Top Judge Article 2004 - Ruling by intent

Posted in NEWS on December 20, 2004

By Wizards of the Coast

I originally published this article in my column on a German website called PlanetMtG. I received good feedback on it, so I decided to translate it and publish it here.

"Ruling by intent" is a judge philosophy that’s not written down anywhere, which is probably the main reason why it is not correctly understood by many people, including experienced tournament players and even some judges.

What is "Ruling by intent"

Ruling by intent means that you allow a player to perform a certain action he intended to while he still technically could, although it is now too late if you go strictly by the rules.

Ruling by intent does not mean that a player can always do what is best for him, no matter what actions he actually took. It also doesn’t mean that it doesn’t matter if he forgot something. If a player simply forgot to do something or has overlooked an option, he’s still stuck with it.

The reasoning behind this is that a game shouldn’t be decided by technical details. It should be decided because a player made the better decisions or is more alert and focused, or even because he was the lucky guy this time around.

For ruling by intent to be the correct call, two conditions must be met:

  1. The intention of the player at the time when he could legally have made the decision must be clear.
  2. A player may gain no advantage because of his sloppy play.

You should use the intent philosophy only if both conditions are met.

To make all that theoretical babbling more vivid, I’ll walk you through some examples.

A classic case – Harrow

Player A plays Harrow, sacrifices a land and puts the Harrow into his graveyard. Then he wants to grab his library and search for lands. From a strictly technical point of view it’s too late for that. Because the last thing you do during resolution of the spell is put it in the graveyard, the player has implicitly chosen to search for zero lands.

Checking conditions:

  1. The intention of the player at the appropriate time is clear. Of course he wanted to search for lands when he played the Harrow.
  2. There is no way he could have gained an advantage from putting the Harrow into his graveyard too early (he did sacrifice a land right away).

Ruling by intent is the thing to do here and you should allow the player to search for the lands. Of course, you should still tell him about the stack and the correct order in which things are done. This case is so clear that the opponent should receive a penalty for unsporting conduct – minor if he insists (either towards the player or the judge) that his opponent shouldn’t be allowed to search for the lands.

Optional trigger

Player A controls Disciple of the Vault, Player B controls Chromatic Sphere.
B sacrifices the Sphere for U, draws a card and plays Thoughtcast.
A: "It resolves."
B draws two cards.
A: "Oh, you lose a life for the disciple.“
Again, it’s too late according to the rules. As the Thoughtcast has resolved (which was clearly permitted by A), it’s now impossible for the Disciple's ability to be on the stack.

  1. It seems to be rather obvious that A forgot about the Disciple when the Sphere went to the graveyard. Maybe he hadn’t realized that the Disciple also triggers when an opponent's artifact is put into a graveyard. Be that as it may, in this case it’s highly unlikely that A thought of the Disciple's ability at the appropriate time and just performed things in the wrong order. Because of that, stick to the rules – B won’t lose life.
  2. Doesn’t matter anymore.

No advantage because of sloppy play

Player A plays Cabal Therapy. A few turns later, he plays the Therapy via Flashback and sacrifices an Academy Rector to pay the cost.
After a short pause, B says "ok". Player A names a card and Player B shows him his hand. After that, B wants to remove the Rector to fetch an enchantment.
Surprise, it’s too late for that by the rules, as the Rectors ability went on the stack above the Therapy (so it resolved before the Therapy).

  1. Intent is clear. Sacrificing the Rector was probably the main reason for playing the Therapy (at least it was as important as the effect from the Therapy).
  2. A now knows B’s hand, which might influence his decision on what Enchantment to fetch. Allowing him to fetch now would give him an advantage – he’d be in a better position to make the optimal decision then if he had played correctly. That would be bad, not only because educating players to play correctly is hard when they can get an advantage out of sloppy play, but also because not-so-honest players could abuse that.
    It wouldn’t even matter if A had only one Enchantment to search for, because not searching at all might be an option, too.
    The only exception I could think of would be if Player B had no cards in hand.

This would be a different case if A had hardcast the Therapy right before he Flashed it back. In that case, A wouldn’t have received an advantage and should be allowed to search.

From a recent tournament

Player A plays Shrapnel Blast targeting Player B and sacrifices Solemn Simulacrum to pay the additional cost. After a few seconds, Player A changes Player B’s life total on his scorepad. Then Player A wants to draw a card for the Simulacrum.
This situation actually happened at GP Rimini. It was heavily discussed here in Germany – some said "of course it’s too late to draw, the rules say so" while others thought even calling a judge in a situation like this is unsporting and should be penalized with a warning. Obviously there were also many opinions in the middle of these two.
The judges at Rimini (yes, there were several involved) decided not to let Player A draw a card. Let’s use the method presented above and see what happens.

