The Critical Path (Dispatches from Phoenix)

At dinner on Saturday at Grand Prix – Phoenix, a few of the older and more seasoned judges were doing some informal debriefing (read: ranting) and at some point, I was referring to the critical path and was a bit surprised to hear that this wasn’t a universally understood concept.

Pervasive in the software and business world, the critical path is, in brief, is a project management concept that identifies the longest chain of dependencies of a project that must be completed to finish the project, which then dictates the fastest that the project can possibly be completed. This is important for two reasons. First, any delay to tasks that are on this critical path delays the completion of the entire project (as opposed to delays in other areas, which are absorbed by the length of the critical path, at least until you delay them so long that they take over as the new critical path). Secondly, and more positively, finding ways to save time on the critical path will concretely speed up completion of the whole project.

At the end of the day, a tournament is actually just a large-scale project that needs to be completed, and it possesses a critical path like any other project. Dealing with bye and registration issues so the tournament can start. Printing and posting pairings. Collecting the last results and handling drops.

This isn’t actually a novel concept – I’ve talked about it at length under several different guises. However, there are some benefits to thinking about it specifically in the project management sense.

Everyone in the tournament – players, judges, staff – has the potential of being on the critical path, depending on how things go. But there are roles that are more or less likely to end up on it at various times. Any individual player, for example, is relatively unlikely to (unless you play incredibly slowly – we saw at least 0-0-1 result today, ick!). And some are obviously on it all the time – you do know what you signed up for, right scorekeepers?

For most judges and staff, though, your jobs will intersect with the critical path intermittently. One of three things will generally be true:

1) You’re obviously and currently on the critical path. If you’re the guy managing the drop list at the end of the round, and you’re still handling players trying to drop after the last slip has come in, you’re it. The tournament speeds up or slows down based on what you do. It’s important to understand the impact that you have here. At your average, say, 1500 player tournament, every second that you dally costs thirty minutes of person-time. Think about that for a second – it takes you under a minute of wasted time to eat a full day’s worth of time. And it works the same the other way, as you do things faster.

The moral of the story here is – whatever you’re doing … do it faster. Do it better. Find a way to be more efficient. If you’re sauntering, if you’re chatting, if you’re confused, you’re doing it wrong. Run (or, if you subscribe to the never run school of thought, power walk). Tell people you’ll get back to them later. As someone that believes that getting done faster is the top goal, few things irk me as much as someone on the critical path not realizing that they are, or not acting accordingly, and those of my ilk will ride you relentlessly when this happens. It’s nothing personal, you’re on the critical path.

(Side note for judges: some people are temperamentally suited for this sort of thing better than others. If you’re not, think about the sorts of roles that you might want to seek out or avoid, but it’s absolutely a skill that you’ll want to work on as you advance your career, since there’s only so far you can go avoiding it.)

2) You’re not on the critical path, but you could become so if you do what you’re doing wrong. You’re giving a ruling during the middle of a round and it starts to drag. Turns into an investigation. You can’t quite decide how to rule. Suddenly, you’ve just given a 15 minute time extension. If you’re lucky, it’s two aggro decks and they finish early anyway. But maybe they’re not, and not suddenly that’s the last match of the round and everyone’s waiting. You just caused a critical path shift and slowed the tournament down.

In this case (which is the usual case), there’s less obvious and urgent need to do what you’re doing faster right now, since a normal pace of progress will probably just be absorbed into the current critical path. Just make sure you’re keeping a sense of how things are going, how much time you’re taking, and whether you’re at any risk of becoming that long pole. Part of the art of judging is understanding when you’re coming up against that line and scaling your expediency accordingly.

3) What you’re doing has no risk of ever being on the critical path. It is true that there are some selected activities that work this way – we’re going to check as many decklists as we have time for and then move on – that are valuable in a timeboxed sense and help provide better tournament integrity and customer service. Unless you’re doing one of these things, though, if you’re in this situation, you should probably think about whether what you’re doing is even valuable enough to be doing or whether you should be finding more impactful activities. Something that the tournament wouldn’t wait on oftentimes is something the tournament doesn’t even need.

This isn’t meant to be all doom and gloom and telling you to work harder. Effective critical path recognition and management can help you to make better decisions in the other way as well. If you’re hovering around the stage waiting for something to do while the last three matches are playing, you’re just standing around tensed up for no reason. Relax, sit down, take care of your ailing legs. You’re not critical path right now and you can’t do anything to speed the tournament up.

I’ve said it before and probably will many more times. Get done faster. But put some thought into doing it smarter – at the right times and with the right urgency – as well.

Papers, Please

Riki has done his usual insightful job summing up his experience running one of the Paper teams at Grand Prix – Richmond. I shall do my usual job having unsolicited opinions on said summation.

First of all, let’s make sure we don’t lose the forest for the trees. At a macro-level, we agree 100% on the goal – get done faster. Rather than hard and fast guidelines, though (as good as they may be), I’d encourage a slightly different perspective. Here’s my key bullet – different scorekeepers can operate very differently from one another. And different ones will care about different things (for example, some will be quite irritated if you don’t trim the tops off the top row of result slips, the ones that are a little taller by virtue of how result slips print. Others won’t care at all.). That doesn’t necessarily mean that one is right and one is wrong, or that one way is always better than another. At some level, comfort in your own system is going to produce better results than shoehorning yourself into an uncomfortable alternate scheme.

Communicate with your scorekeeper. Figure out how they like to do things. Observe the way they operate. Find out how to work best together to accomplish that goal. Guidelines are useful because they give you a starting point, and can help you from having to talk about every last thing, but as paper team lead, you and the scorekeeper have to work as a team at the start of a round, and being out of sync will become evident to everyone.

Case in point – taking pages off the printer as soon as they start printing. Generally I agree with the sentiment, if we phrase it as “start preparing the pairings before they finish printing”. The distinction here is subtle but meaningful – you can’t always assume that the first or only thing coming off the printer is for you, and if you work with a dynamically printing scorekeeper (more on this in the future), making that assumption will actually burn you time and possibly irk them.

