Deus Ex Errata: Debating the Changes to Time Vault

Recently, Wizards Rules Manager Mark Gottlieb dropped a bombshell on the Vintage community in the Ask Wizards column. He announced that he was issuing errata to Time Vault, abolishing the well-established Flame Fusillade/Time Vault combo. Stephen refutes the reasoning behind such a bold move, and has the logic to back up his claims.

Recently, Wizards Rules Manager Mark Gottlieb dropped a bombshell on the Vintage community in the Ask Wizards column. He announced that he was issuing errata to Time Vault, abolishing the well-established Flame Fusillade/Time Vault combo. As Mark explained:

“(For those who don’t know, here’s the combo: Flame Fusillade grants your permanents the ability ‘{T}: Deal 1 damage to target creature or player.’ Time Vault is an artifact with (among other abilities) ‘Skip your next turn: Untap Time Vault and put a time counter on it.’ So you could play Flame Fusillade, then tap Time Vault to deal damage, untap it by skipping your next turn, tap it, untap it, tap it, and so on. By the time you’re done, you’ll have skipped your next 20 turns, but your opponent will be fried to a crisp and in no real position to take advantage of your generosity.)”

Errata is not usual or uncommon, and Time Vault is no stranger to errata.

Time Vault was restricted in the first wave of DCI restrictions on January 4, 1994. The DCI simply could not permit Time Vault, as written, to be used with cards like Twiddle to take extra turns.

In 1996, Time Vault was issued erratum to give it “time counters.” In order to take an extra turn, you would have to remove a “time counter,” and not simply tap Time Vault. You could only add a “time counter” by skipping a turn. The idea was to provide a wording that would prevent the use of cards like Twiddle to take extra turns. Time Vault was issued erratum again in 1998 and most recently in 2004, before the last errata.

In 2004, Time Vault was issued erratum to read as follows:

Time Vault
Time Vault comes into play tapped.
Time Vault doesn’t untap during your untap step.
Skip your next turn: Untap Time Vault and put a time counter on it.
T, Remove all time counters from Time Vault: Take an extra turn after this one. Play this ability if only there’s a time counter on Time Vault.

In short, Time Vault was issued erratum so that you could untap it at any time. Thus, the Flame Fusillade combo arose.

Here is the new text of Time Vault:

Time Vault
Time Vault comes into play tapped.
Time Vault doesn’t untap during your untap step.
At the beginning of your upkeep, you may untap Time Vault. If you do, put a time counter on it and you skip your next turn.
T, Remove all time counters from Time Vault: Take an extra turn after this one. Play this ability only if there’s a time counter on Time Vault.

Cards printed years ago are riddled with ambiguities and often reflect an earlier set of rules. What is unusual and disturbing about this errata is how sweeping and surprising it is, and how it was made without due regard for the broader consequences. Although seemingly innocuous and well intentioned, this decision is nonetheless a dangerous mistake with far reaching consequences. I understand perfectly well why Mark and company made the decision they did, as I’ll explain below. However, both this decision and the policy that informed it are in need of urgent revision.

So why was this decision made? In the words of Mark Gottlieb:

“There are two problems with [Time Vault]. One is the cost of this activated ability. A cost can be spending mana, or paying life, or discarding a card, or various other resources you can spend. But a cost can’t really be spending something you don’t have yet. Magic doesn’t have a concept of debt. Look at Chronatog — It was printed with ‘skip your next turn’ as a cost, but that was changed in Oracle long ago so it’s now part of the ability’s effect. Time Vault should have been changed at the same time but wasn’t.”

The argument that “we can’t use ‘debt’ activated abilities” may justify the need to errata Time Vault, but it does not have anything to do with an errata that nullifies the Time Vault/Fusillade combo. Why? To correct this problem, all that they needed to do was make the “skip a turn” debt into an effect rather than a cost of activating Time Vault. This requires no functional change — it is a semantic change.

“The other issue is the original intent of its untap ability. Check out this ability from a different Vault in Alpha: ‘Mana Vault doesn’t untap normally during untap phase; to untap it, you must pay 4 mana.’ Mana Vault’s Oracle wording treats this ability like so: ‘At the beginning of your upkeep, you may pay {4}. If you do, untap Mana Vault.’ This reflects the clear intent of the ability.”

Whoa! Stop right there Mark. Hold up a second.

I empathize with what Mark is trying to do. I really do.

The Alpha printings of both Mana Vault and Time Vault have this templating:

“_________ doesn’t untap normally during untap phase; to untap it, you must _________.”

