Russell K Bulmer
Deck checking is something all judges do, and we tend to learn as we go along. We get shown the basics by a more senior judge once, and we start doing it. We then get better as we do more, and as we learn more off others we work with.
I've been doing deck checks for years now, and have done so at high levels like PTQs, Nationals, GPs and PTs, with many excellent judges from all over the world. Consequently, I've learnt a lot about deck checking.
Collecting deck lists
When players hand in their deck lists, I give the deck list a quick sanity check. I make sure they've written their name and DCI number down, and make sure they've listed land in their deck, and so on. Although it's the players' responsibility to do this, these simple checks preventing many unnecessary penalties. Also, it's a real pain if you have to try and find who hasn't written their name on their deck list.
Sorting Deck Lists
When I've collected in all the deck lists I count the deck lists to make sure I have the correct number. Then I put them all in alphabetical order, so it's easy to find them when I need to.
Choosing Players to Deck Check
I always use DCI Reporter to help run tournaments I run, and always use the random player selector function. I choose 1 or 2 tables to be deck checked, depending on the size of the tournament, and the number of judges available. I always check booth players' decks on a table, there's not point messing up more games than necessary.
Collecting the decks
When I collect the decks from the players, I always make sure I wait until the players present their decks to each other for shuffling. Until a player presents their deck to their opponent, it doesn't have to be legal. So, if I take a deck before a player has finished checking and shuffling their deck, I can't complain if the deck isn't properly randomized, or hasn't been de-sideboarded properly. Once the player presents the deck to their opponent, they are declaring that their deck is legal and randomized, so that is when I step in and inform the players that they are being deck checked. I also make sure that I don't make it obvious that I'm going to deck check them, and so don't stand over their table waiting, as if I did that, they may guess that they're going to be deck checked, and reverse any illegal changes they had made. I also don't let the players make any changes including additional shuffling, as they've handed the deck to their opponent, so it was what they were going to play the game with.
Time for Deck Check
The following list of things I do may seem like it takes me 30mins to deck check, but it doesn't. It's important not to disrupt the flow of the tournament by doing a deck check. 10 minutes is enough time for a deck check. If they're no problems with the deck (which in theory should be the case), then it should be easy to finish within 10 minutes. If there are problems, you may find that there isn't time to check everything properly, and you have to just scan though looking for obvious problems. It's not perfect, but the smooth running of the event is more important than making sure every last details is check every single deck check, in my opinion.
Checking for Stacked Decks
The first thing I check is that there is no pattern in the order of the cards in the deck as the player presented it to their opponent. The sort of things I'm looking for here are strict staggering of lands (land, spell, spell, land spell, repeat - or similar), or lots of 'combo' cards together, like all the Dark Rituals being next to all the Hypnotic Specters in a deck. If there doesn't appear to be a pattern at first glance, I move onto the next stage, not wanting to waste time.
Checking for Card / Sleeve Marks / Patterns
The next check I do is looking for marked cards in the deck. I go through the deck looking at the back of each card or sleeve. If the card or sleeve is unmarked, it goes in the 'OK' pile. If the card has a mark, it goes in a pile with other sleeves with a similar mark or a new pile if no other previously check sleeve has a similar mark. After I've done this with all the cards I look at each of the piles of marked cards to see if there is a pattern to the cards with similar marks. For example, if 5 cards in a deck had a similar spot on them, and when I turned them over they were 4 Armageddons and a Disenchant. If there is a pattern, I repeat the process of checking the backs again after shuffling the deck. If I get the same result, I conclude there may be a pattern. I then inform the head judge to get their opinion, or if I am the head judge decide what to do about the problem. If there marked cards but no pattern, I simple note the mark cards, so I can point them out to the player (and issue any penalties as necessary). As with checking for stacked cards, if there isn't a problem I move quickly onto the next checks.
Checking the Deck List
Next I check the deck list. This involves checking that all the listed cards are legal, and that there are the correct number of cards in both the deck and sideboard. This doesn't take very long.
Checking the Deck
This starts with me counting the cards in the deck and the sideboard to see that the numbers match with the deck list. I then sort the deck into sets of cards, and compare them to the deck list. If there is a problem I have to check if the problem is failing to de-sideboard, or the deck not matching the deck list. If at this point I'm running out of time, I just check that the sideboard is right (thus catching any failure to de-sideboard problems) and check the deck quickly, checking a few key cards. For example checking that a combo deck doesn't have 5 copies of a key card.
Returning the Deck List
I always write on a deck list DC-1, where he number is the round number, so DC-3 for round 3. I then return the deck list to the pile in the right place, as they may get deck checked again in the event. Although players don't like getting deck checked twice, if you never deck checked a player more than once there'd be an obvious way to cheat by changing your deck after you've been deck checked, because you know we won't get done again.
Returning the Decks
I always return both decks at the same time, and then inform the players of any problems, and issue any penalties as appropriate. Obviously I note any penalties on the result slip, or note them on my PDA so I can get then recorded properly at the judge station. Also, because the decks are generally sorted by card type now, I remind the player to give their decks a good shuffling before they start.
Awarding Extra Time
When I give the decks back the players, I note how much time has elapsed in the match, and write this down on their result slip or on my PDA if I'm not using result slips for some reason. That way I know how much time to give those matches at the end of the round. I also always tell the players that they've got extra time, and how much extra time they've got.
Some other tips...
I'll end with a couple of tips for getting better at deck checking.
Learn from others
No mater how much you've learnt, there's always more to learn. When you're at a tournament, watch other judges deck checking, ask them why they do things certain ways. If you need to, ask the head judge if you can have some time to watch others deck check so you can improve your skills. As long as there are a reasonable amount of judges at the event, this should be possible.
Apparently practice makes perfect... so it's probably worth doing. There are lots of ways to practice. Obviously one way is to do so is to do real deck checks, but it isn't the only way. Look at your own decks to practice looking for patterns and sleeve markings (you'll probably find that a few sleeves need replacing... so you get to kill 2 birds with once stone). Or at a small club or store event without deck checks, when someone gets a bye, ask if you can look at their deck. It's unfair to slap out warnings for this as they're the only ones getting checked, so just correct the errors and let the player continue in the next round.
So, that's all I've got to say about deck checking for now. I hope some of it will be of some use to some people. If anyone has any questions, just drop me a line: firstname.lastname@example.org