The Rules Change When The Lights Go On: PT AVR Report

Sheldon Menery shares tales from his second Pro Tour as a member of the coverage team, from Commander games he was a part of to his thoughts about the Cavern of Souls ruling and more.

Flying to and from Barcelona, I earned enough miles to get me right on the threshold of status for next year.

As it happens, there was also a Pro Tour between flight segments.

Pro Tour Avacyn Restored was my second as a member of the coverage team, and it delivered on all the things we want as spectators to see from a Pro Tour:  epic action, tense play, great storylines, and the odd bit of controversy.

The tales of the shifts I worked and the time on camera aren’t particularly exciting. I will say that Marshall Sutcliffe did a great job in his first time both as News Desk host and in the booth. Rich Hagon was also as good as I’ve ever seen him. BDM is simply BDM—there may not be anyone who knows all aspects of the game better than he does. There was the incomparable Rashad Miller (who you must always kill first in an EDH game), and the person who I spent the most time working with side-by-side, R&D’s Zac Hill, who brought both a deep understanding of play of the game as well as interesting insight into design and development.

All in all, it was a great team, a team I can’t talk about without mentioning fearless leader Greg Collins, who managed both the on-camera and text coverage staffs and is a major part of figuring out exactly how coverage is going to run. The success of the broadcast owes a great debt to Greg (and the countless behind-the-scenes people, like Deb Slater and John Mortensen, who just make stuff happen).

Thursday we did a coverage team draft, and I’ll confess to being out of my element. The draft was 3x AVR (my first), and I first- and second-picked Havengul Vampire and Fervent Cathar thinking, “I’m going to draft a sweet W/R tempo deck. I’m going to get some mid-pick Crossway Vampires and a Niblis or two…” About the fifth pick it dawned on me that I wasn’t getting any of that (since we weren’t drafting those sets), and I bumbled through the rest of it, ending up with a R/U monstrosity (I did get a Loothouse though) that at the very least taught me a lesson about how not to draft this format. I was the albatross on our team, but we somehow tied anyway. Kudos to Rashad and Rich for holding me up.

Thursday night was my first foray into real Spanish tapas, enjoying a meal and nice (not to mention inexpensive) bottle of local wine with some of the staff folks. They also had this sparkling water called Vichy Catalan which became the hit of the weekend. Like Spanish wines, it had a great mineral content. In this case, I could only call “salty.” You’d think that that wouldn’t be great in water, but it was. As far as the wine goes, it was just a random Crianza (which is the lowest aging classification) that I’m pretty sure was 100% Tempranillo. It reinforced my idea that when you’re traveling to a foreign country, just drink the local wine (but by all means do not do this in Virginia—I swear to you I’ve only once had a VA wine that I didn’t want to spit right back at whoever gave it to me).

I only got in two games of Commander during the weekend. The first was on Friday, when fellow Judge Emeritus Gis Hoogendijk and friend of the show Scott Larabee and I popped into the piano bar at the hotel. We were hoping to pick up a fourth, but no one else was around. Gis played his nearly all enchantments deck with Genju of the Realm as the Commander. Obviously this is not a legal choice, and he has another five-color general ready in case anyone objects but we didn’t really care. Scott was playing Brion Stoutarm and I had Karador. Karador is a deck that’s good when it’s good, but it’s too often a little disappointing and of course rolls to graveyard hate. This was one of the latter cases. Scott ended up killing Gis by Stoutarming a 55/55 dude to his head and then overran me with dudes.

The second game was with Rashad, BDM, and PT photographer Craig Gibson Saturday night after dinner. Speaking of dinner, the Catalan make these tiny sausages in a spicy sauce that are ridiculous. I don’t remember what they’re called (maybe one of our friends from the region can help us out), but I had them at nearly every meal, including breakfast. Rashad played Seton, Krosan Protector (a friendlier mono-green general than Azusa or Omnath—more about them later), BDM played his long-standing Momir Vig deck, Craig played Rashad’s Godo, Bandit Warlord, and I played Kresh (the only other deck I took with me).

A weak opening hand and disappointing draws made me mostly a spectator as Rashad dumped lots of dudes onto the table, controlling the tempo of the game. Craig at one point transformed Elbrus into Withengar and was about to kill me when I pointed out that the first rule is “kill Rashad first.” He looked down at Rashad’s creature-thick but devoid-of-fliers board and changed his mind. I didn’t last much longer anyway as Brian’s host of creatures was nearly as impressive as Rashad’s.

Rashad, Brian, Craig, Nick Fang, and I had gone to a meat restaurant at the top of the mall that was formerly a corrida next to the hotel beforehand. We each picked an appetizer and main course, then drafted with them. The food was excellent. We next-leveled the credit card game with two folks opting out. The bad news is that I ‘won’ (with BDM next leveling). The good news is that I saw my AMEX statement when I got home, and a favorable exchange rate made the meal about 25% cheaper than I thought it was going to be. The even-better news was Brian picked up Nutella-covered donuts for dessert.

