Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Comprehensive(ish) Guide to Writing Penalty Descriptions

It's Monday. This time yesterday, the Classics at SCG's Baltimore Tour stop were starting to transition from the Swiss rounds into the Top 8. I was on the shared deck checks team, which means that I was frantically (not really) courtesy checking the decks of people who believed that they would make the cut.

Right before that, though, I was walking around on the floor (of all three events — both Classics and the Open) and talking to judges about this slip:

That word you can't read is mana. But does knowing that really help?

To someone who knows what happened in this situation (a mystery I'll solve for you in a second), this penalty description probably makes perfect sense. But, to someone who wasn't there, this is confusing. What do you mean he spent mana from a revealed card? How in the ...? (Spoiler alert: the casting of the spell referenced in the penalty isn't really the error the player made.)

I've scorekept a lot of events, which means that I've had to decipher a great many penalty descriptions. Some of them are great. Many of them are like this one, or they're four lines long when a phrase or two would be sufficient.

Why Do Penalty Descriptions Matter?

I'm going to start here because without these, it's hard to see how unclear descriptions are problematic:

  • The scorekeeper has to be able to make sense of them.
  • The details might be important later in the event.
  • The details might be important well after the event, when someone's being investigated.
The first reason is near and dear to my heart (which might be why I put it first). When I'm on stage at an event, I'm not just mindlessly typing in whatever's written on the back of a slip. I'm parsing the description both to figure out what happened and to make sure that the infraction as described matches the penalty that was issued.

That last part is very important to me. If something looks weird on a slip (like a Missed Trigger warning for a generally beneficial trigger), I want to make sure that the penalty is appropriate. Upgrades are a thing, and I'm one of their gatekeepers. Perhaps even more than that, if it turns out that the penalty wasn't appropriate, it's a learning opportunity, and I hate squandering those.

If I can't make sense of a penalty description or something seems off about one, resolving it takes time. I have to find the judge who wrote the penalty and find out the specific details of what happened. At smaller events, this isn't a huge burden. At larger events when time is at a premium, the time it takes to do this can cause Problems, especially if the problem with the description isn't apparent until someone else needs the details for something.

For example ... the second bullet point. For whatever reason (and potential DQ situations are on the list), another judge in the event might need the details of what happened when that old penalty was issued. If you've been on the floor all day and issued dozens of penalties for simple GRVs, you might not remember the details. You might have gone home for the day. You might be on break, and the situation might be time sensitive.

If you've left a concise explanation of what happened on the back of the slip, none of these possibilities turn into hurdles. And keep in mind that these details matter even after the event is over. In the not-so-distant past, penalty history has been used as evidence in suspensions. Accumulated warnings pointed to a pattern of deliberate behavior. Without details about those incidents, it would have been more difficult to come to a conclusion.

Writing Penalties for Game Rule Violations

This is almost the most frequently issued penalty at large events (Looking at Extra Cards usually wins out), and it's the one that judges seem to have the most trouble with describing. Let's look back at the example from earlier:
Illegally cast spell with mana from revealed card.
This description has one thing going for it: it's short. Short descriptions are easier to parse. GRVs don't happen in a vacuum: the game state around them can be complex, and there can be factors at play that make them more or less concerning. Even so, most of them can be boiled down into a few words. That gives us:

Rule #1: Be succinct.

Use as many words in your description as you have to, but no more than you need to.

When it comes to conveying what actually happened that was Bad, this one misses the mark. As I was sharing this penalty with judges on the floor, the unanimous reaction I got to this was "Uhhh ... what?!?!?!"

OK, maybe with fewer exclamation points.

The Mystery Unraveled

It's spoiler time. Here's what really happened when this penalty was issued:

AP's first turn: Land, Oath of Nissa, pick a mana dork. AP put the creature on the table to reveal it while he put the other two cards on the bottom of his library.

NAP's first turn: Some stuff happened.

AP's second turn: Land, tap both lands and the mana dork to cast a spell that cost three mana.

So *this* is how you use a revealed card to generate mana!

But was that really the error? At that point, the creature was physically on the battlefield (even though it should have been in AP's hand), and AP thought he could tap it for mana, so he did. The actual error happened the turn before, when he left it on the battlefield instead of putting it in his hand while he finished resolving Oath of Nissa's trigger.

