Judges Roundtable

Posted in The Week That Was on June 19, 2009

By Brian David-Marshall

Brian David-Marshall is a New York–based game designer who has been involved with Magic since 1994, when he started organizing tournaments and ran a Manhattan game store. Since then, he has been a judge, a player, and one of the longest-tenured columnists on DailyMTG.com, as he enters his second decade writing for the site. He is also the Pro Tour Historian and one of the commentators for the Pro Tour.

While checking in on the various Magic happenings this past weekend via Twitter, Facebook, and the Tournament Center it quickly became apparent that there were a lot of players in the Eastern time zone all playing Magic at the same time. There were just under 400 players at the Atlanta 5K tournament, and there were over 300 PTQ players—I think an unprecedented number for a qualifier not held at some larger event—in Philadelphia. Within a several hour drive from Philly were another 220+ players at a PTQ in Connecticut. I posted a comment about it on Twitter (you can follow my occasional thoughts on Magic @top8games on Twitter) and learned that the Texas PTQ was straining under the weight of 270 competitors. As the numbers continued to pour in, virtually every location was significantly above even their best attendance numbers.

Taking special note of the dialogue about attendance were a handful of judges who had a back-and-forth about the numbers and some of the logistics of running a larger event. I decided to catch up with some of the head Judges from this weekend's North American events and get their opinions on the current Standard format, how they started judging, and what simple things players can do to improve their chances at an event. First let's get a quick rundown on the participants. If you want to see the deck lists from their events this weekend you can head over to Decks of the Week or just click the link in each judge's biographical information.

Hartford, CT – 222 Players

Name: Joe Bernier
Age: 27
Occupation: Computer Tech
Hometown: Taftville, CT
Base of Judging Operations: Eastern Connecticutt
Level: 2

St. Louis, MO -- 150 Players

Name: James M. Elliott
Age: 40 (ouch!)
Occupation: College Professor (teaching organic chemistry)
Hometown: Stirling in Scotland, UK, although currently in Carbondale, Southern Illinois.
Base of Judging Operations: Mostly St. Louis, Chicago, Nashville, Indianapolis, Louisville, and Little Rock (I get around).
Level: 2

Calgary, Alberta – 76 Players

Name: Jason Ness
Age: 34
Occupation: High School Science Teacher
Hometown: Canmore, Alberta
Base of Judging Operations: Calgary, Alberta
Level: 4

Detroit, MI – 201 Players

Name: Michael Garee
Age: 22
Occupation: Student
Hometown: St. Marys, Ohio
Base of Judging Operations: Columbus, OH
Level: 2

Philadelphia, PA – 318 Players (!)

Name: Nicola DiPasquale
Age: 28
Occupation: Software Engineer
Hometown: Brookhaven, PA
Base of Judging Operations: Philadelphia, PA
Level: 2

Atlanta, GA – 218 Players

Name: Casey Hogan
Age: 20
Occupation: Student
Hometown: Atlanta, GA
Base of Judging Operations: Southeast, USA
Level: 2

BDM: When did you first get involved with Magic and how did that happen?

Casey: Back when I was in middle school, around 2000, I was running the Pokemon tournament scene for big scholarship money. A mutual friend me introduced me to Magic at a summer camp, but it sounded really complicated and I declined. Later that month, I was hanging out at the game store, waiting for my dad to pick me up from a scholarship tournament, when I started going through one of the boxes of Magic commons laying around. I ended up buying a few commons and asking my friend about them, and it wasn't long before I was hooked.

Nicola: I first started playing Magic in the summer of 1994 when one of my friends introduced me to the game. He gave me some cards from what he personally owned and we played whenever we met up. There was a local comic shop in Bryn Mawr, PA (still there after all these years too) that sold Magic, and I spent many a Sunday playing there. There was a good crowd that came to the shop back then as it was one of the only places you could go to get cards and play in the area. I remember the store made a big deal, announcing it to all present, about selling their complete beta set for the sum of $200. It sat there in the store for months, until that lucky person bought it.

Michael: My first set was Ravnica. In my freshman year of college, my best friend Jack Gaynor, then Vice-President of the ONU Gaming Society, was an avid Magic player. He was appalled that I had never played before, so he taught me the game and dragged me to a few booster drafts on campus. Once I understood the stack, I was hooked.

Joe: Back in 2004 a local store opened and started to build a local player base for my area. I had played a little between 1997 and 2000 with friends from school, so I picked it back up.

