The Justice League – Deck? Decklist? (No) Problem!

Thursday, September 2 – Kevin discusses everything you need to know about deck checks – what judges look for, and how they penalize incorrect decks!

Last July brought a new Infraction Procedure Guide (IPG). At the time, James Elliott did a fantastic job explaining the changes in his article “Ringing in the Changes“… But there’s one change I’d like to bring a little bit farther into the light. Hopefully, I can demystify the entire way judges deal with decklists and their problems. By the end of this article, you should understand a bit more about why players sometimes get Game Losses in round 2… And how to avoid them.

Competitive tournaments use decklists because we can use them to stop cheating. If there’s a question whether someone is playing the right deck or if they’ve pre-sideboarded, we can get their decklist and check. In fact, this is exactly what deck checks are. In most rounds, judges pick some tables, usually randomly, and we look to see what cards you’re playing and what cards you’re supposed to be playing. If the two match, you receive a time extension and continue on your merry way. If they don’t match, penalties occur.

With the latest IPG update, all the illegal deck or illegal decklist issues were rolled into one infraction: Tournament Error – Deck/Decklist Problem.

At the beginning of tournaments that involve deck checks, judges have to check the lists. If the point of the decklist is to make sure players don’t get away with shenanigans, then we need to know the decklist is good. It would not do any good to match a player’s deck against their list if their decklist is only 59 cards. There would be no way to stop a player from pre-sideboarding. Imagine how embarrassing that conversation would be!

Judge, can you make sure this Flashfreeze is supposed to be in the main deck?”

“I, err… we have no idea. Good luck though!”

The player calling the judge in that situation would be incredibly upset and rightfully so. To fix this, we check the lists.

The IPG recommends this: “In large events… tournament officials [should] verify the legality of all lists as soon as possible, but the Head Judge should wait until the start of the next round to issue all decklist penalties.” In common practice, this means all the decks are checked during round 1, and all penalties are given in round 2.

This phrase covers issues arising from the decklist, and not when a player calls a judge because their opponent plays Black Lotus in a Standard tournament. But just for decklist issues, the earliest judges can issue penalties is in round 2. Any tournament big enough to be run at a Competitive Rules Enforcement Level is going to have too many lists to possibly be counted before the beginning of round 1… So round 2 it is.

Judges look for anything that would make the decklist illegal. Each list is counted to ensure the main deck is at least 60 (or 40 for Limited events) cards, and the sideboard is exactly 15 or 0 cards. The judges do a quick scan for card legality. This is where we catch things like writing “Psychatog” twice on a decklist (I actually did this once, and yes it was embarrassing!) or having Hypergenesis on an Extended decklist (Hypergenesis is currently banned). This is also where the judges would catch things like putting four Flashfreeze in your main deck and then sideboarding four Flashfreeze.

I know it sounds weird, but with players receiving decklists and deciding what they are playing at the last possible minute, weird things can happen.

During round 1, the judges also check off all the decklists against a master list of players. I’ll tell you, the only thing weirder than having two identical decklists for the same player is having two different ones! And most recently at the local PTQ, we had two decklists with the same name and different DCI numbers: we turned out to have two players with identical names playing different decks in the tournament.

Sadly, the largest number of the decklist problems identified during round 1 are due to player laziness. The IPG specifically lists as an example: “A card listed on a decklist is not identified by its full proper name, and could be interpreted as more than one card.” As a player, you may feel that Jace, the Mind Sculptor is the key to your deck and is the only Jace you want to play. I probably even believe you. But as a judge, I have to acknowledge that there are two Jaces that are legal in Standard. If you just write “Jace,” your decklist is illegal and you will receive a Game Loss.

As judges, we need to not give players any wiggle room to change cards in their deck to gain advantage. The examples are often less clear-cut; what if a player just writes “Oran-Rief” or “Kabira”? Those cards are particularly insidious examples, because an ambiguity can let players fix their manabases. The common scenario would be, “Oops, I got to round 3 and this Kabira Evangel isn’t doing me any good and I’m short on lands, let me swap in a Kabira Crossroads.”

Even with the Jace case, judges don’t get to assume what “proper play” is. Maybe a player wants to play Jace Beleren instead of Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Playing the less expensive Jace could be a metagame call, based on how much Jund is in the field. If we let players just write “Jace”, they’d get to metagame their decks during the tournament!

