Keeping the Law of Magic: The Gathering

Magic: The Gathering is the most successful trading card game ever invented, maintaining its popularity during the last 25 years through a mix of casual play and major tournaments held around the world. While the basics of the game are fairly easy to grasp, the Comprehensive Rules are 200 pages long and the Tournament Rules add an additional 45 pages. Additionally, there are over 19,000 Magic cards which can be combined in ways even the developers didn’t expect.

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To help players learn and follow the rules of the game, tournament organizers and the Magic community at large turn to Magic judges. In one of my favorite stand-up bits, Jerry Seinfeld compares lawyers to people who know the rules to a game. In keeping with that theme, I had a virtual sit-down with Paul Baranay, an expert in the rules of Magic: the Gathering, who has judged tournaments for more than six years and has served as head judge at some of the largest Magic tournaments ever.

If you want to see more from Paul, you can follow him on Twitter at @twotwobearz.

How long have you been a Magic judge?

Over six years! I became a judge in the summer of 2012, shortly before Return to Ravnica released. I advanced to Level 2 in December 2012, and became Level 3 in March 2014. I earned the Grand Prix Head Judge certification in January 2017.

Do you think Magic judges are more like real-world judges, or more like umpires or referees? Why?

I think Magic judges are a hybrid of a regular judge, a referee, and (surprisingly) a hotel concierge. Like regular judges, we need to interpret various rules and set precedent. Like referees, we need to make decisions in real time. And like a hotel concierge, we try to make our guests (the players) as happy as possible.

In what ways is a Magic judge different from an umpire or referee?

The prevalence of video review in professional and collegiate sports is fascinating to me. In Magic, the circumstances under which judges can consult “the tape” to assist in making a ruling are extremely limited, and doing so is always discretionary.

What is the most difficult judge call you’ve ever had to make with respect to technical game rules?

Suppose I want to play a card that’s totally free to cast, such as Mox Opal or Pact of Negation. Can I activate the mana ability of Krark-Clan Ironworks to do so? (This is relevant because there can sometimes be a benefit to activating a mana ability while casting a spell.)

The answer is no. The reason involves the phrase “{0} is a cost, but it’s not a cost that requires mana,” which I personally find very amusing.

What is something you think everyone should know about Magic judges?

We’re here to help! Please don’t ever feel bad for calling a judge.

What is your favorite Magic card? Why?

My favorite Magic card is Grizzly Bears!

I have a personal attachment to the card because my nickname among other judges is “Bearz.” While there are a lot of other great Bear cards out there (shout-out to Bear’s Companion and Bear Cub), Grizzly Bears gets the nod because it’s one of the oldest cards in the game and you just can’t beat the original.

What is the largest tournament for which you’ve served as Head Judge?

The 2018 Limited Grand Prix in Las Vegas, which attracted over 2,000 players. Las Vegas has historically hosted the game’s largest events.

How difficult is it to become a judge? What steps are involved?

The fastest way to become a judge is to start acting like a judge! You can help out at small tournaments or in your local store without being a certified judge. Answering rules questions or teaching the game to new players are judge-y activities that anyone can do. If you’ve decided to officially become a judge, it’s generally not that difficult but it does require a fair amount of self-motivation.

The basic steps involve helping out at a couple tournaments, taking a rules exam, interviewing with a higher-level judge, and agreeing to the Judge Code of Conduct. You can read more about the steps for becoming a judge here.

Do you think there should be confirmation hearings for Magic judges?

There actually are confirmation hearings for judges, of a sort! Becoming a judge involves interviewing with a more senior judge, whose job is (in part) to assess whether the candidate exhibits good judgment and can resolve disputes diplomatically.

Becoming the highest-level judge, Level 3, is incredibly strenuous. In addition to meeting significant requirements for activity and experience, you need to write a lengthy self-review evaluating yourself in the nine “Qualities of Level 3 Judges.” The final step of this process is a panel interview with two or three veteran Level 3 judges, and can take several hours to complete! Some people have likened this to a Ph.D. dissertation defense, which isn’t too far off the mark.

Are Magic judges appointed for life?

The answer is both yes and no. Every judge level has certain annual requirements associated with it, which are more extensive the higher you go. For example, Level 2 judges are required to write an evaluation of another judge, while Level 3 judges are expected to write a review of themselves and help mentor several other judges.

