Preparing to Judge a Tournament

Posted in NEWS on August 15, 2007

By Wizards of the Coast

So, you recently passed your judge test, got your first "zebra shirt," and will be judging your first bigger tournament. You may have judged the occasional FNM before, or even have helped with a Prerelease or two, but you were never out of town to judge a tournament and never before met the Tournament Organizer (TO) you are going to work for. If you have trained with an experienced judge, you probably won't need to read this article because you learned all of this while training for the test. But if you prepared all on your own, have no mentor and nobody who is able to explain what is waiting for you: read on!

This article is directed at the beginner judge and will try to explain what you need to know as a floor judge for a tournament. If you are going to a Grand Prix, more preparation may be needed, please make sure to read the other articles in the Judge Center regarding this kind of tournament. If you are going to be a Head Judge (HJ), this article won't tell you everything you need to know, so make sure you get all needed information elsewhere.

I won't be talking about specific rules—you know the rules; that's why you passed the test. Always believe in that. If you can't, go back and study the rules until you can. But there is much more to know that one doesn't think about at the beginning. Trust me, I've been there too.

So a Tournament Organizer or fellow judge asked you whether you'd be available to judge a tournament. You asked about when the tournament will be, asked about the format and other organizational stuff, and finally said yes, you'd be there. Now there are only a few days to go until day X. Nervous yet? If no, well, I wish I'd been so self-assured. If yes, calm down, everything is going to be fine. But before the tournament starts, while it lasts and after it ends, there are a few things to know, that can make life a lot easier.

Things you should do in advance:

  • Inquire what you are supposed to wear. Judge shirt, black (no denim) pants and black shoes? Or is it okay to wear jeans and sneakers? Is it a prerelease event and special shirts will be provided? If you are going to need your judge shirt, check if it is clean and doesn't smell. Wash it if in doubt. The same is true for all other things you intend to wear. It is sensible to wear a shirt under your judge shirt.

  • Ask the TO if drinks and food will be provided for you, because you need to know if you have to bring your own or bring enough money to buy food. Eating and especially drinking are important for a long tournament day. Without hydration, you will lose concentration quickly, impairing your judging skills.

  • Make sure you know how to find the location. Ask for directions or print a map if necessary.

  • Make a list of things to bring. If you want to trade cards or play after the tournament, go and check that everything is packed the evening before. But you should refrain from playing or trading while the tournament lasts, since you are supposed to act as a judge and not as a player.

  • Bring pens. A few players always forget to bring a pen or do not know that they are supposed to bring one. You'll need at least two pens for yourself: one that you'll use and one as backup. I prefer bringing a blue and a black one so I can always correct decklists in the color the players didn't use.

  • You should have a notepad or some paper with you. It is often necessary to make notes, or you might want to record an especially interesting rules question.

  • Bring aspirin. The air in some locations can lead to a headache and you will not always have a TO who thinks about bringing such things.

  • Go over the Comprehensive Rules and the Penalty Guidelines again. Do not forget the Universal Tournament and the Floor Rules. Have there been any changes lately? If possible, take printouts or your PDA with the files with you.

  • If you have a PDA, bring the Oracle, where all cards are listed with their current wordings. It can be found as a text file at I wished more than once that I had a PDA during my first Vintage tournament and you sure will, too.

  • Are there special card interactions relevant for this tournament? Which kind of decks do you have to expect? Any rulings that have been issued during the last week? Any older but still important rulings you should know?

  • Print out a quick reference guide to the Penalty Guidelines. Glue it to a card, sleeve it and carry it around in your pocket. Since you now have this you'll probably never have to look up a single penalty, but better be prepared.

  • If there is time, go and read older articles from the Judge Article Archive. If there is no time before the tournament, go back later and read them then. There are lots of really interesting and helpful articles. Go read what Jeff Vondruska has to say about judging a GP and what Toby Elliot tells you about how to make better rulings.

  • Last but not least: get enough sleep the night before.

Big tournaments tend to last longer and they may be more exhausting than the tournaments you know. Especially since you don't know the players, you need to be even more awake and alert than "at home." Furthermore, a judge that shows up to a tournament with dark circles under her eyes and is unable to stay awake after 6 PM surely won't be invited to judge another tournament for that TO again. So be responsible and don't go out drinking the night before.

