Questioning Authority

Disclaimer: I am not a judge, and therefore welcome any corrections to my understanding of the rules and penalty guidelines discussed below.

This past weekend during the Legacy portion of the Open Series in Memphis, TN, Drew Levin was given a game loss going into game 3 of his quarterfinals match versus eventual winner, Alex Bertoncini, for presenting a 59-card deck. Bigheadjoe and I were doing the SCGLive commentary for the match, and while I presented my initial opinion on the broadcast, I wanted to clarify/summarize/update my thoughts on the situation.

Most of my statements on the broadcast were from the perspective of a viewer—not a player in the match. The analogy I made on screen was this: It’s as if you were watching an NFL game, and one of the teams accidentally sent 12 men onto the field. The play starts, the whistle blows. “12 men on the field, offense. Game loss.” Team loses. Game over.

We invited two judges in the booth to explain things, and they did a great job of clarifying the situation. Everything was done entirely by the book, and the penalty was applied accordingly. However, even after some further discussion since the event, I question whether this penalty is appropriate for this situation.

The arguments/reasoning I’ve been hearing all seem to be one of the following:
1) “These are the rules.” (I don’t dispute this.)
2) “It’s been this way for years.” (I don’t dispute this.)
3) “The reason it is this way is due to the potential for abuse.”

As noted above, I’m not disputing the existence of the rule, nor its longevity. What I am doing—and what I think should be done for anything of this nature from time-to-time—is questioning this rule and the logic behind it, to see if improvements can be made. Healthy discussion of these topics is imperative, in my opinion.

Let me pause here for a quick anecdote.

Last summer, a friend of mine and his wife gave birth to their first child. On the way home from the hospital, she was in significant pain, so they stopped at a pharmacy for the painkiller prescription given to them by their doctor. While his wife waited in the car, my friend gave the prescription to the pharmacist, only to discover that the doctor had left the “Quantity” field blank. The pharmacist would not fill the prescription. My friend requested whatever the minimum amount that would normally be prescribed, but the pharmacist refused. This is no fault of the pharmacist. The law is set up the way it is due to the potential for abuse. Thus, the innocent are made to suffer at the hands of the laws that are supposed to protect them, simply due to the existence of the guilty.

The reality of the situation is that Drew presented a 59-card deck, leaving the 60th card in his sideboard. Whether this was intentional or accidental cannot be determined.

However, it has to be one or the other, right?

Option A). Drew intentionally attempted to gain an edge by presenting a 59-card deck.

Option B). Drew accidentally—unintentionally—presented a 59-card deck (miscounted his sideboard/maindeck, sleeves stuck together, distracted by table discussion—the reason is irrelevant).

My questions are these:

If there were a way to prove one way or the other:

○ Is a game loss an appropriate penalty for Option A?

○ Is a game loss an appropriate penalty for Option B?

I’m going to make some assumptions and say the answer to both of the above is No. Option A is downright Cheating, and a game loss is not penalty enough. Option B is accidental—and thus implies some amount of innocence—making a game loss too harsh of a penalty.

Was this penalty put into place to find some sort of middle ground? Was it deemed appropriate to treat both possibilities incorrectly in order to split the difference? Since a game loss can have several different repercussions (getting a game loss in Round 1, Game 1 certainly stinks, but allows you to recover; getting a game loss in Game 3 of a top 8 after working hard for several hours to get there is an entirely different punishment), was this put in place in the hopes that maybe the variable nature of both the infraction and the penalty would allow punishment and crime to occasionally align?

The way it works now, at least as far as I can tell, is that essentially we are punishing players for a crime they could potentially be guilty of, but tempering that by not punishing them to the extent we would if we could prove they were guilty. By making this the procedure, we are accepting the unnecessarily harsh treatment of players who commit an infraction by accident.

Is this how we want the rules to work?

UPDATE: I am getting some really great responses to this already, and as a result I am seeing things differently (or maybe just more clearly). I wanted this to stir up some discussion, and it has.

All the responses have been excellent, but I want to highlight one in particular, so I am moving it here to the main post:

Joey, I think your attitude is in the right place. The problem is the implications of changing the penalty.

