Grand Prix Los Angeles - Head Judge's report

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January 17 & 18, 2009

The first lesson I'll impart from my experiences is this: tight scheduling is not your friend.

Of course, when I agreed to be Head Judge for this Grand Prix, I had no idea that:
* things in the office would get so hectic
* I'd have to place a PTQ on the weekend after the Grand Prix
* I'd have two days of Conflux prerelease the weekend after that!

In short, it's a good idea to keep your schedule fairly clear at least a couple weeks ahead of—and no less than one week after—being Head Judge for a premier event. Still, I somehow managed to find time for the essentials, and even most of what I'd hoped to accomplish. I'm still a bit tired, though, and I fear my Rock Band skillz have eroded significantly!

To help build the sense of community among the Grand Prix judges, I created a Google Group and invited everyone on the staff. This worked out well; not only did we exchange greetings and brief bios, we arranged travel plans and even exchanged musical tastes—a fun project, and a rather eclectic and surprisingly listenable mix of music:

Contributor Artist Song Album
Scott Marshall Captain Beyond Starglow Energy Sufficiently Breathless
Eli Shiffrin E Nomine Der Blaubeermund  
Peter Jahn Woody Phillips Dance Of The Sugar Plum Fairy A Toolbox Christmas
Ingrid Lind-Jahn Austin Lounge Lizards Highway Cafe Of The Damned Kerrville - End Of The Century
Stephanie Lassen July for Kings Believe Swim
Jacob Faturechi   Golpa midoonesti-(Mati)  
Hector Fuentes Gogol Bordello Wonderlust King Super Taranta!
John Shannon They Might Be Giants Istanbul (Not Constantinople) Severe Tire Damage
Wes Humenczuk Elbow Forget Myself Leaders Of The Free World
DH Thomas Frank Black Los Angeles 93-03
Toby Elliott Pet Shop Boys Integral Fundamental
John Alderfer Buzz Poets Barbie Q Pittsburgh X-Files 1999
Glenn Godard Eagles, The Life's Been Good Live (Disc 1) [Live]
Riki Hiyashi Neko Case Deep Red Bells Live from Austin, Texas
Dan Wu Apples In Stereo Skyway New Magnetic Wonder
Josh Ulmer Duran Duran Ordinary World Duran Duran (The Wedding Album)
Bob McClenahan New Order Bizarre Love Triangle International: Best of New Order
Paul MacAlpine Lou Reed Walk on the Wild Side Lou Reed: The Definitive Collection

Friday night found most of us on site, exchanging a few favorite foods, finding time for EDH, or just chatting with old and new friends.

Saturday morning begins early with a nice breakfast buffet for all my senior judges, to plan the Team Lead activities for the day. I ask my senior judges to get up earlier than the rest of the staff, so I figure it's only fair that I feed them for their sacrifice.

Once on site, with all the judges in attendance, it's time to talk about the day ahead of us, including the things that I expect we'll face:
* first, I stressed the importance of Public Events, both days
* next, and just as important, we talked about Slow Play
* we were doing a "team split" after round 5, where the entire team would shift to a new Team Lead for the last four rounds
* Rules & rulings expected - you can see some of this in the Day 1 blog, under "Marshalls Law": http://tinyurl.com/ag2rto

We also talked about things like "What's Tarmogoyf's P/T?" (players need to ask good questions), how Blood/Magus of the Moon interact with popular lands, and Out-of-Order Sequencing being handled differently on Saturday vs. Sunday (Competitive vs. Professional REL). Finally, it's time for individual Team meetings . . . and soon after, we make all those last-minute changes to the layout. I swear I don't leave a few details until the last minute just to "test" the Logistics team . . . really!

Almost time to seat the players for the meeting—alphabetically, of course, to collect decklists in order. So, how many players do we have? 834?! OK . . . how many fit in this room? 680. Uh-huh. Oh, Mr. Tournament Manager? Time to run and get those walkie-talkies you promised! I'd already decided not to split the player meeting into two rooms; for one thing, the PA systems were separate. Instead, we improvised temporary "table" numbers along the walls for 341-417, and kept the meeting as short as possible for the sake of those players standing at their "tables".

As I usually do, I asked the players to maintain a good pace of play, and to be very clear in their communication; I reminded them that, when they can't agree on what happened, they're asking a judge (who wasn't there) to figure it out, and that usually means one or both players will be unhappy with the decision. Far better to be clear ahead of time. You could accuse me of optimism, since we still had numerous Slow Play Warnings and a lot of appeals due to communication issues, but it might have been worse without the announcement.

