Meet a Melvin

This is a guest post by Laurie Cheers, a long-time member of the Wizards rules team. It was originally posted on the mothership in 2007 during Future Sight previews, but it, along with thousands of other articles, was deleted when Wizards took down their archives. It was one of my favorite rules articles, so I asked Laurie for permission to repost it here. It's been lightly edited to account for rules changes in the intervening years, along with some other editorial changes Laurie wanted to make, and I added a few footnotes, but is otherwise unchanged from 2007.

In the last year, I've thought about Magic every day, and written about it at least every week. In that time, I've constructed no decks, bought no cards, and played no games.

My name is Laurie Cheers, and I am a Melvin. (Actually, that last part is a guess. One day I'm sure Mark Rosewater will tell us what the 'Melvin' player type is supposed to be interested in.Maro did in fact write an article just a few weeks later explaining the characteristics of the Melvin player type. It even referenced Laurie's original article! But I know what *I'm* interested in...)

In this article, I'm trying a little experiment where I'm going to show the game from what I'm guessing is a completely new perspective for most players. Along the way, you'll even get a preview card from Future Sight as part of the deal! (So, even if this isn't for you, hopefully you'll enjoy the preview card.)

There are probably less than 10 people in the world who know the rules of Magic as well as I do. I'm serious - that's not a boast. Ok, it is a boast, but it's still true. (You might say it's more of a confession.) Given that, perhaps you'd be surprised to hear that I don't like "rules lawyering." I wouldn't dream of exploiting the Sylvan Library + Abundance combo to win games, nor any other unintuitive trick that the rules technically allow. Playing for fun, I've even been known to let an opponent get away with things the rules technically don't allow, if I think they ought to. (For example, Lifeline used to recover your creatures from a Wrath of God, despite the fact that it obviously wasn't meant to.)

Hey, I told you - I'm not a Spike, I'm a Melvin.

I'm also not a judge. The DCI rules? Couldn't care less. They're about, like, what happens when you write down your deck list wrong or drop your library on the floor or hide an Urza's Tower up your sleeve? (sounds pointy.) Basically, a load of judgment calls and situational answers. Where's the fun in that? If it's baroque, though, I'll have fun trying to break it.

But oh, the Comprehensive Rulebook. Now there's something special. Do you know how unusual Magic is? It's a pathologically open-ended game, whose rulebook actually tries to cover *everything*. You know, as in, everything that you can make happen within the game. (Not what happens if you rip your opponent's heart out and show it to him before he dies - that's the DCI rules again. If you really want to know, I think it's Unsportsmanlike Conduct.)

For me, Magic is a dream come true. No other game I've seen has rules that even come close to its baroque complexity. By way of comparison, many years ago I was an avid Blood Bowl player, hanging out on internet forums asking questions about the rules for that game. Questions like: the Shadowing skill lets you follow someone who moves away from you. Does that still work if they move away because they're Shadowing someone else? Can we get a conga-line of people Shadowing each other? If the line forms a circle, does the game get in an infinite loop? The answers were mostly "Um... could be."

On a Magic forum, though, you generally get answers more like "Yep, rule 829.52x says so," or "Good question; maybe they'll clarify that with the next update". At this point, ordinary law-abiding non-Melvins are probably wondering what's so great about that. Who cares whether the rulebook gives precise answers? Let me put it this way: the game can be treated as a great big puzzle. (It's no accident that puzzle-master Mark Gottlieb is the rules manager.)

The challenge of this puzzle is: what weird situations can you create? Can you work out what the outcome would be in those situations, according to the rules? And for maximum points: can you find a situation that the rules don't cover, or that makes them contradict themselves? In a game whose rulebook is incomplete, that game is too easy. Oh, look, another hole. Throw it on the pile. (Visualizing a pile of holes is left as an exercise for the reader.) It's also no fun to look for holes in games that are elegantly simple, like Chess - there's nowhere to start. Magic is in a sweet spot between the two extremes. For instance.

