Shortcut it Out

Written by Nathaniel Lawrence

Written by Nathaniel Lawrence

Magic is a very complex and highly structured game. Playing exactly how the rules are laid out would be both extremely difficult and highly time consuming. If every game was played exactly as spelled out in the Comprehensive Rules, no tournament match would ever finish in time.


What is a Tournament Shortcut?

A tournament shortcut is what players use to navigate the course of a game of Magic without having to play like robots. Shortcuts are a way to communicate a desired goal, then bypass all the superfluous actions leading to that goal. Shortcuts save time and allow people to play Magic organically.

Later, we’ll go over some of the types of tournament shortcuts and how to use them effectively. First, let’s see what the Magic Tournament Rules (MTR) has to say about them!

4.2 Tournament Shortcuts

A tournament shortcut is an action taken by players to skip parts of the technical play sequence without explicitly announcing them. Tournament shortcuts are essential for the smooth play of a game, as they allow players to play in a clear fashion without getting bogged down in the minutia of the rules.

Most tournament shortcuts involve skipping one or more priority passes to the mutual understanding of all players; if a player wishes to demonstrate or use a new tournament shortcut entailing any number of priority passes, he or she must be clear where the game state will end up as part of the request.

A player may interrupt a tournament shortcut by explaining how he or she is deviating from it or at which point in the middle he or she wishes to take an action.

A player may interrupt his or her own shortcut in this manner. A player is not allowed to use a previously undeclared tournament shortcut, or to modify an in-use tournament shortcut without announcing the modification, in order to create ambiguity in the game.

A player may not request priority and take no action with it. If a player decides he or she does not wish to do anything, the request is nullified and priority is returned to the player that originally had it.

With this we can already establish a few guidelines about shortcuts:

    • Shortcuts codify what a vast majority of players do on a routine basis.
    • They are meant to improve clarity within the game, not cause confusion or obfuscate play. If a player doesn’t understand the sequence of events leading to a desired end state, then a shortcut cannot be used.
  • For example, a dredge player who is about to trade creatures in combat with a Bridge from Below in their graveyard will often say “I get zombies, Bridge gets exiled” which has been found to occasionally confuse players. When this happens we usually try to go back and explain what happens one step at a time so everyone understands, effectively nullifying the shortcut.
  • Players CAN create their own shortcuts (more on this later).
  • Shortcuts CAN be changed over the course of the game, but require communication of intent by the players requesting the change.
  • Shortcuts CANNOT be used to “force” a player to take an action they don’t want to take, or otherwise press the course of a game beyond a point where a player expects to be able to take action.


How are tournament shortcuts used?

MTR 4.2 has a list of conventional tournament shortcuts which are recognized as “in use” by default:

• The statement “Go” (and equivalents such as “Your turn” and “Done”) offers to keep passing priority until an opponent has priority in the end step. Opponents are assumed to be acting then unless they specify otherwise.

• A statement such as “I’m ready for combat” or “Declare attackers?” offers to keep passing priority until an opponent has priority in the beginning of combat step. Opponents are assumed to be acting then unless they specify otherwise.

• Whenever a player adds an object to the stack, he or she is assumed to be passing priority unless he or she explicitly announces that he or she intends to retain it. If he or she adds a group of objects to the stack without explicitly retaining priority and a player wishes to take an action at a point in the middle, the actions should be reversed up to that point.

• “No attacks” or similar statements by the active player during combat offers to pass priority until an opponent has priority in the end of combat step.

• If a player casts a spell or activates an ability with X in its mana cost without specifying the value of X, it is assumed to be for all mana currently available in his or her pool.

• If a player casts a spell or activates an ability and announces choices for it that are not normally made until resolution, the player must adhere to those choices unless an opponent responds to that spell or ability. If an opponent inquires about choices made during resolution, that player is assumed to be passing priority and allowing that spell or ability to resolve.

• A player is assumed to have paid any cost of 0 unless he or she announces otherwise.

• A player who casts a spell or activates an ability that targets an object on the stack is assumed to target the legal target closest to the top of the stack unless the player specifies otherwise.

• A player is assumed to be attacking another player with his or her creatures and not any planeswalkers that player may control unless the attacking player specifies otherwise.

• A player who chooses a planeswalker as the target of a spell or ability that would deal damage is assumed to be targeting the planeswalker’s controller and redirecting the damage on resolution. The player must adhere to that choice unless an opponent responds.

