Shortcuts – Use and Abuse

Posted in NEWS on February 4, 2005

By Wizards of the Coast

Following Justus’ excellent article on Ruling by Intent, I’m going to complete the last part he wrote, about shortcuts.

What is a shortcut?

Shortcuts problems are a mix between miscommunication and intent.

A player thinks that, at a certain point of the game, it is useless to give too many details or information on what he’s doing, generally in order to speed up the game. Therefore, he turns several sentences and questions into a word, a silence or a move… By extension, we can consider that any attitude or word that does refer to the technical aspect of the game in progress but doesn’t have an official technical signification is a shortcut.

There are several different shortcuts:

  • “Game Fluidification” shortcuts:
    • not letting the opponent know about skipping a phase or step (for instance, drawing right after untapping) or not passing priority whereas you should (when opponent is all tapped…)
    • passing priority after playing a spell (by looking at the opponent and not saying anything for instance) or passing turn (by pointing out at opponent)
  • Commonly admitted shortcuts
    • The oral versions include “my turn?”, “go!” or “combat phase?”…
    • Some moves can consist in pointing out a permanent with a spell to indicate it as the target; or not mentioning the target of a spell when it is “obvious” (like playing Ancestral Recall)
  • Politeness shortcuts
    • Shaking hands instead of saying “I concede”…

Shortcuts are very ambiguous because they lead to a lot of confusing and problematic situations, in addition to all miscommunication problems that arise in a game. Shortcuts make it even more difficult to spot where the problem comes from in a miscommunication situation, and makes players’ intent impossible to rely on.

But they are necessary: not using shortcuts at all would make out of Magic games a real mess since all players would need to know every phases and steps and announce them all. Remember that, in theory, you have to pass priority 8 times during a regular turn where you do nothing…

General Philosophy

As Justus already explained, when you have to give a ruling by intent, you need to evaluate two criteria:

  1. The intention of the player
  2. The possible advantage gained

The greater difference between Intent and Shortcuts is that you can’t rely on the player’s intention since there is some difference in communication’s perception involved. Most of the time, since shortcuts are a matter of communication, you’ll have to deal with two different versions; each player defending his own meaning of the shortcut. Also, you have to keep in mind that while players are calling a judge, they have time to make up their mind on the most advantageous signification for a shortcut they used. Finally, they sometimes don’t even realize that they are using shortcuts and don’t know the actual rules behind it.

If you have to make a ruling that relies on a shortcut used, the best way to do it is to determine the most logical meaning of the shortcut (like in a miscommunication situation), and then apply the second criteria of the intent test: “A player may gain no advantage because of a shortcut he used”.

So, what you should always remember is that players use shortcuts at their own risks. If they then create confusion or a situation of miscommunication, they are responsible for it.

Ex 1: Player A taps 3 swamps and says “pump”, pointing out at his Looming Shade. In response, player B plays Incinerate on the Shade. Even if A claims that he wanted to pass priority between each pump, he chose to use a shortcut (not making clear that he was passing priority), and then cannot come back on it. According to the second criteria of the intent test explained in Justus’ article, it is obvious that you can’t let A’s creature survive since, because of his shortcut (“sloppy play”), he now knows that B is holding an Incinerate in hand.

Ex 2: A attacks with a 5/5 creature that has trample. B blocks it with a 2/2 creature. A says “damage?”, B answers “sure”. A then says “you take 3”, but B says he wants to play Giant Growth on his creature.
In this case, “damage?” clearly means “I pass priority in the declare blockers step, if you have nothing to play either, we could assign damage”. “sure” means “I pass priority either, let’s proceed to the damage assignation step”; and “you take 3” means “I decided to assign 2 to your creature and 3 to you, if you have nothing to play, damage is dealt this way and you loose 3 life”.
As a consequence of making those shortcuts explicit, it is now clear that (1) nor A or B can claim that A assigned more than 2 to B’s blocking creature; and (2) B cannot claim that he played his Giant Growth before assigning damages.

