In light of recent revelations regarding severe and systemic cheating incidents (and subsequent DCI action and expected additional action), I felt like it was important to tell people how to protect themselves at Magic tournaments.
I’d estimate that less than 5% of Magic players go into a sanctioned event with the intent to cheat. Some number more do end up committing dishonest acts at a tournament, so-called cheats of opportunity. All told, the community is honest. Most prizes are pretty small, so the financial incentive to cheat isn’t there. Some cheaters want the prizes, some are simply compulsive, but I’d posit the vast majority are reasonably capable players who grow addicted to the winning feeling and associated community approval and who ultimately delude themselves that a dishonest victory can be a source of pride.
So what can we do to protect ourselves? Many things—some that will protect you in the moment and others that are designed to protect the community. I don’t claim originality, many others such as Robert Dougherty, Ted Knutson, Zvi Mowshowitz, Dave Price, and Chris Pikula have written about these concepts.
Don’t Be An Enabler
When I was a teenager, I played on a team with a player who had a known history of underhanded play. I never witnessed any of this play myself (and would’ve called it out if I did), but many players whom I respected cautioned me against playing with this particular player. Still, he seemed nice enough, and played well, and I wanted to qualify for the PT, so I ignored his past.
Many of us in the Magic community have friends who we suspect (or have seen) cheat. We can’t tolerate this. What I now know is that even playing with this player reflected poorly on teenage me. By playing with him in tournaments, I was in effect saying that I was okay with what he’d done.
Tell your friends that you expect them to play a clean game. If you see something in one of their matches that isn’t right, call a judge. And if your friends can’t help themselves, consider finding new friends.
Don’t Mock the Technically Precise
The pejorative “rules lawyer” is unfortunately pervasive in our community. Someone who insists on adhering to technical play is creating a better tournament environment, long-term. When you mock someone as uptight or unfriendly when they call out a minor technicality, you are helping to create the climate that allows cheats of opportunity to exist.
If someone argues with a judge that you deserve a severe penalty for a minor infraction, that can be unsporting. But if they insist that you abide by your words, that no take backs are allowed, and that the letter of the law is followed, you should be thankful for their honesty.
Call a Judge
Do it, and don’t be upset when others do. Whenever anything out of the ordinary happens, call a judge. Whenever you are confused, the game state is unclear or weird, call a judge. Do not rely on your opponent’s knowledge of the rules to govern the game.
Obviously, this will ensure that you get a fair shake in any particular dispute. But, just as importantly, it allows the judging staff to apply penalties and warnings to correct behavior. Sometimes this process is unpleasant. No one wants to receive a warning, game loss, or worse. The penalties are calibrated to be an incentive for precise, clean, technical play and a disincentive toward those who might take advantage.
Warnings serve an important role, as well. Many acts, such as paying the wrong mana for spells, playing multiple lands in a turn, or conveniently forgetting disadvantageous triggers are often impossible to determine whether they are intentional. By giving and tracking warnings for things like game rule violations, it allows the judge community to keep an eye on players whose “sloppiness” always seems to benefit them.
When you have priority, your opponent might ask “are you done?” or “do you pass?” or “can I go?” As a general rule, you should probably just say no to all of these questions. Most of the time, they will be innocuous questions by a slightly impatient player. But sometimes, your opponent will be shooting an angle, trying to get you to commit rules violation or forget to do something. And more generally, they’re rushing you. You’re obligated to play a pace conducive to finishing a match in the allotted time, NOT at the pace your opponent demands. So say “no,” do a quick check, and then continue your turn (even if that means ending it).
In a similar vein, always make sure you have a handle on what is going on in a game of Magic. If you’re confused or unsure, ask your opponent to pause or slow down. If they won’t, call a judge. Remember, you get to respond to things! Often a combo player or someone who is very familiar with their deck will operate their cards at turbo speed. Sometimes, they might be playing obscure cards, older versions, or cards in a different language. Just ask them nicely to go through things step by step and make sure you understand each one.
Handle Slow Play Early
The flip side of the above are players who seem to be taking too much time. If your opponent is constantly taking 30-45 seconds during their precombat main phase before playing a land or taking any other action, rereading the same card over and over again, or simply utilizing a disproportionate percentage of your shared time (the match clock), call a judge and ask them to watch your match for pace of play.
If you allow this behavior to persist for the first 30-40 minutes of the match, it will often be too late for a judge to intervene. Remember—she hasn’t seen the plodding pacing that led you to this point. Too often, players who claim to be “stalled out” could have averted it if they asked a judge to watch for slow play as soon as they became uncomfortable with the way things were going.
Clean the Table
Before starting a game of sanctioned Magic, put away anything you don’t need and ask your opponent to do the same. Clearing the table of all extraneous materials will allow you to focus on the game at hand and minimize the chances that something gets lost in the clutter.
Specifically, ensure that sideboards are placed inside a deckbox or other container prior to the start of the game. One famous cheat involved drawing cards from the top of the sideboard—just take this distraction out of play.