James: I used to be part of a "hard-core" group that played RISK every Friday. If the game lasted less than 12 hours, it wasn't worth playing. I saw a news item by chance one day about the Magic World Championships in 2001 and was intrigued. I got the others to try Magic for a month (we used the newly released Seventh Edition core set). I thought it was a game that my friends played in college a decade earlier. It wasn't the same game, but by the time I realized that I was hooked.

Jason: Got a demo version of the Microprose PC game in PC Gamer magazine. That was roughly around the time of Mirage. The rest, as they say, is history.

BDM: How did you leap from playing to judging?

Jason: I wound up working part time at a hobby store while going to college and ran some weekly store-level tournaments. When the Level 3 in the area moved away, the Tournament Organizer at the time contacted me and asked me to certify and help take over judging some of the premier events. As there was no one else around with any judging experience, it seemed like the decent thing to do. Again ... the rest is history.

Nicola: At the time I got interested in judging I was not really even playing Magic much. Several of my friends in a group at Drexel university wanted to run a sanctioned Magic tournament, and they wanted to have a judge for the event. I had a friend who was going to Villanova with me who was certified as a judge. I volunteered to judge the event for my friends at Drexel and then I started talking to him about working as a judge. I worked the event for my friends at Drexel and later met with the local L3 to certify. That was around the release of Judgment in 2002. I later certified and have been judging events ever since.

Casey: I wish it sounded more interesting, but I was late to Regionals in 2002, and didn't have a way to get back until the end of the tournament. I took the test, aced it, ran some drafts, and that was that.

Michael: I actually went from playing to tournament organizing to judging. I wasn't satisfied with how our drafts and other events were being ran on campus, so I learned how to run them myself. In the process of learning the tournament rules, I read through the Magic Comprehensive Rules two or three times, and became one of our local "rules gurus." I spent a year or so playing in PTQs while judging locally. Eventually I lost in enough tournaments that I decided I might be better suited for judging. My first non-local judging experience was at the Future Sight Prerelease.

James: I'd always toyed with the idea but didn't do anything about it until a friend became a judge and introduced me to the TO he worked for. That was Pastimes in the spring of 2005.

Joe: When I started to play again there were no judges around so I became the rules guy and eventually that led me to judging.

BDM: How often do you get to play Magic as compared to your judging duties?

Joe: I Judge almost every weekend. I can usually get to a Legacy or Vintage event once a month and play in FNM regularly.

Jason: I make a point of playing FNM a few times a year. I try to play in one Grand Prix a year. Never got the chance in '08—we'll see about '09. I draft casually when possible, play Magic Online when time permits, and usually make the Launch Party when a set is released.

Michael: Not as often as I'd like or ought to. I prefer to play with friends rather than enter tournaments. Since graduating college in May of 2009 and moving several times, I've not established a local play group, so I don't play regularly. These days, my Magic playing occurs when I'm visiting friends or during the occasional judge draft at big events. On the other hand, I judge every Prerelease or PTQ in the Columbus area that I possibly can.

Casey: I play about once or twice a week at the local store, and I don't judge more than four times a month—the only demand is on the weekends for premier events.

Nicola: These days I spend most of my time judging Magic events. Of the last six weekends I worked events on five of them and have another upcoming next week. When I lived in Italy I used to play as many as three times a week. I head judge many of the Philadelphia events for Gray Matter as well as other local events, like the Vintage events run by Mike Smith in Blue Bell. I also try to go to as many of the Grand Prix and Pro Tour events in the U.S. as possible. I do still get to go and play every once in a while, and when my wife goes to visit her family I tend to go and play about twice a week (draft on Monday and then FNM). I would love to go and play more often but between my judging, my family, and work it is difficult to find the time. I do have a Magic Online account, and I do find it easier to play there than to go to my local shop, but I much prefer the local shop atmosphere and the socialization that it brings.

James: Oh my ... I can't keep up with Constructed anymore. Still play Draft and Dealed whenever I can, but I still sometimes end up judging when I really want to be playing. MTGO is a blessing at least, if an imperfect blessing.

BDM: Which do you prefer judging, Limited or Constructed events, and why?

Jason: Neither really. Judging is judging. If the day's going to be long, Constructed is probably better because of the lack of extra build time. Limited events have many more logistical considerations, but they're also more interesting for that reason as well.

