A Guide to Deck-checking

Posted in NEWS on July 1, 2008

By Wizards of the Coast

Deck checking is a procedure to help judges enforce the rules regarding deck construction: players must play legal decks and play the exact same deck during the course of the tournament.

Yours truly

Deck checks are usually done at the start of each round (except the first one or two), and occasionally in the middle of rounds. The idea is simple: take the decks when players present them to their opponent (this gesture means that it's the deck they're going to play for this game and that they've sufficiently shuffled it), then compare them against the decklist.

This might seem very straightforward, but there are a lot of things going on, and everything must be checked in a timely manner. This guide is an attempt to summarize everything I've learnt about deck checking.

  1. Preliminaries to a deck check

First of all, unless you're short on staff, you should assign an even number of judges to deck checking. They will work in pairs: one will grab the decks, while the other will look up the decklists. This way everyone will have to check exactly one deck.

You can ask the scorekeeper, who's likely to be available at the beginning of rounds, to help you out. The head-judge can also lend a hand, but keep in mind he might be busy elsewhere and must be ready to leave in the middle of deck checking.

So you've been assigned a random table by the scorekeeper and are going to do the "swoop." Pretty simple, eh? Well, your goal is not only to take the decks, but also to see how the players are shuffling (if at all!) Be sure not to give away that you're going to deck-check a particular table, as this might influence how thoroughly players shuffle, whether they might attempt stacking their deck, etc. Just wander around while glancing at your designated table. Feel free to chat with players or spectators – it will reinforce the impression that you're just floating.

However, be ready to stop the players as soon as both have presented their decks! Tell them they're being deck-checked, and take the decks with you. Don't forget the sideboards, along with any cards next to them.

  1. The method

The method of deck checking I'm going to present works only if all the lists have been counted. If you let slip a 59-card list, you might check the deck without even realizing it's illegal! However, knowing that there are more than the minimum number of cards is irrelevant, so when counting lists, you can skip counting that Battle of Wits deck (count the sideboard though!)

Here are the steps of a successful deck check:

  • Check the individual sideboard cards against the list.
  • Go through the deck to try and spot any suspicious card ordering. A pattern such as land-spell-land-spell-spell is a strong indication of a stacked deck.
  • Sort the deck by colors (ideally you want to have 3-5 piles, what I like to do is separate lands and each color. Separating individual cards often takes too much time)
  • Check the individual cards in the order they're listed on the decklist. This will ensure you won't miss cards that are in the decklist but not in the deck. Moreover, you will be able to tell, at the end of this process, what are exactly the differences between the deck and the list.
  • Now go through the deck face-down and spot any marked cards. What you're looking for is not the usual dust and scratches, but more telling markings, such as fingernail marks and bends. Then flip over all such cards at once to check if there is any pattern. The cards are already ordered, so markings on all cards of a certain type/color should be standing out.
  • Check also the sideboard cards for markings, if they're sleeved in the same sleeves as the maindeck.
  • If you still have time left, you can perform some additional checks as described below.

This whole process of deck checking should take no more than 7-8 minutes. If nine minutes have elapsed since the beginning of the round, stop the deck check and return the decks to the players.

  1. Midround deck check

Performing a deck check in the middle of the round isn't really different from doing it at the beginning. Important things to keep in mind are:

  • When collecting the decks, take the result entry slip with you. Don't waste time on finding out the players' names.
  • Note the time at which you start the check.
  • Remember that games beyond the first use sideboards. When doing the deck check, make sure to keep maindeck and sideboard cards separate. A good way of doing this is, after sorting out the cards by color, to "tick them off" by flipping them over as you go through the decklist.
  • When returning the decks, make sure the players don't modify the way they sideboarded.
  • Don't forget to add time corresponding to the time taken plus three minutes.
  1. Specifics of Constructed

This is where Marked Cards often comes into play. Players prepared and sleeved their deck before the tournament, so they're more likely to have marked cards. A sleeved deck is likely to have permanents and spells marked a bit differently, because of the way they're handled during play. For example this can lead a control deck to have all lands worn out one way, and all spells worn out another way.

An unsleeved Constructed deck will also seldom be without markings. Cards from ancient editions typically have a brighter back than modern counterparts. Don't forget that cards from the Alpha edition have more rounded corners, and as such cannot be played with cards from another edition in a deck not using opaque sleeves.

In any case, be prepared to look for patterns and investigate for intent. If you find marked cards, have the player change the offending sleeves. It's important to educate the player to shuffle his cards and sleeves before sleeving the deck to avoid any pattern.

