Looking Back at the SCG Talent Search

A while back, I promised Valeriy Shunkov and Dan Barrett that I would write about the StarCityGames.com Talent Search (the one year anniversary passed in October or so). I’ve been meaning to do it for a while, but life, busy, work, writing blah blah… so kept putting it off. Today I stopped doing that.

The 2010 SCG Talent Search
For those of you who don’t know the back story, I was asked to revamp Star City in August of last year. The content had grown extremely stale, and compared to what ChannelFireball was doing, SCG was in a spot where if it didn’t get revamped soon, it ran the risk of becoming mostly irrelevant. People were coming to the site more out of habit than because they desperately wanted to read the content (excluding a few superstars like Chapin that were still killing it), and that wasn’t a good thing. So Pete (the owner) asked me to do what was necessary to try and make it the best Magic site for all players again (and all potential buyers of Magical cards. If you have ever wondered why SCG runs content on so many different topics, there you go).

One of the big issues the site had was that, in addition to having too many old pros phoning in boring, craptastic ‘tech’ articles, the stuff on the free side had grown really stale. So along with getting rid of some writers and recruiting some new ones, I also decided the site really needed an infusion of new blood. I put a couple of the very old school writers on hiatus (Abe Sargent and Peter Jahn, both of whom may still be pissed at me) and neglected to fill out the rest of the free roster in order to make room for an X-Factor style contest that we ended up calling the Talent Search.

Why do this?  Continue reading

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Unlocking the Cheats of SCG Player of the Year, Alex Bertoncini

[UPDATE: Bertoncini was banned from Magic for 18 months by the DCI on December 15th. The announcement can be found here.]

[Publisher’s Note: I started this blog as a venue to talk about and publish things that would not make it onto the mainstream Magic sites. I also have a long history of catching people who cheat at Magic and detailing their exploits. What Drew details here will be controversial to some, but the evidence presented is about as damning as it gets. That said, if Alex wants to tell his side of the story, I will agree to host and promote that as well. — CardGame]

A joke, to start us off:

It’s Saturday night at a Grand Prix. A group of people are sitting around a table, having dinner, chatting about nothing in particular. The subject of Alex Bertoncini comes up.

One says, “Oh! Did you hear that story about him cheating?”

Another chimes in, “Yeah, I heard it!”

Yet another, “Weird. Me too.”

One of the players stops, then points across the table at the first person. “Wait a minute, what’s your story?”

They listen. Brows furrow. The second person says, “Hmm…I heard a different story.” They go around the table.

Six players, six different stories of Alex cheating.

I met Alex Bertoncini three years ago. I was barely a player then – I played awfully, knew nothing about deckbuilding, and I didn’t know what I was doing in the tournament scene. Alex was relatively new to the competitive scene as well, having seen his first real tournament success with Faeries earlier in the year. As an avid coverage reader, I knew his name. As an 18-year-old who respected – no, admired – status far too much, I wanted to befriend him.

Over the next few years, I got to know Alex. I stayed at his house, he stayed at mine, we drove with each other to tournaments, shared rooms, worked on decks, discussed tech, and talked about life. For a time, I considered him my best friend.

To understand this article, you have to understand that I am not impartial. Objectivity doesn’t exist. My actions at various points are colored by emotion. Sometimes this turns out well and sometimes it does not. Still, before you judge everything else, understand that this is someone I once trusted deeply and stopped trusting primarily because I felt strongly that he had cheated me and cheated the game that we bonded over.

This is no public hanging. Only the DCI bans people, and only judges disqualify players. As a player and neither an official of the DCI nor a high-level judge, I have more information than a judge or official but am less able to do anything with it. Having collected it meticulously for months, I have realized that the best thing to do is to turn it over to the community. Only officials ban people and only judges disqualify players, but who calls the judges over? Who spots a cheater in the act? Once someone does spot a cheater, what moral and communal obligation do they have?

