A player’s guide to the Judge Call

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I consider myself somewhat of an expert at losing matches of Magic.

I’ve played my fair share of events, large and small, and losing in every possible way just naturally comes with the territory. I’ve punted matches away on camera. I’ve lost matches where I never played a spell. I’ve never beaten a Tron player when they mulligan to five. No, seriously, I lost a match for a thousand dollars where a Tron player mulled to five on the play, then went turn four Ulamog, turn six Ulamog — as probably their only way to win. As salty as I’ve been over the years, this wealth of experience has given me perspective, and I like to think that I’ve come a long way, that I’ve learned how to lose with grace.

This last weekend, I was pushed to my limits. Through no fault of my own, I was knocked out of both the Team Open and the Standard Classic at SCG Cincinnati by the Judge Program. There were no problems with my or my teammates’ decklists, we didn’t receive any (significant) penalties, and we certainly weren’t disqualified for cheating, and yet it happened regardless. As much as I want to get to some productive content sooner rather than later, I suppose it would be malpractice for me to not spill the beans and explain myself. You see, there’s been a change in judge policy as of late. It used to be that it was very difficult to take back any significant gameplay decision — arguably as it should be in a competitive environment. This is no longer the case. So long as a judge determines that you haven’t “gained any information”, you can take back your misplay. To the best of my knowledge, this has vaguely been how things have worked for quite a while, but since it’s been enshrined in official policy, I’ve noticed an uptick in problematic happenings, albeit anecdotally. My teammate was playing a crucial deciding game in the Legacy seat, and his Goblins opponent made a strange attack that, thanks to the Electrickery in my teammates’ hand, all of a sudden opened a window for them to lose a game that was all but locked up. My teammate counted his graveyard, looked at his card in hand, and lined up the mana to cast the blowout spell then activate the on-board Pteramander. The opponent, presumably realizing that this was a risky play, then attempted to take back the attack, several seconds after making it, and was allowed to by the head judge.

As things like this invariably play out, the second Pteramander necessary to win the game had the bad attack gone through was the top card of my teammate’s deck, and we ended up losing strictly because of what I believe to be an egregious misapplication of the idea of “information”. Now, what’s truly awkward about this situation is that I am convinced, in retrospect, that had I not been engrossed in my own match, where I was being soundly trounced, I could have convinced the judges that the opponent had gained additional information since declaring their attack. I’d have talked about how messing with my mana makes it clear that I intend on taking an action beyond blocking, be it casting spells or activating Pteramander. Counting my graveyard would inform my opponent that I intend on using a spell or ability that interacts with it. Using my mana in combat makes it less likely that I have something like a counterspell in my hand, potentially informing my opponent’s decisions on their second main phase. And yet, because my teammate was less educated about the vagaries of judges and the intricacies of recent changes to the MTR, we lost to a ruling. There isn’t really a solution on a macro scale to the notion that a player more educated in rules minutia is more likely to get favourable rulings off of a judge call, and that’s objectively bad as hell, but the least I can do with this horrible, horrible gift of mine is teach you how to best navigate these kinds of situations.

The face of someone who has never beaten Tron on a mull to five.

Before we move on, the story from the Standard Classic is less interesting, but is a valuable illustration of a simple rule that every tournament player should follow.

My Thief of Sanity connects in the combat step, and I find a Rix Maadi Reveler off of its trigger. I decide to call a judge to confirm that I can use the Spectacle cost of the card. Two floor judges confer, and tell me with certainty that I cannot. The round is ticking down and I don’t want to slow things down, so I decide not to appeal, as the second judge claimed to be absolutely certain of the ruling. I play a second Thief, my last card in hand, and promptly get bodied by The Eldest Reborn in a game that would’ve been easy with an Ancestral Recall tacked on to my sacrificed 2/2. Having a bad feeling in my mouth, I double check the ruling with a judge friend, who double checks with the head judge before confirming that I absolutely can cast Spectacle costs off of Thief of Sanity. Savvy readers might have picked up on the closest thing to a mistake that I made here: not appealing an unfavourable ruling. I don’t feel good advising people to do this, as it feels like it shouldn’t be necessary, but the rules of Magic are incredibly complicated, and no matter how prepared or knowledgeable a judge is, they’ll invariably make rulings that are inaccurate. It feels like a slight abuse of the appeals system, but the best way to protect yourself from this situation is to simply appeal every ruling that either doesn’t make perfect sense to you, or in a broader sense, doesn’t play out in your favour. Just don’t be obnoxious about it.

