Watching Magic

At RC Toronto2023, if you're reading this in the distant future., a judge I was mentoring asked me some questions about best practices when watching Magic. This got me thinking about just how much goes into this task, and how complicated it actually is.

When do we watch Magic?

Much of the time we're judging, we're doing things that are not watching Magic: posting pairings, answering questions, talking with other judges, etc. But every once in a while, we remember that our job is actually about games of Magic, and maybe we should watch one. The most common times you'll find yourself doing this are:

One of the common refrains you'll hear from head judges of large events is that judges don't watch Magic enough. Just like "we don't issue enough Slow Play warnings" and "we should give each other feedback more often", this is one of those pieces of advice that everyone agrees with in theory, but rarely acts on in practice.

There are of course many things more important than watching Magic. Taking judge calls, handling tournament logistics, mentoring or being mentored by other judges on staff, and taking notes for future self-improvement all take priority over watching Magic. But when none of those are happening, watching Magic is generally the next-best thing to do.There's no real limit on mentoring, and a judge could easily spend all their spare time on it. There are however more prospective mentees than available mentors, so what should happen at the ideal tournament is that the more experienced judges spend most of their spare time mentoring, while the less experienced judges alternate between being mentored and watching Magic.

Personally, when I'm not paying attention to what I'm doing, I have a tendency to wander aimlessly around the floor. This keeps me "feeling busy", since I'm constantly moving, but it doesn't really help the tournament in any way. When I noticing myself doing this, I'll try to instead pick a single match and watch it for a while.

Another pattern we tend to fall into is that of casually chatting with nearby judges. It's great to get to know each other, and a bit of socializing is fine, but too much and it starts taking away from the event. We are after all being paid to do a job, not hang out with friends. (That's what judge dinner is for.) If I notice that the conversation I'm in has turned away from judge-related topics, I'll usually try to redirect it back to a more educational topic, or wander away and go watch some Magic instead.

(Same for being on your phone. Checking your messages every once in a while is fine, but don't spend the entire time on Facebook. Watch Magic instead.)

Standing or sitting

If the nearby seats are occupied by other matches, then you'll have to stand of course. If not, then you need to decide whether to sit down next to one of the players, or stand behind them.

Standing has the benefit of making you more visible, meaning that players are more likely to call you over for a question, and other judges won't have as much trouble finding you if they need you. Standing also means you can get to a nearby judge call faster if some arises.

Sitting on the other hand allows you to observe the game more closely, and gets you out of the way of anyone else who might want to use the aisle. Sitting is also much less stressful for the playersAbout 4 to 1 on Reddit and Twitter., and they'd prefer you to sit down rather than loom ominously behind them.

Generally I stand if I think I'm only going to be watching for a few minutes, and sit down if I expect to be there for longer. (Or am getting tired of standing.) I'm also more likely to sit down near the end of the round, since there are fewer other matches ongoing and it's less likely that I'll be needed elsewhere.

Note that if the nearby seats are occupied by people who are not currently playing a match, you're allowed to ask one of them to move. Personally, I try to avoid doing this if it seems like it would be a significant inconvenience; if they're doing something with their stuff on the table, are chatting with their former opponent after finishing their match, or are themselves trying to watch the match I want to watch, I'll leave them be. But if they're just sitting there on their phone, it's not a big deal for them to move one seat over, so I have no problem asking them to do so.It also depends on my reason for wanting to watch. If there's a potential issue in the game and it's important that I'm able to observe it closely, I'm more willing to kick someone out of their seat even if they're actively using it. If I'm doing something completely selfish like watching a friend play, I think that would be an abuse of power, and I'll only use an empty chair for that.

Watching surreptitiously

Sometimes we'll want to observe a match without the players knowing we're doing so, either because we suspect they're Cheating, or because we want to watch for Slow Play and know that a judge being there might remind them to play faster.

Obviously, sitting down is not a good approach here. You're going to want to choose a vantage point that's as far from the player as possible, while still allowing you to see the relevant information.

