The Devil is in the Details

Abe and Norman are playing a game during a Standard GPT. Norman is at 2 life and has Thalia, Guardian of Thraben in play, when Abe taps 3 mountains and casts Devil’s Play targeting Norman.

Norman takes his pen and says, “So I go to one?” to which Abe replies, “No, you’re dead.” Norman just points at his Thalia and repeats, “So I go to one?” Abe calls a judge.

What do you do?

Judges, feel free to discuss this scenario here!

View Answer
Gold scenarios aren’t always going to be neat & clean. This one certainly didn’t turn out that way!

Perhaps the most important thing for all of us to learn, from this scenario and the ensuing discussion, is that there are some situations where policy just won’t fit as neat & clean as we’d like. This is one of those situations, and there is no “final answer” or “correct solution”.

Some of you have already seen this, but it’s highly recommended reading anyway: Toby’s blog.
One of the most relevant lines in that blog might be this: “If you’re worried about how one of the less-rigidly defined phrases in the IPG interacts with a card that might come up in your Ice Age Sealed event…” It applies to this scenario, even though Devil’s Play and Thalia aren’t Ice Age.

This scenario generated a lot of discussion, both in this forum and among groups of judges all over the internet. Even the L4+ Judges were divided in their interpretations. In that regard, this was a very successful Knowledge Pool, indeed; as Stan & Kyle might say, we all learned something today!

To recap, the scenario is, essentially, this:
Abe taps RRR and casts Devil’s Play, but fails to announce a value for X.
Norman assumes that the value of X is 1, since – thanks to Thalia’s cost increase – that’s the only value it can be with 3 mana available. Based on that assumption, Norman allows Devil’s Play (for one!) to resolve.
Abe clarifies that he wanted to cast it with X=2, and a Judge is called.

One point of much debate, was whether or not that defined shortcut was meant to include cost increases or reductions. Quite frankly, no, it wasn’t even considered, originally – but it works fine if such modifications to the cost are included.

The intent of that shortcut is to ensure that the opponent can act on the game state based on the assumption that X is “max possible value”. That shortcut prevents a player from tapping all their mana sources, announcing an X spell, and then – when it’s relevant – claiming that X is something other than the implied value (i.e., the maximum it can be). Abe’s opponent (Norman) is thus protected by assuming that X can only be 1. Of course, Norman could improve things by saying “for 1?” before letting it resolve. Unlikely, since that’s not in his best interests, and he’s probably certain that the rules will support him.

On the other hand, Abe seems to believe that the value of X is 2, and that’s the “shortcut” he’s assuming. Had he only been a touch clearer in his announcement of Devil’s Play, this wouldn’t be such a sticky wicket. “Devil’s Play for 2” would have been a clear GRV (not paying 1 for Thalia), and we all know how to deal with those. Again, it’s not the ideal situations with clear communication that we learn from…

Some feel very strongly that we need to protect Abe’s intent, which is likely “Devil’s Play for 2“ – thus, it’s a GRV, back it up, and assess the infraction and penalty.
Some feel very strongly that we need to protect Norman’s assumption (X=1), which is a legal play on Abe’s part, no infraction, leave things as they are.
Both of those are reasonable conclusions, and you’d be giving a solid, justifiable ruling, were you to follow either course. Just be prepared to hear counter-arguments; as you’ve seen, there are many.

Another key learning point: some of your rulings won’t be cut & dried, and stand a good chance of making one player – or even both players! – unhappy. That’s part of what we do, as judges. (We give rulings regardless of the consequences, that is – we aren’t saying ”go forth and create unhappy players!“)

Some also felt that policy was in need of ”correction“; we can’t agree with that conclusion, however. Policy works just fine – except for those odd corners when it doesn’t. As has been noted, many times over the years, we can’t cover all contingencies in the IPG or MTR; if we tried, then (a) the document might be bigger than all of Wikipedia, and (b) we’d still miss something that would come up the very next day. (Kudos to Denis Sokolov, who quickly noted that ”It is obvious that the scenario is not covered by official documents. One can interpret both the shortcut rule and rule 601 one way or another”.)

Kudos also to: Michael White, who pointed out that, sometimes, we just need to ask the players simple questions to sort out complex situations (but be careful to avoid questions that guide the player to the right answer!); to Abe Corson, who considered the possibility that Norman rushed Abe a bit and thus created this whole snafu; Joshua Feingold, for a number of well-crafted posts (even if half of us think you were wrong – heh!), and for pointing out the intent of the shortcut. And, many kudos, for too many to list, for carrying on a very well-mannered debate in a constructive manner!


Just a quick follow-up: I really appreciate all the (private) e-mails I’ve received, since sending this, asking for more info of some sort. I’m sorry that I really can’t respond to each & every one personally, as I often do.

However, I do plan to discuss a bit more about this scenario – including some insight into the L4+ discussions! – in a future blog post. So, keep your eyes peeled, and watch for an update on Uncle Scott’s blog.