Last weekend I participated in the Open Series in Washington DC. Having spent the previous week testing for the upcoming Pro Tour, I was unprepared and showed up with a fairly stock list of R/W Aggro based off of Sam Pardee's list from Grand Prix Denver.
The decision between R/W Aggro and the G/R Aggro deck I wrote about last week came down to a realization I had about how the two decks operate. They are both aggressive decks that win by getting ahead in the earlygame and using their powerful threats and burn spells to maintain that early lead. The G/R deck gets ahead through the mana acceleration of Elvish Mystic and Rattleclaw Mystic, whereas the R/W deck uses Chained to the Rocks and Stoke the Flames to cast multiple spells around turns 3 and 4, thereby generating a significant early advantage.
While the advantage provided by the accelerants is more powerful, it is also markedly less consistent since those creatures are incredibly time sensitive in that they need to be played on turns 1 or 2 to have a significant impact, and they are very poor draws at any later stage in the game, whereas Stoke the Flames and Chained to the Rocks are among your best draws.
I had tested the deck previously as an option for the Players' Championship and at the time came away unimpressed by Brimaz, King of Oreskos and impressed by Ashcloud Phoenix. I was also intrigued by the possible addition of Valorous Stance, Monastery Mentor, and Wild Slash from Fate Reforged.
Valorous Stance would serve as additional copies of Chained to the Rocks that were significantly more efficient than the Heliod's Pilgrims that some decks employed while doubling as a protection spell if my opponent's defenses hinged on a Hero's Downfall or similar removal spell. This seemed like an easy upgrade on the worst burn spells in the deck, if not deserving of 3-4 copies, as I expected plenty of Courser of Kruphix decks.
Monastery Mentor is a card I found to be overrated during spoiler season. Treasure Cruise had brought about Young Pyromancer's highest penetration of Eternal formats, and Mentor's ability is notably more powerful, but Pyromancer did not have a large effect on Standard because it is difficult to find the necessary fuel for the card in a smaller format. I certainly preferred Rabblemaster due to its immediate damage output and the fact that goblin tokens make red mana when convoking Stoke the Flames, whereas monks do not. But when I built my deck at midnight on Friday in the hotel room I had one slot left and one Monastery Mentor in my collection so I decided to roll with it. Not one of my finest deckbuilding decisions.
Do as I say, kids, not as I do.
Wild Slash seemed to me to be another cheap spell that would let me get ahead against other Seeker/Rabble/Mentor decks. The games typically hinge on who can kill the opposing threat and land their own in the same turn. It is ineffective enough against other decks that I relegated it to a single copy in the sideboard.
The most notable omission from this list of Fate Reforged additions is Soulfire Grand Master. Frankly I was completely baffled by the hype around this card. The body is horrible in this format, and the recursion ability is prohibitively expensive. I thought that I might want a single copy as a fifth two-drop and a lategame mana sink, but that idea was quickly quashed by Sam Pardee when he told me he would rather play " The 3/1 that loots."
My last minute theory crafting led to the following list:
- 2 Ashcloud Phoenix
- 4 Goblin Rabblemaster
- 1 Hushwing Gryff
- 1 Monastery Mentor
- 4 Seeker of the Way
- 4 Stormbreath Dragon
The games themselves were largely unexciting, and I made a few costly mistakes that led to a mediocre, but reasonable record of 10-5 and a 30th place finish. I came away impressed by the deck and will certainly work on it for the next time I play Standard, but for now my entire focus is on Fate Reforged Limited and Modern. I will close this section with some brief thoughts on the deck going forward:
- Monastery Mentor was impressive every time I cast it, and I would play a second copy in the maindeck over the single Hushwing Gryff.
- There were many more R/W/x decks than I expected, and Valorous Stance is so poor there that I would relegate them to the sideboard unless the metagame shifts back towards green decks.
- Arc Lightning seems like the card I want for other R/W/x decks since the key dynamic is always having the right answers for their threats, and Arc Lightning kills Seeker, Rabblemaster, Mentor, and Hordeling Outburst.
