Rule of Law – The Law of Rules


Also known as “My First and Last EDH Article”

The goal of a set of rules is to define the game. What’s the difference between checkers and scrabble? “The Rules” is a complete answer (I include “what pieces you get to play” with in my definition of the rules). What’s the difference between Standard and Elder Dragon Highlander (“EDH”)? “The Rules” is again a complete answer. So long as the rules include the pieces (it isn’t important that you agree with this, it just makes things simpler so we don’t need another word for rules + pieces), the rules are the game.

The next point I’ll try to make piggy-backs on the above idea that the rules ARE the game. It was set forth most brilliantly in David Sirlin’s book “Playing to Win.” If two people are playing with different rules, they are playing different games. Borrowing from Sirlin, if two expert Street Fighter II players are playing under tournament rules (for our purposes, “anything goes”) and two other players have agreed never to use a “throw” move on a blocking opponent, the two groups of players aren’t playing the same game. We don’t need to label the games, but we could; we could call the one Street Fighter II and the other Street Fighter II Without Throws. Why is it important to define “game” such that these are different games? It is important because it helps us understand why these players won’t both have fun when they play someone from the “other” game. The player who is used to a “ban” on throws will get thrown by the other player, a lot, and accuse that other player of being “cheap” or “unskilled” or even “rude.” EDH players, is any of this starting to sound familiar?

EDH and Standard

It is important to understand that not only are EDH and Standard different “games,” as I’ve defined that term, but two groups of EDH players that use different “bans” or frown upon different tactics are also playing different games from each other. One EDH group might embrace “playing to win” and all play degenerate combos that attempt to end the game quickly. Another group might have tabooed all those combo pieces and other annoying cards, such that they mostly play mid-range creature-based strategy. Is one right and the other wrong? Of course not. But how can they be expected to have fun when they cross-over and play someone from the other group? They might as well try to play checkers against chess; they’re just different games.

The recent #youmightbeanedhdb topic on Twitter (unrelated plug: add me on Twitter at mtg_law_etc) was all about different people’s proposed rules for EDH. Some people would do away with specific cards like Palinchron or Stasis. Others just want you to not take too long of a turn or otherwise slow things down. Still others want creatures to play a significant role in the games. All these people are proposing rules changes, even if they purport to only suggest “frowning upon” the tactic or ganging up on anyone who uses the tactic. These “soft” rules create a lot of confusion. They tend to be unwritten, which makes them hard to keep track of. They’re also created ad hoc, so its hard to predict what new soft rules will pop up tomorrow, or the day after that.

Here’s what EDH needs: a set of rules that is clearly defined and changed infrequently (like what other formats have) that leads to the kind of games EDH players want. Is this going to be one set of rules? It could be, if and only if everyone who plays the format can agree on what type of game is fun. If not, as I suspect is the case, groups of players will have to have their own sets of rules. Isn’t that what happens now? No, because I’m suggesting actually doing these things:
1) writing the rules down,
2) agreeing that the rules will only be modified infrequently, and writing down how that happens,
3) within the rules, whatever those are, anything goes, no moves are “cheap” no strategies are “lame” and no deck is “frowned upon.”

People often say the point of EDH is to have fun, and that’s why the rules are flexible. That’s a good reason to have more than one set of rules, but it isn’t a good reason to have unwritten, extremely flexible rules.

If your group hates combo kills, you can design rules that prevent combo kills. You might ban all the offending cards, or you might create some other rule such as one spell per turn or maximum 15 mana in a mana pool or no ability can be activated more than 5 times in a turn, etc. The possibilities are endless. The key thing is that once the rules are set (and you might want to have a test phase to calibrate the rules), if someone finds a combo, it isn’t their fault, and it shouldn’t be frowned upon. If the rules need to be adjusted to account for that card you forgot to ban, do it according to your rules for modifying the rules. This is how the DCI changes formats like Vintage.

