By David Earley on June 13th, 2007 · Filed in General Magic · Comments not available just now
Errata has been a hot button issue of late with the recent new (or old) errata that has been given to Flash. In light of this, I thought that I might take a hard look at errata and the policies that relate (or ought to relate) to the issuance thereof. While my eye will definitely lean in the direction of Eternal formats (particularly Vintage), it will do so because this discussion is most relevant to that realm and my expertise lies in that area. This article is not what I would call a “fun” article; it will largely be a very technical analysis that is not for the faint of heart. You’ve been warned…
Before I begin, I would like to thank the members of TheManaDrain and in particular Stephen Menendian and Rich Shay for fleshing out these issues. While the ideas and discussions about errata were largely brought up on TheManaDrain forums, the analysis and opinions are my own.
Errata, the changing of the text (and therefore the function) of a card, can be issued for any number of reasons. Errata, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. Sometimes cards just need to clarified because the wording is too ambiguous. Thick-skinned Goblin would be a perfect example of this, because it is not clear, in my opinion, whether one actually pays an echo cost when one uses his ability. Other times, a card needs to be “cleaned up” because the language of a card is in old “Magicese,” such as Rock Hydra. The rules may change, requiring the card to be issued errata just to be functional at all, such as changing Interrupts to Instants. These are not the sorts of errata with which I am concerned. Instead, I am wary of errata that are issued for other reasons. While some errata will inevitably cause the power of a card to fluctuate up or down or change the subtle functionality of a card, this is an often unavoidable fact of the game. Instead, cards that are significantly changed ought to be the focus of one’s attention. It is worth noting that while one can discriminate between function altering errata and “unnecessary” errata (changing the subtype of Giant Caterpillar’s token and adding Human as a subtype to many old cards comes to mind), many of these arguments can be applied to those types of cards as well.
“new heads may be grown for apiece”
For the uninitiated, while there were discussions before, the debate over errata came into its prime a year or so ago with the issuance of errata to Time Vault, which caused it to no longer create a lethal combo with Flame Fusillade. At that time, there was an extensive discussion, both in the community and with Wizards, regarding what ought to be done. The long and the short of it is that Wizards agreed to remove “all” power level errata. I put that in quotations because some believe (myself included) that there are still cards that have not properly been reverted to their “true” original incarnations. Time Vault is definitely the whipping boy of this debate, though, and if you’re interested in an article looking solely at this card, I suggest you check out Stephen Menendian’s article on it. There are also other bits and pieces here and there examining errata, and to attempt to mention them all would be ridiculous. Instead, my aim with this article is to set up a definitive examination of errata, while providing my opinion on all of this at the same time. So, understand that while there is factual information in this article, my opinions will be present as well.
There are six topics about errata that do not fall into one of the categories I mentioned above (removing ambiguity, cleaning up, and maintaining functionality). That is not to say that there are nine types of errata; instead, each point is simply one lens through which errata ought to be viewed. The first point is that of original intent. The original intent idea is that however the designer(s) of a card meant for a card to be played, that is how the errata for the card ought to be treated today. This school of thought lends itself to the obvious question of “what was the original intent of the designer?” This is often a difficult question to answer, as it is largely up to interpretation. An important point here is that, unlike with the Constitution of the United States and similar questions of “framers’ intent” and such, the designers of the cards are still around and can be consulted. If you could find his phone number, you could call Richard Garfield up right this moment and ask him “How did you intend for Time Vault to work?” (Please don’t). From their responses (or perhaps their R&D notes), what the designers intended could be ascertained and applied.
I personally reject this policy. First, determining original intent may not be as simple as I suggest it is above. Designers might forget what they meant when they wrote something over a decade ago. Additionally, they probably have better things to do than be a consultant every time someone brings up that something does not function in line with the perceived designers’ intent. This is not to say that original intent cannot be used ever. However, I am suggesting that if there is any doubt at all, cards should be treated with the following point instead…
The second point is that of original text. This doctrine states that whatever a card says on its face in its first incarnation is how the card ought to be treated and played (cleaning up errata aside). I would say the vast majority (99%) of cards have an obvious way for them to played on their face. By that, I mean that new players with a firm grasp of the rules who cracked the card in a pack, without any previous knowledge of the card, would play it in a certain manner in most cases. Essentially, Magic cards are not a court of law; the cards say what they say.
