The Twelve Mistake Program to Becoming a Better Judge

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The letter I!n an ideal world, judges would not mistakes. We don't live in an ideal world, though, and we are not perfect. We make mistakes. At best, we can strive to make fewer of them, handle them professionally, and minimize the damage when we do make them. Here's some advice on doing just that.

Although we hate to admit it, we all make mistakes. I can remember every single one I've ever made. Some are simple, such as when I just scramble a ruling for no good reason. Sometimes I over-think a problem. Sometimes I seize on the wrong principle. And sometimes I'm confronted with something that will keep the L4s talking for a week or so. I screw up. We all screw up.

However, one of the most powerful things I learned working at Worlds and the Pro Tour: EVERY judge makes mistakes.

The good ones just make fewer mistakes, and know how to deal with them.

When I first started judging, especially at higher-level events, I was terrified of making a mistake. I developed that special skill of clearly hurrying towards any judge call, but getting there second. I was surrounded by better, more experienced super-judges and I wanted them to take all the calls because I did not want to mess up the event for anyone.

Then I saw one of the super-judges blow a call. Later, several of these super-judges got into a discussion of calls they had missed. I learned something that I should have realized from the start. We all make mistakes, no matter what level we are. No one can, or does, expect perfection in a judge. All anyone can expect is that judges do their best, learn from their mistakes, and try not to repeat the same mistakes. (After all, there are plenty of new mistakes to experience.)

Avoiding Mistakes

We all make mistakes. Don't let the fear of mistakes paralyze you, but don't let that knowledge make you complacent, either. We all need to work hard to avoid mistakes. Here are some simple steps that can help.

1. Do Your Prep Work

Like any endeavor, judging takes preparation. You need to study the Comprehensive Rules, the PG, the UTR and the Floor Rules. Read them. Think them through. These are the basis for all rulings – and studying does lessen mistakes. Remember to review the basics as well as the complex and intricate stuff. Two weekends ago, I talked to some L0 judges who were quizzing each other on some really complex layers questions – but later they got tripped up on the basics of turn structure. Cramming the night before an event is better than nothing, but an even better choice would be to start looking things over in smaller chunks at least a week in advance.

It also helps to play some Magic. Nothing helps you understand the cards like playing with them, seeing them and handling them. Playing in tournaments – even Friday Night Magic – really helps in understanding player interactions, common misconceptions, and common shortcuts. Reading the Penalty Guide section on player communication is good, but it does not replace actually hearing players communicate (or hearing them not communicate much, as the case may be).

Finally, practice making rulings. We like to print out a few weeks' worth of StarCityGames.com's Ask the Judge questions, then read them to each other on long drives. It helps us know what players are asking, helps us practice rulings, and helps keep the driver awake. It's a win-win-win situation.

2. Use Your Resources

Ideally, you should know the answer. Things are not always ideal. If you are unsure, ask another judge or look it up. Obviously, you don't want to delay a tournament with a long ruling, but making a fast but bad ruling is not better than taking a little time to make the correct ruling.

At events, you probably can identify which judges have strong people skills, which can run tournaments in their sleep, and which are the rules gurus. That means you know which ones to turn to whenever you are uncertain. If you really don't know, ask. If you are unsure, bounce your thoughts off the other judges. Just tell the players that you want to double check your answer and that they will get a time extension. I have never had a player prefer getting a fast but incorrect ruling over waiting the extra minute for the correct ruling. (Note – doing this doesn't lessen one's reputation in the least that I've been able to tell. Only in one's own mind.)

Even if you are the only judge present, you are not without resources. I have a PalmPilot, and I have digital copies of the Oracle, Comprehensive Rules, PG, etc. on my Palm. I also have a three ring binder with paper copies of these documents that I leave at the judges' station where any judge can use them. Beyond these documents, other judges are often available via cell phone or, if you have an internet connection, IRC.

Using these resources always takes time. If you are judicious in your use of this time, you can afford to use it in order to try to avoid some mistakes. Just be aware that you do not have all day to research every issue you come across. That's why studying comes in handy – see above. It's a balancing act.

3. Take Time to Think

The most common reason, in my experience, that a judge completely punts a ruling is that he or she is in a hurry. There was another call waiting, or the round was about to end, or whatever – and the judge did not take the time to listen to the player, read the cards, understand what was being asked, and think the ruling through. Alternatively, the judge over-thought the ruling, or answered the question he or she thought the players were asking, not what they actually asked. Here's a simple example: I once had a player take me aside, holding a couple Stifles in hand, and ask if Birds of Paradise had an activated ability. I said "no." I was answering "can I Stifle the Birds' mana ability?" and not what he asked – but the big problem was that I did not take time to think my ruling through.

4. RTFC

Read the Friendly Card. Sheldon has this written on his shirt. It's not just good advice, it's critical. Recently, I had a player ask about Withered Wretch and a discarded Quagnoth. I just knew Quagnoth was just like Serra Avatar, and said "If a spell or ability an opponent controls causes you to discard Quagnoth, return it to your hand instead." I ruled it was a replacement ability, so Wretch could not get it. Of course, the card says "when;" "instead" is completely absent from the text.

I've relearned my lesson – I read everything now. I will make an exception for basic lands, but I'm even going to double-check Squire in case someone sneaked some text in there while I wasn't looking.

RTFC.

When You Make a Mistake

You want to do everything you can to avoid it, but eventually you are going to screw up. Then you have to deal with it.

