Communicating Policy

Written by Alex Roebuck

Written by Alex Roebuck

Each infraction in the IPG has a fairly comprehensive entry furnished with a title, a category, the definition and scope of the infraction, and the associated penalty. It also gives specific examples of the infraction, instructions on how to fix the game state when the infraction occurs, and explanations of underlying philosophy – why it’s an infraction in the first place and why we address it the way we do. Sometimes we get a few “if”s and “but”s that explain certain circumstances where a particular infraction doesn’t apply or when a non-standard penalty should be issued.

One IPG entry, however, is more complex than it seems:

3.7. Tournament Error — Communication Policy Violation

“A player violates the Player Communication policy detailed in section 4.1 of the Magic Tournament Rules. This infraction only applies to violations of that policy and not to general communication confusion.”

In order to provide definition and scope, the entry on Communication Policy Violation directs the reader to another document: the Magic Tournament Rules (MTR). In this article, we’re going to have a look at the contents of MTR§4.1 and discuss what exactly the policy permits and prohibits. We’ll have some dos and don’ts for players along with some tips for judges on identifying CPV, understanding why it’s such a rare infraction, avoiding pitfalls, and applying policy correctly at Competitive REL events.


Types of Information

There are three kinds of information in Magic: free, derived, and private.

According to MTR§4.1:

The following are free information:

  • Details of current game actions and past game actions that still affect the game state.
  • The name of any visible object.
  • The type of any counter in a public zone.
  • The physical status (tapped/flipped/unattached/phased) and current zone of any object.
  • Player life totals, poison counter totals, and the game score of the current match.
  • The current step and/or phase and which player(s) are active

Derived information includes:

  • The number of any type of objects present in any game zone.
  • All characteristics of objects in public zones that are not defined as free information.
  • Game Rules, Tournament Policy, Oracle content and any other official information pertaining to the current tournament.

Everything else is private information.

In essence, the three types can be characterised as follows:

  • Free information concerns the most basic properties of game objects which can be taken entirely at face value and require no special calculation.
  • Derived information consists of facts about the game which are readily accessible but which must be determined by the players – possibly requiring some skill or memory, adding together of other facts, or simply reading cards.
  • Private information is, broadly speaking, anything which isn’t covered by the first two definitions, but specifically refers to information to which not all players are generally expected to have access.

Let’s take a quick example involving questions your opponent might ask about the creatures you’re playing.

TarmogoyfQ: What’s that?
A: My Tarmogoyf. This answer is free information.

Q: How big is it?
A: It’s a 3/4.
This answer is derived information.

 Q: How many of them do you have in your deck?
A: Four. Duh.
This answer is private information. It’s also a little bit rude.

Now we know how to tell the three kinds of information apart, we need to know how to handle each of them.

  • Questions pertaining to free information must be answered completely and honestly, with no omissions or misleading statements of any kind. (At Regular REL, all derived information is considered to be free information).
  • Players must answer any question asked by a judge, regardless of the kind of information it involves.
  • Players may not represent free or derived information incorrectly.

A player who violates any of these rules has committed a Communication Policy Violation (CPV). CPVs can be difficult issues to deal with, as poorly communicated information can cause players to severely alter their plays. A player who makes a bad play because they were given bad information is going to feel extremely slighted – they’re effectively being penalised for their opponent’s mistake. For this reason CPVs are a possible justification for backing up a game, which in turn means the potential impact of issuing a CPV ruling can be huge. Fortunately they’re also very rare.


Questions about Free Information

The list of what constitutes free information might seem like it includes a lot, but in reality the nature of free information means not many such questions are asked. It’s important to familiarise yourself with the criteria for free information, though, as some things which seem like free information actually aren’t (e.g. the type of counters on a permanent is free information, but the quantity is derived – your opponent will have to count them for himself).

Free information concerns the bare facts of the game.  Because of this, the restrictions on how free information must be communicated are relatively tight – players must provide free information to each other completely, correctly, and without contamination. Their very nature means questions about free information aren’t especially common (besides checking life totals) but these restrictions do mean that players need to report free information very accurately, and must not try and gain an advantage by being “sneaky” with their answers.

Example – Andrew controls a Vesuvan Shapeshifter which has become a copy of a few different creatures over the course of several turns and most recently became a copy of Brine Elemental. Neil asks Andrew, “What did Vesuvan Shapeshifter copy last?” (an example of a past game action which affects the gamestate – free information) Neil replies, “It entered as a copy of Squire and then became a copy of Tarmogoyf two turns later.” Even if that statement is correct, Neil has failed to answer the question, and has committed a CPV.

