Wednesday, November 6, 2019

"It's in Karate"

“Can I get Oracle text for this card. It’s in karate.”

At SCG Atlanta, a player said this to a judge, asking about Oracle text for their opponent’s Japanese Saheeli, Sublime Artificer. The judge, in addition to providing the Oracle text, issued an Unsporting Conduct Minor to the player. After consultation with the Head Judge and tournament staff, which included myself, the infraction was changed to Unsporting Conduct Major, a more serious infraction as the penalty goes from what was a Warning to a Match Loss. Before going any further, I want to post the definition of USC Major from the Infraction Procedure Guide.

“A player takes action towards one or more individuals that could reasonably be expected to create a feeling of being harassed, threatened, bullied, or stalked. This may include insults based on race, color, religion, national origin, age, gender, disability, or sexual orientation. Threats of physical violence should be treated as Unsporting Conduct – Aggressive Behavior.
It is possible for an offender to commit this infraction without intending malice or harm to the subject of the harassment.”

Furthermore, the first example for the infraction is: “A player uses a racial slur against their opponent.”

Given all of this information, I want to start by acknowledging that this phrase is not a slur. However, the example is just that, an example, and it should not be used as a demarcation line of what is acceptable. That is to say, just because the example states that a slur is an example of USC Major, that doesn’t mean that anything below a slur is not. There is a wide sampling of unacceptable behavior, and no document could hope to document and categorize all of it, and even less so of coming up with a widely accepted scale with an established minimum line.

If not a slur, I would characterize this phrase as is a racial charicature based on historical stereotypes. Karate obviously isn’t a language; it’s a martial art form from Japan. That the card was also in Japanese could be an indication that the player knew this and was drawing a direct line between them in this way. In some ways, this would have been better, and in others worse. Also, it isn’t the correctness of the relationship between the word karate and the language of the card that is of importance here.

I’m going to talk a little bit about my personal experiences growing up in the United States as a Japanese person. For East Asians (Japanese, Chinese, and Korean), there’s a blending that tends to take place in the eyes of Americans. Of course, the same no doubt happens to Southeast Asians as well, but in my personal experience, there is this divide, probably because of an overall difference in skin tone (Yay! America), similarities/differences in language and culture, and historical patterns of immigration. A few examples of this blending that I’ve dealt with all my life:
“You all look the same.”
“Are you Chinese/Korean?”
Attributing things that are culturally or historically a part of another nation’s heritage to yours. Given the ascent of Japanese manga and anime, I imagine this was a bigger problem for non-Japanese Asians.

In the eyes of Americans, we all fit neatly under one umbrella and share certain traits. We like anime. We are shorter. We are good at math. We know martial arts.

Ah, yes. Here we are. All Asians know martial arts. This is a pervasive stereotype. It didn’t help that I grew up during the prominence of the original Karate Kid movie series. Hence, “Do you know karate?” was all too common of a question, often accompanied by an open palm kata and a “Hi-ya!” Not only is this a really broad brush to paint with in general, but recall that karate is a Japanese martial art. Kung fu is Chinese, and tae kwon do is Korean. Despite these distinctions, it isn’t outside the realm of possibility for people of any of these races to be asked about a martial art from another country because “we’re all the same.”

This blending is so bad that the remake of the Karate Kid starring Jackie Chan and Jayden Smith took place in China and featured kung fu rather than karate. But due to the strength of the brand, they kept the name of the movie and saw no problem in the complete erasure of cultural distinction. Can you imagine if a King Arthur movie inexplicably took place in France? This is what it’s like to be Asian, where “Asian” takes precedence over an individual national/cultural identity.

This blending erasure is by no means exclusive to Asians. The Unites States’s original sin of slavery completely obliterated any connection that many black Americans can have to their nations of origin in Africa. And “Middle Eastern” is another broad stroke that is currently used to cover dozens of unique cultures.

Returning to the original statement, and the definition of the infraction, some of you may be asking whether this is an insult. If this is an insult, who was the player insulting? The opponent was not Asian. Neither was the responding judge. Is the player insulting the card? (No.) Or are they insulting all Asians? (Maybe closest to the truth.) It’s a stereotype, and a very bad faith one at that.

