Yeah, it’s back. For now, for tomorrow, for whatever. I wasn’t planning on writing this column today, but recent events on our website kicked the inspiration meter into overdrive and suddenly I found myself with a desperate need to discuss a variety of matters, not the least of which is our topic of the day: Cheating.
Now throw your eyes to the top of the page for a moment and look at the title of this article again. You don’t think I really believe that, do you? You don’t think I could write one of my beloved Magic U articles about Cheaters prospering, do you? If you said “no”, then you are correct. The title to this article is merely an eye-catcher, an editorial device I use to get you to click on the article and read the damned thing. That’s part of my job, you know. I’m the guy that packages the articles in ways that are meant to grab your attention so that you are more likely to read it. However, just like any book, you should not let the cover (or the packaging) cloud your judgment as to the value of the contents inside.
Today I’m going to go over some of the classic articles written in the hope of giving you more information to protect yourself against various forms of cheating. If you play any Magic whatsoever, it is likely that you have been cheated – intentionally or unintentionally – at some point. If you play Magic at the PTQ level or above, it’s possible that someone using a cheat against you has gone on to profit and make money from a cheat they used, perhaps even qualifying for the Pro Tour. If you play in Grand Prix and on the Pro Tour consistently, it’s almost likely that someone has cheated you and gone on to win hundreds or thousands of dollars more because of it. Therefore it behooves you to protect yourself and the game from those who would circumvent the rules to gain whatever advantage they can.
But first, I want to cover what started me on this article in the first place…
By now most of you are probably aware of what Michael Clair wrote about in his article yesterday on this here site here. If you aren’t aware, take a few minutes to read Mike’s arguments and then skim that firestorm swirled behind it in the forums – go on, I’ll still be here when you get back.
So what do you think? Did it provoke a reaction in you? Was Mike horribly wrong and do his suggestions have a negative impact on the integrity of the game, or is Mike’s article designed as more of a practical guide for the PTQ player and above? Did the title, “Better Play Through Being a Jerk” and the lead-in, “In the past few days, it’s come to my attention that I am a bit more of a jerk than I intend to be. This week, it’s my loss and your gain, as I talk about how to be a jerk for fun and profit” affect your impression of the article? Did StarCityGames.com publish something that advocates cheating?
That’s a lot of questions to answer all at once and I’m sure many of you will come to different conclusions in spite of being presented with identical information. It’s time for me to explain my point of view on this one and see if I can make you understand how I view this situation.
Last things first – Mike’s article does not advocate cheating. In fact, it actually advocates adhering to the rules more strictly than many players would in the first place. Mike was particularly honest about his emotional thinking in one specific area of the article (when he was down a game against the kid with the 75-card deck at Regionals), and that set all sorts of people in the forums off about unsportsmanlike conduct and how people like Mike are ruining the game, etc. First of all, unless he told you ahead of time, motive doesn’t even come into play here. This was a guy who, after the fact, was being honest about his thoughts at the time. But the way I look at it is this way: If I’m at Regionals and I’m playing a kid after the first couple of rounds who hands me a 75-card deck with no sideboard, I’m probably going to have him deckchecked. It’s not mean, I’m not being a jerk, and it’s within my rights to do so, and I will do it because it’s fishy. All I’m trying to do is make sure that my opponent is following the rules. If he is, then he’s just got a 75-card deck and no sideboard… no worries. If he’s not, then he’s breaking the rules and gets the appropriate penalty for whatever REL we’re at. It’s not even a big deal.
In fact, every point that Mike brings up in the article shouldn’t be a big deal if his opponent is following the rules. He’s not intentionally doing something to get his opponent in trouble – if the opponent is on the up and up or hasn’t made a mistake then there will be no problems. If he has, then he receives the appropriate penalty. The rules are there to be followed, and there’s a whole list of penalties deemed appropriate for those who don’t follow them.
Now here’s what Clair didn’t say that caused the uproar: If we’re at FNM, we don’t even bother. Mike’s a nice guy. I’ve met him, I’ve hung out with him, I’ve drafted with him, and I like the guy. He’s actually not a jerk. Therefore, if we’re at FNM, we ask the kid if he has a sideboard. If he gives you a blank, glassy-eyed look, you explain what a sideboard is and then ask why he’s playing 75 cards. You give him a few helpful pointers about his deck, explain the benefit of playing sixty cards, and then pleasantly move on. It’s FNM and FNM is all about the fun. If it’s REL 2 or above, things change and you talk to a judge. There’s no malice or jerkdom involved here… it’s actually in the rules to do it.
