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Friday, April 12, 2019

Casting Spells for Free and Profit

Recently a few fun rules interactions came to my attention. These are useful not only to know as they are reasonably common Standard card interactions, but it's also good to know the underlying rules behind them.

AP connects with a Thief of Sanity and chooses to exile a Rix Maadi Reveler from NAP's library. Can the Reveler be cast for its Spectacle cost, and can mana of any color be used to pay for the black and red mana in its cost?

AP casts Hostage Taker and exiles NAP's Venerated Loxodon. Can AP cast the Loxodon using Convoke? If yes, what combinations of creatures and mana can they use?

Effects like this are interesting to me because of how they've evolved over the years, and the rules implications therein. Older cards would let you cast spells without paying their mana cost. Think Cascade. Casting a spell without paying its mana cost is a subset of alternative costs, rule 117.9:

Some spells have alternative costs. An alternative cost is a cost listed in a spell’s text, or applied to it from another effect, that its controller may pay rather than paying the spell’s mana cost. Alternative costs are usually phrased, “You may [action] rather than pay [this object’s] mana cost,” or “You may cast [this object] without paying its mana cost.” Note that some alternative costs are listed in keywords; see rule 702.

The mana cost of a spell is whatever is in the top right corner of the spell, just as its Converted Mana Cost is the generic sum of its mana cost. Casting a spell without paying its mana cost means not paying for what's in the top right corner, essentially turning it into a 0. You'll still have to pay for any additional costs, whether they are imposed by the card itself or by other effects. If you Cascade into a Harrow, you'll still need to sacrifice a land in order to cast it. If you Cascade into a Lighting Bolt, you must pay 1 for Thalia, Guardian of Thraben. While this might feel like a negative, it also gives you the ability to pay for optional additional costs like Kicker.

Because "casting a spell without paying its mana cost" is an alternative cost, you cannot then choose to cast the spell via some other alternative cost. If you Cascade into Nourishing Shoal, you can only choose to cast it for X=0, and you do not have the option of trying to exile a green card in order to get an X-value. Another good example of conflicting alternate costs is when you give a spell flashback with Snapcaster Mage. You can only play the spell via its flashback cost. You can't pitch for a Force of Will, for example.

So what of Thief of Sanity and Hostage Taker? Neither of these cards offers an alternate cost to cast the spells. You are still on the hook for paying a cost of some kind. For the vast majority of cards, that means paying their mana cost. However, it does mean that you can cast these spells for alternative costs. You can pay a Spectacle cost (if you've met the damage criteria), and the mana clause will apply as well, so you can pay for Rix Maadi Reveler's Spectacle with all blue mana if you want.

Convoking a Venerated Loxodon yields one slightly different result. Since you are casting it, you can use Convoke to help pay for the spell, but the color-filtering only applies to mana spent to cast the spell. You cannot Convoke with a non-white creature for that portion of the spell. You will either need a white creature to Convoke with, or you will have to pay that portion with mana, which can be any color.

Both of these are good examples of how getting something for free comes with some opportunity costs. By being "forced" to pay for these spells, you can get the additional bonus of the Spectacle trigger upgrade on Rix Maadi Reveler, or the counters on creatures that help Convoke your Venerated Loxodon.

When you are evaluating effects like this, remember that "casting a spell without paying its mana cost" is an alternative cost, and will preclude any other alternative costs like Spectacle and Madness, and any associated benefits from casting spells that way. If you are just asked to cast the spell (under normal circumstances to spend mana on it) you can instead apply an alternative cost, which includes casting variants like Spectacle and Evoke, or mana free options like on Force of Will or Archive Trap.

Addendum: While writing this post, another interesting card with this type of effect was spoiled, God-Eternal Kefnet.


You can see that this follows in the footsteps of Thief of Sanity and Hostage Taker in that you are casting the spell. It's a little different because you are casting a copy of a card. But if you've met the casting condition for things like Spectacle, you can cast this via alternative costs. Whatever alternative cost you choose will get the benefit of the cost reduction.

