Backup to the Future Part II

When you’re handling Game Rule Violations, it’s good to have a backup plan.

Once upon a time, information about backing up the game was scattered throughout the IPG, in at least two different sections. Fortunately, today, we have an entire subsection of the IPG that’s dedicated to the care and feeding of backups: when they should be considered, how we should perform them, and why we do them.

If you haven’t yet read that part of the IPG (Section 1.4), I’d strongly encourage you to do so right now. Even if you have read it before, why not refresh your knowledge? It’s only four paragraphs.

Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

OK, good, you’re back! To underscore what you just read, let me summarize the most important part: backups are a solution of last resort. Say that with me again: backups are a solution of last resort.

We should never rush into performing a backup. Instead, we should consider carefully how it could affect the game, both in terms of players’ future decisions and the information they’re gaining by turning back the game’s clock. We can evaluate whether a proposed backup is a good one by asking ourselves if the line of play will remain the same, and if the information gained won’t impact the players’ decisions.

Because backups are so messy, the authors of the IPG (Toby Elliott and friends) have outlined a few situations where we should perform a minor fix rather than rewinding the game. Although imperfect, these fixes are useful because they more-or-less restore the game to its proper state. Moreover, the list of these fixes is carefully controlled and vetted to make sure they work reasonably well in the majority of situations, even when their effects are abruptly thrust upon the game.

Given the existence of these fixes, a logical question is the following: should we prioritize applying these fixes, or performing a full backup? Once upon a time, the answer to this question was a matter of some debate. As of Khans of Tarkir, though, the IPG is very explicit: When we encounter a Game Rule Violation, we should evaluate whether any of these fixes could apply first. For this reason, judges like Riki Hayashi have suggested describing these fixes as “default fixes.” I like this, so that’s the term I’ll be using throughout this post. (These fixes were once known as “partial fixes,” since they stood in contrast to the idea of a “full backup.”)

Armed with the concept of default fixes, we can lay down this rule: We should consider backing up the game only if the situation doesn’t match any of the default fixes. However, there is one caveat. If performing a backup is very simple, we should perform that backup instead. This provision was added to handle situations where applying the default fix produces an illogical result. Don’t go crazy with this, though; “very simple” really means just that. We’ll discuss this aspect of policy a little more during Mis-Clique, so don’t worry about it too much for now!

With this groundwork established, it’s time to review the scenarios from last week! Thanks to the many people who participated and shared their thoughts in the comments. I really enjoyed reading all your responses.

As a caveat, keep in mind that many judge calls are just that: judgment calls. This is especially true when it comes to backups. While we aim for consistency, some variation is inevitable. In particular, my judgment may be different from yours. When discussing these rulings, I’m generally not aiming to present “solutions” or “answers.” Rather, my goal is to outline a rubric for evaluating different circumstances, and explore how that leads us to accept or reject certain fixes. So if you feel strongly about a scenario in the comments, let me know! I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Now, let’s get to the rulings!

Service with a Guile

Click for Scenario!
Annie controls Guile, Hearthfire Hobgoblin, and Ethercaste Knight. Nunu controls a Tumble Magnet with three charge counters and a Runed Servitor. Annie says “Combat?” Nunu says, “Sure.” Annie attacks with all her creatures, and Nunu blocks Guile with the Runed Servitor. Annie says, “OK, take 5.” Nunu replies, “Yes, and we both draw a card.” Both players mark the damage and draw a card from the Servitor’s trigger; Annie now has four cards in hand. In her postcombat main phase, Annie plays a Blood Ogre and puts a counter on it from bloodthirst, then passes the turn. Then Annie realizes that Runed Servitor shouldn’t have been able to block Guile, and calls for a judge. Do you rewind? How far? What factors influence your decision?

Nunu has clearly committed a Game Rule Violation by declaring an illegal block, and none of the default fixes apply. So we are presented with the option of deciding whether to back up the game or leave things as they are.

