Magical Hack: Snakes on a Ballot!

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In a break from the norm, Sean turns his back on detailed analysis of tournament Magic to discuss his highly charged and personal views on the recent voting for the Magic Hall of Fame. As usual, the furor centers around a certain Mike Long… Do you agree with Sean’s opinion?

Passion rules reason.
-Wizard’s Third Rule

This article series, Magical Hack, is ultimately designed to go through the work of looking at high-level events, as they happen, with a critical eye… and also pointing that critical eye at emerging formats, be it Limited or Constructed, to glean what information may be available in order to improve both the author and the reader. That said, this week I think that the most important twist and turn of high-level events is not the German National Championships, though the Ninja-Erayo deck is very interesting and the “Biorhythm deck” is a quirky, odd concoction worth looking (at if for no other reason than it is the first Constructed deck playing more Karoos than non-Karoo lands). This week, I feel the most important turn of events is the second bout of the Magic Hall of Fame ballots… more specifically, Mark Rosewater Hall of Fame ballot.

Looking first at myself with a critical eye, it is easy to see why I care. After taking over a year off from the game to run a very successful Vampire live-action role-playing game as my key prospect of interest, all of which was detailed in a series of unsuccessful SCG Dailies that pretty much everyone hated, I came back to the game about a year and a half ago… coming back to the group of friends I had tried to hold onto from outside the game, coming back to the intellectual challenge that the game presents to me, and ultimately coming back to reaching for a level of play I had never really reached before. And, of course, coming back to write about the game as I have done all through my formative years from arrogant teenager to humbled twentysomething. (Though the presumption that I call myself “humble” will doubtlessly be discussed on the Forums; hi, NorrYtt!)

I care about the Hall of Fame because it is the act of enshrining the fanboy days in which I first came to play this game, and because of how much of my involvement with the game grew out of the birth of the Pro Tour and the advent of tournament coverage such as could be found on The Duelist’s Sideboard MagicTheGathering.com) and The Magic Dojo (now defunct). The twists and turns of the game, the heroes and personalities… these are all things I grew up with, as it were, and things that drew me into the game. In a way, it’s a key part of my childhood, just not the kind of childhood people usually think of (since I was sixteen at the time). And when I came back to writing, coming back to StarCityGames to try and find again roots I had tried to plant only very briefly with my “Oaf of Mages” column… I also had the vain hope that by the time the second ballot came around, I might be worthy of being chosen as someone whose voice might be raised in praise of the heroes… and in damnation of the villains.

Vanity is an empty thing, however, and while I have not been selected to submit a ballot as a member of the Selection Committee, this doesn’t mean I am suddenly not a human being. Instead of being simply a long-winded tournament-processing ‘bot, transposing tournament coverage HTML into weekly articles featuring my “propensity for verbosity,”’ I have my own set of thoughts and passions even if the usual plan for my article series is to distance my viewpoint in order to present a more objective perspective. So the fact that I take an all-too-personal offense at Mark Rosewater clamoring to see Mike Long inducted into the Hall of Fame shouldn’t surprise anyone… but that I am speaking out about it may.

Let us not begin with the presupposition that Mark Rosewater should not be allowed to vote for Mike Long. Mike Long is on the Hall of Fame ballot, and I’d even go so far as to say that considering how things worked back in the bad old days before cheating was first weeded out of the professional circuit, Mike Long deserves to be on the Hall of Fame ballot. That it may be true that Mike Long is on the Ballot because Mark wants him to be there, and Mark sticks up for his right to be there, is another matter… but I don’t disagree with the notion of Mike Long, or another player of similarly sketchy character, being listed alongside such obvious greats as Jon Finkel or Kai Budde on the Hall of Fame Ballot. Corporate policy has created the rules for putting a name on the ballot, and it’s a good policy that they try to use as few bylaws and sub-clauses as possible in limiting who can and cannot be voted into the Hall of Fame. We have only two rules, and they are a good two rules: must have 100 Pro Points lifetime, and must have earned the first Pro Point ten or more years ago. Sure, they’re kind of arbitrary, but isn’t everything? The corporate policy also states that being named to the Hall of Fame will not be done arbitrarily by the corporation but instead by an assortment of candidates selected from a broad cross-section of the Magic: the Gathering community, in accordance with each voter’s opinion on what the Hall of Fame means and what it should take to get there. There are a lot of different heuristics you can use to weigh one person’s success against another’s, but in the end there are so many intangibles going into the equation that “just math” can’t give an answer.

