The Justice League – Rules, Learning, and FAQs

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Thursday, September 10th – My favorite time to judge is at prereleases, because all of the cards are shiny and new, and nobody knows exactly how they work yet. Players come to you with genuine questions because they don’t understand how something works on a card that you haven’t even seen yet, and that seat-of-the-pants judging is my kind of judging!

This article was inspired by the Planechase FAQ recently released to the wild. Here’s one of the card specific FAQ entries:


Academy at Tolaria West
Plane — Dominaria
At the beginning of your end step, if you have no cards in hand, draw seven cards.
Whenever you roll {C}, discard your hand.

* If you discard your hand as a result of rolling {C}, Academy at Tolaria West’s first ability will then trigger at the beginning of your end step (unless you planeswalk or somehow put a card in your hand before then).

Really? A quick show of hands here – who, at the Planechase event, was asked “Gee, if I discard my hand in the middle of my turn, will I have no cards in hand at the end of the turn?” Yeah, as I thought, nobody. I have a lot of difficulty imagining a scenario where this question is asked, never mind frequently asked!

Here’s the only scenario I could come up with:

Player D planeswalks to Academy at Tolaria West
Player A: asks “What does that do?” (because he’s too far round the table to read it himself)
Player D: “Oh, on Chaos you discard your hand.”
Player A: “Why on Earth would I want to do that?”
Player E: (feeling a bit friendlier than player D) “Because at the beginning of your end step, you refill your hand if it’s empty”
Player A has a light-bulb moment and the game moves on.

Isn’t this kind of discovery the heart of what Magic is all about? To have it spelled out in the FAQ is about as exciting as printing a Planeswalker that fetches an Elf with a particular name, and wondering whether or not you should include any in your deck. (Okay, Nissa is exciting, but that particular aspect of the card probably doesn’t excite the superstar deck builders amongst you. I’ll concede that the right number of those Elves to put in the deck is as yet unknown though)

What disappoints me most about FAQs is some judge’s reliance on them as a tool, especially at Prereleases. My favorite time to judge is at prereleases, because all of the cards are shiny and new, and nobody knows exactly how they work yet. Players come to you with genuine questions because they don’t understand how something works on a card that you haven’t even seen yet, and that seat-of-the-pants judging is my kind of judging!

In the “card-specific notes” section of the Planechase FAQ, 30 of the planes are listed. Apparently only 11 of the 41 planes are considered simple enough to not have any baggage in the FAQ. There are so many points in the FAQ that it covers a grand total of 8000 words, that’s about 4 times as long as one of my regular articles (though admittedly that count does include the replicated names, types and rules texts of the planes). For comparison, the entire rules text of all 41 planes takes less than 1600 words.

I realise at this point that, as a Level 2 judge, I’m one of only 355 people who have certified their rules knowledge to this level. I’m sure there are many players out there with equally good rules knowledge out there who are not certified as judges as playing can be more lucrative, but I am in a minority, so I accept that I may not exactly be the target audience for this particular document.

Here is a judge article written by the very talented Carlos Ho from Panama currently residing in Spain. In it are many tips for passing a judge test, but one of the methods of learning struck me as being particularly clever. Take a working copy of a document such as the Comprehensive Rules, and delete everything from it that you know. What you’re left with is an archive of everything that, by definition, you don’t know. To really let this new information sink in, you could copy it out into a new document, by manually typing (or handwriting) it out, you force yourself to focus on that very knowledge that you desire. Mike Flores was a fan of writing out passages from books that demonstrated a writing style he enjoyed, and it helped him study that text.

So let’s take the Planechase FAQ and make it the learning tool it wants to be by following Carlos’ tip. Step through the document line by line and just delete everything you didn’t know already. A large part of the start of the document is cruft describing Planechase, which you probably all know by now.

Planar decks are made from 10 planar cards with no duplicates – each player needs a planar deck.
Plane cards start and stay in the Command Zone.
Plane cards are not permanents.
The plane’s owner is the player who’s deck it came from, the plane’s controller is the active player.
The first plane is turned face up after mulligans (and leylines).
Rolling the die doesn’t use the stack, but rolling {P} or {C} causes a trigger which does.
Rolling the die is sorcery speed, and costs {1} more each time you roll, starting at {0}
If the plane’s controller leaves the game, the next player in turn order becomes the controller.
If the plane’s owner leaves the game, planeswalk to the next plane in the planar controller’s deck.
A communal planar deck is allowed, if so the plane’s owner is its controller

That was all I needed form the FAQ before the card specific section. This ultra condensed version of the FAQ I’d wager is a much better thing to have lying around at the next Planechase event I run. Having run a Planechase event, there are probably more lines I could delete from it. For example, I’m unlikely to forget how the cost for rolling the die works, or that the new zone for planar cards is called the Command Zone, or that they’re not permanents.

