I originally was going to call this “Fight Cheating With Cheating” but that was too clickbait-y, even for my standards. And they are pretty low.
I usually hate TL:DRs, but this is 4400 words, so I’ll put one in this time.
- Magic players generally regard cheaters as the second worst people in the community. Worse than trade sharks that prey on unknowing new players, not as bad as card thieves.
- The best way to catch a cheater is to learn to cheat yourself so you know what to look for. Don’t just learn the theory of cheating – actively practice in your playtest group with friends that are doing the same thing. Learn to perform the Faro Shuffle, the Zarrow Shuffle and the Push-Through Riffle Shuffle (collectively “sleight-of-hand fake shuffles”) – and learn why they work so you can spot them being used against you.
- This goes double for judges. I believe that anyone that cannot explain in detail how sleight-of-hand fake shuffles and/or pile shuffling can be used to cheat is unfit to judge at events with Competitive or Professional rules enforcement.
- If your opponent tries to distract you, play along with the distraction but refocus and pay additional attention to what their hands are doing.
- If in doubt, call a judge.
- The DCI should outright ban pile shuffling and not even tolerate its use as a card counting tool.
The inspiration for this article came about at a karaoke bar a few weeks back. Between songs, a friend of a friend was demonstrating card tricks that asked the subject to pick a card from a standard playing card deck.
The trickster then appeared to shuffle it into the deck but used sleight of hand including sleight-of-hand fake shuffles (like the Faro shuffle, also known as the ‘perfect riffle’, which you can find tutorials for online). He paired the fake shuffles alongside distractions, to position the chosen card into a specific place in the deck. Then comes the reveal – they show you the card that you had picked.
I’d seen a lot of these tricks before, and while I can’t replicate the sleight of hand needed to perform a Faro shuffle, I knew enough about ‘magic’ tricks that I could see exactly how they were all being done.
Heading home that night I saw yet another shitstorm on Reddit about cheating in Magic, and thought of the question that introduces the next section. Then this article started writing itself.
This article might provide tools to a dishonest player that helps them advance their craft. This is an unfortunate consequence of writing it. There is one piece of cheating advice that I have thought up that I am not sharing here, as wider knowledge of it would help cheaters while not helping people looking to detect them. But the other information in this article already exists online and is easy for dishonest players to find, so I don’t mind replicating it.
Hopefully this article will teach honest players the skills necessary to remove some of the dishonest players from competitive Magic, because you only usually need to catch them once or twice.
So, how does an honest player protect themselves from opponents that cheat in Magic, and what can they do to help catch cheats?
One option is to play on MTGO, where the game’s rules are enforced by the client, which is basically an omniscient judge. This stamps out cheating (almost) entirely.
I prefer MTGO myself, but I can certainly accept that a majority of readers prefer live play. So let’s assume MTGO is not an acceptable option for you.
In paper Magic, honest players make errors from time to time. These can be broken down into two types – strategic errors, where you make a legal line of play that isn’t the best line available to you, and technical errors, where you make an unintentional illegal play.
Strategic errors can’t be confused for cheating, outside of convoluted circumstances that a judge is unlikely to see in a tournament scenario.
It’s technical errors which are more often confused for cheating. It is pretty difficult to tell whether an opponent accidentally or deliberately drew six cards on their second mulligan, or fetched a Ghost Quarter with a Verdant Catacombs, or seriously screwed up the handling of a Rest In Peace trigger.
All of those are illegal plays, all could be innocent mistakes, and all could be the work of a skilled cheater.
If these infractions are unintentional, they have punishments that are at most a game loss. If they are deliberate, the correct response for a judge is to eject the offender from the tournament without prizes and to begin a process that may see the offender suspended from the DCI.
It’s my firm belief that judges should only pull the red card – disqualification – when they are convinced beyond reasonable doubt that the person in question intentionally cheated. The consequences of fucking up and DQing a person for an innocent mistake are serious – that player and their friends will likely stop participating in tournament Magic, and if the event is hosted by a store, the store could lose multiple customers over it.
By ‘beyond reasonable doubt’, I mean what statisticians call ‘three-sigma certainty’ – in lay person terms, the judge should believe that if they saw this scenario a thousand times, an innocent mistake would explain it at most twice.
