The Danger of Small Cheats

Friday, November 19th – The days of rampant cheating in Magic are thankfully passing; however the integrity of the game still needs its champions – are you one?

Our esteemed Content Manager Ted Knutson wrote
an article

on here a few years ago that covered a number of the big cheats that people run in Magic. I believe that we’ve come a long way since those days, and while these kinds of shuffling tricks and stacking techniques do still exist, their rampant use has, to an extent, been reduced by a better educated judging staff and populace. But don’t think that cheating in Magic is gone; there’s still plenty around. Luckily, we don’t have painlands to worry about constantly acting as dual lands, but we do still have fetchlands that don’t always end up costing a life point; though they’re much easier to track.

The thing about techniques like the four-pile shuffle, the fake shuffle, or drawing extra cards, is that as a player, you can be on the lookout for it. Any time something physical is being manipulated, there’s a way to catch it. There’s always some evidence. There’s a whole separate realm of cheating that’s basically impossible to catch as a player, the small cheats.

This story takes place very early in my Magic playing career. It was a PTQ during Tempest/Stronghold limited. I’d opened up a pretty good R/W Sealed deck and had won round 1 handily. This was a time when I felt unstoppable in Limited PTQs, if only because I routinely opened up so-called “Stoddard Certified” Sealed decks, and because the average player was just so bad. I mean, forty-seven-cards, fifteen-lands bad. PTQs averaging about six rounds didn’t hurt either. I’d had a lot of success making Top 8s, and I felt like a PTQ win was right around the corner.

In round 2, I’d won game 1 easily. Game 2 wasn’t looking so hot, though. I’d drawn a lot of land, and despite my opponent’s best efforts to walk into 2-for-1s and on-board tricks, things weren’t looking good. I was at seven life, and he had out a Flowstone Mauler. A single hit with it would be lethal, assuming my opponent pumped it. I had to resort to drawing chump blockers and hoping that I could topdeck a removal for the creature. Instead, I got a Lowland Giant. Dagger. My opponent attacked, and I chumped, putting my Giant into the graveyard. Then he put his Flowstone Mauler into the graveyard and passed. I didn’t do anything to try and trick my opponent into putting his creature into his graveyard – I just didn’t mention that it shouldn’t be there.

My name is Sam Stoddard, and I’ve cheated at Magic.

Now, this may not be the same thing as if I’d pulled the Dark Banishing from my graveyard and cast it, but the end result was the same. I tried to win at the cost of my integrity and the integrity of the game. It was cheating by omission. I knew something that shouldn’t have happened did, and I decided to reap the rewards, instead of correcting it.

Part of the problem is that the same game that we love has coached us to bend the rules as far as they’ll go. We look at all of the complex systems put in place, and we’re encouraged to find ways to circumvent them. We see a creature that costs fifteen mana, and our first thought is “Yes, but how much do I have to pay to get it into play?” When we look at Vengevine, we don’t think “This secondary ability on a 4/3 haste could come in handy every once and a while.” We think, “How do I get this in my graveyard and back into play as fast as humanly possible?”

We look for edges to gain everywhere. When we start to get better, we find out when to best cast our spells, how to best reduce randomness with ratios of spells/lands/creatures, the importance of card drawing, tutors, etc. At some point, we learn key words for doing the right things, like “in response” or “during your upkeep,” and in the past, “damage on the stack.” It isn’t surprising that at some point, as the avenues to find ways to increase our chances of winning start to dry up, we’d come to things that are on the darker side of the gray areas. I’m not going to bribe you, but I’d be very happy if you conceded to me, and I’m a generous person. It’s not stacking your deck; it’s just leaving a card you’d like to see on top, and if my opponent doesn’t know to cut it, that’s their fault. These may look like cheats, and they are, but to someone who didn’t understand damage on the stack, the ability of a card like Morphling to block their 5/5 and kill it and survive itself would’ve seemed like cheating. To many players, knowing how to circumvent tournament rules is part of the game.

The hard part is determining where the possible avenues for a legitimate edge end and where cheating begins. Hiding a Prosperous Bloom on your lap, that is definitely cheating. Dropping a card in your opponent’s deck, kicking it under the table and calling a judge because “I think a card is missing?” Yeah… cheating, not even close. Looking at your deck while you shuffle to make sure things are evenly distributed, doing a quick riffle, and presenting? Still cheating. What about watching your opponent as they shuffle for game 1, just in case they show you a few cards in their deck? Technically legal; although the lengths to how far you’ll go to see the cards can make it cheating. Oliver Ruel found that out the hard way, and although his DQ was high profile, I see players far too interested in their opponent’s deck than is probably necessary.

