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"Judge!" What to do when called.

Christopher Richter

I recently had the opportunity to be on staff for GP Milwaukee. As I met the various other staff members, I realized that about 1/2 of us were named Chris. (OK that's an exaggeration but there were at least 4-5 of us.) In order to help alleviate confusion I told other staff members to call me Richter if they needed to get my attention. Well at one point Chris Boles, the Radar O'Reilly of tournament support staff and another Chris no less, was trying to find me. First he called 'Chris,' and I didn't answer. Then he called 'Richter,' and I couldn't filter that out of the background noise. Finally he called out 'Judge' to which I, and several other staff members, promptly looked up.

I think this story shows how some parts of judging can be completely instinctual. After judging just a few tournaments you react by immediately looking up to determine who called out 'Judge!' While learning to do this may come easily, learning what to do once you hear that call does not. The general idea is that when called you are supposed to answer any questions a player has or help correct the game state. However it can take time to develop the skills and gain the knowledge needed in order to do this correctly and quickly. This article will list some of the things I do and think about when I answer a call for a judge.


Chris Richter has lots of good advice for new judges.
One of the reasons I am writing this because of something I mentioned in a previous article. A lot of this may seem obvious to many experienced judges, but it may help some one and it also makes the training of judges less of an oral tradition. The other reason I'm writing this is because after looking at all of the articles in the archives, not a single one has been written on what to do when a player calls for help.

Who called?

The first thing you need to do is figure out who called you. It's not enough to figure out what two players are having a problem; you need to know which individual player called you. This is important because this is the person you need to listen to first. You want to give him the opportunity to explain the situation or ask his question without any interruption from the other player or spectators. If it is unclear which player called, just ask.

Figuring out who called can also help you determine something simple like where to stand. Sometimes a player will have a question about a card in his hand. Its best to be able to see his hand without having him pass it across the table to you. The last thing you want is for his opponent to see some or all of the cards in his hand due to your clumsiness. Other times the question is about cards he has in play. It's a lot easier to stand behind this player and look at his cards then to crane your neck or pick up the cards in question. Occasionally you may have trouble getting behind the proper player, as there are a lot of spectators around. Feel free to ask them to move; your presence is required, theirs isn't. If it is not possible or it is very difficult to position yourself behind the player who called you, do the best you can.

Sometimes the person who called you is a spectator. If this is the case the first thing you should do is figure out which match he is referring to and why he called. Depending on what the spectator tells you, you may need to stop the game in progress and ask the two players involved questions in order to figure out what happened.

Why were you called?

The first question you should ask, "Who called?" was addressed above. The next question should be "What's the question / situation?" There are many different ways this can be answered, and dealing with the answer is the bulk of what you do when you respond to a call for a judge. However these situations can be broken down into just a few different categories; questions about the legality of a play, questions about the legality of a potential play, questions about tournament status or Oracle text, and the catch-all 'other' category.

- Investigation / Correcting an illegal play.

What you need to do when asked about an illegal play sounds easy. You determine if a player has done something illegally, correct the game state if you can and assess the appropriate penalty if needed. In reality how you go about doing this is not so cut and dried, and how you address each situation varies greatly.

The most important thing you need to do is make sure you remain calm during this entire exchange. Players will follow your lead, if you raise your voice and become argumentative, so will they. If you maintain a calm attitude and politely discuss the situation, hopefully they will as well. (For a good article on keeping cool, read "Being the Iceman" by Mike Bahr.)

One of the first things you need to do is collect the available information. As I mentioned above you need to listen to the person who called you over first. Have him explain why he called and describe the situation. After he is done ask his opponent if he has anything to add or disagree with. If you have any further questions feel free to ask the players if they can add anything further. You can also listen to spectators to see if they have any useful information. Be wary of accepting information offered by spectators as 100% unbiased. Often the people watching the game are friends of one of the players and may not be able to separate their friendship with their responsibilities as spectators.

If at any time while one player or spectator is talking another player tries to interrupt, ask them to wait. You will always give each involved party the opportunity to 'state their case' and to add further information if needed. If a player continues to interrupt, feel free to issue an Unsporting Conduct penalty. If a spectator keeps interrupting the easiest thing to do is ask him to leave the area.

Once you have gathered the relevant information you need to make the call as to whether something improper has happened. For this you apply your knowledge of the rules of the game and of the tournament rules. (While it is not feasible to use during a tournament, the best resources for helping determine what ruling to make are the judges' mailing list and the archive of articles on the judges' page.) If for any reason you are unsure as to whether something illegal has occurred, feel free to ask for help from the rest of the judging staff. Do not feel as if you have failed if you can not immediately decide what to do. A good judge is someone who gets help when he needs it, not one who never needs help. Even experienced Level 3 and higher judges will ask other judges for advice.


