Cheating has been a hot button topic over the past few weekends and it is one of the most concerning issues in real-life paper Magic tournaments. Cheating, and the way it cheapens the play experience for everyone, is distressing to both players and spectators alike. When we show up or tune in to an event, we all want to feel like we are on a level playing field and everyone is playing by the rules.
Today’s article isn’t an article about cheating so much as it’s an article about areas where team oriented rules could use some tightening up. My article on cheating would be roughly two sentences long:
If you’re thinking about doing it, DON’T.
If you are already doing it, STOP.
Let me start by saying that team events are by far my favorite way to play tournament Magic. Nearly all of the Grand Prix or Opens I’ve played this year have been team formats. I’m not writing a cautionary tale about why people shouldn’t go to these events. On the contrary, these are suggestions to improve events I greatly enjoy already.
The Magic floor rules have been around for a long time, but most guidelines for tournament play are written with individual play in mind. Things are obviously different when there are three players working cooperatively and a few simple but nuanced changes that take the team dynamic into consideration would greatly improve the experience.
Information that Shouldn’t Be Shared
One of the best aspects of team events is being able to ask a teammate for help in a difficult situation. No player is on an island by themselves when it comes to do or die decisions since they can always phone a friend, so long as that friend is one of their two teammates.
Team events have a different dynamic than 1v1 and need some special rules in order to keep everything flowing smoothly. I wrote an article a couple of months ago about a penalty that was assessed to an opposing team that sat in the wrong seats (Player A and C were reversed). The penalty and the way it was applied was absurd because the guideline was drawn directly from 1v1 play. It is clear to me that in some situations, team events need specific rules to address specific problems. And as a player who greatly enjoys and primarily attends competitive team events, these are issues that are important to me as a player.
But there is a specific situation that occurs so often that it feels cliché and ought to be obliterated from the face of team events:
Both teams have sat down and are shuffling up to play. You can tell that players on the opposing team are taking advantage of the fact that they have dubious lines of sight and are attempting to sneak a peek at cards in your team’s decks while you shuffle.
So the players on the edges are basically on the lookout for sloppy shufflers and then whisper to their teammates what decks they are about to face, which allows for advantageous mulligan decisions in game 1.
If you don’t think this is a widespread problem, you only need to look at how professional players tend to shuffle during team events. They position themselves at an awkward angle to ensure the bottoms of their decks are not visible.
While it is reassuring to know that there are countermeasures against nosy goblins, the actual thing we are trying to protect against is shameful and unsportsmanlike behavior. The fact that it is widespread and commonplace is concerning.
The act of spying for information goes further than presideboarded mischief. In one match I played last weekend, it became apparent that an opposing player (because he was at a long angle) could see the cards I was drawing and was whispering that information to his mates. My cards were shielded from my opponent’s line of sight, but not the player in Seat A, who was watching the match. It was one of my teammates who noticed and informed me that I needed to change up how I was drawing from my deck.
I understand that some people might argue that this is an issue of my opponent being savvy and me being oblivious (which is probably technically true), but my counter argument is that this type of information should not be allowed into the game.
The problem is that this type of stuff tends to be a rules grey area and is difficult to enforce. If you end up in a situation where an opponent shares ill-gotten information about a teammate’s deck, they are likely to respond by saying: “Well, they blatantly put that information into the line of sight where I just so happened to be looking at that moment. It’s their fault for not being more careful.”
There’s no real way to prove to a judge exactly how hard they were trying to spy or exactly what they whispered, so it tends to be the perfect crime in the sense that most offenders will get away with it most of the time. Since a lot of people take advantage of the situation it becomes a downward spiral of players following suit. “If everyone else is doing it except for me, then I’m putting my team at a disadvantage.” And nobody wants to let their teammates down. It really is a crime of opportunity that has a low chance of punishment, which is why it has become so widespread at team events.
