There has been a lot of discussion on social media of late about the correct etiquette at the end of a match of tournament Magic. When it's all over and the last hit point has been taken, there are two people sitting across from one another, a match slip to be signed, and it isn't always obvious what to say.
The biggest taboo of post-match dialogue has always been the infamous "good game."
It seems innocent enough on the surface. But in the last few weeks I've seen no less than four lengthy Facebook conversations about whether or not people should use this phrase, and/or whether or not it is reasonable to be upset about getting "good gamed" at the end of a match you felt wasn't very good.
Perhaps people don't feel as cut and dry about what constitutes good sportsmanship in a tournament context as one might expect.
I've found myself wanting to weigh in on these social media conversations. But every time I try to respond I realize I can't sum up my feelings on the subject in two or three neat little sentences that encompass the depth of my experience.
The first thing I'd like to stress here is that you read the entire article before making a judgment or posting a response.
Personally, I believe there is a time and a place for lot of different reactions, which is why I tend to reject the premise that every match of Magic needs to conclude with matching "G.G.'s." I believe the aftermath of an intense game of high stakes cards requires more tact than a generic one-liner and a handshake.
"Good Game" as Sports Custom
As children we are taught that the "sportsmanlike" conclusion to a sports game is where everybody lines up, shakes hands, and tells each other, "Good game." Generally speaking, I think this practice is a good idea because children don't necessarily have a high capacity to cope with the complex emotions that come with winning and losing.
Parents and coaches don't want their kids crying, screaming, and throwing tantrums at the conclusion of the game, so they are taught to line up and show one another appreciation for the game. The underlying premise of this practice is to respect the game, respect one's opponent, and instruct children to win or lose with dignity.
It is a fine custom. The problem is it sets up the simplistic equation, "Good Game" = Good Sportsmanship. Many children are not taught to understand anything beyond this narrow view.
I played tons of sports when I was a youngster and after every game we lined up to shake hands with our opponents. Yet, if I remember those handshake lines accurately, there were also a fair amount of times where the losing team lined up, shook our hands, and said, "Bad game," "Bad game," "Bad game," or the winning team said, "We won," "You suck," "You lost," instead of the proper and acceptable "G.G."
I remember one of my little brother's middle school games when the opposing team lost and did the "bad game" thing. After the handshake line, the other team gathered together and the coach said something like, "I heard you guys saying 'bad game' out there and that is unacceptable. But in this case the referees were so bad that I'm going to let it slide..."
"Good game" and a handshake are said to represent the high ideals of good sportsmanship, integrity, and respect. But when it is taught as a forced custom tacked onto the end of a match it becomes hollow and patronizing.
Imagine a pee-wee hockey game that ends by the "Mercy Rule" at 10-0 in the first period, and then those children are required to line up, shake hands, and tell each other, "Good game."
Was it really a good game, or are these children just acting out a custom that makes comically little sense give the outcome? In actuality, the game was a blowout and given the mismatch these two teams probably shouldn't have been placed in the same division in the first place.
Now, tack this on for size (and dramatic effect): on top of the two teams being clearly mismatched and the outcome being completely lopsided, what if the coaches and parents of the winning team are acting like ridiculous human beings?
For instance, screaming at the kids the whole time like it's the last 0:45 of the Stanley Cup Finals; or calling for the kids to run up the score to pad their stats; or yelling at the referees and being genuinely obnoxious: "#14 can't skate! Take it around him, Johnny!"
For the record, I still go to friend's and family's kids hockey games and this crap actually happens. There is a certain percentage of sports parents that are the absolute most vile human beings on the planet. I find it hard to believe parents who behave that way don't raise children in kind. And those people are entitled to that "good game," and a handshake from you after they've won.
Now, I'm not saying that teaching kids to practice good sportsmanship is a bad thing. Generally speaking, it is a great thing, especially if kids are actually taught to be compassionate and thoughtful in both victory and defeat.
What I have a problem with is the ironclad rule that we should always say, "Good game," and shake on it. Sports and culture create an expectation for symbolic acts of good sportsmanship in games that are often unsavory and unsporting in the way they play out.
One recurring argument in support of the "good game" and handshake is that it is a custom associated with good sportsmanship. If children can handle this practice then so, the argument goes, should everybody else.
First of all, children are taught and forced to do this by adults and they don't have much say in the matter. If I ever thought to shrug off a handshake in sports as a child, no matter how obnoxious the other kid was during the game, I would have been grounded. So, you're telling me I had to lose at baseball and now no Nintendo for a week either? Not worth it.
Not everything we are taught as children remains 100% accurate and applicable when we become more mature and advance into adulthood.
Can you even imagine if you were still required to believe and practice every single thing you were told when you were six years old? Sometimes we are given general instructions when we're small that we're expected to modify as we become capable of handling more complex ideas.
