Judging Any

Posted in Serious Fun on June 22, 2010

Even the most simplistic of games have specific rules that must be followed to participate. The unstated goal of playing a game is to find a path or process to achieve a desired outcome: generally speaking, to win. Games like "Tag" are as simplistic as the brevity of their rules would suggest, while Magic is as complicated as dealing with more than 11,000 unique pieces and dense, multi-page rules structure would imply. Rules are important for reasons beyond simply outlining how to play; they provide a consistent experience across anyone engaged in the same game.

To say that Magic is complicated may be an understatement. I recall reading the instruction booklet my friend had from a Mirage Starter Deck. It took some time and trial, and a lot of error, but we felt we were playing the game correctly. Of course, some friends at school took offense to the way we were playing as they interpreted things slightly differently. It ultimately turned out we were all wrong—let me tell you from firsthand experience that Sixth Edition was amazingly easy to understand when the rules change occurred (and made the Magic 2010 changes look minor).

Simplistic games like "Tag" can be played in a variety of ways with various special rules like "safe zones" or "no tag backs," which create a colorful variety of differences between play groups. Magic, too, can be played with a variety of 'house rules" which are generally the result of group decisions with good intentions at heart. Start with 30 life so the games go longer? Sure. Don't like your opening hand? Just shuffle it up until you draw a nice opening seven. Someone has an annoying creature that never blocks? Just attack the creature directly!

Obviously, though, there is a serious problem with playing Magic without following the rules: you're not really playing Magic.

Following the rules all the time can seem pretty unfun at first glance but there are, often, good reasons for following the rules. After all, while becoming a detective-by-night, crime-busting vigilante may seem heroic and cool it's also extremely dangerous and, technically speaking, criminal activity in of itself.

In Magic, the rules provide more than the framework for play but also the boundaries and logical process for resolving very messy situations. While cards like Runeclaw Bear may never be simpler to understand it's the Humility, Mirrorweave, and Warp World type cards that the rules are really required for. Start adding in multiple players and you get questions like "If I kill the player controlling an Oblivion Ring that has exiled my creature do I get that creature back when he or she leaves the game?" complicating things that were pretty simple otherwise. (The answer is "No," by the way.)

    Knowing is Half the Battle—A Quick Aside

Knowing the rules isn't necessarily a bad thing (and most of the time is a very good thing) but can be mistaken or misused as something more sinister: being a "rules lawyer."

"Rules lawyer" is a derisive term for someone who doesn't just know and follow the rules but attempts to apply them meticulously, harshly, and unfairly either for personal benefit or direct detriment for another player (and oftentimes both). It's beyond simply following the rules but pushing the rules to achieve a goal. This terminology comes from roleplaying games where the rules can be more malleable than they appear at first glance.

Knowing and abiding by the rules are very different from flaunting rules knowledge in an effort to punish those not-as-familiar and are mutually exclusive concepts. It's the attitude and not the knowledge that makes the difference—and attitude can mean a lot when it comes to how players perceive playing.

Like many of you, games of Magic I play often deviate slightly from the strictest execution of the rules. Whether it's jumping ahead in order for declaring a spell or ability in a multiplayer game, accidentally forgetting to untap something at the beginning of the turn, or tapping the wrong lands for mana—there's genuine mistakes made (and I make more than my own share) which can be frustrating to resolve. Knowing that a player will be casting a removal spell may change the fact that I was going to steal the creature with Ray of Command, failing to untap something during your untap step can be confusing later when the reasons to have already tapped it during the turn can be tricky to recall what happened, and since there isn't any penalty for not using up all of the mana generated it's easier than ever to make mistakes when juggling multiple sources and colors.

The most common solution is to simply back the game state up to right before the mistake happened. The reason this is the most common is that "take-backs" or "back-ups" or "reverses" (or whatever you call it) are pretty common to all games and, generally speaking, it's pretty fair. Most of us do not intentionally make mistakes and, in the purest sense of fair play, backing things up to let what was intended to occur actually happen makes sense. However it's also a dangerous line to walk, as there can be a great temptation to take back something based on the responses of other players.

    Shifty McShifter

Cheating and fudging the rules isn't just an issue when running an organized event, where there are judges and support staff to work through any suspected shenanigans. While the vast majority of us are honest players with a sense of integrity, it's the dubious and shifty among us who make problems within some games. Moreover, unlike events, there aren't enforcement guidelines to employ: casual is more often carried by frontier and vigilante style justice than refined and tested guidelines.

In case you weren't already aware, there aren't "casual judges" handy to sort out exactly what should happen.

