How to catch a cheater

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Cheating has been a persistent blight on competitive Magic since its inception. You hear fables of the wild west of the Pro Tour’s early years, where unsleeved cards were marked and sketchy play was the norm, rather than the exception. As legend has it, Chris Pikula rose above this hell-scape and banished the cheaters to the DCI Shadow Realm once and for all. However, the use of YuGiOh strategies inexplicably didn’t quite erase the scourge of cheating from our game. In my years working at card shops, I’ve learned that we have it good compared to the communities of most other card games, thanks largely to our developed judge program, but it seems like nary a weekend passes without a viral story of a cheater or an angle-shooter blowing up on Reddit.

I have a unique perspective on the issue of cheaters, being the rare intersection of the judge program and an occasionally successful competitive player. I also hate cheaters with a passion and have way too much free time to dedicate to flushing them out. Today, I’m going to try to share my experience with you, be you a player or a judge, in the hopes that I can make at least a small difference in improving the integrity of the game, and teach you the best ways to use the judge program to protect yourself and others. I’ve reached out on social media to see what content people want me to cover, and while I hope to hit as many points as possible, forgive me if I miss your question.

What Is Cheating?

While this makes for a horribly boring section header, we do have to define the scope of cheating in what’s ultimately the very technical issue of the Infraction Procedure Guide, or IPG, the document that judges use to define and penalize errors in tournament play. I’ll be referring only to Competitive REL events here, but remember that cheating at the FNM level is obviously also unacceptable, and must be dealt with appropriately by judge or tournament staff.

Simply put, cheating in Magic is breaking the rules of the game or the guidelines of the tournament to gain an undue advantage. Stacking your deck, peeking at your neighbour’s picks in draft, hiding a clutch sideboard card under your life-pad? Cheating. Casting Negate on a creature, spending mana you don’t have, playing two lands in a turn, drawing extra cards, misrepresenting non-hidden information? Cheating, as long as it was done intentionally. Therein lies the biggest struggle with catching cheaters. Magic is a very complicated and often stressful game, and mistakes do happen. Most well-known players have made errors that the less-than-savvy viewers on Twitch chat are quick to call them out on. It’s the role of judges to discern intent, and in many cases, we as players need to learn how to help them solve the puzzle.

You Should Probably Call a Judge

This has been beaten to death before by better writers than me, but it’s a point that bears repeating. When in doubt, call a judge. Catching cheaters is a non-starter without the participation of your friendly neighbourhood judge program. On a fundamental level, we as players aren’t actually authorized to repair broken game states and are more or less obligated to involve a judge. That said, use your own judgment. If your opponent is clearly new to competitive magic, it might not play-out well to call a judge on them for shuffling their deck at the wrong angle, for instance. Many new or more casual players are easily spooked by the hard rules enforcement of the competitive scene, and it’s good for all of us to ease them into things in a way that a judge might not have the mandate to do. That said, if you have any doubt about the honest integrity of someone’s actions, any at all, you should probably call a judge. It can be rather hard to discern whether or not a player’s errors actually constitute a cheat, but significant mistakes are documented as warnings first on the match slip, and eventually in the DCI database. A player was caught and disqualified in this very way, death by a thousand warnings, at GP Toronto!

Alright, we’ve made the difficult moral decision to raise our hand and scream judge at the top of our lungs, and the player sitting next to us is visibly startled by the wail you just unleashed. After apologizing to your neighbour for your lack of situational awareness, a judge shows up. Here, I recommend taking one of two paths. First, if you believe that your opponent isn’t being malicious, but you want to document whatever violation took place, then you should simply explain the error. In my pretty vast experience, however, this will almost never result in the judge investigating the player for cheating. For whatever reason, and no slight to them, but judges appear to be relentlessly optimistic about player integrity when called to a table. At PT Kyoto, I called a judge and explained that I “caught” my opponent glaringly drawing extra cards. The judge fixed the problem without investigating, apologized later when I confronted him about it, having misheard me, and it took until the next PT for this Silver pro to be caught, disqualified, and suspended, cheating at least two other people along the way.

