How to survive a Level 3 test

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The Level 3 test is supposed to be the toughest thing a judge will ever have to do during his or her career. In this article I will tell you about my test, which took place at Worlds 2004 in San Francisco. Hopefully it will be useful for judges who want to take the Level 3 test at some point.

I guess a few words about my background are in order. I live in Finland, near Helsinki. I became a judge in 1999. I judged local events and eventually started going to Grand Prix tournaments and even Pro Tours. For a long time, Finland didn’t have a L3 judge, and at some point I decided that I wanted to work towards that goal. My friend and partner Pasi Virtanen achieved L3 at PT New Orleans 2003, but I didn’t see that as a reason to abandon my plans. When the time came to apply for sponsorship to Worlds 2004, I felt that I was ready. I had enough experience and the necessary recommendations. I applied and was accepted.

As you probably know, the Level 3 test consists of a written examination and an interview with a team of high-level judges. The written exam is in the same format as the test for Level 1 and Level 2: multiple choice and true/false questions – but of course they are more difficult than the lower level versions. The interview is the most important part of the testing process, but if you fail the written exam, you most likely won’t get a chance to be interviewed. Knowing the basic stuff, the rules of Magic and the rules of the DCI, and extensive judging experience are the requirements.

I was scheduled to take the written exam on the first day of the event. There were an unusually high number of L3 candidates at Worlds, and I sat down for the exam with four other candidates. I had a plan:

  1. Relax
  2. Read every question carefully, then read the answer options one by one to determine which one is correct
  3. Take the test twice: first on scrap paper, then on the answer sheet, comparing the answers.
  4. Pay no attention to the other candidates, even if they finish much faster
  5. Relax.

I am happy to report that this plan worked. The test was easier than I expected – difficult, but not horribly so. When I finished I was confident that I would get a passing score. And so I did – I scored 88%, which was well over the passing grade. Some of my mistakes were questions that I could have answered correctly had I just read the question more carefully, but some of them were things that I just didn’t know. I discovered that there’s an area of the rules that I just don’t know well enough. My perfectionist side wasn’t content with 88, but the rest of me was happy because 88 is good enough for an interview.

However, very soon all of me got very worried about the interview. I knew how to prepare for the written test: I read all the relevant documents multiple times and practised with the Delphi tests. Preparing for the interview is not that simple. I knew that there would be role-playing (which was my biggest worry), but other than that I didn’t really know what to expect. I don’t enjoy being in unfamiliar situations, but they are impossible to avoid.

On day 2 of Worlds I was assigned as leader of the Logistics team and at the end of the day Andy Heckt asked me to show up at 3 pm the next day for my interview. Three hours was supposed to be more than enough for my interview so I could report for side events duty at 6 pm. A typical Level 3 interview takes about 2.5 hours. Mine was almost four hours.

My interview team consisted of Justus Rönnau, Collin Jackson and John Carter (we started the interview with Sheldon Menery, but he was replaced with John). Andy Heckt was also present for most of the interview. Justus was one of the judges who recommended me for Level 3. I had worked with him at several GPs and he was the one who knew me best. I’d met Collin twice before, but we had not really worked closely together. I had never met John before and I don’t think I had even spoken to him before we sat down for the interview.

The interview started with Justus, Collin and Sheldon asking me some general philosophy questions – why I wanted to be a Level 3 judge, for example. Some of the questions I had expected and others were less predictable (and perhaps less relevant – I think I made a promise to go skydiving with Collin sometime).

You can probably assume that your interview team is going to have someone who knows you relatively well, and someone who perhaps doesn’t know you at all. Still, your team will know things about you. They will do their homework. Every candidate has a different set of weaknesses and strengths, and the interview will be different for each candidate.

It’s important to be aware of your strengths and weaknesses. It’s good to know that you’re good at something, but it’s even better to know that you’re bad at something, because then you can try to improve and overcome your problems, or step out when you know that you can’t handle something. Be prepared to discuss your weak points during your interview. Don’t assume that you don’t have any. Nobody is that perfect.

One of my problems is that I’m not a very talkative person. This is partly a cultural thing. Finnish people are much more comfortable with silence than some other nations. We judges spend a great deal of time talking to each other, in teams meetings or other situations, and I’m usually not the loudest participant in these conversations. My team leaders and other senior judges have often told me to “talk more”. This problem was discussed during my interview and I tried to show my interviewers that I could conquer this problem and be talkative when talk is needed. Know your flaws and know how to fight them, even though it’s not always easy.

