running a seven round tournament on a Sunday, you want to make sure you turn over rounds as efficiently as possible so before they got deep into their conversation I asked them if they would please sign the match slip for me.  Most players I ask that of will sign it quickly, most of them not even stopping their conversation to do so.

But the younger player’s opponent wasn’t having it; they called me rude (they may have used the words ‘sort of’ but that never actually means sort of).  They went on express displeasure because they we’re the in one of the last table’s so it didn’t matter, that I should’ve just left them alone to talk about it, that I shouldn’t interrupted.

I tried explaining that it doesn’t matter what table you’re sitting at, we need all the slips in order to flip the round.  I then started explaining that if I didn’t they would just keep talking and would’ve explained more about how that would’ve delayed the tournament for all the players but he jumped in and then called me rude and ranted at me some more.  If not for his friend (who we’ll see later) filling out the slip for him and getting him to sign it, we would’ve wasted a full five more minutes while this man explained to me about how I was wrong for asking him to complete one simple task.

Maybe I could’ve explained things better but asking for a match slip and then getting berated because a player didn’t like how I handled it was also not the best way to approach the situation.  I did apologize several times as I sat there being insulted nor did I lash out.  It certainly wasn’t fun but a customer service background helps in lots of places while judging.

Fast forward to round six or seven (again my memory fails me) and I’m watching a match on the higher tables.  At this point, as tournaments do, it had shrunk down enough to fit into one room.  I wandered over to a match at one of the high tables.  There was under fifteen minutes in the round and some players at the higher tables have a tendency to get stuck in the ‘tank,’ meaning thinking through their available moves.  While we want to give players the chance to think, taking too long is also a problem.  Players only have fifty minutes to play at minimum two games of Magic so when players take too long it, whether it’s on purpose or not, it can negatively affect the chance of either player winning the match.

As I’m spectating, it occurs to me that nothing has happened for a long enough period that I’ve noticed the lull so I started counting the seconds.  When I got to sixty I informed the player that they needed to make a play.  They glanced at me and then continued to think for another ten or fifteen seconds before I ask them again to make a play at which point the player informs me, “You’re not my favorite judge right now.  Is that appropriate feedback?” before playing a land and asking in the same impolite tone and aggressive tone: “Is that a play?”

After the second prompting I should’ve given him a him a Warning for Slow Play for two reasons.  One, in case the match did go to time there would’ve been two extra turns added to make up for the inaction. And two, it reinforces (and not just for this player) that players need to play this game at reasonable pace so that we can avoid draws where possible.  But because of his reaction towards me I felt it prudent to not infract so that this particular interaction did not turn into a ‘Situation.’  At that point my head judge took over watchng the match so I stepped off the floor to gather myself and complete my tournament.

At that point I was already beat down.  Due to past experiences, when men get aggressive, upset, or angry at me it throws me off and makes me very nervous.  It means that I avoid conflict when I can (see above). I know that it’s a skill I need to work on because not every interaction I have with a player will be pleasant or productive and currently a large majority of our player base is men.  It won’t stop me from doing what needs to be done but I certainly need to work on my hesitation to confront issues that may result in a confrontation.

Sadly, the hits weren’t done.  As I started to sit on my assigned match for top eight, the player whom I had given the Slow Play caution to (and was also the friend of the player who had an issue with me asking him to sign the match slip) approaches me and asks if it’s okay if he gives me feedback.  I explained that I needed to watch this match and he says it won’t take long so I start to stand but he tells me it won’t take long and it’s okay if I just sit there.

Before I get the chance to respond he launches into his feedback: he had been watching me all day (supposedly) and thinks that I need to work on my player interactions.  He says they’ve been poor and that if I want to be a better judge, I need to speak to players better.  That he’s d still working on rules knowledge but that he’s really good with players so that’s how he knows my interactions weren’t great.  He hopes that I do come back to Victory to judge but that I come back as a better judge.

Friends, readers, judges, players, whomever is taking the time to read these words, if you take away only one thing from this post let it be this one: never scold someone in front of people.  There I was, sitting on a top eight match in progress, in a room full of players and spectators while this person told me how bad they thought I was.  All I could do was just smile and say okay because again I didn’t want to be part of a ‘Situation,’ but the whole thing was a punch in the gut not to mention extremely embarrassing.  He left and I barely kept it together long enough for a debrief from my head judge and to get my compensation.

I cried almost the whole three hour drive home.

I felt sad and defeated (and still do a day after) because I pride myself on my interactions with players.  I’m that judge that always has a smile, that goes above what is expected of me, that tries to fix things to the best of my ability, and who handles things as well as I can without letting the players see me sweat.  That’s not me bragging; those are simple truths.  So to have this judge (though I never caught his name so unsure if it’s actually true) decide to rip me apart in front of people, with his comments wrapped in the pretty package of ‘for my own good’ stung a great deal.

