Floor Judging Do's and Don'ts

Posted in NEWS on December 7, 2015

By Wizards of the Coast

Jason Ness

As another Pro Tour season approaches in combination with the Prerelease of a standalone set, I thought it might be a good idea to write a short set of guidelines for judges that spend the majority of their time working the floor of a large (or even not so large) event. This article can be used to help train new judges that are just beginning to work Magic events, help polish more experienced judges in terms of their habits and duties at an event, or as a simple reminder to those of you that do these things on a regular basis.

Working a Magic event involves many tasks that the majority of judges are both familiar and comfortable with. These include deck and deck list checks, pack distribution, answering questions, resolving disputes, entering results, etc. However, for most judges the majority of our time is spent simply wandering the floor of an event. This, of course, varies depending upon the amount of staff and the specific roles of individual judges. While much of this time may seem vacant to many judges, spent simply waiting for someone to call for a judge, much can and should be done in between rulings to help improve the success of the tournament.

Here is brief list of some of the things that a judge should and should not be doing while working the floor of an event. These guidelines are as pertinent at a 250 person Pro Tour as they are at a 20 person Grand Prix Trial.


Take the time to push in chairs, tidy up tables, and keep things at your tournament in good order. No, we shouldn't have to clean up after players. No, we are not their babysitters or their mommies. No, you probably don't get paid enough to do these things. You should do them anyway. The reasons are as follows:

  1. People's moods improve when their surroundings are tidy and orderly. Their moods degenerate as their surroundings degenerate. Keeping your tournament clean helps make them feel good about the event, which keeps them coming back.
  2. You set a good example - both for players and fellow judges. When people see you making an effort, they are more likely to make an effort. I've also noticed that players are a lot more likely to respect your requests to keep things neat when they see you "practice what you preach."
  3. The public, non-Magic playing sector of the community is important. We want the moms & dads that drop Johnny off at the tournament to feel comfortable about where they are leaving him for 7 hours on a Saturday. The appearance of professionalism by you and your fellow judges will help ensure that.


Watch for the following things whenever you can:

  1. Shuffling problems. Any time you're not specifically doing something else, watch they way players shuffle. Are they revealing cards to their opponents? Are they looking at cards themselves? If it's the former, I often take a moment to remind the player. If it is the latter, a warning may be necessary, especially if it the opponent's deck they are shuffling. I also try to watch for weaving and strange shuffling techniques that could manipulate the order of the cards.
  2. Slow play. If you're working an event where you are familiar with most of the players, then you should know who to watch for. Slow players are habitually slow and may need to be reminded (either formally or casually) of their slow play.
  3. Players that have a history of cheating. If you've caught or suspected players of being dishonest in the past, the chances are good that they'll find ways to bend the rules again. I truly like to be able to give people the benefit of the doubt, but the fact remains that some players try to get away with bending or outright breaking the rules. It is your job to prevent that either directly intervening, or by just seeming omnipresent.

For the above items, you may want to try watching for these things from a distance (especially the cheating). A player is unlikely to do something shady with a judge standing right over top of him. You may need to be somewhat covert in your observation of a suspected cheater. Here are a few things I like to keep a special eye out for:

  • A player who keeps his deck very close to the edge of the table or to their hand. This makes it easier to "sneak" a card from the deck because the player doesn't have to reach for the card.
  • A player who plays with their sideboard very close to the library. It's easy with a quick hand to peel the top card from the sideboard when an opponent's not watching carefully.
  • Players who slap the top of their deck in "frustration" or "desperation." This is one way I've seen people put a palmed card that was previously hidden on top of their library.
  • Players who make a constant effort to conceal the number of cards in their hand. While players often do this inadvertently, players that are finding ways to draw extra cards will often make attempts to conceal the fact.
  • a player that spends a lot of time counting graveyards, organizing cards in play, thinking, etc. These are a few stall tactics that players will use in no-win situations. Watch for this especially in latter stages of a round. If you suspect it, get beside that table immediately. It is very difficult to make a slow play or a stalling ruling when you've only been watching a match for 30 seconds.

It's clear that Jason Ness enjoys judging

On that vein...


Wait until the last minute of a round to start watching matches. If a player is going to stall, they'll often start doing so well before the round ends.


Randomly and occasionally grab (i.e. ask politely if you can see it) a player's sideboard in a constructed event and make sure they sideboarded 1-for-1. You would be surprised how many times I've caught someone for a 16 or 14 card sideboard after game 1. It's often an honest mistake, but an infraction nonetheless.