If you’ve sorted out that the first printouts will always be your pairings and you’re careful not to take whatever comes next (and you really do need to be careful not to swipe the next pages, or to put them back in the right spot if you accidentally do), then great. Go with what Riki says. If not, though, you might wait until they hand them to you (not all at once, hopefully – they should be giving them to you as they come out) or until they tell you that the next set of printings is yours.

When taking down pairings, check with the scorekeeper to see whether they want a set returned to them. Some of them prefer to wrap their result slips with a set of pairings for easy finding of particular pairings in the future. If this is what they want to do, make sure that you return a full set, in order, and with the tape removed. This will ease the reuse of those pairings considerably.

If you’re having trouble with crowd control and getting out to the pairings boards to post things, consider taking a cue from some of the more experienced head judges and asking your head judge to announce when pairings are in the process of being put up, with a note to clear space for the judges that are trying to do so. Then keep your arm raised with them while you walk toward your boards. Having observed this in practice, there’s nothing quite like the feeling that you’re parting the Red Sea.

Riki’s touched well on some subtle points of traffic and pairing board layouts. I’ll go one step more subtle. When possible (without violating any other core traffic-flow principles), you should put A farthest from the stage and Z closest. Why is this? A prints first. If you’re doing it right and handing out pairings as they come out, A will be ready to go first, and then conveniently will involve the longest walk. This will help you get all the pairings up just a smidge faster – remember, every second counts.

Finally, remember that your job isn’t done when you’ve finished posting the pairings. Sometimes issues happen and pairings will need to be switched or pairings will need to be interrupted or found for some other reason. Sort this out with the other teams on the floor to make sure that you aren’t double-covering this role, but making yourself available back at the stage for those first couple minutes as the round gets started can make you a very useful judge. And if another team is handling this, then cover the floor for them to make sure that all the players are still getting great service.

At the end off the day, even these are still guidelines, and no guidelines are set in stone. Have the motivation to make things as efficient and cooperative as possible. Then think. Observe. Think some more. Let his lessons be a starting point, not a finishing point.

The Logistical Quirks of Large Tournaments

Some basic data that might be handy for people to know in the wake of Grand Prix – Richmond (and any future large tournaments).

Some basic ground rules before I get started, though:

1) Much of this stuff was originally devised/sorted out/turned into tools by the European scorekeeping cadre, so consider this blanket credit to them for much of this data. Federico Calo, Martin Golm, and others I’m sure I’m not even aware of should be recognized for doing the best they can with the tools we’ve got. Speaking of which …

2) This is going to be another one of those posts where, “well, the software shouldn’t work that way,” isn’t going to be a valid answer, unfortunately. For now, what we’ve got is what we’ve got and we have to do the best we can under those confines. Arguments that some of these “decisions” aren’t the best possible for tournament integrity are well founded and reasonable, they just aren’t anything that we can address with the tools we currently have on hand. It’s an issue that people know about, though, and it is being worked on.

All righty, let’s go.

First of all, let’s talk about the degrees of large. There are actually two different axes that people are talking about when they refer to large tournaments. In one sense, they’re just talking about a large number of players, and this runs into a potential software limitation that changes how we have to run tournaments that have more than 1998 players. In another sense, they’re talking about those big tournaments that need to be split into multiple flights, which tends to happen because of operational or staffing limitations.

These are two different types of large which are linked, but not the same. A tournament with more than 1998 players must be split, is the only rule – you cannot have an unsplit tournament that size. However, tournaments with less than that can be split or not at the whim of the staff.

For all practical purposes, this means we should talk about three types of tournaments. “Small” (< 1998) unsplit, small split, and large split.

The first of these is straightforward – it looks a lot like your friendly neighborhood FNM, if your store just got bigger and invited a whole lot more people. All of the logistics, rules, tiebreakers, etc … operate basically the same. The one exception is that this tournament is probably being run using DCI Reporter rather than Wizards Event Reporter, which means that you might get hit by the DCI Number checksum issue. Let’s set that aside.

The second are tournaments that stay under the software size limitation, but are split for staffing, space, or other reasons. This was quite common, in the past, in Grand Prix events in Europe, though is less common these days. Through some clever trickery, the aforementioned scorekeepers figured out how to separate out the tournament so that half of the players could be pulled out into a separate self-contained tournament, and then re-integrated back into a cohesive whole for the second day. The key here is that the split is a temporary condition for the first day, and from a calculation and reporting standpoint, the two halves merge into a single event in which we merely artificially bifurcated pairings. Everything otherwise works the same way you might expect a single tournament to work, including tiebreaker math, which will carry forward into the second day.

One quirk I will mention, though – the split does mean that some of the safeguards in place to prevent some irritating situations from popping up don’t work, which requires some extra vigilance from players and staff alike. For example – having the same player in the tournament twice is obviously a problem, not only from a tournament standpoint (we don’t love giving away free byes), but also from a reporting standpoint (since the system kicks this out as obviously illegal). It’s fixable, but non-trivial, since we have to remove the duplicate record of that player having been paired against somebody in the first place. Fortunately, this isn’t an issue because DCI Reporter will notice and reject the attempt to add a person a second time. Except … it can’t always once you’ve split things. So it’s very important that you make sure that you actually are missing before you ask to be added back in. It’s a rare tournament in which at least one person just didn’t pay attention to which flight they were in and went and got inserted into the other one.

Generally speaking, one of the scorekeepers will be primary, and they’ll be able to check both sides, so worst case, you should try and sort out which one that is and ask them to check if you really can’t find yourself, but much better to just be really careful to check the posted list and make sure you aren’t just missing your name (especially if you’re in the right-side column of a page – these lists are often printed with multiple columns in a page, unlike your usual pairings posting).

Finally, we’ve got the mega-giant tournaments, the ones that are two-thousand people and beyond, split into two, if not three or four flights. So far there’s been just the smallest handful of these, but all signs are that this might not be true for too much longer.

Here’s the gist of the issue here. DCI Reporter only supports a total of 2000 (technically, 1998, but who’s counting) players in a single tournament. To make day 1 work, we split the tournament down into manageable chunks that are under this number, but there’s a catch. These are truly separate tournaments that are not associated with each other at all, as the trickery used to bifurcate a single tournament into multiple flights and then recombine them still requires that all of the players who played, regardless of flight, can be inserted into the single combined tournament. The different trick used in this case is to rely on the fact that we haven’t (yet) reached a point where more than 2000 people qualify for the second day, so if we take all the people who make it out of day 1 and put them into a new tournament, we’ll stay under the magic number.

