The Magic Rules are not Complete

Wizards of the Coast likes to claim that its comprehensive rulebook provides a complete description of anything that could possibly happen in a game of Magic. For example, the download page says:

"The Comprehensive Rules of Magic is a reference document that holds all of the rules and possible corner cases found in Magic."

This statement, along with many others that Wizards has made regarding their rules, is false. Let's look at some examples first so you understand what we're talking about.

Errors in the CR

"This document is the ultimate authority for Magic: The Gathering® competitive game play."

1. This is the very first sentence in the CR, and lo and behold, it's wrong. The head judge of a tournament has the ability to override the CR when necessary, which has happened several times. But ok, that's kind of a gimme. Let's look at the real problems.

2. What happens if you cast Council's Judgement with no nonland permanents on the battlefield? It says to exile all permanents with the most votes, which is 0, so all lands should be exiled. This makes complete sense, but contradicts a ruling on the card's Gatherer page.

3. The CR defines an "effect" as "something that happens in the game as a result of a spell or ability". However all over the CR, you can find references to rules that are supposed to function as though they were effects, such as a planeswalker entering the battlefield with loyalty counters being a replacement effect. And if that weren't bad enough, other parts of the CR expect you to treat rules as though they aren't effects, such as Library of Leng not applying to discarding for turn. There is no hint whatsoever given as to when a rule counts as an effect and when it doesn't.

4. Banisher Priest exiles a Vulturous Zombie, then dies. Does the Zombie trigger? The CR tells us that both the "return the creature to the battlefield" event and the "check to see if a creature dying triggered any triggers" event happen at the same time, which means that we're checking whether Vulturous Zombie is on the battlefield at the same time as it's entering the battlefield. This obviously makes no sense.

5. The CR's rules on equipment contain the following phrase: "An Equipment that loses the subtype 'Equipment' can’t equip a creature." So uh, this rule applies to equipments that aren't equipment. Ok. The only other reasonable interpretations of this rule are either that it's referring to the past event of "loses the subtype" and means "an object that previously had the subtype 'Equipment'", or that when it says "equipment" it means "the printed characteristics include the subtype 'Equipment', ignoring any continuous effects", but both of those interpretations lead to unintended results.

6. What happens if you reanimate Heliod with Dance of the Manse and don't have devotion? Two conflicting effects like this are supposed to be applied in timestamp order, but the timestamp of Dance's effect is the exact same as the timestamp of Heliod's effect, so it's undefined whether it's a creature or not.

Ok, but won't most situations that actually come up have an obvious intended answer?

In many cases yes. Karmic Justice exactly as worded should never trigger, since spells never destroy permanents, they just instruct players to do so. But it's pretty obvious what Karmic Justice is supposed to do, so we can safely gloss over the exact text and rule "it just works" without fear of Wizards telling us we're wrong. But for other interactions, not so much. The two above without an obvious answer could both come up in a game of commander fairly easily, and there are hundreds of other examples as well.

An additional complication is that there are times when the unintuitive answer is the one Wizards intends. A player with no intimate knowledge of the rules would say that obviously your lands stop being Mountains when Magus of the Moon is targeted by Turn to Frog, yet the rules say otherwise and Wizards backs up that answer as the intended one.

Wizards will sometimes go even further and overrule the CR in order to get an unintuitive answer. If you have 4 devotion to white and cast Heliod while your opponent controls Imposing Sovereign, the intuitive answer is that Heliod enters tapped, since it'll be a creature as soon as it's on the battlefield and would trigger "whenever a creature enters the battlefield" triggers. And indeed, this is what the rules (somewhat vaguely) say happens. Yet Wizards has made official rulings on this and similar situations that say it enters untapped because it doesn't take into account that your devotion will be higher with it on the battlefield.

Ruling the "obvious" way is certainly an acceptable workaround in some cases, but it does not suffice for many of them.

Can't we just go by the official rulings that Wizards makes?

On an individual basis, that will often work fine. However there are a number of problems with this approach, and the more we have to rely on rulings, the more evident these problems become.

(Please note that this article is only about the game rules, not tournament policy. While these issues do somewhat apply to policy rulings, they are much less of a problem there. Tournament policy is non-complete by design and replies on a lot of subjective judgement. A lack of access to every ruling is much less problematic because a small amount of inconsistency is expected of the system, and there are also far fewer official rulings being made overall.)

How did we get here?

Back in the 1990s, there were no "comprehensive rules". People were expected to read the cards and the simple introductory rulebook and just take their best guess. The first rulebook included the guideline of "If you can't decide on how something works, flip a coin." Wizards would sometimes make official rulings to clarify, but given how new the internet was back then it was even harder for that information to spread than it is now.

This all changed in Sixth Edition. Tournament play was rapidly increasing in popularity and inconsistent rulings across events was becoming a big problem. Wizards realized the current system was a bad one, and they released the Sixth Edition rule change. This change dramatically simplified a lot of things (the pre Sixth Edition rules for responding to spells and abilities took up a three page flowchart), along with introducing the concept of a single rules document that covered everything. No more would people have to email Wizards in order to get an answer to any question. This was a brilliant move by Wizards of the Coast, and helped cement Magic as a game that people could play competitively with money on the line.

