In case you haven't heard, counterfeit Magic cards exist. There's no need to panic, because counterfeits currently are pretty easy to spot.
As you probably know, alleged counterfeits that have been sent or received on Puca can be mailed to our headquarters for review. If the card is indeed a fake, we will refund you in full and take action as necessary to ensure that only honest members of the magic community have the privilege of trading on Puca. Over the course of the last year of running PucaTrade's Authenticity Clearinghouse, I've come into to contact with enough counterfeit magic cards that I figured it was worthwhile to share the knowledge I've gained throughout the process.
There's a few different ways that fakes can be detected, and this can serve as your comprehensive guide for spotting them. By the end of this article, you'll be a pro at it. And don't worry, we won't be exploring any bootsy techniques that alter, bend, rip, or risk water-damage to the card. Ever.
In fact, there are only three tests you need to know.
The first thing to note is that there is no "silver bullet" method of detection to identify the authenticity of the card with absolute certainty. However, there are three methods that can serve as powerful data points to paint the overall picture of a cards' authenticity. They are (in order of usefulness):
- The Light Test
- The Rosette Test
- The Black Light Test
We'll go through these one by one. I should also point out that before you even start these tests, the card has probably gone through a 4th test that's not listed here. I call that the “Something Is Wrong With this Card” test. Most counterfeit examinations start with this test. It's that moment of intuition when you pull card out of an envelope and instead of feeling sheer excitement you feel in unexpected sense of trepidation for some unknown reason. I've learned to trust that instant, because the human brain soaks up an incredible amount of information through our process of sensation, and often times I know a card is counterfeit before I logically know why I believe that to be true. Sometimes, it just feels “off.”
That being said, instincts are often wrong and I certainly have been sent Magic cards that just "felt off” to the recipient, and yet were real. The goal of this article is to replace any feelings of uncertainty and trepidation with cold hard facts about what makes a Magic card real. So let's dive in.
As a novice counterfeit-detection gumshoe, before you begin any of these steps the first thing that you should do is find another copy of the card that you are sure is real. If you don't already own a real version of the card (and don't know anyone else who might), you might need to make the trek to your local game store and poke around in the display case. Since we'll primarily be comparing real magic cards to alleged fakes, it's actually really important that you have both so you can compare results side-by-side.
The Light Test
I love this test.
It requires the fewest tools, and is by far the easiest execute. It can be achieved like so:
1. Find a small flashlight.
I recommend any pocket LED Flashlight that has a diameter of an inch or so. The benefit to LED flashlights is that they are typically comprised of nine individual 5 mm bulbs with a reflection plate that diffuses the light in a way that's very easy to see through a Magic card.
2. Dim the lights or turn them off entirely, and press the front face of the real magic card directly up to the beam of the flashlight. You'll notice that a fair amount of light passes through the front of the card, and is visible through the back of it. If you're using an LED light, you should see nine individual points of light (from each of the nine LED bulbs in your flashlight) and a lesser amount of light reflected off the back plate of the flashlight.
3. Repeat step 2 for the fake card.
Is there less light coming through? Is the pattern of light shaped differently? It Is too much light coming through, so that features usually visible only on the front of the card are being blasted through the back?
This detection method worked for 93% of the fakes that I've encountered so far, it is by far the quickest and easiest to perform. I also love that it uses a cheap portable tool that everyone probably has lying around in their house somewhere.
The Rosette Test
Every printed image on a Magic card is comprised of a circular matrix of millions of little tiny read, blue, yellow, green, and black dots that looks like a little flower when you zoom in really far. The word Rosette references this flower-shaped pattern.
The rosette test requires a tool that you'll probably have to buy specifically for this purpose, but the tool enables an incredibly reliable, quick, and accessible test once you own it. The tool is called an Olloclip 4-in-1 Lens, and it's basically a fancy magnifying glass that clips to the front of your camera phone as a macro-lens. There are a couple benefits of using this tool. The main one is that you can snap a photo of your 15x magnified cards, and directly compare the real one to the “fake" one side-by-side at the same time. This may not seem incredibly helpful, but it is. Especially in the beginning, you might not be able to tell the difference between the dot-matrix of one print run versus the next, and it's way easier to tell differences apart when you're staring at two side-by-side.
This tool also allows you to zoom in digitally using the zoom feature that's probably native in your phone.
The old-school way of doing this is to use a Jeweler's Loupe Set, which is basically just a magnifying glass with 30x magnification.
