The following subject is not one that is going to make you comfortable. The problem with this specific subject is that we are usually unaware that it is
happening because the perpetrators in question are generally good enough at doing it that we have a hard time seeing what is actually going on. But in any
game that has a big enough prize, there will be people who aim to abuse the rules, either by circumventing them entirely, or just by trying to bend them to
What I’m talking about is cheating.
There are a lot of ways to cheat in Magic because the game and its rules are incredibly complex. This isn’t Monopoly where the biggest offender would just
steal from the bank, but the idea is mostly the same. Someone is performing an action that gives them a significant advantage, and their action is
explicitly against the rules.
The problem with cheating is that we are generally unaware of the many ways someone can cheat because it is rare that a cheater does the same kind of cheat
as another. But there are also a lot of ways people can misconstrue a situation, thinking that someone is indeed a cheater when their mistake was not
Let me be perfectly clear: Cheating, by definition, implies intent.
If someone plays an extra land by mistake, or marks down the incorrect life total, or even just forgets to reveal a card from Ajani, Mentor of Heroes, they
are not necessarily cheating. Honest mistakes happen all the time in Magic, many of which result in a severe penalty given by the judges. A game loss for
failing to reveal a card from Ajani, Mentor of Heroes is not cheating unless it was intentional. In the case of Patrick Chapin at the Pro Tour, this was a
clear line of doing something illegal unintentionally.
So there it is in a nutshell. You can’t unintentionally cheat, and the idea that someone is a “cheater” just because they make a mistake in a match of
Magic is detrimental to the integrity of the game. High-pressure situations often generate mistakes from the players, both in game and in rules violations.
And often both players are so deep into the game that neither of them see it, often until it is far too late. It is very easy to create a situation in
Magic where one or both players in a match get a severe case of tunnel vision, and mistakes are easy to spot by spectators. That’s because the spectators
aren’t constantly keeping track of life totals, figuring out what cards are in the opponent’s hand, and trying to navigate through an intense combat step.
If you accuse someone of cheating, you better have some heavy proof to back it up. I am not in the camp of “someone told me a story about them being shady,
and now he’s been disqualified from a tournament. That makes him a cheater!” If you’re going to go on a witch hunt, you better be damn sure the person
you’re hunting is an actual witch. When they are, then the community is greater for it, but nailing a person to the wall over circumstantial evidence or
heresy will result in a net negative for the game.
But man, oh man, am I all for jamming someone real good when the time calls for it.
In the past year, it seems as if a higher number of people have been caught doing illegal activities than in the past. Let me be frank: This is not a new
epidemic. Cheating has been around in Magic since the beginning, but we have a lot more video proof of it happening now than ever. Thanks to the
StarCityGames.com Open Series and an increase in video coverage of Grand Prix and other events, there is a spotlight on a lot of high profile players and
matches. In those matches, you would think that it would be foolish to cheat, as the odds of getting caught increase exponentially. But some people just
can’t help themselves. Their actions are compulsive, and small things like cameras aren’t going to deter them.
Cheating is not often something these people can help. They’re driven by some unseen force in their brain, striving for admiration and recognition for
their accomplishments, even if those gains are ill-gotten. It doesn’t matter to them. All that matters is winning. Many cheaters are often associated with
sociopathic tendencies. These people don’t really care about who they hurt because they lack compassion. The only goal is to win, and damaging the
integrity of the game is not relevant to them. These people are often easy to spot because they will take advantage of people and situations outside of the
game just the same. But others are more cunning, and they will blindside you.
But the major subject of today’s article is what to look for when it comes to cheating. For starters, there are two major types of cheating: cheats of
opportunity and cheats that are premeditated. The cheats that have been uncovered lately have been mostly premeditated because they are so much more
disgusting than cheats of circumstance, as well as much easier to prove.
So let us begin.
While cheating is a huge negative for Magic, unjustly accusing people of cheating is disrespectful and also detrimental to the game. After the last big
scandal of “shuffle cheats,” I heard a lot of people at tournaments accusing their opponents of doing similar things but only because they were mulliganing
to five. Even if you’re “joking,” it is still embarrassing and awkward to accuse someone of cheating, whether directly or indirectly. Just because you had
a run of bad luck does not mean your opponent cheated you, and you should generally give people the benefit of the doubt.
Cheating is not rampant. It is not common. Accusations should be leveled at someone only when you are sure that they are doing something illegal. Have the
facts, know what you’re looking for, and don’t be a poor sport. The constant fear of being called a cheater will push people away from the game, and that
is not what we’re aiming for.
These types of cheats are unsavory because the person in question is intending to break the rules before the match even starts. These include a number of
shuffle tricks, but they are not limited to just that. Let’s go over some of the ways people can manipulate a game before it even begins and how you can
protect yourself from letting it happen to you.
1) The Truffle Shuffle
It is not uncommon for someone to look at a deck while shuffling it. After all, you don’t want to drop it and accidentally knock all the cards over. But if
they’re able to see any part of the deck while shuffling, there is the possibility that they can influence where a card ends up in their riffles. If you
watched any of the Jared Boettcher videos, you will notice how seamlessly he was able put a card from the bottom of the deck to the top of the deck. After
accomplishing this, he goes on to “mash” shuffle the deck, but never moves the top card of the opponent’s deck, disguising the fact that he did anything
wrong in the first place while still accomplishing his goal.
