Handling Counterfeits in a Tournament

One of the most controversial and error-prone part of running a deck checks team is checking for counterfeits. In the grand scheme of things, counterfeits are really not that important an issue, and most deck check judges don't bother to look for them at all. But people have strong feelings about counterfeits, and whenever a player-judge interaction about counterfeits goes wrong, it has a tendency to blow up.

Why do we check for counterfeits?

From time to time, some people will claim that it's not judges' job to enforce copyright law, and therefore we don't need to check for counterfeits at all. This is just factually untrue; it is explicitly our job to enforce tournament policy, and tournament policy tells us that we're supposed to perform deck checks to verify deck legality.

The more interesting claim is that judges shouldn't care about counterfeits. They don't directly impact the tournament, since the player could have brought the same deck with real cards and made the exact same plays. This line of argument is intuitively appealing, but I think not quite valid; bringing real cards would have cost the player more money, so they get an unfair advantage over other players from not having to do that. It's similar to the argument "I should be allowed to take back my bad play because I could have spent more time practicing before the tournament and just made better decisions up front". Yeah you could have, but you didn't, and presumably there's a reason why you didn't.

The typical response to this is to point out that skill is something that tournaments are designed to test, while spending money is not. This is why we have rules against bribery; we want the player who is best at Magic to win, not the one who has the highest paying job. This is clearly correct; the ban on counterfeits is not about the skill-testing aspect of tournaments. However, there are many aspects of tournament policy that are not about skill; players can get penalties for being late, for wearing inappropriate clothingFor borderline stuff, judges usually just ask the player to remove the offending item without issuing a penalty. But for anything particularly egregious like a "kill all pedophiles" hat or whatever, I think going straight to the USC - Minor is reasonable, since any reasonable person would have known that's not ok., for stealing table number 69, for wagering on the outcome of their match, etc. None of these have to do with a player's skill at the game, but they each have good reasons to exist nevertheless.

The rules against counterfeits are similar. There are general ethical considerations regarding intellectual property, which we want to respect. IP is different from physical property, but we have similar norms about giving people control over their own creations. When an artist makes a drawing, we agree that it's in some sense meaningfully "theirs", and that someone who buys one copy and then distributes other copies for free has done something unethical. In general, laws about IP exist to preserve desirable incentive structures; if artists and inventors couldn't charge people for what they created, fewer people would be able to make a living that way, and the world would have less art and fewer inventions.

This is particularly evident in Magic, as the whole Magic ecosystem is structured around the fact that cards are scarce and therefore have value. We often forget this, but high level tournaments are an extremely small part of the overall Magic community. Most people who buy Magic cards are doing it in large part for the collectable aspect. People love to bling out their EDH decks with cool variants, to find a new card they've never heard of before, to finally find someone willing to trade an old card they've wanted for so long. Some of those people then decide to step into tournament play.

Card value is central to the existence of organized play. Wizards likely loses money running the organized play system, but it's a loss-leader for their booster box selling business; it's advertising. The same is true for individual tournament organizers; the event entry fees are rarely enough to cover the costs of the convention center on their own, and most of the extra money comes from vendors paying for access to customers. (See The Economics of Organized Play for a more detailed breakdown of this.)

Their impact on individuals is the most visible. An LGS that accidentally buys a large collection of fakes can go out of business from that single mistake. Players who get ripped off repeatedly may decide to stop collecting entirely. (People who buy counterfeits to play in tournaments often argue that they themselves don't scam people, so they're not contributing to this problem. But these two things are harder to disentangle than you might think; counterfeiters only print counterfeits because there's demand, and the more demand there is, the cheaper the counterfeits get and the more effort they can put into making them indistinguishable from real cards. And even if they don't intend to scam anyone with them, it's easy to get them accidentally mixed in with real cards, which are then later sold or given away to someone who doesn't know they're fake.

