Entering the Grey Zone of Communication

Written by derflippi on December 20, 2013

Magic rules are vast. The comprehensive rules (CR) book has (As of November 1st, 2013) 199 pages. That is enough to cover the interaction of any number of cards. You can determine how the game works and decide whether any action is legal or not.


But playing Magic is not just about making technically correct actions. There's more into it. To create a fluent game flow, communication is necessary. Think of it: How often do you ask for or give technically available information to your opponent?


“How many cards are in your hand?”

“How big is your Tarmogoyf?”

“I will now explain a loop. I will iterate through it over 9000 times. This means I deal 9000 damage to you.”


This part of the game is not covered in the CR. The CR explains how the game works, how an artificial intelligence (let's call it MTGO) can carry out instructions. But most magic matches are played by two spirited players. Players talk with each other during the game. They ask about cards the opponent controls and about their own cards. However, a player doesn't always have the best for his opponent in mind, especially at competitive events with huge prizes.


To ensure a fair communication among players, another document applies to the players at tournaments: The Magic Tournament Rules (MTR).


(Unless specified all text in italics is extracts from the MTR)


The purpose of this document is to provide the infrastructure used to run Magic: The Gathering (“Magic”) tournaments by defining appropriate rules, responsibilities, and procedures to be followed in all DCI-sanctioned, competitive-level Magic tournaments.


The MTR covers Tournament Fundamentals (What is a judge? …), Tournament Mechanics (A match consists of several games...), Tournament Rules (Tiebreakers, Sleeves...), Communication, Tournament Violations (Cheating, Bribery, Slow Play...) and format-specific rules (2HG Rochester...). For me, one of the most interesting parts of that document is the part about communication.


4.1 Player Communication


Communication between players is essential to the successful play of any game that involves virtual objects or hidden information. While bluffing may be an aspect of games, there need to be clear lines as to what is, and is not, acceptable for players to say or otherwise represent. Officials and highly competitive players should understand the line between bluffing and fraud. This will confirm expectations of both sporting and competitive players during a game.


The philosophy of the DCI is that a player should have an advantage due to better understanding of the rules of a game, greater awareness of the interactions in the current game state, and superior tactical planning. Players are under no obligation to assist their opponents in playing the game. Regardless of anything else, players are expected to treat their opponents politely and with respect. Failure to do so may lead to Unsporting Conduct penalties.


Magic as played at tournaments needs a frame for what is legal and what is not. Telling a player a blatantly incorrect power/toughness of a Tarmogoyf is not in the spirit of the game and shouldn't be allowed. Many situations ask for a determinable value, then there's only one truth:  My Tarmogoyf is a 5/6 creature.


But the player is under no obligation to assist his opponent in playing the game! He isn't required to say anything, but then again the game would progress only very slowly. Player A will need some time to find out the power/toughness himself.


To still push communication, the MTR allows a number of truths. In my Tarmogoyf example, all of these answers are completely true and might help the players when they get that answer:


“Its power is equal to the number of card types in all graveyards.”

“I have a land and sorcery in my graveyard and nothing else.”


The following rules govern player communication:

• Players must answer all questions asked of them by a judge completely and honestly, regardless of the type of information requested. Players may request to do so away from the match.

• Players may not represent derived or free information incorrectly.

• Players must answer completely and honestly any specific questions pertaining to free information.

• At Regular REL, all derived information is instead considered free.


As with any rules and regulations pertaining to the interaction of people, there are potential ‘holes’ in the rules. Companies move their official location to off shore islands, to save on taxes and that way improves the bottom line. I know of several German pupils applying to study economics when they actually have business administration in mind because they're more likely to be accepted for BSC Economics than for BSC Business Administration (Everyone applies to Business Administration because they don't really know what they want to study). After the first semester, they change their main subject to Business Administration; that works only if you're already enrolled in that university.


We know Magic players excel at finding holes. Call it a hole in the metagame. I see players get up and say “I broke Standard” all the time. In the end, their idea wasn't quite right. They thought it's really good and they were sure they found a hole, but it didn't work as they expected.


The MTR seems to have weak spots too. What is 'still legal' and what is 'just going a little too far’?


The MTR can't be as comprehensive as the CR: Players are persons, their communication varies too much. You can't make a list of legal answers and a list of illegal answers, because the way people communicate is too varied.


The document tells us what is allowed, and what isn't. It is a guideline, with some space in between 'is allowed' and 'is forbidden'. I call that space, that part of our communication where it's not as clear whether it's allowed or not the 'grey zone'. The idea is to find the lines of legality in there.


