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Playing vs. Judging

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Happy New Year everyone!

Well, everyone whose calendar actually starts a new year these days. Also both Christmases, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Yule, Festivus... whatever you guys decided to celebrate, I hope it was nice, warm and spent with loved ones. I also hope you got some Magic cards in those presents, I know that opening packs was the best part of Christmas for me when I was a bit younger, so I hope you got to enjoy it as well!

At one point in my Magic career (if you can call it a career), I was at a crossroad. Well, to be honest, I was at a crossroad many a time, but this is one of those times. At that time, Wizards of the Coast just recently rescinded the old DCI ratings system that was in place of the current Planeswalker Points system. This troubled me heavily since I had one of the top total ratings in Europe at that time and this allowed me to participate in every Pro Tour without having to qualify for them. Due to my poor financial status at that time, I used this only to participate in one Pro Tour, the one that was in Paris, since it was cheap enough that I could afford to go easily. Just as I was getting ready to actually start attending the Pro Tours and all, Wizards made the change and just made the DCI rating obsolete. I considered quitting Magic, or at least competitive Magic altogether after this, since I thought it was too hard to get on the Pro Tour considering my geographic location, and even harder to stay there barring some weird streak of luck. I didn't completely quit trying, I was still going to GPs and to a PTQ (before the PPTQs) here and there, but even though I mostly had pretty good finishes, I was missing the qualification for some time and started questioning if playing in the main events of GPs made any sense. (see my Not So Grand Prix article) Since I really like travelling with friends  I started thinking what should I do, should I stop going, stop playing in the main event, or all events altogether, just travelling for the sightseeing, until a MTG judge friend of mine suggested that I should become a judge. That made me think - "Hey, if I was a DCI Judge, I could attend GPs with friends, judge there and have my expenses more or less covered! This might not be a bad idea!" This is not the best motive for becoming a judge, and it wasn't the point where I actually went and became a judge, it came a bit later, when I figured out that there are also judge conferences just prior to GPs, as well as outside of the tournaments where you can attend or even hold seminars and get rewarded with not only good company and knowledge about the game, but also some more judge foils. Quickly I realized that the judge life offers a lot of travel, a whole new community to make friends in, as well as decent compensation for all the work you put in.

Stern Judge
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Torment (Foil)

Becoming a judge was a simple affair; I helped judging at a PTQ and took a level one test after the tournament ended. The exam itself was a pretty easy thing that a long term player like me didn't really need to study for to pass, but I would lie if I said I didn't prepare at all. Even before I took the level one exam, I decided this was just a short stop on my way to level two and judging GPs. I can be a stubborn guy, so I joined the level two preparation group of the Europe-East judge community and participated in the group for some weeks while the preparations lasted. After that, I felt prepared, but still worked on my knowledge whenever I had time to do so. Soon after, my regional judge coordinator, Giorgos, approached me and asked if I would be willing to go for level two. I didn't want to pass up on the opportunity, so I accepted. I took a judge level two exam at GP Vienna, around three months from the moment I became level one. I successfully passed the exam and became a level two in just three months from having basically no judging experience. This felt like quite a success for me and at that time, I was pretty sure that every GP I ever attend in the future will be as a judge.

Right after that, I applied to judge at GP Strasbourg and got accepted. This experience was pretty great for me - I met a bunch of interesting people, had a lot of fun and learned a ton. I was assigned as a head judge for pickup events on Friday, and as part of the deck check team in the main event. The work was pretty hard, and my feet hurt quite a bit at the end of the weekend, but all in all I was quite happy with the work, as well as with the judge foils and booster boxes I got for the effort. I decided to apply for the next GP, but didn't get accepted there. There wasn't a GP close by in a while, so I decided to wait until the next opportunity. In the meantime, I had fun judging locally when needed and playing some limited. I decided to play one of the last limited PTQs ever (just before they changed the system to PPTQ/RPTQ one) just for fun and ended up winning it. Suddenly, I was again qualified for a Pro Tour without even trying. I neglected judging while preparing for the PT, where I ran pretty well, which qualified me for the next PT… you get the picture, while back on the Pro Tour, I almost completely forgot about judging, only judging when needed locally so the community wasn't suffering from te lack of level twos. When I finally fell off the Pro Tour again, my first thought wasn't - 'great, now I can get back to judging, I really enjoyed that', it was - 'man, I need to get back on the Pro Tour!'.

I did try for a bit, but my work schedule and location prevented me from going gung-ho on the PT qualifications, but the few premier events I could attend, I played, rarely judging at all.