One of the more common questions about effects like this is "Can you just float this copy in limbo until you need it? It doesn't give a duration for when you can cast it." The latter part is true enough. Thief of Sanity and Hostage Taker tell us "for as long as it remains exile." Kefnet doesn't. In the latter cases, when no duration is listed, the card can only be cast immediately during the resolution of the triggered ability. And yes, you can cast a sorcery even tough it isn't your main phase. Why? Because the trigger lets you. Technically, you couldn't even cast an instant at this time (during the resolution of a triggered ability) if the ability did not let you.

Finally, I've seen questions about whether you can Miracle cast this copy. Seems possible because Miracle is an alternative cost, right? The problem here is the part about fulfilling the casting conditions. Just like you would need to have damaged your opponent to be able to Spectacle a copy off of Kefnet, you need to meet the requirements for Miracle, which are a bit more complicated. In fact, the only way to cast something for its Miracle cost is during the resolution of its own trigger. If you reveal a Miracle card for both Kefnet and its own Miracle ability, you could cast the original card for the Miracle cost and the copy for its regular mana cost minus 2.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

The Battle for Information

Judges often use the phrase “every judge call is an investigation” to emphasize that we should always be vigilant to evaluate for potential cheating vectors even in the simplest of rulings. I agree with the general sentiment that we should approach every judge call with this thought in the back of our head. However, what does it really mean for every judge call to be an investigation?

I don’t think it means that we should assume ill intent in any given ruling; but at the same time we should not assume innocence. What we have is more of a Schroedinger’s Cheater and our investigation is the act of opening the box. The problem is that it isn’t as simple as just opening a box. Discovering whether a player is innocent or guilty of cheating means determining their intent, something that even a bad cheater will keep close to their chest. No one is going to outright tell a judge “I did this illegal thing on purpose to gain an advantage and I was hoping that you wouldn’t notice.” Their intent is going to be shrouded in mystery under layers of information.

The phrase “playing close to the chest” is apropo for this discussion. It comes from card games like poker and refers to keeping your cards hidden from the view of your opponents. For an investigation, think of information as those poker cards. You obviously want to know what information the player is holding, but equally important is that you don’t want the player to know what information you have in your hand. Put another way, if the player doesn’t know what information you’re looking for, they don’t know what to lie about.

One important piece of information that you don’t want the player to know early on, and something that I see far too many judges offer up for free, is the fact that the player is under investigation at all! An astute player should realize that something is up any time the Head Judge talks with them, but this is a piece of information that you want to hold onto for as long as possible because as soon as a player knows, they will get defensive, clam up, and become more careful about what they share with you.

This is why some Head Judges will start with some light small talk. “Hi. I’m Riki. What’s your name?” *shakes hand* “Where are you from? What’s your record?” These aren’t questions that are critical to the investigation, but they serve as a low key conversation starter. They’re more useful when you’re coming into a situation somewhat cold. This is common in a shuffling or marked cards investigation that happens away from the match table, possibly even between rounds. Obviously if it’s an active match and you’re investigating the player’s intent on an illegal play, you want to keep the small talk much shorter, both because the FJ has already spent some amount of time with their initial investigation, and also because it is much more obvious to the player that the Head Judge is trying to suss something out.

(As an aside, it can be equally important to lead with “You’re not in trouble” when approaching a player outside of a match while investigating the actions of one of their past opponents.)

The nature of the infraction or error under investigation is another key piece of information that you want to keep under wraps. For example, when investigating curved foils, you don’t want to just flip over all the curved foils and say “Look at how badly these are curved” because part of the calculation to determine cheating here is whether the player realized the problem at any prior point.

At one event, I watched a judge perform a brief investigation triggered by a deck check. The player’s decklist was missing one card, Darkblast, that was in the physical deck (Legacy Dredge). When the player was brought over, the judge started right in with questions about “What singleton cards are you playing?” Not only did this immediately let the player narrow their scope for determining what the investigation was about, but the judge also left the decklist out in front of the player. Instead of working purely off of memory, the player scanned the decklist a couple of times and rattled off some card names before naming the Darkblast that wasn’t on the list.

