Why Players Don't Call Judge

A player calling for a judge is something that happens regularly at high level tournaments. This article by professional player, Twitch streamer, and coverage personality Riley Knight does a great job of explaining what's involved in a typical judge call. Yet sometimes a player will have a question or notice that something has gone wrong, but not call for a judge. Why does this happen?

It turns out there are quite a few reasons for this! I've roughly divided them into five categories, though as always, reality is more complicated than that.

1. They're cheating

This does happen. If a player has made a mistake that's significantly in their favor and tried to play it off as no big deal, you should probably look a little deeper. But as the next few reasons will show, Cheating only explains a very small fraction of the times when a player doesn't want to call a judge.

2. They're embarrassed

Admitting that you made a mistake or don't know something can be embarrassing. And when the way to do that is to loudly yell and draw attention to yourself in the middle of a crowd of people, it's significantly more so.

My advice to players: Mistakes happen. It's not a big deal. I've been playing for more than 8 years and have an encyclopedic knowledge of the game's rules, but at my last Competitive event I got three Game Rule Violations in round one of the tournament and was issued a Game Loss for it. Trust me; no matter how bad you think your mistake is, judges have seen much worse, and we'll probably forget about yours as soon as the call is over. The same is true for most competitive players; people are used to hearing judge calls while playing in tournaments, and they're not going to give yours a second thought.

My advice to judges: Players are often more comfortable asking you a question if you're standing nearby than if they have to yell loudly. When you aren't handling a call, walk through the aisles rather than standing off to the side, and keep a lookout for any players who might be trying to get your attention or seem confused about something in their game.

And for god's sake don't make fun of a player's mistakes. If players hear a judge talking smack about them or about any other player, why would they want you at their table?

3. They don't want to bother a judge about something this minor

Players are, on the whole, nice people. Newer players especially will often assume that we don't enjoy taking calls and will feel bad about calling a judge over for something that seems minor. This is an eminently reasonable assumption! That worker at the grocery doesn't work there because they get joy out of answering questions about where the milk is located. Magic judges are the exception to the norm here.

My advice to players: Judges are weird people. We actively enjoy trying to puzzle though a rules question or figure out the best way to fix something that went wrong.We certainly don't do it for the money. At any large event that I have to fly to, I'm making much less than minimum wage after accounting for travel costs. An event that doesn't have many judge calls is boring for us; we get excited when we finally get to answer a question after nothing having happened for half an hour. By calling us over, you're helping us have the experience we want to have at that tournament.

My advice to judges: Stop acting like you're unhappy to be there! I know I've done this unintentionally, and many other judges do too; it's easy to not realize how our mannerisms will be interpreted by others. If we approach the table with a curt "yes?" or use an annoyed tone of voice to answer questions, the players are going to be uncomfortable and less inclined to call you over again. If you're tired or frustrated about something, talk to your team lead about taking a few minutes off the floor to relax and recharge; they'll usually be happy to oblige. Otherwise, help the players see that you're excited to be helping them. Walk briskly towards the table, don't lazily amble over. Greet them with a jovial "Hi! How can I help?" or similar.A pet peeve of mine is judges who start a call with "what seems to be the problem?". There doesn't have to be a problem! It's perfectly ok for players to call a judge just to ask a question. Don't make them feel like they're placing a burden on you by calling you over.

4. They want to keep the game going

Players get into a certain rhythm while playing the game. Judge calls interrupt that flow, and can take away their time to do something in between rounds like grab a snack or go to the bathroom. For a mistake with a really straightforward fix, players might just fix it on their own and move on rather than pausing everything to spend several minutes on a judge call.

My advice to players: This is ok, to a limited extent. The Infraction Procedure Guide tells judges that "If a minor violation is quickly handled by the players to their mutual satisfaction, a judge does not need to intervene". But it really is better to call for a judge in most cases.

At a recent tournament, I encountered a player who accidentally knocked the top card of their library onto the table, saw that it was a good card for them in that board position, and put it back on top without calling for a judge. A spectator thought this was suspicious and called me over. A 20 minute investigation later, we came to the conclusion that the player probably had not cheated and had simply wanted to keep the game going, as they were used to doing at their FNM. They were a newer player, and not accustomed to Competitive Magic. They were in tears by the end of that encounter, and while they certainly now understand the importance of calling for a judge when something like that happens, I really wish that hadn't been their first experience with tournament play.

The "we can handle it ourselves" mindset is also something that gets exploited by actual cheaters. They'll do something illegal and then if you notice, try to discourage you from calling a judge by appealing to social norms like "not being a tattletale". You can see professional player Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa talk about this here. Calling a judge about an opponent's mistake is not accusing them of cheating; the vast majority of mistakes are honest ones, and judges know that. You don't need to feel bad about calling for a judge, and if your opponent tries to make you feel bad about it, that's a red flag that you should definitely call a judge.

Lastly, there are some ways to "fix" a situation that seem fine at first glance, but can end up damaging the game state in an unforeseen way. Our tournament policy has been crafted over the course of 25 years to prevent things like this, and your gut reaction as a player is much less reliable. This is a less common issue, and the vast majority of fixes that players execute themselves end up going just fine. But I have definitely had judge calls where the player awkwardly explains "uh, so this thing happened, and we tried to fix it ourselves, but now the game is wrecked even further. ...Sorry."

So if the error that happened could have given either player a significant advantage or you have even the slightest doubt about what the best fix would be, call a judge. You don't need to worry about it eating up your match time; you should always get a time extension that covers the length of the call. (If the judge forgets, remind them.)