In the meantime, the judge foils at GPs were discontinued, and the new exemplar program was introduced. The exemplar program, if you aren't already familiar with it, is a system where judges recommend each other and they get rewarded for their efforts with judge foils. This encouraged me even less to attend GPs and more to focus on the local community and coordination with judges in my region. All in all, I can say that becoming a judge was a great decision for me, I have an impressive collection of judge foils and made a lot of friends while judging and attending conferences, but still, it was very hard for me to make the complete transition from player to judge, no matter how good the judge life was to me. In the end, I am still balancing somewhere in the middle, but I can't say I will ever give up on playing the game so I can judge more.

What Are the Pros and Cons?

Playing Magic the Gathering has its well known pros - having fun, spending time with friends, presenting a challenge, a sense of accomplishment and joy when you manage to win something etc. but it has also many cons, most prominent of which is the cost of both products and tournament entry fees, but also having to spend time with all kinds of people you might not like, high variance, a sense of disappointment and dejection whenever you fail miserably, even though you put in money and effort to do well.

Judging, on the other hand, has many pros that are similar to those mentioned above - judging can be fun when you get into it, you still get to spend a lot of time with friends and at the end of the day you are left with a feeling of satisfaction with a job well done, but the main difference is that judging pays - and well. Playing Magic is pretty expensive for most of us, while judging costs far less (just the travel costs) it also pays far more consistently and far better. I do remember that we once came to the conclusion that you need to make top 8 of a GP to actually get more value out of a GP than a random level 2 floor judge. The only real 'con' that judging has is the fact that you don't get to play. You are not playing Magic, the best game in the world, you are working, and no one likes working. I guess you could argue that having to learn the rules and how to enforce them is a 'con' as well, but I found that pretty interesting and enjoyable so I can't agree on that.

How Each Side Sees the Other?

My experience is that judges are perceived with mixed feelings by the players - some of them appreciate them a lot, while many others consider most judges incompetent or resent them for what they considered unfair treatment. Judges are taught to put a lot of effort in user experience and to be very careful how they deal with the players - easily comparable to how hotel staff is expected to treat guests - and most judges do exactly that, but still, many players have a story where a judge's ruling was wrong, or where they think they were treated without the appropriate level of... well... care? These negative stories about judges are what is told far more often than the positive ones and it creates an air of resentment between judges and players. A good example was at a recent GP I attended where the tournament was running pretty slowly in general and obviously, many of the players got nervous. I was standing in a pretty big crowd when a player noticed that judges were taking a group photo - a customary thing at every GP - there was a huge murmur of negative comments and remarks aimed towards judges - blaming them for the tournament going slowly, and instead of putting more effort into speeding things up, they were taking a picture. I was pretty angry at the players at that moment, since I noticed many judges  literally running around doing their best to make things go as swiftly as possible the whole day and no one ever commented on that, on what a good job they were doing. No one commented on the fact that as soon as the photo was taken, most of the judges went running back to their duties and I felt that was pretty unfair, since I know almost all the judges are hard working guys who really try their best.

On the other hand, I don't think I ever heard a negative comment coming from a judge regarding players as a whole. You can often hear stories in judge booths about players being rude or even aggressive towards judges, but negative comments are aimed towards individuals always, never towards the community. Judges understand and are taught that there are many different types of players and that you need to be very careful and patient when dealing with each individual since you cannot know what type of person he or she is and what is his level of competency in both Magic and social situations. This training, I believe, is something that makes judges very tolerant and understanding towards players and helps them do their job with a smile.

Conclusion

There is no 'best' role in Magic - both being a player and being a judge is amazing and a reward in its own way, but while almost all judges started out as players and then found that judging fits them better, very few players tried judging and decided it was not for them. I feel that might be a mistake, since even if you don't think that judging is for you, getting ready and learning for a judge exam is something that might improve your playing more than a bit, and even if it doesn't, it will certainly help you understand the game better. And, you know, you get to win every Magic rules argument by saying: "Trust me, I'm a judge."

Good luck and have fun!

Stjepan Sučić
Stjepan Sucic

About Stjepan Sučić

Stjepan started his Magic career in 2003, and had some decent finishes over the years, including a World Magic Cup top 8, Pro Tour and Worlds top 32 finishes, and a GP top 8, with 61 pro points total.

During the summer months he is also a Magic Online grinder who you can easily find in the draft queues. Stjepan boasts a 74% win rate in his real life Magic career. When he is not playing Magic, Stjepan enjoys watching Starcraft and playing MOBA games.

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