When playing Magic on MTGA, you have a digital rules engine, a virtual judge, that – with some rare exceptions – handles all the technical and rules-based aspects of the game so that you don’t have to worry about it. It goes further than remembering your triggers for you or taking care of life total changes – the client also handles weird and confusing rules interactions, and makes sure cards do what they’re supposed to do (even if it’s not what you thought they’d do), so judge calls aren’t necessary.
When playing in paper, there’s no such automated way to make sure a game functions correctly. There’s only the mutual understanding of the rules that you and your opponent have together, and an intrinsic expectation that both of you will apply those rules as you play. This assumption is highly fallible, however, for a number of reasons.
Not everyone knows all the rules to Magic, and particularly when weird, corner-case situations arise, it’s hard to know what should happen. Further than this, MTGA also removes any ambiguity when it comes to things like who has priority, who is responding to what, and which step or phase the game is currently in. Additionally – and unfortunately – some people also try to gain an unfair advantage via angle-shooting or outright cheating in paper, which is again something that MTGA does a good job of curtailing.
What’s the solution to all these problems? Judges. Every organized paper tournament should have a judge. Even if it’s just a member of staff who comes out from behind the till to arbitrate disputes, every time you play at an LGS, you should have access to someone who is trained to take care of situations like this and ensure games are played fairly.
Players who are new to paper Magic tend to think that calling a judge is something you should avoid, a “last resort” that will only land you in trouble. Let me be clear – calling a judge is not a big deal. In fact, far from being a last resort, it’s actually closer to a first resort. You should call judges a lot more often than you think.
If you’re in doubt about something your opponent is doing, calling a judge is not an accusation of cheating, it’s not something you need to feel bad about doing. Conversely, it’s not an admission of foolishness for you to call a judge for help with an interaction you don’t understand. Calling a judge is a normal, unexciting part of playing Magic, and the sooner you internalize the idea that it’s not a big deal, the better off you’ll be.
Here’s something to remember – relying on your opponent to interpret and enforce the rules is a bad idea. They don’t have your best interests at heart. Rather than relying on them to help you through something you don’t understand – as friendly and well-meaning as they may seem – just call a judge, and get the fairest result for both of you.
A judge call is a short break in a game of Magic, during which a trained official will answer questions, arbitrate disputes, and, in the event of infractions, issue warnings and perhaps penalties. Judge calls can be made by anyone – you, your opponent or even a spectator of a game.
Judge calls exist to make sure that the game’s rules are fairly enforced, to help resolve disagreements equitably and provide a safeguard against unscrupulous players who seek to gain unfair advantages. Most judges are friendly, knowledgeable and helpful, and rarely have an agenda they’re pushing. Some judges, unfortunately, enjoy a power trip and like to enforce their authority in ways that range from cringeworthy to outright inappropriate, but happily they are in the minority.
Most judge calls are brief and efficient, and usually take place at the table itself. Sometimes players will step away from the table to speak to judges privately – as we’ll discuss, this is a very normal thing and nothing to worry about. Finally, in rare cases judge calls may lead to longer investigations, but this is not very common.
As mentioned above, calling a judge is one of the most important things a new player needs to learn how to do. I’ll say it once more: calling a judge is not a big deal. It really isn’t. It’s not rude, it’s not snitching, it’s almost always just the right thing to do. If you’re ever unsure about anything – a card, an interaction, a life total discrepancy, your opponent’s integrity – just call a judge.
When should you call a judge? Essentially, every time you ask yourself if you should call a judge. Even at the highest level of competition, Pro Tour Champions and Hall of Famers regularly call judges for questions that the average FNM player might consider very basic. I remember very distinctly the Hall of Famer Paul Rietzl calling a judge during a Pro Tour feature match to double-check how first strike works. He’s amongst the best players in Magic’s history, and he’s calling judges to ask about first strike – you have no excuse not to call a judge.
Here’s a non-exhaustive list of examples of some of the times you should call a judge.
- Whenever you don’t understand how a card or an interaction between cards works
- If you and your opponent can’t agree on the life totals
- When a significant/irreversible rule break takes place
- If you drop your opponent’s deck while shuffling it
- If you and your opponent disagree about communication (eg. passing turn, passing priority, someone acting “out of turn”)
- If your opponent goes straight to drawing a card when you wanted to do something in their upkeep
- Whenever an important trigger is missed by your or your opponent
- If you make a significant mistake or break a rule, even if your opponent hasn’t noticed
- When you draw a sideboard card in game one because you forgot to de-sideboard last match
- If someone sees a card (belonging to either player) that they shouldn’t have seen, regardless of whether the other player notices
- If you feel intimidated by your opponent or the way they’re playing
- If a card is somewhere that it shouldn’t be (eg someone draws an extra card, there’s a card in a graveyard that should have been exiled, etc)
- You need to take a break to answer a call of nature
You’ll notice the word “significant” in there a fair bit. Especially in a casual and friendly setting like most LGSs, you don’t need to call a judge for every single infraction. If your opponent accidentally taps their vigilance creature when they attack, for instance, you don’t need a judge to resolve that – just untap the creature. Use your common sense – if you feel like it’s a simple, innocent mistake that hasn’t caused huge harm to the integrity of the game, you can just sort it out between yourselves.