James: I think probably Limited. With the same top tier decks being used during most of a Constructed season, the questions from players end up being repetitive and non-challenging. Sometimes Prereleases can be the most challenging of all. You see greater variety of questions and more unexpected questions from a Limited event. Also, players have to be more skilled, and it's fun to watch this unfold in Limited.

Michael: Constructed. For PTQ-level events, Constructed makes for a shorter day by about 90 minutes (no deck registration/construction, and no Top 8 draft). Ninety minutes is significant when an event runs nine rounds plus three for the Top 8. The deck lists are easier on the eyes, too.

Nicola: Hmm ... this is a tough one. I like the ease of Constructed tournaments, there is less setup involved and generally they tend to go smoother in the early rounds (which I believe are the defining rounds of any tournament). I try to follow the metagame and read many of the online websites, to better prepare for these events. Limited events, while they involve more setup and additional time because of the deck registration and building periods, are often more exciting. Limited events take more skill than Constructed events, even though there is a certain amount of luck in opening a pool. It is pretty exciting to watch the skill with which the best players draft at the Top 8 table. Not only that but I think Limited events bring the more interesting card interactions and rulings. Players are more apt to try different card combinations because of the limited number of cards they have to work with.

Casey: Oh, Constructed, definitely. The deck lists are easier to check, Round 1 doesn't take three hours, and the potential interactions between Constructed decks tend to be more interesting. Plus, I like playing Limited when I get the chance. :D

BDM: What were you expecting attendance-wise for this past weekend's PTQ, and what did you end up with?

Michael: I expected around 150 based on the size of the venue. We pulled in 202 players.

Joe: Around 170, and got 222.

James: I think as a community we underestimate how much people want to play with their own cards! I am constantly amazed that Standard isn't featured more regularly. So I was expecting good numbers for a Standard PTQ. Although the proximity in time and distance to PT–Honolulu was part of the reason for a strong GP–Seattle (kudos to Wizards), it was also in part from the wise choice of Standard for the format. St. Louis is often in the 120s on a good day for a PTQ, but we were up to 150 this past weekend.

Jason: Expected mid 70s, got mid 70s.

Nicola: Personally I was expecting around 200-220 players. These are numbers that we have consistently seen in the recent past with our PTQs in this area. Our TO was expecting around 250 players based on his view of the Standard's popularity right now, and our past numbers. We ended up with a total of 318 players, a number I have not seen at a PTQ outside of a Grand Prix or a Pro Tour event. It was very exciting to announce that in the morning because it was well beyond our expectations.

Casey: We were in an interesting situation for the weekend's PTQ. It was our second ever Sunday event, and the first one following another company's event. We had a PTQ after Regionals that only drew in 130 or so, and we had figured that the PTQ following the StarCityGames.com 5K would be a little bit larger, maybe 200 at the maximum. In reality, we broke 228, and had to bring in tables from the lobby to fit everybody in the venue! Thanks again to all the players who came to play in Atlanta this last weekend!

BDM: Were there any interesting rulings, card interactions, or decks that came up at your event?

Jason: A cascade deck that centered around a land destruction/land bounce strategy. I heard it was gaining popularity on the 'net but I hadn't seen it yet, and only one player at the PTQ piloted it. He made Top 8, which was cool. Seeing five copies of Black-Green Elves in T8 was also impressive. The fact that it only lost to the mirror was even more impressive.

Casey: Somebody made 2 million mana with Bloom Tender / Umbral Mantle, then declared attackers. Poor guy. : (

Bloom Tender
Umbral Mantle

In a side draft, though, someone attacked with Kathari Bomber, put the triggered ability on the stack, and sacrificed it to Scarland Thrinax. That was new to me, at least... and the first time I've read Kathari Bomber all the way through.

Nicola: You know at this point there is a lot of data on Standard, so I am not sure if there were any very interesting rulings. I do try to speak with the other judges at the event about rulings they have had throughout the day, but overall the day when very smooth. There was a pretty cool mono-white deck that was not exactly a Kithkin deck. I am not certain that it did all that well on the day, but the build looked pretty fun to play with.

Joe: Not really but I had two judges volunteer to work the event with no [compensation], as we were fully staffed. One of them drove three hours to get there.

James: Always good to see someone who can work around the rules! Like a player swinging with a 2/2 Figure of Destiny, having it affected by their opponent's Zealous Persecution, and then "pumping" it again by re-applying the Figure's ability to turn it back into a 2/2. (I like a man who understands his timestamp issues). Also, Mirrorweave was popular in the top tables and used to turn everything into unanimated Mutavaults and therefore halt people's combat phases. "Copy" does not copy a "becomes a creature" effect already activated, although it does have the ability.

