By Tom Fowler
(Editor's Note: We feel that this article is as relevant today as it was when it was written over two years ago, and "Classic-ized" over a year ago. With TSP Block PTQs in full swing, now is the time to learn the unscrupulous methods some players might use against you. If you haven't read this before, you should definitely find it to be useful and eye-opening. If you read it the first time... well, a refresher can't hurt, can it?)
If you’ve played competitive Magic, you’ve probably been cheated at some point. Sounds bad, huh? The worst part is, you weren’t aware it was happening. Maybe your opponent drew an extra card, or two, or quite a few more. Maybe after a long and complicated combat sequence, he didn’t send a lethally-damaged creature of his to the graveyard. Maybe he paid for that Wrath of God he really needed to cast. The reality is that many players don’t pay enough attention to their opponents and what those opponents are doing. Less scrupulous players will use these lapses to run the savage cheats.
What I’m going to tell you here is how avoid having the savage cheats run at your expense. There’s just one problem with this: by telling you what you should be watching for, I’m also telling you how you can cheat. However, I doubt that will be a problem. Someone who’s not a cheater isn’t suddenly going to become one just because he read an excellent article about it. After all, I’ve read about Jack the Ripper, but that didn’t make me start knifing prostitutes – homeless people fight back less.
Cheating, of course, is a Very Bad Thing in a DCI-sanctioned tournament. The standard penalty for cheating is a disqualification without prize, and depending upon the nature of the offense, a suspension from sanctioned play could very well follow. If you’re the type of cad who would cheat a fellow competitor, this is what’s in store for you after your fellow players are armed with the knowledge presented here. If you suspect your opponent is cheating, you should call for a judge immediately. It might turn out to be an honest mistake, but that’s for the judge to figure out, not you.
While I’m going to list some of the common nefarious tactics to watch out for, I’m sure I won’t cover them all. If you’ve seen or the been the victim of some other method of skullduggery not mentioned here, then I encourage you to discuss it in the forum thread for this article. The more information we have, the less susceptible we are to rapscallions.
1. Watch your opponent for drawing extra cards.
Simple enough, right? You’d be surprised how many people really don’t pay attention to what their opponents are doing. They might have tunnel vision for the tabletop. They might just be distracted by people or things around them. Instead of chatting up your friends, watch your opponent. Be wary of your opponent’s friends who might try to chat you up, since they could be trying to distract you while your opponent casts Deep Analysis on himself for free. If spectators are distracting you, you can call a judge to have them removed from the area, and they have to comply.
It's good, but not free.
It's good, but not free.
Staying focused on your match is just good advice in general. You could miss key strategic decisions if you allow yourself to be distracted.
Beating the cheat: Keep an eye on your opponent all the time. Watch him whenever he draws a card to make sure he’s only drawing one. Also, you can count his number of permanents, cards in hand, and cards in the graveyard at any time. Remember to account for any card-drawing spells, mulligans, or anything that would cause the number to be different from what you’d expect. If you count up a number that shouldn’t be, double-check. If it’s still off, there may be shenanigans afoot, so call for a judge.
1a. Watch your opponent for drawing too few cards.
The opposite of what was just mentioned, this tactic isn’t seen as often, but it’s usually worse for you. Your opponent will “under-draw” at some point, maybe one fewer card to start the game, or only two cards from a Concentrate, etc. At some point, he’ll start counting your permanents and cards and discover that you have more than you’re supposed to. He’ll then call a judge and make the case that you must have drawn an extra card. Hopefully, the judge will get this right, but if not, you’re looking at a game loss.
Beating the cheat: Do the same thing as before. Always watch your opponent’s draws. Make sure he draws the right number of cards at the start of the game. Make sure he draws a card every turn. Make sure he draws the right number of cards when he plays a card-drawing spell. Don’t be the innocent victim of a penalty you never should have gotten.
1b. Watch your opponent for extra draws after “forgotten” upkeep effects.
Let’s say you have a permanent that gives both players an upkeep effect, like Seizan, Perverter of Truth. Your opponent seems like a friendly chap, and the two of you have been bantering back and forth and keeping the attitude light. It’s his turn, and he draws a card after he untaps. Whoospie, he “forgot” about Seizan. He certainly seems apologetic enough, and after he reads the card a couple times and talks a bit, he marks off -2 life and draws his pair of cards. Then he draws his card for the turn again. If you fail to notice this, he’s getting a huge advantage on you. Obviously, he can’t do this every turn, but even once or twice is enough.
