Monday, July 25, 2016

How I went from #NeverHillary to #MaybeHillary: My Internal Dialogue

What is below started as a piece setting forth and defending my position that game theory instructs us to establish a reputation in an iterated game.  But as I was writing this, I found arguments others had been making in my discussions with them creeping into my analysis as responses I would need to anticipate and rebut, but then staying at the front of my mind as possibly compatible with, rather than completely opposed to, the way I was viewing things.  In a very real sense, the conversations I was having changed my mind in a pretty radical way.  Below is a log of me putting the pieces together based on where I was combined with what people were sharing and what I viewed as the best alternatives.

On Elections & Game Theory & The Real World

You should be very skeptical of people who have simple answers to complex problems.  They may be right, but for the wrong reasons, and if you adopt those reasons you will be armed with the correct answer but not for long (situations change and what you're relying on won't generalize - that's what it means to be right for the wrong reasons).  When people say voting for Candidate X in the 2016 election is simple, it's a no-brainer, only a fool could get it wrong, some of those people are right for the wrong reasons and others are wrong for the wrong reasons (after all, I didn't say which candidate they support), but all of them are wrong for oversimplifying a very complex decision.   They are wrong in a way that will produce the wrong answer if applied to a different election, even if they're right in 2016.

The Things the “This is Simple” Folks Likely Aren’t Considering:

Everything is Iterated: Voting and Rationality

Researchers have performed the following experiment, called the ultimatum game, where, for example, researchers give Player A $50 but on one condition: Player A must offer Player B a portion of the $50 (in whole dollar increments), and only if Player B accepts the offered split will either player walk away with any cash.  There is a vast literature full of variations, but in the most basic version, it is said that if both Player A and Player B are “rational maximizers” then Player A will offer to give $1 and keep $49.  After all, Player B is now faced with a decision between $1 and $0, and thus “should” accept the $1.  Accepting $1 is said to be a “dominant” strategy over rejecting and getting $0 – it results in a better outcome every time.  Since accepting $1 is dominant, so is offering $1, since that results in the biggest gain ($49) for Player A. 

Real life Players A usually offer more than $1 and real life Players B usually don’t accept $1 when offered.  These players, despite being easy to find, are ridiculed as “irrational” by some researchers and observers. 

In a different variation, the players will do the same exercise twice instead of once, and they know this fact.  Playing more than once introduces the concept of an “iterated” game.   Even with only 2 events rather than 1, the incentives have changed somewhat.  An offer of $1 in Game 1 still gives Player B the choice between $1 and $0, but there is now almost everyone agrees there is a “rational reason” to punish Player A for such a small offer.  Player B may establish, as a rational strategy rather than as a “mistake,” a reputation as someone who doesn’t accept offers she perceives as unfair.  If these players are to play more than twice, these reputations become increasingly important relative to the $1, or $10, in play in the particular game that is going on. 

As with any experiment, the hardest part is figuring out how the results relate back to the real world.  Why do most people instinctively feel that rejecting “unfair” offers is a valid strategy that feels better than $1 feels.  Why does the supposedly dominant strategy not seem intuitively dominant?  Because in the real world, nearly everything is iterated.  We live in communities, we have reputations in our communities, and our intuitions seem to have evolved (culturally if not biologically – and results do vary across cultures) to understand that the non-iterated game where your reputation doesn’t matter is the very rare exception, not the rule.

Before we move on, there is one more variation I want to mention. Like I said, the literature is vast, and I am presenting only the tip of the tip of the tip of the iceberg here, the parts that will be relevant later.  One thing I learned from the blog Less Wrong is that changing the stakes can change our intuitions.  People who reject the $49-$1 split might not reject an offer to split $50 billion $49billion-$1billion, or an offered split of 49 million doses of life-saving medicine to 1 million doses (where a rejected offer means no medicine is manufactured at all) if an evil dictator decides to be Player A.  I would say two things are happening here, the first is that these don’t feel like scenarios that are likely to be iterated, and we can pick up on that intuitively.  Indeed, if you set up the iterated version even in the thought experiment, the intuitions start to shift (“well, the next offer the dictator will make if I accept this is 1 million more doses or even less, so I can perhaps save more total lives by rejecting – I need to at least consider that.”).  Second, the offers feel less “unfair” because the smaller pile is still so significant.  This will be important later as the stakes in the real world are often larger than $50.  

Note on using Game Theory to “model” real life decisions.  Decisions in the real world are complex and most of the important ones won’t have numbers like $49 or $1 attached, and if you try to attach a number, but add disclaimers that the numbers are imprecise, based on certain assumptions that are clearly flimsy, etc., you run a pretty serious risk of trying to make what you’re doing seem more precise than it is.  But, I still believe we can model things and learn from the models and even compare outputs, using natural language and intuition.  So if I say you can model housing stipends at tech companies as a kind of “arms race” or certain negotiations as a “game of chicken” I am drawing on game theory for a natural language way to express a pattern of decision incentives and constraints, drawing on our intuition and experience in how to navigate them.  I don’t mean a model that outputs the correct dollar amount of the ideal housing stipend or the precise place the negotiation should land – those would be different kinds of models. 

Presidential Elections – An Iterated Game

If you openly support Gary Johnson or especially Jill Stein, people will politely or not-so-politely inform you that you are making an irrational choice. In fact, a dominated choice.  In the case of a progressive who supports Stein, you are told that you can choose to make it slightly less likely that Trump gets elected, or you can choose to have no impact, and thus sucking it up and voting for Hillary is dominant – it accomplishes a small something rather than nothing.  Sound familiar? 

And as you might expect, I reply that elections are an iterated game.  Every four years, we get a new “offer” from the two major parties and a few side players like libertarians and greens. 

