Standing Behind My Trades

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Hey Everyone, I'm going to steal a bit of Kelly's thunder here to give you a bit of information. My name is David Conrad, current Editor here at Quiet Speculation. I'm the guy behind the scenes making sure all of the articles get out. When I started to realize the theme of Peter Jahn's article showing up in all of our writer's articles this week, I asked Kelly if we could syndicate his article from Mana Nation, and they graciously allowed us to so long as I made sure to let you know it came from there first. So here is the article, redone in all its glory to further this discussion in regards to an article that sparked a fire within the trading communities.

You can find the original article here.

You can also find Kelly's follow-up article on Mana Nation here.


This is being written in response to Peter Jahn’s article regarding the ethics of trading. This is a loaded topic, and one that hits close to home for me. In addition, Jon Medina is a friend of mine and his Pack to Power project was published right here on ManaNation, which is why I’m choosing this as my forum through which to reply to his article. I’ve read Peter’s articles for years and I respect the guy as a writer, but I just don’t agree with most of what he’s saying. I will do my best to address it respectfully, and would encourage anyone who disagrees to do the same.

Magic: The Gathering is a Collectible Card Game. A game is a contest, with rules, to determine a winner. Most people view Magic as a card game whose pieces are collectible. I view Magic as a game of financials wherein I can then use the pieces I acquire to play a fun card game with my friends. I need to make it clear to everyone that I don’t play Magic because I like the game. I play Magic because I love to deal. I was trading baseball cards on the playground in 4th grade, I was altering server-wide economies in World of Warcraft, I’ve sat for and passed the Series 7 exam and I’ve successfully traded stock for a net gain. It’s clear to me that the game of Magic is ancillary to the art of the deal. That’s not likely to change any time soon.

The best part about Magic is that people can play the game on any level they choose to. There is no “value judgment” between someone who plays on the Pro Tour and someone who plays kitchen table casual. It’s your game. Play it the way you want to play it. And don’t let anyone else tell you not to. For me, my concept of “fun” is simple. I enjoy learning the rules of a game, finding out what the basic assumptions are, and then I figure out which of those basic assumptions are poorly-founded.

I hate rules. I really hate them. Most of them are written by morons who don’t know the goals they’re trying to achieve. Magic’s rulebook, however, is one of the better sets of rules I’ve seen. I like their rules, and I enjoy playing by them. When it comes to competition, I am a stickler about rules, be it in Magic, athletics, or any other area of competition. The rules exist to define the set of legal actions one can take to achieve victory. If there were no rules, people would just kill each other in every game. Thankfully, laws (which are rules) prevent this.

You know what I hate more than rules? Unwritten or unspoken rules. Earmuffs, children – unspoken rules are bullshit. When it comes to competition, you play by the rules or you don’t. If you don’t play by the rules, you are cheating and you get disqualified. I cannot stand it when someone follows the rules and then an onlooker or another participant references an unwritten rule and cries foul. My favorite example – watching college kids play Street Fighter. There’s always some character or another that’s considered “cheap”, and everyone gets upset when a player wins with said character. What a load of crap. There’s no honor in 2nd place, just a consolation prize. You know why it’s called a consolation prize? To make you feel better about the fact that you’re Loser Prime. No, it’s not a value judgment of you, as a human being, but if the object of the game is to win, and you didn’t win, then guess what? You lost! You weren’t smart enough, fast enough, strong enough or whatever enough, and you lost.

I am a firm believer that a player (that is, a participant in a game) can, and should, do everything in his power to win the game he is playing without violating any rules. We have officials in Magic just like we have officials in Baseball, but when it comes to the secondary market, no such rules really exist. The DCI floor rules are quite intentionally mum on the subject, and considering that WotC specifically does not acknowledge the secondary market beyond recognizing its existence with the Reserved List, I am not surprised.

Furthermore, there is no regulatory body that governs Magic trading, buying and selling. You are often constrained by the rules of your marketplace. I cannot buy or sell cards to persons not registered as dealers at events, just as my customers are not permitted to buy or sell cards in my store unless I am involved in the transaction*. Those are written rules. The former is a policy I see at every major event, and the latter is a policy I maintain in my store at all times. If you sell on eBay, you follow their rules. Same goes for MOTL, or when selling to a dealer.