Penalties are issued for one of two reasons: The player is attempting to cheat (and thus must be disqualified) or the player’s actions have caused disruption to the game state, whereupon the severity of the penalty is (in theory) warranted by the level of disruption to the game state and/or the potential for abuse. With all that kept in mind, let’s look at the presentation of a 59-card deck.

If a player is running the cheats, a DQ is warranted.

If a player is not cheating, the issue gets a little trickier. You’re right, getting a GL for presenting 59 when it’s discovered at the start and so easily fixed before the game begins seems a little harsh. So, let me ask you this: Is a Game Loss an appropriate penalty if the fact that one deck is 59 cards is discovered in the middle of the game? I’d say yes. The fact that pro players almost always hew true to the doctrine of 60 in Constructed and 40 in Limited bears witness that diluting one’s deck is a bad idea. If the minimum deck size were lowered, people would run with whatever that was. Having a smaller deck gives an advantage. If the problem were discovered in the middle of the game, the disruption to the game state is high – all the cards drawn to this point have been affected – and as such the only equitable penalty is giving a game loss to the offender.

So, having established that this happening in the middle of the game is a serious problem, we now run headlong into the issue you raised: what do we do when one player presents 59 and it is found right then and there? I think it *has* to be the same penalty as the midgame discovery. Why? Because otherwise we run into all sorts of awkward incentive issues – e.g. players would count their opponents’ decks while shuffling after a midgame fetchland instead of during pregame procedures. You could mandate that at Competitive REL and above, players are required to count their opponents’ decks during the pregame procedures, much in the way that players are required to shuffle – but, not only is that a little too much nanny-state for my liking, then the incentives become a little more perverse. What if a player counted pregame, didn’t find 59, counts after a fetch, finds too few cards, and calls a judge? Then the judge has a Cheating investigation on their hands too, because there is of course the suspicion that player B did not say anything during pregame procedures in order to get the penalty now. It’s a bigger mess than what we left behind.

In short: It sucks for Drew that he got this penalty during an important game. But it’s important for the health of the tournament game that deck integrity be defended, and I just don’t see any options better than what we’ve got.

-David Kotsonis
Level 1 DCI Judge
two_eyes on twitter

UPDATE 2: More responses have been coming in. In the comments section below, Arthur Halavais correctly points out the difference between a “penalty” and a “punishment,” noting that “Drew was penalized with a [game loss], not punished.” In this post I used them interchangeably to mean “the consequences of an infraction as applied by the judges according to the rules.” While this use may not have been 100% correct according to Webster, I believe the intended definition is clear, for the most part.

MTG judge and all-around awesome guy, Riki Hayashi (who was present at the event) posted a response to this on his own blog. Check out what he has to say here. His response is different from all others I’ve seen, and is definitely worth a quick read.


It’s Not Always About the Weapon

Last weekend, former pro mainstay and longtime burn-slinger Patrick Sullivan won the Open Series in Edison, NJ with a mono-red burn deck.

Of course, as always, this has prompted a slew of people to copy the list for their local tournaments (and odds are, it will show up in greater numbers this weekend in Memphis than it did in Edison).

But it’s not always about the weapon.

Patrick Sullivan is known to favor red cards. Actually, that’s an understatement. The guy literally carries around a box of every playable red card in Standard (and Legacy). On Saturday, he only decided at the last minute to enter the tournament, and proceeded to construct a deck from his tinderbox.

I think it’s pretty clear that right now, the “best deck” (and I use that term loosely, because it’s always in flux) is some version of the CawBlade deck that won Pro Tour Paris last month in the hands of Ben Stark. Yet somehow, Patrick made his way through 10 rounds to make top 8 and emerge victorious. How is this possible?

Sullivan wasn’t looking to out-meta the metagame by playing a deck whose function was to attack the most commonly-played decks. He built and played the kind of deck he is most comfortable with—the deck whose strategies he has mastered over the course of years—and took it all the way to the finish line.

The same 75 cards in the hands of almost any other player would not have gotten there. Patrick Sullivan did not choose to play the best deck for the tournament; he chose to play the best deck for himself.