Spend more than a few seconds at a table. Simply walking down rows of tables, looking at the players' cards is rarely constructive. You won't often catch play errors in passing. Taking a minute to size up the board and listening to the players communicate will usually be the way in which you catch miscommunication, a lack of clarity, or a misrepresentation. Even if these things aren't worthy of official warnings, it gives you an opportunity to correct play or communication problems. This is very important at lower REL events where players are just learning the mechanics of the game. I believe that one of the roles of a judge is to help educate players in the rules and conventions of the game. A simple example of this would be reminding players to untap before they draw.


Ask questions about the game or interfere with it in ANY way unless you absolutely have to!! I've made this mistake a few times myself, and have had judges make this mistake when I've been playing. Most of the time your inquiry will be benign, but sometimes a seemingly innocent question can have a profound impact on the game. I'll give you an example:

I was playing in an Odyssey sealed deck match. I was at 2 life, but had established board control and was a couple turns away from winning. My opponent had the ability to kill me by flashing back a Firebolt, but he had completely forgotten it was in his graveyard. Along came a judge, and just out of curiosity casually fanned out my opponent's graveyard. My opponent immediately remembered the Firebolt, and just like that the match was over. Needless to say I was a little upset.

I believe there are really only 3 questions that you should ask freely about a match that you are watching:

  1. What's the match score? (Helps to determine if someone might be motivated to stall)
  2. Who went first in this game?
  3. Were there any mulligans? (Both questions allow you to count up the cards and see if someone's been drawing extra cards)


Try to determine what's happening in a game on your own before asking a question that might cause the type of problem I just described. You might notice a situation that seems unusual or could be a rules infraction, and be tempted to ask about it. For instance a Nimble Mongoose has a creature enchantment on it. Take a moment to examine the board, including graveyards, removed from game cards, and possibly even the players' hands (don't manipulate their cards however). Is there an explanation apparent? In the example above, perhaps a Nomad Mythmaker was used to get an enchantment on an otherwise untargetable creature. Only in the case where there is no apparent explanation for what appears to be a rules infraction should you ask about it.

One of the skills all judges should try to develop is the ability to size up the game situation quickly. Rely on your own observational skills to learn what has happened in the game, what the life totals are, etc. The less you interfere with the game, the better.


Socialize with the players any more than you have to. This is an area that I have to work on myself. Mike Guptil was good enough to point this out to me this year at Canadian Nationals, and I am grateful for his wisdom. One of the things we need to do as judges is be impartial. However, the appearance of impartiality is as important as impartiality itself. It is hard to maintain that appearance if you are constantly chatting up players that you are friends with, looking through their draft decks, making plans for after the tournament, etc. Players that don't know you may think the worst if you have to make a ruling when their opponent is a buddy of yours.

By all means, have those relationships. They are one of the things that keep me interested in the game. You may need to remind your friends, however, that when you are judging an event, you're there to work, and you can't really spend a lot of time hanging out with them. They'll understand. This piece of advice might be less pertinent at your local events, but it is critical if you are working at a Pro Tour or similarly sized event where you don't know the majority of the players personally.


Watch, listen, and learn from more experienced judges at your event. Note that more experience does not necessarily mean higher certification level. Watch the people who have been working tournaments for a while. They often have the little details that make an event go by smoothly worked out to a tee. If you are very new to judging and are uncomfortable with making rulings, don't be afraid to shadow a more experienced official while they make rulings (speak with them about it beforehand). Provided that it doesn't conflict with other duties, it is an excellent way to gain practical experience in handling questions and conflicts.


Be afraid to ask questions of other judges. Most judges are eager to share their experiences and knowledge with others.


Look for opportunities to chip in and help out. Take the initiative. Are your fellow judges swamped at a land station while you wander about? Have the result slips been handed out? Are the garbage cans overflowing? Is there something you can be doing constructive to help out the event? Most well run tournaments will have a head judge that clearly defines everyone's tasks, but there will always be a few little things that can go undone or unnoticed if everyone lets them slide.


Take a minute every so often to get off your feet. Pace yourself.


Spend a large quantity of time off trading cards, sitting around, out at the cafeteria, etc. (at least not if you want to be asked back to judge another event).


Belittle other judges. Referring to a lower level judge that is there to help work your event as a peon or a slave degrades what they do and the profession of judging. I am embarrassed to hear fellow experienced judges treat those who have not been around as long as anything other than equals. Mentor new judges. Advise them. Coach them. Never disrespect them by treating a fellow judge like a servant.


Have a good time!! While not everything you do will be fun and games, overall you should be enjoying what you're doing at an event. Take pride in a well-run tournament and the efforts that you put in to provide that to players. Swap stories. Tell jokes. Smile!

I hope these few tips help to make your day that much better!! Good luck and I hope to see you at an event in the future.

Jason Ness
Level III
Calgary, Canada

Comments, questions, concerns?

Email: snoman321@hotmail.com