Making the Right Call

Posted in NEWS on November 3, 2001

By Wizards of the Coast

Jason Ness

If my experiences as a new judge were anything like most other rookies, the most difficult challenges you face early on in your judging career probably come from rules issues. The vast majority of new judges will have a good foundation for understanding the rules, but often get mired in tougher rules questions. However, with a little experience and some effort put into improving rules knowledge many judges -- even those at lower levels -- can answer the majority of rules questions that are thrown at them.

In my own judging career, as I began to gain experience, I quickly found that the real challenges came not from rules questions, but on decisions that don't really have a defined procedure on how to handle them. These would include scenarios such as players disagreeing on life totals (or just about anything else for that matter), mistapping mana, "take-backs," forgetting actions or steps, and so on. In many cases these scenarios demand resolutions that can't be found in a rulebook, but rather depend upon the judgement of an official working the event.

This article is intended to give new judges some frame of reference from which they can base decisions that don't seem to have an obvious solution. Hopefully it will also allow some of you who have been at this for a while to consider closely the principles on which you base judgement calls. By no means is this article intended to be looked at as the gospel for making tough calls. If there's anything that my limited judging experience has taught me it is that I don't have all the answers. In fact sometimes the answers I do come up with are so far out to lunch that you wonder what could have possibly going through my head when I made them. Hopefully this article will help some of you solidify the foundations on which you base tough rulings. It will also probably make you feel a bit better about some of the errors in judgement you may have made in the past (and may make in the future) once you hear some of the dunderheaded moves I've made. If nothing else, maybe it'll just be good for a laugh or two.

I'll begin by discussing some of the principles on which I base many of my decisions, followed by some practical examples of situations that have come up in my own experience. I'll describe how I handled the situation and discuss what did or did not work in the ruling -- why it was effective, fair, or logical or perhaps why it was complete and utter trash. I invite anyone with their own ideas or interpretations to email me at if you'd like to discuss them further.

Jason Ness shares his insights in this very helpful article

Advantage Gained/Lost

A lot of who I am as a judge in Magic comes from much more experience officiating in sports. As a certified referee in both volleyball and basketball, I've had to learn that an official's fundamental duty is to maintain fairness in the game for the teams/players participating in the sport. This certainly holds as true for Magic as it does for any competitive endeavor for which referees or judges are needed. The rules that govern our sport are designed to ensure an even playing field for both participants in the game. As such, one of the first things that I consider when making a tough ruling is

"How much advantage (or potential advantage) has been gained or lost by this play?"

The answer to that question will very often frame the way in which I rule. A good example of this principle can be found in the penalty guidelines. A player that has a markings on his deck that form a pattern at REL 3 is issued a match loss. I have issued this penalty on a few occasions and most players that get hit with it find the loss of a match to be very severe. One player that suffered the penalty had a single card with a bend in his sleeve. The fact that the card was Tahngarth, Talruum Hero and was his only copy in a sealed deck made this a significant issue.

The penalty may indeed seem severe, but when one considers how much potential advantage can be gained by having marked cards, we can begin to appreciate the importance of having a deterrent built into the penalty guidelines. The same principle applies when making a ruling that doesn't involve the penalty guidelines or floor rules.

For example, at a recent PTQ, two players were embroiled in a close game after time had been called. Player A was on the verge of killing his opponent but dangerously low on life himself. If one of his next two cards happened to be burn, the game was his. If not, he still had the chance to win, but it would depend on his opponent making a blocking error should he decide to attack with creatures. At some point, Player A cast Repulse on one of his opponent's creatures, allowing him to draw a card. When he did, he accidentally grabbed two cards, seeing them both.

Normally under these circumstances the player would receive a warning for looking at extra cards, and the second card would be shown to the opponent. However, in this case the potential for learning information that would determine the player's course of action (and quite possibly the match outcome) was much higher than is usually found in this type of situation. I issued a game loss to Player A despite the fact that I was completely certain that it was an accident (naturally had I felt he did it on purpose, the result would have been a DQ).