Judges who fail to meet the maintenance requirements can expect to be demoted or even decertified. However, the leaders of the judge program have a lot of discretion to make exceptions which is generally a good thing but can nonetheless lead to inconsistencies from area to area. There’s also regular and lively debate over whether the maintenance requirements are really achieving the objective of ensuring that judges remain as sharp as they were when they were first reached their respective level.

I think it’s very important that judges are not appointed for life. Magic is constantly changing, with new cards and new rules, and the judge program wants everyone to keep growing and learning along with the game. Having outdated knowledge is bad for the judge program’s reputation as well as individual players who could receive incorrect rulings. The maintenance requirements help minimize the number of people who can just coast by without actually staying up to date.

On a separate axis, almost all of the judge program’s advanced leadership positions have specific expiration dates. Judges are selected to these positions for some period (usually 12, 18, or 24 months). However, there’s no formal term limit.

What is the most difficult part about being a Magic judge? Why?

Finding another judge to help mentor you. To become a judge, you need to work with a Level 2 or Level 3 judge, and not everyone has access to such a person. Moreover, higher level judges are often very busy with other obligations. If you’re trying to become a judge and are having trouble connecting with a mentor, be persistent! Eventually, you’ll be able to find someone to help.

In the U.S. courts, judges have different levels of authority (e.g., trial court, appeals, Supreme Court). Is there a similar system in Magic?

Kind of. There are three levels of judge that broadly summarize someone’s experience and expertise. Level 1 judges are certified to run local, in-store events. Level 2 judges are certified to run competitive events and work as floor judges at large tournaments. Level 3 judges are experts in large tournament operations.  


During a specific a tournament, a judge’s level of authority is dictated not by their level but their role. There are two main roles: floor judges and the head judge. Rulings from floor judges are like basic court rulings and players can choose to appeal a floor judge’s ruling to the head judge. The ruling from a head judge is always final.

When you’re reviewing another judge’s determination, do you review it from scratch, or do you give some weight to that determination?

I usually give the judge’s original ruling some weight. That weight can vary on a number of factors, like the original judge’s overall experience or the judge’s own expression of certainty. I also put a lot of trust in the original judge’s ruling if it involves something they directly heard or observed. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I default to upholding the original ruling, but judges are usually pretty good at their jobs! If someone is consistently making rulings that need to be overturned, I make it a priority to chat with that judge and help them improve before their next event.

If a real-world judge were to shadow you at a tournament for a day, what lesson would you try to impart?

I’d try to demonstrate how important the human element of judging is. Magic judges are fundamentally customer service agents. This doesn’t mean we prioritize players’ happiness above the rules, but it does mean trying to frame our rulings in ways that will leave the players feeling like they got a fair hearing.

One of the most important tasks of a judge in the legal system is to evaluate witness credibility. Is this something Magic judges have to do?

Yes, absolutely. You may have heard the phrase “There are three sides to every story: your side, my side, and the truth.” This definitely applies to Magic, where two players frequently have directly contradictory versions of what just happened but neither of them is lying! Turns out people have lousy memories, conflate what they meant to do with what they did do or even just didn’t hear their opponent over ambient noise! In such situations, figuring out whose testimony is most credible is absolutely critical.

What training do you receive when it comes to making credibility determinations?

It’s very informal. There’s a lot of resources available — articles, seminars, roleplaying sessions, in-person mentoring, and more — but it tends to be self-directed and/or ad hoc. I definitely think this is something we could try to improve and maybe even learn from real-world judges and lawyers!

If paper Magic went away, do you think judges would still have an important role to play? What would that look like?

Definitely! Just look at existing esports like Hearthstone or League of Legends which employ referees and other experts in various roles. Judges currently play a major role in the logistics of large tournaments such as distributing cards, keeping track of different events’ current status, or even just straightening tablecloths. Some of these functions would definitely still be needed for all-digital tournaments. (Have you ever run a LAN party with just one person?)

That being said, I think this is one of the most important questions for all judges to be aware of and think about in the coming year.

What might cause you to disqualify someone from a tournament?

A judge’s grounds for disqualifying a player are narrow and extremely specific. One of the infractions that carries the penalty of disqualification is cheating. In Magic, cheating has a very specific definition that diverges from most people’s casual use of the term. For example, in a friendly board game if I accidentally play a card incorrectly because I misread it, I might say, “Oops, I cheated.” In Magic, accidentally making an illegal game action can never be cheating. I won’t go into all the details, but judges have something called the “tripartite test” that we apply when determining whether something is cheating. Using that phrase always makes me feel like a bench judge!