Everyone, in the end, has to use their judgment, and voice an opinion. The mark of greatness is the mark you leave upon the world, such that ten years later there are still ripples in your wake. It’s a beautiful system, really… and one that, in the grander scheme of things, will pick the people who most deserve to be there. But that’s just statistically true… not actually true. An infinite number of monkeys typing at an infinite number of keyboards will eventually write Mike FloresDeckade. And an infinite number of rednecks with an infinite number of shotguns shooting at an infinite number of road signs will eventually re-create the complete works of William Shakespeare in Braille. In actuality, the numbers will not lie down perfectly every time; it may be that the bottom five candidates will make it in just one time in ten thousand, but just because it’s highly improbable doesn’t mean you can’t wake up one morning to find you live in that 1-in-10,000 universe. The process is good… but it’s not perfect.

And that is why I cannot stand to see Mark Rosewater, perhaps the most visible spokesman for the game in existence today, voting for Mike Long. We don’t need to invoke Godwin’s Law and say that a vote for Mike Long is a vote for evil, and that baby-eating Nazi terrorists with Communist leanings and a hankering for the musical works of David Hasselhoff and Britney Spears will kill you!!!!!!!1!!!11!!!!one!!!eleven!!1 if you vote for Mike Long. A vote for Mike Long is not, in fact, anti-patriotic, or a sign of the Apocalypse.


The common forum-poster can give us a good example of about how much is known about this issue, because frankly nowadays the common spell-slinging mage wasn’t around in the bad old days when Mike Long earned the reputation that has been layered upon him. An example from the MagictheGathering.com forums, responding to Mark’s article:


Wow… Just wow… I thought every one would have gotten all of this angst out of their systems last year, but no. Still lots of hate for Mike. Really, a guy makes a mistake, has a lapse of integrity, and everyone wants blood. I do not condone cheating. Cheating is wrong. But to punish the guy for the rest of his life for one incident is senseless. He did it, he was caught, he was sanctioned, it is over. It is time to move on. And to bash someone for voting their conscience, at least Rosewater has one. Shame on this whole thread. It is truly sad to see so many hateful people that complain about integrity and values, but cannot forgive. Sad, yet fitting for BR week.

(Spelling corrections mine; after all, we are talking about the average forum poster. My apologies to Wirewood_Shadow, whoever he might be, for picking on him for use of words like “senceless.”)

In my objective fact-finding mission, we’re again going to delve into the world of averaging-over-time; much like how the Hall of Fame ballot will average, over time, to approach the limit of “who belongs in the Hall of Fame” by selecting the most worthy five people, the process of taking facts from different sources and perspectives brings us the world’s free online encyclopedia, Wikipedia.com. The entry on Mike Long is brought to us by the long process of objectively paring away that which cannot be backed up and proven to be true about the situation at hand, and so we have the following:

Despite a level of talent and skill that led Mark Rosewater to label him one of the top five players of all time, Mike Long is primarily remembered for a series of incidents that earned him notoriety throughout the professional Magic circuit.

  • At U.S. Nationals, Mike was caught with a Cadaverous Bloom on his lap during a game.
  • He once tried to argue that an opponent played Giant Growth (which gives creatures +3/+3) on Mike’s Morphling, claiming that, when the opponent played the card, he placed it closer to Mike’s creature than his own.
  • He was caught using an unsufficiently shuffled draft deck in a game versus Darwin Kastle at Pro Tour: LA in 2000.
  • Long was accused of stalling Darwin Kastle out of a match in Los Angeles in 1998.
  • After Roland Bode, one of the most well-respected names in Type 1, sent him a letter discussing deck construction, Mike wrote a response letter that was widely considered to be at least somewhat condescending. [1]
  • In around 2003, Mike began selling his “Professional Magic Secrets”, a move that was widely ridiculed and criticized for the instructional system’s high price tag and the hype Mike (and almost no one else) gave to it.

