US Nationals – Judge Report

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Trekking to Missouri from June 16th to 21st offered me an opportunity to return to one of my favorite events-- US Nationals. I enjoy Nationals because it always seems to be full of stories, and I’m a storyteller at heart. Sure, I like to wrap things in a fluffy coat of “learning” or “improving your judge skills”, but sometimes the story itself is amusement enough. This is the story of my trip to US Nationals 2004.

Thursday I arrived at a large hall that resembled the most annoying Tetris piece. You know the one-- that “z” shaped thing that showed up every time you really wanted an “l”. One half of the “z” hosted the JSS Championship, US Nationals, and the retail booth. The other half held everything else-- three dealers, the artist area, and a sea of tables for side events. Because of the room design, there was almost no sound transfer from one section to another. Booster draft #127 waiting player X would not interrupt Mike Guptil’s announcements at Nationals, and the pattering of 600 or so little feet would not interrupt booster draft #127 replacing player X.

Evidently Guptil’s transportation was delayed seven or so hours. Luckily he had minimal duties Thursday so he spent the day being sick instead. There was some concern that he wouldn’t be able to head judge Nationals starting Friday. Sheldon Menery was on hand should Mike wind up comatose. However, Guptil is the sort that could HJ a Nationals from a gurney if need be. Perhaps he even has.

The midnight grinder had already wrapped by the time I arrived. Its head judge, a bleary-eyed Matt Tabak, shuffled off to bed. I’m pretty sure he offered me his cell number “just in case”-- he did this something like 90 times over the weekend-- but I had plenty of judges-in-training for the upcoming grinders and zombie-Matt was left to slumber. I did make a note for later in case I ever needed a staffer so dedicated he’d work unto the point of becoming undead.

One set of table numbers was already out, so we wound up dropping the first grinder onto those tables. The judges-in-training mentioned earlier were set about churning out product for a limited, 256-person event-- or three. WotC’s side event guy and GP guru Reid Schmadeka suggested we make plenty. The busy little bees made so much sealed product up that we were done for the entire weekend by that morning. Further stocking would consist of repairing the “booster wall” each morning. The booster wall is the, well, the name says it all. Said wall is kept on hand to crank out drafts in quick, machine-like fashion. With the ever talented Lisa and Wendy on hand, and perennially fuzzy programmer Alan Comer not far, my job was infinitely simpler.

The grinders went smoothly this year from a staffing standpoint. Shawn Doherty provided a steady stream of new judges. They got plugged into whichever event was coming up next or wherever a warm body was needed. With nothing else going on except for the grinding, we took over the whole “z”. The first two of the day (#2 and #3, midnight was #1) were in the side event area. Grinders #4 and 5 were in the Nationals and JSS areas. This was irksome for me because those two were beyond where the side event area could see. However, it did let them test out the laptop and printer setups for the next day, and all the judges I sent over there did come back alive.

For drafts and other eight person events, I delegated. On one side of the room, Braden Bowers handled drafts, and Brian Woerth handled everything else on the other side. This allowed me to keep a general view of everything, but it meant the new guys I kept sending to Brian and Braden would get their personal attention and training for running the events and handling calls. It also made life easier for me as the side events manager to know that if I had a question about any of the events or needed a judge to start one, then the appropriate delegate could take the hand-off and go.

Logistically, the side event room itself was a long hall. At the entrance were dealers to the left and artists to the right (and the other half of the “z” further right). Low pipe and drapes designated an area of tables (six footers with three matches per). The tables formed two columns of four tables per row. Overall seating was about 660. Overhead hung three banners per side to provide landmarks. Previously these landmarks were actually illustrated with… lands. The set we had were questionable at best. Personally, I wouldn’t be sad if “Whipstitched Zombie” accidentally got lost between here and the next big event. This might seem excessive, but you say “Whipstitched” 27,597 times in a weekend and you’ll be wishing it was “Karakas” instead.

I decided to make three changes going into the later days. One was minor-- ignoring where the first set of numbers was and putting the first set for the next day out on the left side. This way the hall would fill left to right with the right side being closer to Nationals. The dealer tables blocked off that pipe-and-draped side of the room, so spectators wouldn’t be able to see much. With the first scheduled event being sealed anyway, there’s minimal loss to spectators. The next event would be Standard, and the flip would let more people watch from the pipe-and-draped area near those top tables.

