You Have To Make A Ruling

Sometimes, judges are asked questions that are hard. Often these involve situations that aren't completely covered by the official documents, and we have to use our judgement. Or perhaps they are covered, but we don't know how to find that information. When this happens, you need to make a decision.


When participating in a workshop, newer judges will often quit the scenario rather than try to handle it. This occurs because the purpose of workshops is to provide a safe space for people to fail, without the stakes that come with a real tournament. The judge is faced with something hard, so they take the path of least resistance and nope out of it.Sometimes this is also partially the fault of the workshop designer, as they made the scenario much too hard for the participant. While it's true that judges will sometimes be presented with calls of a difficulty level that's way over their head, this isn't the most effective way to teach them. It's best to keep scenarios to a difficulty level that is only slightly above what the participant is prepared for, so they still feel like they have a chance of doing a good job.

The problem is, this defeats the purpose of entering the workshop in the first place. When you're faced with a real life call, you can't just walk out of the store as soon as you encounter a minor difficulty; you need to be the adult in the situation and handle it as best you can. Workshops give you a place to practice this skill without consequences for failure. But in order to gain useful experience, you have to actually try the thing.

If you want to learn how to ride a bike, but can't bring yourself to get off the couch, you're never going to learn how to ride the bike. Participating judge scenarios in a workshop is like riding a bike with training wheels; you have support, and nothing bad will happen if you aren't able to do it perfectly. But you'll only learn to ride without the training wheels if you actually try riding with them first. If at the mere sight of the bike you go "nope, too scary, can't do it" and walk away, you're never going to learn how to ride the bike. You only get practice at doing a thing if you, you know, practice doing the thing.

Live calls

Almost never will a judge outright refuse to handle a live call in the same way they will in a workshop. Even the newest judge understands that saying "uh, I don't know" and walking away is not an acceptable response to the situation.

What tends to happen instead is that they'll pull out their phone and start desperately searching for an answer. Now, if you can find an answer in under ~a minute, then by all means, please do this. But with inexperienced judges, often they have no idea where to look, and the phone research ends up being ineffective flailing. They're looking at the completely wrong document, or googling vaguely related phrases, or doing something else that's not going to return anything useful in a reasonable amount of time. It's important that we're able to notice when we're doing this, and cut it out.This is similar to when a player is committing Slow Play. If they're methodically working through some steps towards a productive answer, then that's fine and they can spend some time on that. But if they're just looping through the same options over and over in their mind, unwilling to admit to themselves that they don't have a good one, they're wasting time and they need to just make a decision.

When there's someone to ask for help, that's usually the way to go for situations like this. At any large event, there will be other judges nearby who can give you advice or take over. If there aren't any other judges there in person, online judge chats can also be of help. But sometimes this isn't an option. Either there aren't any other judges around, or they don't have a great answer and it's going to come down to you as the head judge to make a final ruling.

It's ok to spend a few minutes doing relevant research (and in fact, you probably should), but there comes a point where the marginal value of new information is worth less than the time it will take to get it, and you need to stop. For any rules/policy call, if you've gotten to 10 minutes in, you've almost certainly already passed that point. For a complicated investigation, 15-20 minutes can be justified, but not much longer.

When you recognize that you've reached that point, you have to make a ruling. It's not going to be perfect, and that's ok. Players don't like bad rulings, but they also don't like excessive delays, and our job is to minimize the total disruption. When a ruling only affects 2 players and the delay affects all of them, you reach the crossover point quite quickly.

After the ruling has been issued, you can spend all the time you want talking to other judges and figuring out what you could have done better. You absolutely can and should use this as impetus to study up on what you didn't know, and ensure you don't get into the same sort of situation again. But in the moment, you have to make a ruling so that the tournament can keep moving.

"I'd have to be there"

Judges sometimes ask each other hypothetical questions. We think of something that we might encounter in the future, so we try to prepare for it in advance. Or we want to better understand the philosophy behind the rules or tournament policy, so we come up with a situation that's dependent on the philosophy, in order to illustrate the difference. Or we're just curious people, and we have an itch to know the answer.

It has become all too common, among experienced L2s and L3s, to respond to questions like these with the phrase "I'd have to be there"There's also the more condescending variant "call me when it happens". This one discards all semblance of being a real answer, and is explicitly a dismissalIn its defense, this one is sometimes used as a response to someone asking why some corner case is not covered by the policy documents, and what they're trying to say is "this is not worth the additional length that it would add to the document", which is a good reason. But you could, you know, not be condescending about it... This is a thought-terminating cliché; a phrase intended to get people to stop thinking about something you don't want them to think about. It sounds wise, as long as nobody thinks about it too hard.

As soon as you do think about it, you'll realize that it's false. If the situation were to come up in a live call, the judge being asked the question would need to make a ruling. The question is asking "what ruling would you make in that situation", and unless that judge's brain stops working as soon as they're no longer on the floor of an event, there's no reason the question can only be answered once the situation actually arises. (Any questions they'd need to ask the players can just be posed to the person who brought up the scenario.)

If any justification is provided, it's usually something like "it depends on details that are difficult to ask about verbally, like body language and tone of voice." And indeed, we do make decisions based on those things all the time. But if those decisions are being made consciously, we can simply ask about the result. "In your hypothetical scenario, does the player seem nervous?" If they're being made unconsciously then we can't do this, and indeed we might give a different answer in a live call than in a hypothetical. But if your rulings are being made based on an unconscious reaction you have to minor details of the situation that you don't understand well enough to model or explain to others, that's, you know, bad.Tacit knowledge is a real thing, and judges certainly do gain it from lots of experience running events, but it's unlikely to be relevant to the sort of atypical situations that tend to incur a response of "I'd have to be there". Tacit knowledge is like muscle memory, in that it's something your unconscious mind picks up from having noticed past patterns. It doesn't generalize well to new contexts; that's what conscious thought is for. And in any case, when we do have tacit knowledge of something, we should work to figure out what that knowledge is and bring it into our conscious awareness so that we can generalize it and teach it to others; not use it as an excuse to avoid doing those things.

