Life totals discrepancies happen many times. With Fetchlands, Shocklands and Painlands being heavily played and the fact players are often more focused on the card they cast than on the lands they tap for mana, the odds players end up tracking their life totals incorrectly are high.
This means that the potential for this to be abused is fairly high. Intentionally tracking an incorrect life totals is — almost — always Cheating.
Cheating with own life totals
Let’s start with a situation from GP Prague:
After AP passes the turn, his opponent said: “You’re at 14”. While NAP untaps, AP scratches the 13 he registered on his life pad and writes 14 instead.
When you confront this sequence of plays to the player’s mana base, you can only conclude he had to be at 13. No cards made him gain life (including his opponent’s) and he lost a total of 7 life, in order:
- 1 damage from Caves of Koilos to cast Thoughtseize
- 2 life loss from Thoughtseize
- 2 damages from both Caves of Koilos to cast Bile Blight
- 2 damages from both Caves of Koilos to cast Anafenza
When confronted as to why he modified the correct 13 to an incorrect 14, the player could not come up with a good reason for scratching his own life totals. He tried to argue he thought he had made a mistake when tracking life and he believed his opponent was correct but a few facts made me doubt it:
- First, he immediately scratched the 13 into a 14, which means that he didn’t even question his opponent’s assessment. When two players disagree on something, they usually try to assess who’s right.
- Then, the sequence of plays in the first two turns, and most notable the fact he took two damage to cast Bile Blight clearly shows he had to be aware two of his lands are painlands, thus he needed to take 2 for casting Anafenza.
These two elements made his argument oscillate between very weak and non-existent.
As a reminder, Cheating requires three distinct elements to be identified:
- Player committed the infraction intentionally
- Player knew he was breaking a rule
- Player aimed at gaining an advantage
The sequence of plays clearly proves that the player committed the infraction on purpose. The instant scratch makes me believe he seized the opportunity to discretely gain 1 life while being totally aware of what he was doing, certainly aiming at gaining an advantage. As for the knowledge he was breaking a rule, I have no doubts he was aware he needs to track life correctly.
He was logically disqualified for USC – Cheating.
Cheating with opponent’s life totals
This is another situation from GP Prague:
Round 8, both players at 5/2, game 3, first additional turn
AP is at 24 (on both players’ life pads as well), plays Dismal Backwater and incorrectly says: 22, actually writing 22. NAP hesitates a bit, scratches the 25 he had written and puts 22.
The discussion went like this:
- Me: Did you know he should be at 25 and not 22?
- Player: Yes.
- And you didn’t call attention to it?
- Any good reason why?
- You know, it’s his turn, extra turn 1, you can check my board, I have no cards in hand and even if I Demonic Tutor twice in my deck, I cannot win. I can’t even not lose this game
- I’m confused here. If that was true, why didn’t you concede this game earlier?
- Honestly, I’ve no clue. But it’s so hot in here I certainly should have so at least I could breathe outside.
I went to his table, grabbed his deck and noticed it was a Blue-Black Control deck that indeed could never win the game by Demonic tutoring twice (and likely not even three or four times in a row).
As per the three rules of Cheating, The player certainly met two: He broke a rule on purpose and knowing he couldn’t do it.
However, I could not identify criteria #3: The player wasn’t trying to gain an advantage because there is no single way he can win this game. He was just careless because he was to a point he genuinely didn’t care anymore without malicious intent. And careless people aren’t cheaters.
Both situation started in the same way: An opponent announces a life change that is incorrect.
The player had previously written the correct amount of life then scratches it to tracks what his opponent erroneously said, each time to his own advantage, either by making the opponent lose life or by gaining life.
These situations are extremely concerning and MUST be investigated. Not may be or should be, but MUST. Modifying life totals is a very easy way to cheat, but even without Cheating involved, you prefer to detect the issue when it happens than during that game-decisive combat phase.
These situations are very hard to detect. Twice, it was caught because a judge was watching the game and decided to chime in immediately to assess what is the correct life totals. I was the first judge and Jurgen Baert was the other. Huge props for noticing and involving me right away.
Detecting and processing these situations
- If you see a player scratching life totals, intervene and double check what is happening.
- Assess the correct life totals.
- Quickly evaluate who benefits from the mistake: The scratching player or the other?
- If it is the scratching player, ask another judge to stay at the table and involve the Head Judge right away.