Player Communication Guide

Posted in NEWS on September 11, 2007

By Wizards of the Coast

Welcome to another DVD commentary, where we take a closer look at a section of the Penalty Guidelines, give some examples, some philosophy, a few bad jokes, and try to provide some insight into how this came to be.

This time, we'll be talking about the brand new Player Communication Guide. To say that the Player Communication Guide represents a major shift in policy is quite wrong. It would imply we ever had a policy to shift. In the past, judges improvised how to handle what players said to each other with a combination of gut instinct and whatever precedent and lore they might have picked up along the way and prayed it worked for the situation. Kind of like dating in high school.

As always, the policy was the work of many judges at all levels of the program, who put in a lot of time and effort to make sure that it was sound and reasonable, spending sanity points with wild abandon in trying to come up with scenarios that would illuminate problems. This forced us to evaluate our basic philosophies and make sure they were being applied correctly. Without further ado:

Communication between players is essential to the successful play of any game that involves virtual objects or hidden information. While bluffing may be an aspect of games, there need to be clear lines as to what is, and is not, acceptable for players to say or otherwise represent. Officials and highly competitive players should understand the line between bluffing and fraud. This will confirm expectations of both sporting and competitive players during a game.

My hope is that a lot of this document will be met with "that's obvious!" It may be obvious, but it hasn't been codified, and it hasn't been universally obvious. This has led to inconsistent rulings, and inconsistent rulings in communication have sometimes involved DQs.

Most people hold themselves to a standard much higher than the one presented here and can continue on as they always have. There is nothing inherently wrong with helping your opponent and making sure the game state is fully legal. Indeed, we encourage such sportsmanship. However, if you do wish to be competitive, or are playing someone competitive, both of you need to understand where the borders are. By having them out in the open, there should be fewer cases where a player feels that they have been taken advantage of.

The philosophy of the DCI is that a player should have an advantage due to better understanding of the rules of a game, greater awareness of the interactions in the current game state and superior tactical planning. Players are under no obligation to assist their opponents in playing the game, but may not withhold information about physically unrepresented data that would prevent their opponents from deriving their own view of the game state.

When putting this together, we had to break things down to very fundamental questions. What is the nature of information in Magic? What skills should give one player an advantage over another? What responsibility does a player have to maintaining a shared game state? All this had to be debated before we could even start to write rules. This paragraph, in very short form, is a statement of many of these principles. How you feel about the remainder of this document will be determined by what you agree with above.

If you feel we've gotten it wrong, rest assured that your position was almost certainly considered. The debates on the principles were lengthy, and all viewpoints had their say. Which isn't to suggest we're infallible. If you think we've made a huge mistake, feedback is always welcome.

Regardless of anything else, players are expected to treat their opponents politely and with respect. Failure to do so may lead to Unsporting Conduct penalties.

"Always bluff with a smile. That way, they don't see it coming." - Szadek, Lord of Secrets

The Golden Rule of Player Communication: Statements made about the game being played must be truthful (to the best of their knowledge).

Players can be wrong, just as they can when they commit a Game Rule Violation, and it doesn't mean that they've done it intentionally. As always, in a situation like this, you need to investigate.

However, statements do not need to be exhaustive - honest answers with careful omissions or "non-answers" designed to misdirect opponents into making suboptimal - but not illegal - plays are acceptable.

Hashing this out took months. There are a lot of strong feelings on both sides of the argument. Ultimately, this was the only workable model - other approaches required such hair-splitting as to be near useless. Not to say that there aren't still hairs to be split - something as fuzzy as communication will always have fine lines - but this is the cleanest representation of our underlying assumptions.

There are two classic scenarios that we discussed a lot (and have been seen on various mailing lists):

"Can your spider block my ledgewalker?" "It doesn't have flying" [of course, this one is no longer an issue. Curse MaGo and his sensible solutions!]

"What does Bathe in Light do?" "It gives all my white creatures protection from black"

Both of these are entirely legal. The player hasn't lied. They haven't been entirely helpful, but it's not their responsibility to play the game for their opponents. Superior understanding of the rules of the game is an advantage. Frankly, not trusting your opponents is an advantage! For Bathe in Light, the card is right there to be read (and the Oracle available if it can't be). As soon as they do anything illegal, though, the jig is up. You are required to point out that they can't do it, and can't let them take the action, no matter how much you might want them to. Once combat is over and the opponent tries to put a creature into the graveyard that didn't take any damage because it had Pro:Black and they didn't realize it, the player who cast Bathe in Light needs to point it out.

