Every few months, a new discussion about sportsmanship in Magic crops up. The most recent example occurred after an interaction at an SCG event, where one player refused a handshake from an opponent which sparked a discussion about sportsmanship within the Magic community, some even going so far as to call that player a bad sport. The conversations on the topic quickly coalesced into a mostly settled debate among many Magic personalities before everyone unanimously regretted that it was a topic in the first place. So instead of rehashing any parts of the same conversation again the next time someone expresses behavior that you find detestable (spoiler: it will happen), maybe we should take some time to define what behavior is acceptable based on a general consensus.
A Scientific Definition of Sportsmanship
The topic of sportsmanship is well studied in sports ethics and psychology, and as with many topics in psychology, much of that lies within the definition itself. For the Journal of Sport, Ethics, and Philosophy, Diana Abad described the four tenets of sportsmanship as fairness, equity, good form, and the will to win. These are all easily applied to Magic, and today I’ll break them each down one by one with examples from Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan to demonstrate that even professional players at the highest levels of competitive play value these characteristics, and you should too.
Whether you are on the kitchen table or in a feature match, when sitting down to play you agree with your opponent—either explicitly or implicitly—to follow the same set of rules and to abide by these rules throughout the match. In Magic, both players are responsible for enforcing the rules, and so allowing your opponent to misrepresent the board state may result in both players receiving punishment. Preventing your opponent from breaking a rule, even when the alternative outcome would be beneficial to you, is how to exhibit good sportsmanship.
When both Lui Yuchen and his opponent were playing in round 14 in Top 8 contention, Liu reminded his opponent to draw a card after cycling a Street Wraith. He could have pretended that he had not noticed that his opponent did not draw, but instead Liu demonstrated his integrity by reminding his opponent to finish resolving the ability that was activated. Not doing so would have been breaking the rules and, if it were determined to be intentional, Liu could have even been disqualified, and so he went with the play of maintaining the fairness of the game and showing good sportsmanship.
In the very next round at Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan when both players were also live for Top 8, Reid Duke reminded his opponent of the announced trigger to add another +1/+1 counter to his Champion of the Parish. Reid even clarifies that “I only mention it because you said +2,” indicating that he was aware that his opponent announced his intentions but failed to execute the action appropriately. If Reid had remained silent then it is likely that the game would advance past the point where a rewind could correct the board, but this would be against the rules since his opponent acknowledged the trigger. Enforcing the rules, even when they are detrimental to you, was a display of good sportsmanship and demonstrated fairness, and Reid Duke is an excellent role model for both.
In unsportsmanlike behavior, equity is when no rules are broken but the conduct exhibited is dishonorable. Taking the honorable route, even when not bound by the rules, is demonstrating sporting behavior. A classic example used by Abad is in soccer when a player is injured and the opposing team will stop play by kicking the ball out of bounds rather than take advantage of the downed player. Upon resuming the game, the team of the injured player will return the favor by giving the ball back to the team that kicked the ball out of play. Neither team is bound to their action by the rules but following this etiquette is considered demonstrating equity and sportsmanship.
In the middle of Day 1 of Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan we had David Williams’ infamous “embrowse” play. Gerry Thompson likely could have held Williams to the play by calling a judge, but he decided to give Williams the rewind instead. Gerry took the honorable way out and showed an immense amount of good sportsmanship by maintaining equity in the game.
Later near the end of Day 1, Paul Rietzl prevented his opponent from mistakenly revealing his hand to a Vendilion Clique. Of course, proper Vendilion Clique etiquette has been a point of contention in the past, but Rietzl demonstrated his respect for the game, his opponent, and fair play by preventing his opponent from making a legally ambiguous mistake. Not taking advantage of your opponent’s misunderstanding of the board state when doing so would be within the rules was an example of showing equity, and are two reasons why Thompson and Rietzl are so well liked among fans.
Abad specifically points out not shaking hands after the conclusion of the match as an example of showing bad form, but also lists constantly complaining, being a sore loser (i.e., being salty), being an ungraceful winner, or otherwise displaying disrespect outside of the game itself.
Good form in Magic can be anything from conceding to an infinite combo on Magic Online rather than making your opponent click through the entire process, to conceding when you are in an essentially unwinnable position against Lantern Control in Modern, to shaking hands after the match, to congratulating your opponent after the match.
Luis Esper Berthoud exhibited excellent form after losing a win-and-in for Top 8 of Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan when he asked eventual champion Luis Salvatto, “Do I have any chance of winning?” and conceded the match when he was told an emphatic “no” in response. Then, referencing the game loss that Salvatto received in game 1, Berthoud even went beyond that basic level of good form to say to his opponent and teammate, “sometimes in the past I also got game losses and match losses for dumb things and if it’s within the rules then it’s within the rules. Sorry. Congrats, man. Let’s win tomorrow, all right?” Berthoud could have stormed off the feature match area upset about being “the first person to [lose] a match 3-0”, as Marshall Sutcliffe succinctly worded it during commentary, but instead he decided to encourage his teammate and wish him luck the next day. Bouncing back from a loss is hard, but losing is common in Magic and it is a sign of great character to be able to get used to it happening and learn how to conduct yourself for when it does strike.
Will to Win
Good sportsmanship requires showing some level of respect for the game and a respect for your opponents and their efforts. In conventional sports this encompasses playing to the best of your ability, not treating the contest as a joke, and legitimately trying to win. What better way to display the will to win of the “good sports” that I outlined in this article than by stating their records? Reid Duke, Luis Esper Berthoud, Paul Rietzl, Gerry Thompson, and Lui Yuchen combined for a record of 57-22-1. All of them finished in the Top 100 and two of them even made it into the Top 8. Winning is clearly not incompatible with being a good sport, and it also contributes to upholding tournament and personal integrity.
Achieving good sportsmanship is about striking a balance of each of the four tenets of being a good sport where no pillar can be completely ignored. It is up to each individual how they choose to strike that balance, but this is where the conversation on sportsmanship in Magic should be directed. Making mistakes and learning from them is normal, but always try to treat yourself, your opponent, and the game with the same level of respect.
What other examples of good sportsmanship have you seen in the feature match area? Who do you think is Magic’s “best sport”? Let’s discuss in the comments!