The intent of this article is not to give players a guide on how far they can go when they deceive the truth. My idea is to make players and judges more aware of the problems that might occur. The ideal would be to find constructive feedback through which the MTR can be improved, reducing the size of the grey zone. Myself, I am not able to do so. I think I see what the MTR wants and although I see some minor holes, I don't know of an alternative way to guide players through communication.


If you don't like reading about anything similar to angle shooting, stop reading. Right now, many communication issues get through because they're not illegal. These very situations don't feel in the spirit of the game for everyone. Use communication tricks at your local FNM or Prerelease? Forget it, you're not welcome. Move within the grey zone in your GP match for day 2? Your opponent might not necessarily befriend you after the match. There's a risk you get DQed if you dig too far. Be aware to not step past the line the Head Judge sets.


Regular Rules Enforcement Level (REL) as played at FNM/Prerelease/most tournaments is meant for fun. Entering the grey zone there might be technically legal, but moral stops us from going there, which is a good thing. At Competitive REL or higher, prizes and money are involved. Naturally, using legal advantages is generally more acceptable and accepted by your peers. I think of it as a Substitution is often applied in competitive soccer. At the end of a soccer game, the winning team sometimes makes a Substitution to waste some time.  Soccer allows it (There exists no Stalling penalty in Soccer), so it's done to a team’s advantage. It's not the most sporting thing, I agree. But it is not unsporting. I realize this phrase doesn't make me sound like a nice guy. However, I think it is useful to educate players and judges about the grey zone of communication policy. Be it to make them aware of what tricks might get them, or be it to give them a small edge, as they chose to use it.


There are three categories of information: free, derived and private.

Free information is information to which all players are entitled access without contamination or omissions made by their opponents. If a player is ever unable or unwilling to provide free information to an opponent that has requested it, he or she should call a judge and explain the situation. Free information includes:

• Details of current game actions and past game actions that still affect the game state.

• The name of any visible object.

• The type of any counter in a public zone.

• The physical status (tapped/flipped/unattached/phased) and current zone of any object.

• Player life totals, poison counter totals, and the game score of the current match.

• The current step and/or phase and which player(s) are active.

• Players must answer completely and honestly any specific questions pertaining to free information.


“What is the name of that card?” pointing at a Chinese Grizzly Bear has to be answered with “Grizzly Bear”

“How much life do you have?” has to be answered clearly and complete.


Private information is information to which players have access only if they are able to determine it from the current visual game state or their own record of previous game actions.

• Any information that is not free or derived is automatically private information.


Not in the MTR:

• Players don't have to answer completely and honestly any specific questions pertaining to private information.

Not in the MTR:

• Players have to answer completely and honestly any specific questions pertaining to private information.


The result?  Not directly in the MTR:

• Players can do what they want, when answering any specific questions pertaining to private information.


Do you have a Counterspell in your hand? “Yes” is as legal an answer as “No”, regardless if you have a Counterspell in your hand or not.

“I don't play Supreme Verdict, you should overextend” is legal, although the opponent might be especially careful when he's told that by a UW Control player.


A quick summary so far:

Anything regarding free information is completely in the black zone. There is no space to step away from the truth. You may not deceive, you may not provide half-truths, and you may not knowingly create misunderstandings.

Anything regarding private/hidden information is in the white zone. You can do whatever you want, lie until your nose is longer than Pinocchio’s.

This leaves the wide area of the grey zone.



Derived information is information to which all players are entitled access, but opponents are not obliged to assist in determining and may require some skill or calculation to determine. Derived information includes:

• The number of any type of objects present in any game zone.

• All characteristics of objects in public zones that are not defined as free information.

• Game Rules, Tournament Policy, Oracle content and any other official information pertaining to the current tournament. Cards are considered to have their Oracle text printed on them.

Toby Elliott on Player Communication Guide  

Basic information consists of publicly viewable information, the base characteristics of the cards in play (including choices made) and actions taken. Derived information is what you get when you put together all the basic information and your knowledge of the rules to form a picture of the game state.

However, statements do not need to be exhaustive - honest answers with careful omissions or "non-answers" designed to misdirect opponents into making suboptimal - but not illegal - plays are acceptable.

What does this mean to us?

“How big is your Tarmogoyf?” – “I have sorcery and land in my graveyard.” (I also have an instant, but I won't tell you)

“What does Reverent Mantra do?” – “My creatures get protection from the color of my choice.” (Your creatures also get protection, but I won't tell you)

“What does your Vampire Nighthawk do?” – “2/3 Flying Lifelink” (It also has Deathtouch, but I won't tell you).

These answers are all completely legal. The player is not lying. He tells the truth, just not the full truth.

