The Business of Judging: The Assembly Line

Posted in NEWS on December 8, 2015

By Wizards of the Coast

George Macoukji

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.

This is the second in a series of articles intended to provide you with a few pointers from the business world, adapted to Magic judging. (Part 1)

Part 2: The Assembly Line
What is it?

Way back in the dark days of production, each person used to be a generalist. That is, each person had to know everything there is to know about his or her craft. A potter would know everything there is to know about pottery - where to find the right mud, how to collect and store it, how to shape it into a pot (or amphora, or whatever), how to bake that pot in a kiln, what temperature would be needed, how much wood to achieve that temperature, what to do with that pot when it was done baking, and what price to charge for it so as to maximize profit.

While this was fine for simple items like pots, it grew to be a serious problem when attempting to make more complex objects. Imagine trying to build a complete house from scratch - you'd have to design the blueprints, get the permits, finance the house, and do dozens or other, wildly different tasks. Or maybe you like to custom build your own cars - starting with mining the metals? Could you imagine an army where each soldier has to make his own weapons from scratch - at the start of each battle? Obviously, some tasks cannot realistically be performed by a single person.

So, over time, people started to specialize. One person might have specialized as a miner - he knew where to find the best metals and how to get them out of the earth. Another specialized as a drover - she could transport anything anywhere in a reasonable period of time. A third became a blacksmith - he would work the metals to the specific demands of his customers. A fourth became a gunsmith - he could take the metal and turn it into a gun or rifle. A fifth specialized as a soldier - he could take that gun and use it quite effectively in combat.

Over time, people realized that if you put all these tasks end-to-end, you could significantly reduce the times and costs associated with production. Eli Whitney had created standardized parts for guns, so that any gunsmith could repair a faulty rifle or pistol by simply swapping the defective component for a fresh one. George Eastman (Of Eastman-Kodak fame) tried putting all the steps in processing photos in a line to speed up the work. Henry Ford combined these concepts into the standardized production line when he built car production plants for the Model T Ford in 1908, and by 1913, he created the first moving assembly line.

The key to making the assembly line concept work is to identify four elements: continuous flow, division of labor, reducing wasted effort, and interchangeable parts.

How does this apply to Magic?
Although the concept has come to take on a somewhat derogatory connotation (mass production tends to make people think of bulk products done really cheaply), in truth assembly lines can speed up your routine and make your tournaments more enjoyable for players. Let's examine those four key elements and how they can help you.

Continuous Flow
This one is obvious: keep the tournament going. Any delays that happen will only serve to annoy your players. Granted, you often need that time for important work, but you should still try to minimize it.

How many players are you prepared to handle? GP Lisbon had 670 players.

If you're head-judging an event (particularly if you've never done that before), sit down a day or two ahead of time and jot down on a piece of paper some notes for the event. Will you have a judge's meeting? What do you want to say to the judges? What announcements do you need to make at the start of the tourney? What's your policy on extra time - will you enforce 10 minutes for extra turns, or will you allow them to proceed to their natural conclusion? Try to plan ahead for every contingency and have a solution down on paper.

During the event itself, try to stay aware of the flow of the tournament. Who is handling deck-checks this round? Is someone watching the players' table while their decks are checked? Is the round about to end? Maybe it's time to start watching matches for last-minute stalling attempts.

In short, always know what stage of the tournament you're in, and be sure to have a plan for what you need to do at that stage.

Division of Labor
Round one, you're assigned to deck checks. OK. Round two, deck check. Hmm. Round three ... deck checks. Ummm ... Round seven - still deck checks?!?

Not the ideal situation for most judges. You would probably prefer to be doing different things. Maybe you like to walk the floor and keep an eye on the players. Maybe you'd like to take a lunch break around round 4. Perhaps you'd enjoy a turn scorekeeping and handling DCI Reporter.

In most premier events, the judging staff gets divided into teams. Each team is assigned a task for a particular round. Each round, the teams are rotated so that no one team has to handle all the deck-checks. By dividing the work into parts and assigning one team to each part, you reduce the stress and workload on the judges.

