You know the rules, but do you know how to judge?

Posted in NEWS on December 7, 2015

By Wizards of the Coast

Kendall Redburn

There are many facets to being a judge for the DCI. Rules knowledge gets the most attention. It's what we are tested for, both by the DCI and each other. How good a judge you are is often considered to be based upon how well you know the rules. However, there are other less directly measurable aspects to judging which are equally important, but don't receive the same attention as rules that can be memorized.

Organization - a shared responsibility:

Players view everyone who is not playing as a unified group of people known as "them." Because of this onus, we judges share the responsibilities of the organizer to make the tournament as pleasant as possible for the players. This means we help keep the play area clean, move tables and chairs, hand out paper, pens, registration sheets, collect decks and many other tasks. While these tasks are not covered in the rules, they are the minutia that makes the tournament work.

Judges are the primary interface between the tournament event and the players. The management skills that we bring to the event can be more important than our rules knowledge. If you can't get the event started, you won't need to make any rulings, so while you are learning how to judge, make sure you learn management skills as well. Learn to identify what you can do to help smooth the flow of the tournament. Can you run the computer? Do pairings need to be posted? Can you help collect deck registrations? Do more tables need to be set up? Don't just stand around and wait for someone to tell you what to do. Be proactive.

Roles - Level of judge and type of event:

There are five levels of judge that can be at a tournament. These are level 1 through four, and Judgeling - a non-judge helper or very fresh level 1. Each of these people has a different role in an event. The head judge, usually a level 4 or 3, has two roles. One is be the final arbiter of the rules, and the other is mentor. The rulings that a head judge are going to be asked to make are the tough, messy situations that are too hot for the other judges to handle. When players can't agree on whether or not they rolled the die, when cheating is suspected, when Madness is used in the discard step to open up a stack after cleanup has occurred. When the situation calls for the most experienced judge to take the heat - that goes to the head judge. Fortunately, these situations are rare and leave the head judge free for his or her most important role of mentor.

The head judge is responsible for the conduct of all other judges, and is responsible for their development and progression as judges. As we judge, we make mistakes. The head judge protects us from the players, supports us in our role, and guides us in our leaning process. He or she acts as the moral authority for the event. Judges can and do get involved in horseplay, have players as friends, and bring other agenda's to the event, such as trading or buying cards. It is the head judge's responsibility to see that all other judges behave in a consistent and proper manner throughout the event, while at the same time, teaching. We as judges learn the rules by applying them. We are called to a situation by the players. There will be situations that we have handled many times before, and situations we are encountering for the first time. It is the first time encounters where we learn, and the head judge that makes sure we learn the lesson right.

Judges on the floor who are level 2 or 3 have a different role. They are resources, both for the players and each other. The highest level floor judge makes rulings as needed, but always defers to lower level judges when they are available. Lower level judges need the most experience, and should be doing the bulk of the rulings. The higher level judges serve as a resource for them. The best judges understand that they are teachers - and teaching is a skill that is learned through practice. A higher level floor judge should observe the lower level judges and not interfere. The optimal scenario is to observe the situation, and interact as little as possible to fully understand the questions and formulate a response. Then let the lower judge handle the situation without input. Every judge knows what rules they are sure of, and which ones they are unclear of, and are occasionally correct in these assessments. The higher level judge lets the others make the mistakes, for that is how we learn, and then confers with the other judge in private, allowing the ruling judge to correct his or herself. The cardinal rule is that only one judge should make the ruling. The lower judge always has the option of deferring the ruling. The other judges should not get involved unless asked.

Level 1 judges have the simplest role of all. To learn, act, and to be the grease that keeps the event running smoothly. These judges do the bulk of the work in a tournament. They provide all the direct player assistance and are often more laborer than judge. This is where the learning begins. Sorting and checking deck registration sheets, handing out reporting slips, and answering all the odd questions players have as the judge walks by are the minutia of learning the judge's craft. Level 1 judges need to be up walking the floor of a tournament where their learning will take place. As to keeping the event going, knowing the rules well will help here most. By knowing the correct rules and penalty guidelines, most situations can be quickly resolved. The number one question asked most frequently by players is "How much time is left in the round?" Wear a watch.

As a level 2 judge, I occupy an in-between position. At the regular monthly local events, my organization experience counts most. I know the players, how the event will progress and what role everyone around me will have. At a Grand Prix or Pro Tour, I am back at the bottom, where others are watching and gauging my abilities while directing me. Recently at a high level event I was on the floor and responded to a call for "Judge!" I listened while the player explained the situation. I always let one player explain the situation first and then give the other player a chance to add or subtract or agree (rather than letting both players talk simultaneously). In this case, both players agreed on where they disagreed about the rules. While I was reading the card in question, a higher level judge came up and "took control" (without being called). The higher judge made the ruling. I had listened, and knew how to explain the situation to the player back in the terms I had heard, but I was no longer participating. The reason I mention this incident is that I am sure other Level 1 and Level 2 judges have experienced the same thing and have felt the same frustration that I did. Many head judges miss the pleasure of interacting with the players, and will cover the floor. However, when the higher level judges take control they deprive the lower level judges of important learning experiences. They will have plenty of opportunity to make the tough rulings, and all other opportunities should be given to the lower judges. Also this type of interference can lower the credibility of the lower level judges in front of the players.


Judges must have presence of authority. They must use that authority to keep the event in control. There are always players with bad attitudes who will lie, cheat, mislead, obfuscate, impede, interfere and otherwise make the job of judging a nightmare. Judges may tell players to leave an area, behave, clean up trash, (theirs and others), be quiet, cease arguing, and any other action that they deem appropriate. It is an essential part of judging. Many starting judges are unsure of their authority over players, are non-confrontational people, and are hesitant to exhibit control and authority over people. Some players will attempt to take advantage of judges who are unsure of themselves. This creates difficulty and chaos in the tournament. Judges are to be in control, and sure of their right to direct others, regardless of their level of experience and rules knowledge.

This understanding came to me in a dispute over trash. Several players came to me and told me the table they had been assigned to was full of trash, and they had seen the people leave it there. They pointed out the main offender. I went over to the young man and asked if he had left trash on the table. He looked straight at me and said an emphatic no! My first thought was "You didn't even look!" I asked again, and received a second no. I let the matter drop and helped the players clean up the mess. When I discussed the incident with another judge, I was told I should have stood my ground, and issued a penalty to the player who I felt had left the trash. I don't ever like making threats to players, and "Clean up the trash or you will get a game loss" is a threat. So I backed down. I was wrong to do so. I should have trusted my instincts, trusted my authority and understood that I would have been supported in my decision. Next time I will know better.

Kendall Redburn