Mark is trying to make the cards consistent. They both have the same language, why shouldn’t they both have the same errata? Before this erratum, Time Vault could be untapped at any time. That is what enabled the Flame Fusillade combo. After this erratum, Time Vault, like Mana Vault, only untaps during the upkeep.

In logical form, the argument looks like this:

Premise 1: Mana Vault untaps only on upkeep.
Premise 2: Time Vault has the same templating as Mana Vault
Conclusion: Therefore, Time Vault should also untap only on upkeep.

Although an apparently reasonable argument — this little syllogism is loaded with landmine assumptions. This entire article is an effort to deconstruct this argument and refute it. I’ll reveal each of the assumptions and problems contained in them.

The first problematic assumption is the one that Mark makes explicitly at the end of the quoted paragraph above. He says of the errata that Mana Vault only untaps on upkeep:

This reflects the clear intent of the ability.”

Look at the word I’ve bolded here.

Read the template again, pretending that you don’t know anything about the cards:

“_________ doesn’t untap normally during untap phase; to untap it, you must _________.”

What would you conclude about that templating? When do you untap ______?

The first thing that I want to point out is that this is templating is anything but clear. In law, this is called a facial ambiguity, the statute (card) is unclear on its face.

I hesitate to draw legal parallels here simply because I recognize the possibility that it will bore or, worse, confuse some readers. But the language developed in law provides a readily accessible terminology to help me explain the analysis of Time Vault here.

For example, Gottlieb uses the word “intent.” In law, intent is a term of art — meaning it has a specific legal definition that is different from what is commonly understood. I won’t explain each of the various uses of the word intent, but I do want to make an important distinction here. A particular distinction used in law helps us better grasp what Gottlieb is doing.

In law, there is a difference between original intent and textual intent. Original intent would ask: What did the person who wrote the law or designed the card mean? Textual intent tries to determine the meaning of the card based upon the text of the card itself. Gottlieb is using the latter use of the word “intent.” It was necessary for me to explain that so that the reader looking at the word “intent” would not be thinking about what Richard Garfield was thinking when he designed Time Vault. That’s not what Gottlieb means. Gottlieb’s analysis and the comparison between Time Vault and Mana Vault is a classic form of textual analysis.

The analysis of Time Vault here is equivalent to what is called “statutory interpretation.” This is where lawyers and judges try to make sense of a statute in light of an ambiguity or disagreement over its meaning.

The approach that Mark Gottlieb is employing is called textualism or strict constructionism. This is a jurisprudential theory that seeks to determine the meaning of a statute by examining the text and using well-known principles of statutory interpretation and not by looking at the purposes of the statute.

So, in light of a facial ambiguity, how does a textual approach proceed? One method of argument in favor of a particular statutory interpretation is to suggest to the judge that the statute should be interpreted in a particular way because another, similar, statute has been interpreted in the same way. That is precisely what Gottlieb is doing with Time Vault here by comparing it with Mana Vault.

Textually, there are two reasonable interpretations for how Mana Vault and Time Vault might untap.

1) The first is that you should untap shortly after the untap step.

2) The second is that you may untap any time you do pay four mana (or skip a turn in the case of Time Vault).

Either interpretation would seem to fit the text of the cards themselves.

Mark is assuming that the intent of the card is the former and not the latter. Mark does provide some more insight into why he makes this assumption:

“Untapping this card at the beginning of your turn costs extra mana. You get to do it once, since it’s this card’s functional substitute for the ‘normal’ untap. Having this ability trigger at the beginning of your upkeep is the modern treatment of this sort of thing.”

Let me explain what is happening here from a logical point of view. The major premise in Mark’s argument above has become the conclusion to a sub-argument.

It looks like this:

Premise 1: The modern treatment of a card that requires you to do something to untap it is that you do this on the upkeep.
Premise 2: Time Vault requires you to do something to untap it — what Mark Gottlieb calls the “functional substitute” for the ‘normal’ untap.
Conclusion: Time Vault untaps only on the upkeep step.

As you can see, the conclusion does not strictly follow from the premises. The premises lend support and credence to the conclusion, but the evidence that Mark is marshalling to support his argument does not make the alternative interpretation unreasonable.

You’ll notice that Gottlieb throws in the line “you get to do it once.” He supports that point by saying that this is because it is the card’s functional substitute for the ‘normal’ untap. The truth is that he is making an inference that is not strictly warranted by the text of the card itself. There is nothing on the text of the card that compels the conclusion that you may only untap Mana Vault once per turn if you meet the conditions printed. There is a semi-colon that separates the command that Mana Vault does not untap during the untap step and the instruction which specifies the conditions under which Mana Vault may be untapped.

