First Look At Born Of The Gods & Second Look At Counterfeit Cards

Chas shares a few of his early thoughts on Born of the Gods cards spoiled so far and provides some updates to the counterfeit cards issue that he wrote about last week.

A First Look At Born Of The Gods

It’s hard to make definitive statements about any set before seeing the entire thing. As of this writing, only a handful of cards in Born of the Gods have been spoiled, and I guarantee you there are a couple of splashy mythics and juicy rares we haven’t seen yet. One or more of them have probably been spoiled, written about, discussed to death, and preordered by thousands of people since I wrote this.

As of this moment, though, the set looks . . . sort of lackluster. And according to the (mostly competitive) players on my Twitter feed, I’m not alone in feeling this way.

I think the problem is that most of the mechanics in Born of the Gods have very high variance. A card like Thragtusk or Rakdos Cackler for example is obviously good because it’s going to do roughly the same thing every single time. Obviously Rakdos Cackler is a different card on turn 1 in an aggressive Mono-Red Aggro deck than it is on, say, turn 10 in a control brew, but in the deck and situation where it shines, it’s always going to have roughly the same power level. That makes it easy to evaluate without even playing it.

Most of the cards in Born of the Gods (and to some degree Theros) aren’t like that. Cards with devotion are only good if your board is well developed; otherwise, they do nothing. Cards with inspired require favorable combat opportunities or the right enabler. Cards with tribute require your opponent to make a mistake or for you to be happy with either outcome. Even bestow and heroic cards don’t shine on their own—they’re powerful only in the right situation, which requires building around them, getting the right draw, and facing a favorable matchup.

The end result is a bunch of cards with splashy abilities that will only do what you want them to do 20% of the time. Needless to say, these aren’t the kind of cards that Spikes gravitate toward. When Ralph Waldo Emerson said that consistency was the hobgoblin of little minds, he wasn’t speaking about Magic decks. (And also that quote is wrong. Here’s the full text.)

From a financial perspective, narrow cards mean lower prices. Mutavault costs $40 because it’s required for nearly every deck in Standard. Kiora, as cool as she is, has a best-case scenario of seeing play in just one or two decks.

This is good news for those of you who like to brew in Standard on the cheap. It’s frustrating that nearly every cool card in a new Modern deck is seeing a massive price increase thanks to speculators, but we’re living in a golden age for price stability in Standard. It used to be that a couple of decent showings could drive the price of any random rare through the roof, but these new sets are being printed in such massive quantities that it’s nearly impossible to move the needle on any card unless demand increases substantially.

I do not expect Born of the Gods to change that trend. Even if a couple of marquee cards are spoiled, I expect this set to have a relatively low value overall, much like the past few sets in Standard. As such, it makes very little sense to preorder any cards unless you’re about to play in a huge tournament or you’re very rich.

One thing to keep in mind is that cards with very situational power levels are more prone to early misevaluation than cards with stable power levels. It was hard to tell whether a card like Nykthos or Master of Waves was good enough until I saw them in action, and I expect the same will happen here. Be sure to evaluate the cards on your own beyond what I or anyone else says and trust your instincts.

Another point worth bringing up is that this set seems to be full of cards that use the "punisher" mechanic. Not only do all of the tribute cards force your opponent to make a choice, but Mogis himself requires your opponent to choose between taking two and sacrificing a creature. Punisher cards tend to look better on the page than they do in play because you’re usually getting whichever function of the card is going to hurt your opponent the least when you cast it. In the past, punisher cards have been hot sellers during the preorder period, only to experience a crash upon release once players realized that they aren’t as good as expected.

Of course, punisher cards always seem to remain popular with a certain casual crowd. Even if they don’t see much competitive play, the kitchen table crew can’t leave cards like Vexing Devil and Browbeat alone. Part of the reason for this is because newer players tend to be poor at noticing the downside in cards that seem powerful at first glance.

Another reason for this though is that punisher cards are objectively more powerful in games played against less-skilled opponents. If a pro opponent makes the right Vexing Devil choice 98 times out of 100, a casual player might make the right call only half the time, making the card far more powerful in your living room than on the floor of a Grand Prix. It’s worth keeping this in mind the next time you criticize a "bad" player for running a punisher card.

At any rate, I expect the best of these cards to start fairly high and drop off big but rebound a little thanks to increased casual demand.

