I was out to dinner with Antonino DeRosa at Plataforma one night and was shocked that a PT player of his stature had no idea how to cheat, and had no clue about some of the most common methods to unfairly get one over on your opponent. I mean, it was not surprising in the sense that I had no reason to suspect Antonino of cheating himself, but I think as a general proposition it is important for players – especially those with more at risk because of the level at which they play – to know the mechanics of some of the more popular cheats, whether or not they choose to use them. If nothing else, this arms players against being victimized by these techniques by helping them identify when cheating is going on.
Here’s the first caveat: I am putting some of the most disgusting cheats out there for you to absorb. This is an Up, Up, Down, Down, B, A, Start quality cheat sheet. In one sense I think it might be a bad article to write because I am empowering people to cheat in a more sophisticated fashion, but I think that kind of damage is probably going to be minimal. Nothing you read in this article will transform you from an honest player into a cheater, even if it does help people who were going to cheat anyway to cheat more effectively. On the other hand, I think that a guide like this one will mostly be helpful. Whether or not any of these techniques are new to you, they are ancient history to many. It is for that reason I desire honest players to become equipped with the knowledge of the mechanics of some of the more tried and tested cheating techniques, so that they can spot them and call the judge so as to nail the offenders with big fat penalties.
Here’s the second caveat: I am deliberately leaving out other cheats, particularly time management techniques or any cheats that are difficult or even impossible to fairly adjudicate on a consistent basis, because I think that some of these are a little too dangerous to put out there. The main reason, again, is not because I think that a regular honest player will suddenly turn his back on his principles, but in this case, because how a judge approaches them is very subjective. Every one of the techniques I do list, on the other hand, is black and white, cut and dried. You catch someone doing one, you call the judge, and he should be done for the tournament, if not the next three to five years.
Here we go:
By far the most common area of cheating is in card discrepancies. Typically, one player draws more cards than the other in order to get an advantage. How many does he draw? It doesn’t matter. Think about how devastating a single Disrupt can be in a control mirror and you will see how drawing even one more card than the opponent can yield enough of an unfair advantage to win the game.
1. The Sulfuric Vortex Trick
Any moron can palm cards, draw eight, fail to mulligan to six, or grab something out of his graveyard when the opponent isn’t looking. Some players are so good at palming that they can draw fourteen and survive a Duress. Some players are inept and will knock their own libraries over when trying to nab an extra in the middle of a complicated turn. All of these techniques pretty much have the same goal: to put one or more cards (back) in hand for later use.
The slickest version of the good old”drawing extra cards” that I’ve ever caught is the Sulfuric Vortex Trick. You can run this cheat any time there is a mandatory upkeep effect. I call it the Sulfuric Vortex Trick, not surprisingly, because I caught it when there was a Sulfuric Vortex in play, but it works for Forsaken Wastes, Nemesis fading, any of that stuff. When I caught the Sulfuric Vortex Trick, I thought it was really beautiful, let me tell you. Not quite good enough to slide by, mind you, but beautiful.
The player in question fanned his hand out face-down on the table. He drew his card for his turn and slid it onto the fanned hand with that”pass the card horizontally onto the table top and snap” motion that you might have seen Bob Maher or Dave Humpherys use so elegantly. Then this miser picked up his hand.”Oops,” he said. He went back into his upkeep and took his Vortex damage (hand in hand). He wrote down the damage… and drew his card for his turn.
Now while you are bantering with your opponent, joking around, and moving your hand from zone to zone (hand, table, hand again), fanning cards, drawing cards, snapping cards, manipulating horizontal and vertical card orientations, drawing cards again, and so on, it’s actually not very hard to slide an extra this way: all that motion and communication can be disorienting, especially if the opponent is not watching for your cheat specifically.
Fighting the Sulfuric Vortex Trick:
You fight the opponent’s drawing extra cards pretty much the same way, whether it is the Sulfuric Vortex Trick or any other. The first thing is to keep an eagle eye on any opponent whom you don’t completely trust. Additionally, you should keep a tally of the relative cards on both sides of the table on a regular basis. Any time I think there is anything fishy going on, I will do a quick count of all his cards against all of mine. That’s not 100% foolproof though, because the opponent can always lie about how many cards he is gripping. Paranoid bald beatdown king Dave Price was known to count the opponent’s library and subtract from the original number (60, 40, 61, etc.) to determine the true count. You will always know the original number if you follow the rules for fighting patterned shuffle stacks, below.
