In 1998 opaque backed sleeves were introduced. For rules purpose these sleeves are considered part of the card. Like cards these sleeves will get worn through play, but are usually a lot cheaper to replace then the cards they are protecting.
One of the first ways everybody learns to cheat is to mark cards while playing a game of Hearts with regular playing cards. So I can think it is safe to assume that everyone in every tournament around the world knows that having marked cards is "a bad thing".
As judges we are responsible for the integrity of the tournaments we run. As I explained above one of the most fundamental ways of cheating is by marking cards. Why then are there so many people (both players and judges) not cracking down on it. Let me give a couple of examples.
PT Chicago December 2000
During one of the earlier rounds of day 1, I'm assigned to do deck checks. I get the decks of the players and take them back to the judges area. I hand one of the decks (player B's) to another judge and get player A's decklist from him. The first thing I do is check the sleeves for markings. The sleeves look really nice, they're brand new, BUT about a dozen have the right corner slightly bent. It is a very obvious mark and you can easily single out those cards. The deck checks out fine, the other deck is fine as well and I return to the table.
I hand player B his deck back and ask player A to step aside with me. I tell him about the bent corners and that I will give him a warning for "marked cards - no pattern". He says that he just sleeved the deck with brand new sleeves the night before and just played a couple of games with them. He also stated that these kind of markings are almost impossible to prevent. I tell him I know and understand, but that the warning stands and he will have to replace those sleeves. He says he'll get some replacement sleeves and will be right back. I inform his opponent of what is happening. He gets back while I am making a ruling on a different table and when I come back he is resleeving his whole deck. It's a bit annoying because this just takes longer and adds to the extra time the deck check already took. I thanked him for his cooperation, he nodded but was still a bit bitter over the warning.
I tell player A that in my opinion sleeves should last exactly one day of play at REL 3+. If players use new sleeves play marks should be looked at and penalized. If it is clear that a player uses new sleeves every tournament day warning for marked cards should not be upgraded. Player A agrees and understand my philosophy and is less bitter about the warning. They start playing while I write the warning on the back of the results entry slip.
During the next round another judge comes up to me and asks me if I am sure I gave the warning to the right player. When I confirmed this he was a bit shocked because he was sure player B's sleeves were a lot worse then player A's. So why didn't player B get at least a warning for the same offense? I had no idea but told him I didn't check that deck, so had never laid eyes on it. I went to look for player A and explained how that could have happened. The player was very professional about it and understood.
GP Amsterdam January 2001
In one of the later rounds during day 1, one of the judges sees a player shuffling his deck. The sleeves have a lot of creases so he takes the decks and examines it closely. The judge is not sure if there is a pattern so calls me over to examine the deck as I was his team leader. I quickly sort the deck out by the marking and have one stack with 2 spells and one stack with about 3 lands, very suspicious. I get Jaap Brouwer to investigate the matter further as he was the head judge.
In the end they were able to sort the deck a lot better then I did. During the investigation process Jaap got the impression the player was not cheating so he got a match loss.
Gijsbert Hoogendijk (left) and Jaap Brouwer (right) discussing a judging call at GP Amsterdam.
European Chamionship June/July 2001
I'll now copy/paste a part of my European Championships report. (you can read the full report here)
During the round 7 deck checks we stumbled upon a deck, which was marked beyond belief. When we showed the player how we were able to sort his deck, he was amazed. Apparently his last round opponent had told him some of his sleeves were marked, he thought that it wasn't a big problem as he had bought the sleeves new at the beginning of the day. He wanted to know if it was possible to prove he had not cheated in any way. We explained to him that, that was impossible. But after a long talk with him and some judges I was sure he hadn't marked his deck on purpose, but what to do with it? In the end we decided on a match loss for "Marked deck - Pattern" and upgraded a game loss for "Procedural Error - Severe" to a match loss. He was relieved with my ruling and especially with not being marked as a cheater.
I still don't know how he managed to butcher his sleeves like that in one day but this was clearly an exception to my rule above (sleeves playable for a day). I think it was a combination effect of moist hands and bad shuffling technique that ended up ruining the sleeves.
PTQ San Diego November 2001
When I write this, this happened only yesterday. During the round 2 deck check, we checked one of the local players. His sleeves look abysmal. They must be a year old and are heavily creased and marked. I call him over and give him a warning for "Marked Cards - Minor"(yes they changed the penalty guidelines from no "pattern, pattern" to "minor, major") he understands and says he'll resleeve. I tell him to just play the match as is and resleeve afterwards but only after I have seen the sleeves. He looks at me and says that his new sleeves are good, they are only 2 months old. I count to three in my head and state that I still want to check them to make sure. I wander by his table during the round, he is desleeving a deck while his opponent is thinking. I tell him to stop doing that because it is unsportsmanlike to his opponent and that except for a players deck and sideboard (+tokens) no other cards are allowed in the play area during a match. He nods and puts away his other deck and shows me about 20 of the now empty sleeves. I look at them and tell him that these too are way too worn to be playing with. He replies with something along the lines of: "If you don't want them, I'll play without". He said it with a smile on his face but still it left me feeling a bit bad.
Players ask judges often if their sleeves are still ok. I think if I allow 5% of those people to play with the sleeves it is much. I can understand that they don't want to pay another $8 for new sleeves. But when I tell them they can't play with them and show the marks and ask them if they would let other people play with them. Usually the answer is no.
A lot of people have a hard time understanding why they get penalized for marked cards. Their defense is usually: "but it is random so I don't have any advantage" I can usually make them see the point using the following example:
Imagine you have a constructed mono-colored deck with 24 lands and 9 spells 4 times. For simplicity, take half of that so we have 12 lands and 9 spells 2 times. Take 6 lands and 1 of each of the 9 spells and sleeve them with black sleeves, use red sleeves for the other half. If you have drawn your black spell #3 you know that every card in a black sleeve from that point on won't be a that spell. Now consider that in a real deck, one of the "random" marked cards in your deck is a Counterspell. If during a game, you have already drawn your marked Counterspell, you are 100% sure that none of the marked cards in your deck is a Counterspell. So if the top card of your library is marked you have information you shouldn't have.
- Spent some time analyzing cards at home, take 15 cards (a sideboard works very well) and try to memorize the cards by just looking at their backs. Usually you will be able to memorize at least 50%. (although you'll have to look very close which would look very bad when you do that during a tournament) This will get you a good feel what to look for.
- Buy new sleeves for each day you play in a REL 3+ tournament.
- Shuffle your sleeves and cards before you sleeve your deck. A box of sleeves will sometimes contain slightly different sleeves. Imagine a box with 24 slightly longer sleeves which are the first 24 sleeves in the box. You start sleeving your deck and when you get deck checked, all your lands have longer sleeves.
- If you do want to use older sleeves be sure to check them very critically.
- Check between every other round if your sleeves are still in good condition. Again be critical, don't get paranoid though.
- If your sleeves usually have big creases try and change your shuffling technique.
The best thing we can hope for is that the quality of the sleeves will improve greatly during the next couple of years. But until that time we will have to be wary about them and the players using them.
If you have any questions or comments please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org