Ill-Gotten Gains – Musings About the 2008 Hall of Fame

Wednesday, August 20th – In my younger years, I was a huge fan of Olivier Ruel. He was charismatic, funny, traveled the whole world, and told great stories. He was also a very strong Magic player. Oli is one of the best candidates on the Hall of Fame ballot this year. But, in my opinion, Olivier shouldn’t be there. Because he’s a cheater.

Greetings. As noted by my appearance earlier this year in Los Angeles, I am not dead. After drinking straight rum with Richie Hoaen on Sunday night, I rather wished I was when I woke up this morning, but that’s not exactly the same thing now is it? Some day you may get the full story of what I’m doing these days, but for now let’s just say that it’s about as fascinating and fun as a job can get, and I’ve had a number of great jobs over the years. Anyway… It’s Hall of Fame voting time again, and this year I actually feel compelled to write in and explain my ballot and possibly sway a few minds in the process.

I wrote a lot of stuff during my long and inglorious career as a Magic writer. Most of it was utterly forgettable, but occasionally I put together something worth remembering. I predicted the banning of Skullclamp and Affinity in Standard well before anyone] (and predicted it again when Wizards screwed up and didn’t ban Affinity at all), kicked off one hell of an article series teaching new players to sling spells (by far the toughest stuff to write I ever did and ffej’s work is masterful as always), also started the Thinking It Through series (which no one ever stole for their own, sadly) and not only got notorious spendthrift Pete Hoefling to pay for a bunch of writers to do drunken karaoke in Japan, but then got him to pay me for writing an article about it too*!

Oddly enough, aside from the Magic Academy work, I think the articles I am most proud of are the ones teaching people about the various methodologies of cheating and how to catch shady behavior. One of those was a survey of the existing literature about cheating, one seems to be lost for all time, and the last was almost entirely new material cobbled together from years of watching people play Magic at Pro Tours and Grand Prix. That last one was published the week after this happened, which was not coincidental.

One of the great privileges of being a coverage reporter is getting to see a lot of Magic’s best players play Magic at the highest levels. When I was traveling the world doing a full coverage schedule, I got to see the best players battle more often than anyone else on the planet. Through massive amounts of observation, you start to learn that Magic matches generally have a particular flow and rhythm to them, and you also start to pick up when things seem odd, strange, or just plain wrong. This makes it easier to do coverage in general (you learn which details are important and which ones you can ignore trying to describe), but it also makes it easier to figure out when people are cheating.

During my last couple of years doing coverage, I started to work more with the judges to let them know when I heard or saw something out of the ordinary. It wasn’t a sting operation or anything (thankfully, I never had to sit outside any hotel rooms with binoculars and a camera, trying to take pictures of Magic players in compromising situations), but it helped them have someone who sees a ton of Magic and talks to a ton of players to give them information that they might not get on their own. This was a bit weird, though, because I wasn’t a judge… I was a writer. Judges enforce the rules, writers just kind of hang out and watch Magic. Additionally, as a writer, you rely on players to give you stories to tell your audience, and if you burn those bridges by doing judgey-type things, you likely shut yourself out of a lot of good material. Thus I mostly communicated behind the scenes with the high-level judges and head of the judge program Andy Hecht about what I found out.

One of the things that really worried me back then was the inability of the system to track patterns of behavior. Actual warnings were a bit sloppy and inconsistent at the time, and there was no way to know If a player was regularly getting warned for certain behavior at the time you entered a new warning. This made it a lot tougher to catch people who might be using “sloppy” play to try and get away with things, and one top level player in particular was incredibly and sometimes insensibly sloppy in how he played.

Long story short, during those last 18 months of my coverage career, a number of high profile players got banned based in part on information I provided. Rising star Takahiro Suzuki actually shuffle-tracked in the Top 8 of a GP I was at, but didn’t get nailed because a judge didn’t see it. He was banned shortly thereafter at Worlds when Gary Wise caught him cheating in a feature match after I simply told Gary, “Watch your opponent shuffle.” Katsuhiro Mori had a famous “come to Jesus” sit down with Andy Hecht at Worlds a year later, and still managed to get put in the sin bin that same tournament for an accumulation of warnings/dodgy behavior. I love Katsuhiro – I think he’s brilliant, a great deck designer, funny, fascinating, and a very good Magic player. But I pushed for judges to watch him play more because I saw enough Magic and heard enough stories to know he was also a cheater.

