Trigger Me This

Well-known Level 3 Judge Riki Hayashi explains the latest changes to the Missed Trigger policy and why he wholeheartedly approves of them.

Me: I’m thinking of writing an article.

Lauren Lee: You should do that. What would you write about?

Me: There is another revision to the trigger policy coming.

Lauren: Whaa?? Yeah, you should definitely write an article then.

So here we are once again with another round of Infraction Procedure Guide (IPG) changes, specifically changes involving the Missed Trigger policy.

Let me start by admitting that I love the direction that the trigger policy has gone. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise; it’s a fairly common position to take amongst judges, but it is also worth exploring why.

At GP San Antonio, I was watching a match (on Day 2 no less) where a board with a Thragtusk and a few other creatures was Terminused. The player put the Thragtusk on the bottom of his library. Terminus guy passed the turn. Ex-Thragtusk guy untapped, drew a card, then went about his turn and his life oblivious to the fact that he should have had a 3/3 Beast on the battlefield.

Circa 2011 I would have had to interrupt this match, ask a few questions to make sure that Terminus guy wasn’t cheating by putting his head in the sand when he knew his opponent should have gotten a Beast, given out two Warnings (Missed Trigger and Failure to Maintain Game State), and written a bunch of stuff on the back of the slip in red. All in all, I could probably do this in less than a minute. Less experienced judges might take up more time, especially if they weren’t watching the match but instead got called over by the players and had to catch up on the backstory.

Minutes wasted. The players would get that back in the form of a time extension, at which point it is potentially costing the entire tournament of 1000+ players at the GP that many minutes on the back end of a round. There’s also the cost of those minutes in real time; those are minutes when two players aren’t playing Magic but instead talking to a judge. These types of minutes got stolen dozens of times. And for what? A trigger that a player forgot to execute.

Circa early 2012 I would have had to interrupt this match and figure out something to do with lapsing and non-lapsing. Ugh. Forget it. Skip early 2012. I hated that trigger era.

What did I do at GP San Antonio? I watched the match for another minute or so and then walked away to answer a judge call. There is something oddly satisfying about being able to hand wave away something because it was forgotten. If a player forgets to ping his opponent with a Prodigal Pyromancer at the end of turn, we aren’t going to go back and let him to do it or retroactively apply the damage.

Sure, I get that these two things are different. One is a choice, no matter how suboptimal it may be to choose not to activate said ability, and the other is a mandatory game action. The reality of the world we live in is that R&D wants triggers to be missable (but not ignorable). Also, they don’t want to use "may" in places a lot of players think is obvious for at least a few reasons I can think of:

First, it confused new players. "I may gain a life? Why wouldn’t I want to?" There are reasons not to gain life, but they are obscure corner cases with dollar rare cards. Eventually, players will be exposed to reasons not to gain life. Until then, they are better off living in a world where the word "may" doesn’t make every card a head-scratcher.

Second, Magic Online exists, and needing to go through an extra click to say "yes" for every single triggered ability would drive me bonkers. I get mad enough when my M13 Rings trigger even when they aren’t equipped or a Desecration Demon with Paralyzing Grasp asks me if I want to sacrifice a creature.

Things got a little too crazy after the switch to "all triggers are kinda optional." Players and judges became raging rules lawyers and jumped all over any opportunity to say, "You missed your trigger. You don’t get it." This led to weird situations like:

A player attacks with a Knight of Glory. He looks at his opponent. His opponent looks back at him. Knight player says, "Take three?" Defending player says, "No, you missed your trigger when you paused for ten seconds."

Some people interpreted the trigger policy in this way where doing nothing meant something. This is the biggest thing that the policy revisions address. So let’s get to it. There has been a significant change to the opening sentence of the Missed Trigger policy that really defines the direction we are heading in:

"A triggered ability triggers, but the player controlling the ability doesn’t demonstrate awareness of the trigger’s existence the first time that it would affect the game in a visible fashion."

One thing I constantly tell people is, "Don’t try to play Magic Online in real life." We can’t and shouldn’t expect precise technical play in real life. No chess clocks. No passing priority every single time. And no needing to announce your trigger exactly when it should have triggered. I remember when players would insist, "You put your Rampant Growth in your graveyard, signaling that the spell is done resolving, so you failed to find a land." Much to my chagrin, I got tricked by a rules lawyer into ruling this way very early in my judging career. We definitely don’t stand for such shenanigans anymore, but the trick lately has been to try to rules lawyer triggers into oblivion by claiming that a trigger was missed because a player took an action, said something, or paused for ten seconds. It’s time for that golden era of angle shooting to end.

It was never the intention for the latest trigger policy to be a game of "Gotcha! You missed your trigger," and the new wording is an attempt to get things back to a more centrist position. Honestly, I think that the biggest issue is that people are getting too caught up in when a trigger is "missed." The Magic Online analogy is particularly apt when it comes to triggers because that program has made us hyperaware of the stack (hey, a physical representation), the order of things on the stack, and how they resolve. With a physical representation of a triggered ability, Magic Online makes it much easier to understand how these hitherto invisible abilities work. In fact, Magic Online was integral in helping me understand madness triggers back during the program’s original beta.

Instead of thinking about when a trigger is "missed," it would better serve players and judges to think of it as a "forgotten trigger" policy. Level 3 Judge and trigger policy contributor Kim Warren echoed this sentiment when I asked her for clarification on the subject: "We say that the trigger is assumed to have resolved until there is evidence that it has been missed."