How can we ever hope to fathom the intentI am a proponent of this policy over that of original intent for a couple of reasons. First, it is just good for the game that cards do what they actually say. Having cards do something other than what is written on their face does seem counterintuitive, doesn’t it? In order for the game to function, cards must do what they say as much as possible. I’m even opposed to the printing of textless cards for this reason. Second, it provides a much more reasonable basis for justifying how a card works. What the original intent of a designer was with respect to a card would almost certainly be up to the maintainer(s) of the Oracle. It is therefore possible that these individuals may abuse their power by finding meaning that is not there. Rather than being forced to justify what the card does based upon the writing on the card, the maintainer need only cite “original intent” and be done with it. If nothing else, the stability and integrity of a card are put at an unnecessary risk through the original intent policy.
of the Great One?
I can already hear objections concerning “Don’t you have to interpret the language that is on a card in order for it to have meaning and therefore you’re really applying original intent anyway?” Yes, one does have to interpret words to some extent; otherwise the words are just meaningless blots of black and white. However, the way in which one goes about interpreting those words is key. The lexicon that one subscribes to should be the rules of Magic and nothing else. To do otherwise is to introduce all of those problems I mentioned above. Besides, it is the only way that the most casual of players would treat a card. While I hesitate to bring up the casual player because this debate is primarily aimed at the highest of competitive levels, I would suggest that no card has ever been printed that was intended to be played with different functionality when played by the casual player as opposed to the tournament player. Essentially, there can only be one definitive version of each card at each printing, regardless of who is playing the card.
As a footnote to the discussion of original text, the “modernization” and “humanization” of old cards is unreasonable, primarily for the reasons above, but there are others. Now, I am not saying that new cards should not have the Human subtype. Instead, I am saying that old cards’ subtypes should not be changed to fit the modern template of subtype assignment. Take Zirilan of the Claw for example. He was originally a Legend, but now he is a Legendary Viashino Shaman. What is the reason for this addition (other than reprinting on MTGO)? What does this add to the game? Nothing, it just creates confusion. The only instance where I could see the addition of new creature subtypes is for the sake of preserving card functionality, with a card like Karona, False God. Because Karona no longer has a subtype, it cannot give itself the +3/+3 bonus, something that I think is extremely important to the functionality of the card, especially because the card is changing sides a lot. Then again, the card could just be issued errata to allow a player to choose “legendary creatures.” Finally, this policy is being applied very inconsistently. Niall Silvain is still a Niall-Silvain, yet Sindbad is a Human. While both of these cards would most likely be legendary nowadays, instead they have skewed creature types. Just leave well enough alone, Wizards. On a subtle note, I think it destroys the nostalgia of the game, too.
While these two topics might seem to encompass everything, there are many cards whose functionality cannot be determined by simply following either of these policies, for various reasons. This is where things start getting really complicated.
Next is the point of mistakes. R&D makes mistakes sometimes (shocking, I know!). A card gets printed in some fashion other than the way it was supposed to be. In this case, there is an obvious disconnect between the original intent and the original text. I am not referring to cards like Floral Spuzzem where the intent (that Floral Spuzzem’s controller choose an artifact to destroy) is clear. I’m referring to cards such as Rancor, Grip of Chaos, Impulse, and Oboro Envoy.
While you may be aware that Rancor is good, you may not be aware that the card was actually a mistake. The original incarnation of Rancor was supposed to cost , but instead was printed at the bargain of only (why do you think it was printed in the common slot?). As a result, Rancor went from being a good card to a great, even amazing card. What did Wizards do? Nothing, Rancor was left alone. The mistake was allowed to stand, in spite of making the card incredible. This was ok, though, because the card did not disrupt the integrity of the game. It was simply a very powerful common. Moreover, the card was completely functional the way it was printed; R&D just hadn’t intended to make it so cheap.
