Role of the Rules

Posted in NEWS on February 25, 2010

By Wizards of the Coast

This is one of a pair of articles on making sure that judges keep up to date with rules knowledge. To read more about a fun and creative way to handle the issue, see today's other article.

Do you remember back when you wanted to become a judge? If you were like most judge candidates, you were surprised to learn that other than the Comprehensive Rules, you had to learn the Magic Floor Rules and Penalty Guide (now the Magic Tournament Rules and Magic Infraction Procedure Guide); you had to work at events and demonstrate good customer service and a cool demeanor; you had to be trained on policy and a thousand unwritten procedures. Then, as you started to consider L2—which some of you may only now be doing—you discovered that you also had to work on team building, community leadership, and likely as not, this new-fangled piece of software called the DCI Reporter (or, for new guys, the Wizards Event Reporter).

With all of these skills to focus on, it's easy to forget the first one, the one that you had the clearest understanding of before you considered becoming a judge. It's the one that seems so important that it's often taken for granted: A judge needs to know the rules of the game.

Rules Versus All The Other Stuff

Most of you probably know me as a fantastic rules goober, but I'm certainly not saying that rules are all you need. All of the stuff I mentioned before is extremely important to the success of the judge program. However, the players that we're here to serve aren't going to notice, "Oh, he's building a fine community of judges"—they're going to care about whether you can explain why Tarfire won't kill that Tarmogoyf, or exactly what regeneration means. They'll notice whether you have to stop and think for a couple minutes before answering a layer question, not whether you have to investigate for a couple minutes before determining whether this Marked Cards infraction should be a Warning or a Game Loss.

Community-building, policy, and most of our other judge skills aren't easily quantifiable, either. You can be good at them or bad at them, but there's no simple test to determine where you fall within the spectrum. You can do things that work but aren't optimal. Rules, however, are very black and white. You're either right or you're wrong. And unlike policy, where people online should say, "We don't have all the details, so we can't say the judge was wrong," you'll find plenty of people saying "Yup, the judge blew that rules call." Getting too many rules calls wrong doesn't only lower the players' faith in you—it reflects poorly upon every other certified judge and lowers the players' trust in the judge program as a whole.

And what is our primary purpose as judges? We're there to serve the players. Their trust in us matters more than whether we can craft a stellar community or explain the reasoning behind policy. Of course, if you can explain policy and build up a community that's dedicated to running great events, you'll build up trust that way, too. But there's no quicker way to lose player trust than to flub rules calls repeatedly—and it gets lost even faster when the answer to the call can be looked up later in the set's FAQ.

What Players (Mis)Think

Should this be the case, that players see the rules as the be-all and end-all of judging? Of course not, but it's hard to fight perception. And it certainly is a commonly held perception. I posted on various online message boards and had other judges ask their players a simple question: "What does a judge do?" The universal answer: Judges answer rules questions.

Some of the replies were wildly unrealistic, while some came close to understanding the fundamentals of the judge program. Lots of players expected perfect rules knowledge out of all judges, even L1s, while others were understanding of levels and recognized that an L1 isn't necessarily as rules-savvy as an L2. Many replies indicated that judges should never be wrong (after all, we have the Comprehensive Rules memorized, don't we?), and others were more sympathetic towards human error. Several replies mentioned settling disputes, several mentioned being unbiased and fair, but every response started with and focused on rules knowledge.

I've come across a lot of players who think judges make the rules. Some have a nebulous idea of judges making the game rules as a community, and some think L5 judges write the Comprehensive Rules themselves. I'm not telling you this to make fun of these players, only to hammer it home how much power and responsibility some players imagine for judges.

What Judges (Mis)Think

So now the question is: Where are we as judges failing the players? By and large, we're not, and their expectations are simply higher than they should be, but a few behaviors are hindering us from being the best we could be and in some cases do cause some judges to fail the players.

One of the largest mistakes is studying for the judge exam. My, but doesn't that sound like some bad advice? But it's true. Don't study for the exam—unless you plan to do a full-on study session before every tournament, which seems quite drastic. Work on advancing your knowledge continuously rather than sitting down and cramming before the test. Review specific material before the exam, but don't go on a full study spree. Keep learning whenever you see an area to learn more, and don't test until you believe that your casual knowledge is good enough. Luckily, the Judge Articles Archive has an excellent article on ways to study.

If you check out the article linked in the last paragraph, you'll also find suggestions for various study methods. Reading the Comprehensive Rules straight through isn't studying; it's an exercise in masochism. It's not a bad thing to do every now and then, since you'll certainly find fun new things you didn't know before, but it shouldn't be done as your main method of studying. Too many judges and judge candidates tell me "my rules knowledge is choppy, I need to read through the CR"—no, you need to take an active part in rules discussions and rules Q&A forums, or work on specific areas of the rules, not read a 150-page document in legalese that will overwhelm your brain and all trickle out in your sleep.

