The Riki Rules – Reactions

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Tuesday, September 9th – There’s no doubt that Sensei’s Divining Top is a very powerful card. In conjunction with fetch lands, it provides repeated top of the library manipulation, resulting in free “virtual card drawing.” The ability to keep good spells floating near the top of the library until needed has also led to a slight depowering of discard spells, with former standouts like Duress and Cabal Therapy seeing a decreasing amount of play.

He’s in.

Olivier Ruel is in the Hall of Fame.

I’ve been avoiding writing about this subject in my column because it seems akin to a political debate. No one is convincing the other side of its position, so why bother? There is one thing that bothered me regarding Olivier’s disqualification in Brisbane that I feel needs some attention. What’s the deal with those pesky sunglasses? How can it not be illegal?

To recap, in Olivier’s own words from his article last week:

“The latest (and hopefully last) incident happened in Brisbane last year. In the final round of Day 1, my opponent was sporting sunglasses around his neck, hanging down on his shirt, and at some point in the third game I realize I can see his hand in the reflection. To be honest, and I’m not sure it’s legal, the temptation was too strong, and I looked at this reflection until the end of the game. When the judge came to interview me at the end of the game, I panicked. I had tried to be as clean as possible since the end of my suspension, and this ruined everything. As the necessity of an interview tells me that looking in the glasses was illegal, I knew I’d be disqualified and banned, and would likely never touch a Magic card again. No matter the obvious nature of the upcoming situation, the above perspective makes me panic… and I lie to the judge, and get disqualified for the third time.

“The next day, I’m told to go back to the site, as I might be reinstated to the tournament. I was told that what I did was actually legal, but lying to a judge was obviously illegal, so therefore, just like in New York nine years previously, I’m disqualified but don’t get banned.”

So how is it legal to blatantly stare at a reflection of your opponent’s hand? The definition for Cheating – Hidden Information Violation (CHIV) states:

“A player, spectator or other tournament participant intentionally and illegally seeks or reveals information in an attempt to gain advantage. A player has not committed an infraction if the information was revealed to them by his or her opponent accidentally, nor is he or she required to advise an opponent who may be doing so, as long as he or she does not go to excessive lengths to take advantage of this.”

The reason they can’t make it an infraction just for seeing hidden information is because it’s very easy to get an accidental peek during the course of a match. Also, if any kind of look were an infraction, unscrupulous types would “accidentally” tip their hands to give their opponent a look and a ticket to DQville.

However, I thought for sure that this definition spelled cheating for looking at sunglasses. In particular, “go to excessive lengths to take advantage of this” seems like a fairly accurate description of what Olivier was doing. By his own admission, he was looking at the shades until the end of the game trying to get a glimpse of the content of his opponent’s hand.

I did a little bit of research, which constituted going on the IC mtgjudge channel, both to put my own mind at ease and to get the lowdown for this article. Luckily, Penalty Guru Toby Elliott was online when I logged on.

“You may ask one question regarding the penalty guidelines, but the cost will be your soul,” said Toby.

“But Toby, you already have my soul. You told me to give it to you when you certified me for Level 2.”

“Who is this? Riki? Go ahead and ask your question.”

Saved the trouble of having to wrangle up yet another fake soul to give to Toby, I asked why Olivier’s sunglasses were not a case of the CHIVs.

“From what I understand, he was observed staring at the sunglasses for quite some time. Seems excessive to me,” I said.

“Ah, my young apprentice. You have so much to learn. Let me teach you the ways of the Judge. ‘Excessive lengths’ is not a time-based statement.”

I did an online double take and asked for some clarification.

The scoop is that no matter how long Olivier had sat and stared at his opponent’s sunglasses to get a good look, it would not have amounted to “excessive lengths” under CHIV. You can stare and try to get a look as much as you want, especially if your opponent is making it easy for you in some way.

What then are “excessive lengths”? What I gleaned from my conversation with Toby was that it comes down to excessive effort instead of time. The one concrete example Toby gave me was “sitting on top of your chair to try to peek at someone’s hand = bad.”

That’s pretty obvious. What about the less obvious? Can you crane you neck? Can you drop a card on the floor to get a peek from the side? Can your friend stand behind your opponent with a highly reflective shirt? What is excessive in this day and age?

This is another one of those judging situations that comes down to subjective analysis and personal opinion. There’s no cut and dried line where once you take a certain action, you are guilty of CHIV. In that sense, it’s a lot like other cheating violations, primarily stalling, a notoriously dicey judgment call. If you have to do anything that is outside what you would normally do when sitting down for a game of Magic, you are probably going to excessive lengths, particularly any action that an outside observer might say “Why is he doing that?” If you ever have any doubts in that regard, you should ask a Judge for his or her opinion (in this case it is far better to ask for permission than for forgiveness), and trust me, opinions will vary.

Take the Olivier situation. I personally thought that staring at sunglasses would constitute excessive lengths, doubly so if he had any strategic leaning or positioning of his head to get a better look, which he may or may not have done. From what I’ve heard, it was a spectator that first saw Olivier running the shady peeks, who then reported it to a Judge. It seems unlikely that anything would have looked amiss if Olivier had just been staring since the sunglasses were presumably somewhere right in the vicinity between his opponent’s face and hand, an area that you naturally look at anyway.

