Last weekend I was disqualified from the top 8 of SCG: Detroit for a play that i have probably seen 100 times by now. I’m sure you’ve all seen it by now, but if you haven’t…Even looking at it now knowing what happened it looks very cheaty. However, with the threat of being banned for life looming, I will try to do the impossible: Convince the Mtg community that the batterskull “cheat” was in fact a million to one honest mistake caused by a perfect storm of coincidences each more unlikely than the last.
Round six of SCG: Detroit marked my first televised feature match in the first SCG open I had attended since they stopped calling them 5k’s. Needless to say I was pretty excited having been a fan of scglive/ggslive since the Jund era of standard. I lost the first game when my opponent Samuel Friedman was able to win the Jace war. Game 2 I was able to win with a combination of some stoneforge mystics and a below average draw by my opponent. Then after getting thoughtsiezed 5 times in game 3 I found a bunch of spells to hold on at one life.
I remember talking to my brother about the match afterwards, about how I had punted by playing a spell pierce when my opponent had 2 mana to pay for it. How I had done the same exact thing playing condescend in pauper online. Then in round 7 I got a draw when my opponent was dead on the next turn of extra turns. Finally in the last round I won a very close match and after talking with some strangers being convinced that I could still make top 8. I squeezed in but had to play Caleb Durward again in top 8. I thought I was about a 40/60 underdog but Caleb took a mulligan and my hand seemed above average.
Then something strange happened. The head judge came over and started asking me about how my rounds went. He asked me how I won the matches I did…what happened in round 7? Round 6? I had actually forgotten all about my round against the b/u/g deck and instead recalled my memorable match in round 5 against sneak and show. In game 1 I got crushed, but in games 2 and 3 I found my one of sower of temptations to steal Gristlebrands when he went for show and tells.
The judge then asked if I had remembered ever being targeted by a vendillion clique and putting a batterskull on the bottom. To be honest I had no idea what he was talking about. I remember thinking that he probably asked me about something that never happened to prove that I was telling the truth, however I still had no idea what I was telling the truth about.
Then they took me over to a computer and they showed me my round 6 feature match. They paused the game right around when Chapin says “Trade the board away…Trade the board away”. They asked if I remembered this board state. I remembered playing a b/u/g deck in a feature match but I couldn’t remember the exact spot they had paused at. I tried to remember what happened in game 2 of round 6, but we eventually decided to just play the video.
I watched as I played the stoneforge mystic for batterskull…Still nothing. Then I tapped mystic to use the ability. Usually I just tap stoneforge mystic and put the equipment into play and rarely do I tap the lands because I would just end up untapping them immediately afterwards. This time, however it felt like he had a vendillion clique so I decided to do it right. Just before I revealed my hand in the video I remembered that I had the sword and I was about to use it to win the game. However, I was still completely oblivious as to what was about to happen. He shipped the batterskull and I drew my card without looking, another sloppy play I didn’t even notice that I did until now. I almost drew another card for my turn and then remembered to put the sword in play.
I played my vendillion clique to legend rule his and then I finally realized what was about to happen”. I’m about to play the batterskull post combat somehow right”, I asked. Then I used polluted delta and looked on in horror as the bottom card of my deck stuck to the play mat as it had done about five times that tournament. Then I scooped it into my hand untapped my lands and played the batterskull post combat. I remember uttering some comment like “Oh my God I’m going to be the next bertoncini”.
I tried to explain how I could have possibly not noticed that the batterskull shouldn’t be in my hand, but the truth was at the time I had no idea. It was all I could think about on the drive back. When I got home I was dead tired, but the next night I couldn’t sleep. I just laid on my bed watching videos of poker on YouTube. Then I came across a video that I had seen before. It was of poker pro Phil Ivey mucking the winning hand at the 2009 WSOP main event. The first time I saw it I didn’t think much of it, but when I saw it this time I was pretty sure I knew why he mucked the winning hand and how I was able to unknowingly pull off the greatest batterskull heist of all time.