When Should You Call a Judge?

Broadly speaking, always. I covered this topic in an article on catching cheaters a while back, but it’s worth discussing from a less, well, confrontational perspective. Once again, chances are you’re better off calling a judge than not, and that’s mostly for reasons of tracking penalties and catching cheaters. More importantly, there’s a lot of value in learning how to explain to your opponent why you’re calling a judge – and avoiding any kind of confrontational tone. As such, I always make sure to let my opponent know what I’m doing before I scream into the void of the tournament hall, using a pre-packaged phrase like, “I just want to double check how this works” or “let’s call a judge to fix this, I don’t want to screw anything up”. Just remember that a lot of players, especially those who are newer or less competitive, can view interactions with tournament officials to necessarily be antagonistic, so try your best to be friendly and not come across as the dreaded rules lawyer.

The Anatomy of a Judge Call

So you’ve done it, you’ve called a judge to ask how a set of cards interact with each other, and hopefully your Tron opponent hasn’t condemned you as a try-hard. You’re braver than the troops. There’s something important to remember here: if you’re asking questions about cards that aren’t in play already, and even if you are, it’s a good idea to ask the judge to field your question away from the table in order to withhold information about your hand or deck from your opponent. Even if it’s about cards in their deck or things in play, there’s no reason to let your opponent know that you’re thinking about those cards. Of course, if you’re calling a judge to fix a problem in a game where you don’t suspect cheating, there’s no need to be so surreptitious about the situation.

Be clear, be concise, and remember that you have to phrase questions in a way that judges can answer. A classic cautionary tale peddled around the judge community for years involves the imprecise question, “Can I Spellskite this?” or answering queries about the dreaded Electrolyze / Spellskite interaction. To put it simply, a judge can’t just tell you that it’s a bad idea, because they can’t give you gameplay advice. They can only tell you whether or not something works in the way you ask. “Can I Spellskite this Electrolyze?” will get you a bad answer, where “Can I use a Spellskite targeted by Electrolyze to save a Noble Hierarch also targeted by the same Electrolyze?” works wonders.

Appealing a Penalty

I already suggested, against my better judgment, appealing all gameplay rulings that don’t fall in your favour. When, then, should you appeal a penalty handed out to you?

A good rule of thumb is that you’re justified in asking for a second opinion on any penalty that is going to have an immediate negative impact on your tournament. Game loss for tardiness when you were in the washroom? Give it an appeal and put on your best puppy eyes. Game loss because you wrote Rekindling Phoenix instead of Arclight Phoenix on your decklist? It’s unlikely to go well for you, but you might as well see if the head judge is feeling extra lenient that day. On the flipside, if you’re receiving a warning for Failure to Maintain Game State, and it’s your first warning of the day, appealing that decision would make you look very suspicious. Remember, warnings are tracked, and the only compelling reason to appeal incidental warnings — at least on a practical level — is if you expect to or intend to accumulate many more of the same warning and want to protect yourself against them. That’s weird — you’re signaling that you’re either a cheater, or just sloppy and want to be labeled as a cheater over it for no good reason.

A few more notes on the noble appeal: always let the floor judge finish their ruling before telling them you want a second opinion. If you interrupt them, you earn yourself a free Unsporting Conduct warning — and it’s also just very rude! Just try to be nice about it. Using the appeal feature is, on one level, little more than telling a judge that you think they’re wrong and asking to speak to their manager. It’s normalized, of course, and important to tournament integrity, but it doesn’t feel great, as a judge, to be second guessed. Lastly, the only reason to appeal a Slow Play warning is if you want to learn that there’s absolutely no point in appealing Slow Play warnings. They’re entirely subjective and impossible to review out of context. I have learned this the hard way, repeatedly, because I am a stubborn fool.

Anyways, I deserve a Nobel Peace Prize for keeping my cool last weekend. Hopefully you won’t need one.

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