Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Racism in the professional Magic community

Over the past few years, I have had the privilege of being on the “train” of the Magic: the Gathering Pro Tour circuit – though I was never of Gold or Platinum status, I was able to string enough individual finishes to qualify myself for eight consecutive Pro Tours. Throughout this time, I have had the pleasure of interacting with many of the best players in the world, as well as some of the great minds who work tirelessly to help make this beautiful game that we all love.

My experiences on the Pro Tour has been vastly different to what I imagined it to be as a young teenager who dreamt of becoming a professional player. One of the biggest surprises was the intimate friendships I formed with people around the world – I always envisioned getting to meet and play against these top players, but I never expected that some of the people I used to follow on coverage, such as Christian Calcano, Andrea Mengucci and Simon Nielsen, would then go on to become some of my closest friends. I have spent many enjoyable hours playing Magic with Simon, but those times pale in comparison to the hours we have spent trading poetry or when his family invited me to Copenhagen and served me some of the best home-cooked meals I have ever had.

On a less positive note, the other big surprise I experienced on the Pro Tour was the prevalence of the racism in the professional Magic community. Specifically, players are far too willing to label their foreign opponents as cheaters. Due to the uniquely privileged place America has in the context of organized play, this racism disproportionately affects players from other regions, such as Asia Pacific and South America, and is exacerbated by the language barrier that these minority players face when competing at this high level.

Although I do not believe I am the most qualified person to address this problem, over the past year, I have unintentionally become the point of contact for many professional Magic players from minority nations, who have felt unable to articulate their thoughts on various issues due to their lack of English proficiency or a desire to not jeopardize their relationship with Wizards of the Coast and their peers. During this time, many separate issues have been brought to me, but the most ubiquitous concern has been the racism in the community. It is my hope that with this article, I am able to voice the concerns of my peers, as well as share my own personal experiences.  

My First Pro Tour
“We’re a social species, and we want to get along with the people we like and who are like us. That’s just good adaptive behaviour. We’re more likely to accept something if we hear it from a friend, whereas we’re sceptical of people who are not like us – which is what leads to racism, nationalism, sexism and all forms of bigotry”. – Daniel Levitin

On the eve of my first Pro Tour, I was brimming with excitement as I walked to pre-registration - I was already stoked about getting to skip high school for a week, and with the tournament hall just down the road, I was envisioning all the pro players I was about to meet. Although I was eager to engage with just about anyone who I had seen on coverage before, the two players I was most looking forward to meeting were Lee Shi Tian and Tzu Ching Kuo – who at the time were the only professional players from the Asia Pacific region. While neither of these players were well known at the time, with just one Pro Tour Top 8 between them, they were the players that I looked up to the most, as they gave me hope of playing Magic competitively even though I lived in such a disenfranchised region.  

As I got closer to the venue, the street started littering with more and more players. On the final intersection before reaching the venue, to my great joy, I was able to spot my two favorite players across the street! I eagerly turned towards my friend and shared my excitement with them. As I did, a voice from behind shouted towards us, “They’re the three-named cheaters – they’re all cheaters”.

“It’s more than just words”
Although the sentiment from above was slightly aggressive, it is just one of many examples that are commonly shared about foreign players in the professional Magic community. As I became a regular fixture on the circuit, it was not uncommon for me to be told to be careful when playing against Chinese players, or that South American players will use judges from their own region to win judge calls. Although these accusations often lacked the specifics and the evidence to be treated with complete seriousness, they do make a real and lasting impression – as they are often the first stroke of the image people form about players from that country.  

When I played against my first Italian opponent at the Pro Tour, I had my mental guards up and was ready to pounce on any suspicious behaviour, as I remembered what I had been told before about Italian players. However, by the time the match finished, I felt extremely guilty, as my opponent was friendly throughout the match and took the loss with a level of grace and sportsmanship that the whole community could learn from. I was not able to play with that same decency because I was too worried about some unsubstantiated rumour I had been told. In hindsight, it was stupid of me to just presume a whole region of players were cheaters, and I wish I had apologized to him for ruining his experience by not reciprocating the level of sincerity that he deserved. 

