Sunday, August 10, 2014

GP Portland and the Side Show Judges

Yesterday (8/9/14) I played in GP Portland. It was a Team Sealed event and my teammates were Adam Shaw and David Lyford-Smith, two fellow Magic Judges (L2 and L3 respectively, although Adam is a former L4 recently returned to judging). It was really fun to play with them and I especially enjoyed our interplay during deck build, as I snatched up the aggro Boros cards and DLS took the Grindclock. Adam quickly settled on Mono-Green with a Twin Pines Mauler. We ended up 2-3 on the day and dropped. It was fun playing, and I especially enjoyed our interactions with all of our opponents.

What I didn't enjoy was our interactions with judges. I understand that it is unusual to see high-level judges playing in events of this caliber, and I'm okay with drawing a crowd. Jeff Morrow pointed out that I bring another level of celebrity factor to the table, in general and also by being the RC of the NW where this GP took place. Again, that's all fine. In Round 1, several judges birded our match in plain clothes, presumably before their shift started. They said nothing, acting as spectators should. I also want to say that I did not mind all of my friends asking what our record was when they ran into us between rounds. Although we didn't play as well as we would have liked, I had no shame about losing, and appreciated the support I got from people. It's very important that I establish that. Asking about our record, cheering or commiserating with us, is perfectly acceptable.

What I did take issue to was judges stopping by our match and saying things unsolicited. Two examples:

I lost my match and was packing my stuff up to move over to help Adam, who was now in a tight Game 3 to decide the entire team match. I play with the lounging Brian Kibler playmat. With the recent update to USC - Minor, I've seen a lot of chatter about where the line is on various things. One of those lines that gets discussed is anime girl sleeves and playmats. How much skin is too much? When does a provocative pose cross the line? This judge apparently thought it would be funny to say "I think that playmat is a little too provocative." I said nothing, gave him a glare, and moved over to help Adam.

Another round, I had finished my match (don't remember if I won or lost), and moved over in between David and Adam to be able to help both of them. Earlier that day, we had overheard a judge saying that you could not move chairs around to sit between your teammates because it would be a fire hazard. That's reasonable, but puts the 3rd player in an awkward position. Standing behind your teammates puts you in a position where you can see their opponents's hands, and that isn't fair to have an extra set of eyes with that vantage point. To solve this, most 3rds would crouch or kneel behind their teammates. That's what I was doing, with my legs extended out into the aisle. The aisle was narrow enough that my legs were over 50% across the aisle. A judge walking the aisle said "Excuse me, but you're causing a fire hazard by kneeling like that." I wasn't sure if he was serious, so I looked up, and he said something that made it clear that he was joking. More glare, more silence, and back to watching teammates.

There were a couple of other times that judges stopped by our match and said stuff, but I don't remember the specifics too well. Those last 2 struck out because I was already salty from losing a few rounds in a row, and I was really fed up with the constant needling. At past events, I've gotten judges watching my match say things like "I'm going to hang around and watch you for Slow Play." I also see a lot of judges take pride and joy--PRIDE AND JOY--in giving a fellow judge playing in an event a penalty of some kind. There's also the typical "Oh, you lost? I guess that's why you judge."

The strangest part about all of this is that non-judge players, are super friendly and supportive when they see me playing. Some of them are downright giddy. And at least locally, perhaps because I've played a lot recently and had moderate success, I don't get comments like "I thought judges were bad at playing." This could also be a factor of several other prominent Portland judges being fairly successful players.

I get it. These are typical ways that friends show affection through jokes and ribbing. And while I advocate for judges to treat players as friends (certainly versus as enemies), there's a point where things can get too familiar, and it seems that judges playing in tournaments is one of those points. You see, when a judge plays Magic, they are making a choice. You should respect that choice, and treat them like players. If you are "friends outside of the tournament," maybe some friendly banter is appropriate, but that should be seriously tempered and evaluated on context. Would you go up to a player who had just lost a match, even a good friend, and make a joke about their playmat being inappropriate (when it clearly isn't)? Would you stop by just to comment on how you want to give them a Warning? I certainly hope not.