Please note that the DCI does not mandate ‘beyond reasonable doubt’, or ‘three-sigma certainty’, but instead leaves this decision to judges. I am not a judge, I am an outsider making recommendations.
Some cheating is obvious.
A player ‘mana-weaves’ their deck, then sloppily shuffles, then presents. The opponent calls a judge and explains the situation, the judge looks at the deck, sees a non-random distribution in the deck that demonstrates cheating beyond even a shadow of doubt (five-sigma or more), and sends the cheat on their way.
But catching a skilled cheater is hard.
A lot of Magic’s strategic depth lies within hidden information (I’ve written about how the Fundamental Theorem of Poker applies to Magic here). Some information in Magic is hidden from each player, and knowing information you are not supposed to have access to gives you a powerful edge.
Competent cheaters use this information, alongside sleight of hand, to gain a moderate edge, rather than trying to blatantly cheat to win outright.
In Magic’s early days, some cheaters would play unsleeved or with see-through sleeves, and would have slightly worn copies of Armageddon in their deck. Knowing you will draw Armageddon next turn results in you playing very differently, and if you are looking for sleight of hand tricks, you will not see any of them.
Competent cheaters are smooth. Often they are skilled at sowing doubt in an investigating judge’s mind. And before it even gets to that point, they are often smooth enough to talk the opponent out of calling a judge at all.
A competent cheater will act like your best friend when playing against you. They will use chatter to ingratiate themselves, and to distract you. When your guard is lowered, they will strike: not by dealing themselves an unforgettably good draw, but by stacking their deck in a manner that ensures that wherever you cut it, they have an above-average hand.
The first thing honest players should know is, if your opponent makes a technical error, call a judge.
If something seems fishy, call a judge. But even if you do not suspect foul play, call a judge.
If you actually suspect cheating, and especially if you are nervous, call a judge, then say, “Can I ask you something about a card interaction away from the table?” Judges will accommodate this, and it allows you to explain a suspicion of cheating without actually accusing your opponent of cheating to their face.
You are not being an asshole when you call a judge, and an honest opponent will not risk disqualification or ridicule.
It’s also good practice to call a judge on yourself when you make a technical error and wear any appropriate consequences. This protects the event’s integrity, ensures you learn from your mistakes, and in my experience reduces your nerves over time. It will also help you gain a reputation for personal integrity, which doesn’t help you win tournaments but may be useful in the rest of your life – especially if you are considering judging, or working in or running a card store.
Calling a judge on your opponent serves three purposes.
Firstly, it removes the opponent’s ability to sweet-talk you into accepting the present gamestate, or into accepting a solution that advantages them. For instance, in formats with no playable ‘turn 0’ effects, someone that draws six cards on the draw on their second mulligan might try to sweet talk you into accepting that “that is their five cards, plus their scry which they’ll keep on top and that will be the card they draw on their turn”. A judge call will get you a better deal than that.
Secondly, and more importantly, calling a judge provides the event’s judging team with a record of who is consistently making technical errors.
Undetected cheaters make more technical errors than the overwhelming majority of honest players. A pattern of technical errors – especially the same one – is something a judge can, should and will pay attention to.
It doesn’t prove cheating, as a nervous honest player will also make a large number of technical errors, but it does provide evidence that says “you should watch this person”. A judge can then covertly watch them at times that cheating is most likely to occur.
And third, if your opponent is dishonest, calling a judge will often intimidate them out of cheating against you. If they do still intend to cheat later, it may make them nervous, and a nervous cheater is easier to catch than a relaxed one.
Some people have ethical concerns about involving a judge over a technical error. I disagree.
If your opponent makes a strategic error (such as passing the turn forgetting to use their Planeswalker), you wouldn’t allow them a take-back to reverse that error.
Just as strategic errors have consequences, technical errors have consequences defined by the game rules and the tournament rules.
The only time there might appear to be an ethical difference between punishing an opponent’s technical error and punishing an opponent’s strategic error, is if the technical error will have consequences beyond the present match, such as your opponent being disqualified.
