Strategy Schmategy – The Basics of Triaging

Let’s start with a story. You’re the head judge (and the only judge) at an RCQ at your local store. It’s not massive: you started with twenty-nine players, and a few have dropped. 

It’s the final round, and you haven’t deck-checked either of the players at table two, so you’re headed that way when the player with the bye comes up to you and says that they think their opponent from round two may have cheated. Then there’s a call from table one, where both players are standing. And then there’s a call at table ten, and a quick glance shows you that there’s a pretty comprehensive board state over there already. You just don’t have enough hands to manage all of these problems. What do you do?


We’ll get back to that after we talk a little bit more philosophically about triaging at events. There will always be times when there are more things to do than you have the bandwidth to do immediately. Triaging (figuring out what needs to happen first) is a hugely important skill. 

It’s also not a science. It’s an art form. There are no hard and fast rules (which can be tough for some of us judges), but it’s something we can learn.

When triaging, there are generally several major factors that you want to evaluate:

  1. How serious is the issue? A player cheating is more serious than a player asking for Oracle text.
  2. How immediate is the issue? Incorrect pairings need to be fixed very quickly, while a pairings board in an inconvenient location doesn’t need to be fixed until the next set of pairings is posted.
  3. How many people does the issue affect? A call from a two-headed giant match has four players who are waiting on you, as opposed to a call from a Pioneer match, which only has two.
  4. How long will it take to address the issue? A missed trigger is usually a relatively quick fix, whereas a life total dispute can take quite some time to figure out all of the details.

A fire alarm going off is serious, immediate, and will affect the entire tournament. A player asking a hypothetical question about a nine-card combo for the deck they’re brewing isn’t serious, doesn’t need to be resolved quickly, affects only one person, and will take a while to address – and so it should be de-prioritized.

Of course, most situations aren’t going to be as clear-cut. Let’s look back at the example we had above, and go through each of those situations. While you’re not going to have the time to pull out a pen and paper, write up a rubric and evaluate each issue thoroughly in a live example, thinking about how you would prioritize various issues is good practice – and practical experience is really the only way to develop this skill.


Let’s start with the first issue: You would like to perform a deck check on a well-placed table. It’s of moderate importance, but not critical. It is rather immediate, as you only have this opportunity at the start of the round to guarantee a check, but you could come back and potentially get a mid-round deck check later. It also has a relatively narrow impact, directly affecting the two players you’re checking and indirectly reminding neighboring players to make sure their decks are in proper order. The kicker is that this will probably take five to ten minutes to resolve, which is a significant amount of time. This is a relatively low priority task compared to the other issues that come up.

Second issue: The player who comes up to you with a concern about cheating has a very serious issue on their hands – likely the most serious of all of these concerns. However, it happened so long ago that you’re not going to be able to investigate it directly, and delaying your focus on the issue won’t exacerbate the problem significantly. It can also be relatively time-consuming to manage a full investigation. This is a mid-to-low level priority, but it doesn’t have a limited timing window, so it may even be a lower priority than the deck check. Hear the player out and make a judgment about the likelihood of the reported player committing the cheat again during the event, how likely it is that there was an infraction, and how long it would take you to investigate the issue.

Issue number three: The call from table one is tricky. In the final round, the events of table one have a significant impact on the outcome of the tournament. However, because they haven’t sat down yet, there’s a good chance that they’re planning to intentionally draw. They may be asking for guidance on how to do that, or they may simply be asking “We’re locked for top 8, can we leave and go get some food?” These players are waiting on you, which puts this above either of the two situations in terms of priority from my perspective.

Fourth and finally: We have table ten. The complex board state could be indicative of a complex question, but it could also be a simple oracle text question. The outcome of this match doesn’t have a significant impact on the tournament or prizing, but the players are still involved in the event and deserve your respect and time, so they shouldn’t be ignored simply because of their place in the tournament. Like the call at table one, these players are actively waiting for you, which puts more pressure on this situation than in the first two.

However, between the call from table one and the call from table three, it can be hard to make a judgment about which you should attend to first. And that’s okay! Sometimes you’ll just have to make a call based on instinct and guess. Maybe you hear one of the players from table ten say “yeah, we really screwed this one up” and that indicates it will be a long call, so you can prioritize the players as table one, quickly get them settled and move on. You can also quickly gather information. Go to table one, ask for their question, and if it’s a quick issue, you can resolve it and move on to table ten. If it’s a longer question, let them know that you’re triaging, head to table ten, and gather information there as well, then you can make a fully informed decision.


While you’re making these decisions, it is critical to note that the optics of the situation are also important. There are many tasks and responsibilities that are important to judges but don’t have public visibility of importance to other folks. While the presence of deck checks at competitive events is very important, it’s okay to miss the 10% mark in service of offering better customer service by answering live calls and not keeping players waiting. 

Furthermore, when you need to focus on one task over others, make sure that the players directly involved know that you are aware of their issue and have it in your queue. The feeling of being ignored can be a big feel-bad, even if you aren’t actually ignoring them.

In these chaotic situations, take time to figure out how you need to tackle the problem. If you simply chase down issues as they arise, some issues might grow out of control, while ones that would have remained tamed get resolved.

Stepping back and evaluating the circumstances of the scenario and where you need to focus your attention is an important skill to cultivate, and one that will, over time, become a natural habit, and not one that requires conscious effort.

Tell us about complex event situations and how you prioritized! Continue the conversation on the Judge Academy Discord.