A Practical Approach to Handling Altered Cards

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The letter W!hether by using black-border cards, foils, or Asian cards, players have always found it cool to pimp their decks. This trend has evolved up to the point that players now bring "custom" cards to tournaments. From a mere Sharpie doodle to paint covering half of the card, the range of the possible modifications is wide. Whatever the way these cards have been modified, or "altered," and even though they are often very good-looking, they may not be suitable for tournament use.

What do the rules say?

Checking what's in the rules is pretty much the first reflex to have. UTR 28 and UTR 32 may both be relevant to this subject.

UTR 28 states that:

"Cards used in a tournament may not have writing on their faces other than signatures or artistic modifications. Modifications may not obscure the artwork so as to make the card unrecognizable. If modifications to a card are deemed by the Head Judge to constitute outside notes or unsporting conduct, the player using such cards will be subject to the appropriate provisions of the DCI Penalty Guidelines."

UTR 32 states that:

"The Head Judge is the final authority regarding card interpretations. See the DCI Floor Rules for the appropriate game for more detailed rules regarding how cards should be interpreted. If the Head Judge determines that a player is using non-English–language cards and/or misprints to create an advantage by using misleading text or artwork, that player will be subject to the appropriate provisions of the DCI Penalty Guidelines."

The rules are pretty evasive on the subject. The first section only points out that the artwork should still be recognizable. The second one is more focused on the potential advantage given by altered cards and clearly points out that it's forbidden to try to take advantage of it.

The problem is that even if a player doesn't aim to mislead his opponent, altered cards may threaten the game state's readability, both for him and his opponent. There's also a possibility that the physical aspects of a card, such as weight, flexibility, thickness, or shape, are modified so heavily the card may become distinguishable.

So, what is allowed and what is not?

Altered or counterfeit?

Checking whether the card is a real Magic card is the first step. Considering the constantly increasing prices of some cards (often played in Legacy and Vintage), it could be tempting for an artist to "alter" a Grizzly Bear into a Force of Will. Though it would probably be a masterpiece, it remains a counterfeit.

Altering an already counterfeit card is more likely to happen. The usual way to check for a counterfeit card is the bend test. Genuine Magic cards have the potential to come back to their original shape, i.e. flat. Altered cards, though, do have painting on them and this test may easily ruin the painting work. Making a comparison of the unaltered colours of the card with an original seems the best way to test the cards for authenticity.

Humourous or aggressive?

Pierre Desproges, a famous French humourist once said "One can laugh at anything, but not with everyone." The same applies to alteration, except that they are more public than a discussion you may have with a friend of yours. Some references may be shocking and the potential offence the cards may cause has to be kept in mind. For instance, there's a series of Dark Rituals altered with a reference to Nazism that has been subject to much debate on the web.

Modifying the image

Here we come to heart of the problem. Magic is a game where the illustration on a card is as important as (not to say more important than) the text written on it. Competitive players do not know precisely what's written in the textbox but do recognise the picture. Sometimes they don't even know what the picture represents, but just know the illustration's general shapes and/or colours. That's why the illustration must always be easily recognizable, since this ensures a clear game state.

Case 1: Frameless cards

"Framelessing" a cards consists in expanding the illustration beyond the artwork's borders (Swords to Plowshares), sometimes reaching the edges of the card (Illusionary Mask), removing the frame and sometimes even the textbox (Teneb the Harvester, courtesy of CardKitty).

This kind of alteration is generally not a big deal, the illustration being usually easily recognizable.

What could lead a head judge to forbid one of these? If the alteration suppresses key elements that could lead to confusion, then there may be a problem. What if the casting cost and/or power and toughness have disappeared? The first one sets (generally) the colour of the card and the numbers in the lower-right are (almost) universally understood.

A closer call is the lack of the name, types, and textbox. Is there a real difference between a frameless card and (for Westerners) a card written in kanji or the Cyrillic alphabet, which we do not forbid? Think about a Frozen Shade. It's as likely to have flying when framelessed as in Chinese, making the confusion issue quite the same, isn't it? Let's also think about Illusionary Mask, whose text has been outdated since the last century. How confusing is it to play with a card whose text doesn't match its Oracle text?

Practically speaking, out of these three cards, I'd have slight concerns with the Teneb only, the sole reason being that its power and toughness have disappeared. This is not a big deal, though.

