The Infraction Procedure Guide and Unsporting Conduct

Posted in NEWS on September 10, 2009

By Wizards of the Coast

My friend Matt is giddy with anticipation. He sits just one short combat phase away from beating the best player in the room, Tony, and he's been very lucky so far. Then, at the end of Matt's turn, with just one card in hand, Tony cycles Resounding Thunder. Matt, sitting at 12 life, immediately stops smiling and furrows his brow. Half his life total has just evaporated, and while Tony doesn't have the creatures to alpha strike for the win, he stares ominously at the anonymous card sitting atop his deck. With all the ritual of Craig Jones willing a top-decked Lightning Helix, Tony rips the cycle-drawn card off the top and no-look windmill slams it in the middle of the table: Mountain. Matt's shoulders relax and he sighs with relief. Tony untaps and draws for his turn. This time, Resounding Thunder describes both his card and the spectator reaction.

His fortunes flipped in an instant (or, more accurately, a cycling activation), Matt roughly shoves his now-useless army into a pile. Then, he grabs his deck box, turns, and hurls it against the wall behind him. For his part, Tony is no graceful victor. "Wow, I don't know what's funnier, watching you destroy your own deck box or hearing you name Broodmate Dragon with your Pithing Needle. What a freaking scrub! No wonder you lost!"

The Infraction Penalty Guide (IPG) clearly defines these types of behavior – on both players' parts – as unsporting conduct. To that extent, the IPG is satisfactory, robust even. However, enforcing these standards of behavior requires an approach that is at once delicate, direct, empathetic, nuanced, confident, and authoritative. But, in a vacuum, the IPG just can't account for this. For this article, I'll cover the main types of unsporting conduct and then examine some methods you can use to address unsporting conduct when you encounter it. Let's go!


USC-Minor can be as simple as an expletive uttered at an opponent's well-timed Cryptic Command or top-decked Cruel Ultimatum. Likewise, a happy disruption can also be unsporting, and that soon-to-be victorious opponent can earn himself a warning if he shows you his best impersonation of Terrell Owens' end zone dance.

The line between USC-Minor and normal competitive behavior is understandably gray, as regional customs and standards of behavior vary widely. "Flipping the bird" might elicit a mere eye roll around the kitchen table, but ignite a threat of violence in a different gaming atmosphere. While the IPG does give us the guideline of "excessively vulgar or offensive," each judge is empowered to make that determination using his or her own judgment.


Insults of any kind are a serious matter in organized play. Calling your opponent a "donk" or "scrub" for making a misplay is clearly an example of USC-Minor. However, when the language takes on shades of racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, or other biases, the tournament's integrity as a welcoming place for all gamers is clearly impaired. When slurs are aimed at a person's race, gender, age, or sexual orientation, they cross a line. Specifically, they cross the line between USC-Minor and USC-Major. The former earns a warning, the latter, at least a game loss.

Though the IPG indicates that a slur is properly penalized with a game loss, the venue or tournament organizer may have a standard of behavior that the person uttering the obscene phrase has violated. While the IPG may not dictate their disqualification, the tournament organizer may ask them to leave the venue. In these cases, a player will be assessed the appropriate USC-Major penalty, lose his or her current match (if applicable), and then be dropped from the tournament.

In many cases when a player uses a slur, he or she will do so casually and without malice intended toward the group the slur is usually meant to harm. Ignorance is no excuse for an infraction of this nature. Similarly, you may hear players defend or downplay their language. "Nobody cares that I said it," or "I didn't mean it that way" are not acceptable excuses. Just as a an excited-yet-profane outburst at the contents of a booster pack need not offend other players to be worthy of a warning, neither does an anti-gay slur need to be uttered in the presence of a gay person to be grounds for a game loss.

While judges aren't normally as omniscient as some players perceive, one defensive tactic you may hear is "You didn't catch that other guy when he said it!" In these cases, explain that neither the earlier conduct cited nor the player's own conduct are acceptable, and you will investigate the other behavior noted.

Another type of behavior that falls under USC-Major is a player's destruction of his or her own property. To some, this may seem like an awkward classification, as this sort of behavior is usually between you and your own stuff. However, even self-destructive behavior can severely impair the integrity of the tournament and the experience of your players. Let me explain with an example from my own experience before I became a judge.

Tony was a player I'd normally see at the top tables playing for first or second place, but one week his weekly domination of FNM took a different turn. In a field of 24 drafters, he sits at table 4 in the final round, having lost his last round at table 1. He's losing again, and, when the rares are gathered up for drafting in placement order at the end of the night, he finds himself sitting a disappointing (for him) 10th in the pick order.

When his turn comes, there are still some decent picks left. He grabs a Chandra Nalaar as his pick, and proceeds to tear the unfortunate planeswalker into quarters, then eighths, and then smaller scraps without a moment's hesitation. Reaction around the table is instantaneous. One player laughs nervously, but most are shocked and angry, especially the drafter in 11th place. He would have definitely preferred Chandra to the next-best option. Tony deflects them, "It's my card. I can do what I want with it."

