The Beautiful Struggle: Laying Down the Law

Today’s subject certainly isn’t a new one. In fact, there’s a little-known clause in the back of the Comprehensive Rules; it says all paid writers for Magic-related websites have to devote a certain number of words to rules issues in their first year, or the Wizards of the Coast are allowed to rent out a bunch of Microsoft’s thugs to beat some respect into you. That’s why Tim Aten is so tall and so angry: he doesn’t write about that stuff too often, so they’ve been stretching him on the rack for a while now. Since I’ve been doing this thing for about eight months now, I’m starting to feel the pressure.

Today’s subject certainly isn’t a new one. In fact, there’s a little-known clause in the back of the Comprehensive Rules; it says all paid writers for Magic-related websites have to devote a certain number of words to rules issues in their first year, or the Wizards of the Coast are allowed to rent out a bunch of Microsoft’s thugs to beat some respect into you. That’s why Tim Aten is so tall and so angry: he doesn’t write about that stuff too often, so they’ve been stretching him on the rack for a while now. Since I’ve been doing this thing for about eight months now, I’m starting to feel the pressure.

Actually, I’m going to further tempt a visit from the Seattle enforcers by telling a story from The Other Game. For those of you who don’t play the Vs. System, their rules for creature combat are a little simpler than Magic’s:

1) Announce attackers. Then both players have to pass on an empty “chain” (or stack, if you prefer). If the defender is going to play “tap” effects or any other effect that would make the announced attack impossible, he plays it now.

2) The attack becomes legal, the attacking guy taps, and then the active player gets priority to play any and all combat pumps. If he passes on an empty chain, and the opponent passes, then guys are stunned (i.e., damage resolves). There is no “damage on the stack” chance for effects.

At my most recent Limited PCQ, I quickly found myself in a wrecked position in round 2, and while my opponent pondered the best way to blow me out, I turned my attention to an adjoining table. Player A announced his attack, it became legal, and there was a long pause where both players seemed to be waiting for the other to say something. Each creature had power greater than the opposing creature’s toughness, so Player A said, “So, we both stun?” Player B indicated that one of his other men in play had an ability that boosted his attacked man’s toughness, so that only Player A’s man would stun. If Player A had no trick available, then he had just made a really atrocious play, the Vs equivalent of attacking a defenseless Kabuto Moth into an untapped Mothrider Samurai.

So now A tried to play a combat trick, pumping his man’s power, which would cause a trade. B protested, claiming that A’s readiness to move to stunning meant that he had passed priority. A claimed that because he had not actually said the word “pass,” he had not passed. The judge was called, and he admonished A for “rules lawyering,” but he also allowed A to play his trick, warning both players to be more careful on indicating priority. A went on to win the game.

It seemed clear to me that A had simply missed the on-board trick. In VS, as in Magic, missing on-board tricks is an awful thing, and if you do it you should be justly punished with a loss. If I were Player B, and my opponent had been allowed to back out of a horrible blunder on a language technicality, I’d be pissed.

On the other hand, you could say that B was being a bit unfair himself. Perhaps A was simply asking about the game state, trying to find out if both men were going to stun or if he needed a trick. It didn’t look that way to me, but nobody’s ever going to confuse me with this guy; I don’t know what A is thinking. Nobody does. You could argue that B is trying to be the rules lawyer, taking his opponent’s question the wrong way and trying to force him into a disastrous play. If this were the case and I were Player A, then … well, I’d be pissed.

This is why we have rules in our card games, and why it’s really important to follow them to the letter when we’re playing in tournaments. Because in the end, every rules dispute is just two guys, each with a different story, both of them on the verge of being quite pissed. Lots of people have their own ideas about how to handle rules disputes; today I’d like to share mine with you.

1. If You’re Not Sure, Call the Judge. This one is so simple, and yet I constantly see it disobeyed. The fact is, if something sketchy happens in your game, and you don’t know what to do, don’t just let it go. (Remember, I’m talking about tournaments here, and primarily big ones: PTQs and Grand Prix Trials and such.)

The most common time I’d like to see this is when a more inexperienced player has a rules question with his opponent, and the opponent so confidently makes his ruling that the inexperienced player takes his word for it. I would not ever do this, ever. I don’t care if Rune Horvik decides to quit Wizards and ends up being my opponent, if I have any question, my response to these super-confident folks is always the same: “You might be right, but I want to hear it from the Head Judge.”