Moving into the card specific section, we find the part of the FAQ that disappoint me the most. Academy at Tolaria West not only has the ludicrous point of “If you discard your hand, it’ll have no cards in it”, but also regurgitates the rules for the intervening if clause. It’s probably telling that the FAQ doesn’t reference the CR – it says a lot about its intended audience. But, if you’ve read CR603.4 and CR 607.2, there’s no need for this FAQ entry. Or at least, all it needs to say is:

Academy at Tolaria West has an intervening if clause.

Actually, I wonder if there’s any merit in just describing cards by what they have on them. After all, it’s how I come to see cards given enough time!

Academy at Tolaria West: {triggered ability}{intervening if}{empty hand -> draw 7}. {triggered ability}{roll C -> discard hard}.

It’s probably not that far off how Magic Online or Duels of the Planeswalkers works.

So, the card specific section boils down to about 32 different points, which I’ve included as a footnote for completeness. Have a look at them yourself some time, and see how many you genuinely didn’t know. I guarantee you’ll have known a lot of them before, because Magic is one of those games where your experience with other cards really helps when you come to experience new cards. I wonder how many people read out Raven’s Run Chaos ability and immediately thought “Oh, Incremental Blight”, and then called the ability Incremental Blight for the rest of the game? I know my table did, but then we have all been playing since Shadowmoor at least.

For a serious study session, you could do one of 2 things with the list in the footnote. You could go and find a Comprehensive Rules reference for each of the points, or you could find an example of a pre-Planechase card that functions in a similar or identical way. The really masochistic amongst you could do both.

If you choose the path which has you finding CR references for each of the points made in the FAQ, you’ll quickly find that you get really good at looking through the Comprehensive rules for things. At a Planechase event, lets say I had a question about an intervening if clause. I have two options – I could look through the FAQ for the specific card entry and hope it is covered there, or I could look up the intervening if rule in the CR. If I’m good at the latter it’s going to be the best method by far. After all, if you had a question about one of the traditional cards in a Planechase deck, where would you look that information up? It’s not in the Planechase FAQ, and I’m not sure I could remember which set each card was originally printed in to go and look at the appropriate FAQ. Now put yourself at an Extended PTQ. Do you have access to 7 years worth of FAQ documents? Do you have access to the Comprehensive Rules? Which skill do you wish you had practised now?

Please, if you do find the FAQ document useful in a way that I haven’t covered here, sound off in the forums or write a rebuttal article. But personally, I’m going to take the upcoming Zendikar FAQ use it as a one-off learning tool to identify what in the Comprehensive Rules I need to bone up on, then throw it away and spend the left over time on becoming more familiar with the definitive rules source, the Comprehensive Rules.

That’s it for me this week and my mini-rant on FAQs, please offer up any opinions you have on the subject, dissenting or otherwise. And please, if you have anything you would like to see me cover in a future Justice League article, mention it or PM me on the forums.

Footnote: What the FAQ really contains.

How intervening if clauses work. (CR 603.4, 607.2)
Sacrificing a creature doesn’t target if the ability doesn’t say target
Abilities that can’t completely resolve do as much as possible
Delayed triggered abilities are independent of their source
Objects become new objects when they change zones
“Leaves the battlefield” abilities check the game state as is existed before they triggered
Tokens don’t come back from the dead
Multiple simultaneous triggers are stacked in APNAP order
Attacking your planeswalker is not the same as attacking you
Exalted does what it says on the card
Some interesting points about the relationship between divinity counters and being indestructible
Exchanging life totals really means gaining or losing the appropriate amount of life
Exchanges of permanents must happen fully or not at all
“Graveyard from anywhere” abilities don’t behave like “leaves the battlefield” abilities
Tapping a permanent for mana means , err, Tapping. a Permanent. For Mana.
Creatures, Planeswalkers, Artifacts, and Enchantments are all spells too.
Independent cost reduction abilities can accumulate.
Clarification of what “single target” means
Lots of stuff on what it means to copy spells, and copy creatures
Mana cost includes color
Lots of stuff on Unearth
Creatures can have negative power – they don’t deal combat damage
Tokens have names equal to their creature types (unless specifically named otherwise)
Face down creatures don’t have names
Clarification of a really badly worded “Otherwise” ability on Minamo
Lots of stuff on Flashback
Multiple extra turns can be created in one turn
Lots of stuff on Wither
Drawing cards with the top card of your library revealed means you have to reveal each draw
A player affected by multiple competing replacement effects chooses which to apply first
Costs can’t be reduced below {0}
Multiple hand size altering effects accumulate in timestamp order