I want to reiterate that concept. The only rules to trading are the ones that are set by your marketplace. I want to highlight that I have not used the word “ethics” yet. I hate that word too. It’s a loaded term with all sorts of value judgments included. I’m going to avoid using the term “ethics” because it ignores the crux of my argument, which I posit to be correct. I argue that, in a game where profit is possible, it can always be considered to be in a player’s best interests to make a profit. For systems whose goal is solely the creation of capital (the stock market, for example), it is assumed that everyone is playing the game towards that end.

In a game like Magic’s secondary market, most people are not playing towards the endgame of maxing out profit. People trade to finish decks, finish sets, make a cube, or any number of other reasons. I trade because I want to make money. If you read my works and like what I say, you are probably in the same boat. When it comes to turning a profit, your thinking must become bottom-line-centric. If ripping off little kids is profitable, why don’t I do it? Well, I’m going to put aside the concept of ethics for a minute, because there are all kinds of problems with calling a trade unethical. I don’t work with ethics. You’d better ask a philosopher if you want to talk ethics. I don’t rip off little kids in trades or in my store because it’s awful business. I defy you to find someone who legitimately thinks of me as a rip-off artist. I often double up on trades, yet I’ve never been called a rip-off artist. Perhaps this game’s economy is not as zero-sum as Peter Jahn would have you believe.

Zero-Sum means that the ‘size’ of the game does not change. Zero-Sum means that, if I have 10 apples and you have 10 apples, and we are not allowed to eat them, discard them, or give them to anyone but eachother and only in an apples-for-apples like kind exchange, then the game is zero sum. No matter how many apples we each have, we’ll have 20 between the two of us. It’ll be hard for me to convince you to part with your apples at better than a 1::1 ratio, right? Let’s step into that situation for a second to illustrate the ways that a zero-sum game can still be profitable.

On what axis can I leverage my apples? I clearly cannot leverage market scarcity because you have as many as I do. I must leverage a quality instead. Perhaps my apples are fresher, or from a better source. Perhaps mine have been kept free from pesticides. Maybe I have knowledge, or a hunch, about a change in the apple market coming in the future and I’ll write you an options contract to sell your apples or buy mine. Now we have apple derivatives! What a mess. How about if I decide to make apple sauce and then barter my sauce by measuring it in a manner that does not indicate the quantity of apples actually used? See how a zero sum game is still perfectly fine to play? You’ve just got to think a little orthogonally, but you can usually figure out a way to make a profit.

Magic’s secondary market is not such a game. First of all, the concept of a card having one specific price is absolute garbage. If that was true, why are there different prices on different websites for the same damned card? Until we have computer software that performs a weighted average of all online prices, please don’t talk to me about a card’s “price”. It’s garbage.

The Tragedy of the Commons

This is a thought experiment I learned about in college. Here’s the gist. When you give a group of people a shared resource and leave them to act in their own best interests, what is good for the individual is rarely good for the group as a whole. That’s what the Magic secondary market is – a shared resource (cards) with many players acting on their own best interests. In a system where profit is possible, I do not ever expect a person to act altruistically unless their goal is not to profit.

We can all agree that ripping off little kids in trades is bad for the game. That kid could have gone on to become an avid player and refer many friends, which in turn keeps the game popular and keeps WotC paid, so they can keep making great cards. That’s not up for debate. The problem comes when you expect people to act in the best interests of anyone besides themselves. When I choose to execute my trades in a fair and transparent manner, I do so because it is the best business decision. I do not argue that being ethical is usually the best business choice, but it is unreasonable to expect everyone to act ethically, especially when it is contrary to their own benefit. Thus, any discussion that predicates its conclusions on people acting ethically is bunk.

The Value of Information

Since there is no rule against insider trading in Magic, then I see no reason not to leverage every piece of information one has access to. It may be unethical to trade on information that others do not have, but since there is no rule against doing so, I must assume that other traders are doing it. Since there is no penalty, and thus, no risk, involved, I believe that to be a safe assumption. This is business; this is not the care bare school of financial management.

