Team Leading, Part Two

Posted in NEWS on January 21, 2010

By Wizards of the Coast

Being a team leader for a large Magic: the Gathering event has been compared to many other roles. Some have likened it to leading a jazz ensemble. Others have said it resembles being the coach of a sport team's special unit. Though all of these offer their own insights, none are sufficient to cover the unique challenges and circumstances of our milieu.

The very nature of our world is diverse and complex. Teams can be assigned to specific tasks that remain the same throughout their event. They can vary day to day or round to round. Or the very composition of the team members may shift as the event progresses. Sometimes your event will have a lunch break. Other times, just going to the restroom can be a luxury. Your team may be as large as any staff you've worked with in your local community, or it may be just one other judge. You may be tasked with implementing a game or team-building activity in addition to your tournament duties, or you may be left to your own devices to create your team's experience.

The purpose of this article is to give some direction to team leaders from our own experiences. Therefore, the focus will be on those areas unique to that role – divided into the two general headings of operations and mentoring. This article is not going to be about the specific tasks teams may have at events. So, we won't be offering any insights about deck checks, where to post pairings, or how to spread yourselves evenly and effectively across an event floor. Many existing articles and some soon to be written will cover those important topics but they are beyond the scope of this document.


As was indicated in the second paragraph, there is no singular experience that a team or team leader can expect. Every event differs by geography, size, scope, level, culture, etc. Therefore, the first key point in the team leading guidebook is "communicate with your head judge." It is your head judge's duty to convey to you all of the expectations for his or her event. However, your head judges are, so far, all human. This presents all of the usual risks and liabilities. They can be too strict or too lax. They can be absent-minded or micromanaging. They can be awe-inspiring or lackluster. Wherever they fall in the broad spectrum of personalities, you as team leader are then responsible for balancing them for the sake of the event and the experience of the players and the members of your team. If I were to continue here with a full analysis of how this is done, the result would be a book about leadership and management and far beyond the scope of this article. Take note that there are many such books on the market and the excellent head judge and team leader should take advantage of these resources. Here, instead, I will simply offer the following non-exhaustive list of questions you should have answered before you take the reins of your team:

  • Who are my team members?
  • What are my team's duties?
  • What is the schedule for my team?
  • How are breaks to be handled?
  • What is the protocol for appeals to the head judge?
  • What do you expect from me as a team leader?
  • Is there a game or team-building activity and is it required?
  • How much freedom do I have for managing my team's needs and expectations?
  • Is my team adequate to the task or tasks to which we've been assigned?
  • What is the chain of command/communications should I need to leave the floor?

Take note that this list can go on and on and they are not in any specifically ranked order. Some may seem obvious and others may not apply in your circumstance. The list is intended only to provoke you to think on the vast array of issues that may be relevant to your role and to cause you to examine that role for areas where you may feel more information is needed. Where possible, these are questions that you should have answered prior to the event.

After having received your briefing from the head judge, you will need to communicate the necessary information to your team members. Again, this experience can vary significantly from event to event. Sometimes you will be working closely with known people for whom very little interchange is needed due to long-standing shared experience. Other times, the team will be entirely unknown to each other and come from very different backgrounds. Also, the amount of time you have to convey all of the expectations to your team may be limited. As noted, ideally, you will have time prior to the event to prepare your communications to your team members. However, this is not always possible. Therefore, it is important to provide as much important information as is possible with the understanding that your members may have ongoing questions or differing expectations. Knowing this as a team leader will prepare you to accept your role as a leader to your group without judging too quickly those who may not immediately grasp your expectations.

When communicating information to your team members, the first item should obviously be the team's duties and how they ought to be performed. Whether this is deck-checking, handling and posting paper, or backing up those teams who have tasks that temporarily overburden them at some point in a round, this is the first essential point of information for you to convey. Your experience and that of your team members and the players in the event will be most impacted by this singular component.

After making sure that your team is all clear about their specific duties, then you must set expectations for their performance. Some tasks require the entire team to work as a coordinated whole. Others require only one or two members to be on task at a specific time. In any of these instances, you must delegate responsibilities in such a way that allows each member an equal share in the task. This does not necessarily mean that each team member will do each task an equal number of times. It does mean that each team member ought to be valued as a contributing member such that the overall duties of the team could not have been accomplished as well if they were not contributing their part.

Delegating duties to your team members in order to achieve this is not always easy. In some cases, you may have members that have never undertaken a particular task and can best serve by observing you or another member of your team at it. That member may then be given an opportunity at the task under supervision. In other cases, a task may be so well understood by all of your team members that no mentoring of any kind is reasonably required. If so, then you have the happy task of simply ensuring that each member gets an even shot at undertaking the task. Finally, you may have team members that are simply not suited for certain tasks. Perhaps you have a member who is too short to reach the postings board or is unable to alphabetize decklists due to a handicap or other challenge. In these instances, you must either find a means of accommodating this member in a way that allows him or her to serve or to request permission from the head judge to transfer that member to a team more suited to the abilities of that member.

Another challenge to delegating is deciding how much you will lead by example and how much by instruction. For this, you will have to consider three aspects: your head judge's expectations of you, your own personal style, and the expectations of your members. If your team is smaller or if your duties are particularly work-intensive, leading by example may be required simply by the logistics of the event. On the other hand, if you have a larger team or a less burdensome task to complete, you may step back and give your members more opportunity to act on their own under your watchful eye.