Just because your sword is sharper doesn’t mean you won’t lose in battle to a master wielding a dull blade.

So when the time comes to choose your weapon, be wary of choosing the sword with the dull blade. It may not perform to your expectations.

Why I’m excited for Venser (and you should be too).

I mean, first of all, it’s freaking Venser.

Remember how good the original Venser was a few years back? Of course, the new Venser has little to do with his previous Legendary incarnation, aside from representing the same character. However, this version may have even more of an impact on Standard than the Shaper Savant.

Venser, the Sojourner was the first major card spoiled from Scars of Mirrodin. Being a huge fan of the first Venser (shocking, I know), I was super excited to see what his planeswalker self would be capable of. However, to be honest, I was sort of let down at first.

A Sorcery-speed Momentary Blink? Hm, okay, what else?

Make my creatures unblockable? What creatures? Baneslayer? Celestial Colonnade? They don’t really need it, being that they have Flying.

What’s his ultimate? Exile stuff. Seems spicy, but so does every other planeswalker’s ultimate ability. To be playable, his non-ultimate abilities need to have an impact in case he never reaches his ultimate.

So, with my initial impression out of the way (“he’s okay, but really needs to be built around to be any good”), I moved on to other Scars of Mirrodin spoilers, which were pouring forth at an alarming rate. Elspeth Tirel, Koth (KOTH!), Mox Opalman, Elspeth seems so good!Geez, how am I gonna deal with this Koth guy? Should I just play red?

But when I stopped for a little while, for whatever reason, Venser kept scratching around on the inside of my skull.

So I took a (figurative) page out of Patrick Chapin’s book (Next Level Magic, which you can buy here!) and took another look at Venser from a different perspective: What would make this card good?

I sketched out a list based on an amalgamation of Next Level Bant and U/W Sun Titan Control, trying to get the most possible advantage out of Venser while not relying too much on him. (Looking back, I was definitely overcompensating for Memoricide and therefore wanted to diversify my threats.)

2 Preordain
2 Condemn
4 Mana Leak
1 Journey to Nowhere
4 Wall Omens
4 Sea Gate Oracle
3 Jace Beleren
2 Tumble Magnet
3 Day of Judgment
1 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
2 Sphinx of Lost Truths
3 Venser, the Sojourner
1 Elspeth Tirel
1 Baneslayer Angel
2 Sun Titan

4 Celestial Colonnade
4 Glacial Fortress
6 Island
5 Plains
1 Arid Mesa
1 Scalding Tarn
4 Tectonic Edge

Here is the (entirely unedited) e-mail I sent to Bigheadjoe (my co-host on my podcast, Yo! MTG Taps!—but you knew that already, right?) in the wee hours of the morning on September 10:

○ Condemn, Mana Leak, DoJ, Journey, Tumble Magnet – disruption
○ Preordain – card quality + cantrip
○ Wall, Oracle, Beleren – cantrips, blink targets
○ Sun Titan – gets back all the cantrip permanents, also gets back Journey and Tumble Magnet (if destroyed or discarded to SoLT or something). Sick blink target.
○ Sphinx of Lost Truths – can throw just about any of that stuff into the ‘yard & then I can just get it back w/ Sun Titan. Another blink target.
○ Venser – can blink almost everything to good effect (Wall, Oracle, Sphinx); resets Beleren and Magnet too.
○ Elspeth T. & JTMS – to assist & be alternate win conditions (considering how many cards I’m drawing, I’ll see them fairly often, but don’t need them to win)
○ BSA – because the only relevant ability she lacks is vigilance, and with Venser in play, she has it 🙂 Another win condition.

The interesting thing is I built the deck around Venser, but he’s not the win condition, so the deck is inherently strong against Memoricide (a lot of diversity).

There are a whopping 14 win conditions!:
Titan x2
Sphinx x2
Venser x3
Elspeth x1
BSA x1
Colonnade x4

Tumble Magnet + Walls and Oracles force over-extension into DoJ or Elspeth’s ultimate. I can DoJ on turn 4, then on 5 do any number of things: SoLT, BSA, Elspeth; with a Condemn in hand, I can play Venser, blink-untap a land, and if a haste creature tries to attack the unprotected Venser, I have mana up for Condemn. Turn 6 a Sun Titan starts bringing back whatever creatures of mine that I may have wrathed away on turn 4.

