Pro Tour Hall of Famer, popular commentator, and all around good guy (other than the pun obsession) Luis Scott-Vargas wrote this week about the highly inflammatory “morph rule”. He makes some excellent points, and I recommend you read his thoughts on the matter, but here’s a quick summary:

In competitive tournaments, if you have a morph creature in play at the end of the game and you scoop it up without revealing it to your opponent, you lose the game automatically, no matter what the actual result was. LSV points out that this is a pretty strong penalty for an accidental mistake that happens often, and makes some suggestions for changes. He breaks down the scenarios under which a morph might not get revealed, and suggests changing to a “warning” system. I think that’s a great idea, but I think there are more reasons than he covers to look into this problem.

First, some clarification on a comment LSV slips in at the end of his suggestion: “(the suggested rule change) … also lets players do the sportsmanlike thing without costing themselves tournament equity…” What LSV is pointing out here is really important. Ari Lax recently caught some criticism for this tweet:

Ari Morph Tweet


Many casual-competitive players were, shall we say, “disappointed” that Ari won a match for day two based on this rule. The unfortunate truth that this reveals, though, is that competitive players will take the angles that the rules give them. The same thing happens with Pact triggers, and was very common when Pacts were in Standard. Also, being a Professional-level Magic player is really, really hard. Magic is an unforgiving game, the tournaments are long with almost no margin for error, and sacrificing any legal means to get wins is, by default, the wrong choice.

Certainly, I respect anyone who goes out of their way to do what LSV calls “the sportsmanlike thing” with regards to Pacts and Morphs. You know what else would be sporting? Matching your opponent’s mulligans, or skipping land drops when your opponent misses land drops. No one is expected to do these things.

In Honolulu, I sat next to a young pro who I have known since he was a grinder. He is extremely talented, very nice, and well-liked. He lost game one of his match to a player nowhere near his skill level, because Magic is Magic, and his opponent scooped up a morph. From my perspective, it appeared that our young pro might have been playing to get his opponent to scoop his morph quickly. Regardless, a judge was called and the game result was reversed. For a moment, it made me think differently about the kid I knew. Then, I thought more about it and realized that he was doing exactly what was expected of him: everything he can, under the rules, to win.

You can’t ask players to play for high stakes and not take the wins that are available. Certainly, you can salute and admire players who take the uphill path of sportsmanship, but to expect this from everyone is unrealistic and unfair.

Morph is a fun gameplay mechanic, but it creates an odd situation by making it very, very easy for people to accidentally cheat. This creates a problem for competitive play, and the DCI’s current solution is to offer such a disproportionate punishment for the infraction that fear of the punishment will insure players are diligent. Based on the evidence, I think it’s clear that this isn’t working.

At a recent PTQ, I saw a 14-year-old kid lose a match for top 8 on a failed morph reveal that a passing judge spotted and called out: his opponent hadn’t even noticed. The kid’s father made top 8, but got angry and abusive with the head judge about his son’s ruling and had to be kicked out of the tournament. I think there’s a pretty good chance both of those people are done playing competitive Magic, all because a kid forgot to reveal a morph and a father couldn’t control his protective instincts.

We have a situation where there’s a rule that is hard for players to follow. Our current solution encourages unsportsmanlike play, results in feel-bad situations, and creates a gray area between playing to win and playing fairly. The punishment is also not meted out equally in all situations: imagine you and I are playing a match, and in game one you beat me. I fail to reveal my morph, and a judge is called. I get a game-loss, but it’s for the game that I lost anyway. I win game two on the back of a timely Kheru Spellsnatcher that you didn’t know about (hmmmm…). In game three you defeat me, but this time you fail to reveal a morph. The judge is called, and you get a game loss, but this time it’s for a game you actually won, so the punishment is match-deciding. Are we having fun yet?

This begs the question: are there better solutions? I think LSV’s solution is a good start, but if the DCI has reason to be particularly aggressive about avoiding failed morph-reveals, there is another obvious option that would go a long way to solving this issue: require markers.

Returning to Ari Lax for a moment: Ari never has and never will fail to reveal a morph. This isn’t because he never makes mistakes: quite the opposite. It’s because he knows he makes mistakes, so he takes measures to avoid this one. Every single morph that Ari plays comes out of its sleeve. A morph, for Ari, is a Magic-back card, sitting on top of an empty sleeve. This acts as both a reminder and an insurance policy: if he starts to scoop his cards, he can very easily separate out the morphs: they aren’t in sleeves!

I hate messing with my sleeves, so I use those ugly morph-token cards. That serves as a good reminder, but lacks the insurance policy. Regardless, it has been sufficient: I have never forgotten to reveal a morph, and I can be pretty flaky between games.

Why not require players to use morph tokens or sleeve-distinctions? A judge could walk by a match, spot some face-down cards, and tell the players they are breaking tournament rules. Players would be required to enforce the rule for their opponents. When a “fail to reveal” call comes, the judge could clarify whether any morph-markers were being used, and if they weren’t, the opponent would be warned for not enforcing the marker rule: this punishes angle-shooting. If no markers were used, the game-loss penalty could be downgraded to a warning and the failure to use markers could be applied to both players as a different warning. Would some players be annoyed? Yes, of course. Some players are also annoyed that they can’t cut their own deck after their opponent shuffles. Some players are annoyed that they can’t hold their hand below the table. Some players are annoyed that they get game losses for not revealing their morphs.

Did you know: intentional draws and concessions are allowed in tournaments to protect honest players? Wizards would like to make them illegal: they make the last few swiss rounds of a tournament anticlimactic, and are not particularly defensible from a fairness perspective. However, enforcing such a ban is completely impractical: dishonest players would just contrive the results they wanted. That would put honest players at a disadvantage, because they would have one less option to increase their chances of making it to the elimination rounds. It’s not a perfect solution, but it works, it exists for the right reasons, and it encourages honest players to be a part of the game.

The morph rule is doing the opposite: it’s encouraging angle-shooting and unsportmanlike play. The DCI can do better. Until they do: carry around some morph markers, use them, and share them with your opponents. It’s a token gesture, but it can’t hurt.

Gabe Carleton-Barnes has been playing Magic for over 20 years, mostly as a PTQ grinder and intermittently as a Pro Tour competitor. Currently based in Portland, Oregon, where he is an Open Source web developer by day, Gabe lived in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, for three years. While there, he failed to make a documentary about competitive Magic but succeeded in deepening his obsession with the game. Gabe is now a ringleader and community-builder for the competitive Magic scene in Portland, wielding old-timey slang and tired cliches to motivate kids half his age to drive with him to tournaments.

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