Human beings have become the apex predator and dominant species on planet Earth. Go humanity! We love to compete at everything from riding bicycles to running to solving cube shaped puzzles crazy fast. There is nothing we won't compete at. However, there are some among us that do not compete on an even level. It does not matter if it's Magic, Uno, Monopoly, or taxes. Cheating has existed for as long as culture. Perhaps you have seen some of the recent headlines.
Lots of people, in fact, cheat at lots of things, like chess. However, it does not make headlines unless it involves Grandmasters. Take a look at this quote from an article by Scott Davis.
"Still, the practice is prevalent, at least in lower levels, he said. Chess.com is said to have some of the best anti-cheating software available, yet it still deals with a great deal of cheating — the website says it closes more than 500 accounts every day for cheating and has closed nearly half-a-million accounts over its history."
Half a million accounts. Let that sink in. There were absolutely no stakes on the line in the grand majority of these account closures. These players were not playing in tournament events for cash and prizes, yet still cheated. Of course, at the higher levels, there are significant stakes. The ongoing cheating saga involving potentially the best chess player ever, Magnus Carlsen, and previously admitted cheater Hans Niemann, is taking center stage right now.
The How Varies By Game
Hans has admitted to cheating in the past. And now, Chess.com has investigated further, and believes that Hans likely cheated in 100 more online games than admitted to. The offense? Analyzing the games pointed to it being more likely that a chess engine, not Hans, came up with the moves used in his games.
Money and fame, mostly. But at the end of the day, cheaters also seem to share a certain belief. They think they are better than everyone else, and deserve to win. It does not matter if you are in a world class tournament or a friendly game at home, the kind of person that cheats will fit this profile.
A couple of years ago, a massive YouTube streamer with over 30 million subscribers by the name of Dream livestreamed a Minecraft speedrun. Almost as soon as it was scrutinized, accusations of cheating emerged. I will give you the TL;DR of the events. Dream said they didn't cheat. Speedrun.com said they did.
"On May 30, 2021, in a written statement, Dream stated that he had in fact been using a 'disallowed modification' that altered item drop probabilities, although he maintained that the addition of the modification was unintentional."
Oops! Turns out they were cheating!
People Cheat at Fishing
Yes, it's true. Not only did these anglers stuff lead weights and other bits of fish inside their catches to inflate their mass, but it's also suspected they did this multiple times at other events as well.
If people cheat and get away with it, will they cheat again? Absolutely. Sometimes, it takes many, many years before cheaters are eventually caught. Lance Armstrong will likely be one of the biggest examples of this for the rest of time.
What Does This Have to Do With Magic?
A lot, actually. If you're at an official, sanctioned event, at least there are judges there to monitor players. Of course, they cannot be at every table, every single moment. We know that in big Magic tournaments, there are plenty of people who have been caught indisputably cheating on camera.
However, in normal Draft and Sealed events, it tends to be a free-for-all. Everyone is on the honor system. This goes the same for games on SpellTable. The moment cards go off camera, you can never be 100% sure if there is no deck or hand manipulation going on, and that goes double for people utilizing Moxfield to play rather than physical cards. The numbers in this case show that far more games are played with no oversight.
It's Story Time
I have seen cheating many times. In some cases, I have caught blatant cheaters red-handed. In others, it has been through deduction. The one person I can thank for this is Davyd. I went to high school with Davyd. We played many boardgames and Magic together. Davyd was (and remains) a cheater. He cheated on school tests as well as in every Axis and Allies, Risk, Settlers of Catan, and Magic game that we ever played. But, thankfully, he is awful at cheating.
How would Davyd cheat? Not tapping enough mana for spells, constantly. Drawing extra cards every chance he could get. Not paying upkeep on Stasis. You name it, he did it. When you cheat that often, you get caught. A lot. I got really good at catching Davyd cheating, so when it came to catching others, I was already adept. However, what happens when the cheater is careful?
Where There Is Smoke, There Is Fire
First at one LGS, then at another, I drafted with a particular player. Unlike Davyd, their name will be withheld. For three consecutive months it was a coin flip between myself and this player as to who would take home the draft that week. In all that time, I can say that I only ever caught them draw an extra card a single time. Every once in a while, you could honestly make a play error, and I was willing to let it go. What about my own gameplay?
