Applying Penalties

Posted in NEWS on August 1, 2006

By Wizards of the Coast

Judges spend endless hours studying complex rules and policies, practicing good manners and trying to learn from each other. It’s not easy to learn all these aspects of judging, but one of the hardest tasks a judge has to face is to apply penalties.

Penalties exist to ensure that all players follow the rules. The penalty itself needs to be strong enough to deter players from breaking the rules. We need to protect the majority of the players who do want to play correctly from the few who will do anything to win. As a judge it is your task to ensure that the game is played correctly and fairly, and penalties are necessary to achieve this end.

In this article we will explore why applying penalties is important. I will also provide some tips on how to impose a penalty in a polite and efficient way.

Why it’s important to impose penalties?

Here are a few reasons why we should not hesitate to give penalties to those who deserve them.

  1. Involved players learn that something went wrong. If we see a problem in a game where one or more of the players has committed an infraction that deserves a penalty and we don’t apply that penalty, then the players won’t learn that if they take this action, a penalty will result. If they don’t learn then they may repeat it again (intentionally or not). Receiving a penalty will help them to remember the problem so they won’t repeat it.
  2. The rest of the players will see that the rules are enforced. By applying the penalties we teach everyone that rules are enforced and that when an infraction occurs we’ll give out a penalty. Thus everybody will see that judges keep the game fair.
  3. The judge community has to be consistent. The penalty guidelines are the document we need to follow whenever a penalty is involved. If we don’t apply a penalty in a situation that clearly needs one and another judge gives a penalty in the same, then what message of consistency are we transmitting to the players? All of us need to follow the same process when we handle rules infractions.
  4. Problematic players are tracked. The DCI has a database with every penalty we record for the players. If we faithfully report all infractions, then we make it possible for the DCI to better investigate questionable player behaviour. A problematic player who commits minor infractions consistently at many different events can only be discovered if all judges are awarding and recording penalties.

Tips on how to impose penalties

First, I would like to recommend that everyone reread the article “Tips for judges” written by Erin Anderson.

When I worked as a floor judge at GP Bilbao 2005, my mentor was Christian Gawrilowicz, my team leader. He gave me many tips throughout the tournament that were very helpful to a new judge, but the best thing he taught me was not said in words. From Christian I learned that players are far more comfortable when somebody with a friendly attitude comes to solve their problems or doubts. A friendly attitude helps the novice players feel that they don’t have to be afraid of those “white and black stripes” guys. After a pleasant first encounter with a judge, a player is much more likely to call you again rather than work it out themselves. Even the pro players, who are more used to all kinds of people, would rather talk to someone who is pleasant.

With that in mind here are a few tips.

  1. Ask for attention. Many times, when you have decided on your ruling and what the appropriate penalties will be, the players are still arguing about the situation. It is important to request their attention before you start to give your ruling so they can listen carefully to all your explanations and your decisions concerning it. Sometimes it is not the players but the spectators who are arguing near the table, even speaking with the players. In the process of the investigation it may have been necessary to elicit information from the spectators as well as the players. However, you must ask for everybody’s silence when you are going to start your final ruling so that the players can focus on what you are saying.
  2. Explain the situation. Before actually give out the penalty it is strongly recommended to review the situation that generated the problem so nothing is left out. Just explain the situation as you have understood it and ask the players for confirmation. This will prevent future problems with miscommunication.
  3. Explain the infraction and penalty. It’s very important to explain why you have decided upon a specific infraction and the penalty that applies to it. You may also want to explain exactly what the penalty means. Many new players do not understand what it means to be given a Game Loss. For example, always explain to the players that after a Game Loss in the first game of a round due to a decklist problem neither player may sideboard.
  4. Make sure that everything was understood. Once you have finish explaining all the relevant rules and policies to the players or they have finish asking about your ruling make sure that everything is okay by asking the players if they understood your explanation. Sometimes a player doesn’t fully understand and if you have time and think that the tournament won’t suffer too much for that interruption try to explain it more clearly. If time is an issue, tell the player that you will explain it later more precisely, but that they have to continue playing now.
  5. Look to the eyes. Remember to always keep visual contact with the person you are speaking with. When you are listening to a player’s explanations you should watch the player’s face and eyes. Facial expressions can provide very important information. When you give your ruling it is also strongly recommended that you look directly at the players so you have visual confirmation that what you are telling them is being understood.

I hope that these tips will help everyone to successfully handle all the problems that they may encounter regarding penalties and their application. If somebody has any other useful tips I would like to listen your feedback at

If this topic interests you, I would also like to suggest that you read the article “Dealing with difficult players” by Thomas Ralph, where you can find the profiles of some of the players you can face in a tournament and how to deal with them efficiently.

Carlos Navarrete Granado