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Jeff Zandi is a five time pro tour veteran who has been playing Magic since 1994. Jeff is a level two DCI judge and has been judging everything from small local tournaments to pro tour events. Jeff is from Coppell, Texas, a suburb of Dallas, where his upstairs game room has been the "Guildhall", the home of the Texas Guildmages, since the team formed in 1996. One of the original founders of the team, Jeff Zandi is the team's administrator, and is proud to continue the team's tradition of having players in every pro tour from the first event in 1996 to the present.


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The Southwestern Paladin
Tightening Up Tournament Play
The Balance Between Customers and Competitors
by Jeff Zandi
December 2, 2005

Every Magic tournament is a mixture of whimsy and intensity. Pro Tour Qualifiers, one would think, would be particularly serious affairs, but the goal of every player in a PTQ is not the same. A lot of the players, maybe most of the players, are clearly interested in competing at Magic’s highest level, the Pro Tour. Others, however, have chosen to play in a pro tour qualifier simply because it’s a good way to get around a lot of other Magic players. There are other reasons, as well, for playing in a PTQ, but the point is that everyone is not playing in the tournament for the same reasons.

Tournament organizers, on the whole, are most interested in serving customers. The head judge of the tournament is, hopefully and quite rightly, most interested in running a clean tournament where all the rules are followed to the furthest possible extent. What do you do if you are wearing both hats, working both as the tournament manager AND as the head judge of the event? The trick is to strike a balance between customers and competitors.

Lately, I have been doing more judging. From about 1998 until last year, my judging schedule was pretty spare, I would judge at a couple of PTQs , the annual state championships and all three of the pre-release events for the year. In the last year, I have raised the number of PTQs that I head judge (and greatly lowered the number of events I get to play in at the same time) to ten or twelve a year. I still judge the state championships in Kansas and I still judge at the Dallas-area pre-release event for each new Magic product release.

When I am both running the tournament and performing as head judge, it becomes increasingly important to find good judges to work at the tournament with me. PTQs in Texas, Oklahoma and southern Kansas typically bring in between 50 and 90 players, so a couple of judges are usually enough, but I have certainly learned that I don’t want to go it alone.

A few weeks ago, I was working with a very talented young judge named Chris Block. Although he has been an official DCI Level I judge for just a little while, he has already shown in a number of events that he has the knowledge and people skills to excel at judging and running tournaments. Chris, like any good new judge, was all over the place at the tournament, watching the players extremely closely and, frankly, “throwing his penalty flag” a great number of times. There was nothing wrong with how Chris was judging, he was simply trying to the best of his ability to hold the players to the letter of the DCI tournament laws.

As a battle-hardened, veteran judge as well as an experienced tournament manager, I have tended to call fewer and fewer technical penalties. It is important to call attention to errors that players make with regard to the DCI tournament rules and the rules of Magic, but it is also EQUALLY important to make the tournament run smoothly and effectively. You never will have enough staff (unless you had a judge to watch each match very carefully all day long) to catch every error every time. The trick is to catch the errors that cause problems for the tournament. The job of the best DCI judges is to adjudicate tournaments in a way that gives the players freedom and the ability to enjoy the event, but which also maintains a high level of tournament fidelity. Tournament fidelity means that the event is being run fairly, with no bias for or against any player. Good judging is required to ensure high tournament fidelity. New judges tend to want to call attention to more rules violations than are necessary to take action for.

However, Chris’ gung-ho attitude had a powerful effect on me.

Every day since that tournament, I have had my nose in my Universal Tournament Rules, my Comprehensive Rules of Magic and, most of all, my DCI Penalty Guidelines. Like John Cusack’s character says in the movie ‘High Fidelity’, “there are a LOT of rules.”

I have a strong desire to be a better judge and more importantly, to make the tournaments that I am a part of better tournaments. Tomorrow, I will be again managing AND head judging a pro tour qualifier, this time in Fort Worth, Texas. After studying the rules and thinking a lot about what my tournament organizer and mentor Edward Fox has taught me over the years, I have decided to tighten up the enforcement of certain procedural rules that I think will make the tournament better for everyone.


The DCI allows some flexibility in how Magic tournaments are adjudicated.
There are five levels of rules enforcement that greatly affect the seriousness of any penalty handed out in a Magic tournament. Magic tournaments intended for new players, casual players or tournaments that are more or less just for fun are played at the lowest enforcement level, REL 1.

