Judging to Protect Players’ Skill Advantage – 2014.11.11

This month’s theme is something that I’ve wanted to talk about for a while now because in my experience, it’s something a lot of L3+’s have different opinions about than other judges. The topic is “How much of an advantage should a player get for knowing the rules well and to what lengths should judges go to protect that advantage?” It seems to be a belief among certain judges that precise technical play and detailed rules knowledge should be greatly rewarded. Time and time again, I see these judges refusing to answer a player’s simple question, for fear of providing “strategic advice” or siding with the rules lawyer who was clearly trying to scumbag his opponent out of being able to make a play.

We must remember that our duty is to provide good customer service to all players, not just the ones who call us to the table. This can mean balancing the desire to reward players who have superior rules knowledge with the responsibility to protect those who don’t from being taken advantage of. The questions that follow explore how we as judges should do that, as well as what lengths a player with good rules knowledge can take to secure their advantage. Some are taken or adapted from real-life judge calls, while others were contrived to make a point. Note that unless otherwise stated, it is assumed that these situations happen at competitive REL. At regular REL, the focus “on education and sportsmanship over technically precise play” mean that the type of judge response that might be considered inappropriate at higher REL’s may in fact be actively encouraged.

Q: Amy attacks with two Hill Giants. Nicole blocks one with her own Hill Giant, then animates her Treetop Village and attempts to block the other one with it. Amy calls a judge and argues that Nicole shouldn’t be allowed to make this block because her Treetop Village wasn’t a creature when she moved into the declare blockers step. How do you rule?

A: This question comes to us directly from the MTR. It’s listed in section 4.3 as an example of Out-of-Order Sequencing. Even though the technically precise play is to animate, then declare all blockers at the same time, the actions Nicole took lead to a legal and clearly understood game state and are not ostensibly being used to gain extra information or to “go back in time” to correct a misplay. Amy may ask Nicole to back up and take the actions in the proper order, but Nicole should not be penalized and should be given the chance to make the block.

Note: If Nicole had paused substantially between blocking the first creature and blocking the second, the assumption that her play was not an attempt to go back in time or gain information from Amy’s reaction is weakened. Cases like these are largely a matter of personal judgement, but should be guided by the considerations discussed above (reference MTR 4.3 for more information).

Q: Nicole controls a Jace, the Mind Sculptor with 3 loyalty counters on it. Amy taps a Mountain, puts a Lightning Bolt from her hand onto the table, and says “bolt Jace.” Nicole calls for a judge and proposes that Amy should be given a GRV because Jace the Mind Sculptor is not a legal target for Lightning Bolt; it is a planeswalker, not a creature or player. Amy responds that she has seen other players make this play before and assumed that Lightning Bolt had been errata’d so that it could target planeswalkers. How do you rule?

A: “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” [MTR 4.2]. Amy has, perhaps without realizing it, and perhaps without having a firm grasp of precisely what technical details allow it, invoked this tournament shortcut. At competitive REL, judges must recognize “that not all players are intimately familiar with…proper procedures and rules” [IPG 1.1]. Amy has clearly announced her intentions in a standard and customary fashion, and this is a sequence of plays she can legally make. She should not be penalized for her lack of technical understanding. I would explain that “bolting Jace” actually involves bolting Nicole and choosing to redirect the damage to Jace when the bolt resolves, but I would not issue Amy a penalty.

Note: Depending on the way Nicole suggests that Amy receive a penalty and her general demeanor, the judge may have grounds to issue Nicole a Warning for USC-Minor [IPG 4.1]. Such a penalty would hopefully discourage Nicole from making future frivolous judge calls, which detract from most players’ enjoyment of the event and put a drain on the judge team’s resources.

Q: Amy casts Domestication on Nicole’s Grizzly Bears during her precombat main phase. When is the latest time that Nicole can cast a Giant Growth on her bear to get it back?

A: Domestication’s “sacrifice me” trigger is worded as “When/Whenever/At [trigger event], if [condition], [effect].” This templating indicates that the triggered ability has an intervening if clause. Such an ability is only put on the stack if the trigger event happens while the condition is true, otherwise it is ignored [CR 603.4]. Since the trigger event is the beginning of the end step, the bear must have a power greater than 4 before the end step starts. For this to happen, Nicole must cast Giant Growth before or during Amy’s postcombat main phase.

Q: Amy casts Domestication on Nicole’s Grizzly Bears during her precombat main phase, then says “Go.” Nicole says “End of turn, I’ll Giant Growth my bear.” What happens?

A: The bear becomes a 5/5 in the end of turn step. During the cleanup step, it goes back to being 2/2. Domestication’s triggered ability is never put on the stack, so Domestication isn’t sacrificed. This probably isn’t what Nicole was hoping would happen, but that’s too bad for her. Casting Giant Growth during the end step targeting Grizzly Bear is a legal play, so she can’t take it back.

