(Note: Writing this in English since I think this could be of interest to the international judge community.)
Last Saturday, I got disqualified from a PPTQ tournament in Salzburg, Austria after I won the finals. I originally didn’t plan to write anything on this, but after my inbox pretty much exploded the day after with friends and acquaintances asking what happened, I figured that they probably deserve an explanation. I have two goals with this post: One, briefly explain what happened from my perspective, and two, shed light on what I perceive as an actually serious problem in the tournament rules.
What I do NOT intend to do is blame anyone but myself for what happened. Everything that led up to the disqualification was my fault, and it was fully within the judge’s rights to make his call, even if it was the wrong one (which he couldn’t have known). However, I do feel that we could’ve arrived at a better call, but more on that later.
So what happened?
Basically, I’m an idiot.
I originally wasn’t even planning on playing in this tournament, as Salzburg is actually a tad too far away from my hometown Munich for me to consider going there for a PPTQ. I have a lot of good friends in Rosenheim, though, which is basically halfway between those two towns, and I really wanted to compete in their (extremely prestigious) store championships that were to take place the evening before. And after my good Rosenheim buddy Andi Reling offered me to crash at his place on Friday and then make the drive to Salzburg from there, I was in. So on Friday before I went to work, I packed my stuff including my 6th edition basic lands that I love so much and looked forward to one-and-a-half days of gaming.
Now the reason I mention those basic lands is that – Spoiler Alert – they were what ultimately led to my demise. Quick backstory: I always had a soft spot in my heart for the basic lands from 6th and 7th edition, for a couple of reasons. One, I really think they’re pretty. I mean, look at them! Two, I started playing around that time, so there’s definitely some nostalgia at play. Three, white borders are actually very practical on basic lands because it means you can find them quicker with your fetchlands (or your Evolving Wilds). And four, I do enjoy the occasional tilt I induce in my opponents when they see my ugly-ass white-bordered lands.
I have been playing with this specific set of lands for two or three years now, which naturally led to them looking pretty used after some point. I didn’t really consider that a problem because as long as they’re not distinguishable from the other cards in your deck – who cares? What I failed to take into account, though, was that the condition of a card is not the only factor in deciding whether it’s tournament legal. You also have to consider its shape, like – hypothetically – when the lands have been so heavily used that they start to bend a little. Which is improbable, but possible, when – again, hypothetically – their owner tends to shuffle and flick his cards rather aggressively. You can see where this is going.
So, back to the tournament. I received a rather average pool, went 4-2 with it after losing to two great players (Sebastian Thaler and Thomas Holzinger) and didn’t even think of the Top 8, already making dinner plans for the way home before final standings were announced. Which made it all the more hilarious when I actually managed to sneak into eighth place as the only player with twelve points, who for some reason had the best tie-breakers of the X-2 players with a mighty 55 percent. I basically considered myself on a giant free-roll at this point and didn’t really care about winning or losing in the Top 8.
There, I was lucky enough to draft a pretty strong UB Tempo deck, which is basically the only deck I know how to draft in this format. After my deck had powered me through the quarters and semis, the head judge came to the table and asked me if he could have my deck for a second. Five minutes later, he called me to the judge station and quite impressively demonstrated to me that my lands were not okay to play when he effortlessly piled my deck into lands and non-lands just by looking at it from the side.
It was at this moment that I realized for the first time that we might have a problem here.
The head judge proceeded to ask me some questions and I truthfully answered to him that I always play those lands and didn’t even realize that they could be bent in a problematic way. I also didn’t think that this explanation was somehow implausible – it never even occured to me to check for something like that, which naturally sounds stupid when the problem is as obvious as it presented itself. But then again, I’m an idiot.
Anyway, the judge told me to change my lands right away and issued me a Game Loss for the finals because of Marked Cards – Pattern, which I immediately accepted. That’s the standard infraction for players who foil out their lands but not the rest of their deck, and I felt my case was comparable to those. I thought that would be it, but after I won the finals as well, the judge approached the table and asked to speak with me in the storage room, away from everybody else. There he informed me that he thought about my case some more and does not believe that I was unaware of my lands being bent. He said he had a look into my DCI history, which clearly showed that I was an experienced player, and that there was no way that a player of my pedigree didn’t realize that his cards were bent. Therefore, he believed I was a cheater and I would be disqualified from the event.
Now, if you’ve never been disqualified from an event, let me tell you: Getting disqualified sucks. It’s not so much the loss of the prize boosters and RPTQ qualification that hurts; I don’t care about the boosters and there are plenty of chances left to qualify this season. What pains so much more is that you didn’t only ruin the day for yourself, but for a lot of other people as well: The friends who rooted for you in the finals and were happier for you than you were yourself after winning game 3; your previous opponents who will keep wondering for a long time if their loss to you was actually legit; the organizers who set up one of the most fun PPTQs you’ve ever played in, only to watch it end on a sour note; and of course the head judge who neither appreciates having to disqualify people nor the paperwork that comes with it. By virtue of my stupidity, I have let down each and every one of those people, and for that I am incredibly sorry.
However, I do think that this mess could’ve been prevented and a better ruling could’ve been achieved. Again, I am explicitly not blaming the judge here. He had to make a tough call under uncertainty and I don’t envy him for that. But: I really think that the tournament rules should support the judge by actually forcing him to remove as much uncertainty as reasonably possible.
Looking at the rules (the amateur perspective)
To clarify what I mean by that, let’s take a look at the tournament rules. Section 5.1 („Cheating“) of the official Magic the Gathering tournament rules states that
Cheating will not be tolerated. The Head Judge reviews all cheating allegations, and if he or she believes that a player has cheated, he or she will issue the appropriate penalty based on the Infraction Procedure Guide.