Sometimes you just need to sit and watch a match for awhile.
If you have determined that something has been played incorrectly, you will most likely need to assess a penalty and correct the situation if you can. First you try to return the game to the legal state it would have been in if the illegal action had not taken place, or as close to that as possible. Unfortunately this is not always feasible. The general rule of thumb is as long as it is easy to 'rewind' then you should. If cards have been drawn, several turns have been taken or quite a few spells have been played and resolved then you may not be able to correct the game. At this point you may decide to have the game stay as is. Another possibility is to give out a game loss if the game is 'damaged' irreparably.

Next you need to assign any penalties as needed. A strong knowledge of the Penalty Guidelines obviously comes in handy here. Keep in mind that the Penalty Guidelines have additional suggested penalties besides giving out warnings, games losses etc. One important thing that I often forget to do when giving a penalty is to ask the penalized player if they have received a penalty of the same type earlier in the day. You will need this information to determine the level of penalty to give. Also be aware of the fact that sometimes you have to give penalties to both players, as both of them are responsible with being aware of the game state and keeping everything legal.

I have three final thoughts on assigning penalties and correcting the game state. First of all the Penalty Guidelines are just that, guidelines. If you do not feel that they properly address the situation feel free to improvise, but not too much. Also when determining what penalties to give or how to correct the game, the players in the game really can not offer input. In other words they can not choose to have their opponent not be penalized. Finally if you are not sure what penalty to give or how to correct a game, feel free to ask for advice from other judges.

- Answering question about the rules or potential plays

This can be a very 'murky' area. An example of this type of situation would be when a player calls you over and asks, "What happens when I play X?" or "If I attack my opponent with this creature with Trample, can I deal damage to him?" The problem with these questions is that their answers are potentially useful for only one player. Because of this just answering these questions can be seen as offering advice or strategy to a player on how to play. How I respond, or even if I respond, depends on a several factors.

First of all it is a good idea to only answer question like this with 'Yes' or 'No' answers if possible. This way you are not telling a player how to play, but confirming or denying what he already knows or thinks he knows. Answering this way also prevents his opponent from getting information that he would not normally. For example if a player asks a question regarding a card in his hand you do not want to reply in a way that tells his opponent what that card is. If a player asks you a question that can not be answered in a yes or no manner, ask him to restate it in a way that you can. Perhaps you can get the initial question of "What happens when I play X?" reworded as "If I play X will Y happen?" It isn't always possible to get a question formed in this way, but it is a good idea to can guide a player to asking a 'Yes' of 'No' question if you can.

Sometimes you might not even want to give what would be complete answers. For example in a two player game the 'complete' answer to "Can I play Misdirection and target my opponent's Duress?" is 'Yes, but when the Misdirection resolves you can not change the target of the Duress as it specifies that you choose an opponent.' At higher REL, you should limit your answer to 'Yes.' In theory all players in a tournament have a responsibility to know the rules of the game. I have no problem telling a player that something they are thinking about playing is illegal, but I may not offer all the details when questioned about what will or will not happen if they make a legal play. At REL 3 and above this is especially true. However at lower REL events like Friday Night Magic, JSS and the pre-releases you might want to be more 'giving' concerning what happens when a particular spell or ability is played. We are supposed to be ambassadors and teachers as well as judges. Sometimes we have to fulfil these roles in the middle of a tournament.

Some final factors in determining how I answer these questions are what the format is and whose cards we are talking about. I am more likely to help a player work through what will happen in a limited event as opposed to a constructed event, and also more likely to help them figure out how cards they own interact with their opponent's. For example I really shouldn't show a player how two cards in his constructed deck will interact at a PTQ. He brought the deck and he should know how it works. I'll tell him that something is legal or not, but that is pretty much it. Conversely I will try to be very helpful in answering all questions players may have about how cards they have received in their pre-release sealed decks work with their opponent's permanents in play.

- Questions about tournament status and Oracle text.

These questions happen quite often and are very easy answer, provided you have the information. If for some reason you don't know the time left in the round or have the Oracle handy, try and find it but don't go too much out of your way. I am of the opinion that other duties, like correcting game mistakes are more important. However questions of this nature are usually simple and quick, so you should be able to deal with them in a timely manner. Just make sure that a player is not asking you various seemingly legitimate questions as a stalling tactic.

