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How We Handle Cheating

With accusations of cheating and more flying around the Magic community, Brad Nelson shares his thoughts on how players and the Pro Tour System can improve the ways they tackle it.

Cheating just sucks.

Getting cheated out of a match is brutal. Finding out you lost an important match in the past to a now-caught cheater is demoralizing. Sitting down against a known or suspected cheater leaves you feeling vulnerable. Being friends with a suspected cheater leaves you guilty by proxy whether you’re aware of their potential transgressions or not. Even the act of knowing someone has cheated leaves you feeling anxious, as it’s not entirely clear what you should do with that information.

Last week the Hall of Fame ballot was emailed out to everyone eligible to vote. Within minutes accusations of cheating flooded Twitter. Many of the game’s biggest personalities publicly announced their opinions in both passive and aggressive ways in an attempt for voters to have the most information possible for them to make an educated decision. Up until then, stories of cheating were only told in back-channels hidden from the public’s eye.

This did not go over well. Friends of the accused soon came out to defend against the accusations. Others voiced their opinions that certain members of the community showed racism against other countrymen on the ballot. All the accusations were a gloomy shadow cast over a day intended to highlight greatness within the game we love.

Rumors

Something appears systematically wrong with the way we handle cheating and accusations of it. There’s no reason why players should feel pressured to alert the masses about potential cheating at the eleventh hour. Clearly, if members of our community have their reservations about certain players, a channel should exist for them to express their concerns. Rumors should not fester, for years in some cases, only to eventually come to a head right before people judge candidates on their ability to play Magic, moral fiber, and contributions to the game.

It’s a heavy burden to put the responsibility on judges to suspend players when all they have to go on is plays masked as mistakes.

I’ve had my issues with certain players over the ten years I’ve played this game professionally. Some have now been caught for cheating, others have yet to be, and some may not even be cheaters at all. These players all have in common the fact that I did nothing of value to stop them from continuing, if they had in fact started. I complained about them to friends, brought their names up when conversing on the subject, but never did I actively try to seek judgment.

But what is there to do? That’s the question of the day, after all, and one that isn’t cleanly answered.

The Call-Out

I once tweeted a clip of a player excessively touching their deck in a feature match. I stated that I didn’t believe the player to be doing anything against the rules, but that the act of touching your own deck too much should not be allowed as it is a way for players to potentially cheat.

The responses I received were vile. I got absolutely eviscerated. People brought up every mistake I’ve ever made and questioned my own integrity. Some, of course, rationally expressed their opinions on the matter, but for the most part I got wrecked. Keep in mind I wasn’t even insinuating the player cheated. I just expressed the potential for abuse the action that player took. I don’t even know what would have happened if I suspected them of actually cheating!

The potential of online backlash leaves high-profile players feeling uneasy about voicing opinions of other high-profile players. Each of us has an audience that we potentially polarize whenever we express a controversial opinion. The motivation for change often gets beaten out by self-preservation, leaving many of us to do nothing besides vent to our friends. And from time to time, things boil over.

Cheating in Magic just didn’t pop up out of nowhere. It’s been an issue within Magic from the start and been dealt with in various ways. As the history books say, righteous players led by Chris Pikula helped pave the way for a brighter future as he stuck his neck out in the war against cheating. While exceptionally noble, and potentially self-sacrificial, Pikula’s acts are not so easily replicated by players in our generation. Social media has changed the stakes, whether we like it or not. Every time I tweet something controversial, a small voice in my head tells me not to submit it in fear of losing my reader base, potentially my job, and ultimately my career. Even this paragraph leaves me in fear of readers believing I’m belittling Chris Pikula’s legacy when that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Systemic

We as players do not handle the topic of cheating well, but under the current constructs it’s difficult to know if alternatives are even possible. Systemic issues may be at fault. Judges have done a great job over the years to create a rulebook that weeds out cheating. Sometimes the rules were too harsh, other times too lax, but for the most part a happy medium facilitates the fight against cheating without sacrificing the enjoyment this game has to offer.

As long as Magic is played in paper, the need to fight cheating should never die down.

Prosecuting cheating can be a definitive act when it involves drawing extra cards, mana-weaving, or stacking a deck while proving the intent to cheat. The lines get blurry when proof is not found and the instance in question is not deemed malicious. Magic is a complex game full of both tactical and strategic decisions being made minute-by-minute. On top of that, there’s a need to properly manage every aspect of a game. It’s a difficult task, and players often make mistakes. These mistakes are sometimes detrimental to their chances of winning, but other times end up benefiting them.

Making these decisions also takes time, perhaps too much time. In these instances it’s difficult to differentiate if the player is using this time-taking to gain an unfair advantage or not. Draws are better than losses, after all, and rarely do they end with both players feeling good about them.

Intent

Intent plays a major role in this discussion. If a judge deems any breaking of the rules is intentional, it results in a disqualification from the event. If they don’t find it intentional, the player in question receives a warning. The warnings can pile up, resulting in upgraded punishments such as game losses and match losses. Currently a player can make two mistakes per day of competition without consequence, with the third resulting in a game loss. Once the day is completed all penalties get reset for upgrades, but all get saved in personal records.

These personal records are used by judges to watch trends, and when they deem it necessary, they take action by suspending players who’ve accrued many of these game rule violations over a certain period of time. Is that good enough, though? Advantageous mistakes have become the centerpiece of cheating discussions as certain players are accused of manipulating the rules by making mistakes to their benefit on purpose.

This is the exact point, however, where this conversation goes from objective to subjective.

