“Can I Spellskite That?”; Or How to Handle Your Magic Judge
I have been a judge for nearly three years now, and an L2 for two of those. During that time, I have had the fortune to have taken part in some fantastic events and met some amazing people, and collected some great stories to share.
For example, there was the time a couple of years ago when it was 4pm at a Standard PPTQ. I was exhausted as I had been up and down three sets of stairs all day trying to keep three rooms going, and it was finally the round before the cut to Top 8. I was overseeing the x-4/x-5 bracket for people who hadn’t dropped, so nobody had any chance of winning prizes and were just playing for fun, or because their friends were in T8 and they were sharing a lift. We went to time, and there was one table still going in my room. I went upstairs to check what was going on, and the other judge told me that they were all ready for T8 as soon as that match finished. I went back down and found them in turns.
I went to sort out some paperwork, but ten minutes later, nobody had come over to me, so I decided to check out what was going on. “Yes, judge, we’re on turn three of turns.” Hmm, okay. I took a closer look at the match. The board states were basically empty but both graveyards were chock full of creatures. As I watched, one player said, “OK. Pass turn.”
They moved the die to turn four, and the other player went to draw a card for his draw step. Then the opponent said, “Wait! In your upkeep, I’ll cast Rally the Ancestors.” He went to pick up his entire graveyard of about twenty cards and put them in play. The second player paused and said, “Before you do that, in response, Rally,” then began to do the same. There ended up being about 30 triggers to resolve on each side.
Everyone watching visibly deflated, knowing this was not even close to over. The players were counting their triggers, blissfully enjoying their grindy mirror and totally unaware of the rest of the tournament, and I looked over at the other judge and all the T8 competitors who were peering into the room, waiting to start, and shrugged my shoulders helplessly; it looked like we weren’t getting home in time for dinner!
Some stories, like that one, are good fun to tell and everyone involved can look back and laugh at it. Other stories, though, are not so fun. Other stories result in people very upset with the judge, with the store, with the game, and those arise from horrible situations, some of which we can do nothing about; decklist problems, for example, or marked cards. The worst stories, though, come from people who feel that they have had their trust betrayed by judges – people who ask vague or loose questions, and as much as we want to, we can’t give them the answer we know they want.
Another story from my experience happened to another judge while I was watching. It was at GP London a couple of years ago, and someone left their table to ask the judge ‘Can I use Boros Charm to make my Ajani Vengeant indestructible?’ The answer is, naturally, yes. You can. A few moments later the player shouted, ‘Judge!’ and proceeded to become very angry when told that Ajani being indestructible would not prevent him from dying to combat damage, because placing a planeswalker into the graveyard when it’s on 0 loyalty does not interact with indestructibility at all. This story isn’t very fun to tell and wasn’t very fun to witness; and it all comes down to knowing how to ask proper questions.
A very famous example of this happened recently at a high-profile SCG event. A player playing in the quarter finals took a ten minute judge call to find out if he could interrupt a Scapeshift with a Beast Within. The answer, of course, is that you can. You kill a Mountain in response to the Valakut trigger and if there are less than five in play, they won’t do any damage. The player returned to the table after the long call, followed by the judge, who watched as he tried to enact the play he should be making, then got confused when his opponent said ‘Valakut triggers on the stack?’ and conceded before they resolved and did no damage to him. At no point could he step in, because nothing illegal occurred.
There was an interesting discussion recently on a judge thread on Facebook about the classic example named in the title, “Can I Spellskite that?”. Most everyone is aware of this particular example because it’s so widely known that, yes, you can target anything you want to with Spellskite, but it won’t always do anything. Now, normally most judges would answer ‘yes’ and wait for the fallout, because that’s what we are taught to do. The interesting point of discussion was raised, though, that ‘to Spellskite’ is not a defined verb. Does it mean ‘to target that spell with Spellskite’s ability’, or does it mean ‘to redirect that spell with Spellskite’s ability’? If the latter, the answer is different.
The discussion point was, does saying ‘Can you clarify that for me?’ in response to this question count as outside assistance? Obviously then the player will reply with ‘If I target X with Spellskite, will it redirect it?’ or something similar, which we can then answer correctly, but are they then changing their question based on our answer, and can we justify that with the uncertainty surrounding what ‘to Spellskite’ actually means? There were arguments on both sides and it never fully reached a conclusion, but for me, it was enough to make me think. I personally would ask for clarification here, because ‘to Spellskite’ isn’t a word, but some judges were adamant that they wouldn’t. So, the problem runs deeper than just how we can approach questions. It got me thinking, is there a way that we can prevent players from making these kinds of mistakes in the first place?
Hence, this article.
Now, as judges you have to know that this kind of experience breaks our hearts. We cannot give you play advice, as much as we might want to answer the questions in a different way. If you ask us ‘how do I do X?’ we can’t answer you. If you are about to make a horrible error in judgement, we can’t stop you. We have to be impartial and we have to carefully tailor what we say to make sure that we are not giving outside assistance. It is up to you to make sure that what you are asking is whole and correct, and that you are not making assumptions or not getting the full picture.
If you are about to make a horrible error in judgement, we can’t stop you.
So, how can you ask the right questions?
First of all, it’s important to note that judge calls are not timed. You do not have to worry about how long they are taking, because we will add extra time to your match to account for the call after the round if you need it. If you want to ask out of earshot of your opponent, that’s also fine. Just raise your hand and call us over as normal, then explain you want to ask something away from the table. Remember that it’s off the clock and you don’t have to try and rush, the important thing is that you get the answer you need.
Generally, the best thing to do is think over exactly what you are trying to do. Go over the question in your head and figure out what you want to know, then make sure you understand how everything plays out before you go back to the table.
You have an Isochron Scepter in play with a Counterspell under it. Your opponent has a Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir. You don’t know which effect wins, since Teferi says you can’t cast the spell in your opponent’s turn but Scepter says you can. You go to ask a judge.
“How does Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir interact with Isochron Scepter?” is not something we can answer. It’s too broad, it doesn’t focus on the point you want to know and it would amount to play advice if we detail every possible way these two cards can work.
“If my opponent has Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir in play, can I activate Isochron Scepter?” is rushed and vague. You can activate Isochron Scepter and cast the spell under it at any time in your turn and that will be completely unaffected by Teferi’s ability, not to mention that Teferi doesn’t prevent activated abilities from happening at instant speed. Not good enough, and will not elicit the response to the question you are really asking.
“Can I activate Isochron Scepter on my opponent’s turn if they have a Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir in play?” is better, but is still not correct. Read the cards before you come to us. Isochron Scepter has an activated ability, which Teferi does not prevent, but obviously what you want is to cast the spell from the Scepter, not activate it for no reason. This question will get a ‘yes’ and you will be shouting a very irritated ‘Judge!’ ten seconds later.
“My opponent has Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir in play. If I activate Isochron Scepter in their turn, can I cast the Counterspell underneath it?” There. That’s the question we’re looking for. It describes the relevant boardstate accurately, it gets across exactly what you want to know and it is a rules question that we can answer with a definitive ‘no’, ensuring you don’t make play mistakes, without giving you any additional advantage.
Most importantly, I will repeat, don’t rush it to get back to the table quickly. Take as much time as you need to know that you fully understand the answer, the game state and how it will work before you go back to the table. If your first question didn’t work or you’re still unsure about how something will go, then ask another question. We will do our best to get you the answer you’re looking for, as long as you can ask good questions. Judges exist to help everyone and we always want you to get the response you need.
We don’t want to see you make mistakes but we are bound by the rules and they dictate what we can say, so please understand this and make our lives, and yours, as easy as possible. Your question must include the relevant boardstate, the cards involved, and what you are trying to actually do. Anything vaguer than that will mean you will probably have a bad experience, or not get the answer you are looking for.
TL;DR: Ask the specific question that you want the answer to!
I hope this has helped for those of you who don’t often make judge calls or haven’t had that much interaction with us at events. It’s not easy to word everything right, and we hate, hate, hate seeing people make these kinds of errors and feel bad afterwards.
The judge in question from the SCG event above posted on JudgeApps afterwards explaining everything that happened, and said that after the game he went and spoke to the player, who just hadn’t quite understood that the Valakut triggers would have done no damage. It didn’t even enter his head that that was a possibility, because he hadn’t asked about it, and the judge couldn’t tell him without his asking. He thought he had somehow interpreted the judge’s answer wrong, and cast Beast Within at the wrong time, and again I must go back to the point – make sure you understand every facet of what will happen before you go back to the table!
Community Question: What do you think about the ‘Spellskite’ issue? Have you ever had, or witnessed a bad beat judge call?
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Thanks for reading and I really hope this article has been helpful!