Investigations – The Search for Collateral Truths (Part 3)

Written by Eric Shukan

Written by Eric Shukan

Investigations can take a long time because there’s a lot to think about.  If you have ever been involved in a difficult investigation, you’ll know that it is very easy to run 15-20 minutes off the round clock while you are asking questions and thinking.  In the first two parts I introduced the idea of testable consequences and examining motivations.  Combine this with analyzing game states, counting lands and cards, looking at life totals, etc., and we can easily spend too much time reaching a conclusion.


This last part focuses on how to protect the timing of your event, specifically by thinking about ways to decide when to end an investigation.  How do you know when to stop?


Part 3:  Terminating the Investigation

Investigations are based on acquiring evidence to formulate or test a hypothesis.  While the data may come from a variety of sources, it is all used to challenge what you think happened (or maybe a collateral truth of what you think happened).  In challenging your ideas, you are trying to change your mind.

Recall the quote from Jared Sylva back from Part 1:  “Form a picture in your mind about what you think happened.  Now ask yourself, ‘What would change my mind?’  Then go hunt for that info.”  The underlying idea is that data is used to change your mind, and this leads to a pretty simple idea about when to stop.  As long as you have a reasonable chance of getting information that will change your mind, you should continue.  When you decide that you cannot gain information that will change your mind, then you stop – and whatever is the current hypothesis is used to make your ruling.

Note that such information might not be obtainable for several reasons.  One reason is that it would require a remote occurrence, such as a guilty player just deciding to confess even though he has previously lied convincingly.  Another reason is that the information doesn’t exist because your current hypothesis is correct.  A third reason might be that you cannot think of the data that you would need. This last difficulty diminishes as you get more experience.

Let’s take a look at some examples.


Example #1

At FNM two players call you over.  They are fairly new to the game and to your store.  They cannot remember whether Player B has already played a land this turn, and Player B wants to play a land now.  At the moment you have no hypothesis at all, so you ask for some details to change your mind into having a hypothesis.  It is Player B’s fifth turn and Player B is on the draw.  Each player has 5 lands in play.  For the moment your hypothesis changes to “has played land.”

Ask yourself – what could change your mind?  Land destruction, land fetches, missed land drops, etc.  You look through the graveyard and find a Rampant Growth.  Player B claims that he played it on Turn 2 and got a Mountain.  Both players say they forgot about it until you just pointed it out.  Your hypothesis immediately changes to “has not played land”, but you might change your mind if Player B has missed a land drop.  You ask, and both players agree that neither has missed a land drop prior to this turn.  There’s nothing else going on; the game state is fairly simple with both players having played only two or three spells.

At this point there is no chance to change your mind, so you terminate the investigation and use your current hypothesis to rule that Player B has not yet played a land.

Unfortunately they aren’t usually this easy.  Or maybe I should say fortunately, because judging is more interesting when the calls are more difficult.  Here’s an example.


Example #2

At a PTQ round 4 of 7, you get called to Table 7 with a Faeries vs Faeries matchup in Game 3.  You recognize both players; you know them well as frequent and highly-competitive PTQ and GP players.  The game is over, but the players have stated that on the previous turn Player B was supposed to draw a card from a Vendilion Clique that Player A just cast.  The players all agree on the following details and actions:  Player A is at 3 life and Player B is at 2 life.  Each player has three 1/1 faerie tokens late in the game with lots of lands (Player A had just cast Oona, Queen of the Fae and activated it for three tokens, then Player B killed Oona).  Player A asked “How many cards?” to which Player B responded “None”.  Player A ended his turn with one card in hand and announced that he had draw step effects.  Player B untapped and drew, then Player A cast Vendilion Clique targeting B.  Player A chooses to make Player B put the card he just drew on the bottom of library, but then Player B forgot to draw a card to complete the effect from Vendilion Clique.  Player B passes, then Player A draws a bounce spell for his turn, bounces a Faerie, and swings for the win.  Player B concedes.

If you are right now deciding whether to back up through the concession because of the GRV for failing to execute correctly the Vendilion Clique ability, then you have missed the possibility that Player A may have cheated by intentionally failing to remind Player B to draw a card for the Clique.  That issue needs to be resolved first because that determines the infraction.  So let’s start there.

The default hypothesis is “forgot – GRV”, because we don’t presume guilt without evidence.  What might change your mind?  Player A confessing would, so you ask him to explain what happened, but in his story he says that he forgot.  Yeah, that’d be too easy here.  You are still on “forgot – GRV”.  What else?

Maybe Player A’s body language will tell you something, but when he describes what happened, you can’t tell anything from his body language.  Body language can be helpful if you know what to look for, but it can be a tricky and unreliable business.  What else?

It seems strange that Player A would forget because he had asked about cards in hand right before that.  Maybe they had other conversation?  When you ask, Player B says that as Player A cast Vendilion Clique, Player A also said “I hope this works”.  When you ask Player A about this, he says that he may have said something, but he can’t remember for sure.  It’s unlikely that Player B would make this up, and Player A’s answer to you doesn’t deny it, so you probably assume it’s true.  This may change your mind, because it appears that Player A knows exactly how he wanted the scenario to play out, and it seems unlikely that he would forget when there’s nothing else to think about.  Put another way:  Player A forgetting is a collateral truth of his innocence, and it now seems unlikely.

Now you start thinking about risk vs reward, as described in Part 2.  You realize that Player A is 3-0 going into this round, and if this result holds up, he will be 4-0.  One more win in the next two rounds and he could likely draw into the Top 8.  That is a valuable payoff and most judges wouldn’t pick up on this, so Player A might think that the risk is low.  This might change your mind to “cheat – DQ”.

