|Minneapolis Scourge Prerelease - Judge Report
SOMETIMES THERE'S MORE TO JUDGING THAN JUST JUDGING
The Scourge Prerelease was the sixth prerelease tournament at which I have judged. It's probably about time that I wrote up some sort of tournament report - especially since we have continued to improve the procedures we use for prereleases.
This Prerelease, not only did we do things a little differently, but I ended up working more as a team leader than as a floor judge. In doing so, I answered fewer questions from the floor, but I spent more time observing our other judges. I was in a position where I started thinking more about what makes a good judge. I also made several observations, not only about myself as a judge, but also about what judging means.
I worked the Minneapolis Prerelease with Steve Port as our TO. He was able to reserve our frequently used location - the Knights of Columbus Hall in Crystal, MN. It's just about the right size for our events, and I can't say enough about the advantages to having a raised stage at the front of the room that we use for the judges' station. (You can really take in the whole hall at a glance from up there, people can see and hear announcements, and everyone can find the judge station easily.)
We arrived about 8:30 AM. Steve was already there, had unloaded and was setting up. The judges were starting to gather. There were several familiar faces, but also quite a few who were new to me.
For years Steve has run Prereleases with just a few large pods of players. More recently he has tried dropping the sizes of his pods and running more of them. This was the first Prerelease that he decided to run with 32 person pods. Each pod would run for four rounds, and prizes would be given to players with 4-0, 3-0-1 and 3-1 records. It has long been our aim to spread prizes out as deeply as we can to players, rather than just giving out a box or partial box to one or two people. We also give 3-0-1 and 3-1 the same prizes, so there is no advantage to intentionally drawing.
He put me in charge of table numbering. We wanted the numbers to run consecutively throughout, just starting each pod with the next block of 16 matches. (In other words, Pod 1 would be at tables 1-16; Pod 2 was 17-32, etc.) We also decided that rather than simply number the tables in long rows, we would number them in blocks of two tables by two rows. (Each table sat four matches.) Going with blocks such as this meant that a judge could stand in the middle, or even at one end, of his or her pod and still could probably be heard by everyone in it. This is not always possible with one long row of tables. It also meant that the judge in charge would, overall, be closer to all of his or her players.
We had an aisle already breaking the rows of tables into a block two tables long and one four tables long. It was too late to change the entire room to set it all up into blocks two tables long, but we were able to put about a foot of space between pods in the longer rows.
It did take slightly longer to number tables this way with three people numbering. (How good are you at figuring out multiples of 16 off the top of your head at 8:40 AM? Pod four starts with table number 36, right?) Over the day, it did seem to work well. The pods didn't move, so once players knew where their pods were, they were able to find their tables.
When we have run larger pods, Steve or Darrell (our other local Level 3 judge) assign pod leaders and assistants for running them. This time it was to be one judge per pod. Steve delegated arranging traffic direction and assigning judges to Mark Dudda and me. As it happened, Mark was at the far end directing seating and keeping track of players and I ended up assigning all the judges.
The first assignment was easiest - Chris Richter is one of the best judges (probably even the very best) in our general area, and he had to leave early besides. Steve put him on Pod 1, but the rest were up to me. What I tried to do was get a mix out on the floor. Some of our newer judges would be doing side events, but some would end up on the main floor. I tried to put them near or between pods headed by people who had previous experience working our Prereleases. This did seem to work out well.
We started out the day with eight pods - most of 32 players, but the eighth one did have a few extras in it. For some reason, Magic players don't seem to come in even multiples of thirty-two.
WHAT I LEARNED
Had I known in advance that I was going to be assigning judges, I would have definitely made time to get everyone together and go over a few things. Steve did cover the basics of running a Prerelease, and many of the judges there had worked several of them. But we did have a couple new judges who had never run a pod at a Prerelease and/or who had never worked with us.
I would have made absolutely sure we were all on the same page. For example, at Prereleases we usually give game losses for tardiness at 5 and 10 minutes. Yes, officially we can give the first loss at 3 minutes, but we give a little more leeway with the overall chaos, informality and degree of player inexperience at a Prerelease. Some judges were more inclined to go with 3 minutes. In the overall scheme of things it probably didn't make much difference - the majority of tardy players were those who had dropped without bothering to let us know they were dropping. Still, while each pod had its own head judge, I would have liked to have established some common ground first.