I learned from this experience that you need to be particularly obtuse when talking to judges about catching cheaters, which further confounds how you interact with them in the ever-important judge call. You can’t just scream, “I caught my opponent cheating!” at the table — your opponent will be justifiably antagonistic towards you for the rest of the match, and imagine how awkward it would be if you were wrong! There’s an easy fix, however, that works every time: ask to talk to the judge away from the table, then state very clearly that you think your opponent is cheating. You can explain this away to a nosy opponent as your asking the judge about a card interaction if the judge doesn’t need to come to the table and investigate immediately. Regardless of how this plays out, treating accusations of cheating or other in-game impropriety with some amount of tact is extremely good.

So far, we’ve only dealt with situations arising in our own matches. If you’re like me, and lose every round very quickly, you might spend a significant amount of any given tournament as a spectator. For some reason, I really enjoy watching Magic after losing at it. It’s either the relentless drive to improve, or some kind of weird masochism. Anyways, a spectator has a unique bird’s eye perspective on a match, and can have a crucial role in catching cheaters. At GP Toronto, I was watching a friend play after my unceremonious 0-3 exit, and his opponent, dead on board and with no way to win, tried to play a Serum Visions for free to win with a Laboratory Maniac. My friend caught it and called a judge, but had I not intervened and explained the situation clearly, explicitly stating that I was certain the player was cheating, an investigation that resulted in a disqualification might never have occured. That said, there are a few things to keep in mind here. Don’t intervene unless you’re sure of what’s going on. It’s very frustrating, as a player, to have your match interrupted by someone who’s missing crucial information. At Competitive REL events, like PPTQs or the first day of Grand Prix, if you see an error in-game or are concerned about a cheat taking place, you should ask the players to pause and call for a judge. It’s also important to remember that at Professional REL, which consists of Pro Tours, World Magic Cup, and Grand Prix Sundays, that you cannot even ask the players to pause as a spectator — instead you’re told to go seek out a judge and talk to them directly. I don’t like this, but it is what it is.

Spotting a Cheat

Not all cheats are flamboyant sleight of hand tricks. While Stephen Speck became a household name in competitive Magic by palming unbeatable Amulet Bloom opening hands, most common cheats are either shuffle cheats or just advantageous in-game errors. Five-time Grand Prix champion Fabrizio Anteri was found to have been using our first shuffle cheat to generate more advantageous draws — simply insufficiently shuffling. He would use the infamous mana-weave, where you stack your deck with a favourable distribution of lands and spells, and shuffle very little, never using a mash or riffle, before presenting and hoping that his opponents would merely cut rather than shuffle their deck. Insufficient shuffling is actually common enough, intentional or not, that it has its own section in the penalty guide used by judges. The easiest way to avoid your opponent stacking their deck is, of course, to adequately shuffle it rather than just cut it when presented, but if you see your opponent presenting a deck that’s obviously not randomized, you should definitely call a judge just in case. Even if your opponent is using mash shuffles, it’s easy to make it so that the top cards of the deck never move, so stay vigilant. Also remember that pile shuffles no longer count as randomization under the rules, and the many cheats that involve double pile shuffles returning a deck to its original order are procedurally, as well as conceptually, illegal under this change.

Another famous shuffle cheat earned former Rookie of the Year Jared Boettcher his ban, and this one is significantly more insidious, being harder to protect yourself against. Every time Jared would have the opportunity to shuffle his opponent’s deck, he would angle the deck such that he could glance down and look at the cards. With each overhand shuffle, he would move a land to the top of the deck – and Jared’s opponents found themselves mana-flooded with enough consistency to catapult him to consistent Pro Tour top 16 finishes. Since your opponent is the last one to touch your deck before you draw from it, beating this cheat isn’t so simple as the last one. Instead, you have to be as vigilant as possible whenever your opponent has their hands on your cards. You can watch clips of Jared running this cheat here to educate yourself. Personally, if I notice that my opponent is shuffling my cards in a way where they would be able to see them, I ask them to turn their head or otherwise not look.