Even if you want to lead off getting the player to talk about their singletons cards, it’s better to get them to talk more generally about them. The question “What singleton cards are you playing?” is a dead end question. They will name the cards, and that’s it. Instead, get them to talk more about the strategy. Something like:
“I noticed that you have a couple of singletons. I guess with the dredge mechanic you’re more likely to see them if you dredge a bunch of cards. How often have you seen [card name] today How relevant has it been?”
In fact, my recommendation here is for the first card named to be one of the non-Darkblast singletons. Ask a few metagame questions about the card. Then ask about the Darkblast in the same manner. Now you’ve masked that your intent is to find out about Darkblast. Get the player to talk about what matchups Darkblast is good against.

“Have you faced many of those decks today? How often has Darkblast been relevant?”

The thing with this investigation is that you have to consider what the potential cheat is. Ask yourself why would it be advantageous to not list Darkblast on the decklist? The likely answer is to use that card slot as a “flex slot,” trying out multiple cards throughout the day depending on the metagame. In a meta with a lot of Death and Taxes, Darkblast can be an all-star in taking down Mother of Runes and Thalia, Guardian of Thraben. Against a field of Show and Tell decks, it’s just a bad dredge enabler.

Another good question might be to ask how long they’ve been maindecking Darkblast as a singleton. Obviously this question is getting very specific. At this point, you are trying to gauge the truthfulness of their answer. If they say that the card has always been in their deck and explain their reasoning, it becomes more believable that it was a simple error of omission rather than a sneaky way to try out different cards in this slot.

One unfortunate way that information can leak is from the opponent. I’ve had several judge calls where a player has said right at the table “My opponent is stacking their deck/ looking at my cards while they shuffle.” This is another dead end scenario. The player now knows exactly what they are accused of, can set up their story to refute or lie about what’s happened, and will not taking the offending actions any more for the duration of the match (or possibly the tournament) because a judge’s attention has been called to their shuffling.

From the perspective of the player who called it out, this might be a favorable outcome--the opponent is no longer cheating against them. However, from our perspective, we’ve effectively lost the ability to investigate the situation unless a spectator can corroborate the story or the offending player is really bad at lying. This is why for players I always advocate a more discrete conversation with the judge like “I have a question about a card away from the table” and then tell the judge your concerns out of earshot of the opponent. This way we have masked the key piece of information from the opponent, that we suspect them of some kind of shuffle cheat. We can then watch them shuffle from a distance and try to catch them in the act.

Finally, I want to address the issue of time management. Beating around the bush asking set-up questions can take time, so there’s only a limited amount of it that you should be doing. This isn’t a technique for every investigation out there. I used them as an example of how to use information, or the lack of it, to make investigations more effective and focused. Know what information you want to know, and what you don’t want the player to know, then strategically maneuver around those axes to further your investigation. I hope this was useful to you. Best of luck in your investigations!

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Good Practices #7 - When Did You Look at Those Cards?

The first example for the infraction Looking at Extra Cards (L@EC) is "A player accidentally reveals (drops, flips over) a card while shuffling their opponent’s library." This is straight forward enough, and it is probably one of the two most common ways that this infraction occurs. The other being the second example: "A player accidentally reveals (drops, flips over) a card while shuffling their opponent’s library." It's almost like these are good examples or something!

As a Scorekeeper, I see judges write descriptions for infractions on the backs of slips, and the first example for L@EC is one I've seen variations of plenty of times. But "flipped over card while shuffling opponent's deck" as a description tells less than half the story. Think about it this way. Seeing a card in your opponent's deck confers an information advantage, but the potential for that advantage can vary wildly depending on when this infraction takes place.

The most impactful timing is when a player shuffles their opponent's deck prior to the first game of the match. Barring information from scouting, which could be intentional or just from sitting next an opponent in the previous rounds, players don't have knowledge of what deck archetype their opponent is playing at this point in time. Early game decisions, particularly mulligan decisions, are made in this haze of ignorance.