As to my opinion of Mike’s article as a whole, it’s no less than the exact same conclusion I came to on my own last year. It’s also exactly the sort of information that competitive players need to know, and casual competitive players need to be aware of. As I said in the forums, I’ve lost far more games to being too nice at a PTQ than I have to any other reason except my own mistakes.
It started out that I let inexperienced opponents take things back, because I wanted to be fairer to them. Even at PTQs. Then they beat me. Then I let people get away with minor procedural stuff because I didn’t want to be “that asshole who called the judge.” Even at PTQs. Then they beat me. I kept thinking, “How is it possible that I know the rules and my opponents don’t, and yet I’m still getting bashed?” I eventually realized that by giving my opponents extra chances through bending the rules in their favor, it was adversely affecting my performance in tournaments. Magic is hard, goddammit – you don’t need to give people extra chances to have them beat you, they can do it on their own most of the time.
Finally I got to the point that I had been reading about all along… if something goes wrong or if you think things are a little weird, call a judge. No takebacks. No dicking around anymore. Just call the freaking judge and let them make a decision on what to do about the problem. I do it on myself too. I’ve received more than my share of game losses for misregistering a deck and I took my lumps with aplomb (Bleiweiss has caught me twice, that asshole… oh wait, that was his job). How is calling a judge for procedural problems, or failure to de-sideboard, or because your opponent is clearly stalling any different? I’ve called a judge on my opponent in the first ten minutes of the match because he was clearly playing too slowly for us to finish three games, and still ended up with a draw. Ain’t that a pisser? Just make sure the rules are applied equally and everything will be fine in the end.
Finally, if the article title or lead-in tainted your opinion of the article, that was my fault, not Mike’s. Once again, it’s my job to grab your attention and make you look at the article, and sometimes I do things like I did with the title to this article: I play the controversy card because I know you’ll look at it, if only to check and see if I really mean it. Usually folks are bright enough to move beyond the initial pitch and read the content for what it is, but not always.
The Actual Cheats*
As I said above, when you play a game that rewards the victors with money and prizes, you have to expect that people will do things outside the rules that give them an advantage. Steroids? Throwing games? Point shaving? Welcome to the land of human nature, where if a rule stands between you and a buck and you can get away with something, you break the rules. Even in Magic, players will actively break the rules to create such an advantage, screwing you or your friends out of wins and prizes in the process. Therefore it behooves you to learn how to protect yourself from cheaters as much as you can. Thankfully, there have been some very smart Magic players over the years who are more interested in exposing the cheats than using them for their own gain. Today we’re going to hop in the Wayback Machine and review these fine articles for the masses, thus refreshing the memories of those who were around back then and teaching you youngin’s some pertinent new info.
I’ll start things off with the simplest of the group:
3 Easy Steps to Prevent Cheating
by Dave Price
Dave and Team Dead Guy teammate Chris Pikula were two of the early “no cheating” advocates, and if you ever get a chance to ask Pikula about the Top 5 times someone cheated against him, I highly recommend it. Hearing Chris rant about the various ways he has been screwed out of professional Magic matches is one of the finer moments one can experience in life (hell, now that I think about it, I might just try to catch it on tape this weekend in Chicago.) As part of his crusade against the veritable scourge of cheaters that existed back in the day, Dave wrote a very simple article that lists three things to do to protect yourself from the actions of unsavory opponents:
1) Always shuffle your opponent’s deck, and do so thoroughly.
2) Keep track of both players’ life totals with pen and paper.
3) Watch when your opponent draws or manipulates the library and occasionally count cards in hand, permanents, and cards in the graveyard to make sure that both you and your opponent have drawn the correct number of cards.
That’s it. Sure, he expands upon those points in the article, and yet those three relatively simple steps will go a long way to make sure you don’t get screwed out of any games your should be winning.
Of course, Dave was just barely scratching the surface here. As Rob Dougherty and Mike Flores would later reveal, really skilled cheaters can find ways to cheat even when judges are watching and can get away with stuff when opponents and fans are actually guarding against the cheats.
When Rob actually had the time to sit down and write an article, he was great, and he actually wrote two outstanding articles detailing some of the cheats people try to get away with. In February of 2000, Rob wrote an article discussing how he, Zvi, Hammer Regnier, Dave Humpherys, and Tom Guevin all believed they caught Mike Long cheating in the final round of swiss at Pro Tour: Los Angeles 2000. They informed the judges of what they had seen and when Long presented his deck, the judges stepped in, confiscated it, and disappeared for like an hour to deliberate. Here’s what Rob says happened next:
“Only after time was called on the last round did Long and the judges return. The head judge announced that they were unable to find a pattern in Long’s deck, so they were giving him a warning for “improper shuffling” with no penalty.
