Tournament shortcuts

One of my favorite exercises when I’m teaching priority and turn structure is to go through an entire turn of a Magic game explicitly announcing each priority pass. It gives candidates an appreciation for just how much stuff happens in an average game of Magic that people just never think about. It also gives a good justification for this topic: formalized shortcuts. Without them, players couldn’t play without getting mired down in an endless stream of priority passes.

Other shortcuts have a different purpose: Preventing rules lawyering. Certain player behaviors, like using all mana in your mana pool to cast an X spell or attacking without saying whether you are attacking the player or a planeswalker he or she controls, are so common that we can assume that a player is doing them all the time unless explicitly stated otherwise. Formalizing these shortcuts protects players from having their opponents try to claim they made a legal, but illogical play. Players also save time by not having to explicitly announce obvious choices.

In a nutshell:

  • For Magic to work, we need shortcuts to streamline the process of playing the game.
  • A player cannot use shortcuts to take away options that an opponent would have otherwise had. For example, if a player says “Go to combat,” that player’s opponent can still cast a spell in the precombat main phase.
  • If a proposed shortcut is interrupted by an opponent, the player who proposed the shortcut is not bound to perform the actions of the proposed shortcut after the point where the opponent intervened. Example: Amy says “Go,” which is a shortcut that offers to pass priority until the ending phase. Nicole casts a spell in Amy’s main phase. Amy does not have to pass priority to let the spell resolve.
  • Shortcuts are often a useful tool to make a decision in “he said, she said” disputes between players. Be aware that players cannot use shortcuts to take away options from their opponents or intentionally create ambuguity in the game.
  • These are the formal tournament shortcuts:
    • 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.
    • 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.
    • A player who does not Scry when instructed to is assumed to have chosen to leave the cards in the same order.
    • 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.

Q: What’s the deal with the line in the MTR that says, “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.”? Why do we need this?

A: While Amy is thinking about what to do during her main phase, Nicole asks, “Can I have priority so I can cast a spell while you’re thinking?” Amy agrees. At this, Nicole says, “Now that I have priority, I’ll pass. Since we both passed priority in a row with nothing on the stack, we’re in the combat phase now. Sucker.” Nicole’s trick was deemed undesirable in a tournament environment, so that line in the MTR was written to disallow it.

Q: Amy gained four life this turn and controls Angelic Accord. She says, “Go.” Nicole then casts Fated Retribution. Amy says, “That resolves, now get my Angel token?” Nicole protests that Amy has missed her trigger, and that if she would have announced it, she would have obviously waited until it resolved to cast Fated Retribution. How do you rule?

A: The statement “Go” means “I’m passing priority every time I can until you have priority in the end step.” At the beginning of the end step, Angelic Accord will trigger, and that trigger will be put onto the stack before either player gets priority. Though the trigger is on the stack at this point, it won’t visibly affect the game until it resolves, so it isn’t yet considered missed. The “Go” shortcut states that if an opponent casts a spell, they are presumed to be casting it when they have priority after the “Go” player’s last pass in the end step. This means that Fated Retribution was cast in response to the Angelic Accord trigger. Amy will get her Angel.

Note: For Nicole to cast Fated Retribution at the “correct” time, she must acknowledge the Angelic Accord trigger before Amy is required to. This is a bit of a bind for her, but it is in line with both the shortcut and Missed Trigger policies state the requirements are. The Missed Trigger section in the IPG even alludes to cases like this, and admits that it’s tough for Nicole, but that’s the way it is.

Q: Amy activates a fetchland, then remembers that Nicole has a Leonin Arbiter. Of course, she wants to pay 2 to be able to search. Can she?

A: Paying the 2 to ignore Leonin Arbiter is a special action. It can be taken any time Amy has priority. Determining whether she does is the tricky part, though. The applicable shortcut is that a player who adds something to the stack is assumed to be passing priority afterwards unless they specifically say otherwise. If Amy has passed priority, Nicole simply needs to pass also to make the fetchland activation resolve (though if Nicole does something in response, Amy will get priority again and can pay at this time). Because the players are probably not explicitly announcing these priority passes, we will need to go based on contextual clues to make a judgement on this point. If the fetchland is not yet in Amy’s graveyard, or if either Amy or Nicole have not yet recorded the “pay 1 life” part of the fetchland activation, Amy could argue that she is still in the process of activating the ability, which means she still has time to declare that she will retain priority after the ability is activated. If Amy has picked up her library, though, it is tough to argue that she is anywhere but the resolution of the fetchland’s ability, at which point it is too late to pay.

