Philosophy and Practice

Posted in Feature on November 12, 2007

By Sheldon Menery and Toby Elliott

Almost as long as there has been a tournament Magic scene, there has been a judge program. There are many, many moving parts to the program. Why those parts move the way they do, not to mention how, is driven by a few relatively straightforward philosophies. We've put our heads together to discuss for you both why we do things the way we do, and how these philosophies are implemented.

Sheldon MenerySheldon, With the Whys

I'm going to talk about the raw philosophy of what we do, where those philosophies come from, and why they're important to us. You'll see the themes of fairness and integrity repeated quite often.

From the top of the program on down, everything is driven by philosophy—from how we staff Pro Tours to how we rule at Friday Night Magic. Here, we'll cover the ones that are likely to most directly affect you, the player. I'll talk first about a few judging metaphilosophies and a few other philosophies that drive how we come to rulings.

An important point is that in addition to expecting a great deal from our judges and staff, we expect quite a bit from the players. Players have a huge responsibility in keeping themselves and their opponents on track.

Sheldon MeneryToby, With the Hows

It's all very well to talk philosophy, but philosophies must be backed up by action. Over the past year we have been making changes within the judge program to allow it to better carry the torch of our philosophies, and will continue doing so into the future. I'll be talking about the concrete steps we're actually taking to make this happen.

It is important to remember that much of this is still in primitive form—in order to even discuss the philosophies, we need to define the language. Other parts are further along in their development, but we're constantly reevaluating how things are going, and the newer policies are being evaluated more aggressively as we find ways to improve them. It's much like an earthquake: the initial shock is large, but there are also aftershocks that slowly subside.

Chant of Vitu-GhaziJudges Exist for the Betterment of the Program

"Life's balance is as a star: on one point is Law, and Law must be upheld. If the knots of order are loosened, chaos will spill through." —Song of All, canto 167

Sheldon: Without referencing too much Kierkegaard, judges exist for the purpose of providing well-run, well-ruled, fun, and fair tournaments for DCI members. That's the first line of our charter. It sounds simple, but we all know there's quite a bit that goes into it, and we'll get into that a little more below. We want you to know that every time you show up at a sanctioned event (or any event run by a certified judge), you can expect a level playing field, and a certain degree of experience and expertise from the staff. You'll see that theme continue to run through all of the points below.

A secondary purpose for judges is as ambassadors for the game. A judge's view takes in more than just a single tournament—it encompasses a community (of varying size, most often based on the judge's level). Judges are the go-to people in their areas, both as an authority and a resource for everyone—those that attend sanctioned events, those that aspire to the professional ranks, and all those folks enjoying themselves in their Kitchen Table League (where they no doubt are playing a great deal of Elder Dragon Highlander).

Toby: At the heart of the program are the four main documents that players are familiar with—the Comprehensive Rules, the Universal Tournament Rules, the Magic Floor Rules and the Penalty Guide (all available via the Magic rules page). Judges are expected to have a solid understanding of all four when they first begin the certification process, and that is further reinforced during their time as judges through an extensive network of peer review and mentorship that exposes them to the written rules and the philosophies that guide those rules. They are brought together from around the world at Pro Tours and Grand Prix so that they may share their knowledge and bring what they have learned back to their community. As a judge rises through the ranks, more responsibility for training and mentoring is placed on him or her. This makes it possible for all judges to "get with the program" as it were and represent the DCI appropriately at tournaments and in their community.

BalanceJudging Will Be Consistent

The druids and the forest are in perfect harmony. They sing the same songs.

Sheldon: It's extremely important to us that a tournament run in Berlin, Ohio is run exactly like a tournament run in Berlin, Germany. It's extremely important for us that you know that judges the world over are operating from the same set of philosophies, which lead to the same set of rules, rulings, and tournament procedures. Regardless of where you live, the same thing will happen if you forget to pay your cumulative upkeep or if your opponent draws an extra card.

Toby: Almost every policy decision we make has this principle at its core. The best policy in the world is useless if 99% of the judges cannot understand how to put it into practice. This was the fatal flaw of the old Penalty Guide. It provided general, vague suggestions to the judges based on "advantage gained" and left the judges to fill in the details. This was not fair to the judges, who were ill-equipped to decide the significance level of the advantage gained from a misplay committed five turns ago in a Friday Night Magic match, let alone at the highest levels of the Pro Tour.

With the new Penalty Guide, released last March and being adjusted as we gather more data, the judge no longer has to figure out how much advantage has been gained and instead is provided with a series of fixed remedies based on the underlying cause of the infraction. Defining infractions as Minor, Major or Severe—the bugaboo of consistent judging—is, for the most part, gone. Where it remains, it is accompanied by specific definitions that do not require analysis of the strategic play or the game state.

Both Players Are Responsible for the Game State

Tedious research made the Sages of the College of Lat-Nam adept in repairing broken artifacts.