Note: If she said instead, “In response to the Domestication trigger, I’ll cast Giant Growth,” the situation is different. I would explain that the intervening if clause means that the trigger won’t go on the stack unless the bear’s power is greater than 4 when it would trigger. She can’t respond to something that isn’t on the stack, so the action of her casting the spell is undone. Unless the players specifically stated that they are now in the ending phase, I would allow her to cast Giant Growth in Amy’s postcombat main phase, as long as she came up with this idea herself.

Q: Amy casts a Lightning Bolt, then responds to the bolt by casting Fork targeting it. Nicole responds by casting a Counterspell targeting Lightning Bolt. What happens?

A: Counterspell counters Lightning Bolt, which removes Lightning Bolt from the stack and puts it into Amy’s graveyard [CR 701.5a]. Fork will then try to resolve, but Lightning Bolt is no longer in the zone it was in when it was targeted, so it’s an illegal target [CR 608.2b]. Since all of Fork’s targets are illegal, it is countered by the game rules when it tries to resolve [CR 608.2b].

Q: Amy casts a Lightning Bolt, then responds to the bolt by casting Fork targeting it. Nicole calls a judge and asks to speak away from the table. She says “If I counter the Lightning Bolt, what will happen with the Fork?” How do you respond to this question?

A: I’ve asked this question to a lot of judges in the last few months, and gotten a lot of good answers. The majority said that they would answer the question “helpfully,” for instance, “It will be countered because it has no legal targets.” Still, a sizable minority, including many judges whom I greatly respect, have opined that such an answer constitutes coaching and is therefore unacceptable. First, let’s look at some relevant passages from the policy documents:

Floor judges “can answer questions about the rules” and “interactions between cards” [MTR 1.8]. The IPG prohibits a player from seeking “strategy advice” or “play advice,” so the judge should refrain from saying anything that may fall under these catagories [IPG 3.2]. Judges also “must avoid assisting players with derived information about the game state” [MTR 4.1].

The way this question is phrased, it seems close to the line between “advice” and “rules question.” On the one hand, it’s pretty clear what the player wants to know. On the other hand, like the Domestication question above, the way the player phrases things is important.

The judges who didn’t want to answer this question generally pointed to this line in the MTR to support their position: “The philosophy of the DCI is that a player should have an advantage due to better understanding of the rules of a game, greater awareness of the interactions in the current game state, and superior tactical planning.” [MTR 4.1]. Their interpretation being that a player who isn’t able to determine the end state of the game after a proposed set of actions should be at a disadvantage. The player may still seek help from judges to determine this end state, but such help must come in the form of explaining how the rules work in general, not how they apply to any individual case. Therefore, in answering this question, we would be providing strategic advice, not by pointing out a line of play that hadn’t been considered, but by helping the player discern the end state of a proposed line of play.

The counter argument is that this should not be considered strategic advice because the player already came up with the strategy. The explanation that we want to give is information that we are able to provide, given the correct question, so withholding that answer until the player guesses what that question is only wastes time.

So after all this, I leave you with the cop-out answer of “use your own judgement.” In an effort to be helpful, though, here are a few rules of thumb that I use in situations like this:

-I will always either answer the exact question the player asked or tell the player that I can’t answer it. Specifically, I will not answer a related question that would be more helpful or attempt to predict any follow-up questions the player may have.
-After I answer a question, I’ll give a brief explanation of the relevant rules.
-If a player asks a borderline question, I’ll ask her to repeat herself. It’s unlikely that she’ll use exactly the same phrasing, so this gives you extra information to make a determination about how much the player knows.

Note: So what’s the best way to handle this scenario if you decide that you can’t answer the question? As a player, I’ll let you know that this is an easy opportunity to provide poor customer service. Simply telling the player that you can’t answer the question because that would constitute strategic advice will not be very helpful. No player I know would intentionally solicit Outside Assistance from a judge, so the player isn’t likely to consider their question to be strategy advice. Given that the interpretation of what is or isn’t OK to tell a player tends to be pretty variable, it’s even possible that the player has seen a different judge answer a question substantially similar to the one they ask now.

Telling the player you can’t answer the question and asking them to rephrase is one thing I’ve seen a lot of judges do in this type of situation. To see the problem with this, try to come up with a version of the above question that you would feel comfortable answering, given the above discussion. It’s not particularly easy. Now, factor in that if the player doesn’t consider an answer to be strategic advice, she is likely confused as to why you couldn’t answer the original question. Then remember that in all likelihood, the player doesn’t actually know the answer already, and may be unfamiliar with technical rules terms like “state-based action,” “activated mana ability” or “countered by game rules for having no legal targets.” Put it all together, and you might as well be asking the player to rephrase the question in a way that doesn’t use the letter “E” – difficult, arbitrary, and frustrating all around. It’s no wonder that so many of these types of calls end up with either the player or the judge giving up.

