Flow of Ideas – Hall Of Fame Voting, Selection Committee, And My Ballot

Gavin discusses what the Hall of Fame means to Magic: The Gathering as a game and as a community and how voters should vote correspondingly. Check out his five picks for Hall of Fame 2011.

The Magic: The Gathering Pro Tour Hall of Fame has been the center of a lot of discussion in the Magic community recently. In past years, there has certainly been plenty of chatter, but this year the Hall of Fame talk seems even more heated, widespread, and excited than normal.

The Hall of Fame took a little bit of time to gain traction, but it finally seems to have a foothold—and I’m glad to see it. Hall of Fame voting should be one of the most exciting events of the Magic year, one that spruces up the doldrums of summer. Hopefully this continues in the years to follow.

Of course, that means I want to chip my thoughts in as well. I was fortunate enough to be given a vote again this year and, like last year, I want to talk about the process I used to select my ballot. But first, I want to talk a little more in general about the Hall of Fame.

The Magic Hall of Fame is unusual compared to most of its hallowed brethren. Baseball, football, hockey, soccer, lacrosse—these are sports that have been around for ages. They’ve cultivated a tremendous following and have a rich history and backdrop that span half a century.

Magic is much different.

In its 18-year life, Magic has grown by leaps and bounds. In fact, right now is the best time to be playing Magic ever. Between great sets, a burgeoning number of phenomenal formats, and, for the competitive players, more tournaments (like the StarCityGames.com Open Series) to play, every month the player count swells. Every month is Magic’s best month ever. But even now, at the height of our game, we can’t match the fan base of something like baseball.

This makes the Magic Hall of Fame pretty interesting for a couple reasons.

First of all, since the game isn’t as widespread and entrenched in worldwide culture, there are just fewer innately phenomenal players.

Think about this: how many players on the level of Jon Finkel would there have been if Magic were as popular as baseball? If thousands of kids were going through Magic little league and progressing onto college Magic teams while reading books about Magic and watching Magic on the telly their whole lives, how many more Finkels would have been uncovered?

The answer is anyone’s guess, but surely we get at least one every other year. There is enough untapped talent in the world to make that happen. However, that’s (unfortunately) not the world we live in. As a result, the outpouring of incredibly skilled mages is somewhat bottlenecked.

Second of all—and I’m going to pull the veil off of something here—the Magic Hall of Fame is mostly promotional

If you think about it, every Hall of Fame is promotional. Yes, it catalogues the best players to ever play the game for history’s sake, but at its core the entire point is long-term promotion. By showcasing the best the game has to offer and enshrining the best to play, it adds legitimacy to the sport and gives people a (however unrealistic) goal to strive for.

Let me put it to you this way: how cool is it to be able to say “my game has a Hall of Fame.” Not just an elite club, not just a website, but an actual Hall of Fame with players who have been through a complete ceremony and given over-the-top rings. That’s incredible!

Can you say the same for other games? Can you ever be a part of the Monopoly Hall of Fame, or the Dominion Hall of Fame, or even the Dungeons and Dragons Hall of Fame? No such things exist. Only a fortunate few games like bridge, chess, and poker get their own hall. That’s pretty good company for Magic to sit in.

Note something about bridge, chess, and poker: they all have an air of legitimacy around them. They aren’t just something you can play at your local shop, but something you can take to the big time if you are good enough. Most people know these games exist and, at least in the case of chess and poker, have a rough idea of how to play them.

At the end of the day, while a Hall of Fame is something we appreciate for enshrining our best players, you have to remember that it is mostly promotional. It is something to forever give Magic added legitimacy, thereby attracting players and interest.

The Hall of Fame gets people to talk about Magic (much like how this article is doing), and the more people that talk about Magic, the better it is for the game. On top of that, the ceremony is a recorded and advertised event each year that people look forward to, generating additional hype.

So, with all of this firmly in mind, I want to look at two hot button topics surrounding the Hall of Fame: who should have a ballot and if you should use all of your votes.

To get there, let’s look at what’s best for Magic. There are essentially two ways Wizards could choose to build the Hall of Fame.

One way is to make the Hall of Fame a perfect representation of the best players to ever play Magic, chosen by the people who are extreme students of the game and can see how they all compare.

For many players, this hall would be the ideal hall. This process leads to a very small, but elite, hall. I mean think about it: how many truly great players have there ever been in Magic?

I would probably say that an absolutely true Hall of Fame probably has ten people at most. Kai, Jon, Nassif, Bob, Luis, Paulo, Zvi, and Kenji are likely in that group. You can certainly argue for a couple others or to cut a couple people off that list, but realistically I don’t think it exceeds ten. In the world where this style of Hall of Fame exists, people are rarely inducted into the hall.

