Investigations – The Search for Collateral Truths (Part 2)

Written by Eric Shukan

Written by Eric Shukan


In Part 1 I talked about collateral truths as being testable consequences which could be examined to give you information about the truth of a player’s story.  Now we expand to a metagame idea in order to analyze the matter from the perspective of motivation.  This idea cannot prove or disprove a player’s story on its own, but it might help you to assess probabilities associated with truth.


There are many reasons that players may cheat, but they all follow a similar overall consideration:  risk vs reward.  This is the idea of weighing one course of action against another to decide how to obtain the best result.  This is the opposite of randomness, and these mental exercises are the heart of Magic the Gathering.

Intelligent beings seldom behave randomly.  We tend to make judgments and decisions that are based on our experience and understanding of cause-and-effect, and these decisions are geared towards optimizing our lives.  Magic players play MTG for exactly this reason.  Consider random Magic play:  random lands in your deck, random spells, randomly attacking or not, etc; it would be ridiculous.  Very few would enjoy that, and even fewer would care to spend their free time and money investing in such a random hobby.  But the game becomes more enjoyable when the players have to use logic to increase their chances of winning.  Gamers love to solve puzzles, and puzzles that involve risk and gain can be quite exciting.  Add in money and prizes and fame, and the incentive might become so high that some players decide that cheating is a better choice than playing fairly.


Part 2:  Risk vs Reward, also Known As Cost/Benefit Analysis

There are three ideas associated with comparing possible actions:

  • the payoff (potential gain)
  • the payout (potential loss)
  • the probability of achieving each.

In many cases the probabilities of each are linked, so we’ll consider that it is just one probability of succeed (or fail).  As the gain goes up or the probability of success goes up, we are more likely to try that action.  As the loss goes up, we are less likely to try.  The formal name for this kind of decision-making is cost/benefit analysis.  Consider the following two situations to illustrate the point.

Suppose you play the lottery and you can risk $1 to win $1000.  You have a 10% chance to win.  Many of us would play that.  If it cost $100, some still might play, but it would be less attractive.  If it cost $800, very few of us would play it.  If the win is only $2, then a 10% chance seems silly to try.

Here’s another example, this one from MTG.  Suppose that you will lose if you don’t draw Lightning Bolt on your next turn.  You have 21 cards left in the library and you have 4 Bolts in there.  At the end of your opponent’s turn you crack a fetchland and get a mountain, and so now you have a 4/20 chance of winning.  You know some sleight of hand tricks in manipulating your shuffle, and you have to decide whether to use them to improve your win chances.  What would you consider to make the decision?  The risk is that you will be caught, DQ’ed, and suspended for a long time.  There is also risk to your personal integrity and how others perceive you.  The reward is that you will make the Top 8 at this tourney.  You think you can get away with it 70% of the time.  Do you try it?  At FNM?  At a PTQ?  What about at the Pro Tour where you would win a LOT of money for Top8?  Would you do it if there would be only 8 cards left, so that you would succeed without cheating 4/8 times?  Would you gain as much now?

These are key questions that players might think about.  Sometimes they consider these in great detail and plan things out (what we call premeditated).  Sometimes they don’t plan to cheat, yet an opportunity presents itself and they make those judgments very rapidly (what we call opportunistic).  If you as the judge can assess some of these ideas, you might be able to use them in your determination of cheat or no-cheat.  None of these ideas could prove or disprove the matter, but the ideas might be used to inform your decision.   Let’s look at some real MTG examples.


Example # 1A

Player A is in round 7 of 8 at A PTQ.  He’s at Table 29 of 31 with a record of 1-5.  After losing a long Game 1, Player A starts playing slowly in Game 2, so slowly that Game 2 might not finish.  The position in Game 2 is about even on Turn 6.  You nudge him to make a play, and Player A claims that he’s tired and not thinking straight.  His pace speeds up, but two turns later it slows down again.  When you consider the infraction here, do you consider Stalling to be a serious consideration?  Consider what the player might gain in the match (nothing – he’s going to lose 1-0-1 if time runs out).  Consider what he will gain in the tourney (nothing – he’s out of contention for Top 8 or for prizes; maybe he can get a few PWP?)  Warning for Slow Play may be indicated, but DQ for Stalling is not.


