Backups – Embracing the Rewind

Written by Jack Doyle

Written by Jack Doyle

Written by Joel Krebs

Written by Joel Krebs

It appears surprising at first, but players often have very strong feelings about backups. They do not care so much about a penalty they are given (especially warnings) but care very much about how judges fix game states. On top of that, players do backups in casual kitchen table games all the time and therefore have an idea of how to fix a situation when things go wrong. These players often do not know about the specifics of the Magic Infraction Procedure Guide (MIPG) and therefore do not know how to perform these backups properly. Naturally this does not prevent them from arguing a lot about it with judges and complaining loudly if they feel that they have been treated unfairly. This has happened publicly in the past with articles from high profile players on backups that they felt were wrong or unfair to them. Therefore it is very important that we as judges perform backups properly and with a degree of consistency.

As judges, we have important decisions to make when it comes to a situation that allows for a backup. The first one is obviously whether we should back up or not. This is a very important decision and has already stirred many discussions on countless situations in the past. The strict rules on backing up lead to some judges rewinding too rarely while other judges are very generous in backing up even the most complex of game states. This article attempts to encourage the first type of judge to apply backups where it is possible and appropriate, while providing the tools for the second type of judge to back up in a safe manner, and to realise when things are much less practical from a backup point of view.

What are backups, and why are they considered so delicate?

In short, a backup is a complete rewind of all game actions to a certain point (often called the point of error). This is most often an assessed illegal action due to a Game Rule Violation and less commonly, a Communication Policy Violation. The third category of situations that potentially lead to a backup are simple miscommunications between players (do not confuse this with CPV).

Backups are considered delicate due to the fact that they often have a larger, more memorable impact on the players in the game – more than a penalty would. The issue with backups from a player’s point of view is that it is either good or bad – fair or unfair – for one player. There is often some information given away, such as specific cards in hand, sideboard strategies that have been used, the player’s plans for his next turn, and so on. It is difficult to get across to the player that was winning, and now might be on the back foot, that we are attempting to get back to the game state as it should be. This leaves judges vulnerable to the accusation of being biased or deliberately one-sided.

To address this risk the IPG has very strict rules on backups and even states that backups should only be issued with the permission of the Head Judge. Besides that there is the famous golden rule: No partial fixes! We rewind all or nothing, because with partial fixes the potential of unintentional bias is even higher – it simply would take too much time and effort to consider all the factors required to perform a balanced partial fix.

Before we delve into the question how we perform backups, let us ask the question, whether we should back up or not.

Backups are not a question of fairness

It is a common misconception of newer judges to believe that the backup exists to move us from an unfair game state (any given error will normally give some advantage to one of the two players) to a fair game state. In fact, this is not our goal. Our goal is to make an incorrect game state into a correct one, and although in practice it may be the same, the philosophy behind the two are different.

In most cases where we back up, there will be some unfairness, even if the game state moves to its correct, or most correct, configuration. In most cases, there will be premature information gained by one player whether we back up or not, and this is sadly often unavoidable.

So when deciding whether you want to back up or not your should more focus on the question “is it viable?”. Do we know each game action that occurred? Can we back them all up? Can we avoid partial fixes?

The IPG tells us the following:

“If the error was discovered within a time frame in which a player could reasonably be expected to notice the error and the situation is simple enough to safely back up without too much disruption to the course of the game” […] (MIPG Section 2.5)

So you have the most important factors: time frame and complexity of the backup. But this is very general. It might be easier for you to break down this question to more simpler factors.

Hidden information revealed
Revealed information that is supposed to be hidden can usually be rewound. The one exception (but also a common case) is information from the library.
Who stands to benefit from the backup
This is obviously a very dangerous question. Do not think about who would benefit from a potential backup. Above we outlined why fairness should not be a priority.
Decision points passed
Very broadly this can be measured by the number of turns that passed. While the first couple of turns usually happen in quick succession, two turns can take much longer in an progressed game with many decisions involved. Most crucial here is the combat phase with attacking and blocking decisions.
Who benefited from the original error
In addition also do not think about who benefitted from the original error. A backup is by no means a punishment – we have the penalty system for that. So the reasoning that one player deserved a certain backup because it punishes his original error, is a bad argument.
Potential for making the situation worse
The most prominent example for this are the number of cards drawn. We fix illegally drawn cards by putting random cards from the hand on top of the library. The randomness here brings the potential of bringing the fixed game state even further away from the one it was supposed to be.

Although the rule of thumb “if you are in doubt, do not back up” sounds easy, I would not rely too heavily on it, as it might prevent you from performing any backups.

