From counting cards to reconstructing game states

It’s not uncommon that there are doubts about whether a player drew an extra card or not. A good example of this is Guillaume Wafo-Tapa, alleged to have drawn an extra card during PT Journey into Nyx (which turned, after a thorough scrutiny of the video, to be false accusation).

This is not an easy situation to deal with. There are multiple elements to consider, very often the information is incomplete. However, by combining many different elements, it’s not impossible to manage to count cards or even better, to reconstruct the whole situation, which also helps evaluating whether a player played two lands in a turn or even assessing the right amount of life totals.


A small insight on Drawing Extra Cards


One of the reasons why Drawing Extra cards has for a long time been worth a Game Loss is that one of the natural limitations of the game lies in drawing one card a turn. To draw more, you need to invest another somehow limited resource: mana.

It may happen that a player calls you because he feels his opponent has too many cards in hand. When this happens, your best move is to count the number of cards this player has had access to.



Pre-investigation: Toss and Mulligans


The very first two questions to ask are:

  1. Who played first?
  2. Did any player mulligan?
  3. If so, how many times?

On their respective turn one and barring mulligans, the Starting Player (SP) has access to 7 cards and the Drawing player (DP) to 8 cards.



Defining which turn we’re on.


Unless they cast card-drawing spells, each player draws exactly one card each turn.

This means that if you are counting during SP’s turn, both players should have the same number of cards, since DP did not yet draw for his turn.

If you count during DP’s turn, he should have one more card than SP.


This means that counting cards is also useful to determine which turn players are in:

  • For SP, the formula is: Turn number = number of cards – starting hand size + 1
  • For DP, the formula is: Turn number= number of cards – starting hand size

Easy, right? Let’s check the traps now!



Trap#1: Cards giving access to other cards


Magic is full of cards that make you draw a card (cantrips) and/or search for a card in your library.
Take Ponder or Flooded Strand for instance: These cards replace themselves and legally let a player access to one more card.

If there are such cards that have been played or cast (as opposed to discarded/exiled), they should be dismissed when counting.


Variation 1: Drawing several cards at once

Divination makes the count slightly more complex, since they give the player access to more than one card. In such a case, exclude the number of drawn cards from the count: In this case, that would be Divination and another one


Variation 2: Drawing or searching a variable number of cards

Sphinx’s Revelation or Seek the horizon make the player access to a variable number of cards. Make sure players agree on how many cards were drawn/search. If they disagree, here are a few tips:

  • For Sphinx’s Revelation, checking how much life was gained on the notepad is very useful.
  • In the case of Seek the horizon, it seems unlikely the player didn’t take all of the three lands.


Variation 3: Cards reshuffling themselves

Green Sun’s Zenith is banned in Modern, hence it’s become rarer. However, it’s a good card to keep in mind: Always ask players if a card that reshuffled itself or part or all of the graveyard has been cast/activated earlier: Elixir of Immortality, Emrakul, etc.



Make sure cards that make a player draw/search other cards remain visible and are not buried under other cards in the “already counted” zone. It’s easy to forget about them and this can confuse you when recounting for a quick double check.


Trap#2: Permanents that repeatedly make a player draw or search.


Cards like Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Land Tax or Courser of Kruphix can be really painful to take into account. They may make counting look like impossible, but that’s not (always) the case.

  • Have all players agree on how many times abilities from these permanents have been activated/have triggered.
    This should give you an idea of how many extra cards a player had access to.
  • If players are unsure, determine which turn they are in the game, what turn that card resolved and what it did exactly each turn.
    Jace, the Mind Sculptor’s first ability (+2 loyalty) does not give access to more cards but his second ability (0 loyalty) is +1 card for instance (draw 3, put 2 back).

It can obviously fail, especially if the game has already been long. However, let’s take this example from the World Magic Cup in Nice:


On turn 8, SP has the feeling DP has an extra card. A count of the cards indicates that DP may have an extra card. I say may because SP has Courser of Kruphix, which lets you play extra lands from the library. And here’s the crux of the issue: If the land was played from the library, it wouldn’t count towards the number of drawn cards, hence there would be no extra card in DP’s hand.
[Note: Extra here means “card that can’t be accounted for”]


That looked like almost impossible to assess. Actually, without any intervening element, it would have been impossible to assess.

