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Ruling Concept: Back to Basics

Mike Bahr

Tempe, Arizona, US

I just noticed from looking at the last few articles I had sent in to the DCI judge page, that they were all looks at judging theory and some of the more abstract parts of what we do as judges. Contrasting that, I recently head-judged the local Prophecy pre-release event, and got to "hang with the casuals" again... that is, the friendly, non-hardcore players. I also got to judge an event with a substantial percentage of novice players, something that doesn't happen nearly often enough in my area and is quite rewarding to officiate.

With that in mind, I had a brainstorm (U, instant, etc...) to write a quick "Back to Basics" article that reviewed some of the things that we as judges tend to forget when we go long enough without working with some newbies. Detailing practices and procedures for dealing with large tournament crowds, especially those that include a sizeable portion of casual players, is the intent of this article.

Even the best and most experienced of us can get so wrapped up in judging PTQs and GPs, and even "auto-pilot" weeklies with the local pros, that we forget or get rusty on the things that we have to talk about and take part in, to make the tournament environment accessible to newer players in general. For those of you who are already beyond experts at this sort of thing, it never hurts to go over some of the basics again to further solidify your foundation of knowledge on the subject. The tournament organizers you work with DO notice the difference, and it will result in you getting more frequent work and at higher rates of return. And we can all appreciate that. :)

There will be three main areas I am going to detail in this article. They are tournament beginning procedures, announcements and information disbursement, and finally ruling procedures during the events. For the purpose of this article, the context is that of a prerelease tournament or other "major" that isn't as tight on REL as a PTQ would be.

At the beginning of the tournament, you have the opportunity to do a number of things with your lead time that will make the event considerably more enjoyable for both the staff and the players.

1. Tables. These need to be spread out so that the average gamer, a 19-year-old male that weighs about 422 pounds (that's 300 kilograms for those of you reading this from Europe), has room to sit comfortably. :) Also, table numbering is important. If you need the high-numbered tables to run side events later that day, then by all means just number straight down the line, but if you don't, then I recommend numbering the tables with two games to a table, then going back and putting the next sequential high number between those games. That means in a room with 25 tables, the table numbering will go 1, 51, 2, 3, 52, 4, 5, 53, 6, 7, 54, 8, 9, 55, 10, 11, and so on. That makes the tournament get less crowded as the rounds go on, and the players appreciate this, I assure you.

2. Registration. So far, the best system for registration seems to be to have one person on the computer who knows DCI reporter, one person taking money, and one person with DCI cards for new players. The line will pass the DCI card guy first, who will hand an index card to each player, and a new DCI card to anyone who needs one, and on that index card they write their name, DCI number, address, e-mail, whatever. The money taker takes their card and processes their entry fee. The cards are handed off to the computer person who enters them into the system. With a mere three people, one of whom can be the head judge and another of whom can be the TO, you can adequately register a very large event in record time. The key is organization, each person knowing what they have to do to get the players in and ready.

3. Have all your decks and packs dumped into large boxes so your staff can hand them out quickly and easily. Have pens. Have paper with registration sheets ready to go. It's surprising how many tournaments are run without regard to these simple preparations.

4. For that matter, a local TO, level 3 judge Ray Powers, had the fortuitous idea of keeping a "bring list" for major events, and makes sure he has everything on that bring list in the box every time for a big event. It includes stuff like extra printer ink cartridges, extra tape, scissors, extra index cards, spare basic land, a ream of paper, $50 in small change, some Sharpies, surface cleaning spray and paper towels, and other miscellaneous items. Few problems come up during an event that Ray's "bring list" doesn't account for. It makes for smooth events.

5. Above all, take the time early on to talk to players entering the tournament area early that you don't recognize. Pro players will often show up at the last minute, while newbies come early to make sure they don't miss the sign-up or anything like that. A quick and friendly chat to them telling them what's going to happen goes a long way. "Well, we're going to register everyone, then there will be seating, then some time to open and register your decks, then you'll have about an hour to build your deck. Then we start round one. There will be six or seven rounds, best two out of three games. You can withdraw any time you want, but you're welcome to play all the rounds, win or lose." This is basic stuff that not all new players know. Many of them assume it will be an elimination event, or that their opponent will get to keep their cards if they lose, and so forth... take this time to set their fears to rest.

