Judging at Pro Tour Philadelphia – a contrast of cultures

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I recently had the pleasure of working as a judge at the pro-tour Philadelphia. I am sharing this experience to illustrate the understanding that came to me about the culture shift between judging at the professional circuit and the local circuit of magic events.

I have been a level two judge for over six years. I am happy being a level two, and I have trained new judges and seen them move on to level three while I remain happy at my station. When I went to my first pro tour two years before, I thought that the other judges were just so much more experienced and capable than I was. I felt like a newbie. This time I knew that wasn’t the case. I judge and work a lot of low and mid-level events. While this experience makes me a strong competent judge, the experience does not all translate to pro tour events because they require such a different skill set.

Judging the Pro Tour

Judging at the Pro Tour is characterized by lots of judges, lots of experience, and a focus on issues such as collusion.

For the judges, the pro tour started shortly before 8:00 am on Friday May 6th with a judges meeting. We started by introducing ourselves and talking a little bit about our judging history. The first interesting fact brought to our attention was that five out of the six existing Level 5 judges were in attendance. The joke was made that the sixth Level 5 judge was being held at an undisclosed location along with vice-president Dick Cheney. There were many level four, three and two judges. There were over forty judges present, and at least twice that number had been turned down for sponsorship. As was usual at these events, there were judges from all around the world. We were split up into teams, and briefed on our responsibilities. There were four teams; deck check, slips, pairings and logistics. The higher level judges or WOTC Employees were “floaters.”


The big issue of the tour was to watch for collusion. Players with three match losses would be dropped from the event, with ties counting as losses for both players. It was considered that players who both had two losses would be more likely to collude at the end of the third round where they both faced being eliminated if they drew. We were given some quick guidelines on what to watch out for. . On Saturday morning we had another discussion on collusion. Players are allowed to decide to split prize money. Wizards of the Coast does not get involved in this issue, it is entirely between the players. Player are allowed to concede a game, but they are not allowed to change already completed results. That is, if they play two games, and the result is one game each, one player may concede the third game, and allow the opponent to win 2-1, but not 2-0. The key point was that players are not allowed to concede a game for any real or implied concession, reward, payment or benefit from the other player. An example given was “Would you like to concede, I live at 6040 splitsville street.” It was good for me to learn that the offer itself was sufficient cause to disqualify that player. Previously I had been under the impression that an agreement had to be reached to be a violation.

The match time was extended to 75 minutes per match. Many players took full advantage of the extra play time and carefully considered all mana combinations they could use to cast each spell. This resulted in a number of matches that would end in a tie at the end of the five end of round turns. Players would then start arguing as to who should concede to the other based on who had the best chance of going on. If the players tied, they would split the money on the current round, but two losses and tie is the same as three losses, so both players would be eliminated. Perhaps vigilance paid off here as there were no detected cases of collusion.

Deck Checking

We checked over three hundred deck-lists during the first round and found zero errors. During the course of the first day, all player deck lists were transcribed. Think about that. Every single deck list had to be typed in to a computer by someone. I have transcribed top eight deck lists before and I consider that to be a chore.

Rules Questions

After the decks were checked, we moved out onto the floor to answer questions. There were many more judges than questions so that each judge was asked relatively few questions. I was only asked two interesting questions. The first was an issue about two of the Yosei, the Morning Star coming into play and resolving. The second situation involved another timing issue and questionable conduct. Player A declared his attack of a Isamaru, Hound of Konda equipped with a Umezawa's Jitte. The opponent, O, blocked with Sakura-Tribe Elder, and then sacrificed the elder. The attacker called for a judge, and explained that he wished to play a spell after blockers were declared and had not been given that opportunity. I issued a warning to the opponent for procedural error minor, and backed the game state up. No other actions had been taken, the opponent had not started searching his library yet. I gave player A priority. Player A considered his options for a few seconds, and then passed priority. I considered issuing a warning to player A for un-sportsman like conduct. However, I decided that it was more likely that he did want at least the opportunity to think about casting a spell, more than he was trying to pull a cheap trick on his opponent. Many players are not always sure what they should and should not call a judge over for, especially at high level events. When I discussed this situation with other judges some indicated they would have issued a warning to player A.

After that, the tournament turned into a long stretch of standing with a sore back watching players carefully consider every different mana tapping option as they cast a spell. In a normal swiss event, players who do not know the rules well can continue to engage you the whole day. After three rounds, 12.5% of the players were no longer participating and the number of players continued to drop dramatically each round. By the end of the first day, there were enough judges to watch each table of two matches.

The featured matches and table judging

The second day of the event was mostly more of the same. Fewer and fewer players with more and more judges to watch them. During the day an observer came to me with the suspicion that one of the players in featured match area was receiving signals from one of the spectators. I took the spectator to the head judge and repeat his allegation. This resulted in the head judge assigning a number of judges to sit and watch each of the four feature matches. I was assigned one of these matches and it was the table judging of a feature match that highlighted for me the different judging experience that the Pro Tour offers.