This tournament I learned that not every one is going to be great.  I learned that not everyone is going to like you but at the end of the day as long as you’re confident with what you did it’s okay if not every player believes that you’re a good judge as long as you know you are.  I learned that sometimes we have bad days caused by more that just ourselves.  I learned that I’m not going to ever let the bad days stop me and I’ll be right back to being awesome when I head judge an IQ at the same place next week.

But mostly I learned to praise in public and scold in private.  I will never do to someone what was done to me.  Build each other up, support the cracks; don’t tear each other down.  Because when you do, all that you leave behind is tears and pain.

Eternal Extravaganza 6: Can I Get an Appeal?

Edit: I had originally named a card as Pendelhaven when I actually meant Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale.  It has since been corrected.

This weekend I embarked on a first time judging adventure: being on staff for an eternal format event (Legacy and Vintage).  Legacy is full of Force of Wills and Insectile Aberrations while almost nothing is banned in Vintage.

Eternal formats can be intimidating; not only are they filled with cards whose text is confusing at best and downright wrong at worst (trust me, oracle text is your friend), but several of the decks in the room were easily worth two or three times the value of my car.  I was happy to not be on the deck checks team for this event; handling that much value would have absolutely made me jittery.

I went into this weekend nervous; not only had I never really played either format but I also had never really judged either of them as well.  Another judge gave me a sage piece of advice when I brought this up:  know your basics and it doesn’t matter what format you’re judging, the answers will still be the same. Just that one nugget of info helped calm me down and see that no matter what kinds of cards people might be slinging, they’re still Magic cards and they still follow all the same rules.

Sometimes all you need is someone else to give you a little sanity check to help bring things back into focus.

As with every judge weekend, I was excited and raring to go.  Our head judge for the event was  L3 Abe Corson.  I had been on his team for at least two GPs and knew him to be a kind and knowledgeable judge.  He’s one of the judges that I tend to put in the category of: ‘will forget more about Magic in his lifetime than I will ever learn.’

Now, usually at larger events like this, you will get much more interaction with your team lead and the other floor judges than you will with the head judge. The head judge is there to handle appeals or tricky calls, put out fires, and check in with team leads to make sure their event is going as smoothly as it an.

Little did I know but Abe and I were going to be interacting a lot during this Legacy tournament.

I’ve discovered that players who tend to stick with only on particular format over others all tend to share certain personality quirks, at least when it comes to handling judge calls.  For Legacy players, a lot of them assume that they know more about their deck than you do.  It can lead to Legacy players being a little bit prickly when it comes to judge rulings.

My first adventure into the world of Legacy Magic involved Thalia and Arlinn Kord.

“Judge!  It’s my opponents upkeep and I just noticed that I cast Arlinn Kord while I controlled a Thalia.  I then cast Gaddock Teeg and passed the turn.  The problem is I only have six mana sources.”

It seemed like a pretty straight forward call to me.  Smelling like a potential back up, I asked a few more questions; ‘Had the active player drawn for turn?’  ‘Had anyone played any other cards?’ ‘Do both players agree to the description of what happened?’

I felt proud of my self; the information I had gleaned from the players was concise and clear.  Like most judges, I didn’t enter the program with inherent skills surrounding investigations and it is an area I’m actively working to improve.  However, no matter how certain I was, backing up without the approval of the head judge is a huge no-no, so I popped over to my head judge, cried out the phrase that will stop most judge conversations, ‘I have a potential back-up’ and then explained the situation that had been presented to me.  Even better, my head judge agreed with my assessment so I headed back to the players and explained my ruling and the need for a backup.

The player who committed the error was not happy.  ‘I thought that if an error happened and we went too far, that we couldn’t go back and fix it?’ I explained that because their opponent had not yet drawn their card for turn, no significant game actions had passed so a backup was our best option.  At that point they got a little agitated and said, ‘Not to be rude or anything, but can I get an appeal?’

Judging big tournaments means that there’s a leadership structure in place.  No one is right all the time, and when players know that they can potentially protect themselves from a bad call, it lessens their stress and helps keep moods up.  That system is appealing a floor judge’s ruling to the head judge, though if the floor judge running to your call is the head judge and you want to appeal you’re out of luck.

Now, I felt to the core of my bones that my ruling was right, but I could tell from the way they phrased it, that they had maybe had judges in the past who might not have acted graciously when asked for an appeal, so I smiled and told them I would be happy to grab the head judge.  I trotted back to Abe, explained I had an appeal, and proceeded to shadow him for the rest of the call.

