Strategy Schmategy: The Connotations of Communication

One of my hobbies is trying to find the perfect word. I’m not doing that with this article, because it would consume far too much time (although I did just rewrite that sentence five times). Rather, I focus on pieces of language, whether it be announcements or phrases that I use regularly as a judge.

Before I really dive into this topic, I want to acknowledge that I’m talking about my experiences as a native English speaker. I personally enjoy exploring the connotation of words. The ideas I express may lead you to a different conclusion, and that’s wholly valid – your dialect or cultural knowledge may suggest using different words. Beyond that, there may not be a direct translation from English to the language you are using for your announcements. Taking the time to evaluate what you’re saying can help improve the quality of your events.

I’ve announced the start of hundreds if not thousands of rounds, and my goal is always clear, effective, and efficient communication with those announcements and others. I’ve heard thousands more announcements, and there’s so much variation.

There is no “perfect” announcement, but that isn’t going to stop me from trying.

How do you start a round? Take a second to think about it before I list off a slew of various announcements I’ve heard.

  • Welcome to round one. You have fifty minutes. Please begin!
  • You have fifty minutes. Begin!
  • Welcome to round one. You may begin.
  • Round one. Fifty minutes on the clock.
  • Ready! Set! Magic!
  • This is round one of three. You may start when you’re ready! You have fifty minutes.

There are, of course, an infinite number of ways you can start a round, and while you can see the differences between each example, you can also see the common thread throughout all of them.

My personal preference is the first example. (It got that position for a reason). It conveys what I believe is the necessary information, while also being polite about it. The barest information is the round number, time on the clock, and that players should start. Most players will know what round it is and how long the round lasts, but by saying the round you remind players who have started to forget – as the day wears on at larger events, it’s easy to forget, and even at shorter events, knowing that you’re getting close to the end of the round is a helpful reminder. Then, by stating the time, you’re reinforcing the idea that the clock is starting now, and not some other time. Finally, “Please Begin” is an instruction, not a request.

Examples two, three, and four all lack some of the information, so I find them incomplete. There are also further choices that I wouldn’t make – “Welcome to round one” vs. “Round one” – the former, to me, has a bit of an attention grabber, so that if players aren’t paying attention, they have a second before they need to be listening – sometimes blank noise like that can be important – plus it’s a little bit more polite. 

Phrases like “you may begin” or “you may start when you’re ready” can be interpreted as a little ambiguous. A player may not feel ready (they haven’t shuffled enough, or are just getting settled into their seat), so I like being a little more direct. Of course, I want to be clear that this is far beyond the baseline expectation and with your local players “Ready, set, Magic!” could absolutely be enough.

This evaluation of language carries over into every common interaction I have with players. Approaching a table I almost always say “Howdy folks, what can I do for you?”

Let’s break it down!

“Howdy folks” – I usually say this from farther away, especially if they aren’t looking in my direction, so that I don’t just appear out of nowhere – while it can be entertaining at times to see a player spooked in such a way, it is a worse experience for the player, the longer they’re waiting for a judge (to a similar end, I usually wave and indicate to them that I’m on my way, from as far away as reasonable).

“Folks” is a gender-neutral term that doesn’t imply closeness that “friends” does – in my experience some players, especially those who are already in a frustrated state, may become further upset if you try to create a familiar bond that isn’t there. 

For the meat of addressing the call, however, I’ve heard “what seems to be the problem?” or “how can I help?”. Both of these imply that there’s a problem or something that needs to be solved and could potentially make the player calling the judge feel embarrassed for making a mistake or like a burden on the event. “What can I do for you?” presents an opportunity to request aid if needed, but doesn’t assume it. 

Of course, this is wholly dependent on the situation. There have absolutely been times at my local store when I’ve been called to a match with players that I know at least seven times in a single round, and my start is “Okay, what did you ruin this time?”. However, when being tongue in cheek like that, even if you know those players are comfortable with that mockery, keep in mind the rest of the players who might hear – a new player might be put off by that. Of course, if they’ve observed you being more professional, ideally they’ll pick up on the fact that you don’t actually make fun of all your players.

This philosophy can be applied to everything you say, always. Of course, evaluating every word you speak or write is excessive – that way lies madness. I focus on the phrases and interactions that I engage with the most frequently – opening announcements, ending the round, answering a judge call, and similar situations that happen repeatedly throughout a tournament.

Now, as much as I’ve thought about these phrases, it may be that it’s the language that I heard when I started playing Magic or started judging and it stuck with me. It may be that I like the rhythm of the words more so than the exact content. Despite that, examining your use of language and how people may interpret it is key – not only to making good announcements, or answering a call but in issuing penalties or explaining rules.

The language you use is likely something you’ve developed over your time as a judge – it works for you, so there’s no need to change it, but if the way you use language hasn’t been something you’ve thought about, whether you’ve been judging for decades or days, taking a moment to consider what implications people may pick up on, or how someone could potentially misinterpret your words can be a valuable exercise.