Performing the backup in practice

1. Find the point of error.

  • This is where you work out what happened to cause the game state to start going wrong. Casting Doom Blade on a black creature, for example, or a violation of the communication policy.

2. Determine the game actions that happened to get us from the point of error to the current state of the game.

  • You’ll need to ask the players and spectators to give information in detail about what happened since the error. Be sure to use all available information – cards in graveyard/exile, life total changes, and ask them what was said and done at each stage.

3. Get some advice and make a decision.

  • At more local events, it is possible that you yourself are the Head Judge. If so, proceed with the next point. But feel free to get opinions from your floor judges!
  • However, at regional events, such as PTQs and WMCQs, you should consult with the Head Judge, or someone else who has been appointed by the HJ to review backups, before proceeding.
  • At GP level, any L3+ should be asked about the backup before proceeding. If they agree with you, go right ahead. If they don’t agree with you, fix the situation first and see if they can educate you on why they would or wouldn’t back up the situation.

4. Rewind each and every game action back to that point of error.

  • You’ll see the words “no partial fixes” a lot during this article. It is very important that each game action is rewound so that we don’t ruin the game state more than it has been already.
  • We will talk about rewinding the three categories of game actions below. The most important one to talk about is drawing cards.

5. Issue relevant penalties

  • It is rare that players will emerge from a backup situation unscathed – we back up in situations of Game Rule Violation and Communications Policy Violation, so ensure that we find the player(s) who made the error and issue appropriate penalties.
  • It is likely that complicated backups will take more than a minute. Don’t forget to check the clock as you approach the table and make a note of how long the judge call took you. Issue an appropriate time extension to the players.

So what can we back up?

We have come up with three categories for game actions – simple, moderate, and complex.

Simple Game Actions

  • Tapping mana
  • Life total changes
  • Resolving most spells or abilities
  • Destruction of permanents, and other zone changes
  • Looking at extra cards
Complex Game Actions

  • Drawing multiple cards
  • Passing more than one turn
  • Shuffling cards unknown to all players
Moderate Game Actions

  • Drawing a single card
  • Passing the turn
  • Attacking and Blocking

Moderate and complex game actions are harder to rewind in this manner, we will often have to make an attempt to patch up the situation. In the case of drawing cards, we rewind this by taking a random card from the hand and putting it on top of the library for each card drawn.

When we start passing over multiple turns, or start dealing with gaining lots of hidden information, we need to seriously think whether it is feasible to back up at all. When backing up a turn pass, keep in mind that you have to determine what lands the player had tapped in his previous turn, as he might then have different options available after the rewind has occured. This requires the player to remember back one full turn (what did the player tap for in his turn?).

Multiple draws are particularly nasty. If only one card has been drawn, putting a random card back is not an issue. As soon as it is the players turn, it will not matter anymore. But if you put back multiple cards, it will take much longer until the game reaches a state where the random effect of the fix does not matter anymore. This way the fix will have a much higher impact on the future course of the game.

If we choose not to back up

Remember the golden rule: No partial fixes!

The IPG dictates some very specific situations that we should back up regardless if it is determined that a full rewind is not advisable. Do not try to mix actions from this list with your backup!

  • If a player made an illegal choice or failed to make a required choice for a permanent on the battlefield, that player makes a legal choice.
  • If a player forgot to draw cards, discard cards, or return cards from their hand to another zone, that player does so.
  • If an object changing zones is put into the wrong zone, the identity of the object was known to all players, and it is within a turn of the error, put the object in the correct zone.
    (MIPG Section 2.5)

Only these cases get the special treatment of a partial fix. While the first two points are fairly straightforward, the last one sometimes leads to some confusion.

With this newer wording, an object must have tried to change zones in order to be eligible for this fix – if an object should have gone to the graveyard, but didn’t, it is not eligible. If it should have gone to exile, but went to the graveyard instead, that is eligible. Be careful!


Although we might provide you with a recommendation on backing up or not, these are only recommendations. At the end of the day it is your or the Head Judge’s decision whether you want to back up a certain situation or not. If you reach a different conclusion than we do, that is fine. But keep in mind that if you back up, the way it is described here is the only one that follows the current policy. Everything else is considered a deviation.

Doomed to back up

Anna casts casts Doom Blade on Nick’s Walking Corpse (a black creature). It is put into the graveyard, and players move on. When you are eventually called to the table, a lot of things have happened since then and you do not consider a backup feasible. What should we do?