These sentiments are extremely problematic when they are expressed by prominent figures in the community – and I have been in enough circles of conversation, as well as overheard from close proximity, that these opinions are shared even amongst the top pro players. Although very few have voiced these opinions publicly out of respect, word does travel quickly, especially as less well-known players try to prove they are “in” with the top players by sharing conversations that were clearly never meant to see the public light of day.

The main reason that such sentiments persist in the community is that the group that typically makes these accusations, i.e. the American pro players, are also the most vocal and prominently represented in the public eye. By being both the majority nation and the most privileged segment of the community, even their poorly considered opinions will quickly be defended by their peers – who are overwhelming in numbers, and influential enough to prevent any real backlash. This quick acceptance with no consequences promotes the idea that it is acceptable to label entire regions of players as cheaters. Players throughout the community will then regurgitate the same rhetoric in an attempt to fit in with the pro players’ cabal.

A few years ago, prominent American Hall of Famer Ben Stark, was caught on camera saying that Portuguese and French players are cheaters, in a moment where he thought the microphone was turned off. Though he was quick to apologize on Twitter, he brushed it off fairly easily as “kidding around, not serious at all.” and “controversial/offensive jokes between friends”. What was even more worrying than the actual expression though, were the responses to it. You can find the full twitter thread here. A few comments are rightfully critical of his non-apology, but below are some other noteworthy replies:
·      “lol this was great, I’m glad you said it. Also the it’s not racist if I said it to a friend is valid”
·      “I, for one, value your right to free speech. #fuckportugal”
·      “good grief there are so many pussies that are easily offended”
·      “Portuguese girls don’t sleep with you for being internet offended. Just stop.”
·      “nothing you haven’t heard from Ben before” – Luis Scott-Vargas, another Hall of Famer

I will personally say that I have a lot of respect for Ben, and I am sure it was unintentional to say it publicly. My main issue here though were these responses, and just how quickly the racism was swept under the rug – his peers quickly came to his defence, and the public was quick to accept his half-hearted “apology”. Although to my knowledge Ben has not been invited back to do commentary again, he has lost almost no social capital due to this incident. Meanwhile, the response would have been drastically different if it was a foreign player making a similar statement about American players. You would have likely seen social media blow up about it, and it would have been discussed for days within the professional community, with the player who said it facing far steeper consequences than this hall of famer. They would have likely lost many connections within the community, and the commentary desk would be about the furthest place they would ever find themselves sitting in again. 

Simply put, not only is the professional Magic community far too willing to label foreign players as cheaters, I also believe that the consequences for making such an accusation are drastically different depending your nationality. Players from major nations, such as America, can get away with making racial judgments about players from other regions with no real consequences other than people believing them, while those from minority nations would be publicly ridiculed if it was revealed that they held such beliefs about Americans. This type of double standard is common in our society, and the professional Magic community is no different when it comes to allowing for this sort of behaviour.

Bayesian Interference
One point that I think is important to address is that these sentiments do not just come out of thin air – there is some body of knowledge that led people to form these opinions. The problem here though, is that the vast majority of cheating in Magic is opportunistic – which occupy a grey area where they could just as easily be intentional cheating or honest mistakes.

I am not the only one to have noticed this problem in the Magic community. Allen Wu, Pro Tour 25th Anniversary winner, has also been critical of the bias shown against foreign players in these grey circumstances. He tried to explain this using the theory of Bayesian Inference. I highly recommend everyone read his full post, which can be found here. It may seem overwhelming with the large amount of mathematics jargon at the beginning, but I promise it all makes sense once you get through the first few paragraphs. 

This is where things get complicated, because the information stream on sloppiness is largely hidden and extremely biased. When our opponent makes a mistake that’s in our favor, we either correct it and move on, if we need to in order to maintain the game state, or dismiss it, if it’s something like a missed trigger. If someone misses a trigger on camera, it’s a little embarrassing but who really cares. However, when someone makes a mistake that’s in her favor, we call a judge or start a witch hunt. Because of this, we only hear about sloppiness that could be construed as cheating, and never about sloppiness that definitely couldn’t be.  

