Seedborn Musings – Dish and Dishonesty

On Saturday my draft opponent was convinced I purposefully cheated.  My immediate reactions, the reactions of those around me, and later thoughts have given me insight on how to deal with suspected cheating in your group.  I don’t want you to have to deal with this, but people don’t always get along, and it’s better to have a plan before the problem than after.

Here’s what happened: I was in an M12 draft playing a sick red-blue deck.  Tons of bloodthirst beef, Djinn of Wishes, and 4 Acts of Treason (!) gave the deck a battering ram feel.  I faced a Zombie Infestation/Vengeful Pharaoh deck in game 1 and had no trouble dealing with it in 2 games.  Vengeful Pharaoh’s destroy/top-o’-library trigger is mandatory, so if you Act of Treason that player’s creature and swing just it at the opponent, the Pharaoh has to get vengeful.  This was a good plan against a fresh Sengir Vampire (if indeed Vampires are fresh).

While waiting for the second round, I sat next to a player who’s gone to Nationals and who I think has some PTQ-level experience.  In one of the games he Reclaimed a card from his graveyard straight to his hand and then proceeded to draw.  The card of course goes atop the library, but I initially thought he put it back in the hand to shortcut drawing the card.  I reminded him of the text and he asked his opponent whether he should shuffle his library or whether the opponent even cared about seeing the card.

In the second round, I faced that guy, who was playing…a Zombie Infestation/Vengeful Pharaoh deck!  Yes, there were 2 in an 8-man draft.  This one had green support and Call to the Grave though, so it was much stronger.  Still, I won the first game of the round.  It was reasonably hard-fought so far as I can remember.  The second game I lost handily, as Lurking Crocodile kept happening.

Then I noticed IT.  I moved to my sideboard for game 3 and saw the Lava Axe, the one that was supposed to have been sideboarded into my deck for game 2.

Don’t tell me I…yeah, I did.  I had taken out 3 cards and only put in 2.  I had won with a 40-card deck and lost with 39.

I immediately admitted my error, an unofficial judge was called (he had judged the Standard event earlier in the day and is a Level 1 but was playing Commander during our draft).  We explained, he didn’t give any punishment because I lost the game in question, and life seemed to move on.  Game 3 was a blowout; it was about 14 to 1 for four turns as I looked for the last source of damage.  I drew Shock and targeted him with the killing blow.  His response?

“I concede because you cheated.”

I started explaining what had happened, at which point he told me that nothing I could say would convince him I hadn’t played 39 cards in game 1.  He proceeded to tell his round 3 opponent about my misdeeds.

There are several important elements here:

1) Even as I knew my error wasn’t intentional, I felt terrible about it, and the accusation was a dagger to the stomach;

2) My round 3 opponent, who doesn’t know me well but certainly knows me better than my accuser does, understands that I made an honest mistake;

3) My friends don’t believe it whatsoever;

4) It makes no logical sense that I would have cheated for advantage.

First, I had little-to-no incentive to cheat.  It’s an 8-man draft on a random Saturday afternoon.  Yes, I could get some ratings points from this guy, but he didn’t know me well enough to know how many.  (It’s probably about 5; my Limited rating is around 1680.)  Not only am I in a reputation/word-of-mouth profession (and if you think of lawyers as sleazeballs then you agree with me on how difficult it is to be thought reputable),  but I’m a Magic writer, where a tarnished reputation rightfully can wipe out community interest.  I’ve been part of a preview card, for crying out loud!  Why would I throw that away to cheat?

But from a more practical standpoint, if he had seen my cards he could have inferred I wasn’t cheating.  The only reason I can think of where a player might want to play a card down in their draft deck is if that player was stretching for playables.  That was not the case here.  I didn’t have enough room for Lava Axe or my 2 Divinations.  I was a red deck leaving out a win condition!  I was a blue deck leaving out card draw!  Would I somehow be increasing my odds of drawing my good cards by leaving out a Lava Axe (in draft at least)?  Or more directly, would I increase my odds of drawing my good cards by leaving out my card draw spells?  It didn’t make sense factually.