Here's a better way to describe that point of error:
Left Hedron Crawler on battlefield after revealing from Oath of Nissa.
I'm not actually sure whether the mana dork was a Hedron Crawler, but I'm going to pretend that it was, because it illustrates:

Rule #2: Use card names.

I talked about this recently in a tournament report, but I want to bring it up again:

Use card names in penalty descriptions.

Card names convey an insanely large amount of information in very little space. They represent everything that the card can do and they're easy to parse. I know what Oath of Nissa does (mostly). I know that Hedron Crawler taps for colorless mana. By using card names, you're cutting down on the amount of space that you have to use to convey the same information (see: Rule #1).

When I talk to people about using card names, I often hear that they were told never to use them. I've come to the conclusion that this has morphed (teeheehee) out of a very solid piece of direction, which is: don't write names of cards that aren't known to both players.

The classic example of this is Deck/Decklist Problem penalties. If a player left a card of his deck list, don't write the name of the card on the match result slip. It doesn't really matter because in that instance the card name doesn't convey nearly as much information, and you never, ever, ever want to give players access to information they wouldn't otherwise have. Especially about their opponent's decks. Especially at the beginning of a round.

However, if both players have seen the card — which is likely, since Something Bad happened — it's OK to write the card name down. They both know it's there.

Card names are particularly effective for GRV descriptions because it's easy to pair them with what happened that was wrong. Let's look at one of the most common not-quite descriptive-enough penalty descriptions:
Cast spell incorrectly.
OK. This is a start, but it doesn't mean much. Did the player not have enough mana? Did she not have the right colors? Was the target illegal? Did she forget to choose modes? Casting a spell is complicated, and lots can go wrong.

I'm going to pretend I'm casting Wrath of God. I'm also going to pretend that I don't have any white mana, that my opponent notices, and that you come over to help us figure out what needs to happen. You put the Wrath of God back in my hand, untap my lands, grab my match result slip (which I haven't crumpled up or written life totals on the back of), and head an aisle over to write down what happened.

You start to write "Cast spell incorrectly," but then you imagine your scorekeeper frowning, so you decide to write something else instead. How about this:
Cast Wrath with no white.
This follows the first two rules — it's short and it uses card names. (On that note, abbreviated card names are totally fine. If you write Bob or Mom, I'll know what you mean.) It also tells the scorekeeper how the casting of Wrath of God differed from how Wrath of God is supposed to be cast, which illustrates:

Rule #3: Explain how what happened was different from what was supposed to happen.

More like Wrath of Scorekeeper.

The advice I like to give in person (when I'm trying to be succinct), goes like this:

"Tell me the name of the card and what happened in the game that was different from what's printed on that card.*"

(*Replace "printed on that card" with "in that card's Oracle text" as necessary.)

Most GRVs can be simplified this way. Yes, other things might be going on in the game (like the three-mana spell being cast in the first example), but you can often identify a single root cause of the "corrupted" game state and name the "responsible" card. It's an easy recipe to remember, and it's very effective at communicating what happened.

Here are the three rules, all together:

  1. Be succinct. Use as many words as you need to, but no more than you have to.
  2. Use card names, but not if the card isn't known to both players.
  3. Explain what happened that was different from what's on the named cards.
If the Game Rule Violation is paired with a Failure to Maintain Game State warning, you don't have to rewrite the description. Arrows or quote marks are perfect.

Looking at Extra Cards

Remember how I mentioned that this is probably the penalty that's issued most often at large events? It turns out that cards are finicky things, and getting them to go where you want them to go is way harder than it sounds. (Especially for me. You can ask EDB all about it.)

Writing penalty descriptions for these infractions is pretty straightforward. You'll want to include three specific things:
  • How
  • Where
  • When
How. How did the player come to look at this extra card? Did it fall on the table while he was shuffling? Flip from the top of his library?

Where. Where did the card come from? The player's library? Her opponent's hand? Someone's sideboard?

When? When was the card revealed? Were the players shuffling up for game one? Was someone drawing for their turn or putting their deck back after a search effect?