In the event that a player is genuinely unable to answer a question about free information (perhaps they can’t remember the name of a foreign-text card they just played or they can’t remember if they’ve played a land this turn) they should call a judge.


Questions Asked by a Judge

If a judge asks a player about the game, it’s not because the judge is trying to gain a tactical advantage or decide how to block, it’s because they want to assess the situation in order to help make a correct ruling. Players shouldn’t feel uncomfortable sharing information with a judge. Providing judges with good information protects players from being the victim of a bad ruling and from unfair accusations of dishonesty.

Of course, their opponent is three feet away from them, so players may wish to step away from the table and speak quietly. This is a request players shouldn’t worry about making and judges should be happy to accommodate. Leaving the table in the middle of a game, especially for an extended period, is quite unusual for players, so judges who are dealing with particularly complicated or taxing judge calls should consider having a second judge remain at the table with the other player if floor coverage allows. It simultaneously removes the temptation to cheat and the possibility of being accused of cheating, making both players feel a little more at ease with the situation.

A judge who suspects a player has answered a question incorrectly or incompletely should, without being too leading about what they’re expecting to hear, prompt the player to clarify their answer. Lying to a judge is a very serious offence, but judges should be aware that people do make genuine mistakes and are often influenced by subjective bias, so calibrating your Spidey Sense is important.


Presenting Information (in)Correctly

This particular rule is the most interesting part of the policy, with implications that reach quite a lot further than is initially obvious. While derived information must not be provided incorrectly, it doesn’t say derived information has to be provided completely (free information still does because of the earlier stipulation). This is primarily a common-sense rule which reflects the fact that questions about derived information can often be very open ended and an exhaustive answer would therefore be extremely long-winded.


Example – Adrian controls a Vampire Nighthawk. Nelson asks “what’s that?” Adrian provides one of the following two answers:

a) It’s a 2/3 flyer

b) It’s a black 2/3 Vampire Shaman creature called Vampire Nighthawk with flying, deathtouch and lifelink. Its converted mana cost is 3; it adds 2 to my devotion to black; and it’s an uncommon from Zendikar illustrated by Jason Chan.

Clearly, nobody is ever going to give the second answer – it’s just not natural to answer questions that way – so logically it’s unfair to penalise the first answer based on its brevity alone. Yet it’s easy to envisage a scenario where the omission of “deathtouch” from Adrian’s answer could lead Nelson to be quite unhappy when he blocks it with his Consecrated Sphinx. It’s also not much of a leap to imagine that Adrian deliberately omitted “deathtouch” from his answer to try and coax Nelson into making that exact mistake. So how do we handle the inevitable judge call?

The main thing to remember is that applying rules consistently is important. If we’ve established that it doesn’t make sense to penalise the omission of “vampire” then it’s completely inappropriate to penalise the omission of “deathtouch.” The fact that one is more tactically important than the other isn’t relative to the ruling; neither is the fact that Adrian might have done it deliberately. Why? Put simply, because the policy doesn’t mention those things. If we’re looking for deeper justification we should consider that judges don’t make rulings based on the assumption that players play optimally, and that communication policy is tailored to suit the way players actually communicate during a game of Magic. Furthermore, we shouldn’t construct policy that places Adrian in a position where he has to help Nelson win. It’s not fair to oblige Adrian to point out to Nelson, however indirectly, that blocking the Nighthawk might be a bad tactical move – after all, Nelson could have just read the card (or asked a judge for Oracle text) and figured that out for himself.

In short, “incomplete” does not equal “incorrect.” When a player says the Nighthawk has flying and names no other abilities, his answer is incomplete. When the opponent clarifies “does it have any other abilities?” and the player answers “no,” the answer is now incorrect. The distinction is important.


Classified Information

Leading on from this – the fact that players aren’t obliged to assist each other with derived information – we have a slightly more controversial implication of the policy. Whilst it does stipulate that players must not represent derived information incorrectly, it doesn’t say they have to provide it at all. The fact that players are explicitly obliged to provide free information, combined with the lack of a similar instruction for derived information, implicitly means “I don’t have to tell you” is a perfectly legitimate answer to quite a lot of questions, quite a lot of the time.

Example – Audrey is attacking with several creatures whose power and toughness have been modified by multiple effects from different sources. Nina is in the process of choosing how to block, and asks Audrey “how big are they?” because she’s having difficulty keeping track of the various +1/+1 counters, battlecry triggers, and a Coat of Arms. Audrey could choose to capitalise on this confusion by refusing to answer, hoping Nina makes a mistake – she doesn’t have to give up the answer.

