The first card games in recorded history date back to the 9th century CE, and the first recorded cases of cheating at card games dates back to approximately seven minutes later. That may or may not actually be true but I’m fairly confident I’m not too far off in my assumption here. This weekend’s Grand Prix in Phoenix should have been another opportunity to highlight the vibrancy of the Modern format, but instead we’re here to talk about cheating.

There’s two stories about the MTG community that emerged this weekend. First off, why is the community so infatuated with talking about cheaters? By all accounts, Grand Prix Phoenix was a successful tournament that further highlighted the diversity of Modern, the impact of Bloodbraid Elf‘s unbanning, and the continued success of Modern events on Twitch. Instead, all anyone wanted to talk about was why Alex Bertoncini, who has been suspended multiple times in the past for cheating, is still allowed to play competitively. This was sparked by Alex nearly finishing undefeated on day one, and finishing 31st overall in the standings.

So the second story, of course, is the debate around what to actually do about repeat-offender cheaters. The basic question is, at what point is it okay to levy a lifetime suspension upon a player for continuing to cheat at the game instead of reforming (or quitting as many ex-cheaters have done)? This, in-turn, raises fundamental questions about how effective suspensions are as a deterrent to cheating and if the four years Alex spent banned for cheating wasn’t sufficient then why should it affect others and why should a lifetime ban be any different?

Why Are We Obsessed With Cheaters?

Cheating is something that fans of any competition can universally rally behind as a way to hate on competitors. The history of sports is littered with endless hours of drama around cheating from baseball superstars like Pete Rose, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Alex Rodriguez to football’s dominant franchise, The Patriots. If you’re a fan of basketball or hockey than you’re more than familiar with the sort of gamesmanship that goes into drawing fouls/penalties from the other team and then screaming bloody murder when opponents do the same.

Cheating or, perhaps more accurately, gaining an advantage through means other than the specific competition you’re engaged in, is pretty much a core part of every single competition out there. As a fan, we’re inclined to honor the “integrity” of the competition, and thus lash out when that bond is fundamentally broken by a player. The reason we feel this way is largely due to the fact that most of us just aren’t good enough to compete at the highest levels of these games, and so we have the upmost respect for those who do. Learning that some people took shortcuts to get to that level is an affront to the Hard Work and Dedication (TM) we’ve been led to believe is the “correct” route to success.

For the most part this holds true outside of competitive events as well. Think to your own day job or career and consider the value placed on Hard Work and Dedication (TM) versus people who have managed to climb the quote-unquote corporate ladder by skipping a few rungs. I’m sure the way you feel about those who take shortcuts is similar to the way you feel about those who cheat at games. It doesn’t feel good, but would you do it if you had the opportunity?

What To Do About Cheating?

If the majority of competitive players cheat and the majority of fans want to see something drastic done about cheaters then clearly we need to consider changing the current system to address the state of the world. That said, I don’t believe that suspensions are appropriate for most forms of cheating.

Things like stacking your deck, misrepresenting the game state, slow play, and other similar in-game infractions are very common in Magic and today are dealt with using an arcane system of cautions, warnings, game losses, match losses, disqualifications, and ultimately suspensions from the DCI. This should be replaced by a system of in-game penalties more similar to how major sports (Basketball, Hockey, and Football) handle in-game infractions.

For example:

  • A player who is assessed a penalty for SLOW PLAY will immediately exile their hand from the game face-up, and then exile from the stack all spells and effects that player controls. If that player is the active player, resolve any remaining effects on the stack in the correct order and then immediately move to the end step of that player’s turn.
  • A player who is assessed a penalty for MARKED CARDS will immediately exile all marked cards in their deck from the game. Additionally they will immediately exile the top 20 cards of their library from the game face-up.
  • A player who is assessed a penalty for FAILURE TO MAINTAIN LIFE TOTALS will immediately lose 5 life. If any effects would be triggered by this loss of life, any of the offending player’s opponents may choose to decline each of those effects individually.

There are a few changes I’d like to make to the way judging works in order to better facilitate these changes. First of all, judges should be encouraged to call infractions much more frequently. This will result in players who choose to cheat being penalized far more often. Secondly, players will no longer have the opportunity to immediately appeal to a higher judge. They can file complaints after their match is over. Lastly, judges will be better-trained to spot infractions proactively rather than rely on opponents to call for them.

Why do I think this would be a more effective deterrent for cheating? It might be, and it might not be, but it would almost certainly be more entertaining for spectators. Also, it would force cheaters to continue playing Magic but at a disadvantage, most likely resulting in a loss. Sure, your opponent might cheat, get caught, get penalized, and still win the game; but that’s how it goes sometimes.

Suspensions will still be a tool in the DCI’s arsenal but I would prefer to see them used more for non-in-game infractions. The usual causes for suspension would be things like assaulting another player, stealing while at a tournament site, or using your social media platform to bully members of the community.

One last thing I’d love to see more than anything though is public cheating statistics. In fact, they should be written right on the match slip you get at a tournament. You can sit down, verify that your name and DCI number are correct, and then check for which infractions your opponent is marked down as a frequent offender. And while we’re at it, lets get those stats up on-stream as well. Why not put Alex on camera with the sub-title “Total Months Suspended from the DCI: 50”?

Rich Stein is a retired Magic player, an amateur content creator, and a Level 2 Social Justice Sorcerer. He hopes to eventually become a professional content creator and a Level 20 dual class Social Justice Sorcerer/Bard but he’s more than content to remain a retired Magic player. You can follow his musings on Twitter @RichStein13.

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