Trample

Trample is kind of a pain. Its a set of rules where the ‘obvious’ play doesn’t interact well with the physical representation of the game. Remembering to trample over isn’t a skill we’re interested in testing, but we don’t want to see that damage resurface out of nowhere after strategic decisions may have been made involving the current life totals.

People ask why we don’t have a defined shortcut, especially since we used to, but that misses the point of why we have predefined shortcuts generally. The predefined ones are there to prevent the player controlling the current flow from using ambiguous communication that they can then later exploit. The old trample shortcut was “you do the minimum damage to everything and keep going”. Why was that? Consider:

I attack with a 5/5 trampler
I block your 5/5 trampler with this 2/2.
Damage on the stack?
Sure. I’ll Giant Growth this guy.
OK. I’m dealing all 5 damage to the creature.

See the sneakiness here? The defender assumed the damage was happening 2-3 and acted accordingly. The attacker got to benefit from not being clear and had incentive to try it again some other time (and they certainly did). The shortcut put an end to that.

Then M10 came along and, along with all the other rule cleanups, made the shortcut pointless. Run the above scenario again without damage on the stack and you’ll quickly see that without a gap between damage assignment and damage resolution, there’s nothing left to exploit. That’s certainly a win for the new rules. So, eventually (since nothing moves that fast in policyland), we got rid of it.

So, what does that mean for when we get called to a table because of a life total dispute arising from someone remembering trample? Honestly, any kind of rule would be pretty terrible. You can’t default to “player sops up excess”, because then you run into situations someone realizes that they forgot trample a turn later and the other guy has done something that makes them now dead. You don’t want to codify maximizing damage, because someone will inevitably claim that you did all 5 damage to the first of the 5 1/1s blocking, because you failed to say anything else. So, we do the only thing possible: default to what actually changed in the game. How many creatures went to the graveyard? Did they say anything like “and you take two” within a reasonable time frame? Did life totals get written and acknowledged – a requirement that was partly inspired by trample? This makes everything work well in the context of the game – the net effect is almost always “creatures die, opponent takes damage if it gets pointed out” – even though a player will occasionally forget some damage and be upset a little later that they didn’t get it. Ultimately, it’s the responsibility of the person controlling the trampler to be clear, and that’s where we want the incentives.

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4 Responses to Trample

  1. Matt Sperling says:

    I personally would love to see a post on correcting life total discrepancies. The reason we can’t have better default rules for trample (if you’re among the people who dislike the current defaults) stems, as you describe in this post, from the way we correct life totals after players have acted in reliance on incorrect totals. When DO we correct mistaken life total, when DON’T we correct mistaken life totals, and when SHOULD we correct mistaken life totals to achieve the elusive balance between correct values, reliance on incorrect values, opportunism and angle shooting, and “tough luck” (which gets a bad rap).

    The problem is very similar to the legal theory behind the Statute of Limitations, which many people don’t know much about. Basically, you’ve got this “correct” outcome (it could be punishing a criminal, winning money from someone who breached a contract or injured you, or being at 10 life after you tapped Adarkar Wastes for white mana while at 11 life), and initially our bias is entirely in favor of enforcing that correct outcome. Over time, sympathy for the state/plaintiff/guy whose opponent should be at 10 goes down while sympathy for the criminal/tortfeasor/guy who forgot to take 1 but now thinks he is at 11 goes up. At some point sympathy for the latter exceeds sympathy for the former and we decline to enforce the “correct” outcome, and instead enforce the status quo.

    What is the rationale behind where these lines currently drawn? Is there another way to draw them that more closely reflects a commonly shared intuition about the point at which bias towards the status quo exceeds bias towards accuracy?

    • telliott says:

      I agree with your analogy. The current rationale is to treat mutually-agreed-upon incorrect life totals pretty much the same way as any other GRV – if it’s been part of the game state too long to realistically back it up, don’t mess with it (note that mutually-agreed-errors and actual discrepancies are separate classes of problem, though there’s some overlap in the handling). If we could come up with a better framework for it, it’d be interesting to explore.

      Trample adds an extra layer of indirection, because unlike most life-total errors, the “erroneous” life total is legally achievable. That’s why it’s as much a communication problem as anything else, and those we’re on slightly firmer ground with.

      • Matt Sperling says:

        I guess I’m curious about why “can we backup?” is standing in the place of “should we backup?” But I understand that its a) easier to agree on “can” than should, and b) there is a fairness argument in the form of “if we can, we should.” For consistency with the trigger rules only, I would suggest everyone be made responsible for their own sources of damage or life gain, and backup at the other person’s discretion. But then again, I don’t like the trigger rules. :P

        I’d be okay with a one-turn window for backing up and no backing up after that. At least it’s a bright line. There’s a reason statutes of limitations are 2 years or 5 years etc. and not set at some subjective level based on the underlying principle. One could imagine such a law; “Action may be brought any time up to the point at which a significant amount of evidence has become more difficult to gather or authenticate” (one of the rationales behind the SoL). Instead its just “2 years” so that planning and enforcement are far easier. Things are a bit different where you MUST point out the difference upon noticing it. If you had to file an action, perhaps the SoLs would be different.

      • telliott says:

        Can and should are pretty equivalent here. I wouldn’t read too much into that beyond we try to avoid using ‘should’ in the official documents.

        The one-turn window is a nice bright line, but Magic doesn’t cooperate. If I cast reanimate on a Griselbrand, crack a fetch, activate Griselbrand, then attack with a couple guys, etc, that’s a lot of action in a very short amount of time, whereas a “draw, go” isn’t. Physical time is a more meaningful factor for statutes than game-structure time is for Magic. That’s why we focus on actions and game changes rather than something concrete like time.

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