"Don't talk back to adults," is a good example. You're not going to get far in life if you are never allowed to disagree with an adult...
But apparently not G.G. because that sucker is set in stone. The oft forgotten 11th Commandment:
Thou shalt always warmly extend thy hand and eagerly and sincerely congratulate thy opponent with "G.G." no matter what.
I am suggesting that for adults playing a competitive game for money, perhaps a more sophisticated course of action would be better in these situations.
Winning - Give Them a Minute to Process
If you want to get anywhere in this game, good sportsmanship is a requirement. If you are spouting off, pouting, and behaving poorly, chances are you don't have the mental toughness necessary to play the game at a high level. These are symptoms of being on tilt and it is impossible to navigate 15+ rounds of competitive play under these conditions.
The problem with "good game" as a lexical item is that it's a tilting phrase. When you "G.G" somebody after beating them, it can often tilt them. You've already won the round. The least you can do is not compound your opponent's unhappiness by rubbing it in.
If I just got mana screwed or flooded in an important game and promptly run over, the absolute last thing I want to deal with three seconds after I've conceded is an excited, grinning person sticking their hand in my face.
Even in the sports scenario those kids go to the bench, listen to the coach, and have a minute to decompress before the "good games" begin. Imagine if the final buzzer sounded in a close sports match and the players from the winning team immediately jumped off the bench and started sticking their hands in their opponents' faces and shouting, "Good game!" Pretty messed up, right?
My suggestion is for the winner to give their opponent a few moments and wait for them to engage. In most cases, after taking a few moments to compose themselves, the loser will be willing to discuss the match or interact in a good sporting manner.
When the winner immediately jumps into "good game" mode it comes across as self-congratulatory. It feels like the winner is rubbing it in.
This self-congratulating element is further compounded when the games are lopsided. If you immediately "G.G" an opponent who just lost in frustrating fashion there is roughly a one third chance this exact exchange will occur:
"Good game, man!"
"No, it wasn't a good game. I never drew a third land and died."
"Well, you don't have to be a poor sport about it. Geez."
How does this exchange foster good sportsmanship or any kind of productive dialogue? The loser is technically correct that the quality of the game was, in fact, not "good." In saying so, the winner is offended because the loser has basically said, "You're an idiot," and since one good turn deserves another, the winner retorts, "You're a bad sport."
"G.G." sportsmanship at its finest.
My advice when you win is to sit tight for a minute and let them process what happened. Games of Magic are intense and people become deeply invested. Sometimes it takes a minute to come out of "game mode" and return to "normal person mode." After a few, nine out of ten opponents will be cool and say "good game," wish you "good luck," or chat with you about the match.
If they don't strike up a conversation after a tough loss don't be too offended or uncomfortable. It isn't your responsibility to cheer them up or fix the fact that they feel bad.
Typically, I don't want to come across like I'm some kind of unfeeling, Magic playing robot, and after I've given them a minute and I'm ready to leave the table, I'll make an effort to say something nice that will be well received on their end.
This approach requires some tact, sensitivity, and compassion for your opponent. It isn't as simple as just mindlessly regurgitating some generic line and moving on.
Remember people like to talk about themselves and love to have their ideas appreciated. You go a lot further in smoothing over an opponent's feel bad by asking them about some unique card they were playing than by spewing a one-liner.
"I've never seen card X in Jeskai before. That's pretty sweet tech for the red matchup. Did you come up with that?"
99% of the time this will snap a player out of misery mode and turn an awkward situation into a positive one. You've paid them a compliment on their deck building (which makes them feel better) and maybe you even learned something in the process. After that exchange, it is much more likely that both of you leave the table on friendly terms and feeling good about the match.
"Hopefully, you play against the Abzan decks that are all over the place next round so you make day two. I bet you absolutely crush them."
Same idea with a comment like this. You are implying you want your opponent to win next round (which implies to some extent that you like them) and that your opponent made a good deck choice because it matches up well against a popular deck. In addition, you open up the opportunity for your opponent to talk about how cool their deck is and regain some confidence.
I like to think of these types of comments as "un-tilting" comments.
Remember that everything is always in context. The reason I don't like generic code phrases is they ultimately don't convey anything. It's a bunch of five-year-olds blankly slapping hands and repeating the same meaningless phrase to each other.
A Real Life Example
Here is a pretty cool context-driven example. My win-and-in at SCG Indianapolis was against a college kid playing G/W Hardened Scales. He lost a pretty close game three and was understandably pretty dejected. He played really well and had made it clear before the match that he knew who I was and had read some of my articles in the past.
Anyway, he didn't say anything to me after conceding and I gave him a moment so as not to rub it in. His friend who had been rail-birding sat down next to him and immediately started in with, "Dude, you punted so hard! Why didn't you just Dromoka's Command his thing in combat! He totally didn't have the pump spell there. You totally would have won!"