It reminded me of a video that I had watched when I was learning to play chess (important part starts at 7:13). It was part of a series where International Master Josh Waitzkin discussed games he had played and how they related to different themes in the psychology of competition. The theme was the psychological connection between players, which probably explains why the spell pierce trick works so often. In the game both players miss an obvious capture of a piece just one square away.
Waitzkin explains that in the game he had gone into a deep calculation and determined that the rook endgame was winning for him. He calculated Queen g2, queen takes g2, rook takes g2, and the following endgame. Then the opponent throws a wrench into this plan by playing queen f2 blocking the check. Waitzkin goes back into the tank and decides he can do better than trading queens here so he maintains the tension moving his queen away; missing the game ending move queen takes rook. He goes on to win the game anyways and has no idea of his obvious blunder until his friends tell him about it later.
After watching this video over and over again, I could finally explain how I did not realized that the batterskull should be on the bottom of my deck after being cliqued away just seconds ago.
I had calculated untap, vendillion clique to legend rule, see if he has something in hand to stop me which he probably doesn’t, equip sword, hit, untap, profit? I had basically not even considered the other cards in my hand because the first part of my calculation was so obvious. Then I saw the batterskull in hand and thought “Do I get owned by anything if I play this? No, then I’m playing it.” That is why I sit there feverishly tanking for a couple seconds before playing the batterskull.
While this is not quite the optimal “batched thinking” that PV champions, we were in time pressure with only 15 minutes left in the match. I was particularly worried about the clock for this tournament after going to time so frequently in GP Indy a few months ago. I even mentioned to Caleb in round 3 that we had gone over the three minutes allotted for sideboarding and constantly told my opponents that we needed to play faster to avoid the dreaded draw. It’s a little embarrassing, after watching how slowly I played in my on camera matches, to think that I was trying to pressure my opponents into playing faster, but that’s exactly what I did.
So what does this have to do with the video where Phil Ivey mucks the winning hand? Phil Ivey has been the consensus best player in poker for a long time. Ivey mucking the winning hand is roughly equivalent to LSV being at 3 life facing lethal damage next turn, drawing gut shot with his opponent at 1 and scooping. Everyone in the YouTube comments takes solace in the fact that even the greatest sometimes misread their hands, but I think something else is going on here, similar to the chess example.
If you aren’t interested in poker this next part is probably not for you, but you can just skip it. Before people in the comments start saying my analysis is horribly wrong I would like to say that I have never actually played poker for money. I’ve always been a little bit afraid that I might loose everything if I started playing online poker. However that has never stopped me from watching the high stakes televised cash games (High Stakes Poker, Poker after Dark, Durrrr Million Dollar Challenge and Million Dollar Cash Game mostly) so I have at least some idea of what is going on even if I can’t claim to know what is actually going on inside Phil Ivey’s mind.
In this hand the blinds are 60/120k and ivey has roughly 9 million chips. Ivey raises to 320k under the gun which should signal to the other players that he has a very strong hand. Ivey is known for being an aggressive player who is not afraid to mix it up with sub par hands, however he is unlikely to do that under the gun. The range of hands I would put him on include pocket pairs or AK, AQ, AJ and maybe A10 suited. Keep in mind that this is a tournament whereas I have only ever watched cash games and there may well be several nuances that I am missing, but lets assume that this isn’t too far off.
Action folds over to the big blind, Jordan Smith who has A9 off suit. He is getting better than 3 to 1 on a call so folding doesn’t make sense, but he decides to reraise Phil Ivey to 1 million. This doesn’t make sense given the strong range of hands that Ivey is likely to have, but he does it anyways. From ivey’s point of view the hands that it makes sense for Smith to have are roughly pocket pairs 10’s or better or hands like AK and AQ.
There’s already 1.5 million in the pot when the action comes back to ivey so he is getting better than 2 to 1 on a call. It is at this point that Ivey asks how much Smith has left. Smith started the hand with roughly 6 million meaning that worst case scenario ivey is up against a big pair and if he hits a set of 8’s he will probably get Smith’s whole stack, giving him decent implied odds against the hands that beat him. Furthermore Ivey is in position meaning that Smith will have to act first post flop giving Ivey more information and allowing him to make better decisions. All of this makes it an easy call for Ivey.
