12 Common Cheats In Magic: The Gathering And How To Prevent Them
“The First and the worst of all frauds is to cheat one’s self. All sin is easy after that.” – Pearl Bailey
There has been a lot of discussion about cheating lately, following the bannings of several prominent players, including – now former – rookie of the year, Jarred Boettcher. I’ve been active in some of these discussions, arguing that while it is never acceptable to cheat, it is understandable that people do it; that is, I can comprehend, and even empathise with, people cheating.
For anyone who knows me or follows my articles, it’s pretty obvious that I care a lot about the game, and that I win less than I would like, which is naturally frustrating. The nature of the game is such that the better player doesn’t always win, and I can see why someone would be tempted to stack the odds in their favour to gain an edge, to push them over the win and in round, to “rectify” that unlucky round 1 loss to someone who makes countless mistakes, to give into temptation.
I’m still glad they’re banned, though. I don’t cheat, and I don’t advocate cheating.
A lot of people I spoke to couldn’t empathise at all, going as far as to call these players sociopaths. The passion and extent of their remarks made me think that they must perceive cheating very differently to me, and I concluded that it’s likely that they think cheating is more uncommon than I think it is (sociopaths are rare, so it follows that they must think that cheating is fairly rare, too).
I think at least 10% of Magic players cheat, and that’s a conservative estimate. I’m also pretty pessimistic, but I’ve also got tonnes of experience and a background in studying human behaviour, so I don’t think I’m just being jaded, and I’ve chosen a smaller percentage to avoid being overly controversial.
The bottom line is that there are definitely a number of cheats, and it’s understandable that some people might worry about getting cheated at Magic tournaments.
Here is what I think are the 12 most common place “cheats” (e.g. ways people will try to tackle advantage of you – as Mark mentions in the comments, they’re not technically cheating as far as judges are concerned, as cheating as a specific and discrete meaning in terms of rules enforcement) at Magic events, and what I suggest doing to mitigate them.
Let’s start with the obvious, topical one. People can shuffle in such a way as to put good cards on top of their library, or bad ones on yours by looking at the bottom card of the library and selectively shuffling cards to the top. Most people doing this will be ridiculously obvious, but clearly it’s possible to develop this skill such that it’s very hard to detect. It’s also one of the ones where it’s difficult to call people on, because it’s black and white; if you say someone is doing this, you’re calling them a cheat, and by extension for some, a sociopath (which means that viewing them in this way means you’re actually less likely to call them on it than if you’re empathetic, interestingly).
The thing to do is watch *your* cards while they shuffle them. A lot of people look at the game next to them, or off to the side, to demonstrate that they’re not looking at their opponent’s cards while they shuffle. This actually makes it easier to cheat you.
In addition, it’s worth asking your opponents to end each of their shuffles of your deck with a cut, because it’s insanely hard to stack the middle of the deck, and so long as they’re not cheating, there is no reason for them to take umbrage with this (Neil Rigby’s suggestion, not mine).
2. Drawing Extra cards
Over the course of a long game, it’s difficult to track how many cards each player should have in their hand, and it’s not phenomenally difficult to discretely draw some extra cards. Again, this is largely about people not wanting to call you on it because they’re not 100% sure, and to say it is to call the other person a cheat, with little room for a polite excuse. People don’t like to do confrontational things like this, and this is understandable. Cheats prey on it, though.
I make a habit of asking people how many cards they have in their hand on a regular basis because it’s useful information from a game play point of view, and might have a minor psychological advantage, too. This is a pretty good way to keep track of how many cards they should have because instead of counting back from turn one you’re only concerned about the last couple of turns. It’s also good to watch them in their draw steps instead of looking at your own cards, or the board.
3. Taking Advantage of Hidden Information
A lot of cheating is just opportunism – hardly anyone goes to a magic tournament thinking “I’m going to draw extra cards and trick shuffle people like Edward Norton in Rounders”! However, if you keep holding your cards so they can see them, keep lifting your morphs up from the front, shuffle your cards so that they can see the bottom card… they’re going to know what cards you have in hand, which morphs to block, and what colours you’re playing, even if they tell you you’re doing it (e.g. don’t cheat). Loads of people will wait the 1.5 seconds to see the card before they tell you, and some will just let you keep doing it all game (they’re cheating).
Hold your cards properly, pick your morphs up from the back, shuffle your cards so they can’t see… this one definitely isn’t rocket science but it comes up quite a lot.
4. Adding Cards to Limited Pools
I have a feeling pre-releases are the worst spot for this because the pools aren’t registered, and they’re often full of people who don’t come along that regularly so have less to lose from getting caught. So they play the first event, open up some removal, which they add to the second deck, or whatever.