Our reputation for accepting or declining unfair offers is public, and it does impact the candidates (the offers) we get in future election cycles.  In each election cycle, major and minor parties (and the media that covers them) have to decide who they want to hitch their wagon to.  And they all have analysts trying to predict who is “electable,” which issues matter, which positions are too risky to add to the platform, and a host of similar choice along the same lines. 

Even if these party leaders, media members, and analysts don’t know how Matt Sperling voted last election, they certainly can and will look up how many people voted independent.  My vote is counted.  Maybe I stay home on election day.  They look at turnout, they analyze those numbers.  My vote is again counted, though less precisely. The choices that leaders and advisors have to make will be made in a way that tries to “capture” a winning number of votes and they will use past elections to model how people are likely to behave this time.  This happens all the time.    

Stein and Johnson voters are establishing their reputation in an iterated game.  They are declining the unfair offers of Trump or Clinton.  Critically, the offer has only gotten this bad because so many people have established a reputation for playing a “non-iterated” strategy of accepting poor offers.  If you accept $1 in Game 1 of the iterated version, what is to stop Player A from offering $1 again in Game 2 or an even lower minimum if one is permitted? 

The Things I Was Glossing Over Before I Forced Myself to Advocate for Them as an Exercise:

“But Trump is so bad, this feels like a non-iterated game – he might start World War III or appoint a conservative to the Supreme Court for life!”  The elephant in the room.  The “Trump is so much worse!” argument has a ton of intuitive appeal.  Yet my model in the first part of this post hardly considers it.  That’s an indicator that I needed to stare at this pretty hard and consider whether my model really shouldn’t just have an input for just how bad the other candidate is.  The next exchange (hypothetical as I argue with myself, but you’ll see I surprised myself with which side won the argument!) was instructive:

I forced myself to come up with game theory reasoning for a Hillary vote, to test my reasons against, and then to rebut those rebuttals, etc., here is a summary of the resulting exchange I had with myself (and I didn’t figure this all out by pure introspection but from discussions with others plus introspection, and I present the introspection piece here for review as a clean summary of what I found persuasive on each side):

(“Matt B” - the part of my brain playing Devil’s Advocate): By voting third party based on a model that is agnostic as to how bad Trump is relative to Hillary, you’re not ‘rationally rejecting a low offer’ as you claim, you’re irrationally defecting from a collective strategy of voting along party lines.  Political parties are coalitions of voters trying to avoid the collective action problem of 100 people with 100 different sets of preferences all voting for 100 candidates.  How exactly to compromise is an incredibly tricky problem, but coalitions of voters that align on at least the big picture issues or big picture approaches to the big issues, is a solution that we’ve landed on with the 2 major parties.  When to defect from the coalition becomes thus not simply a question of “is this an iterated game, can I impact future elections with a better vote?” but rather comparing that good to the harm of defecting.

In a winner-take-all election, if one side of the political spectrum forms stronger coalitions of voters than the other side, that side threatens to win every election.  Voting along party lines is a cooperative effort to not let the other side win every time by having a stronger coalition. 

(Matt A responds): If my coalition is advancing agendas not just slightly misaligned with my values but in direct opposition to them (just to make up some hypotheticals - say the party defrauded its members by supporting one candidate in the “neutral” primary season or the winning candidate in the primary is pretty clearly captured by special interests seeking to perpetuate the status quo under the guise of fake progressivism - again just to make up a hypothetical), then why are you even participating?  And intuition about what to do is once again instructive – people in fact stop participating and voter turnout drops in these contexts.  You need a line in the sand somewhere for when to defect and not participate in the coalition.   

(Matt B): Well, I do have a line for when to leave, the line for when to leave the coalition is when your candidate is worse than the other coalition’s candidate (in which case abandoning has no cost or even has positive effect), or at the very least when the costs of the coalition failing are not so severe that they overshadow the future gains of establishing a reputation for declining unfair offers. 

(Matt A): But this level of fealty to the coalitions will lead (and has lead) to a death spiral of two increasingly bad candidates on issues that can be captured by special interests.  Your model doesn’t account for getting out of this death spiral.  You need a better way out than “their guy is better, cool I'll switch!” as “their guy/gal” will consistently suck from your vantage point - almost by definition of how the coalitions were formed in the first place.

(Matt B): Oh but I do have a way out, since I am a Strongman living in your imagination, I can make my model incorporate yours if I want to.  I’m not saying you should always cooperate with the collective effort to stop the other guy.  I’m saying you take the output of your model for impacting future election cycles with your reputation (as someone whose vote cannot be captured easily), and compare that to the output of the model that says cooperate no matter what.  Cooperation has an expected value, and so does your reputation.  You then vote the higher expected value.  You formed your model for navigating an iterated election process in defiance of everyone saying the coalition (party) voting model was the whole story, but you went too far.  You are right that too often, the party-lines folks are not even engaging with the tradeoff and trying to navigate it.  But neither are you.  There are two collective action problems here we can effectively think about and informally model, and it is imperative that we model both. 

(Matt A): I see what you are saying and it makes sense.  This would also allow me to get the relative value of the two candidates into my new model (the combined model) as an input, which makes intuitive sense if you consider that our goal is total utility, i.e. being Game Theory Optimal (actual) not just being Game Theory Optimal (incomplete model).  Before, I could feel myself wanting to not have an input in my model for relative strength of the candidates, and thus avoid the "Trump is so awful though" STOP SIGN in some people’s thinking.  But I cannot in good faith construct my own equal and opposite STOP SIGN to my own thought process that says “don’t carefully consider what the inputs to your model should be and which inputs feel intuitively wrong to exclude, think first about which inputs will help you win your argument.” 

