Shortcuts – Understand the philosophy of PG section 51

Posted in NEWS on November 9, 2007

By Wizards of the Coast

There's bound to be questions about the new Shortcut Guidelines. We had more than our share of questions while writing this section; certainly, you're expected to have a few of your own. The conclusions from our debates are reflected in the result, but that may not be apparent to judges and players everywhere. This article will attempt to address that, presenting a detailed analysis of Section 51.

Before we dive in, there's one basic, underlying concept we need to emphasize. This new section does not mean we need to closely monitor the correctness of everything the players say and do. This new section provides a guideline for handling misunderstandings. As long as the players are communicating clearly, we don't need this section; when a dispute about shortcuts occur, this section will help judges unravel the tangles and get the game back on track.

Alrighty then – on to the second new section in the Penalty Guide...

51. Shortcuts

The first question comes up before we even get into the first paragraph. Namely, "what is this section doing in the Penalty Guidelines?", or "Doesn't it belong in the Floor Rules or somewhere?" Yeah, it probably does. The thing is, we been workin' on the PG, all the live-long year. We'll give the UTR and MFR a good workover, too – but not soon enough for stuff this good.

A shortcut is an action taken by players to skip parts of the technical play sequence without explicitly announcing them. Shortcuts are essential for the smooth play of a game, as they allow players to play in a clear fashion without getting bogged down in the minutia of the rules.

Well, nothing too new or exotic here. We all use shortcuts, and have since we first learned to play games. You couldn't enjoy most games without them – much less complete a match within 50 or 60 minutes.

Most shortcuts involve skipping one or more priority passes to the mutual understanding of all players; if a player wishes to demonstrate or use a new shortcut entailing any number of priority passes, they must be clear where the game state will end up as part of the request.

And BOOM just like that, we hit you with a big one. There's a lot of foundation in that sentence; let's look a little closer.

  • One or more priority passes – yep, shortcuts skip ahead, even way ahead. Untap, Draw, play a land, say "Go" – you just skipped something like 13.71 priority passes. (The exact number is known only to a few "special" people, all of whom are locked up in Gleemax's secret chamber deep beneath Wizards' offices.)
  • mutual understanding of all players – well, we probably all know that shortcuts aren't much good if players all think they're in a different phase or step after the dust settles. Two things implicit here: first, all players agree to the implementation of the shortcut; second, all players agree where the shortcut will take them.
  • demonstrate or use a new shortcut . . . where the game state will end up. This is really stating that you can't just make up shortcuts without clueing in your opponent(s). That should be obvious – but obvious doesn't preclude clear statement in the rules.
  • Oh, and – any number of priority passes – we're just reinforcing the concept that shortcuts can be simple or complex, in terms of how much is skipped – but we're going to treat them equally.

Wow – one paragraph done already! See how easy this is gonna be?
A player may interrupt a shortcut by explaining how they are deviating from it or at which point in the middle they wish to take an action.

This is really simple. Once you've established a shortcut, you stick with it – until you don't. And when you don't, you just have to say so.

If the players are confused by the use of a shortcut, they should be backed up to the beginning of the shortcut and no penalty should be issued (though they should be reminded to play more clearly).

That's a simple, direct guideline for handling a common misunderstanding. There may be cases where either player – or both – gives away more strategic info than they'd like. That's unfortunate – but it's not a reason to deviate from this. That happens when players charge ahead recklessly, each of them thinking they know what the other is thinking – and both are mistaken.

Avul Hurry: "Attack you with my Grizzly Bears, and your Planeswalker with my Hill Giant."
Rod Rushit: "Sure . . ."
Avul: "OK, so you've got no one that can block, I'll Giant Growth my dude, you take 5?"
Rod: "Whoa there cowboy, I'm playing this here Foriysian Interceptor and blocking both!"
Avul: "What? Wait! JUDGE! ... He said 'sure'"
Rod: "I said 'sure' to your attacks, dude . . ."
Joe Judgerson: "Well, we back up a bit; Avul's declared attackers, since that's where you got confused; Avul, you have priority."

