Published on 06/01/2015

Cut Short


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Note: This article is over two years old. Information in this article may be out of date due to subsequent Oracle and/or rules changes. Proceed with caution.

Trust me!
Hello, and welcome to another edition of Cranial Insertion! It's the Monday after Modern Masters Weekend, with three massive Grand Prix collectively bringing together well over ten thousand players and breaking approximately all the records everywhere forever. After such a big event generating so many questions, we have so much to talk about this week that we've hired a tour guide to point out all the interesting bits and make certain you don't miss anything at all.

As always, if you have questions you'd like us to guide you through, send us an email via , or for the shorter ones, tweet us @CranialTweet; we'll send you an answer and possibly include your question in one of our future articles.

Now, if you'll all please form up into an orderly group and follow this kind gentlegoblin to my right, we'll get things started!

And that's all we have for this week! Please tip the tour guide on your way out, and see us all next week for another exciting edition of Cranial Insertion!

—Callum Milne

Q: Huh???

A: ...Wait, you're still here? But the article's over! What do you mean you didn't see it?

I guess our tour guide wasn't as trustworthy as he claimed; he seems to have shortcut you through our entire article and absconded with the advance we paid him. Well, that's a ton of work down the drain.

But hey, at least it's a perfect opportunity to teach you all about shortcuts in Magic!

Q: What is a shortcut and how do I use it?

A: Magic is a wonderful, deeply strategic game, but if you take a peek under the hood to see what's actually going on when you play, you'll quickly find that it's also hideously complex. The process of casting a single spell has no less than seven distinct steps, and several of those can secretly be further broken down into multiple related choices. On even the simplest of turns without anybody wanting to do anything there's a hundred meaningless priority passes and pointless state-based action checks. At its heart, a shortcut is an agreement between players to skip over all those details. Both players know where the game is now, and both players know where the game is going to end up, so they jump directly from one to the other, skipping all the useless nitty-gritty that happens in between.

As for how to use them, I have some really good news for you—if you've ever played Magic, you already do use shortcuts, even if you don't know it. When you untap and pick up your card for the turn, you're using a shortcut to skip over your upkeep step. When you pass the turn and your opponent untaps, you're using a shortcut to skip over everything between where you just were and the beginning of your opponent's turn. It's really that easy.

Shortcuts are what we use to take this unholy abomination of tedium and turn it into something playable—and enjoyable—by humans. They gloss over the million or three ugly technical details of the game that nobody really wants or needs to worry about so that we can spend our time thinking about the parts of the game that are actually fun. They're so essential for reasonable play that they're baked into Magic's tournament rules, and the bulk of today's article is going to be talking about them.

Q: So what are the tournament shortcuts?

The one problem with shortcuts is that you're going to run into problems if the shortcuts you're using aren't properly communicated. If you and your opponent think a shortcut ends in different places, you're going to run into problems where you disagree on what's happening when. To help solve that problem, Magic's tournament rules define a standard set of shortcuts that are used by default in every game of Magic. Hardcoding these shortcuts into the rules means that players can always know what shortcuts they're using without explicitly laying them all out against every new opponent. If you don't explicitly communicate what shortcuts you're using, you're using the standard ones by default.

The standard tournament shortcuts have three primary uses: to clarify otherwise-ambiguous communication, to define what's going on if there isn't enough communication, and to prevent "Gotcha!" situations where players might use misleading communication to trick their opponent. Let's walk through them one by one.

The statement "Go" (and equivalents such as "Your turn" and "Done") offers to keep passing priority until an opponent has priority in the end step. Opponents are assumed to be acting then unless they specify otherwise.
Let's start with the big one—it's the first for a reason, because you've probably used it in every game you've ever played, even if you've never entered a tournament in your life. When you say "Go," you're saying that you have nothing else you want to do during your turn, so if your opponent's okay with it you just want to skip to the end. Usually they will be, and if they want to do anything before their own turn begins they can do it during your end step.

A statement such as "I'm ready for combat" or "Declare attackers?" offers to keep passing priority until an opponent has priority in the beginning of combat step. Opponents are assumed to be acting then unless they specify otherwise.

Don't be a Trickster Mage.
Nobody likes a Trickster Mage.
As the active player, you want your opponent to do as much as possible during your main phase, because that gives you the widest range of options fot following up. They cast Hero's Downfall on your planeswalker? Good, follow up with a haste creature to punish them for tapping out!

