The Lost Art of Shadowing

Shadowing is when, rather than a single judge going to the table alone and finding another judge if necessary, two judges arrive at the table and handle the call cooperatively; one the primary judge, the other the shadow. The primary judge is the one who communicates with the players, and they confer with the shadowing judge as necessary.

Why shadow?

The primary benefit is that it allows you to get to the table faster. When you shadow calls, the only people who can block your way to the table are other judges who are shadowing that call, and there aren't very many of them around nowadays. As an additional benefit, you can't block anyone else who doesn't have shadow, allowing their path across the floor to be more direct. This alleviates aisle congestion and helps rounds start faster.

...ok, maybe that's not quite it. Let me try again.

Benefit #1: Education! Feedback and learning from each other is a big part of the judge program, and there's really no better way to do that than watching each other handle live situations and talking about it afterwards. Notably, this goes both ways; the shadowing judge can learn things by watching how the primary handles the call, and the primary can be given feedback afterwards about anything the shadow thinks they could have done better.Of course if the feedback is something like "your ruling wasn't correct", you should pull them aside before they issue it. Judge conferences often have "live scenario workshops", which usually get people very excited to attend them. Shadowing actual calls is like that, except not at a conference. If you're excited about watching fake live calls in a workshop, why not watch real live calls at an event?It's actually even better, since roleplay always has flaws and a more realistic experience can impart more valuable lessons.

Benefit #2: It expedites the process of double-checking a ruling. Judges are trained to find someone else when we're uncertain and ask them for help. This is great, when someone can actually be found. Magic events can be big, and it sometimes takes a while to grab the attention of another judge. When you're being shadowed however, the person you need is right there! We want to minimize time extensions as much as possible, and removing the "wander around desperately looking for another judge" portion of the call is an easy way to cut a minute or two off the resulting time extension.This is especially useful at Competitive REL tournaments where judges have been asked to confirm certain types of rulings such as backups and HCEs with another judge before issuing them. It also helps with appeals, since ideally one judge would remain with the players while another goes to get the head judge, and when you have a shadow, the person who can stay at the table is already there!

Benefit #3: The judge you're double-checking with knows what's going on. In the "one judge per call" paradigm, finding the other judge isn't the biggest hurdle. Once you find them, you have to explain the situation to them, wasting yet more time and increasing the chance of misunderstandings due to the game of telephone.

For example, at a recent event, a judge came to me and asked me to confirm their ruling before issuing it. They told me that Mystic Sanctuary had been played two turns ago and the trigger announced, but the player forgot to actually put the card on top of their library. When they drew their card for turn, they noticed it was not what it was supposed to be and called for a judge. I asked about the game state and it sounded like a backup here would not be feasible. The floor judge had a different fix in mind, so I told them that that would be a deviation and they needed to talk to the head judge about it. They did soThe head judge, to their credit, told them no., and eventually we went back to the table to issue the final ruling ...only to discover that the Mystic Sanctuary had not been played on the player's last turn, it had been fetched at the end of the opponent's turn! This meant that failing to put the card on top of their library had been the most recent action before drawing their card for turn, and fixing this situation was actually trivial.The card they had drawn was uniquely identifiable since there were no other cards in their hand that were unknown to the opponent, so the fix was to shuffle it away and have them draw the correct card. Policy would also let us simply put the card on top now. It's a matter of opinion as to which fix is more appropriate. This turned what should have been a 2 minute call into a 14 minute one. If I had been at the table when the floor judge was originally asking questions, I would have been able to notice right away that there had been a miscommunication between the floor judge and the players.

Benefit #4: More reliable rulings. The chance that two judges both make the same mistake is much lower than the chance that either one of them makes a mistake on their own. Especially at competitive events, an incorrect ruling has the ability to cost one of the players hundreds of dollars and completely ruin their day. We want to be doing everything that we can reasonably do to avoid that, and having two judges on each call is an easy and effective approach.

Benefit #5: Increased player confidence. Players will often be reluctant to trust a ruling, especially when it's not in their favor or the judge issuing it acts unconfident. Having a second judge present increases their willingness to trust that the ruling is correct, leading to a better player experience and less time spend on arguments and appeals.

Benefit #6: It's fun! Many of us judge because we actively enjoy the intellectual puzzle of figuring out what really happened in a game and what the proper answer/fix is. Shadowing lets us get that experience even when we weren't the first judge to get to the call. It also gives us an opportunity to start a conversation with another judge and get to know them a little better.

