A quest for better rulings in Magic: the Gathering.

Posted on April 25, 2018

Here’s something that happened recently in a Competitive Rules Enforcement Level tournament of Magic: the Gathering. August is an active player, Nick is non-active player.

August has a Scrap Trawler, Chromatic Sphere, Myr Retriever, Krark-Clan Ironworks on the battlefield; Mox Opal in graveyard.

August says “I would like to announce Sphere”, Nick says “Ok”.

August says “To pay for it I would like to sac Retriever, and Trawler, and KCI. I get four Scrap Trawler triggers”. At this point, Nick interrupts and says “Wait, this is not how it works”.

Floor judge is called and they rule that it is how it works. Nick appeals, asks for a head judge. Head judge comes to the table and confirms that it is not how it works. The game is rewound and August says “I sacrifice Trawler, KCI and Retriever instantly, get three Trawler triggers and a Retriever trigger”. Nick says “It isn’t how it works for the same reason”. A floor judge is called again, floor judge rules that it is how it works, another appeal is made and a different appeal judge is called. He confirms the ruling of the floor judge, Nick interrupts explanation of appeal judge once to correct their rules misinterpretation, interrupts another time asking to get the same judge that made the initial ruling. This interaction results in an Unsporstmanlike Conduct warning, August says to Nick “you are a cheater, I’m surprised you didn’t get disqualified”.

I would like to analyse this situation, both easy part (concerning rules 603.3a, 605.3b, 603.3c, 603.2, 603.3, 603.3b), i.e. why August, two floor judges and one appeal judge were wrong, and the hard part – under which category of rules do August’s actions fall (720. Shortcuts or 721. Handling Illegal Actions). I would also like to voice my opinion about this situation and similar situations, mentioning my personal experiences.

The easy part: what happened?

Nothing in a game of Magic: the Gathering happens instantly, even spells with Split Second, a static ability that, flavor-wise and intuitively, supposed to instanteneously resolve, blocking the stack, while in reality priority is getting passed around like a joint in a hippie van. Nothing controlled by a player in a game of Magic: the Gathering happens at the same time. When a bunch of triggers happen they are ordered by their controllers and put on stack following APNAP. When a player announces that they want to pay a cost of activation of an ability, by activating several mana abilities, they still have to do it one by one. So in both first and second situations, there is really no question as for what is going on.

Situation 1: August sacrifices their Myr Retriever, causing two permanents to get triggered – Myr Retriever and Scrap Trawler, as well as one permanent – Myr Retriever to change zone from the battlefield to August’s graveyard (701.16a). August sacrifices Scrap Trawler, causing one permanent to get triggered – Scrap Trawler, and it changes zone from the battlefield to August’s graveyard. August sacrifices Krark-Clan Ironworks, nothing gets triggered, it goes from the battlefield to August’s graveyard. August finishes paying for the Chromatic Sphere activation and it eventually gets put on stack. Now active player chooses the order in which to put Myr Retriever’s single trigger and two Scrap Trawler triggers on the stack (since no priority was passed between activations of the Krark-Clan Ironworks mana abilities.

Situation 2: analogous to Situation 1.

The hard part: to rewind or not to rewind?

Now let’s talk about a truly difficult decision that head judge number one was facing – to rewind the game state to when August started paying for the activations or not to rewind? The only reason to reverse game actions stated in the comprehensive rules is described in 721. Handling Illegal Actions. Sadly, comprehensive rules doesn’t formally define what constitutes an Illegal Action, here is the entire rule 721:

  1. Handling Illegal Actions

721.1. If a player takes an illegal action or starts to take an action but can’t legally complete it, the entire action is reversed and any payments already made are canceled. No abilities trigger and no effects apply as a result of an undone action. If the action was casting a spell, the spell returns to the zone it came from. The player may also reverse any legal mana abilities activated while making the illegal play, unless mana from them or from any triggered mana abilities they triggered was spent on another mana ability that wasn’t reversed. Players may not reverse actions that moved cards to a library, moved cards from a library to any zone other than the stack, caused a library to be shuffled, or caused cards from a library to be revealed.

721.2. When reversing illegal spells and abilities, the player who had priority retains it and may take another action or pass. The player may redo the reversed action in a legal way or take any other action allowed by the rules.

Based on the ruling by the head judge number one, the activation of Chromatic Sphere was treated as an illegal action, but it seems like the real illegal action is trying to put two extra Scrap Trawler triggers on the top of the stack. Those actions should be reversed, not the entire activation.

That being said, normally with infinite combinations players use rule 720. Taking Shortcuts. So, perhaps, despite August not explicitly announcing that they are attempting to suggest a shortcut, head judge number one interpreted the sequence of actions August announced as the beginning of a shortcut suggestion, ruled that it was not a valid shortcut suggestion (since 720.1a says that “rules for taking shortcuts are largely informal”, and 720.2a requires to describe a “sequence of game choices, for all players, that may be legally taken”). Sadly, nothing in either IPG or MTR does directly talk about how to interpret 720 in Competitive REL, however, MTR 4.1 has a clause

A player should have an advantage due to better understanding of the options provided by the rules of the game, greater awareness of the interactions in the current game state, and superior tactical planning.

Which applies in a clear-cut way to this particular situation. Frankly, Nick knows how to properly execute Krark-Clan Ironworks combo and August doesn’t, yet Nick is getting punished in the end to their understandable frustration.

MTR supersede Comprehensive Rules when it comes to making rulings in the tournament, so, my opinion in regards to the more complex question of from which moment in the game should have the match been resumed, is – no matter whether or not August was attempting to demonstrate a loop or just misplayed, based on the spirit of quoted part of MTR 4.1 and the approach to derived information, the game should have continued from the spot where Chromatic Sphere trigger is getting put on the stack.


I personally find it rather sad that situations like this happen in the tournaments. It’s okay to make mistakes with stuff like “the hard part”, it’s okay to make mistakes as the floor judge (are they L1s?), they are expected to make mistakes, that’s why there is an option to appeal is there. What bothers me is that head judges (or appeal judges) are making mistakes when it comes not even to particular rules of Magic: the Gathering, but to the driving principles of how the game works (see postulates “nothing happens instantly, nothing controlled by a player happens simultaneously”). Also, as a judge we face all sorts of strange situations, when you are facing information that another head judge made an opposite ruling about the very same activated ability activation you must take a step back and think to yourself “maybe I’m wrong”. I also want to provide a personal anecdote from what happened to me at my first GP, which was a team GP in Lyon (autumn 2017). The format was team sealed and during players’ meeting we were confused whether or not will we have to check the pool registration and swithch pools with the team sitting across the table from ask. We asked that question to a judge we called and the answer was “you have to submit a decklist with 60 cards in main deck and 15 in the sideboard”. Eventually we got another judge who have answered out actual questoin, but the bitter taste of incompetence was there.

I would like to see more accountability for rulings (both great rulings that were executed well and wrong rulings that might have costed someone a match), exams that doesn’t abuse trick questions, but instead ask candidates to show that they understand the underlying mechanics of Magic: the Gathering.

Jonn Mostovoy,
L1 judge.