Not Magical Hack — Sportsmanship

Read Sean McKeown every Friday... at StarCityGames.com!
Sportsmanship is a gray area in Magic. That’s because everyone has a different idea about what sporting play is. Take, for instance, use of headphones while you are playing. To me it’s a sign of disrespect, but others won’t think twice about it. You can just think about it in terms of game play… for instance, what if someone calls you on the cell phone and gives you advice? That’s clearly against the rules…

Sportsmanship is a gray area in Magic. That’s because everyone has a different idea about what sporting play is. Take, for instance, use of headphones while you are playing. To me it’s a sign of disrespect, but others won’t think twice about it. You can just think about it in terms of game play… for instance, what if someone calls you on the cell phone and gives you advice? That’s clearly against the rules. With headphones, if someone is using them to tune out their opponent, they’re making it much more difficult for the opponent to respond or make their own plays, giving the headphone operator an advantage.

I know a female Magic player who is generally an excellent sport, very nice, and usually a good opponent. But even she is prone to the bad sport sleaziness. At one local PTQ she was going into round 3 of the tournament, and still inebriated from the previous night’s festivities, when she was paired up against a little redheaded boy of about twelve or so. After they both shuffled up and she won the roll, she promptly informed the boy that she was going to beat him as badly as his stepfather did every night. Of course the kid was incensed, and proceeded to yell and shout and generally cause a scene throughout the match, while the girl sat there quietly. The kid caused such a fuss he attracted the attention of the head judge, who asked what the problem was, to which the boy unleashed a string of curses as he tried to tell his side. The head judge warned him several times to no avail, after which the boy got a game loss, triggered by his opponent’s rude comment.

With the headphone example in mind, besides just seeming against the “sportsmanship” guidelines in the inherent disrespect of their opponent in tuning them out (or at least appearing to do so) during the match, there is to me the larger and more important issue of procedural and proper game play obstruction. As a player, I find an opponent with headphones on concerning because generally, unless they have very noisy ear buds and high volume, it can be very hard to tell if someone has their volume on or if they are too lazy to remove the things. So why not just ask your opponent to remove said device? Well, if you do, they don’t have to comply, at which point you have to appeal to the head judge and it’s up to them. The head judge will either tell them to remove them, not care in the slightest, or ask if the volume’s on. This last option, and the most likely, is based entirely around the honesty of someone who is now probably very annoyed and probably wants to listen to their music.

Why is this an issue anyway? If the headphoned player proceeds into the match, ear-stereos on and in place and opponent partially if not entirely tuned out, it becomes that much harder to not only communicate what’s going on in the game state, but also near impossible to announce steps or phases. In addition, there is now the constant distraction pulling at the one player. This leads to misinterpretation of actions and issues, like thinking a player passed the turn when they didn’t, which seem to happen enough without this communication barrier in place. So now we have a problem and a judge needs to be called over. The severity of the issue will vary on the game, but either way a problem has occurred which needs to be solved. This becomes a mess for not only the players but also the judge who has to sort through it, and no one is going to be very happy with the outcome. So why not just avoid the problem all together and say “no headphones” during matches?

Well, as one judge I asked said, “she didn’t want to spend her time walking around and looking for headphones.” But she wouldn’t have to be doing this, just like keeping track and making sure of the game state are part of complying with the rules. It should also be up to the players to make sure they, and each other, comply with the code of conduct and rules. Like any other infraction, if a judge notices something amiss that the players don’t, then they can step in, but the responsibility does not lie on their shoulders. It seems like a minor adjustment with no real drawbacks and only potential benefits. Therefore, what confuses me is the seeming reluctance to even talk about the issue. Is it because Magic is supposed to be fun and they don’t want to be too strict? Well, what fun is it for the opponent to play a match knowing they’re being directly ignored? What fun is it for anyone, player or judge, to have to sort through the complicated process of rewinding the game and fixing it?

Maybe it’s not considered a “big enough” problem to warrant a change, but I don’t see why it needs to be a problem at all.

One could say that to be sporting with headphones you should just talk to your opponent and then both agree on whatever is mutually agreeable, but this just assumes that everyone will agree on what to do. I think it’s safe to say there will always be someone who wants to play the angles for the smallest advantage. I know that in at the very first Pro Tour, that angle was trash talking, honed to a fine art. I don’t think trash talking is warranted in Magic: the Gathering. The problem, of course, with the vagueness of the rules in regards to sporting play is that it doesn’t specifically prohibit things like the wearing of headphones, or really any specific unsporting behavior, such as trash talking. Perhaps Wizards thinks the players enjoy trash talking too much so they never ban it, or perhaps they just don’t care. Still, it is a good example to set if you see rules in the rulebook, which distinctly prohibit certain things, and then say that in addition to these named things, like headphone use, anything unsporting will be prohibited.

I think there’s something really beautiful about watching a sporting match. Of course, besides just the pleasant nature of having a decent, hard-fought match, there are also real strategic reasons to be a sporting player. If you are known for being a good sport, your opponents are much more likely to treat you well, so that instead of having to call over a judge every three seconds, you can actually play the game of Magic. If you do want to be unsporting, then the best time to do it is when you know you are going to quit Magic forever (or at least for a long while). There is something to be said for going out with a bang. Magic: the Gathering has really become a community, and because of this, you really can’t help but keep seeing the same players over and over again, so there definitely is going to be some karma if you treat the players around you badly. If there’s something Magic players are good at, that’s remembering slights and extracting vengeance. So from a purely practical viewpoint, it makes sense to be sporting.

It does make better drama if opponents in games actually hate each other. We live in an ADD world that requires constant titillation; we watch television shows and movies where intense drama is required, where for every good guy you need a supreme bad guy evil leader. I think that this is one of the reasons that Mike Long was able to get away with so much, because some people enjoyed the sensation of drama that would happen any time he touched the cards. This sort of drama isn’t good for the game; it’s not pleasant for anyone, to encourage unsporting play.

In addition to many examples of blatant cheating, Long was a master of trying any number of unsportsmanlike techniques to gain an advantage. He was especially known for preying on the rookies and novices, using their nervousness and inexperience to manipulate both the game and his opponents. One notable move was where Mike would move from sitting on his seat, to crouching on his chair, thereby gaining an overhead view and a better angle for getting a look at his opponent’s cards. When called out by judges and opponents alike, Long would cite “medical reasons” for his sudden and advantageous change in position.

Mike’s actions weren’t specifically to gain an upper hand in the game, but partly to “rattle his opposition off their game,” with seeing your hand being simply an added benefit. The only difference between this and wearing headphones is that the wearer doesn’t see their opponents hand, but instead they have a built in excuse for why they didn’t acknowledge any of those pesky counterspells or responses their opponent had.

This also relates to why sportsmanship is important. Many people may wonder why they should even care about their opponent. The answer really comes down to “because you’ll see them again.” The person you were rude to (or screwed over) last tournament, or a few rounds ago, may be the best friend of the person you’re playing now, or even your next opponent. They may be blocking you from a Top 8 finish or greater. If you had played and treated people with respect, you might find yourself able to work out a beneficial arrangement. Sportsmanship is a karmic element to the game of Magic, and how it comes into play is both uncertain and ultimately powerful.