Life Totals, Disqualification, and You (and Me)

Feature Article from Jackie Lee
Jackie Lee
10/24/2012 9:51:00 AM
submit to reddit » Print «

1. When I registered for Pro Tour Return to Ravnica, they only had 'L' and 'XL' shirts left.

2. The morning of the event, I had to spend $70 on cards I owned, but left at home.

This is approximately the level of blowout I expected to encounter in Seattle.

Okay, so I was a little worried that I'd get stuck with a bad draft deck on Day 1.

Getting disqualified, though? Yeah, that hadn't really crossed my mind.

The opinions in this article belong to me, players, judges, and Magic community figures. We do not all have the same opinion, but I believe there to be a significant amount of overlap in sentiment. I endeavored to learn as much as I could about this situation in the hopes of passing it on. This is an issue that is only incidentally about me; I am much more interested in educating people on tournament-level play and improving the way that rulings are made.

What Actually Happened

After round 6, Wizards posted this article to their PT coverage site.

The true story of the situation is complex enough that I don't think any arguments should be made without first hearing it in its entirety. It was a very strange intersection of new rules, so please keep an open mind as you take in the details.

I was 2-3 going into my draft, which went very well and included opening a Jace. I was confident in my deck, and felt I could at least 2-1 my pod and make Day 2.

In my first round, I played somebody from a country where he said the Magic-playing community is about 80 players. I asked if it was growing, and he said he hoped so. He struck me as a bit bashful, and I wondered if it was his first Pro Tour. We had a very friendly exchange, then proceeded to play game one.

I rolled him over with a draw that out-tempo'ed his Rakdos creatures. Game two, on the other hand, went considerably worse. I kept a monoblue hand on the draw, thinking that a Frostburn Weird would be enough to hold off his 2- and 3-power creatures while I drew one of my 10 mountains. Instead, he played a Stab Wound on it and passed the turn.

I drew a card, and was a bit crestfallen that it wasn't a Mountain. I saw him write something down: the life loss from the Stab Wound.

In my mind, I knew of two new rules: triggers can be missed, and players must verbally announce their life totals. I carefully listened for a declaration, but none came. I watched his mouth, but all I saw was the subtle parting of his lips.

Well, I thought. He didn't declare the life loss verbally, and since you need to do that, he must have missed his trigger.

The next turn, he played a Desecration Demon. I hadn't seen anything bigger than a Grim Roustabout or Splatter Thug in game one, so I thought I had some time to find a red source. However, at this point, there was no sequence of cards that would win me the game. It didn't matter whether I killed my own Weird at end of turn or not by pumping it, so I left it alone. At this point, I just wanted to see if he showed me any new cards or idiosyncrasies in his play.

I went to draw another card, seeing him write down the life loss from Stab Wound. Again, I watched and listened carefully to see if he was saying or mouthing anything, but there was nothing. I had no plays, so I passed the turn.

“Declare attack?” he asked. I gave an affirmative reply, then inwardly cringed as I realized I should have sacrificed my Weird. I had already thrown away the game in my mind.

I took the damage and announced that I was at 14.

“I have you at 10,” my opponent told me. “Did you get the Stab Wound triggers?”

I immediately called a judge to straighten things out. It seemed to me that we had just determined a verbal life total discrepancy, and I knew that I should alert a judge when that happens. My opponent nervously protested a little, but I calmly explained that a judge would set everything straight and give us a time extension.

When the judge arrived, I told him that my opponent had written down Stab Wound totals for two turns, but he hadn't made any verbal announcement. When he attacked with his Demon, I said I was at 14, but he had me at 10.

The judge then asked my opponent for his version. He stammered, “I said, 'Go, you're at 18,' but maybe I said it quietly.”

With increasing horror, I protested nothing like that had happened.

Twenty minutes later, the head judge pulled me away from the table to ask further questions.

“Did you see the opponent write down the life total change?” he asked me.

“Yes,” I said slowly. I knew this wasn't what the judge wanted to hear, but it was the truth.

“Are you aware of the rule that when you notice a life total discrepancy, you must call a judge?”

