A New Era for Tiebreakers

Ever since people started competing we've wondered what to do about breaking ties. This is especially true in the wargaming community since we very rarely have the time to run a round robin tournament where everyone can play against each other. With Swiss pairing long being the favoured form of tournament matchmaking there is an eternal struggle to answer the simple question: who comes in second place?

Consider the following situation. In a 16 player event, one player will have four wins and zero losses and three players will have three wins and one loss. It is possible, though perhaps rare, that each of those players with only one loss lost to the eventual champion. Since Swiss pairings are ultimately luck of the draw, how do we fairly choose which of those players gets second place?

Various solutions have been tried in various games. Some have decided that points scored is the way to go. Others have used score differentials, sometimes called Margin of Victory (MOV). Each of these solutions has problems, the biggest one being that they favour the player with weaker matchups due to the variance of Swiss pairings. They incentivize players to absolutely pummel less experienced players in order to increase their tiebreaking score. However, in the last several years many game systems have attempted to move away from a scheme like this because it does lead to some negatives.

A more modern tiebreaking scheme is to use Strength of Schedule (SOS). There are various ways to calculate this but they all come down to the same concept: if you have the same record as someone then the person who faced stiffer competition is ranked ahead of the person who had an easier schedule. One of the biggest arguments for this kind of scheme is that it only looks at wins and not how you won, which means that someone who wins every game by one point is on exactly the same footing as someone who won their games by with large score margins. How you play the game doesn't affect your overall tiebreaking score.

A common argument against SOS is that you don't actually control who you play in a Swiss event. This can be especially impactful in an event with 4 or fewer rounds, where a single opponent is 25% of your overall tiebreaking score. If you get matched with the 0-4 player in the first round, or a player who goes 0-2 drop, then there's nothing at all you could have done to improve your tiebreaking score. These are the situations where the third-place player can feel burned because really there was nothing they could do to improve their overall ranking. The reality is that while SOS is better than using score differential for tiebreaking, it's still an imperfect way to break ties that can lead to feel-bad moments.

So what can we do to improve tie-breakers? What other avenues can we take given that we've tried for years to converge on a solution to what is actually a hard problem? "Which of these two players that have the same record but didn't face each other is better?" Ultimately, there's a dead simple solution: don't break ties. A Swiss event is designed to give you a single undefeated player in a minimum number of rounds, but is terrible at ranking anyone else. This begs a question: why are we trying to shoehorn a linear ranking on our events?

Editor's note: Kevin refers to a group discussion in the following paragraph. That discussion was between the Longshanks administrator (Sam), the "special contributor" team, and a few players the Longshanks team holds in high regard.

Getting rid of a linear ranking is a bit of a paradigm shift. In general, people are used to having tie-breakers. How will it be received if they are removed? Will people yell at Sam because all the X-1 players tie for second at the end of an event? We had a long discussion about this, and the conclusion we came to is that we don't know if people will like it, but the only way to get that information is to try it out.

All this is to say that tie-breakers are off by default in Longshanks 2.0. Event organizers have the option to select a tie-breaker if they choose, but Longshanks has taken the position that in general tie-breakers shouldn't be necessary, especially when all the options are flawed. I (Kevin) cannot speak for Sam, but hope that players and event organizers will approach this with an open mind. Find out if ditching tie-breakers works for you and your players, gather some feedback, and then send that feedback along.

Thanks for reading. Everybody on the Longshanks team hopes you will take part in an experiment that could change tournament structure a bit for the better and eliminate some feel-bad moments in Swiss events.

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