On the other hand, there is Grip of Chaos. This card, as originally worded, sets up an infinite loop whenever it triggers, meaning that the game will end in a draw. So for , you get a card that reads “Whenever a spell or ability is put on the stack, the game is a draw.” Is this broken? I imagine in Standard it might be, but in Vintage or Legacy, probably not. Regardless, it should be obvious that this incarnation of the card is a gross interpretation of the card. Had that meaning been intended, it would have been worded in a manner other than the way it was worded. So, Wizards opted to errata Grip of Chaos, and it functions in the way that was intended, rather than the way it was worded. Is this unreasonable? No, I do not believe so. Grip of Chaos, while a mistake, was a gross error. Though the printed effect of the card was good (but not great), it should be obvious to anybody that this is not how the card was meant to function. Personally, I had to read the card three times to even see the problem the first time I was told about it. In short, mistakes happen, so we have a mechanism to fix them. This, however, does not excuse issuing errata for all mistakes.
Wizards couldn’t overcome the ImpulseNow we come to Impulse. If one looks at the Visions version of the card, one will notice that it states to “shuffle your library afterwards,” in spite of putting “the rest on the bottom of your library.” Well, clearly this implies that the shuffle text ought to be removed, because if it weren’t, putting the cards on the bottom of the library would be meaningless. Unfortunately, this analysis is flawed. Putting the cards on the bottom and then shuffling is not the same as simply shuffling. This is because placing the cards on the bottom could be meaningful in ways that have not yet been devised. Perhaps a card will come into being that will cause a player to take damage whenever he or she puts a card on the bottom of his or her library. Perhaps a card will be created that prevents a player from shuffling his library (strange as that may seem). Just because it hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean that it can’t happen. Yes, it is true that these cards have not come into existence, and therefore the point may appear to be moot. But, I would point to Shield of Kaldra and Steamflogger Boss as examples of cards that did the exact same thing in their own times. Shield of Kaldra referred to a card called Helm of Kaldra, which had not even seen print yet. Did that imply that its ability with respect to Helm of Kaldra was meaningless and should have been issued errata? Of course not. Steamflogger Boss is an even better example, as we have neither contraptions nor assembling in Magic as of yet. While this text has caused a flood of questions in the rulings forum, nobody is calling for the removal of the text, even though it is currently devoid of meaning. Now look at Impulse again. How is the “put the cards on the bottom” effect (with the shuffle text in place) different from the “whenever a rigger assembles a contraption” effect? The answer: it’s not. Simply because the game does not use that effect now does not mean the effect cannot be used later. Therefore, errata because it “does nothing” is unreasonable. Consequently, Impulse should cause the player to shuffle his or her library, but it does not.
to issue errata.
So, what about Oboro Envoy? Well, honestly, I’m not sure. Typically, such an effect would end at end of turn. But on the other hand, does this card somehow not conform to the rules? Well, no. While power and toughness penalties that last beyond the end of the turn are usually designated with a counter, there is no requirement that it must be. If I had to pick one way or the other though, I would choose not to issue errata to the card. Perhaps this is a reasonable place to start a discussion. As a rule of thumb, though, I would suggest that if a card functions as printed, then it should be accepted. However, if it does not, then errata is probably necessary.
Above: Legends Relic BindImpulse brings up the extremely important point of reprints with errata. It sure does seem that it was never intended for Impulse to cause one to shuffle one’s library. Wizards apparently felt strongly enough about this that they issued emergency errata and reprinted it with the new errata, both in Beatdown and as a promotional card. This is the idea that, though a card may have been printed in a certain way before, a new version of that card has been printed, and because the card was reprinted in that manner, that new version becomes the definitive version of the card, therefore issuing errata to the old one. The poster child for this is Relic Bind. Relic Bind was issued errata because it comboed with one’s own Basalt Monolith. By tapping and untapping Basalt Monolith over and over using the mana it generated, an indefinitely large amount of damage could be generated, winning the game for the Relic Bind player. However, Wizards didn’t feel so good about that. So Relic Bind received errata and was reprinted in Fourth Edition with the new text “target artifact opponent controls.” As a result, the combo no longer works today. The argument for this sort of errata is that the card has been printed this way for so long that, in spite of not being true to the original card, it is now the “true and accepted” version.
