What Do You Think? The ‘Invite to Decline’ Strategy

Blog Date: 
Thursday, July 25, 2013 - 15:16

I’ve been thinking about the Invite to Decline (also known as the ‘Scorched Earth’) strategy that teams sometimes employ during alliance selection. 

For those unaware of this strategy, I’ll outline it.  Imagine the alliance selection process at an event is getting started.  The #1 ranked team is interested in preventing some of the other top eight ranked teams from working together, because they could form powerful alliances that would be hard to beat in the elimination rounds.  Our rules state that once a team declines an invitation to join an alliance, they may never be picked again at that event (‘no second chance’) – if the team that declines is an alliance captain they still can still do the picking, but they can’t be picked themselves.  So, to break up other potential alliances, the #1 ranked team sequentially invites other teams from the top eight to join their alliance, even though they may have no interest in actually working with them.  They expect these teams to decline, and when they do, they can’t be picked by any other teams.  The #1 team can keep giving invitations until they get a ‘yes’, as there are no rules limiting the number of times a team’s invitations can get declined.  In theory, other teams who are alliance captains may use this same strategy later during the selection process with lower-ranked alliance captains during the first round of picks – if there are still teams left who have not yet declined an invitation.

I understand the no second chance rule was put in place to prevent teams from essentially assembling any alliance they wanted to by being able to decline an unlimited number of sincere invitations until they got invited by the team they wanted to work with.   I may be mistaken, but I believe this rule led unintentionally to the Invite to Decline strategy.

There’s no question in my mind that this strategy is within the rules.  I see no gray area here – the rules are clear.  Teams employing this approach are thinking carefully and strategically – something we encourage - to give themselves the greatest chance of winning the event within the rules of competition as they’ve been presented to them. 

Still, something feels not completely right to me about this.  Maybe it’s because teams using this strategy are giving the appearance of wanting to have a team join their alliance, when that’s not their actual objective.  (Ever been invited to a party when you know the host doesn’t really want you there?) Maybe it’s because this strategy gives an individual team great power in being able to break up several other potential alliances.  Maybe it’s just because the community often calls this strategy ‘Scorched Earth’, which sounds, at the very least, unfriendly.

But maybe this is OK.  What do you think?  In this situation, does legal = right?  Please put your comments below.


I’ll blog again soon.


P.S. There will be no Frank Answers Fridays feature this week. Enjoy the rest of July and we'll start back up next week.


The strategy may be legal within the RULES of FRC, but I don't believe that it is in the SPIRIT of FRC. I don't think that intentionally breaking up potential alliances so that your alliance will have an easier time in eliminations is in the spirit of Gracious Professionalism, a value that is very important in FRC.

Strategies that dominate in the quals may not in eliminations. Bots may not be compatible, i.e. full court shooting, 3 disk auton, 1st seed is not compatible with very capable full court, 3 disk auton 2nd seed. The 4th seed 7 disk auton, 30 point climb, 20 point dump but no tete-op is a perfect pick; but has expressed their intention to decline in favor of the 2nd seed. As 1st seed, I would invite the 4th seed and “graciously” accept the rejection. Alliance selection is very competitive and has a lot of nuance. Being competitive is what makes FIRST fun. It is not broken, don’t fix it.

The Scorched Earth scenario is usually triggered when the 1 seed is, in the opinion of the other top 7-9 teams, not the best robot. When this happens, the 1 seed typically asks the rest of the top 8 about being on an alliance before selections, and gets a no answer from most or all of them. Since the 1 seed is unable to form the best alliance possible, the "invite to decline" strategy is the only way to regain the advantage of the top seed. If you wish to reduce the prevalence of this strategy, the rankings should calculated so that the 1 seed is perceived as earned, not gained through luck.

This post is focused only on teams declining... any potential declines are also potential accepts. The lower seeded teams aren't being forced to decline, they are being given the option.

The selection system works great. Most often it is the ranking system that is flawed. Eight matches at events with 64 teams (or 100 team divisions) can result in the #1 seed being not the best team and therefore other potential captains choose to decline.

Increasing the number of matches at events is supposedly being addressed for next season. Maybe that will fix this "unfriendly" selection strategy.