Example # 1B

Player A is in round 7 of 8 at a PTQ.  He’s at Table 5 of 31 with a record of 5-1.  After winning a long Game 1, Player A starts playing slowly in Game 2, so slowly that Game 2 might not finish.  The position in Game 2 is somewhat against him on Turn 6.  You nudge him to make a play, and Player A claims that he’s tired and not thinking straight.  His pace speeds up, but two turns later it slows down again.  When you consider the infraction here, do you consider Stalling to be a serious consideration?  Think about what the player might gain in the match (win instead of draw – he’s going to win 1-0-1 if time runs out; if not, he might tie 1-1-0).  Consider what he will gain in the tourney (quite a bit – he’ll be able to draw into the Top 8).  Note that status of the match and tourney doesn’t prove that he is Stalling, but it should make you consider that possibility seriously.  He is much, much more likely to have tried to stall in this situation than in # 1A.  Keep that in mind as you investigate further.


Example # 2A – The Classic

Player A is in the last round of Day 1 at a GP.  He is 4-4.  In Game 3 Player A has gained lots of life quickly against a fast burn deck and both players have Player A at 21 life.  Player B now has no cards in hand and is topdecking for a few burn damage each turn.  Player B, recognizing that he cannot now win, has claimed that he’s going to resign soon.  After Player B draws Lightning Bolt, he says “Bolt you, you go to 19”  Player A says, “OK”, and reduces his life total to 19.  A spectator comes to get you, and you investigate, discovering all the above.  When you question the players about the math, Player B says that he subtracted too quickly.  Player A says that he wasn’t really paying attention and just accepted whatever Player B said because Player B told him that he was going to resign soon and they were “just playing it out fast”.  Player A tells you that he is experienced and knows the rule about confirming life totals, but he wasn’t paying attention because he was just trying to get the game over faster because both he and Player B were “on automatic” at this point.

How much will you consider DQ’ing Player A for misrepresenting his life total?  He might be telling the truth and overlooked it, possibly earning a GPE-CPV warning.  Or maybe he knew it exactly and was trying to hide it.  Ask yourself if this is the kind of cheat that Player A would run here, in a near-certain win in a mostly irrelevant match.  There’s very little payoff to be gained and a ton of payout to lose if he gets caught at it.  If it is otherwise a close call, you probably should rule CPV as the more likely occurrence, because of the extremely unfavorable risk vs reward analysis.


Example #2B – Another Classic

Player A is in the last round of Day 1 at a GP.  He is 6-2.  If he wins, he makes Day 2.  In Game 3 Player A has missed one land drop and has been burned down to 4 life against a fast burn deck.  Player B has no cards in hand, but in his library he has multiple Lightning Bolts and Incinerates that burn for 3 damage.  Player A draws for turn, cracks a fetchland for a mountain but does not indicate a loss of 1 life, and sets up a certain win on the next turn if Player B does not kill him on B’s turn.  Player B draws for turn, misses, and concedes.  Players scoop their cards.  A spectator calls you over, and your investigation reveals all of the above.  Player A tells you that he is experienced and knows exactly how fetchlands work, but that he accidentally overlooked the 1 damage from it because he was playing too fast.

How much will you consider DQ’ing Player A for intentionally missing his own life loss?  Do you see that this situation is remarkably suspicious compared to the previous example?  Do you think that the missed life loss here has the same probability of being a simple error as the previous example?  Player A’s risk is still there, but now there is a very large payoff for him to gain – making Day 2 with much higher probability.  If it is really a mistake, you would have to think that Player A was oblivious to his life total and to his fetchland effect.  That is a collateral truth of innocence here.  Ask yourself how likely it was that he was oblivious to going to 3 life against this burn deck?  Might you not ask a few more questions here and perhaps look at how many other times Player A has missed the life loss from the fetch land?  The large reward of this particular situation has caused for you a serious logical problem.