Quick question for you Matt B, what if the coalition leaders used corrupt tactics to bias the coalition electorate, or what if the coalition candidate isn’t all that truthful and you feel others are being tricked, should that matter? 

(Matt B): It does matter, as your “should I establish a reputation for not putting up with bullshit” model’s YES output increases as the amount of bullshit increases.  It just can’t be the end of the analysis, you still have to compare that output to the costs of defecting from the coalition.  You were right that the "I always vote along party lines" people need a line in the sand, but you were wrong about how to draw it.  

(Matt A): Okay, I think we have a framework.  We better discuss that line and come up with a decision on how to vote this year…

(To be Continued)

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

My 2016 Magic Pro Tour Hall of Fame Ballot

I would describe this year in two ways: no quantitative slam dunks, and 2 qualitative slam dunks (Owen Turtenwald and Yuuya Watanabe).

I am not a statistician who was given a vote solely for my quantitative skills, so I can't ignore the qualitative feel, but I also want to cast not just a reactive ballot but an informed ballot.  So I find myself narrowed to two ballots that align with my general approach: 1) [Ballot Intentionally Left Blank], and 2) Owen & Yuuya.

Voting someone who doesn't belong is a bigger mistake than not voting someone who belongs, but when I think about Owen and Yuuya I just don't believe the risk of these being players who don't belong is very high.  Playing at or near the top (not top LEVEL but straight top) of the world for years and years is something that Hall of Famers are made of.  Leave all that "he loves the game!" crap behind, these two were some of the toughest opponents in multiple years, multiple formats, and multiple ways.  Even on a bad day, these guys didn't give you much you had to go take it.  My A Game never matched their A Game and their C Game, well, I probably couldn't even tell it apart from their A Game.

Notes on others: Heezy - I love the guy but if Arnost Zidek or Mitamura had his career I wouldn't think twice here and I owe it to everyone to try and be somewhat objective.  4 top 8s with a win is nice but if it was that simple the requirements would be hard-coded.  Can't do it.

Floch/Seth - Gotta stretch results out a bit, prove you can do it for an extended period of time.  They might enough for a Rich Hagon e-book though.

Justin Gary/Scott Johns/Saito etc: No need to have same discussions year after year when the crowd has spoken and the resumes have not changed.  The hall is too big to accommodate people who don't make an impression their first couple times on the ballot if nothing changes, unless they were very close and you never took a hard look the first time.  If people were dicks or angle shooters or whatever I won't be the most qualified to opine but I see no need to revisit every single year.

Marin Light Beer - See Herberholz above.  Where the stats are borderline and Zac Hill writes about how the person was a master I'm a mortal lock to not vote for them.  Hipster-master != actual master.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Platinum Pro Club Changes, Corporate Greed or Legal Mandate? (Both?)

Wizards of the Coast, a Hasbro subsidiary, announced last week that the benefits awarded to its Pro Players Club members would be cut for the 2016-2017 season.  One of the most critical benefits (critical at least to those players trying to live up to the “Pro” in the “Pro Tour” name) was a $3,000 cash appearance fee at each of the four Pro Tour stops for Platinum players.  This appearance fee was slashed by $2,750 and is now a $250 reminder of the good ol’ days.  A replica (not to scale) of a Platinum Player Appearance Fee.

I am in some ways qualified to discuss this from the impacted player viewpoint, and in some ways not.   I am currently one of about 30 players enjoying the $3,000 Platinum appearance fee, but I am not tracking very closely towards Platinum again for the 2016-2017, and perhaps most importantly, Magic is not my day job as it is for several of my friends and colleagues in the Platinum player’s club.  (By the way, the Hall of Fame appearance fee of $1,500 per Pro Tour is also being reduced – it will now occur at a single Pro Tour each year, not every Pro Tour).

I want to first discuss my conspiracy theory (of which I’ve convinced myself, but that’s the easy part), then the decision to cut benefits itself, then the timing of the decision, with an aside on legal action against Wizards of the Coast, a Hasbro subsidiary. 

Is this All Motivated by a Desire to Undermine the Claim that (Some) Players Are Employees?

I don’t think it puts too much tinfoil on my head to note that the timing of this announcement relative to the lawsuit claiming Magic judges are employees of Wizards of the Coast, a Hasbro subsidiary, is interesting.  Also, the announcement itself focused on shifting the goals away from trying to support professional Magic players, who presumably would then be acting in many ways at the direction of Wizards of the Coast, a Hasbro subsidiary, in order to earn a living. 

It is possible that because of the judges’ suit, an employment/labor attorney was forced to come in and look at not just judges but other 1099 independent contractors and they said, “Uh oh, here we have a program with not only the function but even the stated intent of creating professional, full time players.  Who decided the company wanted to do this and what is his or her phone number?”  If that kind of analysis is what led to the decision, a change has to be made and announced, but you can’t announce that you’re attempting to reduce future liability for wages & benefits where you might have past or present liability … so what do you announce? 

Maybe you announce that “The appearance fees we awarded for Platinum pros were meant to assist in maintaining the professional Magic player’s lifestyle; upon scrupulous evaluation, we believe that the program is not succeeding at this goal, and have made the decision to decrease appearance fees.

Instead, we will be increasing the amount of prize money awarded at our biggest tournament of the year: The World Championship.”

You revise the Worlds payout structure to create both a positive smokescreen and a sensible use of the available funds. 

The HOF appearance fee reduction doesn't fit neatly into this story, but that's exactly what they wanted you to think when they came up with it.  Okay, I should probably go to sleep - will write the rest in the morning. 