Where things get really messy is when the biased information stream mixes with even uninformed priors. If I don’t know a player, let’s say because she’s from a different country and doesn’t speak English very well, then I’ll start from an uninformed prior like Beta(1,1). That sounds equitable enough, but because I don’t know anything about her and I’ll only hear stories about mistakes that worked in her favor, I’ll quickly come to the conclusion that she’s a cheater, or at least likely to be cheating. Maybe I’ll see her make a boneheaded mistake twice and hear about how she played an extra land four times, and then my posterior will be Beta (3,5). Despite extremely limited and incomplete information and no personal bias a priori, my posterior reflects a relatively strong belief that she’s cheating.

I believe that the professional Magic community is seriously racist. We can just count the number of Asian, European, and Latin American players who are widely suspected of cheating against the number of Americans. Not necessarily out of any ill intent, but because most Magic players are American and will naturally give other Americans some benefit of the doubt, whereas they’ll assign foreign players at best an uniform prior.

I felt compelled to write this because I’m frustrated by the Hall of Fame voting dialogue. I don’t have a vote and I’ve always been an outsider to the professional Magic scene proper, so I don’t have any real stake here, but I’m perplexed by how ready some people are to drag people they barely know through the mud. And I think people need to seriously consider if they’re treating people from other countries, cultures, and backgrounds fairly.”

While Wu’s argument might explain why these attitudes exist amongst the clique of top American players, it certainly does not excuse them. The truth is, players under suspicion are disproportionately non-American, especially when compared to the actual number that have actually been suspended. This is not even taking into factor that foreign players are already under more scrutiny by the judge community than American players are, which makes it much more likely for a foreign player to be caught cheating compared to an American player. Though it may not be as hurtful, the thought process behind these sentiments are honestly no different to other xenophobic opinions that are commonly held by society – and over the past few years, we have seen the grave consequences of what happens when these xenophobic sentiments are held by those in prominent positions of power and/or have a large public following.

Although Magic may be just a tiny droplet in the entirety of our society, within our own community, we have figures whose voices are heard by just as many people in proportion to that of our leaders when they speak to the world. In the realms of the Magic community, people with as little as 10,000 followers can have a major influence behind the decisions Wizards makes, and dictate the narrative of our community. It is therefore crucial that these xenophobic opinions are actively put down by these role models of our community, as failing to do so could easily be interpreted by the general player base as validation to hold such opinions.

“The Japanese? Yeah, they’re all Cheaters”
It was only about a decade and a half ago, when the common sentiment was that Japanese players were cheaters. People even wrote articles about how “the Japanese are cheating”. Although Hall of Famer Kenji Tsumura is now universally regarded for having a positive influence on the Pro Tour, there used to be a time when American players genuinely claimed that he was a cheater due to his unconventional tactics, such as playing many one-of’s. At the time, this was unheard of, and led to suspicions that he was stacking his deck and placing certain silver bullets on top. Today, this is a common practice in good deckbuilding, and Japanese players have a highly regarded reputation for being extremely clean players, and make up a large portion of those we consider to be as some of the best players to have ever played the game.

Earlier in the article, I mentioned how I was told that South American players will use judges from their own region to win judge calls. As it turns out, the opposite is true. I was recently having a conversation with some Latin American players, and they expressed that they are extremely scared of judge calls due to their limited ability to communicate in English - to the point where at times they would not make appeals to the head judge even if they disagreed with the floor ruling.

It is one thing to speak English in a casual manner with your friends or your opponent, but it is an entirely different experience when you are having to explain a complicated situation under pressure in a language you may have only learnt through playing Magic and have never had a formal education in. In Magic, lying to a tournament official is considered cheating, which under the Infraction Procedure Guide warrants a disqualification. If you are struggling to explain an in-game situation to a judge in an unfamiliar language, and accidentally alter details of your story when asked for clarification, you can be disqualified from the tournament on the pretence of having been dishonest. If you get past the floor judge and the head judge gets involved, you now have to re-explain that same situation, essentially word-for-word, with the fear that you may be disqualified if you are not able to. Additionally, most dealings with judges at tournaments are done at the table in the presence of your opponent, who is often fluent in English and is incentivized to hunt for any verbal ‘gotcha’ that can get them a free match win.