Confirm Life Total Changes
A good habit to get in is to mention the score every time a life total changes. So, if I start by playing a Flooded Strand and sacrificing it, I’ll just say “19 to 20.” Do the same for your opponent’s life total. Some dishonest players will try to gain an advantage by not taking all the damage they are supposed to. Others will allow you to take too much damage in certain situations (such as from a creature that has an invisible shrinking effect applied like Night of Soul’s Betrayal). By confirming each life total change verbally with your opponent, you share responsibility for a correct game state and minimize the chances that a mistake might linger for multiple turns (at which point it might be impossible to correct).
If you find that there is a life total discrepancy, call a judge!
Clear the Stands
I enjoy spectators when I play—I like to have fun! But, if there is anyone standing directly over my shoulder, I’ll ask them if they know my opponent in any way. If so, I ask them to move to the side of the table or to watch from behind their friend. Sometimes, if I’m feeling uncomfortable or there is a language barrier, I’ll kindly ask judges to clear the area behind me completely.
Obviously, it’s possible for someone behind you to share information about your hand with their friend nonverbally. This doesn’t even need to be intentional! We are all human and no one wants to see their friend’s opponent topdeck that key counterspell, trick, or flash creature. Protect your opponent’s friends from human nature and ask them to move to an area where their face can’t betray your cards.
Keep a Count
Early in the game, try to keep a count on the total amount of cards for each player. Add up all the cards in your opponent’s hand. Is it the right amount for the turn of the game? Is it the right amount compared to how many you have? If the count is right, your opponent can not have drawn extra cards. Some will even attempt to under-draw in order to get you a game loss for drawing extra cards. By the middle of the game, players will usually only have 2-3 cards in hand and things like drawing extra cards become a lot more difficult. Still, it’s good to ask your opponent how many cards they have in their hand from time to time, to protect yourself.
Also, keep in mind that mulligans will affect the count. Drawing an extra card after a mulligan is a cheat some players have tried, since the game will appear in order if you forget the mulligan.
Watch Like a Hawk
The most important time to watch your opponent carefully is when they are manipulating the top of their deck (such as with scry, Sensei’s Divining Top, or similar). Ask them to separate and count out cards before they put them into their hand from a card draw spell. Do not look away, check your hand, or think about your next turn during these very sensitive moments. This is the time to be the most vigilant, since it is ripe for abuse.
In addition, make sure your opponents completely resolve their spells. If they cast a Brainstorm, make sure they put the cards back. If they cast Dig Through Time, make sure the other five cards go to the bottom.
Finally, ask your opponents to pay all costs for spells or effects before you decide whether to respond. Make them tap mana where required. Don’t counter their Tormenting Voice before they decide what to discard. Doing things in the right order is the best way to prevent your opponent from conveniently “forgetting” to take a pain from that Shivan Reef or pay the additional cost of their spell that you intended to counter.
The Four Pillars of Good Shuffling
Poor shuffling and downright deck stacking has been the topic du jour, so I’ll close with the four most important things to remember about shuffling in a Magic tournament:
- Count your opponent’s deck before each game, ideally by pile shuffling. This will give you a chance to notice any obviously marked sleeves. More importantly, playing a deck with less or more than the minimum cards opens up additional opportunities for your opponent to cheat. One cheat they might try with excess cards is dropping a card in their lap before the game. One cheat they might try with, say, 39 cards, is drawing a card off their sideboard. Even if you call a judge, as long as it’s game three, their new deck of 40 cards will appear legal. Obviously, playing a non-standard number of cards is not evidence of cheating. But by having the information about the size of their deck, you give yourself a chance to know what to look for.
- Always shuffle your opponent’s deck after they do. We all do this before the game, but it is just as important midgame, such as after a fetch. “Tutoring” a key card to the top, in the hopes that you don’t shuffle, is an old cheat, but very easily countered. Just a few side shuffles midgame will suffice.
- When your opponent is shuffling your deck, look back and forth between their eyes and your deck. Make sure your deck is face down and away from them. Make sure the top card of your deck is changing when they shuffle. Watch for slide shuffles, where they isolate one specific card and bring it to the top of your deck. If anything makes you uncomfortable, call a judge and explain it to them. If she drops a card, call a judge! These little mistakes need to be tracked so that players prone to fumbling don’t gain undue information.
- Most players do not know this, but you always have the right to ask a judge to shuffle your deck. Perhaps your opponent is clumsy and you fear she will drop your secret sideboard card on the table. Perhaps you know your opponent has a history that makes you uncomfortable. Asking a judge to shuffle your deck is your prerogative. Feel free to use it.
Matt Sperling Demonstrates Good Shuffling Technique
Magic is the greatest game ever, with an enthusiastic and largely honestly community of players. We all want a clean game, a welcoming tournament environment, and swift/severe punishments for serial cheaters. Let’s do our part by protecting ourselves at events and utilizing the incredible judges to keep it fair.
Thanks for reading,