From Right Field: Cheating = Stealing

Let’s say that a cheater makes the top 8 by winning a match that s/he shouldn’t have won. What if it was top four? What if it was the finals? In each case, depending on the prize structure at your place, that person has stolen from someone. Plain and simple. Stealing. That person cheated to get something s/he wouldn’t have gotten if s/he had played fair and square. It got taken away from someone who (hopefully) didn’t cheat. Heck, even if the cheater didn’t make the prize level, but knocked out someone who should have made it, they stole from that person.

The problem is that cheating is more rampant than even the most cynical of us would like to believe.

I had an entire other column completed before I even started this one. I may send that one in some other time. Right now, though, something more pressing is on my mind. Be ready for some venom.

People who cheat in Magic tournaments are stealing.

Think about that.

Let it sink in.

Let’s say you’re like me. (Heaven forbid.) You play in a local store on Saturdays. You don’t do it because of the chance for glory or prizes, although those are nice if and when they ever happen. No, you play to have fun and be with your friends. If you win some packs of cards, great. If not, you have fun anyway. There’s always a chance, however slim it might be, that you might win some cards.

Then again, let’s say that you’re not like me. (Good for you.) You do play in those local store tourneys to raise your rating and win prizes. Hey, eight packs of cards won is eight packs you don’t have to buy. Plus, who doesn’t like having a rating over seventeen- or eighteen-hundred, right?

Either way, you drop your five or ten or whatever bucks to play. Whether you have a 1% chance to win some swag or a 99.9% chance, you’ve paid for the right to a level playing field.

Then, someone cheats. That person has stolen from you and everyone else.

Let’s say that cheater makes the top 8 by winning a match that s/he shouldn’t have won. What if it was top four? What if it was the finals? In each case, depending on the prize structure at your place, that person has stolen from someone. Plain and simple. Stealing. That person cheated to get something s/he wouldn’t have gotten if s/he had played fair and square. It got taken away from someone who (hopefully) didn’t cheat. Heck, even if the cheater didn’t make the prize level, but knocked out someone who should have made it, they stole from that person.

The problem is that cheating is more rampant than even the most cynical of us would like to believe.

As anyone who knows me can tell you, I’m pretty cynical. I’m just to the left of P.J. O’Rourke when it comes to believing that Western-bred people are all a bunch of greedy S.O.B.s who would sell their children if the price was right. People can justify some amazing things to themselves. “Of course, I embezzled the money,” said the accountant. “I made this company millions of dollars last year, and all I got paid was forty-eight grand? I deserved that money. It was mine. So, I took it.”

Of course, we all like to think that we’ve never gotten cheated in a tournament. We’re too smart for that. Too aware. Plus, all of the people who play against us each week, we know them. Don’t we? They wouldn’t steal from us.

Would they?

Yes. Yes, they would. In fact, they’re banking on your lowered defenses to facilitate their cheating.

Look around at the people you play with on Saturday afternoon. Do you trust these people? Do you truly trust them? Would you hand them your wallet for an hour and trust that nothing would be missing when you got it back, or that nothing had been charged on your credit cards? Would you give them the keys to your house and ask them to stay there for a weekend while you were gone?

If you’re as lucky as I am, you can look around the room on a Saturday and see some people that you can truly call”friend.” I’m talking about people that you’ve had over to your home for dinner. People who would invite you into their home. People to whom you could actually give your wallet and then get it all back.

You see, these thieves – I refuse to call them”cheaters” anymore because then end result of their cheating is stealing – they know how to use this comfort against us. We’re going to be back at that store next weekend or the one after that. They know that we don’t want to make waves. I mean, how uncomfortable is that? You accuse someone of cheating. Then, the tourney organizer, usually a pretty good man or woman who is being run ragged on that day, has to mediate. Typically, they come down on the side of caution. “Well, we didn’t really see him do anything. It’s all circumstantial.”

Let me tell you something I learned in real life, something that was reinforced in law school. Circumstantial evidence is almost all you ever have. Rarely do you have direct evidence like a videotape or an eyewitness who sees the evil act occur. In most cases of wrongdoing, all you have is evidence that you can piece together that points to a certain conclusion.

The classic example is from a lawsuit in Ireland from early in the twentieth century. There was a big bar fight. Somewhere around thirty people were involved. One had his nose bitten off. Yes, bitten off. The guy sued the person who allegedly bit his nose off.

