The Riki Rules – Foiled: Mythbusting Marked Cards

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Tuesday, May 27th – Self-improvement is at the heart of the modern Magic article. You want it. We, the writers promise it. And you complain when you don’t think you’re getting your money’s worth, whether it’s free or Premium. My goal in my articles is to make you a better Magic player. I have a sure-fire tip that is guaranteed to help you improve…

Self-improvement is at the heart of the modern Magic article. You want it. We, the writers promise it. And you complain when you don’t think you’re getting your money’s worth, whether it’s free or Premium.

My goal in my articles is to make you a better Magic player. Wow. I sound like Tom LaPille. But does Tom really want to make you, his potential opponent, better?

No matter how you answer that, I have a sure-fire tip that is guaranteed to help you improve:

Don’t get game loss penalties.

Isn’t that simple? After all, the game loss penalty is the ultimate in irrevocable ways to lose a game. There’s no way to topdeck your way out of a game loss. You can’t Jedi Mind Trick a judge into not giving you a game loss. Your uber-sideboard doesn’t turn around your matchup against a game loss.

Four Kird Apes walk into a bar…

Let me tell you a little story from a recent PTQ, and by recent I mean February because the PTQ schedule has been quite wacked and unbalanced this year as a result of the missing PT.

I was judging this Extended PTQ, and it was the final round of Swiss. Luis Scott-Vargas and I did a mid-round deck check on one of the win-and-in bubble matches for the Top 8. Luis checked a Dredge deck, and I got a typical RG Goyf Deck Wins build. Everything was fine until I got to the end of the check. I put the sorted deck on the table and looked at it from the side, noticing a very prominent bulge in the middle. By “prominent bulge,” I mean that this thing was the Hunchback of Notre Dame.

A cursory examination of the bulge revealed four FNM Foil Kird Apes, the only four foils cards in the deck. Next I separated the Kird Apes of Notre Dame and gave the deck a few quick side shuffles. Now that I knew what I was looking for, the Apes were rather noticeable even when they weren’t right next to each other enhancing their foilocity. I was able to cut to one of the Apes with Reggie Miller-like free throw accuracy.

I showed Luis the problem, and he did the same thing. Again it was Reggie Miller. We called our Head Judge, Jeff “Judge of Currents” Morrow, and he confessed to having no knowledge of Reggie Miller, basketball, or sports in general. Regardless, he too was able to cut to a foil Kird Ape as if he was wearing a +5 gloves of Kird Ape Finding. The infraction is Marked Cards-Pattern, which carries the penalty of a game loss. Luis informed the player of the unfortunate news, the offending foils were replaced with regular ones, and GDW fell to Dredge in a blowout of a game 3.

What does this story tell us? “Foil cards are marked; don’t play with them” would seem to be the operative lesson here, and indeed that’s the conclusion that many players draw from such stories.

A short while after that, my friend and fellow Magic writer, Thomas Trovato wrote about the Morningtide Prerelease in which he opened a foil Mutavault (sadly not the extended art variety, although another friend of mine in Scotland, Dave Whitelaw, did manage to 2HG his way to one of these bars of gold). I was somewhat surprised to see Thomas lament that he would not be able to play his prized catch in an upcoming PTQ unless he managed to trade it for two non-foil versions. He was stuck with a misconception about foils as large as the Kird Ape player, just in the opposite direction.

To understand whether foil cards are marked or not, you need to get into the mind of judges. This can be dangerous territory as you will find many judges simply repeating the mantra “must kill all players.” But every once in a while you’ll come across some useful nuggets that will help you as a player avoid unnecessary infractions and encounters, thus avoiding the second-most frightful two words to a Magic player: “game loss.” (I’m not actually sure what number one is. It’s either “match loss” or “blind date” depending on your priorities.)

Let’s start with the Kird Ape issue. We had to hand out a game loss for Marked Cards-Pattern. What does this mean, and how is it different from Marked Cards-No Pattern? Well, duh. There’s the whole “pattern” thing, but what constitutes a pattern, and what exactly is a marked card?

In Quiz Show fashion, let me answer the second part first. A marked card is just that: a card (or sleeve) that has a unique marking that allows you to distinguish it from other cards in the deck. The most common case of marked cards is from damaged sleeves. If you want to get nitpicky technical about it, almost any sleeve is marked approximately two rounds into a tournament. There’s just no way to avoid the little chicken scratches and nicks you get from shuffling and playing. However, judges tend to ignore the marks that you need a magnifying glass to see. The marks that matter are usually bent corners, fingernail marks, worn edges, and pen marks. For unsleeved cards, bends, large scratches, pen marks, and excessive wear on the corners can be marks.

The question you should ask yourself when you are self-checking your deck for markings is “does the card look different from the other cards in my deck when it is sitting on the table in the common ‘library’ position a few inches from the edge of the table?”

So what about foils? Are they marked? Yes, no, maybe so.

The most important thing to know is that a foil card is not marked by definition. However, because of the material used, foils tend to curve much easier and much more prominently under the stresses of extreme heat or moisture. The “heat curve” isn’t exclusive to foils; I definitely left a Goblin Bombardment in my car (probably the most common culprit of heat curving) and ended up with a pretzel. Such a curved card, when placed in a deck with normal flat cards, will stick out like a sore thumb. You’ll be able to see it in the middle, bulging up. You’ll definitely see when it is on the top of your library when it doesn’t have the weight of the world sitting on top of it. And you will be able to feel the bulge when you are shuffling, making it very easy to cut to it, sometimes even subconsciously.