There are, of course, side effects to doing this. First is that we’d like to preserve as much data as we can as we create this new tournament. We can carry forward the points using a trick by which you can assign any number of points in value to a bye, so two placeholder players are created to play each other and then drop (these are the Placeholer Players you might have seen in the results/standings of Richmond) in the first round of the new tournament, and everyone else who qualified is given a bye with a value equal to the points they earned on the first day. This also explains why all the paperwork for round 10 (the first round of the second day) say round 2 on them – round 1 was this dummy bye round.

Tiebreakers, however, don’t work. They’re calculated based on the matches you’ve played and the other players you’ve played against and … oops … we just removed all that to get under the cap. This has caused not a small amount of consternation on Twitter. In technical terms, what happens to tiebreakers in a tournament of over 2000 people (and only in this case) is that your tiebreakers are reset, everyone’s starts day 1 with a bye, and then you play six more rounds. You’re paired based on overall record, though, rather than day two records, which is correct for the tournament at large but can make tiebreakers feel weird depending on whether someone has taken losses on day 1 (which don’t count for tiebreakers) or on day 2 (which do). Here’s the generalized rule that you should remember:

Tiebreakers reward players for playing against players who have performed better during the rounds that count toward tiebreakers.

A good rule of thumb for this is that losing earlier in rounds that count is worse, and losing later is better, but this is just shorthand and isn’t guaranteed (it just tends to mean you play weaker competition for more rounds, but you can’t say this for sure).

The “during the rounds that count toward tiebreakers” is the vital part here. In most tournaments, that’s all rounds and you can just ignore this. In these extremely large events, though, that is specifically referring to day 2.

There’s nitty gritty math involved in the tiebreakers which you can look up in the Magic Tournament Rules if you are so inclined. But the rule of thumb above will get you most of the way there in a practical sense.

Finally – because the match history is erased, we also don’t have a record of who’s played who. This means that playing somebody on day 2 that you played on day 1 of one of these tournaments is allowed and occasionally happened, In Richmond, one pair of players played in both rounds 9 and 10, back to back. Awkward!

Everything else is behind the scenes craziness to get all of these workarounds to actually work and beyond scope here. If you’re curious about anything else or anything else seems odd, though, feel free to ask.

Dispatches from Richmond

Grand Prix – Richmond. Second-largest Magic tournament of all time. More players, measured in thousands, than sleep, measured in hours. Plenty of things to be learned and stories to be told from the logistics of this gargantuan event, but for now, two areas I’d like to focus on, inspired by two judges who came in with the goal of avoiding being mentioned by name here. Talk about temping the fates.

First up – Shawn “Super Grande” Doherty (who reminds us that when in doubt, always buy the Super Grande. Long story from Valencias past), who sadly does not avoid this remedial lesson on result slips for both players and judges alike.

Let’s play a little game. I’ll show the result slip (with names and other identifying marks blurred to protect the innocent and guilty alike – the blurring itself is not a trick and never part of the solution) and you tell me what the problem is. A little later on, we’ll go over your answers. These are all real result slips submitted over the course of the Grand Prix, and if any of these or anything like this is you, then you’re inadvertently (I hope) contributing to making things harder and take longer. Ready to play?

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Phew. Answers to follow. In the meantime, an interlude inspired by David de la Iglesia, who I hear also was trying to avoid mention by name (Oops!), who wishes I would spend more time talking about happier things.

Credit appropriately, but steal shamelessly. There are good ideas all around you, and you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t steal the best of these and make them your own. A great example of this which has at least partially spread over the last year is Kevin Desprez’ drop list by player number, which speeds drop list processing by an order of magnitude at the small cost of creating the player number list so people can look up their numbers.

Here’s one that debuted in Richmond, courtesy of Riki Hayashi – the tilted result slip box, or simply “the wedge”, modeled by Riki and his first beneficiary, Kali Anderson.

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In Kali’s effusive words, the net effect of the tilted box is that people actually look and see that slips are lined up and are instinctively encouraged to orient their slip as well. Gravity assists and keeps things in a single orderly pile, which solves a lot of the problems that can slow you down during mass result slip entry.

Less new, but no less germane, David himself’s emphasis at the end of round on getting away from the stage and out in the field to find any matches that are going on. Still need to get to posting on end of round procedure, but the seek and destroy method that is the outstanding table list makes much more sense when it’s a small handful that need to be located than when there are still a hundred matches going on that simply need some widespread coverage.

And on the staffing end of the world, some interesting preregistration innovations coming from some late night discussions with Jared Sylva, which … well, that’ll be a story for the future, I suppose.

All right, enough cheerful for now. Let’s talk about those result slips, shall we? Some of these are player problems, some are judge problems – anyone can mess up a slip.

1) (Judge) You can infer from the front, but it’s clear from the back, this is a classic No Show penalty. Except … without the penalty in an easy to parse sense. Technically, the information is there, but by only putting the data on the back, now you have to flip the slip over, when a No Show is simple enough to express on the front. More problematically, the player who didn’t show up wasn’t dropped, which leaves the scorekeeper wondering whether that was intentional and the player should be kept in. In this case, it turned out just to be a judge oversight, but mash all this together and you end up with a slip that takes way longer than it ought to in order to decipher and verify.

2) (Judge) Closer … sort of. At least this says “No Show”. But who’s the judge? And why is the score missing? So really, just as difficult to file (though, pro-tip – just use yourself for no show penalties if you can’t figure out which judge it was, since it’s pretty straightforward) . And just as disruptive, because you have to skip that beat to think about it.

3) (Player) Why is this player’s name circled? If you haven’t picked it up yet, you will by the end of this post – the unusual is the enemy of the good (unless something actually unusual happened). There seems to be a small subset of players that think it’s helpful to circle the name of the player that wins. While this might ordinarily merely be benignly unnecessary, it also is the case that some judges circle names to indicate a penalty, meaning that this requires extra work to see if there’s a penalty. And again, anything out of the ordinary requires a bit of investigation, so just don’t do this.

