Cheating in tournament Magic is not nearly as prevalent today as it was 10 or 15 years ago. The Magic tournament community is not in crisis, and that’s a testament to the hard work of players (always the first line of defense) and judges (especially the level 3+ judges who for years now have been willing to disqualify players in tough spots and conduct intelligent investigations after the fact).

Despite the improvements, cheating will always be an annoying problem that threatens to intimidate players, rob them of their prizes or their fun, and possibly keep them from coming back.

The issue I want to discuss today is whether players that have been banned for cheating should ever be permitted to play Magic again. While I don’t think every infraction deserves a lifetime ban, I think players who are getting banned for 18 months or longer under the current system should be asked to leave and never return instead.

Rehabilitation and Deterrence

While the criminal justice system must very delicately balance two competing needs—rehabilitating criminals for reintroduction to society and deterring future crime—it isn’t clear to me that Magic has to tug equally hard on those two ropes.

I want to avoid merely stating “playing Magic is a privilege” and acting like that justifies whatever I propose, but it is important to point out that life will go on if someone is never allowed to play in another Magic tournament. We should aim to be fair, but if we miss that target the costs are nothing like those in the criminal justice system.

Deterrence is increased if getting caught means a lifetime ban instead of a 2-3 year Magic Online time out (and no, we can’t reliably ban them from Magic Online). This isn’t the primary reason to ratchet up punishment—I’m skeptical that the worst cheaters respond to incentives with this level of granularity—but it is a potential benefit.

Types of Cheaters

What factors should help us determine who, as a community acting through the DCI, we decide to ask to leave the island?

• One big blowup vs. “Death by a thousand tiny cuts” (of spells to the top)

When something seems like an isolated incident, the odds the person just made a mistake can be pretty high. The odds the person won’t repeat bad opportunistic behavior are also fairly high. Compare these circumstances to that of the repeat offender, who has given us reason to doubt that things were just honest mistakes and also reason to doubt that they intend to change. We could still make a mistake by banning them for life, but our sympathy for those situations should diminish as the odds of those situations do.

• Kids vs. Adults

In aiming to be fair, I would absolutely take the age of a player into consideration when determining whether to permanently ban a player. I don’t know if that means 3- or 5-year bans should survive for younger players as an exception to the lifetime ban, or if it just means a 6- or 12-month ban (which saves the right to return under my proposal) should be more liberally awarded to a younger player.

I know players who I don’t think cheat today but who I do think cheated as 16-to-19-year-old kids. 16-19 years old is arguably an adult, but these weren’t the most mature individuals around.

In any event, if you’re 27 and you start cutting these corners, I’d rather not have to worry about whether you’re the man who can be saved.

Having to Play Against the “Reformed” Cheater

What do I mean, “I’d rather not have to worry about whether you’re the man who can be saved”? Playing against someone who is a known or suspected cheater is terrifying. It’s hard enough to play a game with Magic’s strategic complexity at a high level. Doing that while making sure every aspect of the game state is legitimate and every question you get asked isn’t a distraction tactic feels like running a race through a minefield. I get tunnel vision when I play (flow, the zone, etc.) and having to play against these players knocks me right out. When I present my deck, instead of thinking about the key cards for my game plan in this matchup that might drive mulligan decisions, I’m worried my opponent is looking at his deck or mine. I’m worried that their sideboard is put away.

I should be worried about these things even against an unknown opponent, but it’s different. The concern in the back of your mind is actually at the front of your mind, where the other strategic information ought to be.

These are some of the true costs of letting banned players return to tournament Magic. They actually return with a significant advantage, and contribute to a negative tournament atmosphere, even if they are truly reformed. If they aren’t truly reformed, well then you’ve invited the fox back into the henhouse. Fortunately, this is only the case when we let these players back in.

Concern for the Falsely Accused

One of the reasons “Magic is a privilege, throw away the key” is not the end of the story is that not every accusation of cheating is true (a familiar refrain in the comments section).