I’m not just writing this to disseminate information. I want to send a message to anyone who, when they’re in a losing spot, considers playing an extra land or drawing an extra card. I want them to know that there are people in the Magic community who will see their lack of integrity and work to expose them. I don’t want the Magic community to look or act like a safe haven for cheaters. I don’t want our community to defend cheaters – all that serves to do is foster the growth of a new generation of stackers, peelers, and advantageously sloppy players. This is about a long history of Alex cheating, but this is also a warning to anyone who would consider replicating Alex’s success by replicating his methods: cheaters are not welcome in Magic and there are people who will wade through a lot of blowback to make that clear.

I’ve spent quite a few weekends of this past year on the SCG Open circuit, for better and for worse. I became one of the faces of the circuit, one of the “grinders.” I started writing a Select column on Starcitygames.com, eventually getting bumped up to Premium billing. I dove into this community headfirst, and I have a story worth reading.

It is a story about how Alex Bertoncini, a player who repeated as StarCityGames Player of the Year at this weekend’s Invitational in Charlotte while also winning the entire tournament, is a methodical and repeated cheater.

To fully understand where I’m coming from, though, I have to take you back to the beginning and tell this story in the proper order.

The Sower Cheat
My side of this story starts in June 2010. I was driving to visit my girlfriend for the next month, while Alex was making his way into St. Louis to play Mono-Blue Merfolk. We talked on the phone, I wished him good luck, and hung up. I read the coverage, texted him my condolences at his second-place finish, and worked on my deck for Grand Prix: Columbus.

Over the next few weeks, whispers of “Alex cheated in Round Three” made their way around the Internet. I didn’t believe them, and so I didn’t bother checking the facts. Why fact-check when I’d hung out with him for hours and hours, know that he’s a good guy, and heard him fume over peoples’ accusations of foul play? I’d seen him play long enough to know that he was no cheater, right? No point in following up, he’s obviously innocent, fuck the haters, and so on.

As we now know, Alex cheated Andy Hanson in that feature match. It can be found here. To highlight the relevant parts of game 1:

Andy Hanson, who had opted to run Reanimator before it lost Mystical Tutor to a recent banning, opened on Thoughtseize and forced Alex to discard Daze. A second-turn Silvergill Adept for Alex drew him a card but it was Sower of Temptation, not a counterspell of some type for a potential second turn combo out of his opponent.

With the turn back, Andy cast Entomb on his upkeep to fetch a Platinum Angel which he put into his graveyard. Alex commented on the unusualness of the 4/4, which wasn’t in most versions of Reanimator, but Hanson missed land yet again and passed with just an Underground Sea fueling his game.

Later on, Alex had no choice: he had to pull the trigger on his Sower of Temptation targeting Platinum Angel for the win or die himself to the 7/11 Leviathan. He tapped four mana, leaving one Island untapped, and plopped the 2/2 onto the table. Andy cast Force of Will exiling a Daze but Alex checked with a judge on whether the play was legal. “Can you pay 1 life when you’re on -16?” When the judge confirmed you could not, Hanson simply scooped up his side of the table.

That’s all well and good – Alex sandbagged his Sower until he had Andy dead, then stole Platinum Angel for the Force-proof kill. Pretty simple, right?

Well, except for the part where Alex didn’t maindeck Sower of Temptation that day.

Maindeck Kiras? Check.

A bunch of 4-ofs? Check.

Sower of Temptation? Sideboard, two-of.

This could have been an innocent mistake, I’ll grant you. It could have been… but Alex isn’t the sort of person who forgets what’s in his deck. There is no chance that he forgot what his decklist was. He’d just registered it three hours prior, after all! This is not rocket science. So now we have two uncomfortable possibilities. Either:

Alex forgot to completely desideboard from the previous round, a round where he boarded in exactly Sower of Temptation (and either didn’t board any other board cards in, or didn’t draw them in his protracted game one against Andy),

OR

Alex presideboarded Sower of Temptation for Kira, since Kira is Wind Drake and Sower is g-motherfucking-g.