At this point, Tony has committed USC-Major at the very least. One could even argue that he's destroyed tournament materials, which would be an even more severe issue. His actions have severely disrupted the tournament and upset many players. Even though Tony doesn't have any games left to play tonight, recording the penalty in DCI Reporter and notifying the DCI of it is still an important step to ensuring his behavior is tracked. Even if Tony wholeheartedly apologizes and replaces the destroyed card, this is exactly the type of behavior the DCI needs to know about.

The final type of USC-Major occurs when a player deliberately fails to comply with the instructions of a tournament official. The most common misstep with this penalty is confusing it with Tournament Error – Failure to Follow an Official Announcement. When a player fails to follow directions, it rises to the level of USC-Major when that person has been instructed to do so directly as a individual. This penalty can be used to curb other behaviors that would otherwise be in an awkward, undefined gray area concerning the IPG.

For instance, if a player arrives at his match wearing a shirt with a message no ten-year-old should read, the IPG doesn't specify an infraction clearly. When you ask that player to go change his shirt or turn it inside-out, a clear case for USC-Major can be made if the player refuses. In this case, simply asking the player to cease the behavior sets up the conditions for reinforcing that behavior with USC-Major if necessary.

Aggressive Behavior

Of all the "bad behavior" infractions a player can commit, aggressive behavior is among the worst, earning a disqualification right out of the gate. Here, the personal recognition of what constitutes acceptable social behavior fails utterly. As a judge, the DCI has entrusted you with the power to intervene and maintain the integrity of the tournament. With that power comes the responsibility to act immediately when the potential for aggression or other violence rears its ugly head. However, your duty does not extend to any point at which you can personally be subject to injury, threats, or other forms of violence.

The IPG does not distinguish between threats of violence and acts of violence. A player or other tournament participant who angrily states, "If only I knew where that guy's car was parked..." is treated by the DCI with the same severity as if the threat had been carried out. This is an example of zero tolerance in action, and demonstrates the severe light in which the DCI addresses aggressive behavior.

The IPG Means You, Too

The IPG and its predecessor are most commonly understood as player-centric documents, focused on remedying the rules violations and errors made by players or modifying players' behavior to preserve the tournament's integrity. However, the IPG applies to everyone involved in the tournament, from the tournament organizer and his staff to the awkward spectators wandering the event hall in search of "pokey-mans" cards. It also applies to judges. We are as responsible (some would assert "more responsible") for maintaining a positive gaming atmosphere as anyone involved. That the IPG dictates this duty is a mostly technical note, as a person who cares enough about the game to become a judge is unlikely to impair the integrity of the tournament. However, the application of the IPG to judges can be a useful reminder to maintain a professional demeanor in a trying situation.

When a player brings out the insults, one of the best methods to avoid escalating the conflict is "staying above the fray." As a judge, you have the authority of the DCI behind you, which should be all the force you need. You can also maintain an objective, conflict-deflecting stance by understanding that a player's reaction, while directed at you personally, has a root cause that is largely independent of you as a person.

Root Causes

When faced with an unexpected penalty, especially a game or match loss, a player's reaction can take a number of less savory routes. Though actual instances are rare, the potential for a player to become agitated, upset, insulting, or aggressive is real.

No two players understand the rules exactly alike or with equal aptitude. For instance, a player may have expected that once he had blocked with Qasali Pridemage and passed priority, he would be able to assign its damage and also blow up his opponent's Honor of the Pure. Having that expectation obliterated at a critical moment in Game 3 can inspire a genuine emotional reaction.

A gap between expectations and outcomes can also occur in a broader context, too. If a player enters a tournament with confidence in his abilities and then goes 0-3-drop, it's entirely possible that his mental state will be one of disappointment and frustration. While a judge's duties do not include comforting those players that "scrub out" from an event, a simple expression of empathy and understanding can go a long way to mitigating a developing conflict.

There is a distinct difference between expressing empathy such as, "I understand that you're probably disappointed with this outcome" and saying, "I'm sorry, but I have to give you a game loss." Though your intent may be empathetic, the words "I'm sorry" carry an apologetic meaning that should not be expressed when delivering an earned penalty for unsporting conduct.

Mitigating a Conflict

With most rule violations or errors, an accepted practice is to identify the error, explain the infraction, assess the penalty, and apply the fix in that order. This method works well for unsporting conduct and related offenses, but there are still further considerations to weigh. When responding to an outburst, the following steps are effective in maintaining the tournament's integrity and your own safety.

Intervene immediately.

When a conflict arises between two players, it is very easy for a feedback loop to develop whereby neither player can bring himself to back down. Rather than lose face, both players respond by asserting their correctness with increasing ferocity. In this situation, a judge should cut off the communication between the players immediately and reflect it toward him or herself directly. Delivered in an appropriate voice, "I need you both to stop talking and listen. Now." should be sufficient to end the current conversation and start one of your own. Ask any spectators that may have become involved to move away from the match area, but remain close enough that you can call them over if you need them.


