Preparing the Players of the Future

Posted in NEWS on December 7, 2015

By Wizards of the Coast

The Judge as a Teacher

Brian Rogers

I have been blessed with the opportunity to judge at many highly competitive events including 5 Grand Prix and countless PTQs, JSSs, GPTs, Prereleases, and Regional / State Championships, and in that time I've been privy to some excellent play and have gotten embroiled in several interesting controversies. There is nothing like getting to be at the table in the judge's seat when you have boiled down a room of 200 contenders to the eight best players with tightest decks. I watch, studying their every move, seeing up close the penultimate product of the endless cycle of new sets and mechanics, viewing the latest expression of this game which continues to keep all of us transfixed. Waiting at the ready to point out technical errors and answer question posed by the two gladiators as they struggle to survive and make it to the next round. I gaze in awe as a semi participant, not part of the game, rather reading it like a good book with unexpected twists and turns and a surprise ending.

Just like each judge and all the players have their own personalities, so does every tournament. From the youthful exuberance of players opening the first packs of a new set at a prerelease, to the formal progression of a Pro Tour Qualifier which gains in intensity as you reach closer to the final round of Swiss; the way players play the game and the way the tournament is run vary dramatically. The same feeling of anticipation that embodies day two of a Grand Prix simply doesn't exist Friday night at the local gaming store, where instead of playing for money; the players are there for nothing more than the love of the game.

These players, the players who go to the occasional PTQ and plan to pay $20 to go 0-2 drop, and follow that up with losing in round 1 of a draft, are the lifeblood of Magic. They don't play Magic for the money or the accolades; they play because the game is fun. When these players do come to the PTQ or GPs, they have to be treated like every other participant, however, at the prereleases and in the little card shops they need to be handled much differently.

Judge the Tournament in Front of You

During the pre-event deck check for a recent extended PTQ, there was a player in the event, a young boy about 10 or 12, who was playing a deck that consisted of 11 Plains, 11 Islands and 45 different commons from various sets. Unfortunately, on his list, I also noticed that he was playing 1 Bay Falcon and 1 Wall of Resistance, two commons from the Mirage expansion that were not reprinted. Based on the REL for the event (level 3) and the type of infraction, Illegal Main Decklist, he was given a match loss for round two and the offending cards were removed from the list and the player's deck.

Now, obviously, this player was not accustomed to playing in PTQs. He wasn't trying to cheat, and didn't have any devious plans to slip these two power cards by the tournament official. Perhaps he had a dream of riding his Bay Falcon to glory, but he was only playing it because he liked the card, not as ultra secret "Tech." After round two, his dream of Pro Tour stardom quashed, he moved on to a booster draft, but I couldn't stop thinking about the young player's plight. At some level I feared that my actions had somehow tarnished the kid's view of the game. I wondered about what Magic support system he was coming from and how he had come to be at the PTQ that day. Was there a certified judge in his playgroup who could have helped him to avoid this match loss?

Honestly, I know very little about deck construction. I gave up trying to break cards long ago, but I still have some idea about what is a decent deck and what is not. Once there was a stigma about players playing "Net Decks" that discouraged people to go online and find ideas on what to play. I don't know if this opinion is still widespread, but several players here still feel this way. Yet, I encourage players to take decks from the internet and at least test them. The feel of a finely tuned deck can at least help a player in understanding what it is that he or she is trying to build. After a player has had a chance to play with one of these high octane decks, they are less likely to show up at a tournament with a stack of cards consisting of mountains and all the red cards they own.

Run The Events The Players Need

Lately I have been taking more time to get to know the local players here where I live in Rural West Virginia. This isn't what I would call a Mecca of Magic: the Gathering. No, in reality it is closer to a deep abyss from which few skilled players have been able to emerge. For a long time I accepted this annoying fact, and because I didn't have anyone to play seriously against I almost quit playing Magic entirely and saved my judging duties for the big events on the weekends. Yet, recently, several of the players here have become interested in attending higher level events. The enthusiasm that has been shown by these young players has helped me to recapture the memories of what Magic once was for me before I had ever encountered sanctioned play. So, I have made it my job to make certain that the players here don't show up playing any Bay Falcons at any extended PTQs.

There is nothing quite as appalling as watching as a player squanders a position of advantage through misplays and uninformed decision making. Bad play is endemic at every local store on Friday night. There are several different reasons players lose. Some games are lost to bad draws or bad match ups, but most are lost because of misplays and poorly made decisions. As a judge, I can't play the game for the players, but I can try and make certain that all of the answers and information for the game is available outside of the tournament environment. All this time, by focusing on bigger events, I was neglecting the very thing that made those events possible, the new players who aren't at the level of serious play yet, but who want to be.