This is an especially big dillemma for people who run major sites and get preview cards. That’s about as “insider” as it gets. I can safely say I have never traded on information I have gleaned from getting a preview card, but the situation has not come up. What if I got a preview card that suddenly made an existing trash rare into a format staple? What about if I had gotten the Vampire Hexmage exclusive preview? Would I be scum for buying every $1 Dark Depths on the internet? I’m clearly at an advantage here – no one else capable of executing this trade. Literally, no one. Just me. What would my competitors do? How about if the transactions were made by other parties on my behalf to mitigate my risk?

There are all kinds of sticky problems there. I can easily operate within the rules of the non-disclosure agreement that states that I’m not to disseminate any information about my preview card until the agreed-upon date. But anyone who’s seen Wall Street and it’s surprisingly good sequel** understands what I mean. It’s really easy for me to call 20 of my closes friends to tell them “Blue Horseshoe loves Dark Depths“. They know that I have info, but I can’t give them that info. If they make this trade, and they make money, they’ll return the favor somehow. Everyone is operating within the rules of the game.

Have I ever done this? No. I’m a writer and a businessman, which means that my reputation is worth more than a one time profit. However, were I just some unknown guy in a room in the middle of nowhere with a laptop and a healthy dose of greed, why not? There’s no penalty for doing so, and if my reputation is protected or irrelevant, then there is no legitimate reason not to conduct the trade. It sucks to say it, but the tragedy of the commons is in full swing in our secondary market. There’s no reason for dealers to charge less than $85 for Jace, The Mind Sculptor, because people are willing to pay it. Are they colluding by doing so? No! They’re simply using the market’s reactions to price their assets, and people are complicit in paying $85 for that card. They bitch and whine and piss and moan, but then they pay the $85. Incidentally, its cards like Jace, The Mind Sculptor that necessitate players having to trade like sharks. When a Standard deck costs more than your monthly rent, you have got to be tight with your trades.

Why Carpentry Sucks

OK, carpentry doesn’t really suck. I like having stuff made of wood, and I admire people who perform it because it is a difficult and admirable task. When it comes to a choice of trade, I think I’ll look elsewhere. I don’t like businesses that have scalar costs. After you buy your tools and stuff, you still have a fixed cost, more or less, per unit sold. You can get discounts buying in bulk, but your costs will still scale on a more-or-less linear scale. Want to make another table? Buy more wood and screws and put in the time to do so. Yuck. It’s a great hobby, but a poor example of a good business. I like finance because the costs don’t scale with the profits. If I have a model that has proven to return $X with a predictable rate of variance, all I have to do is invest more money into the model to get a larger rate of return. It’s not quite that simple, but it’s close enough. Here’s a quote that demonstrates Jahn’s basic lack of understanding of the value of information:

Cards involved in trades do not gain this sort of added value. I recently traded for an Obstinate Baloth. Despite having been traded around a bit, that Baloth does not cost any less, does not beat any harder, and does not have any additional features it did not have when it first came out of the pack, or when it was first spoiled. It’s retail and wholesale prices may have changed, but the card itself is not improved in any way. It still plays exactly the same way it did at the prerelease. No value was added.

Obstinate Baloth‘s printed text has not changed, nor will it likely ever. It’s context, however, has shifted dramatically since it was printed. Try telling me Obstinate Baloth does the same thing today as compared to what it did over the Summer. Why? Context. Blightning is not in Standard anymore. The crux of value trading without ripping people off is making good guesses as to what changes will occur in either reality or the “hive mind” perception thereof. Often times, reality is dictated by what the “hive mind” thinks, so in many cases, the groupthink becomes reality. Either way, we can all understand that a card’s value can change without the underlying card changing. That’s not a hard sell. Want to disagree? Look at this chart, which is based solely on people buying and selling the card on eBay. A P2P trader can easily leverage this knowledge and make smart predictions to generate value. No value changes hands in the moment, but by trading the card at $6 when he predicts that it will fall below $3 is just as good as making $3 as far as I am concerned.

Here’s another assertion I think is incorrect:

Simply put, they make sure their trading partners lose a little bit of money on every trade – and by making those small loses add up

Here’s another subsequent and relevant excerpt that I fundamentally disagree with:

Here’s another set of gray lines. Suppose we make a trade that involves some cards that are of nearly identical value. For example, assume I trade you a (Vampire Nocturnis) and a Defiler of Souls for a Frost Titan. At the moment, that’s pretty close to even. However, I strongly expect – I could almost say know – that the value of Frost Titan is going to go up after the results from the2010s (a/k/a States), while the value of the others is going down. If I think you don’t understand that, and I don’t tell you, am I trading ethically? If I were in this particular trade, I’d explain, and I’d probably throw in some additional cards. Again, YMMV.