Eventually everyone will be signed in, and it's time for opening announcements. I like to tell everyone roughly the following information. You may find this format useful.

1. Welcome everyone! This is the (Name of set) Prerelease. This is a sealed-deck tournament. I am Mike Bahr, your head judge for today. Your other judges will be A, B, and C. If at any time during the day you aren't sure what's happening in your game, or need to know something about the event, just raise your hand and call for a "Judge!" and we will be happy to help you.

2. [I like to name the dealers next, if possible.] Joining us today to accomodate your collecting needs are, in order from left to right across the back wall, Arizona Gamer, Gamer's Edge, Jester's Court, Atomic Comics, and Kards 4 You. Please do support their businesses, as they have come all the way out here to the ASU Convention Center to support your hobby and offer their wares.

3. The bathrooms are to the left and right of the front door, in the corners. Please clean up after yourselves. [Note: saying this doesn't help, but we're all eternal optimists.] There is a McDonalds and a Taco Bell half a mile east of here, at the intersection. There may be other food available nearby, we don't know for sure. In the back, some of the dealers have Coke and candy available. There will be a lunch break after round two, and we will post the time for round three before round two begins, so that you'll know how much time you have before you leave.

4. Here is what we're going to do. Each of you will be receiving a deck and three boosters shortly. When I say to, and not before, you will open your product, sort it by color, and record the quantity of each card you opened on your registration sheet in the Total column. When you've recorded all your cards, put your name and DCI number in the "Registered by" box at the top, and await further instructions. After this a random number of you will be swapping decks. You'll then be able to build your own playdeck and you'll have access to up to three extra basic lands.

5. The format is best two out of three games. There is a 50 minute limit on each round. When the judge calls time, after the turn in which time was called, there will be a total of five additional turns in the game. That's not five for each player, but five Total. If you feel that your opponent is playing at an improper tempo, feel free to call a judge. Cheating will not be tolerated at this event. When your match ends, you and your opponent will need to report to the judge who is at the computer. Tell them the result of the match, and if either of you wishes to withdraw from the tournament, you need to say so at that time.

6. There are 158 players, that translates to eight swiss rounds, and there will be prizes for the top 8, with no cut and no playoff. All of the top 8 will get a box of product. Prizes will go down to 32nd place, so hang around if you can to see if you get anything.

7. Any questions?

After that, you pretty much just get them started. All the judges should roam about the room taking care of player questions, while the head judge stays at the microphone (or front podium, or pulpit, etc) and steps the players through the process.

During the tournament rounds themselves, there are a number of rulings that will be somewhat similar. You'll want to know these "commons" and be ready with a careful and detailed spiel on how each one works. New players might as well learn now so they'll know when it's PTQ time and much more is at stake.

1. Be ready to explain the time limit procedures over and over again. Once players know them, they will spread the wisdom. Keep people aware that swiss round time expiration just results in an incomplete game, and that we don't start "going by life total" until elimination rounds. In elimination rounds, if any, especially in side drafts, explain that after the 5 turns have elapsed, the life totals are compared. If they are tied, the next life total change will decide the game.

2. When a problem comes up that involves putting things on the stack, don't hesitate to back them up a couple steps (since it's just then happening... we don't usually want to back things up, but in this case there's no harm done) and make them play it out step by step. They'll ask you "what happens if I...?" and your answer is, "I can't tell you what strategic impact it might have, but the rule on X doing Y is that, when X happens, Y happens." Then let them figure it out from there. Such as "If I cast Plague Wind, does my opponent's Nightwind Glider die?" Your response is "Well, what Protection From Black does is, it prevents any effects from targetting that permanent, it prevents damage of that color, and creatures of that color can't block it. Now, if Plague Wind does any of those things, it won't kill the Glider. If Plague Wind does NOT do any of those things, if its effect doesn't mention targetting, damage, or blocking, then it will kill the Glider." That might sound to you like an obvious coaching answer, but I'm here to tell you folks, that the average new player is not handed a decision with that info. They will now know the rule, you'll watch as it dawns on them how the rule works, and then usually they'll cast the Plague Wind. Far from coaching them, what we've actually done is made sure they weren't penalized because their local judge never taught them the rules correctly. Given the rules, a player will calculate the proper play entirely on their own, and will be smarter for the experience.