The flop comes 5s Qh 10s. Smith checks and ivey checks behind. There is a chance that Smith has pocket 10’s or QQ and is trying to trap ivey into betting into him so checking these hands makes some sense. He would most likely bet AQ and probably JJ, KK, and AA so these hands are probably out. That leaves AK as a strong possibility. He also probably bets most hands with 2 spades in them like AKs or AJs. Ivey may be able to make an AK fold by betting here but the possibility that Smith flopped a set makes this option seem less attractive and leaves Ivey with an easy check.
The turn comes Qs putting 3 spades on the board. Once again Smith checks and ivey checks behind. Here if Smith had a hand like AK with only one spade he would probably bet it here. The fact that he didn’t makes the 3 spades on board more or less irrelevant for ivey. He either has the best hand with a pair of 8’s or Smith has a full house with QQ or 10’s and the spade flush for ivey is irrelevant. Ivey’s turn check makes perfect sense because he probably won’t get paid off by a worse hand anyways and there is a very real possibility that Smith has a full house already.
The river is the ace of spades. Smith checks fearing the 4 cards to a flush and ivey checks behind probably thinking something along the lines of “oh well…if there wasn’t a river there would be no fish”, knowing smith “sucked out” and made a pair of aces on the end. It should also be noted that Ivey knows that Smith cannot have one of the possible full houses because he would have bet it for value on the river. Then Smith shows his A9 off suit and Ivey throws away his “pair of 8’s”.
So what does this have to do with the chess example? Well, by the river Ivey has calculated
Preflop: Smith probably has AK, AQ or 10’s through AA.
Flop: Smith probably doesn’t have AA, KK, JJ, or AQ and 2 spades is also unlikely
Turn: Smith’s most likely hand is a big ace. Smith is unlikely to have 1 spade and either my pair of 8’s is good or he has a full house. On the river assuming he checks I will check any river other than an 8 and my 8’s should be good barring an Ace or king.
River: an ace…Must be nice
On the showdown Smith says ace and Phil fails to consider the possibility that he might have a flush despite the 4 spades on board. Ivey ended up busting out at the final table and was unaware of the incident until his friends told him about it afterwards. In this video Ivey discusses the hand. He claims that “I never looked back my hand once…and I didn’t see 4 spades on the board”. While most people in the YouTube comments think he just thought the spades were clubs or hearts etc. there is a different explanation. I believe what Ivey says is closer to saying “I didn’t see queen takes rook” or “I didn’t notice that batterskull should be on the bottom of my deck instead of in my hand”.
Another comforting part of these stories for me was the fact that they both were so surprised when someone told them what happened. If nobody said anything we would have never known that anything out of the ordinary occurred. While it was comforting for me it was also really scary. If something like this can happen so easily to me what is happening in non-recorded games? These things can and probably have been happening to many other people, but the world will never know.
The only other example that I can remember of something like this happening in magic is the “GerryT shimmering grotto incident” (round11/14 game 3 at about 26:20 vs David Bauer). Here Gerry unknowingly uses his shimmering grotto twice with a smooth untap in the middle. After the match his friends told him what happened and Gerry immediately went to a judge. The judge eventually called it an honest mistake, which I agree with. Here is what Gerry was probably thinking at the time:
1) Snap kill the sword of war and peace with ancient grudge
2) Oh whoops, I should keep the grotto untapped so I can cycle the spellbomb for value
3) Tombstone pizza is tasty
While Gerry’s “Cheat” fits the model the loosest it is still pretty close to the other 3 examples. The model goes something like:
1) We made a calculation
2) Something unexpected happened that we hadn’t considered in the calculation
3) We miss something that seems obvious
4) We are completely unaware until someone tells us about it
So now that we have unlocked the secret of the batterskull “cheat” lets put it all together. Here’s what happened:
1) When I was shuffling for polluted delta a card stuck to the play mat. It happened to both me and my opponents all day long and in my round 8 game 3 the same thing happens on camera. Anyone who plays magic probably understands that nothing out of the ordinary is going on here.