The first reaction when you realize that you have made a mistake is embarrassment. That's inevitable and human. You wish that it hadn't happened. You also hope that no one ever finds out. Neither of those things is possible. You made the mistake, and you have to deal with it.

Dealing with it is the hard part. Admitting that you were wrong is never a pleasant experience.

Fix It, If You Can

If you have made a mistake, you cannot just let it lie. You need to fix it, if you possibly can. If you realize it quickly enough, stop the players and reverse the mistake. If you are really lucky, play may not have advanced, and you may be able to back up without affecting anything. If the game has advanced, you need to use your judgment on backing up or other corrective action.

Most likely, though, you are going to realize your error minutes later. You will find that the game has moved on, and you will not be able to undo the problem.

Acknowledge and Apologize

You still need to tell the players that you were wrong and what the correct ruling should have been. If it has been a few minutes since the ruling and you are close to the head judge, you may wish to explain the problem to him or her before seeing the players. The players may not be very receptive to having you explain that you punted a ruling and that you cannot restore the game state or change the outcome of the game or match affected by the bad ruling. These situations have the potential of escalating, and it helps to let the head judge know about it in advance. However, you also have to let the players know. Deciding whom to inform first may depend on whether the HJ is busy, where you are, etc.

It sometimes helps if you return to the players saying that you have talked with the head judge about your ruling, and that you were wrong. It tends to diffuse player anger, and gives the player who got the short end of the stick the idea that another judge is on his or her side.

When you talk to the players, you do need to acknowledge that you were wrong. Shading the issue or talking about how complicated it is may make you feel a bit better, but the fact is that you blew ruling, and you need to say that. Sooner or later the players will figure out that that is what you are saying – it does help, in the long run, to be clear up front. It also helps to be brief and to the point. Explaining how complicated it seems can make you sound as though you're trying to hide something further. Be direct.

Secondly, apologize. You made a wrong ruling. Your error probably adversely affected one of the players. That player may have lost the game or match – at the very least she may have had to struggle more than she should have. That player has been harmed. You need to apologize for that. (Note that this is different from handling penalties – even if you feel bad about it, a judge should not be apologizing for assigning a penalty for an infraction committed by the player.).

The players – at least one of them – are probably not going to be happy at this point. They may want to vent. Let them, a bit. It's their right, provided it does not get to the point of disrupting the tournament. If it begins heading in that direction, work to defuse it. If you cannot defuse it, bring another judge in for assistance.

Don't Make Excuses

The players probably do not want to hear why you screwed up. They don't care if it was confusion with something else, or brain farts, or Venusian mind control. Excuses may make you feel better, but they don't help the players. Tell them to the head judge – odds are he or she will be a bit more sympathetic and interested in the "why." Maybe there is something you need to learn or to work on – something that he or she can help you with.

You can offer to discuss the mistake with the players... after the match. Offer, but don't insist. You need to explain, apologize, and let it go. If the players want more, they can – and will – ask.

Don't Obsess about It

Okay, you made a mistake. Maybe it cost someone a game, or knocked someone out of T8, or maybe it had no real effect other than to leave you feeling like an idiot. Either way, it happened. Move on. Fix the problem, make sure you understand what you should have done and why, but then let it end. Don't spend time brooding on it.

You still have jobs and responsibilities to perform. You need to do them, and obsessing over past mistakes means that you will not do your other jobs well. You may even be so wrapped up in the past mistake that you make new ones, and that is a bad spiral to get into.

It helps to talk to other judges about mistakes. Any experienced judge understands that mistakes happen and can sympathize. We all have made mistakes. Talking about it does help you move on. Just don't spend the next three rounds giving replays of your mistake and analysis of sixteen ways you could have avoided it. That would be "obsessing."

Don't obsess over an old mistake. Get back in there and make new ones.

Try Not to Make the Same Mistake Twice

We are human. We are judging a very complex game with very complex rules. The rules for most games can be written on a postcard – with Magic, you would need to write pretty small just to fit layer 6 of the interaction of continuous effects on one. With so many rules, synergies, and interactions, you will often find yourself having to address a brand new question. Sometimes you will get it wrong. You don't have complete control over that – no matter how good your preparation, how good your thoughts and analysis, or how carefully you check your resources, you will still make mistakes.

Rulings happen.

Learn From Your Mistakes

What you do have control over, however, is whether you learn from the mistakes you have already made. Work on understanding what you did wrong, and on understanding completely whatever you were unclear about. Make sure that the next time you get a question like this you don't make the same mistake. Mistakes may also start with a simple wrong assumption, then lead you down a path of making several bad decisions related to that original assumption. If you can analyze where you first stepped off the path, and how you made it worse, you can try to avoid that same pattern in the future. However, continue to be aware of the obsessing problem discussed above. Analyze, learn, move on. By the time you judge your next major tournament, everyone else involved in your incorrect ruling will probably have forgotten it. Isn't it about time you did as well?

The biggest difference between highly experienced judges and judge trainees is that the experienced judges have seen many mistakes and learned from them. That is almost the definition of experience – learning from your mistakes. Making the simple, everyday mistakes that most of us have made from time to time is not going to get you kicked out of judging or banished from the DCI. We won't shun you. We aren't expecting perfection. We are expecting some professionalism and we expect to see you learn from your mistakes.

Even the most experience judges are still going to screw up, however. Set rotation means that there are always new mistakes to make. Avoid those mistakes whenever you can, but if – make that "when" – you trip up, we hope this article will help.

PRJ & ILJ

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