It is one of those quiet periods in Magic. Unless you are an SCG grinder, the major tournaments are over until we get to rotation and the introduction of Return to Ravnica. I am very excited about Return to Ravnica since I wasn’t around for Ravnica the first time round. Fingers crossed it’s as good as last time, if not better, and the spoilers already released certainly seem good. However, it is not quite time to start speculating about how RTR is going to influence Constructed, so I want to spend this week to talk about a topic that until recently has been off the radar.
I am talking about unsporting conduct.
I am a considerate and caring person. I don’t understand how people can be impolite or disrespectful towards others. You make people feel bad. My mum always taught me that if you haven’t got anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. What I failed to appreciate until my most recent Magic trip to the U.S. was that Magic actually has procedures in place to make sure that you don’t have to put up with anything that makes you feel uncomfortable or upsets you.
I always knew that if you punched someone in the face you could expect to leave the tournament, but I didn’t know that there was anything to deal with less aggressive behaviour.
This came to light after a friend of mine, playing in a Legacy side-event, found himself facing down some Narcomoebas that had been lovingly altered by the artist to have… um… well, I’m not sure if we can print what it was, so I turn to a Austin Powers quote to explain:
“Cor Blimey! All your privates have had their privates painted gold. How bizarre. Imagine: gilded talleywhackers, golden wedding tackle, 14 carat trouser snakes…”
I have no idea why on earth you would want trouser snakes drawn on your cards. My friend concurred and thought the whole thing was somewhat inappropriate—there are always minors at GPs, so he called a judge to complain. It turns out you can do this, the judge concurred that they were inappropriate and the player was told to replace them immediately. This is one reason you’re required to get your alters approved before play.
The opponent decided to take offence at this and started searching out other cards in his deck, and sarcastically suggesting that maybe this Top Hat that had been drawn on an Ichorid was inappropriate. Seriously, you can’t tell the difference? Anyway, he was warned by the judge that if he didn’t change his tune he would receive an unsporting conduct penalty. Fortunately, this was enough to quiet him, and the rest of the match passed without incident.
I wanted to learn more about what unsporting conduct means, what it covers, and how it can make sure that tournaments are a pleasant environment for all. So I did what any Magic player seeking advice should do: I asked a judge.
Let me introduce, from the UK, Nick Sephton. Nick is a Level 3 judge so he knows his stuff. Nick has been kind enough to answer my questions to help us all better understand unsporting conduct and how it affects you.
Q: Nick, for those at home who don’t know you, tell us a little about yourself.
A: I started playing Magic at school in about 1995 casually with a small group of friends. My favorite deck at the time contained 4 copies of Spiny Starfish and 4 copies of Prodigal Sorcerer. I played on and off for a few years, then gave up when I moved to university, leaving all my cards at home. In 1999, I picked the game back up again. I played in my university society, and in 2002 I went to Gen Con UK, where I first tested for Level 1.
After making Level 3 I took on the role of Regional Coordinator for the UK & Ireland in 2007, although at the time the role had no such title (the alternate name chosen by the UK office being “Cheatfinder General”). This role basically made me responsible for all of the judges in the UK & Ireland, and a great deal of my time over the next 3 years went into developing and training those judges. I have also been involved in policy work, in 2008 I created “The Communication Policy”, a document which governed how players represented information to each other in a tournament. This document made several shady moves illegal and clarified the line on what you could and couldn’t say during a game. This document soon became part of the official documentation, and can now be found in the Magic Tournament Rules.
Q: So, what constitutes unsporting conduct?
A: An intentional action which might significantly affect an individual’s safety or enjoyment of any part of a tournament could be considered unsporting conduct. So, basically anything a person does that could hurt anyone, or could spoil anyone’s ability to enjoy the games they’re playing. This might seem like a quite loose definition, but it’s necessary that it’s able to cover a wide variety of undesirable behaviour that could occur.
There are several important words in that sentence, the first one being “intentional”. While the written rule of policy doesn’t mention the word “intentional” in this section, that’s mostly because of the confusion between intentional actions and intending to cause offence. To clarify, you don’t have to be intending to cause offence in order to commit unsporting conduct, but all instances of unsporting conduct would be for actions which you intended to perform.
The second word I’ve used which I want to highlight is “significantly”. What truly makes unsporting conduct a difficult topic is drawing the line of significance. Recognizing the difference between an action that is walking the line and one that has crossed it is very important. To make it even more complicated, this line varies widely depending on the community in which you’re operating. In some communities, cursing and (mild) physical humor are part of the community’s evolved communication, and attempting to stop that would cause as many (if not more) problems as failing to deal with inappropriate conduct. In others (such as a local game shop, which needs to be acceptable to kids & the public at large), such behaviour is completely inappropriate.
Q: Magic is a very competitive game, where is the line between being competitive and unsporting behaviour?
A: As I wrote above, there are two key elements—safety and enjoyment—that you don’t want to be affected by poor behaviour. It’s pretty easy to determine if anyone’s safety is being affected, all you need to do is stay vigilant and consider the implications of the actions that are happening around you. It’s also worth taking pre-emptive actions to ensure safety at a tournament, but that’s a whole other topic.
The part that is harder to judge is whether anyone’s enjoyment is being significantly affected. To be honest, the best measure here is the reactions of the players and spectators around you. Their reactions to the events are a very good indicator as to whether their enjoyment is being affected, and combined with your own opinion, pretty much the only indicator that you have. As I said, your own opinion is important too—if you’re offended by something, you have as much right as anyone else there to have someone speak up.
