Careful Consideration – Ambivalence Breeds Foul


I’ve been cheated before, and I bet you have been, as well.

Maybe you didn’t realize it. Maybe your opponent was sly when they shuffled their deck, or they drew an extra card, or they simply didn’t say anything when you marked your life total down as 8 when it should have been 9, setting up their lethal attack the next turn.

The first time I realized I had been cheated, I was pretty livid. In a PTQ a few years ago, the judge in the area was not on top of things, and my opponent got away with blatantly marked sleeves, which he used to beat me by casting Riddle of Lightning at precisely the right time to kill me in both games one and three (flipping the two highest casting cost spells in his deck off the top). I missed out on that Top 8 by mere fractions of a percentage point by virtue of my terrible tiebreakers. Needless to say, I was pretty upset by the whole thing. And of course, my opponent went unpunished.

It happens. There wasn’t much more I could do about the situation at the time. I alerted the judge, I got a bad ruling, there was no head judge to appeal to (as there was only one judge for this particular PTQ), and life went on without me having a chance to play in the elimination rounds for the slot.

But it’s the way people treat cheaters that really bothers me, and that motivated me to write this article. But first, let’s clear up what exactly I think cheating is, as people have different definitions.

What is cheating?

Magic has an element of deception in it, and that’s going to muddy the waters a bit when trying to determine what cheating is, since most dictionary definitions involve some degree of deception.

There are different flavors of deception. I could very carefully make sure to leave up 1UU to represent Cancel even though I don’t have the card in my hand. If someone asks the question, “How big is your Knight of the Reliquary?” I could answer, “His power and toughness is 2/2 plus the number of lands in my graveyard, and I have four lands in my graveyard,” which would be true – but I wouldn’t have to remind my opponent about the Honor of the Pure in play, and my statement is definitely worded in a way that is both technically true and intentionally misleading.

I’ve written about Bill Stark’s Mogg Fanatic bluff before, but it’s such a good example of the kind of conduct that a lot of people find unsporting, that it’s worth mentioning again, as written about on thestarkingtonpost.com (used with permission):

“Here was the situation: my opponent, Sam Tian, and I were mired in a Zoo mirror match. The winner would get to double draw into the Top 8, and we were deep into the third game. Sam’s Domain Zoo was behind to my Ranger Zoo/Naya build when time was called. He was at just 1 life when I untapped for my final of five turns. Unfortunately for me, Sam had had just enough removal to kill all of my attackers on his turn. Sam couldn’t win, but as I cracked a sac land to maximize my draw step, I mentally calculated a small number of outs. I needed to hit any of the remaining burn spells in my deck in the form of a singleton Keldon Marauders, or a combination of Seal of Fire and Lightning Helixes (though I had already used some of them up over the course of the game).

What happened instead, as the crowd pressed in and I carefully peeled the last card from the top of my deck, was me drawing Ranger of Eos. For a split second my heart sank at the realization that I was about to get a draw where I felt I should have gotten a win had we had infinite time to finish our match, particularly considering my Ranger topdeck. For a second I considered playing Ranger, tutoring up two Wild Nacatls, then asking my opponent to concede to me as I was going to kill him if we had just one more turn.

Instead, I realized I had another plan. I could play Ranger, point out the Mogg Fanatics I had in my graveyard, and say something to the effect of “I play Mogg Fanatics, you’re at 1.” It would be a stone cold bluff as my list had only two Mogg Fanatics in it (the two in my graveyard) and all my opponent would need to do was say “Okay, show me” to earn a draw. At that point, I’d still be left with my original plan (try to earn a guilted concession which my opponent was under no obligation to provide and which I, in the same position, would not grant) but would have taken the opportunity to improve my lot in life with an additional grab at victory. In the course of a few seconds after drawing, that’s what I decided to do, confidently dropping the 3/2 on the board, pointing out a Fanatic in my graveyard and indicating my ability to tutor up another for the win. My opponent bit, opting to concede rather than force me to go through the motions, and I was able to double draw into the Top 8.”

