Exiled from Play — An Interview with Magic: The Gathering Judge CJ Shrader
(Disclosure: The author of this piece plays Magic: The Gathering, but does not live in the region where CJ Shrader judges, nor has had any extended contact with him prior to interviewing him. The author has also not had any extended contact with other affected judges or named parties in this interview.)
(Author’s note: This interview was conducted via email. Transcripts of that email are available upon request.)
Back on December 21st, 2015, players of Wizard of the Coast’s (WotC) popular card game Magic: The Gathering (MtG) found some very unusual news awaiting them under their Christmas tree: thirteen judges from the Southeast region of the United States had received 3 month suspensions from organized play; this included the Southeast’s Regional Coordinator. Explanations soon followed, as the suspended judges spoke out: WotC alleged that the suspended judges were behind content leaks of prior sets that culminated in a massive spoiling of newest set Oath of the Gatewatch content. What followed this announcement was a mixture of outrage, incredulity, and calls to boycott WotC over what players felt was a mishandling of the situation.
“We are e‐mailing you regarding your Failure to Notify Wizards of the Coast of the Dissemination of Confidential Material. A report was filed and reviewed by the an internal investigation committee. This group reviewed the report and all of the statements from the people involved and have come to the following decision.” -Email to Judges caught up in the suspensions.
SuperNerdLand writers covered the situation as it unfolded, and now — over a month after the affected judges were unsuspended — we sit down with one of those affected judges to get an inside look at just what happened.
We are pleased to sit down with Shrader and hear his side of these events.
More information on the suspensions and the surrounding discussions can be found in the SuperNerdLand articles linked above.
So, let’s start off with an introduction. Many people in the Magic community know who you are, but some of our readers might not. Would you introduce yourself for them?
Sure thing, I don’t expect most people in the wider Magic community to know me 🙂
My name is CJ Shrader, I’m a Level 2 judge from Smyrna, GA, I’ve been a judge for approaching 6 years (Plus or minus 23 days). I’ve been playing Magic on and off since Mirage (Author’s Note: 1996), and came back into the game seriously around Zendikar (AN: 2009).
Since then, I think I’ve always been sort of a rule stickler (It’s not fun to play Monopoly with me) and so the rules aspect of judging always appealed to me. So, one day, I signed up to judge an SCG (AN: StarCityGames) Open (My first competitive event I’d ever been to! It was a different time then. I had to go to a store to get a DCI number just to take my Rules Advisor), I was tested, and I got my L1.
I was also always a fan of the podcast JudgeCast, which started around the time I was interested in becoming a judge. Many years later, I noticed the podcast wasn’t really updating and Jess Dunks and I both contacted Sean Catanese (one of the founders) about taking it over. And thus, a legendary team was formed.
Typically, what would you say your duties as an L2 consist of?
The program describes L2 judges as “area” judges. Where L1s typically are store judges and stick to one store, we tend to work with multiple stores in the wider area.
Generally I’d say the duties of an L2 are to head judge PPTQs (AN: Preliminary Pro Tour Qualifiers), work as floor judges at GPs (AN: Grand Prix), and train and mentor judges to L1.
And to put this on the record – WotC does not compensate you for judging, correct? Any compensation comes from the Tournament Organizer (TO)?
That is correct. WotC doesn’t compensate us as judges, that responsibility falls on the TO. So if I work a PPTQ, SCG Open, or GP, the TO pays me.
For any time spent outside of events (Testing candidates, mentoring, JudgeCast), there is no compensation. The closest thing is the Exemplar program, but that is focused on calling out exemplary behaviors more than “do something cool and get a foil.”
The one exception was PT Philly a few years ago, which I was on staff for. I was compensated directly by Hasbro for that event, as WotC is the TO for its Pro Tours. Had to sign a contract and everything.
And most of the work that you, and other judges of your rank and higher do, is work that wouldn’t be compensated? Training judges to L1, the JudgeCast, etc?
Yep, I’m not compensated for testing judges or JudgeCast. In fact Jess Dunks pays our server costs out of pocket.
So, let’s talk about the Leadership group that WoTC blamed for a series of leaks starting with Dragons of Tarkir, and most recently for the Oath of the Gatewatch, as well as the events leading up to the notification of suspension letters being sent out.
It is worth mentioning that their latest article did not say we were responsible for all the leaks, which I appreciate.
The leadership chat is something that formed naturally over time on Facebook. It consists of SE judge leaders and basically is just a group of friends more than anything. We produce a thousand messages a day talking about…anything. It’s honestly rarely Magic, we’re not exactly pro players.