Here's what you are looking for:
Look at the pattern that the rosettes make on the real card as compared to the fake. The rosettes on the real card are nice and orderly, like cute little flowers in a row. The rosettes on the counterfeit are a mishmash of sloppily-laid dots, (which probably speaks to a poor-quality printing process).
You probably also noticed that the text on the real card is much more crisp. My understanding is that most black text on modern Magic cards is added on as a final layer after the more complex multicolored layer on bottom. So the fact that you could see that crummy rosette in the fake card is a giveaway in this particular instance as well. (Note that this isn't actually true for older cards--they changed something about the printing process in the Mirage block--so it's so you should expect to see rosettes inside typefaces pre-1996).
Red Herrings with the Rosette Test
There have been times in the past where Wizards of the Coast (WotC) has decided to use a different printing press for cards from different editions that have the same expansion symbol. For example, Verdant Catacombs was printed in the Magic 2012 Event Deck: Vampire Onslaught, but it was printed with the Zendikar expansion symbol (because none of the event decks had unique expansion symbols). The problem with this is that they used a completely different card-stock and a completely different printing press for the event decks, and it's obvious when you simply hold the card in your hand. So if you compare an Event Deck Verdant Catacombs side-by-side with the Zendikar one, you're probably going to notice inconsistencies that look like this under a magnifying glass:
The only thing I can recommend to do here is to be aware of the cards that appeared in special print runs such as the modern event decks. If you can get your hands on a few of the cards from those decks, you might be able to do a comparison. Or you could just look at the photo above.
The Black Light Test
This test is pretty useful, but does require that you already own a black light or go out and spend $20 on one for the purposes of testing fake magic cards. A small drawback, all things considered. And hey, if you're already $20 in you might as well go $23 in.
I like the black light test because once you figure it out, it can be one more crucial data points on the cards you were previously unsure about, but honestly, it's one of the more difficult tests to perform.
The reason for this is that actual Magic cards look wildly different under a black light. My limited understanding of the science behind this is that inks that were more commonly used 10 to 20 years ago had far less of whatever chemical makes a them glow under a black light. As a general rule, my experience is that older cards phosphoresce less than newer cards. But it also appears to be true that normal wear and tear, exposure to the sun, and contact with dirt and oil can change (if slightly) the way an individual card glows as well.
For this reason, it's absolutely critical that when you compare two cards side-by-side under black light, you at the very least compare it to two real cards from the same edition as the alleged fake.
There's only one step involved in this test, and that is to hold these 3 cards (2 real, 1 “fake") upside down under a black light. Don't bother examining the front of the cards, this almost never produces useful results. Just look at the back. Here's an example of what you're looking for:
As you can see here, having two real cards makes it way easier to spot the differences between the fake card and the real ones. Also notice how different some of the real ones look from other real cards in different editions. For example, all cards from Modern Masters 2 glow brown for some reason. Very strange indeed.
A quick word about some tests that don't work: I've chosen to omit many of the tests that you've probably heard about elsewhere on the Internet in this guide for two reasons: they either damage the card, or they're frequently inconclusive. If a test damages the card during the course of the testing process, it's completely useless to us. How bad would it feel to test a Volcanic Island in a way that damages or destroys the card, only to discover that it was actually real? So, while the Rip Test might give you some info, it is a test I never want to use. Here is a list of bogus tests that I will never use:
- The Rip Test (aka The Ribbon Test)
- The Bend Test
- The Water Test
Additionally, if there's one thing that this research has taught me it's that Magic cards have wild variations in their print runs. I've seen real cards with square and mis-cut corners, cards that make a million different pitches when you give them The Squeak Test (not even going to describe this one), and seen fake cards that pass The Bend Test with flying colors.
Previously, I've recommended that people take suspicious cards to certified MtG judges, but I've recently learned that WotC gives no specific training to their judges as to how to identify fakes. But frankly, it's easy enough that anyone can do this on their own. At the bare minimum, all you need is a flashlight and a magnifying glass to discover 99% of the fakes out there. And if you still have doubts after that, a black light should tell you what you need to know.
Again, as a reminder, if you ever receive a card on Puca that does not pass these three tests just mail it to us at:
PucaTrade Authenticity Clearinghouse
146 Wood St.
San Francisco, CA 94118
We'll take any appropriate action that is needed.
I hope this article has been informative, if you have any questions please feel free to ask them in the comments below.
Give and Let Give.