When judges say "I'd have to be there", what they actually mean is probably one of three thingsThere's also a fourth meaning of "You haven't given me enough information for me to give you a meaningful answer." This is inapplicable to hypothetical scenarios, since the person asking can just fabricate any necessary details upon request. Rather it's used in response to someone asking about a real situation that they don't remember very well, or that they heard from a third-party who didn't provide enough information about it. This usage is fine and I have no objection to it.:

If it's the first, just say so. The judge program is generally pretty good about rewarding honesty and accurate self-evaluation; no good judge is going to think less of you for not knowing something. It also sets a positive example for newer judges to see that the more experienced judges are comfortable expressing ignorance on a subject. The mindset that causes people to say things like this is a mindset that prioritizes "not being seen to be wrong" over "being helpful to others", and that's not a mindset that we want judges to be operating in.

If it's the second, that's a bit more tricky, but I still think it's better to just honestly express that. Everyone has limited time they want to devote to helping others, especially if it's something they don't personally find interesting. Our society unfortunately does tend to consider any statement like "Sorry, but I'm not particularly interested in talking about that right now" to be rude, but that's a detrimental norm to have. It's a good thing when people are able to set healthy boundaries for themselves and communicate those boundaries to others. So I'd encourage judges to set a good example and try to push the community in a more positive direction by being willing to tell your conversation partner when you don't find something interesting enough to spend time on. If you're worried that people will stop coming to you at all, just make it clear that your statement is only about whatever corner case they just brought up, and you're still happy to talk about more relevant things.

If it's the third, consider explaining it better? If you're worried that people will misunderstand you, head that off by addressing the potential misconception in advance, and explaining that that's not what you mean. Some amount of misunderstandings are inevitable, and it's better for a judge to be partially informed than to be completely uninformed. Nobody starts out with a perfect understanding of anything; we learn it poorly first, then refine that understanding as time goes on. (If, on the other hand, your answer is something that you think it's ok for you to do but not ok for other people to do, I have a whole article on why that is a bad idea.)

"Making up rules"

With regards to some of my in-depth rules dives, I have been accused of "making up rules". I accept this as an accurate description of what I do.

For example, in Step By Step: Dependency, I ran into the issue that the CR doesn't define how dependency loops work when there's also a dependency that's not a part of the loop, nor has Wizards issued any official rulings on the subject. I wanted to provide a specific process that people could follow to properly execute the application of dependencies, and I wanted to write a computer program that could do it for them. Neither of those things is possible without an unambiguous definition. Given that Wizards themselves doesn't seem to know how they want it to work, I simply picked one (rather arbitrary) method out of the infinite number of options. I chose one that I thought Wizards would be reasonably likely to pick themselves if they ever addressed the issue, since it's conceptually simple, easy to describe, and easy for a human to calculate.

Obviously, this interpretation isn't Official, and a judge who rules differently would not be "wrong". However, a judge who gets a dependency question from players and responds with "sorry, this is undefined, so I can't answer your question" would most definitely be in the wrong. Wizards, despite all their failings in the "writing clear rules" arena, is at least self-aware, and has given Head Judges permission to overrule the CR when necessary to correct an error or omissionIronically enough, Wizards' inability to write clear rules has affected this policy too, and you won't find it stated explicitly anywhere in the MTR. It's just vaguely implied in several places, and Wizards has confirmed elsewhere that this is the intention.. When the head judge encounters a situation where the answer is not defined in the CR, they should issue a fiat ruling that they believe is most likely to be in line with what Wizards would say if they ever clarified the situation; not leave the tournament to burn.

Given this reality, it's better if judges are prepared for these situations rather than having to make things up on the fly. So I provide such an interpretation for people to learn and standardize on, such that they can make consistent rulings across events in the absence of official guidance from Wizards. This isn't anything particular to me; one of the main roles of the judge program ever since its inception has been to pick up all the balls Wizards is dropping, and provide answers where Wizards provides none. You need only look at Cranial Insertion or the rules tip blog to see many other examples of judges making up rules for situations that the CR doesn't cover.

Being wrong is still not a good thing

As judges, we are the final arbiters of what's going to happen in our tournaments. Players are relying on us to answer their questions and handle their problems, and it's our responsibility to do that to the best of our ability.

None of this means that we should not be forthcoming about the things we don't know. Being able and willing to admit when you don't know something is a virtue, not a flaw. We should strive to clearly communicate our confidence level in the claims we make, and not misrepresent ourselves as being more certain than we are. And if there's an easy way to seek out help, we should do that rather than issue a ruling that might be wrong. But sometimes that's not possible, and we're going to have to make rulings that we're uncertain about; that's just part of the job.

When this happens, be up-front about it. Explain to the players that you have concerns about the ruling, but it's not feasible to become any more certain in the time that you have available, so you're doing the best you can. The players will appreciate your honesty and willingness to loop them in on what's going on, and generally they'll either agree that your ruling is the best option given the circumstances, or they'll suggest a better one.

Absolute certainty is a great ideal to strive towards, but we must recognize that it can never be truly obtained. We're going to have to operate on incomplete information, in situations we weren't fully prepared for, and muddle through as best we can. Mistakes are going to happen, and that's ok.

At the end of the day, you have to make a ruling.