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Silvestri Says – Foils and Cheating

Recently many people have commented on various reports of cheating or assumed cheating in regards to foiled cards in decks. Today I want to dispel some of the myths about using foils in decks and some of the most common cheats you abuse with foils, as well as some oldie general cheats. Ted Knutson and Mike Flores both wrote very good cheating articles in the past in an attempt to educate the general public and give them signs to look for to prevent being cheated. I learned a lot from their work and talking with local judges, so I’d like to give thanks to them for sharing some of what they know and have witnessed in regards to cheating.

This article was written to talk about what I know and what I’ve learned about cheating in an attempt to raise awareness in other players and repeat the best mantras in terms of countering basic cheats.

To start, here are the most common cheats with foils:

1. Foil Stacking – Having bent foils in a deck leads to stacking of decks when shuffling, either consciously or unconsciously due to muscle memory.

Many foil cards are going to bend* during the course of a tournament due to bad storage, not double sleeving and general wear and tear. In addition the thickness difference is large enough outside of double sleeves that some people can usually tell the difference between foils and non-foils. What this means is that playing foils has an inherent risk and can potentially provide someone with a large advantage depending on the person’s intentions. It doesn’t mean foils are banned from play or that you shouldn’t play a card purely because it would mean having one foil and three normal copies in your deck.

*An aside on promo cards such as prerelease foils. If you need an easy example on timelines for bending, take any Prerelease or Promo card and compare how quickly one is bent compared to one out of a booster. Promo cards are stored differently from the foils you get in sealed booster packs and distortions tend to show quicker unless you flatten them yourself. While these cards are legal, you’d do very well to not play them or be very careful when playing them in Competitive REL tournaments. I may very well be playing my Wurmcoil Engine promos in tournaments, but I also flattened them and will be keeping a very close eye on them during any event I enter.

Some people ask why this is considered such a serious a problem. The reason is quite clear if you think about it, Magic players have a tendency to gravitate toward odd spots during shuffles. When you drop a deck a few inches from the table with blatantly bent foils in there, what’ll happen is you’ll see a few cards rise and stand out if you look from the side or run your hand along the deck. Even subconsciously people are going to naturally mark these spots due to the nature of the game and shuffling, it’s something that stands out in what should be an everyday and rigid process. Some people can tell what is and isn’t a foil in a single sleeve purely by the difference in thickness, don’t be someone who believes there’s no chance that people can and will do this. If done on purpose… Well that’s what half the cheats in this article cover. They all give huge advantages to the cheating party and over time perpetuate many annoying myths for judges to dispel.

If someone is trying to cheat you, it becomes increasingly easy to stack a deck in such a way that regardless of where your opponent cuts you that you’ll likely see a marked foil card near the top of the deck. Worse still is that this is an easy way to run the ‘Vamp Cheat’ which refers to Vampiric Tutor and finding specific cards while shuffling. While you don’t get the final cut in which to make this strategy foolproof, what you can do is note your opponent’s habits and place your foil in such a way to maximize your odds he cuts it to the top of your deck. Similarly if I can point out the foils in your deck and feel you wouldn’t notice, I could shuffle and cut in such a fashion to put said foils near the bottom with a huge amount of consistency.

*For those non-cheaters in the class that want the best out of their PR foils, I’ve had a lot of luck squashing them under a heavy textbook or dictionary overnight and double sleeving them. While this won’t completely cure the bends over time, what it will do is decrease their stiffness and overall profile in your deck for a longer period than if played normally.

2. Free Sensei’s Divining Top – You can feel foils with a little sensitivity and practice if you rub the side of your deck a lot.

This came up at SCG Baltimore during the Standard 5k and people don’t seem to understand what this cheat is. Simply put, it’s having the rough knowledge of where the marked foils in your deck are at all times. Most of the times it’s a Sensei’s Divining Top where you can quickly establish whether or not a key card is in the top few cards of your library. In a format with plenty of instant-speed shuffle effects and other library manipulation; it becomes all too easy to use this method to have a huge advantage over your opponent.