Myself and many friends have seen this strategy used before during alliance selection, and I believe that it is a smart move that the team must think out very carefully. I have a lot of respect for teams that have to guts to follow through the "Scorched Earth" strategy and I believe many others do as well. The captain usually lets the teams know that they are going to be picking them anyway, and it is an earned right to select who you want if you are in the top 8, regardless of being "carried" or not. That's just my opinion.

I think it is working creatively within the rules. The teams are thinking outside the box and that is an integral part of being successful in robotics. There doesn't seem to be malicious intent and I think it should be allowed.

We should reward students who use their mind to out think their opponents.

Since declines may be done because a team thinks they may get into the top 8 due to a one of the alliance captains joining a another alliance; maybe the rule should be when a team declines they aren't allowed to accept a different alliance request for that round of selection.

For example, the 10th ranked team declines alliance #2's request in the first selection round. They can't accept another request until after #8 alliance has its first pick. After that point, since they can't have their hope of being their own alliance captain, they could be picked in the 2nd round by any alliance.

To me, it does feel a little wrong. I come from a small team that just the past year was able to make it high enough to continue into the elimination rounds. We even got to select our own alliance. The thought that other teams would send out a request but not sincerely so does not sit well with me. I think that it doesn't follow the gracious professionalism values. I think that the competition should be about winning to the best of your ability not bringing down other teams to make it easier.

I have been in FRC for 15 years, and it has always been my belief that getting #1 earns you this right. I don't think there is anything wrong with this. I think there is one thing you assumed here that is not true though:
"Maybe it’s because teams using this strategy are giving the appearance of wanting to have a team join their alliance, when that’s not their actual objective."
I think when #1 picks these teams they WANT to work with them, even if they may already know they will say no. Just because the team being picked doesn't want to work with them we shouldn't punish the #1 seed.

It is completely legal, but still fairly nasty. I'd definitely agree that it's not really in the spirit of the competition: it raises a team's/alliance's odds of winning, not by strengthening their own performance, but by lowering the performance of others.

Potential solutions that come to mind are: limiting the number of teams that you can invite within each "tier" of the competition (so maybe you can only do two invites within the top 8.) Remove the "no second chance" rule for just the alliance captains. Allow all the alliances to extend offers simultaneously, so teams get options.

This is unfair as well. Why change something that has never hurt a team in the past? I don't see what is nasty about it at all. And no, allowing a team to have options in who they want to join is not what it should be changed to. If you are in the top 8, you earn your right. If you aren't in the top 8, tough luck.

Just as teams have a right to say no to teams a top tiered but unwanted team has a right to break up the best teams. In fact it's their best chance to win as far as I can see.

More often than not, though, when the "scorched Earth" strategy is going to be implemented, most of the teams inside the top 8 know it is going to happen and can make plans for if it does and/or doesn't happen. I do not see a problem with this.

It's risk and reward--they do run the risk of being stuck with someone the team they weren't really targeting to get. (I've been surprised at alliance selection by a few acceptances!) Until someone pitches a concept that doesn't lead to taking a dive (see also "no picking among captains"), I see it as the only way to do business and a perk of being the #1 seed.

I've never seen this Invite to Decline. I've seen teams decline, and I've seen team 1 pick team 2 to build a very strong alliance. Perhaps instead of changing the rules, this issue should be dealt with as an ethics issue not a rule issue.

Scorched earth is a result of a system which has vulnerabilities that could be abused in many different ways. In essence, the older FIRST gets, the more alliance selections in general are heavily influenced by history among teams. Scorched earth acts as an unintended beacon of protection for teams who might not have the clout of one of the big dogs out there. At championships, luck plays into ranking more than at any other event during the year, but even still, this does not prevent the cream from rising to the top to form super alliances. Scorched earth gives those other teams a chance.

an easy solution to this is that if one team picks more than say 3 teams that decline, then those three teams are no longer locked out of accepting another alliances offer.

You should talk to some game theory experts about how to make alliance selection better.