As the new Magic Floor Rules allow a player to refer to the official Oracle text of a card it may be a good idea to arrange access to it somehow before the tournament. Usually this is a duty of the tournament organizer or the head judge, but there is not reason why any staff person can not help out and provide the Oracle. (I am a techno-geek and have a PDA with the Oracle as well as many other Magic references on it. I highly recommend getting one to anyone who is interested in judging a lot.)

- Other reasons you may be called over

I'm sure there are plenty of other reasons that a player may call a judge over that I just haven't thought of, that's why I have put together this 'other' category. Sometimes a player will ask for a judge to shuffle either his or his opponent's deck for him. Or it's even possible that a player may have a medical emergency during a tournament. As a judge you may have to deal with something like this. In other words be on your toes and try to be prepared for anything.

One final reason you may be called over is to check to see if a player is cheating. Sometimes a player will want his opponent's deck counted or for you to watch this player for slow play. I consider this to be different from being called over to see if anything illegal has happened. In those situations a player has a question about a concrete action that has taken place. When cheating is suspected you are not there to help educate both players on what to do, but to investigate. This is another area where you need to be wary. Anytime a player suspects another of cheating I always wonder why they suspect this. Is there some piece of information that he is not sharing? Unfortunately this can be a way for players to 'cheese' out a win by getting their opponent a game loss. Be very careful when giving out any kind of penalty when a player has basically asked you to give this penalty in a backhanded way.

Appeals to the Head judge

Inevitably at some point a call you make or ruling you give will be disputed and an appeal will be made to the head judge. When this happens just take it in stride and don't let it bother you. Sometimes this is because a player honestly disagrees with you and sometimes it is because they weren't really listening to you in the first place and always intended to call the head judge. All you can do is find the head judge and explain the situation as it was told to you, what you perceived and how you ruled.

Sometimes the head judge will agree with you and sometimes they will overrule your decision. Don't let this bother you either. We all make mistakes. And judging should be a learning process as well. Occasionally the head judge will agree with your ruling but disagree with your chosen penalty. Your opinion on the situation and ruling may be entirely valid however the head judge may have a different judging philosophy. They are the ultimate authority in these situations and it is their responsibility to make these final rulings. (In a way it can be a relief to have a ruling appealed, as then it is out of your hands.)

The only thing you should not stand for is when a player automatically tells you he does not want to hear your ruling and appeals your decision before you are given a chance to give it. This is explicitly not allowed by the Universal Floor Rules. If a player refuses to even hear from you he is guilty of Unsporting Conduct.

Occasionally I've had players question my ruling but not appeal it. If I can tell a player is disgruntled I'll approach him after the match to find out what the problem is. Often it is simply a matter of emotional involvement and that player is just upset that a ruling didn't go his way. I've found that talking to players like this can calm them down and also give them some insight into why I may have ruled as I did and why judges do some of the things we do. Other times they may be very upset and not want to talk. In those cases it is best to let the player fume and get over it on their own.

Wrapping up

After most judge calls there isn't much else you need to do. In the event that you gave a penalty or a warning or above you want to make sure that you make a record of it somewhere, either on the match results slip or in DCI Reporter itself. If you do make a note of this penalty on the match result slip make sure it is obvious, legible and that the reasons for the penalty are clear. Usually you want to make a small note on the front of the Match slip, and write the specifics on the back. Always make sure to write your name down as the judge giving this penalty. If you gave just a caution you will want to let the head judge know.

You may also want to let other members of the judging staff know about any penalty given. In fact you will probably want to let them know of any difficult situation where a penalty was not given out. This can make them aware of a potential trouble-making player or of some new and unusual card interaction. Additionally sometimes the best learning tool judges have is discussion with other judges. Having face to face conversations with other judges about a ruling you gave, what has happened in other tournaments and the different perspectives various judges have is one of the best aspects of working tournaments with other judges. However you must make sure that you do not neglect the players and other judging duties when having these discussions. In some instances it works out best to discuss this in a post tournament judges' meeting.

See it's pretty simple. All you have to do is figure out where to stand, listen to Player A, listen to Player B, listen to the spectators, make a ruling, issue a penalty, rewind the game etc. A player will call you over and 40 steps later you will have answered all of their questions and handled any situation that could possibly have arisen. It may seem hard when actually spelled out, but for a lot of experienced judges what I wrote above has become almost instinctual. With practice, patience and thought any judge will be able to react and deal with whatever comes up when a player calls 'JUDGE!'



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