Don’t take my word for it though, this has been a documented occurrence for years, contrary to what some DQ’d players would have you believe. Here’s some feedback on the subject from DCI judge Kevin Biswanger.

“Translation of the DCI Penalty Guidelines:
Marked Cards used to be separated into two infractions: Pattern (GL) and No Pattern (W).

Nowadays, it’s just one infraction (the equivalent of No Pattern) with an optional upgrade: “The Head judge has the option to upgrade this penalty to a Game Loss if he or she believes that a player noticing the pattern of markings would clearly compromise the integrity of the game.” Compromising the integrity of the game is more than just “Oh I have 5 marked cards and one of them is a land, so I know I have 4/5 of not drawing a land.” It has to be pretty blatant to pull the trigger on the upgrade. The examples I’ve seen are things like, “All the lands of the color you’re siding in are marked” or “You have 4 MPR Cryptic Commands and they’re making a tent on the top of your deck.”

The key points:
* Foils aren’t inherently marked. Foils can be marked or unmarked just like other cards.
* Foils can warp easier. They have a metallic layer that becomes more sensitive to heat and humidity (as I understand it) and bend easier.
* Foils that don’t come in packs are more likely to warp because the way they’re printed and packaged and shipped doesn’t keep them as flat.

If you want to “protect yourself”
* Look at your foils. See if they’re warped. See if you can pick them out from your other cards. If you can, bend them back (try leaving two foils back to back in a single sleeve over night to unbend them) or replace them.
* Play a mix of foils and non-foils. This isn’t a guarantee, but it makes it less likely that if your foils do get marked, you won’t have something awkward like “All lands foiled” or “all non-lands foiled”

End Binswanger section and add hardy thanks for his contribution.

For reference, this is something that can easily be played off as a nervous tic, Ted Knutson wrote about this tendency before and since many people need to touch something while they play it’s all too easy to play off. If your opponent has foils in his deck and does this a lot, be on alert since he could very well be feeling for his next draws. If you want an example of where this was caught and punished, scroll down to the bottom of the article where I included an exerpt from Grand Prix: Denver some years ago. Alternatively you could scrounge around MTGsalvation where a DQ’d player posted about how there was a giant conspiracy specifically out to get him.

3. Opponents ease of tracking and abuse using the above methods against you

Not only can you cheat with foils in your deck, but I can cheat as well if I know what to look for. More and more I see people either consciously or unconsciously take account of foils in opponent’s decks and try to feel for them before doing the final shuffle when presented. If I know you only have a few foils and they aren’t flat, I can probably pick them out and put them on the bottom of your deck. This isn’t something you can always do, but if you practice it and their cards are marked in a distinguishable fashion then there isn’t a heck of a lot your opponent can do to stop you since he can’t cut after you present their deck back.

The easiest way to avoid this is to simply not play foils. The second easiest is to be very careful and more importantly, very alert when playing with a deck that includes some number of foils in it. If you check for wear in-between rounds and keep your cards in good shape then these situations won’t come up, but if you don’t then it’s all too easy for a sharp opponent to pick up on it. Depending on their attitude toward it, you’ll either get in trouble with judges for having marked cards or they can take advantage of it with by doing a very simple version of stacking your deck.

The simplest way to beat almost all of these cheats is being alert and shuffling the heck out of your opponent’s decks. Unless someone is very good and confident in their abilities, this will be enough to stop these tricks almost every time.

Sleeve Cheats


1. Worn Sleeves

Sleeves can be marked basically anytime after you play a couple of rounds or even if shuffle a little too clumsily right out of the package. Most of the time it’s irrelevant for the remaining course of the tournament, but some people take these sleeves and then battle through three more tournaments with them and are shocked when people call judges on them. Much like foils, bent corners can easily be used to differentiate cards while shuffling or rubbing the side of your deck and marks on the side or top of the sleeves can be used to cheat as well.

