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Gathering Magic on Cheating


On October 24, 2014, Wizards of the Coast released a statement that condemned competitors who act without integrity and those who acted in an unsporting manner. The announcement also expressed gratitude for community members who remain vigilant in the watch against those who cheat. This statement went live at the same time as the updated list of those suspended from tournament play. Recent additions include Trevor Humphries (four years) and Alex Bertoncini (three years). Humphries recently won the StarCityGames Standard Open in Worcester, but as per StarCityGames’s tournament policies, his winnings have been donated to charity. Alex Bertoncini also competed in that event and played in Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir as well.

Gathering Magic is a supporter of playing with integrity. Those who break the rules should suffer the consequences of their actions. The editorials that follow present different opinions from members of the Gathering Magic staff and do not reflect that of Gathering Magic itself.

Thoughts from an Editor: Alex Ullman

The increase in video coverage of Magic tournaments has had an impact on the investigation of alleged dishonesty and cheating. Whereas before, there were real space–time limits on how many eyes could be on any given match of Magic, the advent of YouTube and Twitch means that every shuffle caught on camera can be endlessly scrutinized with the fine-toothed comb of righteousness.

Without a doubt, this is a Good Thing. When cheaters succeed, it lessens the validity of an entire tournament. The line between success and failure at high-level events is often as thin as a single match, if not a single game, and if that game is decided by one who plays outside the rules, it can stain the entire outcome. Those who cheat benefit only themselves—everyone else loses as a result. Video evidence means that more cheaters can (and will) be caught. If the events surrounding Trevor Humphries and Alex Bertoncini are any indication, it appears that justice will be swift and decisive—and public.

It is the town-square nature of the goings on that leaves me uneasy. In the current era, the masses can seize upon what may or may not be evidence, post their message, and set the ever-vigilant after an alleged cheater. In the instances in which the allegations are true, the outcome is just. But what happens if the case does not hold water?

I work at a college in Student Affairs. I have recently become an advocate in the Title IX hearing process. In cases of alleged sexual misconduct, it is my role to advise the complainant or the respondent of their rights and privileges as it relates to the publicly available policy. This role has provided me with insight into an investigative process and informs my following stance.

We are in an age in which the process for investigation may not sync with the technology available. This is not the first time science and practice have fallen out of lockstep—we only need to look at Brian Kibler standing up to shuffle his deck while listening to music to see a relatively recent example of such dissonance. In a world in which certain matches are logged visually for consumption at a later date, the investigation process has a very public component in only these cases. In other instances of cheating—those that take place off camera—the same level of scrutiny cannot be applied. In essence, this is a two-tiered level of justice in which certain individuals are subject to different sets of rules by virtue of record or name recognition (and sometimes those of their opponents). For me, this seems problematic.

If the rules cannot be applied equitably to all parties, does this in any way hinder the integrity of the rules? I am inclined to say it does.

There is no easy solution to this issue. Having all matches played under a camera or under the watchful eye of a judge is cost prohibitive, and moving all major events online seems like a pipe dream given the current state of Magic’s official digital client.

What can be done is to make the steps of the investigative process more transparent. Making the policies public can go a long way toward making sure the rules are applied fairly to all parties. I am not positing that all phone calls, every interview, and all testimony be made readily available. The investigations should not be outs to consume like an episode of Law & Order: DCI. Rather, the procedures that investigators follow should be posted for all to see, complete with a flowchart for how to report incidents.

Video evidence should be used when applicable. Those who break the rules should be caught and held accountable. All cheaters, regardless of whether they play on camera at a Grand Prix or in the back corner of a Friday Night Magic, should be held to the same standard. Eric Levine goes into great detail about why investigations must be kept under wraps until a ruling is given. I agree with his points as it protects those who are investigated and cleared of any wrongdoing. My hope is that by making the procedure more public, it will give those who are vigilant on the watch for fair play a clear path for the communication of any concerns.

We live in a public world, but investigations that can affect the integrity of an individual should remain private until the result is announced. The process by which one can be found responsible or not, however, should be available to the community.