(players in unison, if not perfect harmony)

Avul: "But now he knows I've got a Giant Growth!"
Rod: "But now he knows I've got Foriysian Interceptor!"
Joe Judgerson: "You both need to be clear in the future."

Foriysian Interceptor
Surprised you! Oh, and you too!

Note that the judge didn't assess any penalty, he just determined where the players got out of sync with a shortcut, and rewound to that point. This wouldn't apply if the game progresses beyond the shortcut, as that implies the players accepted the result of the shortcut. Note also that the players didn't represent anything as a shortcut – they may not even recognize it as such. That often happens with miscommunication – one player proposes a shortcut by virtue of skipping ahead, explicitly or implicitly; the other player can agree, disagree, or be confused. It's the judge who recognizes it as a shortcut, applies the wisdom from Section 51, and makes everything all better again.

Essentially, that covers a lot of the confusing attempts to mess with the timeline of a game. And this next sentence wraps that up nicely.

A player is not allowed to use a previously undeclared shortcut, or to modify an in-use shortcut without announcing the modification, in order to create ambiguity in the game.

Until you establish a shortcut, there is no shortcut. And again, once you establish a shortcut, you stick with it – until you say otherwise. But even more important: in order to create ambiguity in the game – that's the key concept in our first "Thou shalt not!" Players use many bluffs to try and gain advantage. We acknowledge that's part of the game, and Section 50 of the PG addresses many of the boundaries (as explained in Toby Elliott's article). What we're trying to say here is that players should not mess with shortcuts to confuse their opponents (nor themselves, for that matter).

Now, what to do with such a player? Apply the new penalty from the new Guide? Well, there isn't one. We added a new penalty because of Section 50:

137. Tournament Error – Player Communication Violation

and the definition of that new penalty includes:

A player unintentionally violates the Player Communication guidelines (see section 50).

No mention in there at all of section 51 and these Shortcuts. A further search of the whole Penalty Guide doesn't refer to Shortcuts. So what is the penalty for violating this?

Let me repeat: there is none. It's enough to explain to the player that their intent to create ambiguity via shortcut shenanigans is unacceptable – and to refrain from doing so again. (If they continue to ignore that last instruction, then you may have an instance of Unsporting Conduct.)

A player may not request priority and take no action with it. If they decide they do not wish to do anything, the request is nullified and priority is returned to the player that originally had it.

Very simply, this solves that rather nasty stolen priority trick. A classic example of this very "cheesy" trick:

Ned Naive: "Done with combat, so in my second main . . ."
Carp Cheeserman: "Hey, can I 'Bolt' you now?"
Ned Naive: "Uhh . . . sure?"
Carp: "OK, you passed priority to me, I'll pass too – guess it's your end of turn!"

Yeah . . . that just ain't right. We all know that isn't right; now it's in writing. We remain in Ned's second main phase, Ned has priority, and Carp has been told that his intent to create ambiguity via shortcut shenanigans . . . oh, wait, we've covered this, haven't we?

Certain conventional shortcuts used in Magic are detailed below. If a player wishes to deviate from these, they should be explicit about doing so. Note that some of these are exceptions to the policy above in that they do cause non-explicit priority passes.

Again, we aren't trying to detail the exact shortcuts players must use; we're just establishing the precedent for some already common shortcuts, and detailing a few that are infamous for the trouble they've caused. This isn't an exhaustive list, but it is the list that we are comfortable with as pre-established, common to players everywhere, and safe for assumption.

The statement "Go" (and equivalents such as "Your turn" and "Done") moves the turn to that player's end step and passes priority to the non-active player. Opponents are assumed to be taking actions at that point unless they specify otherwise.

