Yorke on Games #28: Strike Two: Drugs in Magic


Inspired by a Dec. 29th 2016 tweet from Steve Rubin—which stated that several of his fellow Magic Pro Tour players use Adderall during competitive events—the First Strike podcast team recently broached the issue of performance-enhancing drug use in professional magic. Listening in on their debate made me think that the issue of drug use in Magic was an interesting one, and one that could benefit from a more extensive treatment. In what follows, I will try to provide a framework for a community discussion on this topic that goes a bit deeper than the First Strike hosts had time to.

May I see your prescription, please?

The Sport / Game Distinction
Before we begin, I should note that although I ground my understanding of the fundamental arguments for and against doping on “Drugs, Genes, and Enhancing Performance in Sport” (Chapter 4 of Robert L. Simon’s Fair Play, an excellent primer in sport ethics), it is important to make clear that there is an crucial distinction between sports and other games, and that those differences will have implications for the doping debates that surround them.

In “The Elements of Sport”, Bernard Suits defined a sport as a kind of game that (1) requires skill (i.e., is not a matter of pure chance), (2) that the skill required be physical (i.e., games that couldn’t be played simply by expressing intellectual choices, such as chess), (3) with a wide following (i.e., not played only by one person), and (4) that the following be stable (i.e., there is an institution surrounding the game, and roles like coach, critic, and archivist exist, which separate it from a mere fad).

On this account, Magic is not a sport, because it fails to mean criterion #2: it is perfectly acceptable if you are disabled, for example, to convey your choice of plays to an assistant who will place the appropriate cards on the table for you at the appropriate moments (one can see how this play-by-proxy would be impossible in a sport like volleyball, by contrast). Computer games which bill themselves as E-sports have a greater claim to this title, as reaction time and dexterity are both physical skills that are tested by these games.

Since sports are the kinds of games that are specifically physical, it is easier to quantify the effects of doping in sports than other games. We can easily observe, for instance, that without steroids, baseball Player A hits the ball an average of X yards, and that with the aid of steroid use, Player A hits the ball an average of X+Y yards. This is a strictly empirical matter, and anyone who does too well in a given sport in this day and age, relative to the performances of their peers and predecessors, is bound to come under a certain degree of suspicion regarding the possible use of performance-enhancing drugs.

In non-physical games of skill like Magic, the effects of doping are much more difficult to detect and quantify. All we can really go on are win rates, and since there is a good deal of randomness at work in card games, it could be very difficult to determine whether a player is ‘running hot’ because of using a performance-enhancing substance, or just because they’d gotten lucky in their match-ups, or in the order of cards as they were drawn from their deck. It is difficult to assert a hard causal relationship in such a scenario without having access to quite a lot of data which is currently unavailable; partly because substance use is often stigmatized and thus hidden, and partly because research into this aspect of the game’s culture has simply not been conducted yet.

In the absence of such empirical data in Magic, we might look to similar games for precedents in how they handle the issue of doping. As both the World Chess Federation and the World Bridge Federation have banned Adderall after due consideration on the matter, we will proceed under the assumption that Adderall makes intellectual tasks easier to perform, and thus victory at non-physical games more likely for its users. If that turns out to not be the case scientifically, then readers can safely ignore the rest of this article—but this outcome seems unlikely.

So the question, as it stands, is this: If you had access to a magic potion, which was not against the rules of a game to take, and which was very likely to improve your performance at that game, would you take it before an important tournament? Why or why not?

It’s a well-known Gallic tradition…

The Arguments for Doping

Briefly, the best arguments for using Adderall to play better Magic can be enumerated as follows:

1. Adderall use is not currently explicitly proscribed by the rules of the game.
2. Other players are likely already using Adderall, and thus using it merely ‘levels the playing field’.
3. Strategic Adderall use is unlikely to cause harm (i.e., it’s not as dangerous as steroid use).
4. It’s a matter of personal liberty whether or not one imbibes any given substance.

I’ll address the apparent weaknesses of each of these arguments in turn.

While it’s true that no substance has explicitly been ruled out for use by the DCI, or any other branch of Wizards of the Coast, just because something is legal does not mean that it is moral. While non-prescription ingestion of Adderall might not technically be cheating, it certainly jars with community values enough to raise eyebrows, and start a discussion which will presumably lead to an eventual ban. It’s clearly not ‘in the spirit of the game’, as vague as that phrase unfortunately is, and does not constitute sportsmanlike behavior. So if ‘the game as it was meant to be played’, or the concepts of ‘sportsmanship’ or ‘community values’ have any appeal to you, then you have reasons not to take performance-enhancing drugs while playing Magic.