When I mentioned this issue to an American friend, he asked whether this is less of an issue at the Pro Tour, where you can request a judge that speaks your preferred language. While that is an available option, it is important to realize that it is always a handicap to argue your case through an interpreter. Even though these judges are almost certainly not ill-intentioned, they are still working under the head judge, and people’s natural inclination to avoid conflict may lead to your original statement being slightly altered to align with what the interpreting judge believes the head judge would want to hear. As a player, you are powerless in this situation. Your only options are to either accuse the judge of mistranslating, or to claim that the actual story is different - which makes you look like you lied in the first place.

I do not mean this as just a hypothetical. Just a few years ago, one of my teammate’s American opponent actively took advantage of the fact that my teammate’s English ability was limited to control a judge call. By speaking more confidently and articulately, the American player was able to establish the narrative from his perspective, and my teammate felt trapped and powerless. He was unable to effectively articulate that the American’s story was biased, especially with how nervous he was on the Pro Tour stage. Naturally, the judge call went in the American’s favour.  My teammate never escalated the issue, purely on the fear that he will be destroyed in the court of public opinion – a place where the influence of the American community has effectively installed Uncle Sam as the judge, jury, and executioner.

Such a scenario is easy to imagine, and it seems to be happening fairly frequently at premier level events around the world. It is why foreign players are scared to call a judge, and it is it why many of them will not appeal the floor judge ruling even if they disagree with it – because they fear that the judge will rule against them, due to their inability to compete in a dialogue with a native English speaker.

Lee Shi Tian
Much of the past week’s discussion on Magic social media has been about the Hall of Fame, and the allegations made against Lee Shi Tian. As a teammate of his for the past few years, I thought it would be appropriate for me to share my thoughts on the matter.

The first time I heard allegations against Lee Shi Tian, I was shocked. It seemed extremely out of character from the person I have come to know well. I personally have an extremely strong stance against cheating, as all honest players presumably do, and I wish that Wizards was harsher against players who are caught. Playing Magic is a privilege and not a right, and I am happy to give players a second chance after a suspension for the first time, but any other incidents following that and they should be lifetime banned. Not too long ago, I cut ties with a close friend of multiple years and someone who I trusted a lot, as their attitude towards Magic did not reflect the values I believe in.

Still, I was aware of the fact that the most successful cheaters are those who have a friendly façade. I decided to hold Shi Tian against each and every one of these allegations, and made him answer for them – ready to cut ties with him if I felt that any of the answers were less than adequate. While I am obviously biased since I had already formed a friendship with him at this point, I do believe that I tried my best to be rational and played devil’s advocate as much as possible.

The reality is, Lee Shi Tian has been on the Pro Tour circuit for ten years. For much of this time, his foreigner status meant that he was under significantly more scrutiny compared to other players having similar levels of success. However, he was not once disqualified from a tournament, let alone suspended. The argument that people have commonly made online is that he is an opportunistic cheater, but these opportunistic cheats should have still racked up warnings – and enough warnings leads to a thorough investigation, which can then lead to a suspension. Frankly, I find it difficult to believe that the best judges in the world are not adept enough to catch Shi Tian over a whole decade if he truly was a cheater.

I am aware that there is a video that is currently circulating social media, where Shi Tian allegedly “stalled” against Sam Pardee. If you watch it carefully, you will see that Game 1 ends in just seven minutes, and then three minutes after Game 1, ends Sam finishes sideboarding and starts shuffling, and just a mere ninety seconds later, Shi Tian finishes sideboarding and starts shuffling as well. Game 2 then finishes in about five minutes, and the whole match takes under twenty minutes. If you actually watched the video, you would know that Shi Tian only took ninety seconds longer to sideboard than Sam did – nowhere near the eight minutes that people have been claiming.

