Expected Value, Subjectivity and Joy – by Graeme McIntyre

Money isn't everything when you enter a Magic tournament - so what should we consider a good return?

Expected Value, Subjectivity and Joy – by Graeme McIntyre

“Too many people today know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” – Ann Landers

I’ve written a couple of articles over the last few months about MCQs. They’re one of the biggest changes to the competitive game in years, and they’re a hot topic. The most common point of discussion in regard to them, though, is cost. They’re really pretty expensive, and while they might cost around the same as the entry fee for 3-4 PPTQs, they are ultimately a single day’s entertainment.

A premium price range with high top-end prize support (appropriate to a high-end competitive event) can cause issues regarding the suitability of these events for various players. In the most direct way, players who don’t think they’re going to win prizes are understandably dubious about paying £50 to play. Because of this, pricing these events becomes the product of heavy consideration and tournament organizers are left with the unenviable position of trying to please too many people, too much of the time.

I’ve heavily advocated the MCQ system, but I will say this – they’re fundamentally unappealing to players who are new, or simply not particularly competitively-minded, because of their cost. However tournaments don’t need to be and ought not aim to be a one–size-fits-all affair. It’s ok that these tournaments are not introductory level, and it’s ok that they’re competitive.

Tournament Organizers

TOs have a tough task right now in creating events, much of which comes from the subjective nature of what makes a good event. Although most games store owners love games and care about their community, from a hardnosed point of view they want to keep people happy to generate repeat custom and to run events at a half way decent profit. To do this they want events suitable for a broad range of the Magic playing populace, but this runs into problems when that player base has diverse perspectives on what makes a good event. What those needs are and how they might be addressed constitute a – large – article all of its own.

You shouldn’t feel compelled to attend events you wouldn’t otherwise attend because the TO is in a bad position, but treat them with some respect. Don’t just put their events on blast – clearly describe what you’d like to be different, and try to make that a reasonable thing (don’t ask for free entry and a box of boosters for every player, etc). Much of what a TO does is down to balancing resources and structuring prize support, which players can give feedback on to help improve events. They’re not mind readers, and what a “desirable tournament” looks like is as subjective as it gets. So much of what they get is vague and unconstructive: “your events are bad – fix them so they’re good”.

If you’re thinking of going but are worried about the entry fee, try to balance both the total monetary cost (what you can afford, where you could be flexible to save money on your trip), and what personal significance of the event is to you (i.e. it’s real worth) as part of your choice. It seems to me that there is a fair bit of cognitive dissonance around entry fees, where people are very wary, and the other monetary costs associated with going to the event, where people are far from frugal.

Try to bear in mind that even if the links are tenuous between specific people/stores, it is the case that stores need players to survive, and players need stores. Many years ago I worked in a games shop, and one of the patrons would ask every week “how much is a chocolate bar?” and I’d tell him 35 pence. He’d complain and say he could get it cheaper from the newsagent up the street, then come back. Like most games shops, ours didn’t have a barter system for chocolate bars, so this conversation never went anywhere. Sometimes he wouldn’t buy, sometimes he’d buy a Yorkie because he was getting more chocolate per penny, which he’d tell me, every week.

Chocolate bar EV. Dude just didn’t get it. This interaction wasn’t about the money involved, but the principle. He was “gaming” this situation, but was so woefully unaware of the social values at play – having a store to game in, having decent manners or the fact that no one else saw this as something “gameable” but did think it was asinine. He was concerned entirely with the idea that he could buy it cheaper up the street, and that was a “better play”. Fine in a roleplaying game, cringe-worthy in reality, even 20 years later.

Expected Value and Subjectivity

But gamers do love to talk about “Expected Value”.

I’ve often remarked (admittedly in frustration, albeit accurately) that if you’re going to talk about Grand Prix in terms of EV you might as well get a part time job at McDonalds over the weekends – you’ll definitely make more money on average. The reason I say this is because you can’t use a concept like EV, which is an objective measure, to account for what almost every player is taking into consideration when they attend a Magic tournament: how much they’ll enjoy the experience. That’s subjective, and if you’re using terms from a mathematics textbook to you are barking up the wrong tree.

Discussion around big events is almost entirely about the price of the event, vs. the prize and distribution of the prizes, vs. the likelihood of doing well enough to get them. This has been especially clear during recent discussions regarding Mythic Championship Qualifiers, and I’ve not been Lovin’ It. It may be you read that line about getting a shift at McDonalds with irritation. You’re not alone – it annoys practically everyone when I say it! The first reason is because people believe I’m being disingenuous and that I know that playing a Magic tournament and working a shift in McDonalds are not the same, and they’re right. I do know that – in fact that’s my point.

The second reason is perhaps where a deeper anger comes from, not just at my perceived pedantry. In comparing attending a Magic tournament – especially a significant one which people look forward to for months – to a minimum wage job I diminish not only the hobby but a part of their identity, and by extension, them.