Beating the cheat: As above, keep a sharp eye on your opponent. Also, be aware that some opponents will just be chatty and gregarious by nature, while others will use it as a façade to get you off your guard. If you’re in doubt as to your friendly opponent’s intentions, presume the worse. Don’t be a dick to the fellow, but make sure you’re not letting him slide on sloppy play just because he seems nice enough; that sloppy play may well be deliberate.
2. Know the rules.
In my opinion, there’s little point in playing a game, and certainly little point in trying to play it competitively, if you don’t know the rules of engagement. You don’t have to be a judge (though it doesn’t hurt – we know the rules and we get the chicks), but you should be familiar with the current rules of the game, the universal tournament and floor rules, and the current Oracle wordings of the cards in the environment. As a player in a sanctioned event, it’s your responsibility to know these things. If you’re lacking in one or more areas, go to http://www.magicthegathering.com and download the appropriate documents. Many of your opponents will know the rules very well. They could use this disparity in rules knowledge to their advantage, and it’s perfectly legal. They might also try to go outside the rules for an advantage. If you don’t know they’re doing that, you’re in a bad way.
Beating the cheat: It’s simple: know the rules. Download the latest version of the Comprehensive Rules and read them. Do the same with the Floor Rules and Universal Tournament Rules. If you’re playing with older cards, download the latest Oracle and check for new wordings and errata. If you know the rules, you won’t fall victim to someone trying to exploit you using the rules. Knowing the rules can make you a better player, and if you know the rules better than your opponent, you could use that to your advantage (within the rules, of course). Also, never take your opponent’s word for it that something works a certain way, even if seems knowledgeable and even if he claims to be a judge. Maybe he is, but you should let one of the folks actually wearing the stripes sort things out.
3. “No, really, I’m still at 18 life.”
Tournaments require you to have a visible means of tracking your life total. Many players use dice, either a d20 (or a “spindown life counter,” as the Fat Packs call it) or a pair of d10s. The problem with dice is that they’re easy to accidentally or deliberately manipulate. A simple bump of the table can send the die tumbling onto a different side. An opponent might surreptitiously jostle his die when he draws a card, gaining life here and there, completely unbeknownst to you until there’s a dispute in the totals. Judges can often sort out life total disputes, but if you think your opponent should be at 12, yet can’t say what you did to get him there, you’re not likely to come out ahead.
My judge senses are tingling...
My judge senses are tingling...
Beating the cheat: Always, always, ALWAYS use pen and paper to keep both players’ life totals. If a dispute arises between one player using dice and the other using pen and paper, judges will side with the pen and paper. It doesn’t change when the table gets bumped, after all, and writing down a new life total is bound to be noticed by anyone not in a coma. As an added measure, in addition to keeping life totals with pen and paper, briefly note what caused each life total change. If you swung three times with your Troll Ascetic, write “TA” next to where you wrote 17, 14, and 11 for your opponent’s life. That way, if there’s ever a dispute over life totals (which can happen, even if both players use pen and paper), you can point to your notes and reconstruct every point of damage in the game. Also, it’s a good idea to confirm life totals with your opponent regularly, to head off disputes before they happen.
One thing I want to mention here: never let your opponent keep your life total for you, even if he’s using pen and paper and even if he seems trustworthy. First of all, you’re violating tournament rules by not keeping your own life total, and second, you’re giving your opponent carte blanche to be dishonest. Always use pen and paper to keep both life totals, and note what caused them to change.
4. Watch for marked sleeves.
Did you know that you’re required to shuffle your opponent’s deck before each game in tournaments run at Rules Enforcement Level (REL) 3 and above? This includes PTQs, Regionals, Grand Prix, and all Pro-level events. At lower-level events, you can just cut or “tap” the deck (never do that, by the way; always at least cut). Marked sleeves can be accidental, since the sleeves might have been marked in some way right out of the box. They could also be marked deliberately by an opponent who wants to know where his key spells are and have the chance (honest or otherwise) to find them.
Beating the cheat: While you’re shuffling your opponent’s deck, take a look at his sleeves (or his card backs if he’s raw-dogging it, but we’re going to presume decks are sleeved here). Are they new or old? Old sleeves could have uneven wear on them. Are they scuffed a bit from playing in the event, or are there definite markings on some of the sleeves? If you think the sleeves are marked, call for a judge. The judge will look at the sleeves, and if he agrees that they’re marked, he will then check the deck to see if there is a pattern to those markings. An easy (though perhaps, not inexpensive) way to avoid having this happen to you is to buy new sleeves before each event.