If everyone had this, the rules would be different

This is the bottom line: Both players are responsible for maintaining a legal game state. Until the game state becomes illegal, they are not responsible for maintaining matching perspectives on the game state. Awareness is a skill-tester.

It's impossible for players to know what their opponents are aware and not aware of, so any expectation that they need to maintain the same view places a communication burden on the players that they can't possibly live up to. Pieces of information that may not seem relevant to me to mention may be tremendously important to you, but how can I be expected to know this? Beyond that, trying to make you think I'm not aware of something is a classic bluff, and certainly not one we want to take out of the game, but is incompatible with a requirement that the two players make sure they are always in sync.

A game rule violation by one player or another may be as a result of an incorrect view of the game state. This is the point at which the other player is expected to clarify, and forms the philosophical basis for the Failure to Maintain Game State infraction, which they commit by also having an incorrect view of the game state that allows the illegal action to occur.

Well, that was easy. We're done! Join me next time when I talk about the behind the scenes intrigue of the Tardiness infraction. Until then...

The following areas are exceptions to the Golden Rule:

I knew there was a catch. "Write the article, Toby. It'll be easy. There's just one rule!"

  • Statements about hidden information do not need to be true in any way. Bluffs involving the content of that hidden information are an integral part of the game.

Not that kind of hidden

This seems intuitive. I am welcome to declare that I am holding five counterspells in my hand even when that's both illegal for the format and I'm holding three cards. Good luck with the Bluff skill check on that one, though.

You can even bluff about "hidden" information the opponent knows about. They may have used Peek to look at your hand, or the morph in play may have flipped face-down at some point. It's Schrödinger's morph - lie about it to your heart's content.

  • Statements about a future game state or future action are not required to be true. Whether this statement could be true in the future is irrelevant.

The basis of many good bluffs, and all of politics. Try to imagine a multiplayer game without this.

This rule (and the "about the game" clause in the Golden Rule) had to be fixed near the end when we realized that lying about where you were going for lunch would be a form of Cheating - Fraud. Not wanting to adjudicate disputes about Taco Bell bags, we made sure that we limited ourselves to game-related statements.

Here's a classic situation that used to generate inconsistent rulings: A player casts Seedtime and declares "In the extra turn, I'm going to attack, you have no blockers, and the damage will kill you." The other player, not noticing the Chalice of the Void set to counter it, scoops. Good bluff, since all they're talking about is what may happen, not claiming that Seedtime has resolved. Of course, absent the scoop, the player is required to admit that yes, the Seedtime is not the path to that mythic extra turn.

Another classic: counting a creature that can't block amongst the blockers you plan to use for the swingback. Better yet, counting that creature and hoping they think you're making the mistake because you have an ambush waiting...

  • Players are responsible for ensuring that the physical state of the game (tapped status, flipped status, the zone an object is in) is clear at all times.

Common sense says not to intermingle your suspended cards with your creatures. If you aren't being clear about this stuff, then it's my right to have you make it clear. If you are doing it intentionally, you're cheating.

You may think this is obvious. Which is understandable - this won't be the first time I've been accused of being obvious (or was that oblivious? I'm never sure.) Obvious is good. It can be a barometer that you're on the right track.

  • If a player asks their opponent a question, the opponent usually can decline to answer. If they do choose to answer, then they are expected to adhere to the Golden Rule.

There are exceptions, of course, as detailed below, but for the most part, a competitive opponent is under no obligation to help you play the game.

This may sound like it's going to be a pain, but I suspect it'll be self-regulating. The first few times a player will think they're being sneaky by declining to answer a simple question, a judge will be called, the question will be answered and the player will realize they could have saved the time. As for being misleading, that takes a lot of energy and is rarely useful. If you can consistently provide subtly misleading answers, more power to you. Most people will either answer truthfully or keep their mouth shut.

  • Players must answer completely and honestly specific questions about past game actions taken since the active player's previous turn.