The Decision to Reduce Appearance Fees

Wizards of the Coast, a Hasbro subsidiary, is the embodiment of everything I hate about corporations.  It has become not just interested in quarterly earnings, but myopically focused on the trailing few quarters and the targets for the next few.   It is the owner and supposed warden of an important part of my life and culture, but it is constantly willing and able to make trade-offs against my interests in favor of its own.  As KFC has protected the institution of wholesome dinner for working families, Wizards of the Coast, a Hasbro subsidiary, has looked over trading card gaming for competitive players.  

This analogy runs fairly deep.  Nobody has to enter a Magic tournament or eat a bucket of fried chicken, and indeed, each year, more evidence emerges that doing neither is a good idea. 

The great bridge in corporate strategy between Wizards of the Coast, a Hasbro subsidiary, and the rest of the worst of corporate free trade is the shortcut.  Why scale tournament prizes to keep pace with profits when you can just keep them flat and show a bigger margin in the short term?  Ask the Colonel: if they keep buying the chicken with the cheap ingredients, why use the healthy version?  Why fund a headline grabbing (by 2001 standards I guess) prize pool in the World Championships by increasing the total budget for organized play when you can just cut some benefits elsewhere?  Shortcuts. 

Wizards of the Coast, a Hasbro subsidiary, claims that the appearance fee was intended to support players making a living off the Pro Tour, but that it wasn’t accomplishing that goal.  It must be the goal that has changed, since nothing in the announced changes helps professional players earn a living from year to year with any consistency.  Wizards of the Coast, a Hasbro subsidiary, is free to change its organized play goals, but all the evidence suggests that they barely know what they want to accomplish with organized play, let alone how to achieve it.

I keep going back to that in my mind: Wizards of the Coast, a Hasbro subsidiary, barely knows what it wants to accomplish with organized play, let alone how to achieve it.  If the goal is to scale viewership and community on Twitch, hire a real team to produce that content and don’t let Blizzard hire Brian Kibler to commentate every major event for your primary competitor.  If the goal is to allow aspiring competitive players to rationalize spending way too much money and an unhealthy amount of time on your products, build trust with those players instead of constantly undermining it (see timing section below for more).  If the goal is to grab a few headlines when major tournaments happen, then try to hold those tournaments on the same scale, relative to your sales levels, as the gaming tournaments it competes with for headlines.

Wizards of the Coast, a Hasbro subsidiary, has always been, and likely always will be, a group of talented game designers plagued by visionless leadership, incompetent and overly risk-averse legal strategy (of course with blind spots where it really might matter like whether Judges are employees – being conservative doesn’t guarantee conservation), sister and parent offerings that lose money (preventing proper reinvestment into what’s working – Magic), and a corporate culture of hindsight bias and myopia that observes growing sales but doesn’t even start evaluating how much more they could have been growing until a competitor comes along and punches them awake. 

When measuring the progress of Magic as a product in Q1 2016, don’t be content to compare to Magic in Q4 2015, show me how you’re tracking against Q1-2016-Alternate-Universe-A -B and -C in which the game isn't inhibited by a failing online version, isn't held back by weak organized play support that doesn't scale with the growth of the game, and/or doesn't advertise via an embarrassing offering on Twitch.  What Magic earns Hasbro is a fraction of what it could earn them, what it should earn them.  Blizzard filling some of the gaps was supposed to wake these people up, but maybe this wasn’t an “asleep at the wheel” situation but a “doesn’t know how to drive” situation.

Long story short, the decision to gut support for the career player itself did not surprise me.  They are entitled to try different incentive structures for their players in the competitive gaming landscape, and they will in fact try new ones.  And they will do it in the same old frustrating way, as an industry laggard on everything but the product itself holding back a leading (and still best) product.  They will continue to succeed, at an immeasurably fractional rate relative to their potential, despite themselves, and they will call it an obvious success.

The Timing of the Decision to Cut Appearance Fees

Even though I got to enjoy $3,000 appearance fee checks in 2016, I earned them in 2015.  The players who earned them in 2016 have had the rug pulled from under them since their investments of time and money in 2016 are unrecoverable and (for now) it looks like the payoff has been nerfed.  PokerStars recently did the same thing to its players, and the backlash there was something Wizards of the Coast, a Hasbro subsidiary, probably didn’t consider or understand.

Here is how it should work: when a company says, “Do X in period 0 and we’ll give you Y in period 1,” the company should budget for Y in period 0 and then keep their promise in period 1.  Maybe accounting rules say you can put Y in the 2016 budget.  Maybe the law says you can break the promise (see below), but this isn’t the way a mature company worthy of trust from its customers should act, if it cares about preserving that trust and continuing to appear mature.

These players deserve the money they earned.  I don’t care if it helps them survive as a professional player or pay taxes on 2016 earnings they used to get by, or if they use it to figure out what to do next with their life, or if they give it to charity like Jon Finkel probably does.  They earned it, it’s their money.    

For the players’ part, when a company acts in an untrustworthy and immature manner, you have to simultaneously adjust your expectations and withhold your full support.  Ask the PokerStars pros if they hold that company in the same regard, provide it with their full support, or feel comfortable tying their livelihood to its existence and success.

Quick Aside: Legal Analysis of Whether Players Could Successfully Sue Wizards of the Coast, a Hasbro subsidiary for Breach of Contract or Promissory Estoppel

Every Reddit thread on any change a company makes will inevitably include a claim that the company can be or should be sued.  I’m sure on /r/SoupCanCollecting when Campbell’s changes the shade of red on its soup cans someone posts “IANAL, but can’t collectors just sue them?” 