"Our main motivation behind the Sixth Edition rules changes was that the rules were needlessly complicated and growing more so each month. I realize that this is a judgment call, but I ask you: How many rules experts are there, really? Twenty-five, maybe. And I have questions that will stump all of them because there are Fifth Edition rules questions with no answer. Having overly complex rules is detrimental for Magic play. The skill of play and of deckbuilding should be the challenge of Magic, the thing that separates good players from great players. Memorizing a complex rules system should not."
-Bill Rose, 1999

More recently in 2009, WOTC made a similar change with similar goals. From the article explaining the M10 rules changes:

"The Sixth Edition changes were meant to bring order to a disordered system. Our goal this time was much more subtle—to change the most unintuitive parts of game play such that players' first instincts were more often correct. Because Magic is a game most often played without access to a rulebook, players without contact with our fine network of judges often have to make decisions regarding how they think the game operates on the fly, and we want them to get things right more often than they get them wrong.
So why is it important to make sure these players' intuition is most often correct? Aren't they content playing with their own messy version of the rules? They are—up to a point, and that point is when they leave their circles and joins the larger, more rules-compliant crowd. Maybe it happens at Friday Night Magic, or a Prerelease, or a convention. Maybe new players enter the group. However it happens, we want to make sure those players don't find out they've been doing it all wrong, find out the game doesn't make as much sense as they thought, find out that they don't like the way the rules really work."

So why are there still problems?

In the past few years R&D has gotten more and more lax with these issues. (You'll notice most of the examples of errors that I've used in this article are fairly recent cards. ) I've never worked for Wizards and can't speak to the decision-making processes of R&D, and I don't know why errors are cropping up with greater frequency. All I know is that these mistakes exist, and whenever one of them pointed out nowadays, it's usually ignored or dismissed.

For example, here, a judge pointed out a legitimate omission in the rules- the CR defines Trinisphere as an additional cost, which it's not supposed to. That rules manager has since deleted his Twitter account, but the reply was "No. You need to read the new rules, not just the update bulletin's short description." This condescending reply doesn't help in any way, given that the original asker had already read the rules and was trying to discuss the omission therein.

What does this actually mean for judges?

Despite these problems, the Magic rules are quite good and do cover most common situations with a reasonable degree of accuracy. Tournaments are not going to grind to a halt because of it.

However there are times when one of these gaps has a noticeable impact on tournament play. Back in Guilds of Ravnica Standard, a common question was what happens when you surveil 2 and choose to choose to put Nexus of Fate into your graveyard but not the other card. 400.6 clearly stated that the controller can choose whether the other card in the surveil ends up on top or shuffled away, but Wizards decided to make a ruling that it had to end up on top with no choice to shuffle. While not a large tactical issue since any player who didn't want the card could simply put it into their graveyard, players would get inconsistent answers depending on whether judges were aware of the official ruling or not.Wizards did eventually fix this years later in the Core Set 2021 update. As another example, Urza's Bauble sees legacy play, and while the rules say that the other player does not get to know which card was looked at, Wizards made a ruling that they do.

More relevant than tournament situations is the impact on judge education. If someone believes the rules have an answer for any question but can't find one in the rules, they're likely to become frustrated with themselves for a perceived failing on their part. Mentors who are asked a question by a mentee may be left without the ability to provide a good answer, leaving both of them confused. Or worse, accidentally twisting a rule to appear to fit the situation and insisting that it says something it doesn't. I've seen it happen more than once that a curious judge finds an omission or inconsistency in the rules and brings it up to Wizards, only to be told that they overlooked something (which they didn't) and not given a satisfactory answer, leaving more confused than before.

The ability to provide detailed explanations of questions is one of the most relevant impacts of these gaps. As a personal example, when I was creating the tests for Judge Academy, I wrote up multiple scenarios with a "right" answer that judges should know, but then couldn't find a rule that backed up that answer. I had to omit them entirely from the test as a result. I've seen many judge resources where the citations provided in the answer either don't explain the answer properly or are completely unrelated to the given interaction, leaving judges confused and frustrated.

A good understanding of the rules does not come from glossing over the mistakes therein and pretending they don't exist, or from twisting the written rules into dubiously supporting a predetermined desired answer. It comes from understanding what errors exist in the rules, why they were made, and remembering that in a tournament the head judge may have to use their power to overrule the CR.

Wrapping up

If this state of affairs bothers you, tell Wizards of the Coast. They will sometimes fix issues that get enough mainstream attention (Ixalan's Binding exiling Squee for example), and the more judges and players show they're unsatisfied with the current rules, the more they'll try to live up to their claim of covering every possible corner case. Most of these are quick and easy fixes, only requiring a slight wording tweak of a single rule to resolve.

The examples in this article are just a few of the hundreds of existing gaps in the rules. If you're curious to see more, there are several here.

And if you'd like to discuss anything presented in this article, please contact me and I'll be happy to chat. :)