"Which guy did you target with the Giant Growth?" "How many times have you pumped Wild Mongrel this turn?" "What color did you choose with the last pump?"

We go back to the previous turn to reflect that some effects may still be occuring, and to answer the often-asked question "Did you cast that guy last turn?" We do not believe it is realistic to expect players to remember actions taken prior to that point, and it is unlikely that they will affect play (they could be important in a judge investigation, but we have other rules for that).

  • Players must answer completely and honestly specific questions about the game state that cannot be derived from physical representations and/or game actions taken since the active player's previous turn.

This was much, much harder to codify than it is to explain. There are two types of information that need to be distingushed between in assessing a game state:

Basic information consists of publicly viewable information, the base characteristics of the cards in play (including choices made) and actions taken.

Derived information is what you get when you put together all the basic information and your knowledge of the rules to form a picture of the game state.

Players are required to answer truthfully about basic information. They are under the Golden Rule when asked about derived information. Intuitively, this makes sense. Players should have the information they need available to them, but putting it all together is their responsibility. If I make what looks like a bad attack on the board, I may be bluffing, I may be a bad player, or I may realize something you don't, a mystery I should be allowed to maintain. Well, in my case, it's usually option 2.

Warning! Contains invisible basic information

Most basic information is in plain sight, but not all. Barring the presence of a physical note on the board, you can't determine what card has been named for Meddling Mage, the characteristics of the glass bead in the middle of the table, or what a Vesuvan Shapeshifter is currently copying, and this exception covers those. Because they cannot be derived by looking at the board, and may extend further back than a turn, players must provide these pieces of basic information. Of course, if the token is a 2/2 black Zombie, that's all the information you need to supply. Pointing out that Bad Moon is making it a 3/3 is entirely optional. And if they don't think to ask in the first place, you're under no compulsion to volunteer the information.

On a side note, Chris Richter pointed out that if the expectation in the Golden Rule is "to the best of their knowledge", then players can't receive a penalty for accidentally getting it wrong, even though a penalty exists for just that. That's an error in the PG and will need to be cleaned up for December. Players are allowed to derive the game state incorrectly without penalty (or need for correction), but will receive a penalty for being mistaken about basic information.

  • If a player does not wish to ask their opponent a question or does not believe they have received the information that they need, they are encouraged to call a judge. Players may not decline to answer questions asked of them by a judge (and their answers must be truthful and complete), but they may ask to answer away from the table.

The logical conclusion to the concept that the opponent is the worst person to ask questions. Who's the best person? The judge, of course.

  • Players are responsible for being aware of the game state. Judges will not generally assist the player in determining the current game state but can answer questions about the rules, interactions between cards, or the Oracle texts of relevant cards. At Regular REL, the judge may assist the players in understanding the game state in the interest of education.

Traditionally, the high-level judges meet the night before a Pro Tour to discuss policy issues. The locations for these meetings is now under review to find knife-free locations in case an innocent question like "Can a judge answer the question 'What is the power and toughness of that creature?'" is ever asked again. Suddenly, improvised weapons were drawn and the waiters were looking nervous. Personally, I grabbed a spoon for extra gouging potential.

The answer, ultimately, is that they can't. That information may unwittingly reveal strategic information to one player or another. Sure, it may look safe to answer, but it's derived information and perhaps they've forgotten that the creature is now black and there's a Bad Moon in play. Should they be reminded that Kami of the Hunt got bigger from that Arcane spell that was cast? To ensure consistency, this and other similar questions should not be answered.

This doesn't leave us without options. The best answer to a question you have worries about is "What rules interaction has you confused?" If they're confused about how to apply p/t switching, then you can leap into the fray to rescue them, but they need to ask the right question.

  • Players may not use misleading statements to trick their opponent into making illegal plays. Players may not misrepresent to the opponent that an illegal play has occurred.

As has been mentioned before, once the illegal play has been made, it cannot be allowed to stand and the bluff is up. Announcing to an opponent after they have drawn that they forgot to pay for a Pact (that had been countered last turn) in the hopes that they'll scoop is flat out Cheating.

That's about all we have time for today. As the first version of the new rules, we hope that this'll cover all the basic situations, and, um, "look forward" to hearing the stories that represent gaps in the Guide so that we can make the next version even clearer. In the meantime -- talk!