Your opponent, on the other hand, wants to do as much as possible not in your main phase, specifically to prevent you from doing that. You have a big, nasty attacker? Good, they'll wait until the beginning of combat to use Ojutai's Breath on it so you can't follow up with a haste creature!

Obviously, these two goals are just a bit mutually exclusive, so if you were tricksy and underhanded active player, you might try to use verbal gymnastics to try to trick your opponent into acting during your main phase when they really wanted to act after it. Not so fast! Magic is a game of strategy, not wordplay, so this shortcut is in place to stop that kind of mischief in its tracks.

Whenever a player adds an object to the stack, he or she is assumed to be passing priority unless he or she explicitly announces that he or she intends to retain it. If he or she adds a group of objects to the stack without explicitly retaining priority and a player wishes to take an action at a point in the middle, the actions should be reversed up to that point.
Consider the following:

"Looming Shade gets +4/+4."
"Shock it in response."

...What just happened? How many times was the Shade pumped before it got Shocked? This shortcut provides an answer—the Shade's controller is trying to shortcut through four separate instances of "activate once, then pass; resolves?". The Shock player may interrupt the shortcut at any point, and we back up to that point to allow them to do so.

"No attacks" or similar statements by the active player during combat offers to pass priority until an opponent has priority in the end of combat step.
Very simple—the active player has nothing they want to do during combat, so they wish to move on to their second main phase. We give the opponent a chance to do things while still in combat should they wish, and move on.

If a player casts a spell or activates an ability with X in its mana cost without specifying the value of X, it is assumed to be for all mana currently available in his or her pool.
Sometimes you're just much too busy tapping out for a massive Fireball to your opponent's head to worry about piddly little things like counting exactly how much damage you're overkilling them by. Who cares about numbers when you've won the game in spectacular fashion? Well, cards like Mana Leak and Parallectric Feedback care, and seeing them will probably make you care even more.

Now, you might be tempted to say "But wait! I didn't say how big my Fireball was! It's actually just big enough to kill you, totally small enough to leave up mana for Leak or not kill me with Feedback!" But look deep in your heart, and the tournament rules, and you'll know that's not true. You went to go big, and now you get to go home.

If a player casts a spell or activates an ability and announces choices for it that are not normally made until resolution, the player must adhere to those choices unless an opponent responds to that spell or ability. If an opponent inquires about choices made during resolution, that player is assumed to be passing priority and allowing that spell or ability to resolve.
This is one of those "tricky communication" shortcuts. Many players tend to get a bit ahead of themselves and make choices before they're technically supposed to—you might cast Persecute by saying "Persecute for blue" (because it's the best color, obviously). Your opponent could then respond according to that knowledge of their intent, say with a counterspell. (Because blue's the best color.)

But that might open the door to trickery, because as far as the game rules are concerned, you don't actually make that decision until the game rules tells you to, no matter what you said on casting. So a tricksy player might say "Persecute for green". Their opponent, thinking "Hah, I don't have any green cards in hand—they're all blue! (Because it's the best color)" might then let it resolve, only to encounter very sad times indeed when the player then says "It resolves? Okay, it says I need to choose a color, so I choose blue." (You know the drill.)

This shortcut stops all of that nonsense by holding players to their announced decisions if the opponent doesn't respond. They're only allowed to change their mind if the opponent did respond, because the opponent's response may have changed the game state in some relevant manner. The second part of the shortcut handles the same problem in the other direction, preventing players from seeking to gain advance information so as to better respond—if you ask your opponent about decisions they're going to make, you're shortcutting the game to the point where they get to make that decision.

A player is assumed to have paid any cost of 0 unless he or she announces otherwise.
This one's pretty simple—sometimes the game might ask a player to pay a cost of...well, nothing. Since it's nothing, most people don't bother indicating that they're paying it, and that's just fine. Of course they paid it, because why not?

A player who casts a spell or activates an ability that targets an object on the stack is assumed to target the legal target closest to the top of the stack unless the player specifies otherwise.

I just want to draw some cards!
Ever seen—or gotten into—a counter war?

"Mana Leak!"
"Force of Will!"
"Mana Drain!"

