Monday, September 21, 2015

My Thoughts on the Magic Judges Hall of Fame

Today I cast my 2nd catch up ballot for the Magic Judges Hall of Fame. This isn't about who I voted for, although I'll tell you that (Toby Elliott, Mark Brown, Scott Marshall, Jason Ness, and Yoshiya Shindo). This is about who I didn't vote and a potential problem that the Magic Judges Hall of Fame (MJHoF from here on out) faces in the future.

I'm a fan of sports, sports hall of fames, and sports hall of fame debates, especially for Major League Baseball. Who should be in, who shouldn't, and why are fascinating discussions that go to the core of why I love sports: statistics. For MLB HoF discussions, these form the core of the debates. Should someone with 500 Home Runs automatically be in? (The answer was yes before the steroids era.) Is On-Base Percentage more important than Battling Average?

We see a similar thing for the Pro Tour Hall of Fame. The discussions are all about Pro Tour Top 8s, median finish, GP wins. Those discussions interest me for the same reason the baseball ones do. There is no analog to those with the MJHoF. There are a few numbers associated with judging, like GPs and PTs judged, reviews written (and heck maybe we can dig up numbers on Warnings given) but none of them are fundamental to the art of judging in the same way that they are for the other HoFs.

In the absence of concrete stats that matter we are left voting with our gut a lot more, and that ends up being a lot more personal. I have personally met all of the people that I've voted for on the two ballots, and I find it exceedingly difficult to vote for someone who I haven't met personally. I know that disqualifies a wide swath of people on the first few ballots. I've read all of the kind things that my peers say about these individuals, but without the personal connection I can't get behind a candidate emotionally.

At the top of this post, I mentioned that this was about who I didn't vote for. Here are a few names from the ballot: Riccardo Tessitori, Alfonso Bueno, Shawn Doherty, Chris Richter, and Steven Zwanger. If you are currently involved in the Judge Program and/or have been to a GP in the past few years you should know at least one of these people. They are great judges. But are they Hall of Famers? And if they aren't--if I don't vote for them and publicize my ballot without them on it as I've done--how do I look them in the eyes and work with them at a future event. Heck, Steven Zwanger is someone who I sit less than ten feet away from at my day job at StarCityGames.

While I did put a lot of thought into my ballot and feel comfortable with who I voted for, it sucks to make a negative value judgment ("Sorry, I don't think you're HoF worthy") about friends and coworkers that I will continue to see on a regular basis. For sports HoFs there are rules in place so that players are only eligible for induction some set number of years after they retire. This isn't the case with the MJHoF, although the very first class, the old Emeritus level, did used to be for retired L5s. The first catch up ballot from a few months back included two very current, very active judges in John Carter and James Lee. How weird is it to work alongside a Hall of Famer?

The PT HoF has the same issue of active players being eligible for induction, but there it is actually a benefit because the voting is so stats-driven. If someone doesn't get your vote, you can point to a stat and say "3 PT T8s isn't enough. If they get a 4th, I will consider them." Several people have failed to get inducted in their first year of eligibility then gone on to pad their numbers a few years later. This is actually an evolving aspect of the PT HoF that I like and the discussion on what is Hall worthy has changed over the years.

When making the decision to leave some people off, that idea did play in my head that they are still active enough that they can do things to pad their resume in the future, and I might vote for them at a later time. For two of the names on my list, their active judging career is over (Jason Ness and Yoshiya Shindo) and a third, Mark Brown, semi-retired but may be on the road back to a more active global role. I felt that my votes were much better used on those names because they aren't as likely to significantly pad their judging resumes from here on out, while the Riccardos and Zwangers of the Program still have plenty of gas left in the tank.

But will I be able to convince myself to vote for them in the future? If they are Hall worthy, then I should vote for them right now, like I've done with active stalwarts Toby Elliott and Scott Marshall, right? That I didn't do so means that I don't find them Hall worthy, and again there's that negative judgment about my peers, and what should be a celebration of great judges ends up feeling like a pooh-poohing of good-but-not-great judges.

There's also the problem of the small ballot. I voted for Mark on the first catch up ballot and he didn't make it in (he got 25.3%, the highest total among judges who didn't get inducted--the line for induction is 40%). I feel obliged to continue to vote for him... until when? Until he gets in? And if doesn't, my ballot is perpetually locked in at one spot smaller. Or more because Shindo-san is probably not getting inducted either, since he is relatively unknown outside of Japan.

This makes me think that we need a mercy rule, or a second mercy rule. I believe the current rule is that any judge who receives less than 10% of the vote on 3 consecutive ballots will be removed. Yes, that makes the upcoming ballot huge because it has every survivor from the first two ballots as well what I dub the "Ballot of Death" (named after various soccer "Group of Deaths"). John Alderfer, Jared Sylva, Jeff Morrow, Frank Wareman, Cristiana Dionisio, and me among others. Yeah, all those names and I'll still have some number of holdovers. At least I can't vote for myself. And this problem only gets more difficult every time someone I don't vote for doesn't get in. At some point, my ballot may be a bunch of judges who get 10-39% every year and stick on the ballot perpetually. Something should be done about that sooner rather than later. There needs to be a mechanism for removing people in the 10-39% range after some number of years. It's possible that a deadline will boost their candidacy. Plenty of people in the MLB HoF have made a late run and been inducted in their last year of eligibility due to the urgency of their expiring candidacy.

