Communication and Consequences

Welcome back, dear reader!

Last week, we discussed an interesting ruling from a Vintage tournament. (If you didn’t read last week’s post, or need a refresher, you should read it before continuing! Spoilers ahead!)

I’d like to thank everyone who participated in the vivacious conversation about this ruling and its variations: Riva, Greg, Pi, Eli, and Andrew. You all raised great points, and I plan on addressing many of them in this post!

At the tournament, I ruled that no infraction had occurred and no backup would be performed. Arthas has paid a mana for one instance of Flusterstorm, and his Mox Emerald will remain tapped. I believe this was the correct ruling, and I would rule the same way if it happened again.

My primary justification for this ruling hinges on communication between the two players. Nova explicitly communicated what the game state looked like when she cast Flusterstorm. It’s now Arthas’ responsibility to parse that information and act upon it appropriately.

In this specific case, Arthas obviously seized upon the idea that just “one copy” of Flusterstorm was targeting his Time Walk, because that’s the last thing he heard. However, there are actually two instances of Flusterstorm targeting Time Walk: one copy plus the original. Arthas made an assumption about what “one copy targets Time Walk” meant. Moreover, he didn’t take the time to clarify what was going on, even though he could have. By rushing, he forgot what was going on with the original Flusterstorm. That’s a tactical error on Arthas’ part, not a communication problem between the players, so we shouldn’t back up.

In the comments, Pi and Eli both raised the possibility that Nova’s language was ambiguous. This is absolutely an angle worth considering, as players (and judges!) often use the word “copies” to refer to not only the literal copies, but also the original Flusterstorm. Indeed, in my opening announcements, I often encourage players to “communicate clearly.” On reflection, I wonder if what I really want to say is “communicate explicitly.” Although often used synonymously, clear communication and explicit communication are somewhat different things. In this case, Nova was perfectly explicit, but her wording was demonstrably unclear to someone who’s used to loosely calling the original Flusterstorm a “copy.”

For this ruling, I believe it was correct to prioritize explicitness over clarity. Among other reasons, the Magic Tournament Rules state that “Players are under no obligation to assist their opponents in playing the game.” This is a great example of where Nova gave Arthas all the information he needed, but he didn’t put it together in order to make the right play. The MTR also states that “The philosophy of the DCI is that a player should have an advantage due to…greater awareness of the interactions in the current game state.” As Eli pointed out, Arthas could have realized it’s impossible for there to be only three instances of Flusterstorm on the stack, since the storm count is three. But, again, he did not.

A potential counter-argument to all of the above is that Arthas clearly stated the reason he was tapping his Mox Emerald: to prevent Gush from being countered. However, paying {1} is insufficient for this task. Thus, since Arthas proposed doing something impossible, we should rewind the game. This smells a lot like “takesie-backsies” to me. Although many rulings can be justified by telling the players we hold them to a high standard of play in competitive Magic, that can come across as inconsistent, so it’s not my preferred approach. Is there some other way to address this concern?

As you might imagine, I discussed this ruling with several of the judges on staff at the event, one of whom proposed a paradigm that I found very interesting. Mani Cavalieri suggested that we can draw a line between a player’s actions and those actions’ results. Arthas has paid a mana for one instance of Flusterstorm, which was a legal action. Even though this didn’t have the result he wanted, unintended consequences aren’t sufficient to back up the game state. Thus, we leave everything as-is.

Now, to discuss the variations!

Variation 1: Suppose Nova simply said, “Flusterstorm. Two copies target Gush, one copy targets Time Walk.” That is, she doesn’t articulate what the original Flusterstorm is targeting. Does this change your ruling?

This variation was just a warm-up. As multiple people observed, we have a tournament shortcut that clarifies what happens if a player casts something that can target an object on the stack, but doesn’t announce a target: they’re assumed to be targeting the top-most object on the stack. In this case, that’s Gush.

Variation 2: Suppose Nova says, “Flusterstorm. Two copies target Gush, one copy targets Time Walk,” and puts her Flusterstorm card on top of Time Walk. Does this change your ruling? How does this situation compare to Variation 1?

This is the situation that Scenario 1 wishes it could grow up to be.

Earlier, I brought up the idea that judging whether a player’s communication is clear, explicit, both, or neither can inform our rulings. Here, we have communication that is not as explicit as it could be. But is it sufficiently clear?

For me, the answer is yes. Fundamentally, it is very likely that Arthas can correctly interpret Nova’s intent. The tournament shortcut on the assumptions for targets of spells doesn’t state that a player must verbally announce the spell’s target, only that she “specify” it. (The same phrasing is used in the shortcut for attacking a planeswalker instead of a player. Let’s say you control a Liliana. During combat on my turn, I pick up my Tarmogoyf and tap Liliana with it. Are you really going to argue that I’m attacking you because I didn’t verbally announce who my ‘Goyf was attacking?)

