2022 Letter from Tim Shields

My learning from Judge Academy

I wanted to start off by sharing my experiences with Judge Academy so far as a way of reporting to the judge community. Hopefully this provides a look into what’s been happening behind the scenes and draws some conclusions going forward.

As you can imagine, Judge Academy is a very ambitious initiative that has had an absolutely wild ride since its inception. Let’s do some timeshifting…

Building a Foundation

In 2019 we took on the challenge of designing a re-envisioned Judge program. Thus, Judge Academy was formed with a small team of stand-out Judges. My primary goals were to create a business structure that would place the program on a sustainable path while preserving and building the community of judges and serving both Organized Play and our members. As we were forging a path to a structurally sustainable future. In year one tons of time and energy were spent pursuing the following:

  • Continuity & Retention – Building on worked in the prior judge program so that Judge Academy could keep consistent and allow certified judges to continue to be the backbone of Organized Play. Conferences were a particular emphasis.
  • Accessible Content – Developing a technology platform to incorporate online learning materials and community outreach, with a particular eye to serving judges areas that were previously underserved.
  • Redesigned Levels – Reconfigured level system to make the process of becoming and leveling up as a judge predictable, scalable and even more useful to the entire OP community.
  • Solid Legal Footing – Staying compliant with law that is rapidly changing and is different in every country.

The transition from the old Judge system to Judge Academy was turbulent but ultimately successful. Judge participation was growing. The new site with its learning platform was working. Despite the challenges, and there was a ton of learning from the first year, Judge Academy was successful. Then came COVID.

Virulent Plague

OP was canceled. Suddenly all the events were gone and judges were out of work. This incredible global network of friends were scattered without a way to physically come together. In the face of loss of life and suffering caused by a pandemic, games are just not a priority. However we wanted to do what we could to help the community.

We took the steps we could to reduce the financial burden on judges while so many jobs were disappearing. In 2020, Judge Academy didn’t collect membership fees from judges who were already part of the program. Rather, Judge Academy reduced every expense we could and went into hibernation mode with the hope of emerging when Organized Play returned.

In an attempt to bring the judge community together digitally we launched an online conference model. This system of presentations encouraged long-distance education while serving as an outlet by which to share foils with judges in our community. We continued to launch online classes for judge development, however our pace significantly slowed. (see hibernation mode).

As Organized Play slowly returns our goal is to take the learning of the past two years and adjust Judge Academy to be ready to serve.

Accumulated Knowledge

As difficult as the last few years have been, it’s also been an invaluable learning experience. I want to share some of the learning so far. I will save the conclusion on what steps we will take based on the learning for later in Nico’s communication. However, I want to share my thoughts around several issues.

Promo Distribution

I knew promo distribution was going to be hard. Mailing items to over 5000 people twice a year is a difficult task. However it was much harder than I anticipated. The promo distribution as we have pursued it so far absolutely did not work at scale. We could have walked, swam, and climbed to some countries faster than the mail carriers got foils delivered. Mail got damaged. Judges moved. Roommates lost packages. It was also incredibly expensive and time consuming.

Learning – Ultimately, direct distribution is a nightmare.

Technology and Cost

No surprise here. Programming is expensive. Our website was created fresh for our Judge Academy organization using WordPress. This greatly reduced expenses and created a scalable site. Despite our COVID based hibernation we continued site development and later in the announcement Chris will share our progress. I’m very proud of the progress we’ve made on the site.

From time to time, judges who are programmers ask me if they can volunteer to help us develop the site. Although I really appreciate the offers of support. I’m committed not to use volunteers. One of my principles for Judge Academy is compensating workers for the work they do. Yes that costs a lot but it’s just fair to pay for the value we receive.

Learning – WordPress is awesome and software is hard and expensive.

