The Latest Change to the Magic Pro League Means We’re Going to Have to Get Better at Talking About Merit

Gerry Thompson has resigned from the MPL, leaving 2 slots open when added to the one Yuuya Watanabe’s suspension creation.  To fill those two slots, Wizards of the Coast (WotC) has announced that Janne “Savjz” Mikkonen and Jessica Estephan will join the MPL.

In that decision and the announcement explaining it, WotC has elevated diversity from a background concern and objective to one of the primary criteria for deciding who to invite to Magic’s most prestigious and most rewarded group of professional players.

The debate over the role of affirmative action is a heated and unsettled one, in and outside of competitive gaming.

If you came to this column for simple answers to one of the most complex question facing societies all over the globe, I’m sorry to disappoint you. But I hope to highlight some different perspectives on this issue and put it into a broader context than just the Magic Pro League.

Affirmative action is defined as, “the practice or policy of favoring individuals belonging to groups known to have been discriminated against previously (in the context of the allocation of resources or employment).” For example, in a university admissions process (in the United States), it might show up as a university deciding to take race or ethnicity into account as one factor among many when making admissions decisions. The university might give preference to individuals from historically disadvantaged ethnic groups, for example.

That example is an important one. It is controversial at the most basic level (Should academic institutions be doing this? Should the government allow them to do this?) and every detail is controversial (How should the university define “historically disadvantaged ethnic groups” if they set out to do so? How much preference should they give?). The questions are easier to locate than the answers.

Attitudes and permitted approaches can differ greatly in different countries and regions. In one country, certain employers may be mandated to give preferential treatment to certain applicants. In another, they might be prohibited entirely from giving preferential treatment based on race or gender.

Supporters of affirmative action argue that “blind” isn’t necessarily fair (this will be a sampling and high-level summary of millions of written words on the topic, so, grain of salt. If you want to read more in-depth, I recommend this debate on The Economist.). We shouldn’t ignore how we, or the applicants for employment or admission, got here. Systemic biases, the current distribution of resources, and other obstacles can have an impact that is not race- or gender-neutral, and we have an obligation to try to correct for this in hiring and admissions. Some people feel it is simply the right thing to do, others emphasize the benefits to academic and professional environments that contain or draw from a diverse pool of talent.

Critics of affirmative action argue (again, grain of salt) that you don’t fix discrimination with more discrimination. The goal should be clear: the complete irrelevance or even boredom with race and gender in the context of hiring or admissions. And codifying and practicing explicitly race- or gender-based policy gets us further from that goal, not closer. At the same time it frustrates long-term objectives, it harms its purported beneficiaries by marking them, explicitly or implicitly, as “admitted or hired based on lower standards than others.” It does further harm by placing students and workers into roles they may not be fully qualified for, or into a grading curve that may not ultimately benefit them. Better to thrive at a tier 2 school than struggle at a tier 1 school as this line of thinking goes.

Whichever side of this debate you naturally land on, I hope you recognize that the other side of the debate is not going to just be crazy people with no basis in reality. This is a difficult and complex topic over which reasonable people can and have disagreed.

The debate over the role of affirmative action is now about to rage in the Magic: The Gathering community.

The very brief history lesson I provided in the previous section is a strange thing to find in a column about competitive Magic: The Gathering tournament play. But following today’s announcement by WotC, this is where the community finds itself.

I hope that we can discuss these issues without tearing each other down or the community apart. I will be the first to admit (and I hope others are not scared to admit) that I am not sure whether awarding an MPL slot to the woman who performed best last year is better than awarding it to the person who performed best without regard to gender (or geography which they also mentioned).

Empathy is required here.

We should feel empathy for people like Sam Pardee who say that they just want to play against the best competition, be rewarded for top performance not other criteria they can’t control, and who want clear and measurable objectives so they can measure their progress toward them. That doesn’t sound unreasonable, and it doesn’t imply any animus towards Jess or Savjz.

We should feel empathy for Jess Estephan who through no fault of her own has been thrust into the middle of a debate as complex as the one described above, and who has, without question, faced obstacles to get to the Grand Prix winner’s circle that I, for one, did not face. When I have sent or received private messaged about tournament preparation with other players, I have not had the person I’m interacting with suddenly switch to pursuing a romantic or sexual relationship with me. This is an example that Jess and others have discussed publicly in order to try and change the culture of our community. This is one example among many. And again, we should locate a bunch of empathy here regardless of how we feel about WotC’s decision.

We should feel empathy for the people at WotC making these decisions. There is no course they can take that doesn’t leave some huge portion of the community ticked off that they’re either doing too much or not enough about these issues.

So my plea is:

For us to dig a little deeper into the perspectives of the “other side” of the debate, wherever we locate ourselves in it, and do so with an open mind. If nothing else, it’s likely too complicated to act as if the answers are or should be obvious to all. Assume good intent and assume the stronger form of the opposing arguments when debating. This is not as a set-in-stone approach that will never change. Let’s give it and ourselves some room to breathe.

To treat others in our community, first and foremost Jess and Savjz who will be in the middle of this, with the respect and professionalism they deserve.
We won’t get a chance to locate the “right answer” and settle this debate once and for all in our community; that just won’t happen. But we can be a model for how to discuss and debate these trade-offs and for how to treat each other.

The Changes Also Reward Streaming Over Other Engagement/Results

So far I’ve mostly talked about the biggest, most divisive issue I saw in the announcement. But there were multiple. Inviting Savijz to the MPL rewards newcomers who attracted a following elsewhere over established Magic players who have been pouring their heart and soul into the game for years. Some players aren’t happy about that. Others recognize that as the landscape shifts maybe they should move on instead of getting repeatedly frustrated. (For a guide on how to do so, see here)

Competitive legitimacy is at issue with both invites here. Not that the right approach to these tradeoffs is clear, but when it comes to inviting popular streamers there is even less defensible justification for doing away with “pure results” than there was in the debate above.

In sum, WotC’s decisions have traded in some competitive integrity and transparency for attempted wins on other axes (diversity, viewer engagement, quality of broadcast, etc.). How these tradeoffs turn out is not yet known. If it was up to me, I would have stuck with the existing MPL formula used for the other 30 participants, added some transparency, and called it a day. But reasonable people can and will disagree on this.


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