Judging at the Professional Level

Posted in NEWS on August 15, 2001

By Wizards of the Coast

George Macoukji

Judging Magic at the professional level is one of the most rewarding experiences for a judge. The opportunity to meet and interact with the world's best players and judges can change a person's whole outlook on the game. Among many other benefits, it will allow you to work at a level of honor and integrity, professionalism and sheer talent rarely seen at amateur or lower-level events.

So, if you ever find yourself judging a Pro Tour or the World Championships, you should be aware that there are several conventions in force that aren't actually written down anywhere, yet facilitate the running of these events. They include the sheer level of competition, judging protocols, and judging priority issues. I'm going to briefly cover these issues, and examine how they affect the practical aspects of judging at the professional level.

Types of Magic Events

There are four general categories of events in Magic. Formerly, they were designated Class A through Class D, though these terms are now considered obsolete with the introduction of the new K-value system. The four categories are casual events, premier events, professional events, and the World Championships.

Casual Events

Casual events are the small events held at local gaming stores and most conventions. They can range in size from the minimum of 8 players needed to hold a sanctioned tournament, all the way up to hundreds of players when the prizes are large. You've probably judged a few of these, and you know that for the most part, they are run at Rules Enforcement Level 1 or 2. The focus is on fun and companionship, and the prizes are often symbolic more than valuable. At these events, it's rare to find the level of stress and competition you often find at higher-level events.

Premier Events

Premier events are significantly larger, and are often run directly by or under contract with Wizards. They include simpler events like Prereleases, Pro Tour Qualifiers, Grand Prix Trials, State Championships, and Regional qualifiers, as well as more prominent events like Grand Prix and Junior Super Series events. The level of competition is considerably higher, and the caliber of the players, especially in the final rounds, is generally better than that at Class D events. The players are more cutthroat, and will often take advantage of an opponent's mistake to call a judge in the hope that the opponent will receive a penalty. At these events, you should be somewhat stricter in rules enforcement, as players are expected to know most of the rules beforehand. Typically, these events are run at Rules Enforcement Level 3.

Professional Events

Professional events are National Championships, Pro Tours, the Masters series, Invitationals, and other events of a similar level. Competition at these events is fierce, and players are expected to not only know the rules inside out, but to take advantage of them. Rules Enforcement Level 4 or 5 is usually in effect, which means that almost all offences warrant a warning and maybe a game loss as well. When judging these events, keep in mind that players are competing for prizes often in the thousands of dollars, and it's not unusual to get called over for small offences that would usually be glossed over by players at casual events.

Judges explain a ruling at the 2001 Asia Pacific Championship

World Championships

The pinnacle of Magic, the Olympics of the DCI, this is the biggest and most famous event in competitive Magic. Players at this event are the cream of the crop, the best in the world. Competition is unparalleled, and if you watch carefully, you will notice numerous examples of both the most and least sportsmanlike conduct of any Magic event anywhere.

I've seen players here whose opponents are from countries they've never heard of. Neither player could speak the other's language, and they had no languages in common. Yet the level of respect and sportsmanship between these two players could serve as an example of what is best about the game of Magic.

However, at that same event, I saw players call a judge over for the most incredibly minor offences. I was once faced with a player who complained that his opponent wanted to concede the match without calling a judge over first! Don't be surprised if you find yourself shaking your head at some of the antics players pull. They are competing for the title of World Champion, and the incredible prizes that come with it. For some, the ends justify the means.

So, now that you've gotten a whirlwind introduction to the competition at these levels of events, how do you deal with it?

Types of Judges

Although the Standard Floor Rules only name two levels of judges (head judge and "other"), in effect there are several types of judges at a premier event. Keep in mind throughout this discussion, though, that in all instances, the head judge is the final authority, and while players may appeal other judges' decisions, the head judge's decisions cannot be appealed.

Head Judge

The most prominent judge at any event is the head judge. In terms of game play, he is the most important figure at the event. Although the rulings of other judges may be appealed, the head judge's decision is final. If you are ever in doubt about a ruling or other question, ask the players to wait a minute, and talk to the head judge. He's your boss, and remember that you answer to him - not to the players, not to the tournament organizer, and certainly not to the spectators.

Senior Judges

At large events, there will be several high-level, respected judges who serve as aides to the head judge. They are commonly called senior judges. A senior judge's role is to assist the head judge in running the judging aspects of a tournament. If the head judge needs to take a break, or has to leave the event for whatever reason, one of the senior judges will take over the duties of the head judge. (For more information on what happens when the head judge has to leave an event, please consult the excellent article that Level 4 judge Dan Gray wrote and posted to the judge's mailing list. I've included a copy in Appendix 1.)

Furthermore, it's not unusual for a senior judge to answer a call on behalf of the head judge. For example, if a player appeals the ruling of a floor judge, and the head judge is currently involved in a major dispute, the senior judge will often make a ruling on the head judge's behalf. Almost invariably, the head judge will back up the senior judge and support his ruling if there is ever a question. (Obviously, this assumes the senior judge was correct!)

Note that technically, the senior judge is just another floor judge. However, senior judges earn that designation and position through a lot of hard work and respect. Their knowledge of the rules and procedures is usually at least as good as that of the head judge, and if necessary, they are capable of replacing the head judge for the duration of the tournament. Bear in mind that it would not be appropriate to appoint a senior judge at your local eight-man single-elimination event just for the sake of having one. The post of senior judge is one only used in large tournaments when there is a need for an "alternate" head judge.

