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.


As a teacher, I know a lot about kids/adults "gaming" the system. This is just an example of that. Personally I don't care about this method. Maybe if I were mentoring a top 8 team I'd feel differently, but I'm not... yet!

Dean Kamen has said time and again that this is about more than the robot. The game/competition aspects of the FRC are there to make it interesting and fun. But with competition there will always be a loser and defeat. Not pleasant things. If there is ANY thought of changing the rules to avoid this one aspect, we should consider a complete revamp of the system.

Here's a prime example of why I think the scorched earth strategy should be allowed. A regional was dominated by a pair of powerhouse teams winning it for I think 7 consecutive years. These 2 teams always found a way to pair up.

What happen over a few years time was the other teams felt like they had almost ZERO chance to win and move on to the championships. Apathy was becoming prevalent, excitement was waning.

This strategy ended that dominance. Everyone felt like they had a chance, excitement returned, and real competition returned. That's a good thing.

While this "strategy" may not be completely within the spirit of FIRST if used maliciously by teams inviting other teams expecting to be declined, I feel that trying to legislate this option out of existence will have far more damaging circumstances. The no second chance rule is an invaluable protection against super alliances that now can only occur if one of the teams in question get the #1 seed. This rule is vitally important in allowing smaller an rookie teams to compete and have a chance at winning. If FIRST weakens this rule in any way, the super alliances will rule FIRST.

Unfortunately, some teams have nicknamed this with derogatory names: Scorched Earth and Invite to Decline. I see it as more a strategy of Invite the Very Best---and if they decline, phooey. The number 1 seed, by performance on the field and within the rules of the tournament, have earned the right to invite the very best of the competition to be their allies. If the invitee decides that the number 1 team is not good enough to be their ally, well, phooey. If the number 1 team proceeds to invite the other six as well, and they all decide that the number 1 team is not good enough, phooey.

Why not allow teams 1 - 8 to pick only teams 9 and up. The top 8 can not choose each other. This would make all 8 a lot more equal. This would stop the super strong alliances and the scorched earth scenario.

No it wouldn't. In this scenario, strong teams that might end up in 3-8 but cant seed in number 1 or 2 would game the system by purposely losing their last match to drop to 9th or below to be picked by top seeded teams.

Whether we like it or not, teams will always look out for their best interests within the scope of the rules. It's human nature.

The only real way to solve the problem is more matches. More matches means "weak" teams are less likely to get a lucky schedule and seed high.

I think the fallout of this would be FAR worse than a "Scorched Earth". FAR, FAR worse.

I refer to the strategy of NOT wanting to be in the top 8, and doing ANYTHING to get OUT of said top 8, including a strategy of on-field performance known as "Throwing Matches".

The proposed rule change will stop the "scorched earth" scenario. However, it will not stop super alliances; those teams will simply have to decide to play "throwing matches" and the super alliance will form. Given the choice between two evils, I take the lesser. Keep the system as it is.

I think there are a lot of people that are asserting that "the spirit of FIRST" is equal to whatever their opinion happens to be. To me, it's clear that "scorched earth" is within the spirit of coopertition and gracious professionalism. What could be more like "coopertition" than a team deciding if they want to play with, or against, another team? If one wants to argue that it's "un-GP", honestly, declining at all is more "ungracious" than picking someone who you know will decline. Not that I personally think either action is "un-gp".

I'm a fan of this rule. I don't understand the problem.

I've been on a team that made alliance captain and was considered "weak". Our strategy is always to ask the best team available even if some of those teams asked us NOT to pick them. We told those teams that we if we picked them it was because we thought they were the best team available. Our strategy is to assume they would say yes - so pick teams we could be happy with. I feel that's in the spirit of FIRST.

Personally, I'd prefer the rules stay as they are or, as someone suggested, require the top 8 teams to pick out of the pool (no more 1&2+another versus the world).

I don't see why this strategy is considered to be a bad one. The rules are the rules. Strategies exist to utilize those rules in various dimensions. This is an example of one strategy.

My first preference would be to leave it alone.

RDM's suggestion of not allowing an alliance to pick any team that's already part of an alliance, including the top 8, sounds interesting. That would at least prevent the powerhouse #1/#2 alliances from cleaning house. Although that change would likely have unintended consequences of its own.

I posted this idea on Chief Delphi, so you may have seen it, but it's been received well enough that I would like to cross-post it here in order to have as much exposure as possible.

The problem isn't with declining - it's with presentation. "Accept" and "decline" imply a judgement of the captain's character, adds negativity, and makes the presentation look bad. If the question alliance captains are asked changes to "Would you prefer to join or form your own alliance?", and the answers are similarly changed, the ugliness of alliance selection will disappear. See tinyurl.com/scorchedearthCD

Chris, I did see your suggestion regarding a positive way for teams to respond when declining and Billy Lo's suggestion regarding changing what MCs ask. I can't tell teams how to respond (though I can suggest), but I can work to have the MCs trained to ask that alternate question, so we're doing it! Look for a blog post soon on this, thanks for your good thinking.

I have been around FIRST for 15 years. I have always wondered if the top 8 seeds could not pick one of the original 8 top seeds. This would equal the playing field and make it more interesting in the strategy of alliance selection. This would eliminate the number 1 and 2 seeds forming and alliance. I know that they do not always win; but they sure have an advantage. The top picks are usually predictable. Let's open up the field and strategy more. Just a thought.


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