2. The Under-Draw
This is sort of the Rogue version of drawing extra cards. It became really popular among the PT’s elite, young, and extremely talented pool of ethically challenged players in the late 90s. Instead of drawing extra cards, you actually draw fewer cards than usual. In the mid-game, you count up the relative totals and call the judge. For shame! This unscrupulous opponent has drawn extra cards! Disqualify him!
Fighting the Under-Draw:
This is a rough cheat to beat. You can attempt to walk through turns in order to show that it was actually the opponent who under-drew. Jack Stanton was at one time known for using a turn counter so that he could show what turn the game was on and he could prove he hadn’t drawn any extra cards.
3. Patterned Shuffle Stacks
Let me clue you in on something. There is really no such thing as table shuffling as people typically execute this very common practice. The rules stated goal of shuffling in Magic is to randomize your deck. Patterned three-, four-, or five-pile table shuffling is predetermined. There is only one place for any card to fall in the pattern (1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3; 1, 2, 3, 3, 2, 1; etc.) so it is impossible to achieve any true randomization.
But I do it. You probably do it too. Table shuffling is good because it lets us make sure we have the right number of cards (more on that in the bonus section), and it separates our”land clumps.” By the way, separating our land clumps is saucy if you don’t want to get manascrewed (flooded), but not a good idea as the DCI defines randomization. If we know that our land is clumped, and we are specifically separating it into specific piles so that it is specifically not clumped in a 1, 2, 3, 4 pattern… we are not randomizing.
We of course get around this by finishing with riffle shuffles. At one point, the DCI mandated that players do a minimum of three riffle shuffles to finish any round of randomization. Be wary of any player who does not finish this way… or with more riffle shuffles, in fact.
Under the current DCI rules, even the most honest players are allowed to stack their decks in any way that they like, as long as they completely randomize afterwards. They can land, spell, spell their twenty-mana Affinity decks all they want… As long as they completely randomize afterwards.
I think the issue of complete randomization is a sticky one for judges. The problem is that an actually completely randomized deck will look at least fairly stacked. If you have any understanding of randomization in math, you know that over time, original patterns will be come incoherent. Imagine a jar that can hold one hundred and twenty marbles. Imagine you pour forty white marbles into that jar, and then twenty red marbles on top of those. Then imagine shaking that jar vigorously for twenty minutes and spilling the marbles into a tray of sixty evenly distributed round dimples. What are the chances that the red marbles all fall next to one another and likewise with the white? Very unlikely, I think you will agree.
The longer you shook the bottle, the less likely that the white and red marble groups remain segregated. The neat thing? It doesn’t matter if you start the marble groups segregated (as we did) or you dump them in jumbled to begin with. The marbles – if you shake them long enough – are not likely to order themselves (back) into red and white. So if you start a deck that is 4 Pulse of the Fields, 4 Wrath of God, 4 Oxidize… 4 Elfhame Palace, 4 Temple of the False God, over time, the most random configuration for this stack of 60 is going to be a distribution of mana and spells broken down by percentage lands v. percentage spells with specific types of lands and spells distributed over the deck, if not distributed evenly. But DCI judges are trained to flag actually randomized decks as”failure to randomize.”
I think the implication is that for a typical player who doesn’t shuffle so well, you want to see some amount of clumped cards and to be able to flag obvious mulligans because a human shouldn’t necessarily be able to actually randomize his deck (whether or not he actually can). After all, in a twenty-land / forty-spell deck, there are ~2432902008176640000 different ways to have twenty lands as the top cards of your deck. The only thing is, there are ~8320987112741390000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000 ways to not have twenty land on top of your deck.
I find that this kind of call comes down to reputation a lot of the time. Dave Price – known almost as much for his honesty as his perfection of beatdown – was flagged on failure to randomize once (but obviously never got suspended or anything), and playing for top 8 of a Grand Prix last year, so was I. Luckily, I was playing against one of my best friends (and roommate at this GP), who swore up and down that I definitely wasn’t cheating against him and that he definitely saw me make a good faith effort at randomization. I don’t think I even got a caution (tks PAPA Becker!). Jon won and got ninth. Frown.
Tim McKenna, someone who is much better at math than I am, ran some simulations indicating that the probability of a player who is not cheating ending up with a deck that would looked stacked to a judge (defined as having four land every ten cards) is not insignificant (about 3% in a Limited deck). In that sense, since I know more than one hundred Magic players and that we’ve all been checked at least ten times, it is pretty impressive that I can only think of two times that players in my circle have been flagged for this violation. Tim, however, concludes that”The probability of a deck being found in violation obviously goes up if the players involved – like you and Price – Are Savage Cheaters.”
