Three Steps to Level 3

Posted in NEWS on November 16, 2005

By Wizards of the Coast

You’ve set your sights on level 3? Congratulations. It’s a long, fun, yet bumpy ride. What follows is the method that I used to raise myself from a new level 2 to level 3. It is only my experience, but there is no reason why these simple steps can’t be applied by anyone. With that, let’s jump right in.

Basic Philosophy of Level 3 Testing

If you are ready to become level 3, you will pass. If you are not, you won’t. It’s that simple. There is no trickery to the test. It does not evaluate obscure skills that you will never use in the field. Instead, it drills down to the core of your judging soul and checks it against the essence of an expert judge.

In other words, if you become a better judge, you will pass. Do not expect that you can continue to do things as you did at level 1 or level 2, then study for a couple of months before your level 3 test. The level 3 test is not like the tests for levels 1 and 2. Your experience–-the situations that have come up over the years of your preparation–-will be much more important when you reach for level 3.

How do you get this experience? That is where the 3-step formula comes into play.

Step 1: Check Your Attitude

What are your thoughts about judging?

  • Do you judge so you can be a better player?
  • Do you judge for the compensation?
  • Do you hate dealing with players?
  • Do you judge just to hang out with your player friends?
  • Do you never think about judging outside of tournaments?
  • Do you think getting to level 3 will be easy and won’t take any extra effort?
  • Would you rather be playing than judging?

If you answered yes to any of those questions, I foresee problems with you becoming level 3 unless you change the answer.

Your attitude must be positive. It must contain a passion for judging and all the things that go with it. There is too much trash to pick up, too many angry and cynical people to deal with, and too many long hours to be moving toward level 3 for the wrong reasons.

The bottom line is that you must put your reasons for judging under a microscope and make sure they are the right ones. Are you sure you want the responsibility? Do you just want extra compensation for being head judge? Make sure your reasons are the right ones. Make sure you’re doing it so that you can help improve your local judging community, the game of Magic, and, above all, the players.

How can you improve your attitude? It’s very simple: focus on the players. Do whatever you should to make sure you are constantly improving the player experience.

I’m going to talk more about attitude and how to enhance player experience in an upcoming article.

Step 2: Establish Your Confidence

Confidence is something you should already be working on. It is the force that makes you believable and respected as a judge. If you don’t seem sure of yourself, there is no reason for players, or your staff, to be sure about you.

You can no longer be timid about answering calls. You can’t be afraid to deal with the Pro Tour player who is being rowdy. You can’t shy away from applying game losses, match losses, or DQs when you feel they are appropriate. You will make it through more difficult situations as a judge by making a decision that you feel is best and standing behind it 100%.

So here’s the confidence rule I live by when judging:

Never seem unsure, only like you’re trying to form your response. Once you are 51% sure of your decision, defend that decision like there was never a doubt in your mind that it was right, unless new information is given.

Note: The rule is for subjective situations, such as which player to believe, applying a penalty, etc. It doesn’t work so well for straight rules questions.

If you’re unsure of a rules interaction, tell the players you’re unsure and go check it out in the relevant documents or with your mentor. This will actually enhance your credibility in the player’s eyes because they know you will check yourself if you don’t know the answer. Therefore, when you don’t check yourself, they will assume you know the answer with 100% certainty.

Step 3: Get Lots of Experience

This is where the actual preparation for the testing process is. It’s such a vast area that I’ve broken it down into four parts.

Part 1: Mentor

Finding a mentor is the best way to learn the skills and attitudes that you need to advance to level 3.

Your mentor should be:

  • A level 3,4, or 5;
  • Accessible to you for fairly frequent personal interaction;
  • Available to work personally at tournaments with you;
  • Someone you can work well with;

I’ll mention how your mentor fits into the picture in each of the next three parts, but the general idea is to get all of the knowledge from their heads into yours.

What if you have no level 3s or 4s in your area? Here’s the plan for you: while working your events, take special note of any situations you would ask a mentor about, if you had one. Once the event is over, post those questions to the judge list. Pay particular attention to the responses you get from level 3s and higher. If they all agree, you now know the correct answer. If there is disagreement, ask for explanation and pick the position you like best. If you notice one particular judge is responding to most of your questions, contact him privately and ask if you can send questions directly to him. If he says yes, you’ve found yourself an e-mentor.

I would also suggest contacting Doron Singer for tips on working in an area with no high level judges. He has done well in Israel as the only judge there.

Part 2: Work

This is fairly straightforward. Work at as many events as you possibly can. Work at all RELs. Work in any capacity you can. Believe it or not, your experience picking up trash can be just as valuable as scorekeeping.

Don’t believe me? What happens if you find drugs, or a stack of foils, or a bunch of backpacks that were reported stolen during the day? What do you do then? Well, you only really know when you actually find them, don’t you?

Your mentor should provide feedback as to what you did well during the day, as well as what you could improve on in the role that you played. But mentoring is a two way street. You should actively seek out information from your mentor. Does your mentor have a better way to collect and enter match results slips? A special way of posting pairings that saves time? Squeeze all the information out of your mentor that you possibly can because he has probably seen ten different ways of doing the same thing and he knows which way has proven itself best thus far. Make sure you understand why it’s the best way. If you disagree, debate it with your mentor. This will deepen your understand of the way a high-level judge thinks.

During this time, you should get several opportunities to work with DCI Reporter. At first glance, DCI reporter is a fairly straightforward application. Click the proper result, pair the next round, and be off.