It hasn’t always been the case, but under today’s rules, disqualification does not occur for honest mistakes (excluding the bribery rules – which are a can of wyrms I will not open here).
You should be 100% OK with reporting technical errors to a judge, even if your opponent is a ‘nice guy’.
And beware the ‘nice guy’. Not all friendly opponents are skilled cheaters, but all skilled cheaters are very personable.
The best way for an honest player to catch a cheat is to learn how to cheat.
Many cheating methods are subtle, and a thorough knowledge of how and when cheating methods are executed and what results they produce will help you catch people that use them against you.
It’s unethical to use these methods in any tournament. But you should learn cheating techniques inside-out, teach them to your playtest groups, and incorporate them into your testing for events.
Your playtest group may be honest, but your opponents may not be, and you want to be experienced at detecting cheating while distracted by complex board states and strategic decisions.
I recommend playtesting by picking a mirror match that you might want to playtest anyway, favoring one that maximizes opportunities to cheat. Scapeshift mirror matches in Modern are perfect – there is a lot of shuffling, games can be long, and there are a lot of pivotal moments where a small edge can decide the game.
Run a playtest session of 21 matches against one opponent, where cheating is allowed, but being caught cheating results in losing the match. The overall loser of the session pays for pizza for both players (or some other small but non-trivial incentive). This will create an environment where both players will be incentivised to attempt to cheat and to be vigilant for cheating – and this vigilance will serve you well in real events.
Sleight of Hand: Pile Shuffling, Cutting and Cheating
First a rant about pile shuffling.
If you aren’t familiar with pile shuffling, here is a video of someone doing it. Please do not pay attention to what the person demonstrating the technique says as they are wrong.
Pile shuffling is not a shuffle. Much like cutting the deck at a specific point (for instance, putting the top 5 cards of the deck on the bottom), it is a deterministic method of reordering cards and counting them while pretending to shuffle.
This means you can predict, with 100% accuracy, where cards will end up after ‘shuffling’ them, and you can use pile shuffling to completely rig your deck.
The pile shuffle is useful in games that do not require complete randomization, such as Cards Against Humanity, where no player gains a competitive advantage from being able to predict or influence the order cards are drawn in but you shuffle to provide a different game experience.
It is not useful in games where rigging the deck provides a competitive advantage.
If you put a deck of cards into a specific order, then perform a pile shuffle on it repeatedly, you will return to the original configuration quickly. The exact number of times will vary with deck size and the number of piles, but for a 40 card deck dealt into 4 piles it is only 6. For a 41 card deck and 4 piles, it is only 10, and for a 60 card deck and 5 piles, I believe it is only 8 times (although I have not verified this).
For a dishonest player, this means that between rounds they can stack their 40 card deck into a configuration where any 7 consecutive cards form an above-average hand, then fake shuffle it via repeated pile shuffles, then offer it to you to cut.
As an example, a control player in Modern could set up Island – Ancestral Vision – Remand – 12 random cards – Repeat. This doesn’t look suspicious even if they are deckchecked. But because AV is a card you love to draw exactly one of in your opening hand, this cheat ensures they do not draw two or more copies, but if they have it, they can suspend it turn 1 and have Remand to slow the game down.
The cheat then pile shuffles the ‘softly’ stacked deck into 4 piles 4 times, then puts the deck into their box. At the start of the match, they pile shuffle it twice more while talking, then present it. It is now in exactly the order it was designed to be in.
Many honest players pile shuffle. If you do, STOP.
Magic tournaments ban electronic communication devices. This is because, even though most people that SMS or call during a match would do so with no intention of cheating, the mobile phone is a powerful tool in the hands of a cheat, who can arrange for an accomplice masquerading as a spectator to pass hidden information to them.
The pile shuffle is similar to the mobile phone. Most people use it innocently, but it is a powerful cheating tool.
It would be a lot harder for players to cheat if pile shuffling were treated the same way as mobile phone use and not tolerated in competitive Magic.
You can protect yourself from sleight of hand cheats by always performing riffle and/or mash shuffles on your opponent’s deck each time they present it. Always, no exceptions.
But let’s assume you want to catch cheaters, not just not fall for their tricks. There are sleight of hand tricks you should research, in order to learn the toolbox of a cheat.
