As my law school career winds down to its last month, bringing piles of work amidst the onset of a new Magic set (it’s a Miracle!), I can’t help notice how this game is a great analogy for teaching how the U.S. legal system works. It goes much beyond both fields using the title of judge!”
At the risk of going from BadMagicPlayer.com to BoringMagicPlayer.com, today’s article is focused on using our favorite card game to teach players how our judicial system works.
I. The Constitution – Thomas Jefferson Taps for Blue Mana
Most people know that we (in the U.S.) have a Federal Constitution that is the “supreme law of the land.” The Constitution is the fundamental law of our nation that sets out the basic three-branch structure of the federal government, outlines what the government can and can’t do (generally), and provides for certain rights of the people and states. Congress and the states are allowed to write other laws, but they cannot violate anything stated in the Constitution. Throughout the country’s 200+ year history we have changed the Constitution 27 times (each change is called an Amendment), which added new details to how we, the people, want our government to operate. I’m sure most of you have heard of the rights of the Freedom of Speech under 1st Amendment, or the hotly debated Right to Bear Arms found in the 2nd Amendment. Without a Constitution, the people of the United States would be powerless against the government, as there would be no boundaries under which it had to act.
Magic essentially has its own Constitution, the Comprehensive Rules. These “basic” (in name alone, the rules are nearly 200 pages in length) set the boundaries under which the game is played. Anything that violates a rule of Magic is an illegal play and cannot be done. Like the U.S. Constitution, which gives citizens predictability on its government’s boundaries, the Magic rules give players a static set of parameters so there is no dispute on the basic nature of gameplay. As a comparison, you can think of the Magic rules regarding turn order like the Articles of the Constitution that establish the three branches of government (Executive, Legislative, and Judicial). Both establish a structure under which the game (or society) can function peacefully. And like Amendments to the Constitution, the Magic Rules can be changed, as they were dramatically prior to Magic 2010’s release (when damage no longer went on the stack and other major changes were made – a truly sad day for Mogg Fanatic).
Both society and Magic need a fundamental set of rules to operate under, and the U.S. Constitution and the Magic Comprehensive Rules carry that function, respectively.
II. Federalism – A New State Every Three Months
One of the unique features of the United States government is the concept of federalism – having a central federal government and several smaller, local governments (the states). While the U.S. Constitution allows for a powerful federal government, it provides that the states have even more power in their ability to govern themselves. The states are given widespread independence to create laws that benefit their own citizens as long as they don’t violate the Constitution. For example, a state can’t pass a law requiring a person accused of a crime to testify against themselves in court – that would violate the Constitution’s 5th Amendment Right Against Self-Incrimination (“I plead the Fifth!”). But because the states have the ability to operate independently, there can be a huge difference in laws between different states. For example, when you buy a booster pack in Michigan you have to pay a 6% sales tax, but go just a state south to Indiana and the tax rate is 7%. A more dramatic example is state laws on gambling. Almost all forms of gambling are illegal in Utah, but just one state west in Nevada you’ll find more casinos than anywhere else in the country!
In Magic, federalism exists whenever a new set releases. Each set is developed independently of the other sets, and contains both new mechanics that aren’t found in any other set (ex. soulbond in the Avacyn Restored) and mechanics commonly found in every set (ex. flying, vigilance). The overall Comprehensive Magic Rules apply to every set alike, just like the Constitution applies to all states. But Wizards R/D is not bound to make each set the same as any before it, just as no state is bound to have the same laws as any other state. In fact, that’s what makes both federalism and independent Magic sets appealing – they can have their own unique identity but still fit cohesively into the overall structure with its peers.
III. Lawsuits – Attacking for 1 Million Dollars
With all these different laws in effect both in the states and on the federal level, what is someone to do when they are harmed by another’s violation of the law? Some laws make certain conduct a crime (like theft, murder, etc.) and have penalties like prison and fines. That’s good for society to get its retribution on someone who has harmed it, but what about the individual that is harmed? What about the Magic player who has his/her backpack stolen at a Grand Prix – throwing the thief in prison makes us all feel like justice has been served, but the person now out several thousand dollars in cards doesn’t feel any better. Also, there are many laws that have nothing to do with crimes and jail sentences don’t make any sense to apply. For example, how do you toss a company in jail for making a defective product that injures you? What good is a contract if there is no way to enforce it except throwing the promise-breaker the promise in jail? This is where lawsuits come in.