Tons of Gameplay
Between playing on MTGO, doing simulated drafts on different websites, and having more experience than most of the players there, it was fairly obvious I had every advantage. Most of my losses were directly mana screw or flood or an occasional unlucky draft, not play mistakes. There is no other time that I played more Standard than during this era, so I believe I brought my competitive best.
I Got Mugged
It wasn't until I had an exceptionally poor draft at another LGS that I found my smoking gun. First, I was sort of in four colors because I'd opened some incredible bomb rares but was being passed other incredible bombs in different colors... I ended up chasing the rainbow.
There were two ways I could go about it: try four-color or settle on two with some awful cards. Struggling, I asked this other player for help and, at first, decided to take their advice. This meant cutting red and in particular not playing my two copies of Mugging because I had so little else in red.
The Smoking Gun
After looking over the bad but consistent deck, I decided against it. At least the other version had bombs that would win me the game if I could cast them. A big if, but on second thought, it was my best out. So I searched my cards and one of my copies of Mugging was missing. I counted and was down one card. I asked around the room if anyone found a copy of Mugging on the floor or if I left it on a table. Coincidentally, that other player was showing their deck to the manager who noticed that they had three copies in their deck. I got the manager to count their cards.
Math, Do You Speak It?
They had one extra card. It does not take a rocket scientist to deduce what happened. The player thought they convinced me I wouldn't need Mugging, so they swiped one for their deck. It's really that simple. Can I prove that this happened? Well, I can get the manager to verify the card counts and the other player to admit to handling and seeing my cards, with my permission of course. I cannot give you video evidence, however.
Putting the "Nasty" in Neon Dynasty
My next anecdote takes place at a pre-release event. A group of players were busy cracking boxes they had pre-ordered. The sealed event followed immediately after. I was happy getting what I thought was a strong red/white Samurai deck and had several on-color rares and uncommons. I quickly got three wins and then met my opponent, also with three wins.
They had 15 uncommons and five rares on-color, and easily won the event. On a completely coincidental note, they were one of the people cracking boxes just before the event happened. Could this person simply have opened the perfect sealed pool? Sure, it's possible. It just did not feel very likely in this case. What does your intuition tell you?
Three's a Crowd
Okay, one more. A different store was having killer deals on events, so I started to go there. Two brothers and the older brother's girlfriend would draft there often. In an eight-player table, they represented three slots. See where this is going?
It's impossible to prove, but there was likely at the very least collusion between them, each picking colors before the draft started. Of course, they could have traded cards as they built their decks, with none of us the wiser. Here, I have scant evidence besides the particular looks they gave one another that felt coded and a weird, one-off draft. There were only six players that event and it had a palpable "us versus them" atmosphere.
Were These Players Cheating?
This quote is my go-to for a variety of situations. However, its inverse is also true. Ordinary claims require ordinary evidence. People cheat every single day in online video games, on their significant others, on inspections and exams, and at Magic: The Gathering. There's no longer any doubt in my mind that a large number of Magic players are less than trustworthy. But don't take my word for it; look at Yuuya Watanabe being removed from the Hall of Fame and banned from Magic. Cheating matters at the highest levels and also at your casual events.
How does the Magic community fix cheating? Better tournament procedures? No. More unpaid judges! No. Draconian punishments for those involved... unfortunately, no. It's not possible to stop all the cheaters all the time because, ultimately, it's extremely easy to cheat.
The solution? Build a strong community of like-minded Magic players. If we de-emphasize a winner-takes-all mentality, strengthen the social aspects of play, and celebrate that games are for fun, it just might convince some players to play fair. I sincerely believe that the more players who play purely for the experience, with winning as a happy side effect, the less cheaters you will encounter. Encourage and build that community and you will eliminate problems before they start.
Then again, Davyd still cheats to this day. Lucky for us we are not all Davyds. We are better than him.
Have you experienced covert or obvious cheating at your Magic table? Tell your story here.