You have Opal Acrolith and Fountain Watch in play.

Play Cytoshape on Fountain Watch, turning it into an Opal Acrolith. Activate its new "0: Opal Acrolith becomes an enchantment" ability. At the end of the turn, Cytoshape wears off, but the Acrolith ability doesn't: you've got an enchantment (not a creature) named Fountain Watch! And it makes itself untargetable, along with all your other enchantments.

Yes, you could have achieved that by making it untargetable some other way, but that's not really the point - we managed to turn a creature into an enchantment, while leaving everything else about it intact. That's pretty cool, don't you think?

And yes, you wouldn't actually want to *do* this. Look, I told you already - I'm not a Spike, I'm a Melvin. I'm not going to tell you how to *win* games, I'm here to point out how much fun it is to just think about Magic - without that pesky requirement that you play the game or build decks or, you know, get out of bed.

Although the Acrolith example is cute, it wasn't exactly hard to work out what happened. Why don't we try a trickier example?

You have Volrath's Shapeshifter in play. The top card of your graveyard is Haakon, Stromgald Scourge. The second card down is Grid Monitor. If you try to play Haakon, the first thing you'll do is put him on the stack... at which point Volrath's Shapeshifter will suddenly gain Grid Monitor's "You can't play creature spells" ability!

Can you play Haakon?

When you're ready, click here for the answer.

No, you can't. Spell legality is checked both before and after the spell is put onto the stack.

Even trickier: You use Soul Sculptor's ability on a Confessor. It turns into an enchantment and (more importantly) loses all of its abilities until someone plays a creature spell. Then, you play a creature spell, using Dream Halls to pay for it. In other words, you pay for it by discarding a card. Does Confessor regain its ability and trigger off this discard?

When you're ready, click here for the answer.

Nope, it doesn't. This one's very fiddly. Confessor regains its ability at the same time as the spell "becomes played" - which happens right after you finish paying all its costs. Confessor's ability triggers *immediately after* a card is discarded. If the ability doesn't exist then, it doesn't trigger at all. So the key question is: does the spell become played *as soon as* the last cost is paid? Or is there a delay, a moment when all costs have been paid, but the spell doesn't count as played? As it turns out, there's a delay.

Fun? Well, I think it is. Just one more: Rayne, Academy Chancellor triggers "Whenever you or a permanent you control becomes the target of a spell..." If your opponent plays a spell such as Lunge, targeting you *and* a permanent you control, does Rayne trigger once or twice?

When you're ready, click here for the answer.

Rayne will trigger twice. Basically, the keyword here is "or" - to trigger only once, it would say "and/or". See Cover of Winter, for example. This might look simple, but the first time it came up, I had to argue about what "or" meant for two weeks.

The Next Stage

Although I started off just messing around asking about corner cases like these, it wasn't long before the folks in charge complained: "If you're so clever, come over here and clean up your own messes!" Hence, although I don't technically work for Wizards, nowadays I'm a freelance "Rules Guru." The gurus act as advisors to the rules manager. (What, you thought the poor guy had time to veto all Maro's daft ideas personally?)

We point out potential problems with future cards, make suggestions on how to word new rules and abilities, write questions for FAQs, decide how best to handle new-found problems with existing cards, and so on. This is a pretty darn cool job.

For example; when I first saw Chronatog Totem in March 2006, 6 months before Time Spiral came out (darn cool job, as I said), its wording was:

Chronatog Totem
{T}: Add {U} to your mana pool.
{1U}: Until end of turn, Chronatog Totem becomes a 1/2 blue Atog artifact creature with "{0}: This creature gets +3/+3 until end of turn. You skip your next turn. Play this ability only once each turn."

See the problem there? Each time you pay {1U}, it gains a new "{0}: +3/+3" ability. Since each copy of the ability can be played once, this effectively has

"{1U}: Skip your next turn. Chronatog Totem gets +3/+3 until end of turn."