Stereotypes hurt. It is an insult to be lumped and judged, and especially so for immutable traits, which is why the whole idea of protected classes exist. I can’t help being Japanese, and thus I will always be a target for this type of thing. This can be true even for supposedly positive stereotypes. “Asians are good at math” is one I mentioned earlier. This one was even true for me growing up as I took college-level calculus courses while still in high school. But again, accuracy isn’t the benchmark of harm here, and even though it is positive to be good at math, my white classmates who also took college math classes didn’t have to deal with this type of stereotyping. They were good at math on their own merits, not because of a broad categorization of their race. This doesn’t begin to address how harmful the stereotype is to an Asian who isn’t good at math.

It’s already an erasure to be stereotyped as Asian, a category that already erases one’s individual nationality. Calling an Asian-language card “in karate” takes that erasure one step further, not even giving it the dignity of a real language, but calling it by a stereotyped trait that itself has a long history of harmful usage as a blending agent against Asians.

One thing that people might bring up is that this seems like a joke, that it was said in jest. No doubt. I spoke to the player after the (revised) ruling was given, and they said as much, that it was something that they said around the kitchen table with their friends, and it slipped out. Recall the last sentence of the definition for USC Major: “It is possible for an offender to commit this infraction without intending malice or harm to the subject of the harassment..” After speaking to the player, I believe that they did not have a malicious intent, that it was just a joke.

I get it. I myself have made jokes like this about myself. That doesn’t make it okay, and in fact it points to a larger issue with these types of caricatures. When minorities make self-deprecating jokes about themselves, they are reinforcing and justifying the bigotry of the majority in order to fit in. “Hey, look, I can laugh at myself. You should laugh at me too. Just don’t oppress me in a more malicious way please.” The United States has a complex history of this wherein various racial or ethnic minorities have gone through periods of mockery prior to being assimilated into the general white hegemony. Think about groups like Poles, Italians, and Irish. The remnants of these jokes may seem harmless now, but there were times when they were much more malicious.

Bad taste jokes will likely always be a part of our culture, and I don’t care much what you do in your private circles. But I will say that this player’s admitted normalization of such jokes among their friends led directly to this slip up that came at the cost of a Match Loss. Like any habit, if you make a habit of shitty behavior, it’s more likely to come up. People who use slurs say that they slipped up. That’s true to an extent, but what it means is that they use those slurs in private, and slipped up in using it in a more public setting. And if you use slurs or make bad taste jokes about race, gender, religion, etc at a Magic event, you can expect a penalty.

Postscript: After writing this, I sent a draft to the player, and I’ve been engaged with them in a dialogue about race, self-deprecating jokes, and where the lines are for acceptable behavior at Magic events. To me, this is the most important aspect of this story, that this player can slip up and be punished, but be able to turn around and focus on becoming part of the solution. My publication of this isn’t meant as an attack on the player. I have intentionally kept their identity out of it, and if you are aware of those details, I would ask that you do the same.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Shifting Ceratops Scale: Throne of Eldraine

Welcome back to the Shifting Ceratops Scale, where I take a look at all the cards in a set with reach and rate them on a five-point scale named after the greatest reach ambusher. Throne of Eldraine has six entries, five creatures and one aura, and overall this is a very dangerous bunch of cards. Be careful and don't get Ceratopped by these cards with reach!

Brimstone Trebuchet
There is a lot of text on this card, and reach coming after another keyword is a good indicator for a potential ambush, but being only a 1/3 makes it lower impact ambush. Anecdotally, I also think that players tend to read defender text a little more often when they go to attack into them, since there’s more of a likelihood of those abilities mattering to blocking. But it’s still a pretty weird package in all: red, defender, trebuchet?!

I think the flavor of a trebuchet is supposed to suggest some kind of anti-air ability, like archery, but a trebuchet is actually a siege weapon, more akin to a catapult. It’s meant to hurl heavy objects at stationary castle walls, not fast-moving, flying targets. Maybe the flavor is that it’s so tall of a structure that it just gets in the way of a flyer, but in that case, it should probably have zero power.

Robber of the Rich
Although archers have become the defacto secondary reach creature type to spiders, just having the word in the type line isn’t enough of a tip off, especially when there are multiple other creature types present. For something to truly resonate as an archer, it needs to have the classic “bow pose.” It also helps if the card name itself references the fact that it is an archer. Robin Hood has his bow on his back, and both the name and the artwork reflect more on the robbing aspect of the card than the archery.

