Floor Judging a Grand Prix - Practical Tips

Posted in NEWS on November 25, 2015

By Wizards of the Coast

Jeff Vondruska

So, you're going to your first Grand Prix. Believe it or not, a Grand Prix is a little bit different from most tournaments you've judged in the past; larger scale, bigger prizes, higher-profile players, longer days, shorter nights, and bigger staff, just to name a few. Many an article in the archives deals with going to your first Pro Tour or Grand Prix, usually written by judges with vast experience judging events at that level. I've read all of these and they are all excellent articles, but I haven't seen one yet that gives practical advice for the judge new to the pro tournament scene, the stuff judges like you and I wouldn't usually think of when going to a tournament of this magnitude. So here it is, from one floor judge to another, some tips and tricks for judging your first Grand Prix.

Doing what needs to be done

This is the first and most obvious reason you're at this tournament: to work. Here's an excerpt from the GP Boston '03 judge call: "This is not like a vacation, this is like work. It can be very rewarding and valuable, but it is hard work." And they aren't kidding. So you know you have to work, but what do you need to do? Well, most obviously, whatever you're told to do, you do it. That may seem obvious, but it's important to remember. If you're given an assignment, whether it's running papers between registration and the scorekeeper, table judging the finals, or anything in between, that's what you need to be doing.

During the tournament, the job you'll probably be doing most often is floor judging. Often it's a tendency for judges to clump together (often referred to as a "zebra herd"), especially around the lower-numbered tables (the ones with better records) and around interesting matches. You should keep in mind that everyone in the tournament needs the presence of the judges, not just the ones that happen to be doing better, so try to steer away from places where there are already judges walking around. You should also keep your focus on the matches, so try to keep socializing with other judges to a minimum, and try to keep from talking with players too much as well. This last is also to keep the image of impartiality, and there are other articles out there which discuss this issue much better than I could.

Another thing that many judges don't know is that when you're asked what you want to do, "whatever needs to be done" shouldn't be your reflex answer. If someone's asking you what you want to do, that means there's a choice involved, and they're letting you make it. Of course, if you really don't care, feel free to say so, but don't be afraid to speak up if you do have a preference.
Don't be afraid to volunteer to do something or ask if you can do something different. Keep in mind that you are there to learn. Not too many judges attend a Grand Prix just to run 8-man booster drafts for three days straight. (There are some of them out there, and my hat is off to you, because that certainly isn't me.) If there's something that you think would be more beneficial to your advancement as a judge, ask if you can switch with someone. If there's a side tournament starting up that you'd really like to help with, ask. If you want to work on your deckchecking technique and would like to do some extra ones during the weekend, speak up. The worst answer you can get is "no".

One of the best ways to volunteer is to make a recommendation to the powers that be (usually the TO, the head judge, or your team leader) concerning some way to improve the tournament. This could be by suggesting a solution to a specific problem, finding a better way of doing something, or any number of other things. You then simply volunteer to take care of the problem. Not only does it fix that problem and get you doing different things, but it also improves your image by showing that you can take the initiative and speak up about things that could be done better.

And last but certainly not least in this section, don't be afraid to pitch in if you see something that needs to be done. This usually won't apply to you while the tournament is actually going on, since as I've already gone over, you'll generally have something you're assigned to do when the players are playing. However, there are periods of downtime you'll encounter, such as breaks between rounds or before or after the tournament. (Be careful to take your assigned breaks, though. I'll talk more about that later.) Watch that you're not butting in. Sometimes more hands are actually a bad idea. But where tasks like moving tables, putting together land stations, counting decklists, or even in some cases walking the floor are concerned, an extra hand is rarely turned down.


Ask anything and everything. You're there to work, but you're also there to learn. If you come upon a ruling that you just have no clue about, there's no harm in calling over another judge for a second opinion. The obvious preference here would be your team leader, if s/he is in range and not busy with something else. (Interrupting a conference with the head judge isn't always the best idea, for example.) If you see another judge make a ruling that you don't understand or that you would've ruled differently, ask them why they made the ruling they did. Regardless of the outcome, at least one of you will probably learn something. Try to avoid questions about another judge's ruling while they're in the process of giving it, though. You'll be undercutting that judge's authority, and if you turn out to be wrong you both end up looking really stupid. If their ruling does turn out to be wrong, that judge can take steps to correct it, but if that judge had wanted your opinion at the table, he or she would have asked for it.

