Ask the Judge, 11/10/2005: Feature Friday
If you've been involved in a number of tournaments as a player or as a judge chances are you're well familiar with the deck check. Or at least you're likely familiar with what happens during a deck check. What you may not know however is the theory and philosophy behind the process—why it is that we do what we do.
Before we get started though let's describe the superficially simple deck check. Through each round of a tournament judges will take a number of randomly-selected decks from players after the players have shuffled and presented their decks and verify that there are no problems with the deck.
Generally speaking there aren't any problems and the decks are returned and matches are resumed. When there are problems they're usually honest mistakes which the judges correct and issue penalties for before returning the deck. Once in a great while if judges find that a player was intentionally trying to cheat to gain some kind of advantage a disqualification may be issued.Why We Penalize
Generally speaking players tend to focus on the most severe case and it is commonplace for players to assume that the function of deck checks is to catch cheaters. This leads to a very common question though—if we're being honest it's absolutely true that catching cheaters is difficult. The fact that judges can't check every deck in every round and that they can't always catch every anomaly means that there is a reasonable chance that we won't catch every incident of cheating.
What's more there are costs to deck checks. Rounds end later and tournaments finish more slowly. Judges are less available to take floor calls. People who accidentally make honest mistakes end up being penalized more often than those who are actually trying to cheat.
With all of this in mind the question is "why do we do it?" Is it really worth all of the drawbacks when we don't necessarily catch cheaters the way we might like?
This seems at first glance like quite a reasonable question. One obvious answer is that the difficulty of enforcement is not a reason not to be diligent. If we catch any instances of cheating it's worth the effort even if we don't catch them all. But even this doesn't fully tell the story of why it makes sense to do deck checks and emphasizing the question suggests a myopic view of why we penalize. While catching those who cheat is one goal of running deck checks it is by no means the only reason that they are performed.
These questions imply a couple of fallacies in the asking. First is the notion that it's not a good thing to penalize those who make honest mistakes. In reality though these situations do affect tournament integrity and need to be watched for just as the intentional cases do. Even if a player is gaining an advantage inadvertently and without intent they still end up with an advantage. It is true that intentional cheating is a worse case but this isn't really an argument to not penalize the accidents. This difference is already reflected in the different magnitude of the penalties that are assessed in these cases.
Second even if we don't catch everyone who attempts to cheat that doesn't mean that deck checks aren't having an impact on the incidence of cheating. Reducing the incidence of cheating due to catching those who attempt to cheat only reflects the reactive mode of enforcement but this isn't the only way in which penalties are effective. Less thought about often is the proactive mode of enforcement—the way in which people are dissuaded from cheating in the first place because of the risk that they may be caught. Simply put—even if we don't catch everyone who cheats the fact that we try will prevent most players who might consider it from even trying
In a nutshell this is why deck checks are a vital part of maintaining tournament integrity however they are conducted. It certainly is the case however that the skill with which they are performed can make a drastic difference in how much good they can do and how well the downsides are mitigated.Goals of a Successful Deck Check
There are several goals that judges should keep in mind when they approach the task of performing a deck check:
Timeliness: When a deck check is performed on a match the match is always granted extra time to compensate for the time spent on the check. To ensure that the players have an equal amount of time as everyone else matches are extended by the time spent plus three minutes—three minutes being the time for the usual pregame procedure. This means that the amount of time that a deck check takes can potentially go straight into the amount of time that a round takes. If that match ends up running to time then every minute spent on the deck check costs the tournament one minute. Thus speed and efficiency of deck checks is paramount.
Accuracy: Ideally deck checks will catch every legitimate deck issue and will not falsely tag any deck that actually has no issues. Strive to properly analyze every deck for what it is and whether there are any rules violations avoiding both false positives and false negatives. One thing worth noting on this point—this goal brings to mind the United States criminal justice system. Here at least avoiding false conclusions is certainly a goal but there is also the recognition that it is hard to always get this right. When errors might occur then there is a natural inclination to err on the side of innocence [I don't know that I'd agree that it's a 'natural inclination' but it's certainly explicit in our legal code -Seamus]. Without going into too much detail the presumption of innocence isn't necessarily the goal in the judging program. As Sheldon Menery (one of the most senior judges in the DCI) once taught me the DCI is not a court of law. This is well worth noting and here specifically means that judges should not be afraid to act even if they aren't 100% positive. The details of this principle though are a story for another column [One which I hope to cover in the near future -S].