As with GRVs, it's pretty easy to condense this information into a few words. Here are some examples:
  • Flipped top card while drawing
  • Dropped opponent's card while shuffling for game one
  • Milled one too many cards
There's a trend to describe Looking at Extra Cards infractions with just "dexterity error." That's not really enough — there's a huge difference between flipping the top card of your own library and catching a glimpse of your opponent's deck while shuffling, and even if the root cause of those two infractions might be the same — slippery Magic cards — the results are vastly different.

It is useful to note that you think slippery Magic cards are to blame, but you can do that with the other language that you choose. "Flipping" is pretty accidental, and so is "dropping." "Milled" is purposeful (as "picked up" would be), on the other hand, and it points to an error of game rule execution rather than dexterity.

Deck/Decklist Problems

These are the best.

And by the best, I mean that they're the best penalties to write descriptions for because they lend themselves well to short descriptions, like these:
  • 58/15
  • 38
  • Failed to de-side
  • Unregistered sideboard cards*
  • Mismatch**
Remember: don't use card names here. Don't write down the name of the card the player forgot to put back in his sideboard or the ambiguous card name. Don't even write down what the player wrote instead of a card name.

For these example penalty descriptions, the rules of the game or format are sufficient to fill in all the blanks — players need to have 60 cards or 40 cards, depending on the format. If they have fewer than that number on their list, the Problem is perfectly clear.

*While you're not going to issue this penalty to a player who has 13 cards both on her decklist and in her deck box (because that's not a Problem), I probably won't assume that's the case if you use something like "60/13" instead. I'll follow up to make sure you didn't issue the penalty to someone who intended to use a 13-card sideboard.

**Don't use card names. If there's a reason you want the specific details recorded, bring it up with your Head Judge or write the scorekeeper a note about the penalty on something other than the player's match result slip.

Other Infractions

While the three infractions above are the most common, they're not the only infractions that players commit. Here are some quick notes on some of the others.

Missed Trigger

Just the card name is usually fine, unless the card has multiple triggered abilities. For symmetrical triggered abilities, it's useful to be extra clear that the detrimental side was the one that got missed.

Hidden Card Error/Mulligan Procedure Error

You can use the recipe for writing GRV descriptions for many of these infractions, regardless of whether they're tied to specific cards or game rules:
  • Resolved Ponder as Brainstorm
  • Put both cards in hand from Sleight
  • Didn't reveal for Domri
  • Mulliganed to 7
  • Mulliganed after scrying
In all of these instances, the card text or mulligan procedure tells us why what happened was a problem. These descriptions are clear and concise because they can take advantage of that framework.


You don't need to write a penalty description on the back of the slip for Tardiness. The markings you make on the front are sufficient. Here's an example:

Red pen helps. You can also write "NO SHOW" in the drop column.

Here's a pro tip when you're filling out Tardiness slips: have the player at the table fill out the game score. They're much less likely than you are to get it backward, and re-adding a player to an event is one of the more time-consuming scorekeeping fixes.

Communication Policy Violation

It's not CPV.

When Weird Things Happen

Sometimes infractions don't lend themselves to neat and tidy descriptions. Using card names isn't enough to explain it, or the context of the error is important to understanding what happened. When you run into these kinds of situations, you have two options: write a longer description (generally preferred) or talk to your scorekeeper (before someone has to hunt you down) and explain what you wrote.

Here are some situations where you probably want to add extra details to your penalty descriptions:
  • Something raised a red flag, but the Head Judge decided against the DQ
  • The short version of the description sounds like an infraction other than the one that you issued
  • Upgrades, downgrades and deviations

I'm going to leave you with one to think about. This happened this past weekend in Baltimore:

During AP's upkeep, he reveals Mana Leak for his Delver of Secrets trigger. He puts the Mana Leak in his hand and starts to flip the Delver. NAP activates Codex Shredder targeting AP (intending to mill the Mana Leak before AP drew it for turn and not realizing that AP had already put it into his hand). AP mills the top card of his library, which is now a Steam Vents. At this point, NAP realizes that Something Bad has happened.

After sorting everything out, you pick up the slip to record the infraction. What do you write?