Theft: The Game Has Changed

Michael discusses a growing problem in the Magic community: theft. He identifies different types of theft at Magic events and what we can do to combat them.

As the title indicates, this article is going to be about theft in our community. However, I’m not simply going to look into how to protect ourselves, though I will touch on this topic. I want to open a dialogue about the entire topic in the hopes that this article will, in some small way, assist the Magic community in coping with and gaining the edge against this growing trend and its perpetuators.

I’ve seen things like this before; as an intelligence analyst for first the US Army then the government, I’ve been looking into criminal and illegal activities for the better part of a decade. We spent years looking into how insurgents in Iraq were funding and recruiting in the shadows while still maintaining active public lives. This is what’s going on in the Magic community—fellow gamers are maintaining the visage of legitimacy while quietly casing and plotting in the shadows.

Through all of this, I can honestly say that we, as a community, are to blame when it comes to providing a permissive environment for these thieves to operate. I can also say that it isn’t our fault either. While I know this is confusing, I promise I will explain.

First, let me get into why this is happening.

Magic cards are expensive. Like, really expensive. The game is amazing and is growing, as evidenced by the record-breaking attendance at Grand Prix Charlotte earlier this year. As such, supply and demand dictates that the secondary market for Magic singles is also booming. This has a ton of additional effects, including people who take Magic finance incredibly seriously in addition to more and more secondary singles stores opening constantly to capitalize on the popularity of the game.

For those of you who are like me and have been playing since the 90s, think about that for a second: people take financial trends of this little fun game as serious as they would any other financial venture. I remember back in the day when I first started playing when the jaw-droppingly expensive Black Lotus was a whopping $300 (and I’m sure I’ll get comments talking about how they could get it for ten bucks; I even found a price guide scan where a mint Beta Lotus was only $30). This is a testament to the growth of the game and the collectible nature of the cards, but again, this has secondary effects.

Nowadays, on this very site an Alpha Black Lotus is going for $5999.99 (and sold out). Beta? $3999.99. Obviously, on other sites you will find different prices, but stop and think about that: a 2.5 x 3.5 inch piece of cardboard with no barcode or serial number is worth thousands of dollars. The only thing that grants ownership is possession; past that, it is nearly impossible to state definitively that a card belongs to one person or the other. The expression "possession is nine-tenths of the law" holds true here.

What does that mean?

For starters, it means that all it takes is for "ownership" of an investment (which, let’s be honest, any Magic collection is at this point) to change between people is a shift of the eye and a quick grab. That is it. Once that is done, barring someone catching the act or a successful foot chase, I would give you less than a 1% chance of ever reclaiming your lost items. The problem is that, again, it is incredibly difficult to match owner to cards when a ton of similar cards exist without identifying marks. Plausible deniability will make sure that you are a sad person even if you find the culprit.

I would say that this is a main reason why this trend has started picking up in the past couple of years; card collections are becoming quite valuable, and as Magic players we tend to keep our collections in our bags or on our person when we come to large events. Again, stop for a second and think: we bring thousands of dollars’ worth of unmarked valuables with us in easy-to-grab bags to events where the "right" people know what these items are worth.

An equivalent would be going to a diamond convention and storing all of your wares in a backpack. While larger diamonds are laser-inscribed for identification purposes, smaller diamonds aren’t identifiable at all (which is why diamond thieves have their own special group at the FBI investigating them). Anyone who is looking to steal these items would know to show up at this convention and just look for someone who isn’t vigilantly watching over their bags as they set them down to deal with others.

How ridiculous does that sound? When I look at the situation through that lens, I couldn’t imagine a diamond dealer showing up with such rough security measures knowing what’s on the line. So why do we, as Magic players, let our guard down as much as we do?

When we go to these events, we are amongst friends and fellow gamers; this is where we tend to feel the most at home, the most relaxed. We can finally let go of all of the stresses of life and just hang out with friends and game. It is our time to ignore the BS of the world around us and just have fun.

I know personally that I grew up being ridiculed and picked on mercilessly for years. Magic tournaments were the one place I could go where not only did I not get picked on but I belonged. It was the first place where I felt acceptance, and as such I could let my guard down. I didn’t have to constantly look out for the next verbal dart that I had to dodge; I didn’t have to put on a tough exterior demeanor to show that the barbs being thrown at me weren’t hurting as much as they truly were. I could just be me, 13-year-old Michael Martin who just wanted to have fun.

I’m guessing that this story isn’t unique to just me either…

We learn that Magic tournaments are places we can let our guard down; we can trust these people, even if we don’t consciously realize it. We play with them at our kitchen tables, and we spend hours with them at the local store. Even if we don’t know the people around us personally, usually they know people that we know, so in a way we’re all part of one network of friends—we’re a community. We don’t consider theft as even a possibility (at least, we didn’t) since we know we’re just going to the Magic tournament.

