When are players cheating?

Posted in NEWS on December 7, 2015

By Wizards of the Coast

Kendall Redburn

Would you know cheating if you saw it?

What do you think cheating is in a magic tournament? Do you think of the clichés? Do you think of players hiding cards in their sleeves or using sleight of hand to bring four aces to the top of the deck? Do you think of the blatant examples?

We all know playing with marked cards is cheating. We know that stacking the deck is cheating. It sometimes seems simple: cheating is cheating. In Magic the Gathering however, we often blur the line. If someone were caught playing in a standard format with cards that were not legal in that format, most judges would not consider that cheating. It's just an illegal deck, apply the penalty and fix the deck. On the other hand, if you were caught in golf playing with clubs that weren't allowed, that would be considered cheating! The difference in philosophy is one of concealment. You can play with the wrong clubs in golf and it's not obvious. A player can't conceal an Armageddon in standard. Play it and people sit up and notice!

So then is playing with five of a spell in a constructed deck cheating? It can be concealed, and it only comes out if the player is deck checked. It is possible that a player with five of a key card may make it all the way to the finals before being deck checked, and has had an unfair advantage the entire event. But is that cheating or an honest mistake? Is the correct penalty a game loss, or disqualification without prize? How often does this decision come down to how well the head judge knows the player?

Kendall Redburn, Level 2

Consider these examples and decide if they are cheating.

First scenario:

This is a JSS event. In the semi-final round, one match completes well before the other match completes. When the second match completes, one of the finalists agrees to drop and allow the other the win. Because the other match concluded earlier, the semi-finalist that lost that match has already received his prize. This means one semi-finalist and two finalists all approach the judges table together to receive their prizes and report their matches. The semi-finalist gets his prize and records his information. The finalist that dropped gets his prize, records his information and leaves the hall. The winner receives his prize, records his information, and gives his booster box of packs to the semi-finalist he defeated. I question the semi-finalist, casually. This is the gist of the conversation:

Me: "X gave you his box; did you get that for the match win?"
Semi: "No, he owed them to me."
Friend of Semi: "Yes, he conceded for the box." Semi player hits friend in chest.
Semi: "Yeah, I gave him the match win for the box"
Finalist, hearing the conversation: "I owed him draft sets"
Me: "What did you do? Concede in the final game?"
Semi: "Yeah. Isn't that ok?"

Second scenario:

Two players are deck checked. They have presented their decks, and the judge picks them up along with the sideboard. One player's deck does not have the sideboard sleeved, this player gets up from the table, and follows the judge taking the deck.

The player and the judge get to where the other judges are waiting to check decks. This player's deck is handed to the other judge, who immediately counts the sideboard. It contains 16 un-sleeved cards. The player starts to explain that he had not finished sleeving the deck, and has an empty sleeve in his hand. The judge is now looking at the sideboard cards. The player takes the cards out of the judge's hands, puts a sleeve on one of the sideboard cards, and puts it with the deck. The player then declares that the deck is now ready to be checked, and returns to his seat.

Third Scenario:

Two players are in the semi-finals of a JSS Match. It is the third game, one player declares his attack, and the damage will reduce his opponent to zero life. The losing player shakes the winners hand, says "good game" and then starts talking with his friends around the table. The winning player picks up his cards. The losing player calls "Judge" I turn around and look at the player, yes; I had been sitting next to the players watching the match, and had stood up at the end. The losing player announces that his opponent had scooped his cards before the end of the match. He informs me that the game had not ended and his opponent had scooped his cards. I inform the losing player that I had sat there and watched him shake his opponents hand, and that his behavior can be construed as cheating and can get him disqualified with out prize. His reply was to pick up his cards and say, "Well, I tried."

Fourth Scenario:

This takes place in the third game in a regular match. Player (A) plays a spell, Player (B) does not respond. Player (A) declares his attack, player (B) does not respond, he has no creatures on the table. The damage from the attacking creatures is enough to reduce player (B)'s life total below zero. Player (B) does not respond, he supposedly hangs his head. Player (A) picks up his cards and player (B) calls for a judge. The game is left as is on the table, Player (A) the attacker has picked up his cards assuming a win, Player (B) the defender has called the judge and left all his cards and card in hand on the table.