The other abilities on the card, focusing on attacking rather than blocking, also serve to draw attention away from the trap laying in hiding here. Similar to the Trebuchet, what keeps Robber of the Rich’s rating so low is its rather pedestrian 2/2 stats. It’s likely to trick you, but that trick probably won’t be a blowout where you lose one of your valuable flyers. Nonetheless, there are a lot of smaller faeries in this set, so maybe it might have more of an impact in this format than most.

Sporecap Spider

Surprisingly, the only spider in the set. It has typically “spidery” art, and low power, so it’s a low-probability, low-impact ambusher.

Tall as a Beanstalk

Explain this one to me. Tall as a Beanstalk gives reach, but literal Beanstalk Giant does not have reach, nor do any of the other giants in this set, so this one card is playing into the “tall things have reach,” but nothing else in the set does.

It doesn’t help that this is an aura, and thus the text will usually be hiding behind the creature it enchants. Hopefully, what will happen is that players will read the aura to confirm the p/t boost and when they do that, see the reach. But beware of sneaky players who may try to subvert this when they cast it by omitting that information: “it gets +3/+3 and becomes a giant.” Derived information! Yay! This card might actually lead to the opposite of an ambush, where a card like Beanstalk Giant deters an opponent from attacking a flyer into it under the misattribution of reach.

Wildborn Preserver

It’s an archer, but if you look at the artwork, you might not know it. The most prominent thing is the fox, and the rider is wielding a sword with their bow slung on their back. In terms of gameplay, the triggered ability is going to garner more attention, and it’s very likely that this creature could be 5/5 or larger when it ambushes your flyer because the play pattern with this card will be to cast it on two, attack once or twice, have it sit on the sidelines accumulating counters, then “Surprise, reach!” It does take a bit of setup for this to be an effective ambush, which is why I don’t rate it as a 4.0.

Stonecoil Serpent

I don’t get it. I don’t understand why snakes have reach in Magic. The “giants are tall” thing makes more sense to me than what appears to be “snakes are in the trees.” This one isn’t even in a tree; it’s a statue. Nothing in the name suggests reach here either.

Stonecoil Serpent is likely to enter the battlefield with significant size, probably 4/4 or larger in most games, and it has a lot of abilities, particularly other keywords on the same line as the reach. Along with Tall as a Beanstalk, I consider this the most likely to ambush a flyer in Throne of Eldraine. But of course now that you’ve read this list, none of these reachers will take you by surprise.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

The Shifting Ceratops Scale: Creatures with Surprise Reach

Have you ever attacked with a flying creature only to be completely surprised when your opponent blocks with their reach creature? This typically happens to me at least once per set. It’s a sheepish and humbling moment as a Magic player, right up there with trying to use a sorcery as an instant. In the past, I’ve referred to this as the Nessian Asp Problem (a snake with reach?!), in honor of one of the first times I remember being ambushed, but that reference is a bit dated, and M20 actually had what might be the most egregious “surprise, reach!” blocker in Magic’s history, so I’ve named this scale in honor of the mighty dino-spider, Shifting Ceratops.

This five-point scale balances both the likelihood of a creature with reach ambushing your flyer and the impact of said ambush on the game. I’m only rating things for Limited play because that is where this is most likely to happen. I've rated all the reachers for the last year of Limited to establish some baselines, and will be writing updates every set. My hope is that by writing about this, I'll avoid the problem, and maybe save you from the same.

0.0 Netcaster Spider, Mammoth Spider

Most spiders and many archers fall into this rating. These are iconic creature types that we have been trained to associate with reach. Hence, it’s unlikely that they will ambush your flyers. It’s possible that for newer players who haven’t developed the shortcut of “spider = reach” that some spiders might rate higher.

Archers are a funny lot. The very first archer in Magic, Elvish Archer, actually had first strike, keying off of an archers ability to attack from a distance. For much of Magic’s history, its archers played off of this “remote strike” capability with various damage-dealing abilities, either in combat or against flyers. But more and more, archers have consolidated into the secondary reach creature type for the humanoid races.

