Good Beats: The Assumption

There’s a fine line between mad play skills and misrepresentation. When the heck is that line crossed?

After an impromptu Extended playtest session at the apartment shared by Mike Turian, Andrew Johnson, and Dan Silberman last Thursday night, the four of us stood on the porch after midnight discussing ethics in Magic.

It all stemmed from a match in a PTQ at Origins that several of us bore witness to. I wasn’t there — but let me try and recreate the situation based on the stories I heard…

Player A had out two Phyrexian Arenas, two flying creatures that had been attacking every turn, and two Nightscape Familiars back on defense. He was at three life, meaning he could not afford to take any damage, or his Arenas would kill him. Regardless, he was dead in two turns. Luckily, the fliers would kill Player B in one more attack. Player B had two Nightscape Familiars of his own, but they couldn’t get through. So his next card had to be a good one.

That might not be exactly right, but it sets the tone well enough.

Basically, Player B got one more draw phase. He drew Yawgmoth’s Agenda. The card wouldn’t help him — he could have Repulsed (out of the graveyard) one flier on his opponent’s turn, but he’d still die. He couldn’t win with Agenda.

So he had to try something else. Maybe, just maybe, his opponent didn’t understand what the Agenda does exactly. So he cast it. And then he asked his opponent if he wanted to concede.

"Do you want to concede?"

"Why?" asked the opponent.

"Because I have an Agenda out and a Repulse in my graveyard."

"Oh. Okay." Scoop.

Player B couldn’t win, but he did. The question looms: Was it a legal win?

By the rules, yes. Look at what he said. "Because I have an Agenda out and a Repulse in my graveyard." That is a true statement. There was no misrepresentation, no lying. If his opponent knew exactly what Agenda did, Player B’s statement would have meant nothing. It would have been like asking his opponent to concede because he has a blue shirt on. And no judge is going to give anyone a warning for asking someone to concede because he has a blue shirt on.

What he did not say was, "Because I’m going to Repulse one of your Familiars" – which, by the way, could also have been a true statement. He just wasn’t going to Repulse it on his own turn. And he definitely did not say, "Because I can bounce your blocker and hit you for one and you’ll die to the Arenas." That would have been a lie, and the outcome of the match would have been open for debate by judges and whatnot.

As it stands, there’s really no issue other than one of personal taste. If you can stand winning like that, then you certainly are allowed to do so, as far as I understand the rules. I can’t stand it. I don’t think that way. Maybe that’s a flaw in my game, but I’d feel pretty bad doing something like that.

My brother, Neil, has a psychology degree, and I ran that scenario by him. He thought it was an awesome play — a great display of mental savvy. "[Player B] can present whatever information he wants to," Neil told me, "and if the other guy attaches some ‘value’ to that information, well, whose fault is that? He must have expected to lose all along if he gave up so easily." I then asked if he thought there was malicious intent in Player B’s explanation for concession. "You want to win, right?" Neil replied. "Maliciousness has nothing to do with it. He’s the enemy. Beat him. It’s a lot easier when he’s dumb."

On the porch that night, the four of us went back and forth about what an act like that will do to your reputation, and if your reputation means anything. We ended up split on those issues. But the important thing to come out of that discussion were other examples of how you can be purposefully ambiguous to fool your opponent. The morality and legality of these scenarios can all be debated, but I’d like to present the best example in a "What Would You Do?" forum.

First of all, I need to explain what I remember the rule being about announcing kicker when you cast spells. I think the judges have been handling it in such a way that if you tap enough mana to play a spell with kicker and don’t actually say the word "kicker,” that’s okay. It’s kicked. Intent was clear, and Magic shouldn’t be a game of semantics. That rule sounds simple enough, but envision this…

It’s an IBC tournament. You are playing a weird black/white control deck. You are at six life, with nothing in play but seven lands. Your hand is Rout, Desolation Angel, and Hypnotic Cloud.

Your opponent is playing Domain. He is at twenty life, with seven lands out (full Domain), five of which are tapped for the Ordered Migration (for five) that he just cast, leaving him with three cards also. He has one blue and one green untapped, signaling Evasive Action loud and clear, a card that you know is in his deck, but that he has yet to cast this game.

