A proxy is a home-made card used in place of a real Magic card. They can range from a hastily written note on a basic land, to an artistic re-imagining of the original. The use of proxies in sanctioned events is strictly prohibited, but whether they’re acceptable in casual games is a matter of fierce debate….

First Impressions Are Lasting Ones

When I first started playing Magic, I worked at a game store. The use of proxy cards at that shop was highly frowned upon, even in casual games. As a new player to the game, my opinion of proxies them was heavily influenced by my co-workers, and ever since I’ve never really felt comfortable in games where proxies are used. I think a lot of that boils down to the general attitude at that store, though it was likely compounded by some negative interactions I had with a handful of proxy-using players at the time. I found those individuals to be somewhat unpleasant, and ever since I’ve associated proxies with my memory of them.

It’s been a long time since I spent any time at that particular game store, but it certainly left a lasting impression on me, for better or for worse. I’ve tried to take a step back, however, and reassess my opinion; do I actually have a reason to dislike proxy cards, or am I just biased? With all of the discussion surrounding them lately, it seemed like a good time to do some self reflection. If nothing else, I need to stop assuming that everyone who uses proxies is the same as the players in that one group; that’s just unfair.

A Matter of Accessibility

The discourse around proxy cards has largely been in response to the matter of card prices, the Reserved List, and the state of reprints in recent years. The price of some older cards puts them well out of reach of most players, and I’ve seen many people argue that because of their high prices, they’re entirely justified in making a proxy of the card instead. They cite this as a matter of accessibility, and that the inflated price of these cards prevents them from playing the game. While I don’t entirely agree with this stance, I recognize that there are some very good points to it; card prices are constantly on the rise no matter where you get your cards, and with limited reprints available there aren’t many options for players who are interested in playing with them. Personally, when faced with a card that’s out of my budget I would much rather look around for a different card to use in its place, rather than make a proxy of the expensive one, but that does limit what formats I can play competitively. Obviously this isn’t what everyone likes to do, or we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

So are proxies really so bad? I’ve tried to step past my initial knee-jerk reaction in order to give their use my honest and fair consideration, and as I’ve mulled it over I’ve found that my issues with proxies aren’t actually as sweeping as I thought they were. There may be circumstances where playing against a proxy card would be fine, though I still feel that there are reasonable limits to when and where proxies are acceptable. It’s a lot more nuanced than “proxies are good” or “proxies are bad,” and breaking that down in a way that I can articulate has been difficult. I think I’ve come up with an approach to the subject that helps, though admittedly it’s probably more for my benefit than it is for anyone else.

We’re about to get into the weeds a bit, so please bear with me.

The Warhammer Connection

Years before I ever got into Magic: the Gathering I played a lot of Warhammer 40,000. If you’re unfamiliar with it, Warhammer is a tabletop strategy game by Games Workshop. It uses models and dice to depict epic fantasy and science fiction battles. Each player builds and paints their own army, much like building a Magic deck, just with more glue. For many players, like me, assembling and painting these models is a satisfying hobby in it’s own right, but the game is also a lot of fun. Moving your models across the table is both a fun way to spend the afternoon, and to show off the hard work you put into building and painting your army.

Making models is a great creative outlet, and some players take their creativity a step further by setting aside the instruction manual and doing their own thing. They create some truly unique models; whether they’re doing minor modifications, like altering a model’s pose, doing a “kitbash” by combining parts from multiple kits, or crafting a “scratch build” using household materials and sculpting putty, these “conversions” are celebrated by the Warhammer community. The artistry involved in building these models can is incredible, and playing a game against a customized army can be a lot of fun. It feels a bit like playing against a foiled-out Commander deck or a sweet home-brew; you can tell that time and effort had gone into the army’s construction, and the player is clearly passionate about the game. They get to show off their creativity, and you get a unique gaming experience.

The Etiquette of Scratch-Builds

That said, as sweet as a lot of conversions are