3. There may be events of newer players not understanding the play/draw rule, mulliganing improperly, that sort of thing. If you can figure the player in question to be inexperienced, it's best to step them through the correct version of the procedure, and issue no warnings.

4. In instances of pro players trying to rules-lawyer new players in relatively blatant fashion, do not hesitate to warn them for unsportsmanlike conduct. A player who has true pro aspirations and wants to be on top of his game, respected by all, has to learn that there's a time and place for sticklership and that it isn't here. In fact, the better-sport players I've spoken to will hold themselves to the highest level of rules, while helping their novice opponent play properly and allowing backups when applicable. "Um, Skittering Skirge, Spined Fluke, done." "Say, dude, you did know the Skirge dies when you announce the Fluke, right? And that the Fluke will have to be sacrificed to its own effect." "Um, no, I didn't know that." "Wanna back it up, then? Skirge in play, Fluke goes back into your hand and untap 3 lands. Anything else you want to cast?" Clearly the new player is better for the experience, and the pro player gets knowledge of one card in the opponent's hand (Fluke) as his/her reward for being a good sport. It's not perfect, but for now, it's as good as we can make it.

5. You'll see players who are new getting into side events and failing to drop from the main event... or playing the wrong opponent... some of these things will result in losses even if we're being lenient. When something like this happens, be straightforward with them, don't dance around the issue, and just neutrally explain what happens. They'll be happier to learn it from you under these circumstances than if they had learned it on their way out of a Top 8 from your next PTQ. They might be upset right then and there, but they'll remember loud and clear that you are a judge that keeps everything running by the book, and that makes them more inclined to "drop bank" to attend your future events.

The most important thing that I try to remember about all these basic guidelines is that they are just the first pieces of the great puzzle you'll start to understand as you judge more and more events with newer players. The key is to get busy, to judge as often as you are able and learn by doing.

A final note on this. Why do we care so much about new players? For those just tuning in, here is why new players and casual players are such a key to the tournament world and to your judging career:

1. Peter Adkison himself, Wizards' CEO and Hasbro's "Chief of Cards", has said in numerous interviews and press pieces that the casual player is the growth segment of the TCG industry. Balancing that against the constant stream of old beardies selling out of Magic and leaving the tournament environment, and you'll see that keeping casual players is the key to making our Magic tournament environment thrive.

2. Players have a lingering loyalty to the first "big-time" judge they have played under. They also have a loyalty to the first Magic player that explains the rules to them and helps them improve their skills. If you fill both these roles for new players, they will be loyal to you. If they are loyal to you, attendance at your events will increase, and if you own a store, store revenue will increase. I know these things from personal experience, and I'm not alone.

3. Finally, the casual player base, even if it were equal to the pro player base (instead of being far larger, which it is), represents a far greater amount of the "collective wallet" of Magic: the Gathering. This point sort of dove-tails the other two. Your effective and friendly interactions with the average Joe at your tournaments will pave the way for those same tournaments, and your local shops that support them, to be financially stable.

So that's it. That's the article. I hope this information has helped to firm up your own knowledge of the habits and procedures that help to maximize the positive side of judge-player interaction. The better we as judges get at these "basics", the happier our playing public is, most especially the growth segment: casual players. Remember that as a judge you represent and reflect upon the business that your tournament organizer is running: the tournament itself. You want to deal with players in a professional manner and make sure they know who's in control and who's taking care of their needs. Like Vin Diesel says in the movie "Boiler Room", "Sir, I don't need your business. I value your business."

Good luck, all!!

-Mike



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