4) (Player) Tardiness penalty here indicates a game loss. But the final score is 1-0. Was it probably the case that this was a 2-0 victory? Yes. Enough so that if time is short, we’ll just assume it that way. But is it possible that you didn’t finish any real games and the real score is 1-0? Yup. And it’s also possible that you just screwed up filling out the result dealing with the game loss. And either way … yup, another one of those results that makes you stop and think, which totally harshes our mellow.

5) (Judge) This one’s a bit more subtle. Looks like a no show that turned out not to be a no show, so the judge has crossed that portion out so that the player doesn’t get dropped. So what’s the issue here? It’s subtle, but as you see, there is a different penalty instead, and there isn’t the usual mark that suggests that you should turn the slip around to find it. The judge’s signature hints at this, if you notice this – turns out, the signature field is actually one of the least noticeable, though, as you’re moving quickly through slips, as it isn’t in the main eye flow. In this case, the weirdness of the crossed out no show will probably slow things down enough to notice and look, but it’s still safest to put a mark by the person getting the penalty …

6) (Player) … a mark kind of like this. Except this slip has no penalty. My best guess is a player left this mark, for a reason I can’t discern. Don’t do this. It looks like a penalty and slows things down.

7) (Player) Nothing here but scores and signatures, what could possibly be wrong here? Well, tell me – is that first number a 1 or a 2? Yes, next to the second number, it’s more clearly a 1 since the latter one looks clearly like a 2. But you did the comparison. Bam, flow interrupted. Please write your numbers clearly.

8) (Player) This is super-clear, and it seems like it ought to be a good thing to be explicit about what you’re doing, so this should be exemplary, right? Well … not exactly. A mark in the drop column can also be clear, and the note is text that I now have to stop, read, and parse. Disrupted again. You’re probably tiring of the recurring theme at this point, but keeping things normal is vital. The attempt at clarity is absolutely appreciated. I recommend you keep things clear for a drop by just initialing in the drop column.

9) (Judge) This is like 7, but it’s worse, because now it’s in a different pen, and in this case, specifically a red pen. This usually signifies a judge mark, and usually judge marks mean to pay close attention. You actually can infer quite a bit based on pen types/colors, but in this case, that backfires. There was no penalty or anything else here, was just a random mark.

10) (Judge) This is an interesting combination of lessons from 8 and 9. Different color mark means it was filled in after the fact, and red suggests judge. But it’s the winner dropping. This is, in and of itself, out of the ordinary. I actually had multiple cases of this over the weekend, and sometimes it’s actually the winner dropping, and sometimes it’s filled out wrong and the wrong person getting dropped. As a player or a judge, it’s vital that you drop the right person. And here is a case where we’re already dealing with something that isn’t normal, so take the time to make the note. “Winner dropping” or some other short note would clear this up quite well, and this is the sort of oddity that actually deserves a note to explain, unlike back in 8.

11) (Judge?) Simpler again. Blank spaces in the game results area are bad. They take some time to decipher – yeah, they usually mean 0, but not always. And in this case, the red pen gets me again … did a judge fill this out? Would that be because the opponent didn’t show? Are we missing a no show drop here?

12) (Player) One of them wants to drop twice? The other one doesn’t want to drop at all? I see this about once or twice a tournament. No idea what possesses someone to think we wanted the result written down twice, side-by-side, but there it is. Don’t do this. Marks in the drop column are serious.

13) (Player) Is that first player dropping or not? Kind of looks like a mark, that was then half-heartedly crossed off. I actually can’t remember whether this was a drop or not after we called him up, but I shouldn’t have to – what’s even worse than unnecessary clarity is total lack of clarity. Don’t make the extra marks if you really are dropping, and make sure you fully cross out or correct the mark if you aren’t. When in doubt, call a judge and have them help you.

14) (Judge) Game loss for … what? Probably tardiness. Which judge do I ask to confirm? If you do nothing else, when you issue a penalty, at least put your name so we can get details from you afterward if you remain busy.

15) (Both) I don’t know whether a player or a judge wrote that note, but there’s culpability here either way. A judge should be involved in this sort of situation. And once they are, they should make it clear what’s happening. Conceded and left for lunch, then is going to keep playing? Or conceded and dropped?

16) (Judge) It’s like the zombie 1, 4, and 11, but worse. There’s a penalty there on the back, but utterly no sign that it’s there. And the front is a disaster – 1 vs. blank?

17) (Judge) This one is super-subtle and also not that bad. All the data is there, but it’s in a place where it could easily be missed. The right tournament result will happen, as the player will get dropped, but the fact that there is a No Show penalty to assess might get missed since it was written in that nebulous signature place that is only sort of noticeable.

18) (Judge) Who is WS? There was more than one in this tournament. Assuming that I can recognize your initials or cat-scratch signature (in the case of the second one) is folly. Write out your name, please.

19 (Player) Sooooo many no shows. So many. This was round 8, and there were this may no shows, with under 300 matches total. These are a pain and take a ton of time – seriously, stop that.

20) (??) There’s no penalty written here, front or back, and the loser is circled. I never did make heads or tails of this, but whatever it was, whoever caused it should stop doing that.

Whew! Lots of ways to get these simple things wrong. Let’s band together and go for a little more of the good idea to steal, and less of the messed up result slip to deal … with.

Full Coverage, Part 1

(I desperately wanted some sort of punny title to this entry, but couldn’t think of a good pun that didn’t involve women’s attire, which didn’t seem apropos. Perhaps somebody can suggest something I missed.)

This is the first of what will eventually be (at least) three parts about coverage. In part one, I’m talking to you, the watch-at-home spectator.

Obligatory caveat, for those of you who haven’t already read the About page. I don’t work for Wizards of the Coast, and I don’t speak for them. All of this is my personal opinion/observation/speculation. That said, I might not be the one grinding the sausage, but I know a thing or two about brats.

