The Piano-Playing Dog

Posted in NEWS on November 30, 1999

By Wizards of the Coast

An Experiment in Judge Mentoring

Steve Griffin

"You can teach a dog to play the piano - but at the end of the day it's still a piano-playing dog." I remember reading that somewhere a few years ago, although for the life of me I can't remember where it was. It sounds like something Mozart might have said about a less talented contemporary. During the last days of 5th Edition I became a level 1 judge on the strength of a good memory and a bit of luck. I worked hard to remember a lot of rules which, to be honest, I hardly understood the wider significance of. Like the piano-playing dog, I could do it - but I had no idea of the principles that underpinned what I was doing. Being a judge meant regular reading of the group and mantra-like reciting of key rulings until they were lodged in my long-term memory. Like case law, all of my rulings were based on precedence; if I hadn't learnt an answer, (or a very similar one), there was little chance that I'd be able to work one out.

I'd wanted to become a level 2 judge for a while, but I knew that a piano-playing dog approach was unlikely to see me through. Fortunately, the shift to 6th Edition rules gave me an opportunity to start again from basic principles. I don't know that anything actually became easier - there is an elegance to the new rules, but as soon as you start to study them in any depth notions of simplicity go out the window. Even so, the change to 6th Edition psychologically re-set the clock. I saw an opportunity for a new start.

The only problem was, I knew I needed help. At this point, I should come clean about something. I'm a teacher. Worse, I teach other teachers how to teach. Not surprisingly, I believe in teaching. At the end of the day, I think people learn more and learn more effectively with the help and advice of someone else - preferably someone who knows the ropes themselves and understands how to pass that knowledge on to others.

On top of needing help, my limited experience of judging had shown me that the place to understand the rules is in a context. No offence, but reading D'Angelo cold is like wading through beef soup in Wellington boots. No... wading through beef soup is more fun. A lot of fun actually... but that's another story... A big part of the teacher's job is to help students make links between the odd bits of knowledge rattling around in their heads; to see the relationship between one thing and another, to highlight what's really important and to help the student understand general principles involved. In effect, teachers help turn piano playing dogs into musicians - or magic players who've learnt a lot of rules into judges who understand them.

In an effort to get the help I needed I posted a begging letter to DCIJUDGE-L. "Help wanted by middle-aged simpleton with judge aspirations..." and enter Michael Kastberg. Michael is a law student at Copenhagen University and level 2 judge. Some people may recognise Michael's name from DCIJUDGE-L. He's got a reputation for asking arcane questions about the interaction between multiple Serra Angels, Dance of the Dead and Pin Head. (OK, there's no card called Pin Head, but there should be... you get the idea). Michael is really interested in the rules of magic... no... really, really interested. I asked on the list for someone who'd act as my e-mail mentor - giving me help with preparing for the level 2 judge test. Michael said he'd have a go. He said he'd 'ask me a few questions' and I said 'great' and off we went.

Over the next three weeks or so Michael ask questions and I answered them. We decided to work in the following way. I'd respond to each question 'off the top of my head' and then again having looked up the relevant rulings in D'Angelo. Michael would comment on my answers. Sometimes there would be follow up questions on both sides. Typically, mail would turn around in about 2 days. Here's a typical excerpt from our e-mail conversations:

Question 10. Bob has a Sleeper enchantment in play. Jim plays a Monk realist. Can Jim now destroy the Sleeper? (Monk Realist: When Monk Realist comes into play, destroy target enchantment).

SG: First answer: If the sleeper is still a sleeper when the Monk Realist's 'destroy an enchantment' ability resolves, Jim can destroy it. If the sleeping enchantment is (for example) a Hidden Gibbons - no problem. If on the other hand the enchantment is a Veiled Sentry... Hmmm... The Monk is cast, and goes onto the stack, targeting the Sentry. It resolves... and... destroys the veiled Sentry before the Sentry's 'wake up' effect can be put onto the stack... NO! No... hang on... Veiled Sentry says "successfully casts", not "comes into play"... The Sentry becomes a creature when the Monk goes on the stack... so it's already a creature at the earliest point that the Monk's ability could target it. The Monk can't destroy the Sentry.

MK: correct

SG: A question... is the Monk "successfully cast" when it goes on the stack, even if it's countered - for example by a counterspell? Or is it only "successfully cast" when it resolves off the stack?

MK: The term successfully cast was removed with the coming of 6E. All cards (except one) has been errated to trigger on a spell being played (i.e. put on the stack).

SG: Second Answer: Veil of Birds in my D'Angelo rulings reads "When an your opponent plays a spell, if ~this~ is an enchantment, ~this~ becomes a 1/1 Bird creature with flying." Another errata? Have all "successfully cast" cards become "plays"?

MK: All except one. (Pop quiz: Which one?)

SG: "It becomes a creature when the spell is announced, which is before that spell resolves. A Disenchant cannot be used to destroy this card, since it will no longer be an enchantment when the Disenchant resolves. [D'Angelo 99/05/01]"... "It changes even if the spell is countered. [D'Angelo 99/05/01]". So now I'm even more sure that the Monk can't kill the enchantment before it wakes up.

MK: Correct. The timing is like this: Bob announces the MR which goes on the stack. That triggers Jim's Sleeper, and its awakening goes on the stack. First thing resolves, and the former sleeper is now a creature (and no longer an enchantment). Then the MR resolves, and CIP. Its triggers its own CIP ability, and its effect is placed on the stack, but without the option to target the former Sleeper.

Michael and I worked through around 50 questions in this way in a little over three weeks. I went to PT London and got just over 95% in my test. I would never have made it without Michael's help. Clearly, there's more to being a judge than understanding the rules - but it's a good place to start!

There are some general lessons here that DCI and Wizards might want to give thought to. The rules of magic are complex, and the psychological 'clean start' with the change to 6th rules is unlikely to come again. An aspiring judge can find themselves adrift in a sea of rule-books, errata and rulings - not sure what to focus on - unclear about what's really important and what's not. Teachers make a difference. DCIJUDGE-L goes some way towards educating judges and keeping them in touch, but it's not a deliberate, step-by-step activity. What is needed is a programme that leads aspiring judges through the process of turning the available rules information into a set of coherent principles - helping to turn piano-playing dogs into confident, competent judges. I was lucky enough to have had Michael's personal attention, but I can picture a less labour-intensive model that would still get the job done.

Imagine a series of modules, themed around key concepts - 'the stack', 'playing spells', 'combat', 'abilities and effects', etc. - maybe even concepts like 'good communication' and 'resolving conflict'. Imagine the short assignments that might accompany each module - directing aspiring judges to particular tournament reports, articles and other web resources. Imagine a set of questions linked to each module, and a higher level judge who, working from a set of approved answers, will give feed-back to the aspiring judge. If you're prepared to really let your imagination run away with you, imagine the whole thing web-based rather than e-mail based, available through the judges web site - with short-stay discussion lists focused on each module, each list moderated and mentored by a judge-tutor.

"We have the technology... we can rebuild him..." Piano-playing dog into six-million dollar judge in 12 not-so-easy lessons...

If Wizards chose to send me a foil 'Stroke' for this article, I'll be sending it to Michael by way of a thank-you. That is, unless they fancy printing a foil 'Wizard Mentor'... now that really would be an appropriate reward.

Steve Griffin

Michael Kastberg has subsequently revised the rules questions we worked through - Rules-test V2.0 is available by e-mail from Michael at the following address