Friday, December 7, 2012

In which the Missed Trigger policy touches a nerve

Today I came home to find that the topic of the evening was the current Missed Trigger rules. Melissa DeTora wrote an article on how the strategically correct, technically legal play regarding missed triggers often feels morally wrong now, as it typically takes advantage of the fact that a player forgot to—or didn’t bother to—verbalize a trigger that seemed obvious or irrelevant. I suspect this problem will eventually resolve itself, as players become accustomed to mentioning every single trigger, but the important thing for now is that players are feeling pressured to made decision that feel shady.

This wound up being quite timely, as I navigate the internship application process for my graduate school program. On the application, you have to fill out how many hours of experience you have in each category—individual therapy, family therapy, assessment, etc. Many activities don’t fit neatly into one category or another, so we’re given a fair amount of discretion in determining what category our hours fall under.

Some categories are far more prestigious than others, so there is a strong incentive to be a little creative—or a lot creative—about what qualifies for these top categories. Given the ambiguity, it isn’t too difficult to convince yourself that your classification is justifiable, and a lot of people do it. But it’s not comfortable, because you know when it’s not quite right. I see it on the faces of other applicants when they explain why they categorized something the way they did. I don’t do it. I can’t do it.

I felt pretty good turning in my application with its precise categorizations, even though I know this made me look less competitive than people who are more lax in their criteria. Hopefully I’d be able to make up the quality elsewhere. I was optimistic.

Then the rejection emails started coming, and suddenly I didn’t feel quite so great. It sounds good to say that losing with integrity is better than winning without it, but that’s a bit hard to keep in mind when you’re looking at the possibility of pushing your degree back a year.

On Twitter, Rules Manager Matt Tabak said, “I’m sympathetic to players not wanting to feel like jerks, but ‘the rules should force me to be sporting’ isn’t really a winning argument.” I see people’s complaints as not wanting to rules to make them be sporting, but wanting the rules to make everyone be sporting. It just feels awful when the situation is set up so that your values become a significant liability.

I don’t know what this means for the Missed Trigger rules. There is always going to be someone who is willing to push the boundaries further than you. Some people are desperate enough that they decide the guilt is worth it, and some just have a different definition of what is sporting. You will often lose to these people. If sticking to your guns was always rewarded, it would be the default choice.

That said, it would be nice to avoid putting people in unwinnable situations as much as possible. Tabak said, ‘Still, some small part of me is crying out ‘If it feels wrong, don’t do it.” But let's look at that situation: now you may have knocked yourself out of the Top 8 because you declined to play the game to the fullest. If there was something major on the line, I certainly wouldn't be feeling proud about how I sacrificed something I wanted in order to not look like a jerk. I'd be feeling cheated.

Going back to my internship applications: Will I be just as precise in categorizing my hours if I have to apply again next year? Through gritted teeth, I say yes. Accuracy and transparency are two of my core values. Am I upset that the system makes me choose between those values and being maximally competitive? Dear God, yes.

The MTG design people talk about the fact that you can get players to do anything if you set up proper incentives, but it feels bad when players are compelled to do something they don’t want to do. With the current rules, players seem to be set up to feel bad no matter what they do.  

I know creating a good Missed Trigger policy is hard. I certainly don't have any brilliant ideas about how to repair it. I know it’s going to be imperfect no matter what, because it's a really complicated situation. It just seems like there’s got to be something better than making people choose between feeling like a jerk and feeling like a sucker. We get enough of that in the rest of our lives.