A way to limit the time lost for changing sleeves is to just swap the marked sleeves randomly with non-marked ones, and have the player change his sleeves when his match is over. Be careful, though, in case his match finishes late; you might want to grant the player some additional time at the beginning of his next match so that he can change his sleeves.

  1. Specifics of Limited

A sealed deck will typically include a large sideboard or a large lost sideboard. If the player reports having lost or not wanting to use his sideboard, or wanting to use only a few cards from his sideboard, be sure to note which cards are left and remind the player that he can't use the forfeited cards later in the tournament without notifying a judge.

When deck-checking a sealed deck, you typically won't have time to check every single card from the sideboard. You can circumvent this by checking only some randomly selected cards. Be sure also to check any very good cards (knowledge of the format can help – a player is more likely to have added a Mirror Entity to his deck than a Shields of Velis Vel, and what better place for that than the sideboard, where it will hopefully escape deck checks!)

The maindeck however should be checked carefully as usual.

  1. Specifics of Two-headed Giant

Checking an entire match of two-headed giant isn't easy for two reasons:

  1. You may not have enough staff to check 4 decks.
  2. The decks aren't presented simultaneously.

Here's what I propose to circumvent both these problems: simply check two players, one from each team, that are seating in front of each other. Why? Because players playing in front of each other will tend to present their decks simultaneously. May I suggest that you don't necessarily stop the players when the first pair presents their decks – otherwise it might teach players willing to play illegal decks to present theirs after their teammate's. Another solution is to have the scorekeeper randomly determine which table (and not match) to check.

Then pick up all four decks (the judge you're deck-checking with can help you) and check only the decks that have been presented. If you have time left you can quickly check the other deck – you probably won't have time to check each individual card, but just make sure the deck roughly corresponds to the list (if he's playing mono-white and listed a red-green deck you can take some more time.)

  1. Additional checks

Additional tests will see if there are any cards marked by non-standard methods. For example, you can look at the deck from the side to see if there is any discrepancy in the sleeves' length. Or you can try and spot any markings on the borders or corners of sleeves. You can even shuffle the deck and see if you consistently cut to the same card – that could indicate an invisible marking (for example a bent card). Last but not least, I've already seen sleeves supposedly from the same print run have small differences in color. There's a lot of ways to abuse such circumstances – don't hesitate to make these tests if you have spare time!

  1. How to deal with problems

The Penalty Guide includes solutions to all problems that can be discovered during deck checks. Here's a quick summary:

Deck/Decklist mismatch: the deck should be corrected to match the list. This includes failure to desideboard.

Marked Cards: in case of No Pattern, allow the player to play this match and ask him to change his sleeves before the next round. In case of Pattern, he should change the sleeves right away.

Insufficient randomization: this is determined while observing the players shuffling. If a player just did one or two riffles after pulling out his deck from the box, he insufficiently randomized his deck. Doing only pile shuffles is also a case of Insufficient Randomization.

Stacking: catching a stacked deck is not everything; you still need a proof that it was intentionally stacked. Having seen the player shuffle with only pile shuffles is enough. You can also investigate this by asking his opponent (and, if needed, his previous rounds' opponents too) how he shuffled. If he peeked into his deck while shuffling, and the result is a stacked deck, he did stack it.

  1. Cards found in deckbox or next to the sideboard

According to the Magic Floor Rules, players aren't supposed to present cards that could be confused with the sideboard. Having extra cards in the deckbox is easily abusable – while reaching for his deckbox in order to sideboard, the player could use those extra cards for sideboarding, effectively creating a more-than-15-card sideboard. For this reason, you should watch out for cards left in the deckbox or that could be confused with the sideboard. Similarly, you should suspect players looking for cards in their pocket, bag or binder when asked for their sideboard.

A player found to have cards that could be confused with his sideboard should receive the penalty for Deck/Decklist mismatch.

  1. End of DC procedure

Return the decks to the players and give them additional time equal to the time into the round, plus 3 minutes, to take into account the pregame procedure. Instruct them to shuffle well as their decks have been sorted.

Remember, if you gave a Game Loss to a player, he will choose who plays first for the second game, and the players aren't allowed to sideboard. If both received a game-loss, the player who chooses to play or draw for the third game is chosen at random.

  1. Paperwork

Write down the additional time on the result entry slip, as well as any penalties. It's also a good idea to write any penalties given on the decklists.

That's it! You're now ready to perform fully-fledged deck checks. With some practice, you'll soon learn to do deck checks as fast as me.

Daniel Kitachewsky
DCI Area Judge
Paris, France

fluorhydric (at) hotmail (dot) fr