Scouting: What Are We Talking About, and How Did It All Start?

If you enter a 4-player Constructed tournament, all taking place at your kitchen table, you might look over during your first match to see what the other 2 players brought to the tournament. This curiosity is natural, and if the tournament stakes are low, it’s more fun to look over, maybe chat about the games, and feel like you’re having one big round and not two separated matches.

Add more players to the mix, and you’ll have to do more work to get a “peek” at what other people are playing. Maybe you’ll walk past a nearby match or walk around the room if your match finishes early. Again, if the stakes are casual there’s not even a whiff of concern.

As the stakes get higher, curiosity and fun start to feel a little bit like hunting for a competitive advantage. Get all the way up to the Pro Tour level, and competitive advantages are so important that people start to develop creative ways to capture it.

Those things might include writing down all the information you can collect, “taking notes” on what people are playing. It’s 2015, so these notes can be electronically kept and shared. A while ago, some pro teams figured out that beyond just electronically recording and sharing, someone back home (or at the site, it doesn’t matter) who isn’t playing in the tournament could aggregate, reconcile, and redistribute the information in a spreadsheet or email.

When the pairings go up, many pro players are looking at who they play, then looking them up on the spreadsheet. I might see that I’m paired against Jenny Peeteeque this round, then open up Google Docs in my cell phone and see if our team has collected any information about what Jenny is playing. At the last Pro Tour in Belgium, Team Ultra PRO kept our scouting sheet using pen and paper, like the old men many of us are, and it worked out fine. But usually the info is in an online spreadsheet. Most of the time, in my somewhat extensive experience with these systems, the sheet contains either nothing about Jenny’s deck or an archetype-level description, such as “RG Dragons” or “Mono-Red Aggro.”

Typically, pros begin by scouting other pro teams. At first this information is easy to capture—you know the names of the players which makes them easy to find and the info easy to remember. Second, once I know what Huey is playing, I have an educated guess about what Owen is playing, so the information cascades in a way that makes it more valuable. Third, I only care about the scouting info if I’m doing well, and the pro players are more likely to be my opponents if I’m doing well than Joe Blow at table 200 is. Even the less enfranchised, newer players will be walking around the room to figure out what Huey and LSV are playing (assuming they get to LSV before round 6, by which time he might have dropped).

As the tournament goes on, the sheet/database will have more and more players’ archetypes accounted for. Sometimes specific cards are added but rarely is it a complete deck list or anything resembling a complete deck list. It’s not that we wouldn’t want to capture this level of detail, we just usually can’t.

While pros are capturing scouting information about everyone they can, non-pros are usually standing around the water cooler discussing which pro teams are playing which decks, or watching a feature match, or perhaps texting someone who is watching coverage at home. I can’t say for sure, but those all seem like reasonable things to be doing between rounds while the pros are scouting in their digital scouting sheets.

I have to admit I don’t really care for the status quo. I do it, but I think it needs some reform. Just like I pay my taxes even though I believe the tax code is in need of reform. Something is broken, but the solutions aren’t simple. Or rather, just like with the tax code, the consequences of the solutions aren’t simple—even if some actual proposals appear to be.

In a Perfect World There Would Be No Scouting

If I could snap my fingers and eliminate scouting, I would. Magic is about hidden information, reactions and decisions made when your opponent surprises you, and it certainly is not about the strength of your mobile device’s internet connection or the speed at which you can move through a room and essentially spy on other matches.

But what does “eliminate scouting” mean? You’d have to create a world where players couldn’t watch other matches—including feature matches—or talk to other people, etc. I think at the Pro Tour level that would be best for competitive balance, but is impossible or extremely costly to achieve. We have to compromise.

Magic is fun to watch and tournaments are fun to attend, and it’s very easy to have your anti-scouting measures chip away at those facts if you aren’t careful. Below, I’ll start by explaining in more detail what feels wrong about scouting, and why I’d eliminate it if possible. Next, I’ll see what we can and can’t, should and shouldn’t, actually change about the status quo.

Scouting Feels Wrong, and Organized Scouting Feels Collusive

To many observers, and to at least this practitioner, scouting feels icky. I remember the feeling I got, many years ago, the first few times I walked over to a match with the intention of learning information rather than spectating the game. I remember it felt wrong, like I was spying.

I do it now because an advantage available to me (and my opponents) under the rules would have to be more than just kind of icky feeling to me before I’d show up to a Pro Tour and decline to use it myself. Extreme rules lawyering or “psychological edge” tactics that might be within the rules are advantages I’m not looking to capture, but scouting is less than that—it’s just kind of the way things are, rather than me going out of my way to squeeze every edge available.