One of the players was a local , the other player was from Japan. Because of the language barrier, neither player spoke much, and many of the Japanese player’s cards were printed in the Japanese language. My job was to sit down in the middle of the match, figure out what was going on, watch the play for rules violations, and not make a fool of myself in front of hundreds of people. Keep in mind this was my second pro tour event, my second time judging a feature match, with two players that aren’t announcing their plays, and are playing fast. At one point, the Japanese player tapped all his lands, and played Godo, Bandit Warlord. He searched his deck and puts Tatsumasa, the Dragon’s Fang into play. He then tapped Godo, attached the equipment to an illusion token that came into play the previous turn, and tapped it. Both players wrote down a six point life total change for the American player and kept going. The Godo was in Japanese, and I’m pretty sure it’s ability does not include attaching equipment. I was unsure if it had haste, but then, it would have been nine damage not six. I already know that I’m not there to annoy the players or interfere with their playing, and certainly don’t want to show that I am clueless to what went on. Those of you who are familiar with the block decks will already know what I then figured out, which is that the Japanese player also had an Honor-Worn Shaku in play. After that I hung on and tried to enjoy the match. At some point the American player put out Tendo ice-bridge but failed to put a token on it. I took a penny out of my pocket and placed it on the ice bridge without saying anything. The player rolled his eyes and made a “Ok, sure, if it matters that much go ahead” gesture and the game continued. Finally the match was over and I was relieved that I hadn’t done anything that would bring large amounts of unwanted attention to myself.

Side events

It is not too long after this that I am sent over to help run side events with a couple other judges. This is the world I am most familiar with, and the contrast between the two cultures is stark.

I may feel a little overwhelmed, slightly intimidated and a little green at the pro tour level, but I am very comfortable, capable and in control at the non-pro tour level. I know the people well that are running side events, I work with them often. I say hello, shake a few hands, and am told the round is just beginning, pick a table. I pick thirteen, and go to collect the decks. When I bring the decks back, there is no place for the judges to deck check. They have to clear space where they can. The sheets aren’t pulled for the decks. We find one, but we can’t locate one of the deck sheets. I give the deck we can check to another judge and get him started. Two other judges have been looking for the list and can’t find it in the accordion file. They’ve looked multiple times in the “C’s” and the “D’s” and are starting to discuss the penalty. I tell them to search the whole file, one starting in the front the other from the back. I pull a middle section. We find it in the J’s. I clear a spot and start sorting the deck when I’m told the other deck is finished. That judge asks if he should take the one player’s deck back or wait. I tell them that the deck check is finished, take both decks and return them to the players.

I feel like I’m home. I walked fifty feet from one side of the room to the other and I went from the newbie sweating a feature match to the experienced team leader with all the answers at his fingertips. The tournament organizer now tells me he has to get a team event going. I start assembling product and find the other judge that came over with me. He’s from South America and his English is much better than my Portuguese. I thought he was a level three with more pro tour experience that I had, but that was okay because this is my environment. I thrive in chaos, he thrives in order. (It turned out later that he was also a Level two judge). We are to set up a team event on the other side of the hall where we now have space. There are no table numbers set up. I pick an area and clear out the casual players. Teams are already showing up wanting to know where to sit. More teams arrive, I expand my area and find more chairs so that we can sit six at a table instead of the four the pro tour was seating. When most the people are seated, I get my judge to start numbering table while I hand out product. I announce that there will be no deck swapping, as I’m pretty sure this will be true and will certainly be true after I announce it. My judge tells me that we should separate the two Japanese teams sitting together as they might collude. I don’t event think about it, “no” I answer, they’re fine. Eventually a team list and deck lists are sent over. I am to find out if each team is present, if there extra un-registered teams sitting down, and if everyone has paid. I am not kidding.

We get the people started opening their product and registering it. Another team shows up. I have extra product, so this is fine. People ask how much time the have. I look at my watch for the first time and give them forty minutes. They say they normally have twenty minutes to register and forty minutes to build. I consider this and give them ten more minutes. Three more teams show up. We expand the area, add more numbers and give every one an extension of time. Now when players ask how much time they have to register I tell them “Plenty.” The distressed look on my other judge’s face tells me this is not how he is used to doing things, but to me this is normal. Tournaments aren’t fixed and rigid, they are dynamic and fluid.

Contrasting the two cultures

  • In a Pro Tour, sitting the players alphabetically saves time for the judges. In a local event, sitting the players alphabetically wastes time because they all have to get back up again and find their round one pairings. We collect the deck sheets during registration.
  • In a Pro Tour, the room is laid out by professional staff complete with electronic equipment, banners, special areas and stages. In a local event, we try to set up the tables before the players arrive and hang banners over mirrors that allow players to see each other’s cards.
  • In a Pro Tour, your knowledge of the rules is paramount, your knowledge of the cards important, and understating of the meta-game helpful. In a local event, your rules knowledge is helpful, your understanding of tournament procedures is important and reading the card before answering the question is paramount.

The division between the judge levels is not meant to be a class division. Being a level 1 judge does not mean you don’t know the rules well. Being a level four judge does not mean you give rulings well. Being a higher-level judge is not synonymous with being a better judge. Being a level 1 judge does not mean you are too inexperienced to work at a pro tour and working at the pro tour does not give you the experience that is the chaos of the local scene, but it’s all Magic and it should all be experienced.

On Sunday, seminars were held for those judges who were not part of the final eight judging. The seminars were interesting and helpful. They covered rules topics, DCI topics, judging situations and philosophy. I made sure I spoke up and contributed to these seminars because I finally understood that I was among equals, regardless of our rules knowledge, judge level, or experience.

I have a recommendation to the judges and Wizards of the Coast staff who manage these pro tour events. Invite judges to observe. Allow judges who would like to observe the culture, proceeding, rulings and situations to observe without obligation or expectation. Allow them to come without the black and white stripes and watch. This would be true of the main event, as well as the final eight. I have never judged a pro tour level top eight, and as long as I happily remain a level two, I probably never will, but there is an opportunity to watch and learn there, and even that will help me be a better level two judge.

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