Got all the deck lists? Good! Time to post pairings for Round 1, and watch the traffic flow . . . pretty crowded along that back wall. Logistics Team! Paper Team! Your mission, should you decide—no, you will accept it! —is to spread those pairings boards out and relieve some of that congestion for Round 2.

Round 3, and it's time to seat some players in the other room. The walkie-talkies are here, and their batteries are mostly charged; off goes John Alderfer, the Logistics Lead, to get the other room started. There's a separate round clock over there, all that really matters is that both rooms get 50 minutes and start at nearly the same time. An interesting question arose; a father approached me with his young son (seven, maybe eight years old), and explained he liked to get his son situated at his table first, then rush to his own table. He wanted to make sure that, if they were in separate rooms, I wouldn't penalize him for Tardiness. I assured him I'd keep an eye out for him, and to please take care of his son first and foremost.

No tournament is complete without some sort of mechanical failure; this one was no exception. Thankfully, it was just the round number on the big clock; we improvised by having our Scorekeeper—the always helpful Nick Fang—generate really large numbers on his printer. Logistics swapped those on the clock each round, and the raging confusion was brought to an end! OK, OK, I admit, no confusion raged. I did field a handful of queries from helpful players, making sure I knew our clock was borked. Gotta love helpful players!

Round 4 began with an unusual announcement: "If you were playing near table 100, and using green sleeves like this one," (picture me holding up a lost card in a green sleeve) "then you might want to count your deck before presenting it." Sure enough, a worried player came rushing up to the stage just a minute later, with 59 other green sleeves looking for their missing friend. Sometimes, Lost & Found works out well.

Round 6 rolls around, we're back in one room - and it's a good thing. I need to make an announcement, and I want every player in the room so they can hear it. Can you guess what it is? Yep, "pace of play" and "clear communication," part 2. Again, optimism at its best, but it can't hurt. The only other announcement I had to repeat multiple times? "Wait in your seats for a judge to collect your result slips," and that was just the first few rounds.

Our turnaround time wasn't great, but we finished 9 rounds around 11 PM; time for a quick de-brief, get the day 2 deck lists pulled, and find time to relax, enjoy an adult beverage, and make the difficult choice: EDH or sleep? Sleep for me, sadly; no EDH this night.

Day 2 begins with a quick meeting, then we set the Logistics team their first challenge: improve the traffic flow in the Top 128 area. This day, we split the long rows to create a center aisle; it helped everyone get around, and made it easier for judges to get from Point A to Point B. This day passes largely without incident, and I'm going to take credit for that: my opening announcements cleared up any potential problems, I'm just certain!

What were those effective announcements? Well, just mundane stuff about Chalice of the Void or Trinisphere vs. copies that are put on the stack, not played; Blood Moon doesn't remove "Artifact" from those Affinity deck lands, and . . . oh, yeah! Something about pace of play and communication! I'm sure that this iteration through my favorite speech had the desired effect! Hmmm, wait . . . looking at my appeals notes for day 2, maybe not everyone heard me this time, either. *sigh*

Speaking of appeals and notes, there were a few interesting appeals out of about three dozen for the weekend. Actually, all the appeals are interesting; I enjoy the interaction with the judges and with most of the players. When I don't enjoy it, is when the players can't agree, the judge untangles as best they can, and the less happy of the players (almost) always appeals. And, of course, there's always the disputes about life totals, or, "I wasn't playing slowly!" Still, there are always some interesting things brought to my attention.

A player dropped a card from his hand onto his sideboard, or at least he thought maybe he had, and his opponent wasn't really sure, but counting cards showed 16 in the sideboard, so maybe he had. What to do? No one knew! Well, I like to check my facts, so I counted the sideboard - 15 cards; is it really "Problem Solved!" when there was no problem after all? Or, how about the appeal where the players continued playing before I got there—do I get credit for "solving" that one, too? Ah, well, on to the "real" appeals. . . .

With spells and abilities piling up on the stack, a player decides to sacrifice Glen Elendra Archmage without saying anything . . . I'm always happy when my Floor Judges are paying attention to recent rules changes, and this one's a classic example from Section 51: "A spell or ability that targets an object on the stack is assumed by default to target the legal target closest to the top of the stack."

