Counterfeit Magic: The Gathering Cards – The Growing Threat by Joseph Dunlap

Counterfeit Magic: The Gathering Cards – The Growing Threat by Joseph Dunlap
Please click on image to see video clip.

GP Player Disqualified, Missouri Game Store Owner Scammed – The Growing Threat of Counterfeit & Fake Magic: The Gathering Cards by Joseph Dunlap

Last weekend at Grand Prix Seattle-Tacoma, a player was disqualified from the tournament following a deck check. The reason? He was playing with counterfeit Magic: The Gathering cards. The judges of the Grand Prix had been tipped off that some of the player’s cards were counterfeit. After the deck check it was determined that the player was using the counterfeit cards intentionally.

This incident is part of a growing trend in the Magic community. A few weeks ago, a local game store in Lebanon, Missouri became the target of a Magic: The Gathering counterfeit card scam.

Scammers with fake trading cards fool store in Lebanon
Please click on image to see video clip.

On October 13, two men walked into Freedom Comics with a stack of cards they were looking to sell. For the bundle of 16 cards worth a retail total of $1,800, the men were offering to part with them for $450. Store owner Misty Smith quickly accepted the offer.

After the deal had concluded, Smith called a nearby store in Springfield and asked them to take a look at the cards. Something wasn’t quite right. Upon inspection the other store confirmed that the cards Smith had been sold were counterfeits known as “proxies”.

Proxy cards are typically used for playtesting before a player buys the actual cards for a deck. Some proxies are handwritten on basic land cards, but some are actually printed and glued to cards that have been wiped clean with acetone. Usually a proxy card is intentionally easy to spot. However, some proxies are passed off as genuine.


Counterfeit Cards

The cards sold to Smith were proxies, and fortunately they were recognized fairly quickly. The problem is not all “fake” cards are proxies. Many are made to look as real as possible, such as the counterfeit cards used by the disqualified player at Grand Prix Seattle-Tacoma, and counterfeiting methods have improved over the years.

When Magic: The Gathering started in 1993, card counterfeits were made by placing a genuine card in a colour copy machine, and gluing the subsequent copy to a cheaper card (usually a basic land) that had been wiped clean. The finish on the copied cards was obviously different, so these early counterfeits were easy to spot simply by touching the card. Over the years each successive generation of printed fakes are harder and harder to spot, and many are sold daily on eBay. Some are advertised as “proxies” to circumvent eBay’s terms of use, while others are passed off as genuine.


The Counterfeiting Scam: Players and Stores

I reached out on Reddit for Magic: The Gathering players to share their experiences and opinions on card fakes and received an overwhelming response. Many people replied with stories of being scammed by counterfeit sellers. In one case, a player purchased $2300 worth of cards on eBay and had already sold some of the cards before finding out they were fakes.


As in the case of Freedom Comics, local game stores are commonly targeted by people attempting to offload counterfeit cards. Retailers communicate frequently on fake card spottings. It is quite common for an LGS to call nearby stores and alert them if a customer has been caught passing fakes. This is especially the case if a player is “passing through” and attempting to sell fakes to any stores in the area that will take them.

Often passed off as proxies, many counterfeits are almost impossible to spot.
Often passed off as proxies, many counterfeits are almost impossible to spot.


The MTG Community on Counterfeiting

Legal ramifications notwithstanding, I wanted to know how the Magic: The Gathering community felt about counterfeiting and its impact on the game. There were some common threads of thought among the replies I received on Reddit.


Many MTG players, regardless of their position on the issue, have come to accept that counterfeits are nearly as common as genuine cards at competitive events, as there is no way to know just how many are in circulation. Most fakes will pass hands countless times without ever being spotted. Some people even went so far as to reason that any counterfeit cards that are in circulation and have not been spotted are, for all intents and purposes, as real as their genuine counterparts, though we can only speculate as to the ramifications of such a statement.


It is no secret that any player caught intentionally using counterfeits at a sanctioned event will at the very least receive a disqualification, and eventually a DCI ban, although the general consensus on Reddit was that any player caught with counterfeits could just claim ignorance on the matter and get a slap on the wrist.


If the incident at Grand Prix Seattle-Tacoma is any indicator, it may no longer be that simple.

More than one person admitted to playing with a deck full of counterfeits, with no deck checks or issues whatsoever. In fact, several peple raised the point that in the absence of rigorous deck-checking, a counterfeit need only seem genuine while double-sleeved and across the table from your opponent.



A possible end result of this cavalier attitude towards the use of fakes in competitive play could be that Wizards of the Coast starts to enforce regular deck checks with much higher scrutiny, such as we’ve seen recently, and a much stricter policy concerning DCI bans for players caught with counterfeits.

Many who responded to my Reddit post expressed either sympathy for new players wanting to enter eternal formats and choosing to purchase cheaper counterfeits, or used the high price of cards as vindication for the creation of fakes. In response, some suggested the best way for Wizards to combat counterfeiting is to reprint expensive cards such as eternal staples or the cards on the Reserved List to drive prices down and undermine the counterfeiting market.

Considering the cheap price and high profit margin involved in counterfeiting, even such drastic measures as a mass reprinting – which would collapse the secondary market, cause most game stores to go out of business, and kill the game completely, but that’s a different matter entirely – would hurt the counterfeit market far less than the secondary market.

