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The Infamous "Free" White Deck: Real or Magic Online Scam? (Standard Gameplay)


A few days ago, I was looking through Magic Online results. One decklist that 5-0ed a Standard league caught my eye, in part because the card choices were odd (with a lot of two-ofs and many cards that don't show up in the tier builds of Mono-White) and in part because when I plugged the decklist into the site, the Magic Online price came back as $0. It was the now-infamous "Free" White deck. After seeing the deck, I tweeted about how it was cool that a $0 deck managed to 5-0 a league, but some people were skeptical, suggesting that rather than actually posting a 5-0 finish, the deck was part of a win-trading Magic Online scam. Here's the list:

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After looking closely at the deck, I realized that it's made up exclusively of cards you get for free when you make a Magic Online account. (You get two copies of each uncommon in Standard and four of each Standard-legal common when you upgrade your account.) This suggests one of two things: Either someone created a Magic Online account, attempted to build the best version of Mono-White possible using the free cards they were given for making an account, jumped into a league, and lucked into a 5-0, or someone is scamming Magic Online and didn't actually even play the deck at all but instead cheated the system to get a 5-0 finish that ended up getting their list published.

The basic idea of the win-trading scam is simple: sign up for a league on Magic Online with multiple accounts. Try to pick the least popular format and play at the least popular time of day because the goal is to have your accounts play against each other. Once the game fires, you always concede with one account. Assuming you actually manage to play against yourself every round, you'll end up with two results: one account will go 5-0 and the others will go 0-5. 

At a glance, this might not seem productive. You're losing just as much as your winning, but a 0-5 finish and a 5-0 finish are actually fairly profitable with Magic Online's prize system. Here's the math: It would cost $20 to join the two leagues. The 0-5 account would earn nothing, but the 5-0 account would get around $27 worth of treasure chests along with another $15 of play points. This means that the scam, if successful, would net almost a 100% profit of $17 per league (including the play points, which can't be sold for cash, although the treasure chests can).

So, how can we figure out if the infamous "Free" White deck is a solid budget deck that, with some luck, managed to take down the tier decks of the Standard format and get five wins in a row or was part of a notorious Magic online win-trading scam? Play it, of course! And that's our plan for today! Is "Free" White a legit budget deck or a scam? Let's find out!

Closing Thoughts

Welp, that didn't go well. We ended up going 0-5 with the deck and didn't even win a game along the way (although we came pretty close to winning one). While I do think we got a little bit unlucky (we were on the draw in four of our five matches, for example), after experiencing the deck first-hand, I think it's exceedingly likely that it's part of a Magic Online scam. I don't want to say anything with 100% certainty (it's theoretically possible that you could join a league and run into five people in a row who disconnect and time out, and even though I've never heard of this happening to anyone in practice, it is a plausible explanation), I'm 99.999999% sure that "Free" White didn't legitimately win five matches in a row in a league on Magic Online.

We flooded out constantly (including our MDFCs, the deck has 28 lands, which is an absurd number for a white weenie aggro deck), and some of the individual cards are downright bad (like Reduce to Memory, which we drew a lot but never wanted to cast because giving our opponent a 3/2 was such a huge drawback). While we did get off to some fast starts, the deck folded to any meaningful amount of removal and was basically drawing dead to any sweeper. While the deck is functional enough that I'm sure we'd win some games (and maybe even a match or two) if we kept playing it, it would take an almost unbelievable amount of good fortune for "Free" White to actually five matches in a row anywhere, let alone in a league on Magic Online (which is generally considered to have harder competition and feature better decks than the ladder on Arena does). This leaves us with both good news and bad news.

The good news is that I think it's possible to build a "free" white deck (i.e., no rares / mythics and around $1 on Magic Online) that could be good, or at least not nearly as bad. The plan of going aggro, flooding the board with cheap creatures, and attacking is a tried and true budget strategy. We just need to get rid of the obviously bad cards, cut down on the number of lands, play more four-ofs and fewer two-ofs, and add a sideboard. Here's my upgraded version of "Free" White that I think would have a much better chance of winning some matches.

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The bad news is that our results today suggest that win-trading scams are happening in Standard on Magic Online, which is bad for both Wizards and the community. From Wizards' perspective, engineering a 5-0 finish by playing with multiple accounts costs money. It's pretty clearly cheating and looks a lot like stealing. While I'm not sure what the best way is for Wizards to stop the scam, Wizards does have an incentive to fix it, and hopefully, it is. From the community's perspective, having fake lists show up in the 5-0 results has the potential to hurt players who buy the deck based on the fake result only to find out that the deck isn't nearly as good as they think. Thankfully, in this case, the deck is so cheap that it couldn't do much damage, but a deck overloaded with expensive cards (but that is equally non-functional) could.

