Rules of Engagement

Posted in The Week That Was on June 26, 2009

By Brian David-Marshall

Brian David-Marshall is a New York–based game designer who has been involved with Magic since 1994, when he started organizing tournaments and ran a Manhattan game store. Since then, he has been a judge, a player, and one of the longest-tenured columnists on, as he enters his second decade writing for the site. He is also the Pro Tour Historian and one of the commentators for the Pro Tour.

Magic judges everywhere received notification this week from Level 5 Judge Toby Elliott that heralded major revisions to the Magic tournament documents. He included a brief overview of the seven major changes which has since been linked to and covered on various sites throughout the Magic community. I caught up with Toby, who was last seen head judging Pro Tour–Honolulu, to get some more information about his role in taking all the diverse opinions and feedback from the judge and player communities and synthesizing that feedback into tournament policy.

Before getting into the changes to the documents I asked Toby to explain what the documents themselves are and why they are relevant to Magic players reading this column.

Toby Elliott, DCI Level 5 Judge

"The first one that everyone knows is the Magic Comprehensive Rules," said Toby. "These govern how the game is played abstractly—describing how to play a spell, how to determine the converted mana cost of a card, etc. The full details aren't for the faint of heart, but a working knowledge is sufficient for most of the situations a player will find themselves in. The second one is the Magic Tournament Rules. These govern how a tournament is played concretely—ban lists, how players are expected to communicate, prohibitions against things like wagering, round times and similar mechanics. Essentially, this document moves Magic from the kitchen table and provides a framework for players to come together from all over the world and have the same tournament experience while also defining what expect from them. The final document is the Magic Infraction Procedure Guide, which describes what should happen when a player does something in violation of the other two documents. This document is designed for judges, and we don't expect players to have familiarity with it. If you run into trouble just call a judge, and they'll know what to do."

With players already grappling with new game rules, I wondered what the impetus was to make changes to these documents, especially with tournament Magic doing incredibly well at the moment. According to the Los Altos, CA judge, the reason things look so dramatic is a matter of the documentation catching up to the changes.

"These are living documents; we're always looking for new ways to improve the tournament experience for players," Toby explained. "If you look in the Infraction Guide, for example, there's an Appendix listing the changes from revision to revision. The reason this looks like an overhaul is that the structural changes, which were substantial, took some time to implement. As a result, changes that might have been introduced gradually over the last year or so have all appeared [in the document] at once. Any time you do a dramatic revamp of a document, it's also an opportunity to question some basic assumptions and challenge a few sacred cows."

"We didn't target M10 as a release time for these changes; that was merely coincidence that it happened so close to the major Comprehensive Rules changes.," he continued while shining the spotlight on the others involved in the process. "The effort was led by Scott Larabee and involved contributions from literally dozens of judges and players over the past few years. Nick Sephton, Falko Goerres, George Michelogiannakis, and Jason Ness all expended substantial efforts on getting the new MTR into shape, but if I've asked you a strange question at a tournament in the past couple years, odds are you've had a hand in shaping the policy!"

Scott Larabee, Nick Sephton, Falko Goerres, George Michelogiannakis, and Jason Ness.

Toby and I walked through the items outlined in his judge's email and discussed the thinking behind them and some of their ramifications:

1) Graveyard order – just as with Simultaneous Mulligans, we're adapting a technique that is already used in casual circles to make tournament Magic a little easier to play. The last time Wizards printed a card that cared about the order of your graveyard was over 10 years ago, in the form of Stronghold's Volrath's Shapeshifter, and R&D has been very clear that they don't want to use this as an explorable design space. As a result, as long as they're playing in formats with cards from Urza's Saga and on, we no longer care how the players order their graveyard.
Ashen Ghoul
Krovikan Horror

My thoughts immediately went to Ashen Ghouls and Krovikan Horrors, Ice Age–era cards which trained me to be conscious of graveyard order. I asked how older formats would be affected by this rules change.

"Graveyard order in these formats will work in the same way it has for the last 15+ years," Toby assured me. "The last card that was printed that cared about the order of your graveyard was in Stronghold, so Legacy and Vintage (plus a few rare formats such as Ice Age Sealed) will see no change under the new rules."