Alternatively, I often see players willing to pass on calling a judge because their opponent seems trustworthy, “like a nice guy.” I’d like to have this much hope in my fellow man, but every time I do, I get punished for it. Example: at a recent CCB Sealed Deck PTQ, I faced a fellow in the first round who certainly seemed like a polite, decent human being. I felt a little bit of pity for the guy when he played such platinum hits as Struggle for Sanity against me. So, when he adopted an extremely slow pace of play and drew his card before resolving Gutwrencher Oni on multiple occasions, I let it go.

Then he played and flipped Nezumi Graverobber in one turn against my G/W/R deck, and launched into some obnoxious trash-talk by announcing, “looks like the tide has turned,” and I realized that I had been hustled. I could have drawn my splashed Blind With Anger to make a game out of it, so I played on, but it didn’t work out. To make matters worse, his slow play made it impossible for me to kill him in game 2 before time ran out, even though I played men on turns 1-3 and his first play was a turn 4 Struggle for Sanity. I lost the match, and dropped on the spot out of frustration with myself.

When I found out that the Oni misplay would have been a game loss (drawing extra cards), I was … displeased, but I knew that I had gotten what I deserved for not calling the judge. [Well, it depends on the REL and how many times that particular infraction occurs – as we all learned in the Top 4 of PT: Atlanta, screwing up your Oni play is not a game loss right off the bat. It should probably be considered a Procedural Error – Major, which is a warning at every REL level on first offense. – Knut] Assuming that the opponent is a good guy, or not deserving of the punishment that he might get if the judge were to be called, is almost always going to bite you in the butt when you least want it to.

2. Apply the Rules Equally to Yourself as to Your Opponent. Following (1) will often make your opponents angry. It will cause people to accuse you of being a jerk and of having no life and of being so obsessed with winning that you would “steal” victories. If you’re the kind of person who can answer those accusations with a hearty, “F*** you!” then you may not care. But if you, like me, are the kind of person who feels the need to defend himself when people make those sorts of accusations, then there’s only one way to clear your conscience: do unto yourself as you would do unto the opponent.

Example: In a side event at U.S. Nationals last year, I opened an amazing U/B sealed deck, the sort that throws down a Qumulox on turn 4 or uses Cranial Plating to push a creature’s power over 10. At one point in the final round, I hit my opponent with a Somber Hoverguard equipped with Mask of Memory, and some stupid reason I pulled three cards off the top of my deck (I also had Thirst for Knowledge in my deck, so I must have confused the two somehow).

So of course I called the judge on the spot. He gave what I thought was an absurd ruling: because I had kept the three Mask cards separate from my hand, I hadn’t actually “drawn” extra cards, so he didn’t give me a game loss. Instead, I received a warning for “looking at” extra cards. My opponent seemed okay with this, but I knew I would not have been if I were in his place, so I asked the judge if he was sure I shouldn’t get a game loss. He looked at me like I had turned into a giant spider, and said no, the warning would stand.

[Since the judge stuck with his silly ruling, I won the game and the match. So does that make me a Magical Jerk? I’ll have to ask Mike Clair about that one.]

There are a lot of benefits to adopting this mind-set. I find that the more you do this, the less of a jerk you’ll be when an antagonistic rules dispute takes place. Every once in a while, I’ll get really angry with my opponent when I think he’s gaming the rules, but usually it’s easier for me to be calm around judges when I know that I would do the same to myself if I were in the opponent’s shoes. Also, putting yourself under the same rules scrutiny that you would put the opponent actually helps your technical game; while you are watching yourself like a hawk for rules violations, as a by-product you start watching yourself like a hawk for play mistakes.

3. If You Don’t Deal With Illegal Play, You Are Yourself Cheating. Don’t take my word for it; section 13 of the DCI Universal Tournament Rules says in part,

Players must follow the rules interpretations and guidelines for play set forth by the DCI, the head judge, and other tournament officials … Players are not permitted to waive penalties on behalf of their opponents. The judge must ensure that appropriate penalties, if any, are imposed … Players that do not fulfill their responsibilities as described above may be subject to review by the DCI; such a review may result in the suspension of a players’ membership.

