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Become a Magic Judge
Play or Judge?
Play or Judge?

15 Suggestions on when to hit the switch - Competitive Play or Judging

Let’s face it not all of us are the next Paul Rietzl , or Riccardo Tessitori. Yes we love the game, yes we love to play, but not all levels of play or judging suit all people.

 If your primary choice is to play some reflection may help. Perhaps you win a fair number of your FNM’s, maybe you’re always in the prizes at Prereleases, but when you get to the next level it just doesn’t happen. I’ve bloodied my nose several times against that wall. My high water mark was at Pro Tour LA. I went 3-3 in day one and loved every moment. Since then, I’ve varied from Ok to horrible. Eventually I found out that I was good at running and judging events. As a player here’s what helped me sort that out:

1) Everyone is already asking you how stuff works.
Judging in the narrowest of terms is a matter of getting players back to playing the game. We smooth out the kinks in their understanding of “How things work.” Are you the person that players always asked to explain why Phyrexian Crusader doesn’t die to a Barrage Ogre? If you’re nodding yes then this might be for you.

2) Playing competitive magic is beginning to piss you off
Yea if you run long enough it happens. You spent two weeks getting ready for the event, have thebestdeck™, & missed Top 8 because some newbie slammed you while asking what your cards did. If you’re the type who sells all your cards only to discover you’re right back at it a year later, perhaps a break to judge is the cure. It keeps you engaged, you earn cards to stay current and not surprisingly become a better player. You might choose to get back into the competitive scene with a fresh outlook. Or perhaps judging is your real calling.

3) You hate not being good
Life changes can make competitive MTG smelly. Being RPTQ good (never mind PT good) requires a fair amount of investment. Time, money, skill all must come together at the right moment to make Top 4 at a RPTQ. Coming to a RPTQ with untested, untuned deck or skills is a formal request for a whuppin. You know it, but you’re like the really long joke by Norm MacDonald*. You just can’t stay away from your friends and the general scene. But school, marriage, kids, a new job all conspire to keep you bad. Again, judging answers the call. Yes you still have to study, but after Level 1 keeping current is not near as bad as keeping up with standard.

4) You’re ready to improve your soft skills
I cannot begin to describe the changes I’ve witnessed in people who went from shy or obnoxious to confident. As judges we learn an amazing number of skills, communication, patience, interested detachment, managing for results, delivery of bad news politely, how incremental service adds up to outstanding gains. It’s all these skills which your employers are wishing & begging someone on their team had.

5) You want to play in the world’s best MMO (Massive Multiplayer Organization)
You already play the best game, so it might not come as a surprise that they have best team backing up judges as well. The DCI offers a vast array of support tools, study guides, web sites, forums to help you bring your A-Game to judging. Plus if you advance to Level 2 or better and catch some good waves you might earn a trip to an exotic foreign PT.

6) You have genuine curiosity about how large MTG events work
The business of Magic is always a topic folks love. Sorting the real from the rumors is hard from the trenches of competitive play. There are solid reasons why formats, prize structures, penalties, & compensation work out like they do. Being a curious judge (who works hard) is generally a strength. It shows you want to match your skills to the task at hand, always an interest for organizers.

7) You want to : Own or work at a store, work for Wizards, work for another game company, design your own game. (Take your pick)
As you broaden your vantage from just playing Magic you begin to realize how many choices are available for smart, hard working, growing people. Sometimes just getting on someone’s radar is exactly the ticket. Don’t assume for a moment I’m suggesting becoming a judge just for the networking opportunities, it’s just one of the nicer possible benefits.

8) You don’t have to make Top 8 to get cool stuff.
A fistful of boosters for investing a day while you develop your skills, teach people how to play nice & catch up with my buddies, why yes that’ll do nicely. (Plus you avoid the irritating wait between rounds waiting on all the control players to finish their ties).

9) You want to cull out some real cheaters
I’m surprised by how many players think we catch a large number of serious cheaters. Most cheating is some form of opportunity cheat. You know- the temporary insanity that happens when you’re so close you can taste it so you offer a bribe or to roll the dice. Scratch the surface and you often find these are otherwise honest players who let temptation lead them astray. The sweetest catch is the player who you’ve watched in shady behavior, not enough to ask your Organizer to ban them from their events but still suspect. When you catch those soon to be ex-players and boot them it’s like winning a RPTQ.

10) The friendships you make as an MTG Judge tend to last
Of course, making any statement about longevity in acquaintances is conditional. But over the years it seems to me that judging buddies stay in the mix for a lot longer than play friends. Players tend to depart for all the reasons described above, and many never return. I’ve seen a bunch of good judges leave the program but the friendships persist. It probably helps that we work together and always share a common goal. Deliver a good event.

So you’ve decided to explore becoming a judge. Good for you, the process begins by contacting a level 2 or higher judge you feel comfortable with. We’ll talk more about that in a little while.

Judging is not all wine and roses; it’s a challenge of a different sort. Without a doubt there is a time to pull the trigger and toggle the switch into Competitive Play. Here are 5 thoughts on when to sleeve up.