My team took a break to discuss how to proceed, while I nervously wandered around the main event area. They took many such breaks, some of them very long, because this wasn’t easy for them either. The next part of my interview was the worst part.

Yes, it was time for role-playing. Not the kind with dice, saving throws and dragons, but the kind where you have to fight your way out of a messy tournament situation and the sadistic game master keeps throwing more nasty stuff at you. Looking back, the problem I had to solve wasn’t that bad, but I was really uncomfortable with the artificialness of the whole thing. I had feared that I would just freeze and not know what to do, and that’s exactly what happened. I wasn’t sure if I was doing the right thing, so I didn’t want to do anything. I just wanted out, but the friendly interview team wasn’t about to let me go. So eventually I realized that I had to do something, because even a fake tournament can’t just stop and wait while the fake head judge is having a bad day and wishing for a quick change of zone. I know that this kind of thing would never happen to me at a real event. At real events I am rarely under this kind of pressure.

After a nice long break we discussed what had happened. They didn’t dismiss me right away, and had some good things to say about my performance. How to fix the “main problem” of the scenario was not the only answer they were looking for, and I was relieved to find out that some of my good answers to the other “questions” were things that I really didn’t have to think about.

The interview continued with more questions about my opinions and philosophy. We also discussed the Finnish Magic community and my position in it. The interviewers want to hear your opinions about certain policy issues. Here is the advice given to me by every single L3 judge that I spoke to before the interview: don’t try to give them the answer you think they want to hear. Remember this also during your role-playing scenarios. Don’t look too hard for the answer you think they want you to find. Give them YOUR opinion. This is the advice given to me by some judges: have opinions. They must be your opinions so that you can defend them if necessary. But don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know” sometimes. It’s better to say “I don’t know” than try to tell them what you think they want to hear.

More breaks followed and then it was time for another role-playing scenario. This one was very different: I was allowed to prepare for it and make some notes. Compared to the first scenario, this one was very easy for me. I was much more comfortable with it and the subject matter was one that I had thought about before.

After some more questions (and breaks), the interview team dismissed me so they could make their final decision. It took a very long time until Andy Heckt finally came out and told me that the decision had been made but he couldn’t tell me yet. He was smirking as he said this, but I couldn’t take that as a good sign.

When we sat down for the final verdict, they first asked me what I thought about my performance. I said that I probably wasn’t completely awful, but they must have seen better candidates. They agreed – I certainly hadn’t made the decision easy for them. I made a mess of the first role-playing scenario, but they told me that they were convinced that I wouldn’t behave like that in a real situation. I was dedicated and they thought that I could grow into the role. This is why they chose to promote me.

I was relieved and happy, but I was also too tired and too aware of my shortcomings to really show it. I walked back to the tournament area and received questioning looks from my friends; apparently I was not glowing with joy and Level 3-ness. I didn’t feel like bursting with joy after just finding out how many things I should still work on.

My Level 3 interview was definitely the hardest thing I’ve done so far in my judging career (and most of my real job interviews have been easier), but it was also the most rewarding one, and not just because I can now call myself a Level 3 judge and get to keep a nifty card that says “Regional Judge” in my wallet. I can honestly say that I learned a lot from the interview and that it motivated me to work harder and improve myself.

Many judges told me to “be honest” and “have opinions”, and it was advice that was useful to me. To this I would add, “know yourself”. Know who you are and why you judge. Know why you want to be a Level 3 judge (and know what a Level 3 judge is). Know your weak points, because that is the first step towards making them your strong points. Know your strong points, and know that you are not perfect.

When the time comes, don’t worry too much. You know that someone was more nervous than you and had a worse time. If it seems to take forever, don’t get worried until you’re approaching the 3.5 hour mark. Don't panic (bringing a towel is optional – I certainly could have used one in the badly air-conditioned metal box that was the Worlds 2004 venue). Remember that success brings more responsibility and that failure is not the end of the world. Have fun.

Worlds 2004 was a good event for me and I was happy to meet many people who I had only spoken to on IRC before. I wish I’d been less tired from jetlag and less worried about my test so I could have enjoyed the social engagements more. I had a great time at side events on Friday night after my interview – I discovered that Matt Tabak is a very funny man, that John Carter has a hidden talent for rapping, that people have differing opinions about the relative prettiness of certain high level judges, and that skunks dress like judges (but judges smell better).

Finally, a big thank you to every judge I’ve worked with over the years – I have learned so much from my excellent colleagues. See you at the next event!

- Johanna
flame@bore.org
flame- on #mtgjudge

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