In Olivier’s defense, a lot of people have brought up the fact that he has been under ever-increasing scrutiny since his suspension. I was chatting with Mark Walker online when he put it quite succinctly, “I’d say that since his suspension, cheating on a large scale would be immensely difficult, which lends credibility to his achievements since then.” Basically, it’s a two-sided defense of his achievements and the fact that he might not have even picked up that DQ in Brisbane if he wasn’t being watched so carefully. Again, in Olivier’s own words, “Would any player other than me have been disqualified for the same offense? I doubt it. I’m not using this as an excuse, as I definitely screwed up here. I only mention this to demonstrate that I’m being watched very carefully ever since my suspension, and that if I were a cheat, it would be harder not to catch me. ”

Quite frankly, this is one of those major tournament myths, albeit one that is probably perpetrated by many Judges. It’s kind of flashy and cool to say that we’ll be watching cheaters, ex-cheaters, and alleged cheaters more carefully than other players. Talk like that might even reassure the clean players and scare borderline players into not cheating. But in reality Judges are very busy people. At a typical tournament, I might be able to stand and watch any single match for maybe a minute or two at most before I am called away on another matter, or just feel like I need to keep move along and cover the rest of the floor. Even when there are known cheaters, as in they have recently come off of a suspension, I don’t have time to offer them anything more than a routine walk-by… unless a player brings something to my attention.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll continue to say it, but players are the DCI’s best resource for catching cheaters. You are sitting there watching your opponent do things for the entire duration of the match. Now perhaps Olivier and his defenders have some credence that he is under increased scrutiny from his opponents. I can’t speak with authority on that, although I think that you should be scrutinizing your opponent, whether it is Olivier Ruel or Mother Teresa.

Once you spot your opponent doing something suspicious, like standing on his chair to look at your cards, call a Judge. From that point forward, we will conduct an investigation. A player’s past history of infractions of cheating may come into play in terms of the types of questions we ask, but in no way will it decide the final outcome. When Olivier asks “Would any player other than me have been disqualified for the same offense?” the answer is unequivocally “yes.” If a spectator had brought to the Judge’s attention the actions of one Joe Card Player looking for a peek, there would have been an investigation and some questions asked. And if during the course of that investigation, Joe Player had lied about his actions, then he would have been DQed just the same as Olivier.

Sensei’s Divining Top

It was my personal belief that they would not ban SDT, although it was at the top (no pun intended) of my list of potential ban cards in Extended, so I was more than a little surprised when it got the axe.

There’s no doubt that SDT is a very powerful card. In conjunction with fetch lands, it provides repeated top of the library manipulation, resulting in free “virtual card drawing.” The ability to keep good spells floating near the top of the library until needed has also led to a slight depowering of discard spells, with former standouts like Duress and Cabal Therapy seeing a decreasing amount of play.

We all know that Top is good, and why it is good. But was it good enough? Not really. Bill Stark spelled out the real reason SDT was banned in Extended in his article last Friday:

“The constant activating of Divining Top bogs games down, which ultimately leads to an increase in the number of matches that go to time and beyond, which in turn leads to tournaments running much longer than they have historically.”

This has been the complaint about Top since its rise to popularity in Kamigawa Block Gifts Ungiven, a deck that was notoriously slow and unwieldy. But was SDT really the ultimate culprit of all that is slow and unholy?

As a Judge, and particularly a Scorekeeper, I am keenly aware of round turnaround time, the time from when the round officially ends (“active player finish the turn, then take five additional turns”) to when the next round gets started. In Extended, that time was definitely longer per round, probably around twelve to fifteen minutes. In Standard and Block, we were seeing turnaround times from ten to fifteen minutes. And this was all in the early rounds of PTQs and Regionals when 100 to 200 people were still playing. In the last two few of Swiss, with only 50 or so folks still duking it out, we were rolling in five to ten minutes.

However, one part of this phenomenon I noticed was what I called the Uno Factor… one match would take significantly longer than the others in extra turns. To me, basing the slowness of the round on what decks are playing in that final match seems like a mistake. There could be any number of reasons why that match has gone on so long. For one, maybe they have a time extension from a deck check or a long ruling. Maybe it is one or both players playing slowly, and not necessarily the deck. I’ve seen players who always seem to go to time with aggro decks, forget about plodding Top-based control decks. And while SDT can certainly be a contributing factor to slowness – who hasn’t suffered through the end-of-turn Top, main phase Top, crack a fetch land Top – who’s to say those players wouldn’t be playing equally slow with other cards? Just as an example, the card Gifts Ungiven might take up to five minutes to resolve fully, between the player choosing his four cards, then the opponent deciding which cards to give, then the original player deciding what to do with the cards he’s been given.

The speed of the last match playing every round isn’t indicative of the speed of the format per se; it is only indicative of the speed of that particular match. To get statistically significant numbers, you probably have to look at all of the outstanding matches when time is called (minus those with time extensions). At an average PTQ, there might be anywhere from ten to twenty outstanding matches when time is called. How many of those matches feature Top? And just as a counterpoint, how many of them feature Urza lands? At Grand Prix: Dallas a year-and-a-half ago, I played UW Tron and between the GPT and the main event, I went to time four times in control mirrors (I was not playing SDT). It happens.

The point is, we all felt that Sensei’s Divining Top was slowing down the format. Everyone said so. It must have been true. But was it really? Did Wizards have any evidence – hard evidence – of Top’s effect on the format? Or was it just a convenient scapegoat? This next Extended season, I’m going to keep track of which decks go to time in our PTQs and we’ll see if it was the Top factor or just slow players and slow decks playing slow no matter what cards they have.

Until next time, this is Riki Hayashi telling you to call a judge.

Rikipedia at Gmail dot sdt
Risky on efnet and most major Magic forums
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P.S. Happy birthday, dad!