There are three most important ones.
First, the Faro Shuffle referenced earlier. When executed flawlessly, it is a way to pile shuffle into two piles while looking like you are performing a thorough riffle shuffle.
When executed 16 times on a 40 card deck, or 20 times on a 41 card deck, it returns the deck to its initial configuration.
Secondly, there is the false shuffle, epitomized by the Zarrow Shuffle and the Push-Through Riffle Shuffle. These are difficult sleight of hand tricks (harder to execute, in my opinion, than the Faro). To a casual observer they look like riffle shuffles, but they do not rearrange the deck at all. The Zarrow is performed on the table, which will make it look even less suspicious.
Practice these so you know how they work and what to look for.
Third, there is the slip cut, which is demonstrated as part of the video above on the Zarrow Shuffle. This allows the top card of the deck to be subtly manipulated and allows the cheater’s fetchlands to also become Vampiric Tutors.
The last sleight of hand trick you should be aware of involves searching libraries.
A player uses an ability that allows them to search their library. While resolving it, they move a card near the top of their deck, acting like they are considering choosing it. Then they decide to pick another card instead, and perform a trick shuffle shuttling the false candidate card to the top.
There is a little known rule (400.5 in the Comprehensive Rules) prohibiting rearranging the library during a search, that most people believe exists because of this obnoxious rules nightmare and its interactions with other rules nightmares that should die in a fire.
Your opponent can ‘shortlist’ cards by holding the deck with the bottom card facing them, and pulling candidate cards slightly out of the deck while leaving them in place. Even for extremely complex decisions like a ‘value’ Gifts Ungiven, where a player might consider nine candidate cards, this is completely manageable.
Rule 400.5 exists to prevent this cheat. Enforce it. If your opponent rearranges their library mid-search, call a judge (in case the opponent has done this many times – warnings for things like this are tracked) and shuffle their deck thoroughly.
Cheating without Sleight of Hand – Weaponizing Distraction
Intentionally drawing extra cards is something I haven’t mentioned yet. That’s because it’s not usually a sleight of hand trick. It is also one of the easiest things for an opponent untrained in cheating techniques to detect, even if they are not suspicious of you.
Drawing two cards in one fluid motion is a very difficult sleight-of-hand trick to master, and it is more common for an opponent to draw a card for the turn, then perform a distraction, then try to draw their card again.
For example, a player might draw a card, then say “Can I read that card you are playing?” and point to a card you control on the battlefield. During or after the distraction, they will smoothly draw another card.
It’s my experience that people who suspect the opponent to be dishonest put too much effort into watching for this cheat, at the expense of watching for other methods.
Early in the game, when the payoff for this cheat is higher, it is much harder to get away with it, because your opponent can easily determine the number of cards that should be in your hand.
Late in the game, it is usually more advantageous to set up a perfect draw than it is to draw one extra card.
This isn’t to say that intentionally drawing extra cards will never happen to you, just that you shouldn’t expect a skilled cheater to try it. Their methods are both more subtle and higher-impact.
If you discover that your opponent has drawn too many cards, call a judge without hesitation. You may have caught a cheater red-handed and someone caught drawing extra cards ‘by accident’ more than once in a tournament will definitely be watched. If the opponent attempts to concede the game immediately at this point, do not back down from the judge call – this is a very strong indicator that the opponent was indeed cheating.
If your opponent drew extra cards by accident, or if the judge isn’t sure whether it was an honest mistake or cheating, there exist rules handling how to repair the gamestate. These rules will work in your favour as the person calling the judge.
Another non-sleight of hand approach is intentionally misrepresenting complex board states and historic, still relevant game actions.
Players might conveniently ‘forget’ that they have played a land, ‘forget’ to lose life after activating an Adarkar Wastes, ‘forget’ to have a Seachrome Coast enter the battlefield tapped when it is your fourth land, or cast Huntmaster of the Fells with three Swamps and one Stomping Ground.
Of course, all of these are also often honest mistakes.
One thing ties these cheats together – they all involve careful sequencing to avoid attention, and distracting the opponent. Playing two lands in a row draws attention. Playing a land, then casting a spell, then asking a question, then playing a second land is much more likely to be successful.
