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Strange Rules Part 2 November 18, 2008

Posted by James in : all, random, game rules, theory, complecated rules, design , trackback

Warning: This article is overly-complected. I have been looking for an excuse to overly-rationalize and justify something in an article about Magic.

Forget for one moment that you have ever heard of Magic. If you know what the following card actually does, then forget for a moment about that. Now a look at it:

What would you assume this card does just based on the text? Would you think a creature that counts as both a Zombie and a Skeleton, such as Mistform Ultimus, would get +2/+2? Can you read it as saying that?

Now take a look at this card:

Now think about what this says it does in plain English. Does it say that a creature that is both a Merfolk and a Wizard, such as Chameleon Colossus can be 2 cheaper to play? Can you read it as saying that?

According to Wizards of the Coast, these cards cannot give a bonus to card twice. Mistform Ultimus will not get +2/+2. Chameleon Colossus will not be 2 cheaper to play.

Today I would like to talk about something that I find as a severe flaw of Magic the Gathering creating a problem of ambiguity. I admit that it is possible to read these cards to do exactly what Wizards of the Coast says they do, but my tendency was to read them as being able to give a bonus more than once. Not only that, but I know that other people have done the same thing. This is important for two reasons:

  1. Magic cards should be understood just by reading them when possible.
  2. The text printed on these cards is ambiguous in a way that could be considered “false advertising.” I got excited about cards like these thinking that they were better than they really are. I know one guy who planned on buying some cards similar to these also believing they were better than they really are.

However, I might be completely insane. Perhaps it is “impossible” for the cards to say what I tend to think they do. What will follow in this article will be divided into the following sections: (1) Is the text on these cards ambiguous? Is it even possible for these cards to say that two bonuses are given when we consider the text printed on them? (2) What could alternative text look like? And (3) How do we know that cards like these can’t give two bonuses?

(1) Is the text on these cards ambiguous?

For a moment, just think about Death Baron’s text. It says “Skeleton creatures you control and other Zombie creatures you control get +1/+1 and deathtouch.” There are other cards with similar text, such as Verdeloth the Ancient, which says “other Treefolk and Saprolings get +1/+1.” Let’s think about all cards with this kind of text. This kind of card text basically says “A and B gets C.”

Many people have defended the text as given. I have even been told that language cannot possibly say what I think these cards “could” say. (i.e. The card text could not possibly say two bonuses could be given.) I do not fully understand the argument involved with this claim, which was given on the forum of MTGsalvation.com. However, an example was given to support the argument, which was something like the following:

If you say, “All women and all lawyers have two arms,” that person isn’t saying that a woman lawyer has four arms!

In this example a property (having two arms) is assigned to two categories (women and lawyers).

One point has certainly been made with this example: It is possible for a sentence like this one to assign a property to two different categories, and the property doesn’t necessarily apply twice.  (i.e. It is possible for Death Baron’s sentence to say that two different categories get +1/+1 without saying it can give a double bonus.)

I admit that it is possible to read the cards this way. This is why the meaning is ambiguous. Because it is possible to read the card as having two different meanings.
Of course, there is a question about whether or not I am right that it can have two different meanings. I have not yet proven that it is possible for the text to apply a bonus twice. I will give two different arguments to prove that it is possible to read these cards as being able to give a bonus twice.

(a) Argument 1: Consider these two examples where a property is assigned twice.

Example 1: “Cashiers and waitresses have at least one job.”

In this sentence a property (having at least one job) is assigned to cashiers and waitresses. Anyone who is both a cashier and a waitress will have at least two jobs.

Example 2: “People who are married and people who have children will get a tax break.”

In this sentence a property (getting a tax break) is given to people with children and people who are married. The tax break is given twice to those who are both married and have children.

Argument 2: Standard logical translation

If you take a logic class, you will find out that any sentence with “and” in it can be turned into two sentences. For example, the sentence, “Skeleton creatures and other zombie creatures you control get +1/+1,” could be “translated” into two separate statements: “Skeletons you control get +1/+1″ and “Other Zombie creatures you control get +1/+1.” (Although this is the standard way you would translate the sentence into two statements using logic, sometimes we would have to translate differently due to the ambiguity of language.)

My point here is simple. Logic supports the interpretation of the sentence to have two totally separate sentences as the following:

Skeleton creatures you control get +1/+1.

Other Zombie creatures you control get +1/+1.

Why is this important? Because any card that says this in Magic will be able to give a creature that is both a Skeleton and a Zombie +2/+2!

One final point

Even if I am wrong (and it is for some strange reason impossible for the text of these cards to give a bonus to something twice), it doesn’t matter. People read it to mean this for some reason. Perhaps many people like me have defective brains. If enough people’s brains are hard-wired to read these cards wrong, then I say the text should be changed regardless of whether or not we are justified in doing so.

(2) What could alternative text look like?

