Fake Magic cards: what’s the problem with counterfeit cardboard?

Conjurer of cheap tricks.

When I was a kid, Pokémon cards were all the rage. We’d spend our lunchtimes playing and trading cards. Times were good.

And then one day it all changed. A kid showed up with an Articuno card — rare and sought after, he was trying to trade it for as many Charizard cards as he could get in one go. But the problem was that, word has it, his Articuno was a fake, and wasn’t worth the card that it was printed on. The only way to tell, playground lore had it, was to destroy it.

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And so, like Seto Kaiba, the ringleader behind the fake-card witch hunt, tore up the card.

Things have come a long way in the past 20 years, and you certainly don’t need to destroy cards to tell if they are fake. However, as printing technology has advanced, so too have the skills of counterfeiters. And the problem isn’t just in Pokémon — it extends to pretty much all TCGs, including the one that spawned them all, Magic: The Gathering.

Magic’s biggest issue is not the overly complicated rules, but actually its cost of entry. Back when Magic was young, its creators at Wizards of the Coast created what is known as the Reserved List, in a bid to instil trust in the value of the cards. Some cards on this list now cost more than a car — others cost more than a house in London.

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This inevitably fuels the desire to create counterfeits and sell them at a discount price. And when decks run into the tens of thousands of dollars, it’s no surprise that players are tempted at a cheap Black Lotus. A cursory look online shows Black Lotuses on eBay for $400, or piles of rare cards for cents on the dollar from the likes of Wish. If something is priced too good to be true, it’s probably not real.

So far, most counterfeits can be caught by the well-trained eye. The colours and contrast tend to be slightly off, the printing often feels tacky and, once you’ve handled enough cards, you get a feel for what is and isn’t legit. The worst I’ve seen was literally printed paper glued on top of a worthless card.

However, when counterfeits get so good they can be passed off as genuine, there is concern that the price of real cards will tank and trust in the game will be eroded. At that point, when players have soured over lost investments, will they continue to play the game online? Probably not.

Sadly, not all players have this well-trained eye. I’ve seen players show up to tournaments with fake cards, thinking they got the real thing at a bargain. They were, of course, disqualified and left the tournament hating the game. As awful as this feels, this zero-tolerance policy is the price of weeding out the cheaters who would actively seek out fake cards to enter tournaments with.

There are times when it is ok to use fake cards, however (proxies and alters), so long as you’re not using them to for sanctioned play, or selling them to make a quick buck. Commander players, for example are well known for blinging out their decks with alt-art versions of cards — like a Shock with a Pikachu on it, or a Worldy Tutor with Yoda. Sometimes these are painted over the top of the original; other times the ink is stripped away with nail polish and the new art is printed over the top.

Likewise, many players use obviously fake cards (proxies) when testing a deck in a try-before-you-buy fashion. The general consensus is that if you’re not buying legitimate-looking fakes at bargain prices, you’re probably in the clear.

And so continues the arms race between Hasbro-owned Wizards of the Coast and the counterfeiters. Things like the holographic stamp at the bottom of rares and changes in their printing technology are currently keeping them ahead of the competition. Long may it stay that way.

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