Strategy Schmategy: The Trials and Tribulations of Being a Judge Errant

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a Knight Errant is “A knight traveling search of adventures in which to exhibit skill, prowess, and generosity.”

Now, why am I starting this off with a definition pulled from a dictionary? I guess it’s because I want to make sure we’re on the same page as I talk about Judge Errants – or judges who travel in search of adventures in which to exhibit skill, prowess, and generosity.

I want to preface this article by admitting that I am, and have been in the past, a Judge Errant. I also want to clarify that I’m talking about this in the confines of a single event, not judges who are road warriors or who travel from one show to another (while I also admit to being one of these, that’s not what this article is about.)

What we’re talking about today is the judge who shows up at your event and truly embodies the ideals of the flex team or the break team or the “everything else” team, or whatever you want to call it.

Years ago, I was added to an event two days before it happened as the expected attendance swelled from about three hundred players to closer to six hundred players. I was one of several judges added at the last minute, and due to the rather hectic nature of those days leading up to the event, I was never assigned a team – no task for the day. 

As a consequence, after the all-hands briefing concluded, I was in charge of myself for the rest of the day. I truly embodied the idea of a Knight Errant and went from team to team, poking my head in and seeing what I could do to help. While the pairings team was hurriedly setting up pairings boards, I was there to provide tape. When the decks team needed extra hands to collect lists and sort them, I was there. I answered to no lord (or team lead!)

At the time, I was a relatively experienced L2, and knew the team leads and the head judge well – they trusted me and on that day, at least, I was worthy of the trust. It was an absolute delight to take on that role for the day, because I felt like I was always in the thick of things, attending to interesting tasks.

However, I want to be clear – a Judge Errant isn’t necessarily something to aspire to. While a Judge Errant can be somebody who does not need instruction and is able to assist in a wide variety of ways without explicit oversight, they can as easily be a loose cannon who nobody can control, but who needs to be reigned in. 

However, part and parcel with being a Judge Errant is doing everything and knowing everything. You certainly shouldn’t try to take on this sort of role too early – it’s easy to develop bad habits, poor communication, and be more of a problem than a problem solver.

It also feels good to be the person that other judges rely on. It’s good to know that when something needs to get done, the Head Judge says, “I want you to handle putting out this fire for me.” There is a lot of trust and respect and validation that comes from being consistent and flexible, but you absolutely need to have an incredibly solid foundation.

The big difference between a Judge Errant and Knight Errant is that you actually do have people that you answer to – the Head Judge and Tournament Organizer both need to know what’s going on in their event, and you should not and can not just handle everything without communication. In fact, at larger events, sometimes this role is somewhat formalized – an Appeals Judge (sometimes called Support Judge or Executive Officer) is a designated role to assist the head judge with appeals and other logistical issues that crop up. 

It’s a fundamental role at larger events, as sometimes there is so much going on that one person can’t feasibly handle all of the appeals. Furthermore, it allows for the head judge to take a break, sit down, eat lunch, or something crazy like that. There’ll be a future article talking about appeals judges, but for now, back to you, and your errantry.

If you feel that you have the bandwidth to assist with troubleshooting and problem solving, check in with your team lead (if you have one) or your head judge (if you don’t) before you go haring off to save the day.

There have been times when I’ve been on a team, seen an issue crop up and go to fix it… leaving my team shorthanded for our assigned task and causing them to have to grab a judge from a different team. If possible, get permission before you go in your own direction – rather than just disappearing to do something. It allows your team leads or head judge to begin to make plans to account for your absence before the moment where they need you present. Of course, that’s not always possible – if a dragon needs to be slain right now, go and ride forth, but let someone know to inform your team leader of what you’re doing and where you’ll be. 

Make sure to communicate after your adventures. Determine how the issue occurred and bring it to the appropriate party. If errors or mishaps are occurring, it’s critical for the Head Judge to know so that they can head off future issues before they become damaging or daunting. Furthermore, it gives them the opportunity to provide feedback to anyone involved, as necessary.

If you feel you’re ready to act as a firefighter or assist where issues arise, talk with the judges who have the power to delegate you to that task. However, if either they or you don’t feel you’re ready, there are many ways you can sharpen yourself up.

Of course, working on every team is key. How can you solve problems if you don’t have the knowledge to find the solutions? Beyond that, focus on the breaks or flex team – the group that does a little bit of everything. That team has to adapt to how other teams are handling tasks and switch gears every round. It’s a lot to process, but less than a Judge Errant may deal with, especially in a bigger event.

When you encounter strange scenarios or hear about them from other judges, take the time to really dig in. Determine what you would, and ask what other people would do – converse with them to gather their insight and perspective.

You can’t really drill or practice logistical challenges in a practical way without events, but stories of “the time when the power went out” or even “the time a player submitted three completely different decklists” lets you see real scenarios and engage with folks who knew what actually occurred, so they can feed you a scenario and play out potential consequences.

Taking the time to have a solid foundation, taking the time to develop your network of judges with mutual trust and respect, taking the time to communicate about what needs to be done – all of that can culminate in events where you have the opportunity to be a Judge Errant. While I said that it isn’t something necessarily to aspire to – it can be a ton of fun. If you work well under pressure, with little prep time and several other tasks asking for your attention, maybe you should heed the call to adventure.