Rule of Law – Battle of Wits is NOT Tournament Legal

[draft]battle of wits[/draft]

Battle of Wits is back in M13, which is exciting. Battle of Wits is a really fun card. When asked which blue rares I’d like to see reprinted, the first card that came to mind was Battle of Wits. These Top 8 decklists might be the coolest ever, for only one reason:


I watched nearly every round of my friend EFro’s PT LA-grinder-winning run with Battle of Wits in Ravnica Standard a few years later.

Having had the chance to watch and use 250ish card decks, I don’t think they are actually tournament legal—in my opinion, you simply cannot comply with the following rules:

2.3 Pregame Procedures

The following steps must be performed before each game begins:

1. Players may exchange cards in their decks for cards in their sideboards. Players may only do this after the first or subsequent game of the match and not for games that are restarted or games that are drawn before any game actions are taken.

2. Players shuffle their decks. Steps 1 and 2 may be repeated.

3. Players present their decks to their opponents for additional shuffling. The sideboard (if any) is also presented at this time.

Players may not use more than three minutes to perform steps 1 through 3.

3.9 Card Shuffling

Decks must be randomized at the start of every game and whenever an instruction requires it. Randomization is defined as bringing the deck to a state where no player can have any information regarding the order or position of cards in any portion of the deck. Pile shuffling alone is not sufficiently random.

Once the deck is randomized, it must be presented to an opponent. By this action, players state that their decks are legal and randomized. The opponent may then shuffle it additionally. Cards and sleeves must not be in danger of being damaged during this process. If the opponent does not believe the player made a reasonable effort to randomize his or her deck, the opponent must notify a judge. Players may request to have a judge shuffle their cards rather than the opponent; this request will be honored only at a judge’s discretion.

If a player has had the opportunity to see any of the card faces of the deck being shuffled, the deck is no longer considered randomized and must be randomized again.

5.5 Slow Play

Players must take their turns in a timely fashion regardless of the complexity of the play situation and adhere to time limits specified for the tournament. Players must maintain a pace to allow the match to be finished in the announced time limit. Stalling is not acceptable. Players may ask a judge to watch their game for slow play; such a request will be granted if feasible.

The biggest hurdle (well, I suppose time is the only hurdle since all of this can be accomplished with enough time, but you know what I mean) is:

“Randomization is defined as bringing the deck to a state where no player can have any information regarding the order or position of cards in any portion of the deck.”

Let’s take a somewhat trivial case: I draw my opening hand of seven cards, see that it contains no land, and decide to mulligan. Any two cards in the hand—just as an example, let’s say [card]Manalith[/card] and [card]Thought Scour[/card]—must be shuffled back into the deck such that I have no information about their relative position. I can’t know they’re more likely to be together than any other two cards, and I can’t know they’re more likely to not be together than any other two cards. Either piece of additional knowledge means that when I draw Manalith, I know something about the probable positions of Thought Scour, or vise versa. Let’s talk about some ways people might try to accomplish this.

Important Note 1: Anything that doesn’t involve the entire deck.

People have tried shortcutting to only shuffle the part of the deck you searched. Anything that doesn’t involve the whole deck is cheating. Just seeing an [card]Island[/card] in portion one of the deck means that if you don’t mix that portion (whatever its size) with the rest of the deck, you have an impermissible amount of information about the position of the Island in your deck.

Method 1: Riffle Riffle Riffle Riffle, Yeah

Is there enough time in a match to just riffle shuffle the whole deck as if it were a 60 card deck? I don’t think there is. Not only does each riffle need to be performed 3+ times to accomplish a satisfactory state regarding that portion of the deck, but you have to ensure that any card could end up anywhere. In other words, if I know a pair of cards are in riffle stack one, and no card from riffle stack one is ever mixed into riffle stack six, I know the pair of cards is less likely to exist in riffle stack six, and thus I have failed.

This brings us to an important aside:

Important Note 2: Using pseudo-“blindfolding” to randomize.

Consider the impact of the following procedure on randomization: at some point during shuffling, you cut the deck into 10 (or any number) of piles, and with your back turned you ask a judge or an opponent to reassemble the deck in any fashion they choose. Now you don’t know which pile was put on top of which other pile, so you are ignorant of the precise position of any card. Have you randomized?