The “you only get to do it once” comment is an inference made by Gottlieb based upon his interpretation of the card. It is not something that the card itself suggests. This is part of what leads him to hold the second premise in the above argument as true. If you only get to do it once, then it does appear to be a functional substitute for the normal untap step that should occur roughly coterminous to the untap step itself.

A lot of Magic history, ironically, may be leading him, and others, down this path. For example, lots of modern cards do indeed require you to do something in the upkeep to untap the card — like Forsaken City. However, this is custom, and not text. We should not confuse the two. At the time Mana Vault and Time Vault were printed, no such custom had yet developed.

Gottlieb’s assertion that Mana Vault untapping on the upkeep reflects the “clear intent” of the ability is simply without merit. It may, in fact, reflect the intent of the ability, but it is hardly clear.

I want to be absolutely clear: I’m not saying that Mark Gottlieb’s interpretation is unreasonable. I’m only saying that he is taking his interpretation and certifying it as the only reasonable interpretation. This is not the case.

Gottlieb might come back and say: well, my interpretation may not reflect the clear intent of the card, but it reflects the most reasonable interpretation of the card.

This argument has several flaws.

First and foremost, there is a counter textual argument that undermines this claim.

The Basalt Monolith Conundrum

The Alpha text on Basalt Monolith looks in many respects similar to Mana Vault. However, it has the critical additional text: “You may untap this at any other time.” If you sit Basalt Monolith and Mana Vault next to each other, it becomes more and more likely that the intent was that Mana Vault would untap at the upkeep since Basalt Monolith explicitly says that it may be untapped at any time.

However, take a look at Beta Basalt Monolith:

It does not have that additional text.

What possible reason could there be for going out of your way to remove that extra text? Keep in mind that the Beta set was supposed to correct the errors of Alpha, as it does in most cases. They wouldn’t make the change unless there was a reason.

I can think of three possible hypotheses for this mystery:

1) Basalt Monolith was not supposed to untap at any time, and assuming that the intent was that Mana Vault could only untap as Gottlieb thinks, then the removal of the additional language makes sense.

2) Basalt Monolith, and Time Vault, and Mana Vault, and all other similar cards were not intended to have one particular wording or another, but they changed Basalt Monolith because they wanted all of the cards like that to have the same templating.

3) Basalt Monolith was supposed to untap at any time, but the language on Basalt Monolith led people to incorrectly conclude that Mana Vault (and similar cards) was supposed to untap only on upkeep when they intended them to be untappable at any time.

To make this hypothesis clear, pretend that you are playing magic in 1993 and you own a Basalt Monolith and a Mana Vault. You aren’t sure when to untap Mana Vault, but you read Basalt Monolith. This leads you to deduce that Mana Vault does not untap at any time, otherwise they would have included the additional language that is found on Basalt Monolith. Wizards may have realized that this was happening and cut the additional text on Basalt Monolith so that people would stop coming to that conclusion. Thus, rather than add the language that was found in Basalt Monolith to Mana Vault, and Time Vault, and every other card with similar wording, maybe it was felt that simply removing the additional language from Basalt Monolith instead would clear up the ambiguity. Thus, instead of having to go to the trouble to change the text on lots of cards, they believed they could clear up this mess by removing the language from a single card.

If I were a Bayesian, I’d eliminate the first hypothetical as the least likely. Although there are many mistakes in Alpha, few cards have carefully inserted additional text that specifically contradicts previous editions in such a blatant way. In most cases of errors in Alpha, these were errors of omission or confusion. Thus, the first hypothesis is the least likely and the only one that supports Gottlieb’s textual intent argument.

Supposing that the third hypothesis is the real reason for the change to Basalt Monolith, it occurred to me that this may have had a cascade effect that ironically leads us to our current dilemma. Although the original intent behind Mana Vault and Time Vault may well have been that they should untap at any time, the accidental addition of the language on the Alpha Basalt Monolith may have led later templaters to assume that Mana Vault untapped on the upkeep only and hence led to our current presumption that Time Vault should as well. In other words, reasonable inference becomes custom — and custom becomes presumption of intent. Do you see how this could create a vicious circle?

It may be precisely this long custom that Mana Vault untaps on upkeep that may be leading Gottlieb to conclude that this was the original intent, and thus to conclude that Time Vault should also untap in that way. In other words, the whole edifice may have been built on a lie. Admittedly, this is just speculation, but given the other two hypothesis, this is certainly a realistic explanation and a viable textual argument against Gottlieb.