On one side of the spectrum, we have judges intent on learning the rules but going about it the wrong way; on the other, we have a few judges who are simply too complacent with their knowledge and unwilling to study or relearn. It's a small number, but they stand out and, as mentioned before, they give all judges a bad reputation. These come in three main flavors:

1) "I can guess and look it up later; I don't need to be able to answer off the top of my head." This works for tricky situations and posting online, but in a tournament, every time you have to go check an answer, you hold up the players and cast a little doubt on your other rulings. If you have to look something up, by all means do—that's better than just being wrong—but you need to strive to avoid having to do so rather than using "I can look it up" as a fallback for not being able to answer on your own.

2) "I'm Level/Role X at this event; I have more important things to do than answer rules questions." With all of the duties we give judges, this may very well be true. But if you're in a position where you're being asked rules questions, not being able to answer looks quite bad, especially if your level is your excuse to worry about other stuff. The higher your level, the more players will expect perfection from you, and the more likely they are to be upset when they find out you were wrong.

3) "I'll just rule how I think it should work, and since I'm the Head Judge, my word is law." This is the big whammy of bad attitudes. The Head Judge has the right to deviate from the game rules, but also has the responsibility to do so only in cases of an obvious error in the Comprehensive Rules that hasn't been fixed yet. You need to have reason to believe that the rules will change in the immediate future to justify your ruling. You also need to make it clear that you are ruling as you expect the change to be made rather than simply ruling as you think it should be.

What Makes Levels 1 and 2

So far I've been going through what shouldn't be, so let's look at what we actually want in level 1 and level 2 judges in terms of rules knowledge. The written exams for these levels have a 70% and 80% pass requirement, respectively. These are useful numbers when we need a roughly standardized scoring system to determine the candidate's readiness to judge, but they're not as useful when pondering whether or not to submit the candidate to an exam at all.

For L1 candidates, I used to operate on a nebulous "Do I think they can get questions right?" My metric now is "Does this person have a reputation of being right?" or "Do the players generally trust this judge to answer without having to rush off to double-check after the match?" If a judge is broadly perceived as "always" being wrong, he or she is going to have an uphill battle winning respect from the players regardless of any other qualifications.

When an L1 wants to go for L2, I add in another couple questions in addition to being more stringent on the questions above: "Do players approach the judge with questions outside of games?" and "Can the judge explain the answers well enough to satisfy the players but do so quickly?" A lot of this boils down to asking myself whether the players see the judge as a true judge, as a resource and a source of knowledge, and not just as someone they have to deal with during the tournament.

From neither level does the DCI expect perfection; we want a lot of competent judges, not a small number of "perfect" judges. One of my candidates spent over a year studying and reading and rereading the rules before testing. He passed, but could have done so much earlier.

Going for Level 3

For all the L2s in the audience gearing up for level 3, you know that the DCI expects a lot from you in terms of community, contribution, and training, but rules knowledge is not something you can stop worrying about entirely. Players put great store in "an L3 told me," and in this case they are right to do so. You will be the highest-level judge they're likely to encounter, the highest-level your other judges are likely to turn to for help. As a result, your word in many things, not just rules, will be seen with gold plating. You'll be expected to explain the rules behind rulings more often, and players will often expect you to explain the logic behind those rules (remember what I said about so many players thinking judges are the rules team?).

But as much as players still have absurd and flattering expectations of what the DCI requires to promote a judge to L3, the DCI still does not expect perfection. The best way to reconcile the two is to be entirely honest with the players and say that you're going to check the rules before delivering rulings you're not positive on. This should in theory happen less than if you were L2, but many judges feel that the higher level also requires a quicker answer rather than a more certain one and may be more likely to snap off an unsure answer than they would have at L1.

Then there is, of course, the grueling L3 written exam. I referred earlier to judges studying only for the exam, and that really shines here. Make sure that you're solid on the rules before applying for the L3 exam/interview rather than waiting to start studying after your exam is scheduled, and you'll save a lot of headaches and potential heartbreak.


The key point to keep in mind is that your duties as a judge accumulate; newer duties do not replace older duties, and older skills do not become less important than newer skills. Rules knowledge may be the least interesting and driest of the skills you'll need, and other challenges that require more talent than hard work will arise, but you can't forget our core purpose out on the floor: to arrive smiling and ready to help when a player puts a hand up and yells, "Judge!"

Eli Shiffrin