Q: During Amy’s end of turn step, Nicole taps four Mountains and says “Skullcrack you twice.” Amy replies, “In response, I’ll cast Feed the Clan.” What happens?

A: Because a player is assumed to pass priority after adding an object to the stack, adding a group of objects to the stack without explicitly retaining priority is equivalent to proposing a shortcut: “I’ll add this, pass priority, it resolves, then I’ll add that, pass priority, it resolves.” Nicole’s actions fall under this rule. She is assumed to be casting the second Skullcrack after she receives priority following the resolution of the first one. Amy is of course within her rights to modify this proposed shortcut, but if she does, Nicole is not bound to any actions she had proposed after the point where Amy intervenes. For example, Amy could respond to the first Skullcrack with Feed the Clan, but in that case, Nicole would not be bound to wait until the first Skullcrack resolved before casting the second.

Q: During Amy’s end step, Nicole taps 4 mana, saying “I’ll sacrifice 2 Clues” and removes two Clue tokens from her pile. Amy then says, “In response to the triggers, I’ll Shock your Tireless Tracker.” Tireless Tracker had no +1/+1 counters on it at the start of this exchange. Does it live or die?

A: This question is similar to the above, but with the added complication of triggered abilities. The general principle remains the same: Nicole’s actions constitute the proposal of a shortcut that involves Nicole passing priority. To see what the stack looks like, let’s go through her actions step by step.

First, Nicole sacrifices a Clue, which causes Tireless Tracker to trigger. Because she did not explicitly state she was retaining priority when sacrificing the second Clue, the assumption is that she passed priority after doing this. Amy may interrupt the shortcut by casting Shock here, or she may pass priority herself, at which point the Tireless Tracker’s ability will resolve and Amy will get priority again. Note that when this ability resolves, Tireless Tracker will be 4/3, and will survive a Shock. As the active player, Amy receives priority after the Tireless Tracker’s ability resolves. She will need to pass before Nicole can sacrifice another Clue.

The only time Amy can interrupt the sequence and kill Tireless Tracker is if she acts at the first time she is able, responding to the first Clue sacrifice and the first trigger. But if she does this, Nicole will be able to respond to Shock by sacrificing another Clue and creating the second trigger in response.

Q: Amy casts Turnabout saying “I’ll tap all your lands.” Nicole then taps all her lands and says, “I’ll float 8 mana in response.” Amy replies, “In that case, I’ll tap all your creatures.” Nicole then calls a judge and protests that Amy can’t change her mind here. What do you do?

A: The choice of what type of permanents to tap (and whether to tap or untap) is made when Turnabout resolves. As such, Amy is bound to these choices only if the opponent has no responses. Because this is not the case here, Amy’s play is entirely legitimate

Note: Because targets are chosen as the spell is cast, Amy may not change which player is affected. For example, she could go from tapping Nicole’s lands to untapping Nicole’s lands, but she could not change to untapping her own lands.

Q: Amy casts Memoricide. Nicole asks “What card are you naming?” Amy answers “Counterspell,” to which Nicole replies, “I guess I’d better cast this, then.” She then plays Counterspell from her hand targeting Memoricide. Amy says she can’t do that, but Nicole counters that Amy was naive to fall for her bluff and calls a judge. What do you do?

A: The choice of what card to name with Memoricide is made as that spell resolves. By soliciting this information, Nicole has given an affirmative sign to Amy that Memoricide is resolving. Casting Counterspell at this point is not possible.

Q: Amy says, “Combat?” and Nicole replies, “We’re in combat.” Amy then points to her Goblin Rabblemaster and puts a Goblin token into play. Nicole protests that it’s too late to do this and that Amy has missed her trigger. What do you do?

A: Amy’s statement is a shortcut. She has offered to pass priority until Nicole has priority in the beginning of combat step. Before that happens, Goblin Rabblemaster will have triggered, and Amy will have passed priority in response to that trigger. The trigger does not affect the visible game state until it resolves, though, so it is not yet considered missed. Because Amy demonstrated awareness of this trigger by the time it would resolve (which happens after Nicole also passes priority), she gets the token.

