Game Rule Violation is one of the only infractions in the Magic Infraction Procedure Guide which let us "fix" things that have happened. Unfortunately, just because we are licensed to fix situations, that does not mean we are required or even entitled to do so. Being cavalier with our power to rewind can be just as dangerous as allowing the players to play on. In order to see why I hold that belief, let's examine when the MIPG prescribes a back-up:
"If the error was discovered within a time frame in which a player could reasonably be expected to notice the error and the situation is simple enough to safely back up without too much disruption to the course of the game, the judge may get permission from the Head Judge to back up the game to the point of the error."
Those are a lot of qualifying statements! As a Head Judge, the onus of responsibility is yours to decide if a situation merits a rewind. Unfortunately, there is no one firm rule. Sometimes a turn cycle is a reasonable rewind timeframe whereas sometimes a single phase is too long!
When backing up we must consider what game decisions have been made based on
current information. If choices have been made or thinking could have been impacted by the current game state then we should resist the urge to rewind. A complex combat step can be more difficult to backup than an "empty turn." Let's look at one such example:
Abel has a Tower Gargoyle and Nina has 2 Mutavaults and 3 Islands. Abel attacks Nina with the Gargoyle and Nina activates a Mutavault and then casts a Mistbind Clique. In response Abel shocks the Mutavault and Nina animates the second one, championing it with the Clique. Nina then blocks the Gargoyle with the Clique, both creatures die and the Mutavault is returned. Both players then realize that Nina did not have enough mana to do all those things and call a judge. What happens?
The situation above is just one example of how a single phase can be so complex that it should give pause to a judge when considering if they should back up. For what it is worth, the situation above happened at Nationals and the ruling on the floor was that the game state remains the same. Multiple cards have changed zones, information has been gained (the existence of Shock for example), I feel as though the situation is simply too complex to be rewound.
That is not to say that a card changing zones and multiple phases being passed is necessarily a deal breaker. Consider the following scenario:
I have excess cards in hand during my end step and discard two cards, one of them being a Progenitus. My opponent untaps, draws a card, and immediately passes the turn back to me when we realize there is a Progenitus in my graveyard and call a judge. What happens?
Even though cards have changed zones, few to no game decisions have been made on the Progenitus being in the graveyard and almost no game actions have occurred. This is an excellent example of a situation that can be safely rewound!
One issue that could be more dangerous than being cavalier with backing up is the manner with which we are going about it. There has been a dangerous tendency to shortcut our backups. I've seen many judges fall prey to "It's easy to fix, we just put that card where it should be," a dangerous thought!
Let's examine what the MIPG has to say about how we should back a situation up:
"Each action taken is undone until the game reaches the point immediately prior to the error. Cards incorrectly placed in hand are returned to the location in the zone from which they were moved (if the identity of the incorrectly drawn card is not known to all players, a random card is returned instead). Once the game is backed up, it continues from that point."
Each action taken should be undone! This can be a daunting task for even the most detail-minded judge. Consider the difficulty behind rewinding even a single spell such as Impulse. Multiple cards need to be removed from the bottom of library and moved to the top coupled with most likely a random card from the hand and of course the Impulse being returned to hand. And that's not even including fixing the GRV itself! Such a massive amount of fixing, and for just one player, should make us leery about backing things up and simply "fixing" things.
When we deviate from the MIPG, we lose the consistency of the document and start to apply our own brand of rough justice. Just moving cards or applying a partial treatment raises the possibility of missing a small detail which is far worse than leaving things as they were!
There is an unfortunate pervading myth of a "broken game state" which is something we do need to fix! I've tried very hard to popularize a phrase in Florida regarding GRVs: "Is the game state legal? Great, it stands." Notice the word "legal," though – it is very important here. "Legal" means allowable by the game rules. When we are not careful, we look for the game state to be "correct" or "as it should be." It is not our place to decide correct or incorrect, merely legal or illegal.
There are a few small exceptions to our phrase as dictated by the MIPG. If a player has excess cards in hand they should be returned to a zone. If a player forgot to make a choice then we should have them make that choice. Most importantly, we should apply state-based actions to let the game correct things that should be fixed before asking if the game state is legal!
I would now like to include three scenarios and will add their solutions at the bottom of the article. I encourage you to decide how you would handle the situations if you were the Head Judge and then compare with my recommendations at the bottom.
Example 1: Adam casts Journey to Nowhere and chooses to exile Nancy's Troll Ascetic with its triggered ability. During Adam's end of turn step he realizes the error. What should we do?
Example 2: Arthur cascades into Living End, which resolves, causing both players to put several creatures into their graveyards and return several to play. Arthur returns a Sundering Titan, Phyrexian Rager, and Desolation Angel, while Arthur's opponent sacrifices a Darksteel Colossus. During his next turn Arthur realizes he put Living End on the bottom of his library with the other cascaded cards. What should we do?
Example 3: Anthony announces Demonic Dread and exiles Simian Spirit Guide to generate enough mana. Anthony then realizes he has no target for Demonic Dread! What should we do?
I hope this article has provided some clarity, not only to those floor judges fielding the calls, but to those Head Judges who are deciding if we should rewind a situation. We need to be as clear and consistent as possible in an otherwise murky region.
One final note: if you need to think hard about whether a situation is simple enough to back up, then the answer's probably no!
Solutions and notes on the examples
Example 1: Assuming that no pauses or hesitations have happened, I would not be against rewinding the situation. However, if there has been any pause, potential responses, or even any hesitation during the end step, then the game state should stand! It is not illegal for a Troll Ascetic to be in exile and so there he should stay.
Example 2: This question is particularly tricky! One's natural reaction is to put Living End in the graveyard. However this precise type of partial fix is what we want to avoid. If we want to put Living End in the graveyard then we would need to rewind a fantastic amount of action, something simply not feasible in this instance. In short, Living End should stay where it is and the players should play on with their various infractions being issued.
Example 3: This example is worth mentioning because it does not even need the Head Judge to be involved! If a player begins to take an illegal action and then catches it partway through, we rewind to the start of the action. Demonic Dread and Simian Spirit Guide should both be returned to hand and the players should play on.