The Riki Rules – Tales of the Red Zone

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Tuesday, June 24th – Last week I detailed one of my major Japanese translation calls at Hollywood. Here’s the second. I joined the call already in the appeals process, so I sped to the table to assist the judge on the call (I believe it was Jaroslav Karban, L2 Czech Republic) and Sheldon in adjudicating the situation. I like using big words like “adjudicating” because they fill me with self-importance. Now if I only knew what they mean.

When do you know you’ve made it as a StarCityGames.com writer? When you’ve been featured in a “Magic Show” promo, of course. Big thanks to Evan, Sheldon, and Lee Sharpe (the “Judge!” voice) for helping out with a fun little idea I had. My first month here at SCG has been wild and crazy, and seeing that promo go live was the perfect ending to my first four weeks on board.

Today I will present to you my final story from Pro Tour: Hollywood, another translation scenario. It’s great that I made it this far mostly on the fruits of the PT, but what now? Berlin isn’t until October, and there’s no guarantee that I’ll even be chosen for the staff. I can probably squeeze an article or two out of Regionals, and I have several random floater topics that I can fill in with. I did not attend GP: Indianapolis due to various reasons, ranging from dwindling vacation days to the fact that I don’t really like judging Limited that much. The deck checks are an absolute pain. In lieu of constantly judging tournaments, I think one solution to my topical problem is for you dear readers to start telling me what you want to write about. The second half of today’s article features one such instance where a rising Magic player e-mailed me an interesting tale.

Hollywood Finale

Last week I detailed one of my major Japanese translation calls at Hollywood. Here’s the second. I joined the call already in the appeals process, so I sped to the table to assist the judge on the call (I believe it was Jaroslav Karban, L2 Czech Republic) and Sheldon in adjudicating the situation. I like using big words like “adjudicating” because they fill me with self-importance. Now if I only knew what they mean.

The rundown:

Player A had declared an attack with some little Red men and Player J had played Condemn, at which point Player A said, “Nooooot attacking.”

What he actually said was that he was still thinking about his attackers, and hadn’t finalized his attacks when Player J jumped the gun on his Condemn. Why does it seem like so many of these scenarios center on the combat phase? My role this time was much more “pure interpreter” than “investigator,” as Sheldon directed the questioning and I translated back and forth.

One of the key details that Sheldon tried to gather was what actions Player A took when he declared his phantom attack. He definitely tapped his creatures and released his hands from them. That much was confirmed by both players, although there was some disagreement over how long the release lasted, i.e. did he put his hands back on his attackers before or after Player J flashed the Condemn on the table.

There was also some talk away from the table between the judges about how Player A seemed to be answering our questions in a way that would allow him to back out of the attack. Although he hadn’t explicitly lied yet, we all feared that his recollections were becoming erratic. He was filling out the blanks of his story with what he wanted or needed to have happened, rather than what actually took place. You see, there’s this problem with human memory; it’s unreliable. There’s an old adage about how if you ask ten witnesses to a crime to describe the suspect, you will get ten different answers. Everyone thinks they are telling the truth, but they are remembering wrong. It’s the same way in Magic. How long did Player A’s hands leave his attackers? Did he say something like “Attack”…? How long did Player J wait before playing Condemn?

The problem with Player A’s account was that he was talking a lot, and the more you talk, the more likely you will say something inconsistent with what you’ve said previously. And with three judges listening to everything you say, it is more likely that we will catch you in just such an inconsistency. As judges, we want to catch the bad players who are maliciously lying to gain an advantage, but we don’t want to punish the good players whose stories change slightly from bad memories. Based on the evidence presented, Sheldon made his decision to let the attack stand, upholding Jaro’s initial ruling. We did not want to continue with the questioning because it was mostly just rehashing what had already been said, and that opened up the danger of Player A changing his story ever so slightly.

What I found interesting about this was just how much advantage this language barrier conferred to Player J, as there was only one judge (me) who was double checking his version of the events thoroughly. It also put an immense amount of pressure on me to translate what he said accurately. At one point Player A thought that Player J had altered his account of how many seconds he had waited to play Condemn from “around one or two seconds” to “less than two seconds,” but it was actually my fault. Player J had used the same phrasing, but I had altered the translation slightly. It drove home the point of being very careful with my words, a lesson I look forward to applying fully next time out.

Despite these language related advantages, I found Player J’s accounts to me to be consistent, confident, and collected. In fact, all of the Japanese players that I interacted with on judge calls fit that bill. So far all of my rulings or recommendations to the judge making the ruling have been in favor of the Japanese player. Am I biased? At some level I’m sure I am, but I don’t think that bias has affected my decisions. I’ve been ruling for and against close personal friends at the PTQ level for years now, and I have to say that I am one hundred times more inclined to be biased for them than some faceless Japanese players that I share a heritage with. I’ve even had my friends appeal my rulings. The nerve!

What has been reassuring for me on the bias front is that there has always been another judge on these translation rulings, and they have always agreed with me that the opponent’s account has been unreliable in these cases. Combine that with my account of the reliable Japanese story, and it has been fairly clear cut cases so far. So where are all these shady Japanese players that I’ve heard so much about?

And now a word from a GP Top 8 Competitor

The first I ever heard of Zack Hall was when I saw his name as the winner of a Boston PTQ. “Lawl. They misspelled Zac Hill name,” I said. Adding to the confusion, I seem to recall the actual Zac Hill was supposedly in Boston that weekend trying to get a ride to the PTQ. Some time later, Bill Stark wrote about the two star-crossed Zac(k)s, complete with a photograph proving once and for all that Bruce Wayne was not Batman (they always fall for the Alfred wearing the suit trick).