Someone suggested – even requested – examples. Sounds like a great idea:

Eddie Everyplayer: "Untap ... draw ... play a land ... go"

That's one of the most common turns in Magic – and probably the most common shortcut, too. Sure, there's colloquial variations on 'go' (I've been called "goat head" by any number of mumbling opponents), language differences, physical gestures that may be more common in some play groups – but it's the same, simple concept.

So, what's a common example of deviating from that shortcut? How about that Onslaught block staple, Astral Slide?

Eddie's opponent, Sid Sliderman: "Wait, Eddie. During your second main, I'll cycle this and Slide that out . . . are you still done? OK, it comes back and, unless you've got anything in your end step, it's my turn?"

Astral Slide
You can't just slip into the next turn if your opponent wants to Slide.

A statement such as "I'm ready for combat" or "Declare attackers?" moves the turn into the Beginning of Combat Step and passes priority to the non-active player. They are assumed to be acting then unless they specify otherwise.

This is also one of the most common shortcuts in use, and one of the first to get "official recognition". Let's consider a counter-example, illustrating how players tried to abuse this:

Sham Shady: "Combat?"
Ned Naive: "Let's tap that Hill Giant first."
Sham: "OK, we're still in my first main phase, then, so I'll play Ball Lightning, then I'll attack! Muahahahaha!!!"
Ned: "uhhh . . . Judge? Can he do that???"

Well, not any more. That's been true for at least a few years.

Ball Lightning
Headbangers Ball?

Whenever a player adds an object to the stack, they are assumed to be passing priority unless they explicitly announce that they intend to retain it. If they add a group of objects to the stack without explicitly retaining priority and a player wishes to take an action at a point in the middle, the actions should be reversed up to that point.

This has caused a lot of well-scratched heads, looks of perplexed puzzlement, constant consternation . . .

But really, this is how players play the game. In the Comprehensive Rules, 408.1c tells us that when a player "plays a spell or ability, or takes a special action, the player again receives priority". Like many (most? all?) shortcuts, this one contradicts the rules – but does so in a way that is universally understood.

It's actually the exception that a player plays a spell or ability, and wants to respond while they have priority. Usually, when something is played, priority is passed implicitly – usually with nothing more significant than a pause, a look at the opponent, or a hand gesture. If anything, this shortcut is more important for what it doesn't allow – namely, hesitating after you play something, fishing for a reaction from your opponent, and then claiming to have kept priority and act with the knowledge of your opponent's reaction.

"No attacks" or similar statements during combat are an indication that the active player has passed priority in the end of combat step.

This usually comes about like this:

Abe Average: "Combat?"
Alice Average: "Uhhh, tap that big bugger first . . ."
Abe: "Yeah, yeah . . . no attack, then."

Abe is in his second main phase, unless Alice has reason to interrupt the shortcut. This shortcut isn't that much of a stretch; consider 308.4: If no creatures are declared as attackers, finish the declare attackers step, but skip the declare blockers and combat damage steps. All we're adding to that is the implied pass during the end of combat step.

If a player announces an X spell without specifying the value of X, it is assumed to be for all mana currently available in their pool.

Inspired in part by a recent judge discussion, this is less about the way everyone plays, and more about the way we want the game played.
Sham Shady (has 10 lands untapped): "Tappity-tap-tap-it-all . . . Fireball for the win!"
Dave Decent (who's at 6 life): "I'll Mana Leak that."
Sham: "Sure, I'll use 3 of my mana for the Leak, Fireball resolves for 6, you lose!"

Very few judges would allow that – ideally, no one would – but now it's clearly stated.

A strict interpretation of 409.1b tells us that the value of X has to be announced – but if a player shortcuts past that, X defaults to whatever mana they had in their pool.

Players are assumed to have paid any cost of 0 unless they announce otherwise.

Another shortcut inspired by recent discussions, and frequent questions about Thick-Skinned Goblin ("You may pay 0 rather than pay the echo cost for permanents you control."). A player who doesn't clearly state she's paying 0 as the echo cost for something is assumed to have paid that echo cost.