Team Leaders

Often at large events, the play area is divided into sections, with one senior judge in charge of all the judges in that section. Wizards refers to this as the "team" system. The judging staff is divided into teams, each of which is in charge of monitoring one section of the play area. The senior judges are normally called team leaders in this format.
In this case, if a player appeals a ruling or if you have questions, you contact your team leader. If the player again appeals the ruling, the team leader will then contact the head judge. This reduces the workload on the head judge to a manageable level.

All the floor judges at Worlds wear the traditional black and white judge shirt

Table Judges

Another common designation is that of table judge. A table judge is a judge whose sole responsibility is to monitor a single table. This can happen for a variety of reasons. It's not uncommon for a player to ask that his match be monitored for stalling reasons, and if the judge who answers that call feels it appropriate, he or she will usually just sit down and keep an eye on the match. Also, it's standard operating procedure to have a table judge at the finals of premier events. The table judge will often keep track of life scores and other logistical minutiae (like who plays first in the current game) for the players. If there is a ruling question, the table judge always gets first crack at it.

Floor Judges

Finally, we have the floor judges at an event. This is the most common post for judges. Floor judges have the duty to wander around the play area and keep an eye on things. If the judge sees a mistake, it's his duty to step in and correct it. If a player calls for a judge, the floor judge is the one who will answer the call first. Floor judges do the bulk of the "routine" work at the event, leaving the senior and head judges to handle the unusual or incredibly complex cases. Without floor judges, keeping order at a premier event would be impossible.

Details, Details . . .

Remember that the specifics at any event will vary tremendously.

  • Always ask the head judge or senior judges what you should be doing, and if there is a judges' meeting before or during the event, by all means attend it.
  • Never let the players bully or intimidate you. Give your rulings in a firm yet friendly tone. If you don't feel certain about a ruling, or if you're not sure what the correct answer is, ask the players to wait a moment and check with another judge.
  • If you have to give out a game or match loss, understand that the player receiving it may feel upset. Allow him to "vent" his feelings, but stand by your decision. Likewise, expect many of your rulings to be appealed to the head judge. Don't take it personally; just go find the senior judge or the head judge and let them deal with it. (Stay near the area so you can answer any questions if need be.)
  • If you have to leave your post, try to tell the senior judge. At the very least, ask another judge to keep an eye on your area while you're gone.

Finally, remember that you're there to have fun, not just to judge. Premier events can last several days, and no one said that you must be on duty every minute. (Obviously, there will be exceptions to this rule. For example, sometimes Wizards will fly judges out to an event at their expense, in return for a promise to judge each day.)
If you feel tired, take a break. Be sure to drink plenty of water at the event (you'd be surprised how tired and cranky you can be if you become dehydrated). And above all, be sure to get enough sleep!


I hope this overview has given you an idea of what is involved in judging a premier event. Judging at this level is a difficult but highly rewarding task. It can be quite confusing the first time you try it, so always remember: if you have a question, ask! The head judge, the senior judges, and all the other judges at the event are all there to help you make it a memorable experience, for you and for the players. Let me know if anyone has any questions about this. Keep in mind that a lot of this stuff isn't written down officially anywhere, so many of my answers may be based on things we've actually done in practice.

George Macoukji (macoukji@gamesnet.org)

Appendix 1: Absence of the Head Judge

Editor's note: Please note that this section is an edited post by Level 4 judge Daniel M. Gray. It was originally posted on December 28, 1998, and has been edited only for relevance and formatting. This section is copyright © 1998 Daniel M. Gray.

Here's the basic deal on a Head Judge being "away from his desk" or similar. Some of this is my opinion, and some is official. I'll try to note what's what. :)

At the outset, the appointment of the Head Judge and all other judges is solely the responsibility of the tournament organizer. Basically, since the TO is responsible for all the logistical (and legal) issues having to do with the tournament, it's his or her discretion as to who is allowed to judge. (This is official.)

While the tournament is in progress, the tournament organizer may only relieve the Head Judge "for cause." In other words, the TO can replace the Head Judge only for reasons having to do with the tournament operation or other logistical concerns. The TO cannot replace the Head Judge because he or she disagrees with one of the HJ's rulings, though it would be permissible to replace the HJ if the TO and other judges thought the HJ was biased or undermining the integrity of the tournament in some way. (This is also official.)

The Head Judge can relieve him- or herself at any time, for any reason, and for any length of time. When this occurs, he or she may either designate an alternate or instruct the TO to do so. The alternate may only be another official "Judge of Record" for the tournament (in other words, it has to be someone who has been judging the tournament, rather than someone else at random who just happens to be in the room). For the designated period of the HJ's absence, this alternate has all the powers and authority of the Head Judge. This means that alternate is the court of last appeal [...] and his or her rulings are final. (This is official).

In practice, it's nice to announce to the players when there's a temporary alternate HJ, but it isn't required by the rules anywhere. If there is a permanent change, announcement is strongly recommended. (My opinion). If the event requires a judge of a certain level (Level 4 at PT's, Level 3 at QT's [and Nationals], Level 2 at other title events), and no other such judge is available among the judges of record, you can do one of two things - the HJ or TO can appoint an under-qualified judge to serve as alternate HJ, or the TO can seek out the services of another qualified judge in the room (so long as he or she isn't a player, of course). (This is my opinion.). This would be the only situation where I would allow a non-judge to become a judge. [ . . . ]

Note that alternate or rotating Head Judges have been used frequently at high-level events. For example, at PT Rome [1998], while Carl Crook was the Head Judge, he was called away several times to deal with logistical concerns of the "PT show." In these cases, one of the other Level 4's (usually myself or Chris Zantides) was appointed alternate Head Judge until he returned. This practice was also used at various times at other PT's, including Worlds (Jeff Donais and I both served as temporary Head Judges during 1998 Worlds due to Charlie Catino being called off the floor or needing to go get food). [ . . . ]