Imagine my group loves huge creatures attacking for the win. That’s what we all agree is fun. Some burn here or there is ok, but we don’t want 40 points of burn or a lethal [card]Stroke of Genius[/card] to decide games. This group might start with the rule “a player does not lose the game until he or she has taken 20 damage from creatures.” Sure, you might need some other rules to prevent someone from making infinite tokens or taking infinite turns or stasis locking everyone, but you start one rule at a time. You approach each thing you want to “soft ban” or “frown upon” and you design a rule that prevents it from happening. Players should also adopt a mindset that if someone finds a loophole in the rules, it isn’t that person’s fault, its everyone’s fault since everyone agreed upon the rules. Let the person have their fun, and then make your rules better at the next opportunity.

Keep in mind that making creative rules is critical. You might have thought to yourself, “well, if card X isn’t banned, but most of us don’t like it, we’ll just attack players with card X first in multiplayer games.” If the group considers this fun, great, allow it. If not, use an attack to the right rule or play teams instead of free for all. There is a set of rules to fit every group.

The benefits of designing such a system are that if a new player or group of players wants to join in, they can get up to speed by reading the rules, rather than having to learn all the unspoken customs. Additionally, a player who invests time building a deck won’t have that deck “frowned upon” as soon as it executed its gameplan. Another benefit is that the rules move in a direction towards fun over time. As you figure out what the group doesn’t like, you remove it, without worrying that some “EDH d-bag” is going to bust it out even though no one else likes it.

There is a special case mentioned in Playing to Win about “soft bans.” In certain Street Fighter games, one or more characters are simply too good and allowing them would mean no other characters would be viable choices. In America, these characters are banned, but in Japan, there is just a taboo or soft ban on these characters. It is within the rules to register for a tournament with these characters, and yet none of the top players do so. This appears to work for two reasons: first, the number and complexity of these soft bans is very small. Second, Japanese people consistently (though not always among weaker players) abide by the social customs in these games. I don’t think either of these two conditions is consistently present in American EDH.

I’ll conclude by again arguing that the rules should clearly define what is accepted and what isn’t. Imagine playing Scrabble without the rule that only words from some identifiable source can be used. Sure, the word XQJGHZA might be “frowned upon,” but it isn’t banned. How is this game better than the one where the list of acceptable words is clearly defined? We should make our EDH leagues more like the latter form of Scrabble and less like the chaotic former version. Set all your rules out in writing, make them subject to change only infrequently, and set out the method of changing the rules in writing as well. Oh, and read Sirlin’s Playing to Win, it might help you understand where us “spikes” are coming from, even if you’ve chosen a different path.

The Esper Charm Controversy

For those who don’t yet know, Cedric Phillips’ opponent recently said “Esper Charm targeting myself” during Cedric’s end step. Should this mean the player has to discard two cards, since the only mode for Esper Charm that can target a player is the discard two mode? At first I thought that isn’t the outcome, or maybe more accurately, I felt that this isn’t the right outcome. After careful thought, I think the player should be forced to discard two cards.

More than one Level 5 judge has come out and said the player should be allowed to choose the “draw two” mode. I respectfully disagree.

1) an empirical fact: players do not announce modes on modal spells where announcing a target makes the mode clear. No one says “Bant Charm, choosing creature on the bottom mode, targeting Baneslayer.” Instead we all just say “Bant Charm targeting Baneslayer” or something very similar. Is this ambiguous? Of course not. Asking “which mode are you choosing, the creature one or the artifact one?” is likely to get a puzzled or frustrated look in response. So why then is “Esper Charm targeting myself” any different? “Well,” you might say, “the player here is trying to draw two cards, but is confused.” This brings us to point two.

2) No one should stop to check player intentions if the game state isn’t ambiguous. When I Bant Charm a Baneslayer, my opponent need not stop and think “Did he really want to Bant Charm this Jitte?” There is no ambiguity, and it’s the other player’s turn to respond to the Charm. If I just put Esper Charm or Bant Charm on the table and say nothing, of course my opponent needs to ask me to clarify what mode I am using, and what targets I wish to select. Where the spell is on the stack, and information given by the casting player is consistent with one mode but no others, we move on. Where the game state is objectively clear, one player’s subjective intent to announce a spell differently than he did is completely irrelevant. A player might honestly have intented to Bant Charm my Jitte, but just slipped up and said Baneslayer. Can he then say “well I never picked a mode” and back up and target Jitte? If you said “yes” what about after I’ve shown my Brave the Elements?