In order to be really helpful, you need to suggest to the player a way that would make their question answerable. I ask for them to rephrase the question without using specific card names. This typically isn’t too difficult for a player, even one with limited rules knowledge, yet generally yields a formulation as a “pure rules” question that is safe to answer.

Note: Judges may not provide “derived information about the game state,” such as the current power and toughness of a creature. They may provide other types of derived information to players, including information about the game rules or official tournament information [MTR 4.1].

Note: Because Outside Assistance applies only after a player has sat for a match, if a player asks a question while not playing in a match, “Regular REL rules” apply, and you should be as helpful as possible in answering any hypothetical scenerio they may come up with.

Q: Amy casts a Brainstorm. Nicole responds with Red Elemental Blast to counter it. Can Amy use a Misdirection to change the target of Red Elemental Blast to Nicole’s Insectile Aberration?

A: No. The templating “Choose one -” in its Oracle text indicates that Red Elemental Blast is a modal spell [CR 700.2]. Simply changing the target of a spell does not change its mode, so the new target of Red Elemental Blast must be another blue spell [CR 114.7].

Note: Contrast this to Feast of Dreams, which can have two different types of targets, but is not modal because it does not have any of the charateristic modal templates listed in CR 700.2. Misdirection could change the feast’s target from an enchantment creature to an enchanted (nonenchantment) creature.

Note: Because Misdirection does not indicate that changing the target is optional, Amy must choose a new target for REB if able. In this case, the only legal target to change to is Misdirection itself.

Q: Amy casts a Brainstorm. Nicole responds with Red Elemental Blast to counter Brainstorm. Amy responds to that with Misdirection targeting Red Elemental Blast. When Misdirection resolves, Amy states that she is changing the target of Red Elemental Blast to Nicole’s Insectile Aberration. At this point Nicole calls a judge. What do you do?

A: It is not legal here to change the target of REB to something that isn’t a blue spell. Attempting to do so fits the definition of a Game Rule Violation, for which Amy will get a Warning. This doesn’t fit under any of the scenarios where we can apply a partial fix, but because the error was discovered right away, we can rewind up to the point immediately before it occured, i.e., right before Amy selected Insectile Aberration as the new target [IPG 2.5 A]. Because there is only one legal way to resolve Misdirection, I would have no problem with simply telling Amy that she must change REB’s target to Misdirection. Some of the other judges I’ve talked with are of the opinion that supplying this play to Amy could be construed as coaching and should be avoided. If you share this opinion, you might tell Amy “You need to choose another blue spell as the new target.” Since there is only one other blue spell on the stack, this will probably induce her to come up with the proper play on her own without your explicitly naming the new target for her.

Note: I would not back up to before Misdirection was cast because it was legal to cast Misdirection. In fact, it would be legal to cast Misdirection even if there would be no legal target to change to, just as it is legal to cast a Doom Blade on an indestructible creature (of course, it is not legal to cast Misdirection if Misdirection itself does not have a legal target).

Q: You overhear Amy have the following exchange with one of her friends after her match:

Amy: So I was playing this chick last round who probably doesn’t play a whole lot of Magic.
Friend: Oh yeah?
Amy: Yeah. She had out some random 4/4 first striker. I blocked it with my Thrun and regenerated. Then she binned her guy during the normal damage step.
Friend: Oh, she didn’t know that her creature lived?
Amy: Apparently not. So that was a lucky break for me that round.

What do you do?

A: Amy has allowed her opponent to commit an offense (spontaneously putting a creature into her graveyard qualifies as a GRV) without calling attention to it. From her conversation, it is evident that Amy knew this was not the proper outcome of that play, but said nothing in order to profit from the mistake. This fits the definition of Cheating, which has a penalty of a DQ [IPG 4.8 D].

Note: The fact that Amy was not caught in the act, or even that it was not caught until after the match is not an impediment because “Disqualification can occur without proof of action so long as the Head Judge determines sufficient information exists to believe the tournament’s integrity may have been compromised” [IPG 1.2 D].

Q: Amy has a Humility in play and casts Batterskull. What is the Germ token’s final p/t and does it have lifelink and vigilance?

A: The Germ is a 5/5 because Humility’s p/t setting effect applies in layer 7b, which is before Batterskull’s p/t boosting effect is applied in layer 7c [CR 613.3b-c]. The question of whether it has the abilities is a bit trickier. Both of Humility’s “removes all abilities” and Batterskull’s “has lifelink and vigilance” apply in layer 6. There is no dependency; applying Batterskull first will change how many abilities the Humility effect removes, but not what the effect does [CR 613.7a]. Thus, we apply them in timestamp order [CR 613.6]. In this case, Humility came into play before Batterskull became equipped to the Germ, so Humility will remove the abilities first, then Batterskull will grant lifelink and vigilance. If Amy had played Batterskull first, then Humility, those would be reversed and the Germ would not have any abilities.