The defendant had a pretty good attorney. He got all of the witnesses to admit that there was a lot of confusion during the fight. With so much going on, no one really saw the defendant bite off the plaintiff’s nose, and all of the witnesses admitted as much. Finally, the last witness, the one that the plaintiff’s attorney was waiting to cross-examine, took the stand. As the others did, this witness admitted to the defense attorney, that, no, indeed, in all of the confusion, what with chairs, bottles, and fists flying, he had not actually seen the defendant bite off the plaintiff’s nose. In other words, there had been no direct evidence of the nose being bitten off.

The plaintiff’s attorney then did his cross examination.

Plaintiff’s Attorney: So, you say that you didn’t see the defendant bite off my client’s nose because of all of the ruckus, correct?

Witness: Yes.

PA: And, yet, you say that you’re certain that he did bite off my client’s nose, correct?

W: Yes.

PA: Well, then, if you didn’t see the defendant bite off my client’s nose, how do you know that he did it?

W: Well, I saw him spit it out.

See what I mean? Completely circumstantial. However, there aren’t a whole lot of conclusions that a person could draw from this. One explanation could be that, during the melee, the defendant saw this nose on the floor, picked it up, put it in his mouth, decided that it tasted bad, then spit it back out before jumping back into the fray. Highly unlikely. It was much more probable that the defendant was seen spitting the nose out because he was the one who bit it off.

Circumstantial evidence can be powerful stuff. We need to listen to it.

Let’s say, for example, that you were playing a Goblin deck. Your opponent was playing that Red/Green Land Destruction deck. In game 1, he owned you without a problem. He started with turn 2 land destruction and went from there. You were never able to catch up after that.

As you were shuffling his deck for game 2 – something that’s not done nearly enough in these local tourneys – you noticed that of all his sleeves, one, and only one, had a horribly bent corner. I mean, turned down like a sheet in a fancy hotel. Given that there had been rumors of his cheating before, you asked him to replace it. Turns out the card was a Pyroclasm from his sideboard.


In his maindeck, he had no mass removal, no way to deal with a horde of Goblins other than trying to block them or destroying the land that let you play them. Now, you saw a marked card that would allow him to wipe your board clean.

You made the comment that”you know, someone else might think you were cheating.”

During game 2, you had taken control early. He had a little land destruction and a Birds of Paradise or two. Nothing you couldn’t handle. His hand was empty. So, you tapped out to play your Siege-Gang Commander. His hand was empty. Next turn, he’d be dead.

Of course, he pulled a Pyroclasm off of the top of the deck.

Are you kidding me?

He had two in his deck with about fifty cards left. He had a one-in-twenty-five chance of pulling that card. He got it. While you’re tapped out and can’t use the Commander’s ability. Let’s forget the fact that you have another one in hand. That doesn’t matter. What matters is the cheating. Or, rather, what matters is the alleged cheating, the appearance of cheating.

What would a jury say on this? Randomness or cheating?

First, let’s look at the argument for randomness. He did have a 4% chance of drawing a Pyroclasm. It had to be that turn, though. If you were able to make it to your combat phase, he would lose. Would you ever take your chances with 4%? If someone told you that you only had a one-in-twenty-five chance of arriving at work tomorrow without getting into a car wreck, would you take that chance?

Now, let’s look at the circumstantial evidence that points to cheating. He had brought in two sideboard cards. He had just replaced an obviously marked sleeve that had contained one of those sideboard cards. Then, at the first (and last) chance he would have to get that spell, he”randomly” pulled that card off of the top of his deck.

While it was possible that the Pyroclasm was pulled randomly off of the top of the deck, it wasn’t probable. All signs point more to cheating than randomness.

To me, it would be clear. It wasn’t an act of randomness. It was cheating.

“Haven’t you ever heard of ‘topdecking’?” he asked you.

“Yes. I do believe that I have,” you answered. “‘Topdecking’ is the act of randomly pulling off of the top of the deck the card you need at that time.”

“I have great topdecking skills,” he said.

“No you don’t. By its definition, topdecking isn’t a ‘skill.’ It’s purely random. You can’t practice topdecking.”

Actually, I guess you can practice it. You practice it by practicing stacking your deck without getting caught. You practice it by practicing palming cards without getting caught. You practice by practicing your cheating. Of course, that means that you’ve removed the randomness from topdecking. Therefore, it’s no longer topdecking.