And what’s worse, many players view these cheats as the Magic equivalent of jaywalking, so there isn’t the same stigma attached to them as stacking your deck. Some people may even take pride in being on the receiving end of their opponent’s mistake or confusion of how a spell or ability should’ve resolved. If we want Magic to continue to expand and become a better venue for competition, we need to make sure that we’re constantly increasing the level of honesty and fairness that we practice in our games. A line has to be drawn very publically and accepted by our community as to what’s socially acceptable in a game of Magic. Sometimes that’s going to mean giving up an edge, but often it’s an edge that was never intended for you to take.

When you sit down for a sanctioned match, you’re charged with maintaining the rules of the game and the integrity of the board state to the best of your ability, even when they’re inconvenient and even when they’ll negatively impact you. Everyone makes mistakes, so there will be times when you do legitimately miss something, but if you do notice, you have to call a judge right then so that they can either fix the game state or award the appropriate penalties for both players. Part of growing as a player is accepting responsibility for your own actions, even when you don’t have to. I can’t tell you how many extra games I could’ve won over the course of my Magic career if I’d just let my opponent mistakenly do something illegal here or there.

I think if you asked a pool of 100 players if they liked playing with cheaters, 100 would say ‘no.’ I think if you asked them if any of them had cheated in the last year, well over 90 would say ‘no.’ You’d probably say ‘no.’ So, I ask you to do this; read over this list, and think about how many of these you’ve done in the past:

  • Allowed your opponent to put a creature into the graveyard that shouldn’t have died.

  • Drawn a card and accidentally seen the card below it and not called a judge.

  • Drawn a sideboard card in game 1 but decided to just not play it.

  • Noticed your opponent has you at a higher life total and corrected your life to match what was on their sheet without investigating it.

  • Noticed that your opponent has himself at a lower life total and changed what you have them listed at without investigating it.

  • Ordered the contents of the packs you were passing in draft to tell the person you’re passing to what colors you’re in or not in.

  • Taken a few extra seconds to search and shuffle an end of turn fetchland, since the clock only had ten seconds left on it.

  • Not reminded your opponent to draw a card off of Howling Mine when they’ve forgotten.

  • Not corrected your opponent when they play a fetchland, cracked it, and attacked with a Plated Geopede “for three.”

  • Noticed during game 1 that the lands in your deck have slightly different backs (or the sleeves are noticeably more worn) and not mentioned anything but replaced them before the next round.

  • Realized two turns later that you didn’t destroy your own Everflowing Chalice after Ratchet-Bombing for zero but didn’t call a judge.

  • Watched your opponent mana weave then attempted to pile shuffle all of their lands to the bottom of their deck.

Chances are, if you’ve played tournament Magic for any long period of time, you’ve done at least one of these before, probably more. You might even be doing them now on a regular basis, not aware that they’re cheating. If you knowingly break the rules or knowingly allow the rules of the game to be broken by your opponent, then you’re cheating. The problem with the above examples is that it’s easy to play a lot of them off as simple mistakes. A lot of them seem like victimless crimes, you know, like punching someone in the dark. What’s worse, the chances are that even if you were to be caught, you could play it off as ignorance. Repeat offences will raise a red flag, but it would take quite a few. The rules of the game could, unfortunately, be interpreted as encouraging this behavior.

This brings to mind a famous game theory concept called the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Basically, you have two people accused of a crime. The police give each of them two options, to place all of the blame on the other person, or to remain silent. If both choose to stay silent, they’ll each go to jail for six months. If both betray each other, they’ll each serve five years. If one person betrays, and one stays silent, then the betrayer goes free, and the accused will serve ten years.

Let’s build a diagram of what this looks like (shamelessly stolen from Wikipedia).


Prisoner B Stays Silent

Prisoner B Betrays

Prisoner A Stays Silent

Each serves 6 months

Prisoner A: 10 years
Prisoner B: goes free

Prisoner A Betrays

Prisoner A: goes free
 Prisoner B: 10 years

Each serves 5 years


The idea behind the above scenario is that it’s always correct to accuse the other person of doing the crime. You’re then looking at either no time, or five years. If you stay silent, you’ll either be in jail for six months or ten years. Assuming equal probability of any outcome, you average 2.5 years for betraying and 5.25 years for staying silent.