I already said above that a labor & employment case on behalf of Pros is possible, but costly and not even likely to succeed.  A case against Wizards of the Coast, a Hasbro subsidiary, for breach of contract or promissory estoppel (a fancy term for essentially breaking a promise you made that you knew or should have known others would reasonably rely on), has several issues that in my view are fatal to the players’ cause.

For as long as I can remember, descriptions of the Players Club benefits have been accompanied by a reservation of rights, the right to change or revoke the benefits at any time.  This language makes it difficult to claim that the promise of these benefits a few lines of text away could be reasonably relied upon in an actionable way, whether contract or quasi-contractual theories are invoked.  Wizards legal is bad, but they did repeatedly pepper us with the right disclaimer in the right place on this issue.  

Few things in law are truly open and shut, so of course there is a chance it could be found the other way, but it would have to be litigated to find out and when the class of potential plaintiffs is ~30 people and the dollar amount per claim is $11k or whatever, that dog just won’t hunt. 

Where Do the Pro Players Go from Here?

Somewhere else perhaps.  But even if we learned that Wizards of the Coast, a Hasbro subsidiary doesn't need us, some of us may need it.  The game is fun, the community is great (the ecosystem of many communities actually, fuck off with that Community Super League appropriation), and only 30 of us were platinum anyway.  Maybe this is getting a little overblown, I respect that take.  And I suspect Wizards of the Coast, a Hasbro subsidiary, will back off the timing component of the decision and make the new benefits effective 2017-2018.  I suspect this because the backlash has been much larger than the dollar amounts are.  As described above, Wizards of the Coast, a Hasbro subsidiary, is a greedy hellscape of myopic corporate pragmatism, and I predict they do the now seemingly pragmatic thing on the timing issue.

If they don’t back off the timing of the change, I suggest all current Platinum Pros, myself included, coordinate in order to boycott PT Sydney and to prepare and present counter-programming against its broadcast that weekend on Twitch by having top Magic pros learning and streaming other TCGs.  For me, at 28 points with a few GPs coming up, there is a very good chance that skipping Sydney would cost me Gold (and a shot at extending my last-PT-of-the-year top 8 streak and making Platinum, which used to be different than Gold by the way).  As a community of top players, we don’t have many high-powered tools to push back with and we have no such tools which involve zero personal sacrifice.

However, assuming things go as predicted and this is walked back to a 2017-2018 change, that gives professional players a couple years to figure out how to downshift into “hobbyist who pursues the World Championship but not at the expense of everything else” or find something else entirely to spend time and money on (Hearthstone, HexTCG, or even, gasp, personal or professional pursuits outside of gaming). 

Attempting to unionize or sue for back pay on a, based on my best guess, fairly thin but not entirely unprecedented definition of “employee” seems likely to kill the Pro Tour at the same time it consumes a bunch of time, energy, and money of the players involved.  But if the players who did attempt to make a living at Magic feel entitled to unionize or to seek back pay I would support their efforts.  Nothing in this post shall be construed as an admission or waiver, express or implied, of any of the author’s rights under the NLRA, WA or CA state law, or otherwise. 

The one thing none of us should do for several years is trust Wizards of the Coast, a Hasbro subsidiary, to act with integrity or respect towards the community of entrenched competitive players.  Some individuals working there certainly want to do right by the players and support them, but if you’ll allow me to return to my favorite analogy, people at KFC merely wanting you to stay healthy doesn’t get it done in a corporate culture that either renders them powerless or incentivizes them to do the opposite while keeping up appearances.   

Aaron Forsythe recently tweeted that Greg Leeds, who resigned as President of Wizards of the Coast, a Hasbro subsidiary, “went out on top.”  On top of what, a steaming pile of shit?  Now we have received an indication of where to set our expectations for new President Chris Cocks.  I wish him luck in stopping the hemorrhaging of market share to Blizzard’s Hearthstone.  Unfortunately, Magic’s organized play won’t be helping the cause.  Not with this approach or at this scale. 

Take care,
Matt Sperling.

Twitter @mtg_law_etc is a better place to converse than the comments below if you want me to read and maybe respond.  Someone should also post this on Reddit so we get the free expert legal advice that's easy to find there. 

Monday, March 14, 2016

Pro-Level Draft with DFCs

This is our 3rd time drafting with Double Faced Cards (DFCs).  The first, Innistrad block, went okay, but it had some issues that always bothered me.   Those issues came home to roost in Magic Origins draft (with 5 mythic DFCs).  And I’ll like to see these issues discussed and possibly corrected before the third dance.

I believe things work fine as is at low stakes.  Drafting at home, drafting at FNM, fine.  But in a super competitive or professional-level setting, there are real issues:

1) Asking players to keep their eyes forward (so as to not be able to see, or appear to have seen, the normal cards people are drafting), while simultaneously scattering a bunch of tempting “public” information around the table is asking two incompatible things of the players.

A Jace was opened in one of my Pro Tour drafts and I had no idea whether I was allowed to track it as it went around the table.  Was it cheating to look while my neighbor had cards in his hand?  Was it cheating to look between picks when the cards were laid out?  This was never made clear.  I ended up using “the corner of my eye” to look at the top card of my neighbor’s draft pile once that neighbor had selected a card.  Was this cheating?  I sure hope not, but I really don’t know.  Could I have looked 2 people over between picks and gotten more info?  I don’t know.

2) Even bigger than that first large issue: It makes the timing of when you select a card hyper-relevant.  I want to wait until my neighbor picks a card, and he or she wants to do the same to me (and our other neighbors, etc.).  With two DFCs per pack in SOI [EDIT: between 1 and 2 per pack], the upcoming set, the odds of a first-pick DFC is super high.  So to maximize the impact of the info I can get (whether legal or illegal to look, people will look), I should wait as long as I can.  How long can I wait?  Well, theoretically my neighbor and I both have to draft a card simultaneously immediately when the called says “Draft” but that is laughably unenforceable and rife for opportunities to shoot the angle better and get an edge.

