Being the Iceman

Posted in NEWS on July 21, 2000

By Wizards of the Coast

Mike Bahr

Warning: this is lengthy.

Greetings to DCI judges worldwide.

Last time we met, during an examination of judging situations where another certified judge was a player, I mentioned that I wished I were able to teach people to "be the Iceman". That is, to maintain an aloof impartiality, detachment from the high emotions of the tournament environment, while maintaining credibility with the players and a high degree of integrity. In short, being the Iceman is a good way to keep your players happy. Except the cheaters and rules-lawyers, of course. The Iceman is literally that, a judge who cannot be shaken, an unbiased arbiter who isn't thrown off kilter by even the most confusing rules situations; a judge who won't react to players' emotional pulls and pushes; a judge whose level of integrity is unquestioned. Most of all, to be the Iceman is a continuous journey, there's always room for improvement even if you're an expert. I'm proud to say I've been learning how to Be The Iceman for quite some time now. And I figure, why not try to teach the method, or at least the theory behind it?

Learning this magical technique is within the reach of everyone reading this page. It's about controlling your state of mind through physical, mental, and social preparation. "Being the Iceman" is sort of like the Matrix: nobody can be told exactly what it is, you have to see it for yourself. I can only show you the door, you have to walk through it. :) If you can accomplish these preparatory steps based on my suggestions and guidelines below, you will find yourself better prepared to rule well and to negotiate disputes with an even temperament.

Physical preparation is paramount: if you cannot lay this foundation, nothing else you will do will put you in a state of mind to judge well. A person's level of irritability, their "hot button sensitivity", is magnified through fatigue and health issues. I would recommend in the strongest possible manner that you as a judge get a good night's sleep for two nights or more before working a major event. If you do nothing else, this will get you halfway to Being The Iceman. Health issues are a broader concern and could wrap up an article in and of themselves, but my recommendation is that you safeguard your health as much as you can control. People who work in call centers or in classrooms will naturally have some amount of inactivity that keeps them in suboptimal shape. That's something you can't control. What can you control? Junk food intake. Alcohol intake. (Ever since I started judging seriously, I have abstained from alcohol. While this is an extreme measure, and not one that is necessarily mandatory, I think you'd be surprised at its positive effects on, well, your entire life.) Addictive habits like smoking. I know many, yes MANY, judges smoke. The problem with that, aside from its deteriorating effect on your health over time, is that controlling your decisions is not something you can accomplish very well when an addiction controls you. Cigarettes have a pharmacological effect that passes the blood-brain barrier intact, literally impairing your ability to THINK at an optimal level. And if you can't think optimally, tough judging calls will elude you, buzzed though you may be, as might your control of your temper evade you. And in addition to those factors, obviously, any drug use is so out of the question that I hardly need to bring it up. These are things you can control that affect your ability to make clutch decisions while harnessing your involuntary emotional reactions. Throw away those crutches and bad habits, from undersleeping to lighting up, and you're on your way to Being The Iceman. If your physical preparation to judge is solid, then even marathon sessions like running the all-night drafts at a GP or PT event are no big struggle.

Mental preparation is the next piece of the puzzle. This begins with the simple task of doing your homework. The rules documents, from the 6th Edition CHRB to the Tournament Floor Rules, are a sizeable amount of text. Even experts at this sort of thing aren't going to be able to quote it chapter and verse, though I have spoken to some that are approaching that level! Every few months or so, you do yourself a service if you take the time to read those documents again. Even more importantly, reading your DCIJUDGE-L (and similar lists) on a regular basis will prevent you from failing to keep up with new developments. When a player asks you if activating his Thran Foundry in response to someone else attempting to use Academy Rector's search ability will successfully stop the Rector from working, you have to know that the Rector jumps out of the game on resolution, and that the Foundry will take care of business in this case. If you hadn't been keeping up with DCIJUDGE-L last month and someone tried to rules-lawyer you on the Pyromancy/Refused-Costs issue, would you have known that it was technically legal as printed but certainly considered unsportsmanlike and subsequently ruled forbidden? A player could show you in the rules where if you don't pay any associated costs, you back up to announcement. If you have mental preparation, you will be able to tell him, "Well, it turns out that Dan Gray says you get a match loss, cheater!" OK, perhaps you wouldn't be that abrupt about it, but you see what I mean here. Information is power. Know stuff, and you can use that knowledge. Mental preparation goes beyond doing your homework and also includes keeping your mind free of preoccupations that will impair your attention to your work. The first and worst of these problems, and one that fortunately doesn't tax most of you, is trouble with the spouse. If you're having husband/wife problems, you might as well not judge at all unless you can somehow keep that stress and that situation out of sight and out of mind. Trying to cope with that mentally and judge at the same time is the DCI equivalent of drunken driving. I know because that's a mistake I've made in the past, and you should have seen some of the stupid blown calls that came about. If you're fortunate enough not to have that as a problem, you will still want to avoid dealing with stresses caused by school, work, car trouble, financial trouble, and similar things. This ties back in to physical preparation as well because sleep loss will considerably magnify the degree to which those stresses will cripple your cognitive judging abilities. And while I'm tying back in to the physical section, there are mental addictions that will mess you up almost as badly as the physical ones would. The main culprits here are laziness and gambling. Of the two, you have more control over your propensity to gamble. I like playing $5-$10 Omaha too, guys, but leave it at the casino and come to the tournament ready to officiate, not to worry about how you keep failing to river your open-ended straights or how the low never comes when you're on the kill with A-A-2-3 double suited. That's not Magic. That's not going to make you ready to rule on timing issues or to decide if a deck is stacked. It's a waste of brainpower. Mentally, you as a judge need to walk into that event like a professional, ready to put the world aside for a few hours and concentrate on making this event as fun and fair as you can make it. Your players will respect you for this, and it will put you in the right frame of mind to make good calls.