I'll be honest with you. I want to be in the MJHoF. Well, that's not entirely true. The Hall itself is somewhat meaningless. They haven't cemented what the promotional gift is. A ring? A plaque? Those are just things, and I already have plenty of medals from running races that I don't display on my mantle. Being "enshrined" in an online Hall of Fame boosts my profile as a Magic Judge, but I already feel like I have one of the more public profiles in the community.

It's the recognition from my peers that stands out the most as being "valuable" to me. I've had a few people tell me privately that they will be voting for me on the next ballot, and that means more to me than a gift or having my name on the marquee. We should tell each other how much we matter to each other rather than wait for a HoF ballot to tick their name off on. The latter is just so impersonal. It's the former that I really want, and it seems like being inducted into a HoF would just be a substitute for that, albeit on a mass scale.

At the end of the movie Remember the Titans, the two coaches share a moment together and one says to the other "You're a Hall of Famer in my book." It's an important moment because the coach was not inducted into the High School Football HoF because he chose to work with a black coach (race relations are a big part of this movie). That moment captures my feelings pretty well. It's that peer-to-peer recognition--to have someone you have worked closely with say it--versus a voting body, even one that is made up of your peers, that means the most.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Pro Tour Magic Origins in Vancouver

Judging a Pro Tour is a truly special experience. There is a natural tendency to want to downplay it as "just like any other tournament," but let's not kid ourselves. This is the biggest stage and making rulings there can be fraught with the anxiety that you'll be the next Internet sensation, and not in the good way. I was certainly very nervous on my first ever ruling at a PT in Hollywood 2008. It didn't help that I got appealed. My heart nearly jumped out of my chest as I waited for Sheldon Menery to finish up with another appeal. But in the end, things worked out. Sheldon upheld my ruling, which was nice, but the bigger boost to my confidence was when he gave me a shoulder pat and said, "Good job."

Seven years later, I flew out to Vancouver, Canada for my fifteenth Pro Tour as a judge (2 attended as a scorekeeper). The Pro Tour has changed a lot since my early days. Back then, it was a full on extravaganza akin to Grand Prix events with a full slate of open public events. Staffs were larger to accommodate these events, and it was a great way to network with judges from around the world. GPs tend to be much more continentally insular with just a few international judges per event.

Today, the Pro Tour is just the Pro Tour. No public events (although Sunday does feature a bunch of side drafts for players). It's a nice, comfortable 400-player event with an all-L3+ staff. That kind of experience is great for the players because it cuts down on straight-up incorrect rulings. It's also great for judges because that much experience means that stuff just doesn't tend to get dropped because there are too many sets of eyes watching everything.

At the Pro Tour, one of my primary functions is to translate for Japanese players. There are quite a few of them on the tour, and many of them are not proficient at English. A further problem is that Japanese people are likely to nod a lot to questions and politely say "yes" to questions like "Do you understand?" even if they don't. At GPs, it is fairly standard practice to try to make a ruling despite language issues, working through the common language of Magic: the Gathering. Even if you enlist the help of a translation judge, that's all that they're there for; the initial responding judge still makes the ruling.

Things are a little different at the Pro Tour. Many judges, like me, are specifically brought in for our language proficiency and we are basically on call for such situations, up to and including when I'm on lunch break. After all, the show must go on, and this is the pinnacle of Magic Judging and Customer Service. In many cases, I get called in and just take over the ruling, which is counter-intuitive to everything else I've ever done in judging and takes some getting used to.

I have a functional conversational level of Japanese; I could live in Japan comfortably, although my vocabulary and cultural knowledge has atrophied quite a bit. But for judging, I have difficulty with two specific aspects. First, Magic has a lot of specific terms that I've had to learn and add to my vocabulary like "trigger." Second, I'm not great at investigations in Japanese. It's just something that I haven't had enough practice with.

Fun role of the weekend: Draft calling
Since the Pro Tour is all Level 3+ Judges it's often hard to find unique experiences to have. Draft calling is one of those experiences as only 2 people get to do it per Pro Tour. I e-mailed HJ Toby Elliott asked for and received the opportunity. (If you want something, one of the best ways to make it happen is to ask.) I'm pretty sure it was my first time calling a draft since 2009 at Worlds in Rome.

Just before the draft started, Tournament Manager Scott Larabee made a special announcement: it was my birthday. I normally try to keep this on the down low, especially hiding it on Facebook because I don't like to have hundreds of randoms posting on my wall. (One solution is to not be friends with so many randoms, but that ship has sailed.) Having this announcement made was surprisingly okay because I have a lot of history with players on the PT, and even the people I didn't know, it felt okay to get a passing "Happy Birthday." (Still never post this salutation on my wall if you know what's good for you.)

As for the actual mechanics of calling a draft, there's not much to it. Find an app, make a chart, or use basic lands as flash cards. Whatever works best for you. Specifically for the PT, I made sure to speak a little slower than normal (Right? That's slow!) because of the number of international players present. I made one word slip when I said "pass right" instead of "left" for the first pack, but caught it immediately. Other than that, everything went fine.

