Becoming a New Judge, Mayberry Style

Written by Jeff Zandi on . Posted in Competitive Magic, Magic Culture

Becoming a New Judge, Mayberry Style

Jeff Zandi

Jeff Zandi is a level 2 judge and an eight-time veteran of the Pro Tour. He has written continuously about Magic for over eighteen years. His team, the Texas Guildmages, have the longest running regular game in history, meeting at his home every Tuesday night since 1996.

[Manager’s Note: Jeff Zandi passed away Friday night after suffering a heart attack, the outpouring of love and support for his child and family was quickly spread on social media as we saw people from all over give tribute to this giant in the Magic community. Jeff was a wonderful person who positively impacted so many lives. In honor of him, we are running some of our most favorite pieces from his time at LegitMTG.com. Rest well Jeff, we’ll all miss you. This piece was originally published on December 30, 2015]

If you are a Magic judge and you spend any time at all at competitive tournaments wearing the black uniform of the trade, you are sure to be asked one question during the day. How do I become a judge? It’s an easy question to ask but a hard one to answer because “becoming a judge” means different things to different people. Almost the first thing I want to know, as the judge being asked the question, is why the person in front of me would like to be a judge. Like everything else in the world, you get about as much out of being a judge as you put into it. As a judge, there are answers that are more interesting than others, but there really is no wrong answer. All reasons have their validity.

Here are the answers I get a lot: I’d like to get my hands on those judge foils you guys are always getting. If I play I might not win anything, but if I work as a judge all day long I know I’ll go home with some packs for compensation, maybe even a whole box. I’m kind of the rules expert in my play group and I like studying the rules. I want to catch cheaters. I want to know what judges do when players do certain bad things.

The reason why we want to know your motivation for becoming a judge is because, quite frankly, we want to know if it’s going to be worth the trouble working with you in order to get you there. You don’t have to get a level two judge all that excited about you in order to become a level one judge, but things will go better and faster for you if you do.

Before I tell you what I do to move persons from the prospective judge category to the working level one judge category, I’d like to tell you a little bit about my judge career.

Becoming a Judge in 1996

I’ve been a sanctioned judge for Magic: the Gathering for a very long time. Nineteen years ago, in the first year of the Pro Tour, the big circus came to Dallas, Texas. I learned that Wizards of the Coast was looking for volunteers to judge at Pro Tour Dallas. The system for becoming a judge was very different in 1996 compared to today. The biggest difference is that there was no system in 1996. Magic was still new, the Duelists’ Convocation International was new, the Pro Tour was brand-new. I was told to meet at the tournament venue Thursday night, the night before the first day of Pro Tour play. I met that night with a number of prospective judges. The only one I can remember right now is Jim Shuman. He was running tournaments already, I believe. Jim is a Navy man who has worked as a referee for a handful of sports at the amateur level. After an interview, but no test, I receive instructions for the next day. I worked as a floor judge for the junior division of the Pro Tour, the players who are under eighteen years of age. That was the system for the first couple of years of the tour. Mistakes are a part of judging. Every judge is going to make incorrect rulings here and there. I made my first one on my first day on the job. A player calls me to his table. He and his opponent were playing their third game when they simultaneously died to Earthquake. They wanted to know if their match was over, ending in a draw. I told them it was, that their match was 1-1-1, a win for each of the players and one drawn game. The correct answer, I learned later, was that the players should continue to play Magic games, as long as there was time remaining in the round, until one player or other won a second game. This rule is still true today, by the way.

On the second day of the Pro Tour, when they didn’t need as many judges for the main event, Jim Shuman and I and some other first time judges were given our first judge tests. The tests were on paper, I think the test was somewhere between ten and twenty pages. This is smaller, I think, than level one tests would be later on. Our tests were graded but we didn’t get to know the results that day. Satisfied with our results, however, Wizards of the Coast allowed Jim and I to continue judging that weekend. We ran side events on Saturday all day long. We each had our wives, Diane Shuman and Willa Zandi, also working that weekend as volunteers doing non-judge tasks. Both of these women would go on to work as scorekeepers at hundreds of tournaments over the next nineteen years. Neither has asked for a divorce. On Sunday, I was privileged to be used as a table judge for the top eight of the junior division. I was on camera and everything. At the end of the day Sunday my wife and I received our compensation for working all weekend. Based on our hours worked, we were given a certain number of “WOTC bucks.” We could redeem this made-up currency for anything at Wizards’ merchandise booth. The loot we dragged home was impressive: two black nylon courier bags with the Magic ‘M’ worked into the leather-like cover, a full set of five lead Duelist Magazine abacus scorekeeping gizmos (one in each color), a full set of Pro Tour New York top eight decks (I already had a set of these), some collectible pins and a couple of dozen boosters, Revised and Ice Age and a few Italian Legends. We felt very well taken care of. Working at Pro Tour Dallas was such a big thrill that on the following Monday I took my lunch hour from work to drive over to the event hotel in hopes that I might catch someone from WOTC to talk to, or maybe hang with a pro player from out of town. I didn’t catch anybody but I did find a discarded slipcover for the Pro Tour New York deck set.