Let’s consider what would happen if we rewind. First, we reverse the casting of Blood Ogre, putting it back in Annie’s hand. Next, we randomly put a card from each player’s hand back on top of their library. Third, we reverse the damage dealt to Nunu. Fourth, we put Runed Servitor back onto the battlefield. Finally, we have Nunu declare a new set of blockers.

Although each of these actions is relatively simple to undo, that’s a lot to back up! In particular, there’s only a 25% chance that Annie has the same hand of cards that she did before. (While I didn’t specify in the scenario how many cards Nunu has, the same idea applies to him equally.) Moreover, both players now know the top card of their library. This is particularly impactful for Nunu, who can now control whether he draws that card via his blocking decision (since the Servitor would die during first strike combat damage if it blocked Annie’s Hearthfire Hobgoblin, but survive if it blocked her Ethercaste Knight). Kudos to Mani for astutely pointing out and summarizing this element of the scenario.

While it’s tempting to “fix” the six points of damage that Nunu should have been dealt, it’s clear that the game would proceed very differently if we did back up. At Vegas, I left the game as-is. I told the players that I wasn’t willing to back up because so much had occurred, and both seemed to accept this solution.

As for penalties, this is just a typical Game Rule Violation for Nunu, and a Failure to Maintain Game State for Annie. Even though the error stemmed from text printed on Annie’s creature, the “double GRV” clause only applies when one player is performing an action called for by another player’s effect. Guile changes the rules of the game, but its blocking restriction doesn’t actually ask Nunu to do something, so this clause doesn’t apply.

What’s Black and Blue and Sorcery Speed Only

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Lumiel is playing against Belial. On her turn, Lumiel casts Dimir Guildmage and passes the turn. Belial untaps, draws, and says, “Go.” Lumiel taps eight mana and says, “On your end step, Dimir Guildmage, targeting you twice, discard two cards.” Belial discards two cards. Shiva the spectator interrupts and asks the players to call a judge. Do you rewind? Why or why not? What if Belial had done something on his turn?

Almost all commenters wanted to back this up, and I agree with this decision. So did Joe Wiesenberg, who shared this scenario with me during Vegas. Leaving the game as-is is a substantially worse solution than doing nothing, and the backup is simple to perform because it was caught promptly (thanks, Shiva!). Thus, backing up makes sense here.

There is one mitigating factor, but I don’t feel it’s a major concern. The IPG tells us that a good backup is one where the gained information “makes no difference” on the player’s decisions. As Charles pointed out, Lumiel now has some additional information about Belial’s hand, but it’s unlikely that this additional information will substantially alter Lumiel’s future lines of play. Moreover, if you polled random players from your store or playgroup, I suspect the majority (if not all) of them would prefer to have those two cards in their hand, even if their opponent knew what they were, than in their graveyard. Shout-out to Charles for considering this angle!

As for penalties, we have a Game Rule Violation for Lumiel, and Failure to Maintain Game State for Belial. Lumiel has obviously committed an error by activating an ability when she wasn’t allowed to. As for Belial, although Shiva the spectator did intervene quickly, Belial nonetheless did actually complete the action of discarding two cards, so FtMGS’s “escape clause” doesn’t apply.

Moreover, this once again isn’t a double GRV. Belial carried out the instructions from an effect Lumiel controlled correctly; the error was that the Guildmage’s ability had been activated illegally, which is a subtle but important distinction. (Take an analogous situation: I cast Wrath of God by spending UUUW, and my opponent puts all her creatures in the graveyard. Then a spectator points out I cast Wrath of God illegally. This, too, would be a FtMGS for my opponent, not GRV.)

Sweet Oracle O’ Mine

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Axl is fighting Noel. Axl has just cast Etched Oracle with sunburst of four, leaving him with no cards in hand. At her first opportunity, Noel casts Smash to Smithereens targeting Axl’s Oracle. Axl says, “In response, I’ll activate Etched Oracle’s ability and draw.” Axl picks up four cards from his library, and Noel calls for a judge. What do you do?

