Dealing with Minor Calls

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Should Players be Calling Judges for Every Little Thing?

When a minor problem happens at a table, players choose to deal with it in different ways. Some choose to solve small issues on their own, because these problems only have a limited impact on the game state. It appears to be quite common at Pro Tours, where players tend to only call the judge when the game is seriously damaged or when a choice to be made isn’t obvious. Others prefer calling as soon as something is wrong, even when it has almost no impact on the game. Most of players are torn between those attitudes and vary from one to the other.

Which is the attitude judges should encourage? Is there a limit that shouldn’t be crossed? If this limit were to be crossed, what would be the right attitude to adopt?

Kevin Desprez, Level 2

Encouraging players to call the judge

I became certified in 2001 and began to head judge tournaments in early 2003. Over the last four years, I have frequently emphasized that players should call a judge every time there is a problem at their table, even for small questions. The reason for that? It is very easy for one player to gain an advantage by repairing a damaged game state without calling a judge. Being involved in the game, the player is by definition biased.

The important thing to keep in mind is that the judge is the only person who is unbiased, therefore the only person able to fix a problem fairly. Explaining this clearly grants the judge the authority required to educate players effectively. This tends to legitimize all calls, whatever the level of disruption.

Furthermore, if the judge is called, the judge is able to check the player hasn’t already made the same mistake earlier in the day. Above all, it’s always more educational to a player if an impartial authority tells him he was wrong and explains to him the reason(s) why.

The case for early intervention

Consider the following situation:
“A player draws the card from his draw step before untapping his permanents. His opponent calls you.”
Is it really disruptive to the game? Probably not. But it’s less a matter of considering the actual situation than anticipating future events that may occur. We should never lose an opportunity to educate people, and to be able to do that we need to be called when something wrong, as slight as it can be, happens.

Let’s imagine the following scenario now:
“After having let his opponent constantly draw before untapping his permanents, a player plays Braids, Cabal Minion. On the turn after, the first thing his opponent does is to draw the card from his draw step, and the player calls you.”
Now you should see why it would have been better had the player called you over as soon as he saw his opponent not following the correct game steps. The probability is high that an explanation of the order of the steps in the Beginning Phase would have prevented the player from making this mistake.

Avoid presenting a mixed message

When arriving at a judge call for a minor problem, it is sometimes very tempting to tell the calling player he should just have reminded his opponent instead of calling the judge. A problem could be that at 10am, the Head Judge would say something like “when something is wrong, calling the judge is the best option you have,” and at 2pm, I would tell a player something like “there’s something wrong, but why did you call me? It’s not wrong enough.”

This behaviour is really dangerous since it can only lead to confusion in players' minds. Some players may respond by not calling a judge, even if the situation requires one to fix. It should not be the player's responsibility to determine whether a problem situation is worth a call or not. As soon as something is wrong in a game players should be encouraged to seek a judge's advice. If we ask players to evaluate by themselves whether a judge is needed or not, we are encouraging them to deal with their problems alone. The main role of judges in a tournament is to help people play correctly and fairly.

Creating players that are afraid of judges or afraid to call judges is not what we want. That’s why judges should educate players to call them, and enforce this education by answering any kind of call in an encouraging manner.

Abusing the judge call

The more experience you get as a judge, the more likely you are to find players calling judges frivolously in order to gain a psychological advantage over their opponent. One important thing to keep in mind is that this behaviour remains rare, or at least rarer than genuine calls.
There is a reference to a related behaviour in the Penalty Guidelines under Unsporting Conduct--Minor: “A player repeatedly and inappropriately demands to a judge that her opponent receive a penalty.” This does quite match our case.

So, what’s the best reaction to have when you have the impression that the player aims to gain an advantage with a judge call? You may not tell the player that he shouldn’t have called you for an insignificant thing, as shown earlier. Rules lawyers generally know how to ask for a penalty without requesting it directly, but just like anything concerning Unsporting Conduct, this is mostly a judgment call about the calling player’s intention. If you think he’s fishing for a penalty, no matter how discrete he is, he may receive the appropriate penalty, which is a Warning at all RELs.If you believe Unsporting Conduct is a problem, your only solution is to investigate the player’s intentions. You cannot afford to have players stop calling you, since you wouldn’t be able to investigate anymore, therefore possibly opening the door to cheating! The more you’re called, the more opportunities you have to educate players, help them play fair games (i.e. whose result is determined by skills and not by penalties), and detect cheating.

To sum up, judges should never let people think they don’t want to handle game issues. If the judge looks like he’s not interested in his tournament, then the player won’t be interested in calling him either. On the contrary, if the judge takes care of every minor situation, players will not hesitate and will call him. The more judges are called, the fewer tricky things may happen in the room. It’s not easy to cheat while authorities look after cheating. It’s better to be called by a rules lawyer who aims to use you than not to be called by a cheater’s opponent. In the first case, you can decide the outcome. In the second, you’re simply unable to uphold the rules.

I would like to thank John Shannon for the discussion we had at PT Atlanta, and the time he spent to help me, both to focus on the subject and to correct my numerous grammar and language mistakes. I would also like to thank Toby Elliot for the final help and proofreading.

Kevin Desprez
DCI Judge Level 2
Lille, France

Please contact Kevin with the Judge Center.

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