Here are a few of my early thoughts on cards spoiled so far:

  • Pain Seer isn’t Dark Confidant, but even without enablers it could see play out of the sideboard in control matchups. You know those times last year when you’d get in like, ten damage with a random Snapcaster because your opponent didn’t run any creatures? This card is decent in similar situations. He’ll also be a lot better in Eternal formats where there are fewer creatures. Even still, I think this card will fall off dramatically from its current price.
  • Ephara, God of the Polis is a nice little card-draw engine, but it doesn’t play well at all with the current crop of U/W/x decks. I need to see a U/W Aggro deck succeed before I’m a believer. The deck also needs to convince me that it’s better than just running Mono-Blue Devotion with Nykthos, Thassa, and Master of Waves. I don’t see it right now.
  • Is Mogis better or worse than Desecration Demon? Could you run both in the same deck? I feel like this finishes games faster than you think, and it certainly has one of the best static abilities on any of the Gods.
  • Don’t bother with any of the current crop of six-, seven-, and eight-drop creatures. None of them are better than the finishers that are already seeing play.
  • Hero of Iroas is probably a bulk rare, but it gets better with every Aura printed. This is the sort of random card that may jump to $10 four or five years from now.
  • Is it just me or is Flame-Wreathed Phoenix a very disappointing mythic? I have no idea why it’s preselling for $10.
  • Kiora is awesome and I love her to death, but I don’t expect her to do much in Standard. I’m thinking she’s more Ral Zarek than Jace.
  • Kiora’s Follower has some serious potential and will become a Commander staple at the very least. Snag foils and Game Day promos.
  • I don’t know if Ragemonger will help make a Minotaur tribal deck "real," but it will certainly cause some people to try to build them. Slip these into your binder at the Prerelease.
  • It’s important to note that hybrid cards like Rubblebelt Raiders and Nightveil Specter don’t do what you want in terms of activating the minor Gods, so please don’t speculate on them under the false belief that they’ll give you six devotion all by themselves.

A Second Look At Counterfeit Cards

I’m less concerned about the current crop of counterfeit cards today than I was last week. After speaking with a couple dozen people who have actually held the counterfeits, it appears as though the cards don’t "feel" real and the finish being used is still not quite right. This is excellent news because it means that even if the counterfeiting ring gets the typesetting right there’s still an easy way to tell fake cards apart from real ones. I don’t know for sure if this is true for the Shenzhen counterfeits, though, because I haven’t actually held one myself that has been confirmed to be from that manufacturer.

I’ve also been told that the image of the Polluted Delta I found—the one listed as a counterfeit card on eBay—had indeed been taken from an image of an authentic card. The counterfeiters seem to be working to fix their print issues, but they haven’t gotten it right yet.

I still believe that counterfeiting has the potential to hurt Magic in all the ways I discussed last week. You should still be as vigilant as possible when acquiring cards. For the moment, though, we can all ease up and breathe a little.

Dozens of you contacted me directly last week and asked me about counterfeit cards. Here are my answers to a few of the most popular questions:

Are all the counterfeit cards in English or have they been printed in other languages as well?

The current batch of fakes that we’re tracking from Shenzhen appear to have only been printed in English.

Are foils safe?

As of now, nobody has been able to successfully counterfeit foils. Each foil card has a unique layer that is very difficult to replicate. The closest to counterfeit foils are when people create blank foils to print over by rubbing the ink off with acetone, but it’s going to look like something printed on a foil. If you’re fairly familiar with Magic cards, you won’t be fooled by these.

My rare card looks weird! Is it a counterfeit copy? How can I tell?

It’s more likely at least for now that you have a slight misprint than you have a fake. Cards printed near the very start of a run for example may have darker ink than cards printed near the very end. Cards from the early days of Magic can have all kinds of odd errors since there wasn’t as much oversight. If you think you have a fake card, bring it to an FNM and show it to people who have been playing the game a long time. Players are very good at sniffing out fakes, especially by feel.

You should also keep this in mind when accusing someone else of having a fake card. Whether you’re a low-level judge running an FNM or a trader looking at one odd card in someone’s binder, don’t automatically assume that the person you’re dealing with is a crook because they have a weird card. Examine the card further, but try to give everyone the benefit of the doubt.

