Please be certain to familiarize yourself with the recent Wizards of the Coast announcement regarding game play changes, released Monday, June 29.
In the rich history of Magic: The Gathering, the powers-that-be have taken a stark look at the mechanics of the game and changed those where they felt it was needed to improve the user experience. This can have minor impacts on the rules (for example, changing the name of zones in-game from "in play" to "the battlefield," and "removed from game" to "exiled"), or can significantly change the fundamentals of gameplay (see: combat damage and the stack, or even the creation of the stack during the 6th Edition rules updates). Those of us who have been around the block for a while have seen a number of these corrections, and tend to take the long view – Wizards won't intentionally alter the game in a way that's dangerous to the success of their product, so generally their intent is to improve the experience for all those involved.
When the RFG zone became the Exiled Zone, many people asked "why bother? Is this really needed?" As it became more ingrained in the play culture, Wizards began to incorporate the change into their model, and more opportunities were brought about to interact with that zone. It opened up avenues for increased complexity while maintaining elegance and, overall, the game was improved.
When the stack was introduced, it was a fundamental change to the mechanics of Magic, and whole heaps of cards were altered on a basic level – but the game ran more smoothly, and though those players who began prior to 6th Edition had to re-learn some aspects, there's little argument to be made that the rules are much better and more streamlined because of those changes.
Each of the rule changes from this round are an attempt to make the user experience (either as a player or, as we'll see, a viewer) more positive, and to adapt to the changing face of Magic's landscape.
It's important to remind everyone that the mulligan rule change is ONLY in effect for Pro Tour Magic Origins currently and not for normal play until an official source announces a permanent change. Until that time, continue to use the rule we are all familiar with.
1) Each player who mulligans an opening hand will Scry 1 after all mulligans are resolved.
I would guess that literally every player reading this article has at least a story or two about how their opening seven was mediocre, they mulliganed into a two-lander, and never drew another land. We all have felt the sting of the mull and know that despite the ability to look at a fresh set, mulligans are generally a miserable experience. Data has been compiled and there is an unmistakable correlation between mulligans and losses. Going down a card really is that bad.
In an attempt to mitigate that disadvantage, Pro Tour Magic Origins will initiate a test-run of a new model. Once each player has resolved all mulligans (assuming both players do not elect to keep seven), each player who has chosen to mulligan will be allowed to Scry 1. First proposed as a solution by Patrick Chapin, this version of the rule allows a player to do a little better than cross their fingers and hope, but it still represents a disadvantage compared to a seven card hand.
This marks the first change to the mulligan rule since Paris in 1997 – considering that first rule was implemented a mere three years after the invocation of the DCI in 1994, and has lasted the better part of two decades since, I think they did a reasonable job of designing the rule. Time will tell if the rule shakes out to be an improvement, but the trial run at PTMO will give us interesting data at the very least.
Speaking of which, the idea of testing a rule change like this one at the highest level is something of a risk – in fact, in Mark Rosewater's article "Starting Over" where he describes the origins of the Paris Mulligan rule, he specifically mentions that they wanted to avoid testing that rule at a PT, but a mistake in printing the rules brief for that event resulted in a premature use of the rule. Given the likelihood that players will be utilizing Magic Online for testing purposes prior to the event, it seems strange that the rule will be impossible to replicate online – it will be impossible to accurately test for the event online, because the rules will be different in each version of the game!
As far as the in-game applications of the rule go, I've already seen speculation on where the advantages will lie. It appears quite obvious that many combo decks will greatly benefit from this rule change. Bryant Cook, Legacy Storm aficionado, has publicly declared "I can't wait to see a Tutor/Wish there and then two LED, Gitaxian Probe into kill you." Now granted, this is kind of the optimal scenario, but the idea still remains that the information is not irrelevant in some fast decks. This is mitigated by putting the decision to keep or mulligan (or mulligan again) before the scry, meaning it can't influence your decision to keep, but some decks will benefit more than others.
Envision you're playing Grixis Delver in Modern, and you mulligan a mediocre seven cards on the play into a hand with one Island, one Delver of Secrets, and four other cards. I have to imagine you'll be much more likely to keep this hand than you would be under the old version of the rules, both because you're more likely to find additional lands, and because you can increase your odds of having a flipped Delver on turn two by some amount.
On the other side of that spectrum, certain openings in the current Standard environment are greatly reduced in potency – a scry land on turn one on the play, for example, is much worse than it previously was (unless you bottomed your initial scry), and a turn one fetchland you intend to crack, say for a removal spell or Elvish Mystic, Negates the benefit of your scry entirely. These are common plays, some of which go a long way to mitigating the impact of the mulligan in their own right, and they work in direct opposition to the new rule.