If you do want to make a comment, you should think long and hard about it. If you've got that level of rapport with the player, then good. That's a start. If it doesn't make you look like an ass, then better. And here is where context is king. There are other players around. They may or may not know that the player you are talking to is also a judge. Now you just look like you've drive-by douched someone. Good job. I'm often left to deal with the aftermath of explaining that I am a judge and that other judges are getting their yucks at my expense. I often get sympathy from my opponent, because yes, it does suck... constantly.

And there's the kicker, Mr. Comedian. You aren't the only one. It happens almost every round, sometimes twice in one round. There is a pervasive culture of this type of judge-on-player/judge abuse, and I'm tired of it. When I Tweeted about my negative experience, several other judges threw in their comments that it had happened to them. Why are we so supportive of each other when we are working, but such dicks to those who choose to play? I don't know. I've done it myself in the past, but after this experience I will be curtailing that behavior, and I encourage you to call me on it if I ever do it to you in person or online.


  1. Two guesses as to why judge on judge-player ribbing happens:
    1. The judge feels that strong about his community that every judge is his/her good friend, even if they don't know you well, and that's how they would treat a good friend.
    2. Subconsciously they're upset that you're not on the 'correct' side of the battle lines and want you to judge instead.

  2. If I thought it was funny at the time I would never hesitate to jokingly tell someone I did not know that their playmat was inappropriate or that they were causing a fire hazard. I really struggle to see why a glare was called for on your part in either instance you provided. That you didn't find it funny because you were salty about losing is not their fault.

  3. I agree completely with Alex. As a judge, I have both participated in, and received this type of good-natured ribbing. I am going to try to curtail it from now on, because I was under the impression that we were family. Family should not offend other family members to either of their humiliation. I would guess, being an RC, that you spoke with both judges and explained the situations (calmly of course) to each of your judges. Having a bad day means that sometimes we are more sensitive to things that would never have bothered us before.

  4. I'm sure this comment will be washed over, especially since I'm going to keep it anonymous and somewhat brief, but I find it hard to believe that you're honestly surprised at this kind of behavior.

    The entire Magic community is built on social ineptitude and one-upmanship, which often blend rather poorly. These qualities are taken to an unparalleled level with judges. The competition takes form in several different forms, such as quizzical grilling on hypotheticals, the hierarchy of tiers which promotes talking down to those whom are presumably subordinates, which isn't limited to other judges, and of course the constant struggle to be noticed in the system to receive highly sought after duties which offer sizable compensation. Although this last trend may see some reduction with the new Exemplar program, or at least I would hope.

    Judges can present an often alienating clique, and it attracts certain kinds of people, just as different forms of Magic (e.g. Competitive & Casual) will. It doesn't seem strange to me that you would be treated in a needling way by by some higher level judges given my personal interactions with different parts of the judge community. Obviously your recognizability and success in the judge program magnify the degree to which you were exposed to antagonism, but I don't believe you experience is unlike that of others, I think there are some players and maybe even other judges that experience reactions similar to this from some members of the judge community.

    The player's experience with judges is a facet of tournament Magic that I'd like to see explored. To my knowledge, there hasn't been an attempt to gauge player satisfaction from the judge community despite the fact that judges are there for players. Someone wrote in an article concerning improving Magic tournaments as a whole [and I don't have the source at the moment] that the current metrics for if an event was run well are based on round times, if there was adequate space, and how many appeals were overturned. I'm yet to play in an event where I was asked what my experience with those running the event were in any fashion. Obviously in polling this data, we'd find an outspoken minority, but the goal should be to see what the feelings of the player-base are concerning those running the tournaments where they are the patrons.

    I failed a bit at the brevity of this comment, although I feel there is considerably more to say on the matter, although honestly I hope that I'm a part of the minority with my feelings and experiences on the matter. In that same vein, I hope that in the future you don't experience this kind of behavior from fellow judges again, although this clearly isn't an isolated event for you, since you've stated that it happens in nearly every event.

    I'll check back on this comment and if the response to this isn't immediate deletion or otherwise overwhelmingly negative and dismissive, I may be willing to talk a bit more on the matter.

