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Cheating and Magic Tricks

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A couple of weeks ago, I returned back to my home town for a while and decided to use this time to reconnect with many friends and acquaintances I have in the area. During one of those casual meetings that included some non-Magic card games, one of my friends decided to show us a couple of card tricks. Card tricks and illusions have been a hobby of his for a long time, and he is pretty good at it. He presented several tricks, and I only managed to figure out one of those, and that was more or less by accident. This friend of mine played Magic the Gathering some years ago, so I asked him how hard would it be for him to cheat in a Magic tournament - drawing extra cards, deck manipulation and similar common cheats. His response was: "Let me show you."

So we played a couple of games of Magic where I intently followed what he was doing and when. Some things looked a bit suspicious but I can't say I really saw him cheat in any way. After the games were finished, he told me that he drew two extra cards, stacked his deck while shuffling, added a card from outside of the game to his hand and even added an illegal card to my deck! I checked, and the extra card he added was really in my deck (I didn't draw it though) and after he explained what and how he did all of this, I wasn't sure if I should be impressed or worried.

The first thing that went through my head was - How many of these 'professional' cheaters are there in Magic? How successful are they really? Are they in the pro circuit? How many times have I played against one of those and never even suspected anything?

These, and many other questions are something we ask ourselves whenever we are reminded of the fact that there are cheaters in Magic, and that some of them are doing really well because of the fact they are breaking the rules. It doesn't really take a lot of reminiscing for the names of Alex Bertoncini, Fabrizio Anteri, or Jared Boettcher to remind us of that fact. ..but, surely, those are isolated cases, right? I wouldn't be so sure.

How Often / How Many People Cheat, Really?

This is one of the main questions concerning the subject of cheating in Magic - how often does it occur? While Wizards of the Coast treat every cheater as bad publicity and try to keep it all as quiet as possible, I would say cheating is far more common than we suspect, or suspected at first. This anonymous survey on Reddit claims that 14% of players admitted to some level of cheating on Casual REL, 7,2% at Competitive and 4,4% at Professional. These numbers certainly aren't precise and as the thread author states, might be skewed by selection bias, where people who cheat are less likely to actually take part in the survey. If that is correct, our real numbers might even be higher than these stated above, and those were already rather high. These numbers pretty much mean that there is a good chance you faced at least one cheater in every prerelease and in every GP you played.

This thread also puts some other things into perspective - people presume that 'grinders' are the ones that are most likely to cheat, and it is very hard not to agree with this. People who are neither casuals nor established professionals are certainly the ones that have the biggest appetite for wins and are by far the most financially and emotionally invested in the game. This doesn't mean that every 'grinder' or aspiring pro is a cheater, but it certainly means that it might be wise to keep a closer look if you happen to play against one of those players. While grinders are perceived as most likely potential cheats, Hall of Famers and casuals are less likely to cheat, at least intentionally. Casual players might not care enough to cheat intentionally, but are often misinformed about what is considered cheating and what they shouldn't do. In case you are not sure about some rule, always talk to a judge you can trust. (not all judges have good enough knowledge of rules and regulations)

It is safe to say that cheating is most common in casual tournaments, where penalties might be less severe and where you can run into players who unintentionally cheat because they are unfamiliar with the rules. Also, some people believe that cheating is 'ok', if there are little to no prizes involved, since then you are not stealing anything from anyone.

Competitive REL is obviously the close second - mainly Grand Prix and PPTQs fall into this category and this is where we find many of those that fall into the 'grinder' category. Many of them are not cheaters, but everyone who is emotionally and financially invested in a game will find himself hard pressed to find any sort of edge, even an unfair one. This is connected with my last article where I explained how the current system of PT qualification is very frustrating, and in this light, you might understand how someone young and temperamental might take an opportunity and do something against the rules to secure a win he thinks he deserves for all the money and effort he has put into the game. Is this system creating more cheaters? Possibly, but it would be pretty bold to claim this with certainty. In either case, the cheating grinder may even be perceived as a victim here, a player who is doing all he can to get to his goal, to the Pro Tour, but it still eludes him due to the lack of luck or other factor he or she couldn't affect. In this scenario, he feels cheated out of what he deserves, and he might fall to the temptation of cheating just to take back what was already his.

Many players I have talked to about this particular issue claim that there is no excuse for cheating and that people who cheat are all (or mostly) sociopaths, but that just cannot be true. Sociopaths are rather rare in society, while cheaters are (as we stated above) pretty common in Magic, so there must be more to cheating than that.

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What Is the Police Doing?

Well, it depends - is the figurative police here the Judge program or Wizards of the Coast? I would say judges would be the police, but it's more important what Wizards are doing to prevent cheating from happening (as often as it is now).

Anyway, let's start with judges. If you ever attended a big (R)PTQ or GP you were bound to notice how understaffed these tournaments are, usually just having the bare minimum of judges needed to keep things moving. I remember working as a judge in a deck check team at a sealed GP where we did a total of zero random deck checks since we had so much to do in other parts of the tournament we simply had no time to do any deck checks. This is just one first hand example, but I am sure that every judge who ever judged a GP has a few stories of his/her own. Even though GPs are understaffed, there are some judges that are always on the floor. Their main jobs are answering judge calls and detecting cheating, but also to mingle and get to know other judges and share knowledge and experiences. This is why you often see judges in the playing area talking to each other. It is something that is usually encouraged, since it doubles up as team building as well as self-improvement for each judge involved. So, already understaffed, judges are well aware that they can't assign a judge to watch each table, so they are just relying on players catching cheaters among themselves.

