The 2002 Winter Olympics have wound up their festivities for another four years. Though Magic is not amongst the sports played this year (never mind the fact that curling is considered athletic enough to be in Salt Lake City), a number of introspective thoughts can be taken from those sports that are and applied to the game we all know and love. First and foremost is the cloud of controversy that has recently shaded the results of the doubles figure skating competition, and ultimately led to the selection of two gold medal winners for the same event this year.
For those not in the know, a French judge admitted to altering her vote to favor the Russian duo in the pairs figure skating event instead of the Canadian pair in exchange for a Russian judge voting for the French at a later event. As a result, the Russian couple won the gold, though many felt their leading competitors from Canada had had a stronger performance. Though the IOC eventually awarded both pairs the gold medal, many were left with a bad taste in their mouth over the ordeal, and the world of figure skating has been forced to re-examine itself in light of the recent events.
So how does Magic: the Gathering fit into all of this?
The winner of a sporting event or game is”selected” when a competitor (or competitors in the case of team sports) fulfills the victory requirement. In figure skating, the person(s) who scores highest wins. In Magic, the first person to force their opponent to zero life or to draw all of the cards in their library (or have 200 cards with Battle of Wits, or lose control of Lich, etc.) is the winner. This trend continues throughout the world of sports and games – and thus, each game or sport has something in common with the next in that it has a selected manner for deciding upon a victor.
How the winner of a game is chosen ultimately lies on a spectrum, then, that encompasses all sports. On one end of the spectrum lie sports like figure skating. At an individual skating competition, a skater performs to the best of their ability and accepts the winner as selected by a panel of judges. The winner of a figure skating event, then, is selected subjectively. Though the skater’s score is based on their performance, ultimately the best skater may not necessarily win.
For example, the most recent case of”judge doping” in which the French judge Marie Reine Le Gougne voted for the Russian figure skating pair instead of the Canadian pair, whom she felt had had a stronger performance. This is a blatant example in which the outcome of the competition was decided not by the strength of the skater’s performance, but rather by the subjectivity of the judging staff. Instead of the strongest pair winning, a weaker pair was given the gold based on the bribe a single judge received.
This is a relatively obvious example of why subjective results are not the most effective means of selecting a champion; a subtler example can be found in the men’s singles competition. Heavily favored to win both gold and silver coming into the 2002 Olympics were Russian skaters Yevgeny Plushenko and Alexei Yagudin. Who would win which medal was something even the professionals were not willing to say for certain. Both skaters are world champions (Plushenko is the current, while Yagudin has earned the honor thrice in the past) and both skaters have trained under the world famous Russian coach Alexei Mishin, though Yagudin left the coach in 1998 after complaining that Mishin spent too much time with Plushenko.
But the two also have significant differences. Plushenko is the only male skater to ever pull off a Biellmann spin, a mind-numbing act of flexibility that stretches the skater’s leg over his head while he spins. Yagudin, on the other hand, has received praise from judges for being able to magnificently mold his routine with his music. Plushenko’s dance style favors balletic Russian, while Yagudin favors a more modern style. The two skaters have tenaciously competed against each other over the past few years, constantly exchanging first and second place from one month to the next.
So, if the two skaters are so closely related in skill level (though not style level), who wins the gold medal in the Olympics? If more of the judges favor traditional styles of dance, then it would seem Plushenko should win. If the judges have a vendetta against either skater for past history, such as beating the judge’s countryman in a previous event, then that skater faces a decided disadvantage. Ultimately Yagudin took the gold (Plushenko settled for silver), but was he really the most worthy selection? Should the winner of an event be decided by individuals who have not actually performed in any way during the event?
Is someone else’s opinion of a performance the most accurate means to select the ultimate winner of the performance?
Figure skating (and sports like it that use subjective decisions to select their winners and losers) are perhaps operating on a flawed system. Following the line down the sports spectrum, we move from the far end of subjective sports to semi-subjectivity, sports such as basketball. In the game of basketball, the winner of a game is chosen by the team who has the most points at the end of four quarters, or two halves at the collegiate level. No judges have any say in the overall winner of the event. However, in order to maintain the integrity of the game, basketball employs the use of referees to ensure that the players play the game within the boundary of the rules. Though these officials do not directly judge the winner of the game, their actions in some ways do affect the outcome, based on how subjective they really are.
For instance, the case of offensive fouls – or, more specifically, charges. A charge occurs when an offensive player forcefully uses his body against the body of a defender who is at a complete stop and outside a certain area within the key. In general, the guy with the ball knocks over the guy without the ball. However, a defender falling over when someone makes an offensive drive does not necessarily constitute a foul against the offense; if it did, every defender to play the game would simply fall over whenever someone drove offensively. It is the referee’s responsibility to decide if the foul actually occurs when a player acts as though it did.
But more than just the technical aspect of the game comes into question when the referee is forced to make such a call. If the ref was a post player during his heyday as a basketball player, perhaps he would be more inclined to make the call against the offense, knowing well what it was like to stop a point guard from making a tough play. Or, vice versa; if the ref was an offensive player, perhaps he would be more inclined to make the call against the defender. And if one of the players had complained about the ref’s competency level earlier in the game? The official is human, and it’s possible his personal feelings towards one player might influence his decision when making the correct call on the play.
A strong example of this type of bias can be shown via the Portland Trailblazers – and more importantly, one of their co-captains, Rasheed Wallace. Wallace led the NBA last year in technical fouls and is leading the league in the category this year. He has a reputation amongst the public and the NBA for being a loudmouth, unafraid to vocalize his opinions of a referee’s misjudgment. As a result of this, he is not well liked amongst the officiating staff of the NBA. Do referees have this in mind when they go to officiate a Blazers game? Whether they like to admit it or not, the thought remains in the back of their mind throughout the entirety of the game. When Wallace takes a charge to stop an offensive player with only seconds left and his team up by a mere point, is the call more likely to fall in his favor, or against him? Sports with officials acting in this sense escape the blatant problems the world of figure skating face but still must deal with some amounts of subjectivity in their sport that can eventually decide important games.
Moving further down the spectrum, we finally come to Magic. At nearly the opposite side of the subjectivity spectrum from figure skating, Magic: the Gathering sits, the winners of each game undecided except by two individuals sitting across from each other with one deck apiece. Except in Feature Matches, no judge monitors the sloppiness of a players tapping technique, no referee prepared to call a Sligh player with an offensive penalty. The winner of each game is decided by their prowess at selecting a deck, their ability to play the game, and a small portion of luck.
Of course, in Magic judges do exist, though their role is less the role traditionally played by judges and more that of a referee. Unlike the referees of most sports, however, judges for Magic do not have to worry about anything save the rules when making a call. For any rules infraction in the game, only one correct decision exists. Though penalties and rule enforcement change depending on the level of the tournament (marked sleeves at FNM won’t get you kicked out, though they might at a Grand Prix), the correct call for a certain play is always clearly defined. If you Shock a Llanowar Elf in response to an opponent’s Repulse, the opponent does not get to draw an additional card. If you Disenchant the Illusions of Grandeur after lifegain is on the stack, your opponent loses 20 life.
Is Magic, then, the perfect game? Well, those of us that can spend hours a week playing it might contend that it is, but the unfortunate reality is that, when dealing with humans, ultimately some level of impurity will invade the game. Some judges make incorrect calls, some players don’t draw their second land in fifteen cards, while others get away with drawing more cards than they should have. But excepting some small examples, the winner of Magic is not decided by a bribed judge. It is not decided by a biased referee. The winner of the game is decided by the player who comes the most prepared to play.
And that puts Magic above curling in my book any day.