Flipping over a card while shuffling prior to Game 1 can lift that haze. Imagine this happening in a Modern match and a Baral, Chief of Compliance gets flipped over. Aha! U/R Gifts Storm! This information can certainly inform a player about the kinds of hands they should keep. Even something as innocent as a land can provide information. For example, Horizon Canopy is featured primarily in creature-based strategies.

This type of information gain loses effectiveness the deeper you get into a match because a player will naturally see more cards from their opponent's deck through game play, and the deck archetype will reveal itself somewhere in the middle of the first game.

Any time we speak of the potential for advantage, we should also consider the potential for cheating. Generally, more advantage means more potential for cheating. A player committing a L@EC infraction for flipping a card while shuffling their opponent's deck during Game 3 has almost zero advantage, and we can quickly dismiss cheating based on context. But when this happens prior to Game 1, it deserves more scrutiny. So what does that scrutiny look like?

First off, ask about the timing in the match. Sometimes this is obvious. If you get called over at the beginning of the round and there are no permanents out, you know that it's prior to Game 1. But specific timing still matters here. Is this during a mulligan shuffle? Did the opponent keep? If the answers are "yes" and "yes," you can tick the advantage bar down a notch because the player can no longer use this information to help with their mulligan decisions. These are small pieces of information that can help you during a quick investigation.

The thing with this type of investigation is, it's highly unlikely to yield a guilty verdict. For one, most of these infractions are innocent mistakes. Second, a player intentionally committing L@EC to see opponent's cards most likely looks like all the innocent players. Unless you happened to be watching and saw a very suspicious shuffling style, it's hard to sort the malicious from the innocent via a post-incident interview.

Thus, our best line of defense becomes recording the infraction and looking for a pattern. And this is where I return to my original point; judges need to write down when the "card flip L@EC" takes place. Was it during a mid-game fetch? Was it shuffling up before Game 2? These both rate on the innocent side. But if we are recording infractions to look for patterns of potentially malicious behavior, this is an absolutely important one to record in more specific detail. If a player commits multiple L@EC infractions, all while shuffling prior to Game 1, that's a lot of potential advantage, and someone that I'm a lot more interested in talking to or watching while they shuffle before their next Game 1.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Good Practices #6 - Clomp Around

Of all the strange things that I do in judging, this might take the cake. I couldn't even tell you when I decided upon this course of action. This good practice comes from Professional REL called drafts that take place at Grand Prix and Pro Tour tournaments. During these called drafts, players are seated in pods of 8, and follow the directions of a draft caller judge to pass packs, pick up packs, and select cards. These drafts are run this way to reduce the possibility of draft errors, and to make sure all draft tables finish at the same pace.

One of the biggest concerns during any draft is peeking. If an unscrupulous player catches a glimpse of their neighbors pick(s), that knowledge can give them a huge advantage. Instead of having to read signals via cards in the pack, they just know what color(s) their neighbor is on. Judges on the floor during a called draft, focus their attention on watching for peeking. They stare intently at players, scrutinize the position of the player's eyes, and sometimes even crouch to get a "player's eye view" of the situation. I've seen judges park on a particular table for the duration of a pack, just staring. Sometimes this results in a DQ, and if you're a judge who thinks you've seen some suspicious eye movement, by all means let the stare down begin.

But here's the rub. There are a lot of players. I took a look at a Limited GP that I Head Judged (Milwaukee 2016). 368 players qualified for Day 2. That's 46 pods. Excluding myself and the draft caller, there were 16 judges available on the floor during the draft. That's almost 3 pods per judge. So if you park on one table, that's opening up two others tables that are going unwatched.

This is why my preferred mode when I'm on the floor of a called draft is to be on the move. If a judge near me is in park-and-watch mode, that means I have five pods to patrol. With that many pods to monitor, the efficacy of me being able to watch any particular player is pretty low, but if you can't actually catch a cheater, you can deter them. This is why I intentionally clomp around my patrol zone with heavier than usual footfalls. No, I don't stomp like I'm crushing grapes. Just enough to put it into player's ears that "there's a judge walking around."

