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.


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 …


What’s wrong with this picture?

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


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.


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 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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

The Pulse

Every tournament has a pulse, and every round has a heartbeat. That heartbeat is much like your own – it can change a little, speed up, slow down, more blood, less blood. Sometimes there’s even a palpitation to keep things interesting. But at the end of the day, it’s the same action, again and again.

Understand that heartbeat, and you understand how to help a tournament run smoothly. 90% of what you need to know to get it right lives in this chart (click for full size):


This chart is the heartbeat. It consists of the six distinct phases to every tournament round.

1) Prep – The previous round is done, let’s get the next one started by getting everyone into the right seat. The round needs to be paired, players need to figure out where they’re playing, and they need to get to those seats.

2) Start – Shuffle and present. Players begin play. Tardiness penalties for late players apply. Deck checks happen. Any problems with pairings due to mistaken pairings or other problems need to be corrected. Hopefully this is settled by the time we reach the No Show/Match Loss threshold, after which everyone is playing happily and we can …

3) Cruise – Play Magic. Handle Rulings.

4) Monitor – We’re entering the home stretch, and a lot of playing is starting to finish and results are getting reported and thus a lot of data entry is happening. Help keep the area clear so things stay efficient. Also, though Slow Play is always an issue, this is the phase at which it starts to crop up more frequently as players consciously or unconsciously start to watch the time left in the round.

5) Finish – Time to get the round closed out. At this point it becomes practical to make sure that we have coverage of matches that are still going.

6) Shutdown – We’re into extra turns now, do what needs to be done to get this round finished. If you can’t concretely help with this, everyone benefits best if you get off your feet and out of the way.

Don’t understand? Let’s take a look at a concrete example. Let’s take your average paper team member. Note that this is a generic version, as always, make sure you are in sync with your head judge and/or team lead about the specifics for any given tournament:


Or perhaps, more mysterious to the judge at large, how life looks for the scorekeeper:


Ignoring one-off tournament-level activities (for example, put out the draft sets in preparation for a draft – more on this in a future post), this is all you need to have an effective day. Figure out your chart, write it down if you need, and follow it. Rinse and repeat.

The experienced judges have this committed to muscle memory at this point, and it shows. It is no accident that when we need somebody to handle something, John Alderfer’s name comes up a lot (to pick a concrete example, though he certainly isn’t the only one). He, and others of his ilk, are uncannily frequently in the right place at the right time. This is not coincidence – somewhere down the line, he internalized this timeline and he follows it, round in and round out.

The less experienced or less well-considered judges don’t have this instinct yet, and that also shows. The super-experienced judges know their own pulses as well as those of everyone else, and they weave that understanding together to be maximally helpful to the things that others need to do. After all, staffing is a team exercise.

Find your role. Figure out your chart. Follow it. Someday, it will be instinct and you won’t need to codify it. Until then, fake it until you make it. Any senior judge should be able to help you fill yours out.

The Minutiae of Minutes

As judges and staff, what is our job at a tournament?

This seems like a question that has a ton of answers, particularly if you consider how those answers change depending on what your specific role is.

It’s not, however all that complicated. I’d argue that you have exactly two:
1) Give a good customer experience – get the rulings right, provide good customer service, help answer people’s questions.
2) Get done faster.

To be fair, this really could be one task, as getting done faster has a big impact on the customer experience. However, it’s important enough that I’m going to call it out. This may not be visible to all of the floor judges, but every single head judge that I’ve ever worked with obsesses about getting done faster. How quickly do we get started. How long does it take for people to get seated. What are our turnaround times. What tables have time extensions. All of it boils down to the same thing – how do we get this thing done faster, so that we’re eating at Miku instead of McDonald’s. So people get to hang out with their friends instead of crashing straight away. So everyone gets a good night’s sleep.

Far as I can tell, the first point is constantly in the minds of the judges. They spend tons of time talking about policy, rulings, debriefing on interesting judge calls, working on coverage around the floor, watching each other, etc … And while I can’t say that the second isn’t in people’s minds at all, it’s evident that it isn’t as instinctual for people to think about how their actions affect this goal.

Don’t believe me? I get asked constantly why I bother having people sort result slips at the end of the round while we’re waiting for the last slips to come in, a task that takes quite a bit of time overall and wastes a lot of minutes. Why do this if I’m constantly asking people to add value and save time?

Here’s the rub: the time of yours I’m wasting isn’t, by itself, worth anything. It doesn’t matter. Not all minutes are created equal.

Other than making sure you get off your feet and are resting (which, you can do while you sort slips), while we’re waiting for the last three slips, unless you’re one of the judges who is watching and making sure those matches progress apace, literally none of your time can be spent in a way that makes the round end faster or slower – it’s inconsequential right now.

However, it might not be in the future, when a player comes up and complains that they didn’t get all of their points for the round (probably because they didn’t fill their slip out right, but that’s another story). Now we’re talking impact. Either the round waits until we find their slip and verify everything to repair it, or that table gets a time extension – either way, now we’re into the realm of slowing down how fast we get done. Now, having the slips sorted saves time that means something. And if we wasted twenty judge minutes during dead time to save one minute during live time, every single person on the floor should take that trade.

There are exactly three times that affect end of day timing:
1) Any time that affects round turnaround and starting the round. How fast you post the pairings. How quickly we can find result slips of people with issues. How easy you make it for people to find their pairings and sit down.
2) Any time that affects match extensions. How quickly do you get there, make the ruling, and get out. How fast do we repair pairing issues. How quickly do you handle your deck checks.
3) Any time that affects getting the last slip in. Making sure people turn in their slips right away. Not getting in the way of the last result being reported.

That’s really it. Everything else is manufactured urgency and doesn’t actually help. All that stressing out you do about how quickly the result slips get off the printer and cut. How quickly you run up the third to last slip. That third and fourth and fifth judge you send to watch the match that a competent judge watching for slow play is already on. Doesn’t do anything.

Relentlessly save time. Every minute matters – a single minute saved per round is ~10 minutes per day. A couple of these and, to steal a cliché, we’re talking about real time. But only the minutes that matter. Take the time to figure out which ones those are. And which ones aren’t. The faster you learn to answer the question, “does this actually get us done faster,” the better you will eat and the more you will sleep.

Golden Ticket

A lot of players seem to think of their result slip as a burden, that thing you have to walk up to the stage when you really want to get some food, or hang out with your friends, or watch the interesting match that is happening right next to you. Maybe you’re one of these players.

Many things would go better if you’d change your frame of reference. The damn thing is a golden ticket. No, you aren’t going to win a chocolate factory. But you worked really really hard to win your match and I can tell you from plenty of experience, you’re going to be pretty upset if you don’t get your three points for it.

Your result slip is the voucher for your three points.

Treasure it. You worked too hard to get it to screw it up in five seconds. Make sure the darn thing is filled out right (this is why we make you sign it – read the damn thing before you sign it). And then, as the winner, take the slip up and claim your points. Double check it before you put it in the box while you’re at it – it’s pretty disruptive when you feel the need to come back a minute later and dig through the box or “just make sure”.

Some of you are going to finish your matches early and be tempted to stuff it in your pocket to turn in later. You’ve got plenty of time, after all. Cut that out. Seriously. You’re probably going to forget. You are contributing to the roughly 10 minutes that players cost to the tournament because of missing result slips (and this is just a fraction of the full cost to tournament time that we suffer because of players … but more on this later). This happens. Every. Single. Grand. Prix. If you hate how long these things take, stop making it worse.

Not rocket science. Fill it out right. Check your work before you sign. Turn it in right away. Profit.