A few months later, I learned from the tournament organizer that I was starting to work with, Edward Fox from Wichita, Kansas, that I had been made a level two judge. I learned later that Jim Shuman had also been given this rank. He and I were never level one judges. The system was different back then because it was brand new. Fox had fought hard with the first head of the DCI, Tara McDermott, to go ahead and start me out as a level three judge. Although a few judges were started as high as level three, Tara explained to Edward that there was no need and that I had not done so well on the exam as to warrant such a move. Tough but fair. Tara was the person who administered those judge tests for me and Shuman at Pro Tour Dallas. We agreed that she knew what she was doing.

Judge shirts came along pretty soon after that. Before the slick black judge shirts of today, we wore black and white striped knit pullovers. I have a boxful of the old shirts in the closet. I am told that it is not okay to judge tournaments wearing the throwback uniform, and not just because mine no longer cover my entire belly. Back then, as today, a judge had to work pretty hard in order to earn a judge uniform. In fact, when the shirts were first available, you had to pay for them. Whether you paid for one or got it given to you, you wouldn’t get a shirt unless you were working at either a Pro Tour event or a Grand Prix. Even today, a judge is unlikely to get a black judge shirt to call their own until they have worked at a Grand Prix event.

Since then, I’ve judged over a hundred Pro Tour Qualifiers, a handful of Pro Tours, some Grand Prix events and countless smaller events. I currently run the annual Hunter Burton Memorial Magic Open, now in its third year. Over time, I learned to do every job there is at a tournament. It was once held as an unofficial standard for level two judges that they be able to perform every function for a competitive event such as a PTQ. I’ve continued to cherish that standard even as the judge program has changed over the years. When I work with new judges, judges that not only want to become a level one judge but who want to go further, I make sure these judges learn all of the different jobs that judges do at Magic tournaments.

What Kind of Judge Do You Want to Be?

It all boils down to what kind of judge a person wants to be. There are plenty of people who first think of judges as tournament officials, the people who intervene when players disagree about the way a card works, or the state of a board position. Rules cops. It’s a very common idea, but one that experienced judges try to move new judges away from as soon as possible. Judges are tournament officials, that’s definitely part of the job. Magic enthusiasts sometimes become judges for the same reason kids in the fourth grade want to be a hall monitor or crossing guard or a cub scout. They want the prestige and responsibility and, to a certain degree, the job of being over other people. It’s a little ugly, but it’s true. Some Magic judges, even good ones, have a little bit of this hall monitor mentality. The best judges aren’t trying to be big shots, however. Their only desire is to help the tournament run better, to help the players have a better day.

If you’re willing to take some advice from an old judge like me, maybe we can both learn a few things from an even older policeman character from 1960’s television. On the television show named after him, Andy Griffith played a small town sheriff named Andy Taylor who kept the peace without carrying a firearm. He handled conflicts with gentleness and an easygoing authority and in return he was greatly trusted by everyone in the town of Mayberry. His deputy sheriff, Barney Fife, was more like the kid that wants to be hall monitor. Barney is always looking for an opportunity to assert himself as a lawman. Unfortunately for Barney, his overbearing style and clumsiness with his pistol have made it necessary for Sheriff Griffith to limit Barney to just one cartridge for his pistol, and Barney is required to carry that one bullet in his shirt pocket for additional safety.

Although this specific concept never came up on that old television show, Sheriff Andy Taylor was modeling a behavior that today we call customer service. Andy didn’t think he was in his position as sheriff in order to tell people what to do. He rightly believed that he was there to help people. Even while in uniform, Sheriff Andy is more than happy to help chase down a runaway dog, or clean up a mess in the sheriff’s office, or wash the dishes for his Aunt Bee in the kitchen.

I have known judges that didn’t want to do things that they thought were beneath their station, like picking up garbage left on tables by players. Who does the judge think is going to clear that up? A big part of leadership is understanding what needs to get done and then just doing it. Good judges always pay attention to their event first, but are also ready to do the little things that need to get done. Sometimes that means stooping over to pick up trash from the floor, or from a table. A little task like that helps the tournament, too. Garbage is distracting and gross, a drink container left behind by some thoughtless individual can spill and cause a lot more trouble than if it had just been picked up and removed by a judge.

New judges usually want to solve Magic problems, to make rulings when players disagree on what’s going on in their match. That’s not a problem, there will be many opportunities like that at most tournaments. Along the way, there are a lot of other duties for which judges are needed. Whether the tournament is small or large, someone needs to post the pairings for the rounds and someone needs to hand out the match reporting slips that players fill out at the end of their matches. At the beginning of the tournament, the judges will work together to collect deck lists from all the players. In other words, before judges get to do the work they primarily think of as judge work, like answering rules questions, they get to do a heap of administrative paperwork. It’s not the thing you think of first when you think about judging, but the administrative tasks are as necessary as any of the rulings that you might make throughout the day.