Venser can also move the Journey to more relevant creatures if I want, and can blink himself to dodge Elspeth’s ultimate. Tirel also destroys Journey and Magnet, but Titan brings them both back. With a Venser in play, on turn 6 I can play Titan, get back a Wall or an oracle, blink the Titan, get back another Wall or Oracle. Plenty of protection for Venser and meanwhile filling my hand with spells for if/when I can use his ultimate. Tectonic Edge w/ Sun Titan & Venser is just sickening. Kill 2 nonbasics a turn. Then start exiling lands with Venser’s ultimate.

I’ve got a confession to make: I have yet to actually try this list, although I still feel it may have potential (I think it’s at least worth trying). Side note: If anyone actually does give this a try, I’d really love to hear your feedback.

So, that was 3 weeks ago, and since then I’ve come to the realization that Venser doesn’t actually need to be built around. Sure, you want to have targets for his blink ability, but the great thing about Venser is how well he already fits into the synergies of U/W Control! The most recent iterations of classic U/W are already playing cards that have a natural affinity for Venser’s blink ability: Wall of Omens; Sun Titan. Give your Baneslayer (or Wurmcoil Engine) faux-Vigilance, or save it from the Day of Judgment you’re about to cast. Move your Journey to Nowhere onto a more relevant target. Untap a land to keep counter-magic or removal mana open.

It only takes three activations to put him on his ultimate. Forget about the minus ability (although it’s there if you can capitalize on it). If you can protect Venser for just three of your opponent’s turns—not such a tall order if you consider the type of cards you’re likely already playing—you’ll be exiling permanents every time you cast a spell (whether that spell resolves or not).

Here’s a rough list, which I’ll be testing a bit this weekend:

2 Condemn
4 Preordain

3 Sea Gate Oracle
4 Wall of Omens

1 Negate
4 Mana Leak
1 Deprive
1 Stoic Rebuttal
2 Journey to Nowhere

4 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
3 Day of Judgment
2 Venser, the Sojourner

2 Sun Titan
1 Wurmcoil Engine

4 Tectonic Edge
4 Celestial Colonnade
4 Glacial Fortress
6 Plains
8 Island

No sideboard as of yet, but I’d expect to play the usual suspects: some number of Flashfreeze and/or Celestial Purge, and possibly Oust (for Fauna Shaman and other problem creatures that don’t tend to attack and thus are not susceptible to Condemn).

Other cards to consider (main or side, probably main) are Into the Roil and Ratchet Bomb. Into the Roil seems like it would be particularly strong in an unknown metagame as a nice catch-all. Ratchet Bomb is retrievable with Sun Titan and seems like just the type of card that you might want to reuse.

Whether you like Venser or not, Scars of Mirrodin has brought with it a TON of options, in addition to pushing some huge players out of the format (remember Bloodbraid Elf?). Now is a great time to not only look at the new cards but to also take a look back at the cards that might not have been as practical in a format like AlaraM10Zendikar Standard. There may be some hidden gems amongst the cards we all passed over while trying to fight against a turn-two Putrid Leech. I know a certain Dragonmaster who’s been eyeballing a modern-day Ophidian for its new-Standard potential…

On Mana Leak.

Wow. Considering the fact that for the past several hours, whenever I think about the fact that Mana Leak has been confirmed in M11 I’ve been pretty much speechless, I probably shouldn’t be attempting to write about it. Nevertheless, I’m going to tilt the pitcher and see what pours out.

First off, we haven’t seen Mana Leak in Standard since 9th Edition rotated out in 2007.

Three. Years. Ago.

Back then, it was often seen hanging around with cards like Compulsive Research, various blue Signets, Mystical Teachings, and the Pickle twins, Vesuvan Shapeshifter and Brine Elemental.

There was no such thing as a Planeswalker card. By the time Lorwyn hit the scene, Mana Leak had been gone for nearly three months.