Even setting all of that aside, we come to the moral/ethical dilemma of what happened when Alex picked up his sideboard and saw his Kiras staring back at him. Call a judge and have himself game-lossed for the game that he just stole? Sure, maybe.

Or, you know, just jam your sideboard into your deck and beat poor Andy down in game two, thanking your lucky stars that you heard about Andy’s Platinum Angel tech before your round so you could make sure your deck had a two-outer in it. Life is so much easier when you don’t remember what decklist you registered. Plausible deniability is a beautiful thing, right?

I bought Alex’s side of the story.

Here, I’ll write it again.

I bought Alex’s side of the story. After all, my narcissistic (very dumb) paradigm went a little something like this:

  • I am an excellent judge of character.
  • I judge Alex to be a Good Person because He Is My Friend and I Am Friends With Good People.
  • If he’s a Good Person and I like him, he can’t be a cheater! Cheaters are evil people and immediately identifiable by their tendencies to kick puppies and randomly attack people. Cheaters are not charming or in any way kind.
  • Cheating is totally, completely, irrevocably related to personality. Since I trust him, he’s not a cheater.
  • I know how to catch a cheater, so if Alex were to cheat, I would be able to figure it out.

If you just take the opposite of all of those statements, you would have a good idea of what was actually going on. Funny how that seems to happen. Anyway, I remained Alex’s close friend through 2010, eventually spending the time between Christmas and New Year’s with him.

The Kira Cheat
Fast forward a bit. It’s 2011, I’d decided to spend a bit of time on the SCG Open Circuit, and so I hung out with Alex a lot. He and several other players stayed at my house for SCG: DC, which took place in February. I had no inkling of what had transpired in San Jose, and for a long time, the events of Alex’s Round 7 feature match stayed pretty far under the radar.

It was only over the summer that I came across the Kira video. This happened well after he and I had fallen out of sorts with each other. While I was researching several players’ claims that Alex was a perpetual cheater, a friend asked me if I’d seen “the Cursed Scroll/Kira cheat.” No, I hadn’t, and would he mind sending me a video? Sure, it’s Round 7 of the San Jose Legacy Open from January, take a look.

The video playlist can be found here. Around 32 minutes in, the important stuff starts happening. To summarize:

Vidianto Wijaya is playing a UW Counterbalance deck with Cursed Scroll, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, and a bunch of counters. He probably isn’t playing a ton of removal, but Cursed Scroll is supposed to play the part of Grim Lavamancer against Merfolk. Kira’s job is to stop that, protect the troops as they deploy, and attack for two in the air while this is happening.

Alex is stuck on three lands. From the looks of it, it’s pretty late in the game. Vidianto has a commanding advantage with Sensei’s Divining Top, Jace, and Cursed Scroll in play, since he can kill Kira by breaking its shield with Jace’s -1 and then shoot it down with Cursed Scroll.

Gavin Verhey, Brian Kibler, and Patrick Chapin are commentating on the match. Vidianto untaps with Jace in play on two counters, a Cursed Scroll, six lands, and two cards in hand – Vendilion Clique and Spell Snare. Vidi untaps, draws a land, plays it, and activates Jace to break Kira’s shield. He Vendilion Cliques Alex, sees two Coralhelm Commanders, a Lord of Atlantis, and a Merrow Reejerey. He leaves them, Scrolls the Kira revealing Spell Snare, and passes the turn. To review:

Vidi: Jace on 1, seven land, Top in play, Scroll in play, 1 card (Spell Snare) in hand.

Alex: Island, Island, Mutavault in play, three Grizzly Bears and one Grey Ogre in hand.

Alex draws his second Kira, plays it, and passes. Here’s where it gets interesting.