So I see preventing the spread of counterfeits as primarily a community-building activity. We don't do it for "tournament integrity", we do it because we love the fact that Magic exists as a game that connects people worldwide. Nearly every big city has an LGS that you can just walk into and start playing Magic, even if you don't know a single person in the area; that's only possible because that store has some way to pay rent. We do it because we want large tournaments like RCs to continue existing, giving people lifelong memories and friends.Accordingly, I don't only care about counterfeiting when I'm on staff at an event. I also keep an eye out for them in casual games, and will generally refuse to play with anyone who knowingly includes them in their deck.Not proxies, proxies are much less of a problem. Counterfeits and proxies are different things. It's not inherently a tournament issue, it's a general community issue, and we all need to do our part. Tournament policy is just the only place where it's formalized.

People who buy counterfeits are defecting in a collective action problem. It benefits themselves financially to do it, but it slightly harms everyone else. If everyone did it, Competitive Magic tournaments would likely cease to exist. Altruism and a good understanding of game theory can help in collective action problems, but humans are fundamentally selfish, irrational, and forced to operate on limited information, so some form of top-down enforcement is almost always necessary to resolve collective action problems. That's what we provide.

How to check for counterfeits

Deck checks are one of the most time-intensive parts of a tournament; the players are sitting there bored the whole time, and even a relatively fast deck check is going to result in a 6+ minute time extension, potentially delaying the entire tournament.

Cheats like marked cards or playing a different deck from what's on their decklist are things that are highly impactful right then and there, so it's worth the time to comprehensively check for them in every deck check. Counterfeits on the other hand are a more diffuse harm, so it's not worth spending as much time on them. Additionally, checking to see if a card is fake takes much longer than checking to see if it's on the decklist; inspecting every card in a deck for legitimacy would add upwards of 10 minutes to the deck check; completely unacceptable.

What I recommend is the following: While performing the rest of the deck check, keep an eye out for anything that looks sus, and just check those. If nothing stuck out to you as odd-looking, pick a random 1-4 cards and check them, then call it a day.Note, by the way, that cards of all prices are counterfeited, it's not just reserved list stuff. Format staples in the $5-$30 range are by far the most common counterfeits. Same reason why the 20$ bill is the most counterfeited US bill; it's less suspicious. Shock and fetch lands are the 20$ bills of Magic. If you're averaging more than 30 seconds per deck check on counterfeits, you're spending too much time on them.

"Average" being the operative word here. Counterfeit-checking is a great thing to sneak into extra time. If you finished your deck and your partner is still working on theirs, rather than just sit there twiddling your thumbs, pick a few random cards and check them for authenticity while you're waiting. But if this deck check has already taken 10 minutes due to marked cards concerns, forget about the counterfeits, they're not worth any further delay.

This assumes that you're accomplishing something

There's a slight problem with my previous suggestion: Judges, by and large, do not know how to tell real cards apart from fake ones.

A few years ago I was evaluating a candidate for L2, and I asked them for a list of their strengths and weaknesses. As one of their strengths, they mentioned counterfeit detection. So I gave them a stack of cards, about half of which were real and the other half fake, and asked the candidate to tell them apart, sorting them into a pile of real cards and a pile of fake cards. They could not do so. They would confidently put the card into one pile, then second guess themselves and change it to the other pile. They'd first inspect a card just by touch and visually and think it was fake, then check it with a loupe and think it was real, or vice versa. At once point they asked me for a guaranteed authentic card to use as a comparison, and I gave them one, but then they thought that one was fake too! Their final piles weren't much better than chance.

This is not an isolated problem. Over the years I've encountered many judges who say they're good at this, and they all tend to be equally uninformed. Higher judge levels don't help. The judge program has never, in any of its iterations, included any training on how to tell real cards from fake. With one exception: when Judge Academy first went live, they released a module on counterfeit detection. But the module was chock full of errors, because the person making it was also not an expert! So it got taken down a few days later and was never redone.