I finally met Zack Hall, in living hair color, at Grand Prix: Daytona Beach through our respective U.S. National team friends (Ben Lundquist for him, the Cheontourage for me). Our combined group did the classic post-GP dinner and a draft. Since then, I’ve run into Zack at Vancouver and Philadelphia and we’ve recently become friends on the ‘Book.

Zack e-mailed me after my article last week to tell me his own tale of woe involving a Japanese opponent and an apparent miscommunication. Obviously this was at a professional level event, as Zack does not make a habit of playing FNM in Tokyo, or vice versa. Which event will remain a secret, as will other details because I’ve seen how speculation of who the cheater is can ruin the discussion of what is really important. If you have heard about this incident, or know who the opponent is, I ask that you do not reveal this information in the forums.

Both players had out three or four creatures and Player J was looking to push what he perceived to be a slight board advantage. Trying to see if he could make a profitable attack, Player J moved his creatures and Zack’s creatures around, in an attempt to predict Zack’s most likely blocks. Satisfied that Zack would not be able to find a favorable blocking situation, Player J turned his creatures sideways and pushed them into the red zone.

Zack waited a beat, asked “Okay?” and upon receiving what he considered to be a nod of consent, activated a man land. Suddenly dealing with an extra blocker that he apparently hadn’t accounted for, Player J pulled back his attackers, untapped them, and claimed misunderstanding. He wasn’t done thinking about his attacks yet.

A judge was hastily summoned, and from what Zack told me, he asked a lot of the right questions in a situation like this. Unfortunately, without a translator, the judge could not probe Player J’s actions and motives very deeply and he fell back on the default solution, which is to back up to the point when both players are clear on the game state, which meant just before Player J declared his attackers.

I’m not certain why an interpreter wasn’t called in on this. I will tell you that this took place at a Professional REL event that most assuredly would have had a Japanese-speaking judge available. Perhaps the judge felt that he had the situation under control, or he did not know that calling for an interpreter was an option.

According to Zack, communication between him and Player J had been adequate up to that point in the match. They hadn’t exactly been gabbing about the Red Sox or swapping ramen recipes, but they were able to communicate their actions to each other well enough through broken Magic-ian. When the judge was called in, Player J’s English suddenly dropped a level further to the “Sorry. No understand,” level of things. This mirrors other accounts I’ve heard or read about foreign players who lose their ability to speak English at critical times.

This is one part of the story where I feel like Zack and many others are not thinking about the entire situation from the other side of the coin. Being able to communicate your plays in Magic isn’t very difficult. You could probably get through a game of Magic on less than ten choice words. Thus, because of their prowess with the actual game play, and their use of a few words here and there, it might often seem like these players are perfectly capable of communicating in “English.” But things change when it comes to answering specific questions from a judge about the game state. I’ve seen plenty of native English speakers bungle these judge interviews, not answering the questions correctly, answering completely different questions, or just getting frustrated and babbling.

Going back to Zack’s story, one of the keys for me was the push into the red zone. Think for a moment about that action. Imagine it in your head. Act it out. Tap some cards on your computer table (I know you have some cards sitting there) and push them forward into the imaginary red zone. Now ask yourself if that is the action of someone who is thinking about his attacks, or is that something you do when you finally make your actual attack.

Shortcuts are a big part of this discussion, so we should try to define what they are. Many of you are no doubt familiar with the concept of “infinite loop shortcuts.” This is when you are taking an action or set of actions over and over again. In paper Magic you are allowed to say “I equip Shuko to Daru Spiritualist fifteen million times” and the game state time warps to just after the fifteen millionth activation. If your opponent wants to put a stop to you at some point, he is free to say “Actually, after the fourteen million, three-hundred thousandth time, I will Terror the Spiritualist.”

In Magic there are far more ordinary and innocent shortcuts, infinite combos not required. Think about what it means when you say “Go” at the end of your turn. What you are actually saying is “I pass priority in my second main phase and also in the end of turn step unless you play something at one of those times.” No one actually passes priority back and forth in the second main and then again in the end of turn step unless they have some very specific agenda. The end of turn double passing of priority with the word “go” (or “done” or the open palm hand gesture) is one of the most common shortcuts in the game.

The combat step is another part of the game that is rife with shortcuts. Players typically rush in and declare their attackers, tapping creatures left and right, only to be backed up by an opponent who wants to use a tapper. More careful players will ask if it is okay to declare attackers, or say “I’ll enter my combat phase,” and wait for confirmation before declaring attackers.

In Zack’s case, it’s pretty clear that priority had been passed and Player J was moving into his declare attackers step. What’s not clear is whether he had finished declaring attackers. Is pushing your cards forward into the red zone a nonverbal shortcut for “these are my attackers”? I would be inclined to say “yes.” And Zack did take an extra step of precaution to confirm this action with his “Okay?” Apparently, Player J told the judge that he did not understand what Zack said, which I find highly suspicious because “Okay” is not only a common phrase for Magic players of all nationalities, but is a word that has been ported and assimilated into the Japanese vernacular. Simply put, there is no reason that a Japanese player should be confused by the word.

But again, I wasn’t there and my accounting is obviously tinged with Zack’s bias and my own inclination to believe him. I think given the information he had, or didn’t have, the judge made a reasonable call. I just wish that an interpreter had been called in, and certainly Zack now realizes that he should have appealed to the Head Judge. I think it is very possible that with some more carefully directed questions, things could have been reversed in his favor.

Until next time, speak clearly and don’t take so many ambiguous shortcuts

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