You can create less of a space for technical errors (both intentional ones, i.e. cheating, and also honest ones) by practising tight technical play – announcing phases, announcing triggers, and writing small notes on your life pad. This will set a technically tight tone for the game.
If you detect a technical error that gives your opponent an advantage, call a judge immediately, outline the facts of the situation (e.g. “It’s her turn 5. Alice played her 5th land, went into combat, asked me for the Oracle text on a card, then after combat played another land”). If you suspect foul play but you aren’t certain, ask to speak away from the table.
If you are practising these scenarios from a cheat’s perspective in playtesting, focus more on creating a distraction than on anything else. Look for plausible questions you could ask your opponent. These may or may not relate to the game state. Some examples might be:
“How many counters are on that Aether Vial?”
“What’s the Oracle text on Aether Vial?”
“That Kaladesh Inventions Aether Vial is nice, how much did it cost you?”
All of these are questions an honest player might ask, and all of them break the opponent’s concentration on the game state.
As an honest player, remember: If your opponent is trying to distract you, now is the time to pay even more attention. Glance at their eyes to see what they are paying attention to and pay attention to it yourself (defaulting to their deck if they are looking at you). If their questions are honest, they are probably looking intently at you. If they are not, they are probably looking at their deck.
I tend to make lists of rules too often on this site. So here’s four rules relating to cheating.
The First Rule Of Cheating:
Cheating is 90% social engineering, 10% sleight of hand.
You will occasionally arouse suspicion. The difference between an average cheat and a skilled cheat is being able to talk your way out of these situations.
This is why Mike Long was such a skilled cheater. He got caught, admitted nothing, and managed to stay so calm that the judges second-guessed themselves into believing they needed even more evidence.
If you rely upon sleight of hand alone and crumble when challenged, you will be caught no matter how flawlessly you can perform the Zarrow shuffle.
The Second Rule Of Cheating:
A distracted opponent is much less likely to detect or suspect cheating than an attentive opponent.
An honest opponent will often chat before and during a match- it’s something I do even when there’s a considerable amount riding on the match result.
Friendly banter can be weaponized by a skilled cheater looking to distract you, or even by an honest player looking to trick you into revealing information about what you might be playing.
Poker players are masters of the latter. If you want to see the honest use of this in action, watch videos of Daniel Negranu playing poker. If he played Magic, I expect he would be able to use banter to determine what deck the opponent was playing and whether they had a top 25% hand, a bottom 25% hand, or a typical hand. All before declaring mulligans in game 1.
His skill in this area is unmatched by any Magic players past or present, but some can mimic him to a moderate skill level.
A dishonest player will ask you questions multiple times during a match, but particularly while they are shuffling their deck or when drawing cards.
If an opponent asks you a question that you believe is not in good faith – i.e. they are not asking because they care about the answer – watch their hands like a hawk. They are probably trying to cheat.
If anything looks amiss, call a judge and ask to speak to them away from the table. Tell them that the opponent asked you a bad faith question to distract you.
The Third Rule Of Cheating:
An opponent that regards you as friendly is less likely to call a judge on you. If you want to cheat against an opponent, become their friend first.
I mentioned the ethics of calling a judge earlier.
Even if your opponent is a personal friend or playtest buddy, get into the habit of calling judges whenever appropriate. If in doubt, call one.
The Fourth Rule Of Cheating:
The more variance your deck has, the more cheating will help you. The more variance your opponent expects your deck to have, the more likely they are to dismiss your cheating as luck.
Conversely, if your opponent is playing a deck renowned for high variance, you should consider them more likely to cheat than an average player.
I haven’t touched this yet.
Some decks (cough, cough, pre-ban Amulet Bloom Combo; also Grishoalbrand) have hands that are just unbeatable that come up a couple of percent of the time.
If you are a skilled cheat, these are the best deck choices for you as your nefarious skills and lack of integrity will be heavily rewarded.
To conclude remember:
- If in doubt, call a judge.
- Honest players should practice sleight of hand so you understand how it works.
- No really, call a judge.
- Always shuffle your opponent’s deck, never just cut.
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