My Fake 'Magic: The Gathering' Cards Fooled Almost Everyone
If you found yourself in a prison cell with a hardened criminal asking what you're in for, what's the most embarrassing possible answer? We're going to go with "Magic: The Gathering card counterfeiter."
The laughter would abruptly end, however, when they found out just how much these collectible cards sell for. Games like Yu-Gi-Oh!, Pokemon, and -- the granddaddy of them all -- Magic: The Gathering remain a $4.3 billion industry. Get good enough at making your own cards and it's more lucrative -- and safer -- than printing your own cash.
We talked to a guy who makes his living doing just that:
Welcome To The Bizarre World Of Peddling At Card Tournaments
When a player goes to a tournament to play Magic: The Gathering, it suddenly makes sense to them to buy cards from a random creepy guy in a trench coat for hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars.
The reason is that the biggest tournaments may have thousands of players fighting for cash prizes that are five figures each. Even the smaller tournaments, the ones I more regularly troll, see top prizes of $1,000, so spending $250 on that perfect card isn't just a purchase: it's an investment. Most players aren't going to win big money, but they also really, really want to have rare cards in their pockets -- to show off, for bragging rights. So everyone's got their defenses down and are ready to buy stuff they shouldn't.
They're here for Magic: The Gathering, I'm here for Money: The Taking.
My first customer approaches.
"Psst," I say. "You looking for some cards on the cheap?"
He looks through my binder full of plastic-protected merchandise.
"A single beta Taiga?" he says. "Which counts as forest and mountains?"
"Damn straight. One tap, and you add red mana or green mana to your pool. Your choice. And this is affected by spells that hit forest or mountain, don't forget that."
I look to see if anyone else is watching, then go closer to him and whisper: "$400."
"Wait, hold on. Check the mint eval on this. Centering? Nine. Edges? Nine. Corners? Nine. Surface? Fuckin' nine-point-five, you're not going to get that anywhere, and if you don't buy it, trust me, you're going to see this card played against you by the competition instead. C'mon. What do you say?"
"Look at that card full of arbitrary numbers; can't fake something like that."
He agrees to the sale. The next customer agrees as well, this one to a nine-point-five-condition Antiquities Mishra's Workshop, which adds a whopping three colorless mana to your pool. This ain't Wizards Of The Coast ditch weed I'm selling: This is pure collectible-card-game cocaine. But with the next sale comes trouble.
"$350?" she says. "This is bullshit. You can't get an Unlimited Edition Ancestral Recall for under a grand, anywhere. What's wrong with it?"
I look nervous, and then, just as she starts to turn away, I sheepishly offer a confession: "Okay fine. I grabbed a backpack out of a car last week. And I just want to unload them quick, okay?"
Nothing says "Honesty" like the word of a petty burglar.
"Ahhh," she says. "Okay." For a player desperate enough, fenced goods are an acceptable resort to stoop to. She buys the card. But I make my way to the exit, just in case her next visit is to security.
The truth is, I didn't steal the card out of anyone's car. I printed it myself, and back in my apartment are 500 identical fakes just like it. I'll let you decide which crime is worse.
Shady Printing Companies Happily Abet Criminals
I started by selling off my old legitimate card collection in college, a broke student fascinated by how much these little pieces of cardboard could sell for. One day, a potential customer falsely accused one of my Shivan Dragons of being a fake. It got me thinking of how easy it would be to actually fake these cards. So I went to a self-service Kinko's and had a go at making a copy of a card I happened to own. The result looked ... absolutely horrible.
"Ugh, knew I should have sprung for the color copy."
So I started doing research. I learned the difference between bright white cardstock and digital cardstock paper, the different types of inks, the different options for lamination available to me. Once I'd learned all I could, I returned to the copy place and gave it another shot. The result was ... again, absolutely horrible.
I needed a professional printer -- and that was all I needed. This wasn't like counterfeit money where you need to worry about watermarks, or counterfeit art where the forger themselves needs to be nearly a scholar of the artist they forge. Magic: The Gathering cards are mass-produced cards that are only valuable because of a forced scarcity by the official distributor. Any idiot could make a fake of one of these with a good print shop if they have access to the art.
But for that you'd need some kind of global system capable of delivering high-res scans of every card for free. Never gonna find something like that ...
When I work, I build the image up in layers. It can be sometimes difficult to find high-quality scans of cards, but you can scan a less-rare card for the backgrounds, put in the text yourself in Photoshop, and then it's really just the main image you need to worry about. Around the time I was doing this, Ebay was only a couple years old, but it became SUPER easy to find high-quality scans of cards online to put into a template.
So I put together my digital file and turned to professional printing companies. I had a long list of specifications for the "fan cards" that I wanted to print, and I figured these were the same sort of guys who made real cards, so they should do a good job. But as soon as I sent them my tentative descriptions of my order, I got a crushing email reply. "We only print original designs owned by the requesting client or public domain designs," they said. A reputable printing company won't even photocopy an encyclopedia page for you. They live and die by copyright law.
And while most people might not see this as the same as printing a run of your own cash, it absolutely is.
That left me one option: a disreputable printing company. I won't tell you which one; I'll just say I found it on the internet, and it's based in Asia. My initial inquiry got a broken-English reply and the amount they would charge me, so I figured this company was a bit more lax when it came to copyright. Then I emailed my PDFs, and they sent me a bill that was $200 more than the estimate. "You motherfuckers know exactly what I'm doing, and you're just trying to get your cut," I muttered to myself. But it was worth it.
