Sperling’s Sick of It: Hall of Fame 2017

Wizards set the tone for this year’s Hall of Fame season in a baffling way. They announced that the threshold for admission was being raised from 40% of the vote to 60% of the vote. The reason? Because some people weren’t using all 5 votes for fear of the impact of those last few votes. This disease-ridden corpse of an argument for a policy change deserves an autopsy.

So there were voters who would have put more names on their ballot, but for the fear that they would accidentally elect those people.

Why would we want those names on anyone’s ballot?

So you’re intervening to “fix” the approach of: “I only vote for people who I would like to see elected into the Hall”?

Voters doing literally the only reasonable thing possible with their ballots (voting for someone if and only if they wish to see that person elected) was a problem. What’s the solution? “Well, I’ll use all 5 of my votes this year since now it takes 60% to get there. It would be so disastrous if person #5 on my list made the Hall that I wouldn’t have voted for them if the threshold was lower, but I can count on enough of my peers to do the right thing and not vote for this person now, so I get to put them on ballot.” Sweet.

With that nonsense as the backdrop of this year’s Hall of Fame campaigns and hot takes, it felt like things had finally gone irreversibly off the deep end. Paul Rietzl, widely respected as a gatekeeper with objective thresholds and an honest approach, admitted this year that he takes into consideration how awesome it would be to have the person he is voting for re-qualified for the Pro Tour in the context of voting for his friend Mark Herberholz. I call this out not to pick on Paul or claim he had among the worst ballots (he didn’t), but to point out that even the most trusted navigators of this process in years past are now somewhat lost.

Elsewhere in the land of eroding standards and open friendly bias, the campaign for Chris Pikula has now brought a shocking number of people to a place where someone who reminded us every day for 2 years that they were barely below the criteria for appearing on the ballot is a clear choice for election.

It’s great that Chris got those last few Pro Points—otherwise, his lack of success in Magic tournaments would have gotten in the way of his election to an institution rewarding success in Magic tournaments.

The arguments are so absurd to me that I just want to unwrap them, shine a light on them, and then step back and point.

On Contributions to the Game, Part 96 of 200

Wizards, in their extremely finite wisdom, did make “Contributions to the Game” one of the criteria for election. As I’ve always said, you can use this on the margins to break a tie if you want to, but leaning on it so hard that you almost topple over to vote for an American player who is well-connected in our social circles is just using the list of criteria to justify trying to slip one of your friends past the gate. The people doing it happen to be so influential that there is a second-order mistake that has also become extremely popular: Outsourcing your opinion to the influential voices around you, even when their argument sounds fishy.

I’ve seen some conduct that walks a fine line between bad argumentation and outright corruption. I’ve seen a younger, newer-to-the-scene pro discuss their proposed ballot and receive a lot of pressure from the older guys to fall in line.

It borders on corruption in the cases where the older influential pro is someone super influential when it comes to who tests with who, who makes the A squad, etc., or the old Wizards employee has influence over all the things MaRo might someday have influence over if you work at Wizards, etc. When these people tell you the right and correct and true vote is Pikula, are they just making a suggestion or are they throwing around some of that potentially massive influence they could have over your young career?

Newer players or coverage staff by necessity rely on the older viewpoints, but these viewpoints are published at this point. When personal or professional pressure is applied or could be mistakenly assumed to be applied, I get concerned. Send these newbies a link to your favorite article with actual arguments next time if you want to avoid my scorn.

I’ve seen this type of stuff in multiple places—at a minumum, I’ve spotted it on Mark Rosewater’s Twitter feed in the way some Americans push Pikula, and in the way some Europeans push Marijn. And no, three wrongs don’t make a right, bad votes don’t cancel out, and this doesn’t create a “fun atmosphere” of HoF discussions. Bad votes lead to bad inductions on the margins, and nobody is laughing about some of the names already inducted based on previous campaigns backed by this kind of pressure.

Imagine being so out of touch that you emptied the tank to go to bat for Steve OMS and then did it again for Chris Pikula. You’d have to be some kind of greedy New York banker of MTG social capital to even attempt it.

[NOTE TO EDITOR: please commission drawing of original art Shadowmage Infiltrator and original art Meddling Mage in some kind of Trump-Putin handshake pose.]

What it does create, for me, is a desire to tell the new observer who asks what all the fuss is about: “Oh, the annual Hall of Fame voting? Try to ignore that. Just watch some old coverage on YouTube instead.” What else do you tell someone about what we’re seeing now?

Back to Bad Arguments: “The PT Used to Be Harder”

This one is also fun. In its stronger form (I’ll try to be charitable as long as I can keep it up), the argument goes that Magic used to be harder in the sense that the decks were more difficult to properly play. Making the Top 8 of a Pro Tour with Psychatog as your flagship creature is a different exercise than making Top 8 with Thragtusk as your flagship card, creature or otherwise. And besides what was in your own deck, your opponents also had Force Spikes and Fact or Fictions you had to navigate along the way.

