Shadow of Doubt: A Guide to Spotting Fake Cards
Magic cards can tear a huge hole in your wallet. Of course you want to make sure that your money is spent on original cards. Here is your shield to protect yourself against those nasty counterfeits: what to look out for and some easy guidelines to tell the real apart from the fake.
I do not want to discuss methods like the "water test" or the "rip test," because let's be honest: if you are in the position of not knowing if your card is authentic, you should not risk to destroy or reduce the value of your possibly expensive, real card. So I do not consider these tests to be authentification methods. You do not crash your car into a wall to see if your airbag is working …
Stench of Decay
Do not laugh: smell your cards and you will realize that they have a very distinctive smell to them. You need some mint control cards which have the unique smell of the ink used for the specific set. Then you can compare the card in question to your control cards and decide whether it matches or not. Unfortunately, cards often lose their odor over time, depending on the art of storage and other factors. But that is rather a good sign than a bad one, because counterfeits most often have a kind of chemical smell.
On the Surface
The surface of old cards is kind of raw. It has visible pores and looks a bit like skin. They are non-shiny and have a non-polished look unlike newer cards. If you can ice-skate on your 90s card, it could be fake. Even Vintage cards have "variants" and inconsistencies, though. For example, one Antiquities print run has a waxier look than the other.
Note that Collectors' Edition and International Edition are an exception to the rule when it comes to old cards. They have a very glossy surface. This is important to note because they were often used for so-called "rebacking" when CE and IE were super cheap. People basically cut the corners of a CE/IE card, replaced the back with the regular back of any original card, and sold it as a genuine card from Limited Edition (Beta) for way more money. So if your supposed Beta card is very glossy and shiny, you might have a rebacked card. In this case you should weigh your card: see "Thickness and Weight" below.
Many Magic players think that all their cards must have the same brightness and color saturation. But print variations of a certain degree are quite common. There is nothing to worry about. In the pictures below you can see some inconsistencies in the brightness of the cards. These inconsistencies are very common in Revised and mid-90s sets like Mirage and Visions, which were partly printed in Belgium. The Belgian cards have a matter finish to them.
Thickness and Weight
Counterfeits tend to be a little too thin or way too thick. There are concrete numbers for the right thickness, but it's difficult to measure your cards accurately. But if you have a sensitive scale, it is quite easy to weigh your cards. The weight of your card should be around 1.814 grams according to MagicWiki. Other sources mention 1.7 to 1.8 grams.
There is an insanely interesting and enlightening video by the Youtube channel "The Destructve" on the weight of Magic cards. Check it out if you want more insight on this matter. Their concluding chart shows that you should use caution when dealing with cards less than 1.7 grams and cards heavier than 1.8 grams. Small outliers are possible, but the more you move away from this range, the higher the possibility that you are dealing with a fake card.
This test is particularly good at identifying CE/IE rebacks. Nearly all of them fail the weight test because of their higher mass — more paper plus extra glue.
Bring to Light
Most counterfeits don't let any light or very little light pass through. You should see the "blue core paper" come through the light on a real card. If absolutely no light comes through, your card is 99.9% fake. This method is very easy to implement and reliable concerning the older counterfeits. Newer counterfeits unfortunately pass the light test.
"The Destructve" did a UV light test series, which showed that some counterfeits tend to absorb the UV light more than real cards, while others could not be identified at all. This test proved to be a little clunky.
Dot Patterns and Text
The rosette pattern should be visible and consistent. Wizards used and still use a very stable rosette pattern in the printing of their cards. This is not easy to replicate even though some counterfeits look impressive. You can check this with a jeweler's loupe or a microscope. Just compare the rosette pattern of the Mox Sapphire on the left to the Mox Sapphire on the right without the pattern.
The text itself should be printed on a different layer than the rest of the card. In the picture of the Scalding Tarn below you will see what I mean. The first card shows the name of Philip Straub printed above the rest of the card and on the other it is printed within the same layer as the rest of the card. The difference is particularly noticeable with the white brush.
Another thing you could look for is the external border. The black on the external border should be solid black while nearly all counterfeits show a dotted pattern in their border.
Raise the Alarm
A combination that should alarm you: very low-priced old cards in mint condition offered by a seller with no feedback. When the supposedly old cards you purchased for cheap bear absolutely no marks of wear, check them very carefully. If it seems too good to be true, most often it is … unfortunately.
Get Your Duplicant
Get some control cards of the sets you consider buying into. The chance somebody counterfeits a dollar Revised or Unlimited card is tiny, so you should be good to go with some cheap copies to get a feel for the cards. The material is the same on commons and rares after all.
The most targeted cards when it comes to counterfeiting are Modern cards, especially post-M15. It is way more difficult to get the feeling and the many distinctive characteristics of 93/94 cards right. But you should be careful when dealing with higher priced Revised cards also, because the faded-color look is easier to replicate than the richer colors of for example Unlimited.
There are good counterfeits and there are bad counterfeits. Many of the latter are easy to identify with one or two specific identification methods. If your card is thick as a brick and doesn't let any light through, you can be pretty sure it is fake. But then there are the sneaky ones. They pass the light test. The colors are kind of authentic. The dot pattern looks more or less okay. Maybe you should go for the weight test in this case. Or try to smell the card in question. You could also look at the printing of the text box or the inner black border. What I want to express with this is that there are situations in which only one method won't do the job for you. You'll have to perform multiple tests and put together a puzzle to get a conclusive impression of what you are looking at.
Talk to other Magic players about dubious cards and the methods you are using to identify them. They may learn from such conversations as well and it's a nice way to make the community aware of the issue. That is what I hope I could do with this article. I invite you to add more methods and/or data in the comments. It will help each and every one of us. What have been your worst experiences with counterfeits?
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.