Thoroughness: There are many many things that can be checked during a deck check and subject to the constraints of timeliness judges performing deck checks should do their best to keep an eye on as many of them as they can. The judges who are most effective at performing deck checks generally are the ones who have found ways to look for multiple issues at the same time in order to broaden their coverage without substantially increasing the amount of time that it takes. Fortunately some of the techniques for doing so are easily taught and picked up.The Swoop
With these goals in mind we can turn our attention to the actual mechanics of how an effective deck check is run. The first element of this is something that is commonly referred to as "the swoop." This is the process by which the decks are actually taken from the players in order to be able to check them.
The decks to be taken should be randomly determined. In the usual case where a tournament is being run through DCI Reporter there is functionality within the program to choose random tables for this purpose. It's important to make sure to use some kind of mechanism to make a random determination separate from "take any table that is convenient"—this ensures that players cannot manipulate whether or not they receive a deck check based on how they behave.
There's a natural tendency to focus the random selection only on the top tables on the players who look to be in contention to win the tournament. This does make some sense as there is more at stake there and keeping the playing field level is important at that level. This doesn't however mean that there shouldn't be any deck checks for lower tables. Players that aren't doing as well in a tournament deserve the same level playing field as every other player and the match results still matter. Additionally in the vein of the proactive mechanism of enforcement if players become conditioned to the fact that lower tables not ever being checked this can encourage laziness carelessness or worse.
When it comes down to actually taking the decks there is an interesting balance to make between paying enough attention to glean what data you can from the players involved and not making it obvious which tables are going to be checked (keeping the tables to be checked ambiguous for as long as possible helps to keep everyone on their toes adding to the benefits of proactive enforcement). The most important thing to keep an eye on is the manner in which players shuffle since this is an important clue that will be needed later to see whether there are any issues with insufficient randomization. Changing things up sometimes watching the table that is to be checked and sometimes watching other tables and only periodically glancing at the table to be checked can help with this.
The right time to actually grab the decks is after both players have completed shuffling and have presented their opponents with their decks but before the opponent gets a chance to make any alterations to the deck. This is again crucial to checking for potential cases of insufficient randomization.
Once a table has been tapped and the decks are ready for collection both players' decks and sideboards should be obtained. Checking both players at the same time is more fair to both players and is an efficient way to be able to check multiple decks while minimizing the number of delayed matches. A verification of the sideboard can turn up issues that a check of just the main deck cannot.
As one judge is handling the swoop another judge should be pulling the decklists of the tables that were selected so that those decklists are available for the actual check without unnecessary delay. If the staff is large enough that a pair of judges can be assigned to each table one for each deck (this is the ideal case) then this means half of each pair can swoop and the other can pull decklists.
Finally it's generally the case that most judges do a round of deck checks at the beginning of each round and then just monitor the floor for the rest of the round. This is under the principle of proactive enforcement a mistake. It's important to occasionally run mid-round deck checks after a game (or two) has already completed. Though judges doing this do need to account for the fact that sideboarding was legal most issues can still be checked. Additionally if players know that they can be checked at any time this helps them to stay focused and make less deck related mistakes.The Check
After the decks have been collected a quick yet thorough check needs to be performed. Generally speaking this check should take no longer than eight minutes at the outside. With more experienced judges a lower number (as low as five or six) is an even better goal. An astonishing amount of checking can be performed in a scant few minutes.
