Is “Rules-Lawyering” An Acceptable Way To Win In Magic: The Gathering? By Matt Gregory

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Recently, there was a thread on my local gaming store’s Facebook group which ended up opening up a pretty sizeable can of worms. I felt it reflected pretty interestingly on the differences between how competitive and casual players perceive the rules of the game, so I wanted to go over that debate in this piece and throw my own two cents into the argument.

Here is the crux of the argument – someone claiming to be a judge had posted elsewhere that they would actively seek to gain an advantage if their opponent didn’t know the rules regarding the interaction between Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet and Flaying Tendrils. For those of you unfamiliar with how those cards interact, they both create replacement effects which cause creatures leaving the battlefield to be exiled. If I control a Kalitas and cast Flaying Tendrils, and you control a creature that will “die” to that spell, then both replacement effects are created and the player whose creature is dying gets to choose which replacement effect applies. It’s a pretty non-intuitive interaction which a lot of players – including otherwise rules-savvy ones – just won’t know. In this judge’s comment, he essentially stated that if an opponent asked him “do you get the zombie token?” he would simply say “yes” – even though his opponent actually gets the choice.

Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet and Flaying Tendrils combo (1)This kicked off a huge debate between players (primarily competitive “grinders”) who saw no issue with this and considered it to be fair game and others (largely, but by no means exclusively, more casual players) who saw it as a blatant breach of sportsmanship.

The first thing to get out of the way in circumstances like this is that taking advantage of an opponent’s lack of rules knowledge is entirely legal. Provided you don’t actively lie to your opponent or intentionally misrepresent a board state, the rules are fine with you twisting your words so that your opponent gets the short end of the stick in such a scenario.

Now, many of you would immediately baulk at the idea of winning a game because your opponent didn’t understand a complex ruling, and I certainly can’t fault you for that. The difficulty is that whilst many people would instinctively see taking advantage of the Kalitas/Tendrils interaction as shifty, I doubt anybody would feel especially bad about taking a win in a competitive match because their less experienced opponent made a mistake due to a misunderstanding of more basic rules. If you’re playing in a PPTQ and your opponent, for the sake argument, conceded because they failed to realise they could block a Den Protector with their prowess creature, then the vast majority of people reading this would happily accept the concession even if they knew they’d “gotten away with it”. Somehow we assume that it’s fair to win because an opponent didn’t grasp more basic interactions, but may then view it as “shady” play if we take advantage of our opponent’s ignorance of much more complicated rules.

A simple point to take into account when deciding whether it’s right or wrong to take a “free win” in this manner is to understand that at Competitive REL, it is assumed that players understand and agree to play by the complete rules of the game. It is a player’s sole responsibility to know the rules and play by them, and judges exist to help when there is uncertainty or arbitrate when there is a dispute. If my opponent is so green that they don’t realise they can block my flyer with a reach creature, I don’t think many of you would judge me harshly for not telling them they don’t need to take lethal. So there is a definite moral disconnect between accepting that but not accepting me winning by taking advantage of a much more obscure rule. It was their responsibility to either know the rule in question, or to call a judge to find the ruling out – not mine.

That said, there is a clear moral difference between choosing not to correct a mistake by an opponent and deliberately misleading them, or otherwise trying to take advantage of corner-case rulings by attempting to get them warnings and game losses in situations where an opponent’s intentions were clear. I’ll be brutally honest – I’ve done this myself in the past. I recall an occasion when my opponent placed a Hammerhand on one of their creatures and attacked without declaring a target for the triggered ability. As I only had one creature in play, their intention was very clear – but as targeting one of their own creatures would have been a legal play, I called a judge who ruled that I could block. I won the game, and the match, on the back of that decision. How did I feel about it afterwards? Rubbish, actually.

Grand Prix Manchester 2014 Report (Top64) by Matt Gregory
Image by Anna Przywecka

Here’s the thing – Magic: The Gathering is intended to be a contest of skill, and not a contest of who can memorise the rules best or ensure they have the most “technically correct” play within those rules. In that case, it was obvious to me that my opponent wanted to prevent my defending creature from blocking. Had I simply allowed the trigger to work as intended, I would certainly have lost the game, and we would have moved to game three. I may have lost the match and failed to progress in the tournament as a consequence – but I would have done so as a result of my opponent bettering me in the match, not because I bettered him in my grasp of the finer details of the rules. Had I lost, I would have deserved to. Instead, I won in a manner which I cannot with a clear conscience say makes it clear that I deserved to. I don’t try to win matches that way these days because I understand that if I do, I’m not bettering my opponent at the game we’re playing, but at a different, tangential game, at which ultimately I have no personal interest in being good.