Unfortunately there isn’t a perfect way to fix the text. I personally wouldn’t make cards that have these abilities in the first place. Instead, I would use a very similar ability worded as the following:

“As long as another creature you control is either a Skeleton or a Zombie, that creature gets +1/+1.”

This makes it clear that a creature cannot get +1/+1 twice for being both a Skeleton and a Zombie. Of course, this ability is different than the current one. Why? Because Death Baron can give himself the bonus if he is a skeleton! (But he isn’t! But he could be!)

I suspect that this fact is meaningless. The only reason that Death Baron says, “Other Skeleton creatures you control get +1/+1″ is because… Death Baron isn’t a Skeleton. It sounds strange to say “Other Skeletons you control get +1/+1″ on something that isn’t a Skeleton as well.

Why is it important that the cards could be written in this way? Because it avoids ambiguity and could prevent “false advertising.”

(3) How do we know that cards like these can’t give two bonuses?

I decided to investigate this matter to find out how I could “prove” to someone that these cards (or cards similar to them) cannot give a double bonus. Right there on the Shards of Alara FAQ, Wizards made sure to note that Death Baron can’t give a creature that is both a zombie and a skeleton +2/+2. (This reinforces the fact that Wizards knows that the text is ambiguous!) However, not all cards with similar text have such a “clarification.” (Or is it “errata?”) Verdeloth, the Ancient, for example, does not. Check the Invasion FAQ yourself. There is no ruling like that there.

I thought that perhaps the official rules would have something to say about this. I wanted to see where the rules said, “If bonuses are given to different kinds of spells or permanents on a single line of text, then the bonus cannot be given to it twice. No such rule exists.

So how can I prove to someone that Verdeloth, the Ancient cannot give a creature that is both a Saproling and a Treefolk +2/+2? I basically have to say that cards with similar text have already been clarified, and Verdeloth is intended to have the same kind of meaning. I find this to be a kind of secret justification that requires the average player to do more research than should be necessary. Perhaps this kind of justification does make sense, but making the text less ambiguous in the first place would be preferable.

Final Thought

My point of this article: Cards like Death Baron have deceptive text that make people think they are better than they really are. I thought this point was obvious. Perhaps you do too, but I am not sure anymore do to several responses I have heard that defended the wording of the cards. Nevertheless, even if it isn’t obvious, I am still convinced that the text is deceptive.

This deceptive “interpretation” of the card abilities may have at one time been undecided, and it was the job of Wizards to decide what the cards “meant” to say. In particular, it was the job of the rules manager, who is currently Mark Gottlieb. I would not necessarily want Mark Gottlieb to change what all of these cards do, but I would prefer that the text be written less ambiguously in the future. Additionally, this problem of interpretation can have some interesting interactions with un-sets. Would R&D’s Secret Lair change what these ambiguous cards do? Also, a new card can be made specifically to allow cards, such as Death Baron, to give more than one bonus. Consider the following:

Yes, Mark Gottlieb’s secret lair is on Mount Saint Helens.

The image was a photoshopped version of Mount Saint Helens and a painting by Francesco Guardi.

My next article will be posted on November 24, 2008.


1. michael - November 18, 2008

you should relink your mtg salvation link to the actual thread where the rules discussion took place so people do not have to search for it.

2. James - November 18, 2008

OK michael, I fixed it.

3. michael - November 18, 2008

that discusson on the boards makes my head a splode. thanks groodness it got locked before it opened up a tear in the fabric of time and space and sucked Magic the Gathering into a void of nothingness.

4. Allison Sellers - November 20, 2008

Great website, very readable clean content. You may want to try adding more pictures, but either way nice site.

5. James - November 20, 2008

michael, is there an argument there that I didn’t understand, or was he merely stating what he believed to be a fact?

Allison, I’m glad that this is readable. I can never be sure. I’m not sure where pictures would be added at this time.

6. bob the builder - November 21, 2008

nice job it is very logical and easy to follow.

7. michael - November 21, 2008

One point on Mark Gottlieb’s Secret Lair that I overlooked is giving it a basic land type makes it infintely more powerful than if it had its own special land type or no land type at all. By virtue of the fact that it is a Mountain, it produces red mana…and it isn’t even Legendary. Fetchlands found a new friend.

8. James - November 22, 2008

Right. It would probably make sense for it to be legendary, but oh well.

9. Recoculous.com: Magic the Gathering Articles » My Top 10 Articles of 2008 - February 7, 2009

[…] 6. Strange Rules Part 2 […]

10. Recoculous.com: Magic the Gathering Articles » More Rules Updates that We Need - June 14, 2009

[…] Go here to find out why Death Baron and cards like it need to be changed. […]

11. Psyklone - January 20, 2010

Actually your suggested text for Death Baron wouldn’t work. If Death Baron became a skeleton, it would get +1+1, but your reworded text would exclude this situation (although it would cover a 1000 other situations).

12. James - January 21, 2010


That’s right, I would change how it works to some extent.