The Level Process

The judge training, testing, and maintenance systems needed an overhaul. For example Level 3 testing was built to use large numbers of testers donating their time. This just wasn’t a sustainable process. When JA started we continued the previous system but paid the testers. Now, Judge Academy has done important work clarifying and streamlining the judge leveling process, and we intend to continue looking for ways to improve the system. The Level 3 journey is getting restructured at this very moment, which Nicolette will explain later down the article.

Learning – A redesigned level and testing.

Tournament Organizers

Tournament Organizers have huge impacts on the events they run and judges who work for them. The single biggest impact Judge Academy can have to improve conditions for judges is to level up tournament organizers.

With this realization comes a new challenge. How do we launch an outreach initiative to engage and support TOs? We want judges and tournament organizers to foster healthy symbiotic relationships with each other as we work towards the common goal of improving OP. More information on what this will look like in the near future!

Learning – To improve OP JA needs to work with TO’s.

Judge Events

Over these challenging times Judge Academy has tested running a judge league and judge tournaments with an eye to keeping judges engaged beyond the scope of just educational spaces. While of course we want all of our judges learning and growing, we also want everyone to have fun too. The judge community is full of some of the coolest people on the planet. We have desperately wanted to make sure everyone remembers that our community is built both on our love of a game and on our love of each other. I see lots of opportunities to expand and improve this type of activity.

Learning – We can do a lot more to bring fun to judges.

Judge Uniforms

In response to judge requests, we worked with MTG Pro Shop to create and distribute judge uniforms. (And hats, jackets, and name badges! Check them out if you haven’t yet!). There will be more judge swag on the way in the very near future.

This has been mostly successful but shipping costs are a burden in parts of the world. This will get better as OP returns but there is lots of room for improvement.

Learning – Shipping globally sucks but a strong partner like Steve Port at MTG Pro Shop makes it so much better. JA needs to work with partners more often.

Office Hours

Throughout the COVID era Judge Academy has maintained regular office hours so that Nicolette could meet with as many judges as possible to offer help and advice. It matters a lot to us that we stay in direct contact with our judges. Every voice in our organization deserves to be heard, and we appreciate all the feedback we’ve received so far.

Learning – This model of being open to the community has been very well received. JA needs to do more of this kind of digital communication.

Conduct Issues

Policing judge conduct has always been a difficult issue. Without local area captains to investigate and report on conduct issues it just gets harder. It has become clear to us over this that most conduct issues happen under someone else’s jurisdiction – typically a TO. European (and other countries) privacy laws also hamper our ability to hold judges accountable.

Judge Academy needs to find a balance where we help the people reporting judge behavior address it directly where it occurred in most cases and investigate removing judges in the most serious cases. In all cases JA has an obligation to address anything that happens under its control, including on our site, Facebook page, Discord, etc.

Learning – In a world where certification is not required to run events, the power of JA to address wrong is limited. JA needs to do what it can but there are limits to our abilities.

Diversity and Cultural Competence Training

Creating a series of training modules for addressing issues of diversity for a global community is hard. After significant research I have determined that our best path forward is to use a framework where we focus on increasing cultural competence.

Trying to develop these training while JA is in COVID based hibernation is especially difficult.

Learning – JA has brought in an expert to create cultural competence training and will make an announcement on this very soon.

Taxes and Legal

Judge Academy heard very clearly that judges in the EU don’t want us to collect VAT on membership. They argued there had to be something we could do.

Learning – We worked with a team of lawyers and found an answer. Details in Nico’s letter to the community.


My idea of charging judges membership fees based on level does not work and is problematic for a number of reasons most importantly that the judge community does not feel it is fair.

Learning – We have a new system of equal membership fees regardless of level. More on what this will mean will be explained in Nico’s write up.


I am glad that we stayed the course. It’s been an adventure every step of the way. Now that you have some perspective on what’s been going on so far and what we’ve taken away from all of these experiences, I’m going to hand it back over to Nicolette to announce what the future is going to look like. Thank you all for being part of this wonderful community we call Judge Academy.