My advice to judges: Remind players that it's best to call a judge, but don't be heavy-handed about it. We want players to call us over because they appreciate our help, not because they're scared of us.

Also, make sure that your explanations don't go overboard. It's good customer service to help educate a player who wants to learn more about the rules, but it's bad customer service to force a lecture on a player who just wants to get back to their game. Players are not at the tournament to learn about the details of the Magic rules. Just because you find something interesting doesn't mean they will.

And stop forgetting to give them their time extension!

And some advice to tournament organizers: Hire an experienced enough staff. Inexperienced judges are more likely to stumble on calls and take much longer than is necessary. This isn't necessarily their fault; they don't have the experience to know how to handle the call optimally. But it will annoy your players when what should have been a 2 minute call turns into a 15 minute one because none of the judges there know the right section in the IPG. You should always give new people a chance, but don't confuse that with "we don't need judges to do their due diligence before the tournament". Judging a live event is not the only way to learn. There are plenty of practice resources that judges are perfectly capable of using to learn tournament rules and policy before they find themselves on the floor of a live event. And don't put so many new judges on your staff that they won't have an experienced judge to turn to if they need help.

5. Judges make them nervous

Many people are naturally distrustful of authority. If someone you don't know has the power to remove you from a tournament and starts asking questions about you, that would make most people nervous! Some players have had bad experiences with judges in the past, and haven't had enough good interactions to counterbalance that perception.

These issues are exacerbated by the selection bias that's inherent in social media and human society in general. Situations where a player got disqualified or a judge behaved inappropriately towards a player are much more likely to get talked about with other players. The average number of judge calls that each player has per tournament is less than 1. That's not a lot of opportunities to learn firsthand what judges are like! The stories that players hear from friends and on the internet make up a significant fraction of their knowledge about judges, and stories about disqualifications, bad rulings, and judge abuse of authority are overrepresented there.

My advice to players: We try really hard to not be the "Magic police". Tournament policy tries to be as lenient as possible while still not giving either player an unfair advantage, and we teach judges to not be heavy-handed. Fewer than 0.5% of judge calls result in a player getting disqualified, and most of the time Cheating isn't something we're even particularly concerned about. The vast majority of our interactions with players involve answering rules questions, fixing mistakes, performing deck checks, etc.

If you've had a bad interaction with a judge in the past, try to think about how it would have looked from their perspective or from the perspective of your opponent in that game. Was the judge really being unfair? Or were they trying their best to fix something that went wrong, and it just turned out that this wasn't the result you wanted?

If you do encounter a judge who you believe is abusing their authority, talk to them about it. They may not realize how their behavior is coming across to others, and you letting them know about it politely could be enough to fix the behavior. If that doesn't work, bring it up their mentor or or other judges in that area who can approach that judge as a friend and figure out what's going on. You can also talk to the tournament organizer and let them know about the issue; if a judge is causing players to have a bad experience at their events, most organizers wouldn't want to hire that judge again. You can also try reporting them to Judge Academy, though unfortunately Judge Academy doesn't usually take those reports very seriously, and the local judge and TO community will be a better resource for you. We take impropriety very seriously in the judge program, and if there's someone who's giving the rest of us a bad name, we'd like to know about it.

My advice to judges: Try to empathize with players and understand what information about judges is available to them. As a part of the judge community, we have hundreds of good interactions with other judges at every event. We see how much the best judges care about providing a good experience to the players and how they go above and beyond to make sure that their mistakes don't ruin someone else's day. It's easy to forget just how different a perspective players have. It's easy for us to say "you have nothing to be nervous about if you didn't do anything illegal", but that's only true if the player knows that they can trust us to be fair and objective. Make sure the players perceive you as a resource, not a threat.

Avoid relying on your authority as a judge to get your way. It's usually possible to explain to the player why something is the way it is in a way they can understand. If you find yourself saying "I'm the judge and you need to do what I say" with any regularity, you need to find a better approach. You want to stay in the "friendly expert" mode of authority as much as possible, and only use the "cop" mode when absolutely necessary to deescalate a heated argument or another unavoidably adversarial situation.

Also, just... don't be a jerk. I remember once seeing a player who got deck checked ask the judge whether they could move over one seat in order to watch the adjacent match. The judge angrily said "no you can stay right there where I can see you". The player was visibly bewildered as to why they just got such a harsh rebuke for asking a perfectly reasonable question. Even if there were a good reason to deny the player's requestWhich there wasn't. Why force a player to be bored for 10 minutes for no benefit? If a player wants to watch another match during a deck check, that's absolutely fine, let them., the tone of the response was entirely uncalled for.

Lastly, don't try to hide problems in the judge program! Nothing will make players more distrustful than seeing judges close ranks and try to cover up inappropriate behavior from one of their own.

A little while ago, a spokesperson for Wizards of the Coast explained that giving Eventlink the ability to manually change pairings would allow tournament officials to unfairly give favorable matchups to their friends, and that's why they had decided against it. I was disappointed to see several judges attack that spokesperson for their statement, claiming that no judge would ever do something like that and it was inappropriate to even imply that judges might act in such a biased manner.The spokesperson probably wasn't even talking about judges, by the way. Most people who run events at the LGS level are store employees, not certified judges.

A judge friend of mine once discovered that a judge they certified had been manipulating matches at his store to always give his wife the bye. Judges have been decertified for sexual harassment, theft, and physical assault. We are not perfect, and every time you try to shield other judges from the consequences of their actions, the player community loses a little more trust in us. Two of the core values of the judge program are a dedication to fairness and an openness to feedback. Let's uphold those values and make each other proud to be part of the program.