It could well be that some templating inconsistency in Alpha which they attempted to correct in Beta actually led to a change in how Mana Vault worked. This change became standardized and set in later printings (and they once again added the original Basalt Monolith text in Revised) and all of this history has led us to the confused spot we stand in today. The presumption that Time Vault should untap at the upkeep based upon a textual comparison with Mana Vault may be flawed simply because of a templating accident with Basalt Monolith, ironically enough.

Wherever you come down on the textual arguments, I think the bigger lesson is that we simply can’t make coherent textual arguments based upon Alpha templating. There are many templating inconsistencies in Alpha that equally support both Gottlieb’s inference and the counter-inference.

Competitive Magic Magnifies Ambiguities and Demands Clarification

The second argument that undermines the potential rebuttal claim that Gottlieb might raise that his interpretation, although not the only reasonable interpretation, is the most reasonable, is that it ignores the fact that in a competitive situation, any ambiguity at all will become magnified and require clarification simply because competitors will want to seek a result that supports their side. The competitive reality of Magic is such that any ambiguity will lead to a conflict in need of resolution.

Let me give you a hypothetical:

Suppose you are in a tournament. You have activated Mindslaver on your opponent. Your opponent has Time Vault in play. You picked up Time Vault and read it. You didn’t see anything on the text that said you had to use it on the opponent’s upkeep, so you go ahead and draw a card. After you have drawn, you decide to untap Time Vault. But your opponent insists that you can only untap it during the upkeep. You look at the text of Time Vault and you are do not see any such restriction. What do you do?

You call the judge. Magic is a competitive enterprise. People in competitive settings will marshal every reasonable argument they can come up with to their cause. Even if you are less than 50% certain that you can untap Time Vault at instant speed, you are still going to call the judge if you think there is a chance that you are right. This is the problem.

The point I’m making is that in a competitive enterprise, when faced with an ambiguity, players will not reach a consistent outcome. They will be inclined to take the position that supports the outcome they desire. That’s how law works, and it’s the same here.

The problem is that the textualist position which concludes that there is an inherent or objective “functionality” to Time Vault ignores the fact that there is actually a very patent ambiguity.

Whenever a clarification occurs, the person doing it is very likely straying from whatever intent the original writer had. One person will be happy, and another disappointed. And we should applaud this. To pretend that we are acting consistently with the original intent is a delusion.

The Delusion of a Naturally Intuitive Reading

The third problem with the textualist argument that Gottlieb has put forward is that it glosses over the embarrassing ambiguity found in Alpha with the illusion that there is a naturally intuitive reading.

The assumption that there is a most reasonable interpretation of these cards underpins this misguided belief that there is some inherent quality found in Time Vault. Look how Gottlieb and Buehler variously phrase this point:

1) “The other issue is the original intent of its untap ability.”
2) “This reflects the clear intent of the ability”.
3) “These reasons are why Time Vault (as well as Brass Man, Colossus of Sardia, and Island Fish Jasconius) have all been given errata …to restore the original intent and functionality of their untap abilities.)”
4) “But in this case, Time Vault and Flame Fusillade should never have interacted this way.”
5) “Through years of Oracle changes and rules system changes, Time Vault drifted away from working the way it’s supposed to.”
6) “It’s being changed because it’s the right thing to do for the integrity of that card.”

And from his form letter:

7) I’m not going to apologize for making Time Vault work the way it was meant to work, and the way its printed wording indicates it should work.
8) When a card’s Oracle wording doesn’t reflect reality, that’s a problem… If I find an error in Oracle, I’m going to correct it.
9) My responsibility is to the integrity of the cards.
10) My job is to make sure the cards, and the game, works the way players think it would – in fact, the ideal situation would be that no one ever has to consult Oracle or the Comp Rules.
11) “I will continue to make my decisions based on common sense, player intuition, printed wordings, and the integrity of both the individual cards and the game as a whole.”

Variously, he repeats the same point: that there is an “original intent,” a way that the card “should” have been issued erratum, or was “supposed” to work, the original “functionality” of the card, and finally what he calls the “integrity” of the card.

In the last quote, Gottlieb strings together each facet of this core idea: which is that there is some inherent quality in Time Vault that was not reflected in the 2004 errata.

Randy Buehler explained the purpose behind this hope:

We believe it is good for Magic if players can trust the printed wordings. Whenever possible, we try to make sure that Oracle matches the functionality that a reasonably intelligent player would deduce based on the printed wording of a card.”

Just so we are all on the same page, let me be absolutely clear: Randy and Mark are suggesting that there is some inherent quality in Time Vault that is evident from the card’s text, and that this character or “functionality,” if you will, should be in the errata.