Rules question of the weekend: NAP controls a Ghostfire Blade enchanted by Ensoul Artifact. There are no other creatures on the battlefield. AP casts Dromoka's Command with the modes "Target player sacrifices an enchantment" (targeting Ensoul Artifact) and "Put a +1/+1 counter on target creature" (targeting Ghostfire Blade). Does the Ghostfire Blade end up getting a counter?

Most judges on site said no, because the Ghostfire Blade is no longer a creature by the point where the second mode of Dromoka's Command resolves. (Spells resolve in the order that instructions are printed, so the enchantment is sacrificed first.) However, a few holdouts including me, said that the noncreature Ghostfire Blade would get a +1/+1 counter because target legality is checked just before the spell would begin resolving. Once it starts resolving, it doesn't care about target legality and the spell will try to do as much as possible.

There's some contention that the "as much as possible" means that the Command won't put a counter on the Blade because the instruction is "target creature." But there's no real rules precedent for that to be the case. Ultimately, the ruling was confirmed by at least one guru, and that's what we went with.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Good Practices #5 - I Find You Appealing

This one comes from Jason Lems (Level 5, Madison), by which I mean that he was the first person that I saw do it, and as always the possibility exists that he cribbed this practice from someone else. That's part of the beauty of the Judge Program. As Jeff Morrow says, "At every event your goal should be to steal an idea from someone else."

It's very common for the Head Judge of an event to tell his or her staff the following:
"If you have an appeal, come find me and tell me that you have an appeal. That should be the first thing out of your mouth. Interrupt what I am doing unless it looks like another appeal or investigation."

Appeals are a natural bottleneck in the system and it's important to clear them as soon as they arise. However, that bottleneck can get complicated when you get this type of appeal.

"I have an appeal. So Active Player cast a morph. It was a Den Protector by the way. Non-Active Player cast Dig Through Time in response. He didn't find a counterspell or anything, so the morph resolved. AP immediately flipped his Den Protector and returned 2 Deathmist Raptors to the battlefield. NAP cast Bile Blight on the Den Protector. AP said ok and put the Den Protector in the graveyard, then returned another Den Protector to his hand for the first one's regrowth ability. I ruled Drawing Extra Cards - Game Loss, and the player is appealing that."

Note how this story takes a while to reach the actual ruling that is being appealed. The original morph and Dig Through Time plays are irrelevant to the ruling, but judges often relay this kind of information to the Head Judge because the players told them this whole story, and they don't want to leave anything out.

Jason's addendum is to follow up "I have an appeal" with a brief explanation of the ruling. Examples of this could be:
* It's a rules question involving an exploit trigger.
* It's a life total dispute.
* It's a Game Loss for Deck/Decklist Problem.

Explaining this up front puts the Head Judge in the right mindset and let's him or her focus on the relevant parts of the story.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Is It Missed #5 - Surrak, the Hunt Caller

You missed your trigger, so call me maybe.

Over the past few months, I've had growing concerns about Citadel Siege's beginning of combat targeted trigger. The only reason I didn't write about it in this space was because Citadel Siege was a rare, so showed up rarely in Limited, and wasn't a big enough player in Constructed to warrant writing about.

As it turns out, Citadel Siege is beginning to see some fringe play, and will likely continue to build up steam in Constructed, but it has been completely usurped by Surrak, the Hunt Caller. This guy is the real deal, unlike his alternate timeline self. (Weird how many of the former Khans became better cards in the new timeline.)

Let's say you control a Polukranos, World Eater, a 5-power creature, and cast Surrak, the Hunt Caller. This gives you the 8 power you need for formidable. You turn both of your creatures sideways and say "Attack for 10." Your opponent calls over a judge expressing concern about the Surrak trigger. Is it missed?

Surrak has a targeted trigger, so the rules require you to choose a target before you pass priority next. However, what's going on here is that you're executing a shortcut. As it is illegal for the Surrak to attack the turn you cast it, it seems clear that the shortcut is "move to combat, target Surrak with his own trigger, declare Surrak and Polukranos as attackers, deal 10 to you."

The problem is that's a lot to cram into the shortcut "attack for 10" and the less you say explicitly about what you are doing, the more chances you take that you could be missing something in the sequence, and you are leaving your actions open to interpretation. The trigger rules state that "the controller must announce those choices" not "the controller must heavily imply through their actions."

One case when the rules are clear that the trigger is missed is when a player uses a typical combat shortcut. "I'm ready to go to combat" and "declare attacks?" are two common examples of these. These shortcuts " offers to keep passing priority until an opponent has priority in the beginning of combat step. Opponents are assumed to be acting then unless they specify otherwise." Combined with the missed trigger rules that state that you must announce targets when the ability is put on the stack, the use of this shortcut means that you are passing priority in the beginning of combat step when the trigger should already be on the stack (and thus have a target declared). In order to not miss the trigger here you need to make it a part of your shortcut. "Go to combat. Surrak targeting himself" or some variation of that.