Here are scans of two cards. One of these is a real card, and one of them is a fake that I made. I won't tell you which one is real and which one is fake. That's the fun of it.
I guess the part where a few cents worth of cardstock becomes 1,000 fucking dollars is also kinda fun too.
Our Tricks Fool Even Savvy Buyers
The cards I print are relatively simple. They're pre-1994, before many of the recent anti-counterfeiting details were put in (conveniently, older cards also happen to be more valuable). But there still are some security measures buyers can look for. First are rosettes. Rosettes are tiny, flower-like assemblages of red, green, and blue that you see when you zoom in on a card, at around 30x magnification:
So a totally foolproof guard against fraud, assuming you have a solid background in halftone printing.
When I sell a card, I take out my jeweler's loupe and tell the buyer to look at the rosettes. The rosettes on my card are, in all likelihood, flawed and disorderly, which should mark it as a fake. But I simply point out the existence of the rosettes themselves to the buyer, and this convinces them the card is legit.
Secondly, knowledgeable buyers know of something called "the light test." When you hold a flashlight to a Magic card, the light shines through strongly in a way it does not with fakes:
Where's Urza's Maglite when you really need it?
To get around this, I carry a flashlight with two settings, low and high. I shine the regular light through the buyer's sample real card. Then I shine the high beam through my fake. The two lights look identical.
Sometimes, if I had a card that was worth a higher amount and I didn't think I would find a buyer at that price point, I would purposely damage it a bit. It's easy enough: Rough it up a bit on the sidewalk, chew an edge, blast it with some heat and light for a week. I had one card that would have been around $300 mint, but after I couldn't find a buyer, I scuffed it up a bit and brought it to a tournament and sold it for only $90. Nobody suspects a non-mint card to be a fake. Why purposefully lower the price point by damaging a fake that would be mint if left untouched, right?
The trick is to really get the "Angry at my 12-year-old self for not taking better care of these" look right.
No Authorities Are On The Lookout, So Getting Away With It Is Easy
The issue of faked Magic cards is finally getting some attention and is the cause of some panic in the gamer community. But from the police? It's not on their radar at all. And I've had no problems with customs, in shipping a bunch of counterfeited copyrighted trading cards by mail. That's just not an issue high on their list of priorities, I imagine. It's not something authorities of any kind care about (except for, like I said, the security at a Magic tournament itself).
If you tell a cop, "I paid $500 for this card, but it's a fake," they're not likely to understand you, and they're even less likely to launch an investigation. That's also, by the way, why I don't try and sell any majorly expensive cards, like the fabled Black Lotus that sold for a baffling $30,000. At a certain price point, it gets hard to find a buyer, buyers become much more discerning, and the cops might take an interest in a $30,000 crime. I like to keep each sale under a grand.
A million percent markup for something I made myself just seems a bit greedy.
One time, a cop saw me doing a sale in a parking lot. I had a backpack on and was accepting money for something, so she very reasonably thought she'd stumbled on a drug deal. She approached us, told us to puts our hands out and drop the bag. I told her, "Be careful, officer, most of those are near-mint Beta edition." She looked inside, saw a bunch of cards, burst out laughing, and told us to move along. She said I was a good kid for not getting into drugs.
If a tournament believes a card is fake, they're supposed to rip it apart on the spot. This is the ultimate test: Real cards will reveal a blue thread within the paper; bad fakes won't or will have a thread that plain looks wrong.
"Well this all seems to be in order. Here's you
Of course, the major flaw in this test is that it's the equivalent of drowning someone to see if they're a witch -- it would be a real shame if that Mox Emerald you had a nagging suspicion about turned out to be real after all. I avoid this by not selling to dealers in comic and gaming stores, though most stores are pretty reluctant to rip up someone else's property based on their own suspicion.
I do go to stores, though. Besides tournaments, that's the best way to meet buyers. I loiter, I eavesdrop. I hear someone talking about a card, I start a conversation (we nerds like talking with other nerds about nerd stuff), and then I drop, "oh, by the way, I might have some cards you'd want. Check them out?"
I Don't Even Feel Guilty About This ... Most Of The Time
So here's the question: Who's the victim in this crime? You could say it's the manufacturer of the cards who are having their copyright violated, but they're not the ones who'd be making these crazy high-dollar sales -- that's all collectors/players buying and selling to each other.
Plus, it kind of feels like someone paying $700 for a small index card is at the maximum level of ripped off already.
You could say it's the buyers, but keep in mind, they're getting value for their sale as long as the card can be used as intended in the game. Lots of times, buyers say they know these are fakes, but add that it would be great for their deck in the upcoming tournament anyway. It just doesn't matter, so long as it's good enough to convince the people they want to beat -- there are plenty of customers willing to knowingly buy fakes.
So where do I draw the line?
Well, after years of this, it occurred to me that the world has moved on a little, and there are other huge card markets for me to explore. So my next printer's order was for a small run of 800 Pokemon cards.
"Crooked Printerchu, I choose you!"
I headed over to a Pokemon tournament, and I sold two cards to an avid collector in his 20s. Then another buyer came up to me, cash in his hand. He was maybe 12 years old. I looked up and saw there was a whole group behind him who'd heard about the cheap cards for sale, and all of them looked like they were still losing baby teeth.
"Uh, actually, my other cards got put in the wash accidentally," I said. "I've got nothing else to sell today."
I tossed the rest of that order in the trash. Even crooks have limits.
For more insider perspectives, read 4 Useful Things Forging Documents Taught Me About Your World and I Get Paid To Write Fake Reviews For Amazon.
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