Here’s my unfiltered coverage FAQ for the viewers at home. We hear many of the same questions or complaints, over and over and over again, and these are the answers that I believe most of my co-conspirators in coverage would like to tell you, if they weren’t too busy producing coverage or being too polite to tell it straight.

Before we get started, let’s agree on one thing. You’re going to say “wait, shouldn’t you just be able to do that if you just changed the software to do this, or if you just wrote something to do that?” I concede, in advance, that this is often true. That’s true about many problems in life. However, there are lots of things to do, only so many resources, so this is more about how things work than how they could work. Prioritizing the things that WotC might invest in, next to everything else they’re trying to do for Magic at large, is beyond the scope of this exercise. When I tell you how the software works, shake your head all you like, but take for granted that that’s what we’re working with. Deal? Great!

Q: Why does it take so flipping long for the pairings/results/standings to get up on the coverage site?

Obviously, this can be done faster. I believe, in fact, that SCG coverage actually does it faster. It is not hard to imagine a system in which the software running the tournament uploads the results as you go to some consumable form (e.g. web site). That’s not the system we have. Also not hard to imagine a system where it does so at end of round, which is also not the system we have. Remember, this thing was written back in the days where 600 people was a lot and coverage meant a guy writing a tournament report after the fact.

What we do have is an end-of-round export to a file, which then needs to be put onto a web site of some sort. Well, you can also imagine a system by which you’d have some sort of quick direct upload of that data directly onto the site that viewers can view – this is what SCG does (AFAIK). The WotC site is still not like this. I honestly don’t know the inner workings of how their site goes, but their system requires a producer at WotC to process and post on our behalf, and that same producer is posting everything else that is going up on coverage.

So we’ve got now, export from software -> scorekeeper handoff to producer -> producer processes and posts to site. The scorekeeper can be busy. Internet at the site can be spotty. The producer can be busy. Or someone can just forget. And suddenly, boom, long delay. Yes, we realize it’s frustrating. It’s something that’s harped on as something to be sure we’re doing as reliably as we can. But still, within the confines of the system.

Yes, this could be done better … nope, not gonna get into it. Remember, you promised.

Q: Why is there so much talking, just show us another match already!

We actually have matches going all the time that we could show you, we just think it’s funny to show you talking instead to make you squirm. Or reruns. Or web videos. Or anything other than those matches, because you can’t always get what you want.

No, seriously. Most of the time we’re not showing you a match is that there isn’t a match to show you. There’s two reasons for this.

First, there is a specific feature match table that is rigged up with all the infrastructure needed to bring you the match on video coverage. There’s no way to guarantee that the match that is being shown is the one that goes the longest. So if it ends early, that’s kind of the ball game. “Well why don’t you just move another table in?” It’s pretty darn disruptive to ask a table to move their match. I’ve seen it done before, it’s pretty nasty on the players involved, and coverage already messes with player flow enough as it is. “Well, why not just have more feature match tables with the right setup?” You’ll note that the Pro Tour does this, relative to Grand Prix, but it’s expensive and time-consuming to set up, and even so, no way to know that the match you start on isn’t the one that runs the longest of those. “Well why not just take the cameras mobile?” Well, tables on the main floor aren’t really spaced for this to work well, and there’s also computers and staff involved to bring all the information to the people broadcasting. And wireless is often not good enough to support this at the site anyway.

Secondly, maybe there just aren’t any matches to show. When the last match for a round ends, there is a real turnaround time to getting the next round started. You have to handle standings (if applicable), and pairings, and people have to find their seats. And shuffle. And deal with mulligans. This takes real time, and while we spend a lot of effort to minimize this time, at best, it’s still a measurable amount of time. So there’s nothing else to show you, unless you want to sit there and stare at people shuffling in silence, and even there you’re still dealing with some between-round down time.

Q: Why can’t we get the life totals updated all the time? Or when we’re peeking in on another match?

Players are keeping track of their life themselves, there’s no way for them to input their scores directly onto the overlay. Somebody on staff has to watch for and manually relay the life total changes to production in some manner such that the graphics get updated (sometimes this is through a graphics producer, sometimes this is direct, depending on the event). See all the possible error cases that can happen with posting stuff – a similar chain exists here. And when the Pro Tour does a live look-in on another match, that infrastructure isn’t in place to just grab the current scores and update them. This is something that was complained about enough at PT: BNG that I wouldn’t surprised if some evolution happened, but … damn, broke my own rule.

Q: Damn, this deck looks awesome, why is there no deck tech on it?!

Well, the deck owner has to agree to do it. And have time to do it between rounds. And it has to fit in the production schedule. Not at all a given.

Then why not at least give us the decklist?

If you were playing that deck in the tournament, how would you feel about all your future opponents taking a look at your decklist before you started playing?

But it’s Sunday, they aren’t using them anymore!

Have you tried typing a few hundred decklists before? I have. It’s not an instantaneous process.

Q: I knew that. Why are these coverage guys so dumb?

They’re really not. Not a one of them doesn’t draft themselves a mean draft deck. Sometimes mistakes happen, like in just about any broadcast (go trolling for people complaining about bad football announcers, or refs, and you won’t have to look very long …). But more to the point, they’re not necessarily talking to you. Yes, I know, you’re awesome at Magic. But the broadcast is for everyone. Even that kitchen table player who thinks, “hey, neat, maybe I should try this FNM thing.” In fact, especially for them. The coverage has got to be approachable and understandable for them in order to serve the purpose of expanding the reach and interest in the game at all levels. Sometimes the banter will involve basic questions as an excuse to get the information into the stream. That doesn’t mean the asker is dumb. It means they’re doing their job. If you’re too good for the commentary, then pat yourself on the back for being in the upper echelons of players, and feel suitably complimented. Then try and show some understanding for the people that someday you’ll be playing against and fueling the growth of the game that you care about.

Q: Why can’t you just tell me my buddy’s result when it’s done, you’re clearly typing them in as you go.

The software doesn’t have any systems for reporting live as we go. Anything like this requires somebody to manually process and watch for those results, and if we do it, you probably aren’t the only one asking. That said, at the Pro Tour level, if you ask in CoverItLive or in Twitch Chat, there’s an OK chance that I’ll help get you that info, because we have some extra staffing and bandwidth. At your average Grand Prix, though, it’s just too much process to handle with the staff at hand. It’s your buddy. Ask them to text you.

