Honesty About Dishonesty

It was round five of the Sunday Super Series after Grand Prix Denver. I had been undefeated up to this point, and felt very good about my deck, having just defeated Owen Turtenwald a few rounds earlier. As I shuffled up, my opponent didn’t really say much when I tried to be friendly—not that much of a shock, some people are not all that chatty. The game started like any other. I had a nice start and my opponent had a turn two [card]Call of the Conclave[/card] followed by a [card]Vitu-Ghazi Guildmage[/card].

I didn’t think much of the plays in this particular game, but I remember that the Guildmage ended up winning like it did in many a Return to Ravnica Sealed game. As we moved through game two, the turn two [card]Call of the Conclave[/card] followed by a [card]Vitu-Ghazi Guildmage[/card] reared its ugly head again, but this time I killed them with a pair of [card]Augur Spree[/card]s. The game progressed, and my Rakdos deck came through to even the match at one game apiece. As I shuffled up for game three, I just hoped to not have to deal with those particular two cards on turn two and three again.

Right on time, turn two [card]Call of the Conclave[/card] followed by [card]Vitu-Ghazi Guildmage[/card] again. At this point I couldn’t help but laugh, “You have to be the luckiest person in Magic to draw the only two cards back to back that will give you any chance in this match.” He shrugged his shoulders, ignored me, and promptly beat me down like I stole something. His smugness about the whole situation was unsettling, but I refused to let him put me on tilt. I had more rounds to win.

I won my round six in quick fashion, and immediately wandered over to watch Tom Martell playing my lucky opponent from the previous round. To my surprise, there was a [card]Call of the Conclave[/card] in the graveyard and a [card]Vitu-Ghazi Guildmage[/card] on board. I looked to my friend Sean and asked, “What are the chances that the same combination of cards could be coming up round after round after round?” He shook his head with no answer. Tom ended up winning the match, but mentioned that he had to fight against those two cards early in every game. He said his opponent’s draws were so good that they almost beat a turn two [card]Pack Rat[/card] on the play in game three.

Now I was getting suspicious. Normally, I give people the benefit of the doubt, but now I couldn’t be so sure. Cheating is a very strong word, especially in Magic where variance can play a large role in what at first may appear to be cheating. I could not prove that my opponent had stacked his deck or anything of the sort, but as it turns out, this player did end up getting disqualified and banned for adding said [card]Vitu-Ghazi Guildmage[/card] to his pool. These situations always make me wonder, what would possess someone to cheat in Magic?

“There are a couple ways to answer that question,” says Paul Root Wolpe, the director for the Center of Ethics at Emory University. “On one hand, people tend to cheat in response to desires and incentives they want. There is individual motivation and then there are structural pressures, when they feel under pressure for their careers or income.”

Not everyone cheats in Magic to advance their careers or income, but I am sure with 100% certainty that everyone has cheated in some way when they have played Magic. That is a strong statement without any explanation. Everyone has cheated. Everyone. Yes you. In Magic, cheating is separated into conscious and unconscious cheating though.

Unconscious cheating is when a player commits an act that breaks the rules without motivation for gain. This common form of cheating happens because of a lack of familiarity with the rules. We have all played a card incorrectly, tapped mana wrong to play a spell, or put a creature in a graveyard that should not have gone there. We may not have done it to purposely cheat, but it has happened at some point.

Though done without motivation for gain, in competitive events it is your responsibility to treat all cheating as cheating for profit. A harsh stance to take, but it is the only way to protect yourself from the conscious cheater who will take advantage of your kindness. David DeSteno, psychologist at Northwestern University in Boston, said, “With all of these kinds of decisions, there’s a battle between short- and long-term gains, a tension between the more virtuous choice and the less virtuous one. And of course there are outside factors that can sway that arrow to one side or another.” In order to make it harder for the conscious cheaters, we have to make the environment hostile to cheating of all forms and sway the arrow toward fair play. I do want to qualify this by saying that this is a strategy to eliminate cheating at competitive levels of play. This is not a manifesto suggesting that you drop the hammer on someone at your local FNM. Although, if you think someone is cheating, you should definitely say something to a judge.

It seems like every investigation into cheating at the highest levels of Magic is tempered with the excuse that the player in question is “sloppy.” While many players very well may be sloppy when they play, this cannot be an excuse with that level of prizes on the line. It is also important to not be sloppy when the rules of Magic are such that if a mistake is made, it may become impossible to fix if too much time has passed.

In my last PTQ, I saw a situation where my opponent had a [card]Domri Rade[/card] on the table and activated his +1 ability. He immediately put the card in his hand without revealing it to me. For a second I almost didn’t say anything as my opponent had been very nice the entire time, and I felt like the three Spirit tokens I had on board with an [card]Intangible Virtue[/card] were going to be enough regardless of what he happened to draw. After that second passed, I immediately said to my opponent that he didn’t show me the card and called a judge. He looked shocked and exclaimed, “Oh my God, this is the card I drew,” and showed me a [card]Sever the Bloodline[/card]. Whoa. The one card that you happened to not show was one of the few cards that would get him back in the game. Under most circumstances, I would have been livid and sure he was consciously cheating me. This time I couldn’t be sure because of how new he said he was to the game and how honest a person he seemed to be. Either way, I had to call a judge and let them sort it out. In the end, he did get a match-ending game loss, but what would have happened if I just decided to not say anything?

The moral of all this is that I want to give you a few steps to help make the environment very hard of cheaters:

1. When your opponent breaks the rules, call a judge. This may seem like very obvious advice, but many players are afraid to call a judge when their opponent does something wrong because they don’t want to feel like a tattle tale or snitch.

The rationale for this is that many players who cheat know that little things like tapping their mana wrong won’t get noticed by their opponent and even if they do, they will just say “Oops” and tap their mana correctly. I stopped letting this go years ago when someone tapped wrong, I didn’t catch it, and they had the correct mana up to counter my game-winning spell. By calling a judge when this happens, it will not only fix the mana in the game you’re playing, but will also give the player in question a caution that can be upgraded if the behavior continues. For most honest players, getting a caution will keep them in line from future sloppy play or at the very least make them pay more attention. For the conscious cheat, the caution is unwanted attention and lets the judge crew know who to keep an eye out for as the tournament progresses. Don’t be the person who thinks that the cheating doesn’t matter because you’re going to win anyway. That may not always be true.

2. Repeatedly double-check that your opponent can pay for their spells. Even though I feel like most of these errors are done unconsciously, it is better to have your opponent pay the correct mana for spells. Especially pay attention on game-altering spells that change the course of the game. You’d feel really stupid if you lost to a [card]Supreme Verdict[/card] your opponent could not cast.

3. Your opponent’s temperament is not an indication of whether they will cheat or not. As I think back, I can bring to mind quite a few players who are absolute jerks but are not cheaters. The same goes for people who have been suspended for cheating but are apparently very friendly and cordial. The thing to remember is that it is not your job to dissect whether your opponent is cheating you or not. You should assume that your opponent is always looking for an edge. Let the judges figure out whether it was conscious cheating or not. Let the judge make character assumptions. Your only job is to play a fair game within the rules.

In the end, we all just want to play a game where we take our deck and our skills to battle it out against others fairly. While I can’t say that we will ever live in a fair world like this, we should do our best to keep the playing field as level as we can. By swaying the arrow towards more virtuous actions and harshly punishing those who cheat, we work towards a world where we are rewarded by our skills not by dishonesty.

Until next time,



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