This covers Friday Night Magic, pre-release events and lots of other small-yet-officially-sanctioned tournaments. At the high end of the scale, the World Championships are played at REL 5, the highest and tightest level of rules enforcement. The players in this year’s World Championships, taking place right this minute in Yokohama, Japan, are expected to play near-perfect with regards to the rules. Right in the middle, REL 3 is the preferred rules enforcement level for pro tour qualifiers. REL 3 requires a good deal of concentration and discipline from the tournament players, but no more than what I believe is entirely reasonable, considering the stakes involved.

The rules and procedures discussed in the rest of this story are based on Rules Enforcement Level 3. The rulebook that I cite for these rules can be found in the DCI Penalty Guidelines document.


If you are going to have a great tournament, there’s no more important factor that getting started on time. Unfortunately, the world is a big, scary, three dimensional place where things go wrong with your car, where the players you are picking up to take with you to the tournament aren’t ready when you drive by to pick them up. All kinds of things happen that make tournament players late to the event. Sometimes, the tournament manager lets the tournament start late because he wants to help late arrivers get into the tournament without penalty. This is probably not the best way to do things, I think. The tournament is best served by getting the event started on time. Most of the players in the event HAVE managed to show up on time and to register for the tournament and, in the case of constructed PTQs, managed to turn their decklist in on time. We have to get started on time.
Tomorrow, in Fort Worth, we will be registering players from 9:00am to 10:00am. At 10:00am, my plan is to put up the pairings for round one.

If you turn in your decklist after 10:00am, you will probably receive a Tardiness penalty, at REL 3, this means a game loss in your first round.
It’s in the rules. If you show up after 10:00am, even if you have called me on the phone to alert me of your situation, the tournament start time will not be changed. If you arrive late and wish to be in the tournament, I will be happy to add you to the tournament, but you will receive a game loss for Tardiness for round one. If you show up more than ten minutes into the first round, you will most likely receive a match loss for Tardiness. While starting the tournament with a match loss is not what anyone wants, worse things could happen, and, after all, fully half of all the people who DID get to the tournament ON TIME will also finish the first round with a match loss.

If you don’t want to receive a tardiness penalty, show up on time. Be mature and take responsibility for your actions. As the guy running the tournament, I assure you that I love all the tournament players equally, even my late arrivers. If problems have caused you to be late, I will feel your pain, I will console you and, if necessary, I will hug you, but I will also have to penalize you with respect to the tournament.

Keeping the event running on time is very important, and that is why you will also receive a tardiness penalty and a game loss if you are not in your seat when play begins for any round of the tournament. Ten minutes later, if you are still not in your seat, you will receive a match loss. There is nothing wrong with the judge taking time at the beginning of the round to alert all players in the area that the round is about to begin, he might even wait a minute as the last couple of players hustle to their chairs.
Once the round is officially started, however, it’s too late to arrive at your table without receiving a penalty, in most cases.


Shuffling your deck properly before every game in a big tournament is a very serious task indeed. Unfortunately, a lot of players seem to be taking too long to get their deck shuffled. According to the rules, players have three minutes at the beginning of each game they play to prepare their decks and to shuffle them. That means three minutes at the beginning of the match, three minutes before playing game two of the match (including sideboarding
time) and three minutes before playing any subsequent games of the match if necessary. If you take too long getting your deck shuffled and ready for your opponent, then you are in danger of receiving a penalty. The penalty is only a caution, even at REL 3, but this is the kind of penalty that is easy to collect more than one of. The second time during the day that you are guilty of the same offense, you will receive a warning. The third time in a single tournament, this penalty is escalated to a game loss, and so on.

The goal of holding players to the strict Pre Game Time Limit of three minutes is to make the tournament run efficiently and to get rounds finished inside the 50 minutes allotted.

Slow play, which differs greatly from stalling, is a big problem in the Extended constructed format being used in this season’s PTQs for Pro Tour Honolulu. Stalling is a cheating offense. If you were to be found guilty of stalling, you could be disqualified from the tournament without prizes. I don’t believe I have handed out a stalling penalty in my long tournament career. I have, however, handed out PLENTY of penalties for slow play. It’s really not too hard to figure out or to describe, if you are playing too slowly, taking too much time to take your turn, you are making it harder for your match to be completed in the 50 minute time limit and you are in danger of receiving a penalty for slow play. In an REL 3 event, a slow play penalty will result in a warning, escalating to a game loss for a second slow play penalty in the same tournament.