Trevor Humphries did almost the same thing, which you can see here.
There is video evidence of these two players running this same cheat over and over again on camera. And honestly, it doesn’t actually seem that difficult
to do. It is important that you stay vigilant in your matches and make sure your opponents aren’t looking at your deck while shuffling. Ask them (politely)
to turn the deck so that there is no way for them to see any of the cards in your deck, or to keep their head turned away from the deck while shuffling.
2) Extra, Extra, Read All About It
There have been times throughout my history playing Magic where my opponent thought it would be a good idea to draw some extra cards while I wasn’t
looking. Unfortunately for them, I did notice, and they were done playing Magic for a little while.
To keep this from happening to you, a very common practice at tournaments is to ask your opponent how many cards are in their hand. This can be very useful
information because it allows you to infer what cards they can play on their next few turns, but it also protects you from your opponent drawing extra
cards. If you asked them the turn before, and they had one card in hand, it will be pretty awkward when you ask them again the next turn and they have
three (unless they cast Divination, of course).
It is a rather tricky bit of sleight of hand to draw an extra card during your draw step. That isn’t to say that it isn’t easier to pull off with practice,
but “catching a hanger” isn’t all that difficult if you’re paying attention. When it isn’t your turn, I would recommend paying more attention to what your
opponent is doing instead of thinking about all the things you’re going to do on your next turn.
3) Hide Ya Cards, Hide Ya Wife
Hiding cards from your opponent is pretty scummy, but there are a lot of ways you can do it. Hiding cards under the table before a game starts, or in your
pocket or wherever, is an insanely bold cheat, but it’s one that was seemingly uncovered at Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir by Stephen Speck.
Secondhand (ha!) Story: Stephen presented a 53-card deck. After presenting his deck, his opponent starts to pile shuffle Stephen’s deck. At that point,
Stephen grabs his deckbox to “check his sideboard.” After the opponent sees that the deck is 53 cards, he calls a judge. Conveniently, the sideboard is 22
cards, including what looks like a “perfect opening hand.”
Now, this story could be true, or it could be radically overplayed. But one thing is for certain: Stephen Speck has had an extraordinary number of Turn 1
kills with Amulet Bloom in Modern.
For those of you who are not familiar with Amulet Bloom, Simian Spirit Guide is only in the deck to allow for an Amulet of Vigor on Turn 1. It isn’t
exactly necessary that you kill people on Turn 1 with the deck, but Stephen stood behind his list for a long time, even after Justin Cohen made it to the
finals of Pro Tour Fate Reforged.
Spec(k)ulation now has it that Stephen likely stacked his opening hand with Amulet Bloom on the regular, which is likely what resulted in so many strong
performances with the archetype. Regardless of whether or not he actually cheated, his actions are definitely suspect. I find it rather difficult to
“accidentally” leave seven cards in your sideboard that should be in your maindeck, but I would need to know more details before damning the man.
4) The Yugioh Drop
One common occurrence that drives me crazy is when someone “accidentally” drops a card, face up, while shuffling my deck before Game 1. It is also
infuriating when that same person does it multiple times in the same tournament. The main reason I hate this is because it is a fairly common practice in
Yugioh, and the penalty for such an infraction is just a warning. That means someone who knows how the rules work can bend them to their will and extract
free information from it.
This free information might not seem all that important. It is just one card, after all. But what about a format like Legacy or Modern, and your opponent
drops your Lion’s Eye Diamond onto the table? Do you think they’re going to keep a hand with three Swords to Plowshares? Of course not. That free
information can be detrimental to the natural outcome of a match.
But dropping a card on the table isn’t a damnable offense. I think that the judge community should be more vigilant about keeping tabs on when this offense
occurs since this infraction is the exact same as when someone drops a card during the progress of a game while shuffling their opponent’s deck.
5) Everything Else Under the Sun
There are a lot of ways people can set up a cheat outside of the game, coming to the table with a significantly unfair advantage. Long story short, some
people don’t have your best interest in mind, and they are willing to go through long lengths to put themselves in a winning position. I would also caution
people from putting various ones in the comment section, as that defeats the purpose of my being intentionally vague in this instance.
Cheats of Opportunity
Stalling is a major issue in Magic tournaments that goes mostly unpunished. Slow Play warnings are given out on a regular basis, but in my opinion, that
isn’t enough. Some people will do very small things to eat away at the clock when they are up a game, or just very far ahead in a game already in progress.
Knocking the deck, drawing cards slowly, or just thinking about your play for an incredible length of time are all ways that people intentionally take time
off the clock when it is working to their advantage. That isn’t to say that every single person who slowrolls their draw is stalling, but given the right
time and place, it most certainly is. A common practice that has been punished before is mulliganing “on purpose” just to eat up the clock. This can result
in a match being a draw, or the person who is mulliganing is already up a game and just making sure that the next game won’t come to a natural conclusion.