One thing I do is pick up the paper wrapper garbage from the packs. (GP and PT packs are opened, stamped, and rewrapped with slips of paper indicating the event.) This is a bit controversial among judges. Some will say that judges shouldn't pick up garbage because they aren't watching for peekers. But I've found that leaning in here is a good way to establish the presence of a judge and deter peeking. Heck, some players will even help you out by passing you their refuse.

In the end, this is mostly just theatrics. Another judge compared it to "parking your state trooper car on the side of the highway with the headlights on." It's very hard to actually catch a cheater this way, but if other judges are parked and focused on that, go for a stroll to fill that space.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Be the Shield!

(Minor scene spoilers for Wonder Woman and Mad Max: Fury Road abound.)

The movie Wonder Woman is chock full of what could be described as “powerful moments,” scenes that make you feel good about humanity and inspire you to go out and slay your enemies, whether they are Imperial German troops or the social injustices of our own time. For me, the scene that resonated the most was from the battle in the French town. Towards the end of the battle, a German sniper in a clock tower has pinned down the heroes. The tower is too tall. The sniper is too high up.

Steve Trevor sees a large piece of flat metal, perhaps a piece of armor from the tank that Wonder Woman leveled earlier, and comes up with a plan of attack based on a maneuver he saw the Amazon general execute in the Themiscryia battle. He calls his teammates around the metal sheet, and the group of men struggles to lift it up. “Diana, shield!” shouts Trevor, to alert her to what they are doing. She gets it. She runs at them, jumps on top of the metal sheet, and the men push it and her upward towards the tower.

The top of the tower crumbles into ruins as she collides with it.


The scene reminded me a lot of the movie Mad Max: Fury Road, and in particular a scene where Max is trying to shoot an oncoming foe with a sniper rifle. He takes a shot, misses, and is told that he has two bullets left. He takes another shot. Another miss. Furiosa (played by Charlize Theron) comes over, and the two of them exchange glances. It looks like she wants to offer him some advice, but then says nothing. Max looks back at her again and silently hands her the rifle. She is, after all, an accomplished warrior in Immortan Joe’s army and he’s already missed twice.

Not only does Max wordlessly acknowledge her superiority, but he also stays crouched in front of her and offers his shoulder as a support base for her to place the rifle on. “Don’t breathe,” she says. She takes the shot and hits.


I’ve said in the past that the Judge Program talks a good talk when it comes to diversity, but we lack action. To me, these two scenes provide dramatized examples of what the men in the Judge Program need to do. We need to give up the rifle, and let the superior warrior take the shot. We need to be a platform to lift the women who are stronger than us, and let them crash the tower.

In these examples, the woman is notably superior to the man, through training or actual superpowers, and it’s easy to dismiss the real life implications on those ground. “Of course I would actually lay down for an real life Amazon.” Being the shield shouldn’t just be about laying down for the best person for the job. That’s a perspective for a more Utopian time than we live in now, a time when a pure meritocracy might take hold.

Men have held the proverbial rifle for the entire existence of the Judge Program. Even as we’ve made some reasonable strides in representation, women only comprise 8% of the L3s in the world, and a cursory glance at other levels show similar percentages. Under a meritocracy, giving women 8% of the opportunities in the Judge Program is perfectly fair, but there’s a difference between equality and equity, as this illustration shows.


The shield analogy is an embodiment of this image. Women have been underrepresented in superhero movies, especially as central, powerful characters who stand on their own. To get to a place of equality, men have to lay down as the shield to provide this taller box, and I don’t think it’s an accident that both of these movies have these scenes in them. But putting this into practice will be a difficult thing for a lot of men. Recognizing your position of privilege is one thing. Giving it up willingly is another story entirely.

One of the most direct moments where you can be the shield is during discussions and/or meetings. In group discussions, it’s been shown that women are interrupted, talked over, and marginalized on a regular basis. Think about how much you’re talking during your next team meeting. Be willing to talk less, or use your voice to provide an opening for someone else.