The stipulation that players must not represent free or derived information incorrectly doesn’t mention private information, and therefore doesn’t apply to it. Quite simply, this means players are generally free to lie about private information and future game states as much as they like.

Example – Amy casts Surgical Extraction targeting Emrakul, the Aeons Torn in Norman’s graveyard. Amy exiles the one from the graveyard, and then begins searching Norman’s library. She pulls out one Emrakul, then another, at which point Norman says “that’s it, I only play 3” and reveals his Emrakul-less hand. Amy stops searching and returns Norman’s deck. Several turns later, Norman uses his fourth Emrakul to win the game. There has been no infraction – the contents of Norman’s library/decklist are private information and he was not required to present them faithfully.

It’s understandable that many people will view instances such as the above example as “unsporting.” This is a trap that many people fall into – to think of sporting and unsporting a binary aspect of behaviour. In reality there are many examples of behaviour which is neither sporting nor unsporting, and most competitive behaviour falls into this category. Aside from anything else, Unsporting Conduct has a very specific definition in the IPG – hence the capital letters – and the above examples simply don’t fit. Additionally, there are several other points that validate this unhelpful behaviour. First, players should not be obliged to help their opponents win. Second, we have to allow for the possibility that the player is refusing to answer because they’re also having difficulty working it out – they don’t want to risk giving the wrong answer and receiving a penalty. Finally, it is established philosophy that “a player should have an advantage due to better understanding of the rules of a game” (MTR§4.1). We directly undermine that principle if we penalise a player for employing their rules knowledge effectively.


The Right Diagnosis

With certain other infractions, Slow Play for example, it’s often the case that if you’re trying to decide whether or not to issue the infraction then the answer is yes – the mere fact that you’re having to think about it means something is wrong. With CPV, however, you’re usually right to be hesitant. You’ll often have judge calls where there may have been some misunderstanding and one player feels disadvantaged by this, but that doesn’t automatically make it CPV – the infraction has a very specific meaning, as we know, so you need to be certain that rules have actually been broken before you go issuing any penalties.

Here are a few things you should think over before issuing a penalty for CPV for a miscommunication between players:

• What kind of information was presented?

If it’s not free or derived, we’re definitely not looking at CPV. If it is free or derived, you need to be certain you know which as this will be crucial to your ruling. Remember that most questions players ask each other will be based on derived information – free information is generally obvious enough not to need clarification.

• Incomplete does not equal incorrect.

Corrupting free information will result in a CPV, but presenting incomplete versions of derived information is permitted by policy. If a player has presented derived information, you need to be sure that they said something that’s actually false rather than just telling their opponent something other than what they really needed to know.

It's not CPV• Are you trying to justify a penalty that isn’t there?

It’s not uncommon for situations to arise that seem unfair or shady, but that don’t fall within the scope of CPV (or any other infraction). Avoid the temptation to try and “fix” these by making an infraction fit just because you don’t like the situation.

• It’s probably not CPV.


What’s Communication Anyway?

In order to correctly apply the rules that govern it, we need to think about what constitutes communication in the first place. In everyday life most communication is non-verbal. Non-verbal communication is important in Magic too. Players often tap lands for mana or tap creatures to attack without being explicit about whether that’s what they’re doing.They might indicate the target of a spell by pointing at or touching the card in question, and they might pass priority with the nod of a head or end their turn with a hand gesture. Generally these are not the things that cause confusion – players tend to have a good judgement for what they can communicate with or without speaking and are usually good at vocalising what they need to. For this reason, it’s normally only verbal communication that can result in a CPV.

There’s always the potential for mistakes to be made, though, so it’s important to be emphasize that players are expected to communicate clearly and to discourage certain practises. Players should be vocal where possible, avoid “communicating” with silence and passiveness, and should not assume that a pause from the opponent is an acknowledgement of any kind. If players are ever unsure about something, they should clarify it with their opponent. If the players’ understanding of the current game state has completely desynchronised, judges should consider (as a last resort) backing the game up to the last point at which players were agreed upon the gamestate – even if they’re not intending to issue a penalty.


Further Reading

MTR§4.1 is not the end of the MTR’s word on communication. There are certain other aspects to communication issues which are not covered in CPV – the most important being tournament shortcuts and out-of-order sequencing (MTR§4.2 and MTR§4.3 respectively).

That’s enough communicating for now. Hopefully this article has been helpful for you – please feel free to leave feedback in the JudgeApps forum. Thanks for reading!