Epistemic Status: Fixing old mistakes, appreciating great old deeds.
(Note to those who do not play Magic: While this is nominally about Magic, I find these points to be of general interest, and wrote the post with that in mind.)
Chris Pikula belongs in the Magic Hall of Fame. Vote for him.
His results, while better than they look, fall short. I do worry about the precedent that will set. But it doesn’t matter. He belongs in the Hall. Vote for him.
Why? Because he did something for the game that needs to be honored and remembered as much as possible. Something that is more important than we realize, and which we need to keep fighting for. Something the world needs more than anything.
All groups, and all people, must decide who to reward, honor and ally with, and who to ignore, shame and oppose.
The default state of the world, the default state of any group, or culture, or industry or profession, is to want to choose strong allies, with high status, so they can help us. We reward what we believe succeeds and can help us. Knowing this, we all strive to emulate and signal these same characteristics, and to judge others as we observe them being judged.
This allows for multiple equilibria.
In the good equilibrium, good behavior like being nice, honoring your commitments, helping others and contributing to the community is recognized and rewarded. Bad behavior like cheating, lying, backstabbing and bullying is punished. Since good behavior is rewarded, (almost) everyone strives to exhibit good behavior. Bad behavior is seen not only as wrong, but also as stupid and weak. The system is (hopefully) stable, as reinforcing this good behavior is also good behavior and rewarded, while failing to do so or undermining it is also bad behavior and punished.
In the bad equilibrium, good behavior like being nice, honoring your commitments, helping others and contributing to the community is recognized and punished. Bad behavior like cheating, lying, backstabbing and bullying is rewarded. Since bad behavior is rewarded, (almost) everyone strives to exhibit bad behavior. Good behavior is seen as stupid and weak. It therefore also gets thought of as wrong. To succeed, one must not only engage in bad behavior, but make others believe that you do so, while nominally pretending to authorities and/or the naïve public that you’re not doing that. The system is again stable. If you don’t exhibit and associate with winners who do winning things, then you’re a loser, and we need to shun you and punish you for such bad behavior. Only the wicked succeed.
The more success is dependent on the judgments of others, the more stable, extreme and perverse such systems can be, with a variety of goals and optimization pressures. Usually such systems reward some mix of the good, the bad and the just plain weird.
I have observed in the past that much of business operates in the bad equilibrium. As do many other major aspects of our world. At the risk of mentioning politics, what we observe today is a deliberate attempt by someone I need not name, to move us from one equilibrium to a much worse one, from cooperation to needless conflict, from honor to dishonor, to judging people as winners and losers, as tough and weak, even their version of smart and stupid, and to see the world as zero sum rather than positive sum. To move us from a not especially great equilibrium to something much, much worse.
Chris Pikula did something that almost never happens. He moved the Magic: The Gathering community from the bad equilibrium to the good equilibrium.
In the early days of Magic, cheating was the order of the day. The rules didn’t punish it much – once I was at a local tournament, and Steve Mahoney Schwartz complained that he ‘forgot to cheat’ at Nationals because the punishment for being caught was having to undo the cheat. The players tolerated it. More than tolerate it, they honored those who were good at it. People looked up to cheaters and known all-around terrible people like Mike Long and Mark Justice. Those in charge knew and actively promoted them as our stars!
Rather than operating on intent and good faith, the rules operated on technicalities. Rules lawyering was epidemic. Opponents would constantly try to trick you into saying the wrong thing, letting go of a card, or otherwise win the game through lying and trickery.
It was not a few bad apples. It was half the apples. Training for the Pro Tour was largely about defending yourself against cheating. You learned how to make sure your opponent didn’t stack their deck or palm cards. You constantly counted their hand, made sure you had their life total in ironclad form so they couldn’t lie about it. You learned all the right terms to say to make sure you didn’t suddenly fail to block, or take mana burn, or pass up your ability to cast a spell. I’d estimate that at least a quarter of my optimization pressure during a tournament was making sure I didn’t get cheated or rules lawyered.
Even the honest major teams had spies and scouts around the world trying to figure out what the other major teams were working on, and steal their technology or alert others to the threat to gain positional advantage. This burned me and my teams badly multiple times.
It says a lot about how awesome Magic was and is, that we didn’t all just take our decks and go home. We endured it all.
Slowly, things got better. Cheaters got called out more and more. They got caught more often. The rules started punishing real cheating more, while punishing harmless mistakes less and rewarding rules lawyering less. Even more important, if you had been cheating, people made sure everyone knew, and everyone started shunning you for it. Cheating is bad and you should feel bad, even for associating with a known cheater. The best players know each other, we treat each other with honor and respect, and we work together to create a great competition and culture.
We take that for granted now. It wasn’t then.
Others are better positioned to tell the story of how he did that, but that story needs to be told, more often and in more detail. The world needs to know that it was done here, that it can be done, and know how to go about doing it.
Today, there are still a few bad apples. We must remain on guard. But when I sit down to play a match, until I have reason to be suspicious, I assume my opponent is an honest player there to compete with honor.
Still, there remain strong marginal rewards for doing better in tournaments. Some will fail to resist that temptation, as crazy as it is. When that happens, we must continue to catch them and give them their due. The good equilibrium is self-reinforcing, but we can lose it.
To help remember what happened and how it happened, to help keep what he helped create, and to encourage and assist such quests in other realms, we should elect Chris Pikula to the Hall of Fame. It is time.
When I see people talk about voting people who they believe are cheaters into the Hall of Fame, it boggles my mind. I don’t care what the person has accomplished. I don’t care what the person would have accomplished without the cheating. Doesn’t matter. If you think a player is or was a cheater, do not vote for them. Ever. Ever. Ever. Period. End of story.
There are a number of other Hall-worthy resumes on this year’s ballot, if you judge the players clean. Three players each have five PT top eights and a strong overall resume of results, and I see several other potentially worthy resumes as well. Whether or not you think each of those players have the character and integrity necessary for the Hall of Fame, is up to you. And you can and should form your own opinion about each of them. But if you think the answer is no, then I don’t care what they did. Don’t vote for them.