Finally we come to our anti-hero, Olivier Ruel. In my younger years, I was a huge fan of Olivier Ruel. He was charismatic, funny, traveled the whole world and told great stories. He was also a very strong Magic player. Oli is one of the best candidates on the Hall of Fame ballot this year. In fact, he’s a huge favorite to be a first-ballot inductee and join mortal locks Dirk Baberowski, Mike Turian, and Ben Rubin at this year’s induction ceremony in Memphis. But, in my opinion, Olivier shouldn’t be there.

Because he’s a cheater.

Harsh words, perhaps, but it’s true. Olivier was banned for six months for cheating. Most of the material in my last article about cheating is the result of observing Oli and Katsuhiro play and figuring out what they were doing to get an edge. Katsu is very good at creating a subtle (and sometimes unsubtle) edge that he can get away with. Where Katsu is good, Oli is a master. His repertoire of tricks is so deep and he’s so personable that most people never notice there’s a problem. Hell, even though he’s been banned as a cheater and most players at the Pro level (especially the older ones) consider him to be highly shady, most fans still don’t think of him in that light because Oli is so damned likeable. That doesn’t excuse his behavior.

Let me put this another way: you** would never put Mike Long on your Hall of Fame ballot, so why would you put Olivier Ruel there?

I saw Mike Long try to cheat Osyp out of a match in my very first event on the Wizards payroll. This was the last in the legacy of shady behavior from Magic’s greatest villain. Olivier was disqualified from a Pro Tour early in his career for trying to bribe Zvi. He was disqualified from a Grand Prix late in his career and subsequently banned for doing shuffle cheats after a judge had explicitly told him not to shuffle that way. It would be naive to think these were the only times he was cheating on the Tour – they were simply the only times he was caught and penalized heavily enough to make headlines.

At the time Olivier was banned, he was running second in the Player of the Year race with 39 points. How many extra points did he earn from abusing the rules in his favor? How many of those incredible 8-0 and 9-0 Grand Prix Day 1’s came from subtle advantages that his less experienced GP opponents would never notice? No one will ever know.

“But Teddy Card Game, Mike Long is evil! Olivier is a nice guy.” Yes, and that’s exactly why Olivier was able to get away with things for so long without anyone even suspecting. He learned to be subtle, and his personality is very disarming, so it’s hard to really consider that he might be cheating you.

Look, don’t get me wrong – Olivier is a very good Magic player. He might even have similar stats to the amazing ones you see on the Hall of Fame page right now without his rather casual disregard for the strict rules of the game. Unfortunately, that same casual disregard should also be more than enough to exclude him from any conscientious voter’s ballot.

To give you another perspective, I work with more Hall of Famers and potential candidates than anyone. I could actually submit a whole ballot comprised strictly from guys I go drinking with on Sunday nights. The vast majority of those guys don’t think Olivier should be there either, but they still think he’ll make it in because committee members (meaning writers like myself, and Wizards of the Coast employees) like Olivier so much. Obviously I think this would be a travesty.

At this time, I still don’t know what my final ballot will look like, but I know that Dirk Baberowski, Mike Turian, and Ben Rubin will all be on there. Other worthy names I am still mulling over include Ryuichi Arita (surprisingly good resume), Jelger Wiegersma, Marco Blume, Scott Johns (not a fan of the man, but his resume is hard to ignore), and maybe one or two others.

The one person who overwhelmingly qualifies on stats and who I will not be voting for is Olivier Ruel, and you shouldn’t either.

Then again, if you do vote for Oli, please find space for Mike Long on your ballot as well…

Magic could use the excitement.

Enjoy the rest of your summer.

Teddy Card Game

* I also once performed what Japanese Sideboard reporter Keita Mori calls the greatest karaoke performance he has ever seen with George Michael’s Freedom 90, which might just be the best compliment I’ve ever received.

** Alright, not you, Rosewater. Or you, Jonathan Becker. But the rest of you…