The adage ‘two wrongs don’t make a right’ applies to the defense of taking Adderall in light of other players’ apparent usage. In other words, the behavior of others is no justification for degrading your own sense of what’s right and what’s wrong to do. Just because you can do something that benefits you at the expense of others, doesn’t mean that you ought to, and that includes juicing up before a competition. You can’t assume the worst of all other players—that literally everyone else is already juiced—and then behave as if that worst-case scenario were a fact as a kind of self-protection strategy, because then your choice will likely impact others who are innocent, and haven’t even contemplated juicing (this mirrors the logic of the gun control issue).

Regarding harm: perhaps Adderall is unlikely to harm you if you take it recreationally—I’m not a doctor, so I’m unqualified to say whether or not this is the case—but assuming that there are no lasting aftereffects with carefully moderated recreational usage, I would argue that harm to others is what is morally relevant to consider here, rather than harm to oneself. For it is others who are harmed if I unfairly impact on their chances of success in a game (whether or not prizes are on the line, but more so if there are) by helping myself to resources that they don’t have access to. And that is exactly what happens when one player takes an unfair advantage over another by doping before a match.

Finally, there’s no doubt that one can claim a personal right to imbibe whatever one likes. But asserting one’s personal liberty over social conventions is exactly what cheating is; by contrast, strict obedience to conventions is what makes playing a game possible in the first place. Currently, it is not the general social convention to dope before a Magic tournament—it is a very small (and, arguably, poorly-regarded) minority of players who do so. Analogously, in golf, I have every personal right in the world to take the ball in my hand, walk up to the hole, and drop the ball in the cup. However, if I choose to engage in these completely voluntary unconventional actions, then I am no longer playing golf. The issue of personal liberty is not decisive when considering what actions I can defensibly take in the context of playing a game.

I’ll be a lock for Top 8? Well, okay then…

The Arguments against Doping

After careful review, the best arguments against doping appear to be:
1. By making the game easier, Adderall reduces difficulty, and thus the value of achievement.
2. Using performance-enhancers puts pressure on all other competitors to use as well to ‘keep up’.
3. Adderall use makes success contingent on how well a body processes drugs, rather than skill.
4. Doping provides a bad example to vulnerable player demographics.

I’ll outline below why these are sensible worries to have.

There’s a very real sense in which we value things that are difficult more highly than things that are easy. For example, I (rightly) value getting my PhD over tying my shoes, and view the former as a higher achievement than the latter. By this logic, anything that makes success easier simultaneously decreases its value for us. If Adderall is as effective as we have presumed it to be, then Adderall-assisted victories are simply something we should be less proud of than non-Adderall-assisted victories, and any records set through Adderall use ought to be struck, or at least have an asterisk placed by them, because of the difference made by the drug. Through doping, players thus inadvertently rob themselves of the good of achievement.

Further, unregulated performance-enhancing substance usage creates an ‘arms race’ between players, who will then be under pressure to find more and better drugs to keep themselves competitive. Clearly, this race has very little to do with the game itself, and distracts from the original purpose of the activity. At this point, the real game becomes ‘identify and initiate the most effective doping regime’, rather than ‘Magic: The Gathering’. The culture of the game would be significantly degraded by this, to the detriment of all players.

People are possessed of different physiologies, and these physiologies process drugs in different ways. For many people, Adderall will presumably have significant cognitive benefits; for others, there will be no effects at all; and for a minority, we might expect the drug to negatively interfere with cognitive processing. Now, if Adderall use is normalized in the Magic community, and if it has the anticipated effect on performance, then the outcome of a good many games can be expected to come down to how well your body processes the drug, rather than your native skill level. This is a problem if we think of the game of Magic as a test of certain set of skills, such as mathematical calculation, memory, concentration, endurance, and strategy. It is not desirable that a simple test of body chemistry should come to replace these more valuable metrics.

Another important factor to consider is the ‘role model’ effect. If pro players implicitly endorse the recreational use of prescription drugs through their own use of them, it is likely that younger, or other vulnerable and impressionable sectors of the Magic-playing community, could come to see doping as an acceptable course of action for themselves as well. If, on the other hand, the Magic community universally condemns Adderall abuse, and overturns tournament results wherein the outcome was found to be the result of doping, then this sends a clear message to children playing the game that this behavior is inadvisable to imitate, which is in everyone’s clear interest.

These arguments apply equally to ‘Sharp Blue’


It should be remembered that the above discussion above does not concern valid, doctor-prescribed Adderall use (nor does it deal with issues in medical misdiagnoses or overprescribing). Also, it doesn’t address other reasonable concerns with inequalities in the game, regarding financial means for purchasing cards and travelling to tournaments, or inequalities in social resources, like coaching or teammates’ advice. What I have hopefully done today, however, is given a passable sketch of the philosophical cases both for and against doping in Magic, and given you the tools to make an informed choice of your own. Which, if you agree with my line of thought on these matters, means that you’ll stick to having a double espresso before your next PPTQ.