Facts, however, don’t always matter in the moment.  Emotions ran high for him and for me.  His were of betrayal; I’ve since heard that there have been some major cheaters who have done terrible things against him, and I can understand that causing you to jump a little quicker at perceived infractions.  My feelings were of deep contrition and fear (I’m-so-sorry-and-you’re-a-clearly-better-player-so-I’m-sorry-don’t-hate-me-should-I-leave-the-store-forever-since-you-play-here-too!?).  I knew I didn’t mean to mess up, but in his mind, he “knew” I played 39 cards in the first game and won because of it.  His accusation immediately left me feeling guilty even as I made a simple and relatively commonplace mistake.

Here’s how all that applies to your group

Accusations and suspicions die hard, which is a problem for how easy they are to birth.  My story looks like it’s going to have a happy ending, one where my mistake is acknowledged, put in proper context, and resolved.  Change the reputations and the emotions on either side, however, and it’s possible I don’t get the same understanding.  Applying this to your own and others’ play will help your group navigate these choppy cheaty waters.

With any conflict, in an environment governed by a social contract, how contractual you are governs how social you’ll get back.  By contractual I mean how much you honor the notion of a social contract in the first place.  Just as a business contract necessarily involves two or more sides to the acknowledgment of all parties; a social contract is the same, though not everyone who could be part of it understands what it means to acknowledge other parties.

In the abstract every slight and every offense to you ought to matter.  It’s your world; it’s your environment; it’s your hurt.  Socially, this idea is as brittle as an effigy, as ultimately the grace given to you will only be as bounteous as what you have given.  If you’re the one who gets most upset when you lose or who gets incredulous at every request to rescind a play, you’ll have no sympathy when something real happens and you care about it.  In a he-said-he-said argument like what I faced on Saturday, the facts can’t be sorted by the uninvolved; they can go only on the likelihood of one side or the other being right, and that’s shortcutted by reputation.

Because I’m not a large part of my game store’s social scene, I was surprised at the initial credibility others gave me, but I’ve done my best to honor the social contract by being a level-headed guy.  You don’t have to promote that aspect of yourself for people to notice,  because that notice only matters in a problem anyway.  “Look at me; I’m calm!” doesn’t do anything, but being calm does, at least when third parties have to deal with you.  I could have maligned my round 2 opponent for “cheating” with his Reclaim in round 1, but what would it have accomplished?

Similarly, a good grasp on pertinent facts will go a long way toward credibility and resolution.  Being down a card out of 40 can gain only a few edges; they’re tangible, sure, but they have limits, and like any close sports game or playoff race, they only matter when the game was close.   If you’re playing Commander, win or lose handily, and then find out your opponent’s deck was down a Swamp, don’t fuss about it.  Just don’t.  They didn’t mean to be down a Swamp, and one day they might get worked up about a similar thing you do accidentally.  Don’t set that precedent.  Marinate an opponent’s error in the yummy sauce of perspective.

Lastly, set the right precedent yourself.  I admitted my error to the opponent not knowing what the penalty was and ready to accept a match loss for it.  But admission isn’t the end of it.  When you think you’re about to die in multiplayer, do you look at the top card of your library before it’s over to see what you would have drawn or whether it’s worth staying in the game?  Do you look at more than the top card?  You might not mean anything by it, but if the game goes differently than what you anticipated (and in multiplayer, with competing threat assessments wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, it happens a lot), now you’re up on your opponents by knowing your next draws.  It’s unintentional as a cheating form, but it also sets precedent while being easily avoidable.  It’s easier for someone to envision you as a cheater-scalawag when you do the acts without the intent, since you’re giving them half the recipe.  If they want to believe you cheat intentionally, they can point to some mysterious acts as “evidence.”  It isn’t right, but you made it available and you easily could have chosen to play straight when it didn’t matter so you’ll be thought straight when it does.

In all these things, nobody sets your example but you.  Be tough on yourself to play far above board.  Offer to reshuffle when you’ve seen an extra card.  Don’t randomly take something back; ask every time and honor the decision.  The more precise your norm, the more forgivable your lapses.  It might not convince the person who’s upset with you, but it should help you make more sense to others when you’re unjustly accused.

And it should be obvious off the foregoing, but don’t unilaterally decide someone’s cheating you and spread the idea.  It’s hard enough to deal with accusations when you’re innocent.  It seems like things will be fine at my local store, but I could acquire a stigma, the halo in reverse (thanks, Depeche Mode) that makes my opponents count my library and shuffle it five ways to Sunday just to be safe from my legerdemain.  It’s an unprovable, impossible thing to live down, and you could sink your playgroup as easily with an unfounded cheating accusation as a cheater could sink the group with actual cheating.  Be optimistic, think through things, and keep the big picture in mind.