I’ve been actively judging for less than a year at this point, so I know that my investigation skills are new and growing, but I can only hope to be as good as Abe one day.  In roughly a minute had all of the information, including a crucial step I missed; that the player whose upkeep it was had activated and resolved a top ‘spin’ (looking at and rearranging the top three cards of their deck.) I’d consider that a significant game action, as did my head judge, so he overturned my ruling and we handed out infractions (GRV/FTMGS) and kept the boardstate as is.  He also took a few seconds to explain why, and let me know that my initial ruling had been correct but the revelation of more actions changed things.  I thanked him and moved on.

The next round, I was sitting on a match between Grixis control decks.  Active player (AP from here) swung in with a little creature and a big creature.  There was some conversation about damage then AP passes their turn only to glance at their life total pad and begin to scrunch their eyebrows.

“You should be dead.”

“What?  You only swung in with delver.”

“No.  I swung with the Angler too.”

At this point Non-Active Player (NAP) realized that they had missed the other creature attacking and placed their head in their hands with a groan.  Luckily I had been sitting on the match so I could jump on the issue without waiting for them to necessarily call me. Again, my investigative skills were put to the test but this was a much tougher call, not to mention match ending if I ruled in AP’s favor. It’s a personal opinion of mine that if the call I make is potentially match ending it is time to find the head judge and talk it over with them.  So back I went to Abe and again I was relaying the fruits of my investigation.

The tricky part here was that I had been watching the match.  I saw what was certainly a legal attack, and what was certainly a legal choice of not blocking but I hadn’t heard the conversation as well as I’d liked.  But, unfortunately, I believed that everything that had happened in the match had been perfectly legal and that NAP had lost this game because he had honestly not seen the second attacker.  Again, Abe agreed with my assessment after discussing it with me so I went back to the match to relay my decision.

NAP looked crushed. I’m a firm believer in the ‘soft skills’ of judging; interacting with players, customer service, making sure they have as good of a tournament as they can which was not happening here at all.  I gave them a few seconds to process it all and then offered, “If you’re uncomfortable with my ruling, you do have the right to an appeal.”  NAP looked like I had given them a sliver of hope replied, “If you don’t mind, I’d like to appeal.”

I was much more okay with this appeal due to the messiness of the situation so I popped back to Abe and brought him back to the match.  Again, Abe worked his magic (pun very much intended) and pulled out the conversation that had happened over damage.  Both players agreed that NAP had said, ‘One…?’ which is much more ambiguous than ‘I go to one’ or ‘I take one’ and Abe overturned my ruling for the second time that day.

Getting overturned two rulings in a row can be a tough pill to swallow for any judge, which Abe may have been worried I was feeling because he again made sure to note that overturning these calls had not been because of my poor judge knowledge and more that when he sat down, he was able to gather information that I had missed in the initial investigation.  Both times that information was crucial enough to change the outcome of the call.

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I would go on that weekend to almost get appealed two more times.

The first was a tricky Tabernacle call where the player was not happy with the ‘resolve the default action’ ruling but because the head judge came back with me as I gave the ruling, and showed the player the relevant rules text he eventually drop his objections and played on.  The last tricky call actually happened the second day while I swiped a call from the vintage tournament (my side events had been pretty quiet) involving missed delayed zone triggers (starring the same player from the Tabernacle call) but after some grumbles he agreed with my decision.

Overall, this weekend showed me how much I had grown as a judge, and honestly as a person.  In previous posts I’ve discussed my almost crippling fear of failure and in the past months that I have been judging and writing this blog (the very act of putting my thoughts into space also terrifies me) I’ve actively been working on those fears.  Eight months ago, when I first began this judging adventure, if I had been appealed and overturned two calls in a row I would’ve spiraled into a deep pit of anger and despair at myself.

But if there’s one thing that’s been good about failing the Level 2 test twice and being faced with the holes in my knowledge it’s that failure has become a bit of a friend, albeit the acquaintance who invites themselves to movies and talks through the whole thing so you really don’t want them there all the time.

I also look at these interactions less like failures and more like opportunities to learn (which is what failure really is about).  If neither player had appealed, the full story would have never been out in the open for either of these two calls.  I also wouldn’t have been able to observe a better experienced judge handle these investigations.  My repertoire of skills wouldn’t have grown.

So don’t take getting appealed like a bad thing.  If you’re right, usually your call will be upheld.  If you’re wrong, it means your error was caught and there will be one less player who’s now less likely to call a judge for fear of the wrong ruling.  Or, even better, you’ll be overturned and when the head judge leaves, they’ll not only leave behind a more educated player, but also a more educated judge.