So how do we handle the players who, for reasons ignoble or naïve, choose to play dirty? It's a tricky proposition but here are a few suggestions to consider:

  • Gently, but firmly, insist that everyone plays closer to the rules (i.e. a warning)
  • Excuse the player from the game, treating them as if they had conceded
  • Avoid playing games with that player, explaining the reasoning if pressed
  • Remind the player of the rules—agreed upon house rules or official—in advance of starting the game
  • Gently, but firmly, insist that the illegal or unfair action be taken back and then played within the rules

While it may be unsatisfying and unfortunate to begin to exclude a player, engaging those who willfully work to undue the sense of camaraderie and fairness will be a losing proposition in the long run.

These suggestions are probably the most lenient and respectful of the wide array of options possible and the reason I'm pointing to more relaxed "enforcement" is because not all "cheating" is done with harm in mind: common shortcuts we take can cause serious issues if not used judiciously.

Have you used any of these quick fixes:

  • Check your next draw or two before deciding to mulligan or not.
  • Check your next draw or two before deciding to concede the game in the face of overwhelming force.
  • Paying for a Sensei's Divining Top, cracking a fetch land, or playing a tutor (like Demonic Tutor) to dig for something while other players are taking their turns and actions?

For those of us who settle down to play with "big" decks, like those found in EDH or Godzilla, the prospect of shuffling and searching through a singleton library is a time consuming task; speeding the entire process up by doing it while others do their thing makes a lot of practical sense. I know I have used these types of shortcuts to move things along.

But not everyone likes to take shortcuts, or even sees them as making sense. The choice to mulligan is an obvious engagement in chance. If you're thinking of a mulligan because you need "just one more land" for your deck to start doing its thing it's natural to want to take a peek at your first draw to see if there really isn't a problem. Unfortunately the real problem isn't "wanting to see if you can save time," it's that taking a look at the top of your deck (when you're not otherwise allowed to do so) is a pretty serious violation in the land of judges and rules enforcement.

Similarly, when you go to find something buried deep in your deck while allowing your opponents to continue doing their things is it fair to change what you're picking based on what has happened while you're searching? If you're thinking of "I'll just say that the effect happens at the end of the turn right before mine." consider if one of your opponents could change the circumstances and prevent your ability from being able to happen at all.

    Taking the High Road

The road to ruin can be paved with good intentions—not annoying your fellow friends and players—but ultimately lead to some serious disagreements with those not on board with your circumvented rules. Like many things in Magic, everyone can have a slightly different take on the seemingly same concept.

But there is one way we can all agree to learn to play by: the tried and true actual rules of Magic. Taking shortcuts, making fuzzy actions, discussing how the play can go down instead of trying to just play it out, and all of the other ways we work just outside of the rules can be set aside for the good of the group.

I recently spent several days at Grand Prix–DC and played a lot of Magic with a lot of very different players. From the most laid back and aloof of players employing every shortcut I've seen (and a few new ones) to players amped up from the main event working the mental angles and playing perfectly by the book, I adjusted and moved the level of "rules enforcement" to suit whatever everyone felt most comfortable playing.

That said, by and far, most games were played at the tighter level of rules than the looser. It seems natural, fair, and logical to play where everyone already knows what should be happening and can reasonably expect it will happen that way. There are times and places for shortcuts but those are fewer and further apart than may appear if you've only played with the same few friends who all buy into the same shortcuts as you.

So I challenge all of you to take a step forward: be the first to turn the rules dial closer to the Magic you'll find automatically enforced on Magic Online. With Archenemy, Planechase, and a bevy of other variants and formats to play together—it can only help everyone to make the potentially most important part of the game clear: we're all playing by the same rules.

So, what shortcuts do you take (or have seen taken)? What rules fudges have you seen? How do you see the rules? I'm all ears for the ways, means, and fears you have regarding the rules: show us all in the forums!

    Bonus Casual Super Fun Time Work Period

It's still the Summer of Multiplayer and I'm really thrilled with how well the Archenemy Release Event my store had held played out. While I had a previous family engagement keeping me from spending the entire day challenging the superpowers that be, I did manage to catch the palpable excitement and joy of so many players rising to becomes heroes—and falling to become delightful villains.

I pointed out last week that the Magic Community Labs was open for all to show off their ways and means of slinging cardboard and having fun with fellow players. I want to continue to encourage all of you who have these epic ways to play Magic to jump into the mix and spell it out for the rest of us.

To break it down a little, here are the super simple steps you'll need to take:

  • Click 'Join Group' on the left-hand sidebar (you first need to create an account if you aren't already a part of the Wizards Community).
  • Head to the wiki or forum to break down and explain what you're showing off.

And that pretty much covers it! While I'm tempted to dive in and make a suggestion or two of my own, this is your time to shine—I already have a prominent place to show off interesting new ways to play; make this summer's Magic Community Labs yours.

See you next week!

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