If you're concerned about their shuffling for example, you can safely watch from several tables away, since players shuffle some distance above the table.My first shuffle-cheating DQ I caught the player doing it from about halfway across the room, with several rows of tables in between us. The only reason they did it so blatantly was because they thought nobody was watching. You can also strategically choose your exact position such that another player's head is in between you and the eyes of the player you're watching, while leaving you free to observe their hands.

If you need to see the cards on the table, you'll need to be a bit closer. In these cases, I'd recommend being a few steps behind the player, such that they'd have to conspicuously turn their head in order to see you. Note that people have pretty good instincts about whether they're being watched, and in particular we can detect someone standing directly behind us in a noisy environment due to the muted sound coming from that direction. The player can also notice when a judge walks behind them from one direction and then doesn't emerge from the other direction. So if you want to actually go undetected, you'll need to be a lot more sneaky than you might naively expect.I remember one time when a judge told me they had suspicions about a player and were going to secretly watch them from behind. That player came up to me after the match was over to complain about the judge who they were well aware had been standing behind them the entire game. (It didn't help that that judge had also apparently jumped in to tell the player to play faster at some point during their "secret" observation.)

You can also position yourself one match away in either direction, which can give you a clear shot of the board while making the player think you're watching their neighbor. Or pretend to be on your phone.

In general, if the player in question can see your head, make sure that your head is facing somewhere else, and only your eyes are pointing in their direction.

Your goal while watching Magic

One time at a Grand Prix, I wasn't on staff that day, so I was playing in a PTQ. While the judges and I were waiting for it to begin, I played a quick game of judge's tower with one of the judges, which I won. I then proceeded to commit 3 Game Rule Violations in round 1, and got a Game Loss for my trouble.Two of them being issued by the judge who I had just beaten in judge's tower. Abe Corson always gets his revenge!

The moral of this story is that KCI was a really complicated deck trying to play legally is an entirely different mindset from trying to play well. When I was focusing on following the game rules, I could successfully do that even in a very complicated game state. But once my focus shifted towards finding the best strategical play, I stopped paying as much attention to checking the legality of everything I was doing, and I twice attempted to trigger a Scrap Trawler that was not actually on the battlefield, given that I had just sacrificed it.

While it may be true that some players have successfully managed to play an entire match of KCI without doing anything illegal, this dichotomy explains most player errors. Players are focused on strategy, not rules, and it's very easy for them to miss something that would be obvious to someone looking for it. So that's our job as the judge watching the match; apply the judge's tower mindset and focus on noticing errors that the players may not notice themselves.

This isn't to say that strategical thinking is completely unhelpful. If you've already figured out what play you would make in this position, yet the player is still thinking, that's a good sign that you may need to step in for Slow Play. (Of course, please take into account the chance that the player is better at Magic than you and is thinking about something you failed to consider.)

Also keep an eye out for "errors" that happen to come with a large strategical advantage. Most Cheating occurs when the player thinks their opponent won't notice, so having a judge keeping a closer eye on things greatly increases the chances that it will be caught. And if the judge has also been watching the player's playstyle and mannerisms prior to that point, that can be very useful in the investigation.

Here's a story from many years ago: A judge was watching a player play a tempo deck. The opponent casts a very impactful creature. The player looks through their hand, pausing at a Spell Pierce, then moves on to look at the rest of their hand. Noticing that nothing else in their hand can deal with the creature, they go back to the Spell Pierce, give a little shrug, and cast it.

A judge being called over to that table by the opponent would have had a tough investigation on their hands; there isn't a lot of information to use to figure out whether it was intentional or not. But having the observations of the judge at the table made that DQ pretty easy.

Similarly, keep track of how good the player seems to be. At RC Edmonton, there was a player at table 9 on day 2 who failed to pay any mana for the activated ability of Reflection of Kiki-Jiki. Pretty suspicious on its own, but various judges had observed this player in previous rounds, and reported that they had been playing consistently sloppily, making non-advantageous rules errors and strategical errors all day.