In some situation, running sanctioned events may not even be the correct answer. Don't get me wrong, event sanctioning is good for both judges and players, but sometime it is good from a learning standpoint not put the extra pressure of sanctioning on the players or the judge. Several of the players I have meet have been intimidated by the idea of sanctioned play, thinking that points or ratings were more important for them than they really needed to be. For certain play groups, running an event where no prizes or points are at stake may be the best way to go until the players get comfortable with the tournament environment. This will allow the players to relax and it is a good way to get new players interested in the idea of a tournament. Then slowly, over time, prizes and sanctioning points can be introduced to increase the seriousness of the competition.

It's important to let the players know all about the advantages that sanctioning carries with it. Earning a worldwide rating lets the players compare their skill with other across the globe. This can also have another added advantage in that the players which dominate the local store can begin to see that they are not masters of the multiverse. Instead, players start to get an idea of just how big Magic is and come to understand that they are merely a big fish in a small pond. Once this understanding has reached them, the desire to leave the pond and explore the waters of other venues starts to creep in. This is a big step, and this is where you get to see how well you have been preparing your players for the turbulent tides of the vast ocean.

We Don't Have A Judge

Remember way back to when you first started playing Magic. Did you tap your creatures to block? We did. The rulebook didn't say to, but I don't think anybody read the rulebook anyway. Well, tapping to block was a myth. It didn't really exist, but countless people I have talked to tell me that in their playgroups when they first started, they tapped to block. But this isn't the biggest myth about Magic.

The biggest myth about Magic is that you have to be a certified judge to run a sanctioned tournament. You Don't. Anyone can sanction a tournament; it isn't that hard to do, just be committed to your task. I have to admit, I believed this myth up until I became a certified judge. I can remember running unsanctioned events and telling people, "I'm going to go take the judge's test so we can run sanctioned events. What did I know?

Help Them Get Started

At any tournament, whether a Grand Prix or a Prerelease, I always love to hear the sound of someone yelling, "Judge!" What you get when you get to the raised hand, however, varies greatly. At a Grand Prix or a PTQ, most of your judge calls will have something to do with illegal actions and will result in penalties while a Prerelease and a casual weekend tournament is much more likely to be a question about card interactions. While you still can't give any strategic information to players at this level you still have a little more leeway in resolving any conflict and answering their questions.

Origins 2000 marked the first time there was a Magic: the Gathering Amateur Championship. It was also only about a year after 6th Edition was released and a major change to the rules had occurred. In one of the early rounds I responded to a judge call near the center of the room. The two players were arguing about the order triggers were resolving and what could and couldn't be responded to. Based on the statements made by the players, it seemed that one of them may not have been aware that you are able to respond to triggered abilities so I began to explain to him that the triggers were on the stack and the other player could do something before they resolved. As soon as I used the work "stack" the other player said, "wait; now what is the stack, we don't use that where we play." Well, obviously this was a situation in which both of the players needed some substantial information in order to complete the game. Based on this I proceeded to explain what the stack was and ultimately explain why the player could respond to the trigger with his effect. Normally, this would be unthinkable, and I would talk more to the player after the match was finished because giving a player this amount of information could give them an advantage, but it seemed as though not providing the information to both the players would cause considerably more harm than withholding it, and if it did provide benefit, it would do so equally.

This is a classic example of two players who had not been prepared for the event. Everyone expected some pain from the transition from the old rules to the new and players had to be reeducated, however, this example took place more than a year after the switch over and these players had fallen through the holes. Perhaps their local playgroup did not contain any certified judges, or these players may have been overlooked at previous events and simply no one had taken the necessary time to make certain they were properly informed.

It is important to help players at low REL (Rules Enforcement Level) events learn the rules. Hopefully, it can be always be done in ways that don't provide advice during a tournament game, but questions concerning basic aspects of the game sometime must be answered just to allow the game to continue. One thing I like to do at prereleases is to tell players at the beginning of deck construction, "If you have any questions concerning how cards in your deck work, now would be an optimal time to ask." This could be considered outside assistance, but I believe it follows in the spirit of the prerelease philosophy and helps to prevent questions during match play. This serves the same basic function as having a Deck Doctor or a rules question table set up before a constructed event.

It is very import to be able to recognize the difference between a "what if" question and a "now what happens" question. A player at a PTQ a month ago began to ask me, "How can I..." and I responded by saying, "Stop right there, I wont answer any question that starts 'How can I.'" Ultimately the player did figure a way to ask a rules based question that I could answer with a simple yes or no, but at any REL, giving an answer that provides too much information is bad. Yet, a question where the player have already taken some action and they just want to know what happens can be a good time to give a little extra insight into how the rules work.