2) Cosmetic changes – Just as "removed from game" has changed into "exile," so has much of our terminology been tweaked. The holy trinity of documents you remember—the Penalty Guide, the Universal Tournament Rules, and the Magic Floor Rules—have been merged and reconfigured into two documents: the Magic Tournament Rules and the Magic Infraction Procedure Guide. Both documents are devoted solely to Magic, and have been divided into information that players should generally be expected to know (the MTR) and information more geared towards judges (the PG).

"In both cases, the desire was to have documents that were easier to read and easier to find things in," said Toby of the streamlining and Magic-specificity of the new documents. "By trying to write the documents to be all things to all people, we got in situations where everything required exceptions and subclauses. Most games don't need anywhere near the level of detail that is required for running Magic Organized Play and would benefit from having their own—much shorter—documents that reflect the nature of the particular game. As a side benefit, this gives us a tournament document the players are generally expected to know the details of (the MTR) and one (the MIPG) that they aren't."

3) Mana burn has confused new players for years. Drawing Extra Cards has been a source of similar pain for judges. If I evoke Mulldrifter without blue mana, it's a Game Rule Violation, but casting Counsel of the Soratami without blue mana is Drawing Extra Cards? If I take the actions on Cruel Ultimatum out of order, which is it? If I activate Jace to have us both draw a card, and it's the second activation this turn, who gets a penalty?
Counsel of the Soratami
We spent a lot of time debating options on these and similar questions, and eventually produced a much narrower definition for Drawing Extra Cards: If you are told to draw cards, and draw too many, it's Drawing Extra Cards. Otherwise it's a GRV. This is partly to reflect the fact that it can be very hard for an opponent to notice how many cards you've drawn and we were able to do this because we've been reasonably happy with the success of the GRV backup approach to dealing with the extra drawn card and believe it can be applied more widely.


4) In a rule that will only affect a small number of people, but might have a substantial impact on them, we're extending out-of-order sequencing to also cover Professional REL. Initially some of the philosophy was experimental, and we saw it as an opportunity to differentiate the highest level of play. However, pros use out-of-order sequencing just as everyone else does. It's hard to imagine an Elf mirror at PT–Berlin that didn't involved substantial use of the approaches defined in (former) section 52.

Terms like Game Play Error, Game Rule Violation, and Out-of-Order Sequencing may be second nature to the judging set, but I asked Toby to explain both of these terms in greater detail for players at home—as well as for my own benefit when I PTQ for Austin in July.

"In the Infraction Policy, any violation of the Comprehensive Rules falls into a category called Game Play Error. Within that category are a set of subcategories—Missed Trigger, Illegal Game State, et al—that define various ways in which the game can have gone wrong and what to do about them. Game Rule Violation is the final subcategory, for offenses that don't fit into any of the other categories," Toby elaborated. "Out-of-Order Sequencing is a part of a more general section governing how players are expected to communicate with each other in a tournament. This section realizes that playing a technically exact game of Magic is excruciatingly painful (and, fortunately, never done) and provides rules for what players are allowed to do to actually make the game enjoyable while stopping them from taking advantage of any ambiguity they might create. Out-of-Order Sequencing is the rules for taking a batch of actions together in a way that is technically illegal, but ultimately OK. Two good examples of this are putting a +1/+1 counter on a Lorescale Coatl before drawing the card, and playing Harrow and putting it into your graveyard before searching."

5) Players may now look at outside notes between games.
The impetus for this change arose out of some painful questions about sideboards. Are sideboard cards with a dot on them considered marked? What if the dots are differently colored? What if it's ordered? If my friend looks through my Limited sideboard and shuffles a couple cards I might want to play to the top, is that Outside Assistance? (Remarkably, under some interpretations, the answer to all of the above was "yes"). In trying to find solutions that worked, the idea of simply not worrying between games came up and turned out to be an elegant solution.
Like the M10 rule change #5 ["Combat Damage No Longer Uses the Stack"], I suspect it will turn out to generate a lot more noise than actual impact. The good players realize that sideboarding is a fine art and can't be brute-forced by a set of notes; even more so, they may seek to exploit players who are locked into previously determined plans. Most people didn't have that hard a time memorizing the sideboarding for basic matchups, so the incremental advantage is small. Players are, of course, still held to the same between-game time-limits.