The game has changed, though.

Now these cards are worth money. When money gets involved, you tend to see the worst in people. We are no longer carrying around the equivalent of bubble-gum baseball cards; we’re carrying around enough value to pay for entire houses and cars. We’re slightly lucky that our community is small enough so that regular criminals don’t understand the value that lies within the bags we carry. They only see cards used for a "silly hobby." However, if a person who has the propensity to perform criminal acts is a Magic player, they very much understand the potential value that lies within our bags.

That is where things go south. Quickly.

Because everything that we know (our stuff is valuable, unidentifiable, and all located in our bags), these thieves also know because they do this as well. They also know that enough identical cards exist that they can’t be caught trying to move their ill-gotten gains as long as they do it somewhat intelligently. We are being attacked by an enemy who knows us as well as we know ourselves and who can operate freely within our community due to our permissive nature.

That is scary when you consider how hard it is to actually catch these people.

Another reason our tournament settings are so permissive is the fact that it is a tournament. We’re required to sit in long rows with almost no elbow room with nothing but our deck on the table (along with pad and paper, obviously). There is no room for someone’s backpack; it has to go on the floor. And because of the aforementioned lack of elbow room, it is actually impossible to keep an eye on the bag that we’ve placed under the seat, especially when you think about the fact that we are in a competitive tournament which requires absolute focus to solve difficult board states while playing around our opponent’s hand. We simply don’t have the spare mental capacity to also pay attention to the bag under our seats.

Again, to go back to the diamond convention scenario, imagine if the diamond convention’s activities required that you put your bag full of diamonds down and not pay attention to it for an hour straight, every hour, for ten hours. Would you bring it?

And yet here we are doing it time after time.

That’s not all though. Now that our cards are valuable enough to pay for entire houses and cars, the severity of crime that these thieves are willing to act out in order to steal our stuff is growing because, again, as soon as they have their hands on it, it’s theirs mostly without repercussion.

So what I want to do is take a look at the different ways that these thefts are being perpetuated. Then I want to look into how we can counteract these thefts through both our own actions and as a community.

Different Types of Theft

When I heard about a recent theft in New Jersey, I said "enough is enough" and posted a status on Facebook asking for any and all information on any theft that has recently occurred at a Magic tournament. While I know this was asking for a lot, I was hoping to pin down a pattern and location where these thieves (assuming, as I was, that they were operating as a theft ring) were living so I could start looking at possible suspects. While I’m not going to get into the specifics on what I found and the status of that case (the police detective is still working a lead and I don’t want to ruin it), what I want to go into is the different types of theft I was told about. There are chiefly three different types of theft, though this list isn’t all encompassing by any means.

The Deck Box Grab

I would say that this is the lowest level of theft at an event; not the least damaging, as some of these decks are quite expensive, just the one that is the least planned out and the one that probably involved the least prior intent. These are crimes of opportunity, and as with any group, you are going to have your bad apples that are willing to conduct this type of activity.

I picture a high school kid losing early to knock himself out of contention and wandering around bored. He comes across a deck box that was accidentally left behind when a group of friends got up to go get some Five Guys. He looks around, maybe even asks a nearby group if the box belongs to them since they saw him pick it up. He pretends to walk towards the front desk to turn it in, and when he’s sure that they’ve bought this ploy, he shoves the box in his bag and makes a beeline for the door. In his eyes, the crime is faceless, victimless, because he doesn’t have to see the effect that this has on his actual victim. He doesn’t see the time wasted in putting this deck together, the money wasted on purchasing the cards. He just sees an expensive group of cards that he can either add to his collection or sell for a quick buck.

Now, obviously this isn’t the only scenario for this. There are definitely people out there watching for forgotten deck boxes. But for the most part, people aren’t being scoped out in hopes that they leave behind a deck box. This is why I say that this is the theft with the least intent; it’s not like they’re watching you and planning on you leaving your box behind.

How We Can Combat This

This one is simple yet difficult. The simple answer is to always remember your deck box. However, the difficult part is that mistakes happen, and I know as much as the next person about how getting distracted by friendly banter can lead to leaving your stuff sitting there on the table.

As a community, we can do a couple of things. First, whenever we actually see a deck box sitting on the table with no obvious owner, we should take it to the front desk; even if someone comes up and claims that it is theirs, I’d say that we still ask for a judge to come over and help confirm. This may seem like a bit much, but remember that theft is becoming commonplace enough that someone lying about a box being theirs is well within the realm of possibility.