I don’t think you’re any closer to randomization, and here’s why: the relationship between two cards is every bit as poisonous as the location of a card. If I know Manalith and Thought Scour were nearby when I cut the deck into 10 piles, my opponent’s reassembly of the deck doesn’t alter that knowledge much. Why is this poisonous knowledge? Well, just imagine I draw Manalith. I now have a non-zero amount of illegitimate information about the odds of one of my next draw steps being a Thought Scour. Unless I am making the judge or opponent seek to randomize the deck, which they aren’t obligated to do, and arguably can’t accomplish in a reasonable amount of time (at least some of them can’t or won’t, I hope you’ll concede), turning my back on part of the process won’t help me much.

Method 2: Pile Shuffle

Start with some light cutting or shuffling that makes it hard to precisely track where a card is. Next, make a bunch of piles of cards by spreading them out one at a time. Finally, reconstruct the deck. Doesn’t this randomize?

Well, what you have to remember is that there is a reason the Tournament Rules state, “Pile shuffling alone is not sufficiently random.” The reason is that pile shuffling appears to randomize more than it actually does. What’s going on in a pile shuffle is mostly fixed and observable (with seven piles card 1 sits directly below cards 8 and 15, for example), it is hard to argue that pile shuffling has a consistent and reliable impact on a player’s knowledge of where a card or group of cards end up.

When you combine it with some other method, it all becomes incredibly time consuming in the context of a 240 card deck. That’s Important Note 3.

Important Note 3: Combining methods is always time-consuming, and not always reliable.

Riffle shuffles plus pile shuffles plus blindfolded cuts might yield a satisfactory state if done correctly, but how much time does it take? More time than is reasonable I would argue. Doing it quickly once is a challenge, and you don’t have to do it only once. You might have to shuffle it, watch the opponent shuffle it, mulligan and shuffle it again, mulligan again and shuffle it again, and oh by the way, nobody has even played a single turn of Magic yet in game 1 of a 3-game match. It just doesn’t add up to a satisfactory speed of play.

Method 3: Make a Judge Do It

If I have no idea what is going on with the deck, it’s all random to me, right? Maybe, but the rules, for good reason, don’t allow you to force a judge to randomize your deck. A judge may choose to help you out, but they don’t have to, and more importantly, they might not be able to, given the other tasks the often overworked judging staff is responsible for. They didn’t show up to help you shuffle your oversized deck, at the expense of all the other things they need to do to make sure the event runs smoothly. The rules account for this: any judge participation in your shuffling effort is at their discretion.

Important Note 4: The opponent has to shuffle the deck too!

At higher levels of rules enforcement, each player must shuffle his or her opponent’s deck before each game. Asking an opponent to shuffle a Battle of Wits deck before each game in a round only further strains the credibility of the idea that, “this is something we can accomplish in a reasonable amount of time each round.” The fact that individuals vary in shuffling dexterity, skill, and know-how only compounds said lack of credibility.

Final Thoughts

I hate to rain on everyone’s parade; OK maybe I love it—what’s the difference really? The reality is that Battle of Wits will be legal in Standard, Modern, Legacy, etc., but won’t really be tournament legal. When I watched EFro play the deck in 2005, there seemed to be a few “Gentleman’s Agreements” about the state of randomization of his deck at various times. EFro’s version had [card]Diabolic Tutor[/card] and a bunch of Transmute cards, so there was absolutely no freaking way he was sufficiently randomizing his deck. Opponents seemed satisfied with some pretty fundamentally flawed methods like, “shuffle only the portion I looked at,” and incomplete riffle shuffle methods. I’m sad to say that “close enough” really shouldn’t cut it when it comes to tournament Magic.

If my opponent has a Battle of Wits deck, I’m within my rights as a player to call the judge and mention any of the points I made above. If he or she takes 30 total minutes shuffling, or has knowledge of the relationship between the cards in his or her deck, I’m at a disadvantage in the tournament that shouldn’t be forced upon me. I wouldn’t care in Friday Night Magic, but I certainly would at a Pro Tour. Where is the line? Is a GP OK? A PTQ? In any case, my line and someone else’s line might be very different, and thus no one can feel safe bringing a 240 card deck to a sanctioned event. Thus, Battle of Wits is functionally banned in paper Magic sanctioned play. Well, I guess you could play it in a 60 card deck. Best of luck.

-Matt Sperling

mtg_law_etc on Twitter

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