Removed From Game – Theft, Temptation, and How to Avoid Both

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Monday, June 14th – In a refreshingly joke-free edition, it’s time to look at the eye-poppingly large rewards on offer to potential thieves at large-scale Magic events. It may be illegal, but the economics make such nefariousness inevitable, and it’s up to us to make sure a fool and his money are not soon parted. Featuring such awesome words as purloin, rifle, and squinticate, this is a guide to keeping what’s yours, yours.

I’m pretty certain that this week is going to be joke-free, since the topic is one of genuine importance to any player who has ever been to a tournament. Since Magic players are part of a wider community, it stands to reason that there are going to be ‘undesirable’ elements within that group. Specifically, it stands to reason that if you put enough Magic players into a room, eventually you’re going to find someone willing to steal from others. We would probably all like to think that we don’t know anyone who would steal from us, but the likelihood is that we do.

Of course, there’s more to it than that. In recent years, we’ve seen a worrying development of large-scale Magic events being targeted by organized groups of thieves. This week, I want to look at both groups of potential people who are willing to part you from your possessions, and what you can, and indeed must, do about it if you want to avoid becoming a victim. In order to facilitate the discussion, I’m going to leave moral judgements at the door. It’s easy to simply dismiss thieves as criminals, which they technically are, but while a word like ‘blame’ can happily be placed at the door of the thief, a word like ‘responsibility’ is something that we all share to make theft as unlikely as possible. Disregarding the laws of the land carries a variety of penalties — not always commensurate with the crime — but disregarding the laws of common sense can lead to penalties far higher.

So, why would Magic events be a potential target for thieves? Once you start to make a list, it’s enough to make the most jaded of minor criminals salivate. Here’s how far I get, putting myself in the position of the potential thief:

Magic players are Young

Bear in mind, we’re dealing here with generalities. There are girls playing, young women, married women, old men and women, disabled players, and so on. In general terms though, the makeup of a large tournament features young people. Why is this tempting for a thief? Young people are relatively inexperienced in life. There’s a good bet that they haven’t been the victim of crime. The phrase ‘once bitten, twice shy’ implies that it takes the first offence to open the victim’s eyes to the possibility, and that they’re careful after that. For many Magic players, being untouched by crime can make them careless.

Magic players are Male

Again, excuse the generality. What makes this significant is that young men are in prime demographic territory for all kinds of tech gear, whether it be phones, laptops, iPods and iPads, and so on. We’ll talk more about this in a bit.

Magic players have Nowhere to Sleep

Of course, most players do have somewhere to lay their head, but there are plenty who arrive at a big tournament waiting to hook up with friends and claim a bit of floorspace. That means that their entire set of gear is with them at the venue for many hours. There’s no spare cash back at the hotel, or a laptop left in the room safe, everything is with them.

Magic players are Rich

I know many of us don’t feel especially wealthy, and that’s all the more true when we’re bemoaning the cost of airline flights to a Grand Prix, or hotel prices, or the entry fee to the tournament, or how much Planeswalkers are being traded for. Nonetheless, the very fact that these are the things we spend our time discussing show just how well off we are. Quite apart from the genuinely starving millions around the world, our idea of a food shortage is when the concession stand at the venue runs out of $5 hot dogs. There are plenty of people who have a genuine concern when a tin of baked beans goes up from $0.30 to $0.35. That’s the kind of economics most Magic players don’t have to face.

The mere fact that a person is in the room at all at a Grand Prix or other major event suggests a level of disposable income that many around the world can only dream of, and where there’s disposable income, there’s goods that disposable income has been spent on.

Magic players are Focused

Magic is the most complicated game ever. It requires vast resources of concentration to play effectively, and that concentration is both mental and visual, and is required within a very limited visual space. We can all recall watching a game of Magic where the two players won’t look up from the board for the entire hour, even between games. They’re in their own bubble of concentration, where the only thing that matters is the game.

Even when we’re not playing, Magic demands our attention. Feature Matches can have crowds four and five deep around them, and every one of those ‘armchair’ players is busy working out their own line of play, guessing who’s going to win, straining to see what Sideboard cards are making a difference, or just getting a glimpse of the finest players in the world in action.

