“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is one of my least favorite idioms. Statements like these are used to oppose change, and not all change is bad. A rotary phone works. It didn’t need a fix. It wasn’t broken. Smartphones are just a better version of the same thing. Fixes aren’t always literal “fixes,” but rather improvements or upgrades to an existing model.
Tournament Magic isn’t broken, but it can be fixed. A number of recent articles, such as Eric Froehlich’s GP Houston report or Ross Merriam’s recent piece on conceding and collusion have led me to invest a lot of time thinking about how intentional draws and concessions affect tournament Magic. I have always taken this process for granted, taken part in it myself, and never considered it problematic.
Until now. I’ve seen some compelling arguments for eliminating these kinds of back-alley deals in favor of just playing more Magic, and I have to say I agree.
Draws and concessions aren’t destroying the game or anything drastic like that, but that also doesn’t mean the status quo is the best we can do. We can make sure that tournaments are more about winning and losing important matches, and less about gaming the system.
Make draws worthless.
In tournament Magic, a win is worth 3 match points, a draw 1, and a loss 0. This style of point setup makes sense for chess, a game where the clock prevents draws, except when both players are unable to win. Draws don’t make as much sense for Magic, where matches continue until one player wins two games.
It’s not feasible or valuable to remove draws entirely from Magic. Some games reach a state where neither player can win or lose, and some matches take too long where it isn’t reasonable to hold up the tournament until they conclude. But it is possible to remove their overwhelming presence from tournament play by making them worth less than my playset of Aurelia’s Fury.
Making draws worth 0 points, the same as a loss, would do a few things. For one, it would incentivize players to play faster and ensure that both players are trying to finish the match in time. This removes morally ambiguous situations where one player wants a draw and the other player wants to finish the game before that happens. The first player is incentivized to cheat by playing too slowly or stalling in order to get that 1 match point. Even an honest, ethical player in that situation has to take their pace of play into consideration. Play too quickly and you’re throwing away match equity, but play too slowly and you’re toeing the line of cheating.
Draws can also create weird incentives, like a player trying purposely to get into the draw bracket for good matchups. They also can extend the length of the tournament by encouraging players to drag out games they are losing as long as possible to work the clock and hope for a draw, rather than play to win.
Making draws worthless also removes intentional draws from tournament play. I won’t dwell on this point too much, but IDs are bad for coverage and Magic’s legitimacy as a respected game. The last round of a tournament, when tension and storylines should be at their height, is often a coverage wasteland. Important matches draw and you are stuck watching a match with nothing on the line instead.
Implications of This Change
There are a couple of implications for making draws worth 0 points. The first is that tiebreakers would play a larger role. If the value of a draw is erased, then it reduces the variety of final records in a tournament. Currently, there are final records like 13-0-2, 13-1-1, 13-2, 12-2-1, and so forth at the end of a Grand Prix. These non-traditional records taking up a piece of the final standings pie reduce how many people share a record at the end of a tournament. Tiebreakers are currently very relevant, but they would become even more relevant as more players share the same final record.
On Magic Online, players can’t draw, and the chess clock system ensures that one player will always win a match. Magic Online provides us with a good example of what tournaments without draws would look like. In the last Magic Online Championship Series event, a 9-round event with 311 competitors, an X-2 record ranged from 7th place to 26th place. A few players made Top 8 with the same record that many players only landed a middling Top 32 finish with. There was a huge variety in how good of a finish you could have with an X-2 record and it all came down to tiebreakers.
There is not anything necessarily wrong with this, but it is important to consider how much of an effect tiebreakers would have on competitive Magic if draws were worth 0 points, and perhaps revisiting the current tiebreaker system would be a good idea.
Another implication for this change is that it will increase how often people concede to each other. Consider a situation where two players are running out of time in their match. They can either draw the match and both get nothing, or one player can concede to the other player so that at least one of them will walk out with a win. It’s unlikely that these players are going to be OK with both players getting nothing, so one player will frequently concede to the other.
I think this is completely acceptable as long as nothing is being offered in exchange for the concession.
There’s been a lot of talk about the negative effect concessions are having on Magic. People are using concession as a blanket term, but there are actually two types of concessions that can occur. There is the kind of concession where one player scoops to the other player before the match is even played. Generally, this is done because only one player has something to gain from winning the match. This kind of concession frequently involves implied collusion. Whether or not the players say anything in advance, the implication is that the person who receives this free boost will kickback something to the other person for helping them along the way.
Those are the kinds of back-alley deals that a lot of players are rallying against, and I do genuinely believe Magic would be a better game without them.
The other kind of concession is the kind of concession where two players played a full match of Magic and one player decides that the other player should receive the win for one reason or another at the end of the match. This is a different situation entirely. I find it acceptable for one player to say, “Hey, you would have won if we had more time to finish this match, the win is yours” and then not asking for or expecting anything in return for their action. These players aren’t colluding. They played a full match of Magic and would have continued to play the match if they’d had more time.
That draws have value in competitive Magic is something we have grown accustomed to. It’s been a part of the system for a long time, and it’s become ingrained in our tournament culture. Players are always trying to figure out when they can double draw into Top 8 or whether their tiebreakers are good enough for an intentional draw in the last round of tournament play. Players losing a tight game will seek to find a way to draw the game by running out the clock rather than lose. This is our current system. It’s not broken, but it can be fixed.
Removing the value from draws wouldn’t create a perfect system, but it would create a system where players play more matches of Magic, play those matches faster, and play to win those matches. Instead of navigating tiebreaker math, players can just stick to navigating their matches of Magic instead. That’s the kind of change that should be drawn up.