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Sullivan’s Satchel: Magic Ethics, Once Upon A Time, And O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Patrick Sullivan launches a new mailbag column! Get his hot takes on Magic ethics, Once Upon a Time, and more!

Welcome to the first of what I hope is many installments of the StarCityGames.com mailbag. Each week, I’ll be delving into at least one question submitted by readers/fans/agitators, with the hopes of giving some food for thought (and, failing that, at least monetizing the rants SCG largely freerolls off me in my capacity as commentator for the SCG Tour). Please send in your own questions to mailbag@starcitygames.com should the inspiration strike, and with that:

Drew writes:

Dear Resident Ethicist,

A few big questions for you.

First: I think it’s fair to stipulate that what is lawful and what is ethical are not always in alignment. Given that, what is your ethical code of conduct for playing Magic and how does it meaningfully differ from the tournament rules? 

Follow up question, if you want to go there: what are some good ways that the community can/should enforce ethical norms? Everyone claims to dislike “cancel culture,” but are there better ways of enforcing norms that judges and rules won’t? 

I’ve played tournament Magic for nearly 25 years and I’d like to think my behavior has moved into more “ethical” territory over time. I’ve gotten older, my life is more satisfying outside of Magic and less of my self-worth is caught up in it, and I find it easier to maintain my ethics outside of Magic within the game than I did when I was younger. I was poorer then, too, and sometimes I wonder how much of that change can be chalked up to a booster box meaning a lot less to me now than when I had just dropped out of college and had an unstable housing situation. It is easier to behave well when the stakes are low, and now for me the stakes are relatively low.

I mention this because there is a stigma associated with being a “rules lawyer,” for leveraging the particulars of tournament policy (Greg Hatch once described this as something like “finding the blind spots in the rules rather than adhering to them,” and it always stuck with me). And not without cause—many of these rules don’t appear to emerge from an ideologically consistent place. Players just have to memorize, as an example, which triggers they are responsible for announcing at the time versus the ones they can announce after several phases and numerous game actions have gone by. Efforts to take advantage of this kind of knowledge feel outside of the scope of what should be determining games of Magic, and so even if it is all “by the book,” it feels like a different game is being played.

Many parts of the codified rules speak to the collective desire for fair competition, giving more weight to the notion that players should try to adhere to something greater than a minimum requirement of behavior. Rules against bribery and collusion are unnecessary if a tournament is nothing more than an opportunity to divide some prizes. Clearly some notion of legitimacy and decency underpins elements of the rules, and so people asking for a broader “reasonable person” interpretation of what these concepts should mean in a practical sense aren’t speaking from no base.

All of this is to say: I think the ethics of tournament Magic are extremely complicated. People have different reasons for showing up to events, different sensibilities around playing “by the book” versus “the spirit of the game,” and vastly different economic circumstances and incentives. Given that my own actions have changed over the years, it seems wise to assume they will continue to do so, and I find it hard to judge too harshly anyone’s landing spot, excluding the two extreme edges.

For me, two things set off red flags. Your mileage may vary, but I try very hard to avoid:

(1) Am I leveraging something that is a tournament-specific rule? Would this be nonsense to try to run in a kitchen-table game?

(2) Am I leveraging an ambiguity in communication?

These two questions are related, and usually come up around missed triggers (recent controversy around assigning trample damage is another example). In my tournament play, I just announce everything. If something my opponent is doing is unclear, I ask them what they’re doing. Besides whatever ethical gains I might be accruing, I find that this protects me as well. I’m not 100% fluent on the floor rules, I’m not always confident when I’m obligated to announce immediately versus at some other point, and I don’t have total rules mastery with every card my opponent might play. I don’t mind “playing the game for my opponent” (a common critique of this approach, or of rules that mandate it), since that’s an obligation I have in other spots (if my opponent doesn’t record the damage from my Wooded Foothills, they didn’t “forget it,” and if I try to run that, it is cheating).

I would also caution the bootstrapping grinders of the world about rationalizing unethical behavior through the prism of EV. It is really rare for people who engage in extreme levels of rules-lawyering/pushing the boundaries of the rules to have that behavior limited to Magic tournaments. Other competitors want to work with people they enjoy working with and who don’t expose them to “splash damage,” while aspiring competitive players and fans want to support people (often directly and materially) who at least appear to have values that align with their own. It has always been more lucrative to be a good person who plays Magic than a good Magic player, even within the confines of tournament Magic, and I would caution against sacrificing too much public goodwill in an effort to chisel out an extra 2% win rate in the 3-2 bracket.

