The MTG Ethicist – Clocks, Newbs, and Exploits

Welcome to the second installment of the MTG Ethicist. The first piece can be found here.

A few people have asked me to clarify my background or approach within the philosophical field of ethics. A few others have asked what right was it of mine, what title did I earn, that gave me the power to make these judgments. So, a little bookkeeping before we get started here: I’ll be providing my intuition as someone who has years of experience playing in tournaments and discussing these issues. Few have been thinking about these issues longer, even fewer writing about them longer in all kinds of formats. I find it fun. Distinctions between schools of philosophy are perhaps important in an academic setting where you might be able to work at a precise enough level of detail to locate disagreements there, but here they just aren’t helpful. This column isn’t about these distinctions, so let me say what it is about—click the spoiler dropdown below if you’d like to read more about my approach, otherwise you can skip to this month’s 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) When Time is a Factor

Q: My question concerns slow combo decks or combo decks that only go off halfway. Suppose my opponent demonstrates a loop that I cannot interrupt, which gains them arbitrary amounts of life. If my game plan is to win though damage (and not e.g., milling or poison counters), I clearly cannot win. But at the same time, suppose I suspect my opponent doesn’t have, for one reason or another, a good way to finish out the game, or suppose that I am very confident in being able to answer whatever threat they might play so that I doubt that my opponent will be able to beat me before the game goes to time. Is it unethical for me to refuse to concede and make my opponent try to beat me within time?

My feeling is this: my opponent and I are in effectively very similar positions. Neither of us is at all likely to be able to beat the other within time. The difference is that there is actually a 0% chance that I will win the game, while my opponent has a 5% chance of winning within time, but a 100% chance of winning eventually. Nevertheless, the time limitation is something that affects both of us, and if I give my opponent an exception to the rule “in order to win a game of Magic, you must win within 50 minutes” by conceding, I feel like I am being unfair to myself.

What do you think?

A: This one is fairly simple, and yet questions like it represent a significant percentage of all the emails I received in this first mailbag period. There is a lot of uncertainty going around it seems, about when you should concede, should take the draw, should ask for a concession, etc. as time runs out.

When a draw is of relatively little value, conceding as time runs out is a favor you may do for your opponent, and you may wish to cultivate a reputation for giving out favors, but you are not ethically required to give these favors out. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  1. There are many situations where a draw may be quite valuable and you should grab your 1 point and move on.
  2. It is not unethical to take the natural result of draw (unless you know you played slower than you should have, in which case it isn’t fair to stick your opponent who looks likely to win with the draw).
  3. A player who played slower than they should have deserves the shorter end of the favors stick, on average, than the player who played at a reasonable pace.
  4. Whether you think of reputation effects or just the Golden Rule, do try to consider what you would want from your opponent if the shoe were on the other foot.
  5. The rules prohibit flipping a coin, so if you can’t tell (a) who is ahead in the game or (b) who needs the win more, figure out (c) who used less clock, regardless of why. If you still can’t decide who ought to win, (d) concede.

If you used more than your share of the clock because of, say, inexperience with your deck, please do concede if your opponent is in a favorable position when time expires. The ethics of the situation present themselves on a sliding scale according to how much of the clock you used in an avoidable manner. We want to encourage people to play new decks and take the time they need to think, but you have to help us out when that ideal runs smack into the per-round time limit.


Think of conceding a match to avoid a draw as a favor, not an obligation. Better to be the person who gives favors than the person who selfishly withholds them, but don’t give away the 1 point when 1 point may have significant value and you don’t feel like doing a larger-than-normal favor for your opponent. Good friend or special circumstances? Go ahead and do it.

2) Newbs and FNM

Q: FNM is at a rules enforcement level where you are allowed to change the configuration of your deck between rounds. This is intended to be less strict, let new players ask for help, and avoid the necessity of deck lists to maintain fairness. My friend is 2-0 in a draft and knows he will be facing a Citadel Siege in the finals next round. Is it ethical to “pre-sideboard” by adding a Naturalize effect to the main deck since the rules permit it at FNM?
-Tristan (paraphrase)

A: Sure, it is perfectly ethical to board in Naturalize when you saw your opponent play Citadel Siege in a match you were spectating but you didn’t see him cast it against you in your game 1. What is different here is that deck changes are permitted before every game, not just game 2 or 3. Competitive players might feel tempted to act as if the REL was higher than it was to play up to their level of competitiveness, not the level of the actual competition. Where it is possible to do so, you should feel free to try things on “hard mode” if you want, but it’s perfectly ethical to play under the softer rules and try to use the flexibility they offer to win.