Your turn. You are dead in two turns to the bird tokens, and the Cloud and the Angel are not enough to save you. Rout must resolve, or it’s over. You are almost positive that your opponent has Evasive Action, meaning Rout won’t ever resolve. If you Cloud him, he’ll counter it, meaning you definitely lose to a second counter and probably lose to another threat. Rout has to resolve, and resolve quickly.

Your plan: Tap six lands, and announce "Cloud you," praying he doesn’t verify if it’s kickered (which, as for right now, it is not). Hopefully he casts Evasive Action in an attempt to counter it (since he thinks his entire hand is at risk), at which point you’ll say, "Okay, I’m not paying. [Put Hypnotic Cloud in the graveyard, and pause to indicate the stack is empty.] Use the other four in my pool plus this land [tapping] to Rout." At this point, you’d expect a big argument, but maybe it’s one you’ll win. You didn’t lie; you didn’t actively misrepresent the game state. Your opponent was playing under an assumption that he made on his own, and that’s too bad for him.

Here is where the line between Savage Cheater and Evil Genius become blurred.

Let’s look at all the possible outcomes for this scenario.

The first is that everything goes according to plan. Your opponent bites on the Cloud, and wastes his counter, allowing Rout to resolve. You win the ensuing argument, drop your Angel on the next turn, and smash him. Call that a "good play," call it a "cheesy win"… But I’m not sure you can call it cheating. Maybe you can. I’d like to hear the judges’ side of this example.

The second outcome is that it goes according to plan, but your opponent gets a judge once Rout is announced. If the judge doesn’t see it your way, he might make you back up to the last "unambiguous" point in the game — you have just announced, "Cloud you without kicker" and have four mana in your pool. This is really bad for you. You lose. I’m not sure the judge can do this, however. You never gave your opponent bad information throughout the entire sequence — he just made a "poor" assumption, which exactly what you hoped for. Many Magic games are won when one player tricks the other into making a poor assumption, and this is only slightly different. You might have a legitimate beef with the head judge in this instance, but again, I’m not positive.

The third scenario is also pretty bad for you. It involves the opponent asking, "With kicker?" when you announce the Cloud. You have two choices here — "Yes" and "No." Neither is really lying, although one was not your initial intent. Your intent isn’t set in stone until you speak it, but once stated explicitly, is binding. Once he asks this question, the only way out for you is if he doesn’t actually have Evasive Action, so I guess that’s what you’ll have to assume at this point. You were caught, and now you just have to get really lucky. If you say, "No, it’s not kicked," you might get a funny look, and then you just have to cross your fingers and Rout. If you say, "Why yes, of course it’s kicked!" you get his hand, but you are giving him an extra draw phase and five of your six life. I suppose this works out best for you if his hand contained another Migration and/or a Questing Phelddagrif. Again, all this assumes he doesn’t actually have the counter. Percentage-wise you’re screwed, but at least you aren’t going to be the subject of a judge’s investigation.

The fourth outcome is an offshoot of the third — you say, "Cloud you," and the next thing you know, your opponent is dropping his hand of Plains, Forest, Lay of the Land into the graveyard. No counter. Can you make your initial intent clear now? Can you say, "No, that was without kicker. I was trying to bait you. Just discard one, and I’m going to Rout?" Somehow I don’t think that will fly. Yes, your opponent made an assumption, but wasn’t that what you were trying to have occur? If you do get the judge to go along with your explanation, expect a lynch mob of other players to come looking for you after the match.

That’s my fun little example. What’s the moral of this story? To me, the moral is that Magic is a bad game when we start making too many assumptions. Little cracks open up in the game’s integrity, and people can’t really be blamed for trying to use them to their advantage.

I’d like to hear what people think of this (I’m still [email protected]) — maybe the rule concerning kicker can be changed to where intent MUST be made clear before the game progresses or else the judge must assume that kicker was NOT paid.

No, wait. That would still benefit Mr. Hypnotic Cloud. I’m not sure what change can be made to the rules to avoid this stuff.

But a change CAN be made in the way most of us play. Always always always verify what is going on. Make no assumptions. I ALWAYS verify if something is kicked, even if it looks painfully obvious. That’s only one of a hundred assumptions that we shouldn’t be making when we play. I’m going to try to get better at that. Hopefully everyone else will, too.

Game hard, but don’t get tricked.

Aaron Forsythe

Team CMU