I have some good news and some bad news.
The bad news first: some of the Chinese counterfeit cards have found their way onto TCGplayer.com. In fact, I received three counterfeit Return to Ravnica Hallowed Fountains in a purchase from a TCGplayer.com vendor last week.
The good news is that they were very easy to identify and that TCGplayer.com’s response was awesome.
I’m writing this article for two main reasons:
To give detailed information about the counterfeits for anyone who comes across suspect cards
To talk about TCGplayer’s response so you know what to expect if it happens to you and so you can adjust your buying behavior if you feel it is necessary
I’ll walk through the whole experience from beginning to end for those interested. I am a Brainstorm Brewery writer after all, so nobody is getting out of here without sifting through at least 1,500 words (much more in this case). If you are only interested in how to identify the counterfeits, that’s fine—skip straight to the “Identification” section toward the bottom.
First, let me say that although I’ve played Magic for quite a long time, I had zero first-hand experience with counterfeits (that I know of) prior to last week. Many community members have dealt with previous counterfeiting attempts but I was coming in with a clean slate.
I was, however, well aware that the Chinese counterfeits existed and I had read a lot about them. To some extent, I knew what to look for. In the “Conclusions” section at the end of this article, I discuss whether the counterfeits would raise a red flag for someone who was totally in the dark. Spoiler alert: not necessarily.
I purchased the Hallowed Fountains in a large cube update/spec buy that used several TCGplayer vendors. The Fountains were the only three cards I purchased from this particular vendor, and I’m not going to reveal that name because TCGPlayer is trying to determine intent. The Hallowed Fountains were the cheapest listed by a fair amount. They were $5.39 and the next cheapest was around $7.00. Take that for what it is—circumstantial evidence.
I checked the vendor’s store and he had only a few other things for sale, including a couple of Overgrown Tombs (also priced below market). I’ve had good luck with vendors like this before—new sellers offering good deals until they build up their rating. I added the Fountains and the Tombs to my cart but the Tombs were gone by the time I checked out. I have to think the Overgrown Tombs were probably counterfeit as well. TCGplayer is looking into this, though I don’t expect that I will ever know the outcome.
The vendor shipped same day and with tracking. I ordered these Friday after lunch and had them in my hands Monday evening, which I thought was awesome (at the time). They were shipped in a padded mailer and each Hallowed Fountain was in its own semi-rigid plastic holder. They looked perfectly mint in the sleeve so I dropped them on my desk to wait for all the other cards I ordered without examining them further.
Nothing about the transaction itself raised a red flag. Actually, other than the fact that the cards would turn out to be counterfeit (granted, kind of a big deal), it was the best transaction of the several orders I placed that day.
By Wednesday, I had received enough of my other orders that I sat down to update my cube and file the specs away. Literally the moment I pulled the first Fountain out of the plastic, I knew it was not real. I’m talking, I still only had one hand on it from pulling it out of the sleeve and I already knew. If you handle Magic cards regularly, it’s that apparent.
The finish was the giveaway for me. It felt almost like a playing card. Everything I had read about the counterfeits said something like this: “They may look like good fakes in pictures, but you would never confuse them if they were in your hand.” That is exactly right. I’ve handled plenty of Magic cards in my life—old ones, new ones, specialty products, you name it—and these felt much different than any of them.
All three Fountains were the same. I tried the light test on all three (as well as a variety of real cards for comparison) and they failed. I looked at some other tests but I don’t own a jeweler’s loupe, wasn’t willing to rip the cards to check for the blue line or try the bend test until I talked to TCGplayer, and didn’t even bother to try the water test because the cards were so glossy there was no way water wouldn’t bead up on them.
I immediately emailed TCGplayer.com and then, without thinking too much, I tweeted about it.
Probably for the same reason I still get blown out by combat tricks in Limited, I totally underestimated how big a deal this was to so many people. It was slightly irresponsible to throw something like that out without solid backup. Within a few minutes, a number of people requested pictures but I decided a video was better. The texture was a big indicator and there was no way to show that in a picture
I posted this video on YouTube.