This is wrong. There is no objective reality to the functionality of Time Vault — no “true” way that Time Vault works. There is only the text on the card. All there is, is an arbitrary decision that Mana Vault and Time Vault work in a particular way based upon a reasonable interpretation, and that another reasonable interpretation is not the way that Time Vault will work.

Language is inherently ambiguous. That is the primary reason that I think textualism doesn’t work in law, even though I don’t trust other legal methods very much. Even the most concrete phrase is amenable to interpretation. How do you think we keep lawyers in business? What does the phrase “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech” mean? What is the freedom of speech? What is abridging?

Language is symbolic form of some idea or concept. Not only do people use it imprecisely, but certain words have certain connotations to some people and not to others. This why word meanings change over time. You can have two reasonably intelligent people come to reasonably different conclusions about what a card text means for all of these reasons and many more (like how poorly phrased they are, and the fact that the original intent probably did not contemplate the current situation). Not even Black Lotus is entirely clear on its face. What is a mono artifact? Do you only get one color of mana? Necessarily, there must be some referent to clarify card meaning.

Now, one might say: “whoa, that’s a dangerous truth. Doesn’t this give the rules team carte blanche to do whatever with the cards?” The answer is no. Remember, they are choosing among reasonable interpretations. They can’t have Black Lotus draw you cards or remove cards from game. They have to choose from a finite number of reasonable interpretations.

It’s an intellectual blind spot on the one hand to say that we are making errata to reflect the “objective” reality of the card when in fact there is no objective reality. The card is inherently ambiguous. Mark misses this, and needs to embrace the harsh reality of ambiguity. The world is not black and white, but many shades of gray.

“This means the Flame FusilladeTime Vault combo will no longer work. However, this change was not done to kill the combo.”

I take as an article of faith that Gottlieb, and others who were in on this decision, acted in principle and not as an illicit attempt to remove the combo. However, they have missed the forest for the trees. To be perfectly fair, I could see myself coming to the same conclusion. If someone called me to a meeting and we sat around talking about how to fix “Time Vault” to reflect the original intent, I would probably come to the same conclusion. With such a myopic focus, it is easy to miss the costs of the decision and overestimate the need for a course correction.

The Utilitarian Concern

“In fact, the existence of the combo is rather irrelevant. If a combo occurs naturally and is degenerate, our response would be to ban one of the cards, not change its functionality. But in this case, Time Vault and Flame Fusillade should never have interacted this way.

Through years of Oracle changes and rules system changes, Time Vault drifted away from working the way it’s supposed to. It’s being changed because it’s the right thing to do for the integrity of that card.”

What about the integrity of the game?

The integrity of Time Vault is that it has no integrity. It was never clear from its inception. It has constantly changed for one or another pragmatic reasons, and this change is no different. This change is built upon a possible lie about how Mana Vault was intended to operate and, what’s more, is still miles away from the actual card text.

To me, integrity is about consistency. Mark mentioned that he wants Time Vault to be issued erratum in a manner that maintains the integrity of the card. The strict constructionists among you should be fuming. Technically speaking, if you want to get Time Vault as close to the original “intent” as possible, then shouldn’t you just do away with the whole “time counter” bit and just permit the Twiddle combo to exist? Then, if the combo is too degenerate, ban and restrict Time Vault in Legacy and Vintage respectively? Wouldn’t that be the erratum that would most closely mirror the original intent or printed wording?

If the goal is really to match the original text, then the use of a time counter just doesn’t make sense. There is really no defense for the point that this erratum was designed to match the original text and yet there is a “time counter.”

I think what is possibly most disturbing here is that Mark says that the existence of the combo is irrelevant. I understand how he comes to this view. I can imagine someone convening a meeting to talk about how to correct Time Vault. It is not unpredictable that this erratum would be the outcome. However, the problem is that such decisions cannot and should not be made based upon idealism alone.

Rational decision-making is cost/benefit decision-making. Pursuit of ideals is admirable, but often quixotic. I respect Gottlieb’s desire to maintain the integrity of the card in principle, but his quest is deeply flawed. It ignores the fact that there is no inherent truth to Time Vault, that there are textual counter-arguments based on the text of Basalt Monolith, that any clarification is choosing one interpretation over another reasonable interpretation. Equally important, this decision is very inconsistent with the most important policy that Wizards tends to exhibit: a desire to make people happy.

Let’s take a look at the argument I presented at the beginning of the article explaining the logic behind this erratum.

Premise 1: Mana Vault untaps only on upkeep.
Premise 2: Time Vault has the same templating as Mana Vault
Conclusion: Therefore, Time Vault should also untap only on upkeep.

