Judging Style for Varying Tournament Types

Posted in NEWS on January 31, 2000

By Wizards of the Coast

Jakub Wysoczanski

Judging from 8 a.m…of the day before. Tired eyes are closing, your fluids have been consumed by non-air conditioned site and feet… wait a minute: where are your feet?! And you still have to take care about an event, players and tournament staff. You are judging all the time at the same, high quality level but all the time players are complaining you are: "too harsh," "too lenient," "too official," "too direct". Your event runs smoothly, you know the newest rulings and can correctly interpret Floor Rules though players are not satisfied. WHY?

One of the possible reasons is that players expect a different atmosphere for different kinds of tournaments. Apart from maintaining the integrity of an event, the most important task for a judge is to make players satisfied with the tournament. Independent of the fact whether they are playing for money or just for fun, they need to feel good to come to the next tournament. The judges' behaviour is a very important factor that affects tournament atmosphere. Let's briefly describe the archetypes of appropriate judging style for various kinds of tournaments:

Side events of professional tournaments:

The most important factor that distinguishes such events is variety of level of participants. During premier events like PTs or Continentals, side events are populated by both famous players who dropped from the main event and newbies that want to be part a professional tournament atmosphere. You can have a table with two World Champions and 6 GP winners but you can also have a table with 8 unranked players. Judging such event requires a lot of tact and empathy. Basically you can divide side events into three types: "all stars", "mixed", or "all newbies".

All stars

In such cases usually all the players know each other. They dropped from the main event and want to relax with friends. Atmosphere is loose, play is commented by other players and spectators. Very often players allow reversing wrong plays and rarely pay attention to procedural errors. In such cases it is better not to interfere with the flow of event. Do not enforce perfect technical play and never punish players for procedural mistakes if both offending player and his/her opponent decided just to "forget it". Be a friend rather than a supervisor. At the same time watch carefully for situations where a player tries to gain unfair advantage of this atmosphere. That should never be left without serious judge's intervention. It may happen that players are asking if they can play a "money draft" as a side event. Be careful: such gambling practices are against law in some countries and playing for ante is forbidden in all DCI tournaments.


This is the most popular type of side event where both experienced players and newbies are participating. Although atmosphere may look relaxing remember that many young players are under a great stress, as they want to win at every cost with a famous pro-player. Such players don't want spectators commenting on every single move and feel neglected when their opponent is joking about a situation on the table. Judge should never allow older or more experienced players to behave in a manner that discourages beginners from organised play. It is better to be formal and not show familiarity with a beginner's opponent; you do not want to create suspicions about biasness.

All newbies

They think about side events as a part of the main professional tournament and want to be treated seriously. To create atmosphere they expect try to be a bit more official than required at a side event. Pay attention to the procedure but instead of punishing mistakes with warnings just explain how the correct play should look like. Answer each rules question (even those like "why can't I attack with my Shivan Dragon the turn it comes into play?") as it would be a current hot topic on MTG-L. The more time is dedicated to such players the more probable that they will come to the next event.


"Excited crowd": those two words describe specificity of prerelease tournaments. You can expect lots of kids and professional players mixed together to have some fun with new Magic edition. The most important thing to do during opening packs is moderate the noise. Both younger and older players are showing their cards to friends and accidental "tablemates", commenting on the artwork, flavor text, and usefulness of cards in different tournament formats. It isn't a good policy to issue penalties for such behaviour during prereleases. Let players enjoy together. When the tournament continues usually lots of players will be showing you their cards and decks asking for your comments. Although judge should never comment about players' decks, wearing a T-shirt "No, I don't want to hear about your deck" is probably not a good idea during prerelease tournaments if you want players to come to the next prerelease. Instead of giving advice just listen to players, nod in agreement to what they say and ask about their opinions. I remember my surprise when on the second prerelease I organised, players arrived with their friends just to spend a few hours in good atmosphere and dispute about new cards.


When judging in your region you will probably know most of the players. Do not forget they are fighting for invitation and money prizes so even if you know them do not allow yourself to show any sign of biasness. Be formal although do not forget players expect you to treat them like friends. Even when you DQ someone from a tournament never allow the situation when a player thinks he/she was unfairly punished (OK: it IS difficult but that's why judges are gathering experience).

Situation is different when judging outside your region. In the beginning try to gather from local judges information about the players taking part in the QT. Are there any troublemakers? Who has already been caught cheating before? Who has constant problems with technical rules and procedure? Just remember not to ask players about such things that would create the impression that you are an "investigator" seeking to show off your DCI Penalty Guidelines knowledge. Finding answers to the questions above will help you to improve your effectiveness and to ensure proper tournament flow. And last but not least try to find out which players are considered the local bosses. Be prepared that such players will treat you as an intruder who can threaten their leading position in local Magic environment. Either they will try to win your sympathy or catch you making a mistake to make a fool of you. In both cases the judge should stay independent. Professional behaviour in such situations will work better than attempts to become friends with such players.

Grand Prix:

In this case you will probably not know most of the players but will know a number of friends. Be very careful to be completely impartial. Even when you talk in your own language about a return trip to home other players could suspect (and some will surely do) that you are giving extensive outside assistance to friends. During GPs, judges face players with different levels of skills and rules knowledge. One of the most important things during such events is to treat all participants equally. It is a good thing to assure that penalties for the same offence do not vary much at all during a GP event. Players are expecting formal treatment and full executing of DCI Floor Rules and Penalties. On the other hand be very cautious not to allow players to "rules cheese," such as calling a judge to ask for warning when their opponent putts a card into the graveyard before spell resolution.


$150,000 (US) at stake should determine your judging style. Professionalism is the basic characteristic a judge should show during PT events. Remember that the percentage of new players is rather low. During competition be as formal as you can. If it is not your first PT you will probably know some of the players but this does not justify any "friendly talk" during any match. Of course sometimes players fighting for a high stake are joking, telling funny stories and generally having a good time, but remember that in a second this good mood can evolve in serious conflict because of improper mulligan/shuffling/coin flipping. Separating private matters from professional ones is of the highest importance. From the other side, being a harsh judge does not prevent you from conversing with players during breaks. You can ask them about their feelings about the event, judges, atmosphere etc. You will probably meet very experienced players whose opinions can teach you how to improve yourself and your events.

Remember about objectivity when issuing rulings. You will win respect if you do not allow players to force their own rulings which sometimes happens when inexperienced judges face a Famous Player™. It is also very important to always intervene when you spot procedural mistakes, even when both players ask you to "forget it". During PT Rome I was called to a table by a player (lets name him "A") complaining that his opponent (player B) wanted to untap a land mistakenly tapped for mana. Player B was extremely annoyed because a few minutes earlier he allowed player A (who made the same mistake) to reverse the wrong play while judge was at the table and there was nor problem with that. If a judge is not forcing a technical correct play sooner or later one of the players will complain about unfair treatment/impartiality/nepotism. Also never forget to fully explain the basis of your decisions; never leave any doubts about justification of your ruling. If a player is still not satisfied with the ruling you can always use some time during a break to talk to him/her. This cost you less than reading about your "improper" decision on The Dojo…

It is obvious that the above guidelines have to be applied using a common sense. With increasing experience it will be easier and easier for you to develop one of the most important judge skills: empathy.

Jakub Wysoczanski