At big events, pools are registered so this is far less of an issue. At the events where it’s mostly likely to happen, there isn’t much that you can do other than have an experienced player sit next to them during deck construction and pay a bit of attention. Even then, a lot of store owners aren’t going to want to take serious action against them because it’s a causal event. Most places have people like this – they’re a troupe of game shops. They’re basically trying to steal prizes from you, and it sucks.
5. Lying about the rules
In the vast majority of cases where someone says that the rules work one way, you disagree and call judge, and the judge also disagrees with them, they’re just wrong, rather than cheating. There is some potential for someone to just lie, or say “oh, it used to work like that” even when they know it no longer does.
Often judges say at the start of the event “your opponent doesn’t have you’re best interests at heart. If I doubt, call a judge.” It sounds like when your mum says “if you get lost, find a policeman”, but it’s very sound advice. A judge is not going to be angry at you for asking a question about the rules – it’s literally why they’re at the event! I’d even go as far as to say that you should look for an *opportunity* to call a judge, especially early in your development as a player, as it will allow you to get better at dealing with judges in big events, something which many people find stressful.
6. Life Totals, Combat Resolution and Land
This is mostly an opportunism cheat. But if there’s a discrepancy in life totals, many players will take your word on it if you have a higher number for them or a lower number for you, but argue if this is inverted. Sometimes, this will happen with something like trample during combat, where you say “ok, I take 2” when it should be 1, or whatever.
The other opportunistic cheat for combat is when someone thinks their guy trades, when it doesn’t, and the opportunist simply allows their opponent to put their creature in the graveyard.
Another old chestnut is “oh… have I played a land this turn?” when they know they have.
Keep your life total on paper, not dice, and score the numbers out so you can still see what they were. This way you can actually work out what your life total is more often than not. Double check in combat what is actually going to happen at the end – this is obviously easier said than done, and largely a matter of experience, but you really can’t be losing creatures for no reason during games! If in doubt, assume they have played a land, but pay attention so that it’s not in doubt.
Stalling – as opposed to slow play – is intentionally playing slowly, generally to prevent a win becoming a draw, or a draw becoming a loss. Stalling is the sort of thing that gets you DQed while slow play generally just gets you warnings and told to play faster.
I’ve written about slow play before, and the advice I gave still stands; call a judge at the earliest opportunity. If you don’t do this the damage will already be done, and there will be no evidence for the judge to base anything on.
Priority is relatively complicated bit of the game but what it basically comes down to is that the game is broken into different sections (phases), which you leave once both players have said they don’t want to do anything (passed priority) consecutively. When you cast a spell like Arch lightning you announce all your targets, then pass priority, letting your opponent react. You can’t cast Giant Growth before he names targets. Once you have blocked an attack, the attacker has priority again, and has to pass it before you can cast spells.
Where this becomes a common cheat is when one player doesn’t really understand how this works and casts their spells slightly out of sequence, informing their opponent of cards in their hands, and changes in the game state. So in the Arch Lightning example above, they might just target another creature (that’s not how the game actually works – they should call a judge, get you a warning, rewind your spell, name targets, and pass priority… but they might well just kill your other creature instead). In the other example, maybe they just Lightning Strike your creature when they would otherwise have pumped their Savage Knuckleblade.
The way round this is to strengthen your understanding of the rules, perhaps by going over this stuff with your local judge or an experienced player. This will help you avoid being exploited by opportunistic cheats, but also improve your standard of play – loads of people have pretty shaky understandings of priority, and it’s actually pretty important especially in limited.
9. Casting Spells They Can’t Cast
Over the course of a long game you generally end up with all your colours, and it’s no shock when Abzan casts Hero’s Downfall on turn 10. Of course, they can’t always do that, and often I’ve said to someone that they don’t have the mana for their spell and they’ve apologized, and cast something else of passed. It’s an easy mistake to make, and I’ve done it loads of times too. the problem is that it’s basically free to try it on, and many people – myself included – who would feel like calling a judge for this is just fishing for a sanction.
To avoid being cheated, it’s a good idea to have a strong knowledge of the decks in the format, and in the early turns pay close attention to their land to check off which of the cards they almost certainly have in their deck, and which they have the mana to cast. Then you only need to remember what they can’t cast, and keep an eye for that changing. This is good practice anyway, and it will stop you getting cheated.
