One of Magic’s most appealing features is the card art. After all, a card’s illustration is bigger than its text box! Some people go the extra mile and alter their cards — from adding details to the illustration, to extending the illustration to the edge of the card, to creating “textless” cards.
As beautiful as altered cards are, though, altering your cards can sometimes cause problems at tournaments. The most important rule about alters are that, if a card is altered in any way, the Head Judge always has the final say on whether using it is permitted. If the Head Judge decides to disallow your altered cards, you’ll have to replace them. As a result, you should always talk to the Head Judge before playing with altered cards. Even if one Head Judge allowed your cards in the past, a different one could choose to disallow them. Even if you’re following all of the guidelines here, it’s always a good idea to bring along a set of ‘spare’ unaltered cards just in case the Head Judge disallows!
What are the official guidelines that judges use to determine whether alters are acceptable? First off all, the card’s name and mana cost cannot be obscured or changed. Not too much to say here — if you’ve covered up the name and mana cost, your card won’t be allowed, so make sure this doesn’t happen when you get your cards altered.
Second, the altered art must still be recognizable and cannot contain offensive images. This guideline is the one that’s most likely to vary for different judges. Does altering a Future Sight Tarmogoyf to look like Darth Vader make it unrecognizable? What about changing your Liliana of the Veil so Garruk is hugging her? Your mileage may vary.
Third, the altered art cannot contain substantial strategic advice. It’s rare for altered cards to come anywhere close to violating this, but every now and then someone decides to do something like underline some of the modes on Cryptic Command. Again, different judges may rule these situations differently.
Fourth, it’s important to ensure that altering your cards doesn’t make them recognizable while they’re in your deck. Painting cards can sometimes make them heavy enough to be distinct in your deck, or change the edges of the card so the top of the card looks different from an unaltered one.
Finally, altered cards have to actually be real Magic cards to begin with, and the altered card has to be the same card as the original. You can’t “alter” a Shock so it’s a Lightning Bolt, for example.
In short: altered cards are great, but be careful with them! Always ask the Head Judge before you use them, every time, and remember that the Head Judge of each tournament has the right to decide on the legality of alters for his or her particular tournament.
Today’s Rules Tip written by Paul Baranay