Making the Most of the Three-Judge Rule

Posted in NEWS on December 20, 1999

By Wizards of the Coast

Shawn Doherty

One of the newest changes to sanctioned tournaments is that now judges and tournament organizers can play in their own tournaments. This is made possible by the Three-Judge Rule. For those that do not know this rule, it states:

The Three-Judge System may be used at any tournament with at least eight and no more than sixteen participants. Organizers choosing this system must announce its use before the tournament begins and identify the three judges as head judge, secondary judge, and tertiary judge. Tournament organizers may only participate in events they sanction if they are using the Three-Judge System and work as a judge within that event. These types of events are the only ones in which judges and/or tournament organizers are allowed to participate. When using the Three-Judge System, the head judge makes all rulings, except when a decision is needed in a game in which the head judge is participating. If a ruling is needed in a head judge's game, the secondary judge makes the call. The only time the tertiary judge makes a ruling is when the head judge is playing against the secondary judge. The Three-Judge System may only be used in one-on-one tournaments, and not multiplayer events. In Three-Judge events featuring the Enhanced-K tournament system, like in Magic: The Gathering tournaments, the K-value is limited to 8K.

There are many reasons why a judge should use the Three-Judge rule, but there are difficulties when using it. I will go through these reasons based on my personal experience, which I hope will show other judges when and why they should use the Three-Judge rule.

1) Only seven people show up for the tournament

Since the Three-Judge rule was first implemented, I have used it frequently in the tournaments that I run at a local store. In most cases there are at least eight people at the event, but sometimes (if there is a PTQ in a neighboring town) there may be less than eight. If only seven people show up for a tournament, the judge could enter as the eighth competitor instead of canceling the tournament or running it as a non-sanctioned event. This may be a crucial decision to players if they want to earn DCI points or if the prize is guaranteed only if eight or more people play.

2) There are an odd number of players in a tournament

For small, in-store tournaments, most people show up to play Magic, not get byes. So, when an odd number of people sign up for the event, having the judge play in the event will avoid byes, at least until someone drops from the tournament. If the main intent is to avoid byes, then the judge could drop out at the same time to prevent later round byes.

3) To allow players to get experience as tournament judges

If one or more of the players at the tournament are interested in becoming a certified judge, then using the Three-Judge rule allows them to work as a judge in a small tournament without having to worry about being the only judge there or having the final word on a decision. The certified judge could also defer the primary judging responsibility to one of these players if players want experience as a head judge. In this scenario, there would still be a certified judge working at the tournament to advise the primary judge, but he or she would only act as secondary or tertiary judge.

4) To allow the judge to have playing time

As a graduate student, I do not have a lot of free time to devote to Magic. So if I judge tournaments one evening and all day Saturday, I do not have the time to play in many other tournaments. The Three-Judge rule lets me play in some of my tournaments, which lets me play and practice without cutting too much time out of my week. I have talked to many judges who have told me that they feel their playing skills have slipped since they are judging all the time. I think that the Three-Judge rule will help these judges keep their skills sharp, while still allowing them to judge tournaments.

While I am an advocate of the Three-Judge rule, I do understand that there are difficulties that arise from using it.

1) Decreased K-value

Some players are very concerned about their DCI rating. By using the Three-Judge rule, the K-value of the event is dropped from 16K (in most cases) to 8K. This means that the total number of points that a played can gain is halved by the judge playing in the tournament. When considering whether to play in the event, you should ask anyone who may mind the K-value dropping before making a decision.

2) Decreased time for logistics

When the judge is playing in the tournament, it decreases the available time that he or she has to run the tournament. This includes filling out event forms, calculating pairings, and other tasks that have to be performed before the next round can begin. If the judge does not finish his or her match before the round is over, then the next round is delayed because the logistical work now had to be done between rounds and not during them. This problem can be helped by using the DCI Reporter program, which will speed up much of the logistics, and having the other two judges work on logistics if they finish their matches before the primary judge does.

3) Conflict of interests

It is possible that other players in the tournament may feel that judges that play in their own events may show preferential treatment or be biased in their favor. This can occur anytime a rules question comes up in a match between a judge and another player. The non-judge may feel that other judge may rule in favor of the judge in the match. One can help avoid this potential problem by having three judges who do not know each other, or at least are not all friends. Another example of this problem occurred the last time I used the Three-Judge rule. I was playing in a match and the round was about to end. I was keeping the official time on my watch, so I knew exactly when the time would be called. If I had wanted to, I could have delayed my turn or ended it just before or just after time would be called, depending on which way would have given me an advantage in the match. In this case, I did not use the clock in my favor, but it showed me the possibility for abuse. To help prevent this, I now use a clock that everyone can see and have all three judges responsible for calling time.

I believe that the Three-Judge rule is a wonderful tool that can be used in DCI sanctioned tournaments, even with its potential problems. I would like to hear about other judges' experiences in using the Three-Judge rule. Anyone with comments about this articles or the Three-Judge rule can feel free to email me at