• In the Two-Headed Giant format, attacking creatures are assumed to be assigning combat damage to the defending team’s primary head, unless the creature’s controller specifies otherwise.

Note some of these shortcuts seem to contradict the earlier statement that players have to be clear where the game will end up if they want to use a shortcut – this is because some shortcuts are already understood to communicate the necessary clarity through common use cases.

If players want to use a shortcut that isn’t listed here, it’s easy – they can agree on one. They demonstrate what they want to do, and where the game will end up when it’s done. If both players agree with the outcome and accept a shortcut, they can skip right to the “end state” of the shortcut and carry on playing from that point.

This is commonly seen with “loop” effects – Temur Ascendancy Combo, for example, can work itself into a board state where it’s possible to generate large quantities of mana via repeating looped actions, and then use that mana to add a large number of permanents to the battlefield via Genesis Hydra. Rather than performing all the bounce/play/untap/tap actions to generate the mana, they simply demonstrate once they can repeat the process indefinitely, keeping at least one mana more than they spend – and then state how much mana they would like to end up with, or state, “I’m going to keep doing this until I’ve put every creature from my library into play”.


What if there are triggered abilities that would occur in the middle of a shortcut?

Well, they’re probably going to happen, but it’s not guaranteed. The Infraction Procedure Guide (IPG 2.1) specifically states triggers are to be assumed remembered until the controller of the trigger takes some action that would demonstrate they have been missed. For example, just because the statement “Move to combat” offers to pass priority until the opponent has it in the Beginning of Combat step, it doesn’t mean the player isn’t going to be able to make a token with their Goblin Rabblemaster. As long as that player puts the token into play before declaring attackers, they’ve demonstrated they know the trigger exists at an appropriate time. However, if the opponent wants to act to prevent such triggers from occurring, such as making sure that Goblin Rabblemaster receives a Murderous Cut and doesn’t produce a token, then they’ll need to speak up and be clear about when they’re acting (namely, during the Precombat Main Phase). Otherwise, we assume they’ve acted specifically at the “last moment” and so the Goblin Rabblemaster trigger is already assumed to be on the stack.


Is it okay to make shortcuts that do things sometimes in the “wrong” order?

Yes, with some caveats. Out of Order Sequencing is the policy that applies here. It says players can take a series of actions in a not-technically-correct order as long as there is a legal way to take those actions and end up at the correct game state (MTR 4.3). So, a player could create a loop effect with their Temur Ascendancy Combo, state,  “I’m going to generate enough mana to bounce and replay Polukranos, World Eater five times, and draw five cards from Temur Ascendancy” – that’s usually acceptable. Even though the player couldn’t technically have played Polukranos, World Eater with the card drawing trigger on the stack, it’s simpler to demonstrate the action is repeatable and ultimately, what they want to do is draw five cards. An opponent doesn’t have to accept this shortcut of course, but declining a shortcut or interrupting it at a specific point requires reasoning. It doesn’t have to be as clear as, “I’m going to Disdainful Stroke your Polukranos” – just state “I have effects when you do X”.

Keep in mind,  Out of Order Sequencing can NEVER be used to see hidden information earlier than it would normally be allowed (For example, one cannot perform multiple Jeskai Ascendancy “loot” effects at once, drawing all of the cards before discarding any; one has to perform them one at a time, because each effect only entitles access to a single new card.)


Why is communication important?

Players need to talk it out. Communication is a big theme in Magic! Make sure players are clear about their actions, and if one player wants to take actions in the middle of the shortcut, then both players need to “play it out” rather than skipping the actions in between. Even if it’s a shortcut established for one player’s benefit, they’re allowed to take a different line of play. The default shortcuts listed above can also be bypassed in this way. The key is always clear communication.

Note earlier I said shortcuts cannot “force” players to do something they don’t want to do – I should mention because these default shortcuts exist, players are sometimes held to a line of play that follows one of these shortcuts, but this is almost always because they didn’t communicate their intent to their opponent beforehand. If communication of intent doesn’t occur, we fall back on the default assumptions the shortcuts create. Emphasize communication and players will have a much better game of Magic!


In Review

Shortcuts are used in every game of Magic ever played. Whether they be existing shortcuts or created by the players, they enable the game to flow naturally. The rules support shortcuts for a variety of purposes, and as long as the players are communicating, they’re a great tool to improve the Magic experience!