The new trigger policy has a lot of new words compared to the last one, but most of those words are just there to support this sentiment and to clarify what constitutes evidence of a trigger being missed (forgotten). Framing it in this way makes it a lot easier to understand how to deal with the classic confrontation of Pyreheart Wolf versus Restoration Angel. Now there is no longer an onus on the attacking player to announce a trigger that appears superfluous in light of the defending player having no blockers. In this case, the first time the trigger would affect the game is when the defending player tries to block with the Restoration Angel. If the attacker says, "No, you can’t block because of the Pyreheart ability," that’s enough awareness even though the technical point of the trigger was passed without an acknowledgement.

Another trigger that’s caused problems recently is Emrakul, the Aeons Torn’s extra turn trigger. The issue is that the ability triggers upon casting, so resolving the spell technically happens after the trigger should have resolved. With no acknowledgement of the trigger being made, opponents were claiming the trigger to be missed when the Emrakul player tried to take their extra turn.

This is another time to explore the paradigm shift of whether the trigger was forgotten. Nope. It’s clear that a player who tries to take an extra turn is aware of her Emrakul trigger—it’s not forgotten—just not acknowledging it at the correct time. So how do you know when this trigger is missed/forgotten? Generally, the player not taking an extra turn is a good sign of that…

So let’s go back to exalted now. The Knight of Glory attacks, and no one says anything. When is the trigger missed? According to the opening sentence quoted above, it is missed when he "doesn’t demonstrate awareness of the trigger’s existence the first time that it would affect the game in a visible fashion."

Generally, this happens when the Knight deals damage. In fact, one of the new examples of Missed Trigger is: "Knight of Infamy attacks alone. Its controller says ‘Take two.’" The same applies to the Knight getting into combat. If the defending player blocks with a 1/1 and the Knight’s controller puts his creature into the graveyard, it is abundantly clear that the trigger was missed. If the Knight tussles with the 1/1 and its controller doesn’t put it into the graveyard, that is sufficient for demonstrating awareness. If the defending player says, "Doesn’t your Knight die?" the response is likely to be, "No, it is a 3/2 from exalted."

This creates a bit of a weird space where the defending player may be acting without knowing whether the trigger is live or not. If your opponent attacks with a Knight of Infamy and doesn’t say anything, do you block with a 1/1 or a 2/2? Via 2011 policy, you would block with the 2/2. Via 2012 policy, you would block with the 1/1. Via 2013 policy? You should block with the 2/2 unless you feel like taking a chance or your opponent is asleep. If you really want to know if your opponent has missed the exalted trigger, you can always ask, "Before I block, what is the current power and toughness of your Knight?" Good luck getting your opponent to tell you that it’s a 2/1. Otherwise, the default ruling that will be made here is now much clearer, and we will see consistency across the board.

In our prior iteration of the policy, a lot was made of acknowledging triggers. Some people took this even further and interpreted it incorrectly as "verbally announce." And naturally, this focus on acknowledging triggers focused on doing so at the right time (when it should have triggered and resolved). I like the new wording of demonstrating awareness by the point when the trigger would have an effect on the game, and as Kim said, the base assumption is that the trigger happens unless subsequent actions make it clear that it didn’t.

A few other bullet points to consider:

  • If the trigger has targets, modes, or any other choice that needs to be made when the ability is put on the stack, you have to demonstrate awareness before passing priority. Generally, you can easily demonstrate awareness by declaring said target or mode. In the case where you acknowledge the trigger without naming the targets, it would be handled as a Game Rule Violation rather than a Missed Trigger.
  • The exception to the targeting clause is if you have an ability that targets an opponent. Since the IPG only deals with the world of two-player, there is always only the one legal target.
  • You still cannot intentionally ignore your own triggers. If you cast a Manic Vandal and you have the only artifact on the battlefield, you must destroy it. Trying to get out of that by "forgetting" your trigger is Fraud.
  • If you have a trigger that doesn’t do anything, you don’t need to announce it. Remember those pesky M13 Rings? They trigger on every single one of your upkeeps, equipped or not. On Magic Online, you can get around this pesky trigger with auto-yields. Now we have the equivalent of that in real life.
  • As mentioned above, Pyreheart Wolf is similar. No need to say "trigger" every time it attacks. This is a trigger that changes the rules of the game, and your obligation is to prevent your opponent from breaking said rule (by blocking with only one creature). Do that and you’ve demonstrated awareness.
  • If you have Counterbalance out and your opponent casts a spell, you can spin your Sensei’s Divining Top without needing to announce that you are doing so in response to the Counterbalance trigger. That trigger isn’t considered missed until you take (or allow to be taken) an action that could only be possible after the trigger resolves—that is, letting the spell resolve.

We had a few months where the Magic community collectively tilted heavily towards rules lawyering. Now it’s time to get back to playing the game of Magic.

Thanks to Toby Elliott and Kim Warren for looking over this article and giving me good guideposts for understanding the new policy quickly. Toby has become quite prolific in writing lately himself, and for those of you who want more expert information on the trigger policy, I suggest the following links (as well as reading through his other blog posts):

Blog post primarily aimed at judges can be found here.

Blog post primarily aimed at players can be found here.

Link to the IPG is here.

Both Toby and Kim have also been very active on Twitter, doling out additional guidance. You can find them there @tobyelliott and @fellwolf respectively.

Riki Hayashi