Cheating in the Pokémon Community
It’s a Long Story
12/26/2017 by Brandon Flowers
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Table of contents
Much like any other card game, Pokémon has had issues with cheating in the TCG (and even video game to some extent) for far longer than anyone would like. The issues started to become more and more prevalent when the prizing started to become more and more prevalent, as one would expect. High stakes, low reward has never been a big incentive for people to use illegitimate methods to get by, but high stakes, high reward definitely brings out the urge to cheat in many.
Pokémon’s own definition and approach to cheating isn’t doing legitimate play any favors either – by TPCi definition, cheating is only cheating if intent can be proved definitively.
How do you do that? That’s the real question, and the real issue. A good example as any, as many likely know by now, Michael Long was disqualified at the Memphis Regionals this December due to a Greninja BREAK hiding in his lap. By secondhand story recounted to me, a judge was called over to his game; the judge asked Michael to stand up, and the BREAK fell to the ground. It was presumed he placed it in his lap to avoid it being discarded off a Professor Sycamore played previously, and that was the reason for the disqualification. This situation was enough intent for the judge at hand, and while I agree with the actions taken, many could argue that the intent wasn’t even there in this case. The lack of severity used in the guidelines for approaching cheating allows for a judge to look at this situation and say “Hey, this card might have just fallen to his lap by accident. No ill intent, continue playing." Many times it has even.
Judges give players the benefit of the doubt quite often or simply are not able to catch the action when it is taking place. The amount judges can take definitive action on is absurdly low, and it definitely shows by the uptick of cheating being caught and suspected.
What does this mean for the player base? It absolutely means you, as a player, need to be on your guard more often as a result. If you catch someone cheating, do not be afraid to call a judge. Many judges can and will take action when they can, and any alert you give them is beneficial to the community at large.
Many people do not call a judge when they suspect or catch their opponent cheating due to their opponent’s generally upbeat and even helpful approach. Cheaters know that being pleasant will make their opponent far less likely to call a judge and often attempt to take advantage of such. This is not to say that just because your opponent is nice, they’re cheating – that is certainly not the case; but if you catch someone in the act, their attitude should not influence your approach to the situation.
Catching cheating isn’t exactly the easiest thing, however. There are many different methods, and many different ways to use them. The most obvious and easiest to catch is the double nickel – if you notice your opponent sorting their deck, making five distinct piles and repeating the five pile a second time without actually shuffling, they’re likely attempting to double nickel. There are a few streamed accounts of this out there, one of which resulted in a double ban as a result of TPCi catching it on stream from Canadian Nationals 2013. A video of such can be found here:
Altering shuffling randomization (stacking) is among the more common forms of cheating, and one of the easiest to go unnoticed, which likely relates to why it is more common to begin with. Double nickeling certainly isn’t the only way of doing it. Catching it can be difficult, but not impossible, and preventing the effects is even easier to manage. You can attempt to catch it by watching for patterns in shuffling, such as overhanding the same set of cards repeatedly without actually combining the cards (splitting the deck in two and just shifting the halves over each other repeatedly without intermingling). Many times it’s possible to hold cards in a certain position, such as at the bottom of the deck as well, and place them either at the top, or in the middle if the stacker is expecting a cut in a particular area of the deck.
Another prime example of stacking is the Andrew Newman incident, many years back. He was banned for a year for stacking, came back to the game, and was caught on stream stacking yet again. When caught the second time, he was served with a life ban. TPCi certainly can and will take actions when intent is clear enough (and shown to them). A video example of such is shown here:
At around 8:15, 21:00, and 22:30. On several occasions he stacks cards to the top, suspecting (correctly) that his opponent will not cut or shuffle, and miraculously draws the exact cards he needs. The main thing that caused him to be caught in this case was a misplay involving promoting Garchomp instead of a free retreat Emolga, when he didn’t have the energy in hand to attack with Garchomp yet. He had stacked the energy to the top, and promoted Garchomp knowing it would play out resulting in an attack. If his opponent had shuffled or cut, the stacking here would not be nearly as "successful." Even if successful in this case means a life ban.
Regardless of method, all forms of stacking can be alleviated by a simple action – shuffling your opponent’s deck after each shuffle. Many people avoid doing so, because they don’t want to seem rude or the like. Shuffling the deck is not rude, and only further randomizes their deck. No one should be afraid of doing so at any point, and if an opponent is attempting to discourage you from shuffling, that’s even more reason to do so. You should of course try to be concise and not overly harsh when shuffling to avoid damaging their cards, but it is very possible to shuffle well without shuffling harshly. Following your shuffle of your opponent’s deck, they have an opportunity to cut the deck a single time, and nothing further.