The common task divisions include two or three areas of the floor, deck checks, break, and occasionally scorekeeping.

Reducing Wasted Effort
Have you ever been to a tournament where every time you had a question, you had to ask three people before getting a straight answer? How about a tourney where registration was at one place, payment was at another, oh, and then you had to go back to registration because you forgot to fill out the "optional" survey, then after paying you had to go to a third place to get your tourney T-shirt, but they were out of your size so you had to come back later and... Well, you get the idea. A badly-organized tournament upsets players and wastes time.

A detailed discussion of TO activities is beyond the scope of this article, but since many judges are also TO's, I'll include a few brief tips.

Organize your registration and results reporting to avoid making players wait

Simplify your process. Set up a small, limited number of desks where all the functions can be performed in a row. Let's say your process is to get the player's info, then their money, then plug them into DCI reporter, then give them a T-shirt. In this case, you should have one desk for each stage, all in a line. Players walk straight through from one end to the other. (See the assembly line concept?) For more information on this idea, I highly recommend you read The Stenger Traffic Flow System, an article by Ray Powers on the Judge's Web site.

Similarly, plan ahead for your event. What if you get more players than you planned on? Do you have enough product on hand to allow everyone to play? If not, how can you get more on short notice?

For sealed deck and draft tournaments, when you seat players for deck building (NOT registration for sealed decks), seat all the players in alphabetical order. That way, when you collect the deck forms, you just collect them by table number and they're automatically sorted alphabetically.

Small, casual tournaments (under 16 people) can often be run with just one person acting as TO, judge, and general manager. For more than that, you really need another person or two on hand. Divide up the work so that you don't have one person flooded with tasks.

Interchangeable Parts
Of the four elements, this one is probably the least applicable to Magic. In business, this concept is essential because it keeps the cost of production down and makes it easy to replace faulty parts. In Magic, this relates to many of the smaller things in running a tournament. To apply this, always think, "What would happen if something went wrong at this stage?"

If you're at a large event and relying on DCI Reporter, what happens if your computer breaks down? Do you have another computer on hand with all the results updated? At premier events, there are always at least two computers with the full current status of the tournament, and backups are made on floppy disks at least once after each round.

If you're the head judge, what happens if you have to leave suddenly? Is there another judge who can replace you? Does that person know he or she is in charge if you're gone?

What do you do if a player gets a bad pack? Do you replace it, or do you tell him to play on? What if all the players get bad packs? At GP London 2001, a special sealed-deck event was held using out-of print products, such as non-English 4th Edition, Legends packs, and other products. When the organizers ran out of French 4th Ed., they started giving out German 4th Ed. This was planned and expected. Unfortunately, some of the German 4th Ed. Starters were in fact Revised (3rd. Ed.) starters! This wasn't caught until several minutes into deck construction, and players were annoyed at having to give up their Forks, Rocket Launchers, and other prize cards that were in Revised but not 4th. Nevertheless, since the organizers were quickly able to replace the "broken" packs with the correct ones, the tournament went on without any further delays or issues.

How does this help me?

The concept of the assembly line has been around for a while, and it's still here for a reason: it works. Assembly lines can reduce the time and costs associated with manufacturing a product, thus allowing you to increase your production and your profits. The same concept applies to Magic. By reducing the administrative overhead, you can free up your team to deal with more important issues, like taking care of the players' needs.

Similarly, by planning ahead, you can keep control of the situation when a crisis comes up. Instead of wasting time trying to figure out what to do, you have the solution all ready. This keeps both your players and your judges happy by not interrupting the normal flow of the tournament more than necessary.


It would be hubris to think that Murphy's Law doesn't apply to Magic; it most certainly does. This famous mantra ("If something can go wrong, it will.") is the watchword of the successful judge and organizer. By planning ahead and keeping the tournament flowing, you can reduce the impact of unexpected problems and completely eliminate those you can foresee and plan for.