I've played enough of this game to get cheated a few times. I've seen opponents draw extra cards, stack my deck, re-buy Lightning Bolts, manipulate the clock, and lie to judges. I've played at least eight players who were later suspended. While I'm not some kind of expert, I am qualified to write about the subject, though I haven't had a reason to do so before now.
These last several months have seen a slew of game losses and disqualifications applied to some standup players. Now, nobody can crawl into another person's brain to know their intent with certainty. Because of this, penalties exist that occasionally punish nice guys, in order to keep the game working.
That said, I've noticed a sort of angry, witch hunt mentality in the community at large. The part that scares me is that the judges are a subset of the general Magic population, and they are sensitive to our interests, desires, and moods. After all, they are players too. They are fans, rooting on their favorite players from home. They're as invested as the rest of us, and when they see an injustice, they also get hot under the collar. They are fallible.
The Nefarious Turn
In a recent SCG Open in LA, a buddy of mine named Tenjum was playing Stoneblade in Legacy. He's reasonably new to the competitive scene, but has a finish or two and plays well. I have never seen, or heard, of him doing anything remotely scummy, and up to the tournament in question he had never received so much as a warning.
The incident started when time was called. At the end of Tenjum's turn, his dredge opponent cracked a Cephalid Coliseum before untapping and dredging some more. Around turn three of additional turns, Tenjum wrongly adjusted the die keeping track of the turn count.
After some discussion, they figured out that Tenjum thought his opponent had cracked the Coliseum on his upkeep, making him turn zero, when in fact it was still Tenjum's end of turn, making Tenjum turn zero. They fixed the die, and the dredge player won on turn five of extra turns.
At the end of the match, the head judge walked up and DQed Tenjum for trying to manipulate the game state. There was no investigation.
The Illicit Ponder
In GP Denver, Ryan Bogner was going off with High Tide. Now, Ryan is both a shark and a grinder, but also a straight shooter, and not the type I'd expect to get a game loss for drawing extra cards. When I heard that he did, I had to follow up, and I got the story from both him and a spectator.
Basically, Ryan played a Ponder and drew a card, then went to draw another. His opponent stopped him.
“That's not a Brainstorm.”
Both players called a judge, and it was ruled as drawing extra cards, which seems absurd in context. After all, Ryan played a Ponder and drew a card. That's how you resolve a Ponder, correct? Maybe he thought it was a Brainstorm at the time, but it's not like three cards hit his hand.
The story concerns me, as I shortcut my cantrips all the time. If I know the top card of my library is an Infernal Tutor, and I crack a pair of Lion's Eye Diamonds in response to my own Ponder, and draw the card without rearranging, am I at risk for a game loss? A week ago, I would have said “no” with absolute certainty, but not today.
The Clandestine Draw
About halfway through Day Two of GP Atlanta, I was zoning out while my opponent spun Top on my end step. He untapped, spun, drew, spun again, and tanked as my eyes glazed over. Then he drew an extra card.
“Woah, judge?!” I shouted.
My opponent, surprised at my sudden attentiveness, nodded and accepted his game loss. I liked that ruling. In that situation, my opponent could have been a tired player who mistook his top activation for a Ponder. He also could have been an opportunistic cheater. I can't know, and the judge can't know. If he's just tired, a DQ is overboard. However, there needs to be a hard and fast punishment for drawing extra cards to disallow cheaters from exploiting loopholes.
Had I been convinced he was cheating—say he had a history of drawing extra cards—I would have appealed to the head judge. Had I been convinced he was innocent, say we were playing for fun in the X-5 bracket, then I would've suggested he activate his Top, putting it on his library to cover the extra draw.
The Phantom Glimpse Trigger
On Day Two of GP Denver, ChannelFireball's own LSV was trying to Elf combo through the disruption of Sam Black's Zombie deck. In game three, Luis had the win on board with a Progenitus, and was proceeding to draw through the rest of his deck with a pair of Glimpse of Natures.
After a slew of tapping, untapping, and triggers, he played an Elvish Visionary and drew three. Then, he played a one-drop and drew another three.
Before anything else happened, he noticed his extra card.
“How do you want to proceed?” Luis asked.
“Judge?” Sam responded.
At this point, the table judge fetched the head judge, who made the only ruling he could (drawing extra cards, game loss).
I'm a fan of sticking to the rules, as they exist for a reason. I'm also not a fan of rewarding sloppy play. Why, then, did this incident bother me? Perhaps it's because the error was so fixable on a player-based level. All Sam has to say was, “just play another Elf.” This seems like a loose fix. Yet, for a number of operations we draw the card before actually finishing the procedure. Tapping a Top, for example. Would Luis have been saved if he had a Top in play? Certainly. Sam has already F6'd his turn, and Luis could say, “Oh, and this is three cards, not two. Guess I'd better tap this Top.”