The responding judge is the head judge for the tournament. After fifteen minutes the player and the judge are still arguing. All other matches have completed. The gist of the argument is that the attacking player (A) never gave time for his opponent (B) to respond, and then scooped his cards after declaring the attack. Initially, this seems to be the case, but player (A) is claiming plenty of time was given and that player (B) hung his head after the attack was declared. Player (B) responded that he hung his head to think. Later, during a repeat of the argument, a witness and friend of player (B) makes the claim that he never hung his head at all. At this point, I ask to see player (B)'s hand. Player (B)'s hand reveals that there were no actions he could have taken to in any way change the outcome of the game. The only instant in player (B)'s hand was Deflection. Player (B) had no blockers, no permanents on the board other than land. Player (B) had made no response to the declaration of attackers.

In the first scenario, the JSS where prize was exchanged for a game win during the semi-finals of a match; this is cheating - bribery. Clear? Not so fast! It is legal to offer your opponent any or all of the prize in the final round if the opponent agrees to drop. Is the difference between an offer to win versus an offer to drop all that clear to players? Is the difference between the final round and the semi-final round in a tournament all that clear to players? Consider that in a recent Grand Prix, the Level 4 head judge was asked to monitor the negotiations between the top four players - by the players themselves, to make sure none of them made offers that would be considered bribes. Why is an action that is legal in the final round of a match considered cheating in the semi-final round?

In the deck check scenario, the player claimed the decks had been taken before they had been presented. Yet it seems clearer that when the decks were taken, the player realized he had a 16 card sideboard and immediately went to do something about it. He physically interfered with a judge in order to change his deck construction, but managed to confuse the judge sufficiently that the deck was checked and found to be in compliance. No penalties were issued.

In the second JSS scenario, the player tries to make a false claim to the judge that had just watched the conclusion of the match. The claim was incredulous. Was this cheating? I felt the answer was no on this one, but it came very close to the line. First, the player knew I watched the match. Two, the player only claimed that his opponent scooped his cards. He didn't actually make the claim that the game was not finished, and may have been just messing with the other players. Three I immediately intervened and informed the player that his actions could be construed as cheating and cost him is prize. The player seemed to get the point. Contrast this to the next example.

In the final example, the player who had lost the match knew he had lost the match, had no cards in hand and no permanents on the board that could change the outcome, but refused to acknowledge the defeat in a sportsman like manner. While his opponent was not savvy enough to declare the full set of steps in combat, including "Your life goes to zero?", the game was clearly decided. This is important because it gives a strong view into the thoughts of the losing player. Even given the opportunity to explain what action he might have taken to alter the results of the game, the player had no answer. His only action was to continue to argue that his opponent had scooped early. This argument was repeated in various forms for over forty-five minutes. Even past the final ruling of the head judge, and into the time of the next match. In a private consultation, myself and one other judge both agreed that this was severe unsporting conduct and recommended disqualification without prize.

What I find to be the clearest indication of cheating, is the absolute denial of the player. In the first example, the kids first denied the bribe took place, and then they denied knowing that it was wrong. Even though I believed they did know the bribe was improper, I do not believe they understood it to be direct cheating. They did admit to the wrong doing, which went in their favor. Had they not admitted to the bribe, which they might have done even in the face of obvious evidence, I would have believed their intent to be to cheat.

In the example of changing the sideboard sleeves; I believe this to be a clear example of catching a cheater who managed to explain his way out of the situation. The player never admitted that he had made a mistake and continued to blame the judge, and several other factors. It took me a considerable amount of time to eventually explain to the judge checking the deck that they had been bamboozled.

In the first example of claiming the player scooped, as soon as I confronted the kid with his story, he capitulated. Even though he as much admitted that he knew he was lying, it was never clear that his intent was more than just jerking the other guy's chain.

In the final example, the player never admitted that he was trying to cheese his way to victory. Even after the explanation and ruling he continued to argue and seemed incapable of admitting that his behavior was wrong.

I know many players. I use my common sense and experience. When a player says, "Whoops, I made a mistake, I'll take the penalty" I know I am dealing with a fair player. When a player starts blaming every one else and everything else and takes no responsibility for themselves. I know what I'm dealing with.