As with all "Is It Missed?" entries, this policy applies at Competitive REL. Let me know if you want me to write about missed trigger philosophy at Regular REL as well.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Good Practices #4 - What's My Name Again?

This practice is one that I've been mulling for a while. Recently I saw a player, Brian DeMars put it into use at an event, and decided that it was a good time to write about it.

At larger events like SCG Opens and GPs it is inevitable that some number of players have to use the restroom when the round is ready to turn over. Maybe they were playing in one of the last few matches of the round. Perhaps they kept walking by the restroom and saw a ridiculous line, and they've chosen the beginning of the round to try to snipe an open stall. Or it could just be that nature calls at that particular moment.

In these situations, players are instructed to seek out a nearby judge and tell them of the situation. If you don't, you're risking Tardiness infractions. While it sucks to issue a Game Loss to someone who was taking care of a natural biological function, we can't let the excuse "I was in the restroom" slide because this is such an easy lie to tell. Or not even lie at all; if you're late coming back from a smoke break, just stop by the restroom and you're technically telling the truth.

It used to be that when a player came to me with this situation, I would write their name down, go to their match, and inform the opponent of the situation, sometimes sticking around until the player arrived in order to issue a time extension. That's a fine practice time permitting, but that isn't always the case, and if the judge can't make it to the match, that's when things get complicated.

As soon as the round starts, the opponent is going to call for a judge and be told that he wins game one. Then the player is going to return from the restroom, call for a judge, and explain where he was. That's when the question is asked:

"Which judge did you talk to?"

Since the average player can't name the average judge, this leads to an awkward stand off where the player is scouring the hall looking for that person he talked to five minutes ago. I actually had this happen to me, and eventually had to take the player's word for it that he had spoken to a judge. The opponent was not happy about the lack of a free game win.

Enter Brian DeMars at SCG Cleveland. When he had to go to the restroom, he came up to a cluster of judges, and one of them took point of the conversation. After getting the ok to go, Brian asked for the judge's name and wrote it down on his life pad. It's such a simple thing, but it revolutionizes this whole interaction. Instead of putting the onus on the judge to hunt down Brian's table, Brian can simply arrive at the table, call for a judge and say that "Judge X ok'd it." From there it is a much simpler verification process.

Players, get judges's names. Judges, give your name out (and make them write it down) when you give the okay for a restroom break.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Good Practices #3 - Breakfast of Champions

They say that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. I don't know if I agree with "them"; I'm pretty partial to the ice cream meal. But I guess there's some good evidence that shows how much more active and effective you are when you've eaten breakfast, and that is something that translates to a good day of judging. But I want to touch on something more specific than "eat breakfast."

Team Lead breakfast. This was a practice that I first encountered when working events Head Judged by John Carter; I believe the first time was GP Boston 2009. Details on this are sketchy. My inbox seems to think that Frank Wareman was the HJ, although I do know that we planned on splitting the event (the first time in the United States?) so Carter was HJ2. We met for breakfast at a hotel, which was probably the staff hotel, back when TOs booked such things. All of the L3/TLs were invited.

If you're the Head Judge of an event, this type of breakfast does a few important things:
1) It ensures that your leadership is fed and energized for the morning.
2) It also means that they will all be on time. (Unless your whole breakfast group is late...)
3) It gives you time to go over some of the important bullet points of the day. More and more, this type of communication happens via e-mail or judgeapps forum posts, but let's be honest. We don't always read those, and there's nothing like a face-to-face talk to get important points across.
4) If you so choose, you can show your generosity by picking up the bill. This is not a necessity. I've had it both ways, and I've done it both ways when I was the Head Judge.

There are a lot of reasons why this whole idea is no longer feasible at GPs. The size of the staff, not to mention the shift schedules. No centralized staff hotel. However, it strikes me as an activity that could still hold a lot of value for the above reasons at the PPTQ level all the way up to SCG Opens, where I've done Team Lead breakfasts to great effect.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Is It Missed? #4 - Whisperwood Elemental

This ruling came up at Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir, and I've seen it play out at a few SCG Opens as well.

AP controls Whisperwood Elemental and says "Go." Is the trigger missed?

Many judges say yes. "Go" passes the turn to your opponent, so clearly you are moving past the point where you should have resolved the trigger without having acknowledged it or taken the physical action. However, this position is contradicted by the official tournament shortcut from the MTR:

"The statement "Go" (and equivalents such as "Your turn" and "Done") offers to keep passing priority until an opponent has priority in the end step. Opponents are assumed to be acting then unless they specify otherwise."

Note that the shortcut ends in your End Step, not your opponent's turn. You're giving your opponent one last chance to do something on your turn. If they don't have anything to do, they can begin their turn. Where this gets weird with Whisperwood Elemental is that this triggered ability can be on the stack when you pass priority in your End Step.

Normally, a player will pass the turn in some fashion like "Go, make a manifest" or "Ready to go to my End Step." These are pretty clear situations where the player remembers the manifest trigger and is getting ready to take the appropriate action.

It is likely that a player who says "Go" with a Whisperwood Elemental in play has forgotten their trigger. However, policy now allows for players to have forgotten a trigger as long as they acknowledge it before it becomes relevant to the game. Prowess is the classic example right now. You can cast a spell, forget about prowess, but you're okay as long as you remember before the creature deals damage.