- Soulfire Grand Master was a must-answer in the R/W/x mirrors, and I want another two-drop so I would try a single copy main. I also had issues with flooding that Grand Master should help mitigate.
With Winter Regionals right around the corner, I would strongly consider this list:
- 2 Ashcloud Phoenix
- 4 Goblin Rabblemaster
- 2 Monastery Mentor
- 4 Seeker of the Way
- 1 Soulfire Grand Master
- 4 Stormbreath Dragon
The Crater's Claws is a strange addition given the relative lack of four-power creatures, but I wanted another mana sink, and I'm a sucker for a good Fireball to the face.
Issues with Judge Policy
If you found it weird that one thousand words into an article titled "Adventures in Judge Calls," I have yet to mention anything about judges, you can lay your concerns to rest. By far the most interesting part of my weekend was during round four of the Standard Open.
Allow me to quickly preface this section by stating that any and all opinions presented here are exclusively my own. All parties mentioned are solely used to provide a complete and accurate portrayal of the facts of the matter as I recall them. It is also important to note that my opinions are not in any way dependent on the fact that I am the subject of this ruling. I have gone to great care to ensure that my words here do not seem as the whine of a slighted child, but the thoughtful opinions of someone who hopes for the fair and reasonable treatment of every player in a tournament.
I would also like to make clear that I am in most instances very supportive of the judge system we have in this community. Nearly all of my interactions with judges are entirely positive, and while I think they made a mistake this weekend in upholding a poor policy, I am continually impressed by their commitment to improving the tournament experience for players, their passion for what is often laborious and thankless work, and their willingness to accept constructive criticism.
As you will read below, Riki Hayashi and Jason Flatford were particularly forthright in offering their thoughts on the matter and both were supportive of me writing about this experience. I have nothing but the utmost respect for both of them, and I would like to openly thank them for their willingness to answer my follow-up questions. When it comes to the inner workings of judging Magic tournaments, I am woefully uninformed, as I am sure the vast majority of players are as well. Hopefully this will offer some insight into a world that most of us are unfortunately ignorant of.
Upon presenting our decks for the opening game of round four, my opponent and I were stopped by a judge and told we would be subject to a deck check. Unfazed, we collected our cards and handed them to the judge and sat idly for them to return.
In my many years playing competitive Magic I have been subject to countless deck checks. While I once missed marking off a card in a Limited tournament, I have never had a decklist error in Constructed.
The judge returned and asked to speak with me about my decklist. Away from the table he informed me that I had registered one Oblivion Ring in my sideboard instead of the Banishing Light that I was playing. Having registered very close to the player meeting I filled out my list in a hurry and accidentally wrote the wrong, albeit very similar, card.
Five or ten years ago I would have accepted the game loss and chided myself for being so careless, but I had come to understand that after several complaints by players and judges alike that the emphasis on punishing decklist errors with low chance for abuse had been greatly diminished.
I believed my mistake clearly falls into that category and quickly appealed the decision. I was led to the front stage where head judge Jason Flatford was unfortunately busy attending to something else so I was directed to Riki Hayashi and informed that both Riki and Jason had been consulted by the floor judge (I unfortunately did not get his name) before the initial ruling was handed down.
Here arises my first issue with how this call was handled. If the head judge, who is the final arbiter in all decisions, was consulted prior to my involvement, I feel as though the final decision has already been made, and I have almost no chance at stating my case and earning a successful appeal. After the fact, I believe that I was offered a fair chance to make my case, but I would still prefer that the player's case be heard before the head judge has been consulted about the ruling.
Regardless, I explained to Riki my staunch belief that this error was clearly an honest mistake with little to no chance for abuse and he even noted that he strongly suspected that the card I meant to register was Banishing Light. However, with the presence of cards with a similar effect, notably Suspension Field, they could not be entirely sure and would uphold the original decision.
In later correspondence with Riki he noted that the fact that Oblivion Ring is the name of an actual Magic card meant that it was possible that I was in fact playing an actual Oblivion Ring, further clouding the contents of my deck.