Sundering Titan—yes, you can choose Overgrown Tomb as the Forest and the Swamp; there's no "target" in that ability, so it doesn't have to be a different land for each type.

When a player scoops, they scoop, Part 1. In this instance, the player started scooping up their cards when it seemed they'd lost the game, "but, wait!" Apparently, there was something they didn't see until it was too late. They've started the scoop motion, they've picked up cards, mixed things together, and it's really just another example of a common theme: we don't do "take-backs".
Through the Breach puts a Body Double into play, copying something . . . the opponent is very disappointed to learn that Haste (granted by Through the Breach) is not somehow "erased" when Body Double copies something without haste.

When a player scoops, they scoop, Part 2. This time, a player thought they'd just attacked for lethal damage, and when the opponent had no blocks, the attacking player scooped. This left the opponent rather confused: "Umm . . . I'm at 2." Just like before—and even though we could have easily recreated the exact board position—we don't do "take-backs". Or, perhaps, "Check your assumptions!"

Speaking of "take-backs," we had a few other interesting variations requested:
Tap 2, show a card, opponent says, "OK," then, "Oops, take-back pleeeeeeze?"
Tap some Elves for an effect, do something else, then, "no, wait, not THESE Elves."
Tap a land, activate Mutavault, attack with said Mutavault, then switch the land tapped to activate it!
"Your turn." Opponent has untapped all or most of his stuff . . . "No, Wait!"

And, in all those examples, the ruling was upheld—no take-backs. (Granted, if your opponent allows it, we won't even know about it, but judges don't do take-backs.)
Worship doesn't prevent damage, so Flames of the Blood Hand didn't win that game.
Countryside Crusher is not Dark Confidant; not revealing is a Missed Trigger, not Failure to Reveal.

Here's a fun one: Ponder, put all three cards on the bottom, then draw a card. Ponder what you'd do in that case. (Assume that your investigation concludes with "honest mistake, no shenanigans, no portion of the library previously ordered.") Could it have been Drawing Extra Cards? Well, he didn't "illegally move a card into his hand," nor did he move it "from a zone other than instructed." He was supposed to draw a card; he just botched the intervening steps in the resolution of Ponder. Arguably, if he had shuffled first, he had a 3-in-X chance of drawing one of the three cards he'd put on the bottom, and that's why you investigate for shenanigans.

What was ruled: the player committed a Game Play Error - Game Rule Violation; it was clear he intended to shuffle and draw some card. He was given a Warning, and instructed to shuffle. (I upheld that.)

And another fine mess you've gotten us into, Ollie . . . A and B both keep their opening hand, A plays a land, says go; B fails to draw a card, plays a land, says go; A draws for his 2nd turn, then they realize that A had too many cards to start the game (Improper Drawing...) and failed to draw on his first turn. As odd as that combination sounds, it's two separate infractions (failing to draw is GPE - GRV), each of which merit a Warning; the opponent was a bit disappointed that there wasn't a Game Loss to be found anywhere in all that.

A player's permanent was destroyed, but he thought it had been "bounced," so he picked it up. (Did I mention how much I like it when my Floor Judges are paying attention to recent rules changes? OK, so I repeat myself—too bad.) In this example, a player put a card in his hand that should have ended up in his graveyard. No shenanigans were detected, the player readily admitted his mistake, but it's a Game Loss for Drawing Extra Cards. He didn't draw the card, but he did "illegally move a card into his or her hand." I think these players learned about the new wording of Drawing Extra Cards. . . .

We had the expected smattering of classic examples—like a Dark Confidant that should've died when it attacked, was left in play unnoticed by either player—until that player's next turn, when he properly revealed & lost life. Players aren't always happy when we leave things as they left them, but it's how we get consistency. It's a lesson to us, to be sure we explain carefully why we apply the remedies from the PG.

And finally, the story that must be told.

Some DQ Investigations are never made public, nor should they be, no matter the outcome. In this case, I requested and received special dispensation from the Judge Manager (Carter), in hopes there'd be some value in the details for all judges.

In the last round of Swiss, at one of the top tables—5 or 6—Carlos Ramao and Rob Dougherty were matched up, knowing that the winner had a shot at Top 8, and the loser definitely didn't. With the game score 1-0 in Ramao's favor, and the match in extra turns after time was called, things got interesting.