My feeling of wrongness here surprises me. In general, I believe that the biggest factor in rules adherence vs. niceness should be the seriousness of the tournament. If you're playing FNM, you're playing for fun, and the five dollars isn't worth you or your opponent's good time. If you're playing a GP, you're playing for keeps, and your opponent had better follow the rules.
Yet, I can't help but feel there's a difference when someone draws an extra card when they have essentially infinite draw and mana. It's in the intent. I'd call someone on missing a Pact on the Pro Tour, but would I do it if the person said, “pay for Pact,” and then drew his card and tapped his guys sideways for lethal without physically tapping the mana?
Similarly, if I accidentally drew an extra card in Cube (say after backing up for some upkeep effects), but had a cantrip I could cast, I would simply show it to my opponent and he'd wave me on, letting the game continue in a normal fashion. Clearly this isn't the same as playing on Day Two of a GP, yet the people I Cube with would squeal with delight if they caught someone missing a Pact trigger. What's the difference? Why are people happy to get a rules victory with a Pact, but calling someone on an accidental extra card sounds like the most awkward thing ever?
Part of that is trust. The reason the drawing-extra-cards rule is so harsh in competitive play (applying when cards touch other cards, whether they're known information or not, or whether the player calls himself on it or not) is because we need cut-and-dried rules to protect us from cheaters. In the case of Sam vs. LSV, I think the players know each other well enough to know there was no fishing for knowledge or unfair advantage. The judges can't take that into account—only the players.
I'm not out for Sam's blood. I've played against him and talked with him before, and I legitimately enjoy his company in the game and outside it. I don't, however, agree with his placing the blame on the rules. In cases like this, the rules can only do so much, and players have to step up.
I want to clarify that these opinions are my own, not of ChannelFireball's, and not of LSV's.
Every Camera Match Ever
The Batterskull incident made me raise an eyebrow. Don't get me wrong, I have no problem with someone getting disqualified for having an extra Batterskull in hand. If you don't get DQ'd for that, then for what? Also, I think the use of camera footage for investigations is a great tool. My problem, however, is the angry horde of rageaholics (hopped up on rageahol) willing to believe, with certainty, that they know what's going on in someone else's brain.
These people watched a pair of hands on the internet. They don't know the history of those involved, and have no clue as to their character. They didn't have to wait for the investigation, and they certainly didn't have to watch a dejected player pick up his deck box before walking, confused and heartbroken, from the room.
Some of the more adamant ragemongers have claimed that a mistapped land under time pressure is cheating. The cases that get more press seem more damning, however. Consider the extra card drawn in Toronto.
In both this incident and the Batterskull one, the main assertion of beyond-a-doubt proof was that, even if the extra card was ham-fisted, inept fumbling, the person in question should've noticed the extra card in hand. Since they didn't call themselves on it, they committed cheatery.
This assumption is false. For starters, both of these events happened midway through the second day of a long Magic weekend. That's a lot of rounds, a lot of travel time, and not necessarily much sleep. I remember tournaments where my basic communication skills broke down, and I wasn't able to say much beyond one or two word sentences. When I first started grinding, going deep in a tournament often meant that I'd end up a wreck by the end of the weekend, and I've even cried from the built up exhaustion and stress.
With that in mind, I don't agree that someone would, without a doubt, notice an extra card in hand. I've seen people forget to draw a card before. Heck, I did so myself at GP Denver (off an end of turn Thought Scour). If missing a card is believable, how is failing to notice an extra one unbelievable?
1) Oh man, the card must have stuck to the table when I was shuffling and I accidentally drew it for turn, even though I didn't notice it at the time and have no way of putting this reasoning together.
2) I'm tired, wrong, and my memory is playing tricks on me. He must have Cliqued me before I fetched or something—I wonder what his possible holdings are?
Perhaps I have some sympathy because I've screwed up on camera before. I remember an old SCG Open in St. Louis. In the last round of the day, I was paired against a buddy, David Thomas, to play it out for 9th place. At the time, he had a use for the extra point and I did not, and I went into the match with the idea of conceding if I won. I was going to give the folks at home a show, though—I didn't want to look chicken.
Near the end of game three, I drew a Forbidden Alchemy and dropped a land before playing it. The Alchemy saw three more lands and a Mana Leak at the stage in the game where both of us had eight or nine lands in play. I tanked on whether the Leak would be relevant before taking another land, playing it, and passing the turn.
