The Only Hard and Fast Rule

Posted in Serious Fun on November 26, 2002

By Anthony Alongi

Earlier this year, I responded to a request for Wizards to make formal rules for multiplayer. While there are some basic optional rules provided by Wizards, by and large the company has passed on this, and rightly so I believe – Magic has enough structure within the DCI tournament hierarchy, and those of us playing casually don't need or want people telling us what to do or how to play our favorite game.

Don't play like a bunch of dummies! Figure out the multiplayer problem areas in advance.

At the same time, I do get occasional specific questions on how our play group handles certain sticky situations. These casual players are not looking for unalterable structure, but merely options and advice – guidelines, not rules. And I'm always happy to share my thoughts, as well as what works for our group. I'm also never surprised nor displeased when someone writes back and says they'd rather do it a different way – in fact, I hang onto that thought and use it to help answer the next person who asks about that specific situation.

Before we start, I'll repeat an innovative suggestion for settling rules arguments I received a few months ago from Bruno Ducharme:

"Let's say there are six players debating a situation. No one comes up with an uncounterable ruling to settle it, so we have to vote. In our group, the final decision will be randomly chosen, using ODDS PROPORTIONAL to the vote results. For example, if 4 players are FOR an alternative, and 2 players are AGAINST it, we roll a die: the alternative STANDS on a roll of 1 to 4 and is REJECTED on a 5 or 6."

When your group can't decide, that's as good a way as any. And so is deferring to the house. Now, with that logistic out of the way, let's take a look at some of the things you may actually be arguing about:

I've mentioned some of these briefly in past articles, but I don't think I've had the opportunity to throw it all together in one set of guidelines, so consider this your Thanksgiving present. (If you live in a country like Canada that foolishly celebrates Thanksgiving during another month, then yes this gift is probably late – and you deserve it for lousing up my calendar every year with unnecessary notations such as "Thanksgiving (Canada)" and "Arbor Day (Qatar)". Make your own calendars, for heaven's sake, and stop bothering the more self-absorbed among us. Thank you.)


With each issue, I give you the answer our play group has settled on, for purposes of illustration only. Let me be clear – I honestly don't care which way your group does it. You just need to be conscious and clear about the decisions you all make together.

Issue One: Format

Before anything else makes any sense at all, your group needs to decide upon the format you're about to play. Most groups settle into a "default" format – say, chaos – that everyone can count on consistently enough to build several decks for, from day to day or week to week. If you don't do this, you'll lose some group integrity since players won't be as invested in their decks and often won't be able to keep pace with the changes.

Naturally, for variety's sake your group will want to change up formats every once in a while – play some team, play some "attack left," or whatever. If you meet regularly, then try to give at least two or three days notice on a different format, so that people have time to think about and construct decks that will make the most of it.

What our group does: Our default format is chaos (or "free-for-all")--hit and target anyone you like. We also play team and emperor often enough that of the 6-10 decks that each player brings to a given evening, we can find 2-3 that are decidedly team-friendly. (In other words, they don't have Grave Pact or Armageddon in them!)

About once a month, one host or another (a different player hosts each week) will come up with something wacky – but they have to give the group at least one week's notice, since we're all fairly busy. Usually, we'll do that format for the first half of the night, and then revert to chaos and team again, so that people who didn't have time to build a special deck can still show up late and participate.

Of course, the other format consideration is the minimum number of cards in a deck. We go with the conventional limit of 60, unless we're playing a limited format (in which case we go with 40, as you'd expect).

Issue Two: Banned/Restricted Cards

There are cards that, no doubt, ruin the fun of a group. What "fun" is and what "ruins" it is completely up to your group. I have no official voice here, but I can guarantee you as tightly as any non-employee can that Wizards is never going to touch this one. It's none of their business, and they know it. What drives casual play is not the structure that Wizards imposes from above – it's the creative choices that are made on the ground.

In most cases, simply following a tournament-style banned and restricted list will work just fine. For specific events, a given store may decide in advance upon a list of cards that slow down the game so much that running the event becomes impractical. Usually at the top of the list are the following mana-denial cards:

These may be banned or restricted, depending on the preferences of the store manager or players themselves. Other cards that aren't as severe but get hard looks:

Cards like these probably do not need to be banned – but they can be restricted without devastating an event, especially if the collections in your group are unequal.