In general, the judge program's stance on counterfeits has consistently been "we're not touching this". We're supposed to follow tournament policy, but any penalties given out for counterfeits is bad PR; players will complain about it and take it out on the judges. Counterfeits are also just not that important. While they are bad for the community, they're less bad than other forms of Cheating, so it makes more sense to focus judge education efforts elsewhere. Proper counterfeit education is quite hard; the counterfeiters are trying to fool you. As much as the Wizards rules team may like to make us think otherwise, the CR is not actually designed to confuse judges, so it's an inherently easier task to keep up with tournament rules and policy than it is to keep up with the latest news in an arms race against an intelligent adversary.

When I say it's hard, I mean it's really hard. I'm not including a guide in this article because a good guide would be 20,000+ words long, and change every couple years. Did you know, for example, that some real cards have a black core? That some real cards have no core at all, and fail the light test? That many fakes can pass the "green dot test" and many real cards can fail? That some fake cards come with real holo stamps? That the Khans of Tarkir Windswept Heath has both a more glossy variant and a less glossy variant, because it was included in a challenger deck printed at PBM Graphics in North Carolina, which makes waxier cards than those printed at Cartamundi Texas, despite being identical in all other ways? These sorts of tests can still be useful, but in order to be reliable, you have to know the exact characteristics of cards from each different print run, along with all the ways in which cards are made, and the ways in which counterfeits are made.

On top of that, widely sharing information about authentication is counterproductive. It used to be that having a blue core was a reliable identifier of real cardsexcept for Ice Age, which had some but not all of its cards printed on black core stock, but when this test became widespread, the counterfeiters just started making them with blue cores. The same thing has happened with other tests. So unfortunately, the best way to fight counterfeits is to keep information about how to tell them apart from real cards limited to a small number of trustworthy people. (See here for a more detailed explanation of why.)

"Just ask a vendor"

Most Magic tournaments take place either in a store, or with vendors nearby. Unlike judges, vendors have a strong, direct incentive to know what they're doing in this area; if they don't, they'll get scammed out of thousands of dollars. So a frequent piece of advice for judges is to ask a nearby vendor for confirmation.

This is good advice. But there are some caveats.

1. Not all vendors are the same. If you're talking to one who's been doing this for 20 years and has a case full of dual lands and power, they're probably fine. But if this is someone just dipping their toes into vending, they may be just as clueless as you are. LGSs generally don't have anyone on staff who knows how to authenticate cards, and many smaller vendors at large conventions are just an LGS who decided to go. A few years ago a vendor at a Grand Prix ripped a real Black Lotus in half because they couldn't tell it was authentic. Make sure you're talking to the real deal.

2. Not all people at a vendor booth are the same. The people with experience in counterfeit identification are the buyers; the ones sitting down with a laptop next to them and a buy mat in front of them. They've generally been doing this for a long time, they get into big trouble if they spent thousands of dollars buying fake cards, and they get paid a lot for their expertise in the matter. The people standing up and handling card sales on the other hand are often just random people who felt like working for minimum wage, and may have little prior experience in vending. Most salespeople will, if asked about a potentially fake card, politely redirect you to a buyer. But some of them are overconfident and will just take their best guess, which is often not very good.

3. Vendors are not a part of the judge staff. THey've paid thousands of dollars to be there, and they want to make that money back. If the buyers are just sitting around doing nothing, they'll probably be happy to help you out; most vendors are pretty nice people, and they know better than anyone the harms caused by having counterfeits in circulation; vendors benefit from judges enforcing counterfeits policy, since keeping counterfeits out of the community is what allows their business model to exist at all. But if there's a long line of people wanting to sell them cards, they will probably not appreciate a judge taking up their time on an activity that doesn't directly make them any money. (As an exception, if the TO themselves has a vendor booth at that convention, then it is directly a part of their business, and that's probably the booth you should go to.)

4. Asking a vendor to confirm whether a card is real or fake opens them up to legal liability. Many vendors will not answer such a question, instead giving an answer like "I wouldn't buy this". Of course we all know that that means they think it's likely fake, and as a judge you can take that information into account. But sometimes they're not sure, and "I wouldn't buy this" indicates less certainty than a clear statement would. Regardless, the general "I don't want to be blamed for this" concern is still there. If you penalize a player for playing fake cards and tell them "don't worry, I had your cards checked by the PowerCityFireball booth", now you've potentially sent an angry player over to argue with a vendor who was just trying to do you a favor. Tournament penalties are fundamentally a judge issue, and while you can consult a vendor for advice, the judges need to be the ones to take ultimate responsibility for these decisions.

