Lessons From Burning Out

(Note: This article was originally written as a prerequisite for testing for my Level 2 judge certification, which I obtained in June 2019.)

One of the happiest days of my judge career was the day I realized that I didn’t need to be a judge anymore. I was at an SCG Open, and at the end of the first day, I was ready to stop. I wasn’t having fun, and I was ashamed of the quality of my work. The lowest point was when a  friend joked that the thing I was most excited about was cashing the check when I got home. They weren’t wrong.

I resigned from Level Three that night. In my resignation, I specifically chose to step down to Level Zero. I needed a clean break, and I knew that if I ever came back, I’d want to be sure that I’d earned whatever I got. Resting on my laurels was not an option I was ready to accept. Furthermore, I knew that there were lots of hard-working, dedicated judges doing excellent work whom I felt I’d insult if I continued to be a slacker L3.

Three months later, I recertified as a Level One judge. Since that time I’ve judged several local events. I hope to test for Level Two sometime this month.

In this article, I’d like discuss three things: why I resigned from the program, why I came back to the program, and what you might be able to take away from it.

Why I Resigned

At the time of my resignation, I had been a judge for fourteen years, a Level Three judge for eight years, and Regional Coordinator of the Mid-Atlantic for six years. From the time I joined the Organized Play department at Star City Games in 2007 through my retirement in 2018, I had supported myself, either entirely or partially, by being a judge and a tournament organizer. I became a judge because I wanted to love the community. After a while, I continued to judge because I could use it to pay my bills.

It was exciting at first. I traveled the country, running great Magic events and meeting great people. That lustre faded quickly. I internalized the stress and exhaustion I experienced as a tournament organizer, and allowed it to affect how I looked at the game. Instead of being a reprieve from my stresses and an opportunity to play, Magic had become the source of those stresses. There was no play involved. I stopped competing in tournaments, I stopped enjoying the company of players and judges, and, ultimately, I stopped loving Magic.

The central mistake I made here was my decision to turn my hobby into my job. It was unreasonable of me to expect that I could simultaneously love Magic as a fan (or love judging as a member of that community) and also rely on Magic as a means of supporting myself financially. If I had chosen to use judging to subsidize Magic as a hobby, I think I could have been an enthusiastic and positive member of the community for a very long time.

In the United States, there are now enough Magic events that provide cash compensation that some judges have decided to make judging their livelihood. I cannot discourage this enough. Apart from the economic realities of being an independent contractor, balancing an enthusiasm for the things one likes about Magic (competition, community, travel) with the things one dislikes about being a professional judge (long hours, lots of travel, conflict with players and staff) is enormously difficult. I tried to make it work for more than a decade, and I failed.

In a theoretical sense, judges can avoid burnout by consciously evaluating their relationship with the judge program (an idea on which I’ll elaborate in this article). In a practical sense, judges can avoid burnout by engineering discomfort out of the equation wherever possible. This means practicing very basic self care. No, you aren’t drinking enough water at events. Yes, expensive shoes are a worthwhile investment. No, you shouldn’t stay up playing Commander until 3 AM.

On a macro level, though, this also means ensuring that you derive tangible joy from the work you’re doing. Let the work you do in Magic enable you to enjoy Magic. This is why, when TOs give me an option between cash, product, and store credit, I’ll usually opt for store credit. It rewards me for my work and allows me to continue enjoying the game (usually, in my case, by buying cards for my Commander decks) in ways that are meaningful to me.

Why I Returned

In writing this article, I talked with a very dear friend of mine about an idea which comes from a quote most commonly attributed to the American author William Faulkner: “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” To me, it means that you have to release your emotional attachment to your work in order to improve it. I loved the image of myself as a great judge. When I burned out on judging, I was unable to match the image in my head with my work on the floor, and the cognitive dissonance between the two amplified the burnout.