That’s all well and good, but so what? The context in which I encounter these arguments (and their much weaker cousins) is by trying to figure out whether a great finish in 1998 or 2004 ought to be weighted more, less, or the same as a similar finish in 2015.

Let’s say the Tour de France 20 years ago had a field of half as many players, drawn from a total pool of seriously competitive cyclists 1/4 as big. Are you saying winning that race was just as impressive, if not more, because the bike was heavier?

We’re not saying it was harder to accumulate some in-game stat like home runs or creatures killed because the seasons were shorter (a real argument)—we’re talking about the zero-sum measurement of where did you finish in the event. How hard it is to hit a home run is a product of all kinds of things like bats, balls, steroids, and whether they won’t let black people pitch to you. But we’re not talking about home run hits—we’re talking about how hard it was to win the World Series. With fewer competitors (in the big picture and in the actual field), it was easier to post a high-ranking finish.

People are straining their credibility to make their favorite old-school candidate’s results look passable. Don’t fall for it.

(To the tune of: “MY BRAND” for those familiar with U.S. contact lens wholesaler ads:)

My Ballot

I take this seriously. My previous ballots were public, I stand by them, and I have never cast one without hours of careful thought. The only grain of salt here is that, of course, contrarian blood runs pretty thick through my veins (my Jewish grandma once contradicted my grandpa’s account that he didn’t know his $20 bill was counterfeit… to the police officer investigating the complaint). But to be honest, I’ve always more than scratched that contrarian itch with criticism during the discussion phase such that my ballots don’t really end up being especially contrarian. Disciplined, free of the popular nonsense of the day, but not contrarian for contrarianism’s sake.

1) Josh Utter-Leyton

Big-time stats, nothing fluky about them, and nothing dirty about them—this is what a Hall-of-Famer is.

2) Martin Juza

4 or 5 Top 8s does strike me as significantly better atop a resume than 3 does. This vote isn’t a total rejection of that by any means. As someone who has 2 Top 8s but was never a Top 10 player at any point in his career, I have the bona fides to say that you can make a couple Top 8s without being an all-time great, but 3 is much harder than 2, and 4 is much harder than 3. They don’t come along often and they come along a lot less often if you’re relying on a disproportionate amount of luck to separate you from the pack.

But that isn’t all that separates Martin from the pack. The accumulation of GP Top 8s and Pro Points overall shows consistent above-the-bar excellence at the professional level. Again, I can speak from experience when I say it isn’t very easy to accumulate even 10+ GP Top 8s, let alone 25+. Many of the people who didn’t vote for or strongly consider Martin this year were, in my view, doing too much “rounding down” of GP results. I agree that 5-6 Top 8s might round to 0 in your analysis, but 26 doesn’t.

Martin also has the Top 16, 32, and 64 finish numbers at the PT to back up the 3 Top 8s.

Juza has nearly all the things Herberholz and Lybaert don’t, which always made me uncomfortable including those two. I need to know that someone’s greatness had a breadth and depth. By requiring 3 Top 8s before I take a long look at a candidate, I ensure a measure of depth. Breadth is harder to put a gate in front of, but it’s obvious to me that Juza has it while Herberholz and Lybaert don’t.

On Heezy/Marijn

The surest sign of mental gymnastics to vote for your countrymen or friends is a ballot with either Herberholz or Lybaert on it, but not both. I explain above in discussion of breadth and depth why “neither” is a better answer to this problem than “both.”

On Saito

I was very close to voting for Saito this year. I think stalling is one of the mildest forms of cheating. Grouping all forms of cheating/lawbreaking together, rather than appreciating that different acts deserve different punishments, is the kind of thinking that overcrowds the prisons. And Saito’s resume is strong enough that if you apply a fairly steep penalty for the stalling infractions, he still almost gets in.

But not quite, and that’s why I didn’t vote for him. I felt like I had to take away GP results, especially because it’s so much easier to angle shoot like a stall or a missed trigger and capitalize at the GP level, and then when it came to Pro Tour Top 8s I had to take away at least one. What was left resembled a Frankenstein’s resume of Heezy/Lybaert—with all else equal, it’s a candidate I’m going to leave behind given the circumstances.

Along the way there, I might have double-punished Saito for the cheating, using it both to discount his resume heavily and then break a tie, but hey, that’s how it ought to be. Try to be fair (most people don’t get to this with Saito) but err on the side of caution with a lifelong induction and the spectre of foul play.

If Saito adds to his resume in a meaningful way he will get my vote.

On Floch

Breadth and depth. GPs don’t round to zero. Previous explanations should explain other choices like this one if you’re doing your job correctly as a voter. So I won’t list every borderline candidate.

On Pikula

Please reread the first half of the article, and if you’ve already submitted your ballot, I have good news: You can email again with a revised ballot. Changing your mind takes courage—please feel no shame in doing it.

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