2) Due to the placement of the deck and my hand of cards I mistook the bottom card of my deck for a part of my hand. Given the speed that I was playing at and the proximity of the cards in my hand and the bottom of my deck it shouldn’t take too much of a leap of faith to call this much an honest mistake. If for example, I had put my exiled pile face down like a few players do and accidentally cheated a swords to plowshares into my hand in the same way as the batterskull I suspect many more people would have been willing to give me the benefit of the doubt. I believe that what made everyone so sure that it was a cheat was the fact that it was so hard to explain me not noticing the batterskull.
3) Due to the effects of “chess blindness” that I have discussed earlier I was completely unaware of the mistake I had made and even played the batterskull without ever considering how I got the card. Without finding the videos I stumbled into I probably wouldn’t have believed it myself. As it turns out, if you are deeply immersed in a game strange things can happen.
Broken down like this, we see that there is in fact a logical explanation for everything that doesn’t involve cheating. The funny thing is that even now watching the batterskull “cheat”, knowing what happened it still looks really cheaty. At first I was going to write an article about all of the holes in this article, how huge of a mistake the head judge that DQ’ed me made, how SCG screwed me out of the only top 8 I was ever going to get, how I was never going to play in the open series again out of principal, how I was going to burn the SCG deck box they gave me etc. But then I showed the video to my parents and they said “okay that looks pretty shady”. And that was when I realized that I can’t really fault anyone for the mistake. I was on camera perpetrating one of the most elaborate “cheats” of all time. I can’t say for sure how hard of a decision it was for the head judge to DQ me but the decision took what seemed like a couple of hours so it probably wasn’t an easy call.
Just for fun let’s look at some of the arguments for why I appear to be a malicious cheater and their logical explanations.
- Elden was making little errors to force his opponent to worry about the board more than he should (order of tapping cards, forgetting to untap things)
Keep in mind that at the time the “cheat” took place there was roughly 15 minutes on the clock. 15 minutes to win a b/u/g vs stoneblade match at a point where I thought a draw would knock me out of top 8 contention. While shuffling for game 3 we even agreed that if someone was very ahead (had jace vs nothing etc.) the other person would concede.
Given the time pressure I had to think and play at the same time. This also led me to almost forget to put the sword into play. I’m probably not the only one who has ever forgotten to untap something and the way I tapped 2 lands then put another island into play tapped to play vendillion clique was also simply the product of me thinking and playing at the same time.
- Elden’s placement of his graveyard above his library allowed him to shield the final critical steps of the cheat.
It also allowed my graveyard to be viewed for snapcaster purposes without being obvious, a practice that has been adopted by many pros. I thought about having all the cards in one pile and checking the cards at random times to balance my range, but I decided that would be too much of a hassle.
It is also important to note that this was my first ever video feature match. For those of you who have never played under the camera, the play space is much smaller than at a normal table. This may have disrupted the way I usually place my graveyard, deck etc. Finally as someone who frequently watches the video coverage and is often frustrated with graveyards that are not visible to the viewer at home, I wanted to make sure that everything was spread out so that all the cards could be seen.
- Elden’s critical cheating steps all took place during split-seconds of time his opponent would need to be doing something that required any amount of attention. Like revealing his hand, discarding a card, shuffling a deck…
This one is actually just a coincidence. The incident could have happened at any time. However it should be noted that this match was played under the camera so the opponent’s attention doesn’t matter as much. If I was a master cheater who was as familiar as I am with scglive, I would probably consider the fact that it is very likely that at least 1000 people are watching live and that whether my opponent is distracted or not at least someone is paying attention.
- Elden’s frequent habit of touching seemingly random things at random times made doing things that would seem like cheating “normal” in the context of the match.
