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The Exiled

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WALLOP! That friends, is the sound of the banhammer. While the Standard crowd recently had reason to rejoice at its wielding, it is worth remembering that it can strike not only cards, but players, too. For them, the experience is often less than pleasant—but nonetheless, one hundred eighty of them (at the time of writing) clog the DCI’s suspended players list. That might be a tiny portion of the game’s registered players, but it is a number significant enough to raise an eyebrow at if, like me, you consider Magic: The Gathering to be, you know, a game.

The list is Magic’s very own rogues’ gallery, the repository for the names of players who have transgressed the rules that constitute the game itself and underpin the community who play it. Or, rather, it is the visible apex of a mountain of transgressors—those who have been caught out and punished. There are almost certainly more who have not and indeed other rule-breakers who do what they do at the proverbial “kitchen table,” far from the expert attentions of the game’s police force, the DCI’s judges (How very 2000AD!).

Furthermore, the current bulging list is but a snapshot of all those who have been suspended in the game’s history. Some have returned to the game, rehabilitated (and even made it into the Hall of Fame, like Bob Maher Jr.). Others have ditched their cards in disgust and moved on. Others still, recidivists, have failed to learn their lessons and ended up once again on the blacklist. Although Wizards of the Coast would not give out information on how many players have been suspended in Magic’s colorful lifetime, it is fair to say that as soon as rules were laid down for organized play, along came players willing to push, bend, and break them.

Unfortunately, while I was researching this article, Wizards had a policy change and removed the reasons for which the players on the list are suspended (meaning I couldn’t do the breakdown I wanted to of that data), but misdemeanors include not only actions that can be described as cheating, but stiffer stuff, too like theft and assault. Disseminating privileged information can also earn a player a ban, as recent high-profile set-spoilers have learned, to their chagrin.

What, though, drives people to break the boundaries of an activity designed to be fun—and indeed one meant to be about shared fun, with a community of like-minded mages? Is it simply human nature?

Stepping Over

The latter question is one beyond the scope of an article about a card game, but the following passage from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment leapt out at me as I was writing this article and might provide something to bear in mind as you read further. It is a succinct summation of the protagonist Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov’s situation by the character Arkady Ivanovich Svidrigaïlov, after Raskolnikov has descended into a nervous wreck following his clumsy murder of an elderly pawn-broker and her daughter:

Napoleon fascinated him dreadfully. Or rather what really fascinated him was that a great many men of genius have turned a blind eye to isolated acts of wrongdoing in order to stride onwards and across, without reflecting. It appears that he, too, thought he was a man of genius—or at least was convinced of it for a certain period of time . . .

Magic has seen its fair share of “Napoleons,” moral relativists for whom the ends justify the means. None, though, were more notorious than Mike Long. Long pushed at the bounds of the acceptable, earning himself a reputation for gamesmanship during a controversial career, and polarized early Pro Tour fans. While he claims that many allegations leveled against him are “slander,” he was nonetheless a high-profile player who early ran afoul of the DCI. He was suspended for one month in 2000 for failing to provide a sufficiently randomized deck to a judge at U.S. Nationals and also barred from playing at the 2001 Cape Town invitational by Mark Rosewater. In a recent interview for the forthcoming documentary I Came to Game, he seemed unperturbed by his infamy. Long told his interviewers,

God’s not going to like you more because you win a Magic tournament, or because you design a better deck. Even if he is, you have no way of knowing whether he does or not, and that’s what ultimately moral judgment must boil down to. Whether what you’re doing is moral and just.

The idea behind moral judgment is, you’re like the Terminator, and you break down the scenario. You see all the math, you see a right answer and a wrong answer and you’re like, “I’ll pick wrong”—nobody really does that, not at least in my experience.

Long’s Terminator metaphor (a suitably gnarly update on the idea of a moral compass) suggests that he has reconciled himself as a non-wrongdoer. Perhaps that makes sense. Perhaps Long sees something intrinsic in the notion of being a gamer that leads him to play an altogether different game, a liminal one, pushing at boundaries, tinkering at a level above the black-and-white framework of the rules of Magic and DCI tournament play. The perplexing thing that most contemporary observers noted about Long was that there should have been no motivation for him to cheat—he was a brilliant creator and a masterful player. He was seemingly trampling the rules because he felt that it was fun to do so. He appeared to derive as much satisfaction from playing with the assumptions and laws of the community as he did playing the game of Magic that opponents thought they were sitting down to play with him. Long was winning at his own personal metagame.

