by Derek Heinbach

“Some people don’t seem to realize that if counterfeit cards become indistinguishable from real cards it is an existential threat to the game as a whole.” — SaffronOlive

“I’m pushing back on [the secondary market] being everything lives or everything dies.” — Matt Sperling

The first time I bought a counterfeit card, I didn’t realize I had. It wasn’t marketed as fake, per se, but I can’t really say it was passed off as real either. The 13 year-old me, buying a card on eBay, simply went for the cheapest option I could see—and why would I pay $30 for an Arcbound Ravager when this seller was charging $1?

Needless to say, I was disappointed a week later when my package arrived. I had what appeared to be a picture of my desired Ravager, printed on to a piece of sticker paper, and stuck haphazardly on to an actual Magic card. It was quickly forgotten and lost. I was, after all, just 13 and the dollar I had paid for it wasn’t quite enough to make the loss sting.

“Counterfeits”, “fakes”, “bootlegs”—these are all terms we use to describe Magic cards that were not printed by Wizards of the Coast. These cards, in the US and abroad, violate various intellectual property rights. By creating them, counterfeiters are causing hypothetical financial damage to Wizards, for which Wizards is entitled to seek compensation in court. China, however, is notorious for flouting these laws. From handbags to DVDs, and now with Magic cards, various entrepreneurs of a certain kind make their money creating and selling knock-off products.

Generally, the same laws exist in China as they do elsewhere, but enforcement of those laws is a low priority for the government. This has lead to a flourishing underground of false wares that have flowed back into Western markets.

Thirteen years later, I bought a fake Magic card on purpose. I wasn’t to try to play with it in a tournament or to pass it off in a trade or sale. Instead, I was a newly minted L1 judge, and what I had realized was that there’s a fairly large gap in general judge knowledge regarding counterfeits. Judges are given rules on what a legal Magic card is but do not get any training or knowledge about how to spot fake cards.

This wasn’t strictly something judges were supposed to be able to do but I also realized that I wanted to be able to help players who had questions about authenticity. Fakes had gotten much better, and I wanted to become an ace at spotting them. If this pursuit meant that counterfeiters were getting some money from me, I felt at least it was for a good cause.

After all, the best way to learn to spot them was to procure some fakes myself, and start learning the differences. I won’t go into the details of my search—after all, my goal is not advertisement—but I will say that I found numerous sources, at many different price points. Importantly, I also found many different qualities. I learned how to read rosettes, the best way to do water tests without damaging real cards, light and blacklight testing, even rip and bend tests, until I felt fairly certain I could spot a fake were one presented to me.

That confidence changed at Grand Prix DC in 2016, when chatting with a floor trader. He showed me a fake Beta edition Sol Ring he had gotten, and, despite twenty minutes with a loupe, I had to be shown the subtle signs that it wasn’t a legitimate card. This left me a bit unsettled. No counterfeit I had previously studied was up to the quality present in this fake. It had the proper inking, color, rosette, corners. I had missed a slight difference in feel and part of a messy border. To this day, honestly, I’m not entirely sure it was a fake. But what it did prove to me was that there were counterfeit cards out there far better than what I had found in my personal search.

Could you tell? Double-sleeved, across the table?

In some industries—fashion accessories and films, mainly—Chinese counterfeiters have created a prodigious amount of goods. The Magic scene is newer and it’s hard to pin down exactly how many of these quality fakes exist. Anecdotally, I’d say that they’re currently rare  and therefore something to look out for, but not something to expect. This can change as real cards are lost or damaged and become harder to find at low cost, so there’s a good chance that the prevalence of fakes will rise in the coming years.

There is, in fact, a community of proxy-peddlers and their clients which you won’t find with the best of Google searches or the most thorough scouring of some shady websites. There are a few big names in this counterfeiting community. They were referred to generally by acronyms to keep their profiles relatively low. Acronyms like WSG, PH, RL, and similarly ambiguously-named websites, help keep this market relatively secretive. Some of these sellers even have PR teams and customer support on reddit. The crowned king of the fake, however, went by the name BL. This person had one of the longest running shops, and is currently on the seventh iteration of his fake cards.

A world in which Jace, Vrynn’s Prodigy can nearly break $100 and the prices for Reserve List cards only go up is a world ripe for the a back door to the card ownership market. We as the Magic community need to hash out the causes and effects of counterfeits, as well as the morality of using such cards in events sanctioned or otherwise. What was entirely absent from the current discussion, however, is any insight into the actual people in this market. Not the buyers—but the sellers and the manufacturers themselves. I think this means we’re missing a big portion of the story and maybe even some potential solutions to the issue of counterfeits that could come from understanding the counterfeiters.

With this in mind, I sent a message to BL to try to find out what makes this market work. Not to put a face to the business—as I stated before, the purpose of this article isn’t advertisement—but to understand what actually drives the counterfeiting industry.

This interview was conducted over email. BL’s English is off sometimes, so I’ve annotated any alterations I’ve made to his words.

What made you get into the counterfeit card market?

