Dealing with Difficult Players

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As a level 2 DCI judge for over two years and having been within the judge certification program for over five years, there has been a number of times that I’ve encountered difficult players. The category “difficult” includes several different types of problem players — some of them are quite harmless and some rather malicious. The way you deal with these players will often determine whether your tournament goes smoothly or not.

This article is mainly addressed at the head judge, as he or she will be the person to whom the difficult players are referred. Floor judges should also read it, as it will provide valuable experience to them as they progress. In general, though, floor judges will need to involve the head judge in all but the simplest of cases.

What the Rules say

The relevant rules to consider when dealing with difficult players are the Universal Tournament Rules 13 and 42, and the Universal Penalty Guidelines 150-153. The definition is

“Unsporting conduct includes, but is not limited to, using profanity, arguing with or acting belligerently toward tournament officials, players or spectators, harassing spectators, tournament officials, or opponents, or failure to follow the instructions of a tournament official.”

However, most of what needs to be done and most of the actions that you will need to take are not written down. It requires personal and communication skills, as well as common sense.

The Strategy

First, it is necessary to “disarm” the player, stopping the difficult behaviour. In doing this, you as the judge must be diplomatic and should never raise your voice. Remaining calm will encourage the player to remain calm.
Second, you need to diplomatically explain to the player why his actions are disrupting the tournament, and how you would be appreciative if he would stop.
Third, and only after completing the first two, you should issue any penalties that are warranted by the player’s behaviour. Remember that if you issue a game loss or a match loss it should usually be applied the player’s next game or match, and not the current one.

Types of Difficult Players and How to Deal With Them

As I mentioned, there are several types of difficult players. Here are descriptions of some of the types — this list is not intended to be exhaustive — and how I find it is best to deal with them. My way is by no means the best way, simply a suggestion. Where possible I have included an example of a situation involving such a player from my own judging experience and how I dealt with it.

The Rules Lawyer

This type of player thinks he knows the rules better than you. It is unusual, but not unknown, that certified judges are this type of player, because judges usually know better than to give trouble to other judges and will respect the person wearing the judge shirt for the tournament. The player is more commonly a “name” player at a local event, or a popular player at a Pro Tour. He tries to explain things very technically and expects you, as the judge, to agree with him on all counts. He also holds his play to a technically high standard and expects the judges to endorse that.

The best way to deal with a rules lawyer is to know the rules better than him, and to know how to apply them. Disarm the player by complimenting him on his excellent rules knowledge, while explaining (or reminding him of) the Unsporting Conduct rule (particularly PG 151, which prescribes a warning for a player who “repeatedly and inappropriately demands to a judge that her opponent receive a penalty”). If he is making unrealistic demands for technical play (like at a local FNM or prerelease, demanding that his opponent declares very obvious or trivial things, or holding up the game while considering actions in every step of combat), then rectify the situation by explaining that the tournament is relaxed and casual and that you’d appreciate if he would not insist on such high standards of play. If he persists then it may be necessary to issue an Unsporting Conduct — Minor penalty to calm things down. But if his opponent should know better, you may also be able to pacify the rules lawyer by asking both players to play more carefully.

A situation like this arose in the Irish Nationals this year. Player A was insisting that his opponent, player B (one of my local players), by placing Tooth and Nail directly into the graveyard when he played it (with entwine), had chosen not to find any creatures when searching his library, and had chosen not to put any creatures into play from his hand. To have accepted that and forced the play as called would have been equivalent to giving player B a game loss, due to the game state. Therefore, I ruled that Player B had made a Procedural Error — Minor by failing to complete the resolution of the spell before putting it into his graveyard. (Shuffling the library is a mandatory part of the spell’s effect in any case.) I explained that making a harsh ruling against player B due to a tiny play error would not be in keeping with the philosophy of the Penalty Guidelines. The ruling was appealed to the head judge, on the grounds that “this is the Nationals, intention is irrelevant”. The head judge upheld my ruling. Several spectators were aghast at what they considered to be my serious mistake, and I’m sure I heard mutterings about favouring my local player. I remain confident that I ruled correctly, and made a similar ruling again in the top 8 (involving a different player).

The Troll

Trolls cause trouble for their own personal enjoyment. They are often players who publicly prefer a different game and have registered for a Magic tournament simply to cause annoyance to the players and judges. They may alternatively be people who are disenchanted with the game for whatever reason and choose to display this in an inappropriate forum. Or they may just think that they are above the rules.
Dealing with trolls is often difficult. They are very hard to “disarm”, as the reason for their difficult behaviour may be ingrained and you as a judge may not be in a position to fix it. It is better to simply explain that whatever issue they have, the tournament is not a place to be dealing with it. Point them in the direction of Wizards of the Coast Customer Service, or the DCI, as appropriate. It is also usually a good idea to issue a warning for Unsporting Conduct — Minor and warn the player that this may result in a later upgrade of the penalty. If the player is causing major distress to others or simply refuses to behave, then you should not hesitate in issuing a disqualification without prize and kicking him off the premises.