However, Long is also known for his in-game presence and the high level of game psychology he exercises while at the playing table, which often gained him many enemies. Mike was known to perch on chairs instead of sitting in them, claiming he had a medical condition that required him to do so. Mark Justice once wrote in his book on Magic strategy that he disliked playing Mike more than any other player on the Pro Tour because Mike did everything he could to derail the opponent’s strategy, chatting with players nearby, loudly criticizing the moves played by his opponents, and doing other trickery. However, one of Mike’s plays against Justice has gone down as one of the greatest “plays” in Magic history:

Long was playing Justice in the quarterfinals at a major tournament, Mike realized that he would lose the next turn if he could not get his “engine” to go off this turn. However, in order to get his combo to go off, he would have to discard his only win condition – a single Drain Life he had placed in his deck. He decided to do so anyways. After drawing a large number of cards with a large Prosperity, Long asked his opponent “Do I really have to go through all the motions?”. Before the days of well-known and circulated internet decklists, Justice didn’t realize that Mike had no way of winning the game, so he said “No” and conceded the game.

These accusations are a bit dry. To add a bit more context, Mike Long was banned for cheating one time and accused of pretty much everything else one can be accused of, up to and including stealing another player’s girlfriend. The old, old “Impulse Like…” joke for Mike Long was “Cast Impulse. Keep all four cards. Keep the Impulse.” To say he was despised back in the day, and that only part of it had anything to do with marketing him as a “heel” to create tension, drama and interest in the nascent Pro Tour, is a pretty fair assessment of the truth. However, has Mike Long ever gotten a fair shake? Perhaps not, because he was written as a character and his actions framed very carefully in a certain light, but truth perhaps is stranger than fiction.

This is what I know, personally. Going past the penalties, going past the disagreements, the invention of “Have I played a land yet this turn?” and other subtle methods for gaining “percentage” in a way that is quite different from how Mike Flores describes “percentage”… going past everything to the core of the person, we see that the Hall of Fame asks those who have been entrusted with voting to weigh, measure, and find wanting or find worthy each and every individual on the list of names eligible for induction. Given the level of involvement each person has invested in the game that brought them to the point where they were entrusted with such a vote, it is as near to a sacred task as can be imagined in this game.

Starting with the last part, we can see the real reason I object so strongly to seeing Mike inducted into the Hall of Fame. Mark Rosewater was certainly not lying when he said that Mike Long is possessed of a certain talent for the game, rare in that era and still perhaps rare in ours, and this talent is certainly highly valued. Just look at that bluff: instead of conceding a game, he outright asked for the game win, and his opponent gave it to him. In a time when “psychological play” hadn’t really been considered as something that might give a player an advantage, very few players delved into the psychological game of playing Magic, and only Shawn “Hammer” Reigner and Mike Long are remembered to this day for the psychological plays of yesteryear. Yes, Mike took this to unreasonable extremes… like his claim that he could not sit in a chair for “medical reasons,” when in fact it was simply to unnerve his opponent and keep him from playing the game in his strongest mental zone.

Proponents of modern psychology, such as Tony Robbins, explain very simply why this works: the act of being at your best is one that is very dependent upon the conditions of your environment, and your state of ease and well-being. Playing your best Magic at the feature match table is harder than playing your best Magic at table 1, which is very different than playing your best Magic at table 100; anything that adds stress or emotional weight to the event is going to cut you off from the qualities needed for success that a player marshals through the simple act of accessing their most resourceful state of being. This is a severe over-simplification of a fundamental precept of neuro-linguistic programming, a modern approach to psychology that has been gaining interest in recent years… especially since a person’s mental state is only rarely pointed in the same direction that they want to be going as an active and conscious thing instead of a mere coincidence. Attempts to push the opponent out of their best game-state may be generally considered to be unsporting, but not cheating. Being a jerk should not, by necessity, preclude one from being entered into the Hall of Fame, though presumably all other things being equal it might count against. All of the psychological stuff Mike pulled in my mind lends to his impressive resume, because he saw things that others didn’t see, pioneered new territory and flat-out played the game on a different level than everyone else. So did Jon Finkel, and now he’s in the Hall of Fame.

