Ruling Concept: Contextual Awareness

Posted in NEWS on June 4, 2000

By Wizards of the Coast

Mike Bahr

The number of tournaments I have judged is in the hundreds, and I start to look back on the good calls I have made, the poor calls I have made, and the people I have dealt with, and I have watched both as a player and companion floor judge as other judges have done the same sort of thing. One thing I have seen come up over and over again in the case of rulings called poorly has been a poor case of what I will call "contextual awareness".

Contextual awareness is a criterion that figures into the judgement calls we make and the penalties we assess, and as judges it is incumbent upon us to understand this concept and use it to help make fair rulings. The key to resolving a dispute and having awareness of context in this way is to get a complete picture of the state of the game, to be aware of each player's needs in this game (not their statements, but their Needs), and to use firm neutral authority to make the ruling you believe is most correct. Judges who do this consistently will find their rulings are questioned less often, their authority is more respected, and their integrity will be seen as solid.

A complete awareness of the state of the game is first and foremost and is essential to understanding context and forming a decision about the ruling. The most simple example of the game state telling you most of what you need to know would be the judge calling a ten minute warning, and one player whose position in the game is ambiguous at first glance, suddenly taking an amazing interest in thoroughly counting his opponent's graveyard, library, permanents in play, and so on. Ok, we say, there's a possibility that we have a stall situation here. However, we want to be fair and impartial arbiters, so typically we will issue a caution or verbal "nudge" to get the game back on track. Now, let's say that the slow player is up 1-0 in the match. OK, we now have a pretty good indicator, due to the state of the match, that the player is indeed stalling, and can officiate accordingly. For the purpose of some more of the examples I'm about to present, assume it's going into third game and neither player is playing a "combination" deck (a la Bargain or Stroke). Can we really be sure it's a stall? The player may be genuinely thorough in his play practices. Trying to avoid a crucial mistake that may lead to a loss is acceptable, certainly there's no doubt about that.

Being aware of each player's needs in the game is important for these very reasons. In this case above, we have an ambiguous situation. Let's say for a moment that the stalling player might make it into the top 8 on tiebreakers, and might not, while the opponent has a horrible tiebreaker and might have surmised this from seeing the standings. If a draw is acceptable to any player, the possibility that this player is stalling is of concern. Now, as judge, a keen awareness of the players you're used to seeing and the practices typical of tournament players is a real asset here. Contextual awareness, in the example above, gave me a clear opinion on a ruling that I might have been a bit cloudy about had I not been in the know. As you may have surmised, the example I have been explaining here happened recently in a local tournament. I noticed from examining the standings and pairings that the "stalling" player's teammate was on the bubble, and would probably miss the top 8 if the player's opponent was allowed to win. A tie, however, would put the staller's teammate into the elimination rounds without any mathematical uncertainty. From this, it became clear to me that the stalling player's needs were merely to not lose, because his teammate would benefit if the stalling player tied just as surely as if he had won.

With this in mind, I issued a duel loss for stalling and collusion. This is an unusual ruling and isn't quite in accordance with the Penalty Guidelines, but in this context it was the only fair resolution. A warning would accomplish nothing, and a duel loss would be appropriate given the context of this situation. Ironically, that player's teammate lost, making the stall moot. It figured.

It was crucial that my explanation to the players involved was strictly neutral and impartial. This is the final key to using contextual awareness well. Players who get used to the idea that you "knew all along what they were up to" eventually give up their attempts to cheat, and they have a tendency to look like a puppy who just did his business on the carpet when you call them on their actions. I explained calmly to the players involved that I was aware of their tiebreaking situation, that I knew that they shared a collection and that I knew either one of them getting prizes was equivalent, and that I believed that the stalling player was colluding when he attempted to stall in his final duel. Simply laying it all out on the table cuts through an amazing amount of bad assumptions and accusations. Everyone involved knew the score. The teammates looked sheepish as I explained this and accepted my ruling without an argument.

I know this article used only stalling as an example of where contextual awareness helps you, but you as a judge will start to see that it's very relevant in a number of situations. A small list of them would include:

1. Non-communication issues (very common) and failure to agree: Does either player stand to benefit from their opponent getting a warning and nothing else? Does either player stand to benefit from the most recent actions being taken back, or from permanents or life totals being changed in the way that they think that you as a judge might rule? Is either player shy or recalcitrant and might not be able to eloquently state their position, and their opponent knows this and might be trying to sweet-talk their way into a win? Be aware.

2. Priority issues. Does either player gain a disproportionate advantage from information revealed as a result of a priority dispute? Does either player stand to basically win the game if you rule in a predictable manner? Remember that many judge rulings are made common knowledge, and players DO read about them. In areas related to fact, our rulings will always (hopefully) be identical, but in areas based on discretion, we need to evaluate each situation carefully.

3. Shuffling issues (VERY hard to rule). Is the deck randomized? Is it REALLY? Does the suspect player have a history of being a "topdecker" or have an unusually sloppy shuffling style? Does the player do the "quasi-cheat" shuffle where the card faces are visible to him as he riffles outward, so that he can get a nice even mix before a few final overhand shuffles and a cut presentation? Does the player have an overly complicated pile shuffling method? As we learned on the boat, these things can and do make a difference.

Contextual awareness is one of the concepts that will help us as judges turn uncomfortable rulings into comfortable ones, turn unclear rulings into rock-solid commands, and do these in a matter of degree sufficient to seem like a night-and-day difference to the people we are judging in tournaments. It's good and well to know the rules, and to know the penalty guidelines, and by themselves they make excellent fallback material when you're a visiting judge or are having a difficult day. But whenever possible, become aware of the full context of the situation and make your ruling based on everything you know, not just on what the players say to you or what you infer from what you see.

-- Mike
- Arizona Gamer Staff - - Tempe,AZ -
- Anthony Turner - E-Commerce - Mike Bahr - DCI Level 3 Judge  -