The biggest problem with curved foils is that the curve tends to be permanent. You can bend the card back the other way or put it under your encyclopedia collection and flatten it out, but that only works temporarily. Slowly and inexorably the foil will curve back into what has become its new natural condition. A curved foil might start out a tournament flat like the rest of your deck, but through the course of the day (and especially through riffle shuffling that involves bending the cards during the bridge) the foil will return to its curved, and hence marked, condition.

So what is the difference that takes a marked card infraction from no pattern to pattern territory? The Penalty Guidelines defines “No Pattern” thusly:

“A player’s cards are marked or oriented in a way that is unlikely to give an advantage to that player.”

Have you ever noticed how rules documents are couched in indecipherable legalese? Part of the problem is that the Penalty Guidelines are just that – guidelines, like the Pirate’s Code. If you don’t want to parlay with Captain Jack, they by all means don’t, and laugh about the silly guidelines while you throw him in the brig.

The Penalty Guidelines don’t work in the same “don’t use them if you don’t like them” carefree fashion – judges should follow them whenever appropriate – but there’s just no way to write a document that game-plans for every conceivable situation that might arise. Hence there is some leeway to explore. Once you get past the point that the PG covers, it becomes a matter of word of mouth via events, judge articles, and seminars to spread the word.

What constitutes a pattern can be open to different interpretations. What it comes down to is whether you know what a particular card is without looking at the card face. The Kird Ape example is about as clear cut as it gets; if you see a curved card in the deck, you know that it is a Kird Ape. There is some room for ambiguity when all of the marked cards are not all the same card. In such cases, it is open to interpretation whether the mix of cards is a pattern.

Let’s say that in addition to Kird Apes, all of the Mogg Fanatics are also curved foils. Is this a pattern? Some would say yes, as both Kird Apes and Fanatics are Red one-drops that you would have a vested interest in drawing in your opening hand and avoiding later on in the game, making it a good card to see on top of your deck before deciding whether or not to crack a fetchland.

For another example, there’s been some forum chatter about Alex Bertoncini playing all foil lands at the recent SCG events. In my mind, that can be a pattern. Knowing if a particular card is either a land or a non-land can be very valuable information to have. However, I want to stress again that being a foil in and of itself does not mean that a card is marked, thus a deck with all foil lands isn’t necessarily marked, let alone the big cheats. If all the lands are foils and they are marked with the foil curve, then that opens things up for Marked Cards-Pattern… or possibly worse.

The “something worse” is a third kind of infraction related to marked cards, although it doesn’t show up in the PG as such: Cheating-Manipulation of Game Materials. The difference between C-MGM and MC-P is easy (you didn’t think I was going to keep typing out these long names, did you?). Both penalties for marked cards are for infractions assumed to be accidental, while the cheating penalty is reserved for those unscrupulous souls who intentionally mark their cards.

The most extreme case of this I heard was from another card game, Legend of the Five Rings, where a blind player took some rather shady liberties. You can imagine some of the changes that have to take place to allow a blind player to participate in a CCG. The opponents of the blind player have to clearly announce all of their actions. That takes care of the opponent’s actions for the most part, but how is the blind player supposed to know what cards he draws?

To go off on a tangent of the tangent, I saw a blind player in the World Series of Poker. He had a buddy sitting with him who whispered all the relevant information about the hand and the bets and the beautiful women serving drinks. By the letter of the law, this type of helper wasn’t allowed, but the WSOP’s secret illuminati saw the writing on the wall and made an exception. Smart guys.

So back to the Blind Seer in L5R. How did he manage to read his own cards? Did he have a helper whispering in his ears? It turns out that Mr. Blind had Braille text printed on his cards, so that when he drew a card, he would scan his fingers over it and “read” it. (I don’t know if it’s politically incorrect to put “read” in quotes just there. Is reading strictly a visual thing?) Seems perfectly fine…

Oh, except for the fact that the Braille was thick enough to be read through the back of the card and sleeve. Careful observation of the Blind Seer revealed that he touched his deck in a very particular manner during shuffling, basically reading the cards through the backs of the sleeves.

While you’re not going to run into the Blind Seer cheat every day (or ever, for that matter), that particular example does illuminate the subject of how foils can be marked cards and how they can give a player an unfair advantage. While it’s not quite the same as literally reading the card name in Braille, having extremely curved foils in your deck will stand out. Although foil cards are not marked by definition, you need to exercise vigilance when playing with them because they can become marked. Just as you should be doing with the condition of your sleeves, periodically check the condition of your foils throughout the tournament to ensure that they are curving in a noticeable fashion. Mixing up the foils in your deck is also an excellent way to protect yourself. If your foils are 4 lands, 2 instants, 3 creatures, and an artifact, there is no pattern even if they do become curved from shuffling.

That’s it for this week’s installment. Stay tuned next week for some stories from Pro Tour: Hollywood. It won’t be a full tournament report because a round-by-round blow of a judge’s day tends to be on the boring side. “I did a deck check that turned out okay. I walked the floor and picked up some trash, pushed in some chairs. There was one judge call.” More than likely it will be an in depth analysis of some of the most interesting judge calls/ situation that arose over the course of the weekend.

Over and out.

Riki Hayashi
Rikipedia at gmail dot fob