Players who accumulate a high number of these infractions over time cause other players to question their intent, not believing these mistakes are genuine. This causes the defendant and those who surround them to argue against the accusations, deeming the mistakes accidental. The prosecuting side’s retort questions causality, stating that constant success and high volumes of mistakes are mutually exclusive.

The community takes sides, things get personal, and objectivity gets thrown out the window. Given that there are only two options, suspend or don’t, it’s difficult to actually prosecute in instances like this. If those in power don’t suspend a player and are wrong, then they have the option to do so later. If they do suspend and are wrong, then they potentially have ruined someone’s career. It’s a difficult line to cross.

The Ghost Quarter

Back in 2015 I played an on-camera match against Andrew Boswell. It was a Modern Jund mirror, and time was ticking down deep into Game 3. Andrew deployed an Olivia Voldaren but made a crucial mistake: he unnecessarily tapped his Ghost Quarter. Elated to see this, I knew that if I topdecked a fifth land, I could now force him to chump block with it by activating my Raging Ravine. Andrew even realized the mistake right after he passed the turn.

I did in fact draw Verdant Catacombs and quickly began searching my library for a land. The whole time I searched through my deck I was in disbelief that I was so close to victory in a game I was behind in, and it was all thanks to him tapping his Ghost Quarter. Without thinking, I stopped on my own Ghost Quarter and put it onto the battlefield. I never realized my mistake and never used the land for anything more than mana. The game only lasted a couple more turns.

I believe it’s essential to go through slow play before we can get to stalling.

After my next match, the head judge came up to inform me of my mistake, stating that he did not believe it to be intentional, but that I should be aware of it. It was a professional courtesy, so to speak, as I was a public figure in the game and Twitch lethal was currently targeting me.

A month later I received an email stating that the internal investigation had concluded, finding me not guilty of wrongdoing. I wasn’t even aware I was under investigation, so my heart skipped a beat, as it felt like I came within inches of being suspended from the game I know and love.

I don’t know what I would have done if they had found me guilty and suspended me. I would have lost my job here at Star City Games, wasted weeks of preparation for the upcoming Pro Tour, and wasted a decade of my life.

My career as I know it would be over, and a judge would be responsible for the action that caused it.

Justified or not, that is the reality. It’s a heavy burden to put the responsibility on judges to suspend players when all they have to go on are plays that look mistakes.

In Between

The system shouldn’t have to be this polarizing. There should be a middle ground between “banned” and “eligible to play,” a probationary period for players who accumulate enough advantageous mistakes that their intent comes into question. A place where judges can place players for a certain period of time when they are extremely suspicious of players, yet lack the proof needed to make the toughest decision.

Players who found their way onto this theoretical list would no longer receive normal warnings at Professional REL events (Pro Tours and Day 2 of Grand Prix). Instead even the first game rule violation that is deemed “advantageous” would automatically be upgraded to a game loss, and the second would result in a match loss. No other warnings would be handled in this manner unless it is clear that an opponent cannot try to rig situations that result in them automatically winning games.

Implementation would be difficult, and I’m not certain of all the potential downsides to this idea. I do know, however, that there are many talented people in charge of things of this nature, and I put my utmost faith in their ability to come to the best conclusions. Maybe this is something thought of before. Maybe it isn’t. Figuring out the specific probationary line is also something I’m not confident in deciding, though I also believe this should be hidden from the public anyway.

Stall

The conversation over slow play and stalling has also been trending recently. Stalling is similar to advantageous cheating, as it’s difficult to differentiate between it and merely playing slowly. Players come to decisions at different speeds. Some are faster than light, like Luis Scott-Vargas, Shouta Yasooka, and Owen Turtenwald, while others are glacially slow, like, well, me.

Cheating just sucks. Everything about it is awful.

It’s not as if this topic recently found its way into the public’s eye, as a few of the game’s top players have expressed the need for change in the past. They believe people who play too slowly should be penalized when egregious events occur, and they’re not wrong. Making the decision to give a player their first slow play warning isn’t that difficult. The second, however, almost never happens, as that’s when a player will receive a game loss. Judges have a more difficult time penalizing players in this instance, even when it’s justified.

Giving a player a second slow play warning can fall into the “subjective” camp where it’s not clear if the player has used too much time. Players can make arguments that involve how much time is still left on the clock, how the pivotal turn of a game deserves more attention than others, or how the opponent has taken more time than they have.

Judges are also human. They travel with their friends, hang out after days conclude, and are part of the community just as much as players are. Handing out game losses for slow play is tough when our reactions to them can be so volatile, especially when making the decision can be subjective.

Slow Play

I believe it’s essential to go through slow play before we can get to stalling. The first step in doing so is, as a community of players, to defend a judge’s decision to issue slow play warnings. This can give them more confidence in making these difficult decisions. As players receiving these infractions, we must do our best to accept them, and, as a community, to defend them.

In the moment that will be difficult, but the onus is on us. Once we as a playing community acknowledge a need for change and a willingness to do so, the judge community may find better ways to make this a reality. Then we might see the norms move just enough to begin weeding out stalling.

The Good Fight

As long as Magic is played in paper, the need to fight cheating should never die down. Openly discussing cheating is not glamorous, but ignoring it is not an option. The opinions and ideas I’ve presented today may not be the correct ones, but the message is there: for future situations to be handled properly, we must first question the system and the players deemed at fault.

Concealing information until the last possible moment is not conducive to the overall goal of ridding the game of cheaters. The medium of social media also does not function properly for divisive topics such as this. A proper avenue to express concerns of this manner is crucial, but finding investigations@wizards.com was difficult for me, an established player.

Change is necessary, and to achieve it, judges and players alike are responsible for ushering in a new era. I don’t believe any of us knows exactly what that new era will entail, but the conversation must start now.