As you might imagine, this required a bit of discussion; we reached this conclusion primarily because it's what most players would expect, and what is most likely to have happened. If a player has reason to not pay an Echo or Cumulative Upkeep cost of 0, they're going to announce that clearly, just because it is so unusual.

A player is assumed to have assigned all trample damage possible to the defending player unless stated otherwise.

For trample, it's been observed – over a dozen years or so of experience – players will assign lethal damage to the blocker(s), and the rest to the player. Like the other shortcuts, we're just recognizing what's already established.

This occurs most commonly like this:

Ozzy Obvious: "Attack with Giant Warthog." (5/5 Trample)
Abe Average: "Block with my Grizzly Bear."
Ozzy: "Damage on the stack?"
Abe: "Sure, then I'll Giant Growth my Bear so it survives . . . I take 3?

At this point, Ozzy would probably like to claim that he assigned all 5 to the Bear, but he didn't say that, so he can't.

Giant Warthog
D'oh, how'd he get so big?

Wait, wait – what about Rhox, or Thorn Elemental (You may deal its combat damage to defending player as though it weren't blocked)? Would we default to assigning all the damage to the defending player? We can't establish such a precedent for Rhox or Thorn Elemental; it's not nearly as common an effect as is trample, and you may need to kill the blocker more than you need to damage the defending player. That example just needs clear communication, period.

A spell or ability that targets an object on the stack is assumed by default to target the legal target closest to the top of the stack.

Remand: (Counter target spell. If that spell is countered this way, put it into its owner's hand instead of into that player's graveyard.)

Need we say more? Yes? OK, OK. . . consider this exchange:

Bolt you.
Pact in response.

Yeah, it gets that messy, sometimes – and it might be important to know if that Pact was countered, or if the Remand that followed it targeted the original Counter, or something else and will either player's spell go back to their hand, will the Rewind untap any lands, etc. Now, applying this shortcut, we get the following defaults from that exchange:

Bolt you.
Counterspell. (the Bolt)
Rewind! (the Counterspell)
Pact in response. (the Rewind)
Remand? (Pact)
Remand! (Remand)

The head to which damage is being assigned in Two-Headed Giant is undefined by default. If it is relevant, it is up to the team that knows it may be relevant to ask for clarification or to propose an alternate shortcut.

This is interesting – it's not a shortcut. Quite the opposite – this is clearly stating that there is not an established shortcut for this. More than anything, we want players to establish this themselves at the earliest opportunity.

Tom Thoughtful: "Hey, guys, good luck this match! Oh, by the way – when we deal damage, it'll be to your primary head if we don't say otherwise."
Carl Catchezon: "Uhh, yeah ... same here."

Unfortunately, what usually happens is more like this:

Team Forgetful: "Attack with these seven guys, you can't block . . . we win?"
Team LastHope, A player: "I'll morph up our Weathered Bodyguards, he'll take all the damage."

Now, Forgetful hasn't specified where the damage is being assigned, and LastHope is assuming it's to their A head. Unfortunately, that's not the default, and instead we have to back up (to the beginning of the confusing shortcut) and have Forgetful clearly state where the damage is assigned.

Weathered Bodyguards
No, hit ME!

Neatly enough, that harkens back to one of our first examples, where the players will object with "But now they know about the Bodyguards!" Just like in a previous example, they failed to be clear, and now additional information is available – unfortunate, yes, but neither significant nor exceptional.

One more interesting point, somewhat illustrated by this last topic, and somewhat implicit from everything else we've said – shortcuts that aren't clearly stated in here should be established in some manner before they're used.

The list of shortcuts is not exhaustive. It is not intended to be, nor become, exhaustive. It is intended to provide clear examples of the philosophy we want our judges to use as their guide, when you encounter unusual situations that don't match any of the listed shortcuts.

Well, we certainly hope you've enjoyed this rambling run through the Shortcuts. More than that, we hope that it makes a lot more sense now than before. And if not, then your questions become our top priority!

Scott Marshall, L4