The same way that Slow Play is often confused with the far more serious offense of Stalling, Marked Cards offenses are also very confusing to players. Your cards are marked if they have, well, marks on them, simply put. Maybe your sleeves are old and dirty with marks on them that make it possible, however unlikely, that one face down card can be distinguished from another in your deck. No one is accusing you of cheating just because your cards are showing some marks on them. Minor marks on your sleeves (or on the backs of your cards if you are playing without sleeves) can result in you receiving a penalty for Marked Cards – Minor. This penalty is only a caution, but again, repeated observations or complaints about your poorly maintained deck can and will result in higher penalties throughout the day.
If your cards are very seriously marked, enough that your deck’s condition makes it difficult to ignore could result in you receiving the penalty for Marked Cards – Major, a match loss offense. If a judge tells you that you need new sleeves, you probably need to get some different sleeves, preferably before the next round starts.

A player that has marked his deck in such a way that seems intentional does not receive a Marked Cards penalty, as strange as that may sound. A player INTENTIONALLY marking his cards is guilty of cheating, and will be disqualified from the tournament without prizes.


Magic is a big-time intellectual sport, and players in a pro tour qualifier should be prepared to conduct themselves professionally. Profanity and other bad behavior on the part of a player while he is playing a match can result in an Unsporting Conduct – Minor penalty of a warning. The trap that some out-of-control players fall into is a pattern of continually arguing with their opponents in matches throughout the day and arguing with judges repeatedly. This kind of more seriously bad behavior can result in an Unsporting Conduct – Major offense and will be penalized with a match loss.

Maybe you would like to negotiate an intentional draw with your opponent, you are well within your rights according to the rules to do so. However, if you continue to discuss this option after an opponent has clearly told you that he does not want an intentional draw, you can be penalized with a match loss for Unsporting Conduct – Major. You will really want to avoid being this kind of player. Magic is enjoying a high level of popularity, if you don’t want to be a great guy and play by the rules, you’re free to go. We can find someone else to take your place.


Sometimes players can be slobs, leaving their trash behind on a table probably not planning to come back to pick it up. Doing this makes it harder for the next players using that table to play their match. If you get caught leaving trash around, you can receive a Procedural Error – Minor penalty of a caution. Why not just make it better for everyone, including yourself, but remembering to pick up your trash and put it into a trash can?

You can receive a warning if you are guilty of a Procedural Error – Major.
You could receive this penalty by leaving your name off of your decklist, by not shuffling your deck enough (I know, I know, you ONLY have three minutes to shuffle your deck) or by submitting an incorrect match result on your match reporting slip.

You can receive a game loss if you are guilty of a Procedural Error – Severe. You could receive this penalty, among other ways, by shuffling your deck when you aren’t supposed to, by failing to de-sideboard from a previous match before game one of a new match. You can also receive this penalty by being careless with a drink and messing up your own or someone else’s deck.


While I will be paying more attention to the rules I have talked about in this article, there is more to running a good Magic tournament than simply making sure the rules are enforced. A lot of good men have sacrificed everything they had to give in order to ensure the kind of freedom that we enjoy in the United States. Turning a Magic tournament into a contest of who can follow the rules the best is not what it’s all about. The goal is simple, to produce the best event that can be enjoyed by the greatest number of the participants as possible. Whatever is good for the largest number of players in the tournament is normally what I want to try to provide.

When I’m wearing the twin hats of tournament manager and head judge, I want to provide two things which I certainly do not believe are mutually
exclusive: as a tournament manager, I want my players to be happy and I want to provide the players with a fun event with chances for a lot of players to win prizes. As a head judge, I want every player to have a fair chance to win the tournament and go to the Pro Tour.


The above examples are by no means the only things that judges are paying attention to, but they are things that I will be paying extra attention to in the tournaments I run.

If you play in one of my tournaments, you should expect fairness and a good time for all. If you don’t, I expect you to let me know about it. Together, we can make tournaments better.

As always, I would love to know what you think!

Jeff Zandi
Texas Guildmages
Level II DCI Judge
Zanman on Magic Online


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