Greetings, fair and hardy readers. Today we are once again going to delve into the realm of cheating in Magic, a subject that is often whispered or grumbled about, but discussed far too little in open forums. For those of you interested in the subject, I have covered it before in detail, but that article was very much a synthesis of others excellent material. This time I’m going to take things a step further and discuss some of the really smart cheats that players have used over the years just to get an edge. You know Flores’s "Operations Management" article that discusses small advantages you can create to raise your percentages in matches? This article is like that one, except the techniques described herein are not legal.
This particular article is one that has been three years in the making. Why so long? It takes a while to absorb what is going on around you, especially when such goings on are things people are deliberately trying to conceal. It doesn’t help when the people trying to conceal said things are whipsmart and often likeable individuals to boot. It further hurts the cause when you are a buffoon like me and take (in some cases) six months or a year to process what you saw and figure out what it meant. Regardless, I soldiered on and finally wound up with enough material to compose another useful reference article, so here we are.
A Special Note: I am by no means implying here that the Pro Tour is rife with cheaters. I am simply discussing what I have seen since I learned enough to start noticing these things. By bringing attention to the methodology of the cheats, my hope is that judges and players alike will be better informed and better able to protect themselves from smart players looking for any advantage possible while avoiding suspicion.
Slow Play IS Cheating
This is one that has been repeated more times than a Simpsons re-run, and yet not nearly enough players seem to get it. Think of how games play out on Magic Online. Each player gets an allotted period of time to make their plays, and if they run out of time, they lose the match. Real life Magic cannot work that way, but it helps to think of real life matches in that paradigm. When trying to determine whether someone’s pace of play is too slow, I often think, "If my opponent continues to play at this pace, will I get my 25 minutes of priority?" If not, and if they seem to be dwelling on plays for too long instead of simply making a bunch of plays, I call a judge. I don’t do it to be malicious, but because the other player is gaining an advantage by taking away my portion of the time for a match. Whether that advantage is simply more time to think through possible plays, or the player trying to stall their way into a win or a draw is irrelevant – it’s still an unfair advantage that is being exploited.
I also call a judge early because they are more likely to listen to your complaint when you make it ten minutes into the round instead of with ten minutes left, and it gives them more leeway to do something. Additionally, slow play warnings add up and go a long way towards curbing this sort of excessive behavior in the community. Be polite about it, but when an opponent is play too slowly to allow you to finish three games in the allotted time, feel free to grab a judge early and request they do something about it.
Beyond mere slow play from slow players, there are certain players who will work the clock to their advantage, both within the rules and without. Be aware that they exist and call a judge if you feel someone is abusing the clock. Doing this does not make you a d*ck – it simply means you are trying to play Magic on a level playing field where the rules apply equally to both sides.
Shuffle cheats have gotten more sophisticated over the years, but the best of them also tend to be the subtle, simple ones. The cheats discussed here are either difficult to catch, or are merely warning offenses, but they can yield a substantial advantage to a player willing to use them.
The "I’ll Show Me Mine"
The player shuffles his own deck slightly towards himself, thus allowing him to get some information about the configuration of lands and spells before he presents to the opponent. They will likely know a couple of cards on the bottom of their deck, and be able to track where they are in the library should an opponent simply cut their deck.
Solution: Shuffle your opponent’s deck thoroughly. Also, don’t show them their own deck while you are shuffling their cards, or you’ll be accomplishing the cheat for them.
The "I’ll Show Me Yours"
This one is identical to the cheat listed directly above, except it is done with the opponent’s deck facing the player cheating. The advantages from this one are significant, especially in Limited. If you know the cards well, a brief peek during a riffle can reveal most of an opponent’s deck. Even the tiniest flash can tell you what colors the opponent is playing, which then gives you info on what they might have drafted (and what cards are in their deck) in Limited, or what archetype they are playing in Constructed. High-level Magic is completely different when you have an idea of what you are facing before you even play your first land.