I would also have given some helpful hints for the newer judges. I've done enough Prereleases that I'll keep an eye on players while they open and register cards to spot the (frequently younger) players who seem particularly enamored of reading the cards, can't stop chatting with their friends and neighbors (while not writing down anything) or who are not yet rapid alphabetizers. Registration speed is better if you deal with these potential problems early, rather than having to deal with them at the last minute.
I would also have reminded judges that they would be responsible for their own pairings and results slips. It is second nature to those of us who are used to dealing with them, but newer judges are often the ones to whom the pod leader simply hands the results slips to for distribution - it might not occur to someone immediately that those slips do not spontaneously appear in the pod leader's pocket.
On the other had, I did actually remember a few useful things. I advised people to find places to post their pairings which were not right behind tables or otherwise blocking traffic flow. I rounded up small wastebaskets for trash. I also checked to be sure everyone had some way to keep track of time for their pods and if they didn't have something, I gave them a timer.
GETTING AN OVERALL VIEW
Being in a job which gave me the opportunity to look out over the whole event and see how it was going led me to seeing things in a different way. I am used to being one of the cogs in the machine, making sure that everything I touched was running as smoothly as I could make it. It is very different to see, even for a few moments, how everything works together.
In retrospect, though, it is worth it to take in the overall view of a major event, even if you aren't a team leader or pod leader. Take a few minutes throughout the day to pay attention to how things are running and see whether there are things you could be doing better, either this time or next time around. Pay attention to what seems to be working and what doesn't seem to be working.
Traffic control is extremely important at a Prerelease. Not only can it be a large tournament, but you will also have a lot of players who are very new to the tournament scene. You have the challenge of moving people through registration as quickly as possible, getting them seated in the right location (especially when running many pods simultaneously), and not creating any inadvertent traffic jams. The initial registration line has a couple hundred people, some of who have preregistered, some of who need to get their first DCI card, and many of whom need to go get a pen to fill out the registration slip, so you can see the problems.
Actually, if have enough people directing traffic, you don't see the problems, which is the whole point.
This last can be tricky. We had a long line of people waiting to register. As we chased people away from the tables and into the line, suddenly we noticed that the line, forming spontaneously as they so frequently do, had wrapped around the ends of the tables and was now crossing the path of players trying to get to the third pod. Not good. We took every spare judge we had and had them condense the line as much as possible, then redirect it out the main doors instead of snaking through the room. (Usually that's how the line forms; this time it didn't, and we were slow with crowd control. Better crowd control definitely goes on the list of "things to be sure to do next time.")
Another log jam became apparent as we were seating players. Numbering tables in a serpentine fashion is so second nature that we snaked the pods. This was not good. This meant that in some sections, a pod in front would be seated first, and the players for the next pod would have to walk past them all. I pulled three judges to swap table numbers for two pods so that we would fill from back to front, and I made another note to myself for the next Prerelease.
When I say a note for the next prerelease, I mean exactly that. I have a list of notes, on my PDA. Do keep notes of things like this. It's one thing to see a problem, fix it, and think, "Wow. I'll be sure never to do that again and another to actually REMEMBER not to do it again four months later. As it turns out, I probably will remember these. But what if we'd had startup problems (like two years ago, when traffic snarls had everyone from Madison sitting in a traffic jam on I-94 for two hours - so we were all rushed setting up and everyone was putting out fires all day long? In cases like that, none of the memories of the first half hour of the day would process very efficiently and I'd probably have to relearn things the next time around. (If you use a PDA for referencing the Oracle and other judging information, you can also use it for taking notes. They're very versatile that way.)
WORKING WITH UNFAMILIAR JUDGES
It's easy to place judges when you know who you're working with. It can be more difficult with new judges. Steve typically starts his new judges out on side events or working a main event in tandem with an experienced judge. Sometimes, though, you have to put someone in charge sooner than you might like. Make the best choice you can based on your own personal knowledge of the staff, and ask the opinions of some of the other experienced judges. It might be a risk - things might not work out smoothly and you might need to help out someone who ends up over their head. On the other hand, this is also a way to see if someone truly shines. Just make sure you put some good judges near any new judges, and keep an eye on them.
