Games To Watch Out For: Exposing The Seedy Side Of Magic

What I’m going to say today needs saying if for no other reason than it may save some innocent victims a few hard-earned dollars and run-ins with some unsavory leeches that are sucking this game dry. I will be exposing a couple of back room practices that occur in many gaming establishments and even in tournament settings – and even accepted as the “norm” in some cases – but designed to separate the uninformed (or the “unconnected”) from their cards and their money.

Whoa, whoa, whoa there, son. Easy on that browser …why, I bet you saw my name on the front page and came screaming in here expecting to be entertained by one of my funny exposés of multiplayer.

Not today, folks.

I’m going to present something very un-funny to you today, even though doing so may alienate me from much of the Magic-playing populace. What I’m going to say today needs saying if for no other reason than it may save some innocent victims a few hard-earned dollars and run-ins with some unsavory leeches that are sucking this game dry. I will be exposing a couple of back room practices that occur in many gaming establishments and even in tournament settings, all legal – and even accepted as the “norm” in some cases – but designed to separate the uninformed (or the “unconnected”) from their cards and their money.

The seasoned veterans among you probably know most of what I’m going to talk about, but I am speaking here to the new players – casual gamers (like me) who only play competitively once in a blue moon, and players who are otherwise out of the loop. Much of what I’ll cover involves the formation of teams of Magic players and the shenanigans they pull in tournaments or while money- or rare-drafting in order to line their pockets.

How many of you like to draft? Based on the percentage of articles I see on the subject here on StarCityGames, I would bet that it is the majority of you. Personally, I have only drafted in a tournament setting a couple of times, but that’s enough to be convinced that for the most part these tournaments are conducted on the level due to the randomization of seating assignments.

But how many of you like to rare-draft (that is, draft with the winner getting the best rares) or money draft? Do you only do it with people you know well, or do you just jump into a game with anyone?

Well, if you only do it with people you know, you are both smart and prudent. If you don’t, then you are either enormously confident in your abilities…or looking to lose some buckteeth. If you ever find yourself being drawn into such a draft with people you don’t know, you’d be wise to get a couple of your friends to join in if you don’t want to get schooled. Be wary of joining money or rare-drafts where no one knows your name. (As Norm from “Cheers” once said: “It’s a dog-eat-dog world, and I’m wearing Milk Bone underwear!”) This is especially true if everyone else is chummy.

Also, be wary of groups who insist on sitting together when drafting, even if you are in the draft with friends of yours. Why be so cautious? Let me give you the scoop on a pair of underhanded draft strategies to watch out for:

The Kingmaker

This is where a group will agree ahead of time to sit next to each other and send all the bombs down to one person, compromising their own decks in order to make one killer deck that their best player will wield in hopes of winning the draft. This scenario is actually less common than:

The Color Coordinators

this is where a group will decide ahead of time which colors each member will concentrate on so that group members won’t be fighting over colors, increasing the overall power of each member’s decks.

Both of these strategies will give your opponents a potentially overwhelming edge in the draft. Usually these groups have agreed ahead of time to split the winnings amongst themselves, much like a band of roving gypsies will split the take from their victims after the lookouts have sprung the pickpockets. Don’t let yourself be taken by these thieves – it really is as simple as insisting that your friends join in the draft and sit interspersed at the drafting table.

Another underhanded draft strategy involves people who approach you to join in a draft with them after they have already “bought” their packs. In this scenario, you will be buying your packs legitimately…but others in the draft will have “pre-packaged” their packs so they will be guaranteed to have bombs. Sometimes a group will set up some packs to have several “bomb” cards and will insist on sitting together so they can pass them among themselves.

Admittedly, this scenario admittedly doesn’t happen often, and I wouldn’t have believed it without seeing it with my own eyes. The one time I saw this, someone had put an Infest in all three of their packs and had put choice white and green rares in each pack to pass to their teammates on either side. The guy to his left had put a Visara the Dreadful in his first pack to pass to him and another foil Visara in his third pack, while the dude on his right had a Silent Specter in his second pack. This is a pretty blatant example, but be wary for it can happen to you.

It’s pretty easy to keep this from happening, though: All you have to do is insist on everyone buying his or her packs at the same time. Don’t play with someone who insists on using packs they already have, unless you can verify they haven’t been “cracked” yet.

A harder nut to crack, however, is the local Constructed tournament scene – and here, I’m talking about your Friday Night Magic league or your basic weekend shop tournaments. (Other tournaments like States or Regionals are large enough that they aren’t plagued by the problems I describe here.) I have personally been abused and violated at small neighborhood tournaments by teams of players who will do whatever it takes to get one of their members into the finals through strategic concessions and under-the-table bribes.

As an older guy who knows few people and plays sporadically at different venues, I am at a severe disadvantage at these tournaments regardless of how good a player I actually am. In order for me to ever break into the prizes in a small tournament setting where there are teams of players jockeying to get one of their members in, I pretty much have to go X-0 just to get into the final four.

All the preparation in the world won’t do you a bit of good if everyone around you is allied against you; as an example, let me relate a tale from my last tournament experience, an Extended tournament about two years ago.

This was a small, non-DCI tourney with perhaps twenty people, and prizes were offered to the top four. The prizes were small – something like a dozen packs of product for the winner and three for fourth prize. I was playing Cognivore/Oath of Druids and had piloted it to a 3-1 record and I thought I was a cinch for the top four. There was someone who played a Psychatog deck who was also 3-1 (he had beaten me for the tiebreaker), and there was a 4-0 guy (I don’t know what he played, but it was inconsequential) and another 3-0 guy playing Sligh whose results we were waiting on. The Sligh dude was playing a guy who was playing The Rock with maindecked Ravenous Baloths, who I had beaten.

If he won, and he had an overwhelming advantage in this matchup, I would have the tiebreaker over the Sligh dude. Now, I’m not sure exactly what transpired, but as I went up to the tournament organizer to see whom I would face in the final four I found out that Sligh guy had gotten a concession from the Rock guy, acing me out, and that the final four decided to split all the packs… And I heard through the grapevine that the Rock person conceded for a single pack of cards. I later learned that the people in the top four were all teammates.

That was the last tournament that I ever played in.

(Note: What the players did was not technically illegal, since they weren’t playing in a DCI-sanctioned tournament. If the owner’s okay with that sort of behavior, it’s his tourney and he gets to make the call. However, it would have been illegal to concede for a pack of cards in a sanctioned tourney; see Sheldon’s writeup on prize splits and concessions, specifically the bulletpoint containing the words “The concession is in exchange for the prizes,” for details – The Ferrett)

I know I’m crying sour grapes; teams have been part of the scene for some time now and that the status quo won’t be changing any time soon. I also know that the best way to fight this is to start my own team and fight fire with fire. However, as an older guy who knows few players and who moves around a lot, this isn’t feasible for me. Therefore, my only option is to avoid the tournament scene unless I feel like constantly putting ten bucks into other people’s pockets for nothing. So I avoid tournaments…even though I may be better than the competition.

I advise anyone who plays infrequently, who doesn’t have a lot of friends who play, and who wants to play in tournaments on an even playing field to avoid the neighborhood shop “gangs” and stick to pre-releases and casual gaming where you can be sure your money goes only to the cards – and not to the cads.

Tony Costa

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