The reality is, if you google your favorite Magic player who has been around for a decade or longer, you will find that a majority of them have made some mistakes on camera before. This does not mean they are all cheaters – I suspect that most of them are completely clean. But if you play enough Magic under the camera, you will make some mistakes, and the degree to which you are held against them should not be based on your nationality. Patrick Chapin addressed this point in an article after an incident at the World Magic Cup where Shi Tian played two lands in one turn. After noting that Shi Tian did not have a history of suspicious behaviour and that the error was a relatively easy mistake to make, Chapin concluded:

“I am still of the opinion that Lee was not cheating and should be given the benefit of the doubt; however, he should take extra care to ensure more situations like these do not keep happening. If a pro player finds themselves in a situation that looks bad, it is worth the extra effort to tighten up the sloppy play.”

Some might argue that even a tiny number of errors such as the one discussed by Chapin are enough to put Shi Tian over the threshold of being a cheater, but this is a standard only applied by the most ardent of witch-hunters. Such a strict policy would also ostracize many popular American players, so if you would dismiss Shi Tian on this basis, then I hope you apply the same rule to all players regardless of their nationality.

The most likely explanation of these allegations is the culmination of everything I have discussed in this article. They are unproven accusations from the most privileged in our community, who have in the past inaccurately called out other foreign players as being cheaters when they were not. Lee Shi Tian is the first player from the Asia Pacific region to ever have a real chance to be in the Hall of Fame, but like many other trailblazers, as the first guy through the wall – it always gets bloody.

For far too long, there has been an extreme amount of inherent racism amongst the professional Magic community. While I do not believe that this is deliberately malicious, it has had significant consequences on foreign players, as those from major nations continue to accuse them of cheating with little evidence, knowing that they ultimately will not have to deal with any major consequences for their claims if they turn out to be false. If you call out every foreign player as a cheater, you are effectively dehumanizing them, as well as yourself, and eliminating your opportunity to participate and compete as equals.

While these claims are easy to make and may just be a joke amongst friends, it is easy for this type of sentiment to leak and spread amongst the community – at which point it then starts to have major implications beyond just the Pro Tour. I have had players at my local store in Auckland ask me if it was true that Brazilian players cheat, or that Japanese players are masters at stacking their decks with a certain pile shuffling methodology.

It is important to realize that a majority of the Magic population is made up of arguably the most privileged segment in the whole of our society – wealthy and well educated males living in the most powerful country in the world. While I do not doubt that many of you have gone through hardships in life, and that the group I am talking on behalf of today is also an extremely privileged segment of our society, I would still like to encourage everyone to not jump to attack me or defend yourselves, but instead, put yourself in our shoes and try to imagine how some of these experiences may feel. How it may feel to overhear a player you look up to say that people from your country are all cheaters. Or how it may feel to fly half way across the world, compete in an event when you are still heavily jet lagged, make some small mistakes in a match, and then later find out on social media that people are now accusing you of being a cheater, and players you have never heard of before are trying to dredge up stories about matches you do not even remember.

So, the next time you are about to accuse a certain segment of the Magic population as being cheaters, think long and hard about whether your statement is correct – even if you are just sharing it between friends. While you may feel as though your words do not have a significant impact, they are part of a larger discourse that persists to alienate certain groups within the community.

My inbox is open on both Facebook and Twitter, and I am happy to engage with anyone who is willing to have a reasonable dialogue. I am open for anyone to be critical of what I wrote, but I am hoping you will do so after making an effort to try to understand where I am coming from. Maybe you disagree with me, but just remember that this is not merely my voice, but rather the collective of all the different players who have reached out to me and shared their stories and the hopelessness they have felt.

Magic is the greatest game to have ever been made, and it has without a doubt been one of the biggest influences on my life – and I am sure that it has enriched each and every one of your lives in some way as well. There is enough awful shit happening in our world that the least we can do is to make sure that no matter what someone’s background is, they too can enjoy the game in the same capacity as anybody else in the world. I guarantee that the small efforts you make to be a bit more accepting will pay large dividends in Magic’s future success, which will only enhance your future experience with the game.

Zen Takahashi


  1. Thank you for writing this article. If is a great read and many people, myself included, would benefit a lot from reading and thinking long and hard if they see any of these traits in themselves or their playgroup.

  2. Really great read, thank you for this. Unfortunately the Magic community en masse has a lot of faults, and this is probably the most gaping. Hopefully we can slowly help foster a more informed and mature culture in the Magic world, less based on ignorance and more based on inclusion and acceptance.