Our game is a social one.  Unlike chess, you can’t go through the game silently very well.  By keeping yourself above board while being gracious to others, you can help everyone focus on the fun part: slaughtering each other violently with cardboard objects.  And I’m sure we can do it with honor.

(Hall of Famer Darwin Kastle had a pro player’s perspective on cheating at this week.  While it isn’t directly applicable to my story or your group, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention what likely was a subconscious motivation for today’s article.)


About Brandon Isleib

Author of Playing for a Winner: How Baseball Teams' Success Raises Players' Reputations; sometimes-writer at GatheringMagic and Muse Vessel; card name/flavor text team for Magic 2015; Wizards of the Coast's first Digital Event Coordinator; directly responsible for the verb "create" on Magic cards; legislation editor for Seattle; voracious music consumer; Christian.
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5 Responses to Seedborn Musings – Dish and Dishonesty

  1. Zak says:

    Knowing the player in question, and being the judge who, quite frankly at the time, wasn’t going to give a GL on a tournament that I wasn’t even paying attention to or judging over something that was found after the fact when the match had already been LOST, he tends to run hot like that and tilt all the time whenever something doesn’t go his way. That’s just how he is.

    • Seedborn Muse says:

      Hopefully this came through in the article, but I don’t have any particular malice reserved over what happened. Bruce indirectly pointed out a number of places where I sounded defensive as a way to clear my name in a public forum, so I struck a lot of that out as ultimately my intention was to be useful to the readership through my story.

      Even though I knew my intentions, the mere accusation tore me up. It’s just a dangerous game to get into accusations, particularly off-the-cuff. You don’t know how the other person’s going to react, your emotions are hijacking your vocabulary, and you run the risk of being flat-out wrong.

      It’s terrible that reputations can be made or lost on one overemotional incident. That said, I only have one overemotional incident with him, which is why I’m not going to carry anything over against him should we face off again.

  2. Vrag says:

    I think it’s pretty obvious that the guy was being a sore loser, and the rest of the store saw that. If he really was concerned that you gained an advantage, he would have asked for you to have a match loss when you admitted the error. Instead he waited until he lost the game and then fell back on what he could. It’s the old “you can’t fire me cause I quit” crap. No one takes it seriously.

    Really, in my opinion you screwed yourself more than you helped yourself. Not only did you make for the possibility that you could run out of library cards, but also you inflated your land count. Instead of having a 17 to 23 (42%) land count, you had a 17 to 22 (45% land count). So all you really did is make it more likely that you draw a land late game (since you said it was a hard fought game and not a quick win).

    In all honesty, if it was me I would have evaluated how the game was. When I play limited at a store there’s the guys who chat your ear off, let you take back moves, and are obviously there to just have fun. Then there are the guys who you have to force a hand shake out of and are obviously business. Had it been the former I would have been like “oops I’m an idiot, I forgot to put my sideboard card in against you” and we would have laughed about it. Had it been the later I would have just kept my mouth shut because I knew it didn’t help me win anything and it would just give him a reason to bitch. If it gave me a real advantage or I won the game in question, I would say something and just forfeit the match because it was my screw up and who knows whether or not it really gave me an edge. It would be the right thing to do.

    As for multiplayer, I never purposefully look at hidden information until the game is over for me. So I look at my library if I’m officially dead only. There have been times where it’s just me and one other player left. If the game looks like it’s gonna be a while, I will have one of the eliminated players look at my next 10 cards or so and see if the game is worth dragging out a little bit longer. This doesn’t happen very often though.

    • Seedborn Muse says:

      Yeah, having somebody ELSE look at your cards and tell you is in a different category. I don’t do it myself but I don’t begrudge those who do.

      As for the guy, it’s a lot more obvious in hindsight about the extent of his soreness than when things are in the moment and PTQ guy with a good level of success in the game is intimidating you (in all fairness I’m easily intimidated). Cooler heads will prevail and seem to have already, but unlike casual Magic communication doesn’t have a takeback. *Shrug*

      • Vrag says:

        I don’t have others look for me very often. I only ever do it in the interest of saving everyone some time, and only if the other person still in the game is ok with it.

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