Procedural gameplay errors are also quite common and quite difficult to prove without streamed evidence. The more common forms of such are "slight errors" such as retreating twice in a turn, double attaching energy (without use of an ability), or even something like switching the active Pokémon with a new Pokémon gained off a mulligan. Double attaching is an error most commonly attributed to fatigue, but none the less it is something one has to watch out for and prevent if caught. Whenever you catch it, if at all after the fact, a judge should be called to resolve the game state. In some cases it is likely preventable before it even happens if you’re paying attention, in which case a judge won’t be able to help too much (due to no action out of legal game state actually occurring), but preventing it still keeps the game on level ground. Retreating twice in a turn is basically the same vein as double attaching – it’s not normally allowed in the standard ruleset, there are abilities that allow circumventing it, and catching it can be kind of tricky. Being constantly vigilant is an unfortunate need in the card game lately, but putting yourself on level ground and keeping the playing field fair is certainly worth it.
Switching active Pokémon with a mulligan Pokémon is a very specific example comparatively, but one that Pokémon has been known to act on. Back in May of 2017, a player was banned for just that when they were caught on stream. TPCi tends to err more on proving intent when there’s a stream showing the action, as we see time and time again.
Baiting illegal plays is another one that would be concerned procedural, is very difficult to "prove intent" on and can be avoided by paying attention and keeping track of game state. A good example of this is the act of playing an N, while having previously played a supporter. If an N is attempted to be played after another supporter in the same turn, whoever shuffles in gets a game loss. This means if the person who attempted the N does not shuffle in, but the opponent does, the person who does still gets a game loss. Keeping track of the game state, and waiting for your opponent to shuffle in first can often help avoid common issues associated with double supporters. A good example of someone waiting can be seen here:
Procedural plays are by far the most common and extend to much more than that- any action that is restricted per turn, such as energy, supporter, ability use, etc. is at risk of these errors or in use of cheating. Knowing the rules, what can be done, and what has been done is the key in preventing these. While simple at face value, it is of course fairly difficult in practice. Some more examples are detailed below in Illegal Card Use, in regards to when cards are used for effects that simply don’t exist.
Marked cards and switching out cards are less common things but still known issues. Recently a player was disqualified from the North American International Championships and banned for quite some time due to use of clear sleeves and presumed marked cards – the full story behind it is rather muddled, but given the length of the ban, there seems like more to it than is publicly known. The publicly know information revolves around cards with "uneven wear" that is visible through the clear sleeves, which results in a marked card situation, with the player potentially gaining an unfair advantage by being able to pick out these marked cards and know where they are in prizes/when they’re being drawn.
While these are very particular circumstances, and not ones you are likely to come across day to day, other common issues include the visibility of the deck (deck orientation is required to be north/south with the openings facing the opponent – anything else allows the player to see into their sleeves potentially), some cards being more distinctive in sleeves than others (such as the Team Plasma blue border, Flare red border on tools, and different texture for EX/FA in an extreme case), or even curvature on cards. Ace specs in particular tend to warp much more than other cards, and can create a marked card situation. Whether or not players would use this information to their advantage or not isn’t something a player can or should attempt to determine themselves – just if you notice extreme cases of visibility of the cards in sleeves, card warping, or seemingly marked cards, something should be said- to a judge or the player themselves, at your discretion. Many times I’ll notice cards coming out of the tops of sleeves – if the sleeves seem new, I don’t assume bad intent, I just let them know the cards are not staying in sleeves properly, and they should probably fix it. Sometimes it’s as simple as that – but in extreme cases, a judge should definitely be called.
Switching out cards between rounds, unfortunately, is not something you’re going to catch without a judge getting closely involved in a situation. The best method of catching this is the random deck checks that occur in between rounds – occasionally these checks will pick up on decks not matching lists, and actions will be taken. So while it can be kind of an annoyance between rounds, just keep in mind that it does serve a purpose.
Palming and illegal card use are the more blatant methods of cheating and generally some of the easiest to catch. Due to card limitations, being aware of your opponent’s discard pile can help with catching some of this to begin with. If your opponent has played four VS Seeker, and doesn’t play any recursion like Puzzle of Time or Twilight GX to get them back, you know there won’t be a fifth VS Seeker legally coming into play. If it does, and you’re certain without a doubt that they played four already, the logical conclusion is that one was palmed from discard and attempted to be reused. My own actions to help clarify and avoid issues with discard and hand interactions usually entail setting my hand away from my discard when interacting with my discard pile, or during my opponents’ turns. It’s certainly not a requirement, but it avoids any issues entirely, and when I notice my opponent doing the same, it’s usually one less thing to keep track of/that’s easier to be aware of. Of course I still stay aware to what’s happening, but being able to easily differentiate the hand and discard and noting a distinct gap between them makes the awareness much easier.
Outside of keeping track of card counts, simply watching your opponent during their turn is something that can gain you knowledge on the game state and be sure nothing outside of the ordinary is happening. People have tells which can hint at their actions, and reading those tells can give you a legitimate edge in the game even.