By coincidence, SP was slightly mana screwed and only had 4 lands on the battlefield and one in the graveyard. That limited amount of resources is something that I could take advantage of. So we reconstructed the game from SP’s side


  • Temple of Abandon
  • Forest
  • Nykthos / Courser of Kruphix
  • Another Nykthos/Polukranos
  • Courser of Kruphix
  • Forest/Arbor Colossus/Sylvan Caryatid

Both players agreed on that sequence, most notably that Nykthos#2 was played on turn 4 and the Caryatid wasn’t cast on turn 2. Based on this precise sequence, I could draw the following conclusions:

  • Since SP had to play another Nykthos on turn 4, despite it’s legendary, it was pretty clear that he did NOT have the Forest in his hand at that moment.
    Obviously, he could have misplayed but that doesn’t look realistic.
  • Since, when you have Courser of Kruphix on the battlefield, the only way to draw a land is to have two in a row on the top of the library, it meant that the Forest was played from the top of the library.

And there came the logical conclusion: DP had an extra card he was unable to account for. He therefore got a Game Loss for DEC.



  • The more resources are limited, the more you can actually reconstruct a game.
  • Make sure both players agree on the game state before presenting your conclusions. This avoids one of them metagames tour reasoning by conveniently “not being sure”



Having extra cards VS Failure to draw


The IPG gives as an example of Hidden Card Error: “A player has more cards in his hand than can be accounted for.”

Before choosing that path, you need to make sure that this player really has more card and that it cannot be the opponent having one too few. This is why determining the number of turns and checking the card count against the turn count is important.

If it is impossible to determine whether the player has extra cards or his opponent has too few (because it can’t be checked against the turn count), have the player who has one card too few draw a card but do not issue a Game Loss.




Other possible applications


When there’s Delve in the format or when a player is unsure whether he has already played a land this turn, deconstructing games can be helpful too. Here are two examples from the World Championship in Nice:


Delve in the depths


On turn 5, NAP calls the judge because he believes AP underpaid his Treasure Cruise, exiling one card too few, with which AP disagrees. Problem: Another Treasure Cruise had been cast the turn before and there was uncertainty how many cards had been exiled already: AP claimed 4, NAP 5.


By simply analyzing the situation, this was a dead-end, a classic he said/she said situation. However, one thing could help me: Shocklands. I reconstructed the game using not only the cards but also both players’ life pads.

He had 5 Shocklands on the battlefield, one fetch in the exile zone and his life totals showed only 4 “shocks”, since he was at 11 on turn 5. This meant that one of them entered the battlefield tapped. Both players agreed that the land played on turn 5 entered the battlefield tapped. That means that AP played the land untapped on turn 4 and therefore payed 4 mana, exiling only 4 cards the turn before.

He therefore didn’t underpay his turn 5 Treasure Cruise.



  • Everything can help. Take advantage of all available resources.
  • Spectators can be helpful but make sure they aren’t biased. Always speak to each and every of them apart.



Two lands?


Very late in the game (probably turn 10-11 with multiple land drops missed already), there is a question whether a player has played an extra land (which can easily happen after a card-drawing spell) or not.

Counting cards was pointless because the issue was not Drawing an Extra Card.

Assessing whether a player played two lands or one means knowing how many lands he had at the beginning of the turn. Which means at the end of his former turn.


Therefore I tried to reconstruct the former turn, not about card counting but simply about mana spending, asking players which lands were untapped, in their opinion, at the end of the turn. When the answer is “0”, that’s a slam dunk. You just need to check which cards have been cast and add their mana cost and see how much that adds to.

When the answer is not 0, hope isn’t lost: You can still obtain an agreement from them, for instance because the opponent feared a 2-CMC Counterspell.



  • When it’s too late to reconstruct the game from the beginning, you can reconstruct it partially, from the last point where both players agreed, which can be one or two turns ago
  • Again, take advantage of everything you can: Number of activations of a Planeswaker, number of attacks with that creature that was played when the player was tapped out, etc.


Being able to count cards and therefore turns in a game is a crucial skill when it comes to clarifying ambiguity.
Drawing Extra Cards, and playing multiple lands a turn as well, are likely to give a significant advantage to a player. Therefore, counting should not be treated lightly.