Of course we would discuss any spoilers that might come up, like any Magic players. Adam Hubble posted some spoilers in there occasionally (some real, some not) although a few we seemed to be getting earlier than the average populace:
1) I didn’t remember this one and had to be told afterward, but we were given a couple of cards from Dragons of Tarkir on imgur links. They were already available on reddit and had 100 views each, so these didn’t really stick out.
2) There were a few cards from Magic Origins. The only one I remember is the transforming Chandra. I don’t remember if these went public or were already public as I don’t exactly research where every card comes from. Once again, it’s not like these are the only spoilers we ever saw.
3) There were some cards from BFZ on dropbox links. I was at work so I never actually saw these cards, as they’d already been removed by the time I saw them.
4) I think everyone knows the next part, but we also got three spoilers from Oath of the Gatewatch. Those were Kozilek, Wastes, and Mirrorpool (I think). The first two were on twitter within 30 minutes of being posted in our chat, so at first we didn’t know they came from our chat but rather some other source that had posted them around. Eventually, Hubble was able to determine they did indeed come from our chat directly though.
After that happened, I wasn’t involved as much, but this is what my understanding is:
– A few days later, a person from WotC (Not Helene or Hamer…someone we never hear from) called Hubble and effectively started making legal threats against him. This number came from an unknown number and Hubble had concerns about his citizenship, so he first said he got the cards from reddit.
– Hubble then called Justin Turner, our Regional Coordinator, and Turner was able to confirm this was a legitimate call from someone actually at Wizards and part of their fraud department.
– After that, Hubble got in contact again and this time cooperated fully, answering any questions he was asked. Turner also cooperated fully, and we were told to if we were contacted (We were not contacted).
I know during this time, WotC also asked Turner for a list of everyone in the chat so that they could followup with us for more information in the investigation. I believe Turner got a promise that there’d be no sanctions against us before sharing that info. As we know now, that was a lie.
Some time passed…a few weeks I think? Maybe a month?
On December 19th, Hubble and Francisco got letters saying they were suspended for 2 years. We thought the matter was handled here, as we were never spoken to.
2 days later we each started having letters trickling in over the course of a few hours. We were pretty surprised, to say the least.
The threats leveled against Hubble…are you at liberty to say what they consisted of, and if anyone else connected to him received threats of a similar nature?
I don’t know what was specifically said to him. I sent him a message seeing if he wanted to expand on that, but I’ll leave that up to him (AN: Hubble was contacted by Shrader but was unable to recall the exact wording of what was said to him by WotC, due to having been shaken up by the incident. An update to this interview will be amended if and when he can recall WotC’s statements).
Was the “Godleak” of the Oath of the Gatewatch Expedition Lands/mythics also something that was supposedly the leadership’s responsibility?
Those initial articles sure made it sound like we leaked that too, but we surely didn’t. I mean, if you think about it logically…we had a source for leaks, and one of those leaks got out. You think that guy would ever share leaks with us again? Of course not. We saw those cards at the same time as everyone else.
The immediate aftermath…I remember there was a lot of anger from Turner, and a few other judges, in the /r/magictcg threads discussing the suspensions. I remember Turner saying that he was going to go public about their treatment, but that never materialized. Were the suspended judges under some sort of gag order while you filed appeals?
We were never ordered or forced to stay quiet. And Turner did go public in the JudgeCast episode, it’s just a lot of work to write up an article and I think all of us were burnt out on it. Of course the amount of writing I’ve done on Reddit and here could have been an article if I’d bitten the bullet and done it
I believe what Turner shared was that Aaron Hamer asked him to not discuss this stuff publicly until after the appeals were complete. Turner and many others agreed, as they felt that discussing this publicly would hurt our appeal chances. So it wasn’t a mandate or anything, it was a choice we made.
Now I remember that bit from your podcast, about being asked not to go public on the situation until the appeals were handled.
How do you feel the situation was represented by WotC’s PR pieces? I seem to remember you referenced a few articles that didn’t fairly represent the situation that ended up being amended after some of the judges contacted WotC.
Yeah, just to be absolutely clear we were asked not to discuss it publicly, but it’s not like we were forced into it. I don’t want to act like they were threatening us, they just felt it would help our case in the long run not to discuss it too much yet.
The PR pieces…weren’t good. They labeled us as thieves when we never stole anything, and heavily implied we were responsible for multiple leaks when we weren’t. Once again, I don’t really blame Helene for that…she didn’t do the investigation and I have a strong feeling there was a lot of misinformation between the division of WotC that investigated us (Legal? I’m not sure. It wasn’t the Player Investigation Committee is all I know) and with the “faces” of WotC.