Start by explaining what you're going to do, "Now that I have your attention, we need to resolve what happened here. I'm going to talk to you both separately, starting with you. I will listen to both of you before I make my ruling, and I will need you both to listen to me, too. Okay?" This simple statement establishes the joint responsibility of both players and you to resolve the issue appropriately. Take the most agitated player away from the table to talk. This removes the player from the immediate setting of the conflict and creates a calming physical distance from his or her antagonist.

In these situations, "Tell me what happened," and any obvious follow-ups are usually enough to establish a sufficient understanding of the events that led to the outburst. As with any investigation, avoid questions that imply their answer in their wording and use open-ended questions.

Active listening and reflective listening are very useful techniques to both reduce the level of conflict and speed it to an effective resolution. Active listening includes things like maintaining eye contact, asking direct and appropriate follow-up questions, and avoiding expressions that betray disbelief. Reflective listening is rephrasing each player's side of the story to him or her in your own words. These methods confirm for both players that they have been heard and are being treated fairly, and will usually calm down an agitated player.

While exercising active and reflective listening, it's critical to ensure the players maintain a mutual sense of respect for you. When a player interrupts your ruling midsentence or exhibits obvious signs of inattentiveness, refocus the conversation by demanding parity. "I listened to everything you said, and now I need you to do the same" is usually enough to reestablish your own authority without venturing into the poisonous realm of condescension. Your eye contact, posture, and gestures will also play a critical role in how your ruling is perceived.

Finally, intervening in and investigating a severe unsporting conduct issue can be personally trying. Other than rules knowledge, one of the most important aspects of judging Magic is the ability to act as an objective arbiter in resolving disputes. While Vulcan-like control of your emotions is excessive even for judges, your objectivity is at risk the instant you begin to exhibit an emotional reaction to a player's behavior. When you do notice your ego becoming involved in a conflict, call another judge over to serve both as backup and as an objective set of eyes on the situation.

Deliver the bad news.

When a player does commit a USC infraction, there is a potential for emotional reactions to spiral the situation out of your grasp as a judge. But when a player has violated the integrity of the tournament by behaving unacceptably, the consequences of inaction are grave.

When you resolve an unsporting conduct situation, plan your approach:
"I saw/heard you say/do ______."
"That conduct is not OK in this tournament or any other tournament."
"Because you did/said ______, you will be penalized with _____."
"This sort of penalty is tracked carefully with the DCI."
"Don't do it again. If you do, you will be subject to _____."
"An apology won't change the penalty, but it would set a better tone and make me more confident that you won't do it again."
"Moving forward, this is what will happen: _____."

If a player has committed something more severe than USC-Minor, the situation is already going to be pretty embarrassing for him. Rather than compound this by delivering the ruling in the presence of a potentially antagonistic opponent, it's best to initially explain the infraction and penalty away from the table first. Let the offending player react normally, though not aggressively or abusively, and then explain the infraction, penalty, and way forward to the opponent.

Stay concise.

While taking the appropriate steps to mitigate the conflict and reduce the tension between players, the process can take a considerable amount of time. It's no easy task to resolve a severe conflict and restart the match in a timely manner. Though time management and conflict resolution are competing interests in some sense, they are also complementary in that they are both dedicated to maintaining the tournament's integrity.

Additionally, consider the time expended on resolving the conflict in proportion to the penalty it is likely to generate. If you're spending five minutes resolving a warning for USC-Minor, chances are you're doing it wrong. On balance, though, it's better to take an extra minute to get a USC penalty right the first time than rush through the process and leave the players confused and no less agitated.

When faced with a time-consuming conflict, one of the best tools a judge has is the authority to table the conversation. Once the disturbance is initially quelled, investigated, and ruled upon, it is still likely for a player to want to argue his point further. Most of these situations should be treated as de facto appeal, and referred to the head judge. In cases involving unsporting conduct, it's very likely that the head judge will be involved already, so any appeal will likely be quick. If a player insists on arguing his case after appealing it, he or she is committing USC-Major.

"That's my final ruling. If you want to talk more about it after your match, I'll be happy to discuss it then. Right now, I need you to finish your match." This phrase, especially when uttered by the head judge, is perhaps the best tool you have at your disposal to get the match moving again. In most cases, the player in question will not seek you out to discuss the issue further, but simply knowing the option exists will ensure the player does not feel unduly stifled.

Hopefully, unsporting behavior isn't so common in your typical tournament experience that you need to employ these skills with any regularity. However, when the opportunity to resolve a tense, acrimonious player dispute does present itself, it's my hope that you rise to the occasion with the right combination of empathy, authority, understanding, and confidence to preserve the tournament's integrity as any good judge should.

Sean Catanese