1.0 Arboreal Grazer, Grappling Sundew

These have a low impact due to the zero power. You might accidentally attack a flyer into one of these, but it won’t cost you your creature, and you can play it off as “reach-checking” your opponent.

Historically, this is probably where I would rate spiders and archers with power equal to or higher than their toughness. In addition to creature type and art, the p/t stats have been another strong shortcut for identifying reachers. It wouldn’t surprise me if Sentinel Spider got someone at some point, especially since reach isn’t the first word in its text box, another factor that could play into an ambush. Such balanced p/t spiders are unlikely to ambush, but if they do, there’s a good chance they eat or trade with your creature as well.

2.0 Rubble Slinger, Grazing Whiptail

If these were spiders or archers, they wouldn’t rank here. I actually thought that Rubble Slinger was an archer, but it appears that what is being slung is rocks, not arrows. Meanwhile, the Whiptail fills out a dinosaur quota in Ixalan.

Both rank this low because they are French Vanilla, so if you do bother to read them, you’re likely to notice that they have reach. Plus they have the all-important toughness > power, which can be a good secondary tipoff.

3.0 Turret Ogre, Kraul Harpooner

This is the point on the SCS that I would personally expect to get tricked into a reach ambush early in a Limited format. You’ve got non-typical creature types, power greater than toughness, and what I like to call “word soup,” long abilities that distract you from the all-important keyword ability. The Harpooner is probably slightly less likely to pull off the ambush because it has the triggered ability that fights with a flyer, but most of the time, that fight ends up in a trade or just does nothing, so it’s quite possible to forget that it interacts with flyers.

Flavor-wise, they are both more of a stretch than your typical archers. I usually think of throwing harpoons at whales, so it’s weird to see it touted here as an anti-flyer weapon. Although Kaladesh did have flying whales…And I’m not sure what’s going on with Turret Ogre. It’s standing on a turret so it’s high enough to throw rocks at birds? I mean, that’s what is going on in the art.

4.0 Howling Giant, Cavalier of Thorns

Both of these creatures also rate so high because they are more likely to eat an ambushed flyer for free rather than trade with them, making the mistake all the more punishing. This is the class of creatures where they do so much else that you focus on those things before the reach. Cavalier of Thorns is obviously a word soup; you first focus your attention on the enters-the-battlefield ability, then read the leaves-the-battlefield ability, note the synergy between the two, and completely forget that it has reach. The creature type doesn’t lend itself to assuming reach (but I’m just now noticing that all the Cavaliers are Knights--cross set synergy with Eldraine!), and while it has more toughness than power, it’s still beefy enough for the reach to slip by. In my head, +2 toughness to power is the point where I start looking for reach. Cavalier of Thorns is also the most likely to get someone in Constructed.

When a Howling Giant hits the battlefield, you tend to focus on the 9/9 worth of stats that just gummed up the ground. Suddenly the air is your path to victory... except that it isn't. It’s possible that Howling Giant should be rated 3.0. Someone on Twitter noted that giants are a somewhat supported reach type, but there are only 5 such giants in the history of Magic (compared to 51 spiders and 27 archers). There are also 6 snakes with reach (2 of them gain reach from an activated ability). I guess what trips me up is the flavor behind giants with reach. Are they just really tall? This tracks with what was going on with Turret Ogre standing on the high turret, but the lack of consistency on this over the years means that the giants with reach are likely to pull off a reach ambush.

5.0 Shifting Ceratops

This dinosaur is in a class all its own, as it ticks off multiple boxes.
Unusual creature type not known for reach
Power greater than toughness
Word soup (37 words!)
The word “reach” itself is buried in an activated ability that does multiple other things

The fourth point of toughness is key here as it means that common flyers Dawning Angel or a single-pumped Griffin Protector can’t trade with it. The protection from blue adds an addition kick to the teeth against four and five-power flyers Air Elemental, Atemsis, and the blue Cavalier. The protection also makes Shifting Ceratops extra lethal as it eats blue flyers for free without any worry of pump spells or follow up burn to finish it off. The activation nature of the reach, and the word itself being buried in said ability, makes this such a lethal ambusher that I’ve now named the entire scale after the dinosaur.