Over the years I have seen players get warnings for bringing various sideboard notes to the table. Once, I recall a player getting a penalty for bringing a cheat sheet that reminded him, "Untap, upkeep, draw ...." etc. There was even some dialogue about the meaning of the note penned on Zac Hill's hand during PT–Honolulu which read, "FOWDRN." Was it some sort of in-game note? It turned out to be a reminder for Zac to Focus On What you are Doing Right Now—self-help advice that carried him to his first ever PT Top 8. Under the new rules, judges can focus on the myriad of other things at a tournament besides what is written on a player's hand—or anywhere else for that matter. I asked Toby to explain this in a little more detail and what would be considered beyond the pale when it came to notes.

"Outside notes, and sideboard notes in particular, was one of the sacred cows we had the opportunity to take a good look at," said Toby of a rule that he expects to be much discussed but have minimal impact on tournament players. "The current rules led us down some really painful paths.You're in a Sealed event and you're talking to your buddy after deck building. He points out a couple cards you might want to sideboard, so you shuffle them to the top (for easier access later). Is that outside assistance? A strict interpretation of the rules would suggest yes. Do we really need judges examining dots on the faces of cards to see if they might be some sort of secret sideboard code? When the rules are getting in the way of our goal (which is for players to have fun while keeping it fair), something needs fixing."

"We tried a bunch of approaches and found that allowing players to refer to notes between games solved many problems with less strategic impact than we expected. Most players were more concerned that it would lead to slower play, and we'll continue to enforce the three-minute rule to make sure that happens. That's also how we defined beyond the pale—a couple sheets of paper are OK because we believe that more could potentially cause slow play issues. What's on those sheets is up to the player, but they go away when the new game is ready to begin."

6) A recurring theme that arises with marked or lost cards is what to do if the player can't find a replacement. In the past, this has been a death sentence—they haven't been allowed to continue in the tournament without unmarked versions of the cards. In the interests of enabling them to continue, we're going to allow them to replace those cards on their decklist with basic lands. Once they do so, it locks in—they can't go back to the old list even if they find replacement cards later. This is a tradeoff between a very small potential strategic hole and a huge customer service benefit.
Lost card replacement

This rule raised a few eyebrows from players I know who were concerned about the potential for abuse. What would happen if a player wanted to add a land to a Sealed Deck at a PTQ after realizing he should have played 18 lands? Couldn't they mark a card and get a free chance to alter their deck after the tournament had started?

"Balancing the improved customer service with the potential for abuse is one of the biggest challenges in writing tournament policy," admitted Toby. "In this case, the replacement is at the discretion of the Head Judge, and if they believe you may have done it intentionally they will investigate for Cheating."

Note the use of the capital "C". He also explained that the default would not be to give the player a land: "This is for a situation where the Head Judge believes the player has made a genuine effort to find a replacement, but has been unable to do so."

7) Finally, speaking of customer service, we're going to test a new approach to spectators intervening at Regular and Competitive REL. At the moment, a spectator who sees an error should find a judge and let them know, but often they can't do it fast enough for the judge to be able to do anything other than assess a penalty. Now, spectators will be allowed to ask the players to pause while they find a judge, though that is all they are allowed to do—no indicating to the players what the problem is. This is still in the experimental stages, but we are hopeful that the benefits of not allowing the game to get too far ahead will outweigh the occasional match that gets stopped due to a false positive.

This was another cause for eyebrow elevation among the players in my area. What happens if a spectator is stopping a match for some imagined infraction and the two players know there is no reason to stop their match? What about if a spectator was trying to buy time or advantage for a friend in the game by halting play? Again, Toby went to the capital "C."

"These questions are among the reasons it's a test," Toby cautioned. "The latter is fairly clear Cheating on the part of the friend, and will be dealt with appropriately. In the first case, if they actually knew why the spectator thought there was a problem, they could explain to the spectator why he or she was wrong, then keep playing. That usually won't delay the match for more than a few seconds. There will be situations where a spectator pauses a game for an erroneous reason. We're hoping that it's infrequent enough that it will be outweighed by the number of times a judge can get to the players in time to prevent further damage to the game. We'd obviously love to get feedback on how this is working from players and spectators alike, and I hope people will really find this an improvement."

Firestarter: Forums Enaged

While it is too soon to provide any of the feedback Toby asked for in the form of first hand experience you can head to the forums and share your thoughts on these changes to the Magic tourmament documents. Which of these changes do you like the most? Which ones make you the most nervous? Fire away!

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