General illegal card use is easily prevented – you are absolutely always able to read your opponents’ cards when you ask, and doing so when you don’t know what they do is always advised. You do of course have to ask, and can’t be grabby or anything of the like, but asking to read cards is something I very infrequently see. There just seems to be a stigma around not already knowing what the card does, which perpetuates into continuing to not know, which simply puts you at a disadvantage. You can’t memorize everything, don’t feel bad for reading something every now and then. Most of the ability to use a card past the extent of the card text comes down to the opponent not knowing what it does, and assuming the actions are allowed.
An example of this comes from a personal experience from States a few years ago – a friend had a misunderstanding of Fright Night Yveltal’s Pitch Black Spear attack and took their opponent’s word for it when they claimed it did 60 to a bench Pokémon of the opponent’s choice. The friend was playing Night March. The opponent won by using Pitch Black Spear to take double KOs off of active Night Marchers and benched Feebas turn after turn. This is fairly preventable by reading cards and keeping up with the actions – and regrettably unfixable if the game plays out and resolves without knowing.
Spirit of the game infractions are probably some of the most vague but also some of the more harshly outlined penalties in the guidelines. These range anywhere from intimidation, to aggression, to baiting. In some cases baiting can fall in procedural as well, and likely gets lumped there, but it’s arguable that attempting to bait your opponent into an illegal play is also against spirit of the game.
Intimidation is pretty broad, but repeatedly asking for a concession is a pretty big one as far as TPCi is concerned. Both asking for a concession and deciding on a "random" way for a tie to resolve outside of the defined tiebreakers are both against the rules and have caused people to be disqualified from major tournaments in the past. I don’t believe anyone has been banned for such, but it is a very punishable offense that is taken very seriously. Deciding on a tiebreaker ranges from using a die to roll for the game, or even a determined game state (outside of clear win conditions) to decide the game rather than take a tie. While this isn’t really in the realm of "cheating" per se, it is something judges can and will take action against and is against the rules.
I could go back and forth all day about whether or not slow playing is cheating or not, but it certainly is punishable. If you feel your opponent is taking too long between actions, ask them nicely to pick up their pace. If prompting doesn’t work, absolutely don’t be afraid to call a judge. Due to the vague nature surrounding time and slow play, not enough people take action on it. Slow play can lead to losses or ties that would not happen normally and should not happen abnormally. Keeping pace of play is especially important with best of three games/50 minutes, as it never seems like enough to begin with generally. Just know that slow play is not allowed and is just as viable to call a judge over as any other problem.
Please don’t witch hunt people. There is a very fine line between disseminating knowledge for the benefit of the player base (which I support wholeheartedly) and calling out people just to witch hunt them into oblivion. I’m even guilty of it myself admittedly, due to frustration of just how little TPCi does in some instances, but it’s not truly right. Putting out the information for people to know is great – the community should be aware of what’s happening and what they should be watching for. But the death threats, jeering, and general overboard attitude that I’ve seen and heard comes along with that is pretty saddening. If you really want something done, accurately and openly detail what’s happened with evidence you know or trust without shouting for anyones’ heads. It is very possible to do, it keeps the community aware of ongoing issues, and it can be done without severe bias.
While I no longer play VGC and haven’t in quite some time, the information surrounding this is much the same as it has been. Cheating in VGC doesn’t really put anyone a step above what someone else can reach legitimately, but it certainly puts them at that step considerably faster and with much less effort. Cheating in VGC revolves around use of an Action Replay device, which allows people to manipulate their Pokémon as desired. This manipulation is easily caught if the Pokémon are outside of the range of "viable" values, and I imagine this is caught more than heard about as well, due to the timing of the checks for this being at the beginning of the tournaments. If someone is caught, they’re simply not allowed to play.
Unfortunately, much of this is not actionable, and I imagine TPCi will be changing their approach here if they haven’t already. Things like Pokémon being in the wrong Pokeball (an incident that I recall is a Porygon on VGC stream being in a Beast Ball – Porygon, at the time, could only be legitimately contained in a Pokeball due to it’s nature as a gift Pokémon) is a very clear indication that something fishy is going on, and due to the way the rules are defined, these things are not even actionable.
The results of cheating are pretty varied due to the varied actions taken, as you would expect. If the cheating is caught and reported to a judge in a timely manner, cheaters are properly punished, sometimes banned, and fair play comes out on top. Even when cheating is caught, it can’t always be substantiated, which often leaves judges in an awkward position. When calling a judge, be sure to accurately describe everything you saw, and if anyone near you saw what happened as well, that can help too. If cheating isn’t caught, then it continues at the expense of players and judges alike. While judges would like to catch it at every turn, there are far more players than judges, which unfortunately puts the burden of proof on the player more than it should.
Do your best to pay attention to your opponents’ actions, the game state, and keep track of as much as you can without being overwhelmed. Hopefully some things to look out for help in that effort, and keep you vigilant of what’s happening around you. Even without cheating being prevalent, game state awareness is something that will continuously give you an edge in your games anyway, as you will inevitably catch good plays you wouldn’t always be aware of otherwise.
Goodbye, and good luck for now!
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