Q2: So at an FNM last November, we had enough people to do two tables for a BFZ Draft (it’s a small store), neither of them full. I had previously set my bag down at one table and left to speak to the proprietor, and returned as the match was about to start.

At the table where I had placed my stuff, there were 5 other people. Three of them were not just new to the set, but new to drafting. At the other table there were mostly people who I consider to be experienced drafters, on a level with myself (not spectacular, but decent), and who were at least familiar with the set.

I had time before packs were handed out to switch tables, but did not do so. I knew before the draft that the seat I had chosen (I had been one of the first to arrive), which ended up being between two new drafters, would give me a good chance at building a very powerful deck since three of my opponents didn’t understand the format or the cards they had to select.

In the end this proved true, and I crushed the draft, my only real challenge being one of the other experienced players at the same table who ended up in different colors.

I can’t help but feel that I exploited the ignorance of my fellow drafters for personal gain. Had I sat at the other table, my deck would have been more standard, and once we crossed the pods, I would not have been in a position to dismantle those players.

Do you feel I acted unethically?

A: There are potential valid reasons for not organizing drafts this way, but at the end of the day, your store lets players get some visibility and control over which draft they participate in and potentially where they sit. It’s not ethical to try to get more visibility or control than the shop wants to give you over these things, but participating in the system they set up is fine—the tradeoffs were the shop’s to make and they should expect at least some players to respond to certain kinds of incentives. If this is something that bothered you, you don’t have to ignore that intuition. Write a note to the FNM organizer explaining that you think newer players should be in their own pod, if possible. The tension between wanting to respond to incentives and wishing better incentives were in play is natural, and one way to respond is by acting as you feel is rational within the system, while separately requesting changes to the system (political aside unrelated to Magic but clearly analogous to these facts: you may know someone who wants to close tax loopholes but takes advantage of tax loopholes themselves when filing their taxes. It is ethical to seek reform of the incentive structure while responding to the incentives currently in place. Otherwise, only heroes could seek to improve institutions from within, which is too favorable to the status quo, at least for democratic institutions).

3) Exploiting Bugs

There was a MOCS a few weeks back that put my ability to sort through ethical dilemmas on the fly to the test.   

It was an important round of the tournament and I was playing against Brad Nelson.  We were both playing Bant Company in Standard.  He activated his Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy, and I had Hallowed Moonlight in my hand.  I knew that the interaction between these cards was bugged on Magic Online (95% confidence maybe?  Hard to say exactly but let’s just go with I knew it was bugged).  The bug keeps a Jace that should enter the battlefield transformed in exile, even though Magic’s rules don’t produce that result.  

The Magic Online Code of Conduct is easy to find (on Google of course). It makes no mention of exploiting bugs, even though that’s obviously an issue they’ve run into in the past (I can recall examples of people building entire decks to exploit a bug and entering tournaments with them).  

The Case For Exploiting Bugs

1. The Code of Conduct could clearly prohibit this, but doesn’t.  

The CoC can’t give examples or explicit rules about every scenario.  But like I said above, this is a somewhat fundamental issue, not a corner case.  When I read the CoC, I honestly believed exploiting bugs was not against the rules.  That’s not the end of the discussion, but it’s part of it.

2. Sirlin’s Playing to Win is a fundamental text to me, and it gives compelling reasoning on the topic of exploiting bugs and concludes it’s the game designers’ job to eliminate bugs from gameplay, not the players’.

In my articles for this website and elsewhere, this has to be at least the third time I’ve cited Playing to Win as one of my favorite texts on the topic of going far enough to win, but not too far.  Sirlin (the author) is clear on the topic of exploiting bugs:

“Players often fault other players for ‘cheating’ or playing ‘dishonestly’ when they use tactics that should not be allowed in a tournament, often because they are exploits of bugs. The player is never at fault. The player is merely trying to win with all tools available to him and should not be expected to pull his punches. Complaints should be taken up with the governing body of the tournament (or the community of players) as to what should be allowed in a tournament. This is a dead simple issue that confuses too many players.”  