5. Be aware of marked cards.
Even if your opponent’s sleeves are fine and dandy, the cards in his deck may not be. Maybe he bent a few of his key cards just enough to tell the difference when shuffling. Maybe he’s playing with all promo foil lands, like the Urza’s Saga promo foils, and the early Arena foil lands. Those older foils warp over time, are slightly thicker than a standard Magic card, and are considered marked cards. I have had to educate friends who like these lands as to why they shouldn’t use them in tournament decks. A deck that’s full of Saga and Arena promo basic lands can be cut to a basic land every time; I’ve done it to show people why they shouldn’t be playing those cards.
Beating the cheat: Knowledge is power, and now you know about these early foil basic lands. If you see your opponent is playing these and only these as his basic lands, call a judge. Every judge should be aware of the problems early foils present. Even if your opponent had no idea he was using marked cards, he should be forced to play with nonfoil basic lands. Don’t be seduced by the shine on these old cards: they’re as marked as they come.
Aside: Wizards really needs to come up with a clear policy on the use of foils in sanctioned events. A few random foils here and there is never a big deal. However, old foils are thicker than regular cards and warp differently (the problem is not confined to just old promo lands). These should be considered marked cards. Foils made since the introduction of the new cardface are made differently and don’t suffer from these problems. The heart of the matter is that a lot of people like foils, and a lot of older foils are both very playable and very marketable. The vast majority of people playing with their old foils are not doing so to gain some kind of advantage; I’d wager that few of them even know the older foils can be so problematic.
Without a clear policy regarding these cards, though, use of foils is up to the head judge of each event. I know several judges who consider a deck with all foil basic lands – even the new foils – to be a problem, while others feel it’s just something people do to pimp their deck. Obviously, if all copies of a key card in someone’s deck are foil, particularly old foils, there is a potential for abuse, but should judges operate from the presumption of guilt there? It would hurt the value and collectibility of foils – both of which suffer once a set gets age to it – if they couldn’t be played in sanctioned events. However, many of the foils players are using pose problems from the marked cards standpoint. A decisive policy is needed here. End Aside.
6. Six-pile shuffling and deck stacking.
Most players pile shuffle in tournaments. However, some of those players are using this common method of shuffling to stack their decks. Let’s say it’s between games, and your opponent is riffle shuffling his deck. He can probably see the bottom card or two, but there’s no harm in that, is there? After a minute or so of riffling, he pile shuffles into six piles, stacks them one atop the other, and presents his deck to you.
I’m not sure what your first reaction would be, but mine would be to call a judge immediately. Here’s why: it’s very likely your opponent presented a stacked deck. People who are good at shuffling can arrange where their lands and spells are while they’re riffle shuffling. Then they pile shuffle into six piles, which only serves to preserve their stacking pattern, not randomize their deck in any way. If you just cut their deck, you’ve done nothing to break up the library manipulation.
What NOT to do when cutting...
(image (c) Wizards of the Coast)
What NOT to do when cutting...
(image (c) Wizards of the Coast)
Beating the cheat: If you see this happen, present your deck, then put your hand over your opponent’s and call for a judge. Don’t let him take his deck back just because you hollered for the zebra; he presented it and he’ll have to live with the consequences. Explain to the judge that your opponent riffled for a minute or so, then did a six-pile shuffle and presented. Any competent judge will immediately hear alarm bells going off in his head. The deck will be checked for a pattern. If it turns out there isn’t one, then no harm, no foul. If it turns out there is, then you have a free win, and Captain Cheats sitting across from you just punched his ticket for the day a few rounds earlier than expected.
The best way to not get this called on you is to shuffle into a number of piles not divisible into the number of cards in your deck. For a 60-card deck, piles of 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 are bad choices, since it’s easy to lay down a stacked deck in those numbers and pick it back up again. I always pile shuffle into seven piles. Another important detail is to always riffle shuffle or side shuffle your deck several times after you’ve piled. Cheaters might give a token side shuffle or two, but they’re not breaking up their pattern doing it. Riffle or side shuffle 5-10 times and you should be fine. My routine is to pile shuffle into seven piles, then riffle once more than the number of cards I’m drawing. So I riffle eight times for the standard opening hand, seven after a mulligan, etc.