An analogy I’d draw is with the play-acting we see in professional football these days. In football, going to ground and claiming a foul when an opposing player didn’t touch you is cheating and has a clear punishment if caught, but many players, when gently brushed by an opponent, will throw themselves to the floor, roll around feigning injury, and maybe then get in the referee’s face in the hope that they get booked or sent off for an indiscretion that the player in question knows fine well didn’t happen. That isn’t, technically, illegal in football (or at least is known to be very rarely punished), but you’d go a fairly long way to find a football fan who thought it constituted sporting behaviour. If you “angle shoot” in the hope of winning games of Magic by means other than play skill, you may not be cheating but ultimately your actions are, in my view at least, unsporting. The play-acting footballer is trying to help his team win through means other than being better at the sport than the opposing team. The angle-shooting Magic player is doing much the same thing.

If you’re a competitive player who attempts to use the rules to win matches in this manner, I’d say this to you – whilst there is certainly a degree of moral ambiguity about what you’re doing, and whilst your own moral compass may find such actions to be entirely acceptable, consider whether that is really how you want to win. If you’re a competitive player, the chances are you ultimately want to be the best Magic player you can be. If you win by rules-lawyering, you aren’t proving yourself to be a better player than your opponent, and nor are you improving your game. I’d also invite you to consider how a less-experienced opponent might feel having just lost a game because they didn’t understand a rules interaction or, worse, because they were given a match loss for an honest mistake that could have reasonably been avoided had their opponent pointed out the error they were making. I imagine many new players have been put off competitive Magic in this manner. Competitive Magic needs a constant influx of new players to survive – so before you try to win games this way, consider not only how you’d feel put into your opponent’s shoes, but whether your actions are actually harming the game you want to progress in.

On the flip side of the coin, if you are a player reading this who is new to the tournament scene – or, even more pertinently, if you are a non-competitive player who occasionally plays PPTQs locally – remember that when you choose to play a Competitive REL event, you are agreeing to abide by the letter of the rules and accepting that it is your responsibility to know them. If you do not want to delve into the more advanced corners of the game’s rule book, then understand that this will likely have a negative consequence for you somewhere down the line. Also understand that when you play a Competitive REL event, especially one that ultimately leads to qualification to the Pro Tour, some of the players will – justifiably – be taking the tournament very seriously indeed. Winning a PPTQ matters a great deal for a number of players. You might be used to playing in a more relaxed environment rules-wise, but when you play in a PPTQ you should be understanding of the fact that you will be held to the letter of the rules.

I believe that one of the great flaws of the PPTQ system is the fact that it brings highly-competitive grinders into the spaces where the local players are used to playing casually. These players compete against each other and it creates a negative feeling for more laid-back players who just want to enjoy a game of Magic when their opponents are trying to win at any cost. The players who want to win are ultimately in the right at a PPTQ, but it does create a clash between two ends of the Magic-playing spectrum. I’ve had several opponents at PPTQs who fall into this category who have clearly left our match unhappy because I’ve insisted on correct application of the rules, or because I’ve played at an intensity and in a style that clashes with the kind of gameplay they enjoy. I don’t personally believe that the streams should be crossed in this manner but as it stands they are – so I’d encourage competitive and casual players alike to try and be more understanding of the environment they’re playing in and the expectations that their opponents might have of the game you’re about to play.

Ultimately, when it comes to scenarios that could be described as “rules-lawyering” or “angle shooting”, there is a very broad moral grey area involved. Somewhere there is a line in the sand between “fair use of the rules” and “unsporting behaviour” and where that line is is difficult to pin down, especially as the answer will vary from player to player. Deciding not to tell your opponent that they can block your creature and avoid taking lethal is fairly clearly acceptable. Calling a judge on a minuscule rules infringement that could easily be overlooked when you know your opponent already has two warnings would be considered dubious behaviour at best by most players. The line is somewhere in between, and it’s understandably difficult to know when you might be crossing it. What I’d like more players to consider when these eventualities come up is how they’d feel about the situation put into their opponent’s shoes, and whether winning in such a manner is really worth it. A game of Magic should, as often as possible, be decided by play skill, and should leave both players satisfied that the result was fair. Next time you consider taking an action that might prevent that from being the case, please pause for a moment and think about it before you pull the trigger.

Community Question: Is “rules-lawyering” an acceptable way to win in Magic: The Gathering? Would you do it?

So, is it unsporting to use the rules to your a vantage and get wins in this way in Magic: The Gathering? Please let me know your thoughts on this matter in the comments.

Thanks for reading,

Matt Gregory

Is "Rules-Lawyering" An Acceptable Way To Win In Magic: The Gathering? By Matt Gregory
Recently, there was a thread on my local gaming store’s Facebook group which ended up opening up a pretty sizeable can of worms. I felt it reflected pretty interestingly on the differences between how competitive and casual players perceive the rules of the game, so I wanted to go over that debate in this piece and throw my own two cents into the argument.

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