It’s just a job [to] make living, its the buyers [that] helped me do the business. I [knew] nothing about MTG before I [started] this. I get details from the buyers requests.

How old are you?

33 years old.

So, people came to you to do this? What sort of work did you do before?

I [sold] toys before I [started] this.

What was the first card or set of cards they asked you to try to make?

The first set [was] a request from [the] USA. They [asked] me find a factory to make the cards and sent me all the real cards [as] samples.

Do you think there is much competition in your market?

Competition always exists, some people can make foil cards and hologram ones, but I don’t make [those].

Which of your cards or sets sells best?

My best selling set [is] Vintage, some old players want to play magic again but find the price become so expensive so they buy cards from me for entertainment.

(His “Vintage” set includes Power 9, black border dual lands, and various expensive old cards such as Library of Alexandria.)

How much demand is there in general? Are you constantly busy?

I am always busy, but not only for work. I work about 4 hours everyday. The other hours needs to stay with families. [sic]

Has there been interest in cards from other games, or mainly just Magic?

I mainly do Magic and its accessories like playmat[s]. Sleeves, boxes, Etc.

He also had something to say about the quality of his cards. I was surprised at this, since according to reviews his cards are highly rated.

The difference of my cards is very easy to tell. The corners [are] not sharp edges, the paper stock is more thick, the center is black not blue. (This means they would not pass the light test.)

Has the counterfeit business grown much over the past two years, or has demand stayed relatively flat?

I think when the buyers who need the cards have all the cards they need, they will not buy anymore, and the buyers who hate prox[ies] will not buy from the start to the end. So the market will not [be] expanding.

Do you see a time in the future when large companies are making these counterfeits?

The selling is very flat, no big deals for now. I don’t think big companies will make this.

Do you fear any reprisal from Wizards of the Coast?

Well, fear from Wizards always exists, so I am trying to keep as low as possible.

Do you think any of the recent anti-counterfeiting measures, such as the holofoil stamp, will matter?

Since I don’t do foil stamps cards, it’s not affecting me.

Do you think there’s any problem with making these counterfeits? For example. do you worry about people trying to sell these to people who are unaware they aren’t from the company?

First, I will not cheat any people, but I can’t ask others [not to] do it.

[A]s I stated, my cards are made mainly for people who wants to play the game without spending too much money, if they use the cards [to] play in any tournament, it’s very easy to check the proxies out.

This last point bears teasing out a bit. Despite what BL says, we all have to reckon with the downstream effects of our decisions. If you make a counterfeit card and sell it to a knowing customer, then no, you didn’t cheat that customer. But if that customer then trades the counterfeit to an unwitting third person as if it were genuine, you as the counterfeiter are just as responsible for that deceit as your customer is. It is impossible to create something like a counterfeit collectible and control what happens to it once it’s outside of your factory—but that lack of control does not absolve you of your guilt for clearly foreseeable consequences. Add to that the fact that counterfeiters are knowingly breaking laws protecting intellectual property and it’s difficult to see them as innocent actors who bear no responsibility for the consequences of creating counterfeits.

Wizards has employed many strategies to combat fake cards and protect their customers, the latest of which was the holostamp on rares and mythics introduced with the M15 frame. The holostamp is difficult to duplicate but counterfeiters are already beginning to imitate it with varying degrees of success.

But historically, it’s taken a shift in a market to successfully combat piracy, counterfeiting, and similar offenses. As Gabe Newell once said, “Piracy is a service problem.” In the context of Magic, the service problem is just the high cost of cards. This presents a conundrum, as a thriving secondary market is one of the elements that makes Magic such a successful game.

We all have opinions on how to deal with the presence of counterfeit cards. There are actions we can try to take individually, through constant vigilance, and actions we can take collectively, to curb demand. The Reserved List is a specter, haunting every discussion of counterfeits. However, even its abolition (while a significant damper) would be not guarantee a counterfeit-free world. Modern staples can often rise to prices similar to that of eternal staples in price. So long as the secondary market has such a huge sway on the affordability of the game, they’re here to stay.

I personally can make no judgment on people that buy these counterfeit cards. For many, Magic is a luxury impossible to afford, and it’s their decision if counterfeits are the way they choose to play a game they love. Just like BL, though, those who trade, pass on, or even just don’t keep track of these counterfeits—intentionally or not—bear the exact same responsibility as he does. I am not an alarmist over counterfeits, but a realist, and only want to help people see the situation clearly. Good counterfeits are already here, and, so long as it is profitable to make them, they will remain as a serious issue in our community.

It wasn’t a toy maker in his 30s that decided to start producing fakes. His first production was at our request. We, the people playing, trading, selling, and discussing these cards. We, who argue that preconstructed decks don’t contain enough value. We, that complain the EV of a set or pack is too low. We, that rage and rant if the value of a card we bought ever lowers, or even if it doesn’t rise enough.

We, who now debate a product the demand for which we create.


Derek Heinbach is an avid legacy Lands player, L1 judge, and known watcher of cooking shows who resides in northern Virginia. He can be found on Twitter @skyl3lazer.

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