Category Archives: Principles

Bedrock principles that explain why things matter.

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.

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.

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.

Consistency and The Trance


This is the final collation of Grand Prix – Sacramento matches for submission to Wizards of the Coast. A total of 6160 matches were played over the course of this tournament, each of which has to be entered into the system. OK, we’re talking two days, 10-12 hours each. Not so bad, right? Let’s drill deeper.


This is round 3 of Grand Prix – Washington DC.  Not all hours, or minutes, are created equal. Let’s cut to the chase. Generally, the bulk of result entry happens in a wave about 20-25 minutes long, starting from about 15-20 minutes remaining in the round, depending on the specific tournament size and format. So, let’s say roughly 600 results in 20 minutes, or 30 per minute, or one every two seconds.

Every scorekeeper that I know enters what I call the trance when they get to this point in the round. You probably recognize it if you think about it. That moment where you stand in front of them to ask some question and it doesn’t really seem like they register that you’re there, or when they look disturbed if you really try and get their attention.

Nothing that’s being done during this time is particularly complicated – it’s just that it’s being done a lot, over, and over, and over again.

If you had to sit down and think in your conscious brain about each of these events, it’d just take too long. Just like with muscle memory for musicians, the way that you handle this is by having your brain recognize some basic patterns and falling into an instinctual rhythm. Your brain helps you process some of the data without you having to stop and really think about it, kind of like you never think about breathing, or how to swallow.

Blah blah blah, armchair psychobabble, right. Here’s all that actually matters: Anything that disrupts the trance rhythm is disproportionately expensive to efficiency. Different scorekeepers will handle this with differing levels of effectiveness – some will merely be thrown off their a lot, whereas others will be thrown off dramatically so. Regardless, though, there is a hidden cost to any such disruptions – not only the time to address the disruption, but the cost in time to get yourself back into the flow of things.

In practice, this means that effort put toward preventing unnecessary disruptions and lapses in consistency will have an outsized effect on the ability to get a round turned. Let’s look at some concrete examples.

Turning upside-slips around, or unfolding crumpled slips? Brutal. Informal, back of envelope measurement suggests that a single unexpected upside-down slip in a pile will cost you a full four slips worth of processing time. People who’ve worked with me will note that even though TOs keep getting more professional and have become more and more prone to bringing a fancy plastic tub for result slips, I continue to cannibalize an empty booster box for this purpose. Why? Because it’s closer to the size of a result slip and doesn’t result in as messy of a giant pile of skewed slips. Players? Take the time to make your slip go in the box nicely and face the same way as the slip before yours. Judges? One of the most impactful things you can do if you’re around the stage (much more so than outstanding table handling, generally – more on that in the future) is to get all the slips into a single pile facing the same direction, though if you’re going to do this, you have to do it right. A recent epidemic has been judges who do this quickly and miss a few slips here and there. No big deal, right? Well … not so much …

Don’t be that judge that takes the next small batch of slips, gets them into a pile, then stands there and holds them out at the scorekeeper and refuses to do anything else until they acknowledge you and take the pile. You’re costing a lot of time by breaking their trance over and over again. Just keep collecting slips, they’ll take them when they’re ready.

Don’t be that player that makes a mess on your result slip because you write life totals on it, or because you’re careless and then have to scribble out a typo, or because you feel like drawing smiley faces and writing “No” under the Drop column because you’re so happy that you won. Anything other than game scores and signatures is, in and of itself, a disruption. A necessary disruption, in the case that we need to slow down and parse a drop, or a penalty, or a name correction. But when those stray marks are there for no good reason at all, it slows things down far more than you realize.

There are many more such examples, which I’ll get to when I start codifying things into practical advice. For now, though, just understand – there’s a rhythm to data entry. If you disrupt it, especially if it was for no reason at all besides carelessness, you shouldn’t wonder why I’m so grumpy.