Backing Up to the Future

Written by Riki Hayashi

Written by Riki Hayashi

When the October 2014 edition of the IPG was released, we got a brand new Section 1.4 – Backing Up. Merely 265 words detail the philosophy of a procedure that has been with us in judging for as long as I’ve been a judge but has never formally been documented in even this scarce verbiage. These 265 words are powerful. They are important. They are also, sadly, being ignored by many judges.



At GPs, Head Judges frequently delegate the responsibility of backing up for GRVs and CPVs to L3s. As judges come to me with their “potential backup” scenarios, it has become increasingly clear that the new Section 1.4 has gone largely unnoticed. It is near the top of the document but relegated to the proverbial back pages.



Before we dive into the deep end of discussion, here’s a scenario to consider: Player A passes the turn, and Player B decides to tap out to cast Cryptic Command at the end of A’s turn. She chooses the modes “return target permanent to its owner’s hand,” targeting A’s Island, and “draw a card.” Player A has no responses and Cryptic Command resolves. Island returns to A’s hand and B draws a card. A has no other actions and B begins to untap her lands for her turn when she notices that one of the four lands used to cast Cryptic Command is a Scalding Tarn. There was nothing that would allow for Scalding Tarn to tap for mana (like an Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth or Blood Moon). Take a minute or two to think about this situation and how you would deal with it if you were the responding judge, and we’ll come back to it a little later.


Source Code

In this article, we are specifically discussing backups for infractions such as GRV and CPV as guided by the IPG. “Reversing Illegal Actions” is discussed in Comprehensive Rules section 717 for issues such as casting a spell (CR 601.2). These are distinct from “Backing Up” discussed in IPG Section 1.4 for infractions committed by continuing the game after an error occurs. If the spell is resolving or actions have been taken after casting the spell, the CR reversal cannot apply and you must consider whether to back the game up per the IPG.

As with all rulings, you should do your due diligence in investigating. You should be able to figure this out based on what the players describe, but it never hurts to throw in a question like “Has anything happened after this spell was cast?” If the answer is “no” then you should proceed with the backup. Return the spell to hand and reverse any costs that have been paid.


Safety Not Guaranteed

During discussions about whether to backup or not, one question more than any other causes judges to freeze up: “What are the players going to do after you let them resume their game?”

This is a concept that is similar to a time travel story. When you backup game actions, you are traveling back through time until you reach the point of the error. When you correct for the error, you’ve altered the past, and when you let the players resume play, you’ve restarted an edited time stream. As Doc Brown showed us in Back to the Future II, any change to the past can lead to a dramatically tangential branch of time. The inability to answer the above question shows that judges do not take into consideration how an altered time stream will play out.

Consider the following:

AP casts Drown in Sorrow in his pre-combat main phase, killing NAP’s Goblin Rabblemaster, and attacks with his 1/1 Seeker of the Way (-2/-2 from the Drown and +1/+1 from prowess). Before blockers NAP casts Raise the Alarm and blocks the Seeker with a Soldier token. Nothing else happens and the two creatures trade in combat. In his post-combat main phase, AP looks down and notices that he could not have legally cast Drown in Sorrow because he only had access to one black mana source.

Many judges would choose to back up in this scenario. After all, the actions that need to be backed up are straightforward. In order they are:

  1. Return Seeker of the Way (tapped) and a Soldier token to the battlefield.
  2. Return 2 Soldier tokens to the aether, put Raise the Alarm back in NAP’s hand and untap the 2 lands she used to cast the spell.
  3. Untap Seeker of the Way.
  4. Return Goblin Rabblemaster to the battlefield.
  5. Reverse the scry 1 from Drown in Sorrow, randomizing AP’s library.
  6. Put Drown in Sorrow back in AP’s hand and untap the 3 lands he used to cast the spell.

We can reasonably back up all of these game actions without much disruption. But what happens when the time stream restarts? For one, the player might not be able to legally cast Drown in Sorrow this turn depending on what his lands are and whether he has made a land drop. That’s obviously a huge change to how this game will play out.