Which brings me to the next point: Get up early enough to take a shower _and_ have breakfast. A day of judging usually has more than one occasion that makes you sweat, so take a shower and minimize the risk of being olfactorily challenging. And since you don't know when you'll have time to eat something during the tournament, go and have breakfast, even if you usually don't. At least grab a bowl of cereal or something similar. It may be that you arrive at the venue and the TO offers you something right away (as it happened to me), but you can't count on that.

After you arrived and before the tournament starts, there are some things left you can do if you have time. If there is going to be a team meeting, best wait until after it, since most questions will be answered there. If not, go on and ask the TO and the HJ for everything you want and need to know. If you have a Team Leader (TL) ask him/her instead.

  • If you don't know the other judges take some time to get to know them. How long have they been a judge, which kind of tournaments do they judge regularly, and don't hesitate to ask if they have some advice to give.

  • Look at the tables and check how the table numbers are set. Are the numbers ascending down the tables and always start with the lower numbers up to the front or do they wind their way through the hall?

  • Go talk with the scorekeeper. Does he have any instructions for you?

  • Is there an EMT around? Don't be ashamed to ask the TO about that, it literally can save lives to know who to call in case of emergency. Also take care to know where the first aid kit can be found. If you want to do the full show, also check where to find fire extinguishers and emergency exits.

  • Find out where the restrooms are. At least one player will ask you.

  • Have there been breaks set for every judge? If not go and ask how breaks will be taken. Are you just free to go whenever you need a break or do you have to tell your TL/HJ?

  • Finally, prepare your stuff. Is the pen where you need it and the quick reference to the Penalty Guidelines in your pocket? How about some paper to scribble down notes?

After the introduction from the HJ, the first round starts. Your TL or the HJ will tell you what to do, and after you counted the first 20 decklists or distributed the result slips to the tables, you'll find out that a bigger Magic tournament is not that different from smaller ones after all. Still, there are some things that you should take care to do.

  • Remember to drink some water whenever there is time. Even though you might not be thirsty, your voice will need the fluid and you will feel better too.

  • If times for breaks have been set, remember to take the break. You should use every chance you get to relax a bit, even though you might think you don't need a break. If no times were set, go and have a short break whenever possible. Drink some water and sit down, even if just for 5 minutes.

  • It will not look very professional if you stand around with your hands in your pockets, so remember not to do that.

  • Did I mention that you should drink enough?

  • When you are unsure about a ruling, take your time and go look up necessary information. Ask another judge if you really don't know what to do. Even though you may not want to spend too much time on a single ruling, it is still more important to make the right ruling than to be fast.

  • If you witness a ruling by another judge and don't understand the ruling, ask him later if he could explain it to you.

  • While wandering around the tables, there is always some trash to collect or chairs to push in.

  • If a ruling is appealed to the HJ, don't feel bad. Things go wrong all the time. Forget about it for now and go on doing your job. To agonize won't help you and will only degrade your performance. And just because your ruling was appealed doesn't mean it was wrong.

Finally the tournament is over, the prizes have been awarded, people leave, and your day is done. Take some time to reflect on the day: what was good, what was bad? Were you happy with your overall performance? If not why not and how can you do it better next time? If yes, was there anything you could still improve? All this is a lot easier if you wrote down things that came into your mind during the day.

But of course, there are still things to do after the tournament:

  • Collect leftover pens for the next tournament. Some of the pens you gave out won't find their way back to you, but others will magically appear to substitute for them.

  • Normally other judges will provide you with some feedback; if not, ask your TL or the HJ for some feedback. It is much easier to talk in person than communicate via email, especially if there were problems.

  • After a GP or a PT it is obligatory to write reviews about the other judges, but reviews may be written for any tournament. If you want someone to write a review about you, best tell him or her before the tournament starts. Of course you may write a review too; read the article about reviews to get an idea how to write a good one.

  • You might also write a self-review, to better classify yourself and understand how to improve as a judge. It is much easier to learn from mistakes, when they have been written down. Go back to the review before the next tournament and make sure to set yourself some objectives you want to reach at this special tournament.

  • If you encountered any problems, don't be afraid to talk about them. Only when feedback is provided, things can be done better next time.

When the tournament is over and you finally get home, you likely will fall into bed exhausted but happy if everything went well. Get a good night's sleep and then take your time to reconsider your recent experiences. You could record for yourself what you learned from the tournament and what you will try to change for the next one, thus trying to learn on a steady basis with every tournament and improve quickly.

Ute Kronenberg, L1