The Dark Side of Shiny: Are Foils Ethical?

Paul Perjuns-Tart • November 25, 2022

Cut of the Profits | Donato Giancola

The ongoing topic of foiled Magic: the Gathering cards flared up again after Michael McClure was disqualified from Dreamhack for using marked cards to gain an advantage. Though there was a debate on whether McClure was cognizant of the advantage his marked cards provided, that's not what I'm here to discuss. Instead I'd like explore the ethicality of Wizards of the Coast selling cards that are--by their own definitions--legal, but not when it matters most.

Unless you've been living under a rock, chances are you are aware that the foiling process for Magic: the Gathering cards has several side effects. The most notorious side effect of foiling causes cards to curl. It's been so prevalent that these cards have been colloquially defined as "pringles" by the community. Though the cards McClure used were legal in every sense and purchased from Wizards of the Coast as a part of a Secret Lair, it was the inclusion of these curled cards cited as the main reason for McClure's disqualification after a judge demonstrated how easy it was to cut to these foiled cards.

The discussion around this event brought many topics surrounding foiled cards to the forefront. Some cited that it's the responsibility of the player to ensure their deck is in no way providing an advantage by supplying information it shouldn't. In other words, many stated that if this player was using "pringles", they should have sought out a judges approval before using those cards. While not entirely wrong, it seems strange that by every metric and standard, unaltered cards purchased directly from Wizards of the Coast (at a premium, mind you) shouldn't need to be cleared with a judge. Yet here we are.

Other players took to the social media sphere to comment that foils in general should never be played at high level tournaments regardless of curl. Anyone who has picked up a foiled card might have noticed a different feel. It's actually a fact that weight and thickness on foiled cards are greater than those of their non-foil counterparts. A deck of foils is noticeably thicker. How apparent and evident this is on the individual level after, say, double-sleeving in perfect hards, remains up for debate. However, the fact that there are differences in cards based on their respective treatment feels completely at odds with one of the core tenets of card games: that all cards should look and feel exactly the same.

If that's the case, then technically speaking foils should never see top of a tournament table. Then why are they being sold in the first place? It's rational that specially treated cards would be sold at a higher price due higher manufacturing costs, but what message is that sending to players investing their hard-earned money on special versions of their favorite cards? The expensive cards are the ones players can't use... When you say it out loud, one wonders how we arrived at this irrational place.

If you think about it, what's the difference between a foil Secret Lair and a Magic 30th Anniversary edition card if neither can be played at officially sanctioned tournaments? If you showed a judge these cards, they would disqualify you for using either. Does that mean foil cards are no different than something you printed out at work and slid into a sleeve?

This all hearkens back to something Richard Garfield said last month at the Magic 30 event in Las Vegas. "We were trying to keep focused on the idea that this is a game first, and if you treat it as a collectable first, you're not doing your players any favors." Even before his statement, the idea of Magic: the Gathering becoming a collectors item before a game has been rampant among the community, and rightfully so. The irony here is the game's original creator was talking about this during an event where non-playable collectable "memorabilia" was being touted as a "celebration" of 30 years. For a thousand dollars.

Selling cards you can't use for officially sanctioned play is a prime example of treating Magic: the Gathering as a product before a game. While there's no doubt that the product needs to be both in order to continue existing, it's an ongoing balancing act which, at this time, feels largely lopsided due to pressure from corporate overlords for more profit.

Essentially the crux of this conversation boils down to a discussion about ethics. Is it ethical for Wizards of the Coast to sell versions of its cards that may not be tournament-legal? Should foil product come with visible disclaimers? Regardless of your belief as to what should be done, I think we can all agree it's a problem. It's likely going to continue to be a problem as more in-person events and tournaments take place.

Should potential purchasers be educated about the pitfalls of foil cards? Some would argue that, by now, everyone should be aware of the quality of foils, and complaining about receiving curled cards is futile. After all, they should have known, right? It's interesting that the impetus of this issue is being directed to the player by other players. Could you imagine a customer service response citing, "It's your own fault for buying them in the first place?" Yet this is usually the response from many in the MTG community when people take to social media.

Should Collector's Boosters and foiled Secret Lairs come with a disclaimer? If there's a chance purchases won't be tournament-legal, shouldn't customers be given this information before being allowed to purchase? People vote with their wallets, and Wizards' steady stream of new foil products is indicative that warped cards aren't an issue for most players. Like Wizards of the Coast have mentioned, almost 75% of all Magic players never leave the kitchen table. This would mean the curling issue is only a problem for a very small percentage of players, though I'm not convinced that's an excuse for a lack of transparency on the part of Wizards of the Coast.

So how much of a problem is it? What do you think? Are foils an issue the need an immediate remedy? Is it wrong for Wizards of the Coast to sell "marked" cards at a premium, or is it up to the player to ensure their official cards are tournament-legal? I think we can all agree that all cards, foil and non, should lay flat. But if isn't going to be solved, is it wrong for them to continue to sell without providing customers information about the quality and resulting issues with these purchases?

Paul Perjuns-Tart is often told he’s small for his age despite being 41, earning him the nickname “Lil’ P.P.” on the count of his size and initials. Recently trapped under an upside down glass, he was forced to write for where he’s rewarded with tortillas and spoonfuls of peanut butter so long as he doesn’t try to escape. When he’s not running across a keyboard like that scene in the movie Big, he’s printing out mean internet comments for his scrapbook. Magic: The Gathering.