Learning to Judge

Posted in NEWS on December 7, 2015

By Wizards of the Coast

Christopher Manrique

I spent way too much time grumbling about bad judging at tournaments. Not at the big tournaments, but the little local tournaments. None of these tournaments had a DCI certified judge. They were all small local tournaments, run by either the store owner at Friday Night Magic, or a "Local Guy". Most of the bad judging involved the TO/Head Judge either not knowing the floor rules, or choosing to ignore the floor rules, or just plain not knowing the rules of the game. I moaned, I complained, and then I decided I wanted to be a Judge. I wanted to be the one who made sure that the rules were followed, and everyone had a good play experience. While my son was competing at JSS in Orlando this June, I bit the bullet and took the test. Now I am that guy. The LAW. The one who will clean up magic in my town.

Well, not quite.

I'm just a Level 1.

I have no experience.

When people call "Judge!", I'm the guy who has to solve the problem. I've TO/Head Judged about 20 tournaments since then, and have learned a lot, and I am still learning every time I make a ruling. And I've made more than a few mistakes. If you're a new judge, please learn from some of my mistakes, as I am trying to.

Mistake Number One - I DIDN'T READ THE CARD

I made this mistake while judging one of two side events at Nationals before I took my Judges Test. Chris Page came over to see how I was doing, and while he was there, someone called "Judge!". A player had a question about Wormfang Crab. I answered off the top of my head, knowing that I remembered the wording. Only I didn't. Chris was nice, and suggested that I read the card. Once I did, I realized my error, and corrected myself. After the ruling and after Chris left, I spent the rest of that tournament chiding myself for making a stupid mistake in front of the Head Judge. (Of course, it would be a lot easier if all of our mistakes were in private, with no one around to see them.) I have however learned three important lessons:

  1. Always read the card. Most questions can be answered by carefully reading what the card says. Even when you think you know the wording, take the time to read the card. This will also demonstrate to the players that you take every question seriously.
  2. Just because you are a judge, does not mean that you won't make mistakes. Just make sure you learn from them.
  3. If you make a mistake, correct yourself. It's far less humiliating to catch a mistake (even if someone suggests that you might have made one), and correct it yourself than to get overruled.


This happened at a Booster Draft I was running. One player discovered that he had forgotten to return a card that had been removed by Mesmeric Fiend, and had shuffled it into his deck. Penalty guidelines say that at all REL's, an illegal deck is Game Loss. I didn't want to give a game loss to both players, so I gave a Warning to each. At the beginning of the next round, I made an announcement that all players were to make sure they gave back all cards, as the stated penalty is Game Loss. Well, next round, same thing happened. Now I was in the position of having to decide whether to follow through with my announcement and award a Game Loss, or give the same penalty I gave earlier in the tournament to another player. I gave a Game Loss, and vowed to follow the penalty guidelines in every tournament, all the time. Lessons that I learned:

  1. The penalty guidelines are there for a reason. The people who determined that these are appropriate penalties have been judging a lot longer than I have. Don't second guess them.
  2. If you decide to deviate from the rules, you are entering the realm of "Here Be Dragons." Where do you stop? Get back on the right track and stay there.


Recently at a Limited Event, I got the call of "Judge!". One player wanted to know if he could block an Elven Riders (Can only be blocked by Walls and creatures with Flying), with a creature that could block as though it had flying. I was unsure of the answer, and called over another Level 1 Judge to confer. The other Level 1 told me that the answer he had always been told was that no, it had to have flying. I gave this answer to the player. He didn't argue with me, but I was troubled, and wanted to research it further. I pulled up the D'Angelo rulings, and looked at other creatures with the same ability (mostly the spiders). Under the D'Angelo rulings it states that yes, these creatures CAN block creatures that can only be blocked by flyers, and that at the time the Spider is declared as a blocker, it is declared as a flying blocker. I immediately went to the two players, and told them that I conducted further research, and that my previous ruling was incorrect. Needless to say, the player who was not able to block at the time I made the ruling wasn't very happy. I don't blame him. But I learned from this:

  1. If you're not 100 percent sure, take the time to do some research before you rule. It would have been much better, and I would have felt like a better judge to be able to say, "Wait while I check this out. I'll give you extra time because the ruling took up some of your game time.", then it was to have to tell the player you that you had cost him the game because you thought you were right.
  2. Don't let a mistake go uncorrected. Bite the bullet and tell the player you were wrong. It's easier to respect someone who will admit to their mistakes, than someone who is so arrogant as to deny ever making mistakes.

Here are some other lessons I've learned, but they just came out of my overall experiences rather than from actual mistakes I have made.

  1. If you going to judge, then JUDGE. Don't get into long conversations with friends that stop by, or side games of other card games. Check out what the players are doing. After all my grumbling about the Three Judge System going away, I have come to realize that I am a much better judge when that is all I am doing that day.
  2. Make a list of what you want your pre-tournament announcements to be. Keep this list for the next tournament. Add to it when necessary.
  3. Keep copies of the floor rules, the penalty guidelines, oracle, and even the newest D'Angelo rulings on hand. D'Angelo is great for determining whether a card is a reprint that is legal - especially for people playing portal cards in vintage formats.
  4. Don't get rushed for a ruling. Don't get rushed to get results entered. Don't let yourself get rushed.
  5. Act professional. Not because you are representing DCI or any company answer. Act professional because people will respect you and any rulings you make based on how you have presented yourself.
  6. Every time someone calls "Judge!", they need your help. If you don't enjoy answering every one of these calls, then you need to be doing something other than judging.

Most importantly: Realize that you are still learning, and you will make mistakes. When you do make mistakes, make sure you learn something from it that will make you a better judge the next time someone calls for you.