The Rules Of Engagement

In my past articles, I’ve talked a lot about preparation for tournaments. This week I’m going to do something a little different. I’m going to focus on all the elements of a Magic tournament that don’t involve playing. Let me tell you how a pro shuffles, how he prevents deck registration errors – and above all, the common methods that people use to cheat innocent victims and how to counteract them.

(Editor’s note: I believe that this article is a”must read” for ANYONE interested in tournament Magic. As such, I have decided to repost it in case anyone missed it on Friday. Enjoy! – Pete)

In my past articles, I’ve talked a lot about preparation for tournaments. I focused on things like: What the good decks are, how to playtest, and even how to play. This week I’m going to do something a little different. I’m going to focus on all the elements of a Magic tournament that are not games of Magic: The Gathering.

It may sound strange, but there are lots of perfectly legal things you can do in a tournament to help your odds (and keep from being cheated).

Card Sleeves

I’ve seen a lot of players who I know weren’t trying to cheat get game loses for marked sleeves. In one case involving Danny Mandel, the most honest guy I know the sleeves were relatively new. Danny had put the new sleeves on the night before, and then made the mistake of doing a lot of playtesting with his freshly-sleeved deck. Unbeknown to Danny, his most frequently-tapped card, Merfolk Looter, developed a wear pattern. In a deck check the next day the judge found his cards to be”marked with a pattern” (you could pick out the looters if you looked for the wear). Danny got a match loss, and learned a valuable lesson: You should start every major tournament you play in you with fresh sleeves.

Even new sleeves can sometimes be marked by little imperfections like scratches or odd lengths. Judges tend to be understanding about these problems, unless they see a pattern – like all your Fact or Fictions have the same scratch on the back. Unfortunately, these imperfections are usually clumped in the package of sleeves. Most will be fine, and then a group will all have the same defect. Unsuspecting players put their sorted deck into a new pack of sleeves will end up with like cards having the same imperfections on their sleeves.

Thus,”marked with pattern.” Thus, match loss.

To avoid this, just shuffle your deck and sideboard together before you sleeve up. With your cards in a random order, even if the sleeves have a clumping of defects, they won’t be on the same cards in your deck or sideboard.

Deck Registration

Another thing that has resulted in a lot of honest men getting game losses or worse is mistakes on the deck list. When playing Constructed (or in team Limited), always have a friend check your decklist for errors. When checking a deck list, read each card name, make sure they are not duplicated, and count the total. It just takes a minute, and can save you a lot of pain.

In Limited, you don’t have the luxury of having someone else to check your list. To make matters worse, you have a finite amount of time to build and register your deck.

In sealed deck, the first thing you should do is buzz though the list and make sure what is listed in the total column is what you have. It’s much easier and faster to catch errors at this stage. The judges will be more likely to give you the correct amount of extra time if you catch these errors in the beginning.

In draft, the first thing to do is register all the cards you drafted in the”Total” column. Getting this necessary chore out of the way at the beginning will help you manage your time. When you’re building your deck, you only have to budget time for filling out the”Played” column and checking the list.

After you’ve built the deck, and registered it in the”Played” column go back trough the deck and sideboard card by card checking it against the list. It takes about two minutes, and if you can spare the time, it’s well worth it. On multiple occasions, I’ve found I marked the wrong spot on the list.

Pairings And Picking Sides

When pairings go up, try and get to the list early. Check your points (if they are wrong, tell a judge), and remember your opponent’s name. Scouting is now legal, so you can ask your friends what your opponent is playing. This information can make all the difference in mulligan decisions and the first few plays of the game.

If you beat your opponent to the table, you have the advantage of picking sides. When picking sides of the table there are two things to consider: Spectators and the clock. If the tournament has an official clock, its nice to be on the side of the table that can see it easily. Having the clock in plain view will remind you to budget your time. For example, if game one is taking too long and you will probably lose, you can decide when to scoop so you’ll have enough time for games two and three. It’s a good idea to bring a small clock, or take off your watch and put it where you can see it on the table in case you can’t see the official clock.