What this means here is that the Whisperwood's controller has until he or she takes an action or he or she allows the opponent to take an action that could not have been possible. Cracking a fetch in the end step? That's fine. Trigger could still be on the stack. In fact, just about anything could happen in the End Step with that trigger on the stack. There are a few minor things possible for the controller to do that make it clear that the trigger is missed. Discarding for the turn or ending some turn-based duration effect. But for the most part, it is allowing the opponent to take an action that signals the death of this trigger.

The most typical action here is untapping permanents, with drawing a card being a close second. The tricky part about this is the part about "allowing it to happen." If Whisperwood player says "Go" and the opponent untaps, is the trigger missed? Yes, unless he or she immediately points it out. "Whoa. You can't untap yet. My manifest trigger still has to resolve." If that isn't your reaction to the untap, then you've missed your trigger.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Good Practices #2 - Calling Out Table Numbers

During the classic "End of Round" (EoR) procedure judges report to a central hub of information, the Scorekeeper, or more likely a proxy for the SK who has a printout of Delinquent Matches which are still playing when time is called in the round. I'll have more to say on another occasion about various ways to improve this task, but today's tip is about as simple as it gets.

When the EoR judge assigns you a table number to go scout out and you pass other judges coming back to the hub with match result slips, call out the table number you've been assigned.

"Hey, do you have table number 56?"

If they answer no, you keep on moving towards table 56. However, if they answer in the affirmative, stop, turn around, (do not pass Go), and return to the EoR judge for another assignment. Congratulations! You've just saved yourself a meaningless and time-wasting trip to table 56, which in case I forgot to mention, happens to be at the opposite end of the GP hall.

Today's good practice helps save your judge legs, optimizes your time, and preserves judge resources throughout the day for the tasks that we actually care about, watching games of Magic, not walking to tables where the players stopped playing Magic one minute ago.

If you're coming back from a table with a result slip, you should also get into the habit of calling out what table(s) you're coming back with to judges that you cross paths with, spreading this good practice from both sides of the traffic.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Good Practices #1 - Tracking Infraction Counts

Good practices is my name for a new feature where I blog about a judging practice that I use, or have seen others use, which could be useful to you. I don't like the name "best practices" because that seems a little presumptuous.

Today's good practice comes from Level 3 Judge John Alderfer. I don't actually remember where I picked this up from him; he and I tend to meet once or twice a month at a GP near you. At this GP Unknown, I discovered John doing something unusual on the back of a match result slip. What I saw was something like this:

John Alderfer, Player name, GRV W(1) Cast Wrath for wrong mana.

The unusual part was the number in parenthesis after the penalty ("W" for Warning). When I approached John about this, he told me that he had been doing this for some time as a means of tracking the number of infractions the player had in that particular type.

At Competitive REL, there are upgrade paths for players who repeatedly commit the same type of infraction. For Game Play Errors (GPEs), which encompass GRVs, Looking at Extra Cards, and Missed Trigger as the most common infraction types, a third infraction in each type can be upgraded to a Game Loss at the discretion of the Head Judge. For Tournament Errors (TEs) like Slow Play, the upgrade clause happens with the second infraction. This is why judges are instructed to ask players if they've received prior Warnings.

The infraction count on the back of the slip is a good way to reinforce that practice of asking the players. At a recent tournament, I actually caught myself as I was filling out the back of the slip. As I went to write the infraction count, I realized that I hadn't asked, and proceeded to do so.

There's also a good secondary reason to record this information. When a Scorekeeper (SK) enters penalties into the Reporter program, they will often flag players who have received multiple infractions of the same type and inform the Head Judge (HJ). There's a few reasons why a HJ might want to know this:
* If the infractions are suspiciously advantageous for the player, he or she may want to investigate for Cheating.
* To inform the Floor Judges, so that they are aware of the situation and make sure to ask players if they have received prior Warnings.
* To talk to the player and make sure that they are aware of the potential ramifications of additional infractions.

As the size of Magic events approaches bonkers status, there are also plenty of events now where the SK isn't able to keep up with the flow of result slips and penalty entry doesn't happen until a later time, either that day or the next. In such circumstances, judges recording the infraction count can serve as the check for the SK to talk with the HJ. The infraction count on the slip can also lead to situations where the SK notes a discrepancy. This could be because of incorrect information from the player, or from a judge recording the wrong infraction. Either way, it's a good opportunity to consult with judges and double check all of the information.

This is a real low cost way to do a lot of things that are useful for tournament operations, and something that I'd like to see become a world-wide practice. Thanks, John for showing this to me.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Super Sunday Series at Grand Prix Denver

Sunday for me was arguably the most important day of the GP Denver weekend as I was the Head Judge of the Super Sunday Series (SSS) Sealed event. Unlike some other GPs, this one only had the SSS Sealed with no companion Standard event. It was somewhat serendipitous that I had been chosen to HJ this event. Just a few weeks prior I had started an L3 discussion about whether it was appropriate for L2s to HJ SSS events. My goal wasn't necessarily to set a hard line that L2s could not HJ SSS events, but more to spur discussion on the topic and make sure that we as a Program were taking these tournaments seriously and staffing them appropriately.

