Players, Not The System, Are Broken
After seemingly a blessed break in the limelight, cheating has come back to the forefront of Magic discussion. It has returned, unfortunately, for good reason, with several noted cheaters getting to go on and play in the 2023 Magic World Championship (often abbreviated as Worlds), which took place in late September. Of course, when I first started writing this, that was pretty recent, but these things just take time sometimes, ya know?
What's unique about the cheating discussion is it's one of the few topics in MTG circles where everybody involved at least agrees on the base premise: cheating is bad and doesn't have any place in the game, organized play or otherwise. While it was nice that the discussion at large left us for a lengthy amount of time, it was only gone for depressing reasons. Organized play's (OP) long COVID-caused session and then relative downturn suppressed many of the conversational issues we had on repeat for years. Now that Magic OP is returning in earnest, so are the cheaters and the controversy that surrounds them. I have to say, though, that while I can't say that I personally missed seeing people argue over whether naming and shaming cheaters is a witch hunt or not, Magic OP returning is a great boon to every type of Magic player.
The most fascinating thing about the cheating discussion to me is just how much argument and thoughts springs forth beyond the basal agreement that exists. Everybody has different opinions on how much is too much, how cheaters should be treated within the community, whether we're doing enough to catch these players, and how we should punish them... or if they should be meaningfully punished at all.
cEDH Cheating: It's Inside the House!
While these questions have been on pause for the larger Magic sphere for several years, they have been a large topic of conversation in the cEDH in 2023, often surrounding the now-popular webcam tournament format. For those unfamiliar, these are tournaments run quite literally over a webcam, with all players in a pod competing over the program Spelltable. The most popular of these consistent video-driven tournaments is the Mox Masters Invitational series, put on by the Youtube channel Playing With Power MTG. It regularly attracts 128-140 players for a monthly all-day event, with the accessibility that playing with 100% proxy acceptance and over webcam provides. This all resulted in the recent in-person Mox Masters Invitational tournament in my very own Columbus, OH!
While these tournaments allow for many players who normally wouldn't be able to participate, especially in Europe, they do come with a problem: it turns out that cheating over Spelltable is, at least in theory, pretty easy to do. Shuffle cheats, planting cards in your hand off-screen, or even maybe trying to get frisky with your lands while people's attention is elsewhere are all ways that people can and do cheat in these events. Even with the attempted prevention of the easiest things, people are caught trying to do fake shuffles or sneaking a card in from time to time.
This brings a lot of understandable concerns to these tournaments. If a lot of players have easy access to cheating, it's that much easier for participants to take those windows of opportunity to push the game in their favor, even if they normally would not. However, most of the cheating in cEDH we do see does come from perennial cheaters, something I'll get to later. This ease of cheating discourages plenty of players from playing in the tournaments in the first place, an effect that I certainly understand. Why put yourself in a place where you're at a supposed higher chance of being cheated against when you're hoping to win on your own merits? It can be discouraging to think about the prospects of losing to a cheater or, even worse, finding out that you lost to one. Why bother to slot into that position?
While these cheats are easy, organizers do their best to prevent them from happening. For example, most use some simple deterring rules, such as players having to cut their deck into three pieces and putting it back in an opponent-defined order after a shuffle, strict requirements concerning wide angles for cameras that show a wide berth around the play space (often including in players' laps), and also forcing players to keep their hand of cards within the camera view at all times. Additionally, players are encouraged to record their matches with software such as OBS, allowing both players and, if need be, tournament organizers to review game footage and observe if cheating was present. It turns out that even if the cheats are "easy," they're also pretty obvious.
Cheating: It's Ruining cEDH??
Over time, plenty of these cheaters in the competitive EDH space have been caught and flushed out thanks to people recording their games or getting judges involved at the right moment. This has been so common even that something like one to two cheaters have been caught and exposed per month for the last several months. Note: This is with there being two to three (100~+ player) major webcam tournaments every month. Personally, I will insert, this amount doesn't seem huge to me. There are a LOT more cheaters in Magic spaces than many people would like to believe, whether chronic or the one-time opportunist in a high-pressure situation.
However, cheaters existing and getting caught so visibly (nearly at the rate at one person per tournament) does have the unfortunate effect of giving these webcam tournaments a bad reputation as a place where cheaters may hide. Granted, as I said above, this is an easy impression thanks to, well, the fact that a webcam tournament brings with it many elements that can (and do) make cheating easier.
Many people (who I'm pretty sure have never played in such an environment before) have started ringing the alarm bells, stating that surely this amount of cheating signals the downfall and end of such an accessible way of playing Magic: The Gathering. I do get the sentiment: players deserve a place to be able to play tournaments where they don't have to worry about being cheated against! This is definitely one of the hardest parts of the webcam format.
