We're here in Lords Week and I am thrilled for this opportunity to tell you a bit about the group I have the distinct pleasure of helping lead. We might not have the cult following of Merfolk or the pop-icon status of Vampires, but we've been around almost as long as Magic itself, and we play a critical role in what we can all agree is the greatest game ever created. This group is the more than 2,600 certified judges around the world who together make up the Magic Judge Program.
My name is Lems, and I'm a Level 5 Magic Judge. We'll talk about judge levels in a bit, but for now, what's important is that—in the interest of staying in line with this week's theme—I'm essentially a Judge Lord. While I don't exactly increase other judges' power or toughness, nor give them flying, I certainly try to aid them in achieving their goals of helping create the best Magic experience possible for millions of players—including you.
What is a Magic Judge?
Simply put, a Magic Judge is a Magic player who, armed with knowledge of game rules and tournament policies, helps improve Magic environments by supporting events and acting as a resource for the community. During tournaments, judges pair players, handle match results, and answer rules and other questions from players. Some judges are game-store owners or employees, while most are just players who strive to bring out the best in Magic for themselves, their friends, and their fellow players. Not all judges are certified, but the process is relatively painless, quite a bit of fun, and comes with a heap of benefits, so interested players are urged to find out if certification is right for them.
The network of Magic Judges spans the world and is growing every week. So how does such a large group stay organized and continue to thrive while constantly serving more events and players? The answer is a combination of a careful division of roles and responsibilities and a tight-knit group of leaders paving the way. It would be almost impossible to talk about judges without talking about judge levels, so let's get right to it and talk about those a bit as I share just a little of the six-year story that brought me to being a Level 5 "Judge Lord."
Level 1—Local Judge
A vast majority (about 80%) of certified Magic Judges are Level 1, or Local Judges. They help oversee small tournaments, such as Friday Night Magic, that usually occur in local game stores, and can also support larger Competitive Level events as floor judges. They have a solid grasp of Magic game rules and tournament rules and structure, and they—along with the Wizards Play Network (WPN) and retailers—help create and foster great Magic environments.
Judge of Currents | Art by Dan Scott
Since most of these events are run at Regular, Level 1 Rules Enforcement Level (REL), with a focus on having fun instead of big prizes, these judges are actually allowed and even encouraged to play in most of the events they help organize. Certifying as a Level 1 Judge doesn't involve giving up your ability or opportunities to play Magic. What it does do is plug you into a network of like-minded individuals with a shared passion for Magic. If you've ever asked judges anything, you probably know how eager they are to help. Imagine having access to thousands of them!
Flashback to 2005—I was pretty fresh out of college and living in Madison, WI, which, as luck would have it, has long been a staple of high-level Magic. I just missed the days of Bob Maher, but found myself drafting regularly with the likes of Adrian Sullivan and Michael Hron. And eventually I found myself trying my hand on the PTQ scene.
Like many judges, our resident judge (now Level 4, Chris Richter) was simply a huge asset to our Magic community, and offered me a ride to an upcoming PTQ. I had to decline, citing that I only played Limited. (Fun Fact: Despite being ranked in the top 100 Limited players in the world at one time, I've never played a sanctioned Constructed match in my life.) Chris countered with "Wanna judge it, then?" I had never really considered judging before, but when I actually took a minute to think about it, it sounded like a great idea. I could spend the Saturday at a big Magic tournament, surrounded by my friends, watching hundreds of games of awesome Magic... and leave with a stack of booster packs? How could I turn that down! Obviously, I didn't, and after helping out at a couple PTQs, I took a surprisingly fun rules test and became a certified Level 1 Judge.
Tatsurou Iwakura, level 1 judge in Japan
After six years and hundreds of judge calls, there's no way I could possibly remember them all. However, my first judge call is one I'll never forget. Ravnica had just come out and it took all of two minutes into the event before my roommate, of all people, put the card for his Dark Confidant directly into his hand without first revealing it, making my first official ruling being penalizing my own roommate with a game loss. Awkward. As it turns out, issuing game losses ends up being quite the rarity, and, as a judge, you get to help tons of players for every penalty you end up having to give out.
While being a Level 1 Judge felt great, I knew almost immediately that I wanted more...