Note how the Rules clearly state that the mere suspicion is sufficient to get disqualified for cheating. The Head Judge doesn’t need proof to eject you from an event. That’s actually a good thing, since proving cheating in Magic is incredibly hard, at least if no cameras are involved. If we held jurisdiction in Magic to the same standards as its real-life counterpart, we simply wouldn’t catch any cheaters at all.
Of course, that also means that from time to time, some innocent people will be caught in the net, but that’s simply something we have to live with. (I mean, it’s not like a DQ is life-ending or something like that.) In principle, I’m totally fine with taking a hit if it means that actual cheaters get caught with greater frequency. However, judging by my case, I do feel that we could decrease the number of „innocent“ people being disqualified.
The problem is not that merely suspecting you for cheating is sufficient grounds for a DQ; the issue is that the rules don’t actually tell judges how to arrive at that conclusion.
The Infraction Procedure Guide that is referenced in the above quote has the following to say about cheating:
A person breaks a rule defined by the tournament documents, lies to a tournament official, or notices an offense committed in his or her (or a teammate’s) match and does not call attention to it.
Additionally, the offense must meet the following criteria for it to be considered Cheating:
• The player must be attempting to gain advantage from his or her action.
• The player must be aware that he or she is doing something illegal.
If all criteria are not met, the offense is not Cheating and should be handled by a different infraction. Cheating will often appear on the surface as a Game Play Error or Tournament Error, and must be investigated by the judge to make a determination of intent and awareness.
So cheating is basically defined as knowingly doing something illegal that benefits you, and the judge is required to investigate as soon as they smell something fishy. How to conduct that investigation, however, is entirely up to them. I’m sure that there are informal best practice approaches that judges use for conducting an investigation, and I know that they have to justify every disqualification in a written report to Wizards, but still: This means that especially if you’re judging alone – like say, at a smaller PPTQ – you can investigate the case as much or as little as you want. If you extensively talk to the player, interview witnesses and former opponents, closely watch the suspect’s in-game-actions before you form your opinion – great. But if you make your call after questioning the suspect for 30 seconds and doing literally nothing else, that’s also fine.
Am I the only one who thinks that’s a problem?
What could’ve been done (?)
Now let’s back up to my case at hand. To reiterate, the head judge told me he believed that I was cheating because the lands could’ve been used in an illegal way that’s beneficial to me – i.e. I attempted to gain an advantage. He also believed that I was aware that my lands were illegal, since he looked up my DCI history, saw that I was an experienced player, and experienced players don’t make mistakes like that. Both boxes checked, easy DQ.
I feel like this rationale is terrible for a number of reasons.
First off, giving out rulings based on the suspected player’s experience is awful. I’m all for letting newbies off the hook if they did something stupid but that’s not what happened here. I’ve been playing Tournament Magic for six years now, and had it been six months instead I apparently would’ve gotten away with a Game Loss. So basically I got punished for loving Magic and playing a lot of it. That’s simply terrible.
Second, if you take my player history into account, why not all of it? Why not consider the fact that in my six years of tournament Magic, I’ve barely accumulated any warnings or game losses and do not have a single previous disqualification to my name – thus strongly indicating that I am an honest player? (Also note that during several deckchecks in the three years before, my choice of lands had never been an issue. How did we go from „No problem“ to „You’re a cheater“ so fast?) Why only use the part that suits your argument? When I posed this question to the judge, he answered that he didn’t have access to that kind of information, but had to make the call right now.
Which brings me to my third question: Why? The tournament was already over, and no ruling would change that. So even if I was a cheater, the damage had already been done. Why not take the time then, request access to my warnings history, and increase the chances to get this call right? And should the judge then still decide that I’m a cheater, you can simply disqualify me retroactively and send an e-mail to my finals opponent.
There a lot of similar questions that all have the same answer. Why didn’t the judge interview any of the spectators in the Top 8 or any of my previous opponents, many of whom were still in attendance? Why did he only interview my friend Andi, and only did so after Andi offered to the judge to be interviewed voluntarily? Why didn’t he take the time to watch me play before making his decision? After all, if I had marked my lands in such a way that I would be able to discern them from my spells, I still would’ve needed to strangely glance at my library from time to time to deduce what I would be drawing next. Did anyone see me do that? How could he know? (There was actually an interesting spot in my semifinals match where I gambled on drawing my fourth land and declined to cast my Anticipate in favor of a three-drop. I didn’t get there for two full turns – had I known the top card of my library, there is no way I wouldn’t have snapped off that Anticipate.)
So how could he disqualify me for something that basically amounted to: „I have a gut feeling“? Simple: Because the rules allow him to.
Again, I’m not picking on the judge here. I’m the one who’s to blame for bringing him into this situation in the first place. Also, everything he did was fully within his right. I am also aware that a thorough investigation is often neither possible nor reasonable. In this case, however, I feel like a more detailed look at the matter would’ve been completely feasible AND would’ve yielded a different result. So why not hold the judges to a higher standard whenever it’s possible? I really don’t get that.
It’s also possible that I’m completely wrong on this. If you feel like that’s the case, please don’t hesitate to tell me in the comments. I’d love to hear from all of you what you think of this, especially any judges among the readers. In the end, it’s no big deal to me, and I certainly won’t be playing any less Magic because of that. And if this disqualification means that we’ll have a constructive discussion about the rules, then there’s at least one good thing that came out of it. Apart from me throwing away those ugly lands, that is.
Thanks for reading.