And then there’s the second way you can take the hall, which is the current system. More players are voted in under the belief that they are still a big piece of the game, even if they weren’t in the “absolute best to ever play” category.

Now, this current system is better for the game. While I can’t argue that seeing the Hall of Fame be a list of solely the best ever players would make it a truly famous group that would be a tremendous sight, is that what is really best for the Magic Hall of Fame? You can’t just compare everyone to Jon and Kai. Independent of that comparison, most players on the ballot are insanely talented and better than almost every other Magic player to ever play.

Now, obviously this is a flawed theory if taken too far. I don’t deserve to be in the Hall because I won a couple PTQs, nor does a one-time Pro Tour Top 8 competitor deserve to be in the hall because it’s “better than most people will ever do.” However, voting in people like Bram Snepvangers and Kamiel Cornelissen certainly isn’t criminal: they may not be in the absolute top 10 players of all time, but they’re still some of the best to ever play.

Additionally, the more people in the hall (to a point), the better it looks for Magic. Once again, this is flawed if taken to an extreme—a 4,000 person Hall of Fame doesn’t seem so special anymore—but a modestly sized Hall of Fame that grows every year shows that Magic has a rich history full of players who deserve to be there. Isn’t that good for the game?

Because of all this, not using all of your votes is a terrible decision. It is best for the game that we play if we can vote deserving people (read: most candidates) into the hall. It doesn’t cheapen the hall just because there are people slightly worse than the best players to ever play Magic in it.   

Some similar rationale can be put into the voting system.

Some players (or I suppose Wizards of the Coast, depending on how you look at it) have come under fire this year. The argument many are making is that people inexperienced with the inner workings of the Pro Tour and/or lacking in the complete history of Magic’s competitive play have been given votes and, because of those players’ deficits, they taint the selection process.

For one, I disagree with that general notion. While it can be true, these voters often do plenty of research on the player to make an informed vote. In many respects, it’s important that you have several viewpoints voting to keep the process fresh. By having the new guard comb through the older players with their eyes, it helps provide a more objective view of older players.

But more importantly, let’s set that aside for a second. In fact let’s set all of this aside for a second. Look at what’s in front of you right now. Take a look at what’s on your screen. What are you looking at?

This article is being created because I have a ballot, and I am actively thinking about who to put on it. It’s happening because I care about the outcome. It’s happening because I am invested in the process and am interested in getting others invested in the process as well.

In the alternate world where only elite players are voted in, the voting committee is very small. Sure, they would have mostly big names that can drum up excitement, but it’s not nearly as pervasive as the Hall of Fame voting this year. Look at how invested people have become! It doesn’t seem like the same would be true with a small voting committee.

This ties right back into the promotional point of the Hall of Fame. If the goal is to make knowledge of the Hall widespread and to inform people about it, I’d say Wizards picked a pretty solid crew to do that. Like everything else this is dangerous if taken to extremes (if every Magic player gets to vote, for example, the process becomes less special), but in its current iteration it is a positive.

You have writers talking about their ballots, you have people on Twitter discussing their ballots, and you even have a couple podcasters, like Joey Pasco, discussing them on their podcasts. These guys are all promoting the Hall of Fame and, by extension, Magic as a thriving game.

Even if it’s not the ideal voting situation you were hoping for or someone you don’t think “deserves” to have a vote is given a vote, if they’re being a public ambassador for the Hall of Fame then it’s difficult to argue that they don’t deserve a ballot in the context of what’s good for the game. And while you can’t just give everybody with a tiny modicum of influence a vote, Wizards did a good job this year of making sure they had the wide world of Magic media mostly covered—no small task!

So, is the current selection committee a travesty? I’d say it’s far from it. This kind of selection committee is good for Magic.

Speaking of selecting people to the Hall of Fame…

With that part of the article wrapped up and my case out in the open for you to discuss in the forums, let’s look over my thoughts on voting for this year.

I think the players that are at least reasonable choices for a vote are these nine players:

Patrick Chapin
Mark Herberholz
Tsuyoshi Ikeda
William Jensen
Scott Johns
Anton Jonsson
Shuuhei Nakamura
Steven O’Mahoney-Schwartz
Chris Pikula

There are a couple of tweaks you can put on this list depending on your view of the game. Mike Long and Katsuhiro Mori are players I won’t vote for due to their ethics.

Despite their influence on American Magic and their generally wizardly prowess, Gabe Walls and Osyp Lebedowicz don’t quite have the resume to pad them up above other similar candidates.

Mark Justice receives talk every year, but, despite his impressive foothold in the early years, I’m not sure how well his stats still hold up. Additionally, he has made no attempt to continue to show interest in the game, which is something true of the other candidates. A relevant factor is how good a player is by today’s standards. With so many other names on the ballot that have returned and proven themselves on today’s battlefield, I find it hard to vote for someone hasn’t played since 1999.  

