Years ago, you could get a free game win by catching your opponent on a rules error. That has changed. Today, both players are responsible for ensuring that mandatory actions take place, etc., and both players can get cautions and/or warnings if the game state gets screwed up. Judges are clamping down on “rules cheese.”
Here’s an example of the way it used to be, from an extended tourney back when Mirage was still legal: player plays Animate Dead on a Spirit of the Night, and it sticks around for a couple turns. Now Animate Dead is a black enchant creature card (an Aura nowadays) and Spirit of the Night has protection from black. That’s a fairly serious procedural error, since what should happen is that the Animate Dead should fall off immediately, then the Spirit should go back to the graveyard.
Now my memory of this event was that the opponent realized the problem immediately, but said nothing for a couple turns to make sure that the game state was irrevocably changed, then called a judge. The player with the Spirit got a game loss.
It used to be that, if you could catch your opponent in a serious error, then wait until it was too late to correct the problem by backing up, you got a game win. You can see what that leads to. One of the net reps on the judge board called this the “don’t mention it until it screws him” approach. It is no longer tolerated.
Wizards and the folks heading the judge program are opposed to that sort of thing. They have made two major changes in philosophy.
First of all, both players are now responsible for the game state, and for ensuring that major problems like that don’t happen. Both players should know that black auras cannot enchant creatures with protection from black. Today, both players can expect warnings for allowing that sort of problem to persist. (Not if it is caught right away, but if both players miss it for a period of time, then both players are at fault.) The exact penalties that would be applied, however, will depend on a lot of other factors: how messed up the game state is, what exactly happened, how long did this persist, what rules enforcement level is involved, are any of the cards foreign, etc.
Here’s an example – at a sealed PTQ, both players have “forgotten” Hokori is in play, and are untapping all their lands each turn. Hokori is under (both as in enchanted by, and physically underneath) Mystic Restraints. Under the old system, Hokori’s owner would have gotten a game loss for misrepresentation. Now, both players would likely get warnings for procedural errors, and let the game carry on, if possible. This error would mess up the game state, but since the alternative is a double game loss, the most reasonable option is probably to continue the game as it is – with a strong warning not to mess this up again. After all, both players have had some advantage from untapping extra lands, and there is no way to back up several turns.
The second big change is in how judges will treat people who try to use “rules cheese” to steal matches – in other words, to deliberately ignore rule violations in hopes that, but “catching” it later, they can earn their opponent a match loss.
Now, deliberately violating a rule to give yourself an advantage has a name. It’s called cheating. Deliberately ignoring a rules violation to give yourself an advantage is pretty much the same thing, and it can and will be treated as such.
In other words, when people try the “old school” trick of ignoring a procedural error, then arguing that with the judge for a penalty, they may get one but on themselves, for unsporting conduct.
This is a big change from the way things were years ago, and it is one of the best changes I have seen in judging in recent years.*
Here’s a common example: a game in the final extra turn ends with no winner. The match will end in a draw. One player asks the Judge to count the opponent’s library, then sideboard, etc. That sure looks like trying to cheese a win the player could not get during the match. It’s verging on unsporting conduct – and it is being called that way. If you have a reason to wonder about a library or sideboard, call the judge, but at the appropriate time (e.g. when decks are presented). Don’t wait until after the match.
Another major change in how rules are enforced: judges are encouraged to base their rulings on player intent where applicable – not just on what happened. Here’s a classic example:
Player A casts Terror. He goes to tap his opponent’s creature with the Terror to indicate targeting, but brushes his knuckle against one of his own creatures in doing so. The intent is pretty clear, and no matter how much his opponent argues, judges are not going to rule that he intended to target his own creature with the Terror. (And the opponent can easily argue him or her self into a penalty, if he persists.)
Here’s another example: a player at the prerelease cast Tunnel Vision (Ravnica card: mill opponent’s library to the named card) naming “that rare, 6/6 trampling legend that lets you play cards from opponent’s hand when it hits.” His opponent argued that he had to name the card. That’s wrong – he has to uniquely identify the card, either by name or sufficient description. In this case – especially at a prerelease – his description is good enough to identify Mindleech Mass. The description wasn’t perfect (it’s not legendary), but that description will not apply to any other Ravnica card, so it is clear what card the player intended to name.
The player casting Tunnel Vision also asked for the current Oracle wording. Normally I can supply that – like many judges, I carry the current Oracle on my PalmPilot while judging. In this case, I didn’t have the Ravnica spoiler and was not sure I remembered the correct name, so I simply ruled that the identification was good enough.
Years ago, at a PTQ, a player named “Humpus Wumpus – the 6/6 guy that lets you put a creature into play” with Meddling Mage, and the judge ruled that the player had not named Hunted Wumpus. That would probably not be the ruling today. That’s a change, and a good one.
* The other major changes are that judges, overall, are much more professional and much better trained. This comes from the top, beginning with Wizards’s Andy Heckt, who deserves a ton of credit for the job he’s done and the judge core he has created.