How to Protect Yourself From Opportunistic Cheating

There’s been a lot of chatter about cheating or suspected cheating, which means it’s a good time to dust off some ancient advice and remind players how to avoid getting cheated.

Protecting Yourself

One of the simplest ways to keep yourself from getting cheated is to watch when your opponent draws, shuffles, or otherwise goes through their library. That’s it. Not only does it let your opponent know that you’re paying attention to what is happening, it allows you to spend some time tracking your opponent’s cards as necessary.

If my opponent is cracking a fetch and I take 10 seconds to count up their played cards or cards in hand and mark it down, then I generally have a good idea of where they were at a given point in the game. I can speak as a judge that one of the hardest types of calls to fairly arbitrate is when someone feels that there’s an extra card in the mix and neither player can give me a clear or useful recollection of events in the game. Just having a reference point is so valuable, and a written one counts for a lot more than a spoken one.

Some players constantly ask how many cards are in hand and I find it to nearly be a waste of time for exactly that reason. If I’m willing to lie about it and sneak in an extra card, why do I care if you say that I said the wrong number? Do you know how many judge calls are the equivalent of, “I made an error, I’m dumb, please fix?” More than every other type of call I’ll get in a given tournament. I’m not going to suddenly decide to oust a player because one of you says the other player said something different two turns ago. Writing it down every couple of turns, on the other hand, gives a history and makes that type of cheat harder to explain.

Two Explores?

What about the classic, “Did I play a land this turn?” attempt at a free explore? Whatever you think of the recent discussion about Lee Shi Tian, one thing he does that makes a lot of sense is play his land for the turn in the top row in front of his other lands. This is a very simple thing that immediately visually clarifies if a land has been played in the turn. You can alternatively separate your lands in a clear row and then lay fresh lands off to the side.

This is another situation that is basically impossible to arbitrate fairly unless you can figure out a clear history of the game. The better a timeline you can develop, the better judges can figure out how you got to the current situation. One of the biggest problems with Magic in general is that it is so easy for a player to tunnel-vision on what they want to do that they forget about the rest of the game. Normally this isn’t a big deal, but when it is, it becomes a nightmare. Anything you can do as a shortcut that creates a clear, visual indication is a great thing!

One thing I like to do with planeswalkers when I first play them is to wait to set the dice on the card until I’ve activated it. Then it is very clear that I’ve actually activated it and what the dice should be set on. I have seen many players set dice down on the card with the intention of changing them to something else and then either forget or choose a different loyalty ability to use. This is a really minor thing, but it happens enough with decks that consistently use planeswalkers that I wish more people did it. You can also tap the planeswalker to indicate usage or otherwise do something to mark that it’s been used for the turn. I find this doesn’t happen too often, but much like playing an extra land it’s not a fun call to arbitrate in a close game.

Of course I have double-white

Let me just tap my Glacial Fortress twice…

Keeping an eye on your opponent’s mana is one of the easiest ways to stop yourself from losing games to misclicks and the freest of cheats ever tried by a Magic player. Don’t let your opponents clump all of their mana, and make sure that you actually see the lands that can produce colored mana. It takes an extra few seconds to make sure that your opponent has a double-color for Settle the Wreckage or to actually cast the gold card they just slid onto the table. Again, this is a good sanity check even against 100% clean players, because this is an effective way to stop mistakes. It is important to remember that in many of these cases you are simply catching errors, not cheats. It just happens to do both!

Never let players cast their cards without tapping mana, wait for resolution, and then mess around with how they want to pay for it. This is the classic “tap my lands, announce a spell and target, pause then untap and retap in a different way.” Some of the time it’s because they’ve realized a better way to tap, and some wanted to cast their spell illegally after they tapped the proper mana. I’ve caught people doing this as a bad habit and have told them to stop playing so sloppily or they’ll be out of the tournament. A lot of these opportunistic cheats are accidents that people get away with at weekly tournaments and then a small handful run with it at competitive REL as well.

The common fix for all of these issues is to keep an accurate history of the game. With a good timeline you can rebuild entire games of Magic and while the era of that type of rewind is gone, it means that many coin flip judge calls suddenly become easy fixes. Almost all of these can be done at any level by any player—be the change that you want to see.

How do we catch a lot of cheats over time in this day and age? Video coverage. Video removes the human element and gives us a much better idea of what’s going on over a variety of matches. The same goes for warning history. For 99.99% of players it will never matter, and for the remainder they have a good reason to earn a suspension. When players freak out about warnings it’s either because they don’t understand what it actually means for them or because they know it’ll be recorded for posterity. The amount of outrage over getting a warning for minor errors (that will have no substantial impact on them in that tournament) is often a warning sign in itself.

Even for smaller tournaments, let the judge know if you notice something amiss after the round. It can allow us to investigate and figure out if anything is actually going on. Don’t just accuse someone of cheating, though. Explain what the situation is, the problem you see, and we can take it from there. I have caught plenty of cheats based on attentive players letting me know that there’s an issue so I can follow up on that over the same, or a number of, events.

As I always do in these types of articles, I’m going to harp on slow play yet again. To quote my old editor and now esteemed sports guru and statistician, Ted Knutson:

Slow Play IS Cheating

This has been repeated more times than a Simpsons re-run, and yet not nearly enough players seem to get it. Think of how games play out on Magic Online. Each player gets an allotted period of time to make their plays, and if they run out of time, they lose the match. Real-life Magic cannot work that way, but it helps to think of real-life matches in that paradigm. When trying to determine whether someone’s pace of play is too slow, I often think, “If my opponent continues to play at this pace, will I get my 25 minutes of priority?” If not, and if they seem to be dwelling on plays for too long, I call a judge.

I don’t do it to be malicious, but because the other player is gaining an advantage by taking away my portion of the time for a match. Whether that advantage is simply more time to think through possible plays or the player is trying to stall their way into a win or a draw is irrelevant—it’s still an unfair advantage that is being exploited.

Judges fail at this all the time and players fail just as often. Call a judge, get warnings on record, and push your opponents if you believe that they are playing slowly. Call a judge sooner in a match. It sets up a frame of reference and it’s far easier to call slow play in the first 35 minutes of the match than the last 15 minutes. While stalling may be cheating, I’ve now moved to the opinion that slow play is just the friendlier way of scumming your opponents out of wins.

Slow play should skip the warning and be a game loss upfront. People would complain in droves, but there’s less than one slow play warning given out on average at a competitive REL event. A second penalty should be a match loss and an investigation for stalling. The only alternative is to alter stalling rules to cover players who abuse those times every single turn/action. Again, it sounds like a major change, but the reality is that it would not affect the vast majority of players and allows an easy punish for angle shooters.

To conclude this piece, I’d like to share one more piece of good advice. Despite being written over a decade ago, it still holds true even today:

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.”


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