The line that is drawn between unsportsmanlike conduct and cheating is an important one, and one that has changed over time. There is no question, however, on which side of this line Mike belongs. That is the tragedy of the thing: Mike did not need to cheat to win!

Mike did in fact get caught with a Cadaverous Bloom on his lap, and a “free” combo piece in your lap makes the ProsBloom deck much, much better. I’d know, I played it back then. The incident where Mike Long may or may not have been cheating against Darwin Kastle in 2000 at Pro Tour: Los Angeles, with an insufficiently randomized deck, was not some merely innocent-seeming matter of “insufficiently randomized” but instead the kind of insufficiently randomized that turns a mediocre draft strategy into a behemoth. The format was Mercadian Masques draft, and Mike had been tearing up the tables using an unusual draft strategy focusing on an unusual card and wars of attrition. While everyone else was focusing on Rebels and Mercenaries and fighting over enlistment chains into the Mercadian military, and using Spellshapers to turn dead cards into useful draws, Mike and a few others had run into a simple card called Howling Wolf that was the fixture of their draft strategy. He’s a 2/2 for four, and when he comes into play he finds up to three friends with the same name to put in your hand. Getting multiples was the key to their strategy, because with everything else being equal between two decks, getting to start with a few extra 2/2’s to throw around is a good position for winning wars of attrition.

Mike had more than a few Howling Wolves, I seem to recall the exact number being four. It was central to his success so far, and central to the strategy of his draft deck. After watching some suspicious “funny shuffling,” the judge came to look at Mike’s deck and determined that it was “insufficiently randomized” … because the Howling Wolves were evenly distributed throughout the deck, such that an opening hand of seven cards (7) plus a card drawn on turns 2, 3, and 4 (+3) is equal to exactly one-quarter of the deck (10): no matter where Darwin cuts, Mike will be able to play one on turn 4, and search up three friends, like his draft strategy requires. Apply the same methodology to Surging Sentinels nowadays and you’ll quickly see yourself exiting Day 2 at any Grand Prix in the world.

These things actually happened, and they were not just one mistake but a thing endemic in Mike himself; people laugh and call the French cheaters because “how else could the Ruel brothers do so well,” and because “the French language does not in and of itself have a term for the concept of ‘fair play’.” No one laughed at how Mike didn’t play fair, even though he could have done so and still did at least as well. Anything Mike Long can do to gain an advantage for Mike Long, Mike Long can and will do to gain an advantage for Mike Long. Some argue that because of the cheating issue Bob Maher might be unable to enter the Hall, when it is commonly known by those in-the-know that the incident happened when Bob was young and stupid and didn’t know any better, and as maturity and adulthood settled in he “came clean” and blew the whistle on those who had falsified tournament reports to further their own causes, taking a +b for a while as the price of doing business cleanly and the expense that comes with the moral high ground. Maher wasn’t exactly dirty… and he repented of his mistakes to make things better. Not only was Mike less innocent… he was also unrepentant.

“It is better to rule in Hell than to serve in heaven,” some might say. As far as morality goes, Mike does not share the conventional norm. Neither do I, really, because what is normal anyway? I consider myself a rather manipulative person, sometimes willing to go to morally repugnant lengths to do something that I feel needs to be done. I am aware of this willingness, and to maintain the path of the angels I consciously work against this tendency or this aptitude: aware that in the interaction between one person and the world, to do this would be wrong, I choose not to do this. Most people don’t have that problem, because “doing wrong” doesn’t occur to them as an option. Mike has a problem of a different sort: when choosing between all possible options, he comes first, and then if all other things are equal a tie-breaker can be done using secondary values. Everything Mike does is done to benefit himself… and this is not an evil decision, because evil is a flavor of moral character and this is specifically an amoral decision: the question of right or wrong simply is not raised.