The Bag Grab

This is the gray area between "thoughtless crime of opportunity" and "planned victimization." I would say that the people doing this have the intent of doing something bad, even if the specific swipe itself wasn’t planned. I say this because taking a bag requires a bit more conviction than simply picking up a deck box that could literally belong to anyone (and also could be played off as "I was just going to turn this in to the front desk"). Most of the time, a bag swipe occurs within feet of the bag’s owner, sometimes right beneath their nose. They’re distracted by their game or conversation, and the bag is left there with no one watching. At that point, it’s as simple as catching a strap with a foot as the thief is walking by, dragging it away from prying eyes so the thief can pick it up and calmly walk away.

It’s that simple.

There are many flavors of bag swipers. The one I just referred to is what I’d call the opportunistic one. They intended to steal when they showed up but didn’t have anyone specific in mind. This person is the one that the most people will have trouble because of. For the most part, none of us has a collection so valuable and unique that it requires being scoped out to acquire our stuff; we’re normal players with a couple of decks and maybe a trade binder or two. We’re not the best target, just the easiest.

The other "flavor" of bag snatcher is much more serious. I’d say that they spend the majority of their time watching the trade tables, maybe even asking "do you have any trade stuff" to see exactly what each trader has to offer. They might not even be too concerned when you turn down a trade because their stuff doesn’t look overly appealing, and they just move on to the next person.

The thief will find someone who they think is an easy target with a valuable collection and start scoping them out. "How vulnerable are they? Do they take their eyes off their bag? How long do they take their eyes off their bag when they do? How much time do I have to grab the bag and get away before they’d notice?" They’re doing all of this analysis, and what are you doing? Focusing on trades, growing more and more complacent as you get used to seeing the same people around you at the trade tables.

Please realize what’s happening here: the thief is arming themself with information about your patterns and is prepared to do exactly what they need to get away cleanly while you are relaxed and making deals. You may consider yourself shrewd at the trade table, but the thief is equally astute when it comes to planning out the upcoming theft.

Not only that, but thieves are getting even more complex with their schemes. When Jonas Sinacola was assaulted at a Baltimore urinal a couple years ago, his assailant was a criminal who knew nothing of the game of Magic. A hired hand. He was directed to focus on Jonas and to try to get his bag. Now, not only are we being scoped out, but the thieves are getting clever enough to put a layer of deniability between them and you. The guy who assaulted Jonas was caught; the person who directed the assault was never caught.

I also feel that a special paragraph should go to people who love Cube. When you bring your cube with you, you are a walking target. People flock to cube drafts to watch the festivities, making it easy to spot cube owners (who tend to enjoy discussing their cubes, making their ownership obvious). The cube itself can easily be scoped out for value by watching the games, arousing no suspicion at all. Once the cubing is done, it is simply a matter of scoping out the owner in the same manner a value trader would be scoped out. Unfortunately, my good friend Justin Parnell was a victim of such a crime, losing his bag while standing in a group of friends having only briefly taken his eyes from his bag that was right beside him. These criminals knew exactly the situation they were looking for and acted swiftly when the opportunity showed itself. Justin was one of the most careful people I know with his cube; the fact that they got it away from him is a testament to their ability to steal.

How We Can Combat This

First, I want to say it before people in the comments do: stop bringing bags with you to events unless you need the entire contents and are willing to accept the risk of losing thousands of dollars in a flash. I know this sounds harsh, but it is a reality. StarCityGames.com has done a fantastic job of safeguarding tournament attendees at their events while within the tournament hall; however, Jonas was assaulted in a restroom away from the tournament hall. Unfortunately, no tournament organizer on the planet is going to be able to protect us 100% of the time. Some of that responsibility has to lie with ourselves.

If you are playing in a Standard Pro Tour Qualifier and have no intention on trading, just bring your deck box with your Standard deck. I know that the prospect of losing early and having nothing else to do sounds like a bad time, but is that worse than having it all stolen? If you are a value trader working the trade tables, I would honestly look into bags with locking mechanisms. I know you’re used to carrying a backpack around, but realize the value you carry and act accordingly. Thieves already realize it and are acting accordingly.

If you bring your cube, I would make sure that your bag is always on you, not even put down for a second after you wrap up the cubing. You are being watched, rest assured, simply because you own a cube. I would walk in a group after leaving the site as well because keeping your bag on you means nothing if you are mugged and the bag stolen from you.

This feels so weird to write about a Magic tournament, but this is the reality we now live in. It sucks—it really does—but the game has changed; we can’t afford to allow thieves the chance to target us just because we brought a backpack with us to an event.

Serious Criminal Acts

The Jonas assault could easily fall into this category too, as could Justin’s cube theft. These are the crimes that go above and beyond just preying on easy targets of opportunity. These crimes are planned out. In some cases, they’re planned out by dedicated theft rings that know what they’re doing and have built-in deniability in case one member gets caught, similar to gang structures which allow singular members to be caught without giving up the other members or causing serious damage to the functionality of the group as a whole.