Overall I think the benefits here greatly outweigh the slight negatives and, though I wonder what kind of impact in deck design we may see (in Modern specifically) to take advantage of the new rule, I imagine the results will be in line with the positive expectations.
2) The Head Judge can now review coverage tape during a ruling.
One of the more controversial topics from the past few months of high-level play focused not on the games themselves, but the responsibilities and role of the coverage team during tournaments where feature matches are live streamed.
If you recall, a rules debate concerning the legality of a specific action was covered on the Official Wizards stream, much to the chagrin of all involved. A public outcry of "just check the tape!" was spoken, and largely fell on deaf ears. At the time, the policy was that the coverage, despite being available, was not admissible in the rulings on the floor, as it creates an impediment to efficient tournament play (causes delays) and an unfair advantage to players more likely to be featured.
Wizards has largely thrown this out the window, and their policy is now that the Head Judge can elect to view the coverage of a particular match in determining their ruling. Please note the bold text in the previous sentence. The Head Judge is not required to, and cannot be pressured to, but may elect to review that tape. To help facilitate this, a floor judge will be assigned to "tape duty," and will be watching closed coverage throughout the event to try and catch any errors that may occur.
Without the first part of that change, I think the second part is just a no-brainer. Relying on the coverage team – who are primarily there for entertainment purposes – to catch any mistakes amongst the hours upon hours of Magic they watch over the course of an event – is just unreliable. Adding some amount of dedicated scrutiny to that coverage should help to correct a number of small errors we see across the face of a given weekend. Extra lands played, incorrect mana tapped, uncertainties about sequencing and game states – these things come up during the course of nearly every tournament, and to this point the viewers have been left with little ability to influence sometimes egregious errors. Having someone with a clear and unbiased view of the game state who can actually intervene is a giant step in the right direction.
For those errors which are beyond the capability of even a coverage judge to correct, allowing the Head Judge to go to the Instant Replay can clarify a lot of errors that are really simple to correct under those conditions. We have nearly perfect information during many feature matches – we can track what cards are drawn and when, we know what is in each players hand, and we can track the order of each play from mulligans (and scrying) onward. Recreating even complex game states should be a trivial matter once the tape is allowed in the discussion and, though I expect the use of this tool to be few and far between, having it is much better than ignoring it.
3) Streamlined layout of card positioning for all feature matches.
Adrian Sullivans and Paulo Vitors of the world, hang your heads in shame. Lands in front is now officially faux-pas'd in featured matches. To make matters clearer, you must play with your cards facing yourself. To most of us, this means little, as we already played that way. It's a rather obvious rule update that should make following the progress of a match on coverage much easier.
Beyond the "play right, guys," part, there are also some rules about where and how you place your library, graveyard, and exiled zone in the field of play. Most importantly, your graveyard and exiled zones must be near the library for ease of distinction. I've only witnessed a few people who place their graveyard on the opposite side of the battlefield from their library, but I must admit that doing so was incredibly disconcerting.
The idea here is that everyone should have a relatively similar setup for their game play zones (given that some players are left-handed and some are not, there is room for comfort as long as clarity is maintained). However, when tuning into coverage mid-game, it should not take more than a second or two to comprehend the game state, and the arrangement of a board should not be a hindrance to that comprehension.
I do wonder where the line will be drawn. Not to rope Chapin into yet another bullet point, but I wonder if there will be pressure for him to keep his lands in a normal stack, or if he'll still be allowed to prepare for any potential Chaos Orbs his opponent may be packing. (Chapin is known for having each individual land in its own pile while he plays.)
To complicate things further, how do lands like Mutavault or Dryad Arbor factor into this equation? Will there be distinctions made for cards that act as both lands and creatures? Occasionally I see players put mana creatures like Birds of Paradise on the same part of the battlefield where they keep their lands – though that creates some confusion when it comes to combat, will this be actively discouraged? What if they're tapped anyway? Again, I believe there are very few reasons this rule would be seen in a negative light, as clarity is the goal and it's a minor change for a major impact – but complications do exist and it will be good to see how those are worked out in practicality.
Ultimately, of the three changes to the rules that came about this week, the one with the most likely impact to the day-to-day Magic player will be the mulligan rule. Though the others will be important to those of us who watch coverage, the formula describing the number of features the average player experiences has a limit of zero. It reaches that limit exponentially faster when factoring in those players who play with abnormal layouts. The average player will likely not be impacted by the coverage-based changes, but they will make the experience of Magic a better one, and generally the subtle rules change that seems obvious in retrospect is the type that is most welcomed.
Be sure to share your thoughts on these changes, and how you expect them to impact your Magic play and content consumption in the comments below!