Now on the subject of reputation, there are a couple of very obvious things to watch for against patterned shuffle stacks. First of all, I would be wary of any player – no matter how friendly or well-liked – who is showing you that he is starting off with a patterned shuffle stack. It was a tactic by a onetime very popular Pro player to announce to his opponents that he was stacking his deck so that he could lull them into believing that he wasn’t hiding anything. The difference is that he broke the riffle when he was supposed to be mixing their pre-stacked deck.
Breaking the riffle is a mechanic’s trick. Basically you have two piles of cards that you are ostensibly riffling. Now in this case, pre-stacked piles are maintained as the wily mechanic pretends to mix them, but in actuality, he maintains the pattern of each of the stacks, merely changing the order with each false riffle (press). It’s much easier to run this trick with press shuffles than true riffling, but I’m sure the high end cheaters can run that fine as well.
I already mentioned that there is no actual randomization going on in three, four, fiver or even seven-pile”table shuffles.” The difference between simply not randomizing and techniques like the Double Nickel (arguably the most famous) are their effectiveness. For instance the Double Nickel is a stack shuffle of two five piles (two nickels) where you start with the lands and spells of your Limited deck completely separated. After a 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 followed by another 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, your lands and spells will be perfectly distributed. There are many other stack techniques, including a four pile system that will reset a deck that starts out stacked. In both cases, the cheater’s goal is to end up presenting a perfectly distributed deck while tricking you into believing that he has randomized.
Fighting Patterned Shuffle Stacks:
Do this: Every single time you sit across from your opponent and he presents, pick up his deck and pile shuffle it into two piles. Count the number of cards. You will steal all kinds of games with this at the PTQ level, believe me (see also the bonus section, below). If your opponent has a non-40/non-60/non-Battle of Wits deck, you should probably call the judge. After running the two piles, riffle his deck seven times. That will take care of most of the potential deck stacking out there.
Oops, I lied.
If you recognize one of the techniques I outlined in this section, rather than shuffling his deck for him, call the judge to run a deck check. The only thing you want to watch out for is your opponent grabbing the deck back, desperately screaming”I never said ‘present’,” and shuffling it himself. When a loss is about to cost you Day Three. And the Head Judge is about to make The Worst Ruling Ever on American Soil (copyright – Seth Burn) on your teammate. Yeah. That one pinches.
4. Last Cut and Marked Sleeves
Now even shuffling the opponent’s deck is not enough to beat some cheaters. The main way to fight the anti-stacking shuffle fight is to run marked sleeves. The most notorious technique is the last cut. Remember that when you shuffle your opponent’s deck prior to a match, he still has the last opportunity to cut it himself. Seth Burn actually thinks that the DCI mandate of shuffling your opponent’s deck prior to a match is worse for preventing illegal play because you never want a truly savage cheater to have the last opportunity to touch his own deck prior to draws. Think about how in Extended formats past that it was Standard Operating Procedure to aggressively mulligan into Demonic Consultation/Necropotence, Survival of the Fittest, or Force of Will: Why go to all that trouble when you could just mark a key card and guarantee that you would start with it in your opening hand by cutting the deck that your ostensibly wary opponent just shuffled to prevent your cheating?
Different players throughout history have marked their key cards in different ways. Some players can read the”warp” of their cards. The DCI says you can’t play a deck of all foil lands for this reason. Some players run clear sleeves and pick different cards from all different sets. These players are so good at reading card backs that they can identify what card they are about to draw through the clear sleeve, giving them a huge leg up in whether or not they need to mulligan. Some players mark only one key card in their decks so that they can always cut to it in the opening grip, while others have gone so far as to write on the backs of their sleeves with ultraviolet ink, wearing special glasses to identify their cards prior to any draw.
A particularly amusing related strategy was used at an early PT Boat by one of Magic’s most important and seminal writers and competitors. The Pro Tour used Fifth Edition lands but was a Mirage Block draft. This player would table shuffle the opponent into two piles and always give him exactly two lands in his opening hand… not usually enough to force a mulligan in a format with Impulse, but never enough to operate a deck when the next land would consistently be twenty cards deep.
Fighting Last Cut and Marked Sleeves
When you table shuffle your opponent, look at his sleeves and feel his cards. With some decks this won’t be easy. Watch for little things like which cards he plays are foil. If his marks are saucy and invisible to the naked eye, finding them will be – by definition – nearly impossible. But being aware of these techniques is better than going in blind: typically the ultraviolet marks cheat is accompanied by purple or yellow lenses.
5. Peek Shuffling
One of my teammates was playing for a 3-0 draft at a table at Nationals a couple of years ago. He caught his opponent peeking at the bottom card of his deck has he shuffled it.”It was a Rochester draft and he already knows I have a Dragon! He was sitting right next to me… What advantage could he be getting?”