A lot of players like to focus on learning the various removal spells and combat tricks in a set in order to play around them at Prerelease. Those things are important, but there’s no more sinking feeling than throwing away a flying creature to a reach ambush. My plan is to make new posts every set to identify all the cards with reach, and to rate them on this scale. Don’t get Ceratopped!

Friday, April 12, 2019

Casting Spells for Free and Profit

Recently a few fun rules interactions came to my attention. These are useful not only to know as they are reasonably common Standard card interactions, but it's also good to know the underlying rules behind them.

AP connects with a Thief of Sanity and chooses to exile a Rix Maadi Reveler from NAP's library. Can the Reveler be cast for its Spectacle cost, and can mana of any color be used to pay for the black and red mana in its cost?

AP casts Hostage Taker and exiles NAP's Venerated Loxodon. Can AP cast the Loxodon using Convoke? If yes, what combinations of creatures and mana can they use?

Effects like this are interesting to me because of how they've evolved over the years, and the rules implications therein. Older cards would let you cast spells without paying their mana cost. Think Cascade. Casting a spell without paying its mana cost is a subset of alternative costs, rule 117.9:

Some spells have alternative costs. An alternative cost is a cost listed in a spell’s text, or applied to it from another effect, that its controller may pay rather than paying the spell’s mana cost. Alternative costs are usually phrased, “You may [action] rather than pay [this object’s] mana cost,” or “You may cast [this object] without paying its mana cost.” Note that some alternative costs are listed in keywords; see rule 702.

The mana cost of a spell is whatever is in the top right corner of the spell, just as its Converted Mana Cost is the generic sum of its mana cost. Casting a spell without paying its mana cost means not paying for what's in the top right corner, essentially turning it into a 0. You'll still have to pay for any additional costs, whether they are imposed by the card itself or by other effects. If you Cascade into a Harrow, you'll still need to sacrifice a land in order to cast it. If you Cascade into a Lighting Bolt, you must pay 1 for Thalia, Guardian of Thraben. While this might feel like a negative, it also gives you the ability to pay for optional additional costs like Kicker.

Because "casting a spell without paying its mana cost" is an alternative cost, you cannot then choose to cast the spell via some other alternative cost. If you Cascade into Nourishing Shoal, you can only choose to cast it for X=0, and you do not have the option of trying to exile a green card in order to get an X-value. Another good example of conflicting alternate costs is when you give a spell flashback with Snapcaster Mage. You can only play the spell via its flashback cost. You can't pitch for a Force of Will, for example.

So what of Thief of Sanity and Hostage Taker? Neither of these cards offers an alternate cost to cast the spells. You are still on the hook for paying a cost of some kind. For the vast majority of cards, that means paying their mana cost. However, it does mean that you can cast these spells for alternative costs. You can pay a Spectacle cost (if you've met the damage criteria), and the mana clause will apply as well, so you can pay for Rix Maadi Reveler's Spectacle with all blue mana if you want.

Convoking a Venerated Loxodon yields one slightly different result. Since you are casting it, you can use Convoke to help pay for the spell, but the color-filtering only applies to mana spent to cast the spell. You cannot Convoke with a non-white creature for that portion of the spell. You will either need a white creature to Convoke with, or you will have to pay that portion with mana, which can be any color.

Both of these are good examples of how getting something for free comes with some opportunity costs. By being "forced" to pay for these spells, you can get the additional bonus of the Spectacle trigger upgrade on Rix Maadi Reveler, or the counters on creatures that help Convoke your Venerated Loxodon.

When you are evaluating effects like this, remember that "casting a spell without paying its mana cost" is an alternative cost, and will preclude any other alternative costs like Spectacle and Madness, and any associated benefits from casting spells that way. If you are just asked to cast the spell (under normal circumstances to spend mana on it) you can instead apply an alternative cost, which includes casting variants like Spectacle and Evoke, or mana free options like on Force of Will or Archive Trap.

Addendum: While writing this post, another interesting card with this type of effect was spoiled, God-Eternal Kefnet.

You can see that this follows in the footsteps of Thief of Sanity and Hostage Taker in that you are casting the spell. It's a little different because you are casting a copy of a card. But if you've met the casting condition for things like Spectacle, you can cast this via alternative costs. Whatever alternative cost you choose will get the benefit of the cost reduction.