So? Isn’t this exactly what good traders do? First of all, small losses are rarely even noticible to the party taking the loss. If I give someone 9.50 on a 10.00 card, it’s not like I’m taking them to the cleaners! I’m making a modest 5% profit on paper. Do that enough, however, and you get a big profit. In most cases, the difference in each trade is negligible, and often times it is not even clear. Who’s to say that either party’s price was accurate? Maybe he’s going off Star City retail prices and I’m focusing on cards that SCG sells below the average market value. It’s not my job to ensure the accuracy of his information. When you play a CCG, trading is optional. You can either do a lot of work to get information, or you can pay a bit of a premium to someone else who does that.

I make a point to memorize or have easy access to dealer buy lists, since those represent a good baseline of what I could do to cash-out after a day of trading. These are public documents – you can see that CoolStuffInc has their buy list posted online for all to see. I spend hours every week looking at those sheets and making sure that I have the info in my head. This is a lot of work, and not pleasant. I have no problem leveraging my access to superior information to make a profit on a trade. If I have better access to the same public information than you do, why should you benefit from my hard work? I spend hours building spreadsheets, models and formulae, verifying sources, charting trends, and generally slaving away in front of a computer in order to make my living. The better access to information I have, the more money I make. Why, then, should I disclose to you all that I know? Do your own damned homework.

I will never lie to you when I am trading. That is outside the scope of the rules that I play under. If you want to lie to me, fine, but expect word to get around that you’re a liar. Lying is bad business. However, when you tell me that Dealer X is selling a card for $Y, I might or might not care. When you ask me what Dealer X is selling Card Z for, I won’t lie and say “I don’t know”, nor will I knowingly quote you an incorrect price. If I am genuinely misinformed one way or the other, too bad. I once bought an obscure yet expensive card from someone for like $3, when I should have at least given him $8 for it. I was genuinely unaware that the card had risen in price recently. Too bad for him. My information was bad, and his was even worse. This happens the other way around. I will sometimes buy a card for too much because my information is inaccurate or outdated. It’s just a risk of doing business. The point is, if you ask me what a given dealer is selling a card for, I will probably just not answer because the answer doesn’t matter to me and I’m not in the business of giving away information. You want to know what a card sells for? Go look it up or memorize it like I do. Am I a jerk for offering someone X for a card when I know I can sell it to someone else for $2x? No way.

I recently wrote a piece on why Magic cards act much like stocks on a stock exchange, and the crux of the piece was that the knowledge of a transaction’s possibility or existence is often as valuable as the transaction’s execution. Let’s go back to apples for a moment to draw an example. Let’s say you, the reader, own an orchard which produces apples. Your time and skillset revolves around producing apples. Let’s then say that the Chicago Apple Sauce Company (which is not publicly traded) just lost their #1 apple distributor and are now buying apples at $X each, which represents a much higher-than-normal price for apples. I am a businessperson with some spare capital lying around, and both you (the reader) and the Chicago Apple Sauce Company are my contacts but you two do not know each other. Here’s the situation.

You sell apples at $0.25X. They buy apples at $X.00. Why has this transaction not ocurred? Because the two parties have not been introduced. There is almost no chance of a negotiation falling through at this point since the prices are so agreeable. Thus, all the value is contained in the knowledge of the transaction. My knowledge of this transaction’s potential is worth approximately $0.75X per apple, since I can then take all the capital I can spare, buy your apples, and flip them for more. In this case, would you just tell one of the two parties, “Hey, you know they’re selling apples for way less than $X each!” or would you just go buy some damned apples and pad the coffers for a few months? I know what I would do. The same is true with speculation – it’s just a question of who’s got the best information. He with the best information and the best predictions makes the best profit.