Conversely, I sometimes feel that the lack of any real advantage gained or loss sometimes means I can cut players a bit of a break. At this past year's Western Prairie Regionals in Canada, a player cast Dismantling Blow with Kicker during his opponent's End of Turn Step. He untapped, and drew three cards, 1 for his Draw Step and 2 for the Blow. His opponent was incensed and felt that a game loss was in order. According to the opponent the player with the Blow forgot to draw his two cards as part of the spell's resolution and drew two extra cards as part of his Draw Step. The drawing player simply insisted that he was saving time and cutting a small corner in the procedure.

While the opponent had a legitimate argument, in my mind the player with the D. Blow gained nothing by drawing out of order. It wasn't that he forgot to draw and remembered after the fact, but rather that he was being hasty in his play. I asked the player to please be more precise when resolving spells and moving between steps and allowed the match to proceed. Here, the fact that in my mind there was no potential advantage for the player to have proceeded the way he did, there was no need for an official penalty.

Consistency and Precedence

Another thing to consider when making rulings is what effect your ruling might have on future tournaments. It goes without saying that as a judge it is important to maintain consistency in your rulings both during events and across them. However, it's also important to think about what effect your ruling might make on your players' perceptions of your judging for future events.

If you let a player enter a tournament 20 minutes late one week, will you be willing to let others do it down the road? And if players start to make a habit of it, what are you saying about fairness if you suddenly decide to change that habit?

Whenever you make a judgement call, you set a precedent. When an incident like this comes up again, are you prepared to deal with it in a similar way. What if the incidents become repetitive? You have to ask the question

"What precedent does my ruling set and can I rule this way consistently in the future?"

Let me give you an example of a situation where I learned this one the hard way:

Back when Invasion first came out, I was watching a match in a qualifier where time was close to being called. One of the players was my good friend and fellow judge Mike Handfield. Being a judge when you have close friends that play can sometimes put you in an awkward situation. Not only do you have to focus on maintaining your integrity, but you have to make certain that even the perception of impropriety is not an issue. In this match, Mike was in the lead 1-0 but in a very tight game 2. I wanted to make very sure that I wasn't favoring him in any way by turning a blind eye to slow play. A few minutes before the end of the round, Mike paused to consider his play. I waited a few moments and asked him to hurry. He was aggravated and said that it was a tough call for him. He started checking the opponent's graveyard, and I called him on it.

"Let's go Mike! You're pretty much stalling here."
"F*** YOU!" he belted back. "If he has an Undermine I lose! If I hold out for an Absorb, I win! I need to know what's in there."

On the one side, he was right. This play was a make or break moment, and as such the game probably wasn't going to end unfinished regardless. I hadn't been paying attention to that aspect of the game, and I allowed my concern for appearances to distract me from the issue at hand. On the other hand, Mike just swore at me. Loudly. But at the time, I was so embarrassed about the fact that I hadn't noticed time was no longer an issue that I more or less let the matter slide. I told Mike to just relax, explained I hadn't considered the situation clearly enough, and gave him an Unsporting Conduct warning.

Now that may seem adequate to some of you. The problem is that now, if anyone else decides to take exception to a ruling and tells me to **** ***, the worst I can do is give them a warning (to be fair anyway). To do otherwise puts both my credibility and my consistency under question. Moreover, the mistake I made simply created the very problem that I was trying to avoid -- the appearance of favoritism.

Mike and I have discussed the incident plenty of times, which is why I know he doesn't mind me relating this story for public good. We both know this never would have happened had we not been good friends, but we also both know that the whole scenario was a gong show. I shouldn't have rushed him, he shouldn't have sworn, and I most definitely should have dropped the hammer on him when he did. Luckily, a similar scenario has never arisen since then and hopefully it never does. The point that the example makes, though, is that you have to be mindful of what players will consider is worth getting away with. If you're light handed when players misrepresent, for instance, will they be more prone to do it? Worse, players may attempt to cheat through misrepresentation if they know the consequences are worth the risk of getting called on it.

The Almighty Power of "Shouldness"

A lot of situations arise where both players are to blame for an error. It most commonly occurs when both players forget about some ability or effect, and they fail to notice when a rule is broken. During a feature match at 2001 Canadian Nationals, for instance, a player activated a Bloodfire Kavu wiping both sides of the board clean. No one noticed that one of the creatures that got scooped into the grave had Protection form Red until much later in the match.