The DCI used to require three riffle shuffles before presenting. That is no longer a requirement, but be very wary of an opponent who does not riffle a piled deck at least three (and probably more) times before presenting. This is actually a very sticky issue, since, unless the deck is very obviously stacked, it’s going to be hard for judges to cite someone for manipulating their deck. It is a requirement that your deck be “sufficiently randomized” when you present it to your opponent. What sucks for us as players is that a “sufficiently randomized” deck is invariably going to have some of those land clumps and spell clumps that we all hate so much. We shuffle like it’s our job because we want to get rid of land clumps and ensure we don’t get mana-screwed or mana-flooded. However, a properly randomized deck will still slap us in the face here and there. Realize that you’ll never be able to get rid of land clumps and spell clumps if you shuffle honestly. Just make sure your opponent shuffles honestly.
7. “That really sucks you presented a 59-card deck . . . “
The problem, of course, is that you didn’t present a 59-card deck. (You are counting your sideboard before each game, and counting your main deck as you pile shuffle, aren’t you?) You presented a 60-card deck to your opponent, but when he pile shuffled it, he got 59 cards. So he counted it, and then you counted, and you both got 59 cards. When the judge came over, lo and behold, there was a card under the table. Guess you dropped it at some point before you presented.
Hint: you didn’t drop anything. Your opponent deliberately dropped a card while he was pile shuffling your deck, then nudged it across the floor to make it look like you did it. A judge will see this, presume you dropped the card, and cite you for a game loss because you presented an illegal deck. This is very likely to happen in the third game of a close match, probably one your opponent didn’t expect would be so close.
Beating the cheat: Watch your opponent like a hawk while he pile shuffles your deck. You can shuffle his in the meantime, but make sure you don’t take your eyes off what he’s doing with your deck in his hands. Also, make sure you pile shuffle before you present, and that your deck had the correct number of cards in it when you did. If you know your opponent deliberately dropped a card from your deck while shuffling it, that’s a lot better than thinking you might have done it. Judges don’t look kindly on those who try to get their opponents game losses.
8. Scrying != card drawing.
In addition to the scrying spells people often play (Condescend, Magma Jet, etc.), this cheat also applies to a spell like Impulse, or anything that lets you look at the top X cards of your library. Your opponent will have some cards in his hand. We’ll presume his library is kept to his right, so he’ll have the cards in his hand in his left hand, while looking at the cards from his library in the right hand. He has to decide what card(s) to keep or where to put the cards he saw, so he holds them beside the cards in his hand to better evaluate his decision. During this process, a card or two he was looking at ends up in his hand, and a card in his hand that he didn’t want may or may not have taken its place.
Beating the cheat: Make sure your opponent keeps his actual hand and the cards he’s looking through clearly separate at all times. If pile A gets too close to pile B, ask him to hold them farther apart. If he acts hurt, surprised, or upset at your suggestion, too bad. If you want, tell him you’re giving him the chance to avoid making an honest mistake. In reality, you’re protecting yourself against being cheated, which he doesn’t need to know – even though he might suspect it if he was trying to get away with something.
9. Free tutoring.
You’re playing a Standard game. Your opponent, playing Tooth and Nail, just cast Sylvan Scrying. He already has the Urzatron and the mana to play his deck’s signature spell, so he obviously doesn’t have it. You’ve been beating him down with your White Weenie deck, and if he doesn’t draw a Tooth and Nail next turn, he’s dead. He gets his land for the Scrying, plays it, and shuffles his deck, which you just tap on, like you’ve done all game. On your turn, you attack again, dropping him to a precariously low life total. It’s the crucial turn for him, and he draws… Tooth and Nail! How lucky! He gets Mephidross Vampire and Triskelion, proceeds to kill your whole team, and goes on to win the game. Wow, that was a really crucial topdeck.
The problem was that it wasn’t a topdeck. Your opponent played a search spell, and while shuffling his library afterwards, he saw a copy of Tooth and Nail. He then “shuffled” that copy to the very top of the deck and presented it to you. And you just tapped or knocked on the top card like you’ve been doing. By doing that, you let your opponent cast Demonic Tutor and fetch a land, all for the bargain price of 1G. I’d buy that card for a dollar, if it were ever printed.
Make sure this always costs .
Make sure this always costs .