Take, for example, a couple of weekends ago in New Jersey. Eli Kassis pulled up with his car mates at the tournament site. After letting the others out, he parked in the rear and got out to register for the tournament. Between the time when he parked and finished registering, someone had already broken into his car through the rear window, accessed the trunk through the back seat, and stolen a group of cards with a collective value approaching $80,000. This was all what could be carried in hand, and others’ stuff wasn’t touched.

Let’s break that down:

1. The thief/thieves knew exactly which car they were looking for.

2. They knew that Eli would be there for the event.

3. They knew exactly where the most expensive cards were stored.

4. They knew how to bypass the car alarm by breaking the rear window.

5. They knew which box contained the most valuable stuff.

They had Eli pretty well scoped out unfortunately. For everyone saying that he should have just not brought that amount of stuff with him, he actually had intent to do something with it—to complete a large deal with another trader. He did everything right; he didn’t bring his bags in, and he only brought what was necessary. Unfortunately, due to the amount of money that these cards were worth, the thief deemed it worthwhile to break into a car to steal just Eli’s most expensive stuff.

When people are committing Breaking and Entering crimes to steal Magic cards, you know that 1) the cards really are valuable enough since they’re warranting that level of criminal action and 2) the game has truly changed indeed.

Think this was a special case?

At the Grand Prix that Justin’s cube was stolen, Kenny Mayer’s car was broken into and a bag of Jonas Sinacola’s cards and a laptop were stolen. To quote Jonas:

"The trunk was directly broken into. It seemed they exploited a panel that could be popped off and then operated the trunk’s inside release. Aside from the panel being loose, there were no signs of entry or damage."

The thieves knew exactly how to get into the trunk through an exploitable panel. These aren’t happenstance—these criminals know what they’re doing.

After a recent PTQ in Glen Burnie, Maryland, Jarvis Yu went out with some friends afterward. He wasn’t even at the tournament site anymore and someone broke into his car and stole his stuff. They’re now following potential targets to other sites.

How We Can Combat This

This one is leagues tougher to tackle than the other two; there really is no easy answer. Seriously, every other mode of security would involve locking your items up. However, if a person is willing (and able) to break into whatever you locked your item up in, how can you protect against this?

Well, there are a few steps. The biggest help would be arming yourself with the knowledge that thieves are actively pursuing these avenues to commit theft.

The first thing you can do is make yourself less of a target. This involves bringing in only some of your collection. Yes, it is awesome that you own playsets of every Vintage playable and that your trade binder is solely Korean foils in addition to every Standard deck foiled out in Japanese. Showing that off or even bringing it in because you’re used to carrying all your stuff with you at all times, however, is going to start raising flags when you pull that stuff out. Thieves are going to take notice. If your collection is deemed valuable enough to risk Breaking and Entering, your risk level has just shot through the roof.

However, if you simply leave that stuff at home when you don’t need it, thieves won’t have you on their radar. Sure, you still stand the risk of lower level thefts occurring if you leave your stuff sitting around, but if you never get on the radar of these theft rings, you don’t run the risk of being scoped out for more serious crimes.

Next, if you are a value trader or cuber who brings your stuff with you because that’s the whole reason you show up to events in the first place, know that you’re being targeted. Don’t think that you’re not—you are. That is simply a reality we must face these days.

As such, use this article to be better prepared. They’re willing to break into your car, scope you out and snatch your bag, and even mug you to take your bag. If you are well known to keep stuff in your car, I’d rethink that as a safe way to store your cards. There is no easy answer, unfortunately, as there are so many variables.

If you have anywhere close to the value that Eli had in his trunk with you at an event, I’d even look into buying some sort of GPS tracker to put into your bag with your stuff. Make it so that it isn’t easily disposed of so that the thieves will have to bring it back with them wherever they take your cards. They’re not necessarily "cheap," but the value of that tracker when compared to your cards is nothing and the potential benefit of having it is astronomical. If I still brought my bag with me to events, I would definitely look into purchasing something like this.

I honestly wish I could give advice that caters to every single player out there to help prevent these life-altering events from happening. Unfortunately, there are just too many individual variables to account for in order to do so. Also, while I’m an analyst, I’m no criminal investigator either. If you’d like advice on how to better protect yourself, seeing a professional in that department wouldn’t be unwise. If you have any questions/suggestions, please leave them in the comments. A special request goes out to anyone who has a background in criminal justice; if you know of additional advice on how to better protect ourselves, please leave it in the comments below.

Thanks, and I hope this will have a positive impact on our community.

Michael Martin