You probably expected a Commander article out of me. Not this time! Today I’m actually here to talk about something new happening in the world of judging. You’ve probably heard something about changes coming, and I want to spend some time demystifying that so that people who aren’t quite so entrenched as I am can understand it better. I’ll note that, because the wider Judge community has already largely heard about this at this point, this article is geared toward players.

Before we begin, full disclosure: I’m planning to accept a contract with Judge Academy to act as a Community Manager for USA-Midwest. I am not a full-time staffer or anything like that, just a probable future contractor. It’ll become more apparent later what the actual meaning of that is, but I feel it’s only right to acknowledge my bias and privilege here before you read an explanation of this whole thing through my lens.

Starting on October 1, the Judge Program will be organized by a new company called Judge Academy. This new company will employ full-time staff, contract with leaders and educational content creators, administer Judge tests and training modules, distribute Judge promos and cool Judge swag, and even expand into other games to provide Judges with more opportunities to use their skills at events, whether they’re hobbyists or full-time Judges. Judges will be required to pay yearly dues in order to have their certifications recognized by Judge Academy.

What To Know About Judge Academy

Why is this happening?

Long story short, it’s much easier for Wizards of the Coast to work with a single defined entity like Judge Academy than it is for them to work with a global community that is unified in purpose but not in any formal way. This new relationship will make it easier for Wizards of the Coast to support the Judge Program with Judge foils and other promotions.

Who owns Judge Academy?

Tim Shields, whom you may know runs Cascade Games, is the owner of Judge Academy. He has lots of experience in gaming and conventions, and he has just as much love for the Judge community. I’ve known Tim for a long time, and based on both the quality of his character and what I know about how much this is going to cost, I believe quite firmly that he’s not in this to line his pockets.

Why do Judges have to pay dues? Where does that money go?

I had to put this pretty early in the article, obviously. I saw a lot of outcry, hyperbole, and outright misinformation about this online, and I think that’s one of the many negative side effects of some of the news that leaked out over the weekend being incomplete. It turns out there’s more nuance to it than the initial online reaction would suggest. (Surprise!)

Judge Academy’s model is that of a professional certification organization. Such organizations typically require their members to pay dues and stay up-to-date with continuing education initiatives. Judge Academy will be requiring both of these things from its members. Those education initiatives will be provided by Judge Academy as part of membership.

Materials required for training toward Level 1 testing will be available for free to everyone, but materials of a more advanced nature will be available only to paying members–and of course, paying your membership fees is required for Judge Academy to recognize your certification. Using these education materials, Judges will be able to learn skills that are not only useful in judging but are transferable to other pursuits as well.

Judges will also receive foils twice yearly along with some other as yet unspecified items from Judge Academy. The amount of foils Judges will receive will scale up with Judge level, as will the membership dues.

The money from dues goes to the continued growth and support of the Judge Program by Judge Academy. Full-time staff and contractors have to be paid, as do attorneys and accountants. It costs money to set up and maintain the customized learning management system and to create and refine the training modules that form the backbone of that system, and some of that content creation will be done by community members who will be paid for their efforts. There will also be budgets that allow Community Managers (more on what those are further down!) to pay for venues and snacks/food at conferences as well as tech like projectors for conferences or software for online regional meetings. Creating and maintaining a system that covers this much of the world is already costly, so growth into out-of-service regions (more on those further down too!) will also be supported by those dues, as will continued operations in those regions as costs scale up.

Exact amounts for dues are listed in the Judge Academy FAQ.

So certified Judges get foils? What if the foils aren’t good?

I’m confident that won’t be the case. Gavin Verhey is the new promo czar at Wizards of the Coast, and he has made a commitment to making Judge foils awesome. My personal hope is that the foils, in combination with the professional benefits of certification and training, will make the value proposition of this whole thing good enough that Judges will be willing to pay dues. Recent promos, like Mox Opal and Sliver Legion, have been pretty damn good, so I think we’re on the right track already.

Is this worldwide?

Not yet. As of October 1, Judge Academy will cover the US, Canada, Japan, and much of Europe. That accounts for over 75% of currently certified Judges worldwide. The plan as it has been explained to me is for Judge Academy to expand safely but surely worldwide as it has the time, resources, and legal ability to do so.

What about the Judges who aren’t in those regions?

Technology-wise, they’ll still be supported by JudgeApps – the system we’ve been using as Judges for a while – which will keep track of Judge levels, allow for event and conference scheduling as well as the communications around those that we’re used to, and potentially even support testing and advancement. Once Judge Academy begins operating in these currently out-of-service areas, Judge Academy’s systems will handle these functions.

Judge conferences, which are important training opportunities for us, will still happen in out-of-service areas and will be supported with foils by Judge Academy with help from a separate non-profit organization.

Judges in out-of-service areas who choose to join Judge Academy once it arrives will have their existing certifications respected if they choose to join – i.e. the same deal as Judges in areas where Judge Academy is operating will be getting on October 1st.

