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Magic: the Gathering Etiquette November 26, 2009

Posted by James in : all, random, theory , trackback

The main reason to play Magic is to have fun, so etiquette demands that we constrain our behavior in order to make sure people can enjoy themselves. Not everyone will object to the same behavior, but there are some rules of thumb that will help “lead to the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people.” Although etiquette is not technically the same thing as morality, some actions of etiquette are “right” or “wrong” to a minor degree. There are at least three main categories of etiquette: obligations, above the call of duty, and indifferent.

Breaking the Rules is Not Etiquette

Breaking the rules is somewhere between serious morality and etiquette. Cheating isn’t “just indecent.” Cheating is more serious than that. Still, cheating at Magic isn’t necessarily a serious moral requirement. (It doesn’t usually kill anyone or ruin anyone’s life.)

Breaking the rules is known as “tournament violations.” It includes cheating, collusion or bribery, wager, unsporting conduct, and slow play. These behaviors are not “just against etiquette” because etiquette can’t be mandatory.
Of course, the rule against “unsporting conduct” sounds like it might be about etiquette. In fact, this rule demands that “Tournament participants must behave in a polite and respectful manner [PDF]” (24). However, no rule can be made that forbids us from giving an opponent a dirty look. We can understand unsporting conduct better by looking at the actual Infraction Procedure Guide [PDF], which states the following:

Unsporting conduct is disruptive behavior that may affect the safety, competitiveness, or enjoyment of an event in a significantly negative fashion”… Unsporting behavior is not the same as a lack of sporting behavior. There is a wide middle ground of “competitive” behavior that is certainly neither “nice” nor “sporting” but still doesn’t qualify as “unsporting.” The Head Judge is the final arbiter on what constitutes unsporting conduct.

In other words, unsporting conduct doesn’t require us to be polite. It just forbids us from being significantly disruptive.


Only the most serious sorts of actions should be considered to be obligatory. Obligations of etiquette are not moral obligations. Instead, they are requirements for decency. Making fun of an opponent is incompatible with etiquette, and we have a duty to talk a little to an opponent. (To refuse to say, “Hi, I’m so-and-so” would be rude.)

Above the Call of Duty

Some behavior is a good idea, even though it isn’t an obligation. It’s a good idea to keep complaining to a minimum even when you lose to mana screw. Complimenting an opponent for making a good deck or playing well is not a requirement, but it can be polite to do so.


Some behavior makes little or no difference to etiquette, such as going to the bathroom between games; or whether or not you want to trade with people.

The Rules

Most people who discuss etiquette spend very little time discussing the categories of etiquette and they want to concentrate on etiquette “rules.” They want to tell us how to behave. I want to make it clear which category various kinds of behavior fit into.

Handshake: A handshake is mandatory for formal games of chess, but Magic is often very informal. However, it is rude to refuse to shake an opponent’s hand who wants to shake your hand. That’s just common sense. (Of course, if your opponent is sick, you have an overriding reason to not want to shake his or her hand.)

Small talk: During formal games of chess and poker, you should reduce talk to a minimum. During formal games of Magic, we are also obligated to reduce talking to a minimum. The only time you should make small talk during a game is when the opponent is open to it. You should pay close attention to how to opponent reacts.

A minimal amount of talk is necessary to be polite, but you aren’t obligated to make much small talk or treat the opponent as a friend. Doing so can be polite, but it’s not a requirement.

Spectators who talk: It is inevitable that some people will watch our games and talk about it. However, it is “against the rules” for an opponent to give advice or convey hidden information while watching us play. It’s not just against etiquette, it’s already against the rules. I agree with that rule. To help someone while watching them play is a form of cheating.

Insulting your opponent: Obviously rude behavior. It’s incompatible with etiquette. (If the opponent is a friend who is receptive to this kind of thing, it might be OK, but it’s not something you should do to people who might get upset by it.)

Accusing an opponent of cheating is a necessary evil, which is cause to get a judge. However, it is rude to accuse of opponent of cheating after the judge has found them to be innocent.

Swearing: People I play with swear occasionally, but it is actually against the rules. It’s considered to be unsporting behavior. The rule against swearing is a little over the top, but it is still against the rules

To help your opponent: Sometimes players want to “take back” a move. They should realize their mistake immediately in order to be allowed to take it back. However, sometimes it can be appropriate to ask a player, “Are you sure you want to do that?” to give them a chance to realize they are going to make a mistake. To help your opponent is usually “above the call of duty,” but some professional players will be insulted by it. If an opponent is insulted, then you still have no obligation to stop offering help, but it might be “above the call of duty” to stop doing it.

Accommodate to the opponent’s attitude: It would be absurd to require us to behave “however our opponent wants us to,” but it can be considered to be “above the call of duty” to do so. If the opponent would like you to play quickly to finish before time runs out, it can be polite to comply. Still, it isn’t a requirement of etiquette. We don’t have to be “people pleasing” all the time.

Make your opponent uncomfortable: What about getting food in front of a starving opponent? This isn’t about being people pleasing. It’s about making your opponent uncomfortable. However, it would still be “above the call of duty” to refuse to make your opponent uncomfortable. We aren’t obligated to make our opponents happy.