The big one: Icy Manipulator & Ball Lightning

This situation is very famous since it exists since Ice Age and it took a while before judges found a consistent way to deal with it. Of course it also works with many other cards, including Twiddle, and all creatures with haste.

As you all know, to go from the first main phase to the combat phase, both players have to pass in succession. Then comes the beginning of combat step, the first step of the combat phase, where both players can also pass in succession to enter the declare attackers step. If one of the players plays something, we stay in the phase or step we were in, so if the non-active player plays a spell or an ability while the active player passed priority in his main phase, we stay in the active player’s main phase and he can play sorceries or spells like creatures or equipments.

A usual situation is player A having a creature in play while his opponent controls an Icy Manipulator. A says “combat?” (or “attack?”), at that moment, B uses his Icy Manipulator to tap A’s creature. A then claims he’s still in his main phase and can play a creature with haste and attack with it.

As a judge, you have to find what “combat?” (“attack?”) means and it isn’t that obvious. There are two solutions:

  1. “I’m in my main phase and I pass priority; if you have nothing to play we’ll enter the combat phase”
  2. “I’m in my main phase and I pass priority; I consider you have nothing to play now and enter my combat phase. I pass priority in my beginning of combat step, if you have nothing to play, I’ll declare my attackers”.

Option (1) is very seducing. It looks simpler than (2) since it is all about replacing “pass priority” by “combat?”. It’s like considering that A is not doing a shortcut but is only using improper language.
Fine, let’s buy this.
Now you have two options: rule directly against B (A was still in his main phase because B played something) or consider that B did a technical mistake on the timing and look for B’s intent. If you look for B’s intent, you’ll find that he now has the advantage to know that A has a Ball Lightening in hand, and rule against him.
So, as a result of A not being sharp, B won’t be allowed to tap the creature with haste. The only means B could escape the trick would be if he answers A’s “combat?” by saying “Ok, we enter your combat phase”, that is to say spotting the shortcut and explaining what he understood from it…

Option (2) isn’t that stupid in itself though.

Let’s first slightly change the scenario. If there were no Icy Manipulator on the table, the three possible options would have been:

(a) (b) (c)
A: “combat?”
B: “Ok”
A: “declare attackers?”
B: “Ok”
A: -tap attacking creatures-
A: “combat?”
B: “Ok”
A: -tap attacking creatures-
A: -tap attacking creatures- “attack”

Option (a) sounds really weird. Player A knows about the phases and steps, and makes a point in showing it despite it delays the action, whereas there is no reason to do so. Nevertheless, he uses improper and confusing language. In real life, such communication barely never happens.

Options (b) and (c) can be merged. It is exactly what happens in 99,99% of the games: players play fast and don’t pay attention to the shortcuts they use.

To sum up, it is clear that if there is no means to tap a creature on the table, “combat?” is a shortcut that means that A is about to tap his attacking creatures, that is to say option (2).

So why would the meaning of a word change according to the cards on the table?
There is no reason behind this, and we should always consider that “combat?” means “I’m in my main phase and I pass priority; I consider you have nothing to play now and enter my combat phase. I pass priority in my beginning of combat step, if you have nothing to play, I’ll declare my attackers”.

Therefore, in order not to have A gain an advantage by using a shortcut, we have to rule that B used his Icy Manipulator in A’s beginning of combat step.

On the contrary…

Let’s stay in the above game.
B has chosen not to tap any of A’s creatures before combat.
A attacks with a 2/2 creature, and then comes the following conversation:
B: “I take two. My turn?”
A: “yes”
B: “OK, so at the end of your turn, I tap your Island”
A then calls you and claim that B, by saying “My turn?” implied that he had nothing else to play in this turn, and therefore shouldn’t be allowed to tap the Island.

Once again, the whole point is to determine the exact meaning of the shortcut used.

Technically, at that moment of the game there are several possible meanings to “My turn?”.

A would like you to take it as “Let’s end this turn and proceed to mine”, which is also a kind of shortcut.

B probably meant “do you have anything else to play during your turn?”, which can also be interpreted as “will you pass priority without playing anything on each of the next phases/steps of your turn?”