1) You’re Bored
It’s the day of the PPTQ, and your alarm goes off and in putting your feet on the floor you recall your commitment to judge and say – “Ugh”. Ding, Ding, Ding you just woke to alarm number two. Perhaps you’re at a level where you’re mostly happy, most of the time. But the joy of discovery, the kudos from advancement and the freshly minted friendships are just not doing the job. Pull your best John McClain rub your toes in the carpet** and ask “Should I have played today?” Asking that question is actually very healthy. Staying grounded in all aspects of competitive play makes you a better player AND a better judge. If the answer is “Yes”- then fulfill your promise and then let your organizer know you’re going to take a break to play. Warning: if you elect to play and stay as an active judge Magic will consume a big chunk of your spare time unless you are very talented.

2) You’ve reached a plateau and it’s pissing you off
Making L2 was a like an electrical charge across your entire body, not as good as sex but close. It’s been 2-3 years now; you’ve had one goal for judging-make L3. You’ve studied, judged everything you can, networked and tested and tested and tested. Grrrrr now the godawful test has become a living breathing thing which hates you. Whoa Pinocchio, you might be getting a bit too close to the subject matter. Now’s a perfect place to hit competitive play, this time it’s to give you some distance from your self imposed pressure to succeed. If all your mentors are saying you have the skill then clear your head, come back relaxed & ready to rock.

3) You’re certain The DCI, The TO, The Players suck
Rut Roo Scooby Doo, this is a serious sign of burnout. When I was a teenage my brothers and I fought pretty seriously over the last piece of cheesecake in the fridge. Of course the slice wasn’t the issue, but our stepfather decided it was time for a “Learning Experience”. He made a quick trip to the store and returned with 3 cheesecakes. You already know how this story ends. Food for us, if it can be called that, was cheesecake until all three were gone. O.M.G. I still don’t care a much for cheesecake. Judging can be a function of habit, hmm Friday Night Magic therefore I judge period end of thinking. After eating cheesecake (judging) for 2 years you may find it’s not near as tasty. Take a break, play in the FNM. Your organizer might look like a deer in the headlights when you let them know, but don’t let that slow you. What they may not realize is by continuing to count on your goodwill they’re just digging a bigger ditch. Get out of that rut and recapture some of the joy that got you into Magic!

4) Your buddies are leveling up their play
This is one of the hardest decision of when to swap back into competitive play. If your play group is beginning to level up, be it from the kitchen to FNM/FNM to PPTQs/RPTQs to PTs you’ve got some choices. You can level up your judging cred as well and just join them at the new venue. Oftentimes that timing can be problematic. Winners of RPTQs get the invite Right Now. Advancement in judging is a bit more structured. Experience has taught me that judges who rocket to success often become victims of their expectations. Many portals & gatekeepers are going to challenge you getting to that next stage. If your top priority is hanging with the crew then a switch to competitive play may be in order. Your team likely has the tech/skills to help you make the grade faster than you can by judging. Not to dog the judge community at all, but if your team later implodes a good judge is always in demand.

5) A balanced judge is a better player, a balanced player is a better judge
Specialization comes at a cost. That expense is often a lack of empathy, understanding or compassion for the other side. Are more opponents clear they view you as a dick? Are players asking the TO if your day job is at a collection agency? Bottom line, do you fail to recognize the human cost of your pursuit of success. I’d argue we have a large collection of judges at GP’s who are too close to going through the motions. I rarely see judges and players laughing together. That’s a symptom of an issue. Does it need to be solved? Probably not, but it’s getting close. I know we have too many players who view judges simply as tools or obstacles. They might as well be invisible until you can’t convince your opponent that “Yes it works that way.” Have you considered thanking a judge following a ruling even if it didn’t go your way? Simple courtesy smoothes all paths and as gamers sometimes we lose sight of this fundamental.


Taking action
I’ve discussed quite a bit how to do an honest self assessment about considering a different path to enjoy Magic. Once you’ve done that and decided a change is needed it’s time to put the pieces in motion.

Moving from judging to competitive play is fairly easy, you probably already enjoyed serious Magic before you got your judge spurs. Make the rounds tell the folks who need to know, your organizer, judge buddies, etc that you’re taking a break. You’ll likely get some good natured teasing from your friends at events where you play and they judge, no biggie. The larger issue is that you’re going to have to be careful about getting your play and communication right. Technically sloppy play by a good judge leaves you open to some serious discussions. Be aware that your actions will forever be viewed through the lens of “a good judge”, meaning that what could be a near innocent oversight can turn into a DQ if the Head Judge is convinced “You knew better.” Don’t give the judges reason to question your actions.

They can guide you on the in & outs of how to move forward. If you don’t know any level 2’s here’s a handy link to the Wotc Guide to becoming a judge.

Become a Magic Judge

If you live in New Mexico (or El Paso), Nevada, or Southern California you are welcome to email for a reference to a judge who’s currently active and able to test players in your area.

In closing it helps to remember that judging is just one part of your hobby. Should you never judge I’d invite you to consider how hard judges work on your behalf. You already know the benefits of playing to win. The judge participates so you can win. A nod and a “Thanks” as you head home after a good event is a mighty motivator.


Thanks for reading.

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