The Road to Level 3

Posted in NEWS on December 7, 2015

By Wizards of the Coast

David Vogin

My history as a judge may be pretty similar to yours. By writing my first article, my aim is to make you understand the many mistakes of all kinds I've made in my evolution and to help prevent you from making the same.

David Vogin at the Venice Masters' finals

My early history briefly was that I became Level 1 in early 1998 because of the lack of judges in my area. My enthusiasm grew and I became a Level 2 at GP Tours in November 99.

The first time I thought about Level 3 was at Euros in Paris, in July 2000. One month before, I missed French Nationals because of scholars' matters, and the three others very active Level 2 judges had been tested there, in French, with two friends of ours as reviewing staff: Abdé Allala and Cyril Grillon. Two of them had passed. At that time, I considered Level 3 as a sort of a reward for active judges willing to grow in influence and test people for Level 1 in their area, so I felt a bit jealous about my friends advancing without me "just because I missed that opportunity to test" I thought. I learned, a few months after, that it was probably one of the last old fashioned Level 3 testing worldwide and that becoming a Level 3 would never be the same again.

"So, when am I testing?" I asked Cyril at Euros. His answer was something like "Errr... well... first, I would like you to do something for me: write down a complete chronological list of things a tournament organizer has to think about if he has to run a PTQ".

Translation: if someone asks you something like this, which has nothing to do with judging, it means that he thinks you are not ready to test.

During the whole weekend, I looked at my brand new Level 3 friends, judging the EC whereas I was "only" side-events manager. It's much less "prestigious" to be at side events, but you learn a lot by running 7 or 8 tournaments at the same time, even 8 players booster drafts. Where else would you have the opportunity to run 20 or 25 multilingual tournaments? Many interesting situations come from miscommunication and misunderstanding between players, which happen much more often when players play more casually, which happens much more frequently at side events.

I did what Cyril asked me, and in Belgium at Worlds 2000, I came back to him. This time, his deflection was "Well... Do you have recommendations?". I did night events for the whole week.

Finally, I came to GP Amsterdam, my fourth GP (no PT experience but side events at Worlds) and insisted so much that I got a recommendation from Cyril and was introduced to Paul Barclay from the UK, my reviewing team manager. From my usual experience in France, my experience as a team leader at GP Firenze and the few others international tournaments I had been to, I felt more than ready for Level 3.

It took me almost three hours to do the written test and I scored something like 78%, whereas less than 80% is supposed to be a big no no. Nevertheless, I had my interview with Paul, Thomas Panell from USA and Ben Martin from the UK. I wasn't really used to hearing people talking in English, and the interview, especially the role playing part, was awful for me. I still don't think I did really badly in that interview, but scoring 78% on a not-so-hard rules test and doing average at the interview is not enough. You MUST be good at rules to become Level 3 but just being good at rules is not enough.
It was the first time I actually failed any exam. It hurt.

In the following weeks I had several debriefings with Cyril, more or less accurate, more or less interesting. I decided that I would retest soon.
While I was doing more and more tournaments in Europe, people on the other end of the world had heard about me. When I came back home after GP Amsterdam, I received an email from James Lee: I was sponsored to judge my first PT. Even better: it was in Japan!

It was probably the place where I accumulated the largest number of mistakes.

Still a bit upset about my failure, I had several conversations in Tokyo with Jeff Donais and James Lee about it. I was the random boring guy that kept on talking about his Level 3 to "cool people".
One of the main things that Level 3 reviewers ask for is MATURITY. Continuing to dwell on your failure for three months after it occurred is NOT a proof of maturity. Believing that your reviewers were wrong and that you are definitely ready for Level 3 is NOT a proof of maturity. Level 3 interviews are difficult, but they are designed to give you an opportunity to show how good you can be.

As I already told you, I decided that I would retest soon. I didn't know about the one-year period I was supposed to wait. I went to several others GPs and began to be a regular team leader on most European GPs. I met several of the best European judges and some of them started to become truly friends of mine.

I paid my trip to Euros 2001 in Milan and told Cyril that I had come to test and was prepared much better now that I knew that I wasn't that good at rules (of course, I was still convinced that apart from rules I was among the best).

I had not taken time to prepare. I had not taken time to improve my rules knowledge. Maybe I had time and I was just a bit lazy: I thought that I had naturally improved by judging tournaments and that I could score 85% and that it would be easy for me to deal with the interview.

Cyril didn't look very enthusiastic about letting me test a second time so quickly. Of course, for me it didn't seem that quick, but it definitely was. He asked me at least four times if I really wanted to test, if I really prepared and if I planned to attend any other major tournament soon.
I had paid my trip there, only to test, so there was no way I was going to change my mind.

