I am deeply disturbed, but unfortunately, I am not surprised. The unfortunate disappointment I’m talking about is the presence of cheating in professional Magic.
The inspiration for this feeling came from Will Rieffer interview of Adrian Sullivan. In it, Will asks, "In a recent Seth Burn article on Mindripper, he basically says that he and others felt that perhaps as many as six of the top eight players (including McCarrell, I believe) were”savage cheaters." Does that coincide with your opinion of top-tier Magic? Is there that much cheating going on?" Adrian responded with, "I like to think that there isn’t. I’m honestly not sure. Sadly, I think I’d list the number at four. I hope it isn’t so, though…"
So at least four of America’s best players could possibly be described as savage cheaters. It doesn’t make Magic look good. However, it does make Magic look professional. How so? Because players are willing to take every advantage available to reach the top ranks of success. The rewards are great for success in Magic, and players are willing to achieve that success by any means necessary. That explains why cheaters cheat – but how do they do so, and is it worth it? Let’s try to answer those questions.
Well, of course, there are several forms of cheating. Casey McCarrell was accused of cheating by stacking his opponent’s deck during shuffling. His shuffling was described as riffle shuffling at a high, funny angle, and he also moved around some clumps of cards. Shuffling in this way, with apt attention paid to any glimpsed cards and a lot of practice with sleight of hand, could easily create a hard time for an unsuspecting opponent. This form of cheating is also hard to prove, as players get bad draws all the time. If I called a judge over to my table every time I got manascrewed, I’d get thrown out for unsportsmanlike conduct. Also, we want to be able to trust our opponents – but unfortunately, that’s becoming harder to do.
There are also other ways to cheat, of course. There are so many different things that go on during a game that it wouldn’t be hard to slip an extra card into your hand from your deck while your opponent’s mulling over his upkeep effects. You could even untap a land or two during a particularly stressful Fact or Fiction. "Sloppy" land piles or concealed hands could easily cover up this kind of cheating. Also, if someone’s willing to cheat in this way, he could also easily misrepresent his life total and/or hand size.
Now, after discussing all these methods of cheating, am I spreading the problem? I don’t think so. If someone’s determined to cheat, he’ll find a way to do it without my help (not that I’m trying to help cheaters or anything!). But, that brings about my second question: Is it worth it to cheat? I’d have to say, in all instances, no.
Let’s work from casual play up to cover those instances. In a casual game, just to see if I could, I tried to cheat in as many ways as possible. Over the course of the game, I drew about twenty extra cards and put at least two creatures from my graveyard into my hand. But what did I gain? A casual game win. Whoop-idy doo. And, it didn’t even really feel like a win; more of an experiment in dastardliness. Now what about cheating during a playtesting session? Well, that’s even worse than in a casual setting. Not only are you not practicing with your deck in a fashion that will be used at a tournament (unless you plan to cheat at a tournament, which is NOT a good idea). Additionally, your playtesting partner won’t be getting an accurate representation of the matchup either.
Now if we actually move up to sanctioned events, then cheating becomes an even worse idea because of the presence of consequences. Cheating is not looked upon kindly by the DCI, and is therefore penalized if caught. Depending upon the harshness of the offense (misrepresenting your life total and stacking your deck, for instance), different penalties could be assigned. You might be given a game loss, expulsion from the tournament, or even a suspension from tournament Magic. At a local event, you probably won’t receive a year-long suspension for drawing an extra card – but if caught, you’ll be branded as a cheater for life. It’s one thing to have strangers think poorly of you; it’s another to have your friends label you as a cheater. Plus, what do you have to gain? A foil card or a couple packs? Is that worth your reputation?
Moving up to a PTQ, the penalties for cheating become harsher. You’re fighting for more than a booster box here, and therefore, there’s more at stake, both to win and lose. PTQs are more likely to have higher-level judges than Sunday tournaments, so you’re more likely to get caught. You’ll also be playing against players who will be looking out for suspicious behavior and who also keep closer track of exactly how the game is going. Cheating is harder in this environment, and altogether not worth the effort.
And then we come to the highest level events like the Pro Tour or a Nationals tournament. All the marbles are at stake at these events, and only the best players are invited to attend. Cheating skills have to be very refined to be pulled off here – and time and again, we read reports of caught offenders. But how many go uncaught? Here’s where the question of worth isn’t so black and white. Adrian Sullivan believes that perhaps four of the top eight players at the American Nationals employed cheating to get there. And no penalties have been assigned. They’ve won thousands of dollars and worldwide acclaim, and it seems like their cheating has no negative effect. But it does. One day, should their cheating ways continue, they’ll be caught. And then, the penalties will ensue. People will look back and say, "He’s been cheating since 2001," and his reputation will be ruined. I’ve never really talked to Mike Long, and I don’t know him as a person, but what I do know is that he’s been caught cheating several times, and his reputation reflects that. When I think "cheaters of Magic," I think Mike Long and Casey McCarrell, whether or not they actually ARE cheaters. And, as Magic grows and more coverage appears and more people join the game, the curse of a bad name is far-reaching. If the DCI buckles down on tracking and penalizing cheating, then it’ll be much more dangerous to engage in such activity.
But despite all these reasons not to cheat, it still happens, and it probably still will. People are greedy, and they’ll stoop to any means to achieve what they want most. If it’s a good reputation and a fun time that you want, then you’re in luck: There are no penalties for such things. But, if you want to win more than anything, and you employ cheating to do so, you’re in dire straits. And, although there are many people who want the latter goal, there are more who want fairness and justice with our game.
Now that more people are aware of the problem of cheating, I believe that it’s going to start to decrease. People, sadly, will be keeping a closer eye on the state of the game and exactly what’s going on. Therefore, more cheaters will get caught. This should dissuade many cheaters. The rest should at least be discouraged by harsher penalties for rules-breaking by the DCI coupled with a more reliable method of detecting cheaters. Although cheating will still occur in professional Magic (just as taking steroids occurs in professional sports), I foresee less of it than the murky swamp of illegality we live in today.
For more apparent proof of my theory, read this article on the Sideboard. If the "bribery" happened the way Satoshi Nakamura says it did, I wouldn’t exactly call it bribery. However, the way that he handled the situation is, in my eyes, extremely admirable. He took bad fortune and made a good example out of it. Satoshi Nakamura is a hero to all those who want Magic to be a cleaner game, and I salute him for it (assuming, of course, he’s as ‘innocent’ as I think he is).
Let’s hope that more of us can be like Mr. Nakamura in the future.