3. Online play cannot, and does not, fully mirror paper play.

Magic isn’t Street Fighter in at least one relevant way: there is a paper version with a set of comprehensive rules.  Those rules state that, for example, Hallowed Moonlight doesn’t prevent a Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy from flipping.  

But those rules are just as silent about exploiting bugs as they are about running someone’s clock down to zero or winning because your opponent’s internet cut out.  Playing online is just fundamentally different in certain ways.  

The community (and correct me if you disagree) accepts as ethical play refusing to concede to a Melira combo or Twin combo opponent who has demonstrated their combo but may not have time to complete this game or the next if forced to step through their combo and actually kill you.   The software permits you to hit F6 instead of conceding, just as it permits you to respond to activations of Jace by casting Hallowed Moonlight.  

“Exploiting the interface” in a way that is clearly not okay would be something like launching a DDOS attack on your opponent to interfere with their internet connection.  Maybe in-game bugs are similar enough, but I don’t believe they are.  

4. What if your opponent has CoCo in the ‘yard and may have Dispel in their library—or you have Shock in your library—don’t you need to respond to the Jace activation?  Is the opponent who suspects you have Moonlight and need to cast it exploiting a bug if they activate their Jace and pass priority?  What if they activate Jace and respond with CoCo?  Why do we have to sort through this quagmire?

A finding of “you may not respond to Jace by casting Hallowed Moonlight” closes off very legitimate cases of actually wanting to time your spell that way.  When the rules leave it up to someone (we don’t actually know who) to decide what is a bug exploit and what is strategic gameplay, the issues with playing under “soft rules” that aren’t well-defined come into pretty sharp focus.  So if my opponent could draw into a Dispel, or if I have removal in my deck, it is totally legitimate to respond to a Jace activation.  So why shouldn’t I be free to time this spell as I see fit?

The Case Against Exploiting Bugs

1. Wizards prohibits this conduct as evidenced by email warnings.

Wizards has decided at some level that exploiting bugs is prohibited.  That’s also not the end of the discussion, but it’s part of it.

2. Sirlin’s Playing to Win is about fighting games, not digital representations of card games.

In video games like Street Fighter it can be very difficult to tell what is a bug and what isn’t, so “anything goes” makes more sense. In Magic, when the cards don’t work like the comp rules say they work, a bug is clear.  I read Sirlin to stand for the argument that even if the designers announce a bug, say it will be patched in the future, etc., the players aren’t responsible for staying away from bugged interactions.  But does that make sense?  

3. Online play cannot, and does not, fully mirror paper play.

The designers intended the clock to be a path to victory.  The designers did not intend for Hallowed Moonlight to be a Slay against Jace.  In Magic we do have greater visibility into designer intent than we do in other video games.  It does not fully replicate paper Magic, but maybe that’s not the point.


I cast the Hallowed Moonlight in response to Brad’s Jace activation.  (Brad won the game, but that’s beside the point).  I later received a warning from Wizards of the Coast via email, which cited Section 9 of CoC and stated that knowingly exploiting bugs is not allowed.  Here is Section 9:

“9. Do not attempt to artificially alter the outcome of a league, sanctioned event, or organized game. For example:

  • Bribing or offering compensation in order to change the game outcome; or
  • Stalling, spamming, harassing, or behaving in any unsportsmanlike manner that affects the game.”

I would have thought exploiting bugs worthy of a specific example if it is prohibited, but I guess not.  They gave a warning here, so I’m definitely not upset about the CoC’s vagueness since the warning fills the gap, but I don’t think this is the best way to regulate player behavior.  Clear rules are better than vague rules, and this isn’t a corner case, trust me.  There are a lot of bugs.

In any event, I knew I was exploiting a bug and I was uncertain about whether that play was ethical or not.  At such low confidence, I regard my decision to exploit the bug as a mistake.  I should have taken the high ground here given my uncertainty, and I apologized to Brad after Wizards had concluded its investigation.  

Ultimately, in terms of where we go from here, I believe exploiting bugs should be permitted under the CoC and that a decision along those lines gives the players guidance on the rules and at least a better starting point for the discussion of what is ethical play.  Ultimately, I find Sirlin persuasive and think Wizards should fix the bugs or make clear announcements of banned bugs, at which point exploiting them becomes obviously the wrong move.   

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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