On Ethics

How could he do this? That’s so dishonest! That’s cheating! Unethical and morally wrong! Scummy! Why would one of the best need to resort to this? Lacks integrity. Awful character. Unfair advantage.


Hey everybody. I intended this week’s article to be the conclusion to my article mini-series that investigated whether or not archetypes produce skillful competition, but in light of recent events I have decided to postpone that until next week in order to have a discussion on ethics. This past weekend at the ARGCS in Fort Lauderdale I played Nekroz with the intention of gaining an advantage in the mirror by offering for my opponent and I both to side out a Djinn and then siding in a second copy. Was this unethical? Lots of people believe that it was, but allow me to explain why I disagree.




The first question that comes to most people’s mind asks whether or not doing this is cheating?


“There's nothing in the policy documents forbidding these kinds of actions. Your opponent is never obligated to give you any valid information on things that are not Public Knowledge, and you should not think that they will.”

- Julia Hedberg


This extends further than just to what I did. I offered to side out “a Djinn,” fully knowing that they would take it to mean that Djinn would not be in our decks. While I specified a singular amount, it is still not illegal to ask to take out “all Djinn” and just not do it.


This is not a grey area. The answer is no, it is not cheating. It doesn’t break any rules. This isn’t the end of the discussion though; something being legal doesn’t necessarily mean that it isn’t morally wrong. Slavery was legal for hundreds of years, but it being legal does not stop it from being wrong.


Return from Different DimensionThe Root of the “Gentleman’s Agreement”


Given the situation, you may find it ironic that I was the one who originally proposed the “gentleman’s agreement.” I came up with the idea of asking both players to side out a particular card in the September 2013 Dragon Ruler format. The idea quickly became widely accepted and was used with Return From the Different Dimension and Sixth Sense that format and continued to be used with future cards, such as Ojama Trio in the Burning Abyss mirror, that take the element of skill out of the game as they heavily favored whoever was fortunate enough to draw one of them. Does it not seem wrong to have no intention of fulfilling what I knew I was implying when I offered to side out a Djinn?


Why do you think I offered to side out Return From the Different Dimension? It may seem like it was to make the game more “fair.” I’m sorry to let you down, but that wasn’t the reason. I offered to side it out for the sole reason that I’d be more likely to win the game if my opponent couldn’t draw Return to outright win. The technical play aspect of the game was made more skillful, which in turn favored me in most cases.


As I talked about in my last article where I defined what skill actually is, technical play is only one way to gain an edge over your opponent. Additionally, you can have a better deck than your opponent or utilize mind games to gain the upper hand. You can read the article here.


Players don’t have any intention of making the game fairer. They shouldn’t either; that’s Konami’s job. If anything, a player’s job is the exact opposite. Why would any player who wants to win the tournament want to give his opponent a fair shot where either player is equally likely to win? You’re certainly not likely to win any tournaments sitting down with a 50:50 chance in every match. It is a player’s job to maximize their chance to win and minimize their opponent’s chance to win by taking legal advantages in each aspect of competition, if they intend to win.


I remember having a conversation with Billy Brake at the first ARGCS in Fort Worth, where I discussed offering to side out Return if we were to play. He told me that if we did play, that he would refuse my offer, because my deck was better than his and he’d be more likely to win if we kept it in. He wanted to make technical play less fair as a means of countering the advantage I had through deckbuilding.


Do you think technical play produces fair conditions? How fair is a match where I have practiced 40 hours every week and my opponent goes to locals a couple times a week? Are we on even ground? Certainly not. Anyone who has practiced a significant amount more is favored to win over an opponent with considerably less experience, as they are sure to know the deck’s plays and matchups better. Why do I practice this much? To give me an advantage, not make the game fairer.


vanity's emptinessWhat about deckbuilding? Does it produce fair conditions? Why do you think people choose to play the best deck? It’s because that deck has an advantage over the other decks in the field. If I play Nekroz and my opponent plays Crystal Beasts, we aren’t on a level playing field. I’m certainly not obligated to play an inferior deck because you chose to in order to make the game fairer.