I've had similar talks with regards to everything from StarCityGames Opens to PPTQs. When discussion turns to giving people opportunities to learn, I become the voice of caution and conservatism. Opportunity needs to be balanced with the proper support and feedback. Arguably, a SSS at GP should afford those things because there is usually an L3 support judge assigned to such an event being head judged by an L2.

I don't think that I was intentionally placed on this event as a statement ("If you think L3s should be doing this, then you go and do it!") because Side Events staffing was decided by Kyle Knudson, who wasn't privy to the L3 discussion directly.

Part of taking an event like this seriously is preparation. As soon as I knew what judges were on my event, I sent messages to the L2s about what roles I wanted them to fill, not traditional "Team Leads" (since we didn't have enough judges on staff to form full teams) but more like "Task Leads." I also try to send out a message to team members if I am a Team Lead on Day 1 of a Grand Prix. (I just sent one out to my GP Vancouver team for this weekend.) "Pre-gaming like this establishes a good mindset for judges going into the weekend. It can get a few administrative things out of the way. Basically, it's a low overhead way to put set up good expectations.

Setting good expectations applies to players as well. That starts with announcements during the player meeting. Since this was a Sealed event, there were a few more administrative details to talk about versus a Constructed event. For the latter, I'm a big fan of Jeph Foster's methodology: "I know that you guys came here to play Magic, so I'm going to keep this short." I know that I spearheaded the "food and drink pun" movement, but there's a limit to how much players are willing to tolerate with announcements.

Do we really need to announce the Rules Enforcement Level (REL) at the beginning of every tournament? Does the average player care? Does the average player even know how this is relevant? If the answer is "no," that's ten seconds we should be shaving from the announcements. The same applies to announcing the Tardiness policy ("Zero and ten"). If you don't announce it, does it give grounds for a player to complain? "If you had announced the Tardiness policy, I would have gotten here sooner." We don't tell players that the policy for tapping a Mana Confluence for mana without taking a pain is going to be a Warning. Seems like players should just... not be tardy to their match. There's also the matter that the tardiness announcement could be made at any time, like say after Round 1 pairings are posted. Not every announcement needs to happen during the player meeting.

Back to Denver, we had a slightly slow start to the day because we had to distribute sealed product and GP Denver playmats... and coupons for GP Denver playmats. Registration for Saturday's main event went above and beyond expectations. This left the supply short for Sunday, and we had to hand out coupons for players to write down their shipping address. The growth of Magic continues to amaze me. Denver has traditionally been a 700-900 player GP city, and suddenly we get over 1500. That's crazy.

The SSS had 238 players, a little over the 9 round threshold. That's a good day's work for sure. Part of the challenge for an event like this is the ever-changing cast of judges that you get. For a GP Side Event, you usually start with an AM shift of judges, get a relief/PM shift at some point in the late morning or early afternoon. There's also a rotation of judges who come over from other side events. Since the SSS is the premiere Side Event on Sunday, the Side Events Lead makes sure to keep the event well-staffed and supported. That's all well and good, but there does reach a point when more isn't always better. I think this event had a healthy balance for most of the day.

In terms of rulings, it seems like Missed Triggers are still a thing that players are getting used to, especially with things like Prowess. It's the same old thing as Exalted years ago (or every year if you play Modern). You don't have to explicitly announce the trigger when it happens. You just have to make sure to acknowledge its existence before it would matter in the game. For the vast majority of cases with these two triggers, that means when the creature deals damage. Keep in mind that there are a few "Prowess-ish" triggers that work differently. Mistfire Adept, for example, has the second "flying prowess" trigger. This trigger targets and you have to announce your target when the ability goes on the stack.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Grand Prix Denver Tournament Report: Saturday

Have you ever noticed how tournament reports inevitably mention what the person had to eat that day? This seems like a holdover from player reports, although it's something I always found unexciting when reading those. And now you've gotten the meta-section that uselessly complains about this useless aspect of many tournament reports. Enjoy!

