The Stern Lecture

Posted in NEWS on July 2, 2007

By Wizards of the Coast

One aspect of judging that I and many other judges enjoy is the fact that we help people play the game we love. The joy of explaining complex rules interactions and teaching players how the game works is one thing that often initially interests players in judging. After your first few tournaments, you gain the knowledge and ability to explain more than just how the game works and can explain the policy and processes of tournaments. In many ways, judges are educators, for players and other judges.

Another role that judges fill is the one of enforcer. Just as we explain how things should work, we also have to step in when they do not work. This includes things like correcting games states, if possible, and giving out warnings. This aspect is not as fun as the one in the previous paragraph, but it is just as, if not more, important. If we don't make efforts to enforce the rules and make sure games and tournaments are run in the correct way, then all of the time we spend teaching the rules is wasted.

These two aspects of judging seem very different. In fact they could be viewed as polar opposites; the educator in us is helpful, warm and friendly, whereas the enforcer has to be cool and strict. But very often these two tasks combine. At virtually every event you will have to explain the rules, either tournament rules or game rules, and be forceful when doing it. Speaking to players in this manner is commonly called the stern lecture.

At first glance, the stern lecture seems very simple and easy to understand. It basically boils down to explaining what should happen, or should have happened, and exerting your authority as a judge a little. But in practice, it's more complex than just yelling, "Hey you kids, no running by the pool." When, where, and how you deliver a stern lecture will very depending on the circumstances. Additionally, there are a few things to keep in mind in any situation.

First off, here are a few guidelines for giving a stern lecture regardless of the circumstances. Any time you need to lecture a player you need to remember that it is not about you, you need to keep your emotions out of it. For example, let's say that you hate it when players do not shuffle their opponent's decks at Competitive REL events. When confronting a player that is not doing this, you need to be firm without being rude and keep your personal dislike out of the equation.

Another thing to keep in mind is that you will want to tailor your presentation style depending on the REL of the event and the age of the players involved. This does not mean that you allow players to break the rules, only that you are mindful of the audience when you scold players for violating the rules. The tone you take with an older PTQ player should be different from the one you use with a new MSS player. For example, I find that MSS players need a bit more assurance that you do not think they are cheating and more explanation as to what the rules are than older players. You need to vary your lecture style not because you want to go easier on certain types of players, but because you will have more successful interactions with different players if you use player appropriate communication styles.

When giving a stern lecture you want to make sure that you do not threaten. You want to let the players know what will or potentially will happen without intimidating them; this isn't a threat but an explanation. Remember your primary goal is to educate, not just stomp your foot down. For example, a stern lecture is often given with a penalty at Competitive and Professional events so the person receiving the penalty knows that the next time they perform the same infraction, that the penalty may be upgraded. It is important that this does not sound menacing; you want to be seen as serious and not just scary.

One other thing you might want to include in stern lectures at Regular REL events is information on how this is treated at higher REL events. For example, let's say that at an FNM (Regular REL), you are called over to a table because a player has drawn an extra card and it is unknown what this card is. The penalty at this level of play is to give a warning and randomly take a card from his hand and put it on top of this player's library. I find it useful to remind the player that this penalty is serious enough that at higher RELs, the infraction requires a game loss and not a warning. Another common stern lecture is to tell a player that the cool picture sleeves that they are using at an FNM may be okay now, but they won't be at the PTQ the next day.

Now for a few of the less obvious variations that can matter when giving a stern lecture. In most cases, you will give a stern lecture to the involved player(s) when giving a penalty. But in some cases it may be better to wait a bit and give it later or even after the tournament is over. One reason you might do this is simply to save time. If you do not have the time to talk to a player now because of other tournament needs, you can always talk to him or her later in the day. For example, if a player is playing sloppily and commits a few unrelated procedural errors throughout the day, it may work out best to take this player aside at some later point and mention that he or she need to tighten up his or her game. However you do not want to wait to give a stern lecture for any serious problem, like any form of Unsporting Conduct.

And as mentioned above, if you see the player that you want to talk to on a regular basis you can deliver the stern lecture after the event. Remember that once you leave the event that you do not have any real authority, as you are only a judge when working. Players may respect you for the work you do and your status as a certified judge, but outside of an event, you have no defined authority. After a tournament, all you can really offer is friendly advice.

Another example where you might want to talk to a player after an event is one in which you did give a penalty, but upon reflection or discussion with other judges, you realize that you may have been too soft. Let's say you gave a player a warning for Unsporting Conduct – Minor and later realize that they should have received a game loss for Unsporting Conduct – Major, you might want to tell him or her that. Otherwise this offending player may learn the wrong lessons and not change his or her behavior. Once again, you are not a judge outside events, so do not try to exert any authority that you don't really have in situations like this.

How public your lectures are is another factor to keep in mind. Sometimes, yelling at a two players across a room to 'knock it off' is entirely appropriate; other times, you want to quietly take a player aside and let him or her personally know that he or she needs to alter his or her conduct. Unlike DQ investigations, which should be kept quiet, you can vary how noticeable you are when lecturing.

Here is one situation with a slight variation, which may make you change how you deliver you lecture. At a PTQ, you are called over to a table by player A at the beginning of a round because player B, player A's opponent, has revealed a card of player A's deck when shuffling it. You investigate and determine that this is completely unintentional and an accident. So you give player B a warning for Card Drawing – Looking at Extra Cards. (Here's where the variation comes into play) When you give this warning, player A sighs and rolls his eyes. You may want to privately talk to this player later and saying that you noticed his displeasure with the ruling you gave and explain why you gave the ruling you did.

Now, let's change player A's reaction just a little bit. In this version when you give this warning player A sighs and says, "That's all, just a warning?" He's not quite being unsporting; it's more whiny than unsporting, but players at nearby tables can hear him. It is entirely appropriate to respond somewhat publicly in this situation. Don't berate player A, but be somewhat emphatic in your response and say, "yes, this is the correct way to handle this." One reason for this public response is so that player B won't feel rattled by either player A or the presiding judge. Another is so nearby players understand that the situation has been handled in a clear and definitive manner.

One final note: stern lectures are not just for players. If a staff member is not pulling his or her own weight, or just behaving inappropriately, feel free to take them aside and give them a talking-to.

Why do we give a stern lecture? Often people will not change their behavior unless confronted directly and clearly. Giving warnings and game losses is one thing, but this alone may not cause a player to reflect on what he or she has done. Stern lectures can be helpful to the player receiving the lecture, as well as the Magic community as a whole. While you can't guarantee that every player you confront will modify how he or she acts, everyone that does makes it easier for all other players and judges.

Chris Richter, L3