Best of the West – Greatness at Any Cost

Thursday, August 19th – Inspired by the Columbus DQ controversy, the discussion over whether Saito should make the Hall of Fame, and some of my own experiences, I’d like to talk about all sorts of out of the box play, the will to win, and the ethics of competition.

I was born in 1979, and grew up in the period where Nintendo and video arcades were slowly displacing pinball machines. My brother and I loved nothing more than to spend a few hours throwing quarters down slots so we could race cars, be Ninja Turtles, or defend the galaxy from aliens. My father was quite obliging, perhaps as much out of filial love as a love for the corner that sheltered the few remaining devices made by Bally, Williams, or Gottlieb. When I ran out of change, I would often watch him play his “old” game with metal balls, analog display, and paddles. The thing that mystified me was how he would check the machine with his waist while playing in order to manipulate the ball in places where the player wasn’t supposed to be able to change its trajectory. To me, it seemed like blatantly cheating the system. I asked him about it once, and he said that there were sensors in the machine designed to notice if you were rocking it, and you would lose the game if they noticed you had put the machine on “tilt”. (Which I think is the etymological origin of the expression Poker and Magic players use today.) He went on to explain that if you were careful and knew a machine well, you could rock it just enough to get some better bounces out of your balls without actually setting the machine’s sensor off. Players who didn’t use this extra edge when playing these games were at a disadvantage, and he thought of it as an important part of any players’ repertoire of skills. This was my first lesson that there is often a game beyond the game. That it’s not just what happens inside the box that determines the winner. That you can make moves outside the box as well. This lesson too was about the fine line between moves that gave you a little edge to aid in victory, but also that one could go too far and tilt the system. Inspired lately by the Columbus DQ controversy, the discussion over whether Saito should make the Hall of Fame, and some of my own experiences, I’d like to talk about all sorts of out of the box play, the will to win, and the ethics of competition.

Let’s start where all victory comes from, with the desire to win. To do well at anything, I think you have to believe that you can do it. Consciously or not, all people are inherently lazy / efficient and stop investing much work in anything when there won’t be any reward out of it. In competitive activities, you can almost always note the point at which someone doesn’t think they have a chance: they slouch, they start making jokes about it, they stop paying attention, and a myriad of other little ticks that say, “This isn’t important to me anymore.” When you think that you can win, that you should win, and sometimes even that you deserve to win, you are more intense, more focused, and you try harder than you would otherwise. Thinking about my own play, when I’ve lost hope (for whatever reason) I don’t look very hard for more lines of play, I just sort of pick up my cards, flop them on the table, shove around attackers, and grimly prepare to meet my fate. When I think I am going to win, I spend time thinking about what cards my opponent is on, how each of my cards might interact with theirs, what cards I might draw and how they could affect our game, and so forth. I put a lot more energy into analyzing and playing the game because I think that if I keep doing so I will come away the victor. Desire here is only part of the equation. If I weren’t capable of doing the other activities that the desire to win inspired, it would matter little, but without it all the ability in the world wouldn’t do me much good either.

If you want to win badly enough, you might start trying even harder than the game permits. I remember the first time it ever dawned on me that I could take an extra twenty in Monopoly and have an advantage over my opponents. I am sure almost everyone reading this has cheated or thought about cheating at a game at some point in their lives. Fortunately, this probably happened when we were children, we probably did it somewhat ineptly, and we were probably educated by a parent (or got some rough justice from other kids) about why cheating is wrong, and how it deprives everyone of the opportunity to compete as the game was intended. However, it is not always so cut and dried about what is wrong and what is not. The penalty system in basketball, for example, assigns an in-game penalty for each rules violation, but accepts that a certain amount of rules violating will happen in the course of each game. Not until reaching a critical threshold of fouls is a player actually removed from the game or considered to have done something wrong. Basketball teams have mostly evolved to make use of these foul allocations by using them on purpose to manipulate the clock, control strong players on the other team, and other things my marginal knowledge of basketball means I don’t understand. The point is that they are doing essentially the same thing my father used to do on the pinball machine: give it a little body check to get an edge while hoping to be precise enough not to tilt the game. Teams get reputations for playing “dirtier” or “cleaner,” and this affects their perception by other players, coaches, and fans, but seems to have been more or less accepted as a normal part of the game.