Vidi draws a Brainstorm. He casts it, drawing two lands and a Jace. He puts a land and a Spell Snare back, keeping his eighth land and a second Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Although it’s obvious to us at home, consider the following chain of events from Alex’s position, where you don’t know that the last card in his hand is a Jace. Vidi plays his eighth land, moves his six-sider off of his Jace, and taps the Kira with it – a clear “Unsummon your Kira, my Jace dies, this ability is countered.” Before the Jace flips over in Vidi’s hand as the Cursed Scroll reveal, though, the Kira is…

…wait, you didn’t see? Took your eye off of it for a sec? Believed that when you saw it sliding toward the  graveyard, the motion would carry through and the Kira would, y’know, actually hit the bin?

Go back and watch it again. Don’t watch Vidi show Alex the Jace this time. Watch Alex. Watch him slide the Kira toward the bin – you know, the same one that isn’t splayed and has Kira on top and then pull his hand – Kira and all – back off the table, slipping his last chance at victory back into his grip.

Let’s note the amazing execution of the cheat. In the first game, Alex splays his graveyard, displaying every single card at once. As he executes this cheat, he has it piled, showing only the Kira at the top of the pile. How many Kiras are in your graveyard? I don’t know, but there’s a Kira on top of it, just like there’s supposed to be. Don’t worry about it.

It’s so well-executed that three commentators – none of them slouches – all missed it. In fact, the only indication that something might be amiss is from poor Gavin Verhey, who notes:

“Is that another Kira? That’s the third Kira…he only has two, right?”

But Chapin keeps rolling, and Gavin falls back into conversation with him about what sorts of runner-runner outs Alex has to the situation at hand. Confusion forgotten, Vidi crushes him anyway, and Vidi wins the game a few turns later anyway.

This was the moment that I was totally, irrevocably sold. I must have watched those two minutes a dozen times, just dissecting every nuance of Alex’s cheat execution – the minute changes in how he displayed his cards, his temperament, how he shuffled his hand before and after he cheated, the way he induced Vidi into a mental shortcut that led Vidi to assume that Kira had been put in the graveyard – the list goes on and on. At its core, though, Alex ran a cheat and lost.

Now what? I saw this video and went a little nuts. I started asking everyone I knew if they had any stories about Alex cheating. I found several and collected them, planning on writing an article excoriating Alex for his dastardly ways. I went on a podcast and told every story I could remember of how big of a cheat Alex had been in the last year.

Then, I slowed down. “What if,” I thought, “this isn’t about catching a cheater, but instead it’s about ‘getting’ him in some way? What if you’re not noble and you’re just some kid using a rules institution to antagonize a onetime friend? What if you’re just full of shit? Maybe you should slow down.

So I slowed down. I questioned myself, my motives, my assumptions, my data, my friends, and everything else that I could question. I held off on the article. I talked to every smart person I could find at Grand Prix: Pittsburgh, asking their advice about what I should do. My survey of intelligent human beings came back with three strong pieces of advice:

  • I had done a fair bit of messing up already by discussing this publicly, but going further would be even more damaging to my goals. This is about him cheating. Treat it like that instead of as a witch hunt.
  • In following with #1, go through the DCI (and specifically, Sheldon Menery) instead of through the public square.
  • None of the smart people I talked to thought for a moment that Alex wasn’t a cheater, but I still had to prove it. So, prove it.

I took their advice to heart and kept looking for strong examples. I could share some of the stories I collected with you, but word of mouth is less meaningful than hard evidence.

Magic’s Greatest Explorer
Fortunately, Twitter was on my side, and one Matt Pratser had quite the video for me to look at. He told me that it was a short clip from Kansas City, the first Open Weekend of the year.

His video can be found here.

Yet again, I didn’t catch the cheat the first time. I closed it out and had my email half-typed:

“What sort of joke is this? There’s no cheat here! He just casts some Explores and you miscounted!”

Then I watched it again and realized that Alex was playing with the best Summer Blooms in existence. His sequence?

Draw, land 4, tank.

Explore, land 5 (second of the turn), tank.

Preordain, tank.

Push both (doing so in a way that probably gave him a peek at the bottom of his deck), draw.

Tank. Visibly count the number of Explores in your graveyard.

