Wearing a Many-Feathered Cap

Posted in NEWS on December 8, 2015

By Wizards of the Coast

George Macoukji

How to be a Judge, Tournament Organizer, Retailer, and Player Simultaneously Using the Three-Judge System

Boy, my head is hurting. You see, it's this blasted cap I have on my head. Most people wear a cap with just one or two feathers in it. Me, I have to be insane enough to have four feathers. Think feathers are light? Normally, they are - only these feathers are called responsibility.

In olden times, it was said that when you achieved a difficult goal or performed a monumental task, you would add a feather to your cap to signify this achievement. In modern times, "a feather in his cap" has become a cliché. However, it is much more than a random title. It represents an expanded set of skills, the capability to approach a task with multiple perspectives and solutions. It is a perfect metaphor for my career as a judge and tournament organizer.

You see, I often judge small tournaments in a country about the size of the greater New York City area. We have maybe 30 active players out of a pool of 100 or so. Everyone knows everyone else, and even our premier events are casual by international standards. Since most others who know about Magic in the UAE are players, I'm also the default tournament organizer. There are no Magic stores in town -- I work with our local distributor to make product available to players at tournaments. Essentially, I'm the main source of Magic in the country. This gives me four separate roles at each event.

I find that the three-judge system (3JS) is perfect for my events -- it's a simple, relaxed, easy-going structure that allows me to support my players while still getting in some card-flopping experience. I've used it extensively, but I've found that on occasion it can lead to problems. Here's a sort of FAQ on how to apply the 3JS when you have to handle all the admin roles yourself.

What are the roles?

Let's start with defining the roles involved in running a tournament. In my case, there are four roles to contend with: Judge, TO, Retailer, and Player.


You all know what it means to be a judge, so I won't dwell on this too much. I just want to emphasize a few key points relevant to this discussion.

Basically, you're the ultimate authority at your event, and it's up to you to make sure the environment is fair to all players. It's NOT your job to make sure that the games are fun, or to promote booster sales. It's also not your job to make play decisions or help players decide on the best course of action. You just need to make sure that there are no problems due to rules violations, and that you handle them appropriately if they come up. Under ideal circumstances, you just have to announce the start and end of each round. (Of course, that never happens in real life. :)
Tournament Organizer

This job is often confused with that of the retailer, but the two are actually quite different. The job of a tournament organizer (TO) is to make sure that the tournament runs smoothly and is fun for all the players. It's your task to find a site and get it set up before the event starts. You need to provide necessary equipment to run the tournament, from signs and ads announcing the event, to a computer to run DCI Reporter, to tablecloths and table numbers to make life easier for the players. If a player complains about the way a tournament is run, it's your job to find a solution to please (or sometimes appease) the player. You decide what the prizes are and who should get them. As far as you're concerned, it's much more important to keep players happy and coming back to future events than it is to run a fair tournament or make lots of money.


I make the distinction between TO and Retailer because the two have apparently contradictory goals. As a retailer, it's your job to maximize profit from the event. You have to find a way to cover the cost of the site, not to mention the prizes you give out to the tourney winners. What price should you charge for entry? Maybe you can sell packs and singles to players to increase revenue. In short, it's your job to make money.


Finally, we have the role of player. In its simplest form, players play Magic. Maybe you do it for the thrill of victory over worthy opponents. Maybe you do it for the prizes. Maybe you feel compelled to win by any methods and whatever the cost. Each player has his or her own motivation, but it all comes down to one thing: playing Magic.

Interaction of the Roles

As you may have guessed from the descriptions above, sometimes these roles are in opposition to each other. A judge may feel compelled to penalize a player for unsporting conduct, but a TO doesn't want to lose that player from future events. The retailer knows that the player represents hundreds of dollars of repeat business, and the player thinks that trash-talking is just a part of the game. In a normal tournament, these four people will talk it out (either before the tournament or when the incident arises) and come to an acceptable compromise.

Now imagine the discussion that happens if all four of those roles are the same person.

Welcome to the Three-Judge System. :)

To successfully run a 3JS event, you have to carefully balance the roles so as to achieve an optimal solution. There are six possible interactions between the four roles; I'll briefly run through them, along with some caveats to keep in mind for your events.

Judge - Tournament Organizer

By and large, these roles are compatible with each other. Players appreciate that a well-run tournament also means a fairly-run one. If a player at your event makes an honest mistake, they usually admit it right away and take any penalty without complaint. They realize it would be more disruptive for the event if they were let off the hook. In order to keep players coming back, you just need to be a little careful in how you approach situations.

For example, at a recent tournament I ran, a player had just won Game 1. While preparing for Game 2, he forgot to shuffle his graveyard from the first game back into his deck. This wasn't discovered until just before he was about to win the second game. I checked his forgotten cards; they were loaded with key cards that make his deck work. It was a new player, a young lad in his early teens attending his first tournament. He goofed and lost track his cards in his excitement.

As a TO, I knew that a harsh penalty would alienate a new and possibly very good player. The concept of a warning that's tracked can be quite intimidating to a new player. As a judge, I knew that I couldn't resolve the situation with less than a game loss -- the disruption of the match was fairly severe, but it could be contained by assigning a loss of the current game to the player. I also couldn't hide the warning from him -- he had to know the full extent of the consequences.