  5. Why is it judges seem to have to sense of humor? The examples at the start are VERY obviously meant as a joke and only a person who takes life too seriously in general would fail to see that. Kinda sad really..

  6. Guys,

    This is a level 3 judge who also happens to be the NW Judge Coordinator. If he is telling you this kind of behavior is inappropriate, THEN STOP. Once you put on that judge shirt, you become a representative of everyone else who wears one as well as the DCI and Wizards. Your superior is telling you this behavior is uncalled for and that it should not happen. Respect what he is telling you and stop poking at the players. You are there to do a job, not to torture the people playing in the tournament.

    Maybe you should really consider everything you're saying when you have that judge shirt on, because it reflects poorly on you and everyone else who wears one.

    I'm sad that this even has to be addressed. It makes those of us that take our judging seriously look like we don't care because certain people are making the players have a bad experience. This needs to stop guys. Period.

  7. Several of the comments suggest that I didn't get that they were jokes. I get it. What I am saying is that this is like making a joke to a police officer about eating donuts... when you yourself are a police officer. That's a shitty way to treat each other.

  8. i held off commenting on this for a few days, trying to clear it in my head what i actually feel about all this. i can absolutely understand both sides of the "argument", and ultimately... i think both of them are extreme. there is a pretty great amount of judges that i feel close to, almost like family. would i rib at a cousin during a tournament? you bet! i imagine a lot of other judges feel the same way, and this is what is actually causing the problematic behavior you saw/we all see.

    that said, obviously if the recipient of the joke did not take it well, it was not proper. there could be many reasons for this - timing comes to mind. something that would be funny in-between rounds could definitely be annoying and a distraction while you are trying to think on your current game. another thing would be repetitiveness - one could come and make a joke, not realizing that about a million people did the same before him (i recall the awesome classification of jokes in _The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress_... funny once). other options abound.

    in the end, it should all be about balance: judges should learn when and what jokes are okay and what ones are not, and at the same time player-judges should take the time to talk to (and educate) the offenders - not necessarily immediately, but at some convenient point. to go back to the cousin example - i would totally expect if anyone of us is not happy with anything, that they would go talk to the other person, like grownups tend to do. a serious talk or even a fight will not break our family relationship, and i think similarly nobody should go home bitter over something like that.

  9. As a non-judge I cannot feign to understand what it is like to interact with players but I have to agree with Ricky that at a certain point being "overly" friendly removes a lot of the respect that judges deserve. I ran into a situation this weekend where a judge came over to collect our match slip and was insistent on establishing who had won and lost before we left. I generally enjoy this approach as it establishes proper information in recording match results. Unfortunately the judge was not able to pronounce my name, an issue I have no problem with. What was a problem was that he continued to ask what it was while constantly ignoring me and talking to people outside of my match for non judge related issues. After repeating my name three times to him, he said "Seriously someone help me, who won this game?". I lost my ability to remain calm and started berating him about how I had been repeating my name to him over and over while he subsequently ignored me. Another judge then noticed me berating him and immediately came over to grill me on why I was treating him in what could be conceived as a hostile manner. After an explanation the entire issue was sorted out and everyone moved on, but I was left with a definitively negative feeling for the judging staff as a whole. While I know that this is not entirely fair it should come as a reminder that judge's behavior reflects beyond just those involved. At no point would I like judges to take themselves so seriously that they stop enjoying what they do, but at least a little more composure while acting in judging capacities could prevent misunderstanding that negatively reflect on the community as a whole.

  10. Hi Riki, I know and recognize the feeling.

    Something I try to teach my kids is that a joke is only a joke if all parties in the joke think it is a joke. If one involved person thinks it's inappropriate, it probably is.

    When I was playing in GPs there were always a few judges who felt the need to watch me. Or to make 'funny' comments, or to point out play mistakes, or to watch me misplaying and point that out to me and deal with them ("here's your warning sir"). Since a former L5 is infallible right? Well, I'm not better than anyone else in terms of playing and I do make mistakes.

    When genuine interest and curiosity turns into a negative experience a line has been crossed.