The MTG Ethicist – “All My Legal Targets” Redux

Welcome to another installment of the MTG Ethicist.

Click the spoiler dropdown below to get more background on how I approach ethical questions in Magic, or you can skip right ahead to the questions.

My Approach

I approach adherence to the rules as a strong default for ethical behavior and best practices for avoiding getting into trouble. The rules are a brightly illuminated set of guidelines that make an obvious Schelling Point for ethical conduct. Magic has an amazing rules team, and the guidelines and commentary they publish are shining examples of how to get competitive game rule-making right.

As you probably know, Magic is so complex that even a great set of rules often leaves us well short of clear guidance about what the rule should be in a particular situation, and stepping from the rules into ethics, there is another layer entirely of “when should judges decline to enforce rule X?” and “what should player A do given that the rules are silent on situation Y, or would result in unfairness in situation Z?” This column takes some of those questions and explores possible answers. I start from the rules, and I draw on my experience as a player as well as my experience as a lawyer in balancing conflicting rules, competing sources of fairness/unfairness, and departing viewpoints.

Here are some of the background goals/approaches for the set of Magic ethical guidelines that I am trying to illuminate, month by month, by walking through reader-submitted, real-life scenarios:

#1: Minimalism

Players are not ethically required to go above and beyond what the rules require of them unless circumstances strongly demand an exception, and some of the tough cases in this column will be about where that line is (this works if and only if you have a well-designed and nearly comprehensive set of rules, and Magic’s rules easily clear that bar). Minimalism in deviations from the rules means predictability, consistency, etc. are more baked-in. If something appears to you to be too much a “technicality” to be part of the ethics discussion, remember minimalism and where it ranks on this list, and that sometimes “technically correct and clear” is a whole lot more fair than non-technical ad hoc deviations since fairness involves predictability (#2 below), which isn’t always apparent when staring at one particular example.

#2: Predictability

A player should know what they are responsible for doing, and what they aren’t, ahead of time if possible.

#3: Ethics Are Needed Most Where Rules Necessarily Fall Short

When it comes to the ethics of how many lands you can play in a turn, there’s not much I can add to the rules. When it comes to the ethics of timing, arrangements made outside the game, friendship or reputation as a variable, or anything else the rules are famously ill-equipped to address, I have lots to say. If we believe the rulemakers were well-aware of certain conduct and had the tools to effectively prohibit it, but chose not to, that is fairly strong evidence that the conduct is ethical. But if the problem by its nature is unlikely to be within the scope of the rules (hard to predict or hard to regulate), the failure of the rules to clearly regulate it is weak evidence of the ethical outcome.

#4: Consistency

Perhaps the toughest goal, since minor changes in reader vantage points will always make two close cases decided differently seem inconsistent. This is not the #1 concern on the list for a reason; it is important but sometimes two swings to try and hit the ball is better than one swing, and if you deify consistency, you might be locked into taking one swing and then citing it rather than taking two swings. Your intuition machine may run better than your consistent-rule producing machine, but biases are more tempting traps in the intuition machine than the rule machine, so there are tradeoffs—best to run things through both if you can. A difficult problem, made clearer when you remember goal/principle #5:

#5: Humility

What I provide is never a “ruling,” it is a “suggested answer.” I hope it’s helpful. I do not hope it is the last word, taken as the established Truth by reference to my authority as the capital-E Ethicist. Strict adherence to consistency violates humility, eventually.


1) Head in the Sand

Q: Person A: Did you know that at a competitive or professional event you’re required to—
Person B: Don’t tell me don’t tell me! I want to be able to claim ignorance.
Is Person B ethically obligated to understand the rules of tournament Magic? How much research do they have to do if so?

A: Here is where ethics can do better than rules: the rules struggle enough to determine what a player might have known—they certainly can’t enforce an obligation to learn more (other than by punishing un-willful ignorance alongside the willing). But ethics require us to make some effort. The precise line is not easy to locate, but I know that trying your hardest not to learn the rules as Player B is attempting to do is not ethical conduct.

From a pragmatic perspective, Player B is not actually giving themselves much of an advantage here anyway. Knowing as much about the rules as you can helps you way more than it hurts you. Setting that pragmatic concern aside, if your rules knowledge is limited by not having enough time to look everything up, not enough experience to fully understand the stuff you do look up, or an imperfect memory, that’s fine. That’s the reality we all live with, whether a new player or an experienced judge. Tournament players should spend some time learning the tournament rules. Ethically, you don’t have to have perfect knowledge, but you have to make an honest effort.

2) Tournament Practice (Or is it?)

Q: This question comes most recently from my Netrunner play, but I’ve had the problem in MTGO in the past. What is your opinion of bringing a home brew deck into the tournament practice rooms? This whole example is assuming you have hammered the deck in casual and are winning very consistently. Quite often in these scenarios, serious players will get upset about your non-meta deck, and even as the guy with the strong new deck I’m testing, I find myself conflicted. Technically, I find it’s hard for me to be mad at the “serious” player because they are correct and are unlikely to see my off-meta jank during their tournament. But at the same time, all my deck is likely to run into at said tournament are those on-meta finely tuned decks, so that’s the testing that my deck needs most. Obviously in an ideal scenario I would have a testing group to bounce the deck against, but without one, do I have a reasonable choice?

