Rhythmik Study – The End of Ambiguity

Last week, at the Star City Games Open Series in St. Louis, Cedric Phillips brought up an interesting situation he faced during the Standard portion of the tournament. In one of the early rounds, he was playing against someone running an unspecified Esper build. At the end of one of Cedric’s turns, his opponent played Esper Charm, “targeting [him]self.” After hearing what his opponent said, he asked the player to clarify that he was actually targeting himself. When the player confirmed, Cedric immediately called a judge. For those of you wondering why a judge call would be made there, read Esper Charm.

If you read carefully, you will notice that the only mode that targets a player is the discard mode. The mode that lets you draw cards only lets you draw cards; it doesn’t target. When the judge arrived, Cedric again asked the opponent to clarify what he said for the judge. The opponent confirmed, and the judge watched as the spell resolved. Once the spell had resolved, the Esper player reached for the top of his deck, where the judge informed him that since he implied the discard mode by targeting, he was required to discard two cards. While debate has been raging about this situation for the last week about “ruling by intent,” and many people have called into question Cedric’s integrity as a player, the root of this problem is a breakdown in player communication.

Cutting to the Chase

While Magic Online is very clear and concise, requiring players to do everything by the book, paper Magic is not. In real-life events that are laden with minute-long shuffles and physical manipulation of cards, shortcuts are not only commonplace, but are required to finish within the short 50-minute time limit. Players will assume priority will be passed after cracking fetchlands, and will search simultaneously, or will point to the target of a modal spell with a card, implying the mode, or will announce they are targeting a Planeswalker with a direct damage spell instead of waiting for the spell to resolve to redirect the damage. However, as these shortcuts become more frequent, they can end up becoming degenerate.

Make your intent clear. In a game where slip-ups can happen, being redundant can help. Matt Sperling brought up an interesting hypothetical in the past couple of days where he asked, what would happen if a player said “Bant Charm your Baneslayer,” implying the “put target creature on the bottom of its owner’s library” mode, but meant to say “Bant Charm your Bonesplitter,” implying the “destroy target artifact” mode. While a judge may back up the game, since a mode was only implied, but never explicitly chosen, a call that ends up against you can cost a game, a match, or even a Top 8 seat. Make your intent absolutely clear. If you actually point to what you are targeting as well as announcing it, the opponent is absolutely sure of your intent. This also allows any discrepancies between what you say and what you mean – a la the Bant Charm example – to be obvious, and more likely to have a judge rule in your favor. In the Esper Charm example, if the player had said “Draw with Esper Charm, target myself,” the play would have been technically illegal, but the intent would have been clear, and no judge would have had to be called.

Always talk to your opponent. Yes, the person across from you may be your mortal enemy for the next fifty minutes, but it’s a good idea to talk to him. If you search your library and need to check your hand, don’t be afraid to spell out to your opponent what you are doing. “I need to check my hand” is enough to keep a player with a bit less integrity from calling a judge, claiming a “failure to find.” Before you turn your creatures sideways, tell him you are proceeding to the Combat Phase, and after you turn them sideways, let him know you are done declaring attacks. The same goes for blocking. When you leave nothing to ambiguity, there is no confusion for an opponent to capitalize on.

Minimize shortcuts. Yes, shortcuts are a necessary part of the game, which are fine for small things like fetchlands. But for other things, such as Howling Mines during your Draw Step, announce exactly what your are doing. Say “Draw for turn,” then “Draw for the Mine,” and draw each card individually, allowing the opponent to respond to each trigger before it resolves. Drawing for a Howling Mine that was recently removed from play has changed back from a Game Rule Violation (Warning) to Drawing Extra Cards (Game Loss). However, there have been arguments for making it a Game Rule Violation if the trigger is announced before it resolves (The non-existent trigger being the Game Rule Violation that occurred). Announcing your Untap, Upkeep, and Draw Steps can also prevent awkward situations when a player wants to play a spell or activate an ability during their opponent’s upkeep, but the player starts their turn by immediately drawing their card.

Be clear with your speech. Every time you announce what you are doing, you remove ambiguity from the game state. However, this doesn’t matter if you are not clear with what you announce. Never use one-word sentences when communicating with your opponent. For example, have you ever heard an opponent say “No,” and started untapping your permanents, thinking he said “Go?” This can be cleared up very easily by announcing the end of your turn with something less ambiguous, like “Pass Turn.” Even though a judge can be called on an opponent for starting his turn early, the potential for being Time Walked by a judge call is significant enough to not want to be the one generating the ambiguity.