One of the more common questions about effects like this is "Can you just float this copy in limbo until you need it? It doesn't give a duration for when you can cast it." The latter part is true enough. Thief of Sanity and Hostage Taker tell us "for as long as it remains exile." Kefnet doesn't. In the latter cases, when no duration is listed, the card can only be cast immediately during the resolution of the triggered ability. And yes, you can cast a sorcery even tough it isn't your main phase. Why? Because the trigger lets you. Technically, you couldn't even cast an instant at this time (during the resolution of a triggered ability) if the ability did not let you.

Finally, I've seen questions about whether you can Miracle cast this copy. Seems possible because Miracle is an alternative cost, right? The problem here is the part about fulfilling the casting conditions. Just like you would need to have damaged your opponent to be able to Spectacle a copy off of Kefnet, you need to meet the requirements for Miracle, which are a bit more complicated. In fact, the only way to cast something for its Miracle cost is during the resolution of its own trigger. If you reveal a Miracle card for both Kefnet and its own Miracle ability, you could cast the original card for the Miracle cost and the copy for its regular mana cost minus 2.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

The Battle for Information

Judges often use the phrase “every judge call is an investigation” to emphasize that we should always be vigilant to evaluate for potential cheating vectors even in the simplest of rulings. I agree with the general sentiment that we should approach every judge call with this thought in the back of our head. However, what does it really mean for every judge call to be an investigation?

I don’t think it means that we should assume ill intent in any given ruling; but at the same time we should not assume innocence. What we have is more of a Schroedinger’s Cheater and our investigation is the act of opening the box. The problem is that it isn’t as simple as just opening a box. Discovering whether a player is innocent or guilty of cheating means determining their intent, something that even a bad cheater will keep close to their chest. No one is going to outright tell a judge “I did this illegal thing on purpose to gain an advantage and I was hoping that you wouldn’t notice.” Their intent is going to be shrouded in mystery under layers of information.

The phrase “playing close to the chest” is apropo for this discussion. It comes from card games like poker and refers to keeping your cards hidden from the view of your opponents. For an investigation, think of information as those poker cards. You obviously want to know what information the player is holding, but equally important is that you don’t want the player to know what information you have in your hand. Put another way, if the player doesn’t know what information you’re looking for, they don’t know what to lie about.

One important piece of information that you don’t want the player to know early on, and something that I see far too many judges offer up for free, is the fact that the player is under investigation at all! An astute player should realize that something is up any time the Head Judge talks with them, but this is a piece of information that you want to hold onto for as long as possible because as soon as a player knows, they will get defensive, clam up, and become more careful about what they share with you.

This is why some Head Judges will start with some light small talk. “Hi. I’m Riki. What’s your name?” *shakes hand* “Where are you from? What’s your record?” These aren’t questions that are critical to the investigation, but they serve as a low key conversation starter. They’re more useful when you’re coming into a situation somewhat cold. This is common in a shuffling or marked cards investigation that happens away from the match table, possibly even between rounds. Obviously if it’s an active match and you’re investigating the player’s intent on an illegal play, you want to keep the small talk much shorter, both because the FJ has already spent some amount of time with their initial investigation, and also because it is much more obvious to the player that the Head Judge is trying to suss something out.

(As an aside, it can be equally important to lead with “You’re not in trouble” when approaching a player outside of a match while investigating the actions of one of their past opponents.)

The nature of the infraction or error under investigation is another key piece of information that you want to keep under wraps. For example, when investigating curved foils, you don’t want to just flip over all the curved foils and say “Look at how badly these are curved” because part of the calculation to determine cheating here is whether the player realized the problem at any prior point.

At one event, I watched a judge perform a brief investigation triggered by a deck check. The player’s decklist was missing one card, Darkblast, that was in the physical deck (Legacy Dredge). When the player was brought over, the judge started right in with questions about “What singleton cards are you playing?” Not only did this immediately let the player narrow their scope for determining what the investigation was about, but the judge also left the decklist out in front of the player. Instead of working purely off of memory, the player scanned the decklist a couple of times and rattled off some card names before naming the Darkblast that wasn’t on the list.