When playing in real life, allowing some implicit communication is essential for ensuring every game doesn’t turn into Magic Online. This is codified in our tournament shortcuts, but this principle runs through the game as a whole.

Finally, as Greg astutely pointed out in the comments, Magic is often played among players who don’t share a language. Ideally, those games should play out in the same way as players who speak the same language.

Of the four variations, this is the one that I find most interesting, so I’d love to hear your comments!

Variation 3: Suppose both players agree Nova said, “Two copies target Gush, one copy targets Time Walk.” However, Arthas claims she didn’t say anything else, while Nova is adamant she was clear about what the original Flusterstorm was targeting. Now what?

Looks like we have a good old “AP said, NAP said” situation on our hands.

Here, only one player can be correct — but that doesn’t mean one is lying to you, either. So while you should be a little concerned about potential Cheating, a more benign scenario is much more likely. People can easily convince themselves they said something they actually didn’t, and players aren’t always paying perfect attention to the game. An example of the former principle would be Nova thinking she said “Flusterstorm, targeting your Time Walk,” but in actuality she only meant to do so; an example of the latter, Arthas not fully hearing everything that Nova said.

That’s all well and good. But how do we actually resolve this?

This is a perfect example of how even ordinary rulings require good investigative skills. As such, I don’t have a straightforward rubric. However, I believe a good starting point is to ask yourself: which player is more likely to be correct?

In this scenario, we start by asking ourselves: in a vacuum, do I think it’s more likely that Nova would forget to say something about her Flusterstorm, or that Arthas would mis-hear her? This is a subjective question, so I don’t believe there’s a single right answer.

We can then further modify these probabilities by the actual situation. Is Nova speaking clearly at the table, or mumbling? Has Arthas demonstrated in other ways that he was very attentive to the game?

Ultimately, we need to make a decision. We may never know whether it was correct. What matters is doing the best we can with the information available to us.

As a side note, Pi mentioned in the comments that he would consult with his Team Lead in this situation. While discussing difficult rulings with other judges is generally a good plan, my approach here is generally going to focus on asking the floor judge questions that will help lead them to a ruling, rather than asking my own questions of the players. I take this approach not only for reasons of mentorship, but because I believe this is a situation where I believe the responding floor judge is often going to be in the best situation to make a ruling.

Compared to a second judge, the floor judge has the major advantage of questioning players at a time closest to the incident. Moreover, in situations where cheating could be a concern, a shady player won’t have (as much) time to make up a story, or realize the “correct” answer to a question.

The downside is that the floor judge might not always know the right questions to ask, or how to process the information they’ve been given…which is why we need great floor judges, not just great team leads and head judges!

Variation 4: Suppose you pull Nova away from the table, and ask her if she deliberately chose her words to try and make Arthas forget about the original Flusterstorm. Nova replies that she did. Does this change your ruling? How?

This variation was also somewhat divisive: Two commenters believed this was perfectly legal; while another two would rule in Nova’s favor, but give her a “talking-to” about maintaining a clear and legal game state. For my part, I have two things to say about this scenario.

First, there’s the question of whether Nova’s actions are allowable. As stated above, Nova’s words were perfectly explicit. Since she’s met that obligation of communication, I believe it’s irrelevant if she also chose those words with the ulterior motive of seeing whether Arthas would misplay his Mox Emerald. While we do have the obligation to punish players who are knowingly gaining an advantage by breaking the rules, Nova didn’t actually break any rules.

Second, I believe it’s a mistake to rule in a player’s favor, but tell her not to take the same action again. This comes off a lot like letting her get away with something. You’re essentially telling the player (and her opponent), “It’s OK that you communicated sub-optimally this time — but don’t do it again, or else.” This statement rings empty: it doesn’t have any real teeth backing it up, and you haven’t given the player a specific notion about what she did incorrectly.

Of course, we should still do our best to explain our rulings clearly, and help players from getting into tricky spots with their words in the future. So, if you’re going to advise a player about their communication (or any other element of their play style), it’s important to keep a few principles in mind:

First, know what your punchline is! Do you want to explain the importance of being explicit, rather than implicit? Is there a relevant shortcut that you need to explain? Figure out what you want to say before you start saying it.

Second, affirmatively state your punchline. Don’t start with “but” or “however.”

Finally, avoid saying things like “I would like you to,” or otherwise phrasing your request as though it’s the preferences of a single judge. Rather, we want to tell the player something that is universal and will be consistently applied.

Throughout this post, I’ve tried to emphasize a style of judging that relies on asserting certain basic principles, then using those principles to make rulings. Some examples of this are the idea that communication between players is paramount, the contrast between explicit and implicit communication, and the distinction between actions and consequences.

Rather than making rulings that individually seem correct, I believe it’s important to have a solid framework that broadly informs how we rule. From a logical standpoint, any system needs to rely upon certain axioms and first principles. It behooves us as judges to be explicit about those. In doing so, we will become better able to justify our rulings to players as the result of certain consistent ideas, rather than arbitrary decisions.