3) Rule 4.2 allows players to use tournament shortcuts. When a player announces his Bant Charm with the words “targeting Baneslayer” he is using a shortcut. The shortcut is “Player indicates which mode he is using by announcing the spell in a manner that is only consistent with one mode.” While not an enumerated shortcut, this is a shortcut players constantly use. “Cryptic Command, targeting your Cruel Ultimatum and your untapped island” need not be accompanied by “choosing the modes counter target spell and return target permanent to its owner’s hand” and indeed, it very rarely is accompanied by this useless addition. Tournament Shortcuts, Rule 4.2, acknowledges and embraces shortcuts that we all use.

On Cedric’s thread, someone responded to my shortcut comment with “Matt, the purpose of shortcuts are to allow the game to progress more quickly and fluidly when both players clearly understand which actions are being omitted. In your bant charm vs. baneslayer example, as long as both players are clear that baneslayer is going to the bottom, it’s not necessary to announce the mode (compare to “bant charm your frogmite,” which requires clarification). However, as soon as Ced’s opponent reaches for his own library, it becomes abundantly clear that both players didn’t have the same understanding of the shortcut; in that case, that shortcut is no good.”

However, imagine the other player trying to respond to the Esper Charm while it’s on the stack, and while it is as clear as a Bant Charm targeting a Baneslayer. He might counter the spell in order to prevent the discard (he might KNOW the opponent’s hand is 2 Iona and 1 Rise From the Grave). In this situation the Esper Charming player has been allowed to “freeroll” Cedric for a counter, since if he counters it, fine, and if he doesn’t, then the spell changes to “draw two” upon calling the judge. The fact that players don’t often choose to make themselves discard two is what makes it “feel” like a bad decision to force them to, but we can’t look use the card Esper Charm and its typical uses as justification for interpreting the rules in a bizarre way (unambiguous game state gets “corrected”).

Here’s an example that is directly analogous that might resonate more on the “fairness” or “intuition” level. The card [card]Dawn Charm[/card] has only 1 targeted mode, but it has two mode that could impact a creature’s survival. Regenerate a creature targets, while prevent all combat damage does not target.

Say I am attacked by a Ball Lightning, and I block with a Hill Giant. I want to use my Dawn Charm to save the Hill Giant. If I choose regeneration, I’ll take three trample damage and save my guy, but if I choose prevent all damage, I’ll take zero and save my guy. I decide to prevent all combat damage, but I say “Dawn Charm targeting Hill Giant” instead, focusing on wanting to save my guy rather than precise technical play. My opponent wants my Hill Giant dead, and he realizes that a spell with only 1 target is countered if that target is gone upon resolution, and he realizes that if the Hill Giant is gone before combat damage is dealt, I’ll take the full 6 from Ball Lightning. Reasonably, he Lightning Bolts my Hill Giant in response to the Dawn Charm. “Fine” I say, still not realizing what is going on, “I take 0 due to Dawn Charm.” Now my opponent calls a judge and tells the judge that I targeted Hill Giant with the Dawn Charm, so it must have fizzled and had no effect after I bolted it. What should the judge do?

This is the same problem as the Esper Charm problem, but it is phrased in a way that makes one outcome “feel” less obviously correct than the other. I think both cases should be ruled in favor of the objective announcement of the spell, rather than allowing a player to back up and declare modes when no one does that in first instance with other modal cards with only one targeted mode. Even if it’s not a shortcut, how do you ever look at a perfectly valid (objectively) game state and make any “correction” to it? There’s nothing to correct.

If you think a player’s unstated subjective misunderstanding about a game state creates an ambiguity in an otherwise unambiguous game state, prepare for some opportunistic subjective understandings. I’ll use a shortcut as an example, the rules say “I’m done” means you wish to pass all the priorities in the turn until your opponent does something with his/her priority, and if none, the turn will end. According the Esper Charm folks, it seems to me, if I say “I’m done” but I meant that i’m done with the first main phase only, there is an ambiguity and my intent will allow us to unwind the shortcut and get back to my main phase rather than my end step, where my opponent thought we were and began to cast a spell.

-Matt Sperling
mtg_law_etc on Twitter.


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