It seems like every week there’s a new topic of outrage for the Magic community. This week that topic was deck scouting at the Pro Tour. This was a very interesting topic to look at because the discussions seem very polarizing between the pro players and the fans. We’ll take a look this week at what scouting is, who’s doing it, who’s arguing for and against it, and whether or not there’s any substance to this week’s outrage.

Scouting 101

Magic isn’t a fair game. There are a lot of factors working for and against you when you sit down to play your next match at a tournament of any level. One of these factors has risen to the forefront of the community’s collective consciousness: scouting. What do you do when you sit down for your match and shuffle up for game one already knowing the archetype your opponent is playing. You might even know specific cards, sideboard strategies, mulligan strategies, and maybe even some or all of their complete deck-list. How much of an advantage do you have? How much is that advantage worth? Is that advantage fair?

So how did this happen? Interestingly, it sort of traces back to the infamous round six incident at Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir. While Cedric Philips was discussing his opinions on how the situation was portrayed on live coverage, the topic of fairness came up with respect to video replay. A tangent then developed around the fact that video coverage was already unfair to pro players because it provided a valuable scouting tool to the competition.

It’s worth noting that Pardee, a former Grand Prix Top-8 competitor, writes for Channel Fireball, the premier competitor to Philips’s Star City Games outlet. Their discussion on Twitter was passionate but civil. However, the real crux of their back-and-forth was on the topic of scouting at Pro Tours.

And now the proverbial cat is out of the bag, as they say. I think that prior to this incident the community at large was unaware of scouting. After all, only a few a hundred players participate in the Pro Tour, and at most there are under 10,000 players globally who have done so. The number of players who are members of a team large enough to manage the kind of scouting Philips is referring too is an even small number, certainly under 1,000. None of the pros write or talk about scouting publicly. The coverage teams have certainly never brought up the topic on camera. But here it is, with Philips, the content manager for Star City Games, and Pardee, a writer for Channel Fireball, talking about it in the open like it’s just a normal thing everyone does.

What I find most interesting about this topic is that it didn’t vanish into the darkness amid the other controversies from Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir. In the weeks immediately following the Pro Tour, the spotlight shone directly on the round six incident with a variety of discussions around the topic of video replay. However, once the dust settled there, the idea of scouting still lingered in the back of many people’s minds, leading to this past week which saw several rekindled discussions around scouting, beginning with this one on Reddit. I recommend you give that a good read, and especially the ensuing discussion around the top comment which was made by Brian Kibler.

I’ve frequently had opponents in round two of a pro tour know what I’m playing due to the coverage, whether of my own matches or of those of my teammates playing the same decks. In fact, it’s more likely that any of my opponents know what I’m playing than I know what they’re playing simply due to the amount of public information that exists/is demanded by the audience about pro players, regardless of what scouting spreadsheets we might be compiling.

I think this post and the conversation surrounding it dramatically overstates the informational advantage gained by pro teams by scouting and undersells the disadvantage that we naturally have by virtue of being on camera more often and having more eyes on us throughout tournaments.
-Brian Kibler

The position of pro players is consistent. They feel that being on coverage as prolifically as they are is a concession that they are making, allowing their decks to become known entities at the start of a tournament. Through scouting they can only hope to match the knowledge advantage that their opponents already have. This was expressed by a number of players including fellow Pro Tour Hall of Fame members Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, Luis Scott-Vargas, and Jon Finkel. You can see the entire LSV/Finkel discussion here.

This debate feels like many that have come before it. The top-level competitors feel the need to engage in scouting and they have a valid argument for doing so. The community, however, sees this as something that fundamentally feels wrong because it is creating a perceived advantage that is only available to certain people. Yes, players like Kibler and LSV are at the mercy of feature match coverage, but that exposure is public. Scouting information is private and only available to certain teams. I point this out only to demonstrate that the advantages on either side shouldn’t be considered equal sides in a balancing equation as many pro players are making them out to be.

The scenario of competitors defending their practices for minor competitive edges while the fans cry out for fairness and integrity is one that plays out in all kinds of competitions. When some golfers started bringing those new putters to the PGA Tour? When ice hockey players began trading in their wood sticks for composite? When an equipment manager (or who knows really) deflates some footballs? When a baseball player takes some steroids? In each case there has been fan outrage at the fairness and integrity, and while these scenarios have all played out differently the common thread is that at the start of the controversy the players were clearly in favor of defending their actions while the fans cried bloody murder.

So what is the future of scouting for Magic? Matt Sperling (a colleague of Sam Pardee) tackled this issue in his weekly column as well. Sperling, interestingly, feels that the practice of scouting is inherently unethical, or “icky” as he describes it. He admits that he engages in it because he gains an advantage from it, and even if that advantage is slight there’s no reason to give it up. He does acknowledge that scouting does not actually balance out the debt created by tournament coverage. His real focus however is on the fact that scouting is something that just seems like the wrong thing to do, so he wants to find a way to improve the situation.

