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An Alternative Take on Punishing Cheaters

The Dragons of Tarkir Pro Tour was extremely important for many levels of competitive Magic. For one, it carved out the standard metagame for weeks to come. It also helped showcase professional players' perspectives on Dragons/Dragons/Fate limited. One of the more unexpected outcomes, though, was the increased amount of high-profile cheating that was caught. While cheating isn't anything new to the Magic tournament scene, the seemingly more transparent DCI investigations and disqualifications have gotten the Magic community talking on a much more excited level than before. 

On April 29th, information was published by WOTC about two DCI investigations that took place after the Pro Tour. These investigations resulted in a 36 month suspension of Stephen Speck and a 6 month suspension of Felipe Valdivia. The Magic community’s reaction to this announcement has been difficult to ignore. Many people who read the brief report felt strongly that the bannings were too short. Others responded by saying that people deserve second chances and that more extreme punishments essentially wouldn’t make sense. I’m not going to get into any of those arguments. Ultimately, it's the DCI's job to determine what's fair and there's not much of a point in telling them they're wrong if you don't intend on having a constructive conversation.

Talking about the banning of player X or Y and whether each is adequate would likely pique some interest; however, those topics have been talked to death and don’t progress the overall conversation in a meaningful way. For that reason, I’m going to be talking about the methodology used by the DCI to punish cheaters (retributive bannings) and explain how it’s inherently flawed at correcting certain components of cheating. I’m also going to introduce an idea I think might mend the gap created by the current system's shortcomings.

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Due to the polarized opinions of outspoken community members, many people have accepted a stance that there’s no way make everybody happy. These people might also subscribe to the idea that there are always going to be people who think a certain punishment isn’t enough and that those people aren’t worth trying to satisfy. To those who are disillusioned with the idea that a best possible solution can be found, I encourage them to embrace the idea of a near-best solution. If we were able to come up with a system that makes more people happy than the current status quo, isn't that something worth aiming for? For a group of people who care so much about strategy, we should be able to implement a punishment program that works most of the time and satisfies most people (both things people could argue that the current system does not accomplish). In order to figure out exactly what a near-best solution could look like, it's important to understand all of the effects cheating has on the game of Magic.

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As a person with an economics background, I can't help but ask this obvious question: why do people get so mad about cheating? Even though this question seems like it has an straightforward answer, it's much more complicated than a lot of people give credit for. The intuitive answer is that cheating just isn't fair. But that's kind of a non-answer when you think about it. By construction, cheating is an action that violates some agreed set of rules, giving the cheater a leg-up over their opponent and making the game unfair. So then, what about unfairness is inherently bad?

In the context of Magic: the Gathering, players actually value the fairness that sanctioned events have to offer. Magic players often opt to play in organized tournaments and pay an entry fee in exchange for access to fair gameplay. Even though this fee covers prize support and buys an amount of entertainment, there is an additional component that can be attributed to fairness. Think about it this way: would you be willing to pay $6 to participate in a theoretical tournament that has all the same components of an FNM, but lacks access to judges? Likely, the answer is "no." What about if this were true for a high-value event like a Grand Prix? A Pro Tour? In those cases, the answer is "hell, no." This willingness to pay for fairness demonstrates a literal value that most Magic players assign to fair gameplay. 

For a player that pays their entry fee in exchange for fair gameplay and is then cheated against, the value they paid in exchange for fairness was essentially stolen. Cheating directly impacts the rest of the tournament in this way. It also indirectly damages the perceived value of sanctioned events for other players around the world. When a player cheats, they are essentially removing that value from the Magic community in exchange for a temporary leg-up. A quick way to describe this problem in economic jargon would be to refer to it as "the equity problem." So how exactly can the loss in equity be corrected?

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Intuition tells us that retroactive punishment (such as temporary bannings) should an adequate response to cheating as it clearly and publicly admonishes someone's wrongdoing. However, this is an incomplete solution that doesn't solve the equity problem. Retroactive punishments such as bannings have an inherent ceiling of effectiveness for correcting the adverse effects of foul play. The best that these punishments can accomplish is help to prevent similar actions from taking place in the future by scaring potential cheaters away. While that outcome is relevent, these solutions don't provide any mechanism for replacing the equity that’s been taken away by the cheater. Sure, it may make some people feel a bit better knowing that cheaters are being punished, but do those people feel as good as before the cheating happened? Judging by most reactions I've heard and read, the answer for most players has been a resounding "no." In a nutshell, a near-best system of punishment would be one that pushes people's answers to that question closer towards "yes."

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As one option for a punishment system, I'm proposing that WOTC look into requiring a specified number of volunteer hours to be completed over the course of a temporary suspension in order for a suspended player to be allowed back into sanctioned events. I have many reasons to believe this option is more effective than the current system of retributive bannings and that it would be more well-supported by the Magic community as a whole. 

Essentially, this new program would be minimizing the loss in equity by having cheaters "earn back" the value they removed and regain the community's trust they may have lost. Through community service, the re-earned value would be benefiting people (mostly outside the Magic community) who could use a bit of help. From my research, I can't find anything that prohibits the DCI from using this plan. 

While the logistics may be difficult to accommodate, the benefits of this program are likely to outweigh the costs. Most of all, this option attempts to solve the equity issue. The new program would offer a mechanism through which the net equity loss is much lower overall than in the current system of bannings. Next, this program would be an excellent opportunity for the Magic community as a whole to give back to people who could use a little help. Not only would this be great on a human level, but it could also give WOTC some favorable PR. 

There are a number of reasons why a program like this would be desirable for the DCI’s use, but discussing the exact logistics of a potential program would distract from the point of this article. To quickly reiterate my key points, I’ll say this: bannings are an incomplete way of punishing cheaters and community members are going to be mad so long as the issue of stolen equity remains ignored; near-best solutions are possible to achieve and should be explored more thoroughly as the current system has identifiable flaws. Volunteer hours during a temporary suspension is one possible solution to replace the lost equity.


Tweet me your thoughts @Rad_Blast.

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