I’ve heard that the latest group of fakes [pass/don’t pass] the [UV/bend/feel/water drop/LED light test] and this means that Magic is [doomed/saved]!

There are lots of tests that can determine the veracity of a Magic card. Some are easy, while others are hard and require special equipment or risk damaging the card. We haven’t had enough of the Shenzhen cards hit US soil yet to say for certain which tests can be used on this current batch of cards. Once they do arrive en masse, we’ll know a lot more.

Here are a few of the other major updates I’ve tracked down regarding these cards.

Wizards Of The Coast Is Fighting Back

Take a look at this post from Mark Rosewater’s blog:


This is good news. The worst thing WotC could do right now is ignore the situation and let the counterfeiters gain steam. It seems as though they’re treating this situation with the urgency it deserves, which gives me hope that they will resolve it as quickly as possible. The clout that a large multinational company like Hasbro has in China is our best hope for getting these guys shut down.

A Magic Player Had A Long Talk With The Chinese Counterfeiter

A player calling himself "MTG Lion" claims to have had a long conversation with Delson Huang, the online face of the Shenzhen counterfeiting ring. MTG Lion posed as a buyer making a large order of counterfeit cards in order to try to mine as much information as possible. He then recorded the entire conversation, transcribed it, and published it on his website. This conversation could be full of misinformation, of course, so take it with a grain of salt. Even still, I think it’s worth summarizing some of it here:

  • The "we have been stopped by police" emails were almost certainly a ruse. Delson says that hundreds of people contacted him once news of the site spread, and he wanted the heat off him for a while. As of now, he is still going ahead with the manufacturing and shipment of these cards.
  • Delson was willing to take an order of 10,000 cards from MTG Lion, but it was pretty clear that was the largest order he has received to date. Later on MTG Lion asked about ordering many copies of just a single card and was informed that it was more difficult but not impossible. He was quoted a price of $450 for 1,000 copies of Tarmogoyf for example.
  • Delson claims that the list of 55 cards floating around the Internet last week is incomplete, and he shared a list of 80 cards that are currently available for order. This list is identical to the one I posted in my article last week, which says more about my ability to estimate large numbers than anything else.
  • He also claims he had a recent order for 500 different cards and hopes to have that many different cards available for buyers to choose from soon. Two of the cards he says that they’re working on now are Time Walk and Black Lotus.
  • The counterfeiters appear to be aware of the typesetting problems. "Fix the word problems need many time," he says in one message before assuring the buyer, "all be fixed." He goes on to assure MTG Lion that the cards will be higher quality and more realistic by next month, claiming "we had already found the typeface of the original cards."
  • Delson claims he has not yet shipped any large orders of counterfeit cards. He has been quoting people packs of 1,000-2,000 cards for $135 shipped, but no one has received any yet because the cards are still being made. The counterfeit cards on the market right now are only from advance samples he sent out, mostly to interested parties in the US.
  • Right now it appears as though they will ship small orders to 30-50 clients on or around the 19th of January. Most of these clients seem to be in Brazil and Spain. These cards will not have the fixed typesetting. Delson claims that all typesetting issues will be fixed by February and that they will start printing bigger orders once that has been dealt with.

Tales From A Printer

After reading my article, Boston-based Magic player and all-around awesome woman Melissa Newman-Evans wrote to me with an incredibly detailed description of just how hard and expensive it is to produce passable counterfeit cards. Melissa spent three years working production for a textbook manufacturer, two years doing art direction and print production management, and a year working firsthand with offset presses in a print shop, so she knows a little something about the business. Here’s what she has to say:

The thing about these fakes is that they are in terms of production quality much closer to real Magic cards than any other counterfeit out there. Some reports say the coating still feels wrong, but the card stock is right (or closer to right) and the rest of the printing quality seems frighteningly close.

This 2004 mothership article shows a number of methods to identify fakes. They are all couched in low-production quality; for example, the bend test works because lower-quality paper tends to buckle more than bend. The problem with these new fakes is that they can pass or come close enough to passing many of these tests. These new counterfeiters have sourced comparable inks, coatings, and presses to the ones used by Carta Mundi, the company who prints Magic and has since 1993. So I started thinking about what kind of operation these counterfeiters would need to have to make fake cards at this level.

Now, if the Carta Mundi facilities list makes any sense to you, you know that they’re a huge production facility. They have huge offset presses that can print on parent-sized sheets. Parent sheets are typically over 20 inches x over 30 inches in size depending on what mill they’re coming out of and what paper they are.