Play your third land for the turn – land six in total – and immediately pass.

When questioned about what turn it is, brush the inquisitor off with “Two Explores.”

Alex’s dedication to the cheat is very professional: he never breaks rapport with his opponent, never treats Matthew – the person filming the game – as a legitimate concern, and makes sure that his opponent is happy with how the game is going. By the end of it, the guy who just got cheated stands up for Alex, who just cheated him.

This was the third piece of recorded evidence that I sent Sheldon Menery, back in late August. I had collected stories and hard proof and sent them off to official that ran the Investigative Committee for the DCI. I had a lot of people asking me for an article on Alex’s habits, but I wanted to let the DCI run its investigative course. So I sat on my hands and waited for several months.

When it became clear that Alex would play in the Invitational, I knew that I had to get my letter to Sheldon out to as many people as possible. The last thing I wanted to have happen was for Alex to cheat a bunch of people who have no idea what cheats he’s capable of running. Although I couldn’t get this article to Ted in time for the Invitational, I sent my letter to Sheldon to over 300 people in the span of a day and a half. I regret not moving faster on the issue sooner in the week, but I would rather turn in a good, well-written article late than turn in a half-assed smear job early.

Still, you may be left unconvinced of Alex’s faults. “Drew, people make mistakes. Alex has told me that he’s a bumbling idiot, he’s sloppy, he’s not malicious, and I believe him. All you’ve done is show me a bunch of things that I’m sure plenty of people have done before. I don’t think any of these are that bad. Besides, if the DCI saw anything really egregious, they would’ve banned him.”

A Word of Caution
I have my own story to add to the pile of evidence. It’s from SCG Nashville. Alex and I planned on spending a week testing and hanging out with Adam Cai in Tuscaloosa, Alabama between SCGs Nashville and Dallas.

It’s Round Six, I’m playing Team America (a UBG disruption deck with Stifle, Daze, Force of Will, Hymn to Tourach, Tarmogoyf, and Tombstalker) and he’s playing Mono-Blue Merfolk. It’s a pretty good matchup for him, but he needs to kill me before I draw too many huge threats. On his turn, he Vials in a Merrow Reejerey and puts both his hands on his creatures, turning them all sideways with a flick of his wrists. I stop him:

“You just Vialed in that Reejerey.”

“Oh, yeah, sorry, my bad.”

[raising my hand to call for a judge] “Judge!”

“Oh, come on, man, I said I’m sorry, we don’t need to involve a judge, we can just back up.”

I held my ground on this one. How many people had he said that to? How many people are afraid of a warning enough to shame a friend for calling a judge to appropriately discipline sloppy play? After all, a Warning isn’t a Game Loss – it’s a Warning. Don’t do it again.

The judge came over and I explained the situation. Alex agreed, but, in a moment indelibly etched in my mind, Alex then asked for the Warning to be downgraded to a Caution. This may not seem like a big deal or even something worth mentioning, but how many of your opponents have ever asked for a Warning to be downgraded to a Caution? Who is the sort of person who asks for Warnings to be downgraded to Cautions? Maybe we should start with the simplest point: what’s the difference between a Warning and a Caution?

A Caution doesn’t go on your DCI record and a Warning does. If you accumulate enough Warnings in a tournament, you get a Game Loss. If you accumulate enough Warnings and Game Losses for the same offense, you get investigated for cheating. If you get a bunch of Warnings downgraded to Cautions, you effectively prevent the DCI from noticing that you are getting warned for something a lot.

Think again about the sort of person who asks for a Warning to be downgraded to a Caution. I have never and will never do that. Neither will anyone else I know, with the exception of Alex. Want to know why? Because my friends and I don’t cheat, so we don’t make a habit of accumulating Warnings. Since Alex plans to get a lot of Warnings, he habitually asks for the downgrade. Doesn’t hurt him at all, there’s no opportunity cost, and sometimes he gets to freeroll a tiny little bit of a small cheat that he got caught trying to pull. That adds up.