This is the one that Olivier allegedly got dinged on this past weekend, and while it seems relatively innocuous, the fact that he allegedly admitted he had been instructed not to shuffle this way in the past would seem to make this more serious than you might otherwise believe. With scouting completely legal these days, it’s relatively simple to know what an opponent is playing heading into your match, but regardless, all of these are small informational cheats – they don’t need to be big in order to give a player a slight advantage. The very fact that they are small makes them harder to catch and more likely the judge will be lenient if they are.
Solution: Watch your opponent to see how they shuffle your deck, and call a judge if anything is out of order.
The Vamp Cheat
This is actually an old school cheat that has never gone out of vogue, though it takes some work to get good at it, especially against an opponent who is determined not to help you cheat. "Vamp" in this case is short of Vampiric Tutor, which is another way of saying that it’s relatively easy (with a little practice) to riffle shuffle while keeping a card at or near the top or bottom of your deck. Then after the deck is given to the opponent, you simply track the location of the card or cards while they shuffle, and then cut the deck back to where you want the card to be.
Don’t tell me this can’t be done – there are Magic players who have tracked cards through six-deck shoes in Blackjack – tracking one or two cards in forty or sixty is simple by comparison.
Solution: The way to counteract this one is to shuffle the opponent’s deck in a variety of ways and thoroughly. Riffles, piles, and cut shuffles make the tracker’s job harder, which is all you can really hope for with this one.
Admittedly, shuffle cheats can be tough to catch people on, and it’s easy to be overly suspicious of innocent behavior. If you have big clunky hands like I do, riffling with sleeves is nearly impossible, and sometimes it seems like you have to go out of your way just to make certain no one can suspect you of anything. This gets worse when opponents glare at you every time you pile shuffle them, but there’s nothing to be done about it if you want to protect yourself. In high level Magic, it literally pays to treat everyone with equal suspicion, regardless of how you feel about them.
Sleeve cheats are just what they sound like – cheats designed to take advantage of information contained on the surface of a player’s sleeves.
Poor Man’s Sleeves
These are sleeves that have been used for some period of time (which can be as short as a couple of rounds) and are now visibly marked, though probably not in any discernable pattern. When a judge goes to deck check this person, they will notice the sleeves are a bit too abused to allow a player to keep playing with them, and they will usually deliver a minor marked cards warning with an order for the player to change their sleeves. However, between the time the cards start to be marked and the time they are told to change their sleeves, savvy cheaters can gain massive advantages.
As Magic players, we are programmed to recognize visual clues and ascribe meaning to them. Most players actually recognize the cards by the art much more than they do by the name of the card itself. With this in mind, it should be easy to see that if you wanted to spend 15 minutes studying the defects on your card backs and matching them with the cards they contain, it would pretty simple to remember and also profitable to do so. Thus even seemingly innocent marks on sleeves can give a cheater insight into what card they will draw next.
I’ve seen some players stare at their libraries so long before making a play that you’d think they had X-Ray vision. After dwelling on whether or not they were from the planet Krypton for some months, I finally figured out that they were probably just trying to remember which mark corresponded to which card, and whether they were going to draw land #3 or not.
Solution: Look at an opponent’s sleeves while you shuffle their deck and see if they are marked enough that you can tell one card from another. If you can, tell a judge of your concerns. If the cheater is smart, the judge probably won’t give them a harsh penalty, but at least they’ll have to get new sleeves and won’t have the advantage of the marks during your match. Additionally (assuming the opponent is guilty), by calling a judge the player will likely get a warning, and you will have helped out by adding evidence against possible cheaters to be used down the road.
Have you ever seen an opponent reach out and touch his deck for no apparent reason during a match? Sometimes the opponent might rub their thumb up the side of the deck to hear the snap of the cards, and sometimes they’ll run their thumb up the corner of the library, or along the end. It’s likely that this is just a bad nervous habit, but with some players it’s a cheat designed to gain a significant advantage. There are three primary methods with this one, all of which can yield similar results.
First of all, let me state a fact: It is relatively easy to tell whether a card is a foil or not, even inside a sleeve, by its stiffness. Even though judges will often check decks for excessive foil usage or marked decks via foils, if you actually know how many foils are in your deck and what those cards might be, you can then tell where they are in the deck and let probability guide your play.