“Yes…” My answer came even more slowly as I tried to recall the new rule. I felt a game loss coming on, but still didn't quite understand how it was my fault for being honest and observant. After all, the rules are intended to protect people who are honest, and the new trigger rules are supposed to reward you for being more observant and meticulous than your opponent.

Then came my sentence. “You have tried to ride this line as close and tight as you could, and we have found you to be on the other side of it.”

I nodded solemnly.

“Over the course of many turns, you allowed your opponent to believe that he was at one life total, while you had another. By withholding this information, you hoped to get an edge over him. This is fraud, and you are going to be disqualified from the tournament.”

My jaw dropped.

I started to protest that I must not have understood the rule correctly, and that I did not feel that I deserved a punishment that harsh. I asked for an appeal, but because the head judge had ruled, it was denied. I requested a downgrade, but I was told there was no downgrade possible for fraud.

“It is the end of this Pro Tour for you,” came the cold reply.

We returned to the table and the judge explained to my opponent that I would be removed from the tournament. He was aghast.

“Wow, I had no idea!” and “I am so sorry!” were among the things he repeatedly stammered to me.

“It's okay,” I told him. “It's in no way your fault. Don't worry about it.”

He continued to apologize, but I stopped him. “Don't apologize. You didn't know this would happen, and neither did I, but the judges say these are the rules. That's okay.”

We were both told to write a statement about what happened. One judge told me that he did not Foresee any suspension, but that this was a requirement for every disqualification. I could take whatever time I needed, and if I had any further questions, the judges would be there to talk to me.

“Thank you,” I said vacantly.

When I looked back, I saw that my opponent had already filled up one side of a blank sheet of paper, and was now writing on the back. I had only just met him, but I thought this image summed him up perfectly: so innocent, so empathetic.

Sweet, really.


From turn-two kills to angels on fire, there are many reasons we play this game.

For me, Magic is just a system of rules. The reason I like it so much is that it's a bastion of rationality in an irrational world. We humans have all kind of cognitive quirks and biases due to our evolution as social animals. Magic outlines a set of rules that are independent of human nature. It's a realm of pure logic, and I enjoy spending my time there.

I have always had a hard time understanding why people find certain plays “scummy” or “dishonorable.” Even “angle-shooting” is a pretty foreign concept to me. To me, there are only the rules. Anything within their bounds is just a part of the game.

Many players told me, “If you're going to angle-shoot, you have to be very sure that you're right.” Strangely, I did not even think I was making a clever or tricky play here. I simply thought that's how the rules worked.

What Went Wrong

In my opinion, the situation could have been handled better by all of the involved parties. We were in a strange, grey area of the new rules, and we'd sunken into it like it were Takenuma. (Anyone? Anyone?)

Here is Magic Tournament Rules number 2.14, the rule in question:

A change in a player's life total should be accompanied by a verbal announcement by that player of the new life total.
If a player notices a discrepancy in a recorded or announced life total, he or she is expected to point it out as soon as the discrepancy is noticed. Failure to do so will be considered a Cheating – Fraud penalty.

I should have called a judge immediately, away from the table, to make sure what I was doing was okay. At the time, I considered doing this, but I was fairly confident in my understanding of the rules. Unfortunately, I was wrong, and it led to an irreparable situation whose burden fell squarely on me. In actuality, I had conflated the Missed Trigger rule in the IPG with this one from the MTR. Additionally, my understanding of this rule was flawed: I did not realize it said that recorded life total discrepancies must be pointed out, focused instead on the part about verbal announcement.

My opponent
My opponent should have spoken up about the trigger and the life total change. He made a verbal declaration about everything else in the game, so his Silence here was confusing. According to rule 2.14, he should have announced his trigger and waited for me to state my new life total. Instead, he simply wrote it down himself. I did not interpret this as an acknowledgement of the trigger, while the judges (with superior MTR and IPG knowledge) did.