Below: Fourth Edition Relic Bind
However, I reject this justification for errata. Reprinting a card in a manner different from the original does not change the wording on the original copies of the card. In fact, this method is not different from any other kind of errata that changes functionality. The fact of the matter is that the original exists, regardless of how many times one reprints it. For the trivia buffs out there, Balance was printed as a judge promo with the order that things were done in a different order (which reflected the current errata of the time). In spite of this, Wizards has since gone back to the original wording, making the newer versions obsolete! How’s that for irony?
All of this brings up another important point, that of precedent. The idea of precedent is that, while errata mistakes may have been made in the past (even for power reasons), a card has been treated in a certain manner for such a long time that to change it now would be unreasonable. This is where the Time Vault/Flame Fusillade combo comes in. Time Vault had had its errata involving the time counter for quite some time. It had been allowed to become a win condition in Vintage for many months. The precedent had been established that this was how the card worked; it was “fair” to do this. Then, one day, the combo was unexpectedly errataed out of existence. While Time Vault was issued errata in order to remove power level errata (which was not actually achieved anyway), I believe it was also issued errata so that it no longer had a time counter, something that was a centerpiece of Time Spiral block. Wizards didn’t want Time Vault comboing with Clockspinning.
Regarding the precedent argument, I have mixed feelings. If nobody is all that upset about how things are, then why change it? The gain from issuing errata to something that has been in its current state for so long, though wrong in its current form, is questionable. How many players are truly damaged (play-wise or money-wise) by the precedent as it stands now? Few, if any. The precedent, actually, is what allows the card to maintain its value. This is another reason people were so upset about Time Vault: the value plummeted once the errata was issued. People had an expectation that the card would retain its value because it could be used as a combo piece. Instead, they had the rug pulled out from under them. While Wizards is not supposed to care about the secondary market, I believe this to be a serious consideration, especially with respect to old cards; the collectibility of the cards is an intrinsic part of the game. Though cards do fluctuate in value, Wizards should not be the instigator of the change through any means other than the printing of cards, the reprinting of cards that are not on the Reserve List, and the implementation of restrictions and bannings.
However, while the “stability of errata” idea may have previously been true, Wizards has now set a new precedent that cards are not safe from being reverted to some older form. The players are now aware that cards could be issued errata. Illusionary Mask is probably the most likely target of such errata (although I’m sure some would argue with this point). So, by choosing to hang on to Illusionary Masks, one accepts the risk that it might be issued errata again. This is similar to keeping cards like Mishra’s Workshop or Bazaar of Baghdad, which might eventually be restricted or even Grim Tutor which is not that unreasonable a candidate for reprint.
So, all and all, I could see the precedent argument either way. Ultimately, I think if we’re going to fix cards, then let’s get them all fixed rather than just fixing a few of them at a time. The time to fix a card is now, not later. If cards are not going to be further issued errata, then Wizards should make this clear. It is not fair to the game and it is not fair to the players that cards are allowed to remain in this errata limbo.
Finally, that leaves power level errata. Power level errata is errata that is issued to a card, in one form on another, that significantly lowers the power level of a card, usually to the point of unplayability. Palinchron would be an example of this in that the card used to have to be played from hand in order for its triggered ability to trigger; now, that condition has been removed in line with the new policy of Wizards to remove power level errata. While I could go on about it here, this topic has been discussed at length elsewhere. Suffice it to say, in my opinion, there is no room in this game for power level errata. A card should do what it says, not some nerfed version of what it says, period. I think I’ve emphasized this point enough already without having to belabor it here.