Among those who commented, this scenario was most divisive, with an almost even split between issuing a Game Loss for Drawing Extra cards, versus downgrading that penalty to a Warning due to the cards being drawn into an empty hand.

This ruling was similarly divisive at GP Vegas itself — at least, among the floor judges. This ruling occurred on Day 2 of the main event of the GP. (While Day 2 is run at Professional REL, that doesn’t impact this ruling.) I was made aware of an issue by an L2 who wanted to consult with an L3, and I ended up roping in another L3 as well. It turns out that all three of us felt this was something slightly different:

  • Is it Looking at Extra Cards, and a Warning? (Axl has no hand, so how can we say that he’s “drawn” these cards?)
  • Is it Drawing Extra Cards, with a Game Loss? (Doesn’t Axl have 4 cards when he should have 3?)
  • Is it Drawing Extra Cards, but downgraded to a Warning? (Didn’t Axl draw all the cards into an empty hand?)

Thus divided, we consulted with Toby Elliott and Chris Richter, the Head Judges for Day Two. Toby clarified that the downgrade clause only applies when the player’s hand is empty and they are drawing a single card, not multiple. Armed with this knowledge, I authorized a Game Loss for Drawing Extra Cards. The player appealed, and Chris confirmed the ruling.

Initially, I thought that it was inconsistent to issue a Warning when a player has an empty hand and draws one card (instead of zero), but to issue a Game Loss when a player has an empty hand and draws four cards at once (instead of three). After some thought and discussion, however, I came around to understand Toby’s point of view that these are distinct scenarios. For me, the key difference was that, in the second case, the opponent could easily overlook the extra card being drawn, whereas it’s nearly impossible to miss a player’s hand going from “empty” to “having one card.” That said, this is an area of policy that I wouldn’t mind seeing revisited. Until then, especially since many judges seem to believe this should be downgraded, I’ll make sure to spread the message about how this situation ought to be handled.

Bless You!

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Aladdin attacks Nala with a 2/2 Stormblood Berserker. Nala’s only creatures are Dimir Guildmage and Spikeshot Elder. Nala blocks the Berserker with both of her creatures, stacking them on top of each other so the Guildmage is closer to the Berserker. Aladdin passes priority. Nala then casts Apostle’s Blessing targeting her Dimir Guildmage, and names red. Aladdin passes and lets Nala’s Blessing resolve, then casts a Blessing of his own. When it resolves, Aladdin names black, and moves Nala’s creatures so that the Spikeshot Elder is closer to his Berseker. Nala calls for a judge. What do you do? Does your response change at all if the Berserker is a 1/1 or a 3/3?

There’s a lot going on in this scenario: combat tricks from each player, a missing blocking order, and a variation on the size of the Berseker just for good measure. As usual, though, this all stemmed from a single error: a Game Rule Violation committed by Aladdin, who didn’t declare a blocking order. With that in mind, let’s run this scenario through our usual rubrics. (To make things simple, let’s assume the Stormblood Berserker is a 2/2.)

First, we ask ourselves: is the backup simple? This is, I think, the pivotal question for the ruling. Backing up requires reversing two spells, and leaks a lot of information. That doesn’t fit the “very simple” criterion, so we should consider default fixes instead of backing up first.

Our second question, then, is to ask whether there’s a default fix that applies? And it turns out there definitely is! The most recent IPG changes added declaring a blocking order to the list of allowable default fixes. In explaining why this was added, Toby explains that “rewinding these is often messy, [but] it can’t be left undeclared if it’s relevant, so it’s best to have the players declare it now.” Aladdin has effectively declared a blocking order by moving the creatures around, so we can basically leave everything as-is.

This solution is totally by-the-book…but it’s not the remedy I actually applied at Vegas. At Vegas, I did in fact rewind both Blessings, then had Aladdin declare a blocker order. I made this departure from written policy because I felt that rewinding the game was a substantially better solution than applying the partial fix.