It’s unfortunate that the rules and the way they are enforced don’t make a stronger push back against this type of behavior. It wouldn’t take much to nip the problem in the bud. Make an announcement before round 1 that this behavior is no longer tolerated and have the judges look for blatant nosy goblins. Kick their teams out of events if they are found to be engaging in this type of behavior. I feel like one of the reasons people do this is because they want to go above and beyond to help their team win, so make it clear that this behavior is likely to get your team into a heap of trouble and the issue largely corrects itself.
Also, these interactions create a bad atmosphere for the games that our teams are about to play. If I notice that your team is trying to steal signs from us, I immediately despise you. It may very well be the case that your team has a bunch of upstanding players and are only doing it because everybody’s doing it, but I have to assume that you’re a bunch of cheaters and treat our games that way, which means that they won’t be fun or enjoyable.
And that, my friends, is the cost of not tightening up these loopholes: Magic that is not fun or enjoyable.
It’s also not a cut and dry issue, at least not in the perception of a lot players. For instance, I played in Denver with an old friend from the game store and another guy who didn’t have much competitive tournament experience. My friend and I had to have a discussion with him and explain why we don’t steal signs in team tournaments. Based on his experiences with team formats, he assumed it was just part of the game because everybody does it. The reason the practice is so widespread has a lot to do with that type of perception.
I had a lengthy conversation with Corey Burkhart in Denver and he brought up another problematic issue that goes even beyond spying and is actually legal but totally against the spirit of the game.
Imagine you are playing a Team Sealed format exactly like Guilds of Ravnica where many decks want to be on the draw in certain matchups. In matchups that don’t involve a Boros deck, chances are that being on the draw is favorable.
If that is the case, your team gets an advantage by doing the following things:
You resolve die-rolls to figure out who has the choice of play or draw in each matchup. Remember, you don’t have to say whether you are taking the play or draw when you win the die. You just have to do it before you draw your starting hand.
You would want to coordinate so that your Boros teammate (who always wants the play no matter what) and any player who lost the roll (has no choice in the matter) start their matches before the player on your team that won the choice of “play or draw.”
By process of elimination, a player can deduce whether they are playing against an aggressive deck (where they should take the play) or a defensive deck (where they want the draw).
In the same manner that you can protect yourself from nosy goblins by being careful about how you shuffle and draw cards, there is a counter to this technically legal (but certainly shady) rules blindspot. You simply make sure that all three players decide whether to play or draw before anybody plays their first land. A rule that can easily fix this problem is to make sure that in all games the players drop their first land at the same time.
At the very least, you’ve got the necessary tools to protect yourself against it. The problem with having countermeasures as the answer to a problem is: what about the people who don’t know?Answer honestly: Did you know about all of this stuff? Also, do you think everyone knows? I certainly didn’t realize my opponents were gleaning my draws and I’ve played a lot of Magic for a long time.
What if you simply couldn’t whisper (conversation has to be public) to your teammates before the start of the first game and all three players have to play their first lands at the same time? I feel like the fix would essentially buzzsaw through 99% of the nonsense and would create a much better play experience.
Maybe I’m out of line here and this dynamic is just a part of the team experience. Personally, I don’t enjoy it at all, but that’s just one man’s opinion. Either it’s an acceptable part of the game or it isn’t, but leaving it as a grey area where people decide for themselves feels like an unacceptable solution.
One thing is clear—I observe it happening a lot, which tells me that many people don’t have a problem with doing it. Whether they believe what they are doing is right or wrong, I don’t know. What I do know is that it is tolerated to an extent that makes me, as a player who doesn’t do these things, uncomfortable.
I think these things happen too often and should be addressed because they create a negative play experience for everyone. I’d estimate at least one-third of opponents were looking to steal signs before the first game, but we were fairly diligent about how we shuffled (and also diligent about informing opponents when they shuffled in a way that was revealing information so they could fix it).
If you ever wonder why cheating is such an issue in high level Magic, it all starts here with these types of unsportsmanlike blindspots that don’t get enforced as diligently as they ought to be. When we create a setting where things that feel wrong or unsportsmanlike are tolerated and even seen as savvy, heads-up plays, don’t be surprised when that space is ultimately corrupted by bad behavior.