Even if I’m wrong about everything I’ve said so far, this conclusion still does not follow from the premises.

As I said, Rational decision-making is cost-benefit decision-making. The conclusion that Time Vault should be issued erratum depends upon the policy values that inform both decisions to errata and Wizards’ decision-making generally.

The people at Wizards have a hard job. They make decisions that affect the Magic community all the time. To complicate matters, you are almost always going to make some people unhappy. When it comes to the harder decisions regarding the Eternal formats, Wizards has an excellent track record. The decision to separate Legacy and Vintage was applauded by most and opposed by a few, but ultimately, it worked out as envisioned. The decisions regarding which cards to restrict and unrestrict have been precise and well-calculated. Wizards has to walk a tightrope. There will almost always be discontent at any major decision.

The decision to restrict Trinisphere, for example, was not something I agreed with. I did not think it fit the criteria for restriction — which is that target of restriction should be a key component of a dominant deck. However, that doesn’t mean the restriction of Trinisphere was a bad decision. I understood why the decision was made and respected it, even if I think it was the wrong way to come down.

Most of the tough decisions generally fit the schematic of utilitarian reasoning (which I applaud). The utilitarian would ask: which decision makes the most people happy within certain bounds? The decision to errata Time Vault in this particular manner, with a slavish concern for the “integrity of the card,” has come at the expense of other, more salient considerations.

Consider decisions in the past that have gone against the “integrity” of the cards. The erratum on Time Vault to include a Time Counter was a power level erratum. Time Vault then moved from the Banned list to unrestricted. In fact, every errata based on power is anything but a textualist argument. It is an argument rooted and built upon pragmatism and a desire to make people happy.

Consider further: at one point, all continuous artifacts turned “off” when they were tapped. However, they grandfathered errata onto some popular artifacts: Winter Orb and Howling Mine come to mind. This is not the mark of integrity. This is a decision based on making people happy.

Properly framed, here is the problem: is drastically altering (in the name of historical accuracy) the function of a highly anomalous, comically confusing card from two formats that you pay the least attention to worth the deleterious effects on two metagames and hundreds/thousands of customers?”

The only reasonable answer is a two-letter word. The decision to errata Time Vault made no one happy. Some people didn’t care, and some people were neutral, but the way this went down left a bad taste in the mouth of even those who felt that the Time Vault combo should not exist. This was a lose-lose decision.

“I’m not going to apologize for making Time Vault work the way it was meant to work, and the way its printed wording indicates it should work.”

Mark, there is no particular way that Time Vault was meant to work. It was unclear from day one. Its printed wording reflects this ambiguity. Is it really so hard to accept that a card can be unclear? Embrace this reality and further accept that clarification necessarily eliminates one reasonable reading of a card in favor of another.

As to the actual errata… When a card’s Oracle wording doesn’t reflect reality, that’s a problem. Let me make a hyperbolic example. Let’s say that one night, after a severe whack on the head, I edit the Oracle record of Forcefield and add the line “At end of turn, you win the game.” The secondary market goes into a frenzy at the sudden game-winning power of this card. People spend lots of money to acquire Forcefields. Then I notice the error. Are you arguing that in a case like that, I shouldn’t correct it because the card is now valuable, or powerful, or popular?”

If you issued erratum to Forcefield to say that, you’d come out and either make a big explanation (which would inspire confidence and trust in Wizards that no change was going to undo this) or it would be quite apparent that it was an accident. In either case, no one would feel “screwed.” The risks were foreseeable.

In law, there is a principle called stare decisis. This principle exists for an important reason: we don’t want to upset the settled expectations of litigants. Even if the original decision is wrong, the Supreme Court is more likely to uphold it if it has been upheld for long time. That is not to say that precedent always wins — Dred Scot was overturned in Brown v. Board of Education. But some value should be given to precedent.

The errata you made with Time Vault here was not remotely foreseeable. Every single indication was the wording on Time Vault was fine. They let two restricted list announcements go by without a single indication that Time Vault was in danger of getting axed. What happened here was completely different from anything that has occurred before. The precedent is likely to create great upheaval in the secondary market.

Aaron Forsythe has summarized some of the utilitarian concerns with errata:

Every so often, combos pop up that abuse certain cards in ways that clearly go against their “designed purpose.” Worldgorger Dragon was not designed to be part of an infinite mana engine. Illusions of Grandeur was not created to be the kill card in one of the most pervasive combo decks of all time. Phyrexian Dreadnought was not made so that it could come into play on turn one.

