Given the relatively new communication policy, there is naturally a great deal of talk about the various changes that this document has caused. An area that has been particularly heavily discussed is that of Judge-Player communication. While the communication policy does include some rules for Judge-Player communication, it is mostly a tool for managing Player-Player communication and doesn't give much aid to judges in this respect.
One of the most discussed parts of Judge-Player communication is the difficult subject of answering rules questions that relate to a game in progress. Current DCI philosophy is that a player should gain advantage from a greater understanding of the rules and interactions. This can leave us in some difficult situations when responding to judge calls.
While it may seem straightforward to answer rules questions related to a game, judges should be careful when doing so, especially if the question seems unclear or requires an interpretation of the game state. There are several dangerous pitfalls:
- The judge may overlook a critical detail and thus give a wrong answer.
Example – A player asks whether his Academy Rector's ability will trigger when it dies, and points at the Planar Void he controls. The judge is unaware of the Yawgmoth's Will played by that player earlier this turn and gives a wrong answer.
- The judge might give away strategic information that one of the players had missed by incorporating it in his answer.
Example – A player controls Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth and is about to attack with a creature with swampwalk. He asks the judge what the result of combat would be if his creature were blocked by a certain creature his opponent controls. The judge points out that his creature is unblockable, thereby giving the player strategic information he may have overlooked.
- The player may have worded his question poorly, leaving the judge with the choice between giving a misleading but correct answer and coaching the player.
Example – A player controls Inkfathom Witch and is attacking with two creatures. Before blockers are declared, he asks: "Can I play this ability now?" pointing at the Inkfathom Witch. The judge is faced with the choice between giving a correct, but likely misleading answer, or giving strategic advice to the player.
These situations are to be avoided while answering calls. Giving the players incorrect information due to a mistake on the judge's part is obviously very unfortunate. However, giving away strategic information or providing the player with play advice is equally undesirable. The DCI believes that both superior rules knowledge and greater awareness of the game state are skill testers for Magic players: those with greater understanding of rules and interactions should be at an advantage. Thus, if a player is not aware of a detail, it is not the judge's task to make that player aware (unless a game play error has occurred). Therefore, especially at higher REL events, judges should shy away from interpreting the game state for the players.
Answering rules questions thus becomes a little trickier than it first appears. One of our tasks as judges is to provide customer service to players. It is obviously poor customer service to deny help to a player seeking an answer to a rules question. At the same time however, judges should – at all costs – avoid coaching players.
We can identify at least two types of situations where answering questions can be hazardous: poorly worded questions and questions that involve an interpretation of the game state by the judge.
Sometimes, players will ask questions that are worded in such a way that what they're asking is not what they want to know.
Example – A player controls Inkfathom Witch and is attacking with two creatures. Before blockers are declared, he asks: "Can I play this ability now?" pointing at the Inkfathom Witch.
Example – A player controls Isochron Scepter, imprinted with an instant. His opponent controls Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir. During his main phase, when the stack is empty and he has priority, the player asks "Can I play this?" pointing at the Isochron Scepter and instant card.
The dilemma is obvious: if the judge answers the question in a technically correct way, the player will receive an answer that is likely leading him into making a subpar play, which is exactly what the player wanted to avoid by asking that very question. This is obviously not great customer service. However, by answering anything more than what is technically asked by the player, you are coaching him by providing additional assistance, which constitutes very bad customer service towards that player's opponent.
At Regular REL events, if you are certain that the player wants to know something else than what he's asking, then a careful question such as "What part of this are you unsure about?" or "What exactly do you want to know?" or "Can you please clarify your question?" does not give the player any additional advice, but it may lead to him clarifying what he wants to know. Anything more than that is outside assistance, however, and is to be avoided.
While we may be a bit more lenient at Regular REL in order to leave players with a positive experience, greater awareness of rules is definitely considered to be a skill tester at Competitive and Professional events. Players should be expected to ask the correct questions at these events, and judges should not help the players with a clarification on their question. Every ruling made by a judge will influence the game being played, and it is the DCI's belief that this impact should be minimized. It is thus desirable to just give the player the answer to the question he is asking, even though this may mislead him. In the end, it is the player's responsibility to ask the correct question.
The virtual game state
Sometimes, a player will ask a question about the current game state or (more often) about a possible future game state should a certain action take place.