There was no strategic advantage to the extra land drop, and I did nothing important for several turns after, but I was shocked when I watched the tape. After all, that was me on camera, doing something that I had been judging others harshly for. Maybe that changed my perspective.
Brainless and stupid? Sure. Malicious? No. As we saw from the LSV example, even the best players in the world make mistakes.
1) “There was a table judge right there!”
The table judge is not there to correct your game state, he's there to report life total differences and answer questions. Some might be better at this than others. I've gotten bad table judge rulings, just like any other judge, and I've noticed the same fatigue that players get near the end of a tournament. Once I had to keep waking the table judge every time there was a life total change.
2) “How did the commentators not notice?”
I have less sympathy for commentators than table judges. The role of the commentator is to provide entertainment, nothing more, but that doesn't mean they can't go above and beyond.
I actually had a situation come up when doing coverage for a TCG event in Providence. Combat resolved incorrectly, due to some semi-complicated interactions between multiple Elf lords. I stopped the match, ran over, and got things straightened out. As a result, a different player won the tournament.
In an ideal world, commentators should be competent enough at the game they're covering to realize that something is wrong.
A Quick Hits Guide to Player Ethics
I realize that there are some difficult decisions that come up in a game of Magic that have little to do with strategy. Here are a few guidelines:
1) If you wouldn't describe it to a judge, it's too close to the line or past it. If you're ever wondering where the line is, ask a judge away from the table.
2) Take responsibility for your use of the clock. If you go to time, and you took up way more of the allotted time (be it deck choice or play speed), consider scooping. Ignore this rule if you're way ahead on board, in which case your opponent should be scooping to you. In that case, I like Christian Valenti's approach: “Do you think you're favored to win this game?” This is much less abrasive than saying, “You have no outs and should concede.”
3) If you think a player is cheating, let the head judge know away from the table. Even if you find out after the fact, you have an obligation to the rest of the tournament to make sure the cheat is watched and possibly DQ'd later. Remember how, in the Spiderman comics, Uncle Ben gets shot because Peter doesn't stop the crook? Don't make Peter's mistake. Take responsibility.
4) LSV called a judge on himself, which led to a game loss. That's scary, but we don't know what would've happened if he hadn't. If you see a problem with the game, you should call a judge. This includes drawing a sideboard card.
It isn't easy for me to write this, but I made that mistake when I first started playing competitive Magic. I drew a sideboard card in an Extended PTQ. The card “wasn't even good in that matchup,” and I felt justified in shuffling it to the back of my hand and swinging for lethal. Some five years later, I had the same situation come up in a match with Philip Yam, and I flashed him the sideboard card and scooped up the game I was winning.
Why the change? I had grown older and wiser, and my morals were less wishy-washy. I read an article once that showed how creative types are more likely to view rules as malleable things, coming up with interesting ways to rationalize transgressions. Don't let this happen to you. Cheaters are frequently ostracized from the Magic community, and a mistake has a higher cost than a six-month suspension.
If you draw a sideboard card and don't call the judge on yourself, what are those watching your match going to think? What if you continue on, and flip another obvious sideboard card to Dark Confidant? Are you going to scoop if an opponent Surgically Extracts you? How are you going to explain yourself to someone who finds out it wasn't a maindeck card from reading your Top 8 deck list on the internet?
You will look like the cheater you are, and you will lose reputation because of it. In comparison to all the friends I've made playing this game, a single match win isn't close to worth the risk.
My list of regrets is short, and not calling a judge on myself in that PTQ is on there.
The Alex B Ripple
It all loops back around, doesn't it?
Here's a list of ways I think the Alex B incident has been bad for the game:
1) I don't think the hate mongering and finger pointing has made the game safer from cheaters. In fact, I notice roughly the same amount of scumduggery I did when I started grinding years ago. That is, not much.
2) For some reason, everyone thinks that their vitriol is relevant. People like raging on the internet, and that's fine, but we shouldn't forget these are real individuals involved. In the American justice system, we follow the rule of “innocent until proven guilty.” Now, we can all agree that the DCI, by crossing international lines, is a more powerful entity, and certainly more efficient, and they don't necessarily have to model themselves after one system of justice. That said, it is a message that we, as the community, might take to heart. We don't have the power of judge or jury, but we do set the tone, and that has influence. As Chapin wrote last month, “words mean things.”
3) I've heard enough #TwoExplores jokes to last a dozen lifetimes. Once I hit the critical limit, I expect my face will permanently freeze into the grumpy cat expression. Stop.
And with that, I'll close with a quote from Ben Swartz from actual forever ago.
It's my hope that, the more we conduct ourselves with logic and empathy, the more that others will follow our lead.
Take it easy,