My reviewing team was quite diversified: Jakub Wysoczanski, the Level 4 judge from Poland and Cajus Von Engelmann, the French scorekeeper, Level 2 judge who had tested me for Level 1 some years before. I knew Cajus very well and even if it was the first time I met Jakub, he looked like a nice guy: I was very confident. I think Cyril had chosen Cajus to balance the interview, to make sure that I could keep my confidence with a friend as reviewer.

As you can guess, it went awful. Once again, I scored 78%. I was expecting an interview like the one I had before and I had a rules-only interview about things I had never heard of (I thought "mana sources" or "mana abilities" or "however you call them" did not exist anymore...) Of course, Cyril told Jakub that my main weakness was rules and that I had worked on it. So they decided to test me mainly on that to see my progress...

I was really angry after the interview. I had to take a plane so the interview was shortened and I had little time for a debriefing and no time to talk to Cyril about it, which was pretty frustrating.
Even worse, when the interview ended, a well-known and well-respected judge told me something like "it's a shame for the DCI that you didn't pass". Now I know that it was sympathy, but at that time, it just comforted me on my opinion: that whole interview had been very unfair.
The main thing I learned from the interview itself is, TELL THE TRUTH. It is much better to say "I don't know" or to say "it may not be the usual way to do it but I would act that way in such situation" than inventing a stupid solution or answering what you think people would like you to answer.

I talked to Cyril on the phone on the week after this. This time, he told me, in a very blunt way that he was not very happy. He said that he gave me his recommendation, once again, "because I had worked on rules" and when I did not do well this made him look badly. It took me a while to understand why Cyril had been so upset: his credibility was weakened because of me.

Two months after Euros, I paid my trip to New York, partly to judge the PT. I wasn't the boring guy talking about his Level 3 failure to Jeff and James anymore. I was the very boring guy talking all the time to Jeff and James about his second Level 3 failure. I was still mad about my failure; I still believed that I was the best judge on Earth; I had paid my trip to come; I was a bit tired because I had spent a week walking around New York and my leg was hurting a bit. My friend Cajus was the scorekeeper and it was a team event (not so much to do for him). This tournament was probably the worse I've done. I spent the whole weekend chatting with Cajus and random French players; sometimes I stood on the stage for minutes doing nothing or just sitting or talking. Two weeks after, at GP Oslo, Jesper Nielsen, whom I didn't know very well at that time, called me "the guy who was in New York, doing nothing"... Despite this, in New York, I had the most interesting conversation ever with James Lee about professional behaviour of judges, but it took me a while to understand what he meant.

On being professional:

When you begin judging at professional events it sometimes looks a bit too much when people insist for you to wear only black clothes, put your shirt in your trousers, do not eat in front of the players, do not sit on the stage, do not sit until the round is over, clean the area, put the chairs back under the tables and so on. But it's more important than one can think. A professional Magic event is a tournament that costs a lot to Wizards of the Coast but it also brings a lot of good things to the Game, such as credibility and enthusiasm from local players; provided it looks professional. If the judges look poor, the whole event looks poor. And that is bad

From PT New-York (September 2001) to PT Nice (May 2002), I grew in maturity and experience. I didn't improve in a spectacular way, I had no revelations, but I became more mature and less obsessed about becoming Level 3.

In Nice, I tried to be sponsored to go to Worlds in Sidney, but I was not on the priority list (France already had 7 Level 3) and there was a misunderstanding between James and me. He thought that I was still trying to test before the one-year delay. He was the first to talk about a retest and not in a way that looked good for me. The conversation ended with something like "do you have recommendations?"

I gave up about this and decided that I would wait for James or Jeff to talk to me about retesting and I would ask the Level 3 and 4 I usually work with to look for a possible recommendation for my Level 3.

Always keep in mind that it's more important to make progress than to get recommendations. Moreover, if you're Level 2 for a while and start to grow in activity, people will know that you're probably willing to test and they will pay attention to you. Ever wondered one of the reasons why team leaders at GPs/PTs are often Level 2 judges and often have a Level 3+ in their team?

When I was sponsored by the French office to go to PT Boston in September 2002, I sent an email to James to ask about the hotel room, and he introduced himself the idea of me testing there ("it is good that you're coming, you'll be able to test there since the one-year delay elapsed").

This time, I couldn't fail, for three reasons:

  • Failing three times is almost forbidden.
  • I then had solid experience and had improved a lot towards rules.
  • However, I thought I was *still* the best judge in the world.