The last piece of the puzzle is the issue of hoarding. MTGO is the only viable way to do this, and it can be a problem. The problem with calling hoarding a “problem” is that it’s totally legal and within the scope of the game to do so. While I find that hoarding is a brute force method of making money as compared to setting up a profitable retail model or being a quick speculator, I’m not one to pass judgment. I don’t do it, but I can’t fault any of my competitors for doing so. After all, my basic premise is that, in a system where the potential for profit exists, one must assume that all reasonable parties can and will be acting in their own best interests. If I have the finances to successfully hoard/flood and I know it will make me money, why wouldn’t I do it (beyond the risk of my reputation, which can be ameliorated by using many anonymous accounts or any number of other techniques to “launder” the cards).

I want to once again reiterate that I still respect Peter Jahn’s position he took, and would like to applaud him for writing a thoughtful, if perhaps partially inaccurate article. It is a great discussion topic and, though I do not agree with all that he has said, he represents a valid point of view that many other people undoubtedly share. I always strive to be honest in my writings, so while this piece may have come off more vitriolic than some of my usual work, I hope it has at least given perspective on how I think about business. I have my own code of ethics that I do not care to introduce into the discussion (though it would likely make me look much less Machiavellian).

The reason I do not discuss ethics is because there are no really good assumptions. What is ethical to me may not be ethical to you, and vice versa. There are cultures in which murder is considered ethical in some cases. I do not subscribe to that point of view because I believe every life is sacred and important, but it is not my place to judge their ethics, as it is not their place to judge mine. I want to close by reminding everyone that there is a huge difference between being ethical and playing by the rules. One does not predicate the other. It is my belief that a business’s most valuable asset is its reputation for integrity, which is why I conduct my store in an ethical and honest manner. I encourage everyone in business to do the same. A wise man named Seth Godin once explained that a business that flourishes with its customers will always beat out a business that flourishes when its customers flounder. I am in firm accord, and would like to ask everyone to mind their bottom line conscientiously.


* – On customers transacting cash between themselves in my store: I’ve been toying with the idea of permitting this as long as I can somehow get a cut of the transaction. If I can serve my customer’s best interests, while still making a few bucks, I see no reason not to do so. If I am selling a card at $X and a customer is willing to sell it at $.75x, why should another customer pay my higher price? It is unreasonable to ask him to do this, and he is well within his right to “step outside” to complete the transaction. I have long been a fan of the idea of building a business model that enforces “good behavior” by making bad behavior unprofitable. If we define a given action, P, as an action considered “bad” for the business or the game, we will often spend many resources diverting people away from doing P. We will also spend money to get them to take the action ~P (the opposite of P). Why force someone to do ~P (when their nature, best interests, or otherwise tells them to do P) when you can figure out ways to benefit from their doing P instead? If my customer can make a better deal even after I get a small cut, isn’t everyone winning? Sure I make “less” money, but I conduct a transaction that literally costs me nothing.

** – On Wall Street 2 – Hedge Fund Boogaloo: The love interest was tepid, forced, and detracted from what could have been one hell of a corporate thriller. Oliver Stone should be ashamed of himself for ruining a good movie. The female character was one-dimensional and frankly an insult to most women, as well as a horrible characterization of what a startup looks like. Nice Manhattan office space with brand new Apple computers. Most start-ups don’t have that kind of money, especially not leftie news blogs.

Kelly Reid

Founder & Product Manager

View More By Kelly Reid

Posted in Feature, Finance

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4 thoughts on “Standing Behind My Trades

  1. For the most part this article is fine. I have no issue with trading for profit nor do I think anyone should unless they have a problem with profit generally. Which is fine too, I suppose.

    I have some other issues here though. First, there's isn't really much of a difference between being ethical and following rules. It's a matter of scale. Ethics is simply rules on an absolute scale. Rules, or the kind you're talking about, are relative to a particular context. It's the same normative principle though i.e. you and I agree that these behaviors are ok and these are not. Granted, the rules of a game are far less likely to lead to debate, since they're published on the internet, but there's no functional difference here.

    Moreover, the mere fact that one chooses to follow rules at all is a normative decision outside those rules. Put another way, one doesn't have to choose to follow all the rules of Magic to play Magic. It isn't required. Many players cheat and think there is nothing wrong with that, since one way to maximize your opportunity for victory is to maximize all of your advantages, including other players' generally unwillingness manipulate rules or violate them to the brink of loss. And it is a fair point that cheating is just part of the game i.e. rules are part, not the limits, of Magic. So we look at the rules as the boundaries in which we strive to win. They look at them as obstacles they're willing to overcome to win. The difference between these two viewpoints is an ethical difference, which means a large ethical assumption is Rule 0 of every person's choice to follow any set of rules.