Sheldon: We want to minimize errors, and making sure both players are responsible for maintaining a legal game state is our primary way to do it. Having both players be constantly aware of what is happening reduces the risk of errors, illegal actions, and takes away opportunities to cheat from the less scrupulous players. If you, as a player constantly have your eyes on your opponent, there's less of a window of sketchiness for him to crawl through.

We'd like games of Magic to grow organically and be a contest of skill between the players, and the less damage control we have to do, the greater the integrity of the event. Note that "fixing" the situation doesn't mean reverting the game state to what it might have otherwise organically grown into, it means making the best possible sense of how things should continue as they are.

Toby: The faster a judge can get to a problem, the less damage that will have been done to the integrity of the game. As a result, most infractions are designed with remedies that discourage players from sitting on errors in the hopes of getting a higher level of penalty—it's not going to happen. Holding you responsible for pointing out your opponent's technical errors as soon as you see them helps prevent the game state from getting out of hand. (Feel free to punish him or her thoroughly for the strategic errors.)

When an illegal game state happens and is not caught immediately, both players will receive a penalty. The player committing the error receives the appropriate penalty as defined by the infraction and the opponent receives a warning (which is not generally upgradeable) for Failure to Maintain Game State.

The new Penalty Guide also makes it very clear that spotting an error and not saying anything (presumably because it benefits you) is Cheating and will get you escorted from the tournament in short order.

MindslaverPlayers Don't Need to Play Their Opponent's Game for Them

(Unless Mindslaver is involved, obv.)

"Secrets? What secrets?"

Sheldon: We want each individual responsible for his or her own game plan, and no one else. You're responsible for telling your opponent what his technical mistakes are—well, he'll know that he's made one when you call a judge—but strategy is his own business. You're trying to beat him, not help him make the strategically correct plays. Also, players need to realize that their opponent is not there to make their life easier, and they take their life points into their own hands when they ask their opponent for help.

Toby: Magic is unplayable without two players communicating with each other, but what are they required to say? Where is the line between bluffing and cheating? The newest version of the Penalty Guide, released in September, contains a section called the Player Communication Guide, and I'd encourage every serious player to read it, both so that they know what they are allowed to say during a sanctioned match and, just as importantly, what their opponent is allowed to say to them. Here is the Golden Rule (and yes, there are exceptions to it. Make sure you read the whole policy):

Statements made about the game being played must be truthful (to the best of their knowledge). However, statements do not need to be exhaustive – honest answers with careful omissions or "non-answers" designed to misdirect opponents into making suboptimal – but not illegal – plays are acceptable.

This is brand-new policy; expect to see us tweak it based on feedback over the coming revisions as we try to make it as clear as possible.

Many people will find this policy surprising. Keep in mind that it defines the minimum requirements. There is nothing stopping you from helping your opponent figure out how big your creatures are; many sporting players will continue to do so and we encourage that. However, this is not something that we can mandate, as it is ultimately each player's responsibility to figure out what is going on within the game.

Players Should Always Call a Judge if They Need Help

From a whisper to a roar, the call is heard by all and refused by none.

Sheldon: The only person in the room (other than you) who has a significant interest in you getting the right answer is the judge, which is why we'd like for you to call a judge any time you're confused, unsure, or would simply like some clarification. Your opponent wants you to have as little information as possible. We would like for you to have as much information as we can give you without helping you strategically.

Toby: We spend a considerable amount of time and energy training judges to help you and in what information they can and can't provide. Please take positive advantage of our efforts—you won't know if we can provide the information you need until you try.

Your opponent is not a judge. He or she does not have your best interests at heart.

Judges are Referees, Not Advisors

"We see the same sky as you, just through a different lens."

Sheldon: One of our main functions is to arbitrate disputes. There's a good deal going on at quite a pace in a Magic game, so many things can go wrong or not get noticed in a timely fashion. We're there to both figure out what went wrong, and how to fix it. We're there to figure out what to do when players disagree on what happened, what was said, or what the current game state is. However, judges are not there to catch your errors before you make them. A football referee won't warn a team if they are about to have too many men on the field, they'll just wait until play resumes, then blow the whistle.

Toby: Again, we expend a lot of energy training judges on how and when to intervene, and this has been something of a relearning process from years past where we were more flexible about getting involved in games before something illegal actually happened. Being consistent requires that all players receive the same treatment, and since the judges cannot be everywhere proactively they only handle infractions that have been committed.

CuriosityAwareness is a Skill-Tester

"At least they remember me." —Gerrard

Sheldon: Our good friends in R&D, who make all the cool cards you play with, specifically work awareness and choice into the cards. That's why many triggered abilities use the word "may." It means that good players will remember to take advantage of them, and bad players will forget.

There is also a good deal of virtual information in the game, such as continuous effects (think Glorious Anthem or Engineered Plague) that modify the game state without being physically represented on the other cards. Again, better players will remember them, worse players won't. We truly want play skill, including awareness, to be the most significant factor in the game.