David in Chicago, with Akio Sugaya from Japan

I had a strange weekend there: I was team leader on day 1, but I had to leave after three rounds to take the rules test. Nobody had told me that I would take it on the first day, and I hoped to have some time to re-read the rules. This time, I scored around 84%. I was a bit upset and I still think that I could have done much better. On the other hand I was really happy because I thought that I had done the hardest part.

My reviewing team, on Sunday, was Collin Jackson, Adrian Teh from Malaysia and Akio Sugaya from Japan. I have known Akio for a while and we always have fun judging together. I was confident to find a friend in that team. I felt that nothing could happen...except maybe overconfidence.

The first part of the interview was really awful. I had concentrated on my lack of rules knowledge for more than a year and those guys didn't care at all about what I knew about rules! They wanted to know more about me and all I could make them understand was that I was definitely overrating myself. I was unable to talk about my weaknesses, I hadn't even thought about them, I kept talking about rules knowledge and my English that I judged "below average". I don't want to tell more about this interview, first because there's a certain secret around what a Level 3 interview consists of and also because the rest isn't that interesting.

The good news is: I finally passed. Probably not because of my performance on that interview, but more certainly because several people who work with me all year long had told my reviewers that I deserved it, after all. Collin's final words were "get out of this room and be proud of being a Level 3, but don't be too overconfident: that was close."

Two things I would like to emphasize:

  • Don't overrate yourself. You may be a good, an excellent judge, but be sure that most people in the reviewing team are better than what you'll be in one year.
  • And: You can always find areas to improve. And you'd better think about them before the interview... Not only because of the interview, but because you're a judge and you like judging, so you want to do it well.

I've been a Level 3 for 6 months and I've probably learned more in those 6 months than in the past two years. The third star brings a kind of fulfilment, but overall many responsibilities and it also makes you an example for other judges. Since I passed, I have grown in activity (I did not even think it was possible) and I discovered that Level 3 judges have a much more important role than I thought...but more on that later.

In France, we are quite lucky. We have seven long-time Level 3 judges that every judge knows and respects. Having a Level 3 in most high-level tournaments is a huge advantage, but having frequent contacts with Level 3 judges is far from normal in most places.
It's when I judge a tournament abroad, especially in a country that has no or very few Level 3 judges that I realize that people have huge expectations of Level 3 judges. Level 1 and level 2 judges expect to learn a lot from a Level 3: they want the Level 3 to give them advice, to help them in their role of team member or team leader, and to instruct them on how to manage players or other judges. They sometimes expect a recommendation for level 1, 2 or 3 and, more generally, they want the Level 3 to share their experience and knowledge. It's quite a challenge to be a Level 3.

As a Level 3 I have to pay attention to what I am doing (act professionally, complete assigned tasks or give instructions...). I have to pay attention to what my eventual team leader is doing (help him/her manage the team, think of the possible things he/she might have forgotten, but never take his/her role as a team leader...). I have to make sure that everyone is enjoying the experience of judging a professional event; that they get experience out of it and share it with the whole team and the whole staff, and I also have to pay attention to the other judges of the team who will probably ask for feedback, and who will be deceived if the only thing I can tell them is "well, sorry, I had no time to focus on you...". Doing all this is very hard. This is an area in which I could improve a lot.

I recently had a conversation with Jaap Brouwer from the Netherlands and some other judges. Jaap was asking us what our perfect judge would be like. I discovered that many judges have a name in mind but usually they don't really know why they believe this judge is the best.

Now that I have to pay attention to everyone in my team at a tournament, my idea of how a perfect judge should act is getting more and more precise, and each time I try to get closer of it.

I used to believe that I was the best... Why?

  • I thought that I was good at rules (not "excellent", but "good"). There are probably several hundreds of judges good at rules.
  • I thought that I was good at handling players, even in difficult situations. Among the hundreds of judges good at rules, probably more than a hundred of them are good at handling players and several dozen good at handling difficult situations.
  • What else? I don't think that being an excellent judge meant something else for me at that time. I was so wrong. See the evaluation forms, they give a dozen areas where a judge can progress at, and they're not even complete.

At this point I would like to add important area, greatly inspired by Jaap and Cyril: helping everybody to have fun. Yes, it's definitely an underrated plus to be good at that. As a team member or leader, it helps long days to be shorter and other judges being even happier about their tournament. A judge who's having fun will definitely want to continue and improve. As the Head Judge of a tournament, I'm always very happy when I can make all the players in the tournament applaud or laugh because of a random announcement which is a bit less serious than what players are used to hear. A player who's having fun is a player who will come back.

Many thanks for reading.
David VOGIN,

Also many thanks to Cyril, Abdé, Gis and to all the judges who, knowingly or not, helped me a lot in improving and a special thanks to Jaap for his huge help to this article.