Hey, that's a Shade, not a Rootwalla! Not quite what the designer had in mind, obviously, so I suggested the wording you know now. (And the other totems were given similar fixes.)

You may recall a similar problem from such cards as Genju of the Fields. Yeah... well, at least we learn from our mistakes.


And so we come to Future Sight. It's not unusual for a design to include a card that's so worrying it has to be checked over by the gurus early, in case it just doesn't work and needs to be completely canned or revised. In Coldsnap, that was Panglacial Wurm.

We spent a week or so hammering out exactly how you could play a card during a search, then gave it the thumbs up. In Time Spiral, it was a Split Second Word of Command, but in the end that one had to be canned. The text required just wouldn't fit on the card.

And Future Sight? Well, basically they had to send the whole set early. But yes, there was one card - the most rule-breaking of the rule-breakers - that was sent out extra early, three months before the rest.

"Could a card be printed that had this ability"?

And unanimously, the gurus replied...

"Yep, no problem, go ahead".

I get the feeling the designers were a little disappointed.

I guess I should explain. This all stems back to a card that's widely considered one of the worst sources of rules problems in the game. Mark Rosewater has listed it, twice, as one of his biggest mistakes. Because of it, Magic shied away from "lose all abilities" effects for eight whole years, all the way from Urza's Saga to Time Spiral.

It's a little card called Humility.

So, what's the problem with Humility? Well, start by imagining it's in play with Living Terrain. If a land is a creature, it ought to be Humiliated just like any other creature; so Humility has to react to what Living Terrain does. In other words, the two effects need to apply in order: Living Terrain makes a land into a creature, then Humility removes abilities from all creatures. Which is fine, we can do that.

How about Humility and Ambush Commander, though? By the same logic as before, Humility ought to apply second... but Ambush Commander is a creature too! Its abilities shouldn't get to apply when Humility is in play. So we should be applying them in the opposite order - Humility removes all abilities, then Ambush Commander does nothing, because it has no abilities.

And what if two copies of Opalescence are in play, making each other into creatures? Now Humility comes along and removes the very abilities that are making them creatures...?

I hope you get the idea. To compound the problem, even in the cases where you can logically work out what ought to happen, it's far from easy to write a rule that someone else can follow to reach the same conclusion in all cases.

But... we fixed it! It took a few years, and a lot of arguments... but we got there in the end. For a while, I was seriously advocating Anthony Alongi's joke solution - "If Humility and two Opalescences are in play, the game is a draw". But in the end, Humility was fixed by the continuous effect layer system. For those interested, the idea is to segregate effects into 6 layers, so that they can't interfere with each other.

The layers are:

  1. Copy effects
  2. Control-changing effects
  3. Text-changing effects
  4. Type-changing effects (e.g. Living Terrain, Ambush Commander, Opalescence)
  5. Color-changing effects
  6. Ability-changing effects (e.g. Humility's "lose abilities" effect)
  7. Power-and-toughness-changing effects. (Actually, this is divided into a further 4 sub-layers. I won't go into that.)

As you see, Living Lands, Ambush Commander, and Opalescence apply in layer 4, whereas Humility removes abilities later, in layer 5. In other words, Humility applies too late to disable Ambush Commander's ability. (It removes it, sure, but only after it has applied.)

This may seem weird, but trust me: the alternatives are worse. At least this answer doesn't change based on what order they came into play, or what else is in play, or whose turn it is, or anything like that. So, if Humility is fixed, then Yixlid Jailer must be just fine, right? Well, more or less. Yes, as you'd probably expect, it can shut down a self-reanimating card like Squee, Pyre Zombie or Ichorid. It's also pretty cruel to the Incarnations, Riftstone Portal, Haakon, Stromgald Scourge, and cards with Dredge or Flashback. So far, so predictable.

But there are some more interesting cases. So, for those that enjoy these little puzzles, let's go exploring. Yixlid Jailer is in play. A spell returns Golgari Brownscale from your graveyard to your hand. Do you gain 2 life?