If we consider B’s interpretation, can we say that he gained any advantage by using such a shortcut? He took the initiative to ask, but what would otherwise have happened? A would have passed priority in each of his phases/steps and B would have passed until A’s end of turn step. A is the active player, so he has to pass first anyway and it is now clear that B didn’t gain any advantage by using this shortcut. He should then be allowed to tap the Island.

Providing false information

Some shortcuts can also, intentionally or not, be a means to provide false information to the opponent.

When this is not intentional, the situation will end in a confusion between the two players and, as I already explained several times, the player who used the shortcut will be held responsible and his opponent will have a chance to play as if no shortcut has been used.

Nevertheless, there are always players who try to use a shortcut to gain an advantage. The Icy Manipulator or Trample examples are ways to create some confusion and try to abuse it, but there are many others:

Player B controls a Wild Mongrel and a Basking Rootwalla. Player A plays a Boneshredder, drops it on the table close to the Mongrel and says “Shredder?”
Once again, like in the Icy Manipulator case, A just tricked B: if B answers by discarding a card to make his Mongrel become black, he’ll have to convince the judge that, at the end of the day, “Shredder?” didn’t mean “I play Boneshredder, do you have any answer?”, but “I play Boneshredder, I consider you have no answer and, by placing it close to one of your creatures, indicate that I’m choosing it as a target for the come into play ability, any response before we resolve the ability?”.
Intentionally or not, by placing the Shredder close to the Mongrel, A provided B with this false information: “I’m going to target your Mongrel with my Shredder’s ability” (in the context of a casual game, it could even be understood as “A is carelessly playing” since he seems to neglect the priorities whereas it’s not true).
Of course, A’s goal is to trick B to know whether he wants to discard a card or not. But, instead of holding the card in hand or leaving it in a neutral zone of the play area, the way he puts it on the table creates some confusion that makes B think A is using a shortcut.
Of course, A is now responsible for the confusion and we have to consider that A chose the Mongrel as target for the ability.

Be careful: many judges tend to consider that as soon as we encounter a situation of miscommunication, we have to go back in the game until both players agree on the situation at a certain time. This is only true for situations where the players disagree on what one of them said, or where none of them is responsible for the confusion. If one of them chose to use a shortcut that created some confusion, he should be held responsible and we have to let the game go on, without backing up.

I’ve even seen worse:

Player A attacks for the win (at least he thinks so). Player B then reveals his hand and says “you were so lucky!”, lays his cards face up on the table and waits. A scoops and shuffle his cards back into his deck. At that moment, B calls a judge and says that his opponent just scooped whereas the game wasn’t over.
At that point, the judges’ duty is to consider that B’s attitude was a clear shortcut for concession and that, if it wasn’t the case, that behaviour was a way to provide false information to his opponent.

I’ve seen this situation actually happening. Of course, we have to consider that deliberately providing false information on the game state to the opponent is something that has to be considered as cheating. So, since we found out that player B deliberately tried to convince his opponent that he had conceded, and then pretended it wasn’t the case, we decided to disqualify him.

But there might be some more subtle differences:

Remember the “My turn?” case? We considered that B used a shortcut in order to accelerate A’s turn. Technically, we said he didn’t gain any advantage by doing so, but we can still think that he provided A with false information: can’t we understand “My turn?” as “if you’re done with your turn, can we proceed to mine?”, which seems to indicate that B has nothing more to play in A’s turn.

Let’s take a very similar example:
A attacks B with a 3/3 elephant token.
B: “I block with my own 3/3 token. Damage?”
A: “Sure.”
B: “Ok, so before we assign damage, I play Incinerate on your creature”.

Would you let B play his spell?
According to an informal survey I made, about 80% of the judges wouldn’t let B play the Second Thought. On the other hand, about the same percentage would let B play something in the “My turn?” case…

Why such an intuitive difference between two very similar cases?
For most judges, “Damage?” means “if you do nothing I do nothing” and is therefore considered as a way to make A think that B has nothing to play (“providing false information”), so A can then decide to play something he wouldn’t have played otherwise (Predator Strike for instance). Thus, since A didn’t play anything despite believing B had nothing to play, B was more confident in playing his Incinerate, so we shouldn’t let him do so.