The real challenge is when something gets messed up. A result was entered incorrectly. A player wasn’t dropped who should have been. What do you do then? What are the options DCI Reporter gives you? The easiest way to learn these things is to have them happen at an event and have your mentor help you fix them. The next easiest is to simply create a fake tournament in Reporter and simulate problems. JOE player 2 should have been dropped, but the next round has been paired. What can you do? Figure it out. Anything you can’t figure out, simply ask your mentor or ask the judge list. I don’t suggest doing this at the tournament. See if your tournament organizer or mentor has a copy of DCI Reporter you can install on your own computer.

Part 3: Head Judge

After you have attained a broad base of experience working at events, it is time to start head judging events under the watchful eye of your mentor.

By head judging events, I do not mean FNMs. I mean starting to run more prestigious events, like JSSes and GPTs. As the REL increases, and the amount of people in the tournament increases, so will the number, and complexity of, situations that will come up for you to deal with.

As these strange situations occur, have your mentor observe how you deal with them. Afterward, discuss what your thought processes were, what the other options were, and how you could have dealt with it differently.

Make sure your mentor only interrupts you when he believes the way you are doing something could not possibly be right. This will be natural for some mentors. Others will have a hard time not “mothering” you along. He should not stop you simply because you are doing something in a way he wouldn’t. Talk with him about this before hand, and correct him if he does it anyway. You will glean far more experience from doing something sub-optimally, and seeing why it is sub-optimal, than simply having your mentor tell you it’s wrong before hand.

As a final note, make sure to head judge a couple of PTQs before heading in for level 3 testing. Judging these higher-level events is completely different than the more laid back atmosphere you will find at GPTs and JSSes. Ask your mentor for further information about some of the differences when judging PTQs.

If your tournament organizer isn’t giving you the head judging opportunities you need, have your mentor prod him a little bit. If your mentor is the tournament organizer, or your mentor isn’t willing to prod, your mentor sees problems that he believes require repair before you advance. Ask him what they are and work at it!

Part 4: High Level Events

The final piece of the puzzle to add to your experience is high-level event experience. High-level events are defined as Grand Prix, Pro Tours, Nationals, and Worlds. High-level events are an entirely different beast than other events.

As a level 2, you may be pretty high up on the totem pole in the hierarchy of judges in your area. You’re running events, maybe even PTQs. But when you attend a high-level event, your role switches back to that of plain old floor judge.

Don’t let this switch annoy you or make you feel less important. These events are a great opportunity to learn. There are high-level judges from all around the world to network with, ask questions of, and generally squeeze every last drop of judge knowledge from their experienced heads.

Think of all the judges at Pro Tour level events as your mentors. Notice I said ALL. Not just levels 3 and up, but also the level 2s. Sponsorship to high-level events is very competitive. You can be assured that those who are sponsored are there for a reason. They are just as likely to have invaluable ideas and perspectives as the other judges. Take their knowledge and make it yours.

These high-level events are also your opportunity to show off your skills to professional level judges. The expert level judge community is a very small, and close knit one. It may not be necessary to become friends with these high-level people, but it is imperative that you show your ability to help make an event run smoothly and your eagerness to learn the more advanced tactics of high-level judges.

The Role of the Judge List

Reading the judge list every day is very important. Here’s why:

  1. You will be kept current on any special rulings or situations that are occurring frequently.
  2. If you pay careful attention, you can see what the differences are between the different levels of judges simply by the responses given on the judge list.
  3. You will find important guiding posts from DCI officials. When John Grant or Andy Heckt speak, listen. That’s DCI policy in non-document form.

Is it good to participate? Personally, I did not post to the judge list once before I became L3. My position on a given issue was usually adequately explained by someone else. If you have something to add, by all means add it. If not, don’t feel pressured to post “me too” just to say you’re active on the list. It is important, however, that you share original ideas with the list if you have them so that everyone can benefit.

A Special Note about Disqualifications and DCI Policy

It would be very helpful to have DQed somebody before you take your level 3 test. Of course, don’t DQ somebody just because you need the practice. But the process of a DQ–-the investigation, the player interview, the gathering of evidence, the filling out the report–-makes you learn DCI policy theory and principles inside and out.

Ask higher-level judges about disqualifications. Find out their methodology for DQ investigations. Ask for their philosophies on what is cheating and what isn’t. I bet you will be very surprised by the answers you receive.

Ask L3s, 4s, and 5s lots of questions. Don’t just ask them how to do something, but why they do it as well. Knowing the why of DCI policies and procedure is the thing that separates expert level judges from L1s and 2s.

How to Prepare for the Responsibility

When you become L3, you become “the man” in your area. It is up to you to evaluate other judges, lead the community of players and judges, gain the community’s respect, and keep up with the commitments of being an L3. How does one prepare for all that? Simple. If you follow the steps above, talk to high-level judges from around the world, and generally do your best to improve yourself as a judge, you will slide naturally into your position as the head of your area. It’s hard work, but it’s good fun.

The Final Word

You have before you a solid path to level 3. It’s how I got there. And I’m confident that anyone with the proper dedication to these steps can as well. Focus your efforts on becoming a better judge and the level 3 testing process will be easy. Well… easier.

If you have any questions, please feel free to e-mail me at I’ll be happy to clarify anything that made you scratch your head. Any comments are also appreciated.

Be well and all the best,
Raymond Merz
DCI Level 3 Judge