As far as the action of the Pro Tour is concerned, for me there were three major events (not counting that crazy Miracle deck winning!); two that you’re most likely aware of and one that you might not be but that got some play in the Twitterverse:  the Cavern of Souls ruling, the Hayne/Finkel thing in the Top 8, and a player who may have stalled in a Feature Match.

The Illegal Deck Presentation

After sideboarding in game 5 of the quarterfinals, Alex Hayne presented a 65-card deck. He then realized it and called the judge on himself. This is a textbook case of the Head Judge being able to downgrade the penalty without it being considered a deviation. In fact, I’ll quote it for you from the Magic Infraction Procedure Guide, Section 1, “General Philosophy”:

“If a player commits an offense, realizes it, and calls a judge over immediately and before he or she could potentially benefit from the offense, the Head Judge has the option to downgrade the penalty without it being considered a deviation, though he or she should still follow any procedure recommended to fix the error. For example, a player offers his deck to his opponent and while cutting his opponent’s deck discovers that a card that belongs in his deck is in a previously exiled game pile. If he calls the judge over immediately, the Head Judge may choose to issue a Warning rather than a Game Loss.”

I think Head Judge Riccardo Tessitori 100% made the right call here, and it had nothing to do with being in the Top 8 of a Pro Tour or Jon Finkel asking for the downgrade. The only significant part of Jon asking is that it proves he’s a good human being. We’re not likely ever going to create a situation where opponents can waive penalties on their opponent’s behalf, whether it’s Jon or a kid playing in his first event. There’s just too much that can go too wrong. This is simply textbook stuff, exactly what a Head Judge should be doing any time it happens whether at the Pro Tour, your local GPT, or anywhere in between.

Unfortunately, we had some different information at the News Desk (which was a fair distance from the Feature Match area). We could see the coverage but didn’t have an audio feed, so we didn’t get any of the conversation. The information we had was that Jon had noticed, which led me in the wrap-up to talk about how the rules change when the lights go on.

The fact is to some extent they do, and here’s why:  at the Pro Tour level more so than any other level, everyone involved wants matches of Magic to come to the most organic conclusion possible (it’s desirable at all levels, btw). That’s why elimination rounds are untimed, for example. Pro Tour Top 8s are about tension, drama, and watching games played at the highest level with the most on the line. It’s about the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd. It’s The Show.

It would be pretty unsatisfying to all concerned if a game or match was decided on a technicality. We all want the best Magic possible. In this case, I believe it would have been the right call for Riccardo to downgrade for that reason added to the fact that trying to play with a 65-card deck is actually worse for Alex. It’s obvious that he wasn’t trying to gain an advantage, and potential for advantage is something the MIPG makes mention of in its framework paragraph.

This isn’t to say that penalties are all waived in the Pro Tour Top 8. A player engaging in Slow Play or committing a Game Rule Violation will still be penalized. What will likely happen is that the Head Judge will encourage the player to speed up his pace of play (along with the Warning) or make suggestions to help ensure the player doesn’t miss another mandatory trigger (“Dude, stick a bead on your library”).

If he does, the upgrade path for penalties will be followed (remember that upgrades for Warnings are reset each day of a multi-day tournament, so a player starts the Top 8 with a clean slate). In the end, the responsibility is on the player to make sure he does everything technically correctly. I think it would be quite damaging to the game as a whole if we ignore the rules, since the audience is huge and the decisions precedent setting. For on-camera things, I see a “bend, don’t break” stance as the best way to operate. Players might get some additional leeway, but again, they still have a responsibility to do it right.

In the end, although this situation generated a great deal of chatter both the technically correct and most desired outcome occurred.

Cavern of Souls

Much ballyhoo came of multiple situations where players didn’t announce (or make any indication) of which of Cavern of Souls’ two abilities they were using. Post-event, policy meister L5 Judge Toby Elliott basically had this to say, which reinforces the ruling that Riccardo made:

Here’s the [O] ruling on Cavern of Souls and some explanation as to why it’s this way.

This is far from a clear-cut issue; there’s no “obvious” answer, despite what people might claim. Arguments can be made for both sides, were, and then we picked what seemed like the solution most in-line with philosophy. In the end, it comes down to two fundamental ideas:

If a player wants to do something out of the ordinary, it’s generally expected that they’ll indicate this. This is, for example, why we have the auto-priority-pass shortcut. You almost always want to pass priority after taking an action, so the assumption is that you should have to speak up in an unusual situation.

Players should not be encouraged to create ambiguity in the game state and should not be rewarded for creating ambiguity.

How do these apply to Cavern of Souls? Tapping mana is normally atomic and binary—you tap a bunch of lands and the end result asks if you’re able to play the spell. How those lands are tapped is not all that relevant, so long as there’s an interpretable result that gives you the mana you need. This means that players don’t pay a lot of attention to land tapping by both the tapper and the opponent. The vast majority of the time, the result is all that matters.

Cavern of Souls changes that. Now, how the lands were tapped produces (invisible) side effects and that generates ambiguous game states. This is a highly unusual situation, and, as noted above, we like players to call attention to highly unusual situations. We don’t want the opponent to have to deal with the ambiguity. They can’t clarify the situation without potentially giving away information—”Hey, did you make that uncounterable?”—and if there’s multiple Caverns in play set to different types, the situation for them just gets worse.