BDM: If you could permanently imprint one thing on the mind of PTQ players what would it be?

Joe: Remember to have fun.

James: Don't fill out a deck list looking like your were on horseback, fighting off ninjas, and having a cardiac arrest all at the same time. Write in block capitals if your handwriting is that bad—mine is.

Jason: It's YOUR JOB to (a) keep track of your own stuff, (b) know when the next round's about to start, and (c) fill out your deck list correctly. Take those jobs seriously and accept responsibility for it when you don't.

Nicola: There are a lot of things that I would like to permanently imprint on the minds of PTQ players, but I think perhaps this one might go to writing their name on their deck list. So often I get two or three lists that do not have a name on it and then I have to go through every player to find out who did not write their name on their list. It is very arduous and time consuming process for me and my staff, when the player could have taken the 5 seconds to write their name down. We also do tend to personally remind players who forget not to do so in the future.

Casey: Don't play Howling Mine! But seriously, it probably would be to call a judge as soon as something has gone wrong, not a turn later, not a round later. Too many times in my life I've had to say "I wish you had told me earlier."

Michael: Make sure your deck list is perfect before turning it in. Perfect means: legal, legible, and accurate. Penalties applied for submitting illegal decklists are perhaps the most common, and most avoidable, of all the penalties.

BDM: What would you say to players who have never been to a PTQ before to prepare them for their first experience?

Michael: First, be aware that Magic played at a PTQ is more "by the book" than Magic played around the kitchen table. It's still tons of fun, but its more formal. Also, there aren't any take-backs, so be sure the play that you're about to make is the play you want to make. Finally, arrive early. Registration usually opens an hour before the event is scheduled to start. Show up at the start of registration, and find a judge to talk to. Let them know that it is your first PTQ, and they should be able to explain the basics of things like tournament structure and Competitive Rules Enforcement Level, as well as answering any questions you might have about the day. Judges are there for the players!

Nicola: A PTQ is a different animal than an FNM or other regular REL event. That being said, I think that anyone can have just as much fun (even though some take it more seriously). To the player who is coming to a PTQ for the first time and does not know what to expect, I would tell them to relax and prepare a deck list in advance. If they really want to take the event seriously then I would tell them to talk to other players to get a picture of the metagame. I think the most important thing though would be to relax—there are too many players who take PTQs deadly seriously. I know there is a very serious prize at the end, but the whole point on the day is to have fun. Too often I see players get up and walk away from their match with very angry looks on their faces, and I wonder about the experience they are having and the experience they are giving to other players at the event. If I could, I would guarantee the event to be fun for everyone as much as possible, because Magic is a game and we play games for their entertainment value. Even when there is a serious prize involved I want people to enjoy themselves. That is what I see judges doing for events: maintaining fairness and fun factor.

James: Come early and register. Check if your deck list is legal—or even better, get your friend to do it. Ask a judge if you are unsure of something. Treat each match as an opportunity to make a brand new best friend. Four of the five groomsmen at my wedding were met with this same attitude—Magic friends are for life!

Casey: I'm not really sure what to say here. The best advice I could give would be stolen from many Magic authors before me: don't worry about anything other than the match you're currently playing. Although "pack your own lunch" is a close second.

Jason: The players here are experienced and savvy. Don't be discouraged if you find yourself 0-3 at your first PTQ, and if you find yourself better than 0-3, take that as a sign that you've got real potential. The learning curve from casual player to competitive PTQ player is a steep one, but it's climbed by thousands of people every year. Be patient with yourself, ask questions when you aren't sure (particularly to judges if it involves rules), and learn as much as you can.

Joe: If you ever have that thought in the back of your head that you might want to ask a judge ... you should listen to it.

BDM: As a judge are there any players you especially enjoy watching play, be it at your events or on the PT?

Jason: Not really. There are match-ups (between certain players and/or certain deck types) that often interest me, but I tend to mentally separate players from their play. I find it helps me personally to be impartial. That said, I'm drawn to any player who can be funny, keep his/her game tight, and not be a jerk. That's a pretty rare commodity, particularly as the stakes get higher, but there are some locals that I often find entertaining.

Michael: I enjoy Pat Chapin's play style. I've watched him at several PTs and PTQs. He communicates very well, plays efficiently, and seems to have a sense of humor about the game.