Level 2—Area Judge
Judges who are looking for more and larger tournaments than can be found at their local store can become Level 2, or Area Judges. They are willing to travel to help improve tournaments and grow Magic communities. Level 2 Judges mentor and train other judges, and can test new judges for Level 1. They are fluent in Competitive REL policy, and form the backbone of the Grand Prix circuit.
Venerated Teacher | Art by Greg Staples
My timing with getting into judging couldn't have been better, as Madison was just about to get its first Grand Prix! Luckily for me, the format was Constructed, so the decision to judge it was simple. However, there was one small problem: at the time, the DCI really preferred Level 2 Judges to work their Grand Prix events. I asked to get on staff and promised I'd pass my Level 2 test before the event. Sure enough, I passed my Level 2 Judge exam literally the day before the Grand Prix and was rewarded with a weekend with up close and personal views of some incredible Magic.
The first ruling I made at a Grand Prix is another one I'll never forget, and it just so happens that it involved Dark Confidant again (the actual card, although Bob Maher himself did play in the event as well). However, what I remember about this ruling is actually the subtle behavior of a more senior judge. He casually observed me taking the judge call, to ensure I handled it properly and so we could talk about it afterwards. Seeing me handle the call correctly, he flashed me a simple thumbs-up as we left the table to watch more matches. It was a simple act of shadowing a judge call, but it really opened my eyes to the fact that judges have each others' backs and are constantly looking out for one another to help them do their best—an attitude which extends far beyond rulings or even tournaments.
Raven Fox, level 2 judge in the United States
Being a Level 2 Judge was great. I kept a balance of judging Constructed events while battling whenever the format was Sealed Deck. I helped teach some of my friends about judging events, and we had an absolute blast working tournaments together. Eventually, I got to Head Judge my first PTQ and even got flown to Spain to judge Pro Tour Valencia.
In 2006, I was brought down to Pro Tour Charleston to help run Public Events. Slated for a night shift on Friday, I jumped into the Sealed PTQ in the morning. Two rounds and two wins in, I had a great feeling about the day and told my boss I might not be able to work that night, as I was about to win that PTQ. Well, I was right, and this Level 2 Judge was bound for Japan! (where, in case you were wondering, I made Day Two, but was a win shy of qualifying for the next Pro Tour)
While being a Level 2 Judge was a fantastic couple of years, I felt ready to get even more involved...
Level 3—Regional Judge
Level 3 Judges are Regional Judges and are the leaders of organized play and judge communities in their regions. They are recognized and respected judges with expert rules knowledge and a solid understanding of tournament policies and philosophies. Level 3 Judges also test judges for Level 2 and lead projects in the Judge Program that go beyond any individual event. Level 3 Judges often head-judge Pro Tour Qualifiers, lead teams of judges at Grand Prix events, and make up the bulk of the judging staff at Pro Tours.
Garruk's Packleader | Art by Nils Hamm
Less than 5% of judges will ever reach Level 3, and their knowledge, skills, and dedication to running great Magic events is incredibly commendable. Some Level 3 Judges also lead some really important parts of the program. For example, Brian Schenck manages the content for our judge tests and Eric Shukan leads the Investigations Committee, which handles disqualification investigations and other reports of player misconduct.
In 2008, I tested for Level 3 at Pro Tour Hollywood—my sixth Pro Tour. This consisted of a grueling rules test (yes, grueling even for people who have made knowing and understanding Magic rules a serious hobby) followed by a somehow even more grueling interview process in front of a panel of some of the most senior judges in the program.
Because these judges are so tuned into their regions, some of them are actually granted the title of regional coordinator. Regional coordinators are twenty-five special judges spread out across the globe who know the judges, stores, and Magic scene in their part of the world better than anyone, and will either help you directly or get you in touch with someone who can. If you have questions about judging or organized play in your region, your regional coordinator is a great place to start. You can view a list of regional coordinators here.
Johanna Virtanen, level 3 judge in Finland
As a Level 3 Judge, I started getting much more involved in the behind-the-scenes work of the Judge Program: giving seminars, helping refine policies, and pioneering the Magic Online Judge Open (an annual free Magic Online tournament open only to certified judges). I'd also be remiss to not at least mention getting to be a judge on the maiden voyage of the Magic Cruise.
