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!