So, while some mistakes could be easily undone, calling a judge to correct them is completely legal, and in fact responsible. I saw a good example from last Extended season, at a table adjacent to one of my matches. The matchup was Psychatog versus White Weenie. The WW player was a rather obnoxious local junior, the kind of kid who never shuts up and is always eager to tell you how badly he’s beating you; the Tog player was in his late 20s or early 30s, and announced at the start of the match that he had been given the deck that very day.

The match was heavily in the white deck’s favor; it was an older Tog build without main deck Engineered Plague or Engineered Explosives, so the matchup was dominated by Aether Vial, Whipcorder, and shadow creatures. The control player decided that his only chance was to play Cunning Wish … for Massacre. Click those two card links if you don’t know why that’s a bad plan.

The WW player instantly saw the problem, and his hand shot up as though on a piston: “JUDGE!” The Tog player tried to backpedal, saying that he could just Wish for something else, and pointing out that he would have done the same if positions were reversed. The WW player was insistent with his judge call. The Tog player, already annoyed by his opponent’s earlier obnoxiousness, simply conceded the game, saying, “If you want to win that bad, go ahead. You can taken comfort that some little number [the WW player’s rating] is going to go up somewhere, and I’m going to go home and have sex with my wife.”

I’ll pass judgment as to whether or not that’s good trash talk, but it is definitely poor form. However annoying his opponent may have been – and knowing the kid in question, I can tell you he’s really annoying – at some point the Tog player just has to own up to the fact that he did attempt to make an illegal play. The judge call was certainly justified, not necessarily because it was going to be decisive in the match (I once accidentally tried to Cunning Wish for Perish, so I know that the penalty for that sort of thing is a warning), but because the WW player cannot possibly be sure that his opponent isn’t trying to get away with a cheat. The possibility of calling a judge there exists so that he can be sure.

Bringing it All Together

You might have noticed a contradiction between (2) and (3). The Tog player tried to do as he would have had done for his opponent; he even said it in so many words. Yet, I am criticizing him and suggesting that his opponent, as obnoxious as he was acting, was doing the right thing.

So, I should spell it out: (3) is the most important; before anything else, remember that not dealing with illegal play is itself cheating. It’s important because we don’t have a Magic Online system to govern us when we play with the real cards; all we have to regulate ourselves is, well, ourselves. Even in irrelevant cases, it’s important to keep in mind that you can’t just forgive illegal play. You can’t because if you do, then the rules start to lose meaning. Just as purists in football or basketball like to say, you have to play the game the right way; you might be able to win by playing the wrong way (i.e., cheating), but something abstract is irrevocably damaged by your doing so.

Let’s say that I’m such a savage cheater that I illegally add Yosei the Morning Star to my Sealed Deck, but I’m such a savage idiot that I do so without adding any Plains at all. It would have no positive effect on any of my games if I did this – in fact it would hurt me, since I would have a dead card – but it would still be illegal. If I were deck-checked I would receive the same punishment, and be completely deserving of it. Why? To discourage people who would add in more malicious, damaging ways. To keep people playing the right way. Because the rules mean something.

I hope I don’t sound too preachy, although I’m sure that I do. I’m certainly not a role model in this sort of thing; in the aforementioned case where I Cunning Wished for Perish, my opponent accused me in so many words of being a savage cheater, and since I had just broken the rules I couldn’t disagree with him.

The thing is, it really gets my goat when I call the judge and someone accuses me of being some kind of sleazy rules-lawyer or “stealing” a win via rules-related game loss. In a way, they’re preaching too, preaching that I should adopt their rules-related morals as my own. Once morals get involved, though, everything becomes subjective, since it’s rare that two people would share the same morals in every aspect of life.

This is why I wrote this article: in “real” life, you can preach your moral code, and I can preach mine. Mine says, among other things, George W. Bush is about as trustworthy as a 30-year-old Chevy with a busted transmission; yours might say that people who think like me are wimps, traitors, or Frenchmen. When we sit down at the table for some Magic, though, we can have the same code, as laid out by the Wizards of the Coast and set to paper. With that out of the the way, we can just try to see who’s the better player.

Until next time, here’s hoping your first five Betrayers picks are Throat-Slitter, Budoka Pupil, Higure the Still Wind, Ninja of the Deep Hours, Ninja of the Deep Hours (as happened to me in a team-draft the other day; the Throat-Slitter was a defensive pick, but my U/G deck ended up splashing for it).

This article written while listening to the audio commentary for “Once Upon a Time in China.”

mm underscore young at yahoo dot com