Then, when the judges asked him what happened, I wish he'd taken more time to think about the situation and answer with complete certainty. When the trigger would have resolved, I was explicitly scrutinizing his face and listening for the announcement, so I was very certain of my interpretation of the events. I certainly don't think he was lying; given his reaction, I got the impression he had either misremembered the event, or nervously blurted out an answer without really thinking. If this really was his interpretation of the events, though, then we simply disagree, which is fine.

The judges
I fully respect the judges and their decision to disqualify me. I was in clear violation of 2.14 by not pointing out the recorded life total discrepancy, and the documented punishment is disqualification.

However, I was left feeling like I was the only one being investigated. The head judge was very certain that “it was a loud room” and my opponent was “very soft-spoken,” and that's why I heard nothing when he went to write down the life total change. I tried to express that his behavior here was unlike his demeanor at other points in the match, but he persisted in believing the opponent's story to be “very clear” and did not investigate further, as far as I am aware.

I am somewhat troubled by this outcome, because my observation of the opponent's life pad was taken at face value, but my other observation, that he hadn't said or mouthed anything, was completely disregarded.

I should note that I am not a judge, and that it is possible that more was done, but I did not get this impression from my follow-up interactions with him.

Why It Happened

The grey area
According the the IPG, a player must simply “demonstrate awareness” of a trigger to not be considered to have missed it. The MTR states that a life total change “should be accompanied by a verbal announcement by [the] player of the new life total.” These two rules are completely unrelated, but in this particular situation, they seemed to overlap in a confusing way. If we were both playing completely according to the rules, my opponent should not have allowed me to continue with my turn until I announced my new life total, and he should have made me very aware of his trigger. I found it strange that my perceptiveness led to a burden of responsibility that I wouldn't have had if I was simply oblivious to his movements.

It's understandable for the MTR to be written as it is, because he would be playing the game under an assumption that I was at a different life total. By withholding information, I could be trying to cheat him and gain an advantage. Additionally, judges do not like to say that communication must be verbal; people speak different languages, so nonverbal communication must be acceptable. However, this led to a very strange scenario in which we both spoke the same language and had been communicating verbally; nonverbal communication was a divergence from our standard.

I disagree with the current wording of the rules for two reasons. First, I was incentivized to lie to a judge about my own perceptions. If I had known the rule and claimed ignorance of his life score, then not only might I have been absolved of responsibility, but that responsibility may have then shifted to my opponent. That disturbs me, because it allows for situations where players can game the system and each other.

Second, if my opponent had any Malicious Intent (which I'm certain he did not), he could have chosen not to verbalize his trigger in order to trap me into disqualifying myself. I now know that I could avoid this situation by calling a judge immediately and speaking away from the table, but at the time, I was just as ignorant as he was. I don't like the thought that this could happen to someone else in a similar position, and it seems to indicate to me that the new IPG and MTR rules could be made clearer.

Judges and judgment
Exacerbating this situation is the fact that the role of judges has shifted over the years from “judge” towards “enforcer.” The infraction policies dissuade judges from exercising judgment in most situations so that new judges will be able to handle them. Inexperienced judges aren't qualified to make judgment calls in most situations, so having a rigorous document helps them do the right thing.

Unfortunately, this causes occasional problems in high-level play. The judges in my situation must have had a very good idea of intent, because their choice to not suspend me was immediately announced on the Mothership. However, because the documentation informed them that I performed fraud (a disqualifying offense with no downgrade option), they were obligated to follow the law to the letter. In this situation, that was a bit odd, because if it was so clear-cut that I should be disqualified, then it should follow that I should be investigated for cheating. Yet we are left with a situation in which I have technically committed “cheating” as the rules name it, but was also labeled “not premeditated” and followed by an announcement that I would not be suspended.

So was it cheating, or not? Can someone accidentally “cheat?”

To be clear, I don't think that someone who has committed a game-violating action should be absolved of all responsibility. Ignorance has never been an excuse, and I am personally thankful for the lesson. However, I believe that the rules can be clarified in their wording for situations like this. The label, “cheating,” is very loaded in our community because of the ease with which it can happen and the stakes on the line.