Most times these types of scenarios can't be rectified. One standard judge response is "both players are responsible for maintaining rules integrity, so no one single player is to blame. You each get a warning, and carry on in the match." When the problem nets someone a significant advantage (e.g. a player drew cards from a Quicksilver Dagger enchanted on a Pro: Red creature), a game loss might be in order. However, from time to time, you might find a situation where neither the game loss penalty nor a simple warning seems adequate. The following situation arose at a recent Grand Prix Trial in Edmonton:

Player A casts Fact or Fiction, player B Absorbs it. 2 turns go by and Player B casts Meddling Mage. That's when Player A notices that Player B already had a Mage in play and it was set to "Absorb" as the spell that could not be played. The play should not have gone down the way it did. On one hand, one can argue that both players are responsible for keeping track of the Mage and that they should just carry on. On the other hand, the advantage gained by Player B was enormous. His 1 card pulled out a Fact or Fiction that would have allowed his opponent to dig 5 cards deep and net some card advantage (to say nothing of the 3 life Player B scored). So is a game loss the answer? Backing up at this point is not an option given the fact that both players have drawn and played cards since the play was made.

Think about what you would have done in this situation. What precedent would you set by your ruling? If you just warn them both and make them continue does it encourage players to see if they can "sneak" spells around a Meddling Mage or try other forms of Misrepresentation? Do you game loss Player B and send a message that players can "cheese out" a game loss by allowing opponents to Misrepresent and calling them on it a few turns later after the point at which the game can't be backed up?

At the time, I didn't see either of these rulings as especially favorable. After talking it over with the other judge working with me, we decided that the best way to handle this situation is try to restore the game to the state that most closely represents what SHOULD have happened. We came back, warned both players, took 3 life off Player B's total, and allowed Player A to "resolve Fact or Fiction" (2 turns later). Note that we didn't back the game up. We just tried to put it roughly in the place it would be had the players done it right. Player B's "penalty" for misplaying Absorb was the loss of the spell.

I realize that for some judges this ruling may seem downright sacrilegious. I encourage your feedback and input. But the beauty of that ruling and ones that I've made of a similar nature (few and far between though they are) is that I've yet to deliver one where the players didn't feel that it was completely fair. They were satisfied that the ruling made was the most equitable way to resolve the dispute. No one got heavily "screwed over" and no one "got away with one" either.

When all else fails, try to figure out

"What SHOULD the game state be right now had things gone the way they were supposed to?"

If that question is unanswerable or if the restoration alters the game too severely, then penalize accordingly.

Failure to Agree on Anything

Sometimes you encounter situations where players simply want to disagree about everything. One says he tapped a land, the other says she didn't. One player insists his life total is 9, his opponent says it is 11. They turn to you for a resolution.

Situations like these are probably my most hated. Essentially what the players are asking of you is to take one person's word over another. All things being equal (and they very often aren't), it is really not possible for you to dismiss one player at the other's expense if you have absolutely no reason to doubt either of them. Even if you do have some doubt, it is still difficult because without some measure of proof, you must be willing to state that you believe one player is lying or completely out to lunch.

Assuming that all things are equal, my tendency is to allow players to be the best judges of their own actions. If one player says he hadn't taken his hand off the land while his opponent says he did, I usually side with the person who is controlling the action. Again, this is assuming there's no way to prove who's right or wrong, and you have absolutely no inclination that one player may be falsifying or mistaken in his/her statement.

It is critical to monitor this however. If the same player is in these types of disputes repeatedly, then that is a red flag. I suggest keeping a close eye on them during matches whenever possible, and doing your utmost to investigate their disputes before ruling. Do not be afraid to consult spectators of a match, just be prepared to take their opinions or "testimony" with a very large grain of salt.

Always with a disagreement of this kind a brief lecture on the importance of fair play, sportsmanship, and honesty is in order. Hand out appropriate "failure to agree on reality" warnings (under the Procedural Error or Misrepresentation categories - whichever is most applicable) and carry on. The goal has to be to deter the possibility of players lying their way out of play errors.