Finally, there is social preparation. This is mostly the preparation that is the product of your experience judging, and is the most telling factor when you judge often, or, conversely, fail to judge enough. There are a few sides to this: your interactions with the players, your knowledge of their interactions with each other, and your knowledge and awareness of context (already explained at great length in one of my previous articles, Ruling Concept: Contextual Awareness). Your interactions with the players is the thing that will test you more than anything else. If you are physically and mentally prepared for this, you should be able to very naturally "slip into the void", a sort of mental detachment like unto what you would feel if you were refereeing an exhibition basketball game between two teams from across the country. Players will come at you in ways you've never thought they could, and they keep discovering more. If they crack you and manage to get an emotional reaction, you're gonna get owned. No call you make on that player for the rest of the time you know them will be respected. If applicable, you can rule that their forests tap for green mana and they'll still appeal to the head judge. You'll lose all credibility. How will they do this? Emotional appeal, guilt trips, fast talk, the list goes on. "My opponent says I laid a land and I didn't. This is the second time you've ruled against me today. What is this guy, your friend or something?" From simple stuff like that to (against a foreign or minority player) "Why do you keep ruling against me? You're a racist judge!" It doesn't get much worse than that, folks. How do you keep control when accusations like that are rattling your cage? "No, I've read the rules, and I know for a FACT that you can tap your lands for mana in response to tapping them for Tangle Wire. Mana sources are faster than anything, and you can ALWAYS get mana!" We as judges know that you choose and tap during resolution of Tangle Wire's stack effect, and that if they've been tapped for mana already, they can't be included among the permanents to tap to fulfill the Wire effect. Just try explaining this to someone who is dead certain that they're right, and starts making boisterous threats to never come to your events again, etc. We have to be the Iceman. With firm neutrality and absolutely icy authority, we have to lay down the law, explaining clearly and carefully about the resolution of the Wire's effect, and instruct our player to keep a civil tone while they're at it. If you shout, you're done. They own you. If you get agitated, they own you. If you overreact and hand down too harsh a penalty, you're done. See how easy it is to fall into these traps? We have to stay frozen, unemotional, calculating. Then, and only then, do we have the leverage to make our rulings float on authority-propulsion alone. I'm happy to report that most players are far, FAR more pleasant than these examples... but then again, the Happy Players aren't the ones for which we as judges are trained to "hold the line". If you can keep it on target when the players are coming at you with everything short of ritual cursing (and sometimes that too), then you're prepared to make the right call in tough situations. Worse yet, their interactions with each other are a problem, because each of the above examples is tough to deal with... now what if an entire team of players is using these actions to try and gain an advantage for themselves? You have to recognize that they're working together, and tune out their collaborative efforts. It's almost like in the movie "Fight Club", when Ed Norton's character says "When you've been in a fight, the world has its volume turned down." Once you as a judge have been shellshocked enough by difficult player situations, new ones you encounter won't faze you a bit.

Those are the doors, now it's up to you to walk through them. Physical preparation makes you capable of judging well. Mental preparation makes you wise and wary, and ready to wrestle with puzzles and quandaries. Social preparation will harden you to the rough edges, desensitize you to the slings and arrows. All three put together, practiced over an extended period of time in varied tournament environments, will make you into the Iceman.

Go now, and start forming those crystals. :)
Mike from Tempe, over and out.



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As a tongue-in-cheek postscript, any use of the term "Iceman" in this article intended to be inclusive and gender neutral. In respect to the term "Icewoman" not being commonly used and yet in deference to the reasonable expectation that this article be as gender-friendly as possible, I would suggest that proficient judges of the female persuasion choose a moniker that appropriately denotes their station. "Ice Queens", "Ice Maidens", or the somewhat less desirable "Frozen Femmes" are some of many possibilities that we might consider. By no means should the term "Iceman" imply that only males can become such confident, respectable judges; simple observation will tell you that many males have all the spinal fortitude of a spaghetti noodle. :)