Then there’s the detailed Magic conversations that happen non-stop. You know as well as I do that as soon as someone says that Leyline of the Void is no longer any good against Dredge, there are going to be five people vehemently protesting. As a breed, we could, and do, talk about the game for hour after hour after hour, with utter passion and devotion.

We are not thinking about our wallets.

Magic players are not terribly Practical

Like any group, there are going to be Magic players who lack the practicality to tie their own shoelaces. In my experience of global travel, there are a frightening number of players who exhibit a profound lack of common sense when it comes to things like having an address for their hotel, or knowing where free shuttles leave from at the airport, or having emergency contacts, where their passport is, and so on.

What this means is that a lot of the time there will be players who don’t know where their important stuff is. Which pocket did you put your credit card in? Where did you stuff the cash you took out of the atm machine? Of course, there are plenty of well-organized, practical, efficient players, but the young male demographic makes their organizational skills rather less honed than, for example, middle-aged married mothers of two.

The Magic Checklist is all about Magic

Most Magic players I know have a checklist in their head for a tournament. While the order may vary, the contents rarely do, and they are:

Deck, probably in deckbox
Sleeves and spare sleeves
Trade folder

These are the requirements for the tournament. All the other stuff — cash, credit cards, phones, laptops, clothes, passports and visas, and more — have nothing to do with the tournament itself, and since the tournament itself is the reason you’re there in the first place, those things tend to take priority in your mind. We all know people who arrive at an event with their playmat but without any money, because to leave their playmat at home would be inconceivable.

You may be able to add more features of the typical Magic player, but I’m sure you can already see what a juicy target we make. Now it’s time to take a hard look at the kind of money that might be on offer. I want to tread carefully here, since I don’t believe there’s any more likelihood of theft in any one geographic area than any other. For that reason, I’m going to talk about a hypothetical event, rather than any from my actual experience. So, here comes Grand Prix: Generic Venue 2010. The Format for this Grand Prix is Standard, and it’s in a highly popular, easy to reach locality with great transport links. There are all sorts of attractions at the venue, including gunslinging, multiple artists, a Magic novelist, a member or two of R&D… in short, quite apart from the $30,000 and tons of Pro Points, there are lots of good reasons to attend. The venue is within reach of a huge and vibrant Magic community, who have come to understand that these events are as near to unmissable as Magic gets. We end up with 2000 players. What might those 2000 players have to offer us, the professional thief?

I believe there are broadly three groups of goods we might be interested in, nestling handily inside a rucksack. There are hi-tech goods, hard money (credit cards and cash), and Magic cards. Let’s take those in order.

Hi-Tech Goods

Let’s start with phones. It’s pretty much automatic that every player will have a mobile phone with them at the tournament. It’s also highly likely that this phone will be in their rucksack, since they can’t use it during a game. Two minutes of internet research shows me that a Blackberry Curve retails for about $350, while a 16GB I-Phone comes out at $700. I also checked out something I’d never heard of, the Dell Streak, and that too will set you back about $700. There’s no guarantee that a thief will be able to get anything like retail for a phone. In fact, they’ll only get a fraction of the price.

That said, I — with my no prior knowledge of being a professional thief — could very easily get rid of 50 phones within a 20 mile radius of my home without raising any suspicion whatsoever. In my home town, there are multiple places where I could quite legitimately convert a couple of phones into cash. Pawn shops, Cash Converters, Entertainment Exchange, Ebay… If I can work this out, you can be certain that professionals can. Even if we assume that the average player only has a reasonably-priced phone, that’s 2000 sets of $200+. That’s heading towards half a million dollars in retail value. In one room.

Next up is musical entertainment. A 64GB ipod Touch retails for about $400. Not everyone is going to have something like this, but even if half do, that’s another half a million dollars in the room.

What about laptops? Increasingly, players are bringing laptops to their events. Maybe it’s to look at coverage, maybe to play poker in between rounds, whatever the reason, there are more and more of these turning up at events. Let’s say there’s a hundred of them, retailing at $1000 on average. Now our running total is close to a million dollars.