I’ve talked to women who have had other judges take over calls from them. This type of behavior is generally frowned upon among judges, but it’s not too difficult to imagine how if this is going to happen, it’s more likely to happen to women. It’s like the moment in Wonder Woman when Steve tries to protect Diana from the German spies, only to find out that she can deflect bullets. That scene is a part of the setup for him to eventually shout “Shield!” It’s his moment of enlightenment. But if you never have that moment, if you never stop trying to protect women from danger, you might never know how great they are.

If you’re in a position of some authority, a Head Judge for example, who can make decisions about team assignments, it’s worth taking some time to think through your choices. I don’t like the ideas of quotas, but when you are dealing with an historically underrepresented group, it’s important to give due consideration. The National Football League has a rule to this effect called the Rooney Rule that requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate for any head coach or senior football operations position. Unlike affirmative action, there’s no requirements for hiring said minorities, but since the implementation of the rule the percentage of African American head coaches in the league has tripled.

I’ve mentioned in the past that if Magic: the Gathering can overcome its misogynistic stigma, we could double our attendance and audience. The same applies to the Judge Program. Think about it; we’re just hitting 8% after what feels like a few years of progress? We’ve basically operated all these years at half strength, and it makes you realize why you hear the words “burn out” get tossed around a lot. There are so many more “best and brightest” that we could be incorporating into our Program and its leadership, our Wonder Women and Furiosas. But to find our Wonder Women, the men who may have been the primary heroes in the earlier parts of the story, like Max and Steve Trevor, must be prepared to lay down and be the shield. I look at those stories and I see the kind of hero that I want to be, someone who is okay letting the women be the stars for once.

(Thanks to Meghan Rickman and Megan Holden for the proof-reading and feedback.)

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Hello from your new Program Coordinator

There's so much I want to say, and so many ways I want to say it. I've started multiple drafts of this post since I found out, and none of them seemed quite right. I think that it never really sunk in until the announcement today, so now that it is public, I'm just going to start writing and stop when it feels done.

Program Coordinator. PC. It's the most mysterious advanced role in the Judge Program. Grand Prix Head Judges administer events, Regional Coordinators run communities, and Program Coordinators... coordinate the program? All of it? A lot of people want PCs to be the true leaders of the Judge Program, the "monarchs" or what the Level 5s used to be. At least those are the kinds of analogies I've heard. But if asked the PCs, they would frequently deny being the true leaders of the Judge Program. "We coordinate, not lead." It's been a consistent refrain from the PCs, one where they focus on administration, but one that has frustrated those people looking for more monarchy, more leadership.

So here I am. Do I lead or do I coordinate? Am I a monarch or an administrator? None of these fit me well. I'm actually a pretty bad administrator, and I've found the most success when I've had better organized planners to work with. I am a strong leader, but I've done better as a leader of individuals and not of projects. To lead individuals on a global scale seems exhausting.

The word that appeals to me is facilitator. That word and coordinator occupy similar spaces, but coordinator still feels too much like someone telling everyone what to do, the monarch, whereas a facilitator listens to what you want to do and helps you accomplish it. This is a big part of what I want to do. I want to listen to you.

I recently had a conversation with someone where they used the phrase "I'm willing to die on this hill." I never liked this phrase. First off, I don't want to die. As a runner, when I think of hills, I see a challenge to overcome, a goal to accomplish. I see a hill and I say "How do I conquer this hill?" There are a lot of hills in the Judge Program, and recently it feels like people are choosing which ones to die on. I want you to help me conquer them, to run up them together, and enjoy a Rocky-esque moment of celebration at the top.

I want to inspire and enable. That said, I do have some ideas and a vision. You can't get to be PC without some ideas for what the Program should do. I'd like to share that vision with you because I would like your buy-in and your help. With that in mind, I've also published my answer to the 3rd Program Coordinator application question in a separate blog post here. If I were a politician, I would consider this to be my platform, and when the question asks "how will you help?" this is when I ask for your help in making these ideas into a reality.