Saturday of a Grand Prix used to be a hectic scramble as hundreds of people needed to register for the event at the last minute. With online preregistration and no Saturday morning registration, we've traded that scramble for a new one: the player meeting. Now every player with a problem will try to fix their problem after the player meeting seating is posted because they just walked into the hall five minutes ago. These problems might include:
* A player who is unable to find their name on the seating. This is actually several potential problems:
@ The player is not registered in the event. Usually the solution is to direct the player to a TO representative to confirm payment and entry into the event.
@ The player's name is spelled wrong on the seating. Again, several possible reasons for this depending on how pre-registration was done.
@ The player didn't look down both columns on the seating. Ugh. This is an unfortunately common problem. Players are used to finding their names down the left-hand side of the sheet for pairings (since the opponent's name appears down the right-hand side). However, for the player meeting, and only the player meeting, DCI-R saves space and paper by putting names down both columns. I would say that probably confused 1-2% of the players at every GP. That doesn't sound like a lot until you have a dozen extra people coming to the scorekeeper who don't really need to be there.
* Bye issues. This is another one where the range of issues can range from "legitimate problem that we fix" to "players don't pay attention." However, all of the blame for this can't be put at players' feet. Yes, a large number of bye issues stem from players who completely misunderstand the Planeswalker Points system when it comes to earning byes. Then again, where the heck is this information? Why does it keep changing so much? And why, oh why isn't there a graphic on a player's PWP site that just explicitly says "You have X byes from this date to that date"?
* Players whose names are misspelled on the seating in a way that still allows them to find themselves. This is an issue--I hate it when people spell my name wrong--but it isn't a pressing issue. You've found where you need to be seated. Just go there and we'll deal with the fact that your name is spelled "Jon" instead of "John" later. Your first match result slip is a good place to do this. Just cross out your name, and neatly print the correct spelling. If there is some ambiguity as to whether it is actually you or not, you can certainly come up and check, which sometimes leads to...
* There are two or more players with the same first and last name. Yuck. This actually happened with 3 players at GP Denver. Unlikely as this is, 2 of them being a father-son duo made it slightly more likely. However, when the third person with the same name showed up, some kinds of hell broke loose. Okay. Not really. Situations like this usually require middle initials to be used. If that fails (because of same middle initials), we end up adding the 4 digits of their DCI number, or making one of them middle initial "X." Some day, I aspire to be Riki X Hayashi.

All of these issues often add up to 50+ players lining up in front of the Scorekeeper right after seating for the player meeting go up. For Denver, we tried to triage this with a team of judges in front of the Scorekeeper. Some of them had a second copy of the seating to weed out the easy problems like not looking down the right side to find their name. This cleared out about a dozen or so, and the rest had to the figure out the various problems listed above. I didn't write down how long this all took, but it was a significant amount of time, and it is an ongoing problem at GPs now.

Once we got the event started, I was responsible for the Pairings, Result Slips, and End of Round Procedure. A few anecdotes about these various procedures:

With close to 1600 players, we had to put up two physical copies of the pairings, or risk terrible traffic jams. Even with two copies, we had terrible traffic jams because the room was narrow and many of the players going to different pairings boards had to utilize the same traffic lanes. One board, the second set of S-Z pairings went almost completely unused because of its location... by table #1. Go figure. Even as the tournament shrunk towards this pairings board, players insisted on walking to the farther board because papers were posted on it first. Not everything can work perfectly.

An important note about posting pairings on the Grand Prix zip banners. Do not cover up the "Magic: the Gathering Grand Prix" logo with any tape or paper. This is a branding thing. Also, do not cover up the Planeswalker's face with any tape or paper. This is also a branding thing, but as someone recently pointed out, it is also a practical thing. We often tell players to go to their pairings at "The Ajani banner." Covering up the face reduces the effectiveness of the announcement and makes it harder for players to find the right banner.

Result Slips
The GP kit now comes with a super-industrial strength paper cutter. Unfortunately this thing is so heavy-duty, or just plain heavy, that you cannot use it unless you put on a very secure surface, otherwise you risk breaking the table, the paper cutter, or your ego, as things go flying in a horrible mess. It also happens that the strength and pressure needed to use the super cutter might result in said cutter breaking under the pressure. Yeah. Be careful.

End of Round Procedure
As I mentioned, the hall for the GP was very long and narrow. This lends itself to a lot of walking for judges. "Go to table 1..." all the way across the freaking hall. Oh, the match finished and the slip slipped by you in the crowd? Go all the way back and report. "Yeah, we got the slip right after you left. Go to table 3." Sigh. To cut down on this, I assigned some judges to do some "Zone End of Round" which is something that I plan on writing more about in the future. The short version is that a judge scouts out a zone at the extremes of the hall and begins sitting judges on matches manually without having to wait for the "Delinquent Matches" printout. (Never call them "Outstanding" because there is nothing outstanding about Slow Play.) Ideally, this cuts down on a lot of the walking back and forth. When your match finishes, you just need to walk the slip to the judge who is responsible for the zone to get a new assignment, not all the way back to the stage. There's also the added benefit to this procedure that sometimes the Scorekeeper isn't in a position to printout a Delinquent Matches sheet because he or she is too far behind on results entry. Even with super-SK Nick Fang at Denver, he couldn't keep up to have this ready to go when the clock struck 00:00.

That about covers my day on Saturday of the main event. I do want to call out a standout performance by Elliot Raff, who handled Zone EoR for the front 90 tables. Not only did he get the zone scouted out, judges sitting on matches, but he also reported in when all of his matches were covered by judges, a useful piece of information for the home base team. Thanks for the work, Elliot.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Grand Prix Denver Tournament Report: Friday

Recently it was noted that L3s aren't required to write tournament reports, something that all L2s were recently required to do as part of a mass re-certification/ renewal effort for the level. The implication being that it is shitty that L2s have to do this thing that L3s don't have to do. I dunno. L3s have to do a lot of things that are far more diverse and difficult in order to attain and maintain their level. But there's nothing that says that we can't write tournament reports, and with my extensive background as a writer, I thought I would go ahead and do so to entertain and hopefully educate some folks.

