The Business of Judging

Posted in NEWS on December 8, 2015

By Wizards of the Coast

George Macoukji

When you think about it, it makes an odd kind of sense. Judging is a lot like running a business. You have to worry about your customers (players), suppliers (the tournament organizer), and other employees (your fellow judges). Your profit comes in the form of a well-run tournament with happy players who would recommend you in the future. If your business makes a loss ... well, let's not think about that.

Given this situation, it would make sense to apply some business logic to the world of judging. This series of articles is intended to provide you with a few pointers from the business world, adapted to Magic judging.

Part 1: Management by Exception

What is it?

There are as many ways to manage a company as there are managers. Analysts and consultants have come up with numerous ways to classify and simplify the techniques used by most managers so as to bring some order to this chaotic field. One handy method they've come up with is management by exception, or MBE.

MBE is a system where you can break down all decisions into two categories: programmable and non-programmable. A programmable decision is a routine one that occurs frequently. The response can be decided ahead of time, and the action taken is the same each time the decision has to be made.

A simple example of a programmable decision is a supply cabinet. If an employee requests pens, give him a box from the cabinet. When only one box of pens is left, it's time to reorder a case of pens for future needs. In each of these cases, you've identified a problem (e.g., insufficient pens); you've identified the solution (purchase more pens); and you've set the conditions for taking the action (when only one box is left).

A non-programmable decision is one that isn't routine or takes special skills to handle. This is one that requires a judgment on the part of the manager. There are no hard and fast rules in a situation like this; there may be general guidelines, but they don't specify a non-negotiable course of action.

Continuing the supply cabinet example, what if an employee asked to use a specific brand of pencil rather than the pens you normally stock? There's no simple answer to this. As a manager, you consider the cost of the pencils, how easy or hard it is to find them, how important they are to the employee, and how much you want to keep the employee happy. You balance all those factors and come up with a decision - but it's not one that can be programmed. Each time an employee makes such a request, you have to go through the whole process again.

George Macoukji makes it a policy to closely supervise some matches

How does this apply to Magic?

There are many examples of MBE when dealing with penalties. Each entry in the penalty guidelines is a programmed decision. If you determine that an action constitutes a minor case of unsporting conduct, then the player gets a warning. If the player draws too many cards at the start of a game, that player is forced to take a mulligan.

In this case, a non-programmable decision would be one for which you can't prepare. What if Player A loudly calls Player B a homosexual? Would it matter if Player B really is gay? Does this constitute unsporting conduct, which merits a warning or maybe a game loss, or is it just a player yelling, which earns him a caution for disruptive behavior? Decisions like this take a sense of the players' intent, the reason behind the action, and the result. In the example above, if Player B breaks down into tears at the false accusation, then maybe it's a case of unsporting conduct. On the other hand, if Player B proudly agrees with the statement, maybe you should just ask the players to keep it down.

In other words, non-programmable decisions are the tough cases that actually require you to apply your judgment, as opposed to just reading the answer from the Penalty Guidelines.

How does this help me?

Quite simply, MBE allows you to regulate your time. The Penalty Guidelines are a great start for any judge, but there will always be situations that can't be neatly slotted into one category. There are also cases and examples that don't really fit into any of the categories.

By applying MBE principles to judging, you can set some basic guidelines for yourself on the weird cases. By having something with which you can compare a problem situation, you reduce the amount of time it takes you to handle the problem. That leaves you more time to focus on the truly convoluted cases.

This is not a replacement for the Penalty Guidelines. Rather, think of this as a supplement that you create for your personal use. By thinking about weird situations ahead of time and applying MBE principles to them, you can come up with an initial course of action that helps you judge more efficiently.

How can I apply this?

Sit down ahead of time and think about some of the more complex decisions you've made while judging. Can you simplify them down to a simple situation that's generally applicable? What solution would be fair? Create a list of your decisions, and see how many you can program. Then, when the situation comes up in the future, you have a written reference you can turn to.

Keep in mind that since these are largely personal cases, your idea of what is and isn't programmable is likely to be different from another judge's. Likewise, any decisions you may come up with may not work for another judge. This is not intended to be a master listing of what to do in every case; rather, it's just an additional guide that you make for yourself.


MBE is a powerful business technique for a reason: it works. It can simplify a manager's life and keep the workload at a manageable level. The same techniques, applied to Magic, can help you to plan ahead and decide how you will react to certain situations. Ultimately, it's up to you to decide how MBE can best benefit you.