How Friday Night Magic influences the Pro Tour
There has been a Whirlwind of rules changes over the last several months. Part of the reason I was tripped up is due to the constant, minor adjustment of the IPG and MTR.

Why has this happened? Well, as I implied in the section above, it is actually deeply entwined with casual play.

The game designers have decided to remove “may” triggers from cards for two reasons. First, it's wordy. As a writer, I can appreciate the value of clean copy. Second, though, it confuses new players.

“So I may gain life with Dragon's Claw?” they ask. “How will I know when it does or doesn't happen?” They think the card reads, “Whenever a player casts a red spell, you might gain 1 life. Maybe. We're not sure though, so don't bet all your dollars on it.”

At the highest levels of competition, we want the game to be skill-based. If our opponent misses his own trigger, we don't want to have to play for our opponent. That's the point of all of these new rules changes. However, they are very much in Flux, as there is no easy and clear-cut way to deal with the ubiquity of mandatory triggers.

There is a definite tension between FNM Magic and professional Magic, and we have definitely not found a comfortable middle-ground yet. I hope that this situation will be taken into account for the next iteration of rule changes. With changes this frequent and significant, there are bound to be many disqualifications.

Ben Stark and Josh Utter-Leyton had an argument about whether or not MTR 2.14 was a new rule or not. As it turns out, it's new as of the past couple months, clarifying rules that have long been borderline and awkward.

What concerns me, though, isn't the timing; it's that two of the best players in the world can't agree on this. That, to me, indicates an endemic problem in the announcement of new rules.

The Community

When I was done consoling my opponent and telling the judge I could fill out my statement without taking a break, I packed up my things and got up from the table.

It was then that the painful emotions hit me.

You're fired. Good luck staying on the train without these Pro Points, and good luck keeping your job.

You're a stain on the Magic Online Community Cup.

All those people who look up to you—you've let them all down.

People are probably already tweeting about how they should have known you were scum.

When I made my announcement on Twitter and Facebook, though, I was startled by the response. More than anything, people were baffled by the ruling. They didn't understand the complex rules and were overwhelmingly sympathetic to my plight.

It also helped that I was surrounded by all of the coolest people in Magic. I received many hugs from pros, judges, and coverage people. More than one pro told me that in my place, they would have done the exact same thing. They, too, would have been disqualified.

“This happened to Dave Williams and Bob Maher, and look what happened to them!” one player exclaimed.

“What?” I asked.

“One of them is in the hall of fame, and the other gets free invites to the Pro Tour every year!”

I had actually meant to ask about their stories. Apparently, Maher was suspended for negligence in reporting a DCI ratings ring of which he had passive awareness. Williams had to borrow a set of Accumulated Knowledge from a friend, and because they were curved from shuffling, he was disqualified for marked cards.

Finally, I got many messages from players who were disqualified at some time or other. They all told me they cried at the time. This isn't something anyone likes to admit, so I was really touched by their candor.

I cried, too.

I can't thank all of you enough for your outpouring of condolences. I expected a witch-hunt of cheating accusations, but instead, you've demonstrated that our game is one of compassion and understanding. That fills me with happiness.

This is the true face of our community, and I couldn't be happier to be a part of it. I'm also prouder than ever to represent the community in the Magic Online Community Cup this week. I feel like this experience has helped me understand what some of you have gone through, and to help prevent it from happening to anyone else. As humans, we have the rare ability to learn from others' experiences. I hope we all learn from this one.

Our game is imperfect.

We are imperfect.

We make mistakes, and we get hurt. But knowing that we will still be there for each other makes everything worth it. In some ways, this has been the best Pro Tour I've ever attended.

In closing, I'd like to tell you about my personal hero, Genki Sudo. He's a renaissance man after my own heart and a practicing Buddhist. He's done competitive martial arts, calligraphy, dance, essay-writing, and musical composition. I recommend you check out his videos, such as this music video and this choreographed fighting ring entrance.

The main reason I admire him, though, is his philosophy:

“We are all one.”

Thank you for listening, and thank you for being my community.

Love and battle,
Jackie Lee——

@JackieL33 on Twitter

submit to reddit » Print «