Two players playing a Standard match recently presented me with a question concerning Deep Analysis and Circular Logic. The active player had flashed back her Deep Analysis and the non-active player had targeted it with Memory Lapse. The active player had responded to the Memory Lapse with a Circular Logic. The players were debating whether or not the Deep Analysis was in the active player's graveyard or removed from the game. If it was then the non-active player could not afford the Circular Logic, if it wasn't then the active player needed to discard prior to the Circular Logic resolving. When the players initially asked the question I was having trouble understanding what the issue was. Both of the players seemed confused because the active player was saying the Deep Analysis was in the graveyard and the non-active player was saying it was removed from the game. Once I figured out that it was the card that was on the stack that they were fighting over, I let them know where it was and had an opportunity to teach both of them that spells that are played, even from the graveyard go on the stack, and the spell was not in the graveyard or removed from the game, but in the physical zone called the stack and I proceeded to build a stack with the Deep Analysis, which was still in the graveyard at the time, the Memory Lapse and the Circular Logic on top. Since the active player already knew she would need to discard another card for her Circular Logic to work if the Deep Analysis was not in her graveyard, I was provided with an excellent time to editorialize on the rules for both of the players benefit without causing any damage to the ongoing game.

Play the Tournament You Are Enrolled In

The rules for Magic aren't the only things that new players need to be educated about. Learning how to communicate is also a big part of learning to play in bigger events. This year, leading up to the state championships several players I know were testing a deck that used Lightning Rift, Astral Slide and Cycling cards. Watching them practice I noticed that they could cycle a card during their opponent's 2nd main phase so the creature they removed from the game would come back into play at the end of the opponent's turn and attack on the Slide player's turn. However, several players would say something like, "In response to the end of your turn." This seemed perfectly clear to them, but I had no clue what they meant. Were they responding to your intention to leave the 2nd main phase by cycling, or were they responding to "At end of turn triggers." To confuse things more, different players used almost the same phrase to mean different things. While play testing, none of the players seemed to find this confusing, but I had a suspicion that players from outside their test group and other judges would find this as bewildering as I did, so after some prompting I convinced them that they may want to express themselves in a way that was more clear, like, "During your 2nd main phase," or "During your end step."

At the small tournaments I run, something else I like to do is let players know what the equivalent penalty for an infraction would be at a higher REL. For example, players here tend to be very sloppy when they play, often not allowing ample time for a response when playing a spell. If a player were to draw a card from such an effect at REL 1, the player would receive a warning and the card would be replaced. However, at a PTQ this would most likely result in a game loss. It is important to impress this difference upon your players so they do not play in such a lax manner at that next big event.

Know What You Are Talking About

Players tend to follow the PTQ season as that is where the online focus is and all the bigger events tend to be that format. With the upcoming season being Onslaught/Legions Sealed with Rochester Draft finals, I thought it might be nice to introduce some of the local players to the world of Rochester Draft. At first, this seemed like a simple enough task, I had plenty of experience with running Rochester Drafts and the biggest hurtle to overcome would be getting the players to try something new. Finally, after much coercing, we were finally able to get enough interested players to run a Rochester Draft. This is when I realized that even though I knew enough to run the draft, I didn't know a thing about draft strategy. Guess that's why I started judging in first place. Even so, the players picked up the basics pretty quickly and had a good time. Next time there is an opportunity to Rochester Draft, hopefully it should be much easier to find eight interested players. Once they have it all figured out, maybe they can explain it to me.

In Conclusion

It's a privilege to get the best seat in the house at the end of the day when the best square off against one another for pride and prizes. The reward of judging is getting to be there and watch the ebb and flow of battle when you know that the two people sitting in front of you have proven they are the most skilled practitioners of the art of Magic on that day. To watch as the battle ensues before your eyes, as your mind races, both trying to look ahead at what will be and yet stay grounded enough to ensure that what is unfolding before you is precisely as it should be is the divine distillation of the tournament process. This is reason why tournaments are played. Not to decide how to divide prizes, but to crown a champion and anoint his or her deck as supreme.

It should be the focus of a judge to help players by reducing the number of game or match losses handed out for stupid mistakes. In a more perfect world, penalties would only be applied when the players were behaving mischievously and a player would never have to worry about getting beheaded for not revealing a morph at the end of a match, because a judge would have made certain that they know that that is what is expected from them.

Watching good players play at their best is the reward of a well run event, but to ensure that the supply of good players never runs out, you need to prepare the players of the future to take there places in the top 8. Who knows, maybe someday one of the novices you worked with will make the big league and it will be the rules you helped him learn and the love of the game you helped to foster that will get him there.