Several tournament organizers have begun the practice of having players swap their decklists before each match of the Top 8 in Pro Tour Qualifiers. This open exchange of information is patented after similar types of sharing that occurs before the Top 8 of Pro Tours and Grand Prix. This practice began as a way to level the playing field due to scouting – teams began showing up with non-qualified players whose job was simply to scout opposing decks. This gave those teams advantages over the field, advantages outside of the realm of game play. These advantages were exacerbated for a multi-day event, leading Wizards to begin full-on Top 8 decklist swapping.
But is this practice fair on the Pro Tour Qualifier level?
In essence, the reason for having Top 8 deck swaps at a PTQ are the same as at the Pro level – to minimize the impact of scouting. The argument for the Top 8 swaps all revolve around scouting – it doesn’t require any skill to scout, people who play slow decks are penalized because people who finish their matches more quickly can watch the slower games, and people who can draw in the last (or next-to-last) round have at least a full round to scout other decks in the Top 8.
There are several arguments against exchanging deck lists before the Top 8. The first is that people play differently when they have full knowledge of an opponent’s deck list. At Pro Tour: New Orleans Tinker, players cast artifacts (or held back artifacts) based on how many artifact destruction spells they knew (for a fact) an opponent had in their deck and sideboard. It’s one thing to know an opponent is sideboarding in Naturalize; it’s another to know that an opponent has exactly two Naturalizes, so that you can plan your game play appropriately/know for a fact (instead of intuiting) when your opponent has run out of answers to your threats.
Which is more damaging: allowing one player to know another is playing a Tog deck, or allowing one player to let another know the exact fifteen instants in the Tog player’s sideboard that can be Cunning Wished for in-game?
That’s the second problem with exchanging Top 8 decklists is that players might have cards in their sideboard that have yet to be revealed. Let’s use this past seasons of Extended: a player is packing four copies of Trinisphere in his sideboard, expressly for use again Aluren decks. However, he did not face an Aluren deck during the Swiss, but is paired up against an Aluren deck in the Top 8. Is it fair that the Aluren player know about the Trinispheres, given that there would be no other knowledge of this card (even through scouting) except by an exchange of Top 8 deck lists?
The final problem with exchanging Top 8 deck lists is consistency – some tournament organizers require the swap, while others eschew the practice. This creates a strange dynamic to a season’s worth of PTQs for an area. This is the biggest problem with the exchanging or lack of exchanging of deck lists – like it or not, it’d be nice to have one universal policy. This would be like having half the PTQs in an area running Rochester drafts and half the PTQs in an area running Booster drafts for the Top 8. One set of players will be playing with perfect information, the others with imperfect information, but the strategies change and the feel of play changes from week to week.
I’ve asked several judges and players in the Virginia/DC area for their thoughts on Top 8 deck swaps, and the consensus is split down the middle – but both sides are adamant about their positions. I fall on the side of “don’t swap” – anyone can bring friends to scout, or have friends scout, whereas not everyone is omniscient and can know the contents of every Top 8 deck in a tournament. Exchanging deck lists affects the play in the Top 8 much more than scouting ever could (through perfect information) and is a detriment to tournament Magic.
What happens when players begin to take advantage of the deck swap system? Let’s say I anticipate going to a tournament where we will be swapping Top 8 deck lists for three to five minutes before the Top 8 matches begin. Why should I register my decklist as randomly and illegibly as possible, so that my opponent will have a harder time reading the list? To gain an advantage, I would write down all sixty cards in the deck individually, and in random order. When pressed, I could tell the judge that I just wrote down my deck in the order that the cards were when I showed up at the tournament.
NOTE: I am not advocating doing this – and as a judge, I would either provide another copy of the deck list that is organized by card (four of this, four of that) or I would make the player reregister the deck list at the beginning of the tournament. This does not discount that people will take advantage of the system unless better and conformed rules are put in place.
In short, I don’t like the deck swap, but I could live with it should it become a mandatory part of the PTQ experience. The DCI needs to decide once and for all which way this issue to go at PTQs – deck swaps at every tournament or no deck swaps at any tournaments. Until then, the PTQ experience is fragmented significantly during any single PTQ season.