The Psychology of Azorius

Feature Article from Jackie Lee
Jackie Lee
10/31/2012 10:01:00 AM
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Recently, I received mail from a reader asking for advice on his son, a 5th grader at New Ravnica Elementary whom we will call 'Azor CXXIX Jr.'

Azor CXXIX Jr. has had a difficult time at school because other students are disdainful of his Azorius parents. They frequently tease him with “jokes,” such as:

Q: What's the difference between a jellyfish and an Azorius senator?
A: One's a spineless, poisonous blob. The other is a form of sea life.

Q: What do you call 25 Azorius Arresters buried up to their chins in cement?
A: Not enough cement.

Azor CXXIX Jr.'s grades have since dropped, and his father, Azor CXXIX Sr., has been so upset by the situation that he processes 15% fewer injunctions at work each day.

This is a sad state of affairs. Today, I would like to educate my readers about the Azorius senate. Judges get a bad rap, but the truth is that they perform a difficult and thankless task—one that Ravnica couldn't function without. Few arresters truly enjoy having to detain someone, but the law exists to keep us safe. Trying to gain a better understanding of it can help us exist more peaceably within its scope.

The Reason for Rules

In society, laws exist to protect citizens from harm by others, as well as from accidentally harming themselves. There are five major principles of law, and another of them is to ensure that citizens follow a certain standard of morality.

Aspects of these definitely exist within the Magic Tournament Rules and Infraction Procedure Guide, which are written to deal with the complexities of tournament play. For example, Unsporting Conduct is a catch-all category that maintains a safe environment of morality for all players. Fraud is a category that ensures that players do not harm each other by withholding information to which the opponent should have free access.

I feel that this excerpt from the “Communication” category of the MTR is a good yardstick for understanding why its rules are written as they are:

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. […]

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.

This is the official stance of DCI policy, and as such, I think that it's a very reasonable standard by which to abide. However, because everyone has their own specific moral compass, there will be areas where you disagree with the “clear line” drawn by the rules. That is an unavoidable problem of law; not everyone can possibly agree on it.

Instead of allowing this to lessen our respect for the governing bodies, we would do better to put ourselves in their shoes and try to understand the difficulties behind various nuances of the law. By approaching the DCI with respect, not only will we better understand the rules before us, but we will be more respected and heard when speaking out against a rule that is legitimately problematic.

Because the rules have been so frequently changing for competitive Rules Enforcement Level, it especially benefits us to be as constructive in our criticisms as possible. That way, the next time they change, the DCI will be able to form their decision from a level-headed argument and ensure that the next iteration of rules appeals to as many people as possible.

Gestalt Interpretation of Rules

Since Magic is a game, it needs to have clearly defined rules. Unfortunately, these rules cannot please everyone, all the time. The DCI has a nearly impossible task before them in attempting to write rules that will please everyone.

To better understand this dilemma, it may help to look at the rules in terms of gestalt psychology.

Gestalt psychology is a school of psychology that deals with our brain's tendency to “fill in the gaps,” particularly when looking at an object. It can be summarized with the adage, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

When you look at the following image, what do you see?

Most people see a triangle, even though only defined shapes are a trio of circular sectors (or “Pac-Man shapes,” for the less geometrically inclined). For this reason, Gestalt psychology believes that the brain operates in a manner that is “holistic, parallel, and analog, with self-organizing tendencies.” If our brain notices a gap, it will automatically repair it in terms of the big picture.

Because Magic is a game, step one is to identify its “essence.” In other words, what makes it tick? When it comes down to it, what makes Magic work? This is the implied triangle.

Next, because we must implement a set of reproducible rules for tournament play, we clearly define a set of borders. These are the black, circular sectors.

Now, we have a defined area. Ironically, this is also where things start to get touchy.

If something occurs at point A, it is clearly well within the triangle, and nobody will have a problem with its classification.

However, if something occurs at point B, it's right up against the borders of the rules. While the rules themselves might state that the action has occurred within the legal bounds of the rules, players (and judges!) may disagree on how they feel about the ruling.

This leads us to the next step of functional gestalt psychology in the rules. Because we are probably not judges and definitely not computers, we don't have the comprehensive rules memorized. Instead, we have a rule of thumb in mind about how we believe they work. That is to say, we recreate the implied triangle in our mind.

The problem is that this reverse-engineered triangle of intent is not going to result in the same shape for everyone. The resulting triangle will function as our personal heuristic for how the rules work. If our reverse-engineered triangle is inaccurate, then we are more likely to accidentally step over the bounds of the defined rules.

As competitive players, we are essentially trained to create a mental triangle that matches up with one the rules. If we cross a line, we're punished. By this process, we're classically conditioned to adjust our mental triangle to fit closer and closer over the image the DCI had in mind. This is the same classical conditioning by which Pavlov trained his dogs to drool whenever he rang a bell.

However, a new problem arises when the rules themselves change. If the DCI decides that the rules should be changed to better reflect their intended “triangle,” then players will have to adjust. This is difficult, though, when you've been conditioned to play in a certain way. And so, we have a situation where a play that is legal today may not have been legal in the past.

Play C is legal under the new rules, but has been illegal in the past.

As a current example of a card awkwardly butting up against the edge of the triangle, we have Jace, Architect of Thought. Jace, as usual, is a Standard powerhouse, so you can expect to see this ruling come up at least once if you decide to play in a tournament of this format.

