Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Real Next Level

The Real Next Level: 10 Essential Cheats for Aspiring Professional Magic Players

                In honor of Alex Bertoncini’s StarCityGames Invitational and Player of the Year win, I wanted to update an article I wrote eight years ago.  The thing to understand before continuing further: Magic is at its heart a game of chance.  There are skilled players; people who can calculate odds on the fly and adjust their plays in real time to shifting possibilities presented by their own situation and by their opponent’s game plan.  There are, indeed, correct plays to make in almost every situation, and making the wrong play can be brutal.  Players who make the right play time after time are going to be more successful in the long term than players who don’t or can’t.  Having said that, the average tournament will involve no more than forty games played, a ridiculously small sample size, and the average deck/pilot has no better than a 60-65% chance to win any individual game.
                Observers, railbirds, commentators, and writers all love to laud individual talent and celebrate fantastic plays or consistent play.  The ugly truth is that no matter how fantastically amazing a player may be or how much innate talent that they have, the game is specifically designed now to enhance variance, and outlier results are most likely the result of outside influence.  Now, I’m not accusing anyone in particular of cheating, or doom-saying, or anything of the sort.  The point is that anyone who is attempting to actually make money playing a game will, inevitably, try to seek edges wherever possible, and some of them will actively perform illegal actions whenever they can.  What follows is a list of popular, prevalent cheats that occur over and over again in many high profile tournaments.  While I am providing, essentially, a how-to guide to performing these actions, I do not condone cheating, and I do not personally cheat.  But I also don’t play Magic for money, and I am not the type of person who cares overly much whether I win or lose a game.  You should use the following list so that you can identify these plays, and you can also go back and watch video coverage of some major tournaments and see many of these things happen ON CAMERA in front of thousands of viewers.  Keep in mind, too, that every time you see a player cheat on camera, he or she has done it probably a hundred times without being caught.
                Forewarned is forearmed.  Without further ado:

Popular Standard Constructed Cheats:

1)      The Amazing Gitaxian Recall:  A lot of things happen when Gitaxian Probe resolves, making it one of the premier cards in a cheater’s arsenal.  The easiest cheat, which occurs most often, is to announce the spell, wait for your opponent to record the life total change and draw your card as innocuously as possible while he or she does so.  Then, take your opponent’s hand and hold it, study it, and write down every card on your scorepad.  If you can, perhaps because a card isn’t in English, or may be something that isn’t frequently played, call a judge to clarify some aspect of your opponent’s hand.  Once you’ve performed a few actions, “finish” resolving Gitaxian Probe and draw the card from the cantrip ability.

2)      Super-Rampant Growth:  With any sort of search effect, especially one that changes the number of lands in play, you can “enhance” the card’s effect by practicing shuffling through your deck with your library hovering over your land pile.  “Accidently” shuffle a land to the top of your library and let it fall onto the battlefield, preferably tapped, and finish resolving the spell, handing your library to your opponent to shuffle.  This cheat works best if you’ve missed a land drop at any point in the game, because you’ll end up with the number of lands you would have had you not.

3)      Vaporcaster Mage:  When you lay your graveyard out, make a habit of arranging it so that your spells end up parallel to the top of your deck, above your library on the table.  When you exile a spell, perhaps by flashback or by removing it from the game with Moorland Haunt, tilt it perpendicular to your library.  The cheat comes into play if you have only one card in your graveyard; for example, a Vapor Snag.  Flash back the Vapor Snag with Snapcaster Mage and change the orientation slightly.  As the game progresses, fill your graveyard by stacking them on top of the “exiled” card as normal.  Usually, your opponent won’t even notice, and you’ll get an extra use of the card later on, assuming your deck makes enough plays each turn.

4)      Phantom Damage: This one is extremely prevalent at the top tables filled by control decks.  When you play, make careful notes about each source of damage and life total change.  At some point, when you have a possible source of damage in your graveyard that might have been an early play, subtly change the life total scores so that your record of your opponent’s life is lower than theirs, but clearly marked with “how” it happened.  When you swing for the win and they don’t agree, you have evidence demonstrating that you were obviously keeping copious notes, and your opponent forgot to record something.  If your opponent has warnings or previous issues with Game State violations, you might even get a free match win from an upgraded penalty. 

Remember, this list isn’t meant to be exhaustive.  I’m only presenting the most popular cheats you are likely to see at a PTQ or Open Series level event.  There are dozens of others.  As a quick aside: stacking your deck is very difficult, but believe it or not, you can usually set up your deck so that even with a shuffle and cut by your opponent, you’ll draw cards you are looking for within two or three turns.  Just make sure that when you present your deck, the cards you want are close to the middle of the stack.  As a further aside: Judges are well aware of the possibility that someone could have the dexterity and knowledge to stack or otherwise maintain their deck in an order that is not random.  Hence the reason you have to shuffle your opponent’s deck at higher profile events.  Here’s what I don’t understand: if you believe that someone could manipulate a deck by improperly shuffling it, then why the hell is my opponent allowed to be the last one to touch my library?  I should be able to cut after they shuffle at the very least, otherwise they could easily arrange it so that I draw only land or whatever they want.  This makes no sense whatsoever.

