Earlier this week, it was confirmed that starting in 2015, judges will no longer receive foils from Wizards of the Coast for judging grand prix events. Instead, the Magic Judges blog announced the new Exemplar Program, which was explained in more detail in a post later that day.
Briefly, the new system will allow L3+ judges (with plans to expand to L2+ judges in 2015) to periodically recognize a limited number of outstanding members of the judging community. The program seems pretty open-ended, allowing judges to recognize one another for outstanding performance at events, helpful articles or blog posts, personal mentoring, and more. This recognition will be reviewed by senior judges, who will in turn ship the data to Wizards of the Coast, which will send out judge foils based on these recommendations.
In theory, this sounds like a great way to reward judges who go above and beyond and do more for their communities—be they local or more expansive—than other judges. I must admit, though, that I have some concerns about the program.
It's pretty well known that one shouldn't get involved with judging for the compensation. After taking expenses into account, the average judge does not even make minimum wage for overseeing a large event like a grand prix. You get involved in this system because you're passionate about MTG, not because you want to make money. However, many judges are only able to attend grands prix by selling the foil packets provided to judging staff of these events.
This new program places a financial burden on individual judges, who will now have to pay out of pocket to have the privilege of adjudicating these large events. The likely result is that fewer judges will apply to oversee big tournaments, especially if they're in remote locations. In order to properly staff events, tournament organizers will have to sweeten the deal for judges, offering additional compensation to make up for the lack of judge foil packets.
What happens when costs increase for TOs? Entry fees go up. There was already controversy this year regarding this very issue, and we can expect to see it again as the new Exemplar Program is rolled out. Judges are absolutely crucial to these big tournaments, and this program disincentives them from attending. Without guaranteed compensation in the form of judge foils, TOs will have to provide their own incentives, which will ultimately result in increased prices for the playerbase at large.
Overall, the same number of foils are probably going to be distributed, maybe even more, but there's no longer any guarantee of compensation for traveling to an event (except for what the TO provides). Additionally, these not-guaranteed rewards will probably take longer to arrive for judges who do receive them, meaning more up-front costs for these heroes of our community. Yes, this program is likely to distribute foils based more on valuable contributions than just showing up to events, but the fact is, we kind of need judges to show up to tournaments.
What about the Popularity Contest Aspect?
The Magic Judges blog post linked above addresses this issue:
But isn’t this a popularity contest?
First of all, no – it’s really not. We aren’t asking the program to ‘vote’ on a Judge King or Queen. This is giving each L2+ judge the ability to recognize someone that made an impact on THEM. It’s a personal nod of appreciation from one judge to another.
Secondly, would it be so bad if it was? This isn’t high school, where the popular kids are the ones with rich parents and the trendiest clothes. ‘Popular’ judges are popular because they’re awesome judges, doing lots of great things, and making an impact on a lot of people.
Yes, in my opinion, it would be really bad if this turned out to be a popularity contest. It's true that some popular judges are popular because they're awesome judges. But that's not the case with everyone. What about fantastic judges who are a little socially awkward? They do exist, you know. One could do a fantastic job judging an event, but if he's quiet and doesn't make an impression on the L2+ in charge, he won't be recognized for it. What about personal disputes between judges? If your local L2+ doesn't like you, even for reasons completely unrelated to Magic or judging, you'll simply never get recognized. All of a sudden, becoming buddies with high-level judges will become more important than serving the playerbase at large.
I might be overreacting to this news. This really could end up being an awesome system. The details provided so far are not promising, though. I'm not writing it off completely, as there are probably aspects we don't yet know. But if we see another increase in entry fees in 2015, we'll have a good idea of the reasons behind it.