Round 13, I am paired against a regional player playing blue-green. In the last game, I am in a rather less promising situation. Along many good cards on his side, I have only Selfhoff Occultist and Somberwald Dryad enchanted with Claustrophobia. During this game, I sacrificed several humans to Deranged Outcast in order to pump the Dryad. I've done a lot of card disadvantage by going all-in with the Dryad and at this point have to be lucky in every draw step. For his Murder of Crows, I find Geistcatcher's Rig. With Selfhoff Occultist still on the battlefield, I announce him as target for the milling ability. Now he asks me, his opponent, a rules question:

"Do I draw first, or do I mill first?"

The player asks about a future game state. What will happen in the future? As always, I can give him a nonsense answer: “I have 8 life and 3 cards in my hand.” But that doesn't help anyone. I can, of course, also give him the answer he's looking for: “You will never draw because Murder of Crows didn't trigger. It says 'another creature dies'.”

I may not give him an answer that will make him draw a card.

“My trigger is put on the stack first” may be a true statement, but it also leads to my opponent making an illegal play.

Even “When two triggers go on the stack at the same time, the trigger of the non-active player resolves first” is problematic. Although it is 'just' a rule extract, it will lead my opponent into making an illegal play. I may not lead my opponent there.

So what is the difference between making the opponent an illegal play and a bad play?

The bad play is legal. Communication can manipulate a decision in favour of ourselves, but communication should not make us play the game in an illegal way. We want the game to be played as a game of skill, not as a game of technicalities.

“I will sacrifice all my lands for mana, play a huge Prosperity and then kill you with a Drain Life, exiling all other cards into Cadaverous Bloom” is a classic bluff, and completely accepted as legal bluff. By the rules, it's legal because it tells about future game state, private information.

Other famous legal bluffs can be found here.

So what is the story of this article?

Communication plays a huge part on who wins a game or match. The MTR is the guideline provided to us which tells what's legal and what's not. The “Player Communication Guide” clarifies the rules described in the MTR even more.

It's never legal to play around with free information: past game actions, life totals, which step or phase the game is in currently.

It's always completely legal to play around with private information: future game actions, content of hidden zones (library, hand).

It's usually legal to give deceiving answers on a question asking about derived information. When doing so, one my lead the opponent to make a bad, but legal play. One may not lead the opponent to make an illegal play. You may not lie about free or derived information.

If you're looking for a different explanation, my major source was


The “Player Communication Guide” from Toby Elliot in 2007.

Back to Magic: the Gathering Articles

by Kabelis on 2013-12-20 01:29 CET

Very useful article. Great examples and easily readable. Cheers!

by coboney on 2013-12-20 02:06 CET

An excellent primer on communication rules and where not to go.

by xJudicatorx on 2013-12-20 05:14 CET

Am I the only who finds it ironic to read an article on communication from a guy who refuses to use phases on MWS?

by MTGmanLA on 2013-12-20 09:45 CET

This reminds me of the Chapin story where he casts a Profane command needing all of his creatures to have fear but Chameleon Colossus was out which is protection from black. So he said 'All of my legal targets gain fear and you lose (X) life' and the opponent assumed Colossus had it and scooped.

by MTGmanLA on 2013-12-20 09:48 CET


There is an article on it.

by Strid3r on 2013-12-20 11:54 CET

"Consider the value of what you get (possibly a bad play by the opponent) vs. what you lose (a friend)."

Depends on if you like having a lots of friends or not.

by ___ on 2013-12-20 14:24 CET

I like winning

by shadowist on 2013-12-20 23:56 CET

Two things:
A lot of the examples arn't relevant to ML eg. I've never seen a Chinese Grizzly Bear

Another thing: I've been called unsportsmanlike because I called my opponent out on paying a pact. Is that true?

by derflippi on 2013-12-21 01:03 CET

I also call my opponent out on (not) paying a Pact. By rules, it's not unsporting. By ethics, I also think it's not unsporting.

by _Godica on 2013-12-21 01:10 CET

"Unsportsmanlike" is subjective as hell. It obviously doesn't fall under what would be considered unsporting conduct for penalty purposes, beyond that anyone's interpretation is as good as anyone else's.

by StarWolf on 2013-12-21 23:41 CET

"Another thing: I've been called unsportsmanlike because I called my opponent out on paying a pact. Is that true?"

I don't see how this could be unsporting or remotely unethical. If your opponent draws a card before paying for a pact spell, then he or she has new information they wouldn't have had otherwise. Obviously this doesn't affect their decision of whether to pay for the pact, but it affects which mana sources he or she uses to pay for it (and it's easy to see a situation where this would give them an unintended advantage).

by _Godica on 2013-12-22 20:31 CET

It's easy to see such a situation, but it's highly contrived and unlikely to ever occur.

I don't think it's unsporting or unethical, but it falls into the category of "things I would not do at FNM or when playing against a friend."

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