Unsporting Conduct — Improperly Determining a Winner and Bribery

Because a huge majority of Magic tournaments offer prizes to earn in addition to glory and because it can happen that a match result is detrimental to both players, two players can be tempted to agree on a specific match result so that at least one of them ends up in a more favorable position standings-wise.

There are circumstances in which agreeing on a match result is perfectly legal, but very often players put the feet on a slippery slope. What’s ok? What’s not? Where’s the line? What should one (player as well as judge) pay attention to?

However, before going deep in the philosophy behind the Bribery and Improperly Determining a Winner infractions, there’s a need to get interested in the concept of drawing, as an illegal move by players often results from a natural draw.

 Why would players want to change a result?

Let’s consider a few situations:

  • Annett and Bob are both 2-1 in a 4-round Pre-release event where additional prizes are from 8 points. They’re about to draw, which will put them at 7 points each. If one of them wins, the winner will get two more boosters.
  • Charles and Matt are both 6-2 at a GP. They’re about to draw, which would put both of them out of contention for Day2.

These examples are the most classic cases and all come from an (unfortunate for the players) draw due to the time-limit. However, other configurations exist:

  • John (5-1) is paired down against Will (4-1-1) at a 7-round PTQ. Will is about to win the game. John really wants to qualify for the PT and needs to win or draw while Will doesn’t care much.
  • Billy (5-0-1) is paired down against Jay (5-1) at a 7-round PTQ. Jay offers an Intentional Draw that Billy declines, because even if he loses, he’ll still make top8, but if he wins, he’ll get to play first during most of the top8.

These situations are a fertile ground to tempt players to either roll a die (the most classic, but not the only mean to improperly determine a winner) or offer their opponent part or all of their prizes, or even additional items against a concession or a draw. Both softwares’ (DCI-R and WER) algorithms make players play as much as possible against opponents with the same number of points. Therefore, a vast majority of the complicated situations is made of matches ending up in a draw that’s detrimental to both players. Let’s start with some thoughts on the process of drawing matches:


Drawing a match

Besides the concept of intentionally drawing, which will be studied further, drawing happens when a match reaches the time limit. 


The existence of a time-limit

Running a tournament obeys to a lot of logistical restraints (number of rounds, venue closure, etc.) for tournaments to be enjoyable for everyone.

There are TCGs where you cannot draw, where each match must have a winner. These TCGs tournaments still share the same logistical restraints as Magic, and a choice was made to have matches decided in one single game. On the contrary, Wizards of the Coast chose to have Magic tournaments matches played best-of-three, allowing the possibility to use sideboards in order to develop the game’s possibilities further.

It would be much easier if all matches ended up with a winner. However, running best-of-three matches without a time limit is likely to have many rounds take more than 1 hour and possibly reach 2, which could make a 5-round tournament + top 8 easily last 12 hours. Playing 30 minutes and waiting 60 to 90 more because of two players playing heavy control decks is far from being a great play experience. Therefore a time limit needed to be set.


The existence of draws

The fact a time limit can put an end to a match means that a game may still be ongoing when time is called and after the additional turns are finished. Therefore, there were two options from here: Defining an in-game tiebreaker to decide a winner or allowing draws. Life totals is a tiebreaker that’s used in time-limited single elimination matches, but it’s quite not satisfying as reducing opponent’s life total to 0 isn’t the core strategy of all decks. It’s therefore not a fair tiebreaker, and its use has been restricted to very specific situations, only when no other options are available (This by the way explains why MTR recommend to not limit Semi-finals and Finals time-wise).

Hence the sole remaining option was to acknowledge that none of the players have won and therefore they have drawn. In an ideal world with no logistical restraints, matches would be played best-of-three until there’s a clear winner (like in Tennis for instance). Another possibility could be to find an acceptable tiebreaker. The one used on Magic Online (time used by players) comes to mind, except it’s completely inapplicable to paper Magic.


Intentional draws

Making drawing possible was not a choice, but a necessity. This led to a couple consequences: When a draw is beneficial to both players while a win-loss would be detrimental to one, players feel strongly encouraged to draw. That’s for instance a reason why the top8 Play/Draw rule got created. There is an incentive for at least one player to play the game.