Inevitably you're probably going to find that you make a mistake here and there in your judging. Maybe you were sure you knew how the Legend rule worked, but didn't quite have it sorted out. Maybe you did the seating wrong for a top 8 Booster Draft at a Grand Prix Trial. Maybe you realized after the fact that you could have made your point to a player upset with your ruling more clearly and more calmly. Regardless, mistakes or simple errors in judgement are going to be made from time to time. How you handle yourself at those times and the way in which you learn from your mistakes will determine whether or not you can turn those challenges into victories. They will likely be what allow you to distinguish yourself as a highly respected and sought after judge for events.

If I can offer one piece of advice to judges out there, it would be to develop a degree of humility. I have encountered in my travels those individuals who must have a desperate need to right, to be in control, and to be respected. They deliver rulings as though they were Moses bringing forth the Commandments, and behave as though they invented both Magic and the rules on which it is designed. Even as I say this, I will be the first to admit that when I first started judging I was guilty of having "over-inflated judge ego" for a time. My word was law and to question it was an affront to everything I stood for.

Humility has a funny way of finding you and punching you in the face sometimes though. Early on in my judging career I had the opportunity to judge at Canadian Nationals. It was incredible learning experience, but the whole time I remember being extremely anxious about screwing up. I had a good handle on the rules, but no experience at big events and only a half dozen or so PTQs, Prereleases, etc. under my belt.

At one point a question came up regarding Jolrael, Empress of Beasts from Prophecy. "If I have a land enchanted with Living Terrain, and I activate Jolrael, what's the p/t of that land?" I immediately shot out "5/6!" without even thinking. The players accepted it, and as I walked away I knew that I had just made a major blunder (incidentally Jolrael's effect would be applied since it is the most recent continuous effect, making the land a 3/3). But to make a bad mistake even worse, I did nothing about it!! I just went on my merry way, not wanting to go back there and eat crow, fearing that somehow it would cause some sort of scene and I would look like a complete idiot. To make matters worse, the player asked another judge just to make sure, and naturally my blunder was uncovered. My mistake was horrible, and I felt undeserving of my title as a judge. That was a valuable turning point as I learned:

Don't be afraid to admit you've made a mistake. Do what you can honestly and with humility to correct your error.

This year at Canadian Nationals I came to Ottawa expecting to be a model for good judging and a shining example of consistent, confident, and correct rulings. Once again humility found a way to beat me in the head. On day 1, I was atrocious

Judges supervise the draft at the Canadian Nationals.

  • During the draft, I mistakenly thought that a player had missed a pick, and I tried forcing him to "goof grab."

  • During the first round I told all the judges that the penalty for an illegal decklist was Game Loss (especially stupid since I had done a qualifier very recently and was handing out Match Losses for that very same infraction no more than a couple weeks ago).

  • I had to ask the head judge for advice on a simple ruling that a level 1 could have made on a bad day.

Basically my Friday morning was a complete gong show. But in each of these situations, I admitted my mistake, fixed the problem as best I could, and resolved to pull my head out right after I got some food in my belly. It all went fine afterwards.

Don't be afraid to do what you can to set things right. While you still need to stick to your guys and be firm in your rulings, it's equally important to be seen as approachable, reasonable, and equitable. Doing your best to improve on your weaknesses and shore up areas in your judging that you struggle with will make you seem more of a fair and respectable judge overall.

As a final note, for those of you that haven't had the opportunity to get out to a Grand Prix or a Pro Tour, I strongly recommend it. One of the things that really distinguishes the high level judges from many of your average Magic officials are their attitudes and dispositions. People like Mike & Jeff Donais, James Lee, Cyril Grillon, Paul Barclay, Collin Jackson, Elaine Chase, and Dan Gray (there are many more, but these are some of the judges I've met and worked with) are exceptional judges as much for their casual and humble demeanor as their experience and knowledge of the rules. They are simply nice people to work with and are easy to talk to. They make fair and firm rulings, but do so in a way that doesn't feel heavy handed or arbitrary. They put players and fellow judges alike at ease. Get around these folks and learn from them if ever you can. Don't just listen to their rulings, but watch how they act, how they speak, and how they relate to people. It is in these traits that they have gotten where they are in the Magic community.

I look forward to hearing your comments and opinions and to seeing many of you at some of the big events around Canada and the US. Best of luck in your judging efforts!