In any event where there are teams and team leaders, it is likely that you will be the primary person to whom your team members will look to for leadership. This means that you must be aware of their needs and excesses. Foremost of these are the breaks for meals and other needs. Depending on your head judge's expectations, you may be sending your members on breaks one or two at a time or your entire team may be excused for a round. When scheduling for breaks, it is important to bear in mind the expectations and personalities of your group. If your team is on a break as a whole, you may be tempted to use the time to meet together to get to know one another better. However, it is important to know that not all people are so gregariously inclined and may need the break to spend alone to refresh and relax. In contrast, if you are sending one or two members at a time on breaks, you may wish to be aware of their social needs and whether they would prefer to break with someone they wish to spend time with or to have the opportunity to have some solo time.

Along with the social components of coordinating breaks for your team, you may need to be aware of the individual needs or weaknesses of your members. Some folks are given to overworking themselves in a show of endurance and diligence. This may mean that they are not taking time to hydrate or eat or otherwise refresh themselves. Keep an eye on your members for signs of exhaustion or simply slowing down. A judge who wears himself or herself out will be less likely to be effective on the floor and at the tasks to which you've been assigned. In contrast, you may also have members who need more direction than average. Sometimes they are simply confused by the chaos of the larger event and need to have more specific direction. Other times, they have more specific social needs that require your acknowledgement either verbally or simply by being present to show that you are still aware of them. You should not have to baby-sit your team members, but it does not hurt to have these skills at hand when the need should arise.


As stated earlier, there are two primary components to team leading. Operations are easy enough to understand; your team has tasks to do every round. The mentoring half of team leading, on the other hand, can get lost in the shuffle, especially when an event gets busy. Still, as a team lead, it is important for you to try to find a good balance and give your judges some mentoring beyond just "go here, do that."

Mentoring usually starts with the team meetings. The first meeting will be the general team debriefing at the start of the day. This will include the usual sort of meet-and-greet as well as your summary of the team's tasks. After that is out of the way, let the mentoring begin! It's important to set the right tone at the start of the day that the day will be about completing tasks and getting to know each other and learning from one another.

An excellent way to get your team members interacting with each other is with simple discussion questions. These can be anything from confounding rules interactions ("Humility and Opalescence walk into a bar...") to hypothetical rulings ("the player taps the wrong mana to play Warp World, but it isn't noticed until...") Try to come up with a question that is more than just a simple yes/no. Ideally, you want there to be some disagreement on it. You want the kind of question that two judges will argue about and then bring in a third judge into the discussion. These types of questions will sometimes spread like wildfire across the floor of a tournament, igniting other teams and even lighting up the Head Judge.

Depending on the needs of the event, you should have multiple questions ready. Day 2 can often be devoid of heavy action and makes for ideal discussion sessions. Mix up the questions if possible; no one wants to talk about different layers for six straight rounds. It's even ok to throw in the occasional "fun" question. One of my favorite discussion questions was from GP Daytona Beach: Who would win a Judge Royal Rumble? (The consensus was Sheldon Menery.)

At the end of every round, you should gather your team together for a brief meeting. The main stage is a good place for these meetings so that your judges are available for various end-of-round duties like hovering over outstanding matches. Chances are that your entire team will not get recruited for these duties, so have a seat and go over the discussion question. Get a brief summary of everyone's opinion, then give your answer. Another useful way a team lead can spur discussion during these brief meetings is to ask for any interesting or unusual rulings from the floor. Every round, at least one judge on your team should have a discussion-worthy story.

Speaking of rulings on the floor, while you shouldn't be afraid to take a judge call or two, as a team lead you probably don't need the experience—some of your team members will, especially if this is their first major event. In your capacity as a mentor, you should be shadowing your judges every chance you get. If you see them answering a call nearby, move in for a closer observation. If you arrive at a call at the same time, go ahead and let one of them take it. Observe the ruling—not just whether the judge answers correctly, but note how he answers the question or fixes the situation.

When you are shadowing a ruling, make sure not to get dragged into it or take over for the other judge. If the players look to you for confirmation or try to get you to answer the question, make it clear that you are not the judge making the ruling. Similarly, don't let the responding judge give up and turn things over to you. It's okay to pull him aside and discussion the situation or offer some quick advice, but the final ruling needs to come from his mouth.

After the ruling, spend some time talking with the judge about it. Mention the good things that he or she did as well as the bad. There are a lot of things that go into a ruling beyond the accuracy of the answer, and these are the things that newer judges tend to need tips on. For example, the ever-useful and practical "read the card trick" to buy yourself some time to think about what you want to say.

Towards the end of the day, when things are winding down and the judge to player ratio improves, take some extra time to have 1-on-1 sit-downs with some of your team members.

After the event, your job as a mentor isn't quite done yet. Reviews in the Judge Center are an important part of the ongoing growth of judges. If you have a relatively small team of 1-3 judges (pretty typical for Day 2 of a GP), you should have no problem entering reviews for all of them. For larger teams, you will be naturally limited in the number of reviewable interactions you might have with your team members. This is why it is important to increase those interactions whenever possible with shadowing and team discussions. Not every judge call you shadow on will be ground-breaking and relevant for a review, but the more you shadow, the more likely you will get a hit.

James Lee and Riki Hayashi