Therefore, rather than running into a situation where judges would have to watch after players playing slowly to reach the end of the time to both benefit from the result, it has been decided to allow players to intentionally draw.

Intentionally drawing isn’t exceptional though: The image it sends to the broader audience isn’t great, and newer players sometimes feel that players who intentionally draw are “cheating,” since “they refused to play to both benefit from a non-strategic agreement.”

Additionally, it can be very frustrating to a newer player to be denied a chance to make it to Top8 because two players in the top tables agreed on a specific result.


Conceding a match

Let’s move on now from drawing to winning, or rather from agreeing both players draw to agreeing one wins. As we’ve seen above, there’s a wide range of situations where one player has a strong interest in winning while the other doesn’t.


Allowing game concessions

We can transpose the reasoning about allowing Intentional Draws to allowing a match result change: In an ideal world, players would play until a State-Based Action makes one of them lose or a spell or ability makes one of them win. Conceding would not be allowed.

However, because of the necessary time restraints we’ve seen above, what would happen if players can’t concede?

A player may choose not to kill his opponent to eat as much time as possible off the clock to prevent their opponent from winning game 2 and/or game 3. This would not be good for the game. We could think about making “not killing your opponent” an infraction but, realistically, it’s just unenforceable.

For the same reasons as watching after Intentional Draws, this isn’t quite a possibility, hence conceding a game has to be legal.


 Allowing match concession

So, if we allow players to concede games, should we allow them to concede matches? It has been recently clarified that players could concede matches: Indeed, if a player wins game 2 in additional turns, but draw is detrimental to both of them, should we prevent one of them from conceding game 3? It would make little sense to remove from a player his right to concede because they couldn’t legally start game 3.


 Limiting factors to legally drawing or conceding

 Players can legally concede or agree to draw a game as long as:

  • The decision is freely taken by both parties, and there has been no coercion of any kind;
  • No incentive was added to have a specific player agree on conceding or drawing and ;
  • Players made the decision themselves (no other method than playing the match is used).

As you can see, the range of possibilities for legally drawing or conceding a match is fairly scarce.


Why are Bribery and Rolling a die illegal?

If players often understand why Bribery is illegal, as it’s usually illegal outside of Magic as well, they frequently question the reasons why Rolling a die is.


 A greater-than-expected impact

When two players decide to modify the natural result of their match, they affect much more than their own match. Even if it is not intuitive, they also affect the whole tournament as this will affect standings and, therefore, other players’ chances to get prizes or a top8 spot.

We believe that players who manage to win before the end of time should have an edge over players who can’t. Why would we allow a player to modify his match result anytime?


Magic rhymes with strategic

In a Magic tournament, we expect players to play Magic: The Gathering. As we’ve seen before, we allow concessions because they have an in-match strategic interest: By conceding a game, a player gets to play up to two more games of Magic, which is not the case if that player rolls a die at end of time. There is no Magic strategy involved in rolling a die.

Should prize eligibility or top appearance be determined by anything else but Magic Strategy? We don’t think so. The sole factor that should determine the final result of the Swiss Rounds Portion of a tournament is Strategy: A Magic tournament is about playing Magic, not about rolling dice. Magic is not nearly like Craps.

Of course, one could argue that all players could do the same, which on the long term would be fair amongst all players: Sometimes a player would benefit from it, another time he’d get screwed by it. That argument is fair, but it doesn’t match the criteria that’s just been mentioned: This is not nearly a Magic Strategic decision, but an attempt to game the system, rather than being a better player than the rest of the field.


One unique penalty: Disqualification

Players are often amazed that a “mere” die roll leads to a Disqualification. This penalty is actually quite logical and follows a simple risk/reward evaluation. There are two main reasons that can make a player roll a die:

  • Drawing puts him out of contention for prizes.
  • Drawing puts him out of contention for Day2.

In both of these cases, the draw means that this player’s tournament is over. In order to avoid this, the player chose to break the rules. If the penalty was anything but Disqualification, then the player would feel incentivized to try every time, since he can’t really lose more than he already has.It may feel harsh to players who simply never heard these rule, but it would not be fair they could win more than they could lose.


Kevin Desprez