On the contrary, we can consider as commonly admitted that “My Turn?” does not imply that B has nothing else to play in A’s turn. Why that? I honestly don’t have anything really convincing to offer. It’s quite a weak argument, but players generally consider their end of turn step as being somehow part of their opponent’s turn, since it’s a step where the initiative generally belongs to the non-active player. Therefore, “My Turn?” is factually a shortcut for “let’s jump to your end of turn step” and not for “let’s jump to my turn”.

Fun, fun, fun: shortcuts imposed by the rules!

As I previously said, shortcuts are usually a source of confusion. Judges widely tolerate them for several practical reasons, but each time a ruling on a miscommunication situation involves a shortcut, the player who used the shortcut will be held responsible for the situation, and the ruling will most likely be against him…

Nevertheless, in the Comprehensive Rules, in section 421 about “Handling Infinite Loops”, you can find this:

421.2. If the loop contains one or more optional actions and one player controls them all, that player chooses a number. The loop is treated as repeating that many times or until the other player intervenes, whichever comes first.

Yes, the rules make it clear that you have to use a shortcut in this case…

And now, something even more interesting: what would you do if, 5 minutes before the end of the round, a player stops using shortcuts and plays strictly by the rules, asking his opponent about priorities and possible answers each time he has to?

Obviously, this guy now intentionally plays slowly, most likely in order not to finish a game he will loose. That sounds pretty much like “A player intentionally plays slowly in order to take advantage of the time limit”, sentence that you can find in the Penalty Guidelines, under Cheating – Stalling, doesn’t it? Of course, you should then apply the appropriate penalty for it…

Did I already say that shortcuts are an ambiguous thing?

Let’s finish with a weird example

This is from my own experience, and is the one and only time I saw someone not using shortcuts during a whole turn, with a reasonable reason to do so.

Player A is an experienced player, and also a local judge.
Player B is 13 years old and is most likely playing one of his first tournaments.

The tournament itself is a PTQ. This is game 3 and the winner will probably advance to the top 8 whereas the looser won’t make it.

B will win on his next combat phase since he controls a flyer that A cannot block. Nevertheless, A can win if B does not sacrifices a 1/1 creature he controls to gain 1 life.

Here is how A’s turn goes:
A: “upkeep, I pass priority, do you pass?”
B: “Errrr… yes (??)”
A: “draw, I pass priority, do you pass?”
B: “yes (???)”
A: “Main phase, I pass priority, do you pass?”
B: “yes (???)”
A: “Beginning of combat step, I pass priority, do you pass?”
B: “yes (???)”
A: “Ok, I attack you with this creature, I pass priority, do you?”
B: “yes (???)”
A: “Fine, I don’t think you have any possible blocker. I pass priority, do you pass priority?”
B: “yes (???)”
A: “Damage assignation step. I pass priority, do you pass?”
B: “yes (???)”
A: “Ok, so we deal damage, you take 2 you’re dead”
B: “no, I can sacrifice this to gain 1 life”
A: “sorry, too late, you had to do it before”

From an external point of view, it looked like A, by not using any shortcut, wanted to create some confusion on the game and take the lead so as to make his opponent get lost under the flood of information he was giving him. At least, this is what the pools of judges of that tournament considered so as to allow B to sacrifice his creature and attack for the win.

I was the head-judge and still consider this ruling as one of the worse I’ve ever made.

Let’s think about what would most likely have happened if A had used shortcuts:
A: -draw- “attack?”
B: “sure”
A: -tap creature-
B: “no blocks”
A: “you’re dead then”
B: “no, I sac my creature”

Under all hypotheses, it is clear that B could have claimed that A’s shortcuts had prevented him from sacrificing his creature before it’s too late.

Of course, B was destabilized by the flood of questions, but A’s only other option was to scoop, and this is what makes of Magic a game that is not only luck oriented: the most experienced player has better chances to win…

Hope it helps!

david.vogin at

David Vogin, Level 3