James: At the risk of being a name dropper, I find Patrick Chapin to be "expertly articulate" during a match, which helps to avoid muddled game states and differences of opinion. He does the little things right, like ask "Are those your final blocks?", "Is it the only target?", and "Do you have any effects before combat?" He never assumes; he does his bit to maintain the game state. I've also find that people like Gerry Thompson and Mark Herberholz are very polite and friendly to random questions from strangers.

Nicola: You know, I think I am sort of blessed in my area because we have a wealth of players and a good number of pro players. I enjoy watching some of our professional players play games, though often I best enjoy watching the games at the Vintage events that I judge. We have a good group of guys who consistently come and I enjoy the Vintage format.

Casey: While there aren't specific players I like to watch, I enjoy watching games between players who speak different languages. It's interesting that a game can bring two people from opposite sides of the earth together and have them communicate effectively. Very cool stuff, in my opinion.

BDM: What is your favorite card of all time and why?

James: Gosh! Off the top of my head I'd have to say Careful Study, especially when I used to play it in my Blue-Green Madness decks. If I had an opening hand with at least an Island and Careful Study, I was pretty confident I could play it turn one and sort my opening hand into something that was going to continue the game smoothly.

Butcher Orgg

Casey: This is a tough question. If I had to pin it down to just one, I would have to say Seal of Doom—the first Magic card I ever owned. For what it's worth, Butcher Orgg is a close second, though it's just my favorite card to open and ship in a draft.

Nicola: Favorite card of all time, that is a tough one. If I had to choose from the current Standard pool I would have to say Sower of Temptation. The art and flavor of the card is just amazing. Over all I think I would have to go with Temporal Aperture. I have a copy in my Big Deck (a singleton format that was popular here at one point—I now primarily play EDH when I can). Whenever it hit the board, and I lasted long enough for me to activate, I would get the most random and fun things to play from it. All and all it is a pretty fun card to play with and I get great reaction whenever it hits the board.

Joe: Oubliette, because back in the day no one had an answer for it.

Michael: Autochthon Wurm. Besides being from Ravnica, it's a great Timmy card for building convoluted decks. But mostly, its P/T is my birthday (Sept. 14).

Jason: Lifeline. If only they'd made it cheaper to play. There is and was so much cool stuff it could do. Opponents never knew how to play around it once it got into play. Plus it was a rules headache. Its a Johnny judge's dream card. Close second: Smokestack, 'cause it was also mean.

Meanwhile ...

While 1,500 or so players were slugging it out in the PTQ trenches to make their way to the Pro Tour, the Player of the Year Race hit the halfway mark in Sao Paulo, Brazil. If you have not already checked out the coverage by Bill Stark and Nate Price, you should do so now. If you have not already seen the updated PoY standings then you are not following @MagicProTour on Twitter. The updated standings have been tweeted after every event for the past few weekends. At the end of a four-week run that started in Barcelona then stopped in Seattle and Hawaii before wrapping up in Sao Paulo it would appear that not many Pros made the full trip—no doubt taking some extra time to enjoy the sand and sun of the last Pro Tour stop for some extra days.

I know that Tomoharu Saito and Shuhei Nakamura, among other Japanese players, were crushed to learn on Sunday in Seattle that they needed a visa to proceed to Brazil, which could take weeks to obtain. With Luis Scott-Vargas and Gabriel Nassif passing on the trip, there was not any turnover at the top of the list. With his win in Hawaii, Mitamura has charged from the back of the pack, at 7 points, right into contention with 32—winning a PT will do that for you.

The Rookie of the Year race continues to be lead by players who made their Pro Tour debut in Kyoto, but it should heat up over the summer as Nationals get underway. It could be the difference maker in the Player of the Year race as well, but last year's winner was Aaron Nicastri, who got his point total rolling with his Australian Nationals Team berth. Aaron then traveled around the world in pursuit of points and experience that helped him clinch the title with a finals finish in the Team Competition at Worlds. With so many Pro Tour first timers making their debut through a National team berth I expect this to be the template for future Rookie of the Year races, and I will be eagerly awaiting Nationals results to see who that next breakout player might be.

Firestarter: For the Judges

I am especially curious to hear from any judges out there this week. How did you get started as a judge and what advice would you have for anyone thinking about becoming a Magic judge? For the judges and non-judges alike, I am curious to learn what your favorite card of all time is and why. Head to the forums and share your stories and favorite cards there!

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