Today marked the start of Pro Tour Aether Revolt. If you weren’t aware, there was a controversial judge call during the final round in a match between the two remaining undefeated players. The call revolved around the communication of triggers and crewing a vehicle at the start of combat. It was ruled that by going to combat, the attacking player had missed their trigger and also missed their opportunity to crew their vehicle. This occurred on a pivotal turn and had a potentially significant impact on the outcome of the game. As a result, there were loud cries of ‘rules lawyering’, and the player who called the judge was vilified as scum. To make matters worse, the attacking player was a foreign player and viewers thought he was being taken advantage of due to the potential language barrier. Many on Twitter and in Twitch chat claimed that he should be ashamed of himself, started rooting for him to lose, decried that ‘this is what’s wrong with Magic’ and even called for a boycott of his team’s sponsor.
I don’t want to focus on the ruling itself but I’ll briefly say that the ruling was correct based on the actions and explanations we saw from each player on stream. There is a very clear, established and documented precedent on this issue because it comes up all the time: http://blogs.magicjudges.org/whatsupdocs/2016/05/26/attacking-blocking-and-shortcuts/.
When vehicles were first introduced, I learned about this rule at a number of PPTQs early in the Kaladesh format. I spent over an hour talking to multiple judges and followed up by Googling the ‘go to combat’ shortcut and exactly what it meant and how it worked. I wanted to educate myself so that I knew exactly what was expected of me to communicate properly in future matches. I also wanted to know what I should expect from my opponents, not so I could ‘get them’ with a little known rules trick but so that I could protect myself from ‘being gotten’.
In my opinion, it’s absolutely an unintuitive rule and allows for potential feel-bad ‘gotcha’ moments like this one. That being said, if you’re a competitive player, it’s your responsibility to know what the rules are so that you can communicate clearly and adhere to them. You should expect the same from your opponent, especially in the undefeated bracket of the Pro Tour. Usually you only have to learn a tough lesson once. In this case, the lesson was learned in a very important match and on a very public stage. Hopefully this incident brings awareness to many thousands of players about how this interaction actually works. Judges have struggled with how to make communication in this part of the turn clear and fair for both players. With the public outcry from today’s incident, maybe judges will revisit this shortcut and find a way to come up with a better solution.
The uproar against the player in question was swift and severe and I’d like to discuss the judge call from a few different perspectives.
For one thing, the act of calling a judge should never be vilified. Judges are there to bring clarity to an otherwise unclear situation. We couldn’t hear exactly what was said at the time of combat, but clearly there was confusion between the players about what was announced and in what sequence. The judges are there to help clarifying the situation for both parties. If one player misrepresents the situation in any way and lies to the judge to get some benefit, that is cheating and grounds for an immediate disqualification and possible ban. If one player baits an opponent into taking a disadvantageous action or tries to confuse them into making a play that they wouldn’t normally want to make, I’d call that unsporting or rules lawyering – in my opinion it’s not cheating but I wouldn’t do it and I would hope that others wouldn’t do it either. Neither of these happened in this case. One player announced some game actions. The second player felt that his opponent had mis-sequenced these game actions and taken game actions at a time when he could not legally do so. This player called a judge, both players accurately reported what had happened and a ruling was made. This is exactly how judge calls should go and no player should be made to feel ashamed because they called a judge to help clarify.
Everyone involved in this judge ruling is looking at the incident through a slightly different lens, so I’d like to cover my thoughts on each separately.
Most viewers are non-PT players watching coverage for entertainment. I think there is a large disconnect between the way that most players experience Magic and the mindset of many competitive Magic players. To the average viewer, seeing a judge called on what looks like an obvious interaction ruins the spirit and integrity of the game. They just want to see a good clean fun game of Magic played and judge calls are a distraction from that. I do understand this desire, but when there is a lot at stake it is not up to players to help each other fix games states and agree on how to resolve any miscommunication or improper sequencing. In a competitive environment, players are not only there to have fun and entertain us viewers, they are there to win.