However, I think it's truly hard to claim that the sky is falling. In fact, I would like to think that cheaters being found at such a decent clip is more so indicative of the system working as intended. Tournament organizers and players alike have become more cognizant of the ways that people like to cheat, making it easier to spot those who are trying to get one over on others. This has led to an efficient system of finding and then banning cheaters from the webcam platforms, something that, especially in recent times, we've struggled to do in paper Magic tournaments.
I found it hard to believe that one or two cheaters every event means that we're going to experience the downfall of cEDH webcam events. Should under one percent of entrants being suspect mean that we should burn down what is quickly becoming an appreciated institution? By no means. But, is there something we as a community can do more of to help with either perception or is there something that tournament organizers can change? Yeah, stop treating cheaters like a reformation project.
Cheaters: Get 'Em Outta Here
Patrick Sullivan is, as usually, incredibly based on the topic of cheating in cEDH. Here's a no-longer-recent tweet of his that came up around the Worlds controversy a few months ago.
I’ve probably said some version of this before but I wish the powers-that-be would stop viewing cheating through the lens of criminal rehabilitation and more through the lens of addressing addiction. These people literally can not stop. https://t.co/jVfVyEAhYc
— Patrick Sullivan (@BasicMountain) September 25, 2023
I recommend digging into the tweet, its replies, and the discussion contained within. The TLDR, though, if you need one, is that most cheaters aren't actually opportunistic but instead are so addicted to the act of cheating that they don't really even realize they're doing it - or won't admit that they're doing wrong. What is the right way to address this?
Simple: stop going easy on people. A slap on the wrist, several-month- or year-long ban from your own tournament series isn't going to fix a cheater's problems, nor will it honestly do much to deter other cheaters from participating in either your tournament or the act of cheating itself. What might help is instead much, much more extreme actions. Sullivan himself suggests that a decade or life-long ban would be appropriate for habitual (i.e., addicted) cheaters and something closer to the status quo for an in-the-moment cheat. Of course, the problem with this policy to me is that determining the intent of a cheater seems like a difficult and troublesome path to go down. However, I think it's always better to err on the side of caution. That is to say, ban 'em. Ban 'em long. Ban 'em' good.
It's important to protect the community. Being able to play Magic in an organized, high-competition environment with prizes on the line is the furthest thing from a right as I could imagine is possible. It is a privilege and one that should be aggressively protected from people trying to abuse the system for their own gain. Part of hosting quality, accessible tournaments is ensuring the integrity of those events so that your players can have a great time without having to worry. I am convinced that longer-term bannings are a large part of this solution. Stuff like shuffling rules, wide camera angles, exposed laps, and keeping hands visible at all times can only go so far, especially if players are truly motivated to make it work.
It Probably Shouldn't Be a Witch Hunt, Though
Something that has come back up in the cheater discussion, both in the Competitive EDH realm and beyond, is the issue of the publicity of bannings and similar. Historically, Wizards of the Coast had a very public list of players banned from DCI competition so that stores could be very actively aware of who was banned and who was not. The list also included the reason they were banned and how long they were banned for. WotC quietly stopped maintaining this list some years ago, probably due to privacy-related regulation (at least that has always been my assumption).
There not being a publicly known list of cheaters does have its issues, most notably that the knowledge about ne'er-do-wells has to be passed through social media or word of mouth. I think this creates nonideal incentives around cheating: many instances of alleged cheating in the cEDH scene, proven or not, have been blown up for all the world to see on Twitter before tournament organizers can make a comment on the topic (if they ever will). This has also happened in paper spaces, with grinders often telling their stories of being cheated in days following events with all of their friends joining in on the fun. This is a lossy, difficult way of handling the issue.
Realistically, I believe that once again, the buck on this issue falls to tournament organizers. TOs have the capability to find cheaters and handle them. Whether they choose to publicly note these actions is up to them, though I think that some level of transparency is laudable. Ideally, rather than naming and shaming the player, however, we would find ourselves in a world where a ban is announced and the pertinent information is shared amongst relevant parties (other tournament runners, etc). Of course, this could open up opportunities for cheaters to enter more casual environments, but I honestly also doubt that people playing there are that up-to-date on whatever cheater publicizing could exist.
I could be entirely wrong on this count, though. Maybe we should name and shame. Perhaps this would both help players be deterred from cheating in the first place, especially in moments of opportunity. In my mind, however, it doesn't actually seem to solve much beyond giving people yet another useless thing to vent about. The people who need to know will know. Witch hunts and related public outcry against specific people for their actions rarely work, especially when the person isn't actually somebody of note. I would love to hear from other people on the topic, though!
Cheating is Back and Here to Stay
Regardless of individual approaches held on the topics of cheating, preventing it, and punishing it, it is certainly going to be a part of Magic, no matter how we're playing. Heck, people cheat in casual EDH games all the time. What we can do is join together to ensure these cheaters know that they have no place in our community, tournaments, and games, whether they're in-person or over a webcam. Cheating has always been here and will remain here for a long time. The one thing I do know is that it isn't gonna kill Magic. We're better than that.