WotC, on the other hand, is always trying to change the rules to make cheating a bit harder - like the change where you can't cut your own deck after the opponent shuffles it - but I don't think that is working out well. Magic is a game where cheating will always be present, it just has to be more severely punished - with monetary fines as well as lifetime bans, which would discourage players from cheating far more than anything else.

How Do People Cheat and How to Spot It / Prevent It?

To be completely honest, there is probably no way to know all the ways to cheat people thought up over the years, but let's try to recap as many as possible:

- Deck Weaving/Manipulation

Many players aren't even aware that if they deliberately stack their deck in any way and then do not sufficiently randomize, they are actually intentionally cheating. This is what Fabrizio Anteri was doing, and while it certainly helped him achieve many impressive results it is no less cheating. This is somewhat 'counterable' by sufficiently shuffling your opponent's deck, but that might not help every time. I would advise pile shuffling your opponent's deck on three piles if you suspect anything.

-Drawing/Adding Extra Cards

There are several ways to add cards to your hand, but the most popular one seems to be adding cards from outside the game, such as sideboard cards or pre-sleeved cards that are hidden on the person for the right situation. Keeping track of this can be very hard, since masters of adding cards to their hand will distract you while they do their 'Magic' and the only way to circumvent this is by keeping track of how many cards your opponent should have in hand. Whenever you are not sure, call a judge immediately so he can count the cards.

-Land/Mana Tricks

Playing more than one land per turn seems to be a cheat many people like to use, but is also a very obvious one, while not paying the correct colors of mana for a spell might be a bit more tricky to notice sometimes with all the nonbasics these days, but also something you should keep track of if you can.

-Life Totals

This is also a very common one, I have seen a bunch of players just casually entering the wrong life total whenever their opponent makes a mistake, and if he/she notices it, quickly agree and fix it themselves. Keeping track of life can be a problem for some players, but take your time, verify the damage and life totals before you write down anything. If someone does this, always warn a judge.

-Peeking/Boettchering

These are two different things, but are often connected. People often peek at your deck while shuffling it to gain information, especially in a constructed event. Even though most people turn their heads away to make sure not to accidentally see a card, this is where you need to be careful - never turn your head in a manner that you can't see your opponent's eyes. Always maintain eye contact while shuffling - it is a far better and safer method than turning away your head and letting your opponent see your cards, or even worse, see your cards and then shuffle only lands or only spells to the top like Boettcher did. He even did it very clumsily; imagine what an actual master of card tricks would do to you if you are not careful.

-Limited Deck Manipulation

Well, this is an old one that is very popular, especially in my area, but WotC did some things over the years to prevent people from adding cards to their sealed or draft decks. New ways of deck registration, decklists that cannot be pre-printed and stuff like that is something that certainly helps thwart these attempts, but on the other hand, there are still plenty of windows to do this, and those are very hard to prevent. For instance, at limited GPs, you could easily bring 6 boosters you made yourself at home, glued them and put them in your pocket. A judge comes, distributes the product, you just palm the boosters into one pocket, pull the premade boosters from the other pocket and none would be the wiser. Keeping track of everyone at your table is very important, basically your duty as a Magic player at a sealed GP or PPTQ, since judges can't really keep track of everyone. In the draft portion of a PPTQ, it is even worse, after drafting, you have to write down your deck before leaving the table, sure. So, you can just write down any three rares you want, and once you submitted your list, add them to your deck from the collection once the round starts. This is why whenever I head judge tournaments with a top 8 draft, I take a few minutes to take a look at everyone's draft pools to discourage adding any cards from their collection. I might not remember every single card they had, but maybe I do, so that will certainly make them think twice before adding anything to the deck.

Conclusion

Cheating in Magic is not rare, and it happens all around you. This is something you need to be aware of at all times and something you need to keep track of, no matter if you are spectator or a player. Your responsibility is to call a judge on every single thing, no matter how small it might seem, since these small things are what gives clues to the judges, so they know who might cheat. If you are suspecting someone is cheating, always inform a judge, even before or after the tournament, it is your responsibility as a Magic player to contribute to the cheater-free environment as much as you can, and this is the least you can do. During tournaments, if you finish your match early, try keeping an eye on people you suspect cheat, and try catching them in the act, you might save someone's day.

Good luck, have fun and play fair!

Stjepan Sučić
Stjepan Sucic

About Stjepan Sučić

Stjepan started his Magic career in 2003, and had some decent finishes over the years, including a World Magic Cup top 8, Pro Tour and Worlds top 32 finishes, and a GP top 8, with 61 pro points total.

During the summer months he is also a Magic Online grinder who you can easily find in the draft queues. Stjepan boasts a 74% win rate in his real life Magic career. When he is not playing Magic, Stjepan enjoys watching Starcraft and playing MOBA games.

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