I would argue, however, that the most common cheats are overwhelmingly small game-play errors that result in a player gaining an unearned advantage. These are, of course, extremely hard to isolate, and the only way to insulate yourself from being cheated in this way is to have a solid grasp on everything taking place in game. Make sure you have the right life totals, make sure creatures die in combat appropriately, make sure your opponent resolves their spells correctly, check that your opponent has the right number of cards in hand and make sure you’re paying attention when they go to draw cards or manipulate their library. Players frequently forget whether or not they’ve played a land, leading some to track this on their life-pad. This can, obviously, get pretty exhausting, especially for newer players, but is unfortunately just the reality of a paper card game. It honestly pains me to say this, but I believe for certain that a significant minority of notable grinders and pro players are willing to take advantage of an unwitting opponent to get ahead through game errors. I’m not here to spread conspiracies about cheating pros, but let’s just say that you shouldn’t let your guard down just because you’ve seen your opponent on stream before. There are a lot of players who are successful thanks to a lack of a moral compass, and it would serve a new player well to remember that your opponent does not have your best interests in mind. Furthermore, I think we should hold notable players to a higher standard, albeit not on an institutional level. After all, if a Platinum pro returns a Tireless Tracker to play with an Ojutai’s Command, it’s much less likely to be an accident than in the hands of a first-time FNM-goer.

This is a little off-topic, but while we’re discussing protecting ourselves from cheaters, this would be an opportune time to talk about protecting yourself from cheaters using judges to their advantage. Tournament Magic has some extremely obtuse bribery and wagering rules, thanks to the bigwigs at Hasbro legal who absolutely want to keep Magic as far away from gambling as possible. A certain notable cheater of years past has been baiting his opponents in the final rounds of Grand Prix into disqualifications under bribery rules. I don’t know the details of his strategy here, but protecting yourself from this DQ is pretty straightforward: any discussion of prize splits has to be independent from the match result, you cannot offer anything in exchange for a match result, and if you’re ever in doubt about what’s going on, you should talk to a judge away from the table to clarify.

A Few Words for Judges

As both a judge and a player, I understand the unique difficulty of catching cheaters, specifically in identifying the difference between a genuine error and malicious intent. Furthermore, I understand that the judge program doesn’t view the art of the investigation as a prerogative for L2 certification. Many floor judges at a given Grand Prix might have very little experience with investigations, bar the few they’ve conducted personally at a PPTQ level or watched red shirts deal with on the GP floor. This is a problem, as the investigation is by far the most important tool in the box an individual judge has as far as catching cheaters goes. If I can give advice as a concerned player, it’s that judges should be far more liberal in investigating suspicious errors, and should apply a healthy dose of skepticism to their analysis.

Far too often I witness judge calls where a player clearly thinks they’ve caught their opponent breaking the rules proceed without so much as a hint of an investigation. You might be uncomfortable conducting them, but this unfamiliarity won’t improve without repetition. It’s always good to ask questions of players about the game state, and trust me, catching cheaters is worth the pain.

A Few Words on Angle-Shooting

This is a bit more contentious of a topic, as while I contend that angle-shooting is morally equivalent to cheating, it’s completely legal as long as it’s conducted properly. To explain it briefly, angle-shooting is when a player exploits the behaviour of the other player within the rules of the game or the tournament. For instance, an angle-shooting player might understand the nuances of rules regarding public information better than their opponent, and exploit this to give incomplete answers about a creature’s size that misleads their opponent into making bad blocks. These players will take every single advantage afforded to them by the rules, regardless of the morality or sportsmanship of it. That said, when you live in the grey-area, you’re invariably going to slip up at some point. A notable angle-shooter was disqualified at last year’s GP Montreal for trying to pull a fast-one on an opponent who happened to be an experienced judge. He was caught lying to the head judge when cross-examined, and suspended for an attempted angle-shoot gone wrong.

How should you protect yourself against this? Know the rules, and if you’re ever confused about a situation, you should call a judge for clarification. Don’t trust your opponent for information about the game.

It’s in everyone’s interest to fight for clean play in Magic, and I encourage everyone to take it as seriously as possible. This subject is considered oddly taboo in the competitive scene, with players unwilling to out their friends. I prefer to view it as a badge of honour, and with a kill count approaching double digits, I’m damn proud every time I catch someone trying to ruin the integrity of this great game. Please let me know if you have any further questions or comments – and look forward to some good old Standard decks next week!

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