This is a major problem.  If people didn’t realize they should wait to take a card in Innistrad, they will realize now that every pack has 2 DFCs.  Really surprised me to see on Twitter than Matt Tabak and Toby Elliot (two people who I respect a great deal and who don’t miss much) don’t even have it on their radar. 

Proposed solutions:

1) Use checklist cards in professional level drafts.  Cleanest, best solution.  No chance of hidden costs.  Has the obvious cost of losing the “cool” feel of drafting with DFCs, and another cost of making practice difficult, but those are known costs at least. 

2) Permit looking around between picks.  Allow 3 seconds for this.  To prevent the timing issue related to peeking, come up with a way players can cover cards as they select them, and only reveal during the “look around” 3 seconds.  Drafting player covering their pile with their hand is one way, have a tool that covers the pile like a small tent which you can slide picks under and then lift to reveal is another.  

If neither solution is adopted, life will go on, but we may end up playing a “don’t flinch!” Pro Tour where players are waiting to see their neighbor’s card before selecting their own in a cascading effect.  Players might also be penalized for looking around OR not penalized for looking in directions where they could see hidden information, both disasters at the pro level. 

Friday, January 15, 2016

The Underlying Sin of Proxygate and Leakgate: Using the WPN and DCI as Hit Men

In separate clarifications/apologies, Wizards of the Coast has walked back a little bit from its initial position on both Sharpie-on-card = proxy [edit: Counterfeit, we all agree they are proxies] & the penalties issued to those judges that knew or could have known about spoiler leaks but didn’t tell Wizards about it. 

Neither clarification/apology backs down from the most troubling aspects of the issues though: Wizards’ willingness to use the WPN and the DCI to enforce corporate policy very loosely related to the mandate of those organizations, and its legal team’s repeated failures to locate the balance between protecting IP and not harming marketing and business interests.  The lawyers don’t understand or can’t work within the nuance that exists in both the market and the legal landscape, and the mouthpieces outside the legal team like Trick Jarrett, Helene Bergeot, and Elaine Chaise are able to sort-of find the mark, but only after they are able to review a swath of negative public reactions to their initial remarks in order to locate exactly where and how badly they missed.  

All together, this group has inspired so much fear in our community that I have people messaging me saying essentially, “Maybe you should avoid poking that bear with negative commentary or jokes, their legal team could fly off the handle at any time and their business team clearly can’t stop them.”  I can’t go public with the detailed examples of how the public discourse has been impacted by a fear of Wizards’ next overreaction, but you can trust me I’m not making this shit up.  Multiple people, multiple times, have expressed concern to me about where and when the shoe will fall next.  It is shaping behavior and discourse for the worse.  It sucks.

Here’s my take on the two recent issues that brought these issues into pretty sharp focus:

      The new Proxies Policy

Wizards recently announced to its WPN store locations that they may not run unsanctioned events with proxies, and later clarified that marker-on-card = a counterfeit card in their view.  Their explanation made little sense.  “Counterfeits” no one would mistake for real cards simply aren’t counterfeits.  That's what the word means.  

You can call a black spell “Devoid’ and say that makes it colorless.  It isn’t a good idea, it makes for a shitty set, but you can do it if you want.  You control the definition of the word Devoid in the game engine.  But you don’t control the definition of the word Counterfeit in the secondary card market.  You can’t just say cards no one would mistake for the original are counterfeits.  This type of overreach is typical of Wizards. 

I presume they would never actually sue someone for writing on their own toys with a Sharpie (unless they felt like lighting some money on fire), so they use the network of game stores (the Wizards Play Network or WPN), comprised mostly of struggling or very modestly profitable businesses, to exert their influence over a problem that wasn’t an actual problem.  Well done Wizards, some fantasy your bad lawyers dreamed up about a culture of counterfeiting being encouraged by proxies, or who knows what else, is now negatively impacting the entry point for older formats, an issue you claim to care about in countless Reserve List and Modern Masters articles. 

I wish the WPN, a part of the infrastructure of Organized Play, wasn’t the stage for Wizards to act out these fantasies, which leads me to….

      Banning people from competitive play for leaking Magic cards or not reporting leaks

The DCI shouldn’t be whacking people for Wizards like it’s a corrupt police officer with bad coke and gambling debts.  The DCI is a governing body for competitive play among hobbyists, not an intellectual property protection service.  Wizards, if someone violated your Nondisclosure Agreement and leaked your IP, take legal action and/or restrict that person’s access to information in the future.  Do your own dirty work within the frameworks that were set up to govern how the flow of corporate information is controlled.

Before you all get in the comments and shout “Playing Magic is a privilege, not a right!’ or “They are a private org, they can ban whoever they want,” just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.  Just because you have leverage over people by virtue of controlling their hobbyist club, doesn’t mean it’s ethical to say “you can’t engage in your hobby anymore in this club because you didn’t inform on your friend when he violated a confidentiality promise you never made.”  That’s again, an overreach.  These are the actions of an entity that is armed only with a vague idea about which pieces of IP it needs to protect, and repeatedly burns the stables down to prevent anyone from stealing the horses.  

They have successfully disincentivized leaks by acting like Soviet Russia. “Inform on your friends and you might be spared” was explicit in the first round of announcements about the punishments and still very present even in the most recent Elaine Chase statement.   “Our Olympic athletes will do what is good for Mother Russia at all times, or they will not play.”  “Fear will keep them in line.”  I believe that last one was Grand Czar Tarkin, and I assume someone had to talk Trick Jarrett out of quoting it.