It extends beyond this. Let’s look at Vanity’s Emptiness. This is a card that I don’t think should be allowed in tournament play. It doesn’t allow the opponent to play the game unless they draw an out and it is the definition of unfair. Does that mean I am obligated to not use the card in my own decks? As a matter of fact, I won a National Championship by being one of the first to acknowledge that using Vanity’s Emptiness gave me an unfair advantage and it seems that few people would be willing to argue that doing so violates some sort of ethical code. So I ask, what is the difference between unfair deckbuilding strategies and what I did with Djinn?


Slippery Slope


Mind games, or deceiving your opponent and being able to determine when they are attempting to deceive you, is the third aspect of competition. Bluffing is a widely accepted practice that is used to gain an advantage.


“I have Mirror Force set.” It is perfectly legal and acceptable to say this to your opponent, whether or not you actually have Mirror Force set. If you don’t have Mirror Force set, you are lying to your opponent to gain an advantage. That’s okay, but this isn’t? If you say this is illegal, how are you going to say bluffing is legal at all? Where is the line between the two? That’s certainly a slippery slope.


mirror forceWhere the Responsibility Lies


*Pun intended*


According to the rules, both lying to your opponent about having Mirror Force set and lying to your opponent about how you intend to side deck are legal. The rules of the game are exactly where the line between what is okay and what is not okay must be. When you enter a tournament, you are entering into an agreement to uphold the rules of the tournament and nothing more.


            Taking every advantage within these rules is exactly the difference between a good player and everyone else.


Johnny Li actually wrote to David Sirlin, the author of Playing to Win and someone who has made a career on the idea of competition, to get his opinion on this situation. Here is an excerpt from his response:


“Unsportsmanlike is a bad word, basically. Patriotic sounds like it means one thing, then it gets applied to "the Patriot Act" and "Patriot Missiles" which are both arguably antithetical to what the US should be about. Unsportsmanlike is practically always hijacked to mean some perverted thing, some way to penalize players for faults of other people.

That player did a tournament-legal move that increases his chance to win. I wouldn't call that unsportsmanlike. More like "what his incentive actually is." Of course he should do that, and of course the rules are flawed precisely because they allow it. When you create a button that says "press this for an advantage" then someone presses it for an advantage, you don't get to call that unsportsmanlike. If you want to not like the guy or not think he's nice, or see him as a villain, that's fine, but the one thing he definitely is is "playing to win using tournament legal means" which is pretty damn sportsmanlike. More like a wolf amongst the sheep who are house ruling things and expecting it to go well. I'd give him a pat on the back for proving we need to fix our rules, lol.

You really really need a solid rule to enforce this card removal thing, if it is to exist at all. And I still think it probably shouldn't be allowed anyway, even if some rule could be devised. It sounds like a "for fun" thing more than something for actual tournament play. But I can't say for sure because I don't know the specifics.”

                                                            - David Sirlin, Author of Playing to Win


You can read his full response here.


The problem isn’t that I lied. Lying is a part of the game. If you were unaware of this, allow me to welcome you to competitive play. The underlying problem is that there are cards that players agree are unfair enough to justify taking out of their decks, so long as the opponent is willing to do the same. Djinn, Vanity’s Emptiness, Return, and so on are cards that should not be in the game. It is the competitive player’s responsibility to take every legal advantage and to find ways to abuse them while they are legal, but it is Konami’s responsibility to make them illegal so that we may avoid this situation altogether.


I hope you all will agree with me that lying about side decking is no more wrong than using Vanity’s Emptiness in your deck, despite thinking it should not be allowed in the game. Taking legal advantages over your opponent is what makes someone a good player; it doesn’t make them unethical.


Until next time, play hard or go home!

Patrick Hoban

Patrick Hoban

Patrick Hoban

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