Demand sporting behavior: It is rude to demand sporting behavior of an opponent. We can only control our own behavior. However, egregious offenses could be a good reason to speak out against someone’s behavior. Making fun of how someone talks, of their race, of their religion, and so on could be considered to be very serious offenses. (Of course, that behavior could end up being against the rules anyway.)

Complaining: To attribute your game loss to luck is rude. The opponent is basically told that he or she didn’t “really win.” It takes away from the opponent’s fun. Complaining to friends when the opponent isn’t around isn’t very rude, but it is a good idea to reduce it to a minimum as well. People are not going to have much fun listening to you complain. (Sometimes I like to complain about the actual design of Magic, which is more understandable. It isn’t about why I lost a game in particular. Instead, it’s about how the design of the game could be improved.)

To demand you play by the rules: Some people are “rules lawyers” because they try to get you into trouble for not stating your game action precisely. This behavior is rude, but it is always OK to demand that an opponent play by the rules. The intent of a game action must be conveyed, but it doesn’t have to be conveyed in any one specific way.

Breaking the rules: Zaiem Beg argued that players who “break the rules” on accident shouldn’t take back their action if it takes a while to realize that a mistake was made. If you played a sorcery as an instant that gave you an advantage a turn ago, then it’s “too late.” You can’t change the past. Breaking the rules in this way will give someone (or both players) a warning for “sloppy play.”

Of course, the person who broke the rules might realize that he or she couldn’t have won without breaking the rules. He or she could offer a rematch or concede, but that would be above the call of duty.

Tricking your opponent: Sometimes you attack with the hope that the opponent won’t block. You hope to “bluff” your opponent into expecting some kind of trick. This is part of the game and has nothing to do with etiquette.

However, it is possible to try to trick the opponent into conceding by implying that you win. This can be equivalent to lying to the opponent, even if you don’t “technically” lie. In such a situation, you are basically cheating. (For example, to say “Fireball for 5″ when an opponent is at 5 is cheating if you don’t really have Fireball, even though you didn’t say, “I cast Fireball for 5 damage.”


It’s not a good idea to always “treat an opponent how they treat you.” If an opponent is rude, that doesn’t mean you should be rude back. This kind of behavior is basically a way of demanding sporting behavior. We can only demand that players abide by the rules. Of course, we can only forbid highly disrupting behavior.Zaiem Beg argues that it might make sense to refuse to shake an opponent’s hand if they are rude to you. I disagree. We can’t demand that people are polite to us. We can’t require opponents to behave in a way that pleases us.

Of course, if an opponent is continually rude to us, we might think that player no longer deserves our politeness. I define “politeness” as “above the call of duty.” We never had to be polite. We just aren’t supposed to be rude. Refusing to shake an opponent’s hand at the end of a game is rude. The only time that you aren’t required to shake an opponent’s hand is when he or she was significantly disruptive. Such behavior would have to be “against the rules” or significantly immoral.


I decided to write my own two cents on Magic Etiquette after reading You are not a Pretty Pretty Princess by Zaiem Beg. I agree with most of the judgments made by Zaiem Beg, but I hoped a few new moral distinctions might help.

We aren’t obligated to be “polite,” and doing so is “above the call of duty.” However, we are obligated to be decent. Etiquette requires us to refrain from rude behavior. Additionally, highly disruptive behavior is already “against the rules,” and is not merely “rude.” It’s worse than being rude and is a notch closer to being “immoral.” No one can make us behave decently, but they can forbid us from behaving immorally.


1. Gregtron - December 1, 2009

This might sound weird to a lot of people, but ruminating on the grander aspects of MTG is one of my favorite parts of being involved in the game. General etiquette is probably second only to the bizarre results of looking at Magic player behavior through the lens of feminist theory - something I think you might enjoy.

Your section about eating in front of or enticing a hungry opponent with food reminded me of a tournament recap I read in which (I think, my apologies if I’m mixed up on the player) Ben Stark had his friends grab him a burger and fries during a long match. His opponent had stated earlier in the match that he was hungry, and Ben apparently noticed him lustfully eying his delicious, fragrant fries. Ben then put the fries on the table in plain sight, in a blatant and hilarious bid to throw him off his game. Ben won the match.

Another interesting take on etiquette is the purposeful breach of unspoken rules at higher level play for the sake of mind-games. If I’m in a highly competitive mood, I’ll often be overly chatty, or openly ignore a talkative opponent to distract them. At a PTQ earlier in the year, the team and I also grabbed a bunch of matching tokens, openly displaying them for the entire tournament. I was playing ‘Lark, so when I opened with Islands with a bunch of Faerie tokens prominently displayed to the side of my mat, my opponents were extremely likely to play the first turns around my nonexistent Spellstutter Sprites. My wife was also playing a rather savage G/W Kithkin build that omitted Spectral Procession, but her pile of spirit tokens had people sandbagging board sweepers in nearly every game she played.

2. 神の一手 - December 2, 2009

If you look at the Worlds 09 coverage, WotC is cracking down on cheating since there were 3 DQs…Gindy and 2 in draft.

3. James - December 2, 2009

It’s hard for me to believe that people cheat. (Emotionally hard. Intellectually I can accept it.) Hopefully less people cheat when I play in drafts. However, I suppose it’s a lot harder to catch drafters cheating since so much is overlooked.

4. 神の一手 - December 4, 2009

well, the draft cheaters were for looking at other people’s draft picks