At the Champions of Kamigawa Sneak Preview tournament which I was the head judge for, a player who mainly played Legend of the Five Rings signed up to take part. In the first game he mulliganed to 0 cards for no apparent reason. He kept loudly saying “bow” instead of “tap”, and taking other actions designed to irritate Magic players. (L5R and Magic players are at each others’ throats for the most part in this area.) I pulled him aside, issued him a warning for Unsporting Conduct — Minor, and strongly warned him to stop acting stupidly. He dropped from the tournament at that point, solving both of our problems.

The Attention Seeker

Attention Seekers are distinct from Trolls in that they cause difficulties not for their own personal pleasure, but for the amusement of others nearby. Several major Pro Tour players could be categorized in this group.

The most important action to take in dealing with an Attention Seeker is to pull him aside, away from the rest of the tournament, and out of the room if possible. This will almost always curb his attention-seeking and negate any loud outbursts while you are talking to him. Here you need to explain that while his actions are undoubtedly funny for some players, the majority find them annoying and disruptive. This tends to be sufficient and the player should then understand how he needs to behave.

I encountered an Attention Seeker at Pro Tour Amsterdam, as a floor judge. He first came to my attention during the third draft, when he talked a lot during the draft. He was not generally talking about cards he drafted, but was being loud enough to disrupt nearby tables. After several verbal cautions and explanations, I issued the player a warning for Unsporting Conduct — Minor (disrupting other players by being excessively noisy).
Unfortunately, that was not the end of my dealings with him. During round 14, the same player made an unexpected recovery from a bad play state, and took it upon himself to stand up and yell “MISE” for everybody around the bottom tables (where he was) to hear. I happened to be nearby and recognized him instantly. I went over to his table, explained the disruption he had caused, and issued him a second warning which I upgraded to a game loss for Unsporting Conduct — Minor. This was appealed, after a while, to the head judge, who upheld the ruling as valid. The philosophy behind the penalty here is that the player has made a small number of other players laugh, but has disrupted the games of several dozen players who didn’t really care about his good play.

The Annoyed Player

An Annoyed Player has taken a grievance against something, whether a DCI policy, a ruling that a judge has just made, or less commonly a game that has finished not in his favour. Often he shouts or makes threats at a judge who made the ruling, or the head judge.
Annoyed Players must be defused really quickly. The words “I’m sorry”, even if you aren’t, work magic with them and accepting responsibility for a problem will quickly take their bluster away. The next problem is explaining why his behaviour is unacceptable. You need to keep reminding him that he has made a valid point and that whatever he was complaining about is a problem that indeed should be addressed, but that he has taken the wrong approach and instead of using the proper channels (whether a quiet word with the head judge or an email to the DCI), has disrupted the tournament and/or offended players, judges or spectators.
The penalty to issue here will be variable and you should use your discretion as a judge, both in correctly penalizing the infringement and in making sure that the situation does not escalate. If a player has been using profanity then it is likely to be an Unsporting Conduct — Minor. If he has been yelling profanity, an Unsporting Conduct — Major is probably the case. If he has made threats or any violent action, then an Unsporting Conduct — Severe and a DQ may be the only option.

The situation I want to describe for this type of player is one where I was not very happy with myself afterwards arising from the issue and felt I would have liked to act differently when I considered it afterwards. It was at a PTQ at a multiple-day convention, where the venue was available under time pressure. I was the head judge, and I had announced the previous day, as well as repeatedly in the morning, that there was a strict deadline for deck registration sheets to be handed in. (This was mistake #1; I should have seated all players and collected the lists alphabetically before round 1.) As usual for Irish events, most players took little or no notice and handed in their lists very near to the deadline. When the deadline was reached, I announced that no more decklists would be taken and that players who hadn’t handed in their lists would be removed from the tournament and not permitted to play. (This was mistake #2; I should not have made a cutoff announcement and should instead have personally gone to the players who had registered and hadn’t handed the deck registration sheets in.) One irate player immediately charged up to the judge station, and, having got the impression that he was not going to be allowed to play, made all sorts of loud complaints and threats of reporting me to the DCI. I did not remain calm enough (mistake #3), but I did point to the player on the pairings board where he was indeed present and not dropped. However, his actions warranted an Unsporting Conduct — Major penalty. I was afraid at that stage of a further outburst delaying the tournament further, so decided to deal with it by way of a warning. (Mistake #4: Allowing external factors and/or intimidation to affect a ruling; if a player has been rude and loud enough to deserve a Match Loss, he should get it.)

The Malicious Troublemaker

These are mercifully rare. Malicious Troublemakers come to an event to disrupt as many people as possible in whatever way they can.
It is almost impossible to “disarm” them. All you can do is explain that they are being extremely disruptive to the event and sternly warn them that they are liable to be disqualified and removed from the venue unless their behaviour improves.
Fortunately, I have not yet had to deal with a Malicious Troublemaker at any of my events.

In summary, dealing with difficult players is one of the biggest tests of a judge’s skills, both in people management and in controlling the tournament. More than anything else, it can make or break a tournament and make the difference between an excellent and a horrible experience for the non-difficult players that make up the vast majority.

I welcome comments on this and all my judge reports and articles, at magicjudge@thomasralph.com or on EFNet IRC channel #mtgjudge, where I am known as Island.

Thomas Ralph
DCI Level 2 Judge

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