So I do it, and I think it does provide a real, though not massive, advantage. Some pros have argued that, “well, it doesn’t even matter that much because you have to get accurate info, then also get an opening hand that’s impacted by the info, and the result of the game would have to be different than if you had acted without the info.” This is true, but edges are not easy to come by, and multiple teams are working pretty hard to capture this edge, so we should be skeptical that the edge gained is actually that small.

I know that many pros feel like the organized scouting they do hardly compensates them, in terms of information advantage/disadvantage, for the target on their back or the extra coverage they receive. I understand this argument, though it isn’t something I lose sleep over. The information disadvantage coverage creates is a negative thing that we probably can’t eliminate. Letting the pros form scouting syndicates does level the playing field a bit, though for appearances sake, “two weird things” definitely don’t cancel out.

Organized scouting via mobile devices has a special “cheaty feel” to it. The word feel is critical—it isn’t actually cheating. But to someone who is new to the scene, or someone tasked with coming up with the rules from scratch, this sure seems collusive and inappropriate at first glance. The use of internet-connected technology causes controversy in other games and sports as well, and so some of that is present here. We don’t want you checking your phone during the match, is checking the phone after pairings have been posted meaningfully better?

There is a perception that the Pro Tour is a cliquey old boys club with two main groups: 1) the established pro players who team up to compound their already natural advantage (ability and experience), and 2) everybody else. There is more truth to this perception than there is falsehood. Pros collaborate to prepare for the Pro Tours, and the gains are massive. It doesn’t mean every form of collaboration should be allowed under the rules, but it is what happens.

So there are some reasons to want to disallow scouting, and some reasons to keep it. Same for the scouting syndicates. But reasons alone do not make good, enforceable rules. What are the barriers to changing the rules?

How Would We Ban Scouting Altogether?

Jeff Cunningham suggested to me on Twitter that the opponent’s name need not be displayed on the pairings board. The problem there is that you can scan the pairings for the same table number as yours, providing an awkward way to deduce who you’re playing.

When mobile devices were banished from matches, one of my first thoughts was whether mobile devices should not be permitted once pairings are up. The main problem here is exemplified by what Team Ultra PRO did in Belgium—it just doesn’t go far enough. My team did the scouting on paper—it can be done and the results are pretty similar if you have one or two people on the sidelines managing a couple lists. If you don’t want to reward the best Google Docs scouting syndicate, why do you want to reward the best pen and paper scouting syndicate?

Restrictions that go even farther than restricting what can be used once pairings are about to go up strike me as extreme solutions to a non-extreme problem. The edges are small, the perceptions are present but not dominant. I would hate to not be able to talk to friends or live-Tweet the tournament in the name of stopping something that isn’t really providing a big edge (and may be compensating for the lost edge of being in the spotlight).

Scouting is here to stay, and compromises have to be made. Reality dictates those two facts.

Improving the Current System—Stopping the Syndicates

Though I recognize the implementation/enforcement problems outlined above, I think we can improve the current system by focusing on a particularly critical point-in-time. Enforcing some restrictions during this time period is relatively easy and it makes using centralized scouting information very difficult.

At the Pro Tour level, I would be willing to agree to turn off my phone, cease all conversation, and put away all paper notes, following each announcement that “Pairings are going up.” This would have to happen right before pairings went up, so people aren’t standing around in silence for long, but given that premise, I don’t mind it. It doesn’t seem extreme to me.

Would scouting syndicates survive this change? Probably not. Taking a look at the field or the list of players with a similar record between rounds is just too little gain. In the late stages of the Pro Tour people would try to get a “top tables” scouting analysis together, but the large teams wouldn’t have a large advantage in doing it.

What about the pros who don’t like being “naturally” scouted by coverage, onlookers who know their name, etc.? I couldn’t find a solution that would satisfy everyone, I know this issue has not been solved. But more and more, pros are finding ways to prepare better and to get compensated in cash (by sponsors) for the coverage they receive or the articles they write. If someone mulligans 5% or 10% better (generous figure) against me some of the time because of these opportunities, it’s just the piece of the puzzle I’m most willing to give up, and I encourage pros to adopt that mindset.

The perception that scouting syndicates have created, the distraction that they provide—I say get rid of it using a simple go-silent-once-pairings are announced rule.

Let me know what you think below in the comments or on Twitter @mtg_law_etc.