Remember Faeries? No? Let me help you out:


See, Faeries didn’t have the help of Mana Leak. And anyone who played during Lorwyn’s time in Standard will tell you: Faeries didn’t NEED Mana Leak. Faeries had their own version of Mana Leak in Spellstutter Sprite, not to mention one of the best blue spells (and probably my favorite) ever printed, Cryptic Command. And that’s not all. Scion of Oona was around in case anyone tried anything funny, like attempting to somehow remove your Mistbind Clique or Bitterblossom. (Ah, yes…Bitterblossom. That’s a story for another day.)

But us, now, in 2010? We could really use a Mana Leak. Counterspells nowadays are either incredibly narrow, terribly situational, costed too highly, or some combination of the three. What used to be Scion of Oona is now Hindering Light.

Alongside Deprive, blue mages now have a realistic opportunity to play a GOOD counter-suite. In the early game, Mana Leak is essentially Counterspell; and in the late game, Deprive fills the same role.

The question now becomes whether it is worth it to counter a spell in the current Standard. We’ve become overrun with creatures and planeswalkers as of late. Generally, we’d rather deal with creatures in another way (Day of Judgment, instant-speed spot removal if necessary) since we have ways to remove them after they’ve hit the table, and summoning sickness gives us the opportunity to do so without giving the creature a chance to make an impact. The exceptions to this are creatures with haste and those with enter-the-battlefield abilities.

So, what creatures are we seeing in Standard that would fall into those categories? Wall of Omens, Sea Gate Oracle… Do you really want to spend a counter on those? Sphinx of Lost Truths, sure, that’s one I’d counter. Ranger of Eos, too. Bloodbraid Elf? No. And as much as Mike Flores wants me to “admit” it, I do not want to counter a Vengevine.

Okay, so that leaves Planeswalkers. I am perfectly happy spending a counterspell on a Planeswalker, as even though it seems like a one-for-one, we all know the card advantage that ‘walkers provide. But if the only spells worth countering in Standard are Planeswalkers, wouldn’t it be acceptable to just run Negate and take the risk of facing the occasional Sphinx or Ranger? Why do we “need” Mana Leak?

The truth is, permanents—creatures, specifically—have become so powerful that even “good” counterspells have lost a step. We need our counters to be versatile or they’re not worth running at all (see also: Standard). I’m beginning to wonder if that hasn’t been Wizards’ plan all along: Weaken the counterspells, then make creatures better and better until “classic” counterspells are balanced. Are we reaching a point where Counterspell itself would be a fair card to reprint? Think about it. No one expected Lightning Bolt to come back. (Hell, I remember being excited to see Incinerate come back in Tenth Edition!) Creatures were pushed to a degree that made Lightning Bolt no longer the powerhouse it once was, hence the return of the most classic burn spell ever printed.

Is it so crazy to think that perhaps Wizards is pushing the game to a level where Counterspell is balanced?

Be sure to check out the latest episode of Yo! MTG Taps! over on!

On Deprive

If you haven’t yet heard, the following is a card rumored to be in Rise of the Eldrazi (unconfirmed; rarity unknown):

EDIT: Confirmed.

Initial thoughts:

What makes this better than Cancel?

1) You can play it on turn 2.
2) You can play it late-game effectively as “Counterspell.”

In the first example, playing it on turn 2, you’re now behind; yes, you traded with their 2- or 3-drop, but now on turn 3 you need another counter to deal with their 3- or 4-drop, which is likely better than whatever card they played on turn 2. So do you play ANOTHER Deprive (assuming you have it)?

Honestly, I don’t even think this is worth playing on turn 2.

Let’s say you don’t play it on turn 2, but you hit your first three land drops and then want to counter something. What’s better in this situation? Cancel or Deprive? Cancel, obviously. Deprive leaves you with 1 mana open which will likely go unused. In the meantime, now you’re set back a turn and you’ve likely wasted any advantage that Deprive provided you.

So, okay, late game then. This is where Deprive is at its strongest. But when is it really going to be that much better than Cancel? Really only when you’re returning something like Halimar Depths, as far as I can tell. It allows you to tap all but 2 land, unlike Cancel, but is that really such a huge deal?