The one thing that doesn’t come up too often is when the front of sleeves gets dinged up. This is really hard to bust if the marks are tiny, but if you mark a sleeve on the front (transparent side) slightly with some practice you can feel them out. This is mostly only going to pop up while shuffling, so there’s slightly less potential for abuse, but it’s also harder to track if they do it right. This type of cheat I doubt you’ll run into, but it does exist. Note that sometimes if people ding cards on the front, it could potentially damage the top of the card slightly depending on how deep they made the mark.

2. Marks on printed art sleeves and modified art sleeves.

Mox Opal sleeves stand out very badly as a ‘natural’ version of this type of cheatyface maneuver. If you look at the sides of [card]Mox Opal [/card] sleeves on certain print runs, what happens is that if you mix packs of these sleeves sometimes you end up with a tiny white and black streak, instead of purely one color. This is a pretty big problem if only a few of the marks are different and your opponent knows what cards those are, worse still he can potentially play it off if he marked enough of his cards. If only a set of cards or a singleton is marked, pretty easy to figure out what’s going on, but if a dozen cards are like that and there’s seemingly no rhyme or reason a game loss is probably the worse they’ll get.

Art sleeves are much the same, it’s all too easy to make tiny scratches or colored dots that 99% of people won’t notice, but you can point out if you look closely at the top of your deck. By distracting the viewer’s vision with an overall picture, it becomes easy to hide a mark in the details that would be trivially easy for all to see on a basic opaque card sleeve. If you think someone has some bunk sleeves, call a judge immediately and pay attention to your opponent. If they stare at the top or side of their deck a lot, that’s probably a sign something is up.

3. Fauna Shaman / fetchland free card cheat

This is just an updated term for the common cheat of using effects that fetch something out of the library and using a distraction, slipping an extra card into your hand without the opponent noticing. Much like palming cards, it relies on the opponent being distract or having his attention turned away from your hand of cards and actual hands. The reason this is a bigger cheat to look for than palming cards is how often we shortcut through people doing search effects, saying go and finishing while the opponent begins his turn. By allowing this type of action it gives someone a golden opportunity to fish out another card, because the opponent is most likely focusing on going through the motions of untapping, drawing and playing out their turn.

Not a hard cheat to stop, since most people aren’t good enough to do it against people who are paying attention. Plenty of options here – Don’t let people shortcut, or make sure you pay attention to them while you untap and draw for the turn or just ask them how many cards they have in hand immediately after they finish shuffling.

4. Looking at your deck after presenting it to be shuffled

This is trickier, because it’s difficult to prove. If an opponent takes your deck and shuffles in a particularly large arc, then you’ll be boned and they can see what you’re playing. The easiest thing you can do is ask your opponents to look away when they shuffle or do so in a manner which they can’t see cards (side shuffles and other non-riffle methods).

5. Palming cards

Yet again, the title gives away the entirety of the cheat. Someone skilled can do this all day and not get caught against a lot of opponents, however it’s also pretty easy to counter by keeping track of the game-state and how many cards they should have at a given time. If they can get through things like that and the potential for discard effects being aimed at them, then the best you can do is hope to catch them doing something fishy to hide a card. With luck though you won’t run into anyone that good and just the random stooge who tries to draw extra cards while the opponent is staring at the top of their deck since it’s the draw step.

“Oops” Cheats

Flipping an opponent’s card on the table while shuffling, half the time you could probably talk an opponent into a compromise of showing one of your cards or not calling a judge altogether over such a ‘simple error’. The remaining half you get a warning and you’ve already gained an edge on the opponent in terms of opening hands. You have a decent idea of what to look for and your opponent has no idea.

Abuse of “missed” mandatory (and some optional) triggers, especially changes in life and then attempting to argue about it later. Ironically someone who kept details of each change but fudged one of said details will probably trump someone who is legit, but can’t prove every single exchange.

