Ask the Rules Manager
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|Abstract||At Emerald City ComiCon, Matt Tabak sat for a Q&A session as the current Magic Rules Manager. Callum Milne provides a record of the questions and answers!|
Emerald City Comicon is here and gone, and with it the fantastic Cascade Games judge conference organized by the inestimable Tim Shields. The event was a blast straight from the kickoff on March 4th to the close on the 6th, with judges from all along the west coast of North America coming together for three days' worth of seminars, presentations, networking, and EDHing. However, the part of the conference I was most excited about came on Sunday morning, when the Magic Rules Manager himself, Matt Tabak, arrived to host an hour-long Q&A period entitled 'Ask the Rules Manager.'
As a dedicated rules goob and regular contributor to the Wizards Community's Rules Theory and Templating forum, I came prepared with a notepad, a mechanical pencil, and a page full of questions asked by my fellow community members who could not attend. Because most judges weren’t lucky enough to be able to attend the conference and talk with Matt in person, I thought it would be an excellent idea to write up a summary of the talk for the edification of the community at large, both judge and non-judge rules goob alike. Since I don't have perfect recall, the questions and their answers are approximate and paraphrased rather than actual quotations. Throughout the session there was a lot of banter with the audience, with a ton of digressions and jokes I can't possibly reproduce here, but I've tried to keep the overall tone of the seminar while keeping the essence of Matt's answers to everyone's questions correct.
Q: What do you do at Wizards? What's your job? A: My primary job title is Editor, which means I'm responsible for making sure all the Magic-related writing you see--on the cards, on the packaging, in the rules booklets, and anywhere else--is correct and error-free. We don't do the website--that's someone else, but we do the rest. I'm also the Magic Rules Manager, which means a couple things. First, it means I act as an advisor to the Pit, which basically means that R&D members walk up to me and ask, "Does this work?" I'm also responsible for maintaining the Comprehensive Rules and writing the FAQ documents we release for each set, and re-templating older cards that don't work the way they should.
Q: How did you come to get this job? A: I became a Magic judge back in the "Wild West" days of judging, before things were really settled--nobody wanted to run events or judge where I was living, so I stepped up to the plate, and then eventually somebody pointed at me and said, "you're an L2." I did some work for Upper Deck's Vs. System game, and the WoW card game, which led to a job with a company called Tenacious Games, working on their game The Spoils. They were located in Seattle, so I moved here, and then the company collapsed and I was left living in Seattle without a job. I had a bunch of friends who worked at Wizards, so I asked if they were hiring and I got a job in Customer Service. That led to a short stint on the Magic Online team, and then I was basically inhaled into R&D. I had offered to help Mark Gottlieb with writing FAQs and the like, since I had judging experience, and that led to an offer to work as an editor, which is my current position. Then Gottlieb stepped down as rules manager to work as a developer full-time and I took up that mantle.
Q: What's the best way to get a job in R&D? A: Work at Wizards elsewhere. Wizards, like most companies, does a lot of internal hiring, and once you're in, it's very easy to move around the company. To get there in the first place, go to college, but in addition to that, stay connected to the community. There are a lot of places where you can write about Magic and get involved in the community. R&D notices things like that, and the more connected to the community you are the better your chances are.
Q: There's been a lot of buzz about how strong poison is in alternative formats; has there been any discussion on changing how poison works in Two-Headed Giant or Commander? A: Development has been looking at possible ways to change the rules for poison in Two-Headed Giant, especially for the "Action" prerelease, but the specifics haven't been ironed out yet. There's a bunch of ways we could change it--raise the number, make it use a shared total like life, whatever. Right now we're looking over all our options and figuring out what's best, or even if things need to change. So yes, wait for the "Action" prerelease. [Author's Note: Wizards has announced their changes to poison in Two-Headed Giant since the seminar was held]
As for Commander, we work with the Commander Rules Committee to maintain the health of that format. It's their opinion that poison isn't a problematic strategy in Commander. They're always keeping an eye on it, so if a problem becomes more apparent, they'll let us know about it so we can make the appropriate changes. Clearly, Skithryix and Blightsteel Colossus are very strong.
Q: How do you figure out which old cards need to be reworded or changed? A: Mostly, I don't. Rules Manager stuff takes up only about a third of my time at Wizards, and about 95% of that is dealing with stuff coming up in future sets. I just don't have time to go browsing through old sets looking for things to fix. Luckily, our players do have that sort of time, and they're really good at finding things like that, so a lot of that comes from them. Some of it also comes from Magic Online--we've been releasing old cards and sets on Magic Online, and when we do that, we do a rules pass to make sure everything works the way it's supposed to work.