We have already determined that we do not consider a backup feasible. So, is this eligible for any of our partial fixes? Because the objects involved were not supposed to change zones in the first place, we cannot apply the partial fix for moving objects into the right zone. So we are going to leave this game state as-is, and issue penalties.

Counting the artifacts

Alexander casts Thoughtcast for U. He only controls 3 artifacts, and should have paid 1U. He cannot afford to pay for it, unless he hits a mana source with the two cards drawn. What should we do?

The backup for this situation is fairly easy from a technical perspective: Alexander puts two random cards on top, untaps his one mana source and the Thoughtcast is returned to his hand. Now this question is obviously a trap. If we do not back up, the player got to cast Thoughtcast for one mana less. If we back up, it is quite likely that he hit a mana source with the initial two cards drawn and now if one sticks in his hand, he will still be able to cast it. That is also very unfair. But wait…we do not consider whether something is unfair or not! So lets not take this line of argument and simply look whether it is feasible or not.

This example illustrates the trade-off between a bad situation if we decide to back up and a similarly bad situation if we decide not to.

No love for boars

Alice casts a Flinthoof Boar by tapping two Cavern of Souls. Both of those Caverns named “Human” as they entered the battlefield. Alice gives the Boar haste by tapping a Mountain, and attacks with the Boar, and passes the turn. Nikolai draws a card, and attacks with a Restoration Angel, and passes the turn. Alice draws a card for the turn (a Forest) and realises that she could not have legally cast the Boar. She calls a judge. What should we do?

Let us follow the exact steps described above by first determining the exact point of the error. This is obviously playing a green creature spell without any possibility to generate green mana. Now let us take a look what happened since then:

  1. Alice attacked with a Boar,
  2. Nikolai draws for his turn.
  3. Nikolai attacks with a Restoration Angel.
  4. Alice draws for her turn.

There are four game actions (1 card drawn by each player, 1 attack by each player). Now we have to decide, whether we back up or not. First, we can say, that it is technically possible to back up. Second, we take a look on how many decisions have been made. Assuming that the Restoration Angel was tapped during Alice’s turn, it is:

  1. Alice decides whether to attack with the boar
  2. Nikolai decides whether to attack with the angel
  3. Nikolai had the opportunity to cast something.

That seems like not too many decisions. The third factor may be the information revealed. This is more tricky. Obviously Nikolai now knows that Alice has a boar in her hand. Alice might know that Nikolai does not have an immediate answer for it. But if we go down that road it becomes very complex. We would say that the amount of information revealed is not too much.

Of course there may be other factors, but let’s stop here and decide on this basis. Again, other judges may come to different conclusions, but we would like to back up here. So Alice puts one card back at random, Nikolai untaps his Angel, Alice regains her 3 life from combat, and then Nikolai puts one card back at random. Now we have to determine which permanents were tapped during Alice’s turn. This is often forgotten by judges. Probably the angel and some lands. So we tap those. We return Nikolai’s 3 life points while backing up through combat. Finally Alice takes back the boar and untaps the two caverns and the mountain. The players may continue.

So is it possible that Alice was allowed to keep the forest, play it and play the boar no matter what? Yes. Does this influence our decision in any way? No.

Protection from back ups

Aziz attacks with a Bear Cub enchanted with Holy Mantle (which gives it protection from creatures). Natalia blocks with a Ghor-Clan Rampager, and before damage casts Furious Resistance on her Rampager, to which Aziz responds with Aerial Maneuver on the Bear Cub. Then Aziz realises what’s happened, and calls a judge. What should we do?

Let us again follow the exact steps outlined before. First, the original error was Natalia’s action of blocking a creature with protection from creatures. Second, we determine all game actions that happened since the error.

  1. Natalia casts Furious Resistance.
  2. Aziz casts Aerial Maneuver.

That seems easy, right? Well, this is an example of a situation where only few game actions happened, but much information has been revealed. Especially because combat tricks are delicate information. Many judges would see that as a good argument not to back up. But consider what happens if we do not backup: Protection suddenly applies and Natalia made all her decisions based on the assumption that there is no protection. Backups should provide players safety on their decisions. That is usually the reasoning for not backing up (“The players played as this card that should not be in play the whole time, so we should not just remove it”). This time it is the other way around. So we would recommend backing this situation up. Return both spells to their owners hand, untap the mana sources used to cast them, and go to declare blockers.


After reading this article you hopefully feel encouraged to perform backups in a safe and policy-compliant manner. You understand different factors you should consider when deciding whether to back up or not, and other factors you should not. At best you have a tool at hand which allows you to run through the process step by step so that you feel more comfortable with any decision you make on backups during future events. Good luck!