Now let’s consider the easiest commodity to shift, namely hard cash. In a bizarrely convenient way for thieves, plenty of players don’t have credit cards. This is either because they’re too young, or because they struggle to get accepted, since ‘part-time Magic Online player’ isn’t a great guarantee of financial stability. As a result, Magic players generally deal in cash. Assume that you’re staying on a patch of floor, at an agreed rate of $25. That’s $75 you need to pay your friend for the room. You know the concession is going to be expensive at the venue, because it always is. You certainly need to allow $25 a day for food, once you include an evening meal. That’s another $75. Let’s say another $50 for incidental travel costs like shuttles, taxis, buses etc. Now we’re at $200. You have, at a conservative guess, $75 for tournament entries. There’s the main event, a couple of drafts, the Legacy event on Sunday…I reckon $100 is much nearer the average.

Then comes the big one — buying Magic cards. The trader booths are a veritable feast for Magic players with cash to burn. While not everyone will be shopping for a piece of Power, anyone who wants to buy the four Planeswalkers they need for Standard will be bringing $200 just for them. This is a real ‘back of the envelope’ calculation, but I would imagine an average spend per player of about $100, once you factor in deckboxes, sleeves, dice, playmats, all on top of the actual singles you buy for the event. There’s another aspect to the trading side of the event, but I’ll come to that in a bit.

All in all, a typical player might have $300 during the weekend. It might not all be in the wallet at any one time, and certainly there will be less on Sunday night than on Friday afternoon, but that represents a ‘churn’ of $600,000 during the weekend.

Now, we take a deep breath, and move into the world of the cards themselves.

I had a quick look at the top eight decks from a recent event. Three archetypes were represented, being Jund, UW Control, and Mythic. To buy from scratch, the Jund decks weighed in at around $275. The UW Control decks cost about $700 each, while Mythic came in at just over $900. Suppose Jund was 30% of the field, and the other two were 10% each, and those amounts were reflected in the other half of the field, with a price range for decks ranging anywhere from $200 – $1000.

1200 decks at, say, $250 = $300,000
400 decks at, say, $600 = $240,000
400 decks at, say, $800 = $320,000

That’s $860,000 in decks alone. Except, of course, most players bring more than one deck with them. Maybe they bring a spare Standard deck, because they’re not sure which to play. Maybe they have an Extended deck with them for the PTQ, or Legacy for the big Sunday event. Even if there’s no Vintage tournament on the agenda, with hundreds of pieces of Power lurking around the room, we can comfortably price the decks themselves in the room at in the $1.5 – $2million range.

Then we get to trade folders. Perhaps only half the room is going to bring folders with them to trade, since increasingly players do this from home. Nonetheless, there are a lot of rares sitting in those folders. Of particular interest are the players who have brought their collection to sell to one of the dealers. There might not be too many of these, but even if 50 of the 2000 bring along all their best cards, the numbers can be phenomenal.

As an experiment, I went through the current buylist at a reputable dealer here in England, and discovered that, even without the super-expensive cards from Legacy and Vintage, you could easily sell $5000 worth of cards with just a couple of hundred actual cards. That fits in the space of two deckboxes, by the way. Fifty lots of that in the room makes another $250,000. And remember when I said there was another aspect to the trading? Well, if you do sell your cards, chances are you’ve got several thousand dollars sitting in your wallet.

The Bottom Line

At our hypothetical Grand Prix, there’s going to be between four and five MILLION dollars in terms of stealable cards, cash, and hi-tech gear. Four and five MILLION. And the overwhelming majority of it is in easy to dispose of forms. Cash is cash. Anyone can go to dealers around their area and quietly convert cards into cash, and it’s unreasonable to expect every dealer to check the provenance of every trade. Unreasonable, and impossible. As for the hi-tech stuff, finding a new home for pricey phones, laptops, and entertainment centers is a piece of cake.

And all of these wonderful goodies come attached to mostly young men with an overwhelming focus elsewhere, where all their goods are in one place, and where that one place turns out to mostly be a rucksack that can be picked up in the blink of an eye.

Is it any wonder that thieves are tempted?