Q: How far do you go to make things work in Magic Online? Is there ever anything you don't do because it can't work there? A: We do do things to accommodate Magic Online, but as far as I know Magic Online has never killed a card. Things in the paper game have sometimes changed because of Magic Online, but we have never killed a card because it wouldn't work in Magic Online. For example, there's a bunch of cards with triggered abilities that have an intervening-if clause—that's basically "when something happens, if such and such, do whatever"—and if the if condition isn't true, the ability doesn't trigger, and that helps save time in Magic Online because it's that many fewer clicks the players have to deal with. It makes it easier.
Q: Are there any plans to get the make the remaining non-available pre-Mirage cards to Magic Online? A: The Masters Editions sets take a lot of the best, most interesting cards from the early days and put them online. Will we ever see all the cards? No. Dexterity cards like Chaos Orb . . . well, we could make a little mini-game where you choose the force of your flip, like kicking field goals in Madden. Then there'd be a counter-strategy where you could tape your permanents to the virtual wall. Plus there are some underwhelming cards from back then. Oh jeez, and subgames. Yeah, it's safe to say not every card will show up on Magic Online. The Power Nine? Well, there are certainly people who want them. I don't know of any plans, but it wouldn't surprise me to see them eventually. I don't think difficulty coding Black Lotus is the issue. It has to be done right.
Q: Have there been any attempts to code infinite loops in Magic Online? A: There are some loops that have been hardcoded in as a draw--for example, if the game enters a loop with three Faceless Butchers, the game just stops. That's hardcoded in, and there are a couple others. So we have done it in some specific instances, but there hasn't been an attempt to make a general implementation for loops. There are just way too many possible loop situations for the game to be able to recognize them all.
Q: What's your most and least favorite rules interactions? A: My most favorite is probably the way you can activate Genju of the Fields multiple times to get the ability multiple times and gain more life. Only about six people knew about it, but it worked. Then everyone heard about it or figured it out. And the way Black Sun's Zenith works with modular--if you kill a modular creature with the Zenith, you can still put the +1/+1 counters on another creature.
My least favorite . . . I'll come back to that, I'll have to think about that.
Q: What do you think about the Myr Welder/Licid issue? A: The Welder...for those of you who don't know, there's this forum on the Wizards Community site called Rules Theory and Templating. It's for the rules gurus and deeper rules discussions, not questions about how the rules work but why things are the way they are. Plus, newer players aren't scared off by huge discussions about priority and layers. One of the recent things they found involved Myr Welder and Demonspine Whip and some old Licid I can't even remember . . . Transmogrifying Licid, that's it. So you imprint the Whip and the Licid on the Welder, and use the Licid's ability to make it an Aura attached to something; so the issue is that once you do that, if you use the Whip's ability does it count the creature it's attached to as equipped even though it's not an Equipment, or . . . yeah. My belief is that the job of the Comprehensive Rules is to have an answer. It may not be an intuitive or clean answer, but it should exist. So if there isn't an answer, we should make one, but I'll have to figure out if we have one first.
Ideally, when they're working best, the Comprehensive Rules should be invisible. They should give you the answer players would come up with on their own. We don't want to have to shove the rulebook down player's throats all the time. It can be a pretty intimidating document. I open it and get scared sometimes.
Q: What major changes have been made to the rules? Have you ever needed to completely overhaul some of them? Would you need to in future? A: There have been some pretty big changes in the past, most recently with Magic 2010 and before that the Sixth Edition changes. It's usually just minor course corrections and constant refinement. I don't anticipate any major overhauls in the near future. The game's in a good spot. But, "Action" brings with it an entire new rules section, so you can look forward to that.
Q: Have you thought about annotating the rules? Maybe have the regular copy of the rules and then an annotated version? A: I've tried to put in a lot of examples, but not everything has one--that's an interesting idea; I'll have to remember that. [Author's Note: There's actually already an ongoing judge project dedicated to providing examples of every rule In the CR, headed by Adrian Estoup. It can be found on the DCIFamily Wiki]
Q: How much work are you willing to do to make new cards and abilities work? How far are you willing to bend the rules? A: With Magic, there's not a whole lot that can't work, but a lot of those things might not be worth it. If each block was its own self-contained entity, you could go crazy and do almost anything, but it doesn't work like that. You have to think about how each change affects all the cards that came before it, and it might not be worth it. Over time we tend to paint ourselves into corners, like with morph. Let's say we wanted to make a new mechanic that let you put cards face-down on the battlefield as Auras. Well, thanks to Morph we already have rules for face-down cards, and that doesn't fit, so we'd have to figure out how to reconcile those two, and it's probably just not worth it.