Well if shadowing is so great, why don't people shadow more often?

Shadowing used to be more prevalent in the judge program. In the late 2000s, judges would receive a briefing document before major events that explained what shadowing is and why it's important. Nowadays it's only rarely mentioned in pre-event briefings, and seems to happen less frequently on the floor. I'm not sure of the precise reasons for the decline, but some of them could be:

Some have argued that if you're concerned about the players trying to talk to you instead of the primary judge, you should watch from a few tables away or not shadow them at all. The problem with this is that it just reinforces the bad habit. We want to teach players to give their attention to the primary judge on the call; avoiding the situation this time just means it's more likely to happen in the future, and doesn't actually address the problem.

Staying away can be helpful when you're mentoring a judge with confidence issues. If you're right there, they might double-check every ruling with you even when they know the answer perfectly well. In these cases, it can be good to let them practice functioning on their own. Alternatively, you could ask them to pretend that you're not there and lightly push them towards answering the question themselves.

You may also want to not shadow calls if you're feeling tired. Answering rules questions and handling player errors is a mentally taxing activity, and you may want a break from thinking about it. It's ok to slow down a bit and let other judges handle the situations that come up for the time being.

How to shadow well

When you hear a judge call and see that another judge is going to get there first, don't stop walking towards that call. Instead, join the other judge as their shadow.

If you end up being the third judge on that call, go do something else. Too many judges crowding around a match can intimidate the players and leave other areas of the tournament neglected. The perfect number of judges to have on a call is 2; no more, no less.

If the primary judge seems uncertain about something or like they might be about to make a mistake, tap them on the shoulder and ask to confer with them away from the table.Even if you aren't sure they're wrong and are just a little uncomfortable with their ruling, it's still ok to pull them aside. Much better to hash out what's going on before the ruling is given than after. You can also give them some subtle encouragement at the table. if they're making a ruling they seem uncertain about, a reassuring nod can let them know that that they're on the right track and can proceed with confidence. Be careful not to take over the call from the other judge! If you're more experienced than they are, it's easy for people to start deferring to you, even unconsciously. If a player starts talking to you instead of the primary judge, just point at the primary or remind the player "[Name] is your judge, I'm just watching". If you find yourself wanting more information about the game, tell the primary judge what you'd like to know, or ask them for permission to question the players yourself. In some rare cases where a less experienced judge is dealing with a complicated situation, it may be necessary to handle it yourself so that the event can keep moving. You should still ask them for their permission first; they'll probably be grateful for your assistance.

If something else comes up that's more urgent, such as another judge call, that takes priority over shadowing. Try to come back later if the call is still ongoing after your task is done.Should helping with end-of-roundEnd-of-round is something that happens at large events. With around 10 minutes remaining in the round, all free judges will report in to whoever is leading EOR and be assigned a table to watch. This helps us find any missing results, help players not forget about their time extensions, and make sure any judge calls have someone right there to handle them quickly. take priority over shadowing? I don't think so. The most important duty of EOR is to locate missing results, and that can be done with a relatively small number of judges. Sitting on ongoing matches is a low-value activity; we do it because the alternative of "do nothing and just keep walking the aisles" is even lower value. The mentorship and improved accuracy benefits of shadowing a call significantly outweigh the value of having one more outstanding table covered by a judge.

Once the call is over, if there was anything you found interesting about it, step to the side with the other judge and talk about it. Was there something you thought they handled particularly well? Tell them! Are you curious why they did something in a particular way? Ask them! Many of those most useful things I've learned about judging I learned by seeing someone do it and asking them why they did that.

Most importantly: Actually do these things! Shadowing is something that gets encouraged relatively frequently in the judge program. Judges nod along and say "yeah that's a great idea, we should do more of that", and then they go out on the floor and don't change their behavior one bit. Agreeing that something is a good practice in theory counts for nothing if you don't act in accordance with that belief.


Shadowing is not supererogatory; it's an important part of our duties as a judge, just like taking the call in the first place. And it's something that most judges would likely want to do, if they get into the habit. It's enjoyable, helps us learn new things, and lets us connect with our peers. It's not something constrained to a mentor-mentee relationship, and it's not about who's good or who's bad. Shadowing is a way to cooperatively take a judge call in order to maximize player experience and improve our abilities.