Do you think that the suspensions proximity to Christmas was an intentional move by WotC, in an attempt to delay addressing the situation?
The suspensions being so close to Christmas…I honestly don’t know why that was. I can tell you that WotC reported it’s second quarter of losses shortly thereafter, perhaps there was pressure from Hasbro to make a good impression? I could also see two arguments, one more malicious than the other:
1) WotC knew we were going to get suspended, and thought maybe we wouldn’t have any events those last two weeks of December anyway, so they were basically giving us a two week “reduction” on our suspensions? Since if the suspension didn’t happen then it probably wouldn’t happen until January. So this idea would be misguided, but at least it’d been made with good intentions.
2) WotC knew that the community is quick to let issues blow over, and doing it over Christmas would give people plenty of time to just forget about it and move on as they do. This seems likely, but at the same time I just don’t know if they are that malicious. Obviously if this was the plan then it backfired.
There was something I was a bit confused about, in your podcast. You mentioned that the Judge Conduct Committee (JCC) also suspended you guys from judging, which apparently they shouldn’t have done? Can you elaborate on that, or tell me if I’m off base on anything?
So there are two suspensions a judge can go through, though usually one results in the other.
1) A WotC suspension. This means we can’t play in or judge events. Basically, it’s WotC’s ball and they can take it away if they want to.
2) A judge suspension. At this point we’ve generally lost the ability to judge events, but this suspension removes our ability to participate in judge programs and projects, including the judge forums. It is our opinion that this suspension should not have been applied to us, as we did not do anything malicious and we were never investigated by…anyone, really.
WotC can’t decide to suspend us from judge program work because the judge program is a separate entity, but the Judge Conduct Committee did not want to make a separate decision than WotC’s ill‐investigated decision. We feel like this was a great opportunity to show our independence from WotC. Also WotC was telling us “We don’t/can’t suspend you from the judge program” while the JCC was saying “WotC suspended you, therefore you’re suspended from the program.”
You can read the head of the JCC’s thoughts on the suspension here for a different view.
Now that it’s been almost a month since you and other judges were unsuspended, how do you feel about the future of the Judges program, and for MtG in general? Do you think these bans set any kind of precedent that we as players or judges should be wary of?
If you’d asked me a month ago, I probably would have given a worse answer.
I actually don’t think WotC will let something like this happen again. There will always be leaks, and the people who attempt to spread them privately to their friends will always be the ones to be punished. The people who hide behind anonymous usernames (ie, the true ones causing a problem) and posting them online will always get away with it, because vague threats can’t solve those problems. But at the same time, I really want to believe that overreactions on this scale simply won’t happen again, that the business will learn to talk to itself a little more.
That being said, WotC has said they will communicate more with us (judges specifically, but even players). I don’t believe it and I don’t think it will happen. I don’t think they will magically start using the Regional Coordinator Advisory Committee, and I think they will continue to make decisions and quietly suspend people for made up reasons. They just won’t do it again for leaks.
With this in mind, what are some things players and judges can do to prevent similar treatment in the future?
Wizards would say you should report spoilers as soon as you see them. I don’t think this is a player’s responsibility nor is it a reasonable request. I also don’t think it’s a judge’s responsibility as we are not WotC employees.
So if you’re not willing to do that…nothing can prevent similar treatment. We just have to have faith that WotC will not do this in the future because they said they wouldn’t. If they do, we have to react loud and strongly like we did this time to show WotC we are displeased. They will try to ignore it at first, they always do, so it has to continue until they can’t ignore it anymore. Most Magic “controversies” blow over in about 3 days, and that’s because of us (the community) just finding something new and losing interest. If you’re unhappy, contact twitter and customer service and let them know. I’m sure posting on Reddit just isn’t enough.
Got a little rambly there but I hope that gets the point across.
Any last words for the people reading?
I think I’ve been negative enough. I just want to thank everyone for all the support, it really meant a lot to all of us suspended. Some people are still suspended, I don’t want to forget about them, but I can’t thank everyone enough for all the kind words, messages, and posts we saw during that time. Without those, we probably would have quit a week into it and just been done with the entire thing, but seeing that people cared really meant a lot.
For additional views on the suspensions, JudgeCast has an episode dedicated solely to the suspensions, guest staring the Southeast Regional Coordinator Justin Turner, and can be listened to here.
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