A: This awkwardness is nothing new in the tournament practice room that isn’t an actual tournament. Entry fees and prizes are the best way to elevate quality of play, so I personally recommend playing in the queues on MTGO rather than the practice room, but maybe Netrunner doesn’t have queues or maybe you don’t want to pony up for the entry fees.

First, a practical suggestion: when these matches begin, you could offer a quick canned statement such as “I know this deck is a brew and might look janky, but I’ve been winning with it and I am seriously considering it for my next tournament. Do you mind playing versus a rogue deck?” This will go a long way in comforting the opponent that this isn’t a casual deck, it’s just a different deck. I suspect many opponents will be intrigued and those who aren’t will cut their losses early without wasting much time.

Ethically, it sounds like you’ve done the necessary work—you practiced a bit in an even less competitive space to make sure the idea was at least functional, and you are in the tournament practice room trying to get tournament practice. I think the remaining issues are practical in nature.

3) “All My Legal Targets” Redux

Q: In the late rounds at a GP, my opponent was at 9 and I had Distortion Strike, Become Immense, and a Dryad Arbor, but couldn’t cast my Become Immense. I cast Distortion Strike, and revealed Become Immense, confidently stating that my creature had 3 power but was unblockable, and that I had this Become Immense in hand that gave +6/+6 (I also didn’t tap any mana or delve any cards as that is clearly illegal). I gave my opponent my best “do you have Slaughter Pact or are you dead stare” and hoped for the best.

My opponent asked, “so I take 9”? To which I responded that my creature had 3 power, but I had Become Immense in my hand, which gives +6/+6, and my creature cannot be blocked.

My confused opponent went into the tank, and eventually asked if I could cast Become Immense, to which I noted that no, I could not. Then I conceded.

What if I had moved Dryad Arbor forward on my table, then cast Distortion Strike, then tapped Dryad Arbor to pay for Become Immense, and said something like, “go to attacks, Dryad Arbor is a 9-power unblockable—you’re at 9, got Slaughter Pact?” even though I couldn’t declare it as an attacker after tapping it for mana.

These belong to a wide class of questions about trying to (ab)use the fact that opponents usually concede when they think they are going to lose rather than waiting until they actually lose.

A: These scenarios are popular topics of discussion, and it’s good to talk about them because the reminder to make sure your opponent has actually killed you before conceding to revealed cards or vague statements is important defense against this stuff. Is this stuff ethical? I think it is straddling the fence, but ultimately ethical. Avoiding saying things that are false, taking illegal actions, etc. is critical. But if that is carefully done, and you don’t care about being “the guy who tries this stuff” (wrong or right, some players will think less of you), you can try it.

Again, stop conceding to shortcuts before checking them. Stop conceding to vague statements you don’t fully understand. I’ve seen people try this stuff on players like Paul Rietzl and Dave Williams, and I always get a good laugh out of it. “Show me.” “What are you actually casting?” “Scapeshift? Okay, what are you finding.” Don’t waste a bunch of time when you have actually lost, but do take pleasure and pride in making people actually perform the final steps of the game, whether they actually have the kill or not. Sometimes there aren’t as many Mountains in the Scapeshift deck as you thought there were. Sometimes your opponent is 1 mana short and will try saying the name of a card instead of casting it. “SHOW ME.”

4) Last Known Information

Q: The way Eldrazi Mimic works, if a colorless creature triggers it, then gets Dismembered to less than 1 toughness, the controller of the Mimic can choose “no” and keep the Mimic or choose “yes” and the Mimic will have less than 1 toughness and die. This is all very straight forward on MTGO but in real life it’s hard to tell if an opponent chose “no” or chose “yes” without understanding the rules interaction (thinking perhaps it was the same as what happens if you Path to Exile the creature rather than Dismember it).

Is it ethical, when the opponent attacks with Mimic, to ask “take 5?” knowing that the Mimic is either 2/1 or 0/0 but not 5/5? Is it ethical to see what the opponent says in case they say “take 5” without provocation?

A: Asking “take 5?” is misrepresenting what you understand about the game state. When you ask a question this way, you are implying that it may be true or that it is true. But continuing to play as if the Mimic is 2/1, since it isn’t in the graveyard, is fine. When your opponent says “take 5,” she has revealed both that she chose yes and that she misunderstood the game state. You can now correct it with the assistance of a judge (and in my opinion the Mimic should die, but I’m not a judge).

The lesson here, as always, is to be really careful when the things coming out of your mouth are not true and you know they aren’t true, even if a question mark is at the end. Communication aimed at confusing, rather than clarifying, is often unethical (with a few rare exceptions such as “all my legal targets” that I have low confidence on in any event).

If you have an ethical question related to Magic: the Gathering, send it to Matt at [email protected]. Your question could appear in the next column.


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