Q: Amy casts Surrak, the Hunt Caller and says, “Combat?” Nicole replies, “We’re in combat.” Amy then attacks with both Surrak and her 3/3 Beast token. Nicole asks how she is attacking with Surrak, and Amy answers that she gave it haste with its ability. Nicole protests that it’s too late to do this and that Amy has missed her trigger. What do you do?

A: This question is similar to the previous one, but with one important difference. Surrak’s triggered ability requires a target. That means the first time it affects the game state is when it is put onto the stack, not when it resolves. In using the “combat” shortcut, Amy has passed through this part of the game, with no indication of awareness of the trigger. Consequently, it’s considered missed.

Note: Amy can still use the combat shortcut and get the trigger too, but she needs to be careful. The Out-of-order sequencing rules give Amy reign to say something like “Combat? I’ll target Surrak with its ability” even though the trigger happens in the middle of the shortcut, not after. In the originally presented case, Amy’s demonstration of awareness of the trigger clearly came after the point where it needed to, and was not a part of the same block of actions, so out-of-order sequencing was not applicable there.

Q: Amy taps all 8 of her lands and puts a Blaze on the table, then says, “Blaze you.” Nicole plays a Spell Pierce. At this point, Amy claims that she was still thinking about how much to Blaze for. She then states that she will have X=5 and will pay for Spell Pierce with the 2 she has floating. Do you allow it?

A: No. The applicable shortcut here is that a player casting an X spell is assumed to use all available mana unless she explicitly states otherwise. Because targets are chosen after the value for X is specified, Amy cannot claim that she was still thinking about what choice to make. The shortcut has already applied by then.

Note: Without Amy’s declaration of targets, the case is less cut and dried. I recommend asking Amy away from the table what value she was going to pick for X and reminding her of the serious consequences for lying to a judge before she answers.

Q: Amy casts Grizzly Bears. Nicole taps a single Island, and says “Condescend for 0. Can I scry?” Amy allows it. Nicole then argues that since Amy allowed her to scry without saying whether she wanted to pay the 0, that means she has missed her chance and Grizzly Bears is countered. Is it?

A: No, and it’s entirely because of shortcuts. Technically speaking, the instructions on Condescend are performed in the order written. That means that Amy has to decide whether to pay 0 or not before Nicole scries. It’s legal to not pay here, too; costs of 0 are not automatically paid, so Amy does have a choice. In fact, the action necessary to pay a cost of 0 is to acknowledge that you are paying it, something Amy did not do. Without the shortcut that says players are assumed to pay any cost of 0 unless they explicitly state otherwise, Nicole’s trick would work.

Q: Amy casts Grizzly Bears. Nicole responds with Mana Leak. Amy responds to that with Dispel. After that, without saying anything, Nicole casts Cancel. Amy says, “Cancel resolves. Dispel is countered, and I’ll pay 3 for Mana Leak.” Nicole replies, “No, I was Canceling Grizzly Bears.” What do you do?

A: The rules side with Amy. The applicable shortcut here is that when a player adds an object to the stack that targets something on the stack without declaring targets, the assumed target is the topmost object on the stack (that it could legally target). In this case, that means since Nicole didn’t specify what her Cancel was targeting, it’s assumed that she is Canceling Dispel.

Q: You observe Amy cast Drown in Sorrow, but forget to scry. What do you do?

A: Do not intervene. It may look like Amy has failed to follow the instructions of the spell, but there is a shortcut that means she does not have to physically scry, even though the spell does not indicate this is optional. Amy is assumed to have scried her top card to the top. Because Amy’s actions do not constitute an illegal play, her opponent is not obligated to remind Amy to scry.

Note: This shortcut prevents forgotten scries from counting as a GRV, which was a big feel-bad in Theros block, when this shortcut was introduced. Previous sets had the scry as a major or even integral part of the spell’s effect, and were much less frequently forgotten.

Note: If Amy remembers the scry later, she may ask you if she can take it now, or at least look at her top card. Unfortunately, these are incompatible with the view this shortcut takes. Amy is assumed to have taken her scry and chosen to keep the card on top. Amy can no more look at her top card or put it on the bottom after forgetting than she could if she remembered.