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.
“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.
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.