I had actually been baiting him to Dromoka's Command in combat so I could Become Immense for the win. My first comment is, "Worst friend ever..."
I took that opportunity to pipe up. "Actually, young friend, if he did that he would have lost the game on the spot. I did have the Become Immense and tried to disguise it by moving straight to damage. Clearly, you bought the bluff but your friend saw right through it and made the correct play. It bought him two more turns and if he had drawn better it would have saved him the game."
How many times better is that than "Mmm, good game?" Actually, dude's friend--you don't know what you're talking about and your friend should be proud because he made a great play in a tough game of Magic. My opponent's face, which five seconds earlier looked like somebody had stolen his puppy, was a big beaming smile.
I find the hardest situation to be a good winner is when you eliminate your opponent from a tournament. You can't wish them good luck in the next round because, well, they are out...
You can't really apologize for the fact that they feel bad either, because you were the one who killed them! Once again, you are hoping they open up the dialogue by wishing you good luck on day two but it can be super awkward when the seconds tick by and they don't say anything.
It's all about feeling out the situation and being a compassionate human being.
High level players will typically take their losses better--they've lost important matches before and this is just business as usual. You will never see L.S.V. sulking at the table for some extensive amount of time after a loss. He's been there before, knows how to deal with it, and will quickly be in good sportsmanship mode.
The player who takes it hard is the one who hasn't made day two before and just came the closest he's ever been. Let that sink in for a moment... Remember how it felt the first time you lost on the bubble? It feels horrible to come so close and not get there.
"Losing on the bubble sucks. The silver lining is it means you're playing well and if one or two things went differently you'd have gotten there. For what it's worth, I've always found that a tough loss helps me level up shortly after. Good luck at the next one."
I'm 100% convinced the reason "good game" exists is because most people are incapable of consistently practicing good sportsmanship without some super simple hack to do it in 1.3 seconds. It's not easy to say something genuine to somebody who lost a tough game. It's way easier to "G.G." them and pretend that's an acceptable demonstration of good sportsmanship.
Straying from the coded one-liner is hard because you don't know how your opponent will react. Will they think I'm being disingenuous? Will they think I'm being overly pretentious?
Remember most people will recognize good intentions. As for the small percentage of people who are offended, it probably says more about them than you. If you take the time to politely acknowledge your opponent and demonstrate compassion, that is all you can do.
Losing - Act Like an Adult
Anybody who possesses an ounce of compassion and empathy can be a thoughtful and gracious winner if they try. Don't taunt, don't gloat, don't rub it in your opponent's face, and it will pretty much be fine.
It's trickier to be a good loser. Not because the rules are more complicated, but because it's way harder to take a loss. It feels bad. It hurts sometimes. It's frustrating. Losing is the worst.
Nonetheless, it isn't your opponent's fault that you lost. The blame can be placed in a lot of places (yourself, your deck, bad luck, poor sideboarding, mana screw, etc.), but never on your opponent. He or she did their job--which is why you lost!
A lot of times players feel like their opponent didn't deserve to win. They only won because (insert reasonable excuse) and if (insert reasonable excuse) hadn't happened I'd have easily won.
Variance is a big part of Magic and thankfully so. If it wasn't most of us wouldn't even stand a chance at high level events.Nonetheless, it is frustrating to lose when we feel our opponent is outmatched but mana screw or flood ends the game before it even starts.
I one-hundred-percent get it. I'm paired against a person who I know will just play all their cards as soon as they draw them. He won't set any traps. He'll miss on-board tricks. He'll sideboard wrong.
It's like playing poker against an opponent who has their hand exposed the entire time. Unfortunately, mine doesn't work out, he doesn't fold because his hand is insane, and I can't win.
It is not their fault and being upset with them is irrational. We all started somewhere.
The first Grand Prix I made day two at was Onslaught Limited, where I beat one of the best Limited players in the world in the last round. He got mana screwed in game three. I was not very good back then and was super excited to achieve my most significant win yet. I'm sure my opponent was well aware how much better he was than me, but he was gracious in defeat and didn't do anything to let me know he felt I didn't deserve it.
Generally speaking even after the toughest of defeats I take a moment to get my head together, congratulate my opponent and wish them good luck. It isn't hard to do if you try and it's positive E.V.
Firstly, poor sports make themselves look bad. Secondly, you never know when you'll need to borrow cards at the last minute or request a scoop. As a general rule, treating people poorly for no good reason other than wanting to throw a tantrum is not a productive exercise.
I still think "good game" is among the weakest things you can say, but it's way harder to do from the losing side. It at least demonstrates an effort to be a good sport.