However, if you want official confirmation of a ruling, or want a judge to be made aware of a mistake that may not, after all, be so innocent, call a judge. If your opponent is acting oddly or you suspect they’re trying to take advantage of you by angle-shooting, call a judge. In essence, if you’re ever unsure, just call a judge. Minor stuff can be sorted out between you and your opponent, but even if you call a judge for something minor, it’s not a big deal.
Additionally – if you make a mistake and break a game rule – maybe you draw an extra card accidentally because they were stuck together, or you play an extra land, or cast a spell you don’t have the right mana for – guess what? You should also call a judge, on yourself. Doing this shows you take fair play seriously and want to get things right, and demonstrates to your opponent that you weren’t trying to cheat or get away with something. If you stuff up, call a judge and let them handle it – because if you try to cover it up, you’re now perilously close to just out-and-out cheating.
To call a judge, raise your hand and call “judge!” in a loud voice. A judge should approach, or at least indicate they’ve heard you and are on the way – until then, just wait for them to arrive (particularly if it’s a contentious issue, it’s best not to discuss it further with your opponent).
A judge can also be called by a spectator. A spectator shouldn’t directly interfere with a game in progress by pointing out when a rule is broken, but can and should call a judge if they think there’s a problem. Generally speaking, you should always pause the game when a spectator calls a judge, and wait until the judge arrives before continuing.
When the judge arrives, explain the problem and let them respond. If you need to know what a card does, they’ll tell you. If you need an interaction explained, they’ll explain it. Keep in mind that they can’t give you strategic advice, and that they will carefully explain what you can and can’t do without telling you whether you should do it.
If you want to ask a question away from the table, that’s fine. Perhaps you have a card in hand you don’t want to reveal by asking a question about it, or a line that your opponent could play around if you draw attention to it. You’re allowed to ask questions privately – just ask the judge to step away from the table with you. You can also do this to alert a judge if you think your opponent is cheating.
If there’s an issue between you and your opponent – perhaps you disagree on how something was sequenced or communicated – the judge will make sure you both get to tell your side of the story. They may ask your opponent first – if so, don’t interrupt, because I guarantee you’ll get your chance to say your piece as well afterwards.
When resolving an issue, a judge will listen to everything that both players have to say, then will issue a ruling (sometimes after conferring with another judge). The judge will explain what’s going to happen and why, and give you a chance to respond. If you think the judge hasn’t made the correct ruling, you can appeal – but only if there is a Head Judge at the event (which isn’t often the case at LGSs).
If you’re able to appeal, the Head Judge will be brought over and the process will begin again. It’s worth appealing if you’re reasonably sure the initial judge made the wrong call – I remember very distinctly being told by a judge it would cost me two extra mana to counter a Frost Titan, despite its ability only functioning on the battlefield and not on the stack. I didn’t appeal, and it probably cost me the game – judges don’t always get it right.
Once the judge call has been finalized, the game will continue on as normal in line with any rulings that were made. If the ruling doesn’t favor you, don’t get stuck on it or tilt off – clear your head and move on. If the judge call took longer than a few seconds, you’ll get a time extension – you can remind the judge about this if they forget to make a note of it on your match slip.
Sometimes, if you make a mistake that results in a judge call, you might be issued with a warning. Warnings aren’t a big deal, and most competitive Magic players have plenty of them. The reasons warnings are used is to track people who are getting them a lot, and give judges a way to find patterns that might indicate cheating.
For instance, if you get a warning in a tournament for drawing an extra card, then a few weeks later get a warning for casting a spell without the right mana, that’s not an issue. However, if you continue to get warnings for the same thing – say, drawing an extra card – over and over again, judges will start to investigate.
Multiple warnings within the same tournament can result in a bigger penalties, such as a game loss. These are very rare. If you’ve been given a warning at a tournament, remember that they’re not a big deal, don’t let them distract you from playing. If you need to, take a minute to focus up and start playing tighter.
There are some infractions which result in an automatic disqualification. Cheating, abusive behavior, theft, lying to a judge – the list goes on. None of this should ever be relevant to you, of course, as an upstanding member of the Magic community – but if you have the misfortune to play against a cheater, you may be interviewed by a judge as they investigate their suspicions. Always tell the truth in a situation like this.
99 percent of the time, you don’t need to worry about penalties. I have received a few warnings for playing sloppily, and even got a game loss one time (in a WMCQ final, no less) – these things happen to everyone, so don’t feel like a criminal if you’re ever issued with a penalty. Don’t let it get to you – reflect on it, sharpen up and do your best to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Calling a judge is not a big deal. If there’s one thing I want you to take away from this article, it’s that simple truth. They are there to help you out, they are there to help all players out and make sure that games are played fairly and problems are resolved without incident. Make use of the services they provide! When in doubt, just call a judge.