In general, we know not to fully trust the decklists published from Magic Arena (the ones we play on Meme or Dream?) because we've seen enough weirdness (like 60-land decks being published) to know to take them with a grain of salt. Basically, everyone knows that spending wildcards / tix / dollars on them is taking a risk. On the other hand, Magic Online results are usually pretty reliable (unlike Arena results, they have actual player names attached to them, and you can go back and view your past games on Magic Online, making it possible to verify results). Outside of some occasional weirdness with Challenge decklists in unpopular formats (where there are times when so few people play a format like Pauper that you profit just for signing up for the event, which has led to people signing up with troll decklists just to get the prizes), the general assumption is that Magic Online results are legit. But it seems like this might not be the case for Standard leagues anymore. While it seems unlikely that this scam could work in more popular formats (which is basically every format outside of maybe Vintage) because it would be almost impossible to get your accounts to play against each other, with only around 100 people in Standard leagues on Magic Online, it seems like any weird Standard decklists that get published should be viewed skeptically. 

While writing this article, I decided to do a bit more digging into the dakota4 account that posted the fake 5-0 with "Free" White. The account has a massive eleven 5-0 finishes in Standard (with the most recent coming at 5:53 AM EST, which is likely the slowest time of the day for Magic Online), which puts it fairly high on the leaderboard (in the Top 100 and likely in the top 1% of Standard players). So the "new player getting lucky" theory clearly doesn't hold any water. None of their other decklists has been published by Wizards, which suggests to me they likely got all 11 of those 5-0 finishes in just a couple of days. (Magic Online published decks that go 5-0 twice each week, so if this had been taking place over the course of weeks or months, we'd likely have seen the "Free" White decklist already). Assuming all of the 5-0 finishes are a part of the scam (which seems likely), this would be nearly $200 of profit from the scam, potentially in an hour or less. And it seems likely that the problem is way bigger than just dakota4 scamming $200 from Magic Online.

While we don't have the ability to see every league from every player that gets a 5-0 finish, what we can see is the time when each player got their most recent 5-0 finish. In Standard, of the top 30 players on the leaderboard, 14 had their last 5-0 finish listed at between 2 am and 8 am EST—some of the least popular hours for playing Magic. On the other hand, if you look at more popular formats (where win-trading cheats aren't possible because the odds that you'd be able to queue against your own accounts are so low), of the top 30 Modern players, only four had their lat 5-0 finish between 2 am and 8 am. In Legacy, it's five of the top 30. Basically, either the top Standard accounts on Magic Online are randomly two or three times more likely to win their leagues during the hours when very few people are playing or many of the top Standard accounts on Magic Online aren't actually playing Standard—they are just scamming the system with the win-trading cheat. 

The funny thing is that the only reason we're even talking about "Free" White is that the deck was janky enough and cheap enough that it caught my attention. If dakota4 had put a little bit more effort into the cheat instead and built a more realistic-looking deck, the cheat almost certainly would have gone undetected. Like, take a look at this deck: 

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BlackHaven7 is another one of the Top 30 accounts whose last 5-0 finish was in the early morning hours. Is this deck part of a Magic Online scam or just someone posting a 5-0 finish early in the morning? There's really no way to tell for sure. While the deck is budget-friendly, I've played against Mono-Red Goblins a bunch of times on Magic Arena. It has a sideboard, and it has some rares (although it still only costs $5 on Magic Online). It looks real enough that no one would pay any attention to it showing up in a decklist dump. If someone scamming Magic Online used a decklist like this—or better yet, a tier deck like Mono-Green, Orzhov, or Izzet that gets published all the time—there would be no way of knowing which finishes are real and which are fake. Basically, it wasn't just that dakota4 was (very likely) scamming the system but that they were doing so in such an obvious way that it was actually noticed. 

So, what does all of this mean? The short version is to not trust the results from Magic Online leagues. Even if a deck is published as a "5-0 finish," we really have no way to know whether the deck actually won five matches of Magic or if it was just part of a win-trading scheme. Hopefully, Wizards takes some action and fixes the issue, but in the meantime, from a player perspective, we'll just have to treat the Standard results from Magic Online similar to the ones from Arena—with a skeptical eye—because it seems likely that the win-trading scam is happening not only in Standard on Magic Online but also surprisingly often.

Conclusion

Anyway, that's all for today. What do you make of all of this? Is there a win-trading scam happening in Standard on Magic Online? What could Wizards do to stop it? Let us know in the comments! As always, leave your thoughts, ideas, opinions, and suggestions, and you can reach me on Twitter @SaffronOlive or at SaffronOlive@MTGGoldfish.com.



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