This was my attempt to explain my thinking 15 minutes after I discovered the cards. There was some good information that was left out because I rushed it. If I had done a little research and figured out what else to look for before I tweeted, I could have included more in the video. In my defense, I was on my third IPA.
The community was awesome. You guys know this already, but it never fails.
I got a lot of advice from people who had dealt with counterfeits before, including this specific round. @TheCardNexus was especially helpful and told me about other potential differences I should check. He was spot on
Magic players are looking out for one another on this. If you ever have a question about card authenticity, Twitter is a great place to go. There is an incredible knowledge base out there and a lot of well connected people (Jason Alt, for example) who can get those questions in front of the people who can answer them best. Take advantage of it.
What wasn’t helpful was a number of people on YouTube definitively declaring the cards authentic Event Deck cards, this despite never having seen them in person and apparently ignoring part of the video (the light test). All this does is increase confusion for the other people reading and watching. The cards weren’t from an Event Deck. How did I know that? Because I’ve purchased Event Decks in the past, held the cards, and they didn’t feel anything like these. And guess what, Event Deck cards do pass the light test.
It was Wednesday evening when this happened and TCGplayer emailed back Thursday morning. In the very first email, they fully refunded my purchase and asked me (not told me) if I would send the cards to them for further evaluation if they paid shipping. They asked for all three cards and offered to call if I had questions.
I am in a customer-facing business so I appreciated this for several reasons. First, TCGplayer didn’t ask any questions, require any justification, or make me jump through any hoops before giving me a refund. If you sell anything to anybody, you are going to have to deal with some ridiculous claims. At this point, they had no idea if I knew what I was talking about or if I was just another idiot causing a stir. It is pretty tempting to say, “There is a 95% chance this guy is dead-ass wrong, let’s act accordingly,” but they didn’t.
They paid for the cards to be shipped overnight and even had the cards delivered to a home address since they would be arriving Saturday morning. On the following Monday (which was this past Monday), they let me know they had confirmed the Hallowed Fountains were not authentic and that they were shutting down the seller while they investigated intent. As I mentioned above, they are also reviewing other recent transactions from the seller.
The people I dealt with from TCGplayer were courteous and appreciative of my cooperation. Their response was quick and thorough, in my opinion. Thumbs up to TCGplayer.com all the way.
First, watch the video if you haven’t. Below are the things I saw when handling the counterfeits, including a couple that aren’t in the video.
As I said, I did not have a jeweler’s loupe and I did not perform any destructive tests because I anticipated sending the cards to TCGplayer. So this is certainly not a comprehensive list.
1. Gloss – This is the first thing I show in the video. Call it the “squeak test” or whatever, but the counterfeits are substantially glossier.
I did look at Event Deck, Duel Deck, and Commander cards that I had. Yes, some of them do feel slightly glossier but not close to the counterfeits. And the cards from supplemental products do, in fact, squeak if you rub them, although maybe not quite as much as cards from normal expansions.
2. Light Test – This is the second thing I did in the video. The iPhone flashlight works great here, and the difference is drastic. The light shines right through regular cards, including Event Deck cards and other supplemental products, but not the counterfeits. After trying a variety of cards (new, old, etc.), I found no exceptions with real cards. I could see the light clearly through all of them.
If I had only had one test to identify a counterfeit, this is what I would use. It is certainly the most practical and, as far as I know, it is very reliable as well.
3. Corners – The corners of the counterfeits were miscut, they were round almost like Alpha corners.
Legit copy of RTR Hallowed Fountain on the left, counterfeit on the right. Note the corners.
The corners again, comparing to a legit white bordered card, to the extent a 5th Edition Giant Strength can be considered legitimate.
4. Borders – In the first picture above, you may notice that the borders are thicker on the counterfeit. It’s not that the card itself is bigger, just that the middle of the card is a little smaller so the borders take up more of the face.
5. Size – The width of the counterfeits is very slightly smaller than authentic cards. Like, less than 1mm smaller. I believe the height is the same.
