The MTG Ethicist – Pithing Needle and Concession Expectation

Today is the debut of a new column here at CFB, “The MTG Ethicist.” I’ll be taking a look at reader-submitted ethical questions related to Magic: The Gathering tournaments or really anything you guys want to ask about Magic, however you play or collect it.

My responses will of course represent one person’s views—mine—on complex and interesting topics. There may not be a single “right answer”—my job in this column is to present a recommendation to the reader based on my intuition as well as relevant examples and analogies that are perhaps more clear-cut.

The New York Times has a similar column you can check out here if the above description isn’t clicking, or if you like what’s below and want more of this type of stuff.

1) The Prickly Case of Pithing Needle

Q: My opponent named “Borborygmos” with his Pithing Needle when he meant to name “Borborygmos Enraged.” I chose to have a judge enforce the choice he made rather than proceeding with the game without calling a judge and assuming Borborygmos Enraged had been named. The judge enforced the rules without making an exception, and my opponent was not allowed to name the card he wanted. I don’t feel great about winning that way, but I don’t feel that bad either. I see it as functionally similar to getting a game loss for a deck reg. error if somebody just puts “Borborygmos” instead of “Borborygmos Enraged.” To me, he made a “verbal misplay” rather than a “strategic misplay” and I capitalized on it. Of course, perhaps I should have just let it slide. Thoughts?

-Bob Huang (@silyaznfoo) on Twitter to Matt Sperling (@mtg_law_etc)

A: I believe you acted ethically. I suspect that this answer will be unpopular, because the result seems unfair, but when it comes to your role in the matter, you didn’t write the rules nor did you print two legendary creatures where one’s full name is a subset of the other’s. This corner case does indeed seem unfair, but that unfairness flows from the rules and how they fail to account for the corner case.

Let’s examine your role in greater detail:

In general, it will be very difficult, but I suppose not impossible, for me to believe that merely raising your hand and calling a judge to enforce a rule is unethical conduct. Fudging the truth—that would be a different story. Trying to get a ruling you know is an incorrect interpretation of the rules—different story. But merely asking to enforce the rules as they are written? That’s not enough.

By way of analogy, if holding your opponent to this sloppy communication was unethical “rules lawyering,” I am unable to determine why countless other examples of holding a player to the letter-of-the-rules would not be. The closest example may be one involving Pithing Needle itself. When Pithing Needle was legal alongside Underworld Connections, many novice players would name “Underworld Connections,” not realizing that it was Swamp or Mutavault that possessed the activated ability, not the Aura that grants it.

There are some superficial differences in how you would correct it (it’s a bit harder to just “play on” without letting the player know Swamp was the intended name), but if you believe one should take the high road and let intention rule the day if the intention was clear, then the fix is very similar: fix it quickly by pointing out the miscue to your opponent, without calling a judge, and move on.

Most players at the Pro Tour or competitive circuit level wouldn’t choose to do so, and are not regarded with the scorn you received on social media following your decision.

In both Pithing Needle cases, the design of the cards and the rules that govern how communication around them works have created a counter-intuitive gap, or “trap” players can walk into. In tournament play, it is not the opponent’s responsibility to address these gaps. If you believe it is, there is a long list of such gaps, so you may not like what you’ve signed up for. Perhaps the most noble (or misguided, depending on your perspective on tournament play) among us will excuse all such mistakes when made, whenever the intentions of the acting player were clear, but the rest of us shouldn’t be losing sleep about enforcing the rules in a tournament setting.

“Name a card” appears to be a somewhat bugged mechanic in corner cases when humans are left to communicate what card they are naming. There’s a famous joke in my play group back home in Southern California (credit to the late, great, Cassius Weathersby I believe) that emerged from a Standard format that contained the following cards: Runed Halo, Ball Lightning, and Blightning. The joke is that with enough of a Southern drawl, you can say “buh-lightnin” and cover both cards, only clarifying once your opponent casts one of the cards that indeed that’s the one you named. “I done named it, clear as day, ‘BUH-LIGHTNIN’” as the joke goes (if desperate, “Bolt [comma] Lightning” can be claimed to cover Lightning Bolt, but unless you’re Yoda from the deep South, that one is gonna be tough). Doing something like that would be unethical, by the way.

The “name a card” rules state that you must name a single, format-legal card. Once you have done so, the rules are also clear that you may not change your answer. What is intended to add clarity, and in turn fairness, erodes fairness in a few corner cases, but it remains ethical to enforce a rule in a corner case.

2) Concession Expectation

Q: I was playing in Day 2 of a Grand Prix against a familiar face, but not a good friend or well-known Pro player. In game 3, time expired in the round leaving us with the dreaded “5 additional turns.” I was pretty far ahead in the game, and from where I was sitting, I saw the following two lines of play available to me: A) Play conservatively from my winning position, giving me a 99% chance of remaining in a winning position, but only a 10% chance of actually dealing lethal damage by turn 5 of extra turns—or—B) Take a somewhat aggressive line that would leave me in a winning position 90% of the time, but with 40% of that 90% being actual lethal damage within the 5 extra turns, and it would leave me dead to a perfect topdeck from the opponent the remaining 10% of the time. My opponent seemed very nice and also I’d seen him around the GP circuit, so I figured he would scoop to me if time ran out and I was clearly in a winning position. I simply didn’t think about it at the time, but was it ethical to choose line A over line B, and in some sense take my foot off the gas in extra turns?

-Adapted from an anonymous match I witnessed

A: Acting in real time, it’s hard to blame you for choosing a line that felt best and going with it. But ultimately, I do believe choosing line A is unethical. The primary reason is that one of the variables in the calculation here becomes “is my opponent likely to concede to me rather than forcing both of us to take a draw?” And the nicer the player, the better their reputation, the worse their expected value becomes in this situation if you allow yourself to choose line A. The nice guy or nice gal is 99% to lose this match, while the person you suspect won’t scoop (not to say they aren’t nice, it could just be a person who doesn’t engage in this kind of post-match cooperation—which is valid in a tournament setting) is only 90% to lose this match. That’s a pretty glaring red flag, that you’re punishing cooperators to the tune of a significant amount of tournament equity.

Let’s more precisely locate the unethical decision here. It is not unethical to play conservatively as time expires, as long as your pace of play isn’t slowed. Even if you are up 1 game to 0, I don’t believe it is unethical to take a conservative line that “locks in” the win rather than a risky line that hopes to win 2-0. But in those cases, you won’t be in the position after the match of asking your opponent to concede. That’s the critical difference, that to ethically ask for that, you have to have both played at a fast pace and played to win within the time allotted, but simply ran out of time.

As soon as you chose line A, the opponent’s concession became your primary strategic route to victory, so you are unable to explain after the match, in full honesty, that you tried to use the cards to win. In the 1-0 match win scenario, there is no need for a post-match conversation at all, you are entitled to the win so long as you played at a reasonable pace (which includes not making decisions solely for the purpose of wasting time).

This is a close one, to be sure. Very close. I am curious to hear what my fellow established Pro players think of my analysis.

If you have an ethical question related to Magic: The Gathering, send it to Matt at ethicist@channelfireball.com.

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