My only recourse was to sit down and have a talk with him. I explained to him how losing a graveyard could be disruptive to the game, and he agreed that a game loss would only be fair. I then tackled the issue of the warning by using an analogy. I asked him if he played soccer, and he said yes. I told him to think of the warning as a yellow card in a soccer match. One yellow card doesn't mean much; it happens all the time, and people forget about it pretty quickly. But if you start getting multiple yellow cards, all in a row, then people are going to start paying attention. That's when things get bad. Again, he seemed to grasp the logic fairly well, and while he was a little sad at the penalty, he went on to place third overall in the tournament. Not bad for a brand-new player.

Another example of the interaction between judge and TO is when lengthy rulings arise. Say it's 10 minutes into the round and you're happily playing your opponent when you get a call from another table. You ask your opponent to wait a minute and amble over to see what happened. You discover a mess that may take some 15 minutes to resolve. Meanwhile, your opponent is waiting. When you get back to your table, should you assign yourself 15 minutes of extra time to compensate for the ruling? Would it be fair to your opponent to deduct 15 minutes from the match time so you can deal with another situation? If you assign the extra time, your match may end up delaying the next round. If you don't, you're effectively costing your opponent 15 minutes' worth of play time.

There's no easy solution in this case. I would just advise you to consider your game state and whether the extra time is needed. Also examine outside factors: maybe you could schedule a lunch break after this round. That way, the delay is less of a factor. You need to decide each situation of this form as it comes up.


The interaction between judge and retailer is very similar to that of judge and TO, save that the retailer sees players as a dollar sign while the TO sees another entry in DCI Reporter. Seriously, though, the same concerns apply. You need to keep players happy and spending money at your events, and a fair environment is one of the best ways to do that.

Despite all the trash-talk and bluster, players are there to have fun. In general, it's not fun if your opponent is cheating. If you allow cheaters to get away with their ill-gotten gains, then the honest players will leave in disgust and not return to your future events, costing you money. On the other hand, if you punish the cheaters effectively, honest players will respect your integrity and hopefully come to your events more often. Yes, you may lose the cheater - but the alternative is to lose multiple honest players.

Judges often find themselves doing a couple of different jobs


Whole reams can be written (and have been written!) about the relationship between players and judges. In the context of a 3JS event, however, that relationship changes a little. You must still be a judge first and foremost, but you're also concerned with winning your games. Remember that you're not a judge to your opponent; you're just another player. Only the secondary judge (or sometimes the tertiary judge) matters to your match.

When playing a match in 3JS, your opponent has to be somewhat understanding. You'll often get called away to handle a rules question or sort out a minor problem. There will be delays in your match, and your opponent might get a little upset. Anticipate that and be ready to deal with it. Maybe you can remind your opponent at the start of the match that you may have to get up. Maybe you could assign your match some extra time to make up for the delay.

On the other hand, be careful you don't fall into the trap of abusing your authority to help yourself. For example, you're playing a slow control deck and have been doing fairly well. You've reached the quarter-finals, but due to time constrains you've set a limit of one hour per match. Shortly before time runs out, you get a call from another table that takes 10 minutes. Now, you know that if you don't assign yourself the extra time, you'll lose your match on life totals. On the other hand, if you give yourself 15 extra minutes, you'll certainly dominate the match and pull the win. In 10 minutes, however, you're not sure you could do that. In fairness, you should only extend your match 10 minutes - that's how long the ruling took. Extending it by more than that is a form of cheating: you're getting a win you don't deserve.


The goals of the TO and the retailer are often well-aligned, so you don't have to worry about major conflicts there. You just need to balance your prizes against the income you expect to receive from the event.

Above all, be fair to your players. If you price your events fairly, you can expect players to come back for more. Offering decent prizes also helps. True, you need to make money, but most TO's I know are willing to lose a little on the main event if they can recover that and more from sales of boosters and singles. Be flexible, and help your players out when you can.


There's not a whole lot to say here beyond what's already been laid out. One piece of advice that may seem obvious but can be easily overlooked is that you shouldn't take your own prizes. If you place highly in the tournament, have your prizes pass down to the next player. If you place third in an event where top 4 get prizes, then the fourth place player should get your prize, and the fifth place player should get the fourth place prize. By showing the players that you're playing by the rules and putting their interests ahead of your own, you earn their loyalty while still having the opportunity to play and win.


This can be one of the stickier areas to deal with. If you're the only person at the event, then you'll have to not only play, but also keep an eye on your store. You don't want players who finish their match before you to wander over to the booster packs and swipe a couple while you're not looking. Similarly, your match will often be interrupted as players come up and say, "I'm buying this booster pack. Here's the money."

I can think of two main methods to deal with this. The first and most obvious is to get some help. Hire a trusted assistant or friend to handle your sales while you play. Even if the person just sits there behind the counter, it can deter players from trying any funny business. If you trust that person to remember the prices and handle sales, let them deal with it for the whole day. Some friends may volunteer for the job; or you may wish to pay them in Magic product or cash.

Alternately, lock up your product during rounds. When you finish each round, you invite players to purchase stuff, and when you finish dealing with that, you can pair the next round. This system might be easier for you if you can't find an assistant, but it also has disadvantages. You need to be aware of where players are and what they're doing around your product area at all times. Theft of products can seriously put a damper on your profits.


Events run under the Three-Judge System can be a great way to allow judges to get in the hot-seat and have fun playing the odd game. However, you should be aware of the multiple roles involved and what you plan to do to handle them. As with all things, a plan can be a great way to start. I hope this article helps you get started with your plan.

If you have any questions or comments, I can always be reached at judge@gamesnet.org.