For the most part, such combos are at the core of what we, as Magic players, should be trying to find. What fun would it be to play every card the way the R&D team envisioned? We should be trying to break things! Some of the most interesting decks use cards in ways that others–even people here at WotC–never envisioned. I assure you that Squee, Goblin Nabob was not meant to be part of an abusive card-drawing engine, and that Squirrel Nest was not meant the namesake of a turn-three kill, but once players get their hands on the cards, crazy things happen. That’s what makes Magic cool.

I couldn’t agree more!
He goes onto say:

Issuing errata isn’t even really a consideration anymore, as we feel that doing so is more damaging than it’s worth. Casual players really, really hate errata. (In fact, the Casual Players Alliance was formed because of the errata issued to Waylay in August of 1999. True story.) Our policy has changed in recent years. We don’t want to errata cards, and will only do so under certain circumstances. We’ll issue errata on cards that work in ways that most players find confusing. We’ll issue errata on cards that don’t work inside the rules of the game. But we won’t issue errata on cards to “correct” power levels, especially older cards that people are used to playing with. If they turn out to be problems, restrict or ban them.

Time Vault could easily have been issued erratum within the rules. What happened here was beyond anything that Forsythe articulated as policy. It’s true that there is an argument to be made that some players may have found Time Vault too confusing. But the spirit of what Forsythe is saying is the idea of expectations. Vintage players expected, reasonably, to be able to use Time Vault in a particular manner — with Lodestone Myr and then Flame Fusillade. Now, that is thrown out the window to the detriment of everyone except some future newbie who may be playing with a $100 Alpha card in a Vintage tournament. That’ll be the day.

If I find an error in Oracle, I’m going to correct it. My responsibility is to the integrity of the cards. My job is to make sure the cards, and the game, works the way players think it would — in fact, the ideal situation would be that no one ever has to consult Oracle or the Comp Rules.

This is the argument that Randy Buehler has put forward in defense of this decision. This argument has many flaws. First of all, as I’ve already explained, there is no intuitive reading of Time Vault. That is a delusion — particularly in the context of a competitive environment. Second, as great as this is as an ideal, these old cards are horribly phrased. Go read the card text on Illusionary Mask, Alpha Paralyze, or even Bazaar of Baghdad.

Moreover, people won’t even know what a poly artifact, mono artifact, or interrupt is. Not only that, but Vintage players can’t play a deck like Stax without reading the comprehensive rules on the upkeep. Even the new errata to Time Vault requires knowledge of an extensive body of rules in the comprehensive rulebook. The cat is out of the bag. This is a joke if you honestly hold this as an ideal.

Let me give you another example — a real one. Here’s how Darkpact is printed:
Without looking at it first, swap top card of your library with either card of ante; this swap is permanent.
You must have a card in your library to cast this spell. Remove this card from your deck before playing if you are not playing for ante.

Here’s what its Oracle wording was before this weekend:
Remove Darkpact from your deck before playing if you’re not playing for ante.
You own target card in the ante. That card’s previous owner owns Darkpact. Put that card on top of your library and Darkpact into the ante.

What??? I have to give away Darkpact? That’s not what the card says — but that’s what Oracle said, so it was the official wording. Should I have left it alone because that’s been the official wording for over a year? I have no idea what went wrong there (it happened before I became Rules Manager and no one’s noticed until now), but that got fixed too. Now its Oracle wording is this:
Remove Darkpact from your deck before playing if you’re not playing for ante.
You own target card in the ante. Exchange that card with the top of your library.

It got fixed because the card should work according to how it was printed, not according to a randomly erroneous Oracle wording. Time Vault is no different. Its price tag doesn’t mean it gets special treatment.

If Time Vault is no different, then why do you still have a Time Counter on it? Your example doesn’t synch up with what you did at all.

I’m sorry you feel betrayed, but Wizards of the Coast is 100% hands-off
when it comes to the secondary market. And there’s a flip side to this.
Let’s say someone sold their Time Vaults last year, shortly before
Ravnica was printed. Then Flame Fusillade came out, which made those
Time Vaults suddenly valuable. Did those collectors have a grievance
with Wizards for altering the market by printing new cards? We’re
certainly not going to stop doing *that*.

That is a known risk.

If Mishra’s Workshop were in serious danger of being restricted, its price would reflect that. Everyone knows that Mishra’s Workshop, while broken, has not evidenced a pattern that would justify that move. If Workshops started to dominate Vintage, then people like myself would sell our Workshops. Moreover, these things happen in regular intervals. Before every restricted list announcement, every Vintage player has to decide whether they can live with the risk of owning a card like that.