Players don't always mention what they're targeting with their counterspells and other spell-targeting effects. But that can lead to problems—for example, you were probably so excited about the counter war that you didn't stop to ask—just what was that Twincast targeting? That's kind of important now that it's resolving. It could have been targeting Rewind, so as to counter it and untap some extra lands. Or maybe it was targeting Brainstorm, so the player got the effect even if the original was countered. Both are valid strategic options. Well, thanks to tournament shortcuts, we know it was targeting Rewind, because if the player wanted to target Brainstorm they'd have needed to say so.

A player is assumed to be attacking another player with his or her creatures and not any planeswalkers that player may control unless the attacking player specifies otherwise.
If you attack with a creature, you need to specify who that creature is attacking. Sadly, that doesn't always happen, so that's where this shortcut steps in to provide a default choice. If you want to swing in at that planeswalker, you're going to need to say so.

A player who chooses a planeswalker as the target of a spell or ability that would deal damage is assumed to be targeting the planeswalker's controller and redirecting the damage on resolution. The player must adhere to that choice unless an opponent responds.
This is an extension of the resolution-choices shortcut above. A player only decides whether or not their spell or ability is having its damage redirected to an opposing planeswalker as that spell or ability is resolving. Just as with the prior shortcut, if they announce that decision in advance, they're going to be held to it unless the opponent has a response.

In the Two-Headed Giant format, attacking creatures are assumed to be assigning combat damage to the defending team's primary head, unless the creature's controller specifies otherwise.
When a creature's assigning combat damage to the opposing team in a Two-Headed Giant game, it actually needs to be assigned to one specific "head", because things can potentially go really wonky if it isn't. But it usually doesn't matter at all, so not a lot of players bother specifying, either because they don't think it matters or because they aren't aware they're supposed to do it at all. Hence, this shortcut—damage is dealt to the primary player (the one to the right of his or her teammate) by default.

There also used to be a shortcut defining how much damage a creature with trample would deal to the defending player if the creatures blocking it didn't have enough toughness to soak up all the damage, but that one was dropped since it's now mandatory to announce your life total every time it changes. (You are doing that, right? And asking your opponents to do it, right? Right?) Announcing life totals when they change will catch any unclear communication on that front right away.

Q: Wait, what if I want to do something somewhere in the middle of a shortcut? Or don't want to use a shortcut at all!

A: Then say so. Shortcuts can only happen if both players agree to them, so if you don't want to shortcut through something, for whatever reason, you can always interrupt the shortcut. Let your opponent know when you intend to act, and the shortcut will stop there so you can do what you want to do. This is what's happening when you say "During your upkeep..." to an opponent who's untapping their permanents—you're stopping them from shortcutting through their upkeep, stopping at the point where you get priority.

Just make sure to communicate clearly what's happening and when, and you're as good as gold.

Now to try this again, that's all we have for this week! (Really, this time!) Please see us all next week for another exciting edition of Cranial Insertion!

Until then, don't follow strange goblins down shadowy alleys.

—Callum Milne

About the Author:
Callum Milne is a Level 2 judge from British Columbia, Canada. His home range is Vancouver Island, but he can be found in the wild throughout BC and also at GPs all along the west coast of North America.

So to clarify, with "Looming shade gets +4/+4" that doesn't mean that all three activations are on the stack all at once and you can't just shock it in response to all of them?
#1 • Date: 2015-06-01 • Time: 06:53:11 •
Correct, as Callum said, we back up - and whenever we backup, we don't force the going-ahead from there to follow the exact same path as before. :)
#2 • Date: 2015-06-01 • Time: 08:05:51 •
For the same question, what this this phrase actually mean?
"he or she is assumed to be passing priority unless he or she explicitly announces that he or she intends to retain it."
What does retaining priority mean and when can a player do it?
#3 • Date: 2015-06-14 • Time: 23:02:25 •
@nyth: In the technical details of the rules, a player gets priority again after adding an object to the stack. It's rarely necessary for a player to respond to his/her own action with this priority, so in practice a player will usually just take an action and pass. Because "take an action and pass" is how players play for the vast majority of the time, it's become one of the recognized tournament shortcuts.

A player needs to speak up if he/she is not abiding by a recognized tournament shortcut. This is what makes it necessary for the player to specify that priority is being retained after adding an object to the stack if he/she doesn't intend to pass priority to the opponent afterwards.
#4 • Date: 2015-06-15 • Time: 13:42:46 •

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