Rushing through triggers or responses in an attempt for you to become frustrated, at best they get their way and at worst they’ve thrown you off by distracting you.

There are plenty of others that fall under this category; personally I like Knutson’s description of the type of player who abuses these on purpose. The Loveable Oaf. Long story short, being willing to call a judge will usually defeat all of these tricks over time. People get away with this garbage, because even if you’re willing to call a judge, the next guy they try it on probably won’t and it takes an accumulation of warnings to get real action taken unless the judge catches them in a lie.

My hope is that this article teaches players some of the basic tricks people use to get an edge on opponents. There are plenty of more complicated and difficult to detect methods of cheating, but those are rare and frankly you wouldn’t be able to catch those people anyway. If you’re interested in learning more about cheating methods, my suggestion is to Google up cheating articles by Ted Knutson, Michael Flores, Geordie Tait and Michael Clair.

In fact go read Michael Clair’s article “Better Play Through Being a Jerk” anyway, because in many ways it mirrors the Matt Nass situation and in a way it disappointed me that years later we’re still cracking on people for calling judges. My guess is that other than one’s own play errors, more matches in Magic are lost through not calling a judge than any other factor. As Rob Dougherty once wrote:

“One of the greatest advantages a cheater has is people’s reluctance to correct “shady” behavior for fear of appearing rude. If you want to keep yourself safe, you have to be willing to ask your opponents to modify their behavior or even call a judge. You don’t have to be belligerent about it – you can ask nicely – but you do have to stick up for yourself. Don’t expect the judges to be able to “see all” and keep you safe.”

Hoping you call a judge if you ever think this is happening to you.

Josh Silvestri
Email me at: joshDOTsilvestriATgmailDOTcom

Chris Marple was disqualified from GP: Denver back in 2001 just for this problem:

Head judge’s Statement About Chris Marple’s Disqualification from GP Denver

Dan Gray

On Saturday, during round 6, several players came up to various judges and reported that a player was playing a deck using “all foil lands and no other foil cards” and that they thought he was cheating with them.

Upon further inquiry, the judges determined that the player in question, Chris Marple, was playing using opaque-backed sleeves, and one of the players who reported the foil lands situation believed he had witnessed Marple touching the top of his deck to feel what his next card was. The judges agreed to keep an eye on Marple.

At the beginning of Round 9 on Sunday, Steve O’Mahoney-Schwartz came up to me (Head judge Dan Gray) and stated he was playing the “all foil land guy.” The judges proceeded to perform a routine deck check on Chris Marple and Steve O. During this deck check, it was discovered that Mr. Marple’s deck contained all Urza’s Saga foil mountains, all Invasion foil islands, and a foil Shivan Reef (the other 3 Shivan Reefs and a Terminal Moraine were the only non-foil lands in the deck). Mr. Marple also had 3 foil Opts and a foil Fire/Ice, but no other foil cards in the deck. (Opt is frequently used as a “land substitute” to reduce a player’s land count.)

The judges elected to allow the Marple/Steve O. match to begin, and two judges kept an eye on Marple’s actions during the match. During game 1, which Steve O. won easily, Marple seemed to feel the card he was about to draw, and he constantly picked up his library by the sides and moved it over slightly to the right or the left.

At the beginning of game, Marple shuffled his deck, and, after Steve O. had shuffled it thoroughly, proceeded to draw a hand of 2 Islands, a Fire/Ice, and 4 red cards. Looking angry and clearly thinking about taking a mulligan, Marple reached for his deck and touched the back of the top card. He immediately (while his hand was still on his deck) said, “I’ll keep these.”

Marple took his first turn, playing an Island. Steve O. then took a turn. Marple then drew his first card, which was one of his foil Mountains. At this point, the judges stopped the match, and, convinced that he was cheating by utilizing the differences in the thickness of foil and non-foil cards, which can be felt even through opaque sleeves, I disqualified Chris Marple without prizes.

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