Whew. That’s the obvious ones off the top of my head. I’m sure I missed some. Stop complaining, try asking, and I’ll answer for you as best as I can. Just remember the rules.

The “L1 Problem”

(Was typing this as a reply to Riki’s Facebook post on the judge staffing problem, and it ballooned a bit out of control so it’s way too long to just be a reply to a post, so using this as scratch space. For those of you really only interested in tournament operations, this isn’t the post you’re looking for.)

I swear I saw a chart recently that would support this with data, but I can’t find it, so I’m just going to go with gut. You know pretty well how I feel about this, but for everyone else’s “benefit” …

The level redefinition, while I’ll be the first to agree has its issues, is kind of a red herring here. We could start calling them parakeets, or switch to a floating point scale, or apply any number of other labels, and while they definitely lead to expectation issues (in your example here, the disconnect between what L1 requires and what they’re expected to do at some events), the real problem is that you can’t label your way to higher quality.

Judge acquisition, like everything else, is a funnel. You try and acquire as many people as you can into the wide end of the funnel and then the strongest work their way down the funnel into the (for this metaphor, amusingly backwardly named) upper echelons. There’s an entirely separate argument to be made as to how far any particular person can go, whether or not the supply of potentially great judges has been exhausted, and the mechanics of human skill and potential.

In our case, though, the funnel sits sideways. The notion of a natural gravity of skill progression is, I’d argue in most cases, fallacious. Something has to do the work to push people down toward the areas that you need people to get to. We have some mechanisms in place for this, and always have – but they’re not only not growing to match capacity, they’re probably getting worse because of the increased load.

In pained metaphor terms, as the funnel has gotten wider (more events, more needs), we’ve thrown more and more people into it. These people aren’t like sugar, they’re more like flour. And the funnel is damp and sitting on its side. We have a small spoon to try and push people through, but that spoon isn’t getting any bigger and now it’s getting wet.

Label these people whatever you want. Won’t change the fact that the problem is the availability of skills, not the availability of a certain level or label, and I don’t think our capacity for growing people is or can remotely match what’s needed now using the way we look at things now – the pace of growth of the teachers is not keeping pace with the growth of the students, and our systems for teaching are pretty darn squirrely. For example, there’s much more online emphasis now, but witness the oh-so-many threads with dozens of judges thinking one thing and dozens thinking another resulting in a “we don’t have an official comment” or a “have to use your judgment”.

I’d argue that this problem started a lot longer than anyone typically thinks about – the PTQ switch from PTOs to stores. Probably necessary, and has accomplished many of its goals from a Magic perspective all-up. But PTOs had an incentive and the resources to grow their local judging staff as a first-class part of what they did (at least, the good ones did) in a way that stores just seem not to. That layer just doesn’t exist anymore most places – a lot of discussion goes on about the Opens being that layer between stores and GPs, but as you’ve said, they’re too big and that model just isn’t analogous. So what’s the new layer? Until we find some way to change the incentive structure for that layer to exist (“hey stores, we’re going to pay for the extra judge that you staff at each of your premiere tournaments so that we can use them as teaching opportunities again”), I don’t think this problem gets any better. But really, that’s just a spitball idea and I have no idea if it’s effective, let alone practical.

Which is all a long way to say, as you know, I agree with you in sentiment. But I think the problem is much deeper than you’re touching on here. And yes, I know what they say about complaining without solutions … I don’t blame anyone for not getting it right now because it’s hard. Doesn’t mean it’s not a real problem, though.

Dispatches from Valencia

Time flies when you’re not sleeping …

Greetings from Pro Tour Born of the Gods from Valencia, Spain. Not sure about the rest of the city, but this little corner of it is pretty gorgeous.

VenueSunrise

Choosing a Pro Tour to start the “here’s what happened at the tournament” series was perhaps a bit of a questionable choice, since generally speaking, these things bring in top-notch judges who have been doing this a long time and are masters of their craft, and thus they run very smoothly.

On the other hand …

judgecongregation

What’s wrong with this picture?

Adam and Kim kindly demonstrated what you should do when this happens:

outoftheway

You don’t need to necessarily do so bodily – it takes a particularly experienced judge like Adam to pull this off successfully, and a particularly forgiving judge like Kim not to kick his ass when he does it. But the point stands – if you see people clumping, or otherwise in the wrong place, you can help be part of the solution by encouraging people to be in more appropriate places.

This is not the only time Federico, scorekeeper extraordinaire was dismayed. In his own words:

“Hey you, judge with that stack 2cm thick of results in your hand standing on the main event floor…
Wouldn’t it be better to free yourself of that weight before 5 minutes to the end of the round? It is a Pro Tour, there might be people at home waiting to know the result of that match that ended 20 minutes ago…”

Good advice generally, as the chance of a slip getting lost or otherwise holding up the round isn’t zero. But even better advice when coverage is involved – more on the coverage phenomenon and how it affects you in a future post.

The other thing that went a bit amiss was something we’ve seen at Grand Prix now that shift changes have become more of a thing – hand-offs are difficult. A number of times after the judges in charge of feature matches changed, for example, we got to go over and correct issues with tokens and feature match players getting seated in the right place. Various people needing to come get paper at different time just aren’t as quick about it the first time as after they’ve become conditioned. Whether you’re a team lead or not, take note as to how things are being done and things that are important but not particularly obvious, and make sure you pass this knowledge along to your successor. The less visible the shift seam, the better.

Perhaps the  big lesson to take here is this – no matter how experienced the staff, how senior the judges, or how good each of you are, there’s always room to do better. Don’t get complacent – if you don’t think you can improve, you’re not looking hard enough. It’s true for the judges at this level, it’s probably true for you as well.

Adios!

Cut to the Chase

“Where is Player X sitting?”

“Table 184.”

“Player Y?”

“Table 212.”

“Player Z?”

“Table 63.”

“Player …”

“Would you like pairings?”

“No, I just need to find these players to give out their decklist penalties.”

“I see. And how many are there?”

“Uh … 15?”

“So, maybe you might be able to find them faster on these pairings?”