Others, though, less convinced of their own brilliance, have been punished for more humdrum affairs. Leow Wei Xiang, a young player from Singapore, earned himself a three-year ban from the game for misreporting tournament data. He had at the time recently begun playing the game (aged seventeen at the time of Lorwyn) and acted, he says, only out of naïveté. “My friends and I were rather new to magic at that time,” he says. “We didn’t understand the DCI, sanctioned drafts and so on. We had a casual draft at someone’s place and thought we could upload our results through the computer like that, resulting in the suspension.”

That bungle proved a harsh lesson to Leow, one he has gradually grown to accept. At first, though, he says that seeing his name on the DCI suspended players list was tough:

I don’t like being blacklisted so I was initially upset, but I don’t really regret it. We weren’t intentionally breaking the rules and our punishment was more like a lesson. The DCI is perfectly right in taking action against rule-breakers. The rules make sense (at least at my level) and anyone who deliberately breaks them is likely more than just mischievous. The New Phyrexia spoiler incident was a bit harsh though, since it wasn’t for personal benefit.

One man in particular is acutely aware of the severity of that punishment: Guillaume Matignon. The Level 8 pro had been granted access to a file containing the complete New Phyrexia set by Wizards in order to write a set review for French print magazine Lotus Noir (magazine production times meaning such information is required well in advance). Matignon, who says he was never asked to sign a nondisclosure agreement by Wizards, then asked his editor if he could show the file to his friend and fellow Lotus Noir contributor Guillaume Wafo-Tapa for his input. Unfortunately, Wafo-Tapa passed the file to a third party during an online chat. From there, Pandora’s box was sprung open. The fallout was significant.

As the man ultimately granted responsibility for the “godbook,’” Matignon was suspended for three years, a punishment that has hit him hard personally, socially, and financially. Why, then, did he risk a burgeoning Magic-playing career through such carelessness?

Matignon says:

When you have that file and love the game as I do—or did—it’s hard not to show it to a friend. It’s like having a new shiny toy, which you can’t share.

Sharing the contents of godbooks with the other Guillame had become a habit for Matignon during previous spoiler seasons. Ultimately, though, his privileged position led him to sloppiness and a disregard for the rules. Although Matignon is adamant he never used his early access to sets for personal advantage (be it through testing or trading), it is not hard to imagine less scrupulous souls doing so.

Community Service

While cheating can for some simply be a way of beating their peers now and then for an illicit thrill, there is no denying that with Magic’s professionalization, there are significant rewards to be had by those willing to win at all costs. Dr. Mia Consalvo, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has carried out extensive research on cheating in video games and believes that the additional spur of prizes can motivate people to break rules at any given game:

Cheating happens all the time. Of course, when stakes are involved there are folks who are more professional in their approach to cheating—card counters in Vegas are a good example. I once heard a story about an arcade game called Golden-T-Golf that had weekly tournaments with prize money. One man bought his own cabinet and played at home, so he could practice and win. The company definitely thought that was cheating.

For Consalvo, there are several types of cheaters, and while some break rules out of disregard, pure and simple, others are in denial about their actions:

Some feel what they’re doing is fine. Some, for example, think that once they own a game or deck of cards, they can rightfully do anything they want with it, even break or bend the rules. Most however—even those who cheat—will admit it’s wrong, but then cheat anyway.

That might go a ways toward explaining the curious case of Tomoharu Saito, banned for a second stint of eighteen months in November 2010 as he was on the brink of ascending into the Hall of Fame. Shortly before his suspension, Saito wrote a perplexing article on Channelfireball.com, which alluded to previous suspensions he had suffered while also condemning cheating:

. . . You absolutely must not cheat. Judges and players will catch you, and you will have to leave the tournament and will be banned from tournament play. Cheating does not even provide you with the chance to win a tournament, and besides this it will spoil the satisfaction you get from playing. . . . Play and enforce an honest game.

Two weeks later, he was officially banned. His detractors were staggered at his behavior and what looked to them like gross hypocrisy. Unfortunately, due to the language barrier, I couldn’t interview Saito about this, despite his willingness to talk on the subject. There is more than a hint of the Dostoyevsky Napoleon-type here—a character quite at ease with double standards, saying, “Do what I say, not what I do.”

Having been caught out, it is intriguing to wonder if Saito and others who have brazenly disregard Magic’s rules today feel something like Raskolnikov, humbled not by the external penalties of the DCI, but by the implosion of a belief in their own invulnerability. As Svidrigaïlov says of Raskolnikov:

He suffered greatly, and is still suffering, from the notion that while he was able to construct a theory, he wasn’t able to do the stepping across without reflection, and so consequently is not a man of genius. Well, for a young man with any self-esteem that’s positively degrading, especially in a time like ours. . . .

