MTG can be played in a huge range of ways. In-person or online, two-players or more. There’s no limit to the number of formats and house rules you can use. But there’s yet another distinction that’s more subtle, and can be hard to appreciate without first hand experience. Here, I’ve got something interesting for you to Consider.
It’s the difference between playing Magic casually, among friends, versus playing in a competitive, tournament setting.
A player named Dominick Paolercio (@Karatedom10 on Twitter) shared an experience they had at the recent NRG Chicago event, and it got everyone talking. Here’s the original post, but I’ll summarize in my own words if you prefer a shorter version.
As the story is told, an Izzet Phoenix player faces down Sheoldred, the Apocalypse. They cast Consider, it resolves, there’s some amount of pause, and they follow up with an Opt. Sheoldred’s controller then announces two triggers for four points of life loss. A judge call ensues to determine whether the first trigger (referencing Consider) has been missed.
Let’s dive into this specific case.
The first thing to remember is that this is a competitive tournament. However you like to play at home, or at a more casual Prerelease or FNM event, is totally fine. However, tournaments have a special set of rules governing these issues. Players can be expected (perhaps should be expected) to play hard, try their best to win, and take every advantage that the rules fairly provide to them.
Saying something like, “people should be nice and help each other remember triggers,” isn’t necessarily wrong, but it’s somewhat missing the point in this case.
The rules regarding missed triggers have changed many times over the years, but here’s where they stand today. A player is responsible for remembering the triggered abilities of their own cards. If they don’t remember, the opponent can choose whether or not they want the ability to happen. So yes, if you’re playing Death’s Shadow, you can force your opponent to resolve their Sheoldred triggers.
All of that said, you have plenty of leeway when it comes to announcing triggers. If you attack with Noble Hierarch, formally saying, “exalted trigger resolves, my creature is now a 1/2,” is one way to do it. Another is waiting for your opponent to declare no blocks, and then saying, “okay, you take 1.” Anything similar or in between is totally fine. The only way this exalted trigger would be missed is if you both say nothing and assign 0 damage in combat by failing to announce or mark any life total change.
In other words, most ambiguous situations will go in favor of the player with the triggered ability. You can’t really tell someone they’ve missed a trigger. There’s not a time limit of one second, five seconds, or thirty seconds in which to remember your trigger. It only becomes missed once the game progresses to a state where it has definitively been missed.
In this case, the judges ruled in favor of the Sheoldred player, and determined that neither trigger was missed. Their ruling depended on a strange timing issue, which I’ll outline below.
Consider resolves, causing a card to be drawn. A Sheoldred triggered ability goes onto the stack.
Opt is cast, resolves, and causes a card to be drawn. A Sheoldred triggered ability goes onto the stack.
Because Opt is an instant, it’s plausible according to the rules that the Phoenix player might have responded to the first Sheoldred trigger by casting an instant. This is a play you can make, for example, if you’re using full control mode on Magic Arena.
For this reason, the Sheoldred trigger has not yet been unambiguously missed, so there’s still an opportunity for Sheoldred’s controller to announce it.
If Opt had been a sorcery–say Chart a Course–instead, it’s possible things could have been ruled differently.
Perhaps the reason this left such a bad taste in Dominick’s mouth is that he cast his Opt under the assumption that the Sheoldred trigger would not resolve, and that he’d therefore have two additional life points to work with. I sympathize.
In this exchange, Will Krueger brings up the good question of, what (strategically) should Dominick have done? And the equally interesting follow-up of what should the rules be, and what types of behaviors should they incentivize?
I answered with two options. First, Dominick could try to progress the game to a point where the trigger can’t be on the stack anymore (for example, changing phases). Second, he could handle it exactly the way he did!
It does stink that Dom had to make decisions in the face of this strange uncertainty. However, consider two possibilities. In the first, Dom may have forgotten about the Sheoldred trigger himself, in which case he made a strategic mistake, which is always fair game in a tournament setting. (This doesn’t seem particularly likely based on his write-up).
In the second (more likely) scenario, he was aware of an ambiguous trigger that may or may not have been on the stack. He’s playing hard and trying to win the game, which means both (1) making sharp plays with his own cards, but also (2) not reminding the opponent about the trigger.
You can always get (1) if you want it. You could point out the Sheoldred trigger and mark your life total, or at least act as though it’s going to happen.
You can try to get both (1) and (2) at the same time, but then you’re taking on some risk. You can try to sneak a midnight cookie out of Mom’s cookie jar, but you have to accept the risk that she might wake up and catch you. That doesn’t strike me as unreasonable.
At times, this topic has gotten heated. I’ve seen terms tossed around like “angle shooting,” “rules lawyering,” and even “cheating.” (Ironically, a different player is the offender depending on whom you ask.)
In my opinion based on what I read, both players acted perfectly reasonably. I probably would have done the same in either position. (Once again, note that a competitive tournament is different from other play environments.)
If I was Dominick, the Phoenix player, I would try to win the game, and leave the door open for the opponent to miss their Sheoldred trigger. If I was the Sheoldred player, I would check with a judge if I could still put my trigger on the stack, even if I’d momentarily forgotten about it.
For tournament players, facing a tricky, ambiguous situation like this is part of the job description. Handling it is easy–you ask a judge. That’s what they’re there for. Call the judge, explain exactly what happened, answer all of their questions honestly, and accept the ruling. In this story, it sounds like that process was handled to a tee, and I therefore don’t fault anyone involved.