Thoughts from a Community Manager: Heather Dawn Lafferty

Before we delve into the scandalous, let me first say this: Make good choices.

Cheaters . . . Cheaters . . . Cheaters as far as the eye can see—well, maybe just one or two or three.

You know what people like to watch? Winners. They watch them on replay. They watch them for hours. They try to learn their ways. They tear apart and rebuild every little move they make. They analyze every card choice and every way it was slapped down into play. So it doesn’t come as great shock that Magic players watch Magic coverage, and being a pretty sharp bunch of people, they noticed some irregular shuffling happening. Reddit threads popped up.

Trevor Humphries was called to the mat and found guilty.

For good measure, they tossed Alex Bertoncini the ban hammer to carry around for the next few years after riding dirty during events.

Then, people were fired up and ready to purge the stinking filth of cheaters from existence. Observers began to notice some possible funny business in the shuffle game of the current Rookie of the Year Jared Boettcher.

Any time a cheating scandal breaks in Magic, I see the same tweets roll across my screen:

It’s not our business; it’s Wizards business, and they will deal with it—a bunch of Sherlock Holmes vigilantes.

As to you, the not-our-business people out there . . . you know what isn’t your business? My sex life. Even I were, for some crazy moment, tempted to share whether I have toe-curling, back-scratching sex and whom with, it still wouldn’t be your business. It would just be something I decided to share. You know what your business is: Someone is trying to cheat you. Someone is actively doing something that breaks down the trust players have in organized Magic tournaments.

It’s your business if someone is trying to cheat or rob you of money. In Vegas, we talk about cheating and cheaters nonstop—how they cheat, what times they cheat, what events they cheat, what dealers they cheat, what methods they use and on and on and on. The only way to curb cheating is education. Education begins with letting everyone know they could be cheated. Then, you teach them how they might be cheated. We follow up with what to do when you think you are being cheated. Then, you deputize them and send them out into the world as little cheater sirens, sounding the alarms wherever shade hits the tables. Not only do people need to talk about this (a lot), but Wizards should have educational campaigns regarding cheating.

I don’t understand why any would cheat in Magic, especially on camera.

I mean come on. We are a nation of odds-breakers and pushes. We make folk heroes out of a bunch of college kids from MIT who formed a ring to actively cheat casinos. We cheer for rule-breakers and people sticking it to the man. People tell us the odds when we buy lottery tickets, and we lift our skirts and moon them and their stinking odds. Every day of every week, there is someone sitting in a casino somewhere in the world betting against all odds he or she is smarter than the camera, the dealer, the pit boss, and all of us. Is it really so hard to believe after spending a month figuring out the exact odds of the draw, mana curve, and matchups of their decks a few individuals decide to lessen the odds even more with a few creative (cheater, cheater) shuffling moves?

Ban them for life, right after you make them do the hokey pokey and turn themselves around. Bastards.

Well. Maybe not the first time.

Thoughts from a Content Manager: Adam Styborski

I dislike losing. Fortunately, I used to hate losing.

When I was a kid, I did things most kids do as they explore the world and their roles in it: I cheated at games. I’d fudge rolls, manipulate effects, palm cards, and bully opponents into the wrong decisions—and I’m not talking about Magic, but board games with family and the few who would call me friend.

Magic was a game I wasn’t deeply invested in until college. By then, I had learned more respect (and developed better brain chemistry for decision-making). It took many hard lessons to overcome my driving need to be “the winner” at everything. Competing over grades, class rank, and other trivialities had given way to finding self-satisfaction and charting my own course—for better or worse—through life. Choosing to find happiness isn’t easy to show or explain, but I’ve rather enjoyed it so far.

Magic, and many other games, benefitted from my changed worldview. But I wonder how things would have turned out if I hadn’t met amazing people and experienced life-changing things.

Would I have become someone who created a meme in the Magic community?

I think the answer isn’t good for me. Most of you know me vaguely as “that casual/Commander writer with a Pauper Cube who works at some Grand Prix and Pro Tours,” but if you met me before I entered the Magic community, you’d be shocked at who I am today.

