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Read the news about this here.

I’ve largely been steering clear of the recent (Spoiler Warning for link) high-profile leaks that occurred with Magic: The Gathering Oath of the Gatewatch mostly because the Mythics and the new super-double-dog-ultra-Mythics we are seeing in the form of the Expeditions don’t really tell us much about what the play environment will be like. The bulk of what you will see in Limited and across constructed formats will be made up of the Commons, Uncommons and Rares. Unless there is a big piece of news that alters how the rules, printing, or format of the game plays, I will cover a new set when it is completely spoiled or released, and I can get a coherent feel for it as a whole.

Oft times I’m not a fan of adding “-gate” to the end of every event, but perhaps we should be calling this “LeakGate,” since the reaction to the leaks is far more newsworthy and interesting than the leaks themselves of cards that will mostly not even be in Standard (for my opinion of the practice of printing expeditions see my “Fetch Lottery” article.)

dis side 1First, we saw Wizards of the Coast (WotC) throw themselves what can only be described as a pity party with the release of “Why Leaks Hurt” by Trick Jarrett, Global Content and Community Manager for Magic: The Gathering. I don’t object to his broad point, leaks do negatively affect companies and can sometimes scrap a lot of hard work, but I do object to the overly dramatic and wallowing tone of its content. WotC aren’t some mom and pop operation; this won’t stop them turning a profit on the set when it is released. Watching a company that has a monopoly on a billion dollar product be so melodramatic and expect a further outpouring of sympathy is undignified.

Find the source of the leak, cut them out of the loop and move on. Anything else is crying over spilled milk. It’s fine to feel aggrieved by leaks, but the correct response is to quietly plug the leaks and get on with the show. We saw this in action earlier this year with Kotaku being cut out of the loop by Bethesda and Ubisoft; they didn’t give a public show of force or jump to an emotional response. They just stopped doing business with the leaker.

With the newest development, WotC at first seemed to have done just that. Two level 3 judges who were directly responsible for the leak of the cards had been given two-year suspension. Wizards’s also banned a large chunk of judges from the Southwest US region — some of them also high level — that were merely in the Facebook group these spoilers originated from. This includes one of those who blew the whistle and brought these actions to the attention of Wizards of the Coast.

This in turn caused another level 3, James Bennett, to suspend his JudgeApps service and the judge resources at Magicjudges.org in protest to a move he says he is sure will result in his own suspension. The inference from players is that Wizards is adopting a “scorched earth” approach and banning any judges even associated with the two leakers. I’m paraprasing events it here, but you can read the full story — along with Wizard’s statements — in our news piece written by the ever diligent Poryguy.

Here’s the problem: judges are the unpaid labour that keeps Magic: The Gathering running. You can’t have a competitive event without them. Hell, even large stores can’t run Friday Night Magic events without them. They are the grease that keeps the cogs of the machine turning and they are one of the most overlooked but valuable components of this game. Competitive play is one of the main draws of Magic: The Gathering. It has a bigger top-level competitive scene than any other collectable card game out there. Without judges, Grand Prix Magic, Regional Events, Pro Tour Qualifiers, the Pro Tour –- hell any sanctioned event above store level — goes away overnight, Poof! And that billion dollar property Hasbro owns gets a lot less valuable.

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The gleeful talk on social media, of a “disproportionate response” on the part of WotC does not gel with their official statements. Their claim of “Theft of Intellectual Property” is also a gross exaggeration. Violating confidentially? Absolutely. Breach of the trust placed in them by the DCI? Very much so. But Magic cards are physical objects; this isn’t like the leak of a film or an album, this is no way violates their IP. The statement issued is using strong words to shore up what is a very vague sequence of events. If Wizards of the Coast is going to regain the trust of the community, and especially of the army volunteers who run events, then they are going to have to offer more clear evidence of wrongdoing.

There are also a number of unanswered questions that stem from Wizard’s side of the story:

  • If this stems from “leaks related to multiple card-sets over a period of time” then what were these leaks? I’m unaware of any leaks in the past few years unless someone wants to correct me.
  • If there have been leaks in recent years then why had Wizards not responded before now?
  • Has Wizards been pretending recent smaller leaks are spoilers to avoid embarrassment?
  • How can we distinguish between what is viral marketing and what is a leak?

If Wizards is genuinely worried about this particular Facebook group, or these specific judges, and has no direct evidence of them disseminating leaks, perhaps a more proportionate response would have been to suspend their access to unspoiled cards? I know if I was testing a community, I’d throw a few fake spoilers their way and see if any of it ended up in the public domain. If they’ve already identified and effectively banned the two people who were active in the leaking of information then why extend that to the Facebook group? What is desirable about a “Disproportionate Response” that might well shut down or hinder events?

“Anyone who is even moderately active in online communities discussing Magic will, likely multiple times per year, see spoilers of upcoming products whose provenance cannot be readily determined from the information available…” – James Bennett, Magicjudges.org

This issue is of great concern and blows Wizard’s marketing position out of the water. We have this slow drip-feed of spoilers, some of them coming in unexpected or eccentric forms, to generate hype and keep people interested. If those involved in the Magic community are paranoid of sharing then viral marketing goes right out of the window. We can’t live in a community where everyone is constantly informing on everyone else for fear of the arbitrary wrath of Wizards of the Coast, especially when those people are the volunteer judges who keep the game running.

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I’ll say it again. Billion dollar franchise. BILLION. That’s nine zeros folks. This comes across as the rich mill owner beating the street urchin for not shining his shoes properly to me. The response feels more like an act of revenge for the leak, punishing everyone even adjacent to it, and enforcement of the rules seems to be being made up as it goes along. The reaction is less fixing a leaky ship and more just blowing up the whole boat. The message to judges is clear: we don’t value the time you input to prop this game up if WotC decides to put you under the sword.

I have a hope that we as the Magic community, and especially fellow judges, can make a “Disproportionate Response” of our own that is able to generate some accountability within Wizards, but I won’t hold my breath. This reminds me of another arbitrary banning, that of Zach Jesse, which saw a wizards contributor publicly shame and attack a player for decades old offences, which effectively ended his playing career for good.

Judges may make the rules of Magic more clear, but the rules of the DCI seem as unfathomable as ever. Their motives range from wanting good PR, in the case of Jesse, to seemingly acting as enforcers out of a desire for revenge on the part of a slighted Wizards of the Coast.

I doubt the judges suspended are going to be dedicating their free time to this game after this (I wouldn’t) and the bad taste this leaves may put others off from doing the same. Competitive Magic just got that much less friendly and harder to organize, and almost impossible in the case of the Southwest US for the next three months.

Leaks hurt, but they don’t hurt half as much as having no one to run your competitive events.

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John Sweeney
John Sweeney is a terribly British man with a background in engineering. He writes long-form editorial content with analysis of gaming, games media and internet culture. He also does the occasional video game retrospective with a weekly column about Magic the Gathering thrown in for good measure. He also does most of our interviews for some reason, we have no idea why. A staunch supporter of free speech and consumer rights; skeptical of agenda driven media and suspicious of unaccoutable authority but always hopeful for change.