Even if you want to lead off getting the player to talk about their singletons cards, it’s better to get them to talk more generally about them. The question “What singleton cards are you playing?” is a dead end question. They will name the cards, and that’s it. Instead, get them to talk more about the strategy. Something like:
“I noticed that you have a couple of singletons. I guess with the dredge mechanic you’re more likely to see them if you dredge a bunch of cards. How often have you seen [card name] today How relevant has it been?”
In fact, my recommendation here is for the first card named to be one of the non-Darkblast singletons. Ask a few metagame questions about the card. Then ask about the Darkblast in the same manner. Now you’ve masked that your intent is to find out about Darkblast. Get the player to talk about what matchups Darkblast is good against.

“Have you faced many of those decks today? How often has Darkblast been relevant?”

The thing with this investigation is that you have to consider what the potential cheat is. Ask yourself why would it be advantageous to not list Darkblast on the decklist? The likely answer is to use that card slot as a “flex slot,” trying out multiple cards throughout the day depending on the metagame. In a meta with a lot of Death and Taxes, Darkblast can be an all-star in taking down Mother of Runes and Thalia, Guardian of Thraben. Against a field of Show and Tell decks, it’s just a bad dredge enabler.

Another good question might be to ask how long they’ve been maindecking Darkblast as a singleton. Obviously this question is getting very specific. At this point, you are trying to gauge the truthfulness of their answer. If they say that the card has always been in their deck and explain their reasoning, it becomes more believable that it was a simple error of omission rather than a sneaky way to try out different cards in this slot.

One unfortunate way that information can leak is from the opponent. I’ve had several judge calls where a player has said right at the table “My opponent is stacking their deck/ looking at my cards while they shuffle.” This is another dead end scenario. The player now knows exactly what they are accused of, can set up their story to refute or lie about what’s happened, and will not taking the offending actions any more for the duration of the match (or possibly the tournament) because a judge’s attention has been called to their shuffling.

From the perspective of the player who called it out, this might be a favorable outcome--the opponent is no longer cheating against them. However, from our perspective, we’ve effectively lost the ability to investigate the situation unless a spectator can corroborate the story or the offending player is really bad at lying. This is why for players I always advocate a more discrete conversation with the judge like “I have a question about a card away from the table” and then tell the judge your concerns out of earshot of the opponent. This way we have masked the key piece of information from the opponent, that we suspect them of some kind of shuffle cheat. We can then watch them shuffle from a distance and try to catch them in the act.

Finally, I want to address the issue of time management. Beating around the bush asking set-up questions can take time, so there’s only a limited amount of it that you should be doing. This isn’t a technique for every investigation out there. I used them as an example of how to use information, or the lack of it, to make investigations more effective and focused. Know what information you want to know, and what you don’t want the player to know, then strategically maneuver around those axes to further your investigation. I hope this was useful to you. Best of luck in your investigations!

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Good Practices #7 - When Did You Look at Those Cards?

The first example for the infraction Looking at Extra Cards (L@EC) is "A player accidentally reveals (drops, flips over) a card while shuffling their opponent’s library." This is straight forward enough, and it is probably one of the two most common ways that this infraction occurs. The other being the second example: "A player accidentally reveals (drops, flips over) a card while shuffling their opponent’s library." It's almost like these are good examples or something!

As a Scorekeeper, I see judges write descriptions for infractions on the backs of slips, and the first example for L@EC is one I've seen variations of plenty of times. But "flipped over card while shuffling opponent's deck" as a description tells less than half the story. Think about it this way. Seeing a card in your opponent's deck confers an information advantage, but the potential for that advantage can vary wildly depending on when this infraction takes place.

The most impactful timing is when a player shuffles their opponent's deck prior to the first game of the match. Barring information from scouting, which could be intentional or just from sitting next an opponent in the previous rounds, players don't have knowledge of what deck archetype their opponent is playing at this point in time. Early game decisions, particularly mulligan decisions, are made in this haze of ignorance.

Flipping over a card while shuffling prior to Game 1 can lift that haze. Imagine this happening in a Modern match and a Baral, Chief of Compliance gets flipped over. Aha! U/R Gifts Storm! This information can certainly inform a player about the kinds of hands they should keep. Even something as innocent as a land can provide information. For example, Horizon Canopy is featured primarily in creature-based strategies.