Store QTY Price  
Kas Cards 2 $1.50
Perspective Cards 1 $1.57
Kas Cards 5 $1.75
Your MTG Store 1 $1.77
Armada Games 1 $1.99
On The Square 1 $2.00
OldSchoolGaming 2 $2.23
The Game Cave 7 $2.35
North Valley Games 2 $2.38
Snapcasters Gaming 9 $2.46
Magic MTG Card
Magic MTG Card Jace, Architect of Thought Magic MTG Card
Magic MTG Card

Jace's +1 ability is actually a triggered ability, even though that feels quite unintuitive. When your opponent swings into your board after a Jace +1, it's up to you to remember to point it out. If you go to blocks without saying anything, according to the competitive rules on missed triggers, your opponent's creatures are not considered to have gotten -1/-0.

“Well that sucks!” you might exclaim. “Why would I have activated that ability if I didn't want it to happen?”

To which a judge would be forced to inwardly cringe while explaining that you are playing at a competitive REL, and that you are required to announce your triggers if you want them to happen.

As another example, courtesy of last week's article comments, there is a Chalice of the Void in play at X=1. Your opponent plays a Tarmogoyf and you counter it with a Spell Snare. If you control the Chalice of the Void, this is explicitly cheating, unless you really did forget about the Chalice. However, if your opponent is the one who controls the Chalice, then you've made a play that is technically legal. Since it's so close to the edge of the intent triangle, though, your opponent will probably feel like you did something dishonorable when their friend points out what happened after the match.

Perhaps most confusingly of all, these rules changes generally only happens under REL Competitive. At FNM, rules like the new ones on missed triggers don't apply, because FNM is considered a learning ground for tournaments that have more at stake. While it is a little bit ironic for casual tournaments to be the most fixed in their details and therefore, having the least chance for error, they also comprise a significantly greater volume than tournaments with such a high profile as the Pro Tour. So, not only are our perceived boundaries different for casual and competitive play, but they are also functionally different, according to the rules at different RELs.

Don't Fear the Law

Because we all have our own personal ideas of what the rules “intend,” things tend to get quite heated and emotional when our personal triangles do not match up. For players who were already fearful of making the transition from casual to competitive, the community's vitriol and the perceived danger of breaking the rules accidentally can make them feel even less confident that competitive play is for them.

Please don't feel this way.

It's important to remember that the rules are in place to protect you.

Most of the time, when we're new to competitive play and we break a rule unknowingly, we only get a warning. This needs to happen three times, for the same infraction, at the same event, for it to be upgraded to a game loss. Even though warnings go on our record, nobody will look at that record unless we're being investigated for suspension. They are called warnings because the judges did not believe we did something intentionally wrong. If they believed otherwise, we'd receive a DQ.

If the worst happens and we do become disqualified, it is very rare that a first-time offender is investigated for suspension. Because judges understand that we are all imperfect in our understanding of the rules, they tend to give us the benefit of the doubt. If we've been honest and simply made an error, then they will issue the correct punishment and hope that we recalibrate our personal understanding of the rules.

I've gotten a game loss for missed triggers in the finals of a PTQ, and another one for forgetting to register my draft sideboard at PT Dark Ascension. While I felt pretty boneheaded each time, this is simply a part of competitive-level play. We make mistakes, and that's how we learn. You can be very sure I won't fail to register my draft sideboard again!

Toby Elliott, Level 5 Judge, has written an excellent blog post clarifying the details of my recent DQ. The message reinforces the idea that the rules are written to uphold a certain ideal, and that they are, as a result, imperfect.

“While I wish it were otherwise, we're dealing with a game that radically changes 4 times a year. We try to write the rules to accommodate this – they'll usually protect people who are less likely to be informed, and we try to follow the grandma test (“would your grandma think this was OK”) to make it intuitive.

[…] We're making extra efforts to communicate the changes. This blog, for example, and the link from it during the last rules change announcements. I expect these efforts to continue and would love to hear other suggestions.”


“Magic is an imperfect game played by imperfect people. We don't want prison-rules being used here, and writing definitive rules allows for exploitation that no sane person would think was reasonable. On the whole, feedback from both players and judges has been that the new policy is a huge improvement.”

Prior to my disqualification, I didn't really understand that the tournament rules are a means to an end, probably due to my limited experience in professional play. However, the triangle really does exist—the whole really is greater than the sum of its parts. Actually, even judges use heuristics for discerning the legality of actions. Toby writes that he finds it helpful to ask, “Did you really think he'd forgotten the trigger?”

Even though it can be frightening to think that we can accidentally incur a penalty by calling a judge, I recommend that you do it whenever you're uncertain, as soon as it happens. The judges know that your idea of the “spirit of the game” might not match up perfectly against the rules. However, that's exactly why it's a good idea to verify your understanding with a judge before taking any actions. If you don't want to give away information to your opponent, you can ask the judge to talk away from the table about how a card works. Then, you can ask about hypotheticals and what is or isn't okay as much as you like.

When it comes down to it, the judges exist for the players' benefit. One of the moments during which I realized this was after my second GRV in one tournament, for unrelated things. I wanted to appeal the second warning because I noticed my error immediately and tried to take it back, but the floor judge was very quick to issue a penalty. When I appealed to the head judge, he told me that he could not Retract the warning, but that if I wasn't feeling well, he would allow me to go to the restroom or get a drink—he'd give me a time extension if I needed one.

In that instant, my worry melted away and I felt like we understood each other. It wasn't that he thought I was violating the game rules intentionally, but it was his job to issue the appropriate infraction. Depending on the circumstances, I'm sure this can be very difficult to do. He held nothing against me personally, though, and even offered to help in another way.

We all make mistakes, but that's actually a good thing; without them, we wouldn't learn. And that's really what this game is all about.

Love and battle,
Jackie Lee——

@JackieL33 on Twitter

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