In the era of videotaped Magic matches, sometimes the evidence we have is more clear and convincing, but other times honest mistakes made on camera can appear to be cheating and the community can get riled up over the video evidence. Players I respect as honest have made mistake after mistake on camera.

Mistakes of all kinds really can happen at the highest levels of competition, and they can look ridiculous. In the last World Championships a player was attacked for lethal damage (with trample) and chose not to unmorph their creature and survive the attack. This mistake couldn’t have been cheating, it was just a mistake, but that makes it a good example. If a mistake of this level of “bone-headedness” had won the game instead of lost it, I guarantee people would have sarcastically remarked, “Yeah, I’m sure a World Championship player would miss something that simple on that critical a turn of the game.” Well, because the mistake hurt him instead of helping him and wasn’t a rules violation, we know there was no foul play, a World Championship competitor just missed something obvious. These things happen.

It’s not easy to determine who is cheating and who is clumsy. But the artists formerly known as the DCI are already doing this hard work. Also, the 6-month and 12-month bans I propose would give them some leeway within which to operate when there’s uncertainty.

On Witch Hunts

With any new technology come opportunities and challenges. The opportunity to catch cheaters on camera and the challenge of maintaining fairness to accused players is no exception as more video coverage has arrived at our events.

We’ve caught some pretty savage cheaters doing unethical things on camera in recent months. The community gets a rush from this and it wants more. I don’t have a problem with getting excited about catching cheating or with spreading the evidence on social media for all to observe. These are matters of obvious public interest to our community and the result is typically a DCI investigation into the cheating incidents (and occasionally the social media posts, unfortunately), so it doesn’t end with actual pitch forks and torches. So, on balance, we should shine this light pretty liberally onto videotaped competitive matches.

It does, however, make you worry that over time we’ll be catching less people who are so bold as to cheat on camera, and more and more often our alarm bells will be ringing for a false positive—someone who is making an honest mistake or three and doesn’t deserve to be banned. For this reason I think that investigation of videotaped matches should be fading out of focus a bit and covert and overt judge activity aimed at catching cheaters needs to step up.

Sloppy Players, Tighten Up

When it comes to some offenses like mistakes in the game state, slow play, randomization of the libraries, presentation of legal decks, etc., it can be impossible to distinguish the sloppiest play from the slickest cheating. At lower-level events we just have to live with this reality and be thankful the problems we have are dwarfed by how fun Magic tournaments are as a whole.

At higher-level events, we probably shouldn’t tolerate the sloppiness we do. We all (myself included) could call the judge more often to establish a record of warnings, and the DCI should be more heavily scrutinizing these accumulating records on a periodic basis. Sloppiness is not really fairly within the lifetime ban framework, but those 6 month timeouts could be appropriate. Incentives matter, appearances matter, and fairness to non-sloppy players matters, and all of these dictate that we treat chronic, very sloppy play as tantamount or nearly tantamount to cheating.

Case Study: Stalling

Stalling (the intentional version of slow play) is the poster child for a few concepts discussed above: 1) the difficulty of distinguishing honest sloppiness (or selfishness) from intentional cheating, 2) how far the DCI has come in taking action against abusive players (e.g., Tomaharu Saito), 3) how far the DCI still has to go taking action against the sloppy and selfish players who ought to be asked to tighten up, 4) the value of recording and establishing a database of prior behavior so that we end up taking action against the repeat offenders and not the first-timers, 5) the amazing stories older players can tell you about how bad it once was, 6) the value of a truly experienced judge at a high-level event.

Final Thoughts

These are boom times for tournament Magic. We can’t hope to prevent all cheating or ban all cheaters when so many new players are joining us every year. We can do our best to be vigilant, and we (players and judges) can try to catch some people in the act. What I think we need a lot less of is adding to these massive undertakings the additional burden of looking out for those foxes we’ve let back into the henhouse.