If I could snap my fingers and eliminate scouting, I would. Magic is about hidden information, reactions and decisions made when your opponent surprises you, and it certainly is not about the strength of your mobile device’s internet connection or the speed at which you can move through a room and essentially spy on other matches.
– Matt Sperling

Ultimately Sperling’s solutions are all technical in some aspect which leaves the community with little faith that any of them could actually be implemented adequately by Wizards of the Coast. Since no solution is readily at-hand, the debate is likely to continue for the next few months as we head into Pro Tour Magic Origins. The next Pro Tour, which will be at the end of July, less than three months away, will be the first event where scouting will be prevalent in the community’s collective consciousness. It will be incredibly interesting to see how this colors the conversation and what impact it has, perceived or otherwise, on the community discussions following up the event.

What to Do?

After all of this has been said and done, my personal opinion is that the pro players in this case are completely full of shit. The implication made by players like Brian Kibler is that the pro players are the victims here. They have succumbed to the demands of the coverage and the fans and given up something that they perceive to be a massive advantage. In exchange they have resorted to the “icky” practice of spying on their competition and building a clandestine network for distributing their intelligence reports. I say bullshit. Let’s say that tomorrow Helene Bergeot announces that the live Pro Tour coverage will be replaced with a delayed coverage which will only be made available after the tournament such to eliminate the advantage everyone has over the pros on coverage. Do you think that these super-teams like Pantheon and UltraPro would disband their scouting syndicates and go back to playing these tournaments blind? Not a chance. As Sperling said, the advantage is small but it’s still an advantage so why get rid of it?

The pros are engaging in an activity that many of them acknowledge feels unethical and inappropriate but it gives them a competitive advantage and there’s no rule stopping them from doing so. The community has called them out on this because it looks unethical and inappropriate on the outside as well. Instead of just owning up to what they’re doing, like Sperling did, they instead hide behind the argument that we should pity the poor pro player and their plight of being featured on coverage at the tournament they were given monetary compensation to attend.

Players in the Pro Tour Hall of Fame or ranked in the Top 25 in the world at Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir, which is to say the players who are featured the most prominently on coverage, earned a collective $32,000 at the tournament despite their massive disadvantages. Pity them.

The Quick Hits

  • Abe Sargent wrote his 500th article for Star City Games which is an amazing accomplishment [StarCityGames]
  • Anthony Lowry talks about the challenges of grinding week after week on the circuit with a very deep emotional look at the stress and pressures of being a known grinder and the gross elitism of the community [StarCityGames]
  • Mark Rosewater shared 20 interesting facts about Tempest including the fact that Richard Garfield offered to work on a design team led by Rosewater while the two shared a ski lift [Making Magic]
  • Level 5 Judge Riccardo Tessitory bids a fond farewell to the PTQ’s of yore and shares several of his fondest PTQ memories. Surprisingly, being a judge in Europe, he doesn’t have any stories of playing the first two rounds of a PTQ at a McDonald’s down the block and no I’m not over it after all these years [Black Border]
  • Initial reports are coming in that local game stores are getting fewer boxes of Modern Masters 2015 than they did of the original Modern Masters. Since we don’t have any distributor info it’s hard to tell if Wizards is printing less or if distributors are hoarding more (or both) [Quiet Speculation]
  • John Dale Beety takes a flavorful look at the last words of some of Magic’s well-known and lesser-known characters through flavor text [StarCityGames]
  • Marshall Sutcliffe wants to get you primed for this week’s Tempest Remastered release on MTGO [Limited Information]
  • Felipe Valdivia and Stephen Speck have been suspended for 6 and 36 months respectively for cheating at Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir [Daily MTG]
  • Is it worth it to double-sleeve your cards? You be the judge after checking out this water test [MtgUK]

Wallpaper of the Week

Dragonlord Silumgar is best known, perhaps, for the ornate ex-Khan he wears as jewelry around his neck. It’s very likely that no other accessory in a piece of Magic art has ever spawned such reverence. Silumgar’s second most well-known trait is his ruthlessness and scorn. What’s depicted here though is his sloth. I guess it’s not surprising that the blue/black dragonlord manages to hit up almost all seven vices.

Grade: B-

What We Learned is a weekly feature here at Hipsters of the Coast written by former amateur Magic Player Rich Stein, who came really close to making day two of a Grand Prix on several occasions. Each week we will take a look at the past seven days of major events, big news items, and community happenings so that you can keep up-to-date on all the latest and greatest Magic: the Gathering community news.

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