    Also this:

    You seem to be making a great effort to state that this article isn't an ethics article. It's a business article. But this presupposes that your business decisions are non-ethical decisions, which is patently not true. Simply because your motivation is profit as opposed to spreading good will doesn't mean you haven't made some baseline ethical assumptions here. I mean, it's likely you wouldn't take any of these profit maximizing actions if you thought they were unethical. Now some people's standard of unethical is far more forgiving than others (think cheaters), but at some level pretty much every action a person takes is stamped with an ethical approval by that person. Few people have ability to withstand the cognitive dissonance created by pursuing actions they actively believe are evil or whatever word you want to use. So while it may be true that you aren't trading for altruistic purposes that doesn't mean there isn't an ethical limit/foundation to all of your "business" decisions, since I'm fairly sure you don't believe you're being unethical.

    Last, unwritten rules can be fine. Think of proxy cards for God's sake. Yes, I could maximize my opportunity for winning by disqualifying my casual play partner for not really having his fourth Jace, but that's just kind of shitty. I mean, if both parties have agreed to a rule that isn't part of a standard set of rules (whether that rule is this Horned Turtle is Jace or don't use this Street Fighter character) then that rule is as much a rule as a standard rule. Actually, I would say it's a lot worse to violate that "unwritten" (nonstandard is what we really mean), since you expressly agreed to it. Now if the person didn't know about the nonstandard rule, then that's something different.

    Double last: You should stay away from things like this:

    "There’s no honor in 2nd place, just a consolation prize. You know why it’s called a consolation prize? To make you feel better about the fact that you’re Loser Prime. No, it’s not a value judgment of you, as a human being, but if the object of the game is to win, and you didn’t win, then guess what? You lost! You weren’t smart enough, fast enough, strong enough or whatever enough, and you lost."

    The obvious problem here is that you state "if the object of the game is to win" when what you really should state is "if your object in the game is to win." Also the statement "there's no honor is 2nd place" is just patently absurd. If that were true there wouldn't be silver medals and no one would care about all of Gabriel Nassif's Pro Tour Top 8s, since when he didn't win there was no "honor." Yet I'm pretty sure silver medals are impressive and most HOF voters do not only look at PT victories.

    Maybe you mean "there's less honor is 2nd place"? Even then, let's not use the word "honor." That makes this all sound far more formal than it is.

    Take it easy.

  2. You know what? I stopped reading this halfway through, because I could no longer bear to inhabit the world that the author presents. The thing I disagreed most with was probably this:

    "You know what I hate more than rules? Unwritten or unspoken rules."

    Well, I guess you're just going to have to suck it up, buddy, because the whole world is built on unwritten and unspoken rules and whining about them isn't going to change that. Here's a non-Magic example to illustrate. Imagine the following short conversation:

    A: "I thought Billy was coming to this party. Where is he?"
    B: "Oh, BIlly's sick."

    On the face of it, this reply is nonsensical. A asked for Billy's whereabouts and B replied with information about Billy's health. The only way the conversation makes sense is if B assumes the following unspoken rule: "Participants in conversation make contributions that further the purposes of the conversation." This rule allows B to infer that Billy is not present *because* he is sick. This is called the co-operative principle and is an unwritten, unspoken rule that your brain employs constantly to keep you sane. It's a form of social contract; contracts like these govern lots of aspects of human relationships, including trading, or, as the author calls it, 'business'.

    The Magic trading social contract for many people is 'We will be honest about the value of our cards and arrive at a trade that's mutually agreeable.' This doesn't mean that every trade has to be equal like Peter Jahn says, but it does mean that people feel like the contract has been violated if they feel misled after a trade is completed. The author seems to think that social contracts are OK to be violated since they're not codified rules that carry punishments if broken, but this couldn't be further from the truth. People feel pretty strongly about these unspoken agreements. If you don't feel like they carry any weight, you should be totally upfront about this, and let your trade partner know you view trading as a business and you need to make money for it to be worth your while. If you say this, a new social contract forms, and if the terms are acceptable to your trade partner, they'll be happy to play by those rules. The point is that unspoken rules are to be respected. Flouting them because they're not 'real' rules will get you into trouble quickly.

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