Handling disagreement on life totals, part 2: Invisible

Life totals are something special. While each player needs to track their own, the fact they’re generally tracked on each player’s own life pad may lead to discrepancies which may be discovered sometimes way too late to be safely backed up.

As a judge, you will need to make a decision that may be game decisive. Actually making a decision whose consequences you’re aware of is important. I’ve expanded a bit on this topic in this article already, which you should probably read first.

During GP Rotterdam 2016, it turned out I’ve had to deal many appeals on this specific topic. Throughout the week-end, I’ve been able to articulate my thoughts in a more and some structured way, defining a process to follow so as to deal with these issues as efficiently and consistently as possible.





You can search this blog for part 1, you will not find an article named as such. Part 1 is actually hidden in my PT Atlanta HJ Report, in which you should probably read the paragraph named Handling Life Totals discrepancy.

While part 1 was meant to deal with situations where it is known what’s the correct life totals is, this one is about evaluating what the correct life totals should be.



The Situation


On turn 2 when playing first, Andrea casts Voltaic Brawler. He attacks with it on turns 3, 4 and 5. On turn 6, when life totals are checked, Noah indicates she’s at 9 while Andrea believes Noah is at 8. They call the judge at that point. The Floor Judge gave a ruling which was appealed.


Since The Floor Judge told me that both players disagreed as to what happened at some point in the game, prior to doing anything, I separated them.




Step#0: Witnesses


Since both players disagreed on what happened, I first looked around for a third party who would have witnessed what had actually happened.  In this situation, it wasn’t the case but asking never hurts.


Keep in mind that if someone speaks up, they could also be biased (positively or negatively) because they know a particular player.




Step#1: Gather players’ initial statements


Because players were separated, this initial important step could safely be performed.

  • Andrea indicated he boosted all three turns. He believes he said “take 4” every turn.
  • Noah indicated she is certain Andrea didn’t boost on turn 3, which surprised her as this wasn’t the choice she expected. She can’t remember exactly what Andrea said when attacking on turn 3.

It immediately felt weird to me that Noah noticed such a weird play (from her perspective) but didn’t try to verbally acknowledge life totals as to confirm what whether the Brawler was boosted or not. When asked, she said that she didn’t want to remind Andrea about the existence of the ability.
Not an unreasonable statement.




Step#2: Analyze the board


I tried to find actual evidence hinting at what the correct life totals should be. Indeed, demonstrating your reasoning through factual elements is the best thing that you can do to make players feel at ease with your ruling.



[Contextual]Energy counters


I first tried to find factual evidence, checking how many energy counters Andrea had left on turn 6 to assess whether this matched the number of claimed boosts. Andrea was using a die, whose face when I reached the table was matching the claimed number of three boosts.


This felt like an easy one but when talking to Noah to highlight this, she indicated that the die was moved several times during the Floor Judge’s ruling since he recounted the energy as well and it may very well have been moved an placed back to the incorrect face, a fact the Floor Judge could not confirm.



Life Pads


Since this wasn’t an unreasonable claim, I went further in this investigation. I therefore took a look at Noah’s lifepad, which was displaying the following regarding her life totals:


Each number but the 9 is cleanly scratched so it remains 100% readable.

Then I took a look on Andrea’s lifepad which shows, without any kind of scratches, Noah’s life record as



Life pads, despite they are the primary source of confusion, are paradoxically your best friends. Indeed, they will show where the discrepancy happened. They should be your primary source of unbiased information.

These two players’ life pads gave many hints:

  • First, they assessed that the issue indeed came from turn 3. The fact it was clearly scratched with a clean 16/17 on two different lines made me feel like Noah was probably not cheating, or she would likely have tried to hide this a little bit better. Note that I didn’t discard the idea of Cheating entirely, simply my attention was slightly lower and I focused more on resolving the issue.
  • Then, I asked Noah why she moved her life up a point from 16 to 17. She said that she felt it was obvious Andrea would boost the Brawler when he first attacked with it so she wrote 16 but then, when he didn’t boost, she was surprised and crossed the 16 to make it become a 17.




Step#3: Strategic Implications



Assessing the most probable plays


Let’s say that on her turn 2, Noah played a 2/2. Considering Voltaic Brawler’s ability is a triggered ability triggering when it attacks, it would make no sense for Andrea to not boost, or if he didn’t, no sense for Noah to not block with the 2/2, as this would be a good trade.

Therefore, if a 2/2 had been cast by Noah, Andrea would certainly have boosted and the ruling would likely be over. Unfortunately, in this situation, this wasn’t the case.


In general, knowing whether a play makes sense is definitely something to evaluate.


Note: It is perfectly reasonable you may not feel comfortable evaluating whether a play makes sense or not. While I do have a strong competitive background, I realize not everybody has one. In this case, you can either consult with another judge, who may have more play experience than you have or simply ask the player to explain why they performed this specific (series of) action.



Asking players their reasoning behind the contentious play


I then asked Noah to explain to me why it would make sense for Andrea to not boost the Brawler on turn 3. She said that if Andrea has very few means to gain energy in his deck, it makes sense to only deal three damage in the first turns to save energy for a moment where the Brawler will need to be a 4/3 so as to be board relevant. While this made perfect sense from Noah’s point of view, a quick look at the game state revealed that Andrea had many other ways to gain Energy in his deck.

To double check this, I asked Andrea to tell me what he had in his opening hand and he told me about two other cards giving him energy.


Note: This was a key element in this investigation. Only one thing made possible to gather this important element: My precaution to separate both players initially.  Neither player had a chance to hear anything about the specifics I discussed with the other, so Andrea would be a criminal mastermind if he managed to anticipate the reasoning behind this question and game it. Also, since there were two additional cards giving energy, the probabilities one was in the opening hand is fairly high.



I could almost conclude with certainty at this point. However, I still needed to address Noah’s claim that the die was moved during the Floor Judge’s ruling.

I asked Noah several questions about the situation:

  1. How can she explain that Andrea’s life pad indicates a clear 16?
    Noah indicated that they never verbally acknowledged life totals but that the Energy die was left on 2 as damage was dealt. She indicates that Andrea may have thought he boosted but he never made any indication of it whatsoever.
  2. Why didn’t she call attention to the life totals’ discrepancy until turn 6?
    She said that’s the first moment when both players verbally acknowledged life totals. On turns 4 and 5 both players said “take 4”. Both players agree on this.



Step#4: Wrapping up


I was not under the impression that Andrea or Noah had been Cheating or were currently lying. This being excluded, I now had to make a decision.

  • The Game state, through the energy counters, tends to indicate that the Brawler was boosted all three turns.
  • Andrea’s basic strategy also supports this fact.
  • Andrea did register a straight 16 on his life totals, despite Noah registered 16 then 17.


Noah’s claim essentially boils down to Andrea making a strategic mistake. Despite she states she clearly noticed it, she didn’t draw attention to it very early (to say the least) and I could gather no proof of it happening:


Considering there is no evidence a strategic mistake happened, then it is likely that there was none.


Why do I believe Noah is not lying? In the exact same way as I could not gather evidence Andrea made a strategic mistake, I could not gather evidence that Noah lied. It’s not because I rule against Noah that she was lying.



Kevin Desprez.