For the moment, I’m going to predict that if Deprive sees play in Standard decks akin to UW Chapin Control, it’s going to be in numbers less than 4, as its early game drawback just seems like too much for a deck whose strengths lie in getting to Stage 3. However, I can see it being a possible staple in some sort of UG deck that can recover from the tempo loss using the myriad of mana accelerants available in Standard.


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On Bloodbraid Elf. (Yes, I’m going there.)


There’s been a lot of talk lately about the (unlikely) banning of Bloodbraid Elf from Standard. While I don’t think I need to explain the perspective of those calling for said banning, those opposed seem to collectively feel that the card “is not too strong,” is “beatable,” and that “if you don’t play the card, you don’t get a vote” (that last part can be attributed to Patrick Chapin).

As you may be aware, Bigheadjoe and I have mentioned a petition to ban BBE on our podcast, Yo! MTG Taps! However, despite our annoyance at the prevalence of Jund decks, this petition was created as a combination joke-meets-social-experiment; we weren’t actually serious, nor did we expect it to get anywhere.

Nevertheless, I do have something to say on the subject.

Primarily, what does it mean to say a card is “too strong?” Does “too strong” = “unbeatable”? “Extremely difficult to beat?” If so, I do not feel that BBE is too strong.

But if “too strong” means “clearly the best single card in the format, to the point where it is the centerpiece of over 30% of tournament decks,” then yes, absolutely, Bloodbraid Elf is too strong. (and don’t tell me it’s not the centerpiece to the Jund deck, because if you feel that way, you’re fooling yourself.)

The problem with Bloodbraid Elf is not that it is unbeatable. The problem is, anything that reduces variety in the game to this degree makes the game much less fun. I don’t know if that qualifies Bloodbraid Elf as “ban-worthy,” but there is clearly a problem with the presence of this card in the format. Personally, I just don’t think the problem is big enough for Wizards to do anything about it (beyond possible cascade hosers in Rise of the Eldrazi or M11; see also: Great Sable Stag > Faeries/5CC).

I’d like to close with some quotes by LSV on today’s MagicTV, which is what inspired this post:

I think the biggest mistakes are cards that, overall, make less fun than they create.” (2m10s)

Bloodbraid Elf has certainly lessened my enjoyment of the game, and many other players too that I’ve talked to…I wish they hadn’t printed Bloodbraid Elf.” (3m06s)

On Gideon Jura

For those of you that haven’t seen the latest planeswalker to be spoiled from Rise of the Eldrazi:


I’m more excited about Gideon than any other card from Rise that I’ve seen spoiled so far. On turn five, you can use him as removal to take out whatever creature your opponent just used to attack you. Or, using his first ability you can stall, and unless your opponent is able to do 8 damage in one swing (or swing + burn), he’s pretty safe (in that way, he reminds me quite a bit of good old Veteran Bodyguard). In a deck like UW control, which keeps the board relatively clear, you can +2 him even when your opponent has no creatures, just to boost his loyalty a bit so that you can use the 2nd ability more often, or to keep him further out of range of attacking creatures coming his way. With something like Wall of Denial, he basically ends up being the Icy+Assassin combo of old (I force your creature to attack, I block with Wall, neither die; next turn I use Gideon to destroy your tapped creature).

And here’s a cool rules interaction to exploit: If your opponent has an Eldrazi in play, you can +2 Gideon, and when the Eldrazi attacks, sacrifice Gideon to the Annihilator trigger. Since the attack was declared at Gideon, the Eldrazi will deal no damage to you on that attack, even though Gideon is gone. Not game-breaking by any means, but it does save you from that Eldrazi for a turn.

His last ability (his “ultimate”) is really exciting. Just like the manlands, he’s safe from Day of Judgment, but—unlike the manlands—costs 0 mana to activate, so you can still keep counter mana up. You can effectively Wrath your opponent’s side of the board and then swing in unimpeded.

The more I think about Gideon and consider the possibilities, the more I like him. He’s a noncreature win condition that can fit right into UW Control alongside Jace. He’s already pre-selling on eBay for $20+, and I fully expect his price to rise in the coming months.