Learning about something confidential shouldn’t be a violation of anything within 10,000 miles of the DCI, especially if the person in question had no direct obligation to breach.  Being in a Facebook group where you have access to posts but don’t participate in the dissemination of information is “Possession of stolen property?”  Get real. 

The message here is that if they don’t like what you’re doing, they will use the WPN or DCI to put pressure on you.  I’d love to read an updated WPN or DCI mission statement that lines up with this role as mob enforcer. 

Again, the apologies they have issued (following outcry in the community) are statements to the effect of, “That guy/proxy-method didn’t deserve to get whacked I guess,” but they lack the realization that whacking people with your OP networks is a bad idea in the first place.  

Thursday, July 2, 2015

What to do about Zach Jesse, with a little (a lot of) help from my friends

I want to share a couple of my friends’ reactions to the Zach Jesse suspension below after some brief thoughts of my own.

It is deeply troubling that Wizards (and Hasbro to the extent they are driving) is acting this way.  To those claiming this is protection of their legal liability rather than their public image – not in any defensible way it is.  All the information shared about Zach Jesse on social media was part of the public record.  If letting a sex offender in the door created liability at events, they’d ask everyone on a form to confirm they were not a sex offender.  Actual knowledge and constructive knowledge of a 10+ year old crime are nearly the same thing – what they are is not enough to amount to actionable negligence should an incident arise in the future.  If their legal team is behind this, the policy is just as bad, and the reasoning just as wrong. 

More likely than this being an attempt to limit legal liability, this is an attempt to control public image. 

The way they chose to do this was just as frustrating, if not more, than what was done.  No announcement, no explanation (and here their legal team may have said “sure, you can ban him, try not to comment” but if they stuck to statements of true fact they could have made a statement).  A frozen MTGO account.  A call to Zach Jesse from a lawyer with the non-negotiable terms of his removal.  Talk about a sloppy broom used to sweep this under the rug.  Of course this got out and went viral. 

They acted without articulating a policy, but I don’t want them to articulate a policy for these things and then proceed under that policy to sweep up the next Zach Jesse and the one after that.  I want them to back away from this and reinstate Zach Jesse.  I’ve never net Zach Jesse in my life.  But I know that if I only advocate for the most well-known, the most respected members of our community, I’ll just be rubber stamping the “in crowd” vs. “out crowd” dynamics already in play.

To those who think this action that Wizards/Hasbro took is justified for reasons other than their own public relations, as yourselves, “Who does this action serve?”  Perpetrators?  Victims?  If not either, is WotC helping itself not both despicable and short-sighted?

I’d like to share two very important perspectives from within my circle of friends, and from within our community.  Thanks to both for giving me permission to share!  First, on the victim impact, Magic player and Magic judge Tasha Jamison
“I find this really troubling.
 I've been following this story as it unfolded, so here's the short version as I understand it:
Zach Jesse made top 8 at Grand Prix Atlantic City, during which it was noted on Twitter (by Drew Levin) that he was convicted of felony sexual assault. He served his time and was complying with all legal requirements of his conviction. According to his own post on reddit, he commits a significant amount of time to volunteer organizations and community service. (He quantified it, I'm summarizing.)
 The rhetoric around the ban is that this serves to make Magic environments a safer place for all participants. Likewise, rhetoric leading up to the ban questioned whether his mere presence created an unsafe or hostile environment.
 There's a lot swirling around here about criminal justice, rehabilitation and risk of recidivism, and restorative justice that's beyond my depth. The thing is...
 As a woman, as someone who has experienced domestic violence and sexual assault, one of the ideas that has held me back from reporting is the idea that "reporting would ruin [the accused]'s life." This makes me sick to the stomach because it reinforces that idea: here is a person who has served his time, who has complied with all requirements, who appears to me to be genuinely remorseful and committed to public service...
 ... and he gets what is effectively a lifetime ban from the competitive Magic community when his prior conviction came to public attention due to his strong performance.
 Since he has a conviction, I hesitate to bring in the rhetoric of "false rape claims," but it's going to hover around anyway. It seems to me that this ban *is* something that gives credibility to the idea that women have the power to ruin men's lives through false rape claims, which reduces the credibility of anyone who accuses someone of sexual assault (even when the evidence is sufficient to satisfy a court of law), which in turn reduces the willingness of a victim to pursue any sort of formal action.
What strikes me as especially troubling about the rhetoric that this is about "safety" is that it seems to be implying that this is somehow pro-"women in Magic" (or is a result of efforts to make tournament spaces less toxic to women in Magic). I don't see any outcome where this makes Magic tournaments more inviting to women, and a whole lot of outcomes where Magic tournaments become more *toxic* for women.”
 The part of Tasha’s post that really struck me the most was the discussion of one of the reasons rape is underreported, and how this feeds right into it.

Next, my friend Noah Weil, a practicing criminal defense attorney on the perpetrator impact.
“As a criminal defense attorney, especially when I was a public defender, I have worked regularly with people whose criminal histories have marginalized them. Many of these individuals, unfortunately, fall back into crime through frustration and a lack of opportunity to meaningfully participate in the community. While they are responsible for their choices, society suffers when its members are pushed to the fringes. We lose diversity and we increase recidivism.
 Mr. Jesse pleaded guilty to felonious sexual assault in 2004. This was apparently a plea deal approved in part by the victim of the crime (this is common). Mr. Jesse will be a felon for life. I’m sure he could share many stories on how his criminal history has affected his life.
 Are we defined by the worst choice we ever made, or are we allowed to see what we’ve done with our lives since then? Mr. Jesse’s crime should be condemned, his actions reviled. But can we also celebrate his successes? In my work, those successes are all too rare. In my work, I treasure them.
 I am concerned a contingent of players think that certain individuals should be shunned forever based on their past actions. These players feel any punishment is too light. People are allowed to feel whatever they like, but there’s a reason we want sentences handed down by an impartial judiciary. Mob rule is a poor way to run a community.