In situations where I feel like a player is very close to the line, I’ve occasionally found it useful to have a word with the player in question, just to resolve a situation before it begins. It’s difficult to generalize, as each situation has to be handled uniquely, but this can sometimes prove invaluable.
Q: You mention spectators, can someone not in a match get a penalty for unsporting conduct? How could this happen?
A: Absolutely! In fact in my experience, it’s more common for spectators or those who have finished their matches than for those still playing. Generally speaking, players who are currently playing are aware that they’re at a tournament and need to follow certain rules in order to stay involved. They’re also focused on the game, and thus tend to be quiet and concentrated.
If I can recall situations that I’ve given unsporting conduct outside of a match, they include:
• Playing football near matches.
• Refusing to leave a certain area.
• Throwing cards.
• Standing on chairs/tables.
• Shouting at players who are playing/Shouting across the venue.
• Arguing over a ruling.
• Performing the “table cloth trick” on a table with a match in progress
It’s worth noting that most of these were just warnings, and after a caution had been given for the same reason!
Q: What are the different types of unsporting conduct and what are the penalties involved?
A: There are three specific infractions, and three general ones. The general ones are just named “Unsporting Conduct – Minor”, “Unsporting Conduct – Major”, and “Unsporting Conduct -Aggressive Behaviour”, and are intended to be a spectrum for generally undesirable behaviour, distinguished by a few simple indicators.
The specific ones are “Unsporting Conduct – Bribery and Wagering”, “Unsporting Conduct – Improperly Determining a Winner”, “Unsporting Conduct – Theft of Tournament Material”.
Q: What is the different (aside from penalty level) between the infractions? Can you give us some examples?
A: The indicators that separate the three general infractions are intentionally very clear, so that it’s easy for everyone to determine which category an infraction fits.
• If anyone was violent towards another person or their property, or threatened as much, then the infraction is “Unsporting Conduct – Aggressive Behaviour”
• If anyone was violent towards their own property, OR failed to follow a direct instruction from a tournament official, OR insults anyone else based on their race, colour, religion, national origin, age, gender, disability or sexual orientation, then the infraction is “Unsporting Conduct – Major”
• Unsporting conduct not covered by the above or the three specific infractions, then the infraction is “Unsporting Conduct – Minor”
The penalties for these infractions stage up, so Minor = Warning, Major = Game Loss, and Agressive Behaviour = Disqualification.
As for the specific infractions, they’re fairly simple to work out, so I’ll just list them here, in the style of The Crimson Bolt:
• Unsporting Conduct – Bribery and Wagering
YOU DON’T BET ON GAMES OF MAGIC. YOU DON’T BRIBE EACH OTHER FOR A RESULT.
• Unsporting Conduct – Improperly Determining a Winner
YOU DON’T DETERMINE A WINNER IMPROPERLY. YOU DRAW, CONCEDE, OR PLAY.
• Unsporting Conduct – Theft of Tournament Material
YOU DON’T STEAL.
Ah, that’s better. (By the way, if you haven’t seen Super, it’s a really good movie, I recommend it.)
Q: I know you can’t comment on specific incidents, but can you give us an idea of how often a judge might expect to have to deal with this type of issue?
A: To be honest, it’s really rare that a judge gives an infraction for unsporting conduct. For the most part, I think this is because our community has a high number of intelligent, tolerant and considerate individuals, and incidents where this infraction might be required are very low. However, there will also be cases where a situation isn’t reported to a judge or a judge makes an error in evaluating such a situation.
Q: Do you think this happens often enough?
A: That’s a difficult question to answer. Do I wish that I could be there when situations such as this arise? Of course. Realistically, however, there are always going to be situations like this that go unresolved, and that’s regrettable. It’s also worth noting that situations like this are incredibly difficult to deal with, particularly when you consider that judges are volunteers who receive no conflict resolution training as part of their education. While it’s certainly true that a lot of high level judges find this training privately, or through experience, it’s a lot to ask from a new judge.
Q: Calling a judge about your opponent being rude can be a daunting task. What advice would you give to players if they find themselves feeling uncomfortable and want to get a judge involved?
A: While this may not have been true in the past, I believe that all active judges currently in the program are there because, at least in part, they enjoy helping people. If you call a judge over to your table and express your discomfort, I’m confident that they will do everything they can to ensure that your discomfort is minimised. One of the things we’re taught is that judges should always calm situations, and this will be the attending judge’s first response.
It’s important to know a few things as well:
• You can ask to speak to a judge in private if you’d like. Feel free to say to your opponent that you just want to ask a question about a card in your hand or rule if you feel that would make the situation easier for you.
• If you disagree with a ruling, you have the right to appeal to the head judge. At larger events (PTQs and above) you can expect the head judge to be experienced in such matters, and should be able to handle the situation appropriately.
If you happen to know which are the more experienced judges on the tournament staff, then this can help as well. These situations can be very challenging for inexperienced judges, but basically—we’ll do our best to help. That is why we continue judging after all.
I hope you found that as educational as I did. As Nick said, the vast majority of Magic players are good people. Sure we get competitive, but rarely does it turn ugly. Unfortunately, it does happen, and I’m sure that more people don’t say anything than do. You don’t have to feel unhappy or uncomfortable while playing Magic. Magic is an awesome game and we should not let a small minority of players get away with inappropriate behaviour. If they are called on it, and the system is allowed to deal with them, they will soon buck up their ideas which will be better for all of us. I hope you never find yourself in a situation where you need this advice, but if you do, call a judge! You deserve better.