Will AP attack with his Seeker of the Way? Probably not because he has knowledge of the Raise the Alarm in NAP’s hand and doesn’t want to trade his Seeker for 2 Soldier tokens. If AP doesn’t attack with Seeker, does NAP cast Raise the Alarm at the end of AP’s turn? Maybe not because she now has knowledge of the Drown in Sorrow in AP’s hand. Sometimes it is information that is the most dangerous aspect of a potential backup, something that is explicitly called out in Section 1.4. If combat tricks, removal spells, or counterspells have been cast in the interim, backing up and leaving the players with knowledge that their opponent has whatever was played needs to be in your head as a possible disruption to the game.


Back to the Future

Let’s return to the scenario from the beginning of the article. Would you back this up? To get some information about what judges in general think, I posted polls with this scenario in several regional Judge Facebook groups. Over a quarter of responding judges initially favored a backup, but over the course of the discussion people brought up Section 1.4 and that seemed to sway opinions in favor of no backup.

For the sake of completeness, let’s take a look at the actions that need to be reversed here to return to the point just before the error:

  1. Re-tap Player B’s lands (If not already done so. The error was caught while Player B was untapping for her turn, so B may already have retapped them).
  2. Return a random card from B’s hand to the top of her library. If the identity of the card was somehow known to both players (Courser of Kruphix) you can return the known card. This is not the case here, so we go with an unknown card. It never hurts to ask the opponent “Is there any reason you might know the identity of the card that was drawn?”
  3. Return the Island from A’s hand to the battlefield.
  4. Return Cryptic Command from B’s graveyard to her hand.
  5. Untap the four lands that B used to cast Cryptic Command. You’ll note that we’ve re-tapped and now untapped the lands. Yes, this might be a fine spot for a shortcut, but it’s good to go through all of the actions just to make sure you’ve covered all of your bases.

On the whole, this is not a complicated set of actions to reverse. However, the elephant in this scenario is the reversed card draw being a random card from B’s hand. When combined with the Scalding Tarn in play, it opens up the door for entirely new decision trees and alternate timelines. If B doesn’t like the card that was randomly put on top of her library, she will fetch with impunity, cast Cryptic Command, and rejoice at the free “Brainstorm” effect that the backup just offered her. If she does like the card she may reluctantly crack her fetch and shuffle away her good card, or she may choose not to crack the fetch (and by extension not cast Cryptic Command) at all in order to redraw that card on her turn. Strange days indeed.

Section 1.4 specifically calls out this scenario in its last paragraph:

“Backups involving random/unknown elements should be approached with extreme caution, especially if they cause or threaten to cause a situation in which a player will end up with different cards than they would once they have correctly drawn those cards. For example, returning cards to the library when a player has the ability to shuffle their library is not something that should be done except in extreme situations.”


About Time

Given the above, you might think that you should never back up past a card draw. This actually isn’t the case at all. If Player A casts a spell illegally, passes the turn, and Player B draws a card and plays a land that may very well be a reasonable backup.

Even with scenarios as simple as this one seems, you need to evaluate the game beyond just the actions that you plan on backing up. Let’s say that our old nemesis, fetchland, is on the battlefield for Player B. They haven’t cracked it thus far because they’ve been using it to generate mana via Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth. Backing up now creates an extra complication. If you do so and return a random card from their hand to the top of their library, they have that free “Brainstorm” now with the option of cracking their fetchland to draw a different card. Even when the fetch land isn’t the source of the problem (as in the Cryptic Command scenario) just its mere presence on the battlefield can create this potential issue.

So does that mean you shouldn’t backup when there is a fetchland on the battlefield? Not necessarily. Giving the player a free Brainstorm here isn’t an irrevocable wall that we can’t move past. What it comes down to is weighing it against the error and the resultant corruption to the game. If the original GRV that Player A committed was casting a spell and not taking a point of damage off of Mana Confluence, that’s a far cry from him not having the requisite colored mana for the spell at all. Leaving the game state as is with Player A at +1 life is probably fine, but having an Elspeth, Sun’s Champion in play that couldn’t have been cast at all is probably not.


Time Bandits

During the discussion of the poll question, several judges brought up this clause from Section 1.3:

“These procedures do not, and should not, take into account the game being played, the current situation that the game is in, or who will benefit strategically from the procedure associated with a penalty. While it is tempting to try to “fix” game situations, the danger of missing a subtle detail or showing favoritism to a player (even unintentionally) makes it a bad idea.”

