Price of Progress: Judging Opportunities for New Judges

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I realize a lament for the loss of the PTQ system is not only absurdly late but perhaps unnecessary. No more need to find venues for large and unpredictable attendances, travel long distances to play, or feel like you missed your shot at the Pro Tour because your area had no PTQs. But I also miss the mini-convention atmosphere and, more importantly, the chance to work with senior judges closely enough to learn from them.

While the PPTQ/RPTQ system has allowed many stores to be part of the Pro Tour dream, it also has greatly reduced the number of Magic events that require a true team of judges. I cut my teeth as a judge in those events. 100-400 player PTQs and Competitive REL large prize tournaments run in halls built a sense of camaraderie for the staff and a sense of accomplishment when they were over. I accumulated all of my experience towards my L2 at these types of events. I never officiated at a GP until after I was an L2. I now look at the landscape for up-and-coming judges and wonder how they will get the experience to progress, both for their sake and for the sake of the communities they serve.

The advent of the PPTQ system has reduced opportunities for Level 1 Judges. In areas with a high concentration of stores, such as here in Toronto, Grand Prix Trials have become less common; barring a particularly close GP, players prefer a chance at the Pro Tour to two GP byes (previously three byes, another recent change). The major difference for judges is that PPTQs require a Level 2 Judge and do not always have enough attendance or budget to warrant additional floor judges. This, combined with the loss of traditional PTQs, leaves many judges possibly without frequent opportunities to judge at Competitive REL, especially opportunities to work closely with a more experienced judge at Competitive.

No one is served by having a judge’s first experience with Competitive REL be solo judging a GPT or feeling completely out of their element at a busy Grand Prix. Yet judges without comp REL experience may not be readily accepted to events like Opens or WMCQs. Not only that, but many newer judges at GPs will be assigned to side events or on-demands, which typically don’t develop a judge’s skills in competitive REL settings. I don’t think that is an acceptable way to leave things, so here are ways we can address it.

#1 Judges need to up their game.

I believe that we should be asking more of our judge candidates before we certify them. This is mostly relevant to L2+ judges, but it should also be considered if you are looking to become a judge. The bare minimum standards should be looked at as just that – the bare minimum, not the acceptable standard for new judges. We need to create more capable Level 1 Judges out of the gate. While the technical requirements for a L1 Judge specifically do not require competency at Comp REL, I strongly recommend mentoring candidates in it anyways. If your judge candidate was to work their next event with someone other than yourself, would disaster strike, or would they be able to carry their own? The time spent teaching and training a judge before certifying them is a very formative stage of a judge’s career and is the best time to introduce many concepts before judges start building (bad) habits.

Many outside the Judge Program, such as smaller tournament organizers, may not be aware that not all L1s are equal in capability. A new local store could certainly fall into the trap of thinking that since a GPT requires a L1 judge to preside over it, clearly at minimum all L1 judges must be able to run a GPT. It is a horrible experience to become a judge, sign up to assist with an event out of an eagerness to help, and then find out that the skills that got you certified leave you unable to run an event at Competitive REL to the standard you would like. Similarly, Grand Prix can be a flurry of activity that leaves little time for mentorship, and with so many judges on hand it is possible for issues to be covered so that deficiencies in single judges aren’t apparent. While that is good for the event, it makes it hard to highlight areas for judges to improve.

Things like the role of a Floor Judge vs a Head Judge, how to fill out a penalty on a match slip, and the difference between taking a call at regular REL vs competitive REL are important lessons that can be taught a short period of time but that are not specifically covered in the L1 requirements. Be sure to give your padawan the skills to have a good experience next time they judge an event, which could be at Competitive or Regular REL, not just pass a rules test.

#2 TO’s need to invest in their communities’ futures.

More tournament organizers need to take a hard look at the events they run and consider if they need a judge. Many stores run events with big prizes, or events with a large number of personal friends or staff playing in the event. Adding an outside judge can be a great way to boost players’ confidence in the fairness of events. It is also a great way to alleviate stress on store staff during large events such as Prereleases. An outside judge brings a fresh perspective to events, possibly improving your future events with some advice and experience. At the same time you get to invest in the local community and your player base will be stronger for it.

For example, at Face to Face Games Toronto, our weekly Sunday Showdown features a $1k prize pool, and it is not uncommon for our staff members to play in the event on their days off. While we have more than enough certified judges on staff to run the event, we make a point of getting L1 judges to come and help facilitate the events to provide impartiality, allow staff to focus on the business of the store, and simply to give local L1 judges opportunities to judge more frequently. This lets us run a better event while not taking away from the store operations, reducing the need to sacrifice service in other areas just because a large magic event is happening. Many of the judges we have staffed have been able to receive feedback on their work and improve. A couple are even looking to test for L2.

Not only that, but sometimes just having a judge isn’t enough. Are you providing mentoring opportunities for senior judges to pass on skills to newer judges? Just because your event can run by a single judge doesn’t mean it should be. Judges need to take breaks and simultaneous judge calls often happen. When staffing a more experienced judge for an event, ask the judge if they know someone who needs some experience. Perhaps they have a candidate they are helping to become a judge, or know of a newly minted L1 who is eager for experience. Providing space for a senior judge to mentor and grow another judge really helps facilitate passing of knowledge. There are many things I have encountered in mentoring new judges and judge candidates that would not have occurred to me in an interview or teaching session, small efficiencies such as ways to phrase things when giving out a ruling or the fastest ways to sort decks for a check. I’m glad for the chance to share skills with people I’m working with, but currently these types of opportunities are few and far between.

#3 Players need to demand more from events
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As a player, I understand that much of this feels beyond players’ control. But we shouldn’t just leave it at that. If you have ever received an incorrect ruling, or had a judge treat you in a manner you didn’t like, you have a vested interest in the development of judges in your area. Ask more of your local events. Ask for them to be run to a higher standard. If you’re concerned about cheating in your area, or a bunch of events with big prizes are being run fast and loose, make your concerns heard. By raising the bar for events we encourage judges to grow and meet those expectations instead of accepting the status quo.

Bringing in a fresh perspective to your regular events could bring great improvements you didn’t know were possible. For example, most players tend not to notice round turnover — the time between the end of one tournament round and the start of the next — until it reaches 15-20 minutes. But perhaps there is a simple way to shave 5 minutes off turnover each round that the outside judge knows how to do from being taught at a different event by a different judge. We all benefit from having experienced judges running events, so if you see an opportunity for a judge to gain experience, mention it to the TO.

How do you do this? Even something as simple as telling a tournament organizer ‘it would make me more comfortable when your staff play in big events if we had an outside judge’ can help nudge a TO in the right direction. Good TOs listen to their customer base, but may not have the time to consider the broader applications of developing local judge talent. Bring it to their attention — perhaps link them to this article? 🙂

Do you have an idea on how to develop new and inexperienced judges? Feel free to drop me a line on Judge Apps or Facebook. Do you know a judge in the Toronto area looking for experience? Send them my way! Outside Toronto? Every area that has Magic events has a Regional Coordinator for judges who’s responsible for helping develop judges in that area. I’ll happily help you get in touch.

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