Perhaps someone can educate me, but this seems like a very unlikely practice...even if you would prefer to be chosen by, say the fourth seed...I can't see many situations where multiple teams would be so vehemently opposed to the first, or second or third seed that they would ALL decline. I know it has happened, I just can't understand why MULTIPLE teams would consecutively decline - and how the inviting team would know they are about to do so.

I think this is an absolutely necessary rule. Let's look at what might happen if it was not in the rules.

Teams would enter regionals as a block. They would form syndicates that would attend a competitions as a group. Teams from a certain area, or certain sponsor. They would come in with a pre-planned strategy and drive teams that have practiced together. They would form an alliance that would have an insurmountable advantage over the small, independent teams. It would create a system where, for a small team to be competitive, it would have to join into a similar syndicate.

What happens when everyone turns Team 1 down? Do they play as a 1 robot team? They would have to be thinking they were that good in order to pursue I2D.

The current alliance selection rule prevents this from happening. Once a team declines they cannot be picked by ANY other team. So if 2-8 ranked teams declined any other team declining after that point would not even be allowed into eliminations. If you really think a team would rather not play than play with a team they don’t feel is good you are definitely wrong. On a related topic if EVERY team did actually decline that would mean no other alliance could pick a team either so it would be 1 on 1 for all of the eliminations 

When it has been used in my case, my team was really interested in allying with the team we selected. We thought we had a synergy that would mutually benefit us. It was not based on any determination to 'break up' a potential alliance if they refused. We based our selection on a carefully calculated strength potential that could enhance the opportunity that we could complete the challenge.
We knew that the other team may have a different motive. That is what this about. A team must develop their own playbook and play the game as they see fit. Remember - not only winning - it is strategy.

It only works if the top-ranked team is a weak pick, presumably weaker than the other top 7. If I'm in first place, I'm naturally going to want to pick another top-ranked team. If another team thinks they're too good to be my alliance partner, that's their decision.

There's an easy fix to this though: designing a game challenge where the top 8 teams are the best 8 teams. Then there won't be "outliers" to employ this strategy.

This strategy is more likely the result of the other teams not wanting to play with the number 1 seed. I’m sure there are other times it is used to intentionally prevent certain partnerships from forming. In either case, ‘Scorched Earth’ does not work if the invitee says yes.
Every rule or rule change has unintended results. Maybe it is time to review the serpentine draft policy. It is difficult for a number 1 seed with low scoring potential to win with a 1st and 16th pick. This change may make ‘Scorched Earth’ less likely but it would not eliminate its continued use.

In your post you say "the #1 team sequentially invites other teams from the top eight to join their alliance, even though they may have no interest in actually working with them."

This is simply inaccurate. The #1 seed in a scorched earth scenario would be happy to play with any of the teams they select. Nobody picks with the expectation of getting declined.

Normally a team is excited to be picked by the #1 seed. But when a not so great team gets a lucky schedule and ends up #1, the picked teams feel as though they will have a better shot with an alliance they choose.

While not every #1 team that gets declined is intentionally executing the Invite to Decline strategy, some definitely are. To see specific examples, check this post on Chief Delphi: http://www.chiefdelphi.com/forums/showthread.php?t=105845

Personally I think it does make an interesting dynamic and it could end badly for #1 if the team does say 'yes' (but then again they are probably still good partners to have). At the same time I don't necessarily think it is right either.

More to my point, an alternative idea is that the 'second chance' rule remains in effect for any alliance greater than #8 (chances are they will say yes anyways, therefor less of this strategy probably occurs with them). But for #1-8 give them 'infinite chance' so that #8 can decline #1-5 and still accept #6.

While working with our students we try to show examples of the real world use. The only place I could come up with this type of example is our political system. Is this what we really need them to learn? Is there a way to promote negotiations in selections?

"Scorched Earth" is much more a side effect than it is a strategy that teams pursue. Assuming the top ranked team only ever attempts to pick the best robot available for them, there is no possible outcome that is inherently 'bad' for them. Either they get the best team available, or the best team available declines and becomes less likely to pose a threat by nature of being a lower seed and not being able to accept later. I see nothing wrong with the top seeded team wanting to pick the best team available, though doing so may sometimes result in a Scorched Earth.


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