Popular Legacy Cheats:
1)      Brainstorm – There isn’t a clever title for this because the card Brainstorm is basically cheating all by itself.  It’s potential for abuse is so high that in the mid 90’s three different game stores I played at banned the card during their tournaments.  And that was before fetchlands!  (Well, Mirage fetches were around, I suppose, eventually).  Aside from just being Ancestral Recall for some players, the simplest Brainstorm cheat involves drawing an extra card.  Simply draw your three, put them into your hand, shuffle your hand around and select “two” cards to put back.  Stack those “two” cards together and move to put them on top of your library.  Unless your opponent is watching carefully, and even if they are, it isn’t very difficult at all to make those “two” cards suddenly one card.  To sell your cheat: without putting your hand back on the table, pick up the “two” cards you just put back as if you are reconsidering your choice.  The best part of this cheat is that it is almost impossible to catch unless your opponent is keeping very careful track of the number of cards you have in your hand, especially if you mulliganed.

2)      Knight of the Reliquary – Again, this one happens with alarming frequency and is difficult to police.  The Knight can only sacrifice Forests and Plains, but with all of the dual lands, and the amount of shuffling and search effects the G/W and GWx decks play, it often isn’t hard to find a player sacrificing a land that they shouldn’t be able to.

3)      Others—There are a number of cards available in Legacy and the ability to gain incremental advantage by cheating is much more important in a format that sees most games end with three or fewer lands in play on both sides.  Make sure your opponents fetch the right types of land (this has gone uncorrected on camera literally dozens of times).  Make sure that they keep their hand separate during Top activations or Preordains, and make sure you ask a judge about any card you don’t understand entirely.  I’ve called judges on players that I know were misrepresenting Sylvan Library against unprepared opponents, using it as a repeatable Brainstorm every turn, for example.  They claim innocence, sometimes even suggesting that they didn’t know how it worked, but in every case, it is cheating, and giving players the benefit of the doubt is foolish and irresponsible.

Popular Innistrad-Limited Cheats

1)      Instant Sorceries – There are quite a few barely playable sorceries in Innistrad that suddenly become much better if you can use them to keep a werewolf from flipping.  I’ve had opponents play Nightbird’s Clutches and Bump in the Night on my turn in PTQ’s, and I’ve caught someone trying to flashback Sever the Bloodline end of turn.  Bramblecrush is a great one to use because its effect, especially if they have an artifact or enchantment, seems like it should be an instant and isn’t played very often.  Same with Runic Repetition and Paraselene, which I have also seen attempt to stop werewolf flips.

2)      Random, Who Said Anything About Random?—At a PTQ Top 8 this season I watched someone return an Abattoir Ghoul to hand with Ghoulcaller.  Nothing wrong with that, except that there was an un-castable Skaab Ruinator and a Diregraf Ghoul in the yard as well, and he was facing down lethal if he didn’t have the first striker.  When I tried to explain it to the judge, he waved me away, and I’m 90% sure it had something to do with the name of the player who “made a mistake”.  With that in mind, make sure that Make a Wish, Charmbreaker Devils, Woodland Sleuth, and any cards that come out are actually doing their thing randomly.  Roll dice, don’t shuffle the possible cards upside down and pick one or two for your opponent.  It sounds simple, but you’d be surprised at how often this doesn’t happen.

3)      Forbidden Alchemy—This one doesn’t happen nearly as often as the others, but if the game goes long and the graveyard is well-stocked, you may find yourself with an opportunity to draw 2 off of your Alchemy.  Pick up the four cards and set one of them on your hand, then start putting them in your graveyard one at a time, then pick them back up, as if you’ve changed your mind along with the Alchemy itself.  Pick up your graveyard and set the whole stack down and spread it out so that your opponent can see that you only have one card left in front you, then pick it up and look at your hand.  It helps to have your next play ready to go, especially if it is a powerful one.

All of the cheats described within this article have happened either on camera or at live PTQs, GPs, or Open Series events.  It is important to realize that in order to pull off any of these cheats, it helps to be able to win without doing so (successful players with a proven track record of solid performances are much less likely to appear to cheat, the sort of “well, he or she is so good, they don’t need to cheat to win” mentality.)
The parallel I always draw is to poker, where there are now thousands of professionals spending hours in card rooms.  During the internet boom, it was possible to play thousands of hands a day, millions a year, and when that happens, skill will ultimately win out (because even if skill only makes you 5% more likely than your opponent to profit during a hand, you have millions of iterations that make that 5% insane +EV).  Even though there is an element of skill in that game, you see teams of pros frequently sit at the same table, stealing money from tourists with chip-placing, trapping, and generally shady play.  The casino doesn’t bother to punish such behavior independently, since the allure of having a name pro in your building brings in a lot of business to a game that isn’t particularly profitable for you in the first place.  Ignoring that reality is dangerous for new grinders.  But if you are paying attention, you’ll know to get up and find a different table.
You might not be able to do that in Magic, since there aren’t a whole lot of professional circuits right now.  But the DCI is actually very good at policing cheating, and if you catch your opponent by watching for the sorts of things I described in this article, you can help make the game better for everyone.  For now, there’s really only one answer for outlier success in tournament play.  I mean, how can you always have the right cards in hand and consistently show up variance in unpredictable ways?  It’s easy.  #twoexplore

--Ben Snyder

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