The Warning System and You

Posted in NEWS on June 17, 1999

By Wizards of the Coast

Elaine Chase

Talkin' out of turn, that's a paddlin'. Lookin' out the window, that's a paddlin'. Starin' at my sandals, that's a paddlin'. Paddlin' the school canoe, you better believe that's a paddlin'.

Unlike Bart Simpson's substitute teacher, DCI judges don't give out paddlings. The major reason involves big fat lawsuits. So instead, we give out warnings. What I find interesting is the myriad of ways warnings are used by judges in different areas. While some variation is to be expected, it would be helpful to players if some consistency in rulings was established. The Penalty Guidelines were written with exactly that goal in mind, and they are helping create an environment where players can go to any event and know what to expect. However, the Penalty Guidelines cannot work properly if players and judges don't understand the warning system and how the investigative process works.

Unofficial vs. Official Warnings

There are two ways to let players know they have done something wrong at an event: unofficial warnings and official warnings. Unofficial warnings are mainly used for minor, nondisruptive, and unintentional mistakes. The first instance of slow play and procedural errors like not tapping mana correctly, misordering of the graveyard, and neglecting to untap before drawing generally warrant a caution or notice. These unofficial warnings are tracked by the judging staff during the course of an event. If the behavior continues even after the player has been made aware that it is unacceptable, the player should be issued a single warning.

The majority of offences are taken care of with a single warning. Card misrepresentation, deck registration problems, accidentally seeing the next card in the library, and misplaying a mulligan are all prime examples of situations that should be treated with a single warning. When a judge feels a player's actions are purposeful or when an honest mistake results in a severe game advantage, a double warning should be issued. The triple warning should be reserved for a severe breach in the integrity of the tournament such as flagrant cheating or extreme unsportsmanlike conduct.

So what does it mean?

It is important that players understand why they are receiving a warning and what will be done with it. The primary function of a warning is to educate players about game play. A warning should not be viewed as a penalty in and of itself, but as a note to the player that they did something wrong and a note to the DCI that there was a problem. Most warnings that we receive are not acted upon further simply because it is rare for a player to accumulate enough for the behavior to be deemed habitually disruptive. It must be noted that while individual incidents may warrant investigation if they are serious enough, the DCI will only punish habitual offenders if there is a record in our penalty database of a problem.

Unsportsmanlike Conduct

One of the biggest gray areas when it comes to penalties is unsportsmanlike conduct. It is important that players are allowed to have fun, so we don't want to be too restrictive. On the other hand, if we let players run wild, there's a good chance that they will be annoying more people than they are entertaining. A good rule of thumb is any kind of behavior you would be ashamed to have your mother see you doing probably deserves some kind of action. As with play error, the more disruptive the behavior, the more severe the penalty. If a player mutters profanities when they draw poorly, issue them a caution. If they yell profanities, give them a warning. If they use profanity to insult a fellow player or a judge, give them a double or triple warning, and if they don't stop, issue a disqualification and kick them off the premises.

I had a judge tell me recently that a group of players had been causing problems at his events for months. They were constantly belligerent, foul mouthed, and destructive. I checked the penalty database for each of them and found nothing. When asked about their warning history, he said, "This past weekend was the first time it has gotten so bad that I had to give them an official warning." A warning should not be the last resort in a series of attempts to control unsportsmanlike players, but instead should be used as soon as a problem develops. This is especially important if it is a player you have had multiple problems with in the past. You should not give out warnings at the drop of a hat, but any harassment of other players or judges, physical violence, or misuse of facilities (including damage or intentional "trashing") should be dealt with immediately. The warning system will only function if judges use it.

I am getting the impression that many judges dislike giving warnings for unsportsmanlike behavior, perhaps in fear of retribution from players or being considered harsh. It is your responsibility to use the warning system in a way that benefits you and your players. Remember that while being light with the warnings may keep you on some players' good sides (usually the disruptive ones'), eventually, your leniency may cause you to lose the players you want to keep. I hope you didn't forget that group of players I mentioned before. I had asked another judge in the area about their behavior. The response? "Yeah, I keep an eye on them whenever they show up at my events. They don't try anything, though. They know I won't put up with it."

Too many warnings

We received a tournament report once that had 83 players and 87 warnings. What happened? The judge could not control the players during deck registration and gave every player a warning for "failure to obey instructions of judge, opening sealed product early, and talking during instructions." This misuse of the warning system not only serves to clog up the database, but causes judges to lose the respect of their players.

Mass warnings should never be used. So what do you do when an individual or a small group fails to follow instructions? Let's say Johnny and Sarah came to my tournament. They handed in their deck registration sheets and forgot to put their names on them. Depending on the K-value of the event, they would either get a notice or a warning. The end of the day rolls around, and neither one has had any other problems. I really think their actions were administrative mistakes which didn't give them any kind of advantage, so I decide to downgrade the warnings to notices, or the notices to nothing at all. Is this a prudent use of the warning system?

To figure that out, let's look at the reasons behind tracking offences. The warnings each player receives remain in the penalty database for two main purposes. Firstly, they enable the DCI to identify repeat offenders. For instance, if Todd gets multiple warnings for "accidentally" drawing too many cards after mulliganing, we have to start questioning how "accidental" these offence are. The second use of the warning database is to give us a better picture of a player who is under investigation. Let's say Todd is now caught with a distinctly marked deck. By looking at his warning history, we find the above offences, which clearly point to pattern of questionable behavior. In addition, we find one instance of him forgetting to put his name on a deck registration sheet. This last offence tells us nothing.

Does this mean you should never give warnings for administrative problems? Let's visit Johnny and Sarah again. It's now two weeks later, and low and behold, Johnny has again forgotten to put his name on the sheet. At this point, I can send in a warning which specifies repeat instances of neglecting to follow procedures. Sarah learned her lesson last time, and has written her name in large letters across the top so I'll be sure not to miss it. Instead of clogging the database with three separate warnings, I have taken care of one player myself, and sent in one report outlining repetitive behavior which slows down my events. This is an efficient use of the warning system.

What can I do to help?

There are many things you can do as a judge to ensure the warning system works. Obviously, giving them out correctly is the first big step, but there are a surprising amount of things that can (and do) go wrong between a player receiving a warning and it being entered into the database. Make sure that the player's name and DCI number are written clearly on the warning sheet or entered correctly in DCI reporter. Even if you think a name is unique, there is a good chance it isn't. Also make sure you have included enough information to give an accurate description of what happened. A warning for failure to unsideboard is self explanatory, but offences like procedural error, misrepresentation, and failure to agree on game state need more detail to prove useful. Once the warnings are filled out correctly, make sure the tournament organizer sends in the paperwork in a timely manner. You can imagine how frustrating it is to contact a player about repetitive behavior, only to find out the next day about another offence which took place a month earlier. Most importantly, when you encounter a serious problem, contact me by phone or email as soon as possible. It generally takes about 2-4 weeks for me to get the warnings in for any given tournament. In that time, potential witnesses may forget important details, and the offender can cause more problems. I try to get all investigations wrapped up in 1-2 weeks, and prompt notification on the part of the judge plays an invaluable role.