The Magic Player’s Dilemma is different. Let’s say that a creature goes to the graveyard that shouldn’t have, and it’s advantageous for you. You notice it right away and are brought up with the following dilemma:


You Don’t Call Judge

You Call Judge

Opponent Doesn’t Notice

Nothing – Gain an advantage in the game

Warning – No advantage gained

Opponent Notices, Calls Judge

Warning – No advantage gained

Warning – No advantage gained


If you had no morals, you’d be hard-pressed to call a judge. There’s a good chance a judge won’t be called, and even if one is, playing dumb will get you a long way. But that doesn’t take into account other factors, like the knowledge that you’ve just cheated or the social aspects. And really, shouldn’t that mean something? If you’re working at a store and a blind man comes in, pays you for a $5 item with $20, and you give him back three ones, pocketing $12, he may well never notice – or at least not be able to pin it on you later. Does that make it acceptable?

Let’s say the infraction is more severe. You have the win on board, and all you need to do is attack. You draw a sideboard card. For this example, we’ll assume that it’s a card that wouldn’t normally appear in your maindeck, not that you’ve drawn the fourth copy of a card that should’ve been in your sideboard. You’re presented with a few different options.


You Don’t Call Judge

You Call Judge

Opponent Doesn’t Notice

Nothing – Win the game

Game Loss

Opponent Notices, Calls Judge

Likely disqualification

Game Loss


A little bit of a harder situation here. If you call the judge on yourself, you’re almost certainly going to end up with a game loss. If you say nothing, you’ll win the game right there. While the penalty for saying nothing and your opponent or somebody else noticing and calling the judge is quite severe, many players would still not do it. They’d just do a full sideboard into deck shuffle for game 2 and pretend like nothing happened.

It’s because not calling the judge in situations like this is easy, and because the risks of not doing it are low that we have to be honest. It’s important to understand that you do it because it’s the right thing to do, not because you fear getting a penalty for not doing it. The Magic-playing community is one that thrives on fair play, and everyone’s enjoyment of the game is much higher when the number of people cheating is low to non-existent. If you weren’t playing during the era where cheating was rampant, let me tell you what, it was horrid. You had to watch everything like a hawk, and you had to have a natural distrust of everyone you played, unless they proved themselves to be honest over the long haul. And the worst part was that the people who were winning were more often than not the cheaters. The atmosphere of tournaments, even small ones, tended to be much darker than it is today, and whenever you did lose, you always had the nagging suspicion in your head that you were cheated, not that it was an honest loss. That’s not how I want to spend my free time, and I hope that’s not how you’d want to spend yours.

In my own case, I could make all kinds of excuses for why I did what I did. I was sixteen, it’s not my responsibility to tell my opponent what his cards do, or that he’d been playing terribly, and I deserved the win. I know the general attitude of players I was playing with at the time was “don’t play the game for your opponent; if they mess something up, there isn’t any need to tell them.” I can’t blame that on them, though. When I was doing it, I knew did something that was wrong – I just really wanted to win. That’s something I’ll always have to live with. I lost the match in question, but that doesn’t matter. If I’d won, it would’ve been dishonestly. It wouldn’t have been earned. Winning is important to me In Magic, but only if it’s done honestly. A win without integrity is far worse than a loss.

I believe that Magic is something larger than myself. I respect the rules of the game and the sanctity of fair play. They’re more important than one turn, or one game, or one tournament. It’s because of this that I’m able to enjoy the times when I’m victorious. Because I know that I came upon it honestly. If competitive Magic is going to exist as a legitimate way of testing ourselves, we need to hold the rules and laws of the game up to the highest standards possible. If we don’t, then we’re only competing for ‘Who Can Cheat Better – Magic Edition.’

As a community, we need to encourage the fair and honest play of the game we love, and that means educating and spreading the word about the wider world of cheating. I’d hope that nobody would have to have explained for them why drawing extra cards when your opponent isn’t looking is bad for the game. I don’t know that we can take the same approach when it comes to these faux ‘accidental’ or minor cheats. There are just too many gray areas where “cheating” and “tight play” or “great bluffs” seem, on the surface, to closely overlap, especially for newer players of the game. That’s why it’s important for everyone, but especially the players with reputations for being skilled, to also have reputations for honesty. If you’re your shops ‘good player,’ and you make a habit of calling things on yourself, then the players who look to you for guidance will learn to do the same.

I know that for myself, being honest and believing in fair competition was a tremendous stepping-stone to becoming a better player. It made me play tighter, and even when I didn’t, it forced me to own up to my own mistakes. Once you can do that, you can work on improving them. Over time, I learned that if I was going to win more, I had to do it through honest, hard work and not by fudging things a bit. When I ignored all of those gray areas, most of which would only work against weaker players anyway, I was forced to improve in areas that would work against anybody.