A couple of weeks ago I talked about striking out on your own while being a part of a larger team. Today, I want to talk about a related role – managing events and fighting fires when you’re the final authority at an event. On the off chance that you missed it, Wizards of the Coast recently announced the return of Premier Play. With that announcement, there will be a significant rise in the number of competitive events run both locally and on a regional level. As a consequence of that, there will be so many more opportunities for judges to take on Head Judge roles for events at their local game store that are run using Competitive Rules Enforcement Level.
Now, one of the things about larger and longer competitive events is that the number of weird circumstances or things that go wrong increases dramatically. In a three-round FNM with twenty players, you have roughly thirty matches of Magic over the course of the whole event. Now, if your Regional Championship Qualifier draws in sixty players, that means you’ll have six rounds of play and one-hundred and eighty matches of Magic over the course of the tournament. Something that happens only once every hundred games isn’t likely to occur at FNM, but may happen multiple times over the course of that RCQ.
All of that is to say is that weird stuff is going to happen, and it’s going to happen more frequently at events of this nature than it would at your more common Friday Night Magic.
So what do you do when things start to go off the rails? Well, the first step is to take a breath – it’s always important to remain calm and collected. Of course, that’s easier said than done. How can you remain calm when the event software isn’t working? Or you may have to disqualify a player for the first time? Or you just had the TO tell you that a side event launched and they need space for a draft, but there are literally no empty chairs in the room?!
Well, it’s important to remember that you’re responsible for the outcome for a reason. The tournament organizer chose to staff you for this event because they believe you can handle the responsibility. Nobody is going to hire somebody that they think will be a detriment to their business, and that includes you. (Yes, there’s always that lingering thought of “But what if they made a mistake?” Well, they’ve been successful so far, and unless you have a reason to doubt them other than your imposter syndrome, maybe give them the benefit of the doubt. Speaking of Imposter Syndrome, that’ll be a coming up topic soon™).
To start with, be prepared. Going into an event, there’s a fair amount you can do to help mitigate any issues that may rise up. Knowing the format is an obvious one, and connected to that, taking the time to understand the format. Know what cards cause issues and read the rulings for them before the event. If there’s a mechanic that creates confusion or unclear game states for players, think about how you might explain it or preempt such issues in an announcement.
If you have specific concerns, talk to people about them. Are you not certain how the room is going to be laid out? Talk to the Tournament Organizer. Uncertain about what information to convey in your opening announcements? Review the appropriate module or reach out to your mentor or peers to get their insight. Preparation doesn’t have to be so formal or distinct – visiting the shop to grab a pack or play in an event will let you think about the space just a little bit before you show up for your event. Playing some matches of the relevant format, or listening to a podcast reinforces the foundation of your knowledge. Talking with friends or hearing stories about how other events have gone can give you some clues as to what to expect. Like with many things, knowing is half the battle.
Trust Your Knowledge
Beyond that evidence and preparation, trust in your knowledge! You’ve been tested on the rules and policy of the game, and you’ve objectively proven your ability. Trust in the resources you have available to you. Even if a response doesn’t come to your mind immediately, you have tools you can turn to. If it’s a rules question, open up the comprehensive rules to verify your understanding. Did something go wrong and you’re not sure what infraction it falls under? Open up the IPG and read the descriptions. I do that multiple times at every event. It simply ensures the best result for all participants.
You can also talk with the Tournament Organizer or your mentor. You may be the one who has to make the decision, but if you’re able to find the bandwidth, gathering more opinions and insight can only make your final course of action more informed. Plus, talking with people whose opinions you respect can act as a stabilizing and validating influence, if necessary. Beyond that, there’s also the Judge Academy Discord, with an SOS channel dedicated to helping judges who find themselves in situations that need a resolution immediately and the individual in question doesn’t have the answer.
Triage the Situation
Of course, being prepared and trusting your knowledge is all well and good, but how do you actually handle what’s going on? The critical next step is triaging the situation. Ideally, you only have one thing that is demanding your attention at any given moment, but it’s very frequently more than one, and even if they’re not demanding your attention, there are probably a handful of tasks you could be doing, such as pushing in chairs, taking down old pairings, printing out a prize breakdown, connecting with players…. There’s a lot that you can be doing, and you need to be able to figure out how to prioritize your responsibilities. Furthermore, it’s possible that you may be on the verge of being overwhelmed. If you’re close to it, or if you see yourself rushing from one problem to another, step back.