By all rights, people are allowed to mulligan and sufficiently randomize their decks, but it is another road entirely when someone starts pile shuffling
their opponent’s deck after they crack a fetchland. It can be an easy way to abuse the rules while still technically being legal, which is a tough problem
for a judge to handle. But like all the situations listed so far, the most important aspect of figuring out this situation is “intent.” If you think
someone is intentionally playing slower or doing small things to eat up time intentionally, that is when this becomes a real problem.
Calling a judge should never be frowned upon, and that is one mindset that is rampant among newer players. Judges are arbiters of Magic rules knowledge,
and they are at tournaments to help resolve situations in which one or more people have broken a rule. It is not up to you to decide the infraction or
appropriate punishment when someone breaks the rules. Call a judge, explain the situation, and let them decide on what to do.
But what you should not do, at any point, is lie to a judge.
I’m not one to jump to conclusions, and I wanted to talk about this specific instance a bit because it is so bizarre.
Dezani lied to a judge in the 2-5 bracket where he was no longer in contention to win prizes or acquire more pro points. With nothing on the line, he
changed his story about the gamestate, and that resulted in his disqualification. At this juncture, it seems pretty ridiculous that he would do such a
thing, as he has nothing to gain. Some might see this as “he can’t turn it off,” but I’m under the impression that something may have been lost in
I’m not defending Dezani, because I wasn’t there and I didn’t see what happened. In all honesty, he has a lot more to lose than gain by doing what he did
in that specific situation. From what I’ve heard, he intended to drop at 2-5, but he ended up getting paired in the last round of Day One and decided to
play instead of just leaving (which was likely a better option). Someone who likes to win as much as Dezani and who has had a miserable tournament was
probably frustrated. In that scenario, he wasn’t likely making good decisions, either in game or out of game.
Take this situation however you like, but it is hard to call someone a cheater when there is literally nothing to gain.
3) Life, Life, Baby
One thing I know a ton of people actually do–and get away with regularly–is “losing track” of life totals. At some point in your Magic playing career,
you’re going to be in this exact situation, and what you decide to do will be a great judge of your character.
Your opponent is going to announce a life total change that is different than what you have written down, and instead of trying to figure out the
discrepancy, you’re going to just “go with it.” This doesn’t make you a bad person, but you are technically cheating. It is just human nature to want to
believe that someone else is right when it is in your favor. And you won’t even think twice about it.
But this kind of mentality is a slippery slope, and it will often lead you to doing other things that aren’t exactly legal but are very hard to prove
otherwise. Playing innocent or ignorant when a judge asks you why you did something is tough to overturn, but you will know if what you did was right or
not. This kind of cheating is the definition of opportunity, because your opponent is basically leading you down the hole because they think they are
right. After all, you didn’t give them any reason to think otherwise.
To prevent this from happening, just announce both life totals after every change. Keep track of your opponent’s lands, and keep them honest. Most of the
time, people will miss a point or two of damage in a game. With so much small stuff to keep up with constantly, it’s just going to happen. I will almost
always give my opponent the benefit of the doubt, but just make sure you point out painlands or fetchlands whenever you see them deal damage, to you or
4) Two Explores
Playing an extra land in a turn happens quite often when games go pretty long. It’s happened in our VS Series videos a number of times. This kind of thing
just happens, unfortunately. When there are a ton of cards being drawn from Read the Bones, complex combat scenarios, and other distracting factors,
forgetting whether or not you played a land can be common. The cheating aspect comes when you “just assume” you haven’t played a land yet and play an extra
one without actually trying to figure anything out, or you just do it maliciously because it is advantageous.
5) Everything Under the…Moon?
There are a lot of ways that people can find to cheat inside a game of Magic. Opportunities arise in nearly every single game, and the positions in which a
person could take advantage of the situation are nearly endless. I’m not trying to depress you or push you away from playing competitively. I’m trying to
educate you so that you aren’t taken advantage of.
On the Bright Side
On average, I would guess that there are very few people who play Magic tournaments regularly that use premeditated cheats. Your odds of encountering one
over the course of your time playing Magic is reasonable, but encountering two is probably low. These people are getting caught more frequently because of
a rise in technology, as well as a rise in knowledge of how they’re doing it. Once you know what to look for, it is easy to spot.
In closing, I wanted to make it crystal clear that the majority of people who play in Magic tournaments are good people. Just because someone is doing well
does not mean they cheat. Many of us put in a lot of time and effort into these tournaments, and success is a great reward for our work. False accusations
eat away at the foundation of hard work. Accusations should never be made lightly, but there is no harm in trying to protect yourself so long as you go
about it the right way. Even if you think someone is cheating, saying it to their face isn’t very sportsmanlike.
Call a judge, talk to them away from the table, and ask them to watch. Tell them what to watch for if you need to. Just treat others how you’d like to be
treated, and make sure you have sound logic, reason, and proof behind any accusation you might make. We came dangerously close to tearing each other apart
after the last big cheating scandal. I don’t want to live in a world where people accuse each other of cheating just because they mulliganed to five.
Stuff happens. Deal with it accordingly.