The reason that Alex is so successful with this variety of cheat is that he is a very nice and friendly person. In the past couple of days, I’ve heard a lot of the same argument from people all over the community. It goes,

“Alex is a really nice guy. I’ve met him, he was really cool, and we played a few games and he didn’t cheat me. There’s no way that someone that nice can be a cheater!”

I don’t really understand these people. They’re the same people who vote for awful Presidential candidates because they would like to have a beer with them. Do they really not understand the difference between personality and substance? They are people who don’t understand what is being discussed, and so they conflate the actual issue – Alex’s capacity and willingness to play honest games of Magic – with a perceived issue – in this case, Alex’s capacity to be a charismatic person. At least, I hope that people are just mixing the two up. The other possibility is that those people believe that no cheater is a kind person.

I have some bad news for all of the people reading this who think that you can either cheat or be a nice person: you’re wrong. Not all scumbags look, talk, and act like Snidely Whiplash. Mike Long was probably a really nice guy. That doesn’t mean he didn’t stack his deck, stack his opponents’ decks, draw extras, and run every other cheat in the book. It does mean that a lot of people probably defended him precisely because he was a nice guy. It’s just not useful to be disliked and also be a cheater – people are far less likely to look the other way when you “make a mistake,” people are far less likely to defend you when you’re not present, and you might even have a few people who actively dislike you and try to mount a case to prove that you’re a cheater.

Since Alex is a guy who isn’t going to no-pay on a team draft, isn’t going to short you on a hotel room, and isn’t going to steal your stuff, it’s that much more unbelievable that he would cheat you in a game of Magic. Still, even beyond the Kira video, the Explore video, and the Sower coverage story, there are dozens of stories I’ve collected from credible sources over the few months I’ve been looking for them. As some of these people have asked to remain anonymous, I won’t recount their stories in full or quote them, but the list of cheats I’ve heard them tell me of is as follows (and there are surely more out there):

  • Drawing eight cards in his opening hand
  • Drawing an extra card off of Ponder following a mulligan
  • Casting spells that he doesn’t have correct mana for
  • Pre-sideboarding against an unfavorable matchup
  • Free-casting Submerge against an opponent without Forests
  • Playing a Merfolk deck with all-foil spells and Mutavaults and all non-foil Aether Vials and Islands
  • Brainstorming with Jace, the Mind Sculptor and not putting two cards back

I have no way of communicating with the entire Magic community and finding every story of Alex cheating, but I’m confident in calling him a cheater based on the evidence I’ve gathered. There are other videos that I’m less than confident about the malice of. One such example is his Round Six video feature match against Alex Smith in SCG Atlanta just a few months ago, where the community has raised concerns about both his Brainstorm-as-Ancestral in the second minute and his potentially four-card Brainstorm in the seventh minute.

It is possible that Alex is a sloppy player. I would almost believe that, but for one thing: in the long history of Alex playing under a very public eye, I have never once heard of him making a sloppy play or error that was not in his favor. When people are sloppy, they occasionally give away percentage points in doing so – consider Luis Scott-Vargas’s “land, go; Preordain, pass the turn with a second land in hand.” I have never seen Alex make a mistake that doesn’t favor him. The case for Alex-as-sloppy-player would be a lot more convincing if he didn’t gain every time his sloppiness went unnoticed. And finally, a bit of sage advice from a member of Magic’s old school:

A little history lesson: when there’s a ton of momentum about someone being a cheater and a bunch of “misunderstandings” and “weird situations” that have occurred, the guilty rate is 100000000000%.

This isn’t an article meant to crucify Alex Bertoncini. All I want to do – all I’ve wanted him to do since the moment I knew he was a cheater – was for him to either stop cheating or get caught and banned. Either way, I just want a cheater to leave the Magic community and never come back. If a clean player replaces him, so be it. If his seat remains empty, so be it. Cheating has no place in Magic.

I look forward to a lively discussion.

Drew Levin
@drew_levin on Twitter