Say I am playing a sixty card deck that has 18 foil lands and 8 foil creatures (2 play sets). By knowing that two out of my top three cards are foils, I have now narrowed the options for what two of my next three cards could be to either lands or specific creatures. If what I am looking for happens to be not-a-land or either foil creature, I know that I need to use a shuffle effect to give me a fresh chance to draw said cards. Even if I don’t have a shuffle effect, I now have statistical odds on what cards I’ll be drawing for the next three turns and can adjust my play appropriately.
2) Sleeve marks on the front of the sleeves.
This one takes some sensitivity, but sleeve corners can be marked on the front side to give minute clues as to what cards they are. Since the front of sleeves (and particularly the corners) are likely given less scrutiny during deck checks than the backs, marking cards in this fashion is easy and relatively safe for the cheater – sleeves get dinged all the time and often come out of the package with minor defects, and nobody can really cheat via marks on the front, right? If you are really paranoid, all you need to do is mark seemingly random cards and you will almost never get nailed by a deck check beyond a judge telling you that you’ll need to change your sleeves, and yet you’ll get some sort of advantage simply by practicing your "nervous habit."
3) Dirty Peeks.
This is another old school cheat that actually forced a change in sleeve acceptance. The reason why you can’t use those cool reflective sleeves when playing Magic is because players could use the reflection on the sleeve to see what card was being drawn, or if they "accidentally" lifted a card too high from their library without seeing it, they could use the reflection to tell what card they would draw next. These days, you aren’t allowed to use reflective sleeves at higher REL tournaments, but you can still get an advantage by possibly seeing what color the card on top might be via a surreptitious glance down as you mess with the library. If you fiddle with your deck consistently, it’s likely the opponent will stop paying attention to it, and the occasional quick peek will go unnoticed.
My advice on this one is to just keep an eye out for opponents whose nervous habits include messing with their library, and call a judge if you should encounter one. As I said above, it’s probable that this is nothing more than a bad habit picked up because Magic players like to hear or feel the snap of cards while their brain works, but there’s a chance that something seedier is going on.
The Inverse Cheat
This one is a combination shuffle cheat and sleeve cheat, though in the past it was used on differentiable card backs as well. The idea behind this is that any sleeves or cards that have seen a few rounds of play will likely have some minor marking to them that is visible to an expert. (Typically, the lands will show some wear from being tapped, while the spells and animals will be relatively unadulterated.) The person shuffling then pile shuffles an opponent’s deck into marked and unmarked piles, stacks them on top of each other, and then hands the deck back to the opponent who may then only cut the cards.
Now obviously this only matters if your deck is visibly marked enough to distinguish, which also means it is visibly marked enough for you to cheat yourself. That’s the reason why I call this one the inverse cheat. If someone is using marked sleeves, you can pile them to the point that you are almost certain they will get an all lands or all spells hand and there is nothing they can do about it. More than one Pro Tour Top 8 match was lost to this "cheat" back in the day.
This category describes cheats that are enabled because the cheater uses a particular style of behavior in order to earn favorable results from the judges. What they do is not necessarily acting, but enables the cheater to massage judge and player interactions in the right way, so that they are able to get away with something they shouldn’t.
The Loveable Oaf
This one typically involves the creation of an image that the cheater is a likeable, though occasionally clumsy/forgetful guy. (Note: It might even be true.) Once the image is established, it lets the player get away with more during player-to-player interactions, and it also allows them to earn extra leeway with judges via abuse of certain rulings that can yield favorable penalties on warnings.
Take the "looking at extra cards" punishment for example. The penalty for this infraction is that a warning is given, and the deck is shuffled so that the top card is now random. If you already have some idea what that top card is, it becomes easy to see that one could occasionally use this penalty to get a new card placed on top of their deck in exchange for a warning. Now it’s possible the player is merely clumsy, or the venue is hot and the sleeves have become sticky or whatever – the reasons are actually irrelevant. If players earn this type of warning repeatedly, they are in fact cheating and should be punished for it. I’m certain there are other instances besides the "looking at extra cards" penalty that can be abused in minor ways that seem innocent, until you realize they happen too consistently to be accidental.