When Carlos first played a CoP:Red, Rob noticed it was an Alpha card; he asked a judge if that was OK for play. The judge (correctly) replied, "Yes, as long as it's in an opaque sleeve, so it can't be distinguished from the other cards." But that CoP:Red was a real challenge for Rob to overcome—he'd have to overwhelm his opponent to try and get any damage through. That didn't happen, and Rob was staring at certain defeat.

In frustration, Rob picked up the CoP:Red that had ruined his plans, and noticed that the sleeves were worn around those distinctive Alpha corners. In his view—highly distinguishable. Needless to say, I was soon involved in an investigation.

I looked at the other two CoP:Red cards from Carlos' deck, and Rob was right; the cards were easily recognizable from the backs, and thus Marked - Pattern, which is a Game Loss at Professional REL. That would decide the second game, leaving the match at 1-1; neither player would make Top 8, but Rob would finish higher than he could with a loss.

So now, I've got two big concerns to investigate:
1) Did Carlos knowingly play with Marked Cards, to gain the obvious advantage?
2) Is Rob only now making an issue of the situation to try to legislate a win? (This is a concern if a player knew of a problem earlier, but chose not to get a judge involved until or unless it could benefit him in a huge way.)

The concern about Rob was quickly dispelled; he had asked the judge earlier about the legality of Alpha cards, he readily and sincerely stated that his only concern was that he didn't want to lose to something underhanded, and he said he just wanted me to make sure everything was on the level. He also made a very interesting statement, to the effect "I know I can't win this game any other way, and he (Carlos) deserves to win if everything is legit; if you don't find anything wrong, I'll concede the game or the match or whatever so he gets the win."

When talking with Carlos, I was looking for an explanation of the unusual choice to play with a card that could—and did—easily be or become marked. After all, a former World Champion should have access to just about any card he needs, especially for a fairly current format like Extended, and such a common card, too!

Carlos explained that he'd approached a dealer to buy cards early Saturday—and at this point, his eyes wandered the room, then fixed on StrikeZone's banner, the one most obvious from his current vantage point—and he said, "Strike Zone, that's who I checked with." The thing is, the dealer booths weren't in the same place on Sunday as they were on Saturday; I wondered if he was looking for a detail to make his story sound more believable.

Anyway, he claimed the dealer was out of CoP:Red, and the booth next to StrikeZone only had Alpha CoP:Reds. OK, fair enough—I dispatched a judge to confirm those details, and continued with my investigation. My judge returns a few minutes later, having talked to dealers who "had been selling all versions of CoP:Red except for Alpha all weekend, and some still had them in stock now."

Uh-oh. Had Carlos just lied to me? After more investigation, that was my conclusion, and I was preparing to disqualify a former World Champion. Certainly, Carlos was disappointed, and politely protested his innocence. We confirmed with him again his story; we told him what we'd learned, from talking to the dealers; he was genuinely distressed.

At about this point, things took an even more interesting turn. Rob mentioned that the dealer next to Strike Zone on Saturday morning had been his friend, and that he'd given her a large supply of Alpha cards to sell, so Carlos' story was certainly plausible.

Before taking the rather drastic step of DQ, we dug a bit deeper—even getting that other dealer on the phone (one of my judges had her cell phone on speed-dial!). She confirmed that she had, in fact, sold hundreds of dollars worth of cards "to the Brazilians," including all of her Alpha CoP:Reds.

We also found a different guy at the StrikeZone booth, who did know that they'd been sold out of CoP:Red, of all varieties, since Friday night.
*WHEW*

Now, we're back to Game Loss for Marked - Pattern, which ties the match. Rob, in an extremely sporting gesture, held to his earlier statement, and conceded the match to Carlos. The match result was entered in Carlos' favor, final standings were printed . . . and Carlos finished 9th.

Throughout the investigations, both of these players behaved professionally, maturely, politely—and Rob did what may be the most sporting thing I've ever seen at such a high-stakes event. Carlos also went out of his way, more than once, to apologize to me for his behavior, even though his behavior was great.

I want to thank both of those gentlemen for being the kind of players we'd like everyone to emulate—great role models, great sportsmen. (I also have to touch again on the irony: the cards that raised our suspicions, the cards that spelled DOOM for Rob . . . were originally Rob's cards, before they were sold to Carlos.)

So that's the (rather long-winded) story of Grand Prix Los Angeles, 2009—and, can you believe it? I left out a lot of stuff!

My thanks to everyone on the staff, you did an excellent job. We survived an 800+ player event with no disasters, and you get the credit.

Happy Judging! – Scott Marshall

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