Example – A player asks"Will my opponent's Tarmogoyf die if I play Tarfire on it?"
Example – A player asks"My Kitchen Finks is enchanted with Shield of the Godhead, but my opponent just played a Lignify on it. What's its power and toughness? Does it have flying and is it indestructible?"
For these scenarios, the Player Communication Guidelines encourage judges to answer the question at Regular REL, where derived information is treated as though it were free information. In the interest of education, judges should explain to the players the rules involved.
At higher REL events (where the question involves derived information which should be handled with care), judges are not to answer these questions, for reasons mentioned in the introduction:
- There is a risk of missing a detail and thus answering the question incorrectly.
- There is a risk of giving crucial information that one of the players had missed.
This could mean that we cannot help the players figure out a rules interaction. The communication guidelines indeed mention that judges should shy away from interpreting the game state for players at Competitive and Professional REL. However, it is obviously very poor customer service to deny players help in figuring out the game rules.
This is where judges can make use of a concept we would like to call the virtual game state. Define, outside the ongoing game, a set of objects or effects, as chosen by the player, and consider a game state made up of these objects and effects only. Within this so-called virtual game state, treat all derived information as though it were free information and answer questions that the player asks. When making a ruling, be very specific about that ruling applying in the theoretical game state that was created.
This solves the two problems laid out above.
- Judges can no longer miss out on any details, as all relevant effects are explicitly mentioned when building up the virtual game state.
- Judges can no longer make the players aware of details they had missed, as it is the player's responsibility to involve each object in the virtual game state.
Some examples should clarify the use of this virtual game state.
Example – A player controls a Grizzly Bears and a Glorious Anthem. Earlier in the turn, he played Giant Growth on the Grizzly Bears. He asks a judge "What is the power and toughness of my Grizzly Bears?" The judge correctly replies with an answer to the effect of "A Grizzly Bears is normally a 2/2 creature." The player answers by saying "Oh but I played Giant Growth on it earlier this turn." The judge then responds by "A Grizzly Bears under the effect of Giant Growth is a 5/5 creature." If the player does not notice or involve the Glorious Anthem in his question, the judge should not include it in his answer.
Example – A player asks whether his Academy Rector's ability will trigger when it dies, and points at the Planar Void he controls. The judge answers "The interaction between Academy Rector and Planar Void is such that, if Academy Rector is put in the graveyard ..." followed by the correct explanation – considering these two cards, but explicitly not involving anything else.
Through these examples, it should have become clear that the judge needs to be careful when using this virtual game state technique as a way of answering questions.
- It should be very clear to the player that the judge is only involving the interactions from certain cards or effects in his answer. That is, the player has to realize that the judge is not answering a question regarding the ongoing game, but an abstract rules question involving a virtual game state. This can easily be done by explicitly mentioning each object or effect in the answer, rather than giving a simple "yes" or "no." There is of course no need to mention virtual game states or explain the entire concept.
- The judge should not take the initiative in involving additional effects beyond what the player is asking himself, though he should leave the player a chance to include these effects in the question.
- Players need to be precise and should not be allowed to make broad and vague statements such as "the entire game" or "everything on the board" when a judge asks for clarification on which interaction the player wants to have explained to him. Use your judgment.
Finally, do note that the virtual game state is nothing more than a tool, a technique you can sometimes apply when you're faced with a situation you find tricky to handle.
By keeping the following guidelines in mind, your answers should generally be both correct and fair to the player and his opponent:
- If you can do so, just answer the rules question and do not get caught up in interpreting the game state for the players. At Regular REL events, you have some more freedom because of the expected educational value of your answers. At higher REL events, if a situation is sufficiently complex, you can use the technique of the virtual game state in order to help players seeking rules knowledge.
- At Regular REL events, it is always acceptable to ask for a clarification. "What exactly are you unsure of?" is a great thing to ask if the player is not being clear about the information he's seeking. At higher REL events, if a player asks you a question with a clear-cut answer, you should answer only that question, even if you believe this is not the information the player is seeking.
- Never ever provide the players with additional unsolicited information that could guide them to the (perceived) correct play.
The authors would like to thank Toby Elliott, Scott Marshall and John Carter for their input on the subject. They would also like to thank the editors and the web team.
Jurgen Baert and Nick Sephton