I know that this caused a bit of a stir at the time, and again when I wrote about it in an article a few months back.

Here’s another example of potentially unsporting conduct, Patrick Chapin’s “Profane Command bluff,” which Riki Hayashi wrote about here. To quote from his article:

The crux of his play is that he said, “Profane Command, you lose 6 life and all my legal targets gain fear.” He then attacked with all of his creatures, including a Chameleon Colossus that did not have fear due to being an illegal target for Profane Command because of protection from black. His opponent tried to find a block that kept him alive, but because he thought that Colossus had fear, he could not find the game-saving block.

I won’t get into why this was indeed a legal play, as Riki already did an excellent job in doing so in the abovementioned article.

So let’s spare the debate for a second. We can get into the ethics of what Bill or Patrick did, and whether or not it was sporting, but know that according to the rules of the DCI, what they did was completely legal – without question.

Should what they did be legal? Is it really sporting? Should they be disqualified for skirting the line between legality and illegality, though it’s obvious they stayed on the correct side of that line?

The DCI has a lot of discussion that goes on between the judging staff, and feedback, improvement, and re-evaluation are always happening. It’s safe to say that with the amount of discussion goes on, situations like Chapin’s and Stark’s have been discussed, hashed, rehashed, discussed some more, debated, and chewed on some more, before finally reaching a well-informed conclusion. I don’t necessarily agree with everything the DCI does, but they have a system of rules, and if conduct falls within those rules, then according to them, you are not cheating.

I think it’s somewhat arrogant to say things like, “While technically legal, what he did was cheating, and should be punished,” which I’ve heard people say before. There is a giant governing body that has determined what they feel are the best rules and regulations to abide by, but you think that your own personal standards should be applied on top of those rules. I’m not saying that you should passively accept every rule you disagree with; taking it to the DCI and questioning the merits of the rules in order to get the rules changed creates healthy debate and the kind of change that keeps an organization like the DCI healthy. But to simply say, “I don’t like what he did because it violates my own personal standards of ethics despite it adhering to the official standards, and therefore some penalty should be applied,” is the wrong way to go about it.

So my personal definition of cheating is simply this: If the DCI thinks it’s legit, then it’s legit. If a miniature John Carter (who is my standard of judging excellence along with the lesser-known but equally awesome James Lee) stood on my shoulder and knew what I was thinking and could see what I was doing, and he is okay with my actions, then no penalty should be applied.

So, I know this guy

So with all of that said, there are people who do cheat, and would get busted by mini-Carter on the spot. Actual, legitimate (illegitimate?) straight-up cheaters. And they are the scum of the Magic world. They have no place in the game, and they should be removed immediately.

They hurt the integrity of the game by altering match results in ways that have been defined as illegal, and they are actively bad for the game. Getting cheated is one of the worst experiences a player can have, and cheaters are nothing more than self-serving parasites who are willing to break the rules to get an advantage that they did not earn honestly. I have no patience for this kind of vermin. Cheaters drive away players, they steal packs and foils at FNMs, they steal packs and slots at PTQs, and they steal money at Pro Tours and Grands Prix. But at least in my community, there is a cavalier attitude about cheaters, and people who are known scumbags and cheaters are still tolerated for reasons like:

“Oh, he is who he is.”
“He’s a pretty good player, though, and he works hard.”
“He’s fun to be around. He’s loveable. And he tells great stories!”

Some guy’s stealing from you, but hey – at least he tells great stories!

It is one of the most ridiculous defenses of anything I’ve ever heard, and maybe it’s specific to just the Seattle area, but there are some real scumbags where people look the other way and welcome thieves, liars, and cheats into their community even when it’s well-known what they’re doing.