“Oh, yeah, I suppose so.”

A few times each tournament, I find myself wondering what it is that causes people to ask for the information that they’re asking for. Not because I don’t understand what needs to be done, but because I can’t fathom how the dotted line between the questions they’re asking and the task they need to accomplish makes any sense.

Let’s take, what I imagine most scorekeepers will agree, is the very most common case. This happens several times, every single tournament.

“Who did Player B play last round?”

“Player S.”

“OK, thanks,” as the judge ambles off.

95% of the time, here’s what’s happening. The judge has been told by Player B that they found something that was from their previous match. Oftentimes, this is a stray card that they shuffled into their deck, so there’s even some urgency here. Judge thinks, “OK, pairings are up, this should be easy, let me go look up where they’re sitting. Wait, I need to know the player name before I can do that.” Then they ask the player, who of course doesn’t remember the name of their previous opponent. And now it’s judge tunnel-vision time. “Figure out who he played. Figure out who he played. Figure out who he played.” So they go up to the scorekeeper and ask, since that’s the only easy way to find out. “Awesome, now I have a name. Off to the pairings to look up their table,” and away they amble.

So what’s the problem here?

Technically … nothing. The right thing will end up getting done. Eventually. However, there’s a faster way, and reading about it now, it’s probably even an obvious one – that same scorekeeper that told you their name can also pretty quickly tell you where they’re sitting (and if they can’t do it faster than you can walk to the pairings, you might encourage your TO to reevaluate their staffing choices).

Wait, didn’t I just lead off with an example where I suggested that you get pairings rather than ask the scorekeeper? Yes, but it’s not that asking the scorekeeper for all data is faster in all cases – context and task are important. If you’re already getting one name, then we’ve already got it and it’s a trivial task to pull up their location. But at some critical mass, it becomes easier for one person to look things up without the clunky process of transferring names back and forth. If you have the list written down somewhere, handing them all over would be better. But it takes time, and there’s often other things going on at the beginning of the round, hence it being better to take a look at the pairings yourself.

Let’s not get too bogged down into the specifics of this example, though. There are plenty of similar examples. The endless parade of, “did this person win,” that really means, “I need to know all of the people who reach this record this round in order to pull their decklists.” The ongoing drone of, “did this person drop,” that actually translates into “who’s still in the tournament so we can make sure we aren’t missing any decklists?” And on, and on, and on.

The lesson here isn’t about the right specific thing to ask for in any of these specific cases. The real point here is, ask for help solving the task you’re trying to accomplish, not the bits of data that are the best you can think of to get your way there. This will always, always be faster. At the very worst, the person you are thinking of will think of the same thing you did, or ask you for how they can help you accomplish it. But oftentimes, they will help you get past your tunnel vision. Sometimes they will do even more.

What do I mean? Well … do you know what data the scorekeeper has access to? Do you know what’s fast to look up and what’s slow? Do you know when is a good time for them to be more involved and when they have other things to attend to? No? Well, I could and eventually probably will explain much of this. But you know who else can? The scorekeeper. Give them a chance to tell you.

Drama Causing Information

If you’re pretty new, DCI might mean nothing to you (and even if you’re only vaguely new … “Duelists Convocation International” was long lost to the vagaries of time). It’s been pretty well purged out of the lexicon at this point, except for one artifact - DCI Numbers.

If you’ve never played in a tournament before, you don’t have one yet. When you show up, we’ll get you one, no problem. You are absolved of everything else in this post.

The rest of you, among the easiest way to make staff miserable is to not know yours or have it on you. This happens a lot, and while staff tends to be in good customer service mode and tells you it’s not a problem, I’m here to tell you that every single one of them is turning around afterward and grumbling about it. What’s the big deal, you may ask, as you’ve been told we can look it up for you? Well, let me tell you …

1) Looking them up is painful and slow. It takes quite a while to do, which could hold up the registration process, unless an additional staff member is allocated for this purpose (which happens, but just means less staff to do other things), and even then, that line can get to be pretty long, which is also bad for you. Why does it take so long? Well, first it’s entirely online based, which can be spotty depending on the location. Additionally …

2) If you’re doing this once, I bet you’re the sort that’s done this more than once. Maybe every time. And I bet instead of looking you up, a couple times they got lazy and just got you a new number – after all, what’s the harm? And really, you just need a name to get a new DCI number, don’t bother filling out the rest of the form. Well, because of that, you and all the other people with your same name doing this, now when we try and look you up, there’s a whole bunch of entries that match your name. And none of the other data we might use to tell which one is you isn’t there, or you can’t remember it. What now … oh right, somebody is probably just going to give you yet another new number, and the cycle of misery continues.

3) Or maybe, you preregistered, and you didn’t know yours, but the darn registration form wouldn’t let you register without one (gee, I wonder why …). So you typed in a dummy number – success, now you’re in the tournament! Except, you aren’t, since you need a number to play. And you didn’t show up on site since you didn’t have to register, so now we either can leave you out, and then try and catch you in the morning (work we don’t need), or we can put you in with a dummy number and then fix it (surprise – work we don’t need). Bonus in that latter case, if somebody manages to forget to find you and make you fix it, suddenly it’s the end of the weekend and we can’t submit the tournament because of an illegal player.

If preventing this isn’t enough for you, there are benefits for you as well. First off, if you’re entitled to Byes, they’re registered by your DCI number, so if you don’t use the right number, you won’t get your Byes without a scare, an appeal, and a long wait in a line (with a bonus tournament delay to boot). You’d think that anyone playing seriously enough to have Byes wouldn’t have this problem, but it happens multiple times every Grand Prix and it freaks people out every time. Same deal happens if you write unclearly and somebody types your number in wrong. Secondly, earning those Byes in the first place requires you to gather Planeswalker Points (in the common case, at least), which also is tracked by – you guessed it, your DCI number.

A couple of other useful things to know about DCI numbers:

1) At a Grand Prix, the database that we use for DCI numbers is an older one that hasn’t been updated for a long time. If you keep showing up for Grand Prix and wondering why your name is always wrong, this is probably why (when you enter a DCI number, if there’s a known name, it auto-populates the name and so we ignore whatever you write for your registration for expediency). There’s nothing we can do about this in the short term, you’ll need to ask to manually fix your name, or just get used to whatever it’s auto-registered as. The easiest way to fix this, by the way, is the correct it on a result slip. This causes the least disruption.