Because of this, the [O] expectation is that if land is tapped in a way that makes how Cavern was used ambiguous, that player will announce if they wish to make the spell uncounterable. The burden for announcing is not high here: “red,” “use Cavern,” or anything that indicates that the player has used the appropriate ability is fine.

If there’s no ambiguity—the spell can only be cast if colored mana is being drawn from Cavern of Souls—then no announcement needs to be made. Attempting to hide the lands you’ve tapped (piling them, etc.) to try to hide the fact that the spell is uncounterable will not be received well, however. Don’t try that.

This means that if you have two Mountain, three Forest, and Cavern and tap them all to play Inferno Titan without saying anything, it’s counterable. If you have only one Mountain, it’s uncounterable. The idea is that the primary burden is on the player who is doing a thing to communicate clearly, which is actually in line with other policy. It’s not perfect, but Cavern of Souls is new territory. The bottom line is that when you’re using your Cavern, tell your opponent.

There’s only one time that it came up over the weekend that I might (and I’ll stress might, since I didn’t get to talk to the players at the time it happened and judging both what the players have to say and how they say it is often significant in making a ruling in these cases) have ruled differently than Riccardo did. On Turn 4, a player with a Mountain and two Forest in play dropped Cavern of Souls, said “Human,” and then immediately used it to cast Huntmaster of the Fells.

I believe this is probably sufficient “indication” as Toby mentions above. It was basically “Cavern, Human, Huntmaster” in a single breath. This is one of those situations where a HJ has to use a great deal of judgment and experience, and in this case, Riccardo’s differed from what mine would likely have been—but he was the guy in the shirt, operating under an intense amount of pressure in uncharted territory. It’s difficult to be too critical on what boils down to a judgment call.


In round 2, Gabriel Nassif took a long, grinding game 1 from Elie Pichon, finishing with nine minutes left on the clock. During that round, I was the guy putting the card images up onto the feed. I was watching on one of the dedicated feed lines backstage (complete with headset). At the four-minute mark, Nassif was still shuffling. I radioed to Rashad, who was on stage as the sideline reporter at the time, to suggest he get Riccardo. Rashad told me he was already on the way.

Riccardo issued the correct Warning and added extra turns to the game per the MIPG (plus the time it took to make the ruling). When Nassif complained that no one’s ever gotten a Warning before for exceeding the pregame time limit (which is absolutely a load of crap), my warning bells went off. I was already thinking to myself that a player of his experience knew exactly the position he was in, and this looked a little sketchy. That statement told me that he was paying attention to the clock and using it to his advantage—textbook Stalling:

4.3 Tournament Error – Slow Play

If a judge believes a player is intentionally playing slowly to take advantage of a time limit, the infraction is Cheating—Stalling.


6.1. Cheating – Stalling

D. A player intentionally exceeds the pregame time limit before the third game in an attempt to make it harder for his opponent to win in time.

From my camera angle I could see Nassif’s hand as he mulliganed, and I think all his mulligan choices were legit, so while he wasn’t so blatant as to use that stall I’m still pretty sure he intentionally wasted time while sideboarding. I shared my opinion with Riccardo, who disagreed. I also, after the tournament, shared it with Gab, who you might not be surprised also disagreed. I told him if I were the Head Judge, I would have DQ’d him—or at least made him convince me he wasn’t stalling—and he responded, “It’s a good thing you weren’t the Head Judge then.”

[Editor’s note: Please take a moment to read Gabriel Nassif response in the comments below for added perspective on this issue. —Lauren Lee, Online Content Coordinator]

Some Commander Business

A new iteration of the Armada Games EDH League (this will be League 15) starts next week, and we’ll be undergoing a huge test: unbanning Kokusho for the League. We’re going to record for the eight weeks how many times the card gets played in both the League and casual games I’m involved in (also noting how many times it didn’t) and players’ reaction to it, probably along the lines of “Extremely Positive, Positive, Average, Negative, Extremely Negative.” 

Kokusho is a card that’s been the subject of a great deal of discussion and debate. Its proponents see it as “no worse than” a number of other cards that aren’t banned (Consecrated Sphinx and Primeval Titan being the ones it’s most often compared with). Its detractors believe it polarizes games, derailing them to a focus on nothing but the card and the battle over it.

We’ve decided to try to take an objective view and provide some (admittedly unscientific) empirical data on the card. We actually have no agenda and no emotional attachment to the card’s status, which will (probably in September) end up either remaining on the Banned List, coming off entirely, or joining Erayo, Rofellos, and Braids as banned as a general. I’ll be reporting results as they come in (at a minimum both here and on the official forums at mtgcommander.net). We’ll see where it ends up.

I’d like to give a final Embracing the Chaos shout out to Josh “JudasIscariotHogwallop” Bennett, who I was delighted to see as a member of the text coverage team in Barcelona and hope to see a great deal more of at future events. There are few Magic writers with his skill, depth, and voice, not to mention just being a riot to hang around with. Pretty sure Josh is a Dapper Dan man.