Unfortunately, though, it isn’t all about professional thieves. The disappointing yet inevitable truth is that temptation is too much for plenty of ‘ordinary’ players, who wouldn’t for a moment consider themselves ‘thieves’. The fact is that stealing is so much a part of ordinary life that we have dozens of ways to describe it, many of them designed to make us feel better about ourselves when we steal from someone. I don’t steal, I ‘pinch’. I ‘borrow on an extended loan’, I ‘nick’, ‘half-inch’, ‘redistribute’… in fact, here’s a list of just some of the ways we don’t steal:

abduct, appropriate, blackmail, burglarize, carry off, cheat, cozen, defraud, despoil, divert, embezzle, heist, hold for ransom, hold up, housebreak, keep, kidnap, lift*, loot, make off with, misappropriate, peculate, pilfer, pillage, pinch*, pirate, plagiarize, plunder, poach, purloin, ransack, remove, rifle, rip off, run off with, sack, shoplift, snitch, spirit away, stick up, strip, swindle, swipe, take, take possession of, thieve, walk off with, withdraw

Look back on your entire life, and I’ll be genuinely surprised if you can look yourself in the eye and conclude that none of these words has ever applied to you. Even if that is the case, and you are a total paragon of unmitigated virtue, which would be awesome, you should be aware that there are many, many people who are not as noble as you. Here are some reasons why the ordinary Magic player might be tempted:

We’d never take things like phones, or laptops, and we’d turn in a wallet in a heartbeat, but everyone knows that Magic cards aren’t really money, so taking them isn’t really stealing. This is much like illegal downloads. It’s a CRIME, but we like to pretend it isn’t.

Although we are, in fact, very wealthy, we often perceive ourselves as poor. Picking up someone else’s Mythic deck and trading it in for cash equals a lot of free meals.

We’re competitive. Not everyone can afford nine Planeswalkers and four Baneslayers, but almost everyone would like to. If you get beaten a few times because you’re playing someone with four Tarmogoyfs when you only own one, can you honestly say you would hand a Sideboard in containing a full set if you found one just sitting on a table?

We covet. Magic cards are highly desirable objects, and for the most part, we can never get enough. Players who own a Black Lotus want a mint version, or an Alpha version. Players who routinely open cases of each new expansion still go wide-eyed at the prospect of Future Sight boosters. Then there are players who want to pimp their deck, and make it all foil. The reality is, that there are very few of us who wouldn’t like to own more Magic cards than we currently do.

So what can be done about this? You could sum up everything in terms of ‘being aware,’ but a few concrete tips:

Make a checklist of everything that you should have with you every time you move from one spot to another. Take the time to follow it through. This isn’t just when you finish a round, to make sure that you put your deck away, but when you shift from buying cards at the dealer to the pairings board.

Find a home for all your important items, and make sure they live there. Which pocket in the rucksack does your phone live in? Where do you keep your wallet? Wherever it is, that’s where they should always go back to.

Secure your rucksack. This is especially important if you’re sitting on the end of a row. Loop the handle underneath a table leg, or your chair, and nobody will be able to walk by and pick it up in one smooth movement. If you’re in the middle of a row, put the rucksack under your chair but in front of you, rather than stuffed behind you. Anyone can walk by their during your match, and chances are you won’t notice.

Think what’s really essential. How badly do you need to bring your laptop? How much poker will you really play during the weekend? Yes, your iPad is awesome, but maybe you could wait until Monday to watch the latest episode of Glee, and bring a book instead. Or, you know, talk to people for entertainment.

Think of Magic cards as money. The disconnect between (a) knowing that Magic cards can cost a lot of money and valuing them highly and (b) actually treating them with the respect that comes with a high-value item, is scary. If you put one hundred ten dollar bills in a small box, and put
that box on a table multiple times each day, you’d guard it with your life. Put Mythic in a box on a table multiple times, and literally dozens of deckboxes will get handed in during the course of a weekend.

I don’t want to overemphasize the problem. Every sector of society has the ‘bad apples,’ and Magic is no exception. There’s no ‘epidemic’ of theft, and no reason to suppose that you will be a victim. However, as I hope I’ve shown this week, there are up to five million reasons why a big Magic tournament has the potential to attract crime, and it’s up to each one of us to make the job of the thief — whether a hardened professional criminal, or an opportunistic Magic player who just can’t resist in a moment of weakness — as hard as humanly possible.

Those cards, those phones, those laptops, those iPads and iPods, those dollars, yen, and cash pounds, are yours. Let’s keep it that way.

As ever, thanks for reading…