Perhaps more important than clear view to the clock is being out of view of spectators. If there is a side of the table that has space for spectators to gather, you want to be on the other side. No matter how good your poker face is, spectator reactions can give away the contents of your hand, or your draw.


Magic: The Gathering is a game of strategy in which information is key. Knowledge of what deck opponents are playing or what cards are in their hand can often make all the difference. Keeping as much of this information from your opponent as possible is a good way to improve your tournament performance.


Many players are sloppy while shuffling. Be careful not to hold your deck so your opponent can see the bottom card. Also, when shuffling, be sure your opponent can’t catch a glimpse of the cards. Even seeing a color could be a big problem.

Tipping Your Hand:

Make sure not to tip your hand forward while you play. I’ve seen players hold their cards at such an angle that their opponents can see them. Keeping your cards vertical will keep you from making this deadly error.

If you have spectators watching your match, it’s a good idea to keep your hand out of their view. Just keep your hand close to your chest to avoid spectator reactions that might give something away.

Card Uniformity:

It’s a little thing, but it can make a difference. Make sure all your like cards are identical: Same art, same border color, all foil or non-foil, and not signed. Good players with great memories will keep track of these things after they see the cards in your hand from a Duress, Upheaval, or the like.

Having all identical cards means you don’t have to keep track of which copy of a card your opponent has seen and which ones they haven’t.

When getting land for draft decks, I always take the extra time to get all the same picture.


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.

With that in mind, here are some common cheating techniques to watch out for, and ways to keep yourself safe from them.

Deck Stacking:

There are a lot of ways to stack a deck. In all of them, the cheater is trying to control the order of cards in his deck. In some cases, he is just trying to keep track of the position of a couple of cards, in others, the whole deck.


Cheating of this fashion is so common, some players who do it don’t even realize it’s illegal. The idea is to avoid mana screw by spreading out the lands in the deck. The cheater will sort their deck, eliminating land clumps (often one land followed by two spells, followed by one land, etc.). Sometimes after doing this they will shuffle once or twice, but not enough to destroy the pattern. Clearly, if they shuffled enough to randomize the deck, there would be no reason to spread out the lands in the first place.

Fake Shuffle

Anyone who employs this deck-stacking method knows it’s illegal, and have to practice to get good enough to not be noticed. They riffle-shuffle, but keep hold of the cards as they shove the two interlaced piles together. They then pull the cards apart, never having really mixed them, and repeat. To a casual observer it looks like they are vigorously shuffling their deck.

Set Piles:

Another method that takes preparation is Set Pile shuffling. I wrote an article years back on this one (The Anatomy of a Cheating Method) after an incident involving Mike Long; it would take too long to fully explain it here, but feel free to read the original article. Suffice it to say that pile shuffling on its own does not randomize cards at all. If you know what you’re doing, you can pile shuffle and get your cards into any order you want.

Fortunately, all of these cheating methods can be defeated by following one simple DCI rule: Shuffle your opponent’s deck! I recommend starting with a pile shuffle so you can count your opponent’s deck and check his card backs for marks. A few quick riffle-shuffles after the pile shuffle should nicely randomize your opponent’s deck.

Marked Sleeves (Or Cards):

The tendency of tournament players to play with beat-up sleeves makes it all too easy for the unscrupulous to cheat in this fashion. Some cheaters will mark similar cards in their deck with a scratch or a nail mark. Others simply use worn sleeves and memorize the unique wear patterns on key cards.

To keep yourself safe from card markers, it is necessary to err on the side of caution. If your opponent’s sleeves have any marks that one could theoretically memorize, call a judge and request that your opponent’s deck be re-sleeved. Because so many players play with beat-up sleeves without thinking, it is likely your opponent was not up to anything fishy, so be as polite as possible in your request.

