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Tuesday, April 12, 2016

To Four and Back

Back in 2009, during my L3 panel, I memorably told my panel that I wanted to be L3 because it was the next step in the process, and that eventually I wanted to be L4, and then L5...

Around the same time, at a Grand Prix, I told people that my judging goal was to become L4 so that I could Head Judge a Grand Prix someday. I also told them that my non-judging goal was to run a marathon...

To understand these statements is to understand me. I'm driven. I'm passionate. I express those things openly and honestly. And I take the long view on things.

It took me five years to meet my goal of running a marathon. During those years, I thought about it a lot. I trained for it. I thought about quitting on my goal, but ultimately I kept going because it was something that I was passionate about it.

It took me even longer to get promoted to L4. During those years, I did roughly the same. Both took longer than I expected way back then.

I see a lot of judges who have lofty goals. "This is how I must have sounded to people," I think to myself when I see these proclamations on Facebook. I can't blame people for doubting me, because I am now the doubter. But while I may doubt, I resolve to not stand in your way because you may be like me. You may keep trekking for years.

Around 2011, two years after my promotion to L3, I thought that it might be realistic for me to get promoted. It wasn't. I didn't. There was also a point where I thought it might be realistic for me to get kicked out of the Judge Program.

I had moved to Virginia to work for SCG for the first time, and I slotted into what I believe is my natural role in life, shadowy second to a strong first. My first in this case, as he has been for many years since, was Jared Sylva, my manager at SCG and Regional Coordinator for what was then the Southeast Region (basically what is currently the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic Regions combined).

Florida, as is its way, was causing drama, and I started snooping around and asking questions, as is my way. Until I got a sternly-worded e-mail from the Godfather of Florida, Sheldon Menery asking me why I was meddling in his state. I thought that was it for me. The proverbial cement shoes. Ultimately, I didn't get the shoes, and somehow I became good friends with many of the judges that I was snooping on.

I think it was in 2012 that I started to think that I didn't want to get promoted anymore. I'm not quite sure if that was true, but I certainly said so a lot. It was probably like when you are attracted to someone who you think is "out of your league" and you tell yourself that you aren't interested even though you are. It's a defense mechanism to keep yourself from getting hurt. It had taken three years, but I finally started to see the gap in where I was and where I wanted to be.

The same was true for my other goal. Living on the East Coast, I had become lazy and fat, and nowhere near the shape I had been when I ran my first half marathon in 2010, just before leaving California. Two things happened and things started to turn around for me.

First, I became Regional Coordinator for the Northwest Region at Pro Tour Return to Ravnica in October 2012. This happened while I was still living in Virginia, but a move to Portland, Oregon was already in the works.

Shortly after that, I made a weight loss bet with Kali Anderson, the "Battle Cat Challenge" and started to take running seriously again.

Both of these things changed my life, and really put my life onto the right tracks. Working as RC showed that I was willing to work for the Judge Program, and not just for my own goals. I believe that this has always been true of me, but I certainly haven't shown it, and I may very well have been lying to myself.

In 2013, I settled into the region I was coordinating and ran my first marathon. I may not have thought about L4 all year. (Probably not true.) Being RC gave me the space to do the kind of Grand Architect-like planning that I enjoyed.

Then it happened. IT HAPPENED.

Kevin Desprez approached me about L4. I want to say that this was at Grand Prix Nagoya in April. He may have approached me about it at an earlier event, but I was more focused on my RC duties. But by April of 2014, the end was in sight for my two-year plan as RC. As an aside, I'm very happy to see the the 18-month terms in place the various leadership positions.

By GP Chicago in June, I had said yes to the dress and several people congratulated me privately as we set up a plan to hand off the RC position and announce my promotion. In July, we started the process of vetting my replacement as RC, Jeremy Behunin.

Then my world fell apart. I won't comment on my divorce other than to say that it happened.

It led me a real dark time in my life. I received a lot of support from my friends. I owe them a lot, and I wouldn't be where I am today without them. One of those friends was Jeremy, who I asked to be installed as my replacement as RC immediately rather than wait. And I asked for my promotion to be put in indefinite hold while I worked through things. I was sad. I was angry. I did things that I am not proud of and got a warning letter. I also won't dredge up the details of that other than to say that I have apologized sincerely for my actions.

I thought about quitting judging.