Q: Removing mana burn in Magic 2010 provoked a lot of backlash and debate among the online community. Was there a lot of debate internally about removing mana burn? A: The M10 changes were decided on just before I got to R&D, so I did hear a lot of discussion but wasn't directly involved. I don't remember any strong opposition to getting rid of mana burn. Obviously, the players have differing opinions on it, but I think it worked out really well. In my opinion, mana burn was just too much of an obstacle to teaching players about the mana system for something that came up so rarely.
Q: What rules changes do you feel had the biggest impact? A: Well, there's Sixth Edition and Magic 2010, those were pretty big, but more recently, we changed deathtouch in Magic 2011; that one generated a lot of internal debate. The legend rule changed in Champions of Kamigawa—that's a good one. It had a big impact on the kinds of legends we're willing to print.
Q: Does the rules team consider the tournament implications of changes? What about the secondary market? A: We do think about it, but we obviously can't catch everything—Flash got through, for example. The secondary market . . .what's that? You mean people sell cards secondhand? Since when?
Q: Two years after the M10 rules changes, are you satisfied with how the introduction of Damage Assignment Order has worked out? What do you think about the backlash from that change? A: Yes, it was a good move. It's just overall more intuitive for new players. We knew the backlash would happen, we knew a lot of people were going to be angry, and it would be tough, but it was worth it. Nobody likes change, but players are smart; they can figure it out.
Q: How do you decide when a card needs to be banned or restricted? A: We try to only do it when a card really warps the format; we pay attention to the major events, we listen to TOs, and especially look at Magic Online, since it's so much easier to get data from there. What's the most played card in the casual room? In tournaments? How frequently is this played? In the end, everyone weighs in and a decision is made; we don't do it lightly, and try to only do it when a card is warping the format, but we do have to do it sometimes.
Q: Are there any recent cards that R&D considers mistakes? A: Well, I'm not a developer so I don't have the most direct knowledge here. It's really hard to quantify a mistake though. Should Bloodbraid Elf or Jace have been weaker? Maybe. I trust our developers to shape the formats we support. They're very, very good at it.
Q: What do you think about the damage-redirection rule for planeswalkers? A: I think it's better than having to write "or planeswalker" on every burn spell we've ever printed, but I wish there was a cleaner solution.
Q: Why did you create emblems? A: It started with Elspeth; the only reason Elspeth's last ability worked is because it didn't modify characteristics. We envisioned future cards that did similar things—we knew about Koth for example, and we wanted new Mountains to be able to tap, too, but those cards wouldn't work unless we found some other way of doing them. For a while we tried giving players the abilities, but that was just weird, so we came up with emblems, and put them into the command zone since that's our new go-to zone for things we don't want players to touch.
There are more cards we could potentially make use emblems, but for now a creative decision was made that emblems were a planeswalker thing, and you could only get an emblem from a planeswalker. That may change in future, but for now, they're only for planeswalkers.
Q: What made Gottlieb decide to rewrite Bands with other? A: Bands with other basically did nothing; it did absolutely nothing that you would expect it to. So Gottlieb decided to throw out the little rules card it was originally explained on and just write it the way it should be, paving the way for its return in M42. *laughs* Yeah, banding's not high on the list of mechanics to return. Magic 2012's returning mechanic is cool, though.
Q: Effects that allow you to play additional lands have you declare which effect you're using, and if they leave and come back, they generate a new effect—has the rules team thought about changing that to make land drops work as the "count" that a lot of players assume it does? A: One of the problems of being the rules manager is that it's really tempting to tweak. Magic works. Any change you make to it is going to cause problems, so you need to be certain not only that what you propose is better, but that it's better enough to be worth the trouble of making the change. Is that particular change worth it? I don't know. I'd have to research it, we'd have to test it, but it's something to think about.
Q: [...] A: Ah, that's it! My least favorite rules thing is the Urza lands; when they were reprinted in 8th "Urza's" was turned into a land type--that's so weird! And playing lands on other player's turns. If you have a Djinn of Wishes and get a land with it, you can't play it if it's someone else's turn, even though you can play anything else. I've been looking into that recently.
Q: Has any thought been given to the possibility of keywording mill? A: The biggest problem with that is finding the right word. "Mill" probably isn't that word, since it's based on a card we don't even reprint any more. But if we can find the right word, it's something to consider. There's value in using terms like "mill" to shorten the text on cards, but there's also value it not making your players learn many new vocabulary words.
Sadly, at this point, we were forced to cut the seminar short. Matt's a compelling and entertaining speaker; everyone in attendance was surprised to realize we had overshot the scheduled hour mark by another full hour, and we probably would have kept going if it wasn't for the presentation of a massive, incredibly rich chocolate cake provided by Regional Coordinator Aaron Hamer. All seminars should be lucky enough to end so deliciously.