Last Thursday my editor shared Ben Barrett‘s article on Magic the Gathering Arena over at PCGamesN. Barrett interviewed Chris Clay, the principle game designer for Wizards of the Coast’s soon-to-be-flagship product under the Magic Digital Next banner. For the most part this was a pretty straight-forward piece and didn’t produce too much new information, except for a quote that stood out to my editor:

To do so, they have built a game rules engine [GRE], the “perfect Magic judge” as Clay calls it, which they are teaching Magic so it can teach you.

Carrie sent me that quote and my immediate response was, “This is the beginning of the end of the Judge program isn’t it.” Later on in the article, Barrett wrote, “On a wider scale, development of the GRE that runs all of this is not just an MTG Arena problem. Clay calls it an “anchor project” with his team’s game being “one of the uses for the project.” They are laying groundwork for Magic digital products for the foreseeable future, which means always thinking ahead to the next card set.”

I have a lot of respect for Magic’s Judges. It’s a mostly thankless position that’s usually under-paid by tournament organizers and under-respected by the community. It’s not easy to become a judge and it isn’t easy to maintain it. It requires a love of the game that is fundamentally different from the love that drives tournament grinders.

That said, it’s pretty easy to imagine a future where the judge program no longer exists, especially at the highest level of the game such as the World Championship, World Magic Cup, and Pro Tour. Could the program perhaps even be made redundant at the Grand Prix, RPTQ, PPTQ, and lower levels? Friday Night Magic? Game Day? Pre-releases? How low can we go?

Imagine you walk into your local game shop for FNM and pay your $15 entry fee. Instead of taking out your deck you take out your [tablet of choice] and fire up Magic the Gathering Arena. You look up at the chalkboard. Wi-Fi network name, check. W-Fi password, check. MTG Arena tournament room name, check. Tournament ID number, check. Tournament password, check. You log into the client, get your daily login bonus (another foil Fatal Push, jeez), and navigate to the Friday Night Magic area of the app.

You put in the info from the chalkboard and then peruse your list of Standard decks and settle on your weapon of choice for the evening. The client locks you in and you soon have your first round pairing. You head over to table 5 and see an old friend you haven’t caught up with in a while. After catching up you each prepare for the match and get comfortable with your tablet in front of you. The tournament organizer begins the round from the MTG Arena TO Client and the match begins.

At higher levels perhaps the tablets are provided. Perhaps they’re wired into special software that allows for the broadcast experience to be greatly improved. Greg Collins or Rashad Miller sit in front of a wall of screens watching an array of matches from across the tournament. Commentators look for interesting decks or lines of play to highlight during breaks from the feature matches. The archives are full of replays from all your favorite pros. Every game. Every match. Every tournament. Everywhere.

The experience of paper Magic isn’t going anywhere, but it’s hard to believe that Wizards of the Coast doesn’t envision high-level competitive Magic being played on MTG Arena and in that case there’s really no need for the Judge program to be involved, is there? That said, at the LGS-level I can’t imagine stores being interested in digital Magic tournaments because of the lack of trading and secondary market sales. Then again, stores can still make plenty of money on tournament entry, concessions, and other accessories.

Judges aren’t only responsible for enforcing the rules of the game engine though. They are also there to enforce the guidelines of tournament play and that’s something that the computer might not be able to replace so easily. The digital app won’t know if your opponent verbally abuses you, or if they’re trying to gain an advantage from an exploit in the software. So maybe I’m jumping the gun here in saying the entire judge program is going away.

That said, Magic the Gathering Arena will be changing the landscape of competitive Magic from how we play to how we collect to how tournament organizers operate, how judges are organized, and how event coverage is produced. We hope it all works out for the best, but the changes are coming, and judges should start preparing for the worst.

Bonus World Championship Predictions Review

On Friday I predicted the odds of victory for all 24 competitors at the Magic World Championship. Some of my predictions were pretty far off and some were pretty spot-on. I gave Jensen 20-1 odds to win it all and I still think that’s fair as no one would have predicted a 12-2 finish in the swiss. How did I do otherwise?

I only gave four players 9-1 or better odds: PVDDR, Carvalho, Duke, and Nelson. They all let me down except for Reid Duke who missed out on the top 4 on tie-breakers. Paulo finished 7-7 in the swiss rounds but Nelson finished 6-7-1 and Carvalho finished 6-8. I also had Calcano, Juza, and Turtenwald at 12-1 odds and they had mixed results as well.

I had Kelvin Chew and Javier Dominguez at 25-1 odds and Josh Utter-Leyton at 40-1 odds and they all made the top 4 cut. So I guess the bottom line is that I need to do a better job with these next year. At least Lee Shi Tian didn’t let me down.

Rich Stein would be sad to see the Judge Program vanish but would be happy to see competitive Magic the Gathering Arena replace the paper game at the highest levels of competition if only for the vast improvements to the broadcast quality of the events.

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