In respect to calling a judge, I suppose you actually have a moral obligation to call one every time with this in case they are cheating, even if it might appear that you’re just trying to get them a game loss. So long as you know you’re doing it for an honest reason, it doesn’t really matter if they think you’re acting poorly. You might also get a cheat punished, which is a good thing.
10. Triggered abilities
The rules for triggers have changed a fair bit in the last little while, and there is definitely still reason to think people might be confused. The one I always forget is that the way it works chances at pre-release level events, such that you’re supposed to remind your opponent about their beneficial triggers. Given that I’m happy to let people have take-backs at this level, I’m not intentionally forgetting the triggers – it’s just that I struggle to get my head round the idea that the rules are different in this circumstance, and the only other events I play are drafts (where we’re practising for PTQs) and PTQs (where you don’t need to remind people).
Where this becomes problematic is when people “forget” their Dark Confidant triggers when they’re on 3 life, or think the damage off Mana Confluence is a trigger, and that their opponent is actually meant to remind them about it (which it isn’t, and even if it was, they wouldn’t be).
When I was learning I was always taught to think “Untap? Upkeep? Draw?” and give a little time for my opponent, but also for myself to check for things that need looking after. Look over the board from left to right every upkeep in a ritualistic way as well, so that you can search for things – maybe seeing it on the board will remind you to pay or use the ability, or whatever. You can do the same thing in their turn to make sure they do everything right, too.
Always call a judge for these sorts of effect. When I was last on the pro tour, for some reason I decided not to bother calling judges on Herald of Torment triggers which my opponents missed, and simply reminded them to lose the life. I think there were 8 triggers missed over the 8 rounds of constructed magic I played, and in retrospect that seems really high. Ultimately if you don’t call a judge, and just remind them, you’re electing to pick up their mental work load for that task in the match because you can’t afford to not have them lose the life. It’s very reasonable to call a judge, and in the best interests of the integrity of the game. I don’t really know why I wasn’t calling judges for that.
To some degree, people are unintentionally intimidating. On my second pro tour, I played Jeroen Remie who said to me “you don’t need to say sorry every time you ask a question”. Neither of us could make day two at this point, and I must have appeared super nervous. It always struck me as quite a kind thing to bother saying; being able to keep things in perspective and try to make my experience a little better, even though he must have been disappointed with his own.
I remember counterspelling the unearth effect on a Hellspark Elemental shortly after that came out, and my opponent hesitating, and then saying “ok”. The following turn he tried with a second one, and I countered, but someone else said “you can’t counter unearth”. I just thought it was the same as flashback, and countered it with confidence, while my opponent was less sure of himself, and deferred to me. He was right, and I was wrong.
When I was about 15, I was about to draw a match when my opponent asked me to concede, then called a judge when I refused and said – I kid you not – “Judge, this c*nt wont concede, and I’m clearly about to win…” followed by an argument for why I should concede.
The bottom line with this one is that you should call a judge if someone makes you feel uncomfortable. I didn’t concede to my opponent, and we drew, but I’d like to think that if something similar happened in a PTQ now that he would have found himself out of the event. It didn’t have much impact on me, but I’m pretty weird, and I was genuinely strange when I was 15. Clearly, people shouldn’t behave like that.
I don’t really like people talking to my opponents during games full stop, and I’ll politely ask them not to do so if time is an issue. However, I was once playing a PTQ at a side event at GP Paris, when my opponent’s friend started talking to him in French as we sideboarded.
“Excuse me, I don’t speak French” accompanied by a deadpan expression was followed by a slight pause and a stream of apologises.
You obviously can’t let people do that because they could be saying anything to them. It’s probably not worth calling a judge unless it happens more than once – in which case you should, and if nothing major happens you should appeal to the head judge – because they can hardly give out penalties on the basis that they might have said something they shouldn’t have in their own language, in their own capital.
Pretty rude, though.
13. Bonus Cheat! – People Eating Your Cards
When I first started playing there was a story doing the rounds about a guy who asked to read his opponent’s Drain Life which was the finisher in the infamous combo deck Prosp-bloom. The story goes that he picked the card up to read it, then put it in his mouth, chewed a bit, then swallowed it, sleeve and all. His opponent, stunned by this bizzare act, recovered from his shock as his opponent finished and called a judge. He explained what had happened, his opponent denied it, and said the prosp-bloom guy only had 59 cards, getting him a game loss.
I’d suggest covering your cards in marmite. This will protect you against 50% of people who the hate it.
Important Tip: If you have any rules or judging related question, then join and ask in this Facebook group – mtgUK Rules & Judges Questions
That’s it for this week – big article it seems! Hopefully I will have something to say about either draft, or Standard, in the near future.