The head judge of the PPTQ is acting as a table judge for the finals. I’m playing Craig Wescoe’s Green/White Collected Company list against Bant Heroic. On the play game three, I feel way ahead: my opponent is low, my board position is strong, and I have a solid hand. However, I overplay my position going for the kill and am suddenly very behind on board, though my opponent is at one.

We end up in a situation where I need him to attack with all his creatures so I can play Collected Company, chump his biggest guy, and kill him on the crack-back with whatever other creature I find. He’s been cruising for treasure this game, though, so there’s a good chance he has another creature… still it’s my chance. He puts his hand down and uses both hands to turn all three of his creatures sideways, saying “attack”. I immediately drop Collected Company onto the table, and he immediately says, “Hold on! I’m not done declaring.”

I give him a look and point out that he turned his guys sideways. He asserts that he never took his hands off them. I acquiesce — I know better than to jump priority like that. The judge says nothing.

He looks at his hand and decides to attack with everything anyway. My top six cards contain both Deathmist Raptor and Brimaz, King of Oreskos, allowing me to trade Raptor with his biggest guy and threaten two lethal attackers. He summons a Hero of Iroas and passes the turn, looking very dead-on-board.

When I declare my Brimaz as an attacker and say, “trigger”, my opponent says, “you got me” and reaches down to pick up his cards. I drop my hand on the table, breath a sigh of relief, and start to say, “good game”, when the judge asks us both to stop.

We stop.

The judge moves around to the side of our match and silently, meticulously, starts counting cards.

This goes on for a moment. He finishes his count. He thinks. He starts counting again.

I ask him what’s going on, and he asks me to wait.

He has my opponent’s graveyard piled out with sac-lands and cantrips separated, and with each Treasure Cruise paired with two other cards. He confirms the count with my opponent, sighs, and thinks.

At this point in the story, I should tell you that I know this judge. I know him well, in fact: he’s part of my regular drafting group. I have his phone number in my phone. He has eaten cake to celebrate my Pro Tour qualification.

The only way I can explain this card-count situation is that he appears to think my opponent drew an extra card, and is trying to confirm that: certainly he knows me, and knows I wouldn’t have drawn an extra. So, I ask him, “What are you trying to reconstruct here? What’s the point?”

As much as I appreciate any attempt to catch and punish cheating, my opponent has already lost, and if my Judge friend did not witness any actual cheating, it’s not clear to me that a card count is decisive evidence of anything, except potential sloppy play.

I tease the judge for upstaging an exciting finals match with Judge Nonsense. I’d like to celebrate my victory and let my opponent, who is already sad about losing, move on.

It is at this point that the Judge states the counts: my opponent mulliganed. Counting out self-replacing cards, his count is thirteen: six cards, seven natural draws. My count is fifteen: seven cards, eight natural draws. (Even on my turn, that shouldn’t be the case, because of the play/draw rule.) Oh! Oh shit.

It appears I have one card too many. I am quite certain I did not draw any extra cards, but here we are: the count is clean. Everyone looks at each other. What do we do now?

Our (quite experienced) judge looks unsure. The only evidence that a rule has been broken is a very ambiguous re-creation. No one actual saw anyone do anything inappropriate, and yet we have an invalid game state which appears to seriously advantage one player. However, there are any number of ways that this could have occurred that are not nefarious: my opponent might have missed a card on a Treasure Cruise, or dropped a card on the ground and not realized it!

Maybe I’m grasping at straws, but it seems such thin evidence that nothing can really be done with it.

Rewind to the game, and the moment when I overplayed my hand. My opponent was forced to tap his Mana Confluence, dropping to one life. As he untapped on his turn, he picked up his Mana Confluence and placed it on top of his deck box, asking the head judge if it was okay. The judge said it was fine as long as I didn’t object, which I didn’t.

Back to the present: there’s my straw! I notice the Mana Confluence still sitting on top of my opponent’s deck box. I point at it and ask if the judge missed it in his counting.

“Yes,” he says, “I did. I guess we’re fine! Sorry about that.”

There are a number of things about this incident that I think are worth discussing.

First: Kudos to the judge in question: he ran a great tournament, and he is not only being vigilant in preventing cheating, but he’s unbiased: he was investigating a friend. I think that is admirable on a number of levels, even if it was a bit nerve-wracking for me personally.

Second: This is an interesting example of the problem with a witch-hunt mentality. Suspicious-appearing situations naturally inflame our imaginations, and when you imagine someone cheating (or practicing witchcraft), it can be hard to withhold judgement. However, it’s quite often the case that appearances are just appearances. Cheating is a problem in Magic, and one major reason is because of the suspicion and judgement that it breeds. What if no one had spotted the Mana Confluence? What should the judge have done?

Third: It’s unfortunate that most Magic stories that involve judges as central characters are not flattering to the judges. For the most part, Magic judges do incredible work, but most of it is either unseen or unremarkable: no one tells stories of a judge handling a situation perfectly. Cheating investigations are private, so those potentially juicy stories tend to go untold. Wizards has announced a Judge Hall of Fame, and the response has been, as far as I can tell, a polite golf-clap from the community. I think it’s unfortunate that the response is so tepid, but I think I know why: judging Magic tournaments isn’t about fame. Building up famous players is a huge part of the game, but judges are rarely in the spotlight for anything but bad news or regrettable incidents. This disconnect between the purpose of the job and the framing of the recognition is a huge barrier to the community embracing this recognition for a part of the community that absolutely deserves recognition.

Anyone have any better ideas?

Gabe Carleton-Barnes has been playing Magic for over 20 years, mostly as a PTQ grinder and intermittently as a Pro Tour competitor. Currently based in Portland, Oregon, where he is an Open Source web developer by day, Gabe lived in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, for three years. While there, he failed to make a documentary about competitive Magic but succeeded in deepening his obsession with the game. Gabe is now a ringleader and community-builder for the competitive Magic scene in Portland, wielding old-timey slang and tired cliches to motivate kids half his age to drive with him to tournaments.

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