Another interesting edge I have heard pursued by gamers relates to the game Starcraft. In the early 2000s, some of my friends were complaining about how they never wanted to play against Korean opponents. When I asked why, they said that the Koreans were so competitive that they had special software that would determine the IP address you were connected through, and then start spamming it with packets of information to slow down your connection to the game. I asked around about this, and it turns out that the Korean players considered this to be fair game, all part of the Starcraft experience, while the American players felt strongly that this was a form of cheating. It seemed to be a case where different social customs determined what was permissible and not, and the two sides just didn’t see eye to eye on the subject. The idea here was that there was no judicial authority over the game other than Blizzard, and though they forbade tampering with the software or the game itself, anything else was a sort of Wild West with no sheriff. I don’t think that either the Koreans or the Americans were right; I think they both had different interpretations about the Spirit of the Game. Essentially, I think when agreeing to any competitive experience, ground rules are lain down about what is being competed over. I think the American players thought they were just playing a game of Starcraft, while the Korean players thought there should be some DEF CON thrown into the mix. Here we have two different bodies of players who thought that the tilt sensors should be tuned to different settings.

This all brings me around to Tomoharu Saito. Without a doubt, Saito is one of the greatest competitors to ever play the game. His Top 8 questionnaires always have gems of answers in them. When asked what other hobbies he had Saito answers, “I love only Magic”. When asked who the greatest player in the world is, he says, “I am.” His apartment in Tokyo is one part bed, one part computer, and eight parts Magic cards. I would wager that his desire to win is on “maximum” all the time, which I think is both the root of his greatness and his transgressions. I have sat around a lot in the last few weeks, chatting with old school Magic players, discussing their Hall of Fame ballots, and the conversations about Saito have been the most heated and full of lore about the game. His first suspension was for bribery, conceding to another player in what was apparently a bit of a massive collusion circle of upper tier Japanese players at the time. I am somewhat sympathetic to this, as it is hard not to participate in the pervading culture of wherever you are gaming. If everyone is running IP disrupting software, even if you think it is wrong, there is a tendency to join in the arms race or be left behind. Maybe people of high moral character would stand up and fight against what they think is not right, but that is easy to say as a distant spectator and hard to say when you are in the thick of it. If you perceive a game is played a certain way, that’s usually how you play it when you step in. Thankfully, Wizards and the judging staff have cleaned up the game significantly since then, so that players are not placed in the position where they need to decide whether or not to disadvantage themselves by playing clean in an era of corruption. Saito’s second suspension apparently came for counting his cards into piles (without changing the order), putting the piles back together, and then presenting them to his opponent. The opponent cut, and then Saito called a judge on his opponent for inappropriately manipulating his deck. When asked why he did what he did, he said that it was the only way he could think of to win the match. I don’t know what the technical rules are, and what Saito did likely fell within them, but he was clearly violating the Spirit of the Game. He was supposed to be there to play a game of Magic, but instead was trying to use the penalty code to scum his opponent out of a victory. Certainly clever, and the sign of a tenacious player, but ultimately not why people come from miles around to compete. This was definitely a step over the line, and he tilted the machine when he did it.

What about the little grey areas? Saito is on the lifetime watch list for slow play. When I scrubbed out of the tournament at GP: Chicago, I watched Saito play several rounds, and observed that he does something that I think few other players do. He checks periodically, asking the judging staff how far down the penalty guideline he is for any kind of infraction, and slow play in particular. I think he uses his slow play warnings in much the same way that a basketball team will use its fouls, as an allowance for how many more times he can spend more time thinking about a move. Rather than try to avoid penalties like most players do, I think Saito manages his penalties over a tournament to get maximum value. He checks the machine to get a few good bounces, but knows well enough now how to avoid tilting it. I’m not really sure if this is “okay” or not. As a community, Magic players seem to abhor blatant cheating, and be okay with prize splits, but there are some moves which don’t really seem in keeping with the Spirit of the Game, but also don’t directly go against it. I know there are times where I could certainly use more time. At GP: Indianapolis I was playing round 12, and with a win I would go into the last draft with a live shot at the Top 8. I was certain I could eke out a win with the Jaws of Stone and Ember Gale I had in my hand, but couldn’t quite figure it out before my opponent had brought over a judge and that judge had told me to make a play. I later thought, “Damn, I could have appealed to the head judge and thought in the extra time he would have taken to come over.” I probably would have found my play (which I figured out shortly after the game and confirmed with my opponent), but it would have been an attempt to check the machine and get a little extra value. Not quite what Saito was doing, but both seem like ambiguously appropriate moves to get extra time to play in a competitive setting. A little extra time can be all it takes to turn a loss into a win, or vice versa.

