With the Prerelease nonsense finally running its course, I sat down ready to write an article on shuffling when fate struck me a random blow. I was reading GerryT’s informative and entertaining “A Shards PTQ Story *Top 8*” and came across an odd and worrisome incident in his report.
No, it wasn’t his account of getting mad over his opponent giving a customary “gg” after some mana-flooded games, although I was a bit surprised by how much his one seemingly throwaway line got blown out of proportion in the forum response. My friends, Gerry Thompson is not the devil incarnate of Magic sportsmanship. He is just someone who gets frustrated after a loss, especially one in which by his own admission he made a punt that likely cost him one of the games. We’ve all been there. Sometimes you just want to sit silently and stew in your own misery.
Sportsmanship is one of those areas that judges have little authority over. Sure, we get to tell you when you’re being unsporting, but off the top of my head I can’t recall giving out such a penalty in recent months. A popular lament in judge discussions is that certain behavior is not sporting, but not technically unsportsmanlike conduct. What makes this so difficult is that people have varying degrees and definitions of bad behavior, and the discussion of whether saying “good game” is good or bad form certainly highlighted those differences.
As a judge, the incident that caught my attention was Gerry’s account of his round 5 match. It’s a fairly involved story, so rather than try to recap it I’ll give it to you in the man’s own words:
I know Cedric just lost to Kyle last round, so I blatantly asked Cedric what was in his deck, despite Kyle standing right by us. Cedric decided to be the bigger man and decline to tell me because Kyle had scooped to him in a previous tournament. Good deeds are in fact rewarded. However, Cedric did tell me that Kyle misbuilt his deck, but if I lost game 1 I would certainly lose the match.
Awkwardly enough, while we are shuffling, I noticed some discarded notepad paper at our table. I recognized Cedric’s handwriting and began listing off the contents of the paper.
Despite Kyle being all nonchalant, I wasn’t buying it. I won yet another die roll and made Kyle go first. That should’ve helped lessen the impact of his Blightnings, if those were indeed Cedric’s notes from the previous round. My second turn Courier’s Capsule got Naturalized, and my Master was killed by a Magma Spray. Meanwhile, Kyle was accelerating and fixing with three Obelisks and then had a Tidehollow Sculler to steal my Knight-Captain.
When he played a Godsire, emptying his hand, I was certain that those were Cedric’s notes.
Surprisingly, this incident only got one or two responses in the forums, compared to the oodles on the “gg” issue. The first pertinent question is whether or not Gerry cheated by referencing outside notes. The simple answer is “no,” because the infraction Outside Assistance (OA) is now a Tournament Error not a Cheating infraction. It still carries a significant penalty of a Match Loss at Competitive REL, but that is down significantly from the DQ that it used to be.
Why the downgrade from DQ-Cheating which occurred in March of this year? While I don’t have DQ stats in front of me, it would not surprise me at all if prior to the March update the most common DQs were for people using sideboarding notes. I personally witnessed this happen three times just weeks before the change in policy went into effect at a PTQ and GP: Philadelphia.
I would imagine that most of these infractions were out of pure ignorance, since I saw anywhere up to “average” PTQs players innocently pulling out notes on how to sideboard for particular matchups. This was, after all, Extended, the format of a million decks, and trying to remember what to take out and bring in for each of these matchups was a daunting task indeed. The players were obviously upset since they had no idea that such a relatively small thing could get them booted from the tournament, and the judges handing out the DQs were also a little unnerved to be doing the booting for something that did not seem as significantly abusive as other Cheating offenses like Bribery. Other aspects of OA were deemed equally harsh. For example, the spectator blurting out the correct play in the heat of the moment. As a result, I think players and judges alike were somewhat relieved with the change in the Outside Assistance penalty.
But the question with GerryT goes much deeper than just a black and white call on whether he has cheating. When you get right down to it, there is even some doubt as to whether it is deemed Outside Assistance. We normally think of outside notes as something you write for yourself, like the sideboarding guide. In the same vein as this incident, if you were to take scouting notes on what some of the other top players in the tournament were playing, it would be OA to reference those notes during the match. Similarly, you can’t have your friends scout for you and give you their notes during a match.
But it was perfectly legal for Gerry to check his pairings then ask Cedric about his opponent, whom Cedric had played last round. That might confuse some people, since it isn’t legal for Cedric to stop by and tell Gerry during the match. There’s a clear delineation between giving advice before and during a match. But when is that line drawn?
One of the definitions of OA reads:
“Any time after arriving at the play table, references notes made before the official beginning of the current match, including Oracle text that has not been provided by a judge.”