The event will survive without you for a moment.
If you’re so busy you can’t stop to look ahead and see what problems might be arising, you need to step back for a moment. While dashing from one situation to another can resolve those active problems, it is very likely, even probable, that inattention will allow other fires (hopefully metaphorical) to rise up.
I’m going to say it again because it’s important:
The event will survive without you for a moment.
What the event might not be able to survive is you being so distracted that you fail to notice a larger problem creeping up on you, or being exhausted from rushing from one problem to another. When you take a step back, look at the challenges you’re currently facing, and take into account your mental and physical state. While retreating from an event when you’re the only judge is not great, taking a minute or two to recenter yourself so that your mental health remains intact rather than losing control is the better option. Furthermore, taking this moment allows you to evaluate which problems need solutions now, before they spiral into larger problems, and what might be coming up. It can feel somewhat counterintuitive to slow down or even stop entirely when you have so many things to worry about, but taking the time to develop a plan is what keeps them from becoming overwhelming.
So, you have a plan. You’ve evaluated the situation and you know what needs to be done to begin moving forward again. What next? Taking action! If you’re the head judge, it’s possible you’ll have judges under your authority that you can assign to tasks. You may also have access to store employees or other staff who are there for the tournament organizer. While you may be the individual who is best suited to accomplishing the task, there may be multiple competing tasks, and there may be others who are qualified to manage the original task while only you can handle the other tasks. Furthermore, if you’re focused on handling various challenges and tasks as they arise, you may get hit by the next wave – part of your role as the authority is to make sure you’re aware of what’s going on with the rest of the event.
That said, keep in mind that being in charge is not an excuse to not help out with tasks. If you have the bandwidth to manage the task and still keep an eye out on the event (and this will be true most of the time at events like RCQs) stay involved. Being closer to the event allows you to feel the pace of it and see if there are any stress points. Delegating to others is important if that’s an option available to you, but assigning yourself tasks and completing them in the designated order is fundamental.
A Story of Side Events
Now for an example – One of the first times I was in a significant leadership position, I led Side Events for a Star City Games Open. On Saturday, the main event was capped, with over 900 players in attendance. By the time my first two events launched, I had a hundred players in them, with under fifty seats left empty.
I spent the entire morning scrambling to create more place space – adding chairs to each row, talking with the tournament organizer about setting up space, communicating the changes to my team, renumbering tables, talking with the scorekeepers about changing starting table numbers to keep events condensed… It was a lot, but I was staying on top of it. I even got a few extra judges from the main event to help out while we took our breaks.
And then I went on break. The event had been near breaking for a while, but when I left, I also left a gap in leadership. I had communicated explicit tasks to members of my team, but not goals or even the general plan. I had been managing so many small things that I hadn’t had time to do so! And, of course, there was so much that I had been doing that when I left, nobody was doing them because I hadn’t thought to ask for coverage for all of the tasks. I had gotten some, but there were a lot of things that started to slip through the cracks.
If I had stopped earlier, maybe one event would have been five or even ten minutes delayed, but I could have created a framework that I could deliver to my team allowing them to be more effective independent of my presence. I could have spent a few minutes giving the smaller tasks over to my team so that I could focus on the big picture – everyone I was working with was wonderfully competent. I could have taken the time to develop a plan for our breaks and our reinforcements once the initial draft was thrown out by the chaos of the morning.
While my knowledge was good, and my preparation was adequate, where I struggled was in triage – I wasn’t able to evaluate the challenges that we were facing, or properly prioritize them. In turn, I was unable to effectively delegate tasks, either to myself or my team members.
All in all, just keep in mind that you’re there for a reason. You’re knowledgeable, trained, and ready to handle what’s coming at you. It never hurts to prepare a bit more, but you’re also not going to be able to catch everything.
Take the time to step back and process what’s going on, prioritize the situations you face, and then execute that strategy, utilizing other judges when necessary.
These fundamental steps can help you if your event starts to go off track, or, ideally, keep them from going off track to begin with, whether it be an RCQ where you’re the entirety of the staff to leading side events with hundreds of players and dozens of judges. Good luck out there!