At this point regardless of which way you think is more likely, it’s time to stop the investigation.  If you don’t think “cheat” is the correct interpretation, nothing else will convince you.  And if you think “cheat” IS the correct interpretation, nothing except telepathy will convince you otherwise.   You might double-check your logic, but it is definitely time to stop.

Note that it is possible to be wrong in whichever way you believe it to have happened, but if you can support your ruling with logic and evidence, then your ruling is correct.  Don’t lose time by trying to find that perfect evidence, because it might not exist in a way that you can get it.  If no reasonable possibilities can change your mind, end it and rule.  Sometimes it’s hard on you either way.  Trust me, I’ve been there.


Example #3 – Amazing but True

During a deckcheck of Players A and B at a Legacy Open, a judge discovers Player A to be standing about two meters from the deckcheck table and watching the judges check his deck.  The judge is worried that Player A has followed the deckcheck team back to the table to gain unauthorized information about Player B’s deck.  You investigate.

Player A says that he asked the swooping judge if he could get up and follow him to the deckcheck, and that the judge said yes.  Your current hypothesis is probably “WTF?”, so you ask him why he would want to do that.  The player claims that he was worried about his $4000 Legacy deck and wanted to keep an eye on it.  You change your hypothesis to “Weird but possible” and decide that a talk with the swoop judge should help change or solidify your mind.   You ask the swooping judge and he says that the player asked to get up and go to the bathroom, and of course the judge had said yes.

Whoops!  You might be back to “player is lying” or maybe to “judge is mistaken”, but think for a moment.  Do you really think that this player would make up THAT story?  That story – if it is a lie – has just about a 0% of succeeding, and so you are missing something, because the player’s risk is ridiculously too large for this to be correct.  “Player is lying” seems possible but unlikely.  Is there any way to get more info?  If only you had a third-party witness…

Well, you might.  The opponent might have heard something because he was at the table.  You ask him and he says that Player A asked to “get up and follow the judge” and the judge said yes!  You ask both the opponent and the judge again about their level of confidence in what they heard, and both say that they are certain.  Now YOU should be certain that one of them is incorrect.

So where are you?  In light of the opponent’s testimony that corroborates Player A’s story, you should be thinking “no infraction (but maybe a great story for the judge dinner)”.  What could change your mind?  The answer is… nothing!  Even if you question the judge again about what he heard the player say and even if the judge says that he’s certain that the player asked about the bathroom, you can’t overcome the testimony of the opponent!  With the opponent testifying in favor of the accused, you have no chance of changing your mind.  In other words, if you explained this to, say, the Judge Center (in a DQ report, for example), you could not justify a DQ for Lying here, because you cannot overcome the opponent’s statement.  A collateral truth of the player’s guilt is that this opponent is either mistaken or lying.  The opponent lying is incredibly remote, and if the opponent is mistaken in what he heard (unlikely), you will never be able to determine that now.  So stop the investigation immediately and get the players back to playing.

This actually happened, and this investigation took a long time as the HJ went back and forth, hearing each story several times.  The swooping judge’s written statement indicated that he had assumed the player wanted to go to the bathroom from his body language and the swooping judge did not list verbatim what the player had said.  So it appears that the swooping judge was not at all certain of his understanding of the matter.  In any case, there was no point in going past the first 5 minutes once the opponent had confirmed Player A’s story, because nothing after that would matter.  Sadly, the player was DQ’ed despite the support from the opponent’s statement, and the HJ glossed over the opponent’s statement as if it were irrelevant.  Yet it was the most important piece of evidence.

Here’s another way to look at it:  if you are going to ask the opponent and then NOT use his statement to change your mind when it contradicts your hypothesis, then why are you asking the opponent?  You should be looking for information to help the player just as hard as you are looking for information to DQ him.  Investigations are about how to change your mind!  As an Investigations Committee judge, I was unhappy to see this case because an injustice was done to the player.



Look for evidence that would change your mind.  If you know you won’t get any, then just stop and make a ruling.  Lots of judges delay and hitch just trying for the perfect evidence of guilt or innocence (or land played/not played).  It happens once in a while, but don’t count on it.

I’ve seen judges ask a player FIVE times to explain what happened.  By the time #5 comes up, there will be some slight differences in the story, and some judges are quick to jump on minor differences between story #1 and story #5.  This is called a witch-hunt (look it up) because you are not going to stop until you find a witch to burn.  Please don’t do this.


Wrap Up

This series was designed to help you formulate a plan during investigations and decide which information might be helpful.  Part 1 defined collateral truths are consequences that you might be able to verify or falsify, so that you can test a story.  Part 2 described motivation as a collateral truth of cheating, so that if you analyze risk vs reward, you might learn something.  Part 3 described the idea of “What can change your mind?” as it should be used to decide when to stop an investigation.

Approach every judge call with an open mind and a readiness to tweak or abandon your hypothesis.  Be willing to change your mind, try to change your mind, and be aware of when your mind can no longer be changed.

Don’t expect to become expert at these right away.  It takes practice, but you can get that practice in even the routine judge calls.  Here are some things I’ve learned along the way:

  • Separate the players quickly if the call is not about rules, because players pick up on each other’s arguments very quickly.
  • Talk to spectators if that might change your mind.
  • Look for data that helps a player just as you would look for data that works against him.
  • Realize that sometimes you will have to decide which option is more likely, rather than which option is certain.  And be wary of the word certain.  Players and judges often use the word or concept quite incorrectly.

Solving judge calls and logistics problems, leading teams to be efficient and productive, discussing and disputing policy…  These are judge puzzles, and they make judging fun.  Enjoy!