A few distinct factors played into this decision. First, even though a great deal of information is being leaked by this backup, that information is symmetric. This isn’t a principle that’s found anywhere in the IPG, so don’t take too much stock in it as a general rule (or even a useful one). Rather, I mention it solely to provide an accurate accounting of my mental process at the time.

Second, from chatting with the players, I realized that, when Nala cast her spell, she was under the impression that Aladdin had accepted the blocking order for the Berserker, with the Guildmage in front. (Eli astutely remarked on the possibility that maybe Nala was “Jedi-mind-tricking” Aladdin into accepting a particular blocking order, but I don’t think that was the case; it’s less that Nala deliberately placed her creatures in a specific order, and more that they ended up in that order when she moved them to block.) I personally felt this was a reasonable expectation, and as such, I was inclined to demonstrate some discretion in handling this error.

In retrospect, this ruling was complicated enough that I should have consulted with another judge, perhaps even the Head Judge. Also, this happened to be the first time I’d taken a call involving a damage assignment order not being declared, so getting the perspective of judge with that experience would have been helpful. This call was a great reminder that I don’t have to make all my decisions alone!


Click for Scenario!
In Atom’s draw step, Nebula casts Vendilion Clique and announces she’s targeting Atom with the trigger. Atom reveals his hand, and Nebula selects Chimeric Mass. Atom puts Chimeric Mass into his graveyard, and neglects to draw a card. Nebula then Lightning Bolts Atom’s Court Homunculus. When Atom puts Court Homunculus into his graveyard on top of Chimeric Mass, the players realize Atom’s mistake, and call for a judge. What do you do?

This was another ruling I saw Joe Weisenberg make during Day One of Vegas. As multiple commenters pointed out, Atom has incorrectly followed an instruction called for by an effect Nebula controls. This is precisely our criterion for issuing the elusive and oft-misapplied “double GRV”; we should give both players a Warning for a Game Rule Violation. Even though Nebula made two mistakes, they have the same root cause, so we only issue one Warning to each player.

Now for the fix! As always, we first evaluate whether we should perform a simple backup. I actually think it’s quite straightforward to perform this backup, as we’re only reversing a single decision (casting Lightning Bolt) from one player. Moreover, Nebula already knew the contents of Atom’s hand due to her Vendilion Clique. If the game had progressed naturally, Atom ought to have an additional card, which he perhaps could use to respond to Atom’s Bolt.

However, this idea runs somewhat afoul of the idea that a backup shouldn’t change a player’s line of play. Moreover, Toby clarified on his blog that the clause allowing us to perform a “very simple backup” instead of applying the default fixes was mostly meant to avoid situations where blindly applying the default fixes would produce unintuitive results. This is not the case here, so we should consider if any of the default fixes apply. Happily, it turns out not one, but two of the default fixes are relevant here!

First, Atom’s Chimeric Mass was supposed to change zones, but was put into the wrong one (the graveyard). Both players still know the identity of the card, and moving it doesn’t disrupt the game at all at this point, so we’ve met all the requirements for this default fix.

Second, Atom has failed to draw a card from the final part of Vendilion Clique‘s ability, so he should do so at this point.

Although it’s unusual to apply two default fixes at once, nothing disallows us from doing so. So we simply combine the two fixes, issue the appropriate GRV penalties, and we’re done.

That’s a Wrap-Up

That’s all we have time for today! I hope you enjoyed discussing these situations with me. If you want to even learn more about backups, I highly recommend Riki’s (very-excellently-named) article on the topic, Backing Up to the Future.

Thanks again for the many comments on last week’s post. If you liked this style of article, please let me know, and I’ll make sure to do it again!

3 thoughts on “Backup to the Future Part II

  1. In the second to last paragraph of the last scenario, you say that Nebula should have drawn a card. V-Clique makes the player that discarded (Atom) draw.

  2. Thoughts on the DEC ruling:
    “Cards are drawn one at a time” and the first example of DEC both seem to support Toby’s reading over a GRV or other penalty. Great writeup!

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