Asking questions isn't even limited to things about the tournament. Especially if you're from out of town (like quite a few judges at a Grand Prix often are), asking questions of the locals is often the best method of survival. For example: Are there any good restaurants in the area? Places for quick breakfast? Best mode of transportation back to the airport (if applicable)?

What to wear, what to wear...

For this one, I'd like to direct your attention to an excellent article written by John Carter, entitled "Dressing the Part". Go ahead, read it, I'll be here when you get back.

Now, to summarize, at a Grand Prix, most of the time you'll be expected to wear a zebra shirt and black everything else (pants, shoes, underwear... well, maybe not that far). That said, a few tips on this subject as well. The first one applies to judging on Friday. Every Grand Prix I've been to so far has been fairly lax on the dress code for Friday. (Keep in mind that I've only got two Grand Prix under my belt.) Generally, something like a prerelease staff shirt or a Barney shirt along with some decent pants will be sufficient for judging on Friday. My recommendation: Unless the TO or head judge specifically requests that you not dress up on Friday, wear your zebra shirt, black pants, etc. It will impress your fellow judges as well as send a good image to the players.

Judges at Grand Prix New Orleans

Now that I've said that, I'm going to turn it around a bit. Don't wear your zebra shirt and good black pants when you first show up at the tournament on Friday. It may be nifty to walk into the tournament already in uniform, but don't. Have it somewhere where you can get at it easily (a backpack usually works well), and change before the actual judging starts. The main reason here is that if you get there early enough, you'll probably be helping with setup. This often means large amounts of physical labor, and you don't want to mess up your precious zebra shirt. There are some things that even the WotC Laundry won't fix... (read on for more info on that)

One more thing that John's article mentions is footwear. You have to have comfortable shoes, because you will be on your feet for hours at a time, and having a good-looking shoe will be small comfort on Sunday afternoon when you can hardly stand up straight. Another tip as far as shoes goes: bring a couple of different pairs of black shoes that you're comfortable wearing so you can switch periodically. Switching shoes can give your feet a break, since wearing the same pair of shoes for three days straight can be really hard on your feet.

So now you know what to wear, but where does that zebra shirt come from? It's common knowledge that they can be purchased at any Grand Prix or Pro Tour, but one of the things most judges quickly discover is that those black and white striped shirts are expensive. When I found out that a zebra shirt actually cost $30, I began to seriously wonder if we were getting shirts woven from ivory and obsidian. However, there are a couple of options for those of us in the real world who happen to be on a budget. The first option is to rent a shirt. You simply put down your $30 at the beginning of the weekend, get a zebra shirt, return it at the end of the weekend, and get your $30 back.

The second thing you can do allows you to get through an entire weekend without having to buy three different judge shirts or doing laundry sometime during the tournament. It's commonly referred to as the WotC Laundry Service. Essentially, you can turn in a dirty zebra shirt at the tournament and get a fresh one, free of charge. This is very nice at a Grand Prix, where you're probably working 12-16+ hour days in your spiffy zebra shirt, three days in a row; and probably more so at a Pro Tour, where you add Thursday to the mix. Remember, you're trying to encourage players to ask questions, not cower from the stink of your three days of sweatiness.

My recommendation for using the WotC Laundry Service effectively: Have an extra $30 available that you can use to rent an extra shirt. This lets you take a clean shirt back with you at night that you can wear in the morning, and you won't have to worry about finding a bathroom or out-of-the-way area to change shirts on-site. You then return the dirty one and get another clean one that you can wear the next day, and continue this until the end of the weekend, when you can return your extra shirt, and not be out any excess cash.

"Attention in the boarding area..."