In short, they’re still Judges. They’re still part of our global community, and while we all look forward to the day that Judge Academy can cover the whole world, there is a plan for transition in place, and I’m sure that plan will continue to be refined as we move forward.

What does this mean for the average store Judge?

If they’re already certified, then they’re obviously welcome to pay the membership dues and join up! If they choose to do so, it’s likely because they’re hyped about foils, training, or both–and any of those options are fine.

If they’re not yet certified, then they, like everyone, will have free access to the materials leading up to the L1 exam that Judge Academy will be providing. The plan is that this will include learning modules about rules and policy as well as modules about customer service topics like Conflict Resolution and Creating Welcoming Environments.

If they’re currently certified and decide they don’t want to pay dues, or if they go through the training and decide afterwards that they’re not interested in certification, that’s okay too. There will be a free Rules Advisor certification, based on an exam, if they’re interested in having their knowledge of the Comprehensive Rules certified, and Rules Advisors can even pay a reduced membership fee to join up and receive some Judge Academy branded gaming accessories if that’s of interest.

Either way, they can certainly continue to answer rules questions and run local events if their local organizers want them to!

What does this mean for the Judges I see at MCQs, MagicFests, and Mythic Championships?

They’re likely to continue to show up at those events if they continue to enjoy it, and if they are in an area that Judge Academy serves, they’ll probably join up. Obviously, some people won’t be interested in this model–everyone is realistic about that–but the people who attend these kinds of events are probably quite entrenched and will benefit from the value proposition the new system provides.

Who are the leaders of this new program? Is it just the same names as it has been?

I’ve heard from a few people who worry that this is some sort of consolidation of power or “selling out” of the Judge Program by a privileged group who’ve been in charge as long as, or longer than, many of us have been playing. I’m happy to report that this isn’t the case. We have some old hands coming on for sure–some former L4/5 Judges from when that was a thing, some Program Coordinators and leaders of major projects, and some long-time Regional Coordinators–but we also have some fantastic new people involved who, while they’re experienced and well-respected community members who’ve held formal or informal regional leadership positions within their areas before, are stepping up to a bigger and more complex stage with new ideas and perspectives. There are also some people like me. While I’m a 10+ year veteran of the Judge Program with a lot of experience at large-scale events with many GP Head Judge positions and, now, a Mythic Championship Head Judge position on my resume (and apparently a full sentence worth of sick Judge brags), I’ve only stepped into a formal role in regional and global leadership over the last couple of years.

Some of the leaders are full-time staff at Judge Academy, like the Judge Program Manager, Nicolette Apraez, who will manage the day-to-day operations of the program. There will also be a six-member Advisory Board; members of this board will provide the staff at Judge Academy with guidance regarding large-scale initiatives that affect the Judge Program as a whole. Finally, there will be (to start with) ten Community Managers worldwide–four in the US, four in Europe, one in Canada, and one in Japan. Community Managers will be coordinating conferences and education efforts in their region as well as acting as conduits of information–that is, from Judge Academy to their region as they help message program-wide initiatives, and from their region to Judge Academy as they pass ideas, concerns, and needs up from the Judges in their region.

A full list of future Advisors and Community Managers can be found in the Judge Academy FAQ.

What does this mean for me as a player?

While Wizards of the Coast doesn’t require Judges of specific levels, or even certified Judges, to run any particular event, organizers will likely be looking for the same things they’ve been looking for–properly credentialed Judges that they can trust, whether it’s because of an existing relationship or because of their Judge Academy certifications. You are quite likely to see many of the same familiar faces in Judge roles at events, plus hopefully some new ones!

Your local store Judges, as discussed above, will not suddenly lose their ability to answer rules questions or run events if they don’t find the value proposition of Judge Academy compelling.

Judge levels will continue to mean what they mean to you, at least for now–you’ll see mostly L1s and L2s locally, lots of L2s and L3s at MagicFests, and so on, with higher level Judges often acting as head Judges or in roles where they can support a Judge who is stepping up into a lead role. L1s will be required to do some additional customer service-focused training as I mentioned earlier, and the Judge Academy model will enable the Judge Program to create even more specialized training materials than ever before, so overall, the quality of judging at events should even improve over time.

In short, your life as a player will be impacted very little, and what impact there is should be positive!

Okay! That’s the overall size and shape of this upcoming change. If you want more detail, or if you just love primary sources, there’s a lot of material out there to look at:

Announcement from Magic Judge Program Coordinators

Announcement from Nicolette Apraez, Judge Program Manager at Judge Academy

Announcement from Sara Mox, Associate Community Manager at Wizards of the Coast

Judge Academy FAQ

That’s all I have this time around. I’ll see you next time as I return to Commander content, but if there’s more big Judge news, I’ll be sure to give you an update!