A time like ours, indeed. Not nineteenth-century St. Petersburg, rather twenty-first-century Dominaria—or whichever plane you choose to call home. Because today the DCI appears to be hitting those breaking its rules with the sternest possible penalties. Compare Saito’s ban to Long’s one-month suspension, for example, and it is clear that rules enforcement is being taken far more seriously these days. In the intervening years, as the game has grown, the stakes have grown, too—not just in terms of tournament payouts, but in terms of the very fabric of the game and Magic-playing community. A failure to clamp down would be extremely detrimental to both, says Consalvo:

The perception of cheating can ruin a game community, and if people perceive there is cheating, even without directly witnessing it themselves, trust in the community disappears, and many will stop playing.

Magic’s reach is so broad these days that the community must be strictly policed, especially where it is most thinly spread. The Magic community of Guatemala, for example, which has the world’s eighty-fifth-highest population density, can ill afford more players joining local perp Jeerson Arturo Soch on the DCI’s role of shame—it can afford cheating to erode the community’s bonds even less. It is positive, then, to see thirty-two nations represented on the list with offenders from such far-flung corners of the Magic community as Peru, Uruguay, and Estonia. All have been flung into the DCI’s virtual jailhouse, in order that the game may continue to reach new territories.

Future (Over)Sight

As more players join the Magic fold, the onus will be on both the DCI and players to uphold the laws and values of the community. Taking part in such a community requires sharing responsibility and the kind of “stepping over,” to borrow Dostoyevsky’s phrase, by the one hundred eighty players on the DCI suspended players list must be marginalized to protect Magic’s social cohesion.

For those who have stepped over, the price paid can be considerable. Today, Matignon seems dejected as he considers the next three years:

I lost my job and most of what I did in my leisure time. I’m searching for a job now but it’s hard to find something compelling . . . On a social level, most of my friends are related to Magic in one way or another. I lost contact with the guys who were close to me because of the game, like Wafo to whom I don’t have much to say outside of Magic . . .

But for all the personal anguish, it is worth reiterating that breaking a community’s rules is an act of supreme selfishness whose effects are, alas, not only felt by the perpetrator alone. In this instance, consider the future of Lotus Noir now—a magazine I remember buying regularly back in the late 1990s. Will its writers still be granted access to exclusive Wizards of the Coast content? And if not, will its readers still continue to buy it? The loss of one of the game’s few remaining print titles would be a hefty consequence for a little impatience. “For some, cheating is a chance to break the rules in a place with fewer consequences than in regular daily life,” says Consalvo. But it is vital that those players realize how consequential their actions really are.

Vital, because new challenges will emerge in future, not only if the Magic community continues to grow in number worldwide, but also if it grows in visibility. If Magic ever goes overground, for example, with an attendant rise in live event coverage, would people start gambling on the outcome of matches? Perhaps some already do (if so, I would love to hear about it in the comments). There is nothing wrong with gambling on the outcome of an event per se—but if there was significant money to made or lost on the outcome of matches, there is no reason not to imagine that high-profile players might attract the attention of the fixers who blight football and other sports. Such a trend would prove an extreme test to the DCI, its judges, and the robustness of its rules. Are they prepared for it?

With any strengthening of the game’s laws, though, it’s essential that players remain vocal and vigilant of unnecessary precautions that squeeze the fun out of their hobby. Although Matignon has reason to be unhappy at the moment, when asked if the DCI is right to take strong action against rules-breakers, his answer is flippant: “Magic is theirs,” he says. “They do whatever they want with it.” It is to be hoped that the community at large never adopts such an disdainful attitude—and instead contributes as much as possible to the discussion and implementation of any new DCI rules. The more involved players are, the more legitimate any new laws—and, with any luck, the less likely they are to be broken.

In the meantime, Wizards of the Coast could choose to strengthen the criteria surrounding Hall of Fame admission. Maher Jr. may have got in, while Long has been championed by Mark Rosewater. But should a Saito, suspended more than once in his career, be admitted? A clear line needs to be drawn to prevent the to-ing and fro-ing in debates on the admissions of rules-breakers. The risk otherwise is that the strong example set by suspending top pros is then undone by bestowing upon them one of the game’s highest honors. That seems plain crazy and an unnecessary hindrance to the DCI’s work.

“I can’t rewrite the past,” says Matignon ruefully of his actions. It is up to Magic’s remaining players, then, to write an honest future for the benefit of the game and the players who love it.