This type of information gain loses effectiveness the deeper you get into a match because a player will naturally see more cards from their opponent's deck through game play, and the deck archetype will reveal itself somewhere in the middle of the first game.

Any time we speak of the potential for advantage, we should also consider the potential for cheating. Generally, more advantage means more potential for cheating. A player committing a L@EC infraction for flipping a card while shuffling their opponent's deck during Game 3 has almost zero advantage, and we can quickly dismiss cheating based on context. But when this happens prior to Game 1, it deserves more scrutiny. So what does that scrutiny look like?

First off, ask about the timing in the match. Sometimes this is obvious. If you get called over at the beginning of the round and there are no permanents out, you know that it's prior to Game 1. But specific timing still matters here. Is this during a mulligan shuffle? Did the opponent keep? If the answers are "yes" and "yes," you can tick the advantage bar down a notch because the player can no longer use this information to help with their mulligan decisions. These are small pieces of information that can help you during a quick investigation.

The thing with this type of investigation is, it's highly unlikely to yield a guilty verdict. For one, most of these infractions are innocent mistakes. Second, a player intentionally committing L@EC to see opponent's cards most likely looks like all the innocent players. Unless you happened to be watching and saw a very suspicious shuffling style, it's hard to sort the malicious from the innocent via a post-incident interview.

Thus, our best line of defense becomes recording the infraction and looking for a pattern. And this is where I return to my original point; judges need to write down when the "card flip L@EC" takes place. Was it during a mid-game fetch? Was it shuffling up before Game 2? These both rate on the innocent side. But if we are recording infractions to look for patterns of potentially malicious behavior, this is an absolutely important one to record in more specific detail. If a player commits multiple L@EC infractions, all while shuffling prior to Game 1, that's a lot of potential advantage, and someone that I'm a lot more interested in talking to or watching while they shuffle before their next Game 1.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Good Practices #6 - Clomp Around

Of all the strange things that I do in judging, this might take the cake. I couldn't even tell you when I decided upon this course of action. This good practice comes from Professional REL called drafts that take place at Grand Prix and Pro Tour tournaments. During these called drafts, players are seated in pods of 8, and follow the directions of a draft caller judge to pass packs, pick up packs, and select cards. These drafts are run this way to reduce the possibility of draft errors, and to make sure all draft tables finish at the same pace.

One of the biggest concerns during any draft is peeking. If an unscrupulous player catches a glimpse of their neighbors pick(s), that knowledge can give them a huge advantage. Instead of having to read signals via cards in the pack, they just know what color(s) their neighbor is on. Judges on the floor during a called draft, focus their attention on watching for peeking. They stare intently at players, scrutinize the position of the player's eyes, and sometimes even crouch to get a "player's eye view" of the situation. I've seen judges park on a particular table for the duration of a pack, just staring. Sometimes this results in a DQ, and if you're a judge who thinks you've seen some suspicious eye movement, by all means let the stare down begin.

But here's the rub. There are a lot of players. I took a look at a Limited GP that I Head Judged (Milwaukee 2016). 368 players qualified for Day 2. That's 46 pods. Excluding myself and the draft caller, there were 16 judges available on the floor during the draft. That's almost 3 pods per judge. So if you park on one table, that's opening up two others tables that are going unwatched.

This is why my preferred mode when I'm on the floor of a called draft is to be on the move. If a judge near me is in park-and-watch mode, that means I have five pods to patrol. With that many pods to monitor, the efficacy of me being able to watch any particular player is pretty low, but if you can't actually catch a cheater, you can deter them. This is why I intentionally clomp around my patrol zone with heavier than usual footfalls. No, I don't stomp like I'm crushing grapes. Just enough to put it into player's ears that "there's a judge walking around."

One thing I do is pick up the paper wrapper garbage from the packs. (GP and PT packs are opened, stamped, and rewrapped with slips of paper indicating the event.) This is a bit controversial among judges. Some will say that judges shouldn't pick up garbage because they aren't watching for peekers. But I've found that leaning in here is a good way to establish the presence of a judge and deter peeking. Heck, some players will even help you out by passing you their refuse.

In the end, this is mostly just theatrics. Another judge compared it to "parking your state trooper car on the side of the highway with the headlights on." It's very hard to actually catch a cheater this way, but if other judges are parked and focused on that, go for a stroll to fill that space.