It’s week 17 of a hard-fought NFL season. The Green Bay Packers run out onto the field to face the mighty Seattle Seahawks. Two top teams with legions of fans. Both recent Superbowl Champions. The stadium is full of people all cheering for their favorite players.
The teams take the field, knowing that all each of them need is a tie to secure their spot in the Playoffs, but losing surely gives that spot to another team. It’s a must-win game and the crowd knows it.
Aaron Rodgers runs out for the coin toss, Russell Wilson is already waiting. The referee gets ready to make the toss, but Aaron is whispering something to Russell. They shake hands and leave the field.
They’ve chosen to draw the game. They’ll both make the playoffs.
The crowd looks around, confused. The network cuts to commercial and Jim Nantz is silent.
Game over, not a ball snapped nor a play called. Go home folks, go watch a Big Bang Theory rerun.
A History Lesson
You may think that could never happen, and yes, that specific scenario is pretty unlikely, but fans showing up for a game and seeing the teams they came to cheer for simply playing out a pre-determined result, that has happened – on one of sport’s biggest stages.
The year is 1982 and the FIFA World Cup is at the business end of the first group stage. In Group 2, Algeria are in second place on four points. Austria are also on four points, but ahead on goal difference (number of goals scored vs number conceded). In third place, West Germany, with two points. They, like Austria, have a better goal difference than Algeria. Chile linger in fourth place, with no chance to proceed.
Algeria’s last match was against Chile, that’s what landed them on four points (two points per win). Only Austria had beaten them. They were not expected to do that, a total upset from the North Africans. A wonderful underdog story.
On June 24th, 1982, Algeria must have felt on top of the world. Only a West German win over Austria the following day by either one or two goals could knock them out.
On June 25th, Austria and West Germany face off. If the West Germans win by three or more goals, they and Algeria go through. If Austria win, the Germans are out.
West Germany attack hard early, and score a goal. The rest of the match is a debacle. The two teams barely try to impact the game, passing around in their own half, back to the goalkeeper, and repeating that pattern outside a few shots that go wildly off-target.
They play out the safest option. Each team made it to the next round. Algeria are knocked out. The neutral Spaniards in attendance (the tournament took place in Spain) cheer loudly for Algeria.
Things are so bad, West German fans egg the team when they arrive back at their hotel. The broadcasters covering the match urge viewers to switch to another channel.
Justice is delivered in the next group stage for Austria, who are knocked out, but West Germany reach the final, losing to Italy.
FIFA declare that no-one broke the rules. The teams deny any collusion, but the rules are swiftly changed. From the 1986 World Cup onward, all the final group stage matches are played at the same time to avoid a repeat of such an incident.
Not quite an intentional draw, but certainly in the same spirit.
Look, I’d Intentionally Draw Too
The current system in Magic allows for IDs. I want to make that abundantly clear. No player who decides to draw a match to make top eight is breaking a rule and I’m not here to call anyone out. I’d make the same decision.
I don’t hate the player. I hate (this one aspect of) the game.
Are IDs That Bad?
This is a divisive question. Many players are happy with the current situation because the alternative would be games played out slowly to intentionally go to time. If that were to happen it’s impossible to police and horrible for players and viewers.
There’s also the argument that players have earned their chance to ID by doing better than other players than in previous rounds. I don’t like this argument. It means specific rounds are not as important as others, and in this case, the rounds that should be most important.
Invalidating the last round of day one (depending on tournament structure), or the round before top eight, that’s primarily why I don’t like intentional draws. Think of it this way. You bravely fight through the event, making it into a position where a win gets you into top eight.
The players a few points ahead of you decide to draw. You come ninth. You never had a chance to even play for it.
The final swiss round should not be entirely irrelevant for some players. It makes no sense at all. It’s not supposed to be a lunch break before top eight is played. Even worse, it often ends up a lunch break for some of the players in top eight, but not all of them.
It’s also a huge advantage for players who can figure out the maths involved. If you’re in the last round and your opponent suggests an ID to get you both into top eight, you have to do some calculations to see if they’re right. It’s reasonably complicated to figure out where you’ll land based on tie breakers, and getting it wrong is going to be pretty bad for you.
Then there’s pressure on players to ID when playing in person. You’re putting someone out of the event, but it’s harder to make that choice when you have an opponent sitting in front of you, asking you to help them out. It’s not like the person you’d put into ninth or tenth will sit down beside them and ask you to play it out.
The players who would climb up the rankings should others lose in the final round are just stripped of that opportunity by the current system.
Live on the Magic Channel!
I think you can probably justify IDs if only tournament players are considered. It really only affects a few players per event, and everyone knows going in at this point that it’s likely to happen.
The viewing experience however, is hugely impacted by intentional draws.
The Grand Finals is a great event, but in the final round of swiss, the matches that should have mattered, the ones that decided the last few players to make top eight, were intentional draws.
Allen Wu ended up on the wrong side of this, landing in ninth place. Again, I don’t blame the players for making the choice to take (assumed) safe passage over potentially missing out, but it certainly doesn’t make for a good viewing experience.
I can think back to many events where the commentators, instead of talking about Magic and the players, try to figure out who can draw into top eight. Not exactly compelling stuff. Just like the players though, that’s not their fault, their job is to cover the tournament and IDs are part of that. Like the earlier example of the NFL game however, that’s not what we came to see.
The battle for eighth spot in top eight should be an incredibly exciting match, but how often do we see something largely irrelevant instead because those matches don’t even happen?
We’re at the point where the tournament should be reaching a pinnacle, a crescendo of action as players try to scrape their way into the final available positions, and we get a series of behind-the-scenes handshakes and tournament organizers trying to help coverage staff figure out what can even go on camera.
It seems pretty obvious that IDs are bad for coverage, but then we go back to what happens if we just ban IDs entirely. The players play out a long, boring game they intend to take to time. That’s an even worse viewing experience.
Solving the Problem
The solution might be digital. We already have the ‘chess clock’ on Arena, which means that we could simply ban IDs and if you run out of time, tough luck.
We will get back to playing in paper though, and then we’re back where we started, with an unenforceable rule that leads to a terrible experience for viewers and players.
That’s not going to work. So what can we do?
One potential solution is single elimination, but that seems so harsh for players, especially those new to tournament Magic. You sit down, play one match and that’s it? I don’t think many players would enjoy that level of stress.
The CFB Clash events have offered a beta test for what I think might be the answer. The way it works is, if you reach five wins, you make day two. There are nine rounds to do that. You can also win three consecutive matches and make day two that way. Day two is all single elimination.
This solution makes absolutely sure that the final rounds of day one, and every part of day two, have maximum tension for coverage, while giving players multiple chances to make day two. You can be 0-6 then go on a hot streak and still make it to day two. That’s awesome for players, you’re live even if you do poorly, and if you’re good, you get fasttracked through the first day.
For coverage, it’s amazing. The final rounds of day one are players desperately looking for that final win. The players who reached the win threshold aren’t playing anymore. There are no irrelevant matches. By round three there are win-and-ins.
There’s also plenty of tension and excitement in day two and really, no chance for intentional drawing. Only wins and losses matter. Every round is a win-and-in, every play matters.
The group stage (which would be day one in the Clash) into knockout stage (day two) is used across sports and esports. There’s no reason we can’t make every match matter in Magic with some changes to tournament structure, and the proof is there with Clash.
Does it work in paper? Maybe. We’re going to need to figure out a way to decide matches that go long, or use untimed rounds if draws no longer matter.
While we’re exclusively running digital tournaments though, we shouldn’t be seeing any intentional draws on coverage.