It's Ok To Ask For Help

A while back, I ran a grand melee tournament. I wasn't very familiar with grand melee at the time, so upon finding out that I was going to be running it, I read through that section of the rules in order to prepare. What I didn't do was look for previous writing from judges who had done the same. If I had done that, I would have found a lot of good advice not contained in the CR. I also didn't reach out directly to judges who had run grand melee before to ask for advice until a day or two before the event, which was too late for it to be all that helpful. As a result, I did a pretty terrible job; it was the most poorly-run event I've run in several years, to the point where I felt I needed to reach out personally to each player afterwards to apologize.

A little more recently, I helped organize a first-time convention. I spent a lot of time preparing and making sure I wasn't forgetting anything. It went ok, but it turned out I did forget a few things here and there. What could I have done to avoid that? Well, as a matter of fact, there are a lot of judges who have already run conventions! I could easily have asked them for advice on what I was likely to be forgetting.

This doesn't only happen to me. One of the most common instances I see is presenters at judge conferences getting stuff wrong in their presentations; stuff that would easily have been caught if they had run it by someone else first. But they didn't do that, and ended up embarrassing themselves in front of an audience and/or giving that audience wrong information.

And it's not only judges! Players also choose not to ask for help when it would be a good idea to do so.

Why does this happen? Why don't people ask for help when they need it? I think there are a few reasons, and their importance differs from person to person.

1. Not thinking of it

This is the biggest one. The vast majority of our lives is lived on our own. We decide what we want to do, and then we do it. So it's not that people think about asking for help and then decide not to; their unconscious mind just doesn't bring the possibility up for consideration in the first place.

Even worse, in some cultures, asking for help is seen as a sign of weakness. If we're in one of those cultures, we quickly learn that the help we receive is not worth the hit to our reputation, and we stop doing it.

So often we have a task, either self-assigned or assigned to us, and we think to ourselves, "ok, I need to get this done". We start thinking about what actions we can take that lead directly towards the goal. Asking other people for advice doesn't fit into that category; it's much more indirect. And even when it's a more direct request, like "help me pick up this banner", we aren't used to thinking about other people as resources we can use, so that option isn't brought to the forefront of our minds.

When I see a judge do something suboptimally and I'm talking to them afterwards, sometimes I'll ask them "why didn't you ask for help from someone else?". The answer is often "uh, I don't know, I just didn't".

This issue seems to be domain-specific. When we're in a context where we're used to asking for help, we have no problem doing it. But in other contexts, we don't. When we're faced with something new, it just depends on what known context our brain matches it most closely to.I know in general I'm pretty good about asking for help; e.g. if I don't know something about organized play, I just reach out to someone who does. The two examples above are both things I was doing for the first time.

The way to break this habit is to just ask for help more often. As it becomes habitual to turn to others for guidance, your mind will learn to present that option to you more frequently. And even if you decide that asking for help isn't necessary in a given situation, make sure you bring it fully into your conscious mind to consider the possibility, rather than instinctively dismissing it.

2. Not knowing who to ask

Most judges are not very tied in to the program. Many new L1s will know a total of one other judge; the L2 who endorsed them. And if that L2 is one of the "drive-by endorsers" who doesn't really form a relationship with their candidates, they may not feel comfortable reaching out.

More generally, as mentioned in the previous section, many cultures have norms against asking for help. Even if a judge realizes that asking for help would be a good idea, they may be worried that doing so would be rude.

The solution to this is very simple: Make it clear that that's not the case. Any time I'm working with a candidate, I always tell them expressly that they are more than welcome to ask me any questions they ever have, about anything.

And more than that, be welcoming in general. We want the judge community to be a place where people feel comfortable asking for help even from people they don't know all that well, so set a good example, and be visible doing it. If someone comes to you for help, help them! Extend offers any time it looks like someone could potentially use some assistance, and remind people that the option is always open.

And to newer judges, I will tell you that the current judge community is already extremely open to helping people. Most experienced judges will happily see a message from someone they do not know at all and spend hours of their time helping that person with whatever they want to learn about. This is one of the main strengths of the judge program, and you can feel comfortable that the same offer is open to you as well.

3. Wanting to prove yourself

Most judges want to be good at their job. Sometimes they get this idea into their heads that people will only respect them if they do everything themselves. This leads them to not ask for or accept help.

Now, there are two situations in which this makes sense.

  1. Evaluations. Obviously, judge tests would be kind of pointless if the candidate could just ask other judges for the answers. The purpose of tests is to see how much you know, not how much other people know. Why? Because sometimes asking for help is not an option. If you're at a local event on your own, no one else in the store is good at the rules, and your internet service has gone out, you're just going to need to do the best you can, and we want our judges to be able to do a decent job in that situation. But most of the time, you are not being expressly evaluated. In those cases, the results are what matter.
  2. You need a lot of help. There is a limit to how much help you can ask for before you become a burden. If a judge doesn't know the answer to one question and asks another judge for the answer, that's fine. But if they're doing this for every single ruling they make, they may as well not be on staff; they're not actually contributing themselves.This is just a generalized form of the previous point. Your internet going out at a solo event doesn't mean you can't get help, it just means it would take a while; far too long to be acceptable to the players. We test judges on their rules knowledge because we need them to be self-sufficient enough to succeed when there are logistical limits on how much help they can ask for.