Beating the Cheat: Always at least cut your opponent’s deck. You can always shuffle it after he does, but then he gets one final cut, and I won’t blame you if you don’t want to give a cheater the last chance to touch his deck. Here’s another thing to do: cut in different spots each time. If your opponent knows you always cut to the middle of the deck, then he could put the card he needs to draw in the middle and hope you cut to it. If that gives him, say, a 25% chance to draw it, based on exactly where you cut, as opposed to a 10% chance to draw it, then he’s helped himself tremendously. Cut to the middle the first time, but then cut at the bottom quarter of the deck. Then do a Sarne cut. Then cut at the top third. Your opponent won’t know where the cut will be, so he can’t try the free tutoring trick.
10. Land Piles.
This is a habit people often pick up in casual games. Some players will pile their lands up when they get a certain number of them. Five lands which were separate and easy to count suddenly become a pile that’s harder to keep track of. After a few more land drops, you might not be sure how many lands of which types your opponent has in play. There’s also the chance that he’ll deliberately put lands in the wrong pile to hide the fact that he’s light on a color. Visara the Dreadful is pretty good at , but she’s a little better at , wouldn’t you agree?
Beating the cheat: Ask your opponent not to pile his lands. You can also separate the piles and examine the lands if you want. Permanents are public information, and you have a right to know which lands he has in play, and how many. At an Invasion Block PTQ back in the day, I was playing against a fellow whose main win condition was Urza’s Rage, which my control deck obviously couldn’t counter. Once he got to 10 lands, he piled them. I made sure to know how many he had in play. When he drew his 11th land, he slammed it down onto the table, tapped all his lands and said, “Rage you with kicker.” I said, “That would be great if it really cost 11 mana.” He scooped up his cards. Had I not been so observant, he might have gotten that one by me. Don’t let that happen to you.
Wrapping Up: Things You Should Always Do
While the advice above will prepare you for specific methods of cheating, there are things you can do to lessen the chance that your opponent will try to cheat against you.
1. Always watch your opponent. This means not getting distracted by people or things outside the match. Keep your mind on the game, but keep an eye on your opponent. People often cheat when they’re sure they’re not being watched. Some folks are brazen enough to try and cheat even under observation, but just watching your opponents will discourage many people from even trying to cheat you.
2. Call a judge if you suspect shenanigans are afoot. If you think your opponent has tried to pull a fast one on you, stick your hand in the air and call for a judge. Explain the situation to the judge and let him investigate from there. Give him the facts, but don’t editorialize. The judge will ask you and your opponent some questions and proceed from there.
3. Always cut or shuffle your opponent’s deck. Don’t let people stack their deck against you, and don’t let them tutor for free. Most people just tap on the deck in pickup games or even in playtesting. Get into the habit of cutting or shuffling, even in your practice games. You want to develop habits that will help you in tournaments, not habits that will make you into a doormat for cheating opponents.
4. Keep both players’ life totals with pen and paper. Pens are about a dollar a dozen in an office supply store, and you can get a small notebook for under a dollar, too. Don’t be a skinflint when it comes to this. Keep the life totals, and make a brief notation about what caused them to change. If there’s ever a dispute about life totals, even an honest misunderstanding, you’ll be glad you did.
5. Know the rules. You’re playing the game, so you should know how to play it. Download and read all the rules documents you can find, Read columns like “Cranial Insertion” here at Salvation, and “Saturday School” on magicthegathering.com. If you know the rules, you’ll know when your opponent is trying to step outside them. I’m not encouraging anyone to be a rules lawyer, but knowing what is and isn’t kosher is the start of a good defense.
I’d like to make one thing clear, especially to those of you who are infrequent or new tournament players: not all your opponents will be cheaters. In fact, the vast majority of your opponents will be decent, honest people. However, there are people in all walks of life who take shortcuts to get ahead, and folks who play in Magic tournaments are not immune to the lure of the cheat. Cheaters are not very common, but you’ll run into one at some point. My hope is that this article has given you both things to watch out for, and advice on what to do to prevent yourself from being cheated. If it were up to me, cheaters would be publicly humiliated in front of the entire tournament, then taken out behind the event hall and scourged. The DCI, however, does not share my enthusiasm for this admittedly Byzantine solution. Just be aware that cheaters are out there, and remember what you can do to avoid being one of their victims.
(Earlier influential articles in this same vein were written by Dave Price, Rob Dougherty, and Mike Flores.)