Toby: The Player Communication Guide reflects this philosophy. You are under no obligation to remind your opponent that you have Crusade in play, or that your Kami of the Hunt is a 3/3 because you played an Arcane spell this turn. It is testing their awareness of the game, which is part of play skill. Note that there are some exceptions in the policy. For example, you have to tell your opponent what the penny in the middle of the table represents, or what you chose for Meddling Mage. You'll even have to answer questions about actions you've taken, such as "Which creature did you target with that Giant Growth?" Reminding your opponent that you played Giant Growth earlier? They're on their own.

Serendib_SorcererPlayers Can't Get Judges to Play their Game for Them

"Frankly, destruction is best left to professionals." —Jaya Ballard, Task Mage

Sheldon: Judges are there to clarify and assist, not to be a weapon used against your opponent, or to figure out optimal strategies for you. A significant philosophy point (if this were a classroom setting, I'd be stomping my foot right now) is that judges will answer your rules, game, and tournament questions, not your "What if?" questions.

Toby: Not only can a judge not help you make the optimal play, but they've been trained to avoid giving away any information about the game state. A judge cannot tell you what the power and toughness of a given creature is—doing so might remind you of that Crusade in play—but they can give you the rules to help you figure it out. Express your question in the form of a rules question—"How does the 'becomes 0/2' ability from Serendib Sorcerer interact with a +1/+1 counter?"—and you'll be fine.

There is a little more leeway written into the rules for tournaments run at Regular Rules Enforcement Level. There, the focus is on education as well as competition, so you can expect the judges to help out a little more.

Players May Not Take Advantage of Unclear Communication

If only every message were as perfect as its messenger.

Sheldon: We want players to know the rules well (side note: if it wouldn't be an administrative nightmare, I'd require all Pro Tour players to first pass the Level 1 judge test before letting them play—call me a crazy idealist), and know the turn structure well, but using that knowledge to create miscommunication is right out. The game is much, much cleaner when players communicate clearly with each other. It flows better, and once again, improves the integrity of the event.

Toby: For years, players have been using shortcuts to make the game playable. Simply saying "Forest, Go" on turn one involves over a dozen priority passes. Up until now, judges have been on their own in figuring out whether a shortcut is appropriate, with wildly divergent results. There have been scenarios that a large number of judges have deemed legal and an equally large number of judges have deemed DQ-worthy. When players communicate unclearly, judges have had to use their own personal view of which player is "right."

There is another new section in the Penalty Guide simply titled "Shortcuts" that takes a technical approach to shortcuts and what players can and can't do with them. It teaches judges how to handle situations in which the two players do not agree on where they are in the turn and provides defaults for common shortcuts. This should ensure that disagreements over communications are handled the same way in San Francisco and San Juan.

Grim_TutorCheating Will Not Be Tolerated

Clients who cheat the sailmonger make an impact on the rest.

Sheldon: Up to this point, I've repeatedly used terms and ideals like "fair," and "integrity." Nothing ruins those things like the cheats. We want you to know that we are constantly keeping an eye on—not to mention catching—cheaters. We train judges not only in how to recognize cheating that has occurred, but to make sure it doesn't happen in the first place.

Again, we want the most natural conclusion to a game of Magic as possible, and cheating always ends up in an unnatural conclusion. In addition to not tolerating it, cheating will be punished severely.

A Magic tournament is not a court of law. Judges are not required to have the same burden of proof as the legal system. Their experience and training will guide them. Generally, if it smells fishy, it's probably a fish.

Toby: This is not new policy, though some of the boundaries have been more firmly defined in the Penalty Guide. We will continue to be vigilant, and will continue to train judges to act swiftly in discovering and punishing cheating.

Wrap Up

Although it looks like a game, business around the table is deadly serious.

Sheldon: The motto "We Keep It Fair" has lost none of its meaning in all these years of the program. Our philosophy and implementation are driven by the strong ideal of maintaining a level of integrity in sanctioned events that you'll enjoy every time you show up to one.

Toby: Documenting and refining policy is an ongoing process and the result of the hard work of many judges at all levels of the program along with the feedback from players, spectators and tournament staff alike. We will be unceasing in our efforts to improve the quality of judging you can expect in tournaments and always welcome suggestions for improvement.

Latest Feature Articles


September 17, 2021

The Returning Legends of Innistrad: Midnight Hunt by, Doug Beyer, Ari Zirulnik, and Grace Fong

A return to Innistrad means the return of some of our favorite characters! In case you missed it, make sure to check out the new legends of Innistrad: Midnight Hunt from yesterday's artic...

Learn More


September 16, 2021

The New Legends of Innistrad: Midnight Hunt by, Ari Zirulnik and Grace Fong

Harvesttide is wild this year! Tons of new faces showed up to the party—let's do some introductions. Adeline, Resplendent Cathar Adeline is an excellent tactician and an unyielding fo...

Learn More



Feature Archive

Consult the archives for more articles!

See All