That’s why I’m not one to cast stones about cheating in the Magic community. While I admit I will never vote for Tomoharu Saito or anyone else who has been destructive to the game—at least to my knowledge—for the Pro Tour Hall of Fame, I can also understand some of the motivations and complexities to cheat in the first place. Cheating is a selfish enterprise. You’re not stealing from others, but claiming what should be yours. It isn’t that others aren’t deserving, but that you deserve it more.

Games with variance—at least from my experience as a kid—amplified that compulsion to cheat. Being unlucky for too long was unfair; cheating evened out the bad streaks. If my play was “correct” and I did “everything right,” I was owed the win.

Even worse is how ego can become intertwined and dependent upon winning. Without a strong sense of self and a confidence in who I was, being “the best” or “the winner” at things was how I defined myself.

If I couldn’t be your friend, at least you’d have to grant I was better than you.

The Magic community is notorious as a meritocracy. Being a good sportsman, consistently pleasant to play with, and helpful to friends and the community only goes so far. Tournament performance is valued most even as article after article is written year after year pointing out all the small pieces of luck that added up alongside skill to find victory. While those at the top take losses and streaks of poor variance well, there are many players desperate to find wins and the respect that accompanies them.

The stereotypical “overly competitive player” is someone unpleasant to play against, bent on using every available “angle” to find wins. The stereotype exists because we’ve all played against someone who took extreme steps to find a win—and celebrated it—or fell into “tilt” about losing, throwing insults and backhanded compliments to you. (Magic Online and other anonymous Internet gaming amplifies poor sportsmanship and harassment.)

Finding success in competitive Magic is discussed as a personal decision, and our communal language of slang shows this. Players have “the fire” to play to win, and they then earn their “breakthroughs” to “the next level” of the game. Magic is a game of skill. It demands attention, memory, practice, and strategy to find success at competitive play. There’s a reason the Hall of Fame–inducted players continue to compete for success a decade after induction.

But thanks to how meritocratic we are on the whole, success in Magic always comes with accolades and respect. Opponents don’t have to be your friend, but at least they’ll have to accept you were better than they were.

It’s eerily similar to my childish way of thinking that I cringe thinking about whether my life turned out differently.

Winning in Magic doesn’t just feel good, it can beef up an ego and define one’s positive moments—if that’s how someone believes in his or her self. Cheating is, always, a selfish enterprise. While I will never accept it in the games I play, I’m also not willing to take glee and pride in destroying another person for doing it.

And I know it’s a person on the other end of the vitriol and harassment fellow players dish out because, in a not-to-distant reality, it could have been me receiving it.

Vigilance and shared knowledge are powerful tools in the Magic community. They deter and protect against predators—like cheaters and other thieves—while informing newer members of the history and dangers lurking at events. Places like Facebook, Twitter, and reddit are phenomenal for bringing us together in ways we could only wish for a decade ago.

But there’s a subjective line between being suspicious of someone and harassing him or her. There are obvious problems with doxxing—revealing generally private information, such as addresses and phone numbers, about someone without his or her permission—but what about creating a meme out of someone’s emotionally-induced statements? Is it “evidence of guilt” for someone to proactively state his or her own facts repeatedly in an attempt to maintain some PR control over the discussions of his or her own behavior and character? Is it “only fair” to look at every match on video and look for every error and illegal action any players made to create a “suspect watch list” for the future?

Terms like witch hunt are awkward, but there can be terrible effects for Internet vigilantism.

My experiences with being bullied and harassed as a kid pales in comparison to what has been within our community the past few days, which is, in turn, small potatoes compared to events in the ongoing Gamergate issue. All the same, whether or not it’s “justifiable,” it isn’t a good thing that the worst competitive behavior of a few in our community can bring out our worst behavior as a community.

I don’t expect my personal experiences to change how a community as wide and intense as ours acts, but maybe you can understand why I believe what a few do as part of our community can reflect as poorly on the game as the selfish decisions of even fewer.

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