I think just as important as wanting it enough to win is crucial, wanting it too much is dire. There were a few tournaments when I first started playing where I was so hungry to prove myself, so deeply desired the respect of my peers, so wanted some results to brag about, that the idea of cheating for easy wins gnawed at me constantly. After building a sealed deck and playing it for a round, there was always the, “Drat! I should have played X over Y, and Z over W, and my deck would have been so much better!” The next idea that follows would always be to “forget” to de-sideboard my deck, so even if I got caught it would only be obvious that I was forgetful and not actually an intentional cheater. Part of my mind would tell me that I deserved it, that I was good enough that I should have done it, that no one would ever find out, etc. I resisted that urge, I lost due to my mistakes, I went home unhappy. Maybe it’s made me a better player, but I bet I would have learned about the same amount if I had given in. On the other hand, I do feel like I’ve earned the place that I’m at in the game. I may not have made Top 8 at anything bigger than a PTQ, but I’m a lock for Level 4 by the end of the year, and I’m pretty proud of that. I’m not sure I’d have the same sense of satisfaction if I’d taken the easy path.

Not that I’m any Kenji Tsumara. When my opponents forget to pay their Pacts, I take the win. On a few occasions I wrote down the time the game ended, and watched the clock as my opponent worked on sideboarding. I’d warn them when two minutes had past that the rules allowed only three minutes to sideboard, and that they now had about fifty seconds left. I’d do this to frazzle them, hoping that they would sideboard wrong, to increase their stress level, maybe they’d even tilt during a game. One time a player even presented me 59 cards because he was rushing to beat the 3 minute deadline. I took the win and didn’t feel too bad about it. I think, though, that that was a competitive desire grown a bit too far out of control. Sure, some edge can be gained that way, but taking a step back, it seems to be a pretty big violation of the Golden Rule. All the games I’ve lost and felt the most steamed about were ones where opponents did one thing or another to get into my head and mess up my game. I came to the tournament wanting to play a game of Magic, and instead there had been a round of head games. Do I really want to be a part of that?

The answer is that I don’t. I want to come to a tournament with a deck or a Limited strategy in mind, play Magic on the merits of Magic skill alone, and then go out afterwards and talk about it with my comrades in arms (comrades in spellslinging?). I want us all to play games according to the Spirit of the Game, to compete strategy vs. strategy and play vs. play, and not have to worry whether the guy I’m playing is drawing extra cards, whether his banter is designed to throw off my game, or whatever else changes us from human meeting human to competitor meeting competitor. One of the most revered of Western philosophers, Immanuel Kant, once said, “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” What he was saying was that the only really sustainable behaviors are the ones you would be comfortable with everyone else also doing. Before you go and start using IP disruption software to lag other players, consider what will happen when everyone has to do it to keep up. Before engaging in head games, realize how much less fun the game will be (and how ineffective said head games are when everyone is playing them) if it becomes the status quo. Every action each Magic player takes has subtle consequences and repercussions, for themselves and the community around them.

What I’m trying to say here is that I think we’re all here for pride, for glory, for community, and for the sake of competition. I think it’s important to play hard, and I think checking the machine now and again will probably get you a little ahead; but be mindful of tilting the machine, and be mindful of the way your choices impact the community and rebound to affect yourself. If Saito makes it into the Hall of Fame, he will have earned it for being one of the most competitive Magic players of all time. If Saito does not make it into the Hall of Fame, he will have earned it for playing too close to the tilt line too often.

With those thoughts in mind, I leave you until next week.