The Justice League – I Can’t Answer That…

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Thursday, February 19th – I’m interested in connecting the player and judge communities. I’m no Rashad Miller, but I do like to both play and judge, and I get the feeling sometimes that players don’t know what’s going on inside a judge’s head, and sometimes judges don’t know what’s going on inside a player’s head. Riki Hayashi has done a great job of expounding a judge’s thoughts on Slow Play; I’d like to tackle the area of Player-Judge communication.

Player A: “Judge!”

Judge: “How can I help?”

A: “Will this Tarfire kill my opponent’s Tarmogoyf?”

Hi, I’m Paul Smith, I’m an Area Judge who covers the South West of England. I’ve hit a few Pro Tours as well (Worlds New York, Kuala Lumpur, Berlin, Worlds Memphis), and can usually be found judging any major event in the UK, getting two Nationals and one Grand Prix under my belt there.

I’m interested in connecting the player and judge communities. I’m no Rashad Miller, but I do like to both play and judge, and I get the feeling sometimes that players don’t know what’s going on inside a judge’s head, and sometimes judges don’t know what’s going on inside a player’s head. Riki Hayashi has done a great job of expounding a judge’s thoughts on Slow Play; I’d like to tackle the area of Player-Judge communication. Thanks to Jurgen Baert for his seminar at GP: Birmingham that really got me thinking about this issue, and to Nick Sephton who tackled the task of codifying communication guidelines in the first place.

The DCI wants judges to be neutral arbiters of the game. Clearly this means that we cannot show favoritism of any kind to any player. As in most sports, judges step in when an infraction occurs and clean up afterwards. However, unlike sports, we can also be asked questions ahead of time. (I mean, ever see a soccer player ask a referee about the offside rule during a match?)

So how should our player’s question above be answered? (Aside – I’m using the somewhat dated scenario of Tarfire versus Tarmogoyf because I believe most you will now understand how it works, so we can focus on the communication issue.) We don’t want to be seen to be coaching players during their matches, but we do want to provide a certain level of customer service to both players at the table.

I think most players will agree at this stage that the question just isn’t answerable. But before trying to answer the question, let’s think about why the player might be confused.

First, how big is the Tarmogoyf? It counts card types in graveyards, that much is simple, but are there any other effects on the board altering power and toughness? A Glorious Anthem in play? A Giant Growth resolved on the Tarmogoyf earlier in the turn? It should be clear at this point that the judge shouldn’t be pointing to cards on the table that the player might not have noticed. So the player needs to calculate the power and toughness of the Tarmogoyf by themselves. This is neatly backed up by the last sentence of Section 50 of the Penalty Guide “Judges are encouraged to help players in determining free information, but must avoid assisting players with derived information about the game state.”

Note: Free information includes details of current game actions and past game actions that still affect the game state, the name of any object in a public zone, the physical status (tapped/flipped) and current zone of any object, player life totals and the game score of the current match. Judges are allowed to talk about this. Derived information includes the number of objects in any zone, characteristics of objects in public zones other than name. This is off-limits for judges at Competitive and Professional REL.

Second, what are Card Types? Tarfire is a Tribal Instant – Goblin. Is it obvious that there are two card types there? That certainly could be the player’s confusion. After all, if it weren’t for the reminder text on Tarmogoyf itself, you could be fooled into thinking that Tribal sounds a little like Basic, Legendary, or Snow – i.e. a supertype. The card types are artifact, creature, enchantment, instant, land, planeswalker, sorcery, and tribal.

Third, there’s a timing issue, and to my mind this is the most likely source of the problem. When Tarfire resolves it will deal 2 damage to the Tarmogoyf. As the last part of resolving, it will go to the graveyard. Only after the Tarfire is in the graveyard will State-Based Effects check to see if the Tarmogoyf has taken lethal damage, and by that time it will already affect the relevant toughness calculation.

Let’s not lose sight of something fundamentally important here – the player called a judge to ask something. How many players call a judge to see if their Tarfire is going to kill their opponent’s Grizzly Bears? None, because they don’t foresee a problem. Why are they then asking if the Tarfire will kill the Tarmogoyf? They must have a doubt that it might not work. I believe the judge’s job is to get to the root cause of that doubt.

