Over the past few years, I’m seeing an increasing number of requests for [O] (official) answers, to the point where people are asking them for all kinds of things that don’t really require [O] and it’s a synonym for “correct”. That does a disservice to a ton of great judges out there, who can give good, reasoned answers, but aren’t one of the few able to bless them with an imprimatur.

I figure that it might help to talk about why [O] answers exist historically, what they’re for, and maybe a little judging philosophy.

[O] answers date back to the stone age of Magic. At the time, the rulebook fit into the Alpha starter box. It was far from adequate, as players pushed the edges of what could happen in a game, especially given how bad the templating was on some of the cards. Imagine making Raging River or Word of Command work without any rules support.

Magic players did the obvious thing – they invaded the rec.games.board usenet channel (the poor board gamers never saw it coming) and various mailing lists. They needed answers! Of course, that was a morass of people arguing, and not over the dusty corners where odd things happened. These were fundamental and basic rules. So Wizards ventured in and people like Beth Moursund and, a bit later, Tom Wylie patched them as they came up. To differ their answers from the rest of the rabble, they would prefix their rules with [O] to indicate that it was the official rule from Wizards to handle an unforseen section of the rules.

This continued to be the approach – patchwork like crazy – until the release of the Sixth Edition rules. In my personal opinion, the Sixth Edition rules were the most important thing to ever happen to the game of Magic. Not just because they smoothed out the game play and generally produced intuitive results, but because it gave Magic a mathematically-structured ruleset that defined what was allowed. The presence of a model meant there was no need to make rulings that people needed to disseminate to their tournaments – the rules doc itself was sufficienct. Sure, there were some crazy corners (still are), but those don’t require any sort of [O] ruling. They didn’t come up regularly enough to worry about.

Making your request an [O] request served a secondary purpose – it’s a shorthand that tells others not to clutter things with their possibly correct answers. Honestly, that’s a failure of mailing lists, and it’s good that we’ve moved over to forums.

Tournament policy was behind this curve, of course. Back then, in the days of Precedural Errors, [O] was used to fill in the unintentional gaps in the rules and to instruct how to rule on common tournament situations where the documents gave a bad result. I don’t recall if there was ever an [O] edict handed down to handle Braids (see previous article), but I can easily imagine a directive coming down from the powers-that-be saying “[O]: Give the players a warning the first time they miss an opponents’ Braids trigger”. The structure of the policies couldn’t handle it otherwise. I remember discussing possible creative [O] answers to the “I forgot Dark Confidant” problem (reveal your hand and lose the max!). [O] was the bat-signal – judges, pay attention to this!

Eventually, the IPG caught up to modern technology. It isn’t, and can’t be, as comprehensive as the CR. The CR says “you can do the following; everything else is not allowed”. The IPG isn’t allowed that luxury – there are an infinite number of ways to mess up a game of Magic, and the best we can do is try to categorize them and provide appropriate guidance for each category. At this point, though, most of the vagueness is intentional. Because we have judges, and those are areas where we believe it is better to give judges some discretion rather than try to document extensive rules.

In general, [O] rulings are only needed for emergencies – something unexpected and unintuitive comes up in multiple PTQs and judges need an official source to tell them how it should be handled beyond “use your discretion”. It used to happen occasionally because sets would be released in between iterations of the IPG – we issued a bunch of [O] rulings about the Pacts, for example, covering what would happen if one was forgotten and what was allowed as a reminder. Nowadays, true [O] rulings are few and far between; the rules just don’t need patching in the same way that they used to when ruling by precedent was the lay of the land.

The key to remember is that very few people are actually empowered to give [O] rulings – maybe half a dozen across the various documents. When you call for an [O] answer, you’re essentially demanding that one of those people answer your question. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t ask for an [O] at times. If you think you’ve discovered a problematic interaction in the current PTQ format and think there needs to be a global rule keeping everyone consistent, that’s important. 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… perhaps not so much.

And if you’re asking for an [O] answer because you think it’ll help your education as a judge, you’re missing out on a huge number of other people who are capable of educating you, many of whom are at least as expert on topics as the people empowered to provide [O] answers. Answers are valuable when they are backed up with logical reasons and citations, not when a voice behind the curtain declares it to be so. The curtain is a sign of failure. Ask for an O-pinion, instead.