Feeling For Foils

For this trick the cheater will play with a mix of foils and non-foil cards in his deck. Most of the foils will be of one card type (say, land). Every time the cheater has the opportunity to cut his deck, he will feel the cards. This looks like he is straightening up the deck.

Foil cards are stiffer than regular cards, so he can”feel” if his top card is a foil. He will then decide whether to cut or not based on whether the top card is foil. An expert can cut to a foil or non-foil card.

The tells for this cheat are mix of foils and non-foils, frequent”feeling” of the deck, and sometimes cutting and sometimes not. If your opponent is displaying this behavior, tell him you have a rules question and call a judge. Pull the judge aside and tell them what you suspect and why. They will probably want you to continue the game so they can observe and try to catch the cheater in the act.

The Peek Shuffle

This is a quick and easy cheat which lets the cheater know what deck you are playing. They simply look at your deck while they are shuffling it. Sometimes this is accomplished by an unusually large arc when riffle-shuffling. Sometimes they shuffle the deck sideways enough that they can see the face of the cards.

To avoid this problem simply request that every opponent look away from your deck when they shuffle.

The Drop Kick

This one is devious. The cheater palms one of your cards when shuffling your deck. They then drop this card to their feet and kick the card under your side of the table. At some point, they count your deck and call a judge; the judge finds the card under your chair, and you get a game loss for presenting an illegal deck.

Your only real defense here is to count your own deck before you present it. If this comes up, you can tell the judge that you counted your deck before you presented and that you think your opponent might be cheating in this fashion. You will probably both get warnings so the DCI can track both of you and see if one of you has a pattern of this type of warning.

Sloppy Scorekeeping

This bit is very low tech. Here the cheater simply”forgets” to record when they take damage (like from a pain land) or marks your life as lower than it should be.

To keep things on the up and up just keep careful track of your and the opponents score. It also helps to note what the source of damage was on your scorepad.

Extra Land Drop

This trick is a favorite of the combo player. It involves playing a land at the beginning of your turn, doing some stuff, thinking for a verrrrry long time, then playing another land, doing some more stuff.

Sounds dumb, right? No one would fall for that! Well, Mike Long did it (intentionally or accidentally) on camera, in front of judges in the top 8 of PT Paris.


This is the most common of all cheating – it’s even done by players who honestly think they are not cheaters. If a player is playing slowly for game advantage, that’s intentional stalling, and it’s illegal.

The error most players make with a slow playing opponent is they wait until the end of the match to call a judge. At that point, it’s too late. You need to call a judge at the first sign of slow play, even if it’s early in the match. Only then will the judge be able to make a difference.

Interacting With Judges

I saved this for last because in many ways it’s the most important thing you can take away from the article. You can do everything correctly, but if you can’t get your point across to the judges they may rule against you.

Ask And You Shall Receive

The first thing to remember is that judges aren’t perfect, they’re human. If a judge is standing near your table, and you think your opponent is stalling, don’t just sit there thinking,”Well, if there’s a problem, the judge will say something.” He may not be watching your match with the all-seeing eye of the judge. He may just be standing there thinking about his last ruling, or what he wants for lunch. If you want him to watch for stalling, ask him to.

Show Respect

Remember, the judge is there to keep things fair, not to serve you. Be polite and show them respect. If you are rude or belligerent to them, they may be less likely to consider your point. You may even end up with a game loss for unsportsmanlike conduct.

If you disagree with a judge’s ruling, you can appeal to the head judge. When you do this, be sure to be polite, and don’t speak ill of the lower judge to the head judge. If you say”That judge made a bad ruling” or the like, it will put the head judge on the defensive, and make it much less likely your appeal will go anywhere.

Never Tell The Judge The Ruling

If you think your opponent is doing something that deserves a game loss, just tell the judge what they did. Don’t try and tell them what the ruling should be. It’s disrespectful, and the judge might think you are trying to take advantage of the system by fishing for game losses for your opponents. That could result in you getting the game loss.

All this may seem like a lot to remember, but most of it is common sense. Once you know how to act and what to look out for, it becomes second nature.