I don’t know what percentage of cheating gets caught, but I’d be shocked if it was over 2%. It’s going to happen, and they aren’t going to be punished in all likelihood. Even worse, cheating involves intent; if I Crib Swap your Baneslayer Angel and I don’t know that this interaction doesn’t work, then I’m not a cheater. If I do it and I know that it doesn’t work but I assume correctly that nobody is going to notice this and I can claim innocence, then I most certainly am a cheater.

If you did not intend to cheat, you didn’t cheat! I was having the following conversation with someone (heavily paraphrased):

Me: I’m disappointed, because it sounds like shuffle tutored when he knew his opponent wasn’t cutting his deck. Did it right in front of like three other people – guess he thought nobody was watching him shuffle.

Person: Well, everyone’s cheated at some point. Haven’t you ever accidentally missed a trigger or thought a creature was bigger than it was?

Me: … That’s not cheating!

Person: Well, technically it is.

Me: Go set yourself on fire.

Even if you have some weird definition of cheating as being a violation of any rules (which is not how the DCI sees it, for whatever it’s worth) regardless of intent, it’s like putting murder in with jaywalking, because “technically they’re both crimes.” Call it something else. But please, for the love of all that is good, stop calling unintentional mistakes “cheating.” Just stop.

Ostracize, ostracize, ostracize.

So they’re out there, and they will probably not get caught for the vast majority of stuff they do. You are not the police, and you are not the DCI. So you can’t bust them. But if someone’s a cheater or a scumbag, you don’t have to accept them into your community.

Whenever you lend them cards, you’re helping them. Whenever you have them over for testing, you’re helping them. Whenever you invite them over for a draft, or cube with them, or encourage them in any way at all to continue playing Magic, you’re helping them, and in doing so, you’re making your community worse. They are actively bad for Magic, and you are enabling them to be actively bad for Magic.

So don’t lend them cards. Don’t draft with them. Don’t talk to them at events. Don’t test with them. They are scumbags, and the less you, your friends, and your community have to do with them, the better off everyone is. If the player’s a good player and can provide some value in way of decklists or strategy, it’s still not worth having that negative influence around, and you are now at fault for encouraging this behavior. I don’t care if LSV himself moved to the neighborhood – if it turns out he was a cheater (which I can’t imagine being remotely true, for the record), I wouldn’t have anything to do with him.

Just make sure you don’t go on a witch hunt. Be certain.

One of the great things about Magic is that there are naturally built-in mechanisms for getting a sense of who is honest and who isn’t. If you hang around someone enough in a Magic setting, you learn a lot about their character, especially when it comes to card lending. The greater community does a pretty good job of weeding and singling out the shady people. It’s hard to be a scumbag and hide it for very long. Interacting at the table, borrowing cards, trusting someone with your cube – these are all things that require a certain degree of honesty, and dishonest behavior stands out and gets talked about, and over time, the bad apples become known.

Just make sure you don’t go on a witch hunt. Be certain. Sometimes someone will get a bad reputation because of one thing that happened, and maybe they made a mistake or maybe it was just a weird situation that happened – I wouldn’t leap to the “YOU, SIR, ARE A PARIAH AND MUST AT ONCE RESIGN!” stage the second someone Crib Swaps a Baneslayer Angel, but if it fits into a consistent pattern of behavior, then oust away.

And if a freezeout is effective, is it cruel to shut someone out of having any sort of community bond, driving them away from the game entirely? No, and for this reason: People don’t need Magic to survive. They can still buy food, go to school, have shelter, and enjoy other hobbies. Magic is not essential in any way to living (although it doesn’t always feel that way).

But if you passively tolerate these people to infiltrate your Magic scene and you’re putting up with it and letting it slide, then you are being bad for the community. You bear some responsibility, as well.

Get the cheaters out. Take out the trash. The game that we know and love will be better off as a result.

Yours disinfectingly,
zaiemb at gmail dot com
zbeg on Magic Online
zbeg on Twitter


Scroll to Top