When you can identify these favorable risk vs reward situations, you can use them to inform your decision.  But they are not absolute proof one way or the other.  Sometimes, you can get it wrong, as in this last example, which is from my own personal experience.


Example # 3 – You can never be sure

I was HJ at a SCG Open about two years ago.  We were in Round 6 of 9 and we got a call from Table 137.  I was walking around and happened to be closest to a spectator who was looking for a judge.  Player A had played a sorcery spell that dealt 4 damage to all creatures.  The spell wiped the board away, except that Player B’s dragon was 4/5 and should have lived.  Both players missed it, and so the board was clean.  A couple of turns later Player B reanimates the dragon and now realizes that the players have erred in letting the dragon die from the 4-damage spell.  Player A boasts to Player B that yeah, Player A knew the dragon should have lived, but he didn’t say anything because he didn’t think it was his responsibility to help Player B play correctly.  Player B is upset, but he keeps playing without calling a judge.  A spectator comes to me and informs me of what has just happened.

Player B’s story is one of strict ignorance and very believable; I’m not too interested in his story anyway.  Player A told me that he had cast the spell originally thinking the dragon was 4/4 and would die, but two seconds after Player B put it into the graveyard, Player A realized it should still be alive.  Player A continues and tells me that he didn’t think he had done anything wrong by staying silent, because he doesn’t have to help his opponent, and besides that’s how they play at his store.  I ask a few probing questions about his background:  this is his first Competitive event, he has been playing for 8 months all at his local store, and he is 0-5 in this Constructed event.   His body language reads like a newer player.

So, I’m on the fence about whether he knows that he has done something illegal, but I’m about to give him the benefit of the doubt and rule it as only GRV.  There’s just not that much to gain if he really knows that it’s illegal.  He cannot win money or prizes, and it seemed to me that his story of ignorance of wrongdoing could be true.  As I’m about to rule GRV, Player A asks me how I knew to come over to the table.  I told him that a spectator had come to me to tell me what had happened, and Player A replies, “Oh, man, I can’t believe that guy squealed on me!”

Whoops!  I was wrong, clearly.  He may not have known the rules exactly, but he knows them enough to understand that letting the dragon stay dead is something bad enough to be “squealed on”.  That’s all I needed – some awareness at the time that he was doing something wrong.  I issued the DQ.  After all the post-DQ discussion it turns out that he was in fact a newer player to Competitive, but he so wanted to win his first Competitive MTG game that he convinced himself it was ok to say nothing about the dragon.  This was a completely opportunistic momentary lapse of judgment on his part, and he felt scummy about it.

What did he have to gain?  He would get his first Competitive tourney win, which to him was so valuable that he was motivated to take advantage of a cheating opportunity.  I didn’t see the value in it because I was too used to high-level competition.  Note that he did have motivation, but I couldn’t perceive it properly.  It can work both ways – into issuing a DQ or into not issuing a DQ.  One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, so they say.



In the definition of Cheating we require that a player has awareness and intent to gain advantage.  Sometimes the opportunity to cheat presents itself and players take advantage of it, and sometimes they plan it out.  But in almost all cases there are three main ideas associated with decision-making:  the possible gain, the possible loss, and the probability associated with attaining either.  By thinking about these three things, you might be able to take a close call and judge it one way or the other.

These thoughts form the basis for a player’s motivations and technique in executing a cheat.   But be careful, because it works only in one direction.  Motivation doesn’t itself prove that a player is cheating (you also need physical evidence to establish this), but cheating does imply that there is motivation.  The collateral truth of hypotheses about cheating is that a motivation exists.  Identify and examine the risk vs reward, especially in close decisions, and you may learn something.


Looking Ahead

In Part 3, I will talk about when to terminate an ongoing investigation.  Often investigations can go on too long and compromise timing of events.  Other times judges can give up prematurely and miss a key point, thereby incorrectly ruling guilt or innocence.  The final part in this series will explore how to think about the process in a way that lets you know when to get out of it.