Another thing I've started doing when I lose that motivates me to snap out of "sulk mode" is to ask my opponent about sideboarding. I've found this is by far the most productive way to lose at Magic because it helps you learn from any possible mistakes you've made.
For instance, I lost to Gerry Thompson in the Swiss in a frustrating game three at SCG Indianapolis, but used the opportunity to discuss our sideboards. Our discussion greatly increased my understanding of the match-up which in turn came into play during our Top 8 match.
Productive loss, indeed.
Exercising the Right to Poor Sportsmanship
There are a few instances when I feel perfectly comfortable exercising poor sportsmanship.
I try to play every match of Magic as clean as possible. Not all players are nearly so straightforward, and I absolutely detest when people try to skirt the rules to their advantage.
I consider cheating, lying, and dishonest play to be the ultimate unsportsmanlike conduct possible. If I feel my opponent has been blatantly dishonest I reserve and exercise my right not to rubber-stamp it with approval at the end of the match.
The situation that comes up the most is when an opponent clearly makes a mistake in a game, realizes it, and then claims they made a different play. Ultimately, a judge is called, we both tell our side of the story and the ruling will be to back up to when the play was made. By the virtue of the powers of hindsight and the takesies backsies step my opponent wins the match.
I'm not going to shake hands with this individual after the match. In fact, I'm not going to say anything to them at all. I know what they did, they know what they did, and we are not cool and certainly not going to be friends.
The downside of exercising your right to "no sir" somebody is you may end up looking bad in the end. People watching the match don't necessarily see what led up to your refusal to shake hands. So, even in doing so you hurt yourself more than if you just shook hands.
The last time I no-sirred somebody on a handshake was way back in the Spring, and I actually regret it in hindsight.
I was playing against a guy in an SCG Open and the whole time I found his manner of playing really off-putting. He took forever to make every play but was constantly asking me to make a play. He flicked his cards constantly and loudly. He'd cast Thoughtseize, take forever to write down my cards and insist upon excessively touching and handling my cards. Every time he drew a card he whined about how unlucky he was.
It felt like he was going out of his way to be as annoying as possible. I would have rather been at the dentist than playing against him.
In our third game he got extremely lucky with his draw after a mulligan (and whined about his poor luck the entire time). He was playing The Rock and I was on Esper. His turn two Satyr Wayfinder milled two Gaea's Revenge. I Thoughtseize'd him and he had nothing. He topped the Whip of Erebos. He curved out lands and drew the third Gaea's Revenge to win the game.
Before I had even conceded the game (I had mana up and unknown cards in hand) he stuck his hand right in my face and said, "Good game!"
I put my hand up and said, "Give me a second here." He pulls his hand back but is still leaning way over the table with his eyes bugging out of his face in anticipation. I say, "Yeah, you got it." Again he immediately lunges at me with the hand right in my face.
My response was basically extreme irritation. I told him, "Get your hand out of my face," angrily signed the match slip and walked away. It's kind of funny that recalling the situation actually makes me feel irritated and annoyed even though it was a long time ago.
Nonetheless, even though the situation was extremely frustrating and I still think the guy was acting obnoxiously, I should have shaken his hand and said, "Good game." What was the cost? Nothing. Absolutely no cost whatsoever. Just shake it off.
If anything I'd like the takeaway to be as follows:
1. When you win, be considerate. Give your opponent time to soak it up and congratulate you, rather than immediately congratulating yourself.
2. If your opponent is taking a loss particularly hard, try to demonstrate some empathy. Do you like it when you get mana screwed and your opponent immediately extends the hand with an exuberant "Good game?" If so, please acknowledge that many people hate this and give us a break already.
3. Don't say, "Good game," when you win unless your opponent says it to you first. Say literally anything else.
4. When you lose, take a moment to compose yourself and recognize it isn't your opponent's fault. They were just doing their job! Use it as an opportunity to learn something.
5. If you're going to be a stick in the mud after a loss make sure it's for a really good reason. Personally, I draw the line at situations when I'm certain my opponent has purposefully played dishonestly. Not shaking hands with somebody just because you're frustrated or annoyed is ultimately a bad reason--even in extreme situations.
Ultimately, we all play Magic because we want to have fun and compete, and winning and losing are part of this. We should be mindful of how we act in those often emotionally charged moments directly following the conclusion of the match.
As for "good game," I'd be happy not to hear that phrase ever again at a Magic tournament.
Some people insist that "good game" is good sportsmanship. Is it better sportsmanship than "bad game," or "you suck?" Yes. Is it better than not saying anything? Depending on the context I think that's debatable.
For me, good sportsmanship means respecting the game and your fellow competitors to the best of your ability. Personally, I would never say "good game" to somebody I just beat who I actually respected. You may disagree. Different strokes for different folks.
All I can say is that no matter what you say or how you act when you compete: mean it and own it.