What our group does: We play with the Type 1 restricted and banned list, which you can find here. I believe most groups do this as well. It's not that we all have Moxen that we want to play in boring, predictable fashion – quite the opposite. We all have modest to good collections, but we span different expansion zones – some returning veterans, some newbies, etc. – and this is the best way for us all to see different combinations and possibilities.

About 2-4 times over the course of a year, you might see someone in our group run a deck using one of the cards from the first list (mana denial). That person might win one of those games (though usually not), and then can count on severe beatings as soon as the deck is recognized in any future game. The cards on the second list see more frequent use – and also attract heavy attention. Anyone with a deck using those cards has his work cut out for him.

In other words, for you economics freaks: we don't regulate the cards, because the free market takes care of the problem pretty well.

Issue Three: Engines and Loops

Just a couple of weeks ago, the site devoted an entire week to infinite mana engines. Infinite mana, infinite damage, and other "everyone else be quiet while I do this loop over and over" moments are often boring to everyone else. It's not why they play. (If they're not complaining when you do it, then they're just being nice and waiting to cast voodoo curses on you when you're not looking. This is why your coffee mysteriously spilled in your lap, your car battery went out, and/or your boss yelled at you today. Really!)

Some groups take the step of outright banning infinite engines of any kind. Others restrict the number of times a loop can repeat – say, three, or ten, or however many opponents or players there are.

What our group does: We don't formally ban them, but we frown on them heavily. I don't think we've seen an infinite engine in our group for at least two years. If we saw one, it would probably win a game, we'd roll our eyes and give mock congratulations, and then every other player would spend the rest of the evening making sure the offending player exits every game first (whether they're still playing the combo deck or not). I guess we're really a bunch of jerks, when you stop and think about it – but since we don't ever see infinite engines, I would also guess that being a jerk works.

Issue Four: Targeting, Ranges, and Universal Effects

In some formats, there are restrictions on who you can target or attack. ("Attack Left/Right" or "Hunt" formats are examples.) Inevitably, a player new to this format will snicker and figure out that Hurricane must still be pretty good – after all, he's not targeting anyone, right?

So before you take on a target-restrictive format, make sure your group is clear on what's targeted and what isn't. I've gone over this issue in more depth in a past article, and so I'll just say that if you're all clear on what you'll do with Soul Warden, Urborg Stalker, Pernicious Deed, Skirk Fire Marshall, and Akroma's Vengeance – who can counter, remove, Bind, etc. any of these? – then you're okay.

What our group does: In target-restrictive formats, we allow universal effects. Any card that has a clear, detrimental effect on most players – and the host decides what is "clear and detrimental" – can be countered, removed, etc. Using examples above, Soul Warden is generally the only one that can't be stopped; the others are fair game for anyone to go after.

There's a coda to this – the controller of the "stopped" global spell or permanent now has the option to target the player who was rude enough to stop the fun, and if she exercises that option, those two players can then smack each other around all they like. Notice how quickly this helps things degenerate into a normal chaos game!

Issue Five: As Players Die

Sheldon Menery, a level 3 judge whom the U.S. government has not only authorized to carry a firearm, but actually provided one to use at taxpayer expense, believes that when you are at two life and cast a Fireball, and someone plays Shock to deal lethal damage, that your Fireball remains on the stack like a thrown hand grenade (which the U.S. government probably also lets Sheldon play with when he's out in the Middle East, or patrolling the Korean 38th Parallel, or thinking about France) and resolves.

Sheldon believes that if his Fireball is on the stack when he is killed by Anthony's Shock, the Fireball should resolve normally as long as the game isn't over. For some reason Anthony doesn't like the idea.

Other players, who may or may not like to play with taxpayer-furnished weaponry, believe that the same punishments and rewards that exist in duel should carry over to group play – if you're bright enough to have a Shock in your hand when someone is at two life, then you ought to be rewarded by removing their ill-advised spells and abilities from the stack if you remove them. And if you're super-smart and have a Seal of Fire on the board, then you just got yourself a best friend…unless that person is hoarding a Refreshing Rain…and so on.