2) If you swear you have the right DCI number and at a Grand Prix, you’re being told it’s invalid, you might be victim of the great checksum design … I don’t want to say failure, but … failure. If you have only played local tournaments at a store using the local store software, and that store typed your number in wrong the first time, they might have landed you with a technically invalid DCI number. Numbers have a checksum, much like a bar code, to help try and cut down on the number of data entry errors. Unfortunately, with the local store software, they decided it would be better customer service to drop this digit, so that you wouldn’t face the case where you were told your number was invalid, even if you thought it was. So now you’re walking around with an invalid number that happens to work at your store. Now that you’re at a Grand Prix and using the older software that respects the checksum, though, there’s no way to make that number work. You’ll need a new one, and I’d advise you suck it up and merge your old number into this one and get used to it, as it will work wherever you go (more on this below).

3) If you think you have the wrong DCI number listed, and your number is less than 10-digits, take a closer look at the number before you go to try and get it corrected. If the last X digits of the number match yours, then it really is your number. The story here is that numbers used to be shorter, and as the program grew, they kept having to lengthen the numbers. The way that they did this, was to add digits to the beginning of your number in a way that made the checksum continue to be valid, so if you have dummy numbers at the beginning of your number, that’s actually your full expanded number. Using either the shortened version of the long one is valid, though I’d encourage you to get used to the full one  since typing in the full number allows the checksum to work and will guard against data errors. If it actually is a truly wrong number, then go get it corrected (and again, doing this on your slip is the best way to do this unless it impacts Byes).

Whew, that’s a lot about a simple number, but it causes a lot of grief. It’s a ten-digit number (or less, but more on this in a bit), though, so this can be very simple. You know what else is ten digits? A phone number. Biggest hint I can give you – program it in as a phone number right now. Call it “DCI Number” and type it in as a phone number. Now you’ll always have it. If you can’t remember it, go to www.planeswalkerpoints.com and click the link saying that you forgot it. Likewise, if you have multiples, there’s a link on the bottom of that site for combining those numbers. Take the time to do this and have a single number that is yours for good, which you always have on hand. This is better for you, as you’ll get registered faster and more smoothly, as well as getting all of the credit for all your tournaments on one account. And it’s better for us because you won’t be one of those problem children that makes us grumpy.

Plus, I continue to jokingly threaten to start using a Sharpie to write DCI numbers on people who need them look up. Who knows when I’ll snap and actually do it – don’t take the risk of being the first.

Heart Palpitations

In honor of Steve Port, the dark side of yesterday’s post.

Some friendly missives to some commonly observed, WTF are you doing, on what planet do you think you’re helping make things go faster, brutal violations of understanding the round and how you can actually make things go better. If you’re anti-rant, I suggest you go back to yesterday.

Dear designated end of round guy who stands there in front of the stage staring at me entering the stack of 200 slips wondering why there’s no printout yet,

You do understand that the printout would have 200 numbers on it, right? Actually, probably a lot more than that because of all the players that are still bringing their slips up. You know, the ones that keep reaching around you and that you keep dodging because you’re standing right in front of the result slip box? The box with all the slips in it that are all piled messy and not facing the same way and are going to take forever to enter? I wonder if there’s someone around who isn’t doing anything that might be able to help with that. Probably not because they’re too busy trying to help out all the players who are asking about dropping because they can’t get to the drop list that you’re standing in front of. You do seem to be good at standing in front of things, though – if I can offer an unsolicited idea, might I suggest you apply your skills to a match?

Yours,
I’m not paying attention to you anyway on account of the aforementioned 200 slips.

Dear the paper team, or ostensibly the paper team but seems more like sit over at that table and talk about rulings team,

I don’t want to downplay all the work that you have to do at a tournament, because I know you work hard. But really, as far as important, designated officially for your team, seriously impacts the tournament things go, you really kind of have one job. The pairings got printed a minute ago. They’re sitting right here – well actually, they were, except that they’re in my hand, being waved at you. Perhaps you didn’t notice because it’s pretty crowded. With all those players. Who are waiting for the next round to start. Bet it’d be easier to see if those pesky players would just go look at their pairings and go sit down like they’re supposed … oh wait. Yeah. Awkward.

Sincerely,
You understand that I don’t want to eat at McDonalds tonight, right?

Dear well intentioned judge who likes to hang around the stage in the middle of the round just in case we need anything even though nothing’s going on.

It’s not really that nothing’s going on. It’s just that nothing’s going on at the stage right now. Lots of stuff is going on – look behind you. All of those players, playing Magic, trying to get to a point where there are results to report. It’s kind of thin out there on judges right now since there are mid-round deck checks going on, but that’s OK. That player that I’ve been staring at who’s yelling and has his hand raised, he’s only been doing that for a minute. No big deal. But you’ll need to excuse me, I’m going to run out there and see if there are any judges in the area that I can send over to help them.

Respectfully,
I scorekeep because I like to sit, it’s not so much that you’re making me stand up as it is that you all are collectively making me stand up.

Dear judge who wants a copy of the pairings so you can find where this guy is to return his binder,

Admirable, really. I actually, sincerely appreciate the effort of actually figuring out whose it was and delivering it back to them instead of dropping that binder in the lost and found. So don’t get me wrong. But you do know, the pairings are 26 pages, right? If you wanted to check for yourself, they’re still posted over there. On those boards that say “Pairings”. That’s OK, I dislike walking, too. You could also just ask me where that guy is, since this magical computer thing will tell me. But that’s OK, it’s just paper.

Regards,
I already killed three trees today running this tournament, what’s another branch or two?

In all seriousness – judges as a lot are a generally smart and clever bunch. I have rarely sat down and chatted with one about tournament logistics and about any of these situations that hasn’t gotten it, or understood why these things make no sense. Spend some time thinking critically about the things you do. Spend more time observing what other judges do. You’ll be amazed what you can figure out to do more efficiently.