Where I am going with this, is that this last aspect of Mike Long’s behavior is very well-known. His current Magic profession might be best described as “snake-oil salesman,” selling Internet access to MTGInsider.com “Professional Magic Secrets…” providing a training service that doesn’t help, to a populace that are willing to pay based upon his cult of personality and personal charisma. Nothing wrong with that… after all, it’s buyer beware and you get what you pay for, and his customers seem happy enough with the results of their purchase or else it would not succeed as a commercial venture. He has been “known” to cheat, by those who profess to “know” these things, not just at the highest level when playing for the cut to Top 8, but in friendly drafts besides. His psychological breakdown points in the general direction of antisocial personality disorder: “Diagnostic criteria for antisocial personality include a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others, and inability or unwillingness to conform to what are considered to be the norms of society.”

Moral character is not a pre-requisite of entrance into the Hall of Fame, per se. And Mark Rosewater is to be lauded for his honesty, in sticking to his guns and voting for someone who frankly does not belong… because he is, after all, one of the greats of the game, when everyone is playing fairly. The only respite we have, however, is that we are not likely to live in that one-in-ten-thousand universe, the statistical anomaly that allows for the game’s most famous cheater to make it into the Hall of Fame to stand beside such greats as Jon Finkel and Kai Budde. Whether he earned at least a hundred of his Pro Points without cheating is not the kind of stickling question one should have to ask about an entrant into the Hall of Fame, and whether he will sully the honor of the Hall of Fame by returning not just to the game but to the cheating that brought him infamy is not a question that we will ever have to answer. Out of all of the votes that could be cast, now or in the future, none will ever bring him into the Hall of Fame… nor should they. Greatness at any cost is not what it takes to get into the Hall of Fame… entrance to the Hall of Fame is an honor bestowed upon the end sum of a player’s career, and it must consider both the ends and the means that obtained them.

But while I laud Rosewater for his honest passion in the belief that Mike Long’s greatness warrants inclusion in the Hall of Fame, I can say with certainty that the Hall does not bestow the luminous shine of greatness to the Players, it is the Players who grant esteem to the Hall. To allow Mike Long to stand shoulder to shoulder with the great ones who earned their way to that exalted Hall by walking a narrower path would diminish the greatness of all… and it is for that reason that we should be glad that this is engineered to hear the voice of the community as a whole, rather than the seemingly mad directives of one such as Mark Rosewater who can somehow make themselves believe that admitting Mike Long to the Hall of Fame would not denigrate everything good that the Hall is intended to stand for. Everything we know about Mike Long tells us that his behavior is due to a pervasive lack of the moral character that must at least be present in some form in order to let success stand as tribute to the mark of greatness, instead of seeing success called into question because the morally bankrupt break the rules of fair play that have ever been upheld by the DCI and its judges. Everything we know about Mike Long tells us that he not only was a cheater, but that given the opportunity to get away with it he will cheat again.

Much like how it would be a disservice to the ideal which the Hall of Fame represents if one were to “game the system” last year and not vote for Jon Finkel for induction at the first opportunity, a vote for Mike Long is a vote for undermining what the Hall of Fame stands for, tainting the Hall with even the notion that he might ever enter its exalted ranks. His was the talent of the kind that belongs there… most certainly, as he is one of the best players ever to shuffle 40 or 60 cards together. But his also was the choice that ultimately damns him from consideration, the moral bankruptcy that cannot be allowed to sully the Hall of Fame with his taint.

Sean McKeown
[email protected]

And I ain’t in it for the power, and I ain’t in it for the health
I ain’t in it for the glory of anything at all
And I sure ain’t in it for the wealth
But I’m in it till it’s over and I just can’t stop
If you wanna get it done, you gotta fight for yourself
And I like my music like I like my life
Everything louder than everything else!
Meat Loaf, “Everything Louder Than Everything Else”

[Note: The opinions above are those of Sean McKeown, and Sean McKeown alone. Here at StarCityGames.com, we prefer to remain impartial on such matters. – Craig.]