Magic rules manager Mark Gottlieb poses That being said, there are very powerful cards in this game. From what I can tell, Flash has ripped Legacy apart, having reared its head as creating truly degenerative decks. But that’s ok. Why? No, it’s not because I hate Legacy (which I don’t). It’s because the tools are already in place to deal with this problem -- namely, the Banned and Restricted Lists. Because R&D makes mistakes (of a different kind from that mentioned above), sometimes it is necessary to remove a card from the card pool. How is this different from issuing errata to a card such that it doesn’t resemble its original text? Well, not very. Time Vault, as it was originally printed, does not exist. Instead, Wizards stole all of the copies from all of the owners of Time Vault and gave them “Time Depository” instead, something vaguely resembling Time Vault. Time Vault has been de facto banned. While this may not be as meaningful in formats other than Vintage, we Vintage players really like playing with our cards, each and every one. The only cards banned in Vintage are those cards which cannot be reconciled with the rules of today, the ante cards and the dexterity cards, Chaos Orb and Falling Star (which should be the fate of such cards, unfortunately). Though Yawgmoth’s Will is unbelievably broken, there still has not been a community-wide push to ban it. It is only restricted, meaning each player is allowed to run one copy. What this means, then, is that Time Vault, in its true and unadulterated form, can actually be used less than Yawgmoth’s Will, the on high undisputed king of broken cards. This is simply ludicrous. If it is bad, restrict it. If it is really, really, really bad, then ban it. But pretending that a card ought to function in some manner other than that suggested by the original text is insulting to the players.
with the Banhammer in hand after smashing
Time Vault to smithereens.
Ultimately, I propose that errata should be handled using what I am going to dub the “Gideon principle”. To be very brief, Clarence Gideon was a felon (prior to this arrest) drifter who was arrested in 1961 for robbing a pool hall. Because he was poor, he was unable to afford a lawyer to defend himself. However, the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution says, among other things, that “[T]he accused shall have the right…to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.” Gideon, being aware of what the Constitution said, asserted this right to the judge, and insisted that he was entitled to the help of a lawyer. Gideon was denied his request for a lawyer, with the judge stating that one was only entitled to a lawyer when facing the death penalty (which was the legal precedent of the time). To make a long story short, the Supreme Court ruled in a 9-0 decision that the Constitution said that Gideon was entitled to a lawyer. If you’re interested in learning more about this case, Gideon v. Wainwright, I suggest you look it up on Wikipedia.
Gideon was not what one would call the sharpest tool in the shed. However, he was smart enough to realize that the Constitution, in plain English, said that he was entitled to a lawyer. This is how Magic cards should be read and interpreted. A Magic playing Gideon ought to look at the first printing of a card and tell us what it means. Some hidden meaning does not need to be gleaned from the text. The card says what it says. I say this with the one caveat, however, that the rules of the time must also be taken into consideration. The fact that there are new rules today does not change the fact that there were different rules previously. Wordings must be viewed with the rules of the time in mind. So, Firebreathing does not give itself +1/+0 and Winter Orb is turned off when it is tapped. This, however, in no way justifies absurd “interpretations” of cards to be made, as has been discussed above at length. The philosophy I am advocating is one of simplicity, driven by the ideas that 1) hidden meanings cannot reasonably be determined and that 2) both casual players and hardcore players play with the same cards.
Good reasons for justifying errata:|
1. Restoring original text
2. Removing ambiguity
3. Cleaning up
4. Maintaining functionality
5. Fixing mistakes that are dysfunctional
Bad reasons for justifying errata:
1. Applying original intent
2. Fixing mistakes that aren’t dysfunctional
3. Reprinting a card
4. Precedent (as explained above)
5. Power level of a card
In closing, after much contemplation, this is how I view the errata debate. Ultimately, there are good reasons to issue errata, but there are also bad reasons. I hope that this article has helped you see the difference between the two. I strongly encourage you to post in the forums if you have an opinion you would like to express, as I find these issues surrounding errata very interesting to discuss. Thanks for reading.
By David Earley on June 13th, 2007 · Filed in General Magic · Comments not available just now
About David Earley
David Earley has played Magic since 1996 and has played the Vintage format competitively since 2002.