GP Denver started with a Mid-day Grinder shift for me. When I arrived on site at 1pm and checked in with the AM Lead Casey Brefka I was surprised to learn that he hadn't yet launched any Grinders even though they were scheduled to start an hour ago. There was also a significant line over at the Sides registration area--probably 30-40 people--which was in a separate part of the hall. Apparently the TO staff was trying out a new form on registration and seating for Grinders that would change everything (TM). The new method involves giving each player who pays for registration a slip of paper with a table number. They are instructed to go sit at that table and wait for their Grinder to launch. When the Grinder fills up, the judges in the Grinder area begin the event, first by collecting all of the slips and taking them to the Grinder Scorekeeper, who enters the information into a bracket. the bracket is printed out and given to the judges to run the event. In theory, the judge can now run the entire Grinder from this bracket, and the next interaction they have with the SK is to hand them back the completed bracket.

I'm all for innovation and trying new things, but it's always a bit frustrating when these happen at events for the first time and they seemingly haven't been tested until then. See: GP Richmond Mini-Masters or GP San Antonio new tournament software. Yes, these things need to be tried out live at some point, but it seems like when they are, there are a bunch of problems that could have been solved by a group of judges sitting down for lunch. Look, my intention is definitely not to throw the good folks at Cascade Games under a bus here. All I'm saying is... I'm available for lunch.

There were several delays related to both the new registration and seating schema, and some of it stemmed from the distance between the registration area and the play area, as judges would have to walk back and forth to get some basic information like whether a Grinder was full or not. After 3 or 4 Grinders launched, the experiment was abandoned. Scorekepers moved from the registration stage to the Grinder stage where the judges were stationed, and we transitioned to the traditional Wizards Event Reporter (WER) method of running the events.

The transition went very poorly, unfortunately to the detriment of the players. What happened was that between switching over registration styles, an attempt to renumber the tables in the Grinder area, and a shift change for the judges, one Grinder just got lost in the shuffle for close to an hour with neither the players nor judges realizing what had happened. Also, as we transitioned the existing Grinders from form of the bracket to WER input, the SKs fell behind in building their tournaments as they had to manually enter all of the old pairings and results.

Part of the lost Grinder was definitely my fault. I had a lot of balls in the air with the various transitions and I simply forgot that we had a Grinder that was close to launching. If I had it all to do over again... I would remember the Grinder. No, but seriously, even if the error is a lapse in memory, there are valuable lessons that you can glean from an incident like this. I think I was definitely trying to do too many things at once here, also known as the classic error of not delegating. If I had delegated a few of the tasks, I would have had more bandwidth available for the big picture. It's possible that I still might have forgotten about the Grinder, but less likely.

After a lunch/dinner break, I handed over the reigns of Grinders to Mike Combs, he of the late shift Grinders Lead, and headed over to assist with On Demand Events. Here I was under the leadership of Nathan Wang, where we had an unfortunate interaction. He asked to go out and cover the floor. I thought it was more important for me to stay close to the registration area and continue to assist with launching the events, which were going along at a very fast clip due to the TO's decision to allow the "Infinite Constructed Bracelet" to be used on On-Demand Constructed queues. Most of the Standard and Modern queues we launched had 6-8 Bracelet owners, while 4-player Commander queues averaged 3. However, my response to his request was a short "The floor looks fine."

From my perspective, this was a dialogue. He could have very well just responded to this with "Well, it's not fine. Several players have had to wait a long time for judges to respond. Please go cover the floor," and I would have had no problems following his instructions. Unfortunately, Nathan thought that I was defying him, and that my "The floor looks fine" was me flat out rejecting his instructions with a slammed door. It's possible that something in my tone of voice conveyed this, or it could be a general "L3" aura thing, but I can assure you (and I assured Nathan afterwards) that neither myself or any other L3 judge is going to shy away from a task given to us by a lower-level judge (Nathan is an L2) because we feel that we are above the task or resistant to being given instructions by someone who isn't wearing burgundy (the traditional color shirt for a GP HJ who is usually an L4 or 5).

This interaction with Nathan was brought to my attention later by John Carter. He's an L3 from Seattle, which is where Nathan is from, give or take, and he was working for the TO as a stage admin. Carter and I go way back, and he is someone who I have always looked up to in the Judge Program. Carter explained what he had been told by Nathan and several other people, and while it was a surprise to me that my words and actions had been interpreted that way, I was able to see my culpability in this situation. Despite my internal feelings, the words I said didn't leave room for the "dialogue" that I thought we were having, especially when wrapped up with this being Nathan's first time leading such a shift at a GP and not being sure how to interact with higher level judges assigned to his team.

Later on in the weekend, I got a chance to sit down with Nathan, and I apologized to him for my actions. I also explained my perspective on what had happened. In situations like this, I find that it is so easy to fall into excuse mode, and I try very hard to not to do that. Admit fault. Apologize. Explain but don't excuse. I thought our talk went well, and I encouraged Nathan to enter a Judge Center review of me because it's important to record interactions like this, and it would be a good growth opportunity for him to be able to write a review like that of a higher level judge. Never shy away from critical feedback.

This tournament report has gotten surprisingly long, so I'll sign off here and return later to write about Saturday and Sunday.