What our group does: Not being the grenade-loving types, we go with the second option. You die, your spells and abilities on the stack disappear. We believe this adds more layers of strategy and satisfaction to the game. But if Sheldon comes within a few hundred yards and flashes an M-16, we reserve the right to change our minds quickly.

Rules Corner: Own vs. Control

The owner of a card is the player who started the game with that card in his or her deck. (Legal ownership is irrelevant to the game rules.) The owner of a token is the controller of the spell or ability that created it.
A spell or ability can change a permanent’s controller but never its owner.
A card is always put into its owner’s library, hand, or graveyard, regardless of who controlled the card in its previous zone.

Control, Controller:
Every permanent, spell, and ability has a controller.
When a permanent comes into play, its controller is whoever put it into play unless the spell or ability that generated the permanent states otherwise. Other effects can later change a permanent’s controller.
Cards in zones other than in play or the stack have no controller. A spell or activated ability on the stack is controlled by whoever played it. A triggered ability is controlled by the player who controlled its source at the time it triggered.

Issue Six: After Players Die

Cards like Control Magic, Spelljack, Sleeper Agent, and Jinxed Idol raise a question – what happens if a player dies and some permanents or spells are not with their owners?

There are multiple situations to go through. The first two are about what you steal before you die:

Controlled by dying player with strings attached (e.g., Confiscate, Preacher, Dominating Licid). "Strings attached" simply means another permanent is at work here. If I control a Serra Angel because I have a Control Magic on it, then one of two things can happen when I die: the Serra Angel can cease to exist at the same time that I do (all permanents I control die with me), or the Angel can linger after Confiscate disappears (only those permanents I both control and own vanish with me) and revert to their original controller after I'm gone.

Controlled by dying player with no strings attached (e.g., Insurrection, Empress Galina, Ashen Powder). Whether you're going to keep the permanent until end of turn or not should be irrelevant to this conversation. When you die, one of two things can happen: all permanents you control die with you, or only those permanents you both control and own die with you. So this works a lot like the case with strings attached.

Confused by the last couple of paragraphs? Here's a handy chart, using my Control Magic and Dominate on another player's Serra Angel:

  All permanents I control die All permanents I both control and own die
Controlled continually by a permanent (strings attached) (Control Magic) Serra Angel and Control Magic both die when I do. Control Magic dies, Serra Angel goes to previous controller/owner.
Controlled by a resolved spell/ability (no strings attached) (Dominate) Serra Angel dies when I do. Serra Angel goes to previous controller/owner.

An interesting twist that your group can consider is the "conqueror" option – if I control player B's permanent when player C kills me, why should player B get rewarded for player C's hard work? Why shouldn't player C get that Serra Angel?

Discuss amongst yourselves.

Some cards, like Control Magic, are "indicators" that a card has changed controllers. Other cards, like Dominate, leave no indicator that control has changed.

Now, on to those situations where someone steals from you before you die:

Owned but not controlled by dying player, with or without strings attached (e.g., Jinxed Idol, or a Serra Angel that someone has Control Magic on). So if someone smacks you with your own Serra Angel, do you at least get to take your wayward servant out of his hands as you go? Again, you need to break this down into parts, but the parts are a bit different in that ownership, not control, is the more permissive set: there are permanents you own, and then permanents you both own and control. If you leave with the permanents you own, then you take the Serra Angel with you, no matter if it has a Control Magic on it, or had Temporary Insanity, or whatever. But if you only leave with those permanents you both own and control, then the Serra Angel doesn't qualify, and she remains under the thief's control until another rule (Temporary Insanity wears off) or game event (someone else kills it) takes effect.

Here's the chart again, for the graphically inclined:

  All permanents I own die All permanents I both own and control die
Controlled continually by a permanent (strings attached) (Control Magic) Serra Angel dies, then Control Magic dies as state-based effect. Serra Angel remains with controller of Control Magic.
Controlled by a resolved spell/ability (no strings attached) (Dominate) Serra Angel dies. Serra Angel remains with controller of Dominate.