As you probably guessed, I feel pretty sure that I got cheated this weekend. I have to say that I did get quite upset. I want to publicly apologize for making the other people at the tournament feel uncomfortable.

You see, what I should have done was what I would do at a big tourney like Regionals or States, where I almost surely have never met the person who was sitting across from me. I should have called the tournament organizer and had him look at the marked card.

The problem with doing this at small, local, Saturday tourneys is that the tournament organizer is usually running the rest of the business. They’re selling cards and supplies to people coming into their shop, people who have no connection to the tournament. The store owners aren’t devoting all of their time to watching us like hawks. They can’t. They have a business to run. They have to pay the rent so that we have a place for our local, Saturday tournaments.

It falls to us, then, to police the other players. This is one way that the vicious cycle continues, since most folks don’t want to cause a scene. The thieves know this. They know they can usually get away with it. Often, they’re charming and disarming, too. They convince you not to call a judge.

Remember that time a couple of weeks ago when that guy accidentally took two cards when he drew? Did you call the judge? No. You let him convince you to just put the other card at the bottom of his deck.

Do you remember how powerful Opt was in Invasion block? You’d look at the top of you deck. If you didn’t like it, you’d put it at the bottom of your deck and get a new one. That second card that you let your opponent just put on the bottom of his library a couple of weeks ago was a land he didn’t need. This guy just got a free Opt from you because you’re so nice.

Even though the people running the store can’t stand over the tournament tables like level three judges at a Pro Tour, they still want you to alert them to possible cheating. If you keep quiet, nothing gets done. People who feel they’re being cheated will probably just stop showing up. That loses money for the people in charge. They don’t want that to happen. They want, no, they need for the people who play at their place to feel comfortable.

You see, typically, the thieves don’t spend money. They come in, pay for the tourney, take their ill-gotten gains, and leave. They don’t help keep the place in business. In fact, they hurt it by driving players away. The people running things want the good folks, the ones who buy stuff, to stay. They really do want the thieves to leave and not come back. Those in charge have to know about the cheating to do anything about it, though.

We need to be more cautious of cheating. Using the analogy I mentioned above, I’d like everyone to start instituting what I will call The Wallet Rule.

The Wallet Rule: If you would not hand over your wallet for a length of time equal to the duration of the round to the person sitting across from you, assume that s/he is going to cheat.

Please, don’t misinterpret what I’m saying. I’m not implying (nor should you infer) that I think that you should call every opponent a cheater before the match. What I’m saying is that you should be aware of what goes on in your match. A lot of people are easily distracted during matches, and I’m as guilty as anyone. They look over at their friend’s match to see what’s going on. That’s a good chance for a thief to draw an extra card. Maybe you talk to the people sitting beside you. Hey, I don’t blame you. I do it all the time. The social aspect of Magic is one of its draws. When you turn your head to cut up with your pal, though, do you know if your opponent brought a card from his graveyard to his hand or not?

Of course, now, I have my own personal decision to make. Do I even want to continue playing in local events? I have other things to do with my life. I have a fiancé. I have a family and friends who don’t have anything to do with Magic. That’s five more hours I could spend with them on Saturday afternoons.

The problem is that I love the game. I love playing it even when I’m getting beaten fair and square. I want to play in the local tourneys and have fun. And Ted wants me to play in tournaments. That’s how I test the silly decks that I write about. Without that, I’m just another scrub hoping that you’ll believe me when I say that”Beacon of Destiny is Da Bomb!” (I’m not, by the way.)

Just another thing that gets stolen, I guess. My enjoyment of the game. How am I supposed to enjoy playing on Saturdays when I have to spend the whole time making sure my opponent isn’t cheating. Will it be fun to ask my opponent during each of his upkeep steps,”How many cards do you have in hand?” Will it be fun to track every single card my opponent plays to make sure they all stay in his graveyard? Will it be fun to ask to count his sideboard before the game and make him keep it on the table? Clearly, these are rhetorical questions to which each answer is no.

This is something I have to think on for a while. Like I said, I have another piece in the pipe. So, that should get published next week if Ted thinks that it’s worthy. I’m not sure what will happen after that. Maybe I’ll just fade away like I did last year. Maybe I’ll be more vigilant, nail more thieves, and make it too hard for them to play where I’m playing. I honestly don’t know right now.

Chris Romeo

[email protected]