The key phrase for our purposes is “Any time after arriving at the play table.” More specifically, it is when you sit down. Even if your opponent has not arrived at the table, once you sit down, you’ve crossed the imaginary line where you can no longer reference outside notes or get advice from friends.
Does that mean that Gerry committed an OA violation by looking at the notes on his opponent’s deck after sitting down at the table? Not initially. Looking at a scrap of paper left behind from a previous match is hardly an infraction. That scrap of paper could be anything, after all. Maybe it has the Soup Nazi’s secret recipe for gumbo. Gerry had no way of knowing that the scrap of paper would have Magic card names written on it, let alone that they would correlate to his opponent’s deck. That they did so was a happy accident for him.
Compare the notes scenario to the other common OA situation. You are playing a match and a spectator watching behind you blurts out “Branching Bolt his guys and get in there.” The spectator has just given you play advice without solicitation. What do you do? Call a judge! Huzzah. A judge comes over and asks some basic questions of the situation. He or she takes the spectator away to assess an OA penalty to him (Match Loss), but you are deemed to be in the clear because you immediately called for a judge yourself.
Since you have no way of predicting or stopping what a spectator might say, you are not penalized for their actions. Understand that things are very different if you solicit the advice. Even if the spectator does not respond, just asking a question like “What should I do here?” would be an OA infraction on the player’s part. Giving advice and asking for advice are both separate instances of OA, but either one in itself does not necessarily incriminate the other party for the same.
Some players might worry that this is open to some amount of abuse. Your friend could give you some advice, then you turn him over to the authorities. Since you’re clearly playing for something important and he’s already dropped, the Match Loss is inconsequential to your friend. The advice has been given essentially without penalty, and Team Evil has won another round.
This is why instances of giving advice are accompanied by an investigation. The judge will usually ask a round of questions regarding the relationships between players and spectators. Establishing the relationships is an important step in determining whether something deeper than a simple blurt out might be going on. Even something simple like the player holding his hand in a way that the spectators can see it might be a clue to the solicitation of advice.
Back to the scrap of paper. At what point does the scrap of paper become outside notes? Once you have a reasonable suspicion that the scrap of paper that you found may in fact have critical strategic information, and not just someone’s lunch order, you should do the same that you would do with the spectator: stop the flow of information and call a judge. You really don’t want there to be any means to misinterpret the situation. If I were called over for such a case I might ask you to surrender the notes, which is akin to removing the spectator. At the very least, I would tell the player to remove the notes from the table and not reference them during the match. Looking at the paper initially isn’t OA, but once you realize what it is, you should not be referencing it anymore.
Of course, that doesn’t stop you from retaining the information. Yoda was wrong on this one. Judges cannot force players to unlearn what they have learned, either from spectators or random scraps of paper. In fact, since it is legal to jot down notes during a match, technically you can memorize some quick notes while standing, sit down, then immediately scrawl the information on a piece of paper. Several times in his coverage of that round, Gerry talks about the information in the notes (or lack of information on the notes in the case of a critical Infest). Although he doesn’t explicitly say so, I’m sure he wasn’t looking at the paper in these instances. Simple memory would suffice, and yes he could have just rewritten all the card names on his own paper from memory. Although somewhat arbitrarily, the letter of the law would prevent him from transcribing the card names directly from one piece of paper to the other, or looking back at the original notes once he had started writing card names down.
Another rather odd corner case that came up on the Judge List involved a player playing against his girlfriend in the last round of Swiss at an FNM. The match next to theirs finished up and the player asked “Who won?” Using that information, the player concluded that he could safely concede to his girlfriend to maximize their prize payout in the event. There was some brief discussion about whether it was OA to solicit the match result of a neighboring match.
The problem with defining it as OA is that a match result is pretty much free information. Rather than ask, the player could just as easily have watched them sign the match result slip (if they were being used), or listened in on the end of the match for a statement like “I guess you win.” Furthermore, at PTs, judges are required to collect match result slips at the table and confirm the result with both players (“Player A defeated Player B two games to one.”) Suddenly, all judges would be guilty of OA!
Also, at tournaments it is also common practice for friends to find each other and give a quick “I won. I’m X-1,” after finishing their match. And while technically speaking, we probably don’t want this kind of stuff to be going on too much because there is the potential for it to lead to strategic tournament information being given, judges are not going to get in the habit of disallowing the friendly update. However, this doesn’t mean that you can just blatantly calculate tiebreakers for your buddy and tell them what to do. Any kind of actual advice like “You should scoop” will still be investigated fully for OA.
Until next time, this is Riki Hayashi telling you to call a judge.
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