Handling infractions

When watching a game, we don't want our presence to give either player an advantage over the other. Make sure that you're watching the actions of both players, not just the one on your side of the table.

When you notice a potential infraction, you often shouldn't step in immediately. The IPG tells us that if a minor violation is quickly handled by the players to their mutual satisfaction, a judge does not need to intervene. The MTR also has a section on Reversing Decisions, which means that if a player notices an error themselves and fixes it immediately after doing it, that's fine. And if an infraction has been committed, we need to know if the opponent should be receiving a Warning for Failure to Maintain Game State, which we only know once they're had a chance to notice it themselves.

We're aiming for the middle ground; wait long enough to be sure the players have both actually missed it, but not so long that it becomes harder to fix. If a player has just cast Divination and picked up 3 cards, please jump in as soon as possible! But if they just tapped the wrong lands for their Supreme Verdict, give them the chance to fix it themselves. Use that extra time to make sure that the players have actually done something illegal! Few things are more awkward than interrupting a game to point out a problem and then having the players explain to you that it's actually fine and you just misunderstood the game state.

Players to do minor illegal things all the time, like tap the wrong lands on a turn where they have extra mana anyway, put something into the graveyard rather than exile without any card in their deck that makes that relevant, etc.This is more frequent near the end of the game, since they know the game is going to end soon and stop paying as much attention to keeping the game state legal. It also happens more near the end of time in the round, since the players are rushing to finish their match in time. When a judge isn't watching, these sorts of irrelevant errors will generally either go unnoticed or be fixed by the players on their own. So when a judge is watching, issuing penalties for every illegal thing you see is going to mean the players are going to get more penalties than they otherwise would have gotten.

Personally, I'm fine with that. The whole point of having judges at a tournament is to make players do fewer illegal things. In a world with unlimited judge labor, we'd have someone watching every match. In this world we can't do that, so we have to pick some random matches to assign more scrutiny to, and I don't see an issue with that. Does this slightly disadvantage the players in future matches, since they're more likely to get a penalty upgraded to a Game Loss due to a previous Warning? Yes. But this is a pretty minor effect, and I think it's outweighed by the benefit to overall tournament integrity. (If the players don't want to receive penalties, they should just not do illegal things.)

Some judges disagree, and will choose to simply fix these issues themselves without issuing any infraction. Personally I think this is an unjustified deviationEspecially when done without head judge approval!, since Wizards could easily have included a line in the IPG of "a floor judge may choose not to issue an infraction if the illegal action is easy to fix and could not reasonably convey any advantage to the player who committed it". The fact that Wizards chose not to do this implies that this is what they want us to do.I have no idea why. I think this would be a great line to add, and would dramatically cut down on player feel-bads without making it any easier to Cheat. I also don't see a good reason to treat infractions differently when they're noticed by a judge vs. being noticed by the opponent or a spectator, and in the latter case we always issue the penalty.

But if you do want to do that, whatever, it's a popular opinion. What I'd stress in that case is to please only waive the penalty in cases where the infraction could not benefit the player who committed it. If you're too lenient on players making mistakes in their own favor, then you're just giving a free pass to the Cheaters. Not to mention all the angry Reddit posts you'll inspire from the opponents of the players who you let get away with those sorts of beneficial mistakes.

Other benefits of watching Magic

While keeping an eye out for infractions is the main goal, there are several other benefits to watching games.

Specific good practices

Do all the things in Kevin Desprez's excellent article on this subject. Seriously, go read it right now. I'm not going to copy everything from over there into this article, just click on the link.

Most importantly, pay attention. When watching a game you aren't all that interested in, it's easy to let your mind wander. But this defeats the purpose of watching in the first place! We need to be actually paying attention and engaged in the game. Few things are more embarrassing than having the players ask you a question about something that just happened, and you go "uh, I don't know". So don't just blankly stare in the direction of the cards; actually track the game progression in your mind, think about what the players are doing, and verify the legality of every action.

Watching Magic is good. You should do it more.

With thanks to Steven Zwanger for providing feedback on a draft of this article.