Magic and the judge program also take players’ safety and comfort at events very seriously. Acting in a threatening way towards someone else is aggressive behavior, which results in both disqualification and eviction from the tournament venue. Players who exhibit a pattern of major unsporting conduct can also be disqualified.

There are a few other infractions that carry the penalty of disqualification, but they all have to do with the idea that you should play a Magic game “properly.” In particular, this means that Magic must be a game of skill, not chance. If your match would be a draw, but you suggest flipping a coin to determine who the winner should be, that’s a big no-no. The tournament rules also strictly prohibit bribery and wagering.

Most players just want to play Magic and have fun, so the majority of judges will never have to apply these rules.

What motivates the policies regarding tournament disqualifications? Would you say it’s primarily deterrence, corrective action (so the disqualified person doesn’t repeat the bad behavior), or retribution?

When it comes to cheating my understanding is that disqualification exists primarily as a deterrent. The idea is to make the risk-reward ratio for cheating so unattractive that playing properly isn’t just the moral or ethical thing to do, it’s also the practical thing to do. This mode of thinking makes a lot of sense when you consider how many Magic players are mathematicians and/or poker players.

Disqualification frequently serves as a corrective action, but this is often a secondary effect. And sometimes, it’s not possible to provide full remediation to the victims of cheating. For example, suppose Arnold cheats against Rae in round 3 of a tournament, and wins the match as a result. Rae shares their concerns with me a little while later. In the middle of round 5, I talk with Arnold and decide to disqualify him. Unfortunately for Rae, I can’t go back in history and alter their match result; Rae’s stuck with that loss to Arnold. This policy exists both to prevent slippery slope situations and to help protect judges from accusations of applying rules differently in different situations. Sometimes, the event organizer might intervene and provide some kind of outside remediation, like a free-entry coupon to a future event, but that’s outside the scope of the formal tournament policies.

Thankfully, retribution does not have any place in our policies. Disqualification serves a different purpose when it comes to other kinds of infractions. As I mentioned earlier, a player can be disqualified for aggressive behavior or serious unsporting conduct — for example, intentionally calling a trans player by incorrect pronouns. I see this kind of disqualification as a way of giving more power to groups of players who’ve traditionally enjoyed less protection than others.

If you were to participate in a Magic “justice reform” initiative, what would you change about the rules, and why?

I’m pretty happy with the rules as they are now. That being said one of the things I really like about judging is that anyone can suggest changes to the tournament policies. The primary steward of the documents, Toby Elliott, is very active on social media and his blog. There’s a very high standard for new material to get incorporated, but the possibility is there!

Judges don’t ban players, right? Who bans players, and how is that managed? How are judges involved in the banning decision? Do you think judges should be more involved in that process? Why/why not?

There’s a lot of confusion around this process, so hopefully I can help clear up some common misconceptions.

Wizards of the Coast has the sole authority to ban players. However, a committee of judges makes recommendations on what should happen after a player is disqualified from an event. This group, the Player Investigations Committee, is composed of Level 3 judges, who serve on a rotating basis. These folks review every disqualification. The case files include statements from the disqualified player, the judge who disqualified the player, and any other relevant witnesses (who could be players, other judges, or even spectators).

Using this information, the committee delivers one of several possible verdicts: a ban for some length of time (formally called a suspension), a warning letter, or no action. Suspensions are fairly self-explanatory, but the duration can vary. A warning letter basically means that the committee agrees with the disqualifying judge’s decision, but feels that the disqualification itself was sufficient penalty. Finally, a no action verdict means that the committee disagrees with the disqualification, or thinks there was some other mitigating circumstance.

If you want to learn more, you can read the judge program’s official article about player investigations.

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Adam Adler
Adam is a lawyer, comic book fan, and stand-up comedian based in Washington, D.C. Adam has been writing Escape the Law since 2018 to explore the intersection of law with comic books, movies, and video games. From time to time, Adam also provides game reviews and commentaries. By day, Adam is an attorney specializing in intellectual property, technology, and comic book law. For example, Adam represented a comic book author in a trademark dispute against DC Comics, which claimed to have the exclusive right to use the word “Super.” Adam is also at the forefront of disputes regarding deepfake technology, copyrights, and patents. Adam obtained his law degree from Yale Law School in 2015 and obtained a B.S. in Mathematical & Computational Science from Stanford University in 2012. Feel free to contact Adam via e-mail at [email protected].