Here's the part where I give thanks. Many people have helped me to craft my ideas and my words. It's cliche, but there are too many to name here, so I will focus on Nicholas Sabin, Eric Dustin Brown, Jacob Milicic, and Fabian Peck who helped edit my PC application. I particularly want to call out Fabian as the person who was my personal cheerleader throughout the application process. It is doubtful that my ideas would have been so fully formed and well-written without his encouragement and accountability. When I talk about facilitating the success of others, he did that for me.

Finally, I want to say how bittersweet it is for me step into this new role as Toby Elliott leaves it. Toby has been a lot of things to me over the years. Even as I applied for PC, I knew that Toby would not be staying on. A part of me will always think of it as Toby's seat, and as I have always done while following in his footsteps, I will work hard to make him proud. (btw Kim Warren is great as well, and I'll miss her, but it's hard to compare her impact on my judge career to Toby.)

So there we have it. It's getting late and I've said most of what I wanted to say. I'm excited for this new opportunity, and I'm really excited that people are excited.

Program Coordinator Application Question 3

Question 3: What should the Program Coordinators accomplish in the next 18 months, and how will you help?
Feedback
Judges love to talk about feedback. They don’t like to give it, and probably hate receiving it even more. This is the dark truth of the Judge Program. Like the Fellowship of the Rings, the feedback culture in the Judge Program is broken. What’s wrong with it and how do we fix it?

I think that feedback culture is upside down right now. So much of it is focused on how best to give feedback, and there’s no discussion about how to receive it. People clamor for feedback, saying that they don’t receive enough reviews, but when they receive an unexpected review, or feedback that contradicts their self image, the response is to attack the giver. This is creating a culture where people are afraid to give feedback.

There are artifacts of this everywhere in the Judge Program. For example, the “best practice” of clearing your feedback with the subject, either via face-to-face or a draft. I do agree that it is a best practice, but many have raised to the level of a canonical requirement, and get upset when it doesn’t happen. Putting the burden of clearing the feedback beforehand hurts the cause of the giver. Meanwhile, we aren’t doing anything to help train the receiver on how to take the feedback.

Yes, we can always educate and train judges to be better at how they give feedback, but we need to acknowledge the other end of these feedback dynamics and at least begin to make people aware that feedback is a relationship.

Relationships are an aspect of feedback culture that is underdeveloped in the Judge Program. All the instances of asking for feedback are random and disorganized. Even L3 recommendations, which should be the paragon of strong relationships between judges often fall to a “whoever will do it” basis rather than finding the people that matter to you most.

The most easily internalized feedback comes from those people who care about you. We should emphasize this and seek to create avenues for these strong bonds between judges to drive our feedback, and not the random chance of “you happened to be on my team.” Part of the above problem of judges not being accepting of feedback is that they aren’t accepting of feedback from certain people. We should seek to find the people the people that we will accept feedback from, and engage them to help deliver the feedback. This might take the form of something like the old judge pyramid or listing trusted feedback mentors in our profiles.

When it comes to the feedback culture, I believe that I am one of the most vocal leaders (other strong voices are Riccardo Tessitori and Dustin de Leeuw). In the past, I’ve been more focused on reviews, but I’ve made a push to change the conversation to feedback in general, and more recently to emphasize strong relationships and holding each other accountable. If feedback is going to be a core principle of the Judge Program again, my track record makes me one of its best spokespersons.

Diversity and Representation
Like feedback, the Judge Program talks a big talk (probably bigger) when it comes to diversity. The Judge Program is, on the surface, a welcoming and inclusive organization. However, there is a difference between merely promoting diversity as a general culture and focusing on changing the balance of representation, and this is where we need to focus more of our efforts on.

Changing the balance of representation often brings with it concerns that the bar is being lowered to let disadvantaged groups in. However, when there is a lack of representation in general, it takes extraordinary individuals to break through the glass ceiling. These people work even harder than the standard to fight against the inertia that is present, and it is my belief that reaching out to help more such people would not compromise our standards of quality.