How to check for counterfeits correctly

Getting a counterfeit question wrong is a big deal. If the judge thinks the player knew they were fake, they're going to be disqualified. But even if the judge thinks it was an honest mistake, the player still has to go find a replacement, or take a Game Loss and change it to a basic land on their decklist. If it actually was a real card after all, the player will not be happy.

Judges told me my Blood Crypt (list version) was fake and that they had used a loop to check, so I must replace it.

Took it to 3 different vendors afterward, and they all told me it was real.

— Noah Strasler (@NoahStrasler) January 7, 2024

Ideally, any deck checks team at a large event includes one person who has serious experience in counterfeits and can be a reliable source. Unfortunately this is sometimes not the case, since the same collective action problem that applies to players also applies to TOs; it costs time and effort to address, comes with substantial PR risk, and only benefits the community as a whole, not that TO individually.

When there's no one to go to on the deck checks team, "find a judge on staff who can help" or "talk to a reliable vendor" are the next best options. There's also the counterfeit detection group on Facebook, which is frequented by a lot of highly experienced collectors and vendors, and I can't recall ever seeing someone there give a wrong answer that wasn't corrected shortly afterwards.

At large events, the TO is generally a good resource. If they have their own vendor booth, the buyers at that booth will almost certainly be happy to help. And regardless, the TO will likely want to know in advance about the judge staff taking any action that could cause a PR headache, so it's good to loop them in anyway.

But all of these options take more time or may not be available at all. So if you're not sure whether a card is fake and you can't get ironclad confirmation of this within a reasonable amount of time, just forget about it. It's not worth the additional time and chance of being mistaken. You can try deck-checking the player again later if a reliable authenticator frees up, or you can just let it go and encourage the TO to staff a counterfeit expert next time.

Counterfeits are a niche issue. At large events when we have spare resources and expertise, it's good to dedicate some of that towards helping the community fight counterfeits. But when that's not the case, it's ok to not worry about it. Not every RCQ needs to be checking for counterfeits; the cheaters will be caught eventually, and the costs are relatively low in the mean time.

How to not wreck things

Magic cards can be expensive. When we check a player's deck, they're trusting us with potentially thousands of dollars of their own property. This is especially relevant with regards to counterfeits, because checking authenticity is the only reason need to take a card out of its sleeve, which makes damage more likely.

A player may request that you not take cards out of sleeves, and you can deny this request. By entering their deck in the tournament, they consented to it being a part of the tournament, and to tournament-necessary things being done to it. But as judges, we have a responsibility to be extremely cautious with other people's possessions. Judges have accidentally destroyed $500+ cards before, and while that probably won't come out of your personal paycheck, the TO will not be happy with you for it. But even worse is the chance of minor nicks while the cards are desleeved; the player would have no way to prove that damage came from the judge staff.

I once saw a judge call where something about a player's graveyard was in question. The judge took the graveyard away from the table in order to show it to another judge, and they proceeded to have a long conversation. The player was playing unsleeved, and at some point during this conversation, the judge forgot that they were holding part of a player's deck and starting fiddling with the cards, bending them back and forth. When they finally returned to the table they realized what they had done and awkwardly flattened the cards out and put the cards back on the table in the player's graveyard. Luckily this was a limited event and the cards had not gotten creased, but uh, don't do that.

When we have a player's whole deck all together in the deck check area, we have an intuitive notion that this is someone's deck. But if you desleeve just a card or two and start carrying them around to show to other people, it's easy to forget that this is someone else's property. Desleeving likely will be necessary for any counterfeit concern, but it should be limited to as brief a time as possible. Cards are sleeved for a good reason, and the longer one spends outside a sleeve, the more likely it is to get damaged. Whenever possible, keep the card inside the sleeve, with the rest of the deck, in a closed-off area without many people.