Managing the Game State

While it’s not exactly communicating with your opponent, keeping mind of the game state is also an integral part of reducing ambiguity. When I go to big events, it boggles my mind how many players keep track of their life-total simply with dice. I’ve even had players see me pull out my pad and paper, and simply trust the life total I have down for them. What happens if the table gets moved, and the number on the die unexpectedly changes? What happens if there is a life total discrepancy?

When there is a discrepancy between two players over life totals, as a judge, I always look at who has the most information. Anyone who can explain to me why the life totals are the way they are will win an argument, hands down. When you keep track of life total changes on paper, you can explain to an opponent where each changed occurred, and why they occurred (“You took 1 from the Misty Rainforest, I attacked you for 3 with Wild Nacatl,” etc.). Typically, players can convince each other of why the life totals are the way they are without having to call a judge. If one player is only keeping track of their life total with dice, I will always be more inclined to believe the player with explanations on why each change happened. On a more extreme note, the player who relies on his opponent to keep track of his life total is at his opponent’s mercy to keep track of that life total. If an opponent misrecords, his opponent’s representation of his life total stands. And as we judges always try to caution players – your opponent may not have your best interests in mind.

Try to devise ways to keep your opponents honest as well. At Grand Prix DC, one of my local players missed Day 2 because the Spreading Seas that was on a Raging Ravine managed to make it’s way to a Swamp by the end of the game. This is one of the main reason why I’ve been advocating the practice of “you keep your permanents on your side of the field.” I simply place my Oblivion Ringed permanents next to the Oblivion Rings they are under, and my personal favorite, I flip over the lands that I have that have been hit with Spreading Seas, and ask my opponents to do the same. This makes the lands that are islands easily identified among the other lands, and prevents any confusion. Just make sure to reveal what the land is if asked. (Note: ask a head judge about something like this in formats that contain cards with the Morph mechanic.)

The more you communicate with your opponent, the less of a chance you have of being caught off-guard by a judge ruling. Hopefully the information provided can help you step your game up. As always, you can follow me on Facebook and Twitter. Until next time, communicate with your opponent, play tight, and if you’re lucky, I’ll see you in Amsterdam!


  1. I have read about the Cedric Phillips esper charm situation so many times now. This is the first account that I have read of it being like this. (The judge comes over and watches the player and stops him from trying to draw) I assumed that the player had tried to draw after saying “target myself” and Cedric had asked for clarification, THEN called a judge. In either case, I would say that in a tournament scenario (especially any tournament bigger than an FNM), I would agree with the judge’s ruling and do not think Cedric is a bad person for doing what he did.

    About the spreading seas thing, it might be easier to ask them to set the land apart from the other lands just a bit further, without havin to turn it upside down, though there are many ways to try and keep that kind of stuff straight!

  2. Personally I think the Cedric thing is hilarious. I wish I could have been there to see it. I mean sure it’s kind of a dick move, but it’s tournament level magic, his opponent need to get it together. Good article though. I alays like reading things from a judge perspective.

  3. I think the Cedric thing is a HUGE dick move, and I’m always disappointed when I hear people doing that. The intent was obvious, the error miniscule. To jump on that and ruin someones day seems just terrible to me.
    Would the world really crumble if people just acted like decent human beings when they’re PLAYING A CARD GAME?

    The dude obviously wanted to draw two with the Esper Charm, if Cedric was really confused, he should have asked “what mode are you using?” This is really poor sportsmanship in my mind.

    That said, loved the article. I agree players should be as clear as possible. Though I wouldn’t want to turn around my Spreading Seas’ed lands myself, because that’s information you want to have out in the open (if you have an oblivion ring, for example, it’s good to know what lands you can ‘free’). But it’s obviously just a tip, others may like it. Good article!

  4. meh, if it was casual playing and someone did this then it would be a dick move. This was a tournament cedric’s opponent should have been more careful. Just because a phrasing maybe accepted by friends doesn’t mean it’s proper. Players should make themselves are clear as possible when doing anything in a tournament. They are playing for a prize. Cedric followed the rules and the judge agreed. Maybe his opponent learned something.

  5. Good article! Though it does make me feel pessimistic about how cynical some some tournament-level players clearly are. What gets me about the Esper Charm scenario is that Cedric clearly thought something was up when he repeatedly asked his opponent for clarification, so why didn’t he just ask ‘Which mode of the spell are you using?’ and have done with it? He phrased his question in such a way that he could choose to interpret the answer in a way his opponent never meant him to. I think he was spectacularly unsporting; he might not care about that, which is his right, but I know I’d never do it, even with $5k at stake. Having said that, if my opponent asked me the exact same question twice and then called a judge over, I’d like to think I would be especially careful about what I did next!

