I Fought the Law

How Ties Turn Honest Players into Rule Breakers


When it was announced that ties were coming back into Pokémon after a lengthy hiatus, I thought it could be a good idea. After all, a draw is a legitimate result in many sporting and other contests (chess, football, cricket). It gives some reward to both sides who have fought to a position where neither is able to gain a clear victory within the time allowed. In some ways this is preferable to a forced result which is often obtained through highly artificial means such as the random chance of sudden death, or a Prize count which naturally favors fast decks.

But the introduction of ties in Pokémon has had terrible consequences because they were accompanied by a set of changes to the tournament structure that have conspired to force players into a series of awful dilemmas which can never lead to a positive or a fair outcome.

Best-of-Three, 50 Minutes

Playing matches over a best-of-three series has many advantages: it can mitigate bad luck situations (such as having key cards Prized, or unplayable opening hands), and slightly reduces the influence of the initial coin flip. It also means more Pokémon playing time: you’re not finished if you lose a quick first match – you have the chance to stage a comeback.

But 50 minutes is very rarely adequate for three completed games. In fact, it seems just about right for two-and-a-bit games, meaning that unless a player secures a 2-0 victory, the match is destined to end in a tie. Relatively few games finish genuinely with a 2-1 result. This means that ties will happen a lot. Especially as players may try to achieve them deliberately instead of taking a loss. I am not talking about illegal slow play here – that can be handled by existing rules when applied properly – but by switching damaged Pokémon and using healing cards to prevent an opponent taking the six rapid Prizes they would need to win game three.

Top 8 Cuts

The high number of draws becomes a real problem because the number of players making top cut is now so restricted. Tournaments that used to give 16, 32, or more players the chance to battle it out now limit that number to just 8. This means that draw in effect become as disastrous as an outright loss and players cannot afford to have more than one on their record if they want to make it in.

It is this that has lead to many unfortunate situations which put players in an incredibly unpleasant position where they only reasonable solution seems to involve a serious breach of tournament rules. One which, if detected, will lead to a disqualification.

The Player’s Dilemma

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Suppose two players who have already tied one game meet in a later round (a very common occurrence), and their game is played to a tie (again, very common). Both players know that if they sign the slip for a tie, then neither will make top cut. So what do they do?

The rules of Pokémon expressly forbid any kind of incentive being offered to throw a match. Even saying “I’ll give you this one if you scoop to me next time” can be construed as illegal. The rules also (quite rightly) mean that any kind of bullying or coercion will also result in severe penalties (if detected of course). This means that the two players are in a terrible situation in which they only have two legal choices:

  1. Take the tie and ruin both of their chances of making top cut
  2. Engage in a bizarre game of mental chicken, seeing which one will blink first and offer up the concession

Of course, choice two can be avoided if the players are friends or relatives, and it seems monstrously unfair if some players can get through merely because they have had the good fortune to be paired up in this way. For the rest, just accepting the tie will lead to feelings of guilt: they passed up the chance to help someone else, but they didn’t benefit from that decision themselves. Their “selfishness” resulted in both players losing out.

The Illegal Solution

Let’s be honest here: what this has lead to is players agreeing to decide the result of ties based on a coin flip. This is expressly against the rules and can lead to disqualification. But players do it anyway and take the risk. Why? Because the rules have conspired to put them in a situation where this seems the fairest and best way to resolve the issue.

Honest players who have never cheated or rule-sharked in their playing careers are now flirting with DQs rather than just accepting that their matches will result in the effective elimination of both they and their opponent from the tournament. These players don’t want to break the rules, but they have been forced into an appalling dilemma which has nothing to do with the game of Pokémon itself and everything to do with a deeply-flawed tournament structure.

How Can Things Be Made Right?

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I fully understand the why of these rule changes. The massive expansion in the numbers of people attending tournaments has put an enormous financial and logistical strain on a system of Organized Play which relies on a small budget and a whole lot of goodwill.

But the current situation is completely untenable. Players should not be placed in a system which encourages coercion, offering incentives, and deciding matches by random chance while at the same time forbidding those things. A better way must be found.

The obvious solutions (extending round times, expanding top cuts) would just result in longer tournaments, which the changes plainly seek to avoid. This leaves us with three workable alternatives:

  1. Do away with ties altogether. Return to single-game Swiss with the winner of incomplete matches determined by Prize count.
  2. Expand the round time but reduce the actual number of Swiss rounds so that the total tournament time is not affected.
  3. Greatly reduce the number of ties by allowing a Prize count determination in game three. If the Prize count is even, you can still have your tie, but if one player secures a lead, they should have the win.

Admittedly, I don’t know which one of these suggestions would work out best, but one thing I do know for certain: all are much, much better than a system which brands honest players as rulebreakers for trying to find a solution to an impossible problem. Let there be no mistake about this: if the present system continues then cases of coercion and randomly deciding the outcome of the match will become commonplace and attempts to police them will only drive them further underground as agreements are negotiated in private and coin flips are concealed within gameplay.

Of course, this will lead to bitterness and arguments as promises are reneged upon and treaties discarded: just one more reason why something must be done.

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