The MTG Ethicist – Communication and Time to Kill

Welcome to the third installment of the MTG Ethicist. The first two can be found here and here.

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) Two Questions Illuminating a Very Fine Line

Q: There are seven minutes left on the clock.
Player 2 asks how many cards are in player 1’s hand, player 1 admits they are hellbent.
Player 2 casts Turn Against targeting player 1’s Gravity Negator. Player 1 says it resolves.
Player 2 asks if player 1 has any untapped flyers and player 1 says they do not.
Player 2 attacks with Gravity Negator and a 4/4 to deal more than enough damage to win the game. They pay colorless and give the 4/4 flying.
Player 1 immediately blocks with their 3/4 reach to survive.
Player 2 says I could have tapped that with my Eldrazi tapper.
Player 1 says yes you could have.
The game ends as player 2 concedes.
Anything unethical going on here?

A: The way it is: Part of being good at Magic is analyzing the game state without looking past or forgetting relevant details.

The way you wish it was: Something else. Against a new player, in an uncompetitive setting, it might be time to back things up and try again. But in any competitive setting, player 2 is responsible for tracking the game state, player 1 is responsible for answering questions honestly, and that’s all you need to know here. Mistakes were made, the opponent could have pointed out these mistakes in time to help him but opponent chose not to, and that’s competitive Magic.

Q2: At a Competitive-level Legacy event I Hymn to Tourach‘d my opponent, and he then laid his hand down on the table. Is it ethical to write the contents of his hand on a notepad before telling him we need to pick 2 at random?

A: Your opponent thinks Hymn to Tourach reveals the hand, or perhaps thinks you targeted him with Thoughtseize instead of Hymn. Your opponent believes he is compelled to reveal his hand, you don’t know exactly why, and you have to correct this misunderstanding in order to move on. Saying nothing and doing nothing, perhaps assuming the opponent thinks Hymn has game text it doesn’t have (rather than not knowing you cast Hymn in the first place) is making too many assumptions without asking for clarification. The question is essentially when/how fast must you correct this misunderstanding.

I believe it is unethical to not correct this as fast as you can and look at as little hidden information as you can.

My intuition deviates from the rules here, as there is no doubt that the rules simply can’t force you to act with urgency even if the rulemakers want to. Rules don’t work that way—“as fast as you can” is not enforceable and is not a good rule. But the ethics of the situation is that you have to correct something, and my sympathy for you erodes with every second you take longer than necessary to do it. If you didn’t have to correct it, I’d feel differently, as I did in a previous installment when the opponent believed there was only one Borborygmos in Modern. That was about “do I have to correct this?” and this is about “I know I have to correct this, but when?”

These are some of the murkiest waters we’ll find, but my intuition is that when timing is the issue, taking more time than you need is unethical. That doesn’t mean when you draw a land you have to say “go” ASAP and can’t briefly bluff a spell, because bluffing is a legitimate activity and you need a little bit of time to do it. Staring at (let alone writing down) an opponent’s accidentally-revealed hidden information is not a valid use of extra seconds.

Nicholas, you should tell your opponent that his hand did not need to be revealed and look away from the cards. If you saw some or all of the hand already before you realized what was happening, it’s okay to use that info (and perhaps even write it down)—there’s no way to un-ring that bell.

In Q1, I followed the rule book’s lead on what players must do and what they mustn’t. I didn’t find that case to be hard because I felt like that was the whole story. In Q2, I followed the rule book’s lead, sort of, but I did more than the rule book requires: I avoided deliberate delay in saying what I needed to say, that my opponent didn’t understand what the card I cast required him to do.

2) When Mum’s Not the Word

Q: Is it ethical to refuse to provide information to your opponent? In a competitive level event, my opponent had Tarmogoyf on the field without any markers for size. There were about 10 cards in each grave. I asked, “how large is Tarmogoyf?” My opponent didn’t respond. I asked, “is it 4/5?” They make a non-committal grunt. In combat, they say it’s a 5/6. Apparently, I missed counting Eidolon of the Great Revel (in their graveyard) as both an enchantment and a creature. Fortunately, I won the game despite this error. After the game, my opponent said they were proud of themselves for being a more of a spikey jerk than usual. When I asked a judge, they said it was very subjective, but that they may have given my opponent a game loss. What do you think?