I was working at a Magic tournament with about a hundred players, just a year or so ago, where a player got sick before the tournament and left some stuff that had previously been inside his body all over the floor. Am I looking around for a maid to magically appear? Nope, I’m looking for a mop and some Clorox so I can clean it up and keep things moving. Glamorous? Not really, but it was a necessary job that popped up unexpectedly. Judges help players with the rules, but we also do all of the other jobs that make it possible to run a tournament.

Expected Value and Judging

Exactly how much might a judge earn in compensation? Whenever I think of this question I think about an old joke. A circus parade comes through town. There are elephants in the parade and they leave behind big piles of elephant droppings. In the back of the parade is a guy with a shovel and a bucket. His job is cleaning up the elephant dung. Someone asks him why he doesn’t quit his disgusting job. The man answers, “What, and get out of show business?”

You would never want to get involved in judging with the primary purpose of getting ahead financially. Sure, you might finish the day with a box of booster packs, but you will have worked a long day helping other people play Magic when you could have instead been playing yourself. The worst thing you can do is put pencil and paper to the matter and start thinking about the cash value of your compensation and what it might come out to on an hourly basis.

You should judge tournaments because you think the work is interesting and/or fun and/or personally rewarding. If you actually like judging and all the various tasks associated with it, the compensation you receive at the end of the day will be a bonus on top of the personal satisfaction you received by doing something that you enjoy. That doesn’t mean that compensation isn’t important, because it is. I’ve always said that I don’t mind being underpaid (I mean, I’m so awesome, who could afford to pay me what I’m really worth?) but please don’t ask me to work for free. I’ve worked many tournaments for small amounts of compensation, along the way, but I always knew that there was some kind of compensation, some token of admiration and respect from the tournament organizer coming at the end of the day.

Actually, I don’t think it makes sense for players to try and figure out the expected value of their day playing Magic any more than I think it’s correct for judges to assess their day based on compensation alone. There really aren’t enough monetary prizes out there to make competitive Magic a road to riches, by any reckoning. What players and judges should all understand is that they are trading their time for the opportunity to have an experience. At the end of the day, you might win some big prizes, you might earn some nice compensation, but the primary thing you end the day with are experiences that you could never have had without putting yourself out there.

How to Get Started

Are you interested in becoming a judge? There are some things you can do before you track down a level two judge in order to take a level one exam. Learn the rules of Magic: the Gathering. I know that sounds obvious, but I mean really learn the rules. To get into the nitty gritty of how Magic cards work, you need to become comfortable with the Comprehensive Rules. You can find the most current version of the Comprehensive Rules with the following link. If this link ever quits working for you, type ‘mtg comprehensive rules’ into your internet browser of choice.

Comprehensive Rules

You don’t have to memorize the Comprehensive Rules, you just have get comfortable with references them. This foundational document will help you move from a person who knows how the cards work because of rulings made by other judges, or by how the card worked on Magic Online, to a person who can cite the precise reasons why the ability on a card functions the way it does as well as how it interacts with other cards.

Do you know how tournaments work? Judges need to know this information and, sure enough, Wizards of the Coast has another handy document you can refer to. You can find this and other important Magic documents here:

Rules Documents

The third document that you will need to learn more about, not so much at first, but eventually, is the Magic Infraction Procedure Guide. Although not intended for Friday Night Magic and prerelease events, this document tells you exactly what penalties and procedures are used to deal with rules violations at tournaments run at a higher competitive level.

It turns out, as with most things in modern life, the internet is very helpful. You can find discussions of rules all over the place. Magic is popular enough that you can often type a question regarding Magic rules directly into your browser and be pointed to something useful. When you think you might be ready to start thinking about judge tests, you should use the Judge Center here:

Judge Center

Once you gain access to the Judge Center, you can take practice tests that closely relate to the official level one exam. You can also get ahead in the game by taking and passing the Rules Advisor test. While you need a level two judge in order to take the official level one exam, you can take the Rules Advisor test in the Judge Center on your own. When you tell a level two that you have already passed the Rules Advisor test your friendly neighborhood level two will know that you are serious about becoming a judge and you will be on the fast track to taking an official exam.

Like a lot of things in life, you become the thing that you want to be before you get the title. Where Magic is concerned, that means that you can start doing some work as a judge before you become officially certified. If there is a sanctioned judge at your FNM, ask if you can help out with rulings and other tournament tasks. This is often an excellent opportunity to start judging right away while you are preparing for your official judge test.

Join the Ranks

Everyone becomes a judge for slightly different reasons. I became a judge in order to help get more tournaments in my area. Becoming a judge also appealed to me as another way to enjoy Magic: the Gathering. I like to say that playing makes you a better judge and judging makes you a better player. Both jobs care about the rules of Magic a great deal, but each role has a different focus.

Good players don’t stay good players without continuously working at it. Similarly, good judges are continuously studying the rules and, most importantly, working at tournaments with other judges. The same way that you have, no doubt, made a lot of friends by playing Magic, you make all kinds of new friends when you start working as a judge.

The program is there for everyone. There are more than five thousand judges, worldwide, and there is no limit to the growth of the judge program. If you find it interesting, spend some time getting to know the rules better than you already know them and then start talking to judges. After all, we’re here to help with all things Magic.

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