Touching random things is standard for magic players. Anyone remember the nick spagnolo deck/graveyard touches count? Watching the video I don’t think I touch random lands etc. that much more than a normal person.
- And to top it all off: All of this cheat happened in the span of six seconds. He does six things in six seconds with surgical precision — his skill is that of a professional who has spent thousands of hours perfecting his craft. Cheating.
What can I say? I’m a stone cold master. I have in fact spent thousands of hours practicing to become a master “magician”. However it seems that I have some more practicing to do. Just look at this attempted spell pierce punt not to mention this massive land tap fail (obv leave up wasteland).
All joking aside I’ve probably spent tens of thousands of hours playing magic and hundreds of hours watching live magic being played and I have never experienced anything as crazy as the batterskull incident. I can see how people could think it was a cheat and given what I know about the twitterverse I should have expected as much. However, as you can see there is a logical explanation.
One final point I would like to make is that if this was a cheat it is probably the lowest ev cheat of all time. Others on twitter have pointed this out but my position is even better than it looks. At the moment the batterskull “cheat” took place we know from vendillion cliques most of both players hands. In hand I have the stoneforge mystic and if I didn’t have the batterskull I would just play it fetching the batterskull post combat. This would leave me with:
2 stoneforge mystics one equipped with a sword of feast and famine. 5 lands in play. In hand I would have batterskull and I believe another land.
Friedman has 5 lands and a flusterstorm in hand with 7 life. However we also know that the top card of his deck was the first card that he put back with brainstorm. It turns out that it was a basic island.
From here he should probably play the land so that if he peels pernicious deed he can use it for 3 immediately. Then I play batterskull attack down to 3 life untap and he has to peel either pernicious deed (killing the token too) or some convoluted draw involving snapcaster brainstorm into go for the throat on the batterskull token and chump the guy with a sword going down to 2 life. If he hits a deed I bounce batterskull and replay it. From here he could conceivably draw a krosan grip effect immediately and stabilize. Assuming I have drawn nothing I am probably a still better than 50/50 to win the game due to the life totals.
So all in all I might be 99.5% to win the game. Given the fact that I feverishly tank for a few seconds before playing batterskull, it seems hard to assume I am some kind of opportunistic cheater who decided to play the batterskull once it magically appeared in my hand in order to gain some infinitesimal edge in the game.
The other theory for why I played the batterskull despite being so ahead in the game was because “he wanted to see if he could”. If after reading this article, you still believe I’m the criminal mastermind type who steals the batterskull and dares the cops to catch him, then I doubt I will ever be able to convince you that I made an honest mistake, just like GerryT and probably many others who will never even realize they made a mistake.
For those of you who still think I’m a cheater cheater pumpkin eater, Haters gonna Hate. This is the internet after all. For those of you who started off saying “obvious cheater is obvious” and are now starting to question whether this could really be possible I would like you to keep in mind that this could happen to anyone. It probably won’t. And it’s even less likely that it will happen to you on camera so that the entire mtg community can pounce on you and call you a “malicious cheater who should be banned 4 life!” The one thing that I would like people to get from this is that you should always wait to hear the other guy’s side of the story no matter how obvious of a cheat he is. Next time a shimmering grotto/batterskull “cheat” happens to someone you don’t know; wait to see their side of the story before you call for a lifetime ban.
And finally for those of you who defended me on twitter etc. even a little bit I would like to thank you for your support. I’m not sure if I will ever play on the SCG circuit again, but it will probably depend on how people view the batterskull incident going forward. If playing magic for me means being called “The worlds greatest Stoneforger” and being asked to sign hilarious alternate text batterskulls then you’ll probably only ever see me play on Mtgo. However if there are enough people willing to give somebody the benefit of the doubt you will probably see me at every scg legacy open within 3 hours of Fort Wayne.
edit: I was just going to not worry about the comments but there were some nice ones that people should see. i especially liked this one – “you will probably see me at every scg legacy open within 3 hours of Fort Wayne in 2 years or so” FYP
Also if you are interested in doing a podcast with me I would be glad to do it. Send me an email at email@example.com