A: [As noted in the comments, Tarmogoyf’s P/T is derived information and you’re not required to provide it for your opponent, though you can’t lie about it if asked.]

If you ask a clear question about public information, you are entitled to a clear answer. If your opponent was a human (important caveat), non-committal grunts don’t count as clear answers. Making them might be enough to avoid penalties for cheating, but grunting and hoping your opponent thinks you answered “yes” and hoping a judge thinks you grunted “no” is not ethical play. Your opponent is not entitled to hide this information once asked to produce it.

If your opponent was a non-human primate trying his or her best to both play a game of Magic and communicate about the game state without using hand cues because it had a hand full of Magic cards, then I believe you should have done the ‘Goyf math yourself. I was going to disregard this possibility, but I re-read your question and the only info about your opponent is that they grunt and they play Zoo.

3) Time to Kill

Q: Is it ethical to not kill an opponent if time elapsing favors you? This mostly happens on MTGO with individual clocks where I have found myself several times with the ability to do lethal, but chose not to due to the clock. If my opponent disconnects for some of the match or is clearly double queuing or simply playing at a glacial pace, their clock is a resource they are wasting. If they are behind me in time by a lot, then I have found myself sitting with multiple Lightning Bolts in hand with them at 1 life and just continuing to pass the turn back and play. In a match that has another game at least, it benefits me if they waste their clock and as far as I know, I have no obligation to end the game.

This had also come up once in real life too where maybe the ethics change. I was playing Miracles against Death and Taxes and after a very grindy game 1, I found Entreat on top of my deck. Game 1 had taken 30 minutes and I had assembled Counter-Top lock with some counterspells as backup in hand and a clear board. Knowing I would be nearly guaranteed the match if we only played one game, I chose to just float the Entreat on top without actually casting it to present lethal. In doing this, nearly 10 more minutes elapsed before he started mounting a board presence via Cavern of Souls and Aether Vial that threatened my position and thus, prompted me to eot a miracled Entreat, and untap, and attack for the win. Is that unethical? Am I obligated to kill my opponent when I can or is it OK to leverage the clock as long as I play at a reasonable pace?

A: CF, you have no general obligation to push the game state in any particular direction, only to play at a reasonable pace (“reasonable” pace includes not doing things solely for the purpose of wasting time). It’s that parenthetical part that makes the ethics of your play tricky to figure out. Let’s dig in.

Once upon a time, as my older readers may remember, the card Seeker of Skybreak was a curve-filler in 7th Edition Draft and a fringe playable in Constructed. There was this relatively new program called Magic Online that had chess clocks like the ones still in use on that program today. While the clocks were similar, the ability to “auto-yield” was not yet available. Seeker of Skybreak could target itself, which provided the cleanest and perhaps most prevalent example of a way to waste time for the sake of wasting time in a game of Magic. Online, if your opponent’s clock was low, you could make her respond to random activations and strings of activations in a spot where she couldn’t F6, etc. I don’t recall anyone being able to totally take over the clock this way, but you could definitely inflict some damage on both clocks. This was an unethical play, and eventually the powers that be made statements which made it clear that this was not permissible play under the rules either, and it eventually went away.

But what about examples that start to drift away from the obvious Seeker-untapping-itself interaction and into more complex ways of wasting time? In each case, the question to ask is whether the play serves any strategic purpose other than burning time off the clock.

If your opponent’s clock is low and you have a chump-attack that would do nothing but force your opponent to click, the ethical play is to not attack. But if you have an attack that might advance your game state, you should feel free to make it, even if the opponent’s clock is the most likely path to your victory. Again, tough cases draw some pretty fine lines, but “solely” having the intention to waste time is actually a fairly clear guideline, all things considered.

CF, you have admitted that your play was solely intended to burn minutes off the clock. I believe that is unethical. Often, your opponent will be able to see you holding back lethal damage and concede the game, but here the lethal information is hidden. If you have a legitimate strategic reason to keep it hidden, go ahead and do so, but using up the clock is not such a reason. Next time, deal lethal and shuffle up for the next game.


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