When you sue someone you are accusing them of harming you in some way, most of the time in some economic way (you lost money or a job, you didn’t get what you paid for, your house was painted the wrong color, etc.). In order to get what you deserve (based on your contract or the law), you haul the other person into court. Believe it or not, most lawsuits are settled without ever reaching trial. This is mostly due to lawyers negotiating an agreeable result the person being sued (the defendant) pays the person bringing the suit (the plaintiff) to drop the lawsuit. The suits that go to trial are usually too close in the facts for either side to back down. Most of you have seen something resembles a trial – think Judge Judy, etc. or the People’s Court. Those are mini-trials called arbitrations that don’t involve any lawyers. Real trials can take several days and involve many witnesses and arguments (not angry ones, just mostly boring, logical arguments by lawyers). If the plaintiff wins the trial, they’re awarded what they asked for (generally) and the defendant has to pay up.
Think of a lawsuit as your regular Magic match. Two players are fighting to a win a game, just as much as two parties in litigation are fighting to win their case. In Magic, you attack with creatures and sling spells, while trial lawyers “attack” with eyewitness testimony and documents and sling arguments. Magic players build their decks to try and defeat their opponent, and trial lawyers build their case in a way to tell a story that persuades a jury to rule in their favor. Winners are decided by an objective decider – in trials it’s the judge and jury, in Magic a player running out of cards or having 0 life or 10 poison counters (among others like Pacts, etc.)
IV. Interpreting the Law – Judge!
After trials are completed the losing party often appeals the case to the next level of court. Most appeals are requests for the higher court to interpret the law that the appealing party believes was misapplied. During the appeals process, lawyers argue for their interpretation of the law, using past precedents of older case decisions. The appeals court rules on the case by upholding the result of the trial, dismissing the case completely, or sending the case back for a new trial to apply the appeals court’s different interpretation of the law. That result becomes precedent for future appeals court cases to apply and follow. The loser of the appeal can then appeal to a higher appeals court, all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has the final say on all cases. If you lose at the Supreme Court, you’ve lost that case for good.
The Magic analogy here is a judge call during a tournament when two players disagree over the application of a card or situation. The judge comes to the table and asks the players to state what happened (the “facts of the case”), then either provides a ruling in a clear case (like when the appeals court rules without interpreting the law and dismisses the case) or listens to player arguments over how an interaction should be treated if there isn’t a current Oracle text or ruling on the situation (or the judge just hasen’t read the rulings, like a recent wrong Gideon Jura + Geist of Saint Traft interaction ruling that I’ll discuss in a later article). The Magic judge ultimately makes a ruling, which the losing player can appeal to the tournament’s head judge. The head judge’s ruling, like the Supreme Court, is final.
The interesting thing about the legal system, is that if someone doesn’t like a court’s ruling, they can seek a change in the law through Congress or the state legislature. For example, some courts have overturned state laws that require voters to show a photo I.D. before filling out a ballot. The courts ruled that they violated state constitutions, but the people of those states were unhappy with the results, so they are working to change their state constitution to allow the law. The Constitution also contains a process by which it can be changed to overturn Supreme Court rulings if the citizens wish, but it is extremely rare and difficult to amend it.
This process exists in Magic through Oracle text rulings and changes. If Wizards wants to clarify how a card interacts in a specific situation, it can errata the card to read a different way than its actual text. This has happened mostly when the Comprehensive Rules changed and all the Alpha/Beta/Unlimited card texts had to be errated to reflect the modern rules (“Mono Artifacts” no longer exist, some card wording didn’t make sense, etc.). The point here is that in both the legal system and Magic, things can be changed after they are enacted – laws and cards alike can be amended to reflect what the people/players want.
Obviously this was a very basic, over-generalized look at the U.S. legal system compared to Magic. There is much more to understand about how our government functions, but this was a decent crash course. I hope I did not bore you all too much, but now you can tell people who think you waste time playing a card game that it’s actually a sophisticated model of the U.S. legal system!