I was disgusted. As a retired level 3 judge, I know how hard it is to actually catch a cheater. I could not believe that they were going to let him go with no penalty. Just the deck manipulation they witnessed on its own, even if Long was such a bad cheater that he had failed to stack his deck the way he wanted, should have resulted in at least a game loss.“
The rest of Rob’s article covers his attempts to first discover how Mike was probably cheating, and then to explain why the judges ruled the way they did and why they were wrong in the end. To me, the article feels a little like one of the codebreaking stories from World War II where we eventually crack the code, but it was too late to stop the bombing of XYZ from occurring. Great stuff from one of the really smart guys in the game. It’s still something that makes me cock my head and wonder, “Man, did that really happen? Could it happen again today?”
This is also the first place where I learned that basic pile shuffling isn’t remotely a randomization device. That doesn’t mean it can’t be modified to be random (my own pile shuffling is exactly that), but in the hands of anyone who knows what they are doing, pile shuffling itself is no more random than looking at your deck and stacking it in exactly the order you would like it to be in.
Three years later, Rob wrote what may be his best article for our own website, giving readers insight into the mind of Pro Tour player tournament preparation. Along with detailing all of the basic-but-important information to know about tournament prep, he also (briefly) discussed ten different methods that people will use to cheat you. His intro to this particular section in the article may be one of the more sage pieces of Magic advice that tournament players will ever receive:
“One of the greatest advantages a cheater has is people’s reluctance to correct “shady” behavior for fear of appearing rude. If you want to keep yourself safe, you have to be willing to ask your opponents to modify their behavior or even call a judge. You don’t have to be belligerent about it – you can ask nicely – but you do have to stick up for yourself. Don’t expect the judges to be able to “see all” and keep you safe.“
In short, it’s part of your job as a tournament player to make sure that the rules are being adhered to, particularly at the upper levels of rules enforcement.
Here’s a brief list of the cheating topics Rob covers in this article, and if you aren’t familiar with every single one of them, I recommend rereading that section of the article until you are: Land-Spell-Spell, Fake Shuffle, Set Piles, Marked Sleeves (or Cards), Feeling for Foils, The Peek Shuffle, The Drop Kick, Sloppy Scorekeeping, Extra Land Drop, Stalling.
Waaaay back in 1998, true believer Bleiweiss got involved and cataloged fifty ways that players can and do cheat (you’ll probably recognize many of them already because you’ve seen them practiced). Ben’s “article” here is actually more of a Dictionary of Standard Cheats and his writing encompasses things you would see in sanctioned tournaments as well as more casual environments like pick-up and money drafts. A few of the items on here cover the same territory that Rob discusses in his article, but there’s so much stuff (most of which still holds true today) that the Dictionary remains a valuable resource six-and-a-half years after it’s publication.
This article is interesting because Ben made some strides in just giving you what to look for when trying to determine if a person is cheating without going into too much depth about the cheating methods themselves.
Flores has perhaps the most cultured article on cheating that I’ve seen recently, possibly because Mike is part of Magic’s aristocracy, but more likely because Mike has been around more than a few cheaters in his day and learned all the secrets. Once again, some of what Flores covers is discussed by the previous authors, but about half of it is fresh and told by an interested and entertaining michaelj. Mike has definitely played himself out of contention more than a few days in his life, but he’s also been shafted quite a few times as well, and he remembers each and every way it happened, thus enriching the reader’s experience with useful and educational anecdotes along the way. I’ve actually caught people using the Sulfuric Vortex cheat and laying a second land later in a turn in the last year.
So Far From Done
The thing that I find interesting about these catalogs of cheating exploits is how superficial they actually are. There’s the perception that if anyone ever explained the entirety of knowledge about the cheats, the game would quickly disintegrate into anarchy where everyone and their brother were running some form of undetectable cheats that would make judges all but irrelevant. I’m not sure I agree with this, but I am sure that there are a boatload of cheats that you’ve never, ever heard about, many of which are extremely difficult to catch. Just to prove my point, I’ll divulge one of the ones I’ve heard practiced by utter cheating master Jason Gordon, relayed to me by Zvi earlier today when I was researching this article, and I’ll tell the tale of how I caught Mike Long cheating Osyp at this year’s U.S. Nationals.
The 3-Riffle Method
You’ll pardon me for leaving the chat transcript in this one, but it’s easier if I let the genius tell the story instead of me.
Zvi: btw what’s your view on publishing cheating methods?
Ted: I’m literally writing a Magic University article about the best articles that cover that subject RIGHT NOW
Ted: I think the more information that is available, the better players and judges can prepare to handle them
Zvi: I agree with you
Zvi: well it’s not like Jason Gordon or Mike Long ever wrote about it
Zvi: the truth is that the articles written about it are all very low level
Zvi: they state the obvious
Zvi: to give the classic example, did anyone ever detail the 3-riffle method?