So let’s say things continue moving in this direction, and the price of cards falls with an influx of indistinguishable counterfeits in the card market. What’s the worst that could happen?

magic the gathering reserve list
The Magic: The Gathering Reserved List


The Unintended Consequences

Let’s start with the most obvious. Counterfeit cards erode card values. While this may seem great for the average Magic player, it undermines the secondary market.

“The issue is more than just devalued cards,” says Jared Demartini, owner and operator of The Gathering Place gaming stores in central Texas. “The secondary market is responsible for most, if not all, organized play. If stores no longer make money from Magic singles … stores will stop supporting Magic events and that would be disastrous for the game.”

Game stores stand to lose the most with the rise of fakes. They absorb a much higher risk when purchasing cards from customers because they could be fake. If the bottom falls out on Magic singles, the stores, and their employees, are stuck holding the bill.

There is a slightly more subtle impact that counterfeits have had on the Magic: The Gathering community. It started slowly, but we’re seeing it more and more now – distrust at the trade table.


On my Reddit thread, several players expressed concern about accidentally receiving fake cards in transactions. Some players are so afraid of receiving a counterfeit and receiving a ban from either organized play at their LGS, or all DCI sanctioned events, they are purchasing blacklights and jeweler’s loupes.


The trade table used to be a way to develop the Magic community, where new players could meet and learn from more experienced players and obtain cards for their decks. With the rise of counterfeits in the Magic: The Gathering card economy, players are more concerned than ever about only buying or trading from trusted sources: stores with a good reputation, large online retailers, etc. Few are willing to take a risk with smaller stores or eBay auctions.

The end result? A shift in mindset. We only engage in transactions with “trusted” sources. In the past, any player you didn’t know would be a potential new friend and contact in the Magic community. Today anyone you don’t know is, by default, a “distrusted” source. This trend leads to players sticking with their group of friends and the “community” aspect of the game becomes a thing of the past. If we allow it, the focus of the game itself will subtly shift away from creativity and comradely around the table, and become watered down to simply slapping cards on a table.

Simply put, if you can find any justification for counterfeiting, with the knowledge of what it does to the game and its players, that is how you see the game – slapping cards on a table.



How Do I Spot a Counterfeit Card?

There are many tests that have varying levels of success. The most popular tests are:

  • The light test.
  • The black light test.
  • The bend test.
  • The water test.
  • Scrutinizing the colour, texture, or centering of a card (bear in mind, the card could be genuine but misprinted).
  • The rip test (which also destroys the card).

None of these tests are 100% effective, although most proxies and counterfeits will only be designed to pass a few of these tests, but not all. If you have the time, you can try every test to see whether a card can pass all of them, which is significantly more effective than just doing one or two.

Can you spot the fake Scalding Tarn?
Can you spot the fake Scalding Tarn?

Fortunately, there are a few tried-and-true tests that have a much higher success rate:

  • Compare to a known real copy of the card: text, symbols, and the border.
  • Use magnification (a magnifying glass, a pocket microscope, or a jeweller’s loupe) to check if the ink is solid or fuzzy.
  • Is the card “too” pristine? If a card has seen any amount of play, if will not be in perfect mint condition.


Many retailers will also cross-check the print matrix with a jeweller’s loupe, as most printers do not print in the same pattern as the printers used by Wizards of the Coast. In some cases, this is the only way to spot a counterfeit.

“Counterfeits are getting way better,” says Dove Milhon, a rules adviser and Tournament Organizer. “I’ve seen a Snapcaster Mage that passed every test, except the matrix test. It’s harder now that some cards have the little hologram at the bottom, but even those cards can be wiped clean.”

loupe magnifier banner
A loupe magnifier.

For more detail on how to spot fake Magic: The Gathering cards, please read – How to Spot Fake MTG Cards by Sam Martin


Dealing With Counterfeits

So you know how to spot a fake, but what do you do about it? How do we stop the spread of counterfeit cards?

Demartini outlines the policy at his stores: “As a store policy we buy all fakes we see for $1.00 [to take them out of circulation] and destroy them immediately in front of customers. If a fake is part of a larger collection of real cards, we will not buy any of the cards unless we can buy the fake for $1.00 to destroy. Furthermore, we retain the destroyed fake cards to help educate staff and customers on what to watch for.”

Players should be vigilant when engaging in transactions, and watch out for their fellow players. “If someone is offering a deal that seems too good to be true,” Milhon says, “it probably is.” That was the case with Freedom Comics in Missouri, and it happens every day at game stores and online.

We, the Magic: The Gathering community can take a stand against counterfeiting and protect each other from being cheated. We can come out of this a stronger community and say “no” to dishonesty, say “no” to undermining the secondary market, and say “no” to perpetuating a trend that seeks to destroy the game we all love so much.

Because after all, Magic: The Gathering is so much more than this. It’s more than text printed on a card. It’s more than cards on a table.

It’s more than just a game.


Community Question: Do you think counterfeits will ever become 100% identical to real Magic: The Gathering cards? If so, what will happen to the game?

counterfeits will become identical to real Magic The Gathering cards

Thank you for reading. I will be writing a follow-up on this topic soon, so please let me know what your opinion is on this matter in the comments below as it will help form the basis of my follow-up article.

Joseph Dunlap

Counterfeit Magic: The Gathering Cards - The Growing Threat by Joseph Dunlap
Counterfeit Magic: The Gathering Cards - The Growing Threat by Joseph Dunlap
GP Player Disqualified, Missouri Game Store Owner Scammed - The Growing Threat of Counterfeit & Fake Magic: The Gathering Cards by Joseph Dunlap

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