Offensive playmats in Magic
Last Saturday (May 14th), I participated in a panel at a local judge conference on the topic of women in Magic:
It was a ton of fun, and I'm always excited for an opportunity to collaborate alongside Morgan and the Magic the Amateuring cast. Unfortunately, it led to a huge uproar on Reddit, YouTube, and Twitter.
One topic in particular led to a much outrage, and that was on the subject of “offensive” playmats. I completely understand this: players invest a lot of time in choosing the perfect playmat that represents their hobbies and personalities. I know I've spent countless hours searching for the ideal image and ended up having to write a heartfelt email in Japanese to get the high-resolution version of the image that I use for my current playmat:
To that end, I wanted to help dispel some of the misconceptions around these playmats, at least from my experiences as a judge.
- Who are you or anyone else to decide what is or is not offensive?
This is a completely fair question, and was certainly the most common and pointed of the questions I received. And it's totally justified: nobody wants to participate in a community where they are made to feel like they are being censored. And the line on what is or is not offensive is extremely hard to draw. For example, is this offensive?
This is a popular playmat that currently being sold, and is one that I have seen at a event that I've judged. While I don't find it personally offensive, it's exactly the sort of playmat that I feel doesn't belong at an event that is open to the public at large.
Of course, who am I to judge whether a playmat, card sleeve, or altered card belongs at an event or not? Well, it's part of the job. Judges have a document that outlines what behaviors do and don't constitute infractions. And while many rulings are very clear cut, e.g., drawing four cards off of Ancestral Recall, many infractions and situations require the judge to use their best judgment. For example, here is one of the criteria for Unsporting Conduct — Minor:
- A player uses excessively vulgar and profane language.
As with playmats, what can be considered “vulgar” and “profane” varies extremely widely depending upon on the audience. There's no strict definition of what these terms mean, and so it is left up to judges to determine whether or not such language falls under that classification in that circumstance. Playmats are no different. Judges use their best judgment — based upon the event and audience — to determine whether a playmat should or should not be usable at an event. This happens regardless of whether the judge takes action under their own initiative, or whether they are approached by a player. And when it does occur, it almost always involves the agreement of multiple members of the judge staff.
- Why are you and other judges constantly imposing your morality on Magic players?
We're not! I've been judging since Innistrad block, and have judged everything from prereleases to Grand Prix. In all those events over the last five years, I've only seen or heard of a player being asked to put away their playmat about a half dozen times — roughly once a year. Although I regularly see playmats that make me, personally, a bit uncomfortable, taking action requires something truly extraordinary.
And despite concerns that players will approach me complaining about playmats featuring art like this:
…it's just something that doesn't happen. And if it did, I would inform the player that the playmat is perfectly acceptable and while I empathize with their concerns, I'm not going to ask the player to put it away.
- Why should players be punished for liking what they like?
First of all, it should be clear that requests that involving players putting away their playmat are not an infraction and are not accompanied by any sort of penalty. Instead, players are politely asked to put their playmat into their backpack, and are provided with an alternative playmat if they don't have one available. And in all those half-dozen experiences, I've never seen a player express any serious outrage; these requests have always been a complete non-event.
L3 judge Rob McKenzie recounted a conversation that he had with a player about his playmat:
Rob: Uh, could you please turn it [a playmat featuring a guy giving the opposing player the middle finger] over?
Player: Oh! Yeah! [turns playmat over] Why did I think this was okay, and why did you not catch this in the last six rounds?
Everyone: much laughter
- Is this not a violation of a player's first amendment right to free speech?
Restrictions on free speech are about the government restricting the free speech of the public. It has absolutely nothing to do with what art a player is allowed to display at a private event on private property that is nevertheless open to the public. I and other judges take a player's right to self-expression extremely seriously, and attempt to tread very lightly when it comes to these requests.
Overall, I want to reiterate that these events are extremely rare and that judges and the community are extremely lenient and forgiving when it comes to a player's choice of playmats and sleeves. Asking a player to put away their favorite playmat is only done with extreme circumspection and typically involve the agreement of multiple members of the judge staff.