The counterfeiters aren’t just some jackasses with a laser printer; they’ve probably invested a whole lot of money into getting huge high-quality presses similar to Carta Mundi’s, which is backed up by the fact that they require a minimum print run of 1000 just like any other high-volume facility. Less than 1000 copies of an item and it’s generally not worth it to make the plates that press the image into the paper; this is standard operating procedure for most offset presses that aren’t ganging up their orders (which is putting multiple orders on one large plate). This also means that they are probably printing counterfeit Magic cards exclusively.

Other finishing equipment would also be necessary to create counterfeit cards of this quality. For example, Carta Mundi uses card slitters. If you look back at that 2004 identifying fakes article, Mike Elliott mentions a white line down a stack of cards. To me, that looks like a nicked blade on a guillotine cutter, which is pretty standard even in small print shops since it allows production workers to cut large stacks of paper to any size.

A card slitter, on the other hand, is generally faster but is also quite specialized. When I worked in a print shop, we used our small card slitter alongside, not instead of, a guillotine cutter. If our counterfeiters have invested in a card slitter, they have invested a large amount of money into one piece of equipment that can’t do much besides cut playing card-sized paper. That tells me that this is a purpose-built facility that is specifically for making (or counterfeiting) card games.

The expense of those machines is on top of space to house all this equipment—there is no way this is being run out of someone’s basement because those machines are huge and too loud for residential areas—and people with the expertise to run those machines. Paper, ink, and the coating by contrast are rather inexpensive.

Basically, the people who made this happen have a lot of money behind it. Bust those people and their operation and they lose to the order of millions Walter-White-under-the-laundry-facility style.

But how do they get busted? Well, China generally doesn’t care about counterfeiting, but the people who sold and own those presses might. I haven’t had firsthand experience with the enormous presses that Carta Mundi uses, but Heidelbergs are registered with the Heidelberg corporation. I heard a story from a Heidelberg technician that implied to me that the company could and would step in if there were indication their presses were being used illegally. The size and magnitude of this operation also might make it easier for anyone to take them out of commission.

In the meantime, though, these fakes are out there. Since we can no longer rely completely on production quality as the official hallmark, we have to rely on layout issues like font kerning to identify fakes. But even that method might not last.

Our counterfeiters are smart enough to know that simply scanning a card at high resolution is not going to be enough to produce a reliable fake. To get the text crisp, you need to lay out all the type again, which can introduce spacing errors like those on the fake Tarmogoyf Chas showed. This is a problem that plagues print production everywhere; my version of Garamond is not your version of Garamond because there are eight billion versions of Garamond with different kerning and sizing.

These issues are fixable, but they’re not easy to fix if you don’t have access to the original font. It’s entirely possible that this font spacing flaw will persist as long as people are buying the cards, particularly if people are buying and selling the cards knowing that they are fake, because there would be no incentive to spend a lot of time getting them perfect. But if most of their customers are buying the cards unknowingly, they have to fix this issue, and they absolutely have the means to do so.

This is pure speculation, but I almost wonder if the print-ready files were leaked. That would be the fastest and cheapest way to start a counterfeiting operation of this magnitude; get someone on the inside to identify the coatings, paper stock, presses, and inks, and to hand over the files. Once a counterfeiter has that information and those files, they can skip the entire trial-and-error process.

It also might explain why they aren’t focusing on dual lands or the Power Nine; those files are probably deep in an archive somewhere and were probably laid out using Quark instead of Adobe. (Adobe is industry standard at this point, and trying to use or convert ancient Quark files could introduce a multitude of conversion errors that would make those files not worth the effort.) If there is a leak, it is possible that the font spacing issue could be fixed. If that sounds dire, it is. That’s a serious security breach and potentially criminal charges for someone here in the US, in addition to a potential flood of cards that have even fewer traits to separate them from authentic Magic cards.

I’m gonna be totally up front here; if I were given all that equipment, I could probably produce a file that could be used to make pretty decent counterfeits given enough time and money. Someone created that original card, and it is possible to recreate it. With the source files and source fonts, I could probably do so within a day. Without them, it would take a lot longer, but it is still achievable, fonts and all. That’s why I can’t call Beleren as a new security measure.