Click here to see the answer when you're ready.

No, you don't. If a card is moving from a zone that's visible to everyone (e.g. in play or in a graveyard) into one that's hidden (e.g. a library or hand), we check for triggered abilities while it's visible. At that point, Golgari Brownscale has no abilities and can't trigger.

Yixlid Jailer is in play, and a spell puts the top card of your library into your graveyard. It turns out to be Gaea's Blessing. Do you shuffle your graveyard into your library?

Click here to see the answer when you're ready.

No, you don't, for the same reason: If a card moves from a hidden zone into a visible one, again we check for triggered abilities while the card is visible. Gaea's Blessing can only trigger while it's in the graveyard - but it doesn't have the ability there. Guerrilla Tactics also gets shut down this way.

Yixlid Jailer is in play, and a spell tells you to put the top card of your library into your graveyard. It turns out to be a Legacy Weapon. Do you shuffle it into your library instead?

Click here to see the answer when you're ready.

Yes, you do. Unlike Gaea's Blessing, Legacy Weapon says you shuffle *instead of* putting it into the graveyard. This replaces the original action, so Legacy Weapon doesn't actually enter your graveyard. Yixlid Jailer never affects it.

Yixlid Jailer is in play. A Chimney Imp dies. Does the Imp's ability trigger?

Click here to see the answer when you're ready.

Yes, it does. If a card moves into or out of play, we check for triggered abilities while it's in play.

Yixlid Jailer is in play, and you cycle Krosan Tusker from your hand. Does its "When you cycle Krosan Tusker" ability trigger?

Click here to see the answer when you're ready.

No, it doesn't. Saying "When you cycle" is just like saying "When you discard this card to its cycling ability". The timing works just like Gaea's Blessing.

Yixlid Jailer is in play and a Mistform Ultimus is in the graveyard. What creature types does the Ultimus have?

Click here to see the answer when you're ready.

All creature types! Just like Humility, Yixlid Jailer's ability applies in layer 5. Mistform Ultimus affects (creature) types, so it applies in layer 4 - too early to be disabled.

Yixlid Jailer is in play, and so is a Volrath's Shapeshifter. The top card of your graveyard is a creature card with flying. Does Volrath's Shapeshifter have flying?

Click here to see the answer when you're ready.

Yes, it does. Volrath's Shapeshifter copies the card's text in layer 3. Yixlid Jailer doesn't apply until layer 5 - and even then, it doesn't affect the card's text. (It just disables the abilities the text generates.)If you're confused by the distinction, see Deep Analysis: Text, Abilities, and Effects.

Yixlid Jailer is in play. A spell puts Scarwood Treefolk into play from your graveyard. Does the Treefolk's ability make it come into play tapped?

Click here to see the answer when you're ready.

Yes, it does! This one surprised most gurus. Basically, an ability that affects how something comes into play - like Quirion Elves, Clone, Phyrexian Dreadnought, Scarwood Treefolk, etc - has to use some very special rules. Imagine a Clone being put into play as a copy of a Scarwood Treefolk. Obviously, the copy ought to come into play tapped, just like the real one does - but how can that actually happen? Clone doesn't become a Scarwood Treefolk in your hand. It doesn't have the Treefolk's abilities until it's actually in play. To cut a long story short: these abilities get applied based on what the card is "coming into play as".For the details, see Step By Step: Replacement Effect Lookahead.

So as you can see, when gurus say "That's safe, go ahead and print it", they do not mean "That won't raise any awkward questions..."

I hope you've enjoyed this trip through the rulebook and a little experiment showing the game from what I'm guessing is a pretty new perspective. May all your questions receive precise answers, if perhaps unintuitive ones!

Laurie Cheers

The original version of this article can still be found on the web archive. You may also be interested in Laurie's followup Reddit AMA. You can read more of their writing here and here. And if you're so inclined, you can come argue about rules corner cases new and old with Laurie (and other people) in the RulesGuru Discord server.