Here's an interesting case – the Serra Angel with Control Magic stays in play after you die, but then someone Disenchants the Control Magic. In general, a group would say the Serra Angel dies; but a case could be made under "conqueror" logic that the player casting Disenchant could get it!

Please respect those "dead" players who have to leave the house or store before a game is complete. An owner of a card, well, owns that card. If they're not on the premises, their cards should be on their person and you should be using a proxy.

On the stack or out of the game due to dying player's trickery (e.g., Ertai's Meddling, Faceless Butcher, Spelljack). Here are some fun situations that require a careful look. Generally, if my Parallax Wave has removed your three Faceless Butchers from the game and the only other creature on the board is the Serra Angel that I Spelljacked, then taking me out of the game can go a bunch of ways. First, you need to decide what happens to the Serra Angel when I die (see "controlled by dying player with no strings attached" above). The Parallax Wave goes, of course – but what about any creatures it has locked away? Since it leaves play, I think most players would agree that the Faceless Butchers should come into play. Then, whether the game becomes a triple-Butcher-induced draw with the surviving players depends on how you answered that Serra Angel question.

Now let's say that Serra Angel was Spelljacked, but I never got around to playing it. (And forget the Butchers for now; that's just silliness.) Does it remain in the removed-from-play zone? Or does it revert to "countered" status and go to its controller's graveyard? And what about spells with counters from Ertai's Meddling – do the counters stay, or not?

These are fairly card-specific questions that probably don't require advance discussion. But you should know that situations like this arise – and you should have a fair, agreed-upon system of dealing with them.

What our group does: All these "dead-player-card-switch" scenarios are pretty confusing. In all honestly, our group continually forgets which way we go. Looking over the analysis above, I'm pretty certain we use the most restrictive case in all aspects – when you die, only those permanents you both control and own go with you. We don't use "conqueror" option. So to use examples from above:

  • Someone else's Serra Angel that I have a Control Magic on survives my death, and reverts back to original controller (usually the owner).
  • Someone else's Serra Angel that I Dominated also survives me and reverts to the original controller.
  • If I die to my own Serra Angel, I must watch it stay on the board and kill other people. Also, I'm not allowed to leave because my friends don't like to use proxies. Jerks.
  • If my Serra Angel with Control Magic is in a surviving player's possession and the Control Magic gets a Disenchant, the Serra Angel comes to her senses and dies, mourning her betrayal of me.
  • A Serra Angel removed from the game with Spelljack, but not yet played, leaves all zones relating to a dead player and flutters to the owner's graveyard, still successfully countered.
  • A Serra Angel removed from the game with Ertai's Meddling is in the removed-from-play zone. The counters are already there. So they'd continue to be removed, one at a time, after the dork who played Ertai's Meddling is long gone. Furthermore, I may pummel same said dork about the neck and shoulders for playing such an annoying card.

Issue Seven: Victory Condition

The last issue for your group to contend with – and probably the easiest – is victory condition. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the last player (or team) standing is the one that wins. Of course, there are alternate victory conditions like Epic Struggle. But even beyond that, there are times when someone who has "lost" may, in fact, be a better candidate for the championship title.

In limited-target formats like the Hunt, for example, you can either have the last person standing win – or the person who killed the most players win. Come to think of it, you can do that in simple chaos, too. Some groups assign points per kill, and even provide more points to a player who kills an opponent that targets them first.

In team play, you can also have certain team members "do better" than others. This can go against conventional notions of team spirit, but we can't all be the 2002 Super Bowl Patriots, charging out onto the field together as the announcer tries to name us individually. (Go Pats!) Maybe the team member who takes the least damage, or takes the most, or pulls off the most creative play (by vote), ought to get a slightly larger stack of gold if you're doing an event with prize support.

You can also try strange formats that assign points for all sorts of things – a point for every creature killed, for every damage dealt to a player (or creature), and/or for every card draw forced. Or how about a point for every life gained, or every permanent bounced, or every land put into play (first one to ten wins)? These formats sound silly, but they're a great way to close because they get back to my original point – all I've given you here are guidelines. You and your group should play the way that you find most enjoyable. And after you've settled in to a certain method, when the mood strikes you, try it a different way.

Yep. Experimentation – that's the only hard and fast rule I can come up with.

Anthony may be reached at

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