The bitter irony is that even though he identified the bottom peeking the opponent was doing while shuffling his deck, my friend did not at that time know about Peek Shuffling. The goal of Peek Shuffling is to identify and clump like cards. By looking at the bottom card of the opponent’s deck surreptitiously while shuffling it, the Peek Shuffle cheater can group a number of lands or spells on the bottom of the deck. This will not completely undo a deck’s randomization, but it will create difficult situations. At the very least, it will force mulligans.
Fighting Peek Shuffling
You have to watch as your opponent shuffles you. That’s the only way you can do it. Let him finish, then call the judge. If the judge identifies unreasonable clumping, you may be able to get a Peek Shuffler disqualified.
6. All About Tutors
In legal formats, competitive Magic players are willing to devote cards in their decks to Tutors – cards that allow them to dedicate the top cards of their libraries. The best players have been willing to spend a card, a mana, and two life to do this.
Don’t let your opponent Tutor for free.
In a sense, illegal Tutoring is the Catachresis of cheating. Whenever a player can touch his deck, whether digging for a Steadfast Guard with Ramosian Sergeant, going for a Plains with Windswept Heath, or cycling up a Swamp with Twisted Abomination, he has the opportunity to Tutor. This comes up when the player sees a repeated pattern of your knocking (not cutting) his deck after other such actions. After two or three knocks, the Tutor cheater will identify the opportunity to put the best card on top of his deck.
The reason that Tutoring can be a gamble is because the opponent may just cut you on the third opportunity. If he does, your chances of drawing the key card you Tutored for will be reduced or eliminated.
The best solution to this problem is of course to always cut after the opponent manipulates his deck.
Except against the best Tutor players.
The same player who made Peek Shuffling famous qualified for Nationals on the back of meta-Tutoring. His opponent was on two life and he had a Shock in his limited deck. He searched his deck and knew that the opponent would cut.
So he put the Shock as close to the middle of the deck as possible.
Say he can position the Shock in the middle five cards of the deck, where he predicted his opponent would cut. He had a 20% chance of winning the game immediately, a 40% chance of winning in the next two turns… and for the remaining 40% of the time, he still had the rest of his deck.
Always cut. Every time. Against your friends. It only takes a second. Don’t cut to the middle.
In addition to the so-called”free” Tutor, a”real” Tutor can be used as a Time Walk. Because cards like Mystical Tutor are typically played at the end of turn, playing them in the middle of a complex turn can yield impressive results for the savvy cheater.
It only works during a long turn where a cheater taps a lot of mana and does a lot of stuff, especially if there are counter wars. When the dust clears, the cheater declares the Mystical Tutor or similar. The opponent lets that resolve.
And the cheater untaps.
Because so much stuff went on, because of the convention of how we usually play these cards, an unwary opponent might just let the cheater turn a Mystical Tutor into one of the Power Nine… and worse because the best card in his deck is now sitting on top, waiting to knock out the tapped out victim.
Fighting Tutor Time Walks:
Pay attention. All you have to do to not end up on the wrong end of this kind of play is to remember whose turn it is.
7. Graveyard Manipulation
Graveyard Manipulation cheats aren’t as relevant today as they have been in other blocks, but they bear repeating as small cheats that allow players to create unfair advantages based on their opponents not knowing about simple manipulations.
Some cards are based on the position of cards in the graveyard relative to one another. For example, Death Spark has to be directly under a creature card in order to be eligible to be returned on the next Upkeep.
Some players will play an Entomb with an effect on the stack and put that card directly into the graveyard – it’s going there after all, right? Lazy or simply unwary opponents may never see what is going on. Lo and behold, Krovikan Horror is on top of Entomb, and whatever was about to die is now on top of Krovikan Horror. Something dies and the conditions for active Krovikan Horror have been fulfilled.
By not paying attention, the cheater’s opponent has been given his own personal Howling Mine.
Another variation on this kind of Graveyard Manipulation was particularly relevant during Odyssey Block, where the number of cards in a graveyard were relevant to mechanics like Threshold, and where the graveyard is differentiated from the Removed from Game pile. At my second Pro Tour, when playing for the 3-0, I got beaten to death with my own Craw Wurm. The opponent picked it up with Animate Dead.
The problem? He had previously removed it with Ashes to Ashes.
In a more recent block, a different Green creature is said to have contributed to the same kind of cheat. In this case, a Leaf Dancer that had been removed from game danced its way into the graveyard in order to serve as the third creature necessary to make active the cheater’s Zombie Assassin.