It is my opinion that this particular abuse of the rules is made more effective by the fact that DCI Reporter doesn’t spit out warning info on a player when new warnings are issued. If I’m a judge interested in cracking down on patterns of behavior (which is what this is), I’d like to see a one or two-year list of warnings a player has accumulated when I add a new one to their record. This would allow me to immediately see whether the player is intentionally sloppy and potentially abusing the warning system, or whether it was an isolated, harmless incident.
The "No Speaka English"
This is a classic cheat that has been exploited throughout Magic’s history, but has recently come to the fore again. Because Magic is a worldwide game, players at Pro Tours will often run into other players that they cannot easily communicate with. English is considered the universal language among magicians, but not everyone is expected to speak it at all, much less fluently. Because not everyone speaks the same language and because in Magic, the devil is certainly in the details, communication difficulties about match states and plays will arise and are generally dealt with in an expedient fashion by multilingual judges.
However, some players take the communication confusion, and use fast play plus language barriers to reap a special sort of advantage. Take this example from a previous article of mine where I discussed a textbook case of NSE:
"At Worlds this year, Mori was playing Jelger Wiegersma, had three mana open, and attacked with a Selesnya Guildmage and Llanowar Elf into Jelger’s empty board, saying "Take 3." Wiegersma then reached for his Quicksand and Mori quickly untapped his guys, playing it off as a misunderstanding when a judge was called."
Because of the language barrier, it’s relatively easy to take back mistakes as "misunderstandings" and then exploit the information you gleaned from the misunderstanding to win the game. Warnings are not always given out for this sort of thing (you certainly get away with it a lot more than you would with two players and a judge who speak the same language), and even then if you only use the cheat sparingly, you are highly unlikely to be punished for it. It does not change the fact that certain players exploit this to the max, eeking an advantage out of the situation nearly every time it arises, and thus creating a pattern of behavior that should be able to be tracked. It also does not change the fact that players who abuse a language barrier are cheaters and should be treated as such.
Special Bonus Section: Recover – It’s the Cheatiest!
I’m not bringing this up because I want to pick on judges, because I know both recover and the slowtrip mandatory triggers leave them in a tough spot, but I think the way recover is currently being handled is a disaster.
When I checked this weekend, the ruling on what should happen if one misses the mandatory effect on a recover card in the graveyard and then takes significant action, is that a warning will be issued, and then the recover card will be left in the graveyard. My understanding (which is far from perfect) for why it’s treated this way is because other mandatory triggers (like forgetting to put a counter on a Vinelasher Kudzu after playing a land, and then attacking with it before you realized you forgot) are handled in this fashion and it seems to work fine for them. Sadly, following this standard with the recover mechanic creates an actual incentive to cheat.
By leaving the card in the graveyard, anyone who wants to exploit this ruling simply has to run the Loveable Oaf, and they will be rewarded with a later opportunity to retrieve their recover card. The simple solution that would fix any possible exploits would be to give the warning and then remove the card from the graveyard, but that’s not how it works right now. This leads to situations where players are guaranteed to be able to exploit this problem once a tournament, and possibly more if their opponents don’t call judges on them for forgetting it the first time – a situation to be avoided if at all possible. I talked to former Wizards of the Coast intern Zvi Mowshowitz at the prerelease about it, and he suggested this certainly wasn’t the way they intended the mechanic to see play when they were developing it in R&D.
Rumor has it that dealing with forgotten recover triggers is seeing serious debate on the upper level judge mailing lists and might see change in the near future, but it’s also possible it won’t, so I figured I’d mention it here so you can be aware of it.
Though much of what I have listed above might seem innocent, they are actually clever abuses of the rules (or cheats) designed to give players that use them a small, but definite advantage in a game where information is key. This advantage is often enough to sway a close battle between two players, and if multiple cheats are used together, the advantages gained can be significant. The reason why players continue to get away with them is because not enough people know what to look for in terms of the specific cheats, and not enough is done on the judge side to allow them to track and punish patterns of abuse. Additionally, not enough players contact judges when sketchy situations occur, which allows savvy cheaters to push minor exploits for all they are worth.
Hopefully this article has been a positive contribution to the literature on cheating, and if you have anything you would like to dispute or quibble with, I’d love to hear about it in the forums.
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