This one applies mainly to those flying to the tournament, but it's a good idea for all judges just on principle. Get a cell phone number for someone that you can contact "just in case". Generally the TO is your best bet here. The head judge is also good, but anyone who's going to be at the tournament is better than nothing. If your flight gets delayed, you miss your connections, or you catch double pneumonia two hours before you're scheduled to show up at the tournament, it's nice to be able to pick up the phone wherever you are and let someone know what's going on.

Stay healthy, know your limits

For many judges new to the high-level tournament scene, the temptation is to stay at the tournament site around the clock to drink in as much of the experience as you can. I know this from personal experience, since I almost tried to pull an all-nighter Saturday into Sunday at GP Cleveland but decided that the four hours of sleep would be more beneficial to me, and it turned out I was definitely right. There are those out there who have the ability to run on no sleep for three days straight, and I congratulate you on that, since I occasionally have trouble staying awake through my local FNM after an 8-hour day at work. One common practice at tournaments like a Grand Prix is for some of the judges to go out to dinner at least once during the weekend. I've heard that it's a great experience and lots of fun, just keep in mind that you may not get to bed until 5:00am or even later. The bottom line here is simply to know your limits and stay within them whenever possible.

Now, I'm not going to be your mother here, but do the obvious. Stay hydrated, make sure you get enough to eat so you can stay sharp and ready for anything. When you're given a break, take it. Get something to eat and drink, sit down in an out-of-the-way area, and unwind for a little while. It's amazing how much good half an hour of sitting down and relaxing can do. Many a judge has learned the hard way that you need to take care of yourself at a tournament of this magnitude. If you don't, you'll almost certainly regret it.

Know the format

This entails more than you might think at first. Ideally, you want to have prior experience both judging and playing the format the tournament will be. This gives you a huge advantage since you'll already have some idea what's going on when you walk up to a table. At a glance, you'll be able to tell if anything is out of place (or even suspicious), rather than having to stand over the table for five minutes figuring out what cards do what. I admit, this is one area that I've been lacking in a lot of cases, but I'm trying to get better at it. (See? I learned something.)

You also want to look over the Oracle for the format and any FAQs that fall into the format. Definitely be familiar with sealed deck or draft rules and procedures, know the differences between booster draft and Rochester draft (even if that's not the main format of the tournament, you might end up running a side event), and be familiar with common tournament procedures such as deck registration, and things like that. Another good thing to at least be familiar with is the team system of judging. You don't have to know it inside and out (it's not really that complicated anyway), but when you get told "This person is your team leader", you should at least have some idea of what it means.

Know the rules

This may seem obvious, but you need to know the rules. No matter how well you think you know the rules, odds are you're going to come up against something you aren't familiar with sometime during the weekend. Don't just sit down and read the Comprehensive Rulebook unless you're trying to cure a monstrous case of insomnia, though. There are many other ways to increase your rules knowledge, most of which are probably on the internet. One of the best ways to review online is to answer rules questions. (Even if you don't feel comfortable answering, just reading often helps.) An excellent resource for how to do this is Chris Richter's article, "Answering Online".

My personal favorite is the MTGnews Rulings Forum. I'm also a big fan of the WotC mailing lists, mainly MTG-L and DCIJUDGE-L, and I post on both on a semi-regular basis. The rec.games.trading cards.magic.rules newsgroup is excellent (that's really where I got my start in online question-answering). I also like IRC, specifically channels #mtg, #mtgwacky, and #mtgjudge (all on EFNet).

Don't let the internet completely replace your review on paper, though. One thing you should be sure to look over in advance is the Penalty Guidelines, especially if you've never judged an event at REL 4 before. The penalties are strict, and nearly everything a player does wrong earns him or her at least a warning. There's $25,000 in prize money on the line at every Grand Prix, and it's the job of the judging staff to make sure that money is awarded fairly and not based on cheating, rules cheesing or lawyering, or anything like that, so you need to do your homework.

And last but most definitely not least:

Have fun!

I think the heading here says it all. You're there to work and you're there to learn, but take some time to enjoy it. Have some fun. Judging a tournament like this is a wonderful experience, and you will enjoy it thoroughly if you do it right.

--Jeff Vondruska, Level 2 Judge, Ohio, jeffv@mtgnews.com