An investigation on passing priority
To some extent, this situation has similarities with those presented in my article about Handling Miscommunication. However, even if some concepts are common, it wasn’t close enough to make me confident it would not dilute the point, hence why it appears in this report rather than being part of the other article.
AP is at 13 and NAP is at 12.
- AP controls Nantuko Husk and three other creatures.
- AP casts Chandra’s Ignition targeting Nantuko Husk and pauses.
Both players disagree as to what happens at that moment.
AP claims he was thinking hard about whether to sacrifice everything and go for the kill. Then, when he finally elected to go with sacrificing everything, NAP called the judge.
NAP claims AP paused, staring at NAP. At that moment, NAP said “Resolves”, takes his creatures, sends them to the graveyard (they all die but one) and tracks down 2 damage
This is far from a clear cut situation, strategically speaking:
- On the one hand, AP can certainly go for the kill by sacrificing two creatures in response to his own spell (6 damages from the Ignition then the 6/6 Husk attacks for the last damage)
- On the other hand, this is fairly risky move, since NAP had eight mana available, three cards in hand and may hold a removal (such as Flesh to Dust or Unholy Hunger): If AP sacrifices two creatures and the Husk gets killed, he ends up in a fairly bad position on the battlefield, facing three creatures and having only one.
NAP is concerned that AP paused, waiting for NAP to say something that would indicate he has nothing to do. Indeed, AP can go for the kill but simply resolving the Ignition is not horrible: NAP only has one creature surviving and AP still has two.
This concern is definitely valid.
AP is concerned that NAP tries to rush the spell’s resolution so as to prevent him from thinking and not die this turn.
This concern is also definitely valid, since NAP doesn’t actually have in hand a way to kill the Husk.
Note that the actual content of a player’s hand should not impact your ruling except when it comes to determine Cheating. And we definitely are in a sitution where one of the two players may be lying.
Information from the Floor Judge
Nuno, the Floor Judge, had previously decided that AP had passed priority, a decision that AP appealed.
Note that a player appealing is totally fair and should never be held against that player when making a decision.
When talking to both players, I made sure that Nuno remains next to me, so as to identify potential discrepancies in a player’s story, as I stated in Investigating: The role of the Floor Judge.
Once I gathered all elements, I asked Nuno about his impressons. He indicated that NAP’s story was very consistent from the beginning to the end while AP’s story, although remaining the same, had become much smoother: He was less hesitant and more convincing with me than he initially was.
Another Floor Judge also reported that while Nuno was away, AP talked in Spanish with a spectator. Even if the judge has the great reflex to quickly ask the player to remain silent, she could not hear what was said and the potential for information to be exchanged is present and might explain why AP’s story had become smoother.
After gathering all these elements, I was not convinced that one of the players was lying. Therefore, I “simply” needed to make a timely decision, since gathering these elements already took quite some time.
As usual, I referred to the rules. MTR state:
4.2 Tournament Shortcuts
[…]Whenever a player adds an object to the stack, he or she is assumed to be passing priority unless he or she explicitly announces that he or she intends to retain it.
In this case, amongst all the ambiguity, there is one thing that is certain (and quite the only thing both players agree on): AP certainly never “explicitly announced he intended to retain” priority. Both players agree AP paused for quite some time which, to many extent, technically implies that he passed priority.
The risks of a technical interpretation
The fact I made a ruling based on a technical interpretation of the rules does not mean this is the ultimate solution.
As a judge, you should always look first for what realistically happened. Making a technical ruling is a last resource after all attempts at determining what actually happened failed.
In this situation, if you immediately and without listening to players rule that AP should have explicitly retained priority, then you encourage NAP to “not hear” (at the very least).
Also, if the technical interpretation is the default, then you encourage players to be very technical, which may lead to players not enjoying Magic: Most games are played with tons of shortcuts and Out of Order Sequencing is one of the core concepts of an enjoyable Magic game.
This does not mean that players are entitled to do incorrect things or to be saved from a bad play. This means that assessing what actually happened should always be your priority before checking what the rules technically say.
The limits of Outside Assistance
One of the toughest moments you can live as a judge is when a player asks you a question that’s so poorly worded that you will end up answering something correct that will mislead him. This happened to me in Madrid.
NAP asks to talk to me privately and asks: “If I play Might of the masses on his creature, will his spell be countered?”
The (correct) ruling
Willbreaker will not die. However, the spell is not countered. It still has one legal target, therefore it can (and will) resolve. It will do its best, which is in this case, do nothing.
Indeed, since one of the targets is now illegal (Wild instincts says “target creature you control”), which means that target will not do anything and because this is a fight spell, there will be no fight (it won’t deal nor receive damage).
Words mean things
I was entirely aware that what the player meant to ask was: Will my Willbreaker die?
But this is a Grand Prix. And what the player actually asked me is whether his spell would be countered.
And to this specific question the answer is No. Hence I said No.
He showed me that Wild Instincts mentioned “you control”.
I said: “Well, you asked me whether the spell will be countered, and I am positive that it won’t, as there will be one legal target remaining.”
He asked: “So I’m dead?”
I replied: “Well, I can’t really answer to this question”
Since he believed he was dead, he cast his spell on his own creature, right before conceding the game, losing the match.
Trust me, that felt miserable. It was neither me nor the player who was miserable. Just this situation in which the player knew what to ask but failed to use the correct words, despite I tried to hint that his choice of words was poor.
Give players a chance
Yes, indeed, I did try to hint that his question was likely not formulated in the best possible way. This is what I did when I said that super technical sentence: “Well, you asked me whether the spell will be countered, and I am positive that it won’t, as there will be one legal target remaining.”
It’s not unreasonable to hint that the player is not asking the correct question. However, you should not:
- Answer the question the player has failed to ask
- Tell him directly that he’s not asking the correct question
Other possible options are along the lines of “Can you rephrase your question so I’m sure I understand what you’re asking?”
However, you should not say something close to “What do you want to do exactly?”
Both these sentences are obviously caricatural and the line is somewhere in between.
Demonstrating a superior knowledge of the Magic Rules should benefit players, while having an inferior knowledge should be detrimental.
It’s not up to the judge to try to mitigate this. If a player legally mind tricks his opponent, he’s entitled to do so. If a player makes a mistake, neither the rules nor the judge should save him.
Nevertheless, it’s acceptable to make sure the player is actually asking what he’d like to ask, especially when the question looks weird. However, the player should realize by himself what is happening.
You can give the player a chance of understanding but you should not guide him.
Before wrapping up this report, one judge totally deserves a shout out:Nuno,
You’ve been immensely helpful during that Chandra’s ignition/Nantuko Husk ruling at GP Madrid.
First, your calm demeanor really helped me gathering elements from these two agitated players.
Then, you were able from the very start to the very end to confront players’ stories with your memories and tell me accurate things that were essential in helping me making a decision.
Finally, your analysis of what likely happened in one of the two player’s mind was simply awesome.