Backing up : Philosophy and Methodology

The MIPG states that, when a Game Rule Violation happens, there are two possible options:

  • “[…] Perform the fix specified unless a simple backup is possible”
  • “Otherwise, a backup may be considered or the game state may be left as is.”


This raises quite a few questions:

  • When is a backup “simple” enough?
  • When should a judge consider a backup as opposed to leaving the game state as it is?


When I’m consulted for a backup as a L3+ judge or when I’m appealed as a HJ, I do have these two questions in mind too. Here are my thoughts on the matter, followed by the process I’ve designed to consistently approach backups so as to be, well, as consistent as possible, if not in the rulings themselves, at least in their approach.



An easy back up


Here is a situation that happened to me at PT Fate Reforged (and on which I already expanded in this article):

AP taps a Whisperer of the Wild and casts Savage Punch to have his Rakshasa Deathdealer fight with a 3/3, then pauses and looks at NAP.

NAP has a facial expression of surprise, since the 2/2 Rakshasa is not going to win this fight. AP notices and adds “and in response, I pump the Rakshasa”.

NAP calls the judge. The ruling seemed fairly easy, the pause clearly implying a priority pass. Until the moment we realize AP did not have ferocious because his 4/4 died the turn before (Cheating was investigated for and excluded), which implies that:

  • AP felt confident his Rakshasa would win the fight (Ferocious gives +2/+2 to the Rakshasa).
  • The Whisperer of the Wild can’t be tapped for two mana (It needs ferocious for that).

We therefore have two errors: On the one hand, a strategic mistake (not noticing Rakshasa is 2/2) and on the other, a technical mistake (underpaying a spell). As Judges, we must essentially fix the second one before assessing the reality of the first one.


Fortunately, at this point, we’re at the earliest moment the mistake could have been caught: The spell hasn’t even resolved! Such an easy back-up! It’s even backed up by paragraph 717 of the Comprehensive Rules (since the spell was still on the stack).

I pondered a bit so as to evaluate options and concluded this was the ruling to go with. It was totally screwing NAP and saving AP, but that’s what the rules seemed to say.



Or maybe not?


I wrote “seemed to say” since, after a bunch of after-thoughts, I do believe my ruling was definitely not the best possible: I reversed all actions until Savage Punch’s casting, which allowed AP to now correctly pump his Rakshasa before casting Savage Punch again. It was somehow correct, but not optimal. By backing up, I allowed AP to use to his advantage an information that he didn’t have at the moment he made his decision.

Therefore, I did not restore the game state any close to its organic version.


Nowadays, facing the same situation, I’d leave the situation as it was: Savage Punch has been underpaid by one mana and it resolves. It seems weird, but that’s the top option.



Now, this does not mean we should never back up. Even if it can be sometimes dangerous, backing up can certainly be beneficial.

When you consider backing up, you need to be cautious about the impact your backup will have!



A tough back up


I’m called at a table because of the following rules issue: AP turned face-up his Reclamation Sage and incorrectly made its triggered ability trigger, destroying NAP’s Courser of Kruphix.

NAP untaps and casts Tragic Arrogance.

The mistake is relevant because NAP chose to keep Sylvan Caryatid while he would have chosen to keep the Courser of Kruphix that was wrongly destroyed.


Many things happened since the rules infraction occurred. In order:

  • Courser of Kruphix was destroyed.
  • AP attacked with several creatures, including a Whisperwood Elemental that manifested another card at end of turn.
  • NAP cast Tragic Arrogance, then passed the turn.
  • AP is about to draw. He takes the card away from the library but it doesn’t touch his hand, when AP notices something got wrong.


We are almost exactly two turns afterwards, which instinctively makes it a very pushy backup, hence it’s likely safer to leave things as they are.



Or maybe not?


However, this backup is doable, because each and every piece of what would look like “extra information” is known or totally random.

  • NAP hasn’t drawn another card yet, which means that the integrity of his hand is 100% safe.
    As a side note, a drawn card is not always a blocking factor to backing up.
  • AP has cast a very game-breaking sorcery (Tragic Arrogance), but it was known to both players because it was revealed on the top of his library while Courser was on the battlefield.
    Therefore, all previous game decisions were made taking it into account. It can even be correctly replaced on the top of the library since it wasn’t a random card drawn.
  • AP manifested a card, but it was a random card from the top of his deck, therefore it can easily be reversed.


In the end, despite this looked huge, there was nothing preventing to back up the game until the player turned his Reclamation Sage face-up (this shouldn’t be reverted as it was a legal play).

And the reason is: No extra information was gained at all


It’s also very interesting to note that after I performed the backup, both players went through the exact same sequence of plays, except that NAP chose to keep his Courser of Kruphix rather than his Sylvan Caryatid.



The philosophy of backing up


Reasons to leave the game state as it is


Let’s start with some philosophy as to why we generally leave the game state as it is, despite there may have been major rules infractions happening in the game and the game is nowhere close to what it should have been, had the infraction not occurred.


The main reason to choose to not back up is that players may have made potentially game-decisive decisions based on the post-infraction game state. This “wrong” game state has actually become genuine to players and they’ve kept on playing based on it.


By correcting the game state, the judge may end up corrupting the game even more, even if he obviously did not intend to.



A side note on partial fixes


A backup can’t be partial, it must be fully executed until the game state was restored to the point of the mistake.

It’s because strategic consequences can be hard to evaluate that we’re extremely cautious about partial fixes.



Reasons to backup


What we’re essentially trying to do when backing up is to restore the game state to an organic state.

By backing up, we’re trying to have players play the game they should have played, had both of them caught the mistake immediately. That’s what you should ask yourself when considering it: Will it make the game closer to or further than what it would have been without the mistake?




A method: The step-by-step backup


After quite some time performing backups, I’ve been coming up with this process I apply as much as possible:

  • I undo the steps one by one in order.
    If a card was searched for or drawn, I leave it clearly identifiable in case the backup would fail
  • As soon as one action doesn’t seem reasonable to me, I stop and rule that it doesn’t seem reasonable and therefore I’ll leave the game state as it is.
  • If I did manage to cancel each and every action and everything seems reasonable, then that’s my ruling.
    It can be appealed of course, that’s why it’s important to clearly identify cards leaving hand or battlefield.


This methodology has a few advantages:

  • It doesn’t give me an estimate of what it would look like, it tells me what it implies to cancel a series of actions.
  • It shows players I’m trying to undo the mistake and restore the game state so as to negate any advantage a player may have taken.
  • When it proves to be impossible, this gives me grounds to support my decision to not back up and elaborate with players on facts rather than guesses.
    Saying “I’ve got the feeling” is much less convincing than stating “I don’t believe this [fact] can safely allow you to keep on playing the same game.”



Defining reasonable


There is one thing that one can never cancel: What somebody has seen or heard.

Therefore, the elements that you should pay the most attention to are the extra information gained, for instance a revealed instant has lost a lot of its intrinsic power since the opponent can choose to play around with certainty.

Also, a non-information can be as powerful as an information: A player passing multiple priorities with untapped mana sources may have revealed his hand is not as powerful as it may be.
A good back up is almost a partial fix


If you feel like a partial fix on the game state would be easy, then there’s likely grounds for backing up.

The main reason to go through the whole procedure is that it will allow to check that, indeed, not too many (and nothing at all if possible) things will change once the players will resume the game from the moment you backed up to.


Kevin Desprez.


Other articles on this topic: Backing up through a Fetchland