Handling counterfeits once caught

So, you've followed the above steps and found some counterfeits during a deck check. You're confident that they are actually counterfeits and not just real cards that looked a little weird. What next?

By default, this is a Deck Problem. Counterfeits are not legal cards, so as far as the tournament is concerned, they don't exist; their deck is less than 60 cards and it's missing cards from their decklist. (Always check the IPG for the exact instructions.) But if they knew the cards were fake, then this is Cheating, and the player must be disqualified.

Figuring out whether a player committed an infraction knowingly is a complicated topic, so I won't address it in detail here. (See The Search for Collateral Truths for a wonderful introduction to the subject.) Cheating is also an adversarial arms race between the judges and the Cheaters, just like counterfeit identification; there are some relatively reliable tests for "did the player know these cards were fake", but if I explained them in a public article, the Cheaters would know what to prepare for, so I'm not going to do that.

What I will say is that it's probably more likely than you think it is. There are a lot of players who intentionally enter counterfeits in tournaments; they even have a whole dedicated subreddit to share tips and brag about successfully lying to people. I'd estimate that out of all the players who have at least one fake card in their deck, at least 60% of them know it's fake.Just think about the base rate of fake cards in the average player's collection, where the player is not intentionally buying fakes but also doesn't check them for authenticity; it's pretty low. You can buy 1000 $10 cards on TCGplayer, and more likely than not, they'll all be real. If a player has 5 fake cards in their deck, 5/60 is well above the base rate, and therefore is cause for suspicion.

Talking to the player

When approaching the player, be gentle. If they were innocent, you're informing them that they got scammed, potentially out of hundreds or thousands of dollars. (Even if you think they're guilty and are disqualifying them, there's always a chance you made a mistake, so you want to use an approach that "fails gracefully" and won't make a falsely-accused innocent player feel worse than necessary.) Even if they're not being disqualified, that's a big financial hit, and now they only have 10 minutes to go find replacements if they want to stay in the tournament without making their deck much worse. Be understanding, commiserate with them, explain your thought process, and offer to help them in any reasonable way that you can.

You cannot confiscate the fake cards. The cards are their property, and you are not a law enforcement official; you have no legal right to take their property. (While counterfeiting is actually illegal under most country's laws, they haven't been proven counterfeits in a court of law.)

What you can do is offer to put them to good use. As I mentioned above, I keep a training set of counterfeits for educating people, and many other vendors and judges do the same. I will not purchase counterfeits for this project, since paying money for them incentivizes their production. But if the player doesn't want them anymore, you can suggest they give them to you for such use.Please do not use their willingness or unwillingness to do so as evidence against them. If they were innocent, they could still have good reason to want to hold on to the fakes, since many sales platforms require a return of the item in order to provide a refund. And if you're effectively telling a player "either you give these to me or I'm disqualifying you", you're just extorting them into giving you free stuff, which is an abuse of power. It has to actually be voluntary.

Pick your battles

Counterfeits are really bad for the Magic community, and judges are some of the people most able to meaningfully combat them. But mishandling these efforts can cause harm to innocent individuals, and potentially be counterproductive, since a player who gets incorrectly told that one of their cards is fake may be radicalized against the idea of judges checking for counterfeits at all.

Of course it's impossible to be 100% accurate in anything, and we need to accept some nonzero error rate in order to accomplish anything. Still, I think it's best to focus authentication efforts on the times and places where we can be most sure it's being done reliably. Practice good self-evaluation, remember that it's usually correct to consult other people for confirmation on impactful decisions like this, and err on the side of inaction if you're unsure.

Counterfeits are not just a tournament problem, and the solutions are not restricted to tournaments either. Judges are respected among their local communities, and one of the most effective things we can do is to engage in frank, good-faith discussions about counterfeits, and help people understand why it's unethical to purchase and use them. This is more likely to change minds, and doesn't have the failure mode that tournament enforcement does.