Case 2: Alteration

Altering an image technically means that an artist has added or removed a few elements to modify the spirit of the illustration. Today, artists are often adding famous characters or objects to the illustration. This can vary from the addition of a small object (Gemstone Mine) to very large objects (Island) to the almost complete substitution of the art (Meddling Mage, and thanks to CardKitty again for all three).

Depending on the additions or removals, the impact on the recognisability can widely vary. In terms of forbidding a card, opinions may easily vary following several criteria.

The above Gemstone Mine is probably not very dangerous. The artwork almost hasn't been modified and the textbox hasn't lost many words.

The addition to the Island is huge, covering the illustration's centre and the whole text box. The card is famous, though, and the addition quite fits the original illustration (a blue costume, cf. my point upon players paying attention to only shapes and colours). Finally, you can expect that land to be stacked with other lands, reducing the potential confusion further.

The Meddling Mage alteration, despite being smaller than the Island's and kept within the limits of the original illustration, is much more concerning. The card can't be easily identified. Add to this the fact that this permanent has a continuous effect that modifies the game rules, and you may have concerns with it, although the remainder of the card (including the aforementioned important values) hasn't changed at all.

This shows that the importance of the alteration isn't the sole criterion to determine whether a card is tournament-suitable or not. The characteristics of the original should also be taken into account: Is it a permanent, sorcery, or instant? If it's a permanent, how does it affect the game state? Is it a land or an obscure card? Once again, how will that affect the game state?

Look at this card: Is it a Juzam Djinn or a Pernicious Deed?

Of course, everything is written on it and you simply need to read it to know what it is. It can't be less legal than the green Serendib Efreet from Revised right? But what if I play that card and my opponent immediately shows me a Remove Soul before realizing what it really is? I have gained his hidden information.

With the Meddling Mage example above, we concluded that the fact that it is a permanent is dangerous. What if the Juzam/Deed case was a mix between two instants instead? Confusing, no?

Physical modifications

While altering the image is the most obvious change, physical modifications should also be taken into consideration.

Weight and flexibility are far from being concerning. A thorough analysis of each card with a bunch of manipulation would be required to be able to detect the marked card among regular ones. This would be so easy for a judge to catch that it's highly unlikely to happen without being very noticeable. Thickness and shape, on the contrary, may be more concerning.

- Sharpies won't add thickness.
- Ballpoint pens may leave furrows that are visible and/or detectable on the back of the card. These aren't widely used for alterations, though.
- Painting is the most widespread technique to alter and depending on the material used results may vary: while acrylics are fine enough, oil painting and gouache may be too thick.

We therefore enter the realm of detecting marked cards. Put the deck in one pile and look for a space between two cards. The trick here is that this extra thickness may only exist on one of the four sides of the card. While foils can be unbent, thickness can't be removed, possibly leading to the player not being allowed to use the card.

Similar to thickness is the card's texture. If you pass a finger against the front of a card, you may be able to recognise an altered card. Just like weight and flexibility, this requires obvious manipulation and doesn't deserve more attention than that to catching a regular manipulator.

If the original condition of an altered cards wasn't perfect, the painting may have kept the card in a marked condition (bent, for instance). This requires a fix that's the same as for foils.

To sum it up, it's not because a card is altered that it's marked (just like the foilness of a card doesn't imply a marking). Just apply the usual detection-of-marked-cards process and it will be fine.

It's far from easy to define clear rules about what's allowed and what's not. If detecting marked altered cards isn't especially hard, as the process is classic, drawing clear lines for allowance of the "new" image is close to impossible. That's why the rules give complete power to the head judge to determine the suitability of a card.

The impact of the alteration on understanding the game state is the most important thing to keep in mind, much above the manipulation problems that may arise. Do not forget that all of your players may not know the format as well as you. In addition, a player in his game is not as relaxed as you are when you evaluate something before the tournament starts. Still, don't become paranoid! While the balance is pretty hard to find, it proves to be an interesting exercise that may also help you understanding what's really dangerous with foils, i.e. the player's behaviour more than the cards themselves.

Of course, you could just ban all altered cards from your tournaments to limit the risks. But keep in mind that Magic is a game that has created a community around it. Most players just want to play with cards they like and have fun while playing. Altered cards are currently one of the ways to achieve this goal, just like foils and Japanese cards have been.

I'd like to thank Kevin Desprez for proofreading and translation, as well as Eva and Dereck from www.cardkitty.com for kindly giving me the authorization to use their alterations as examples.

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