Many viewers expressed the opinion that ‘well he knew what his opponent was trying to do’ so he was being scum for calling a judge. At FNM or playing with friends, this mindset is fine – that’s what the Regular Rules Enforcement Level is for. When you get into a competitive setting where there is a lot on the line (money, prestige, Pro Player status and other benefits) this is no longer an acceptable mindset.
No player is under any obligation to try to interpret another player’s actions. In fact, they should never do this. It is each player’s responsibility to know the rules and communicate their actions clearly. It is neither players’ responsibility to try to interpret their opponent’s ‘intent’. If there is ever a disconnect between what one player intended and another player heard or saw, a judge should be called immediately. In a competitive setting, there is always something on the line and it is up to judges to hear both sides and make a ruling so that the game can continue. As long as both players explain honestly what happened, there is no shame and no harm in calling a judge.
What many viewers fail to appreciate is that by not adhering to proper sequencing, a player could actually get a strategic advantage. In this particular case, a player can announce ‘combat’ and be waiting to see if their opponent has a removal spell or wants to tap a creature. This might change the active player’s decision about what to attack with or how to crew. By announcing combat and seeing that the non-active player has no effects, the active player has now gotten additional information. They should not be able to use that information in order to decide how to declare attackers, what vehicles to crew, what to target with a Weldfast Engineer trigger, etc. In fact, if a player intentionally announced ‘combat’ and then tried to do these things, THEY would be the ones are actually cheating by trying to obtain information from their opponent by using illegal sequencing. I’m not saying that’s what was happening in this case, but it’s an aspect of these situations that is often overlooked. Someone ‘misplaying’ or ‘mis-sequencing’ by accident can not be allowed, especially at the Pro Tour, because it can be exploited by other players who do it intentionally and claim ignorance.
I’ve addressed the view of the players throughout this piece, so I won’t say much more here. Neither player is under any responsibility to try to interpret what the other is ‘intending’ to do. They can only respond what an opponent actually does. Both players acted professionally here. A judge was called, they each explained their side. They waited for and respectfully received a ruling. An appeal was made and, once upheld, game play continued. Neither play got upset or took the results of the judge call against the other. Both players acted responsibly and professionally.
There was criticism of the ruling issued by the judges and later upheld by the head judge, Toby Elliott. Again, there was a sentiment that it was clear what the player intended and the judges should go by the ‘spirit of the law’. This is basically asking a judge to exercise discretion when administering a ruling. This would put judges in an extremely unfair position where they would have to subjectively decide when to apply certain rulings and when not to. This would be an extremely bad policy that would create uncertainty with any judge call. Players would not know what ruling to expect if a judge’s discretion were allowed to be a factor. Judges can only uphold the letter of the rules as written, and that is all that should be expected. If a rule is bad or unclear, it can be reconsidered and reworded, but that is not for any one judge to determine in the moment.
All judges involved did a great job of listening to both players and clearly explaining the situation to the viewers at home.
Coverage and The Commentators
Coverage has caught some flak before for airing too much of judge calls and awkward player interactions. While I agree that coverage should cut away from the match while a judge call is happening, I think it’s important to communicate the judge call and ruling to the audience. There are many players at home who haven’t been involved in competitive tournaments. It is educational for any player who might consider playing at that level to see what a judge call looks like, how it is handled and learn what the proper ruling is.
I think today the coverage team struck a good balance of cutting away to other matches, but also explaining clearly to the viewers why the judge call was happening, what the miscommunication was, and the head judge did a great job of explaining why the ruling was made. I thought the entire situation was handled well by the coverage team and judge staff in this case.
I hope this gives the average viewer another perspective on this judge call. I’m sure there will be many opinions that disagree with points I’ve made here. I’m open to all respectful questions and discussion. There is a general lack of awareness of Competitive REL at local PPTQs and this incident is a good example of what can happen at the local level. I feel educating our aspiring competitive players on these types of issues is important and today offers an opportunity to have that important discussion.