To the second question, I have a lot of misgivings about the umbrella term “cancel culture” and the behavior and motivations it suggests. That isn’t to say there is no momentum once someone has run afoul of some norm or that people aren’t judged too harshly for lapses that are more public-facing than actually bad.

I think people in general, and certainly of my generation, take for granted how much the extremely powerful have dominated communication until very recently. A few friends of mine have been “cancelled” from the Magic Hall of Fame, except they got cancelled by a handful of powerful people working discreetly instead of a larger population voicing their objections publicly. This isn’t anything to shed tears over, but it is emblematic of the way things got handled until communication channels made “going wide” more effective than “going tall.” Nearly everyone has some bar that they’d “cancel” someone over, and the current “culture” (it isn’t anything resembling a culture, but whatever) is at least more likely to produce results reflective of some democratic process than the alternatives.

I’m not defending every individual (or even collective) action, but if my community choices are “the mob,” a stratified cabal of people with influence, or a total abdication of norms and behavioral expectations, I guess I’d take the former.

With cheating in Magic specifically, there is a massive delta between “cheating that occurs” versus “cheating that gets caught,” and then again between “cheating that gets caught” versus “cheating that results in a punishment most clean, competitive players think is even close to harsh enough.” That is the perfect recipe for people to lose trust in the adjudicating body, and when that collapses people are going to fill in the gaps themselves.

Speaking to the specific question (ethics), how else is anything supposed to change? Players have some agency to request for new rules or to express to other players what behavior should and shouldn’t be acceptable. Assuming enough people agree, that might actually move the needle. The early advocates for clean play, for calling out cheaters (often with less than 100%, dead-to-rights evidence) are lionized in Magic’s competitive canon but now we’re in some sort of cultural crisis? Please. By and large, the people wringing their hands over this sort of stuff are used to having their voice heard regardless. I’m not defending every individual instance, but I can’t countenance “if you see or experience something and it really bothers you, don’t say anything” as a call to action.

From Seth in Portland:

Now that Once Upon a Time has been banned in both Standard and Pioneer, given your game design experience how does a card like that even go out the door for public consumption?

Once Upon a Time is a weird one. It’s one thing for a card with a text box to come in high; it’s another thing altogether for a free cantrip to hulk out like that. I don’t want to speculate too much, but I would bet on a mixture of overestimating the opportunity cost of hard-casting it mixed with it ostensibly encouraging creatures.

From John in New York:

You’ve said a few times on coverage that O Brother, Where Art Thou? is your favorite movie of all time. Why and do you have a favorite scene?

It is the one movie that makes me feel good every time I watch it. Not the most thoughtful answer, but not everything needs to be thoughtful. I love the whole movie, but the Soggy Bottom Boys cutting a record in the studio stands out as my favorite moment.

Nick wonders:

Is Magic a better game when the spells are more powerful than the creatures or vice versa?

I don’t fully accept the framing because I think the best ecosystems have a blend of both. That said, I think creatures should make up the majority of ecosystem for a few reasons.

  1. Combat is fun and intrinsically interactive. I think Magic is at its best when it’s a two-player game instead of two people working in isolation, and combat makes that happen.
  2. Creatures interact in more different ways with one another than other card types do. Numbers lining up in different ways is one reason; another is that a lot of keywords (flying, trample, first strike, etc.) assume that blocking is a possibility. Those keywords add a lot of texture to games in which they are allowed to emerge; they are flavor text against decks with nothing but spells.
  3. Related to #2, when creatures make up the majority of the space, I think it translates to the most number of cards being viable, which is novel. A certain 5/6 might not be powerful in absolute terms, but if the metagame is flush with 5/5s for about the same cost, maybe that 5/6 has a chance to shine. Maybe something with reach has a home when flying is all over the place. Compare that sort of flow to formats where spells are relatively powerful, where the vast majority of creatures that show up are either extremely cheap with a good power-to-mana ratio, or some activated power that translates to “you win the game if you untap.”

Spells aren’t intrinsically bad gameplay. I wish Magic made more of an effort to make some Giant Growths show up at the expense of some cantrips, removal, and such, but they can create volatile, dramatic moments that don’t add to battlefield complexity. Magic’s combat system gives a lot of advantage to the defending player, and decks that are nothing but creatures tend to grind down into an unsolvable mess. Different cards types are cool. I wouldn’t prescribe an exact ratio; there are a lot of ways to end up in a place that’s fun and replayable. But I generally prefer the worlds in which creatures are doing the heavy lifting.