The Ethics of Tournament Magic

Over the last few weeks, the Magic world has been abuzz with Pro Tour Honolulu and Kazuya Mitamura’s victory over the Czech Michal Hebky.  However, in the week preceding the pro-tour in paradise, there was much discussion surrounding Magic players and their ethics. Specifically, Mike Flores’ article on cheating, Patrick Chapin’s declaration of targets with Profane Command, and an article at MTGSalvation that discussed all the ways players could “bend” the rules to gain an advantage.

This is not what Magic players are supposed to be known as.
This is not what Magic players are supposed to be.

As Magic players, we want to (I hope) have some fun playing a game we love, and if some prizes or glory come our way, then that’s great. I’m not saying that I don’t try my hardest in a game of Magic, nor do I let up in my search for the best deck to play at my next tournament. However, I am saying that Magic will not be worth playing the day that I stop having fun with it. This happened to my brother a year or so ago, and now he only joins me for the occasional game of DC10, rather than the rigorous standard testing we used to do together. It is my contention that some of the things described in the articles mentioned above would make Magic lose much of it’s appeal.

Thus we come to the first issue raised by Flores: Cheating. Any game that has a potential reward will always have those who will try and achieve a gain through dishonest means. It is not only the job of the judges present, but also the players to confront these players. Judges can only do so much, and as a player, especially in a large tournament, you should be on guard to see any potential cheating. I think that the new Alara Reborn cascade mechanic, while amazingly powerful and fun, provides ample opportunity for foul play. I foresee someone playing a Bloodbraid Elf and trying to cascade into something like a Flame Javelin, which might appear to be OK at first glance. As well, because some of the lower-cost cascade cards can go for a while before hitting an eligible target, an unscrupulous player may keeping going after hitting a Birds of Paradise in hopes of getting something more akin to a Terminate. Just a heads up, if you see your opponent playing with cascade spells, pay extra-special attention to how they manipulate their cards.

A few weeks ago at a game shop different than the one I normally frequent, a player was entered into a draft at FNM. Keep in mind that this was an ALA-CON-ARB draft, and so only one Shards of Alara pack was opened. He went off to build his deck by himself and then won his first round on the back of a Mycoloth and an Oblivion Ring. Sure, it’s possible for him to have opened the Mycoloth and had the drafter on his right take a Broodmate Dragon first pick, although the odds highly suggest otherwise. So sure enough, he wins the draft on the back of an almost perfect Naya deck. The catch? He had the same deck last week, almost card for card, Mycoloth, Oblivion Ring and all. After multiple repeat wins, a thread started up on the Alberta MTG forums, and it turned out that his actions had not gone unnoticed. The shop keeper was informed, and he talked to the cheater after the tournament. The cheater promised to issue a public apology at the next tournament (as most people were gone by this time) and, (surprise, surprise) has not been seen at a tournament since.

Michael Flores has done an excellent job of illustrating a cheat that could be easily pulled off in a tournament setting, and I now think that I’ll be playing with a bit more attention paid to my opponent’s cards.  I’ve already started cutting and shuffling my opponent’s for a much longer period of time than normal, especially if it looks like they could have pulled a “double nickel”.  

While cheating is an obvious infraction of the rules, there is a large amount of grey area where one’s personal ethics must cross paths with the desire for victory.  For those of you unfamiliar with Chapin’s play, he cast a Profane Command saying that his opponent would lose life and that “all my legal targets gain fear”. The opponent then assumed the Chapin’s Chameleon Colossus had fear, and proceeded to take lethal damage.

I think that a play like this depends heavily on the tournament setting. In an FNM, I would feel sorry for his opponent and question the motives behind the play. In a PTQ or higher though, where there is a lot more on the line than a few packs, I think that although there is a reason to make such a play, I do not believe that it is warranted. Although Chapin’s play was legitimate, I can’t see myself making a play like it. Part of this is because I am not a professional Magic player (yet), but part of it is that I believe that the winner of an event should be dictated by a combination of playskill and deckbuilding. If I ever find myself in a high seat at a tournament, I hope that I may play the cards without resorting to slight tricks of wording in the hopes of gaining an advantage.

Patrick Chapin did teach me one thing through this incident, and that is to be very careful of what exactly my opponent is saying, as well as what they are doing with their cards. I would hate to feel like Chapin’s opponent at that time, so I believe it is in the best interest of everyone to always clarify your opponent’s intentions.

There were always be unscrupulous players in games where there is a reward. However, in Magic, we can limit their appearances by being very careful not about just what we say and do, but what our opponents do. I think that by playing in a way so that you can pick up on little things like how your opponent announces his spell or how they manipulate both players cards.

The side-effect of this type of rigorous play will actually improve you as a Magic player, because if you can be more observant of certain parts of the game, branching out to become observant of other parts. As Sir Francis Bacon once said, “Knowledge is Power”, and it’s a statement that applies to Magic as well. While in-game knowledge can also be attained through cards like Thoughtseize, it can also be gained through tight gameplay and careful observation.

If you have any questions, comments, or future article suggestions, you can email me, follow my twitter feed, or post in the comments. Cheers for now, and you can expect to hear more of me within a week, as all I have left of school are my finals, which are actually a lot less stressful than normal classes.

3 thoughts on “The Ethics of Tournament Magic”

  1. interesting article zak! i was totally missing the boat on this topic. thanks for keeping us updated. i think chapin’s play (ie wording) was perfect. if the player could have avoided lethal, than he should have just been paying more attention. it also doesn’t hurt to just ask/verify, “this one, this one and this one?” he has to respond. he might just respond, “yah, all my legal targets,” but that would certainly be enough time to make the light turn on as to what has fear and what doesn’t. i guess i don’t see the ethical ambiguity there.

    re: all real cheating. ultimately it comes down to whether you’re out to prove your the better player or whether you’re the better cheater. cheaters suck, for sure and that’s why you just have to be better than them! :)

  2. With any game involving chance, there will always be ways to cheat. It’s inevitable. But of course, I try to play as fair as possible.

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