Note: To get a new timestamp, the Batterskull has to actually become equipped to a new creature [CR 613.6d]. If Amy plays Batterskull, then plays Humility, the Germ will not have lifelink and vigilance. To get those abilities on that Germ, she would need to move the Batterskull to a different creature, then move it back. Simply activating the equip ability to equip it to the same Germ wouldn’t do anything.

Note: Because of Humility, the Germs made by Batterskull will survive even if Batterskull is removed. Effectively, this gives Amy “8: Put a 1/1 black Germ into play. Activate this ability only any time you could cast a sorcery.” This is one of those broken Legacy interactions that you sometimes hear about.

Q: You overhear Amy have the following exchange with one of her friends after her match:

Amy: Get this. Last game, my opponent had Humility in play and cast a Batterskull. She blocked with the token, but she didn’t know how big it was so she called a judge. The judge said Humility applies in a later layer than Batterskull.
Friend: That’s not how that works, is it?
Amy: Nope, that’s backwards. The Germ’s a 5/5.
Friend: So did you appeal the ruling?
Amy: Heck no! I was drawing dead if she had a 5/5!

What do you do?

A: From her conversation, it is evident that Amy knew the ruling was bad, but ignored this to gain an advantage. However, Amy has done nothing against the rules. A player has the right, but not the responsibility, to appeal a ruling that he or she does not agree with [MTR 2.9]. While Amy’s actions are not likely to make her any friends, they fall within the middle ground of “competitive,” but not “nice” or “sporting” behavior described in the introduction of section 4 in the IPG. As judges, we must face the reality that, especially at competitive REL, there will be players for whom the mutual enjoyment of everyone present is at best a secondary priority.

Q: Amy controls a Roaring Primadox and a Kalonian Behemoth. During Amy’s upkeep, she forgets to return a creature to her hand. In combat, she attacks with both creatures, and Nicole blocks and trades with the primadox and chump blocks the behemoth. Amy then casts a Grizzly Bears and passes the turn. Nicole asks, “So we’re in your end step now, correct?” and Amy confirms that they are. Nicole then calls a judge and points out that Amy forgot her Roaring Primadox trigger for that turn. What do you do?

A: Your first impulse might be that Nicole’s actions constitute Cheating. Nicole brought up the error at a very convenient time for her, and it’s certainly unusual that she confirmed what step the game was in before calling a judge, so let’s do an investigation. We’ll say that you talked with Nicole away from the table, asking her to describe when she first noticed the trigger was missed. She replies “I noticed it right away. I waited until the end step to bring it up so that she couldn’t just re-cast the creature and attack me again next turn.”

What do you think now?

Everything Nicole has done is completely legitimate. “Opponents are not required to point out triggered abilities that they do not control, though they may do so if they wish” [IPG 2.1 P]. And again: “Not reminding an opponent about his or her triggered abilities is never Failure to Maintain Game State or Cheating” [IPG 2.6 D]. Furthermore, there is nothing in policy to support the notion that a player who declines to call a judge for something like this is somehow “locked in” to that choice and cannot later change her mind.

For the penalties, Nicole gets no penalty, since she has done nothing against the rules. Amy, on the other hand, has missed a triggered ability that is normally considered detrimental to her, so she will get a Warning for Missed Trigger.

For the fix, remember that we back up only for Game Rule and Communication Policy Violations, not for Missed Triggers. This situation does not fit any of the four exceptions (trigger that gives its controller a choice and specifies a default, delayed zone-change trigger, trigger that sets up an effect whose duration would be over, or trigger that happened over a turn ago) to triggers that are handled specially, so it gets the default additional remedy [IPG 2.1 A]. Nicole is given the choice of whether to skip this trigger or put it onto the stack immediately. She will almost assuredly choose the latter.

While Amy is resolving this ability, she cannot make any choices involving objects that were not in the appropriate zones when the ability should have triggered [IPG 2.1 A]. This means that she cannot return her Grizzly Bears. She also cannot return her primadox because it is not on the battlefield now, and there is not an analogeous statement that allows for making choices involving things that were in the appropriate zone when the ability should have triggered.

Note: Triggered abilities are the exception rather than the norm when it comes to letting your opponents make mistakes. Intentional failure to point out any other infraction committed by an opponent in the hopes to gain advantage from it is considered Cheating.

Note: Because this trigger is normally considered detrimental to Amy, a judge who sees such a scenario should intervene as soon as he or she notices that the trigger is missed to issue a Warning.

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