KEEPING THINGS MOVING
It's one thing to be on the floor, handling questions or situations as they come up, picking up endless booster pack wrappers and just generally keeping an eye on the players. It's another thing to step back and see how your part fits into the greater whole. I talked above about moving the line of players waiting to register. That isn't the only thing that needs to keep moving.
The whole tournament needs to keep moving. Sure, we have set times for deck registration and construction, as well as rounds timed at 50 minutes. This helps, but there are other things that we as judges can do to keep things flowing. This is where judging veers from rules expertise into people and pod management skills. (No, not "pod people management skills"; that's another area entirely.)
It's one thing to warn people that they have 5 minutes left for deck registration; it's another thing entirely when you have to deal with half a dozen people who aren't done in time. At a Prerelease, we don't want to penalize players simply for being slow readers or overly enamored with the new cards. As you judge Prereleases, you'll learn to recognize the potential bottlenecks earlier and you can take action before they fully develop. If necessary, remind players that they have limited time and that means not talking with their friends after they're done. If a younger player is taking a lot of time because he has difficulty with alphabetizing the cards, I'll step in and offer to help with it early rather than waiting until two minutes before time is up.
Judges should be ready to pick up pairings and results slips from the judge's station as soon as they're printed. On the flip side of that, make sure your players turn in their results slips promptly. As the round draws to a close, keep an eye on how many matches are still out. Verify things with your scorekeeper. If you make sure the results slips are in as quickly as possible, they're better able to get your pairings and results slips to you timely. This does mean you need to be vigilant when extra turns are called at the end of the round.
If you're fortunate, you might have some rounds that don't run into extra turns. Pete was in charge of the fourth pod of the morning. He had one round that ended early, and he was able to start the next round earlier than it normally would have. (He warned his players to stay in the area, and they did, so he was able to start early.) His pod was the first one to finish that day. He joked, "It's because I just stood over them, beating time and saying, 'Okay, is everyone ready? Untap...upkeep...draw...first main phase - are you doing anything? Okay, combat..." But seriously, prompt players and being vigilant with tournament logistics do help keep things moving.
When things are going well, a good judge should be able to handle his or her pod independently. However, a good judge also knows when to ask for help. Sometimes you do end up with the pod that has a lot of new players, several of whom have difficulty registering their cards. Sometimes four people do all have questions at once. It doesn't mean you're incompetent if another judge steps in to field one of those questions for you. Nor should you feel you're being intrusive if someone near you, but not in your pod, has a question. If you field questions promptly, it helps keep the tournament from lagging.
New judges should know to whom to address their questions. When I handed out timers, I also made sure that our newer judges knew who around them were the experienced judges who were good references. I also let them know which were the ones who had PDA's with all the necessary judging references. Sometimes you aren't quite sure of your rulings and it's nice to verify things quickly. Having the complete Oracle, floor rules and penalty guidelines in your pocket can help - that's what the PDA's can do. If you have one download the files from the judge website. If not, remember which judges have PDA's.
TALKING AND LISTENING TO PLAYERS
As a judge, you don't have the leisure time to get into major discussions with your friends who are playing in the tournament. However, this doesn't mean that you are too busy to talk to anybody. Part of being a judge, especially at a Prerelease, is being an ambassador for the game. It is possible to be friendly, accessible and professional at the same time without being overly chummy.
Paying attention to players is important, though. For years we have run Prereleases with larger main events that ran for six or seven rounds. This time we made the jump to much smaller (4 round / 32 player) pods. We asked the players about this, and we got a lot of positive feedback from the players, more than we had expected. They really seemed to like the change. Instead of collecting basic lands and sorting them, we had each table pool their lands. This also went more smoothly than we had expected.
I got comments from players who thanked me and told me what a good time they were having. I relayed these comments to Steve and to the other judges. You might feel you're doing a good job, but it's nice to have some outside confirmation as well. Make sure to pass along any feedback that you get - positive or negative.
Whatever the tournament you are working, it pays to be observant - to yourself, to your fellow judges, to the players and to the tournament overall. It is by objectively observing what works and what doesn't that we can improve what we, as judges, do.