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 http://www.gatheringmagic.com/integrity/ 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.)