Judges of Levels 1–3 make up more than 99% of the certified judges in the world, and the last two levels are reserved for the small group of program leaders who have taken on the huge responsibility of actually running such a complex organization. Unlike the other levels, Levels 4 and 5 have no actual rules test or formal application or interview process; a judge's entire career is essentially his or her resume for consideration of reaching these esteemed levels.
Level 4—International Judge
Level 4 Judges are International Judges who have consistently demonstrated the ability to effectively lead judges both in the context of large tournaments as well as in other program activities. They are incredibly trusted and respected and have a proven track record of excellence in everything they do.
Due Respect | Art by James Ryman
The nine Level 4 Judges are most often seen donning the special red judge shirts worn while head-judging Grand Prix events. These events are massive tournaments that can attract more than two thousand players and be served with a staff of up to eighty judges. Extensive experience, superior organization skills, and months of planning are required for a successful Grand Prix.
Beyond "just" running tournaments of such an incredible size, Level 4 judges also lead substantial initiatives within the program. For example, Damian Hiller, from Argentina, heads our Judge Conferences; Jeff Morrow, from Oakland, is the man behind Level 3 Judge testing; and Carlos Ho, from Madrid, oversees the program's efforts to recognize and reward judges for their work. These judges rely on help and input from judges of every level in the program in order to accomplish their goals and work closely with the Level 5 Judges.
James Mackay, level 4 judge in Austrailia
After being promoted to Level 4, I led the program's outreach efforts, helping extend the Judge Program's resources and experiences to players, tournaments organizers, and stores. We started a daily rules tip blog (with matching Twitter feed), established judge booths at Grand Prix events to talk with players, and set up a way to make sure anyone who wanted help from a judge could get an answer immediately.
After almost two years of head-judging Grand Prix events, several Pro Tours, a ton of frequent flyer miles, and countless hours of hard work, I was offered Level 5 at the 2011 Magic World Championships.
Level 5—Professional Judge
Level 5 Judges are Professional Judges who have demonstrated their natural alignment with the goals and ideals of the program, and who have shown a capacity to shape the organization in the face of new challenges. They are called on to head-judge Pro Tours, World Championships, and Grand Prix events.
Elspeth Tirel | Art by Michael Komarck
So, what else does a Level 5 Judge do? As little as possible!
You try not to send your Cemetery Reaper into the red zone when it could hang back, pump your Zombies, and even make more of them, right? The same is true for us. Whenever we can, we try to give opportunities and responsibilities to other judges, along with the tools and direction to help them succeed. We delegate, supervise, and offer support to judges of every level and from everywhere Magic is played.
At the same time, there's little reason to give a Drogskol Captain flying if he's not going to use it, and that's true of our abilities as well. In practice, we have our hands in pretty much everything going on in the community, and with more than 2,600 members... there's a LOT going on! There are groups of judges who work on translating documents, record and share best practices for running events, refine tournament policies, do graphic design work, build websites, write rules exam questions, and so much more. On any given day, we'll make decisions about broad strategies (such as how to best utilize an international mailing list or get more judges in underserved regions) as well as debate finer details of policy ("Wait... can we make that trigger go on the bottom of the stack, instead?") and everything in between.
While leading anything can be fun, I don't really think I'd care to be in charge of Mindless Nulls or buffoons. However, Magic Judges are some of the brightest, most hard-working, and all-around amazing people in the world, and it is an absolute pleasure and honor to serve as their "judge lord."
Toby Elliot, level 5 judge in the United States
Want to Learn More?
For more information on becoming a certified Magic Judge or getting more involved in Organized Play, a great first step is just talking to the judges you probably already know. Ask them about their experiences and any other questions about judging you might have. If you don't know a local judge, or don't know how to get in touch with one, drop a line to your regional coordinator.
Gather the Townsfolk | Art by Dan Scott
If you just want to give your rules knowledge a test first, be sure to check out the rules advisor program—a way for Wizards and the DCI to officially recognize those players who've mastered the rules but haven't yet ventured into helping with events.
Lastly, if you just prefer some more light reading material, you can browse the Wizards Judge Site or the judge-maintained wiki.
It doesn't matter if you're just looking to make FNM as fun as possible or dream of judging feature matches on the Pro Tour, if you're passionate about Magic and amazing Magic events, then there's a place in the judge program for you.