The width of the counterfeit (front card) is slightly smaller than the authentic card behind it.
6. Coloring – This is pretty hard to see in pictures (maybe if I had a better camera) but it was apparent when I had the cards in hand. The coloring of the counterfeits, especially the browns, was slightly washed out compared to the legit cards.
Legit copy on the left, counterfeit on the right. Note the coloring. The backs of the counterfeits were similarly washed out although I failed to get a good picture.
On the coloring, I really don’t think I would have noticed this if I wasn’t looking or if there was no other reason to question the authenticity.
Also, after looking back at other cards in my inventory, I definitely noticed plenty of color differences in authentic cards. I found a couple of Birthing Pods, for example, that have much more noticeable coloring differences than these two Hallowed Fountains, but both Pods passed all other tests. So I would say that coloring alone is not a good indication of authenticity and it should be used in conjunction with the other things I’ve mentioned.
7. Clarity – Again, I didn’t have a jeweler’s loupe but you could see that the print was slightly fuzzy in places on the counterfeits just by looking closely. The artists name in the picture above was one of those places, but there were others. Not sure if it comes across in the picture, but the authentic card was sharper.
The end result of all this for me is that I don’t feel the need to change my buying practices on TCGplayer.com very much. I’ll even continue to buy from new sellers if I see a good deal, although I never do that with expensive cards. Best case, I get some cheap cards while the seller builds feedback. Worst case, the cards are counterfeits but they get identified and taken out of the system at no cost to me instead of ending up in the hands of somebody who doesn’t know the difference. I feel adequately protected here.
Now, there will be people who don’t want to deal with this at all. While there was no financial cost to me, the whole thing did take up a bit of my time (although I got an article out of it) and I still don’t have any Hallowed Fountains. I didn’t look at it as a hassle, but some might. Buying only from reputable sellers on TCGplayer.com remains the first and best line of defense if you want to avoid this totally.
I am slightly more worried about buying from non-TCGplayer sources now. I know ebay/Paypal have good buyer protection, but those companies are not going to know anything about counterfeit Magic cards. Would it have taken longer to come to a resolution if this was eBay? I’m not sure. If you are dealing outside of those markets (or similar markets), buyer beware. You may have no protection whatsoever.
Another thing I am more worried about now is counterfeits finding their way to new players. The Hallowed Fountains looked very good in the sleeves to me and I didn’t notice anything different about them until I took them out. I can definitely imagine a newer player acquiring these cards unknowingly and jamming them right into sleeves and into a deck. If they didn’t notice the gloss initially, I doubt they will notice the rounded corners once in a sleeve. It’s going to be a feel-bad moment for everyone when these cards get discovered by a more experienced player. Whoever pawned them off on the new guy is obviously long gone at that point and there is probably no recourse.
Bottom line, I think these counterfeits are good enough to trick some newer players. That is a concern.
TCGplayer did respond well, but they still have a big challenge in front of them. Ultimately, taking counterfeits out of the system one at a time after they have been sold is going to be a long and expensive undertaking. Finding a way to prevent this from happening in the first place is the goal, but that won’t be easy. They mentioned that they are working on some videos. That is a good first step.
Lastly, I would stress to everyone that you are entitled to question the authenticity of your cards if you have doubts. Assuming you are legitimately concerned (not just being difficult) and assuming that you are asking in a civil way, don’t stop until you are satisfied. “I’m concerned about the counterfeits in the system, do you mind if I try the light test on these before we finish the trade?” is perfectly reasonable. Don’t forget that there is a list of the cards that were in this counterfeit print run.
Certainly, don’t be embarrassed if you question something and the cards turn out fine. You don’t have to make an accusation in order to get confirmation that the cards are authentic. If at any point the seller or other trader refuses your request or tries to embarrass you for asking the question, I would just walk away. No need to take that kind of risk.
That’s all I have. Thanks for reading and as always, hit me with any questions you have here or on Twitter (@acmtg).