I’m not one to back away from saying something which I consider important because it will annoy people, but it is not the intent of my action here. In framing the subject matter in terms EV, I would say they’ve already done the damage, I’m simply pointing it out.
A counter point which might be made here is that the meaning of words is socially and contextually defined, so if the term “Expected Value” has come to mean something different within the context of Magic: the Gathering than it does in mathematics, and that second meaning is one held by the large majority of people, then it’s a failure not to realise that and adapt. With certain caveats I can get on board with this argument. To me, the language is a tool by which we express ideas and so long as there is a shared understanding of what is being communicated, there isn’t a problem. With EV, however, what is often happening is a conflation of two the two meanings.

I’ve often had conversations like this one, for example…

Them: You should go to this GP.
Me: Why?
Them: Because it’s good EV!

Granted, this is a simplified version of the conversation to make the point – normally there is much more back and forth before it comes down to EV, but I’ve presented the core of the conversation. If we take the subjective meaning of the term EV, then it can’t be a reason for another person to go. That would be like saying “I like strawberry ice cream, so you should too”. So when the term is introduced to the conversation, it’s meant in the original, mathematical sense. But then…

Me: are you joking? It’s worse than minimum wage…
Them: (Irritated) Come on, going to the GP will be more fun than a Saturday job, that comparison isn’t appropriate.

This is the shift onto the subjective meaning, and they’ve Trojan-horsed their subjective opinion in, disguised as objective fact. There is a wealth of literature which supports the idea that men have more difficulty talking about their emotions than women, so in a demographic with a gender divide as heavy as tournament level Magic: the Gathering, it’s not surprising that players would rather double-speak a term from Mathematics than say something like…

“I’m going to the GP next week, I’m really excited. It should be a lot of fun. Are you going too?”

All of that is true for most people attending events, but that sort of pure, honest expression is rarer than hen’s teeth among competitive players. Instead, we’ve bound it up with logic and maths. We’ve reduced joy to an equation. Of course, this is massively reductionist; the nature and meaning of joy is multiple and complex in the extreme, but what makes you happy and what makes me happy are two different things. Joy is subjective.

Subjectivity is a problem term in gaming circles because so often we are trying to get to the correct answer about a topic, and if something is subjective we can’t really do that. Competitive gaming is about working out what is best, and this can only really be done by working out what is true first. Subjectivity represents multiple truths, making it impossible to approach in the same way we do problem solving exercises, not only stifling the logical process at hand but also further conversation on that topic. All in all, the term is often closely associated with the unknown, and with irrational preference (bias). It’s a massive red flag with “Cop Out” sewn across it. Its antonym – objectivity – is vastly preferred.

Conclusion

Ultimately I’ve described a situation where one partly is telling the other how to behave, and what they ought to like. It’s unintentional in the vast majority of cases I’m sure, but this is how it plays out, especially if the person being told what to do has a minority opinion. “Everyone else wants to go to the event, you’re meant to want to go, why don’t you want to go”? Might be a reasonable opinion, but one which requires a defence of preference and desire in order to be answered. A friend of mine once literally pleaded for me to go to a large event ran by Mind Sports International several years ago. Talk about pressure…

…from your peers.

Peer pressure.

We’re owe it to ourselves to understand what we want and why, and to have the clearest lenses through which to see things for ourselves. Thinking about our free time in terms of value is a trap: use subjective means to make choices about subjective things. Do things because you love to do them, and never let someone make you feel ashamed about it.

That’s it for this week!

All the best,

-Graeme McIntyre

Expected Value, Subjectivity and Joy – by Graeme McIntyre
Expected Value, Subjectivity and Joy – by Graeme McIntyre
Money isn't everything when you enter a Magic tournament. Graeme McIntyre shares his perspective on expected value returns.
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Graeme McIntyre
I've been playing magic since the end of Rath Block, and I've been a tournament regular since Invasion Block. I started studying for a PhD in Sociology at University of Leicester in 2017. I was born In Scotland, but moved to Nottingham three years ago, seeking new oppertunities both academic and magical. I play regularly with David Inglis, Alastair Rees and Neil Rigby. I've been on 5 Pro Tours the 2016 English World Cup Team, and Scottish 2003 European Championship Team, but what I really bring to the table is experience. I've played 136 Pro Tour Qualifiers, 18 Grand Prixs, 11 National Championships, 13 World Magic Cup Qualifers, 51 Preliminary Pro Tour Qualifiers and more little tournaments than I can remember. More than anything else, my articles are intended to convey the lessons of this lived experience. Likes - robust decks, be they control, midrange, beatdown or combo. Cryptic Commands, Kird Apes and Abzan Charms. Dislikes - decks that draw hot and cold. Urza's Tower, Life From the Loam and Taigam's Scheming.