The following is by no means the only way that a deck check can effectively be performed but it is one framework that does work well:
- First do a check for whether the deck looks to be insufficiently randomized. This generally is easiest to do with the information gathered during the swoop as to shuffling style and the primary thing to look for is mana weaving (where the deck is generally arranged land spell spell land spell spell etc...). This is the most common case of insufficient randomization and in many cases players may not even know that this is illegal even though it is. While it is remotely possible that a mana-weaved pattern may develop through adequate shuffling it is rare enough that red flags should be raised if it occurs and some thought should be put into the way that the shuffling was performed. [It's my feeling that beyond severe mana weaving it's very difficult to establish randomization issues without observing a player's shuffling habits. This is a point of some debate in the judge community but it's unquestionably true that watching the shuffle is very important. -S]
- With that out of the way it is safe to destroy the ordering of the deck. For limited tournaments the deck should be sorted by set and then by color for easy matching against the decklist. For constructed tournaments sort by color and then card name (sorting by color first will speed the process). The contents of the deck should be compared against the deck as registered to see if there are any anomalies.
- Once this check is done the cards should be turned over quickly shuffled and then the backs should be thumbed through [I recommend examining sleeves while the deck is still sorted as it can make patterns of markings more evident. A lot of deck check technique is a matter of personal preference though -S]. Two things can be done simultaneously here. First a count of the total can be done which validates the overall count and serves as a double check of the count listed on the decklist. Secondly the cards or sleeves themselves should be examined to look for any markings and if so whether there is any discernable pattern to the markings (since the penalty varies widely depending on whether there is a pattern or not). Common markings include creases in sleeves dirt marks and nail indentations in sleeves and if these pop up then separating cards with these problems and then looking at the cards to see if they fall into a grouping can determine whether there is a pattern. It's worth noting that players will often argue that markings are natural wear and tear and should be ignored. While it is true that wear and tear during a day can result in markings naturally this doen't change the fact that if the cards do end up marked that can convey an unfair advantage to a player. It is each player's responsibility to keep their deck in an unmarked form. As a player if you happen to know that your play style has a tendency to cause a lot of wear and tear then it is your responsibility to change this or to use and replace sleeves regularly to ensure that there aren't markings later in the day.
- The sideboard should be checked similarly to the main deck—verify that the cards match the list verify the cards for markings and check the overall count. [Watch particularly for sideboard sleeves that are distinctly less worn than their maindeck counterparts. These cards can often be visually distinguished post-sideboarding by their freshness -S]
- Finally record the fact that a deck check was performed which round it is the result and the checking judge on the decklist for later tracking purposes.
Once the checks are finished the decks should be returned to the table. Assuming that there are no issues this is a straightforward process. Make sure to verify which deck belongs to which player and return those decks without revealing them to the other player. The cards won't at the end of the deck check process be sufficiently randomized and it's important to tell the players this and emphasize that they need to thoroughly shuffle. Tell them how much of a time extension they are receiving and remind them that even though they are getting the extension to make sure they have enough time they are at risk of delaying the tournament and they should do their best to play expediently. Finally write the extension on the result slip (if result slips are being used) and the process is done. Issues
If there are any problems your procedure changes. Pull a player whose deck has an issue aside to talk about the problems that you found. If both players' decks have an issue speak with them separately (or have a separate judge handle each player). It is critical that you perform an investigation at this phase to see what they say and whether they know what might be wrong and what might have caused it. A good way to start with this is to ask whether the player has any idea why you've called them over and whether there is anything about their deck that they feel like you should know about. This can help both to avoid false positives and to give you hints as to whether there was any nefarious intent involved. Wrapping Up
Ultimately the goal is to ensure tournament consistency and fairness and both judges and players should keep this in mind when considering how deck checks are run. Players should remember that handled correctly deck checks can significantly improve the integrity of a tournament and this is to everybody's benefit even if deck checks may seem inconvenient at times.
For judges remember that the results of the deck check itself are only one part of a larger puzzle and that there can be context from the players involved that you also need to take into account when determining what has happened. As always a strong investigative skill is vital to being as effective of a judge as one can be and doing as good of a job as one can.
Next month: You may know the precise rules of Magic but it's very unlikely that you actually play by them and if you've ever tried you know why. The nitty-gritty details and intricacies behind the game can be—if followed to the letter—stifling. On the other hand they also can prevent some of the fundamental miscommunications that result in some of the toughest situations in judging. We'll take a long look at shortcuts and how we can find the right middle ground.
Nicholas J. Fang
DCI Certified Level 3 Judge—Redmond WA
Agbaar and Ag|Work on EFnet's #mtgjudge