Out of that original list, there are two players I was able to eliminate as choices after some careful thought. They are:

Chris Pikula

Chris is one of my favorite Magic players of all time. I love his contributions to the game. I love his attitude toward the game. I love the kind, yet confident swagger he carries. I sincerely hope he makes the hall someday during another catch-up year. And, while this may not be the Hall of Free PTQ Wins, I would be ecstatic to have Chris back on the Pro Tour.

Unfortunately, like last year, the stats just aren’t there.

Chris has three Top 8 finishes, with a single silly on-board misplay while playing for Top 8 keeping him out of a teams finish. That’s very good, but it doesn’t stack up quite as well compared to the other candidates this year. It also doesn’t seem like Chris has nearly enough support this year, and I want to make sure my sparse votes count.

Scott Johns

This is a name that comes up every single year. I still remain amazed that he wasn’t voted in the first two years. With five Pro Tour Top 8s, he has an eye-popping Pro Tour resume that is rivaled by few.

Of course, despite his Pro Tour pedigree, one of the problems is his lack of Grand Prix success and the limited window of his play. Like Justice, he hasn’t been seen playing much lately and so it’s hard to know how he would do on this end of Magic’s timeline. Additionally, much like Chris, there’s not enough support for him. I want to make sure all of my votes count and, while I don’t want to metagame the system too much, I don’t think Scott is in reasonable contention this year.

That leaves the list at just seven people. Unfortunately, I only have five votes. After much gnashing of teeth, this is how it broke down:

Mark Herberholz

Mark did something that was great to see. He knew Hall of Fame voting was coming up, so he pushed himself and wrote some rather absurd articles detailing his adventures on the Pro Tour. I like seeing that Mark cared enough to come out with new content that put himself back into the public view. I would really like to see more candidates do this in the future as it would help provide a better frame of reference for voting, or at the very least show how much they care.

Unfortunately for Mark, I don’t think he’s on track to get in this year. While there’s very little wrong with his resume, which boasts four Pro Tour Top 8s and the same for Grand Prix (not to mention an incredible natural talent for the game), it seems to be missing something a little more to push it over the top of his competitors. Either a Grand Prix win, or some kind of community achievement, or something else to just push him up in the pack slightly.

If I had seven votes, I would definitely vote for Mark this year. Next year has a lot of big names entering the fray, but hopefully Mark will continue to be a consideration on peoples’ minds.

Shuuhei Nakamura

Shuuhei is more or less the lock this year. With five Pro Tour Top 8s and 17 Grand Prix Top 8s all the way into the modern era, he has proven his worth and absolutely deserves my vote.

While there are certainly claims out there that he has cheated, I have had nothing but positive interactions with him and never seen anything remotely odd in any of the matches I have watched. (And in fact even seen him give an opponent take backs before!) I’m not going to skip voting for someone who should be a shuu-in because of some hearsay. Everyone should be voting for Shuuhei.

Anton Jonsson

I voted for Anton last year and was fairly dismayed when he didn’t make it in. Of course, he followed up the announcement that he didn’t make it by making Top 8 of another Grand Prix, just to help show he meant business this year.

Five Pro Tour Top 8s. Nine Grand Prix Top 8s. Success on both ends of the time frame, online and off. A solid median at 70th place. Like Shuuhei, Anton is really on another level. I’ve never heard a single bad thing about Anton, and his play record shows he is quite capable. Everything from my argument last year stands—please vote for Anton. I certainly hope he makes it in this time around.

Patrick Chapin

Okay, so the last two were gimmes on most ballots. I’d guess that Shuuhei and Anton will both make it in pretty handily this year. It’s the other three spots that really make this ballot interesting.

Chapin has a very interesting resume. He does have the magical number of Pro Tour Top 8s at four, but the odd thing in a lot of minds is that lonely Grand Prix Top 8. Some of you may be questioning the fact that he only has one Grand Prix Top 8 and comparing him to some of the other players I’ve mentioned. And make no mistake, Chapin’s stats certainly do not exceed someone like Mark Herberholz. In fact, Herberholz beats out Chapin in every category. Fortunately for Patrick, it’s not all about statistics.

There’s a question I’ve been asking a lot of people lately, and I’d be interested in your set of answers. It goes like this: who are five Magic figures that an average player who only loosely follows the competitive scene would most likely know about? Imagine someone who has maybe played in a PTQ once, but mostly just plays FNM and casual Magic.

Got your five? Okay, good. Make sure to let me know who they were in the comments below.

My five are Mark Rosewater, Mike Flores, Patrick Chapin, Luis Scott-Vargas, and Jon Finkel. There are a lot of other good options like Gerry Thompson, Aaron Forsythe, Brad Nelson, Conley Woods, Kai Budde, Sheldon Menery, Brian David-Marshall, Paulo Vitor, and so on.