The most amusing part of this whole scenario is that an inexperienced judge might take some time deciding whether or not the question-as-asked can be answered, and the players can easily misinterpret that thinking time as the judge not knowing how the TarfireTarmogoyf interaction works.

Alternative 1: “I can’t answer that question, as it sounds like a strategy question. I can answer rules questions, however… what specifically is confusing you?”

Alternative 2: “I can’t answer the question directly, but I’ll walk you through what happens when Tarfire resolves. First, Tarfire deals 2 damage, then it goes to the graveyard, then we check for lethal damage on the Tarmogoyf. Does that answer your question?”

I’m more likely to use the first option at a high level event, like a GP or Pro Tour, and more likely to use the second option at a Regular event like an FNM. After all, I can hardly believe that any player would begrudge their opponent clean knowledge of how the stack works. I would argue that if someone asked me what Trample meant, I could happily quote the Comprehensive Rules on Trample to that player, and their opponent wouldn’t mind. Am I off base here? Tell me in the forums if you think so!

There is another tool that judges can use to avoid coaching issues – a tool that I’ve heard described as the Virtual Game State. This is pretty much a fancy set of words that says “Don’t ask me a question about the current game state. Make up a hypothetical game state and ask me questions about that game state.” Continuing the Tarmogoyf example from above, we’re asking the player to rephrase “Will this Tarfire kill my opponent’s Tarmogoyf” to “If there’s a Tarmogoyf in play, no cards in either graveyard, and nothing else in play, and I Tarfire it, will the Tarmogoyf die?”

There are a few neat things that result from this. Is there a Glorious Anthem on the table? It doesn’t matter. When they transported the question into the Virtual Game State, they left out the Glorious Anthem, so you answer the question they asked. It’s up to them to determine that in the real game state the answer might be modified by a Glorious Anthem in play, and behave accordingly. If they go ahead and make a mistake because they forgot to take something to account in their Virtual Game State, too bad! The judge is off the hook, and the player simply fell into their own trap.

Personally, I think we might be asking a little too much of players in some circumstances to take the Virtual Game State idea far enough, and the concept could be open to abuse – after all, there are questions you could pose in a Virtual Game State that still leave the answering judge in dodgy territory. Still, if getting to the root cause of the rules based question they’re really asking is getting nowhere, you might want to whip out a quick Virtual Game State and see if that helps.

On a tangent somewhat related to the rest of the article – do you even agree that judges should answer rules questions at all during a match? To clarify, I’m talking about future events here – I have no problems with a player asking me if the Tarfire that just resolved killed their opponent’s Tarmogoyf or not. I don’t remember a chess player ever asking an arbiter to clarify the rulings on insufficient losing material in the endgame. Heck, in chess I believe that if an opponent makes an illegal move, they’re only penalized if their opponent calls them on it.

Mote: Should this attitude extend to Magic penalties? I’m all for judges stepping in when they believe they have seen cheating, investigating the situation, and potentially disqualifying the perpetrator, all without the nod from the opponent. What about other penalties? There was some uproar when a player (Oiso at Worlds?) was given a game loss for insufficient randomization in a game where both players were trying to play quickly to avoid the match being unintentionally drawn. However, I don’t believe either player was happy with the penalty assessed. We currently do not allow players to waive penalties on behalf of their opponents, and there are very good reasons involving bribery and trickery for that. Still, I can’t shake the feeling that there are a number of things we as the DCI do to promote tournament integrity, and it just might be the case that the players have wildly different ideas about how things should happen.

Should we assume that players of a certain level should just know the rules? Even layers? We are already expected to provide Oracle text of cards for players on demand – should we just be limited to quoting Comprehensive Rules at players?

Players can at some strategic level use fake judge questions to bluff their opponents. Judge questions could even be used as a rudimentary stalling tactic, as most judges wouldn’t give a time extension when asked a simple question.

Here’s a bonus exercise for the forums: A player, during a match, calls for a judge and asks:

“Can I Stifle Standstill’s triggered ability?”

How, in your opinion, should the judge respond? Some hints – by the wording of their question, they know about triggered abilities. That’s an indicator of the player’s rules knowledge. Does the REL of the event matter? Should judges, by their duty to customer service, avoid walking players into traps of their own making?

Until next time, may you see things from the judges’ side.

Paul Smith

(Written listening to Imogen Heap and the Goo Goo Dolls. Yeah, my musical taste might be becoming dated…)