Beat The Cheat: Tracking The Card Count

In recent years, some midwestern players out of Iowa City, Iowa have taken preventative measures a step further. They have begun employing the use of something referred to as”the card count.” The card count is a nearly foolproof manner in which you are able to monitor if your opponent has drawn more cards in a game than they were supposed to.

Have you played at a sanctioned tournament? Or a non-sanctioned tournament with a large prize on the line? If you can answer yes to either of these questions, then the odds are likely that you’ve been in the presence of a cheater.


Cheating is a stigma Magic has had to deal with since the inception of the game. Though it’s easy to follow the directions of the internet community and assume all cheaters are the spawn of Satan, things aren’t really that black and white. Many innocent individuals have been found guilty of”cheating” though they had never meant to intentionally do so. As recently as this year’s U.S. National Championships, Dave Price – an outspoken member of the game’s anti-cheating crowd – flipped a card over while shuffling Pete Leiher’s deck. Though Dave quickly called a judge to accept his punishment, through one accidental motion, he committed an act that is included in the realm of cheating.

This is not to say Dave Price is a cheater… But did he”cheat” at an event? Sort of. Accidentally, yes. But not to gain a benefit. Did he take the appropriate course of action when he flipped the card over? Yes.

However, not all individuals are as considerate as Mr. Price. In fact, at any given tournament, any number of people may have it in their mind to gain an advantage over an opponent through cheating.

Cheating and Card Advantage

There are a large quantity of ways in which it is possible to cheat (more than could possibly be outlined in one small article). Instead of trying to hit each manner of breaking the rules, the focus here is on one particular method: Drawing extra cards.

First of all, a proper introduction to one of the bastions of Magic theory is necessary: Card advantage. For those unfamiliar with the term”card advantage” it is simply the idea that the player who draws the most cards from their deck during a game has an increased chance of winning. This is due to the fact that by seeing more cards than your opponent, you will have drawn more of your threats and more of your answers.

Ask yourself if you would rather only draw your one card per turn, or if you would prefer to draw three from an Ancestral Recall.

Beating Cheating

However, there are those unscrupulous players who would gain an advantage in a game by drawing extra cards without following an effect that allows them to do so. Perhaps the simplest way to ensure no one does this to you is to carefully watch opponents whenever their hands are near their decks. Howling Mine in play? Great opportunity to draw three cards instead of two. Impulse? If you get bored and stop paying attention, two of the cards may be chosen instead of one. Being mindful of your opponent’s actions is a simple way to make sure they do not draw more cards than they are supposed to.

In recent years, some midwestern players out of Iowa City, Iowa have taken preventative measures a step further. They have begun employing the use of something referred to as”the card count.” The card count is a nearly foolproof manner in which you are able to monitor if your opponent has drawn more cards in a game than they were supposed to.

The Card Count

In addition to keeping track of life totals as they play a match, these players also monitor the number of cards drawn by each player throughout the course of a game, excluding the normal draw phase. They then record the total in a small T-square like box next to life totals. Each time a player draws a card over the card they draw each turn (for instance, through an effect like Diabolic Tutor), a hash mark is added to the appropriate player’s half of the box. In addition, they record who played first, and who, if anyone, took a paris mulligan.

Let’s say, for example, that throughout the course of a game, your opponent cast one Fact or Fiction, two Opts, and one Lay of the Land, and won the die roll to play first. You cast no spells that allowed you to draw cards, but did have to mulligan once. The card count for your game would look something like this:


Opponent (1st)




Since you didn’t draw any extra cards during the game, there are no hash marks to indicate that you did. Also, since you each draw one card each turn during the draw phase, you don’t need to record those draws (they effectively cancel each other out). Your opponent cast one Fact or Fiction, which revealed five cards from the top of his library. So you added five hash marks to your opponent’s total (it’s important to remember that the card count keeps track of the TOTAL number of extra cards taken from a library, not just the cards your opponent kept from the FoF). He cast Opt twice, so you marked two more hashes for your opponent (even if the opponent looked at the second card, he only got to keep one, so each Opt is only worth one hash for one card taken from the library). Finally, your opponent cast one Lay of the Land. Though this doesn’t say,”draw a card,” its effect allowed your opponent to take one card from his library, essentially drawing him one more card than you. So you marked one more hash mark down for your opponent.

At the end of the game, your opponent had drawn eight more cards than you had during the game, in addition to your having to paris once. So, by the time everything is said and done, your opponent was up nine cards to your zero.

But how does knowing this help you prevent people from cheating against you? If you were in a losing situation during the above game, a likely possibility considering how many cards your opponent legitimately drew more than you, you would have one final recourse before conceding the game.

During your opponent’s turn, he attacks you for the win with a Gurzigost while you are at four life. You have zero cards in hand and no effects that can stop the attack from happening, so you’re about to take lethal damage. However, before extending your hand, count up the total number of cards in your opponent’s hand, graveyard, removed from game pile, and in play, and mark the total down. Then, count the same places for your total. The number you reach for each player is the total number of cards that player drew during the game. Subtract your total from their total. Since you went second, and your opponent has drawn a card for his turn, every draw phase you had this game has been nullified by the draw phase of your opponent. Therefore, they should have exactly nine more cards than you in all of their in-play areas.

If they have more than that, something is wrong.

Keep in mind that as you’re counting totals, you’re not accusing your opponent of cheating… And if the numbers don’t work out as they’re supposed to, you’re still not accusing your opponent of cheating; you’re simply trying to find any mistakes that you might have made. After a few minutes, if you can’t figure out what went wrong, it’s time to call a judge to help discern what happened. Recount the number of cards your opponent has drawn, the notes indicating how many times you mulliganed, and let the judge determine what’s happening.

The Card Count is a bit tricky to use correctly – especially if you’ve never used it before. Make sure before you go into a tournament that you spend some time practicing with it, so that you don’t make careless mistakes that anger your opponent. And never, ever accuse someone of cheating until you’re absolutely sure there is no other excuse for the game situation.

Finally, remember that the reason you’re keeping the Card Count in the first place is to ensure a fair game so that you can play and enjoy Magic in the way it was meant to be enjoyed: Having fun.

Bill Stark

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