I fear that WoTC’s capriciousness won’t change; feel free to make your financial decisions accordingly. But when you encounter someone who has done something heinous, and you certainly will, consider whether publicly calling for their head is best for you, your community, and the people affected by those actions.”
If after reading what Tasha and Noah shared, you’re inclined to say it doesn’t matter because someone other than the perpetrator and the victim should be considered here, make sure your concerns are as tangible as theirs, as real, and have as large in impact on our society before you say someone’s “safety” or discomfort from a by-all-accounts-reformed criminal should override the impacts outlined above. 

Wizards of the Coast and Hasbro, make this right and we will move on from this.  That is possible, but you have to allow for it.  That’s the lesson here.  

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

38% of Claims on Tumblr are Unsubstantiated

“According to some research I can’t share with you, __________” can lead to a frightening amount of emphasis on a small set of studies that may be very flawed.  Beware the man of one study, and turn and run full speed from the man whose one study has not been examined carefully. 

When the qualifying phrase “According to some research…” is omitted and the conclusion, _________, is given as fact, things get even more frightening. 

Mark Rosewater started citing WotC market research of some kind, without revealing the methodology or definitions used, a few months back, and in another Tumblr reponse that went MTG-viral last week, he decided to drop the context and fully embrace his man-of-one-studydom.    

MaRo writes, “That’s what this conversation is about. Women make up 38% of Magic players yet this isn’t remotely reflected in in store play. Why? What factors are causing this to be so? And if it’s going to change, it requires those of us in the majority to stand up and say, ‘You know what? This isn’t right. We need to change this.’” [emphasis mine]

This is now clearly being used to drive discussion about policy, and by all indications it is about to drive actual policy (diversity initiatives).  And the figure 38% is now stated as fact.  By releasing just the conclusion in a way that cannot be intelligently scrutinized in detail, motivated by the fact that this statistic lines up with his narrative, MaRo is being careless at best and dishonest at worst.

Let’s go back to that original, more complete citation: “Our most recent market research shows the gender breakdown of male to female is 62% to 38%.” 

Is this 38% of people who know what Magic is, have ever played Magic, have ever purchased a Magic product, play Magic at least once a month, purchase Magic products for their own use at least twice a year, have opened an MTGO account, or something else entirely?  Before we get to the accuracy of their measurement, what are they even measuring? 

Once we know what is being measured, and how, I suspect we will better understand why the number is so high – shockingly high relative to the ratios we observe in tournament attendance.    

Why do I think they MaRo owes me the courtesy of showing his work?  MaRo is making a claim that contradicts popular wisdom based on an avalanche of lived and observed experience.  This popular wisdom isn't the end of the story, but it's upsetting to see people toss it aside so easily, without even asking MaRo to show his work.

MaRo is in some ways absolving himself of his responsibility when he pins it on us and implies that it's our responsibility to shape up out there and make a more welcoming environment for girls and women who want to play Magic.  "Hey, it's a healthy 38% when it leaves my nest, women love my work."  Out there in the tournament halls, we're doing work to improve the tournament environment, but we'll get more done measuring our progress using a reliable baseline rather than an inflated one.  Importantly, MaRo leaves us no choice but to take (a hypothetical) 10% female attendance as a sign that things are horribly broken when my intuition is that if we have 90/10 and everyone is having a good time, we've done great (not saying we're there today).  

But Matt...
a)      Isn’t even one or a few studies better than your anecdotal experience?
b)      You play tournaments, of course you think 38% is high, but more people play casually than in tournaments!

First of all, I hope MaRo doesn’t cite my experience on his Tumblr either, it may be horribly unrepresentative.  Even over 20 years a person's experiences can be biased, and selection pressure can operate such that a person never encounters a true cross-section of the population.  

We need to try to paint a composite picture from many data sources, each of which has to be unpacked and examined, not presented as a black box.  Terms have to be defined.  For example, how do we define "Magic player?"  Is it possible that changes in the gender ratio we observe as we change contexts are a function of implicitly swapping out the definition of "Magic player" to include only more deeply interested players?  Perhaps the odds of ever buying a single booster are 62:38 male, but that initial gap is present at every level of interest such that you're 62:38 to buy that next set of packs, then 62:38 again to visit an online retailer to get singels, etc. etc.  The cumulative impact on the ratio of men to women participating in, say, a Grand Prix might be 97:3 if these layers of selection have occurred.  If so, then we're back to asking what causes an interest-level gap, and we can't be as confident as MaRo is that it isn't primarily the game and which demographic it appeals to most.  More stats and more detail on how things were defined and measured will help us see what is actually going on, what is causing the gap, and ultimately whether guys being immature and rude at the local store is a deck chair or an iceberg relative to the titanic lack of diversity we face at that level.

And yes, I play in uber-competitive Magic tournaments.  But my brain doesn’t shut off when I leave the tournament hall.  Every week, I tell men and women I meet that I play Magic.  I can tell you that the odds I get a “me too” response based on the sex of the person I tell does not correspond to anything close to 62:38.  People tell me their kids play Magic and it’s not 62% sons and 38% daughters they speak of.  Again, I don’t offer my experience as an alternative to MaRo's stats, but as an explanation of why I'm asking for more than just his word.  I'm skeptical based on how I'd defined the terms, and I want to see how they defined the terms and gathered the data since that might explain their finding.

Wizards of the Coast, show me that my experience is not representative.  Please, show me.  But don’t just tell me.