Many people are nervous about making a decision of whether to backup or not on the possibility of draw/fetch being a free Brainstorm. They feel that this violates the “take into account the current situation that the game is in” clause. Quoting this clause out of context is a red herring. Section 1.3 is titled “Applying Penalties,” and the quoted paragraph needs to be taken in that context. It used to be the case that judges would need to evaluate the severity of the error in choosing a penalty. There was a time when a judge might give a Game Loss because a player flipped over a bunch of his opponent’s card during pre-game shuffling, and the number and nature of the cards was “bad enough” because he could figure out what deck his opponent was playing.

The primary aim of the above clause is avoiding judgment calls like that. You should most definitely “take into account the game being played, and the game situation that the game is in” when deciding whether to back up or not. What then of “who benefits strategically”? Isn’t that a problem with our decision to backup through a draw/fetch? Aren’t we determining strategic advantage in terms of what card gets put on top of the library?

Here is where it is important to draw the line between “strategic advantage” and “strategic choices.” Putting a random card from the hand on top of the library and shuffling it away to the fetch may be advantageous for the player. It could also be disadvantageous–in fact, so much so that the player chooses not to fetch and cast Cryptic Command in order to redraw that card. That’s a wide range of strategic options that a potential backup opens up to the player. Evaluate THAT, not the specific (dis)advantage itself, especially since in order to evaluate (dis)advantage we would need to already be in the process of starting the backup and picking a random card.


A Sound of Thunder

In addition to “backup” and “leave the game as is,” the poll also presented the option of “make the player use Scalding Tarn now to fetch a land.” Keep in mind that this is after Cryptic Command has resolved, a card has been drawn, and we are currently in Player B’s untap step.

A few brave souls did choose this option.  Brave because it goes against written policy, making it a deviation. It’s a deviation that makes a lot of sense, and probably the fix of choice at Regular REL, but at Competitive REL it is important to follow the policy. The classic reason given is for consistency across tournaments. Some have argued that we already have inconsistency between the “backup” and “leave alone” camps. That’s true, but that isn’t an argument to increase inconsistency by allowing deviations. Also, part of the aim of this article is to increase consistency in which camp we will choose under the guidance of Section 1.4.

The reason that there are currently only 4 approved “default fixes,” (and “just fetch” isn’t one of them) is because approved “default fixes” need to be vetted to make sure they work in a majority of the cases where they are applied. With “just fetch,” right off the bat there is a nightmare scenario of “What if the player no longer has any fetchable lands in their deck?”. This might not be a worry for our turn four Cryptic Command, but it could happen when we try to apply this same fix at a later point in the game. In both Standard and Modern, many games reach the point where players run out of fetchable lands. It’s possible that a partial fix of “just fetch” would have to involve a judge looking through the library to evaluate whether a legal fetch is still possible, and that’s a messy situation.


The City at the Edge of Tomorrow

It’s tempting to hop into our judge time machine and go back in time to edit the past, correcting for past transgressions. But if you’ve watched or read any science fiction story with time travel, you know how badly things can go even with the best of intentions. Go back in time and assassinate Hitler? Sure, now Stalin takes over the world and kills even more innocent people. Or in an even stranger twist, aliens take over the planet.

Considering whether to back up a game of Magic is a decision that we should take seriously and evaluate beyond just the scope of the actions that need to be reversed. We should take into consideration the potential ramifications of “backup” versus “leave alone”, and try to evaluate which is least disruptive to the game. Sometimes we need to be okay with leaving a game state as is. Ultimately, the players not only caused this alternate timeline to take shape, but allowed it to persist through multiple game decisions. As judges, our job is to weigh those decisions versus the original damage to the time stream and pick the “least bad” option. Sometimes, this means making a decision that won’t seem good to the players. Maybe they haven’t considered the full ramifications of a fetch/draw backup. In cases like that, Section 1.4 offers a handy phrase that judges can tell players: “backups are regarded as a solution of last resort.”

So take this away: I don’t mind, but you better promise me you’ll think “back in time?”

Riki BttF