Fighting Graveyard Manipulation:
This is another case where just being tight will prevent any cheats. Keep the piles distinct and make sure you resolve effects in the correct order. The cheater can only net extra cards if you are sloppy… So don’t be sloppy.
8. Hiding Land
Hiding Land is a particularly annoying subject for me. The first time it happened, I had already caught my opponent drawing extra cards, but the unscrupulous Level IV who came to the table (my opponent appealed to him by name) told me to keep playing or he would give me a game loss for stalling (after the match he apologized, indicating that in retrospect he was wrong about the relative card counts, but that it didn’t look like I was going to win that one). The first time cost me Day Two of a Pro Tour, but at least by appealing and incessantly bitching to Jeff Donais, I was able to successfully delay the Pro Tour for two full hours. The second time, Hiding Land only cost me a PTQ.
The first time, the opponent had Island, Island, Island, Mountain. He made two piles of lands, each two lands deep. Mountain was on top of one, Island the other, implying that he had two piles, one of two Mountains and one of two Islands. He tapped for Lightning Hounds. I untapped before realizing he had cheated, paying the wrong mana for his card. The call was that because I had untapped, the Lightning Hounds would stick.
The second time, the opponent was playing a b/U deck, touching a Banishing suite to its flyers and counters. I used Divining Witch to set up Cateran Slaver and bashed the opponent to five… but didn’t have much of a library left. My opponent chump blocked for several turns until I decked. The problem? He was hiding a Swamp underneath his Islands (Cateran Slaver has Swampwalk).
Fighting Hiding Land:
In either case, if I had just paid better attention, I would have won both matches. As with Fighting Graveyard Manipulation, if you’re not sloppy – or you don’t let your opponent play sloppy – you won’t lose games to this type of cheat.
9. The Dropkick
The Dropkick occurs when the opponent is shuffling your deck – as mandated by the DCI rules. He goes to count your deck, but… there are only thirty-nine cards! How can this be? Oh, you dropped one. It’s right there, next to your foot. Too bad. Game loss for you. In this case, the opponent actually dropped one of your cards and kicked it under the table… you never dropped the card at all.
Fighting the Dropkick:
Even though I know that table shuffling doesn’t really randomize my deck, I do it every match. The reason is that I need to make sure that I have the right number of cards (see the bonus section… again). I know every single time that I am presenting the right number (check out that bonus section). That way, I won’t lose to the dropkick. Because I presented 60 (40) cards (man oh man, that bonus section).
10. Life Counter Manipulation
There was a time that serious players kept life with dice. Or these little wizards on wheels that you could turn, that pointed to different life totals. On a little metal disk. With a Wizard on top. Some players would tap a City of Brass… and add a life with their die / Wizard. The opponent would periodically ask what life the cheater was on, but because he kept his own life with a die or Wizard rather than paper, he would never really know when the opponent was telling the truth.
Fighting Life Counter Manipulation:
I shouldn’t have to tell you to keep your life and your opponent’s life on paper. Not only will careful paper recording prevent you from falling to Life Counter Manipulation, but you will play better because you will have a better idea of your opponent’s life position for strategies like the Philosophy of Fire (is it time to start doming him?), alpha strikes, and so on.
Don’t try any of these cheats. Any judge worth his black and white striped shirt knows about them (whether or not he can actually identify a stacked deck).
I sent Shark my deck list on Friday Night. He made it at about 3 AM and told me what I needed to get at about 9 AM.
I procured the cards and wrote out my deck list. I glanced over the list and checked it against my stack and gave the list to Boccio. Matt was playing the same deck and copied my list.
I table shuffled in fours to start the day. Perfect. Perfect presentation of fifty-six that is.
I got a match loss.
I won the next six rounds. In round seven, I resolved a third turn Furnace Dragon against Affinity in the deciding game three. I lost that one to double Disciple + a Ravager in grip + a lot of luck. He had to rip the last turn and I had to miss two drops to lose (he did, and I did).
I only lost three games in eight rounds.
I did not make top eight.
For his part, Boccio realized that the deck list was only fifty-six cards and bought the relevant missing four commons for $2 on site. He won the PTQ easily.
This article has a reasonable amount of math. Shark estimates blame for my not winning the PTQ (or at least getting bashed by Boccio in the finals) thusly:
That seems about right.
Boccio – winner!
Shark – tks for the deck
Boccio – bastard 🙁
Shark – damn it 🙁
Me – counting 🙁
Shout outs to:
Jon Becker – he is now the proud father of Audrey Bond Becker. Congratulations!
Tim McKenna – for consultation in this article