With the recent wave of bans for cheating dropping on various known Magic personalities, one of the most common questions I’ve seen is, “Why haven’t judges been catching these issues far earlier?” I’m going to break down the duties of a judge at large events to try to bring some perspective as to why people like this haven’t been caught by judges prior to this event.
Large Event Numbers
One of the basic rules of thumb for staffing large events is that one judge is needed for every 30 or so players, plus judges to handle external functions such as score-keeping, logistics, covering breaks, deck checks, handling product, and cash transfers. While there are numerous judges working on a specific event, there is a significantly lower number of floor judges that are responsible for cruising up and down the aisles, answering questions, and providing assistance where needed. It’s not uncommon that a single judge is responsible for being available for 50 players, or 25 ongoing matches. Generally these judges move around, making use of the old school teacher tactic that says proximity is one of the best ways to prevent problems.
Judges do stop to watch games, especially once time has been called or when they see a particularly interesting board state. But glancing down and totally understanding a board state takes a considerable amount of time, and the chance of catching an error simply by glancing at a game is pretty low. Additionally, if a table is shuffling, I don’t even bother to glance at what they’re doing. This is likely to change in the future, but there’s a general assumption that judges make that players are doing things right unless they see something to prove otherwise.
As a school teacher, I’m regularly responsible for a classroom of 30 students. I can tell you that it is impossible for me to catch every gum chew, food sneak, text message, note pass, rude gesture, or quiet comment that my students make. All of these things may be against the rules, but most of them are likely to pass by without my notice simply because of the volume of students I’m dealing with. Judging works very much the same way. What I’m looking for as I’m wandering through the tables is someone doing something out of the ordinary. When I notice a student sneaking a text message in class it’s not because I see their phone, it’s because I notice them staring at their crotch for a highly conspicuous amount of time. Catching every infraction isn’t a possibility.
While an argument could be made that more judges are necessary to provide better coverage, it is worth noting that judges are hired employees of the tournament organizer and cost a significant chunk of money to bring to an event. Generally, a significant number of judges travel to an event from outside the state because the available local judges are exhausted early in the process of bringing on staff. Bringing in more judges may mean having to pay more to cover additional costs of those traveling from further away. While bringing on more judges could be an option, the likely turn around effect would be a significant increase in event fees, which I’m sure most people don’t want.
But surely coverage judges are in a very different place. They’re generally watching over one to three games and can provide significant attention to what is happening in one.
One of the northwest judges I look up to most is frequently a GP coverage judge. Rarely does a weekend go by where I don’t see him on the stream at the coverage table. He’s a fantastic judge, incredibly knowledgeable of the rules, and catches stuff I feel I’d never notice. However, while sitting there, he’s responsible for fishing out tokens, entering life totals and cards in hand in the coverage computer, and communicating with the coverage team. While he’s in this spot, he is definitely available to handle rules calls, but his job at this point isn’t to watch each player like a pit boss at a casino. He’s got a lot of other stuff going on at the same time.
The Role of Judges and Players
Some people liken a judge to a casino pit boss, but this is far from the case. A casino pit boss is responsible for overseeing dealers that are stationed at each table. Cheating would require some very skilled manipulation or collusion with the dealer. This is a multi-tiered prevention system with people overseeing each level. In Magic, we’ve got a much higher ratio of oversight to players. In fact, most rules violations would go entirely unnoticed if it wasn’t for players calling for a judge. In reality, the first line of defense against cheating is not judges, but players.
Just as a judge is unlikely to catch a player that pays the wrong mana for a spell, a judge is unlikely to notice suspicious shuffling in one game out of twenty or more they are providing oversight for. In reality, it is the responsibility of your opponent that you play correctly. There’s even a Game Play Error violation that is given for Failing to Maintain Game State, which essentially equates letting your opponent break a rule and not noticing. The integrity of the game lies primarily with the players.
As judges, we assume that games are proceeding appropriately until we are called to assist. This doesn’t mean we don’t watch games for mistakes, but watching games ourselves is a very small percentage of how we find infractions. The vast majority of infractions are called by the opponent of the one committing the infraction, followed by a percentage of infractions called by players on themselves. Finally we have a small number of infractions issued by judges for errors they witness themselves.
Avoid Being Cheated
The best way to avoid being cheated is to know the rules yourself and watch your opponent’s play very closely. A large number of infractions aren’t intentional but still give the person committing them a notable advantage. Cheating only makes up a tiny percentage of infractions handed out at events. Even if you’re not catching a cheater, you might be catching a misplay that could significantly hurt you in the game. I wouldn’t work under the assumption that your opponent will do everything right. There’s often a significant advantage to catching their error and it makes the game fair for everyone involved. You can only do this with a strong grasp of the rules. I’d advise anyone looking to play in competitive-level tournaments read the Infraction Procedure Guide and the Magic Tournament Rules available on the Rules and Documents Wizard Play Network website.
Finally, if you’re interested in becoming a judge, strike up a conversation with someone wearing black (or blue and white at a SCG event). Or find the judge of a local FNM, prerelease, or other event. If you can’t find someone locally, you can shoot over an email to your friendly Regional Coordinator who can point you in the direction of a local judge.