  1. Without any additional information I can’t see a clear intent at the appropriate time here. Contrary to the Therapy/Rector situation above, the main purpose of A’s play looks to be dealing 5 damage to B. The card drawing just seems to be a side effect. That means we need additional information to let A draw the card. Maybe he said something like "draw" when he put the the card in the graveyard. Maybe he pointed to his library at that time or knocked on the Simulacrum in the graveyard. As a judge at the table I would simply ask Player A if he forgot about the Simulacrum's ability when he played the Blast. If A answers that he didn’t forget about it, I’d asked him how he showed his opponent that he hadn’t forgotten it. If he couldn’t show me that, I’d assume A forgot about the draw.
  2. A did gain some additional information. He now knows that Player B doesn’t want to respond to the Blast (otherwise Player B would have said so when A reached for his pen), so we need to determine if that information could possibly be an advantage for A. Well, not wanting to draw a card is a pretty rare situation. But what if A had Arc Slogger in play or hand and not too many cards were left in his library? Suddenly a card in the library might be better then a card in hand in case the Blast gets countered, the opponent uses life gain or has Pulse of the Forge. These are the things you need to look out for in a situation like that.

In the real situation Player A couldn’t gain any advantage out of that information. Sadly, he also failed to indicate in any way that he wanted to draw, making it likely that he simply forgot, so I think the judges made the correct call. Italian Judges are good.

The border of being unsporting

Above I hinted at an increased danger of being unsporting in this area. Where that borderline exactly is cannot be described theoretically, of course – too much depends on the way things are said and the relation of the players towards each other. But here are a few guidelines:

  1. It is unsporting to try to get an advantage just because someone didn’t play technically correct (the "just because" is pretty important here).
  2. It is unsporting to try to make a player make a technically incorrect play in order to gain an advantage.
  3. It is not unsporting to show a player that he didn’t play technically correct – if necessary with help from a judge.
  4. It is not unsporting to gain an advantage because the opponent didn’t concentrate on playing.

An example for

  1. would be the Harrow case if the player insists on his advantage.
  2. I’ll use the Therapy/Rector situation to explain number 2 (Thanks to Norman Hübner who asked me about this situation – this actually happened at a PTQ in Berlin).
    As above, Player A Flashes back his Therapy and puts the Rector to the grave. Player B then asks "which card?". Player A names the card and then wants to remove his Rector. B insists that it’s too late for that. The important issue is that Player B provoked Player A into making a technical mistake. Obviously Player B knew the timing rules pretty well, or he would not have insisted that it’s too late to remove the Rector after the Therapy has resolved. Now, that’s a dilemma – if we allow Player A to fetch an enchantment now, he would have gotten an advantage out of his sloppy play. On the other hand he was provoked into doing that, which is not exactly gentlemanly. Luckily, I have a nice solution for that: As Player B obviously needs a thorough explanation about sportsmanship, we’ll give him the time he needs by shortening the match with a game or match loss for Unsporting Conduct – Major.
  3. Player A is playing rather sloppily. Player B explains to him how to play correctly, which doesn’t change a thing. So Player B calls a judge, hoping the judge’s explanation will make more of an impression. The important difference to 1) is that Player B doesn’t try to gain an advantage. How B presents his case is extremely important here.
  4. I’ll use the Disciple/Chromatic Sphere example here. Of course it’s fine to call a judge on this one. It is still important that the player doesn’t insist on the consequences but just explains the situation and his point of view.

A short excursion into the dark realm of shortcuts

While actually a different topic worth an article on its own, these two topics overlap enough that I feel I should add a few words.Using a shortcut means skipping parts of the technical play sequence without explicitly announcing them. Using shortcuts is unavoidable, as a game would take up way too much time without using them. If you want to know what Magic without shortcuts looks like, play a game on Magic Online with all auto-yields removed, stops set at all steps and keeping the CTRL key pressed. This is not fun (although it can be a good learning experience if you’re not sure about issues concerning timing, priority and the stack).
If you decide to use a shortcut, that means that you accept the consequences – you’ve implicitly agreed not to do anything in the parts you skipped by using the shortcut (if the opponent also chooses not to do anything, of course).

An example:
The most used shortcut is that you automatically pass after playing a spell. If you don’t want to pass, you announce that or just play the next spell right away. The opponent can’t interfere anyway, so there’s no need to wait.
Player A has 10 lands in play, taps 6 and plays Upheavel. After a short pause B says "OK, that resolves“. Now Player A wants to tap his remaining 4 lands for mana. That’s too late. He has passed priority by using a shortcut. He had enough time to tap his lands before B had to decide to let the spell resolve or not. As he now has additional information (his opponent chose not to respond to the Upheaval), he can’t go back.

Summing it up, ruling by intent is a good concept. No one likes losing a game because of a technical error and if used consistently, it keeps rules-lawyering in check. On the other hand, it still rewards the skillful and focused player.

Opinions, comments, questions, further discussion on the topic are always welcome, of course. You can send me an email to jroennau at or send your comments to the DCIJudge-L.

See you around,

Justus Rönnau
Thanks to Sheldon Menery for proofreading