I don’t think my list is perfect; I’m not certain if Luis and Jon are the right picks. However I’m fairly confident in the other three. The name Chapin is something I’ve seen even straight-up casual players recognize. Saying something was recommended by him simultaneously invokes power, interest, and trust. He’s a player like none other.

There are very few larger-than-life players to ever play the game. Patrick Chapin is one of them. I weigh community contributions highly, and Chapin is a major leader in the community. He makes the game better by simply existing, giving advice, and, yes, innovating.

No, Chapin’s statistics aren’t optimal. Yes, he took a break in the middle of his career. However, because of his contributions to the game outside of it, he absolutely receives my vote. Not voting immediately recognizable, larger-than-life players into Magic’s Hall of Fame would be a mistake.

Tsuyoshi Ikeda—William Jensen—Steven O’Mahoney-Schwartz

This was the hardest choice for me. It was down to Steven O’Mahoney-Schwartz, William Jensen, and Tsuyoshi Ikeda for two out of three slots. I knew I wanted the other three, so there was a tough decision to be made.

It came down to a few different things. First was statistics. Jensen has Ikeda beat on Pro Tour and Grand Prix Top 8s (not to mention his Masters win), while Ikeda has a little advantage over Steve. However, also worth looking at is median finish.

Something notable about Ikeda is how poor his median finish is. Ikeda’s median is 123rd place, compared to Steve’s 83rd and Jensen’s 62nd. While part of this can be attributed to the growing size of Pro Tours, Ikeda has certainly played several tournaments to little success.

Steve has the weakest resume on the surface, but his overall resume actually hides some details. Last year, Tom Martell and I ran some math (okay, so Tom did all of the math) on Steve’s entire match history. Not only has he made Top 8 of ten Grand Prix, but, as of last year, Steve was a mind-blowing 33% at making top 16! That’s insane! Imagine making top 16 in one of every three Grand Prix you played in. Even some of the greatest players have never been able to do anything like that.

Jensen, on the other hand, has the best resume by far. Many players whom I trust and have seen him in action have assured me he is one of the best to ever play and certainly deserving of a slot. However, the one complicating factor with Jensen is that there are a lot of rumors of cheating circulating around.

I tried to follow up on these rumors as best as I could, but I only found more hearsay on the other end of the gossip rainbow. At the end of the day, I have three points to make about Jensen’s sketchy past.

First, it was the wild west of Magic. Now, that’s no excuse for cheating—cheating is cheating—but to elucidate the time period, the rules were less clear, sketchy play and angle shooting were rampant and, as one person I talked to put it, “sometimes you bragged about cheating even when you didn’t even cheat in the first place.” It’s unclear what happened back then.

Second, several players I trust vouch for his high play skill, potential to have been one of the best the game has ever had, and that he is clean. I see no reason to disregard this.  

Third, the bottom line is he was never suspended. Yes, I realize that Mike Long only has a single short suspension, and yet he is widely regarded as a cheater. However, there is nothing showing that Jensen cheated, and I am willing to (perhaps foolishly) go by the standard of innocent until proven guilty. Although it didn’t work out so well for me with my vote for Saito last year, I am willing to give Jensen my vote.

With Jensen as my fourth, I felt it was extremely close between Ikeda and Steve. Ikeda has more recent results and has more high Pro Tour finishes, while Steve has older results and did better on the Grand Prix circuit. In the end, I went with Steve for his community involvement in the early days and his Grand Prix dominance. And unfortunately for Ikeda, he ended up taking the sixth spot here.

So, to recap, my ballot is:

  1. Shuuhei Nakamura
  2. Anton Jonsson
  3. Patrick Chapin
  4. William Jensen
  5. Steven O’Mahoney-Schwartz

It has been a pretty interesting year for voting. The Hall of Fame continues to pick up steam, and I’m excited to see where next year takes us. Paulo and Kenji are probably locks, but there are some other interesting questions. For example, where does Gerry Thompson fit in? And, of course, who that missed the ballot this time around will be able to beat out the new wave of eligible players?

But we’ll have to hold those thoughts until next year. I’m excited to see how this ballot ends up. Looking down the eligible player turnpike, things just seem to get better and better, so who knows how many more of them will have opportunities to make it in again? People like Steve really need it this year. We’ll see how they do!

I’d love to hear your thoughts on my ballot or about anything else on the hall that I covered in this article. If you’d like to send me some feedback, feel free to post below, send me a tweet, or e-mail me at gavintriesagain at gmail dot com. Otherwise, I’ll see you next week.

Talk to you then!

Gavin Verhey

Rabon on Magic Online, @GavinVerhey on Twitter