The second change was the most important, and that was flipping the entire room so the scheduled event started away from the registration deck. This is what allowed spectators to watch over the drapes. It also cleared out the area immediately around where the registration desk was. This meant the crowds for pairings wouldn’t be mingling with the crowds for registration. We like to keep our unruly mobs separated.

The last detail had to do with the numbering system. Just because there’s a box of 500 laminated numbers doesn’t mean you’ll actually have more than one set of usable numbers. The first day we tinkered with what we had. Subsequently we took the complete(ish) set that we had and numbered one side of the room (Whipstitched Zombie | Razorfoot Griffin | Stream of Life). The other side (Swelter | Defy Gravity | Questing Phelddagrif) we numbered with what we had. Missing numbers were proxied using paper and tape over the laminated numbers. Amazingly enough there was minimal attrition (1 and 69 being the favorites, a few others).

Because of the live-action Magic on Saturday, the judge dinner was scheduled for Friday. Milano’s is an Italian restaurant near the site, and a cloud of staff walked over after the day was done. Obviously a genius works there, because they had a mini-menu printed up for the dinner. The genius isn’t in the PR warm-fuzzy of the personalized menu; it’s the fact that they list two choices for starter and two for dinner, and then tiramisu for dessert. No matter how decisive judges are on the floor, give them a menu, and they’ll be conferring for thirty minutes before getting a ruling over what’s for dinner. No appeals were made to the head waiter. I think I’ve figured out how Andy Heckt stays skinny. He was raised by hummingbirds. Yes, every time I saw him try to eat, he’d take maybe one bite, and then he’d flitter off to talk with some judges, or say hello to more judges. I wondered if we’d break him, but at one point I heard him saying he doesn’t get enough chances to meet his judges so he makes the most of the chances he gets. That attitude plus the hummingbird metabolism explains a lot.

Saturday was relatively quiet. While I don’t have actual numbers, I understand attendance was on the upper side of average. Having staff already whipped into a zealous frenzy means average is easy. I imagine that when Nationals is in cities that pull a more family themed crowd (~drop Timmy off at the JSS and let’s go to attraction X!~) , then the related attendances will jump, too. As I understand it, Nationals is actually going to tour the nation over the next years.

Actually, Saturday wasn’t entirely quiet. It seems that Guptil was generous enough to share his bug, and I was nice enough to host it. Saturday was punctuated with the occasional sniffles as I fought and lost the cold war. The Sunday breakfast buffet consisted of about a half dozen medications-- mostly from the hotel lobby store. I arrived, once again, much earlier than I’d like on Sunday morning. Between sniffles I scanned the room for what needed doing. A muffin helped sort out the civil war the pill-based breakfast had started, and a floor judge arrived. I gave the judge instructions and waited for the armistice to settle into my bloodstream. By the time Shawn Doherty was debriefed about the day’s operations, the battlefield was set. I left him at the helm and took myself over to the Nationals area. As is, I might not have been able to feel my hands or feet, but I could still sit upright and conduct judge interviews.

The L3 interview process is a tool. The one thing it measures is the ability of a person to fit into the expert judge system. The peg and hole configuration is never the same, so there’s no simple answer for what it takes to succeed. If it’s your interview, you can bet that you’re the least prepared and least knowledgeable person there. After all, you’re trying to climb a hill and the interviewers are at the top.

There are a few simple steps to make your climb easier: 1) No one there is “out to get you”. If you’re awful, you wouldn’t be there in the first place, so relax. 2) No one there is your buddy. They might respect you and like you, but when it comes to the interview, it’s pure business. If there’s role playing or direct questioning, play it straight. Turning the screws or lightening up is all part of the process. 3) Don’t play the game. The people you’re facing probably know much more than you do about spotting shenanigans and actors. Be yourself and answer the questions naturally or they’ll know. 4) Listen to the advice they offer. It’s not often you’ll have so many expert judges focused on giving your tailored advice. Pass or fail, use that advice that get better.

That’s all for now.
And of course, congratulations to Chris Richter for reaching L3!

John Carter,

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