Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Joey Pasco May be Right

Earlier this week, Joey Pasco (Yo! MtgTaps, SCGLive, Affinity for Islands, and @Affinityforblue on Twitter) wrote a brief yet highly insightful blogpost here. The situation Joey writes about is this:

"This past weekend during the Legacy portion of the Open Series in Memphis, TN, Drew Levin was given a game loss going into game 3 of his quarterfinals match versus eventual winner, Alex Bertoncini, for presenting a 59-card deck."

In his blog, Joey pontifies that the penalty here doesn't appear to fit the crime. Many judges and experienced players have already chimed in on Twitter, probably Facebook although I missed it, and in the blog's own comments section. Joey sums up the "opposition" thusly:

1) “These are the rules.” (I don’t dispute this.)
2) “It’s been this way for years.” (I don’t dispute this.)
3) “The reason it is this way is due to the potential for abuse."

I think that's a fairly accurate assessment of the general attitude of judges and regarding this incident in particular. Potential for abuse is one of those terms that gets waved around a lot to explain away penalties. "But look at the potential for aboooooose!" cry the judges.

There certainly is some potential for abuse. Those in the audience that are good at math can tell you all about it. If you have fewer cards in your deck, you have a better chance of drawing the ones that are still there. But I've seen similar math to this regarding fetch lands, and the percentages don't tend to add up to anything significant. Unless you have a "real" reason to run fetch lands (color-fixing, graveyard-filling, styling and profiling), the life loss outweighs the potential benefit of thinning your deck by a card. Clearly the possibility of getting a Game Loss for a "Deck/Decklist Problem," (the technical name for a 59-card mismatch situation like this) outweighs the potential benefit of thinning your deck by one or more. But would anyone want to run this type of cheat anyways?

Of potential cheats, this type of "math cheat" seems far too unreliable for those hardcore miscreants among us to attempt. If you're evil enough to cheat, why would you simply increase your chances of drawing your good cards when you could, I don't know, just draw your good cards through various nefarious means that have been documented over the years (card in lap, "Vampiric" fetch land)? Are there really people out there who like angle-shooting so much that they would shoot for the smallest angles possible?

I suppose that in the history of cheating there may be a dark corner where there is some greater potential for abuse with presenting the small deck, or big deck, or different deck. Certainly once you get in-game, changing the composition of your deck can have a much bigger impact, like removing dead spells against a certain match up so you don't draw them. But at the beginning of the game, especially at Competitive REL where many players count their opponent's decks while shuffling just on the off chance of getting that free win, presenting a 59-card deck seems purely in the purview of mistake with a capital M. And that's what Joey's getting at; clearly this was a mistake.

The kicker here is that there is another situation that can happen at the beginning of a game that has more potential abuse, is only a Warning, but is mirrored by an in-game infraction that is a Game Loss: Improper Drawing at Start of Game (IDSG). This is something like drawing 8 cards, or mulliganing to 7, or drawing when you are on the play. The latter is easy for your opponent to catch, but the first two can be obscured by cards sticking together or a player picking his hand up very quickly. And having an extra card in hand to start the game is a lot more abusive than having one fewer card in your library. Once the game starts, having an extra card in hand is Drawing Extra Cards, punishable by a Game Loss, and yet the IDSG is just a warning--even when it is caught by the opponent and not a player calling a judge on himself. Smells like teen spirit.

This is already much longer than I expected, so I will cut it short now, and leave with this thought: will there be more angle-shooting, 59-card decks presented if the penalty for this at the beginning of the game is just a Warning and "put a card back in and shuffle again"?


  1. In my mind, that isn't a realistic solution to the problem, if just because it switches the angle-shooting from the person presenting the deck to their opponent.

    If this were a warning on turn 1, it would have to be downgraded from no matter what turn it was discovered. Otherwise, it creates an advantage for an opponent to NOT catch the penalty until it is too late. For instance, you do a quick pile shuffle, notice your opponent has 59, but wait until later in the game to 'catch' it. Simple enough, as long as you have a reason to be counting their library, then nothing looks fishy.

    Now, this same logic can be applied to the IDSG warning (and I'm sure people have taken advantage of not noticing THAT until turn 3), but that's probably another fight for another day. I can understand why it exists like that, but there is a lot of potential for abuse. I know that in the past, people would abuse the rule by drawing one at a time, and if you have a one lander on six, there isn't a huge downside to drawing the last card. If it's a land, then you can go into 'act like nothing's out of the ordinary, see if they saw it' mode. If they did, then you end up with a mulligan. If it's not a land, then you can keep drawing as if you were just seeing how MANY more cards you would have to draw to get to your lands. Hard to call a judge for someone tilting.

    The real advantage with presenting the wrong number is probably more tied up in limited. The ability to run 39 cards and keep your off-color gray ogre in your sideboard until you get caught is much more influential to the game than in a tuned constructed deck where you don't have to play bad cards...well, ever. I'm sure there are games when you want to board out 10 cards, but only have 9 sb cards to bring in, but the advantage is just much smaller in constructed.

  2. Of course, the fun bonus question is "What about when it's not just one card off?"

    At a PTQ last season (Scars sealed), one of my opponents presented a 37-card deck. It was a clear mistake -- three cards in his deck were caught under the folded-over lip of his deck box when he went to figure out what had happened. But it was also even more of the situation Sam described; he's now about 8% more likely to draw any one of the remaining cards than if he'd had a 40-card deck.

    This brings up the question then of what the cutoff between Warning and Game Loss should be. Is 1 card a Warning and 2+ a Game Loss? 2/3? 3/4? Should that change if the list as registered is well above the minimum for the format -- after all, shaving 3 cards from a 60-card list is more significant, in terms of access to the remaining cards, than shaving those same 3 from a 120-card list (going for that "Battle of the Half Wits" victory there, I guess).

    That, plus the potential incentive to just wait and count your opponent's deck once the game has started, put this into "yeah, sometimes it sucks to get Game Lossed for goofing, but oh well" territory for me. I count my deck before I present. It's easy, solves the problem.

    And both times I've caught some issue by counting my opponents deck, it's been reasonably significant -- either that 37-card Limited build or my PTQ opponent who'd shuffled their Marit Lage token into their deck.

  3. Stod, I actually thought of that (ability to wait until the game starts to catch it) after I turned off my computer and got in bed.
    Alex, you also bring up a good point that a line has to be drawn somewhere, and clearly "legal vs illegal" deck is the easiest line.

  4. I think that while it is a small mistake, we get game losses for other mistakes too, like being late because you lost your deck or forgetting to write down last-minute changes on deck lists. With the way I pile shuffle, I know whether I have 60 (or 40) cards in my deck and I definitely check my SB in between rounds. I think that although it is a simple mistake to leave a card in the SB, there are many mistakes that are game losses at competitive REL that can be player-prevented by good habits.

  5. Isn’t the real question, “what is he doing with the missing card?”

    If it was an accident fine, but if it was intentional, the player now has the Stoneforge Mystic whenever he needs it.

  6. There have to be measurable guidelines. No matter where you draw the line, there has to be one. Why is this an issue? Always count your deck. Sloppy play leads to sloppy results.

  7. @Anonymous: Obviously you missed the point. Yes, there has to be a line, and messing up can have bad consequences. But it's in all of our interest to make the game as good as possible. Don't ask, is this rule ruining Magic (clearly it's not). Ask, is the game better with this rule or with a different one? Personally, I think this one is best left alone, but I'm glad people are talking about it.