That is a known risk. The erratum is literally Deus ex errata — it’s out of nowhere, completely unforeseen and completely unfair. This sets a terrible precedent that Wizards will come out and make other errata. Many of my teammates have grumbled about whether it is worth owning Illusionary Masks right now.

It would be one thing if this decision could be justified, but each of the arguments in support either stands in the face of an equally strong argument on the other side and the far more devastating argument that this is an anti-utilitarian decision — a decision based upon a misguided idealism that flies directly in the face of the broader integrity of the game.

This decision was far, far worse than if you had just banned the combo in Legacy. The combo found a strong home in Vintage. And now you’ve killed it for casual play and five color. Even if the combo was not supposed to work as originally intended, which we can’t possibly know, we know for sure that the errata doesn’t reflect the printed word and, moreover, that you have made a ton of people unhappy — something that undermines the integrity of the game itself and is completely inconsistent with the vast majority of decisions on behalf of Wizards. Integrity is about consistency. This is one of the most inconsistent decisions to have ever come down from Wizards.

In summary, the secondary market is speculative by definition, and I will continue to make my decisions based on common sense, player intuition, printed wordings, and the integrity of both the individual cards and the game as a whole. If I started to make my decisions based on cards’ secondary market value, *then* players would have a reason not to trust me.

For the first time that I can remember, he is saying that the secondary market is of no-concern to Wizards. “Wizards is 100% hands-off when it comes the secondary market.” Does that mean that the no-reprint policy is no longer in effect? That would be a logical conclusion from such a statement.

The no-reprint policy and the no-proxy policy are driven by considerations that are certain beyond game mechanics or card integrity. Most importantly, there is long established precedent that decision-making of this sort will be made in a utilitarian manner without regard for formalistic or technical arguments. For example, the restriction of Trinisphere is nonsensical unless you consider the utilitarian perspective. From the formalistic perspective, the restriction of Trinisphere was unwarranted. Yet from a utilitarian perspective, it could be argued. The restriction of Trinisphere was not made on the basis of format dominance or distortion, but the simple fact that people claimed it was “unfun.” And now, all of a sudden, those considerations are “irrelevant.” This is the not the mark of consistency.

I believe that Time Vault could have been issued erratum in a manner that would have maintained the integrity of the card and the game at the same time and made everyone happy.

The cost of this move is steep. If what I have already said wasn’t troubling enough, Gottlieb’s reply is downright scary. He stubbornly clings to the illusion that there is a natural reading to the card — or an inference that players would most likely draw. This ignores the competitive reality of the game and the inherent ambiguity in the language and in the alpha parsings.

The Time Vault combo added diversity and fun to the Eternal Formats. The evolution of Vintage is slow, and the loss of any interesting or viable combo piece is a harsh blow. This was a narrowing of the strategic possibilities for basically no good reason at all.

It’s important to remember that there are no “sides” here. We are trying to work together to maintain the integrity and longevity of the game. If the openness to scrutiny of Wizards’ decision-making processes is to have meaning, there is a need to react to feedback. It’s time to put aside the egos — there is no right or wrong, but what is best for the long-term health of the format and maintaining the integrity of the game.


Changing the errata on Time Vault nine months after a particular usage has become well established in Legacy and Vintage is shameful. It has upset a multitude and made no one happy. The justification of helping future players is a forlorn hope. Vintage players who enter the tournament circuit will not only have to look up oracle text, but they will have to become familiar with not just 13 years worth of keywords and mechanics, but also a 50+ card restricted list, bizarre game strategies, and know that “interrupt,” etc isn’t relevant. For every player who is upset when they get fried by Time Vault and Flame Fusillade, their anger and frustration must surely be magnified when they find out that their Time Vault can’t be comboed with Twiddle; or that they some player can’t play with four Crop Rotations for their Vintage Urzatron deck; or that you can’t use Lion’s Eye Diamond to cast spells. I still see people trying to use Lion’s Eye Diamond to cast spells.

To correct this mistake, Wizards needs to act swiftly. They need to do two things:

First, they need to ensure that any future erratum of this magnitude is announced long in advance.

Second, they need to reverse this decision or re-errata Time Vault so that the Flame Fusillade combo works. Only by owning up to a completely understandable lapse of judgment will faith be restored.

Not only has Wizards shaken up the secondary market, scaring dealers and players alike, but they have ruptured a long held trust that Wizards will act in the best interest of the game and the players all in the name of a quixotic and delusional quest to maintain the integrity of a card printed in a bygone era in the hope of not scaring off new comers. There is no “reality” to Time Vault. There is no “original intent.” If this decision remains it is sad, because not only does no one benefit from this decision, but I can safely predict that no one ever will.

Stephen Menendian