I didn't quit. I can't quit it. I love it too much. But my relationship with the Program and my reputation had been damaged. For a long time, I shied away from asking if L4 was still on the table because I was afraid of the answer being no, and I again defaulted to a defensive position of saying I wasn't interested at the time.

I was still interested. I still wanted it.

I moved back to Virginia to take (approximately) my old position at SCG. I finally felt happy, and over the summer of 2015, I finally started to make noise (privately) that I was ready. But they weren't ready. This was about the time that discussions were starting on the future of the Judge Program. In fact, I participated in one such discussion at Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar (October). I was brought in on these discussions as if I was already on the inside, but I wasn't on the inside.

By now you know that part of the discussion was about abolishing Levels 4 and 5, so while I was trusted to participate in this planning, there were people who felt that it would be disingenuous to promote me to a Level that wouldn't exist in a few months.

This dragged on for months and I did my best to keep my stiff-upper lip. For the second time, I felt so close and yet so far. In some sense, I had the part that mattered the most, the respect of my peers. They had acknowledged (twice!) that I was worthy of promotion to L4, but for the second time I would be denied the public accolades. Was that important to me?

Yes and no. Despite all of my big goal-setting and social media bluster, I am a rather shy person. I turn off my Facebook wall on my birthday because I don't want a thousand people all posting on it.

But I talked with my girlfriend, Sarah, and we felt that a public showering of love was important less so for me, but more for the public. I am a known, public figure in the Judge Program, and we felt that they deserved to celebrate my promotion (and we wanted to celebrate with them).

As the calendar turned to 2016, that seemed less and less likely. The changes were solidifying. 4 and 5 were going away. I resolved to travel less.

That was when Grand Prix Vancouver hit my schedule. Originally, I hadn't planned on going, but they put out a call for more judges, and I thought "why not?" Then due to the expected attendance, Jared, the Head Judge, put me on the schedule as a Support Judge, meaning I would be wearing burgundy, something I had previously done only at Japanese GPs and the strange, all-burgundy World Championship event.

I thought that would be it. I thought they would promote me there. Obviously it didn't happen. In retrospect, I suppose I could have asked (I was even rooming with Jared at the event), but again, gotta be coy.

On Sunday of the GP, I sat down with Jared, Aaron Hamer (WotC Judge Manager), Kevin Desprez (L5), and Chris Richter (L4). We talked about the upcoming changes. We talked about me. They told me that they did believe in me, and that they would push for an answer to the question to finally be resolved by the following week at Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch.

By now you know that this was the event where I was finally promoted to Level 4. Even as Aaron told me (on Wednesday?) that it would happen and that I should book a flight for Sarah to come to Atlanta, I didn't believe it. Even as Kevin, the Head Judge of the Pro Tour, told me that they would announce it on Saturday, I didn't believe it. (In fact, they announced it on Friday. I'm actually not sure if I misheard him, or if this was the final little fake out.) Even as Jared stood up and started to talk about me in front of the assembled judges, I didn't believe it.

Was it self doubt? Did I feel like I didn't deserve it? Was it all of the twists and turns that this journey took? Do I believe it now? Yeah, I guess I do.

The response was overwhelming. John Temple told me that the post announcing my promotion on the Magic Judges Facebook page got the most impressions in history (or something like that). My Twitter feed blew up with mentions and favorites. People in the hotel bar on Friday night kept coming up to congratulate me. It was everything I thought it would be and had wanted for so long.

And it was all set to go away. The clock was ticking before I even picked it up. Yes, I knew that this was the reality, and I was okay with it. I needed this, more badly than I realized. Not because 2008 Riki needed to rack up this achievement. But because 2014 Riki needed this closure.

So yes, I did know that I would be Level 4 for just a couple of months. The rug wasn't pulled out from under me. I made the most of my time by judging a single tournament as an L4, a 21-player IQ in Roanoke. Funny how things work out.

I don't think the short tenure diminishes my promotion (or Matteo Callegari's, who was L4 for an even shorter time that me). This isn't about what I did as an L4, but what I did before it in order to reach that point, and what I will continue to do regardless of the number that is next to my name.

I'm still in pursuit of big things. In fact, I want even bigger things. I want to run an ultra marathon (50+ miles). Yeah, that's crazy. For judging, my focus right now is to promote the cause of feedback and reviews, increase global participation in it, and on a more personal note, to help all the great judges around me get to Level 3. The show must go on.

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