Ted: not that I know of
Zvi: then no one’s ever written anything real
Zvi: ok the 3-method was the first stacking method I learned
Zvi: I was taught by the master
Zvi: Jason Gordon
Zvi: we were on a 5-man team at Neutral Ground
Zvi: for a tournament
Zvi: he hands me his t1 deck
Zvi: and he says
Zvi: “You have to shuffle it this way or the deck won’t work”
Zvi: here’s what you do
Zvi: you take the five moxen, lotus, sol ring and the lands
Zvi: and put them on the bottom
Zvi: you pile in fives
Zvi: and riffle 3 times
Ted: pile in order in 5s, I assume
Zvi: in order
Zvi: I forget how many times you pile it before you riffle
Zvi: let’s see
Zvi: you start with 1-34 spell 35-60 mana
Zvi: call it 1-35
Zvi: so after 1 you have 1-7, 8-12
Zvi: do it a second time
Zvi: and you have no pile of more than 2 in a row
Zvi: twice will work
Zvi: I think it was three
Zvi: but that’s how easy this stuff is
Zvi: still here?
Ted: listening attentively
Zvi: but you’re seeing why it works
Zvi: if you take a stack with no clumps
Zvi: it takes a LOT of riffles to recreate them
Zvi: for obvious reasons
Zvi: they can only double in size
Zvi: my rule of thumb is the Rule of Seven
Zvi: any Riffle-like shuffle counts as one
Zvi: if you can’t count to seven
Zvi: they’re cheatin
Zvi: of course, seven isn’t really enough, but any less is a joke
Zvi: piles are nice, but they don’t guard against malice
Zvi: they do help if you’re honest
Zvi: the first question you ask is
Zvi: is he Cheatin? 🙂
Zvi: if he is, then you decide if you can catch him
Zvi: if he isn’t, then you decide what your best play is
Zvi: there are sometimes a reason to not shuffle if you’re convinced he’s non-random and it’s not in his favor
Zvi: but it’s a risky play
Ted: can’t all of this be fixed by you simply shuffling the deck?
Zvi: yes and no again
Zvi: how long do you have to shuffle his deck?
Zvi: are you going to shuffle it like it was yours?
Zvi: but yes if you just want to abort the mission
Zvi: you can shuffle the hell out of it
Zvi: and problem goes away
Jason Gordon is also the guy that invented the “cut your deck on top of one of your permanents” method of cheating, but since that’s BDM’s story, I’ll leave that for him to tell you another time.
Long vs. Lebedowicz – U.S. Nationals 2004
If you take a look at Game 3 here, you’ll notice that late in the game, Long cast Stand Firm on a Skyhunter Skirmisher, allowing it to trade for Osyp’s Tangle golem. Except Osyp passed the turn and Mike still hadn’t put the Skirmisher into the graveyard. The Skirmisher is a 1/1 double striker that turned into a 2/2 double striker with help from Stand Firm, but not a 4/4. I grabbed Randy’s attention because Osyp had clearly missed what happened, and I wasn’t sure if I could stop the game. Thankfully Randy had seen the same thing, grabbed the judge, and Long was given a warning for Procedural Error – Major, a bit of a surprise given Mike’s history, but certainly within the penalty guidelines. This sort of thing was actually pretty subtle… was it an honest mistake or a full-blown cheat? Mike played it off as a mistake and maybe it was, but these are the things that you have to look out for.
Talking to Randy and Osyp afterwards, they both said that if Mike had been able to keep the Skirmisher on the board, Osyp probably would have lost that game and that match, since the TOGIT member’s deck was so bad. As it was, Osyp won and finished the tournament in 11th while Mike finished 51st.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this look back at some of the best instruction manuals that have ever been written describing how to protect yourself from cheaters. As I said above, as complete as these articles may seem, they often just scratch the surface as to what people can and do get away with on a regular basis. However, with this basic knowledge it makes it much easier for you to build habits that nullify some of the cheating basics, and also to catch cheaters in the act and report them to a judge, thus building a record of their abuses of the game and making it harder for them to get away with something next time.
To tie this back in to Clair’s article from yesterday, zealously enforcing the rules on yourself and your opponent is not being a jerk. In fact, it goes a long way toward making people better players, and keeping the integrity of the game intact. If you have a question or suspicion about something, for Pete’s sake… call a judge! Oh, and to clarify my title that looks oh so scandalous and eye-catching on the front page, here is the more complete version with the missing parts in italics.
Cheaters always prosper… if you let them get away with it.
Teddy Card Game
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*As always, I did my best to make this as comprehensive as possible, but if you feel I missed or overlooked something critical, please let me know in the forums.