At the beginning of round 2, the judges find the players whose lists have issues, pull them aside, and fix them. These are almost identical to deck checks performed during the rest of the tournament. The only difference during round 2 is that the judges have already identified a problem so they can fix it quickly. To fix an illegal deck, judges remove illegal cards (more than four copies in Constructed or cards that are banned or not legal in the format). Then we match the decklist to the deck. If you just wrote “Jace,” the judges will match the decklist to whichever Jace you have sleeved in front of you. If the decklist is still not legal, we add extra basic lands to get up to the minimum. So if you register 59 and play 60, we’ll update your decklist with the actual 60th card. But if you register 59 and play 59, you’re getting a basic land of your choice as your 60th card.

After round 2, the deck checks are random. Some players believe this myth that judges won’t deck check the lower tables, or that once a player is deck checked, they’re “safe.” Both of these are completely false. Some players are targeted for a deck check because their list is weird, and judges want to confirm it. Some players are targeted because judges saw something suspicious and we want to investigate. The rest of the time, Wizards Event Reporter picks a random table to deck check. This ensures that no one can ever be guaranteed not to be checked.

If someone could know for sure they could never be deck checked, they would have free rein to cheat. Sometimes judges even do a deck check in the middle of the round. Especially in Limited events, cheating players would play a legal deck for round 1 to pass the deck check, and then they’d add cards to their Sealed deck for games 2 and 3. In Constructed, cheating players could present 60 cards and sideboard to 59 to gain a minor advantage… or they could “find” sideboard cards they didn’t register. Now it’s common practice to do deck checks before games 2 and 3 to prevent these kinds of shenanigans.

At many events, players are often surprised to see this happen and worry that the judge doesn’t know that they sideboarded. In fact, we’re doing it on purpose now that you have sideboarded; we can check to make sure you sideboard legally. Don’t worry, we won’t accuse you of failing to desideboard going in to game 3.

When a judge finds a problem with the deck, it is generally because the deck doesn’t match the decklist. The most common fix by far is therefore “Please update your decklist to match your list.” Usually this occurs because the player has all the right cards available, but they forgot to desideboard, or they left 16 cards in the sideboard and presented 59. These infractions serve as an expensive reminder to ensure that your deck is legal before presenting. If you commit this infraction, you are going to receive a Game Loss and proceed to the next game with a proper deck.

Sometimes, though, the player screwed up, and we find out that while their decklist is legal and their deck is legal, decklist and deck don’t match up. This is the area that was simplified recently, and I want to shine some light on the changes.

The first case is that a player made an obvious error in recording the wrong land type. We’re more lenient in this case, because we only apply it in cases where there is no potential for abuse. It doesn’t serve anybody any good if we hold players in a mono-red deck to playing the Forests they accidentally wrote down.

It’s not often that players make mistakes that blatant. The most common example is when a player accidentally writes down one Ajani (whether it’s Ajani Vengeant or Ajani Goldmane) and puts the other in the deck. Judges used to have to play this guessing game, trying to deduce whether the mistake was strictly clerical. So depending on which judge handled the deck check, some judges would consider it clerical and some judges wouldn’t. At the time, if the judge considered it clerical, the player got the card they played. If it wasn’t clerical, the decklist stood.

Luckily, we don’t have to muddle around in those discussions anymore. Thanks to the new IPG update, judges don’t have to care about whether a mistake was strictly clerical or the player just made a mistake. No matter what, now we update the deck to match the decklist, with one exception: if a player can’t match the decklist because they lost or even if they don’t own the right cards, they can choose to replace those cards with basic lands. This sucks for the player, but it’s hopefully a more attractive option than having to spend money on cards you don’t want to be able to proceed in the tournament. If you choose to swap basic lands for the original cards on your decklist, be sure about it; if you find the cards later, you can’t choose to use them.

Hopefully, this has shed some light on a rather opaque process. If you know more about what the penalties at a tournament are, it makes it easier to avoid them. As a judge, I absolutely hate giving out deck penalties, especially in round 2. It is now common practice at many Constructed tournaments to give players a minute to check their decklist just before collecting the lists. If you get this opportunity, take it. Before the tournament, actually lay out your deck and match it to your decklist. That way, we don’t have to see you in round 2!

Kevin Binswanger