I came back to the judge program because I missed it, and because I was ready to move into a new relationship with the program. Rather than being an L3, with whatever social prestige that provided, I am entirely satisfied with being an L1. (My motivation for advancing to L2 is the guarantee that our local events will be run well, and to help newer judges certify and improve.) I hope to be a positive influence on judges and players in my local area. I’m fairly old as a judge (37 as I write this), and I’d love to be a grizzled veteran for our new leaders.

One of the first things I’d tell our new leaders is this: Whatever you’re doing, it’s more than enough. I worry that judges push themselves so hard because they feel like they have to. In my experience, they really don’t. Your local community will not fall apart if you don’t become an L2. The program will not fall apart if you don’t become an L3. When it comes to Magic judging, nobody is bleeding out and nothing is on fire. Conduct yourself accordingly.

If you want to help the judge program, and your local community, put yourself in a place in the program that allows you to maintain your enthusiasm for as long as possible. Maybe that means that you only come out to judge at Prereleases. Maybe it means that you become the Head Judge for your area’s MCQs. Maybe it means you travel the world and become a staple of the MagicFest circuit. All of these are equally valid, and none of them are obligations. Assume whatever role best enables your love of the game. Anyone who tells you that you should — not could, but should — be doing more is not looking out for your best interests.

What I Learned

If I could sum up what I’ve learned about judging over the last fifteen years, it is this: A judge’s career is a marathon, and not a sprint. To expand on the running metaphor (and with a respectful nod to Riki Hayashi, who may outrun us all), there’s no point in trying to run the Boston Marathon when you’d be much happier running a local 5K. If you die when you cross the finish line, the race isn’t worth running.

The reason I burned out during my first career as a judge was that I never stopped to ask myself what success looked like for me. I defaulted to the idea that success meant more — more events, more experience, more influence, more prestige. It was a waste. As much as I loved being an L3, and all that came with it, I never stopped to ask myself if it was actually what I wanted. By the time I was deeply involved, what I wanted became irrelevant. I needed to continue judging, and that’s where things fell apart.

In order to enjoy a long, satisfying career in the judge program, you must prioritize your wants and your comfort above all else. Honor your commitments once you make them, but do not commit to anything that crosses your boundaries. You are not obligated to fly across the country, sleep on a hotel room floor, and subsist on a diet of chicken fingers and Monster for the sake of performing deck checks at MagicFest. Quite the contrary. If anything, you are obligated to avoid doing things that will impinge on your ability to be an engaged and enthusiastic judge.

Let me be clear. If you want to be a road warrior, travel to an event every weekend, and make a career out of being a judge, that’s valid. All I’m suggesting is that you make that decision only after considering what you want out of it, what you need in order to sustain it, and what it will cost you to pursue it. Make the decision because you’re passionate about it, not just because it’s there.

What’s Next

My relationship with Magic — and specifically, my relationship with the judge program — has been one of the central relationships of my adult life. I’m proud of the work I did, and I’m excited about the work I’ve yet to do. My biggest regret is my failure to consciously build that relationship into something that I could sustain. I didn’t need to burn out. I could have done things differently and, now that I’ve started over, I can.

My goal in writing this article is to explain my mistakes and to help other judges avoid them. If you care for yourself, if you do whatever is most meaningful to you, and if you make that decision with full consideration of the benefits as well as the costs, then you will have a long and enjoyable career in the judge program. If you white-knuckle your way through a brutal schedule of events, chasing compensation and approval, without any consideration for your own comfort or needs, well, you will burn out and quit.

I delight in the hope that my experience — and, particularly, my mistakes — might be of use to the reader. If anything I’ve written has enabled you to enjoy your career in the program, then I’ve achieved a great success.

This article would have been significantly worse without the input and contributions of some great judges: Charlotte Sable, Elliot Raff, Emmanuel Leal, Eric Levine, Mauricio Morua, and Patrick Cool. Thank you all very much. This piece is much stronger for your involvement.

If you have any questions, or would like to discuss anything I’ve raised here, please feel free to contact me through JudgeApps. I’m also regularly active on Twitter as @MisterNBS.

Until next time, thank you for this time.