Given enough samples of the font—which M15 probably contains on its own, plus or minus a few rarer letters like X and Z—I could reverse engineer the font and be back in business. The foil bubble will be difficult to replicate. But again, there is a lot of money behind this operation, and if it keeps making them money, they are likely to keep improving their process. If Carta Mundi can buy a machine that can apply foil to cards, it’s reasonable to expect our counterfeiters can do the same.

So what can you do right now to protect yourself? I haven’t personally interacted with the counterfeits, so I can’t offer a professional opinion on their quality compared to authentic Magic cards. But I do think the type spacing can probably be relied upon. If you don’t have an identical card to compare with in your binder, don’t despair. Compare the spacing between letters to other cards in your binder. Look for the same letters on the same color card from the same set. But if the letters seem like they have more (or less) space between them, the card isn’t necessarily fake—layout artists frequently fiddle with kerning and tracking (the spacing between letters) in order to make text fit properly and look good. Find another card of the same color and set to compare again.

Also pay attention to the special characters, like the trademark and copyright symbols, as those are frequently different from version to version of the same font. Pay attention to how thick the lines are on the curve of each letter, especially in the bold parts of the artist’s name, since stroke thickness in a bold can vary more than the roman version of a typeface. Pay attention to italic text too, as italics frequently vary in small ways, particularly in stylized letters like the "w" and "y." If you would feel more comfortable having a loupe to inspect cards even more closely when you buy or trade singles, look for a fixed focus loupe—they can be had for under $20 and will probably be easier to use than a jeweler’s loupe.

I would also say that foils are probably safe for now. Foil is quite expensive, and since this is a fairly new operation, the counterfeiters probably want to cover their original costs before delving into new expenses. Foils are also in lower demand and therefore will move slower, so there’s less incentive to begin producing counterfeit foils at all.

All of this speculation sounds like doomsday, and all that inspection sounds like a lot of work. But the beautiful thing is that once they are busted they’re done. Once all the expensive infrastructure is gone—presses gone, experienced press operator gone, files confiscated, and (if there was a leak) the leak sealed—the problem is solved, and it’ll take a lot of startup capital to begin again, both for the original counterfeiters and for anyone else willing to try their hand at it. If they do crop up again, they can be shut down again, and the foil bubble makes it harder and more expensive for the next guys to even begin.

This Week’s Trends

– The Birthing Pod buyout is still going on, but it’s happening slowly. There are still fourteen SP copies available here on StarCityGames.com for $6.99, for example, so it certainly lacks the savagery of many recent buyouts. I have a bunch of playsets stashed away, but I paid about $3/card for them. Even though I expect the card to rise in price little more, I’m not a buyer on spec at $8-$9.

Tectonic Edge is out of stock here at $3.99 and has been ticking up for weeks. It’s a large part of Modern, so I can certainly see it stabilizing closer to $6 retail. Get your personal set now if you need it between now and the likely printing of Modern Masters II in 2015.

– You can’t get Fist of Suns much cheaper than $10 right now, which is nuts. Just stay away.

– Trostani and other G/W staples are on the move. This is probably due to anticipation over the G/W God, which hasn’t been spoiled as of this writing. My guess is that the deck doesn’t need too many more tools to take off—the color combination is already quite strong, and it’s getting the new scry land for sure. Keep an eye on all of these cards.

Norin the Wary has started to rise thanks to a Soul Sisters type deck in Modern that’s running four of them. It’s a cheap deck that has actually put up results in smaller tournaments, so this spike might be somewhat sustainable. If so, Ajani’s Pridemate, Champion of the Parish, Mentor of the Meek, Genesis Chamber, and Ranger of Eos might make small gains as well. Take them out of your bulk boxes and put them in your Modern binder.

Dismember is also in that deck and is a nice spec target. It’s been undervalued forever.

Primeval Titan continues to trend upward thanks to seeing play in a couple of different Modern decks. I’m expecting $10-$15 retail.

Geist of Saint Traft keeps rising online, but it’s at record lows in paper. If you want a personal set for Eternal play, get them soon.

– I had a dream that Jon Finkel broke Tibalt in Modern. It was all over Twitter. "I had people so scared of Tibalt they had to Abrupt Decay him on sight," he wrote. I kept trying to buy copies to speculate on, but the price kept going up.

With the way Modern speculation has been going recently, this is as good a tip as any.