Asking the Right Questions

Zak Turchansky, Level 1, Edmonton, Canada

Zak Turchansky, Level 1, Edmonton, Canada

This weekend I judged my first event in over 5 years with over 100 players, and my first event ever with more than 3 judges. On February 6th, Edmonton, Alberta played host to a Face to Face Games 2k. It was a bustling event with almost 130 entrants and 5 judges. The most valuable experiences of the event to me were a couple of calls from the floor where the wording of players’ questions resulted in answers they did not expect. Chief among reasons for these unexpected answers is the duty of a judge to not confound rules advice with strategic advice.

“Yes, you can do that. No, it doesn’t do what you want it to.” – Flavour text for Judge Promo Spellskite

My recollection of what exactly happened during this call is fuzzy, and is the reason I’m bringing it up. AP controls an attacking Glistener Elf, while NAP controls a Spellskite. AP casts Apostle’s Blessing targeting the elf before blockers are declared, and NAP calls for a judge. NAP is one of the most proficient players in the tournament, with multiple PT appearances, and so I’m surprised that he’s calling me over with a (in my opinion) straightforward rules question. He asks “Can I target Apostle’s Blessing with Spellskite ‘s ability.” Now as a judge, this immediately sets off alarm bells. The answer to “Can I target <insert any spell/ability here> with Spellskite ?” is always yes. The answer to “Can I use Spellskite’s ability to redirect <spell/ability>?” is variable. As judges, this is a classic case of not wanting to give strategic advice. If a player doesn’t know the minutiae of Spellskite , and makes sub-optimal, but legal plays with it, that is their problem and not ours as judges, especially at Competitive REL.

So not wanting to give strategic advice, but to give the player an opportunity to ask his question in a better manner, I ask him, “Could you tell me exactly what you’re asking?” He repeats roughly the same sentiment as before – no mention of changing targets, redirection, or anything else besides the legality of Apostle’s Blessing as a target. He then quickly adds, “It doesn’t matter,” in a voice that implies to me that he means it won’t affect the outcome of the match. So I give him the answer that yes, Spellskite can legally target Apostle’s Blessing. The players immediately resolve the Spellskite activation, changing the target of the Blessing to the illegal Spellskite, and have played a full turn cycle by the time I realize what was happening, and that NAP should have 1 more poison counter. But I don’t correct the situation, or inform the players. I walk away, because “It doesn’t matter.”

Now going into this scenario, I knew that giving this sort of ruling was going to likely require an intervention after the players didn’t get the outcome they expected based on my response. However, I didn’t take enough time to fully understand the board state. To this moment, I’m only reasonably sure that the board state I’ve described accurately represents reality at the time. There are at least 4 mistakes I made while handling this ruling.

1. I didn’t make sure I fully understood the whole board state before giving a ruling that would have immediate effects. I should have prepared and understood what the resulting board state would be if NAP did try to redirect the Blessing, and be able to point it out immediately before the game went underway.

2. I took “It doesn’t matter” as truth, and must have took it to mean the full extent of my ruling didn’t matter. I shouldn’t have let the player have that much influence over me, especially when he stood to gain from an incorrectly executed ruling. Furthermore, my knowledge that the player should know this interaction should have set of alarm bells.

3. I didn’t follow up the ruling. While ideally I would have not let the game state get out of hand, even after it getting out of hand I should have clarified my ruling and applied an appropriate fix, likely resulting in NAP taking one additional poison counter.

4. Because NAP is a very experienced player, I should have asked more questions about why he thought that ability worked that way. There’s a possibility he knew it didn’t work but was hoping to get an incorrect judge ruling. The “it doesn’t matter,” remark leads me to believe he wasn’t cheating, but asking a few questions and doing due diligence never hurt.

Legality does not imply results.

This case I handled slightly better. It was later in the day, and I was still a bit miffed at myself for my sub-optimal handling of the previous situation. AP controls an animated Mutavault, and 2 Merrow Reejerey. All are attacking. NAP controls a Thalia, Guardian of Thraben and a tapped Eldrazi Displacer. NAP asks me “Can I respond to first strike damage?” Now here I think he’s on the right track and so answer with “Both players will get priority after First Strike damage happens.” He responds with “Ok, I’d like to narrate a line of play for you, and can you tell me if it’s legal?”

I think to myself, ‘Oh good, a player who’s going to make absolutely sure of what he’s asking me. This should be nice and straightforward.’ Looking at the board at first glance, I think it’s pretty reasonable. The player wants to block a Reejerey with Thalia, let damage happen, and then flicker the other one to make the blocked merfolk be a 2/2 with 2 damage marked on it. So he asks me if he can do exactly that (up until the point of the Reejerey dying). Nothing in his statement is illegal, and everything seems good to go.

Unlike last time, I deliver my ruling and stick around to make sure everything plays out as expected. I then reread Eldrazi Displacer and realize that it’s more like Momentary Blink than it is Turn to Mist. Both players let the game play out in the manner that I originally thought, and one Reejerey is put into the graveyard. I then immediately stop them, and inform the players that the Reejerey will survive, because neither player gets priority while the other lord is in exile during the resolution of the Displacer’s ability. Since neither player would get priority, state-based actions are not checked during a point in time when Merrow Reejerey would have lethal damage marked on it.

NAP appears upset, and says that my ruling influenced his line. I tell him that I gave him a correct answers to all the questions he made, in that they only asked whether his play was legal, not what the outcomes would be. Both players didn’t realize what would happen but accepted my ruling and repaired the game state.

Lessons Learned

These two rulings both hinge on the specific words used by players when asking rules questions of a judge. It’s critical to only respond to the rules portion of their question and not extend your ruling to where it might constitute strategy. I think I handled the second ruling much better than I did the first. Mostly I stayed around to observe the aftermath of the ruling and caught a very important rules misunderstanding. However, I still could have taken the extra time to read Eldrazi Displacer before giving my ruling rather than relying on memory for a newer card. This would have prepared me more for the follow-up ruling, rather than having to catch it in the nick of time.

The other mistakes with the first ruling weren’t as applicable during the second, but serve as good learning points for future judges. Don’t give a ruling that will affect the board state unless you’re exactly sure what’s going on. Don’t let players remarks influence the quality of your ruling. Note that I don’t say that players shouldn’t influence your rulings at all, that’s far from the truth and is often necessary. Finally, make sure to ask questions of players if you have an inkling that something might not be right. Asking questions isn’t a bad thing, and is the most minimal form of investigation that we can and should do.

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2 thoughts on “Asking the Right Questions

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  2. Excellent article!

    I was at the F2F tournament and I want to thank you and all the judging staff for running a smooth tournament. Now I have a question in regards to player responsibility. At the F2F tournament I was in the middle of a match when a player next to me needed to make a judge call. Because I was nearby I could hear what the issue was, a player wanted to cast lightning bolt in response to his opponents activation of Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx. The judge came over and ruled that the player could cast bolt in response to Nykthos (which would cause less mana to be generated if he targeted a creature). Now I was pretty sure that Nykthos was a mana ability and that the judges ruling was incorrect. What is my responsibility as a player when a situation like that arises? After the match that I was playing I looked up the oracle text for Nykthos which confirmed that it could not be responded to and let the player know that the ruling was a mistake. I felt really bad afterwards because it apparently had a large impact on the game. What is best to do in a situation like that, considering I was in the middle of my own match? Is it different if I am observing the match or should I let the judge ruling stand?



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