However, that limit is very high. Real-life judges tend to stop asking for help long before they reach it. Yes, if you ask for help too much, you'll be seen as incompetent or annoying. But it takes a lot of asking to get there, and after all, it's still better to ask and end up making the right decision than it is to actually be incompetent and give players incorrect rulings.

I ran a survey on whether, when a judge looks up the answer to a question on their phone or asks another judge for help, players would trust that ruling more or less. 62% said it made them trust the ruling more, and 28% said it made no difference. Only 8% said it would make them trust the ruling any less.

It's also important to remember that this limit is context-dependent. If you're at a busy event and each of your questions takes up time from other judges who have their own urgent tasks, then yeah, you're gonna need to be self-sufficient. If you're at home preparing for a conference presentation weeks in advance, there is no such constraint, and short of asking someone else to create the entire presentation for you, there's pretty much no amount of help you could ask for that will make other judges think less of you.This is, of course, separate from your actual skills. If someone is booked to give a presentation on replacement effects, and starts asking me really basic questions, I'm certainly going to have concerns about how well that presentation is going to go and whether that person should have been accepted to give it. But I would also ed up with the same opinion of them if they didn't ask me for help and then flubbed their presentation. I'm saying that once you control for competence, asking for help on top of those skills is rarely a downside.

Knowing when your limits have been reached is a very important skill for a judge, and will generally get you positively recognized.

4. Power dynamics

A lot of interaction in the judge program is social maneuvering. Many judges are judges because they want to be respected, they want to be "on top". And as I mentioned above, asking for help from someone else is often seen as demonstrating inferiority at that skill; it's saying "you're better at me than this, and I need your assistance". So people don't want to ask for help in any context where they're worried about that damaging their reputation.

This factor is mostly irrelevant among newer judges, because everyone knows they're at the bottom of the social totem pole, so there's no need for them to try to disguise it. (Not to mention that it's extremely difficult to get into judging without getting any mentorship from anyone, so asking for aid learning the ropes is pretty much a necessity.) But as judges gain experience, get to know more other judges, and start to focus on social climbing rather than learning core judge skills, this becomes more of an issue.

As a personal example, it's common for other judges to come to me for help with a rules question, since that's something I'm known to be very good at. I've noticed that the people who do that are usually friends of mine, or at least people I get along with reasonably well. Do the judges who dislike me think that I'm bad at Magic's rules and are worried my answers will be incorrect? Doubtful. Rather, they don't want to put themselves in a context where I'd be their "superior".

The most direct way for the community to address this is to simply get rid of the idea that asking someone for help signals their social superiority. And while we're at it, maybe let's also stop pretending that the people we dislike are worse than us at everything. I don't think these norms benefit anyone, and we should stop behaving as though they have any power over us.

I've been (attempting to) do this for a few years now. If there's someone I don't personally like who I know is better than me at something, I look for excuses to ask them for advice on that skill. And often I get great advice!

I also just don't worry too much about whether I think someone is better than me at something before asking them for their thoughts on it. If they're worse than me, so what? Hearing their feedback isn't going to do anything worse than waste a few minutes of my time, and even that much is unlikely; people who are on average worse at something will still have lots of good ideas that I hadn't thought of.

And as long as these harmful norms exist, this can also be a good way to boost the self esteem of people who need it. If someone is proud of their mastery of a certain skill, it will make them feel proud of themselves if one of their peers or superiors asks for their advice.

This is of course linked to reason #2. Our social status as judges is correlated with how good we are at our jobs, and someone who has to ask for help with everything may not be as good a judge. But other judges and TOs aren't exactly unobservant. The judge who confidently never asks for help and does a poor job on their own still gets noticed, and this reflects even more poorly on them than a judge of the same skill level who did ask for help, did a marginally better job as a result, and learned something new while they were at it.


Delegation is something that always comes up as judges start taking on team lead and head judge roles. In those roles, there are simply too many tasks to do yourself, and you're going to have to offload some of them to other people. (Hint: That's why you have a team.)

Judges new to these roles often delegate too little, take on too many responsibilities themselves, and become overburdened. As floor judges, we're used to being given a task, and doing that task ourselves. Being a lead requires a complete shift in mindset, from "tasks are for me to do" to "tasks are for me to find someone else to do".

Getting into this mindset can be challenging, and it's not for everyone. Some judges prefer to be "in the trenches" doing things themselves; They may find leading boring, or it'll make them uncomfortable to be asking other people to do things rather than doing those things themselves.

But this is necessary part of leading a team. The lead needs to ensure that they're able to keep abreast of new developments at the event, make changes to the plan, and redeploy people into new tasks as they come up, and they have to keep their own plate somewhat clear of other tasks in order to do that.

Delegation can also be less a matter of logistical need and more a matter of finding other people who are better than you at things and can do them more efficiently. When I'm floor judging at an event, it's not uncommon for the head judge to come find me and ask me what the answer is to a hard rules question that just came up. When I'm head judging an event, I'll try to find someone else to help out with any Cheating investigations that come up, because I'm not very good at those. Being a good judge is about finding your comparative advantage; knowing what you can best contribute to the team, and seeking out others who can fill in the gaps.

I should have asked someone for help coming up with a title for this final section

As judges, ultimately, our job is to get tasks done, and done well. Sometimes the best way to accomplish that goal is to do them ourselves, and sometimes the best way is to rope in someone else. Judges who ask for help when appropriate are going to be more effective, learn more, and deliver a better experience to their players.

When you're a judge, it's ok to receive some outside assistance.