Off Topic: An Off-the-Cuff Judge Interview

In the attempt to write something more than the standard jargon, I have this week a Q&A with judge extraordinaire Eli Shiffrin. He was gracious enough to answer all my pesky questions about judging. As such, I would like to thank Eli for writing my article this week for me. I feel so devilishly Tom Sawyer. Without further delay, lets get to the interview.

Tell us a little about yourself?

I've been a judge since 2004 and poking at the rules for quite a few years before that. I started playing back in the dim days of Weatherlight but didn't start to care about rules stuff until after the Classic Sixth Edition rules update, so I was spared the horror of batches and series... and then had to learn them to play Shandalar.

What made you decide a couple of nights of gaming for judging?

Playing Magic is expensive, but I enjoy the game and the company of the players.

How did you go from walking the floors of the local store to the halls of big events?

By volunteering. We had PT--LA back in 2005, so I flew out and judged the public events for the weekend.

I heard you recently leveled up. Congrats. Is this the end or do you want to power up to level 5?

You apply for levels 1-3, but levels 4 and 5 are granted. Maybe some day.

I am bored of beating up on the locals with my awesome Magic skills. I have started thinking about getting into the judging thing. Where do I start?

First, take the RA test to gauge your rules knowledge. If you do well, contact a L2 or higher near you. You need to work a few events with that judge and then take the written exam.

After destroying all the Warp World questions on level 1, how do I power-up to the second level?

For L2, we expect judges to be able to train, mentor, and critique other judges. L2s should be seen as a valuable resource by the community in addition to having good rules knowledge.

What kind of sides can I get with my Level Three combo platter?

My special L3 power is to cause kittens to spontaneously generate in distant locations.

As a judge, you went to the Austin Pro Tour. Did you volunteer or were your services requested? Since I am a super judge, can I just request to go to Worlds and get a free plane ticket?

Judges always apply for sponsorship or to volunteer out of pocket; it's fairly rare for a judge to be requested, other than possibly the Head Judges for those events.

I am attending a big event and I got a couple of obscure rules questions before the big event. Who, when, where do I ask them?

Find any of the judges walking around. If all else fails, ask the guy at the computer who to ask.

As a judge, do you get any say what you get to do at big events?

Somewhat. For "big" events in Arizona, it is part of my job to decide who's doing what. For example, I'm passing on the HJ roles to my other judges to train them up. At pro events, I can request "hey, can I do this?" but there's no guarantee that the staff managers will have me doing that.

For compensation for your expert services, judges get special cards. How often do you decide to keep the cards instead of selling them because the art is absolutely spectacular?

I try to keep at least one of each foil I get and some just go to my EDH decks. If I have multiples and am not planning to use them for EDH, I sell or trade.

When you sell your judge promos, how do you get rid of them?

The store I'm affiliated with has a promo collector who's happy to buy any and all promos I can get my hands on. Much better than eBay!

When you have to make a ruling with people you know, do you approach this ever differently? Have you ever passed it off to another judge to reduce the possibility of accusations of bias?

No. A judge that avoids situation for fear of looking biased just says "I'm not confident in being unbiased."

Have you ever had any friends get upset by a ruling?

Oh, of course. I had to DQ a friend for outside notes once upon a time. The beauty of the Infraction Procedure Guide is that penalties are uniform: I can show him exactly why the DCI requires the penalty I gave.

On the rare occasion a judge makes an incorrect ruling, what lengths do judges go through to rectify the situation?

Once the game has moved on, you can't rewind the game or overturn a game result. All you can do is apologize.

Is there any judge you idolize in a platonic fashion?

I've always been a fan of how Scott Marshall does things, but I'm not sure if I'd go so far as to call it "idolize."

If you were stuck on an island with a friend, what two Magic decks would you want with you?

My two EDH decks: Sliver Overlord and Gaddock Teeg.

I keep taking the rules advisor exam and keep failing. I took all the practice tests. I really, really want to get better. What advice would you give?

Study the rules rather than rulings. Focus on the big things: steps of casting a spell, steps of resolving a spell, layers, steps and phases of a turn. And if you're just not doing well, maybe consider that judging isn't your thing - there's no shame in that. There's a certain mathematical/analytical bend to the rules that just isn't for everyone, the same way that some people just don't get foreign languages or computers.

What are the most frustrating rules to explain to players?

The ones where the Comp Rules are ambiguous. Those get fewer and fewer all the time, but there are still a few sneaky corners out there.

What is the most bizarre or funniest ruling you ever had to make?

"If I give my opponent's Story Circle protection from white, can he not spend white mana on it? ... Oh wait, that's a really, really dumb question, isn't it?"

A huge error just occurred in my game at a tournament. I flag down a judge. Is there anything I can do as a player to make your job easier?

Stay calm. Don't both try to talk all at once. Be clear. And if the ruling doesn't go in your favor, politely appeal. If you can't do that because you're dealing with the HJ, ask to talk about it later, but keep your cool. Judges do not like having to hand out penalties, and we're more than happy to explain them, but not if you're being aggressive about it.

If you could ban a card for the sake of rules sanity, what card would that be?

Sadly, even banned cards must work with the rules. But if I could go back in time and eradicate any one card, it'd be a toss-up between Panglacial Wurm and Chromatic Sphere. Both have unfortunate interactions with anything done from the library.

What do you consider the hardest part about judging?

Walking for 10 hours is certainly hard.

What is the best food you ever had at a big tournament? How big?

At one PTQ, we had "a bucket of chicken parts" from KFC that was just awesome for variety and flavor, but after the events, I've ended up at some fantastic steak houses.

For fans or people who just want to chat, when is the best time approach a judge for a minute or two during a tournament?

20-30 minutes or so into the round. Earlier, there are deck checks to do. Towards the end, there's preparing for the next round and/or meetings. The middle is safest.

Judges rock and I brought my EDH deck along. How can I get hooked up for a couple of games with the smartest people in the room?

It helps to actually know someone on staff, since it'll be a little awkward otherwise, but just ask someone if they want to get a game in after the shift is over.

How many hours do judges typically work at tournaments?

Ten hours is a pretty good average, with breaks and at least one long break.

What is the best part about judging?

Traveling, meeting people, making the game happen.

Got a nemesis?

I suppose Mark Rosewater is my nemesis by proxy, but not really.

Do you guys and gals get thanked a lot by players?

Not a whole lot, but we usually get a few players thanking us -sometimes slightly inebriated - for making the event go smoothly and fairly.

As a judge, how do you handle disruptive players?

If telling them to calm down doesn't work, remove 'em. No reason to let one person spoil the fun for everyone. Asking privately first is a must, though.

What experience as a judge keeps a tournament running smoothly?

Doing things wrong, of course. Then you learn not to do those things that way anymore! Mistakes will happen, but it's whether we learn from them that makes the difference. Judging big tournaments is different than overseeing local play groups.

What do you find to be the biggest difference judging large tournaments compared to the local scene?

The players are more serious and less prone to friendly chatter, but they're also more respectful of your role. Most pro players have a more realistic expectation from judges than casual players and appreciate the amount of work we volunteer to give them a tournament.

Do you have any advice for those judges at smaller functions like FNM?

Focus on making it fun, but without sacrificing the rules that apply to sanctioned events. I've heard of too many stores where the players simply can't have fun anymore within the rules because they were never enforced, and heard too many people thinking the rules kill fun. It's important to meet both goals.

Thanks for reading.


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