Looking through the Magic Infractions and Procedures Guide (IPG), it appears as if Riki was referencing the following section on the philosophy behind handling deck/deck list errors:
Ambiguous or unclear names on a decklist may allow a player to manipulate the contents of his or her deck up until the point at which they are discovered. Use of a truncated name that is not unique may be downgraded to a Warning at the Head Judge's discretion if he or she believes that the intended card is obvious and the potential for abuse minimal. When determining if a name is ambiguous, judges may take into account the format being played.
My case was certainly unique in that the ambiguity comes from writing a card that is functionally similar but not legal in the given format and not from truncating a name past the point of unique identification. But after reading this part of the IPG, I certainly understand Riki's position.
I was disappointed with the decision because I gained the impression that the judges wholly believed I had made an honest mistake but could not find enough of a reason to downgrade the penalty to a warning. Ultimately, it was my mistake and I knew I could not dwell on my disappointment as I was now down a game in my match. I was fortunately able to win the match, not that that should have any bearing on my or your opinion of the ruling.
With some down time before the next round, I sought out the head judge and asked to speak with him about the ruling, a request which he cordially obliged.
My first question for Jason was in regards to what Riki had said about the presence of Suspension Field playing into the decision not to downgrade. If there were no card similar to Banishing Light in the format, would my penalty have been downgraded? Jason responded in the negative.
This was puzzling since it seemed to me that it was an important part of the ruling based on my earlier conversation with Riki. Jason further explained that the IPG has a policy about these issues and that a game loss is warranted unless the judge feels as though they can be sure of content of the deck without physically examining it.
But in my opinion the IPG reads a little differently. It notes that the head judge must believe that "the intended card is obvious and the potential for abuse is low." It does not mention the need to physically examine the deck. Perhaps that is the common interpretation and if that is the case, I would be quite disappointed. Such an interpretation is overly harsh since the head judge can always rationalize the need to look at the actual deck in question to obtain certainty. I think this policy creates an environment in which judges are led away from making reasonable downgrades.
Most players are leery of judges being given too much leeway in making judgment calls for fear of favoritism and other biases clouding their decisions. I would rather judges be given more room to maneuver in strange cases such as mine provided there was appropriate oversight to correct poor behaviors and extricate judges who repeatedly make poor decisions. This not only allows the best judges to adapt to difficult situations and uphold the spirit of the rules over the letter, but provides an inherent pathway for ridding the judge program of its worst performing members and for weeding out possible corruption.
It was at this point that Jason informed me that my decklist error was first noticed due to the fact that I was on camera during round three so the coverage team noticed the error well before the judge staff would have. Curious, I asked whether I would have received only a warning had I actually played the Banishing Light on camera (I had not in fact done so), thus providing proof of what the card was without looking at my deck. He informed me that there is a policy in place that disallows the use of video footage in investigating rulings, due to the excessive resource drain it imposes on events.
At the time I was upset that they were able to use coverage to negatively impact a player's experience. In reality, all this did was hasten the time at which I would receive a penalty, as every decklist is examined by the judge staff over the course of the day. Still, I believe to unilaterally disregard available resources, in this case possible video evidence, is foolish. Keeping the pace of the tournament is very important, but I am confident that judges can make an informed decision as to whether or not an individual case is important enough to warrant some delay. Personally I would be willing to tolerate significant delays if I felt it would improve tournament integrity.
In my case, that delay would have been quite minimal, as there was ample time to review a single game that lasted no more than ten minutes and an affirmative response to whether or not I played a Banishing Light could be gained even faster by consulting with the coverage team. These solutions would (and should) be handled on a case-by-case basis. I am slightly worried by the integration of the coverage and judge staffs since they are philosophically very different entities with very different roles, but I believe that they can work in concert when necessary without issue.
It is obvious to me that there is much work to be done in improving Magic judging. What is most important in doing so is maintaining an open dialogue between players and judges. Too often I see players willing to disparage a particular judge that ruled against them or worse yet the entire judge community. No one is perfect and I am sure that judges like Riki and Jason would be the first to admit that they make mistakes more often than they would like. Even if they continue to disagree with me over the ruling made last Saturday, I am happy I was able to have a meaningful conversation about the issues surrounding it and to convey the points made therein to all of you. I hope you all look to open a dialogue with your local and regional judges.