Magic currently has a gender imbalance issue. Mark Rosewater once released a statistic that 38% of Magic players were women. This stat seemed wrong to a lot of people because when they looked around, they didn’t see that many women playing. Look no further than PT Aether Revolt, which had 2 women playing out of 424 players (less than 0.5%). SCG Tour events hover somewhere in the single digits. That’s a stark drop off from 38%.

This disparity in numbers has everything to do with the often unwelcoming environment of Magic tournaments, and this is where judges enter the picture. We are the ones responsible for these environments. We need to have more women at the front lines of the Judge Program (L1 store judges) to serve as gatekeepers and role models for more women to play the game. And for that to happen, we need to present role models among our high level judges as well.

To achieve this end goal, I propose that the Judge Program have dedicated avenues by which we recruit women to judging. There are two primary ways to do this:
Publicly showcase women in judging. Judge of the Week, other blogs and publications, putting women in key public positions. This normalizes the presence of women in judging and provides examples and role models for aspiring women to follow. These efforts don’t have to be directed “look at all the women” efforts. We can simply alter the ratios without necessarily bringing attention to it.
I want to address the fact that showcasing women, no matter how subtly done, will face sexist comments and actions. For example, when women are on camera in the feature match area as players or judges. It is important that efforts of representation are accompanied by both broad and specific messages condemning such actions swiftly and diplomatically. I had heard that there was a group of judges who were moderators in Twitch chat. Such a group should be supported, educated, and empowered to act on behalf of the Judge Program.
Have programs that encourage women to become judges or advance in the Judge Program, either vertically (in level) or horizontally (leading projects). One specific idea is a “women mentoring women” program that can put geographically disparate judges in contact with each other. I also think that we should be doing more than passively hoping certain strong L2s decide to advance to L3. the path to L3 isn’t an easy one. The path to L3 as a woman is even harder. We should have more direct and personal mentorship for those candidates, and more open channels of communication to listen to the issues that they face in the workplace.

I also want to emphasize that gender diversity shouldn’t be the only thing on the agenda, but currently it is the most glaring, and highlighting representation in other ways should not be ignored.

Growth Check
The general sentiment is that the Judge Program is nearing the end of its growth phase, and that we can no longer operate in the same ways that we have before. One example of this is the L3 forum. The collective number of L3s recently passed Dunbar’s number. While the merits of this theory or the exact number of people that can be in a sustainable network can be debated, the fact that we’ve crossed this threshold indicates that we should at least entertain the notion that our old methods of organizing and communicating might need an overhaul.

Moving back to spheres provides a renewed ability to subdivide L3s into various interest groups. This could be a way to continue discussions in smaller groups. The danger in breaking up the leadership is that you still want there to be some upper management communication and coordination. I don’t know that the PCs alone would suffice for this, and creating a second tier of management here starts to smell a lot like L4 and 5 again. To counteract that, I believe that more project management should fall to L2s and L1s. L3s are experts at a lot of things, but project management isn’t necessarily one of them. I believe this is a similar divide to the way L4 was split up between events and program. It’s a split that we should continue to embrace down the line.

Various policies that encourage unbridled growth should be reevaluated. One such policy that was recently brought up is the “train 2 judges in the last 12 months” requirement to advance to L3. While the actual number of new judges that comes about because of this may be small, it sends the message that growth is a priority.

An important consideration is that not all communities are at the same place in growth, and the Program should be sensitive to these differences. However, I believe it is more important to send the general message of slow growth now and deal with those communities on a case-by-case basis to encourage the local leaders to pursue independent courses of action that differ from the overall message. Having slow growth policies ready to go would also be helpful for when those communities catch up and reach a point of oversaturation.

My three core points have a lot of interplay. If we seek to slow down growth and emphasize making judges better, then feedback and emphasizing strong mentoring relationships plays a role in that. If we want to increase representation, that is going to lead to a swell in the number of judges, something that we should prepare for by slowing down growth in general.