  6. Yeah the Cedric move was horribly cheap, come on the guy is a “pro” player he knows what the card does and what the intent was he just manipulated lack of communication to get the advantage. It would of been alright to do it in the finals because your trying to win no matter what, but in the early rounds it makes you look like a chump.

    And to be honest this is why I don’t play paper magic anymore because of all the shortcuts and people trying to sneak ways in with cheating and card stacking. Plus I never liked having a 8 year old kid scout my deck out and go tell his dad everything I have in my deck, followed by being paired up with him next round. Anyway good article

  7. I would have done what cedric did. Its not cheating. Is it ethical? who cares, im not playing for the nobel prize, Im playing for more a nice some of cash.

  8. In regards to your Spreading Seas bookkeeping, I would caution against turning your lands upside down. This type of workaround can lead to their own problems. What I have found to work is have the lands that have been ‘converted’ in a separate land row, which is sufficient to differentiate. Another option, and one that is highly likely to preclude any problem with which land is ‘converted’ switching, is to jot down (on that same pad as your life total) what lands got Spread.

    Level 1 Judge, CT

  9. I don’t think it matters what this makes of Cedric’s character. For those who think Cedric should’ve been a “nice guy”, it makes no difference. There will be opponent who use these advantages, and they should try. Its up to the player to make sure he doesn’t fall into these ruling traps.

    I also think ruling by intent is a horrible idea. The rules are there to be as definitive. By allowing an “intent” call, the rulings become much more subjective. I do not remember all this ruckus over countering a demigod of revenge. Clearly, if you go to counter it you don’t want it in play, but when the player wasn’t clear, he got “punished” for it. This is the same situation. If ruling by intent was established, then the play mentioned above would always lean towards the favor of the player countering the demigod.

    Mistakes happen and minimizing mistakes is part of what makes players good.

  10. Ugh, sorry for all the horrible grammatical errors. I wrote it piecemeal and didn’t proof at all. I believe the meaning can still be deciphered.

    (This seems ironic to me, but it was not intended to prove a point.)

  11. On one hand it is a bit of a dick move to call someone on a wording like that. But on the other hand he is 100% correct in the ruling and even if it’s not in the ‘spirit’ of the game to call something like that, it is also a contest that contests quite a large sum of money at the end of the day, and rules need to be followed to keep the integrity of the game at that level.

  12. Regardless of how much “in the right” cedric was, it doesn’t make me like him as a person any more -_- Even at a PTQ or Pro Tour I would let the guy draw cards, because i knew what he -meant-.

  13. Those who know me know that I don’t care much for Cedric, but in this situation I don’t think Cedric is at fault. Considering that it was tournament level magic, not FNM, and that he confirmed with his opponent before calling the judge and then asked for his opponent to clarify again to the judge what he was doing. The player had multiple instances to make clear his intent and each time stated the same play. I don’t think his opponent should get a free pass for sloppy play.

  14. Zwick — It’s not really relevant what rule violations you would let slide. This discussion is about the rules of MtG and how to play better yourself at events governed by those rules.

  15. As Snafu mentioned… sometimes you have to read the card. As Rhythmik said, the opponent could have said I choose to draw. Instead, he simply said “targeting myself.” Because the only mode that targets is to discard, it makes sense that the opponent had to discard.

    I don’t to add fuel to the fire so to speak, but I ask you this. If an opponent has a Dark Confidant in play and chooses not to reveal the card that he draws with the Dark Confidant during his upkeep (or fails to even resolve the trigger), this use to be a strict game loss. Then it was a warning.

    Now consider you’re in the top 8 of a GP, and this happens. A judge is sitting right there watching the game. Your opponent fails to reveal with Dark Confidant. There’s a warning.

    In the third game of the match you have absolutely no outs, with two Dark Confidant’s on board. The first trigger resolves as usual, but your opponent misses the next and simply draws a card rather than resolving that trigger… the judge stops the match for a ruling.

    The intent is clear- the opponent simply wants to draw his cards, and finish you off. But because of a game state error, he’s rewarded a game loss, and loses the match because of it.

    Of course, stranger things have happened: http://www.wizards.com/Magic/Magazine/Article.aspx?x=mtg/daily/eventcoverage/gpchi09/welcome#16

    But does winning this game mean I’m a poor sportsman? Does this one sloppy play by his opponent make Cedric a shady player?

    I think not. Rules govern how we all interact, otherwise, with takebacks, etc. we’d all have a much larger mess to contend with….

  16. Wow!!! What a jerk. Getting all picky over a cards text like that to help win the game. This is good to know though for when I go to events. Never knew such thing happened.