Trick Questions

Trick questions are a subject that will inevitably come up if you're someone who engages in mentorship and training of other judges. Are they ever appropriate? If so, when? Should they show up in the official tests? How about when we're mentoring someone for L1 or asking them questions during downtime on the floor? It depends heavily on the details of the question and what that question is trying to accomplish. Any time we're in a position to create questions to ask other judges, it's important to have a solid understanding of what makes a question a "trick question" and what relevance that has.

Roughly speaking, a trick question is any question where the person answering the question is probably going to answer a different question than the one that was actually asked. Often, trick questions have a structure that tries to mislead the answerer or keep them from noticing an important detail.

For the purposes of knowing when to use them, I find it useful to divide trick questions into 4 categories.

1. Wording "gotchas"

Alice controls As Foretold with three time counters on it and has a suspended Rift Bolt with one time counter on it. Nancy controls Thalia, Guardian of Thraben. What happens during Alice's upkeep?

  1. Alice can choose whether to use suspend's alternate cost or As Foretold's alternate cost. Regardless of her choice, Thalia will then apply and make it cost {1}.
  2. Alice can choose whether to use suspend's alternate cost or As Foretold's alternate cost. If she chooses suspend, Thalia will then apply and make it cost {1}. If she chooses As Foretold, Thalia won't apply and Rift Bolt will cost {0}.
  3. Alice cannot use As Foretold's alternate cost and must cast it for suspend's alternate cost. Thalia will then apply and make it cost {1}.
  4. Alice cannot use As Foretold's alternate cost and must cast it for suspend's alternate cost. Thalia won't apply, and Rift Bolt will cost {0}.
  5. None of the above.

The correct answer is:

E. None of the above.

There is no such thing as an alternate cost. As Foretold and suspend are both alternative costs.

Is this helpful?


The difference between "alternate" and "alternative" is a completely irrelevant one. Talking about "alternate costs" is not going to lead to any confusion, and everyone will know what you mean. This sort of question is therefore largely useless for education or testing; it doesn't matter if someone knows the difference, and teaching them the difference is a waste of time.

Trick questions based on irrelevant differences like this are almost never appropriate. They'll often make people feel like we're trying to embarrass them or make ourselves look smarter than them. Or even worse, they might trust us and learn that differences like this actually matter. They'll then spend time trying to memorizing the exact wording of everything rather than using that time to learn things that are actually helpful.

The only real exception to this is if we're running a trivia game where it's made clear to the participants that the questions are going to be pedantic, and that's an expected part of the fun.

This sort of trick question is not to be confused with ones asking about phrasing differences that actually do matter. Magic uses specific language to denote specific functionalities, and differences like "state-based" vs. "turn-based", "effect" vs. "action", "trigger" vs. "spell", etc. do matter quite a lot. Questions that test people on these sorts of differences are quite helpful, since a judge mixing up these sorts of terms can cause serious problems.

But when it's going to be obvious to everyone involved what is meant by the "wrong" term, testing people on their terminology is not a good use of time.

2. Questions missing information

Amy is at 2 life and controls Enduring Angel. Can she play a shock land untapped, going up to 3 life and transforming the Enduring Angel?

No. Her opponent controls Blood Moon, which removes the shock land's ability.

Doing this to people will, again, make them feel like we're trying to embarrass them for no good reason. Unlike the previous category though, there is a good reason to ask judges questions like this. That reason is: Players do this to us all the time.

Not intentionally, of course. But it's quite common for a player in a tournament to ask a judge a specific question while not realizing that there's other information that could affect the answer. Learning to figure out what's actually going on and give the player the correct answer despite the lack of up-front information is one of the most important skills for a judge to have. This is a skill that's difficult to teach people online, and is one of the most common weaknesses of inexperienced judges.

Obviously, questions like the Blood Moon one above are not a good way to do this. Imagine how tedious it would be if, every time someone asked you a question, you had to respond with "are there any other permanents on the battlefield? What's in the graveyard? Are there any continuous effects from previous turns still affecting the game? Etc." That would be incredibly tedious, and clearly takes away from people's ability to carry on a useful dialogue.

The best place for questions like these is in roleplay workshops. In a live scenario, the full game state is already set up on the table, and the judge can look at it to see if they're missing anything rather than needing to subject the player to the Spanish Inquisition. The judge will already have the expectation that they're in charge of finding out the relevant details and won't assume that they're going to be told everything they need to know up front.

It can also be ok to ask this sort of question when there's some particular indication that more information is needed. If I'm asked "How much damage does Grizzly Bears deal in combat", I can reasonably assume that there's nothing else relevant going on and answer "2". But if I'm asked "How much damage does Tarmogoyf deal in combat?", while it's still true that I could assume the game state contains nothing else relevant and therefore the answer is 0, it would probably be better for me to ask what cards are in the graveyards.

3. Questions based on a false premise

Amanda uses Snapcaster Mage to cast Petty Theft from her graveyard with flashback. After it resolves and gets exiled, is she able to cast Brazen Borrower from exile?

This can't happen as described. Snapcaster Mage only targets instant or sorcery cards, and Brazen Borrower is a creature card while in the graveyard.

This type of trick question takes advantage of the fact that people are inclined to trust what they're told, especially when it's being said by an authority figure and/or they're not explicitly looking for deceit. It provides a premise and a question about a consequence that follows from that premise, implying that you should think about the consequenceHow it works when there are two different replacement effect both trying to exile the spell as it resolves., when in fact it's the premise that you need to be inspecting.

These questions can be handled similarly to:

4. Questions that subtly shift the answerer's focus

Ariel controls Semblance Anvil exiling Avian Changeling. Will it reduce the cost of All Is Dust?

No. Semblance Anvil cares about card type, not subtype. Avian Changeling is a creature, while All Is Dust is a tribal sorcery.

These questions are more sneaky than the previous two types. All of the information you need is stated up front and there's no illegal premise, but the question still makes you think it's asking something different from what it's actually asking. In the example above, it primes you to think about creature types by drawing your focus to the weirdness of tribal cards and the changeling keyword, when in fact none of that matters at all.

Similar to type #2, these are good educational questions, since players will do this accidentally and judges need to be able to catch it. Unlike with trick questions missing information, there's no logistical burden caused by using these in the course of a mentorship conversation; it doesn't slow things down. These questions can however still frustrate the answerer, since they might have been trusting us not to mislead them. If we're going to use these in our mentoring, it's important that we're able to present them as a helpful "here's something that's important to remember to check", not "haha you're dumb because you missed this thing".

General considerations

Trick questions certainly have a place in judge training material, but they must be used with caution. They're a powerful tool to help judges learn the skills they'll need in order to be effective on the floor of an event, but they can lead to bad feeling and resentment when used improperly. They can also slow things down; people get paranoid and spend time trying to find the "trick" in every question they're asked.

Trick questions are most important in evaluations, such as advancement tests and endorsement interviews.Except type #1. We want our tests to accurately reflect the skills that judges will need on the floor of an event, and the ability to notice things that aren't explicitly pointed out to them is indeed an important one.And make sure your provided answers address the non-trick version of the question as well. Seeing only "this can't happen because [reason]" is frustrating; it leaves people wondering what the answer would be if it weren't for the trick. So always make sure to include "If it could happen, the answer would be [answer]".And to follow my own advice, the "real" answers to the four trick questions in this article (removing the trick) are:

1: C. Suspend instructs you to cast it without paying its mana cost, and you can't choose to apply a different alternative cost instead, since that wouldn't be following the instructions of suspend. Then you apply any cost increases like Thalia afterwards.

2: Yes. The player chooses to pay 2 life for the shock land's replacement effect, and then that is replaced by Enduring Angel.

3: Yes. Flashback and the adventurer card rules both create a replacement effect that replaces the card going to the graveyard with going to exile. Its controller gets to choose which to apply, and if they apply the adventurer replacement effect, it'll have the permission to be cast from exile.

4: Yes. Changeling apples in all zones, so Avian Changeling is an Eldrazi, and so is All Is Dust. It doesn't matter what's giving them those subtypes, they still count as being the same.

Trick questions are also useful material in live workshop scenariosAgain, except type #1. Use them sparingly and don't make them too difficult; workshop scenarios should reflect the difficulty level of real-world judge calls.

Where we need to be careful is when the focus is on mentorship/learning rather than evaluation.For example, while the advancement tests on Judge Academy should definition include a few trick questions, it's less helpful for the module quizzes to do so. Nobody other than the recipient cares about the results of those quizzes; they're just a self-evaluation tool to check whether they understood the material in the module they just took. There's usually an implicit assumption that our mentors aren't trying to mislead us, and betraying that expectation can lead to bad feeling and resentment.

One way to avoid this to just clarify expectations up front. We can tell our mentee that some of the practice questions we give them will be trick questions, and explain why that's important.This article included some pretty unfair questions, but given the subject of the article, you knew what was coming and you likely didn't get angry over any you got wrong.

For short-term mentorship on the floor of an event where that's not feasible, I've found a convenient way to sidestep the problem is to say "I got this question from a player earlier; wanna hear it?" By saying that the source of the question is a player rather than me, I make it clear that they shouldn't be trusting the presentation of the question and I set up an expectation that what I say might be missing information.

While trick questions have some downsides, their upsides when used well far outweigh the downsides. They can help us prepare for situations on the floor of an event that would otherwise catch us off guard, and successfully catching the "trick" in a trick question can be a huge confidence-booster for a judge who's nervous about their skills. As long as we make an effort to account for their downsides, trick questions are a valuable addition to our toolkit.