Next Level Strat - with Alex Stratton: Letter and Spirit of the Law - Magic: The Gathering

Alex Stratton
January 09, 2017

Alex uses his unique ability to review different situations and see them from different perspectives in order to give us a terrrific and fresh outlook on strategy and approach!


Magic: The Gathering is a game of complex rules and interactions. It is nearly impossible to retain knowledge of all of them, while simultaneously formulating a strategy in an attempt win a given match. This is where the role of a judge comes in. At competitive and professional REL (rules enforcement level) events, judges are expected to have not only great knowledge of Magic’s comprehensive rules, but also have an understanding of the policy written and enforced both through the MTR (Magic tournament rules), and the IPG (infraction procedure guide). Judges possess this knowledge to both assist players through answering questions during an event, and protect its integrity making sure it is up to the same standard as other comparable tournaments.

Like in any game, those with knowledge of the rules and policy that surround Magic are going to be at a distinct advantage to those who do not. While heavily debated, I believe this to be both a correct and proper way of the game. This then begs the question of should players be rewarded for using this knowledge against an opponent without the same scope on the rules. Some believe that this would be against the spirit of the game, and would be classified as “unsporting” or even “angle-shooting”. Others think this nearly identical to outplaying your opponent in terms of play-skill, as the rules are a public and free document available to all, and those that put the time in should be given an advantage for that. My opinion falls closer to the latter, as formulated through multiple years of both playing and judging at a competitive level.

Many will ask why this knowledge and debate is relevant to them, and why after all of these years, it is being addressed so much now more than ever. With the recent boom in video coverage through venues such as StarCityGames Opens and Grand Prix commentary, we as a community now have more access to a high-level game of magic than ever before. This has created scenarios that have divided both the players and judges, as well as made competitors fear that they may not be protected while playing the game not only at a competitive level, but even at a local FNM or draft tournament. While I would assure players not to fear being taken advantage of for lack of rules knowledge at their local game store, as the rules of regular REL Magic are designed to protect the competitors, seeing someone viewed as a professional or strong player in an isolated group do something on the border of the rules, can definitely have a lasting impact.

To further illustrate this I am going to present six different scenarios in this article. These scenarios all have either occurred on coverage, through a judge call in a tournament, or have been told through the people of Reddit. For each one I am individually going to describe what has happened, and talk about where it falls within the rules of Magic. I have also polled the local community in my home town of Albany, NY through our Facebook group on how they feel each of the scenarios may be considered wrong or “scummy” as far as morals of the game go, and will be expressing this as a percentage. I won’t be expressing my opinion on each scenario as for the most part it will fall in line with the rules rather than what is considered moral by large. On a final note, keep in mind all of these are happening at competitive or professional Magic tournaments, and the rules, as well as the view of the community will reflect that.


The Scenario: You attack with your Noble Hierarch. Your opponent blocks with their Birds of Paradise. You then inform them you would like to now announce your exalted trigger that it is relevant to game state, and assign lethal damage to their creature.

The Ruling: The trigger policy has changed a lot in recent years, and many players are currently unaware of exactly how it works for triggers like this. The current wording for “invisible triggers” or ones that don’t have an immediate impact on the game, is you would need to announce it when it would have an impact on visual game-state and become relevant. In this example it would be when the Noble Hierarch is dealing damage, and hence everything occurring is fine here.

Community Response: 15% view as morally wrong.

The Scenario: You are playing a game of modern with the Goryo's Vengeance reanimate deck. Your opponent plays Pithing Needle and names "Borborygmos" as their chosen card. You then cast Through the Breach, put in a copy of "Borborygmos Enraged", and activate its ability. Your opponent calls a judge, and the judge alerts you both that the game state is fine as "Borborygmos" was a legal choice for your needle despite it not having an activated ability.

The Ruling: The Reddit community was up in flames when this situation occurred on coverage in the Top 8 of a StarCityGames open tournament. As far as the rules go, cards such as Pithing Needle require a player to make a legal choice when the card instructs you to do so. So for the needle this would mean naming a card legal in the modern format as it resolves. Despite not having an activated ability, Borborygmos is a card that is legal in modern and can be named with Pithing Needle. Since it is not the same card as Borborygmos Enraged, the latter can still activate its abilities.

Community Response: 80% view as morally wrong.



The Scenario: Your opponent says "Go to combat". You say "Ok", they then attempt to crew their Smugglers Copter, and you say "You are in declare attackers, it is too late to do that before you declare your attacks.”

The Ruling: As a judge this scenario is often the one I have the most trouble getting players to understand as it works differently on MTGO (Magic Online) than it does in paper magic. The tournament shortcuts in the MTR describe phrases such as “Attackers”, “Go to Combat”, “Pass Priority in Main Phase”, or anything along those lines, to mean you are attempting to move to your declare attackers step unless your opponent has a response, in which case they are assumed to be doing it in your beginning of combat step unless they specify differently. “But wait Alex why don’t I get to move to my beginning of combat step first, then to my declare attackers step?” Well to answer this we need to think about why this shortcut is in place. A long time ago in the “wild west” of magic, the card Cryptic Command in combination with haste creatures caused many issues for communications among players. Arguments about where a Cryptic Command was getting cast occurred very frequently, and to prevent this and make sure both players were protected, this shortcut was created and elaborated upon as time went by. So in short, the above scenario is perfectly reasonable on the side of you not letting your opponent attack with their Smuggler’s Copter.

Community Response: 40% view as morally wrong



The Scenario: You have a Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet under your control. Your opponent controls two copies of Veteran Motorist. You cast Flaying Tendrils. Your opponent places their creatures into exile, and you ask them questioningly “Zombies”. Not knowing how the interaction of multiple replacement effects occur, your opponent says “Sure”, and you place two 2/2 black zombies onto the battlefield.

The Ruling: This is a ruling that has been debated within the judge community, and is often a very hot topic when it occurs, even if only theoretically. Both Kalitas and Flaying Tendrils both create replacement effects that change where a non-token creature would go if it were to go the graveyard. While they both exile the creature, Kalitias causes its controller to place a 2/2 black zombie into play. This creates a very different result from the straight exile caused by Flaying Tendrils. When multiple replacement effects would be applied to an object, that objects controller chooses which to apply. So in this scenario the player controlling both Veteran Motorist would get to decide if their opponent receives zombies or not. However, if your opponent does not know they get to make this choice, while you can’t make it for them, you can try to persuade them to apply Kalitas, and let you place your zombies into play. If when you ask “Zombies” your opponent says “No” or does not let you put them onto the battlefield, it is assumed at that point they are applying Flaying Tendrils, and you will not be getting your zombies.

Community Response 80% view as morally wrong

The Scenario: You are playing against a Lands combo deck in the legacy constructed format. Your opponent casts Life from the Loam, declares no targets, and asks you “Does it Resolve?”. You tell them “Yes”, and they begin to go choose lands to return. At this point you stop them and told them they declared no targets, and casting Life from the Loam with 0 targets is a legal play.

The Ruling: This scenario occurred at Grand Prix New Jersey a few years ago and actually made it all the way up to then Level five head judge Scott Marshall. Scott overturned the floor judge’s ruling that was going against what occurred in the scenario, and said very clearly “When Life from the Loam is cast you have four options. You may cast it with three, two, one, or zero targets. You cast it with Zero.” This went in line with what the player in question was trying to accomplish in the scenario as targets must be declared when spells are cast.

Community response: 80% view as morally wrong

The Scenario: You are playing a game of modern constructed with the new dredge deck. Your graveyard contains one card, a single copy of Conflagrate. Your opponent casts the card Rest in Peace and places it onto the battlefield. You take the copy of Conflagrate in your graveyard and move it off the side, assuming you acknowledged the Rest in Peace trigger. You then decide move it back to its original orientation after realizing your opponent was not announcing their trigger. On your next turn your opponent asks you why the Conflagrate is not exiled now, and you tell them they missed their trigger.

The Ruling: Of course we could not finish this article without the recent events that occurred on a SCG feature match a few weeks ago. While the Rest in Peace trigger does need to announced or indicated when it enters the battlefield, by moving your graveyard you are acknowledging it as well, and would not be able to do “Take-Backsies” at this point. The judge ruling did not align with this, as the judge was unaware that the conflagrate had been moved, and ruled on strictly the fact the trigger had been missed. Whether the player in question did this on purpose or to gain an advantage (Cheating), I do not know, however this scenario is not in line with the rules.

Community response: 95% view as morally wrong

Through these six scenarios you can see the complexity as well the depth that surrounds the rules and policy of competitive Magic: The Gathering. My hope in writing this was to help players better understand what is and isn’t against the rules when playing a competitive game of magic, and help them determine their personal moral compass from that point. While only the last scenario is actually against the rules of Magic, the previous five can be perceived as scummy around the community, and it is important to know that not everyone will view you favorably when involving a judge in areas such as this. My personal belief is that there is nothing wrong with the first five scenarios and while the community and people of Reddit may take issue with this, it is ultimately for you to decide what you view as skill and knowledge, and how you want to play the game. This is why Magic is the greatest game in the world. Not only do you get to choose your deck and choose what tournaments you want to play in, but you also decide where in line you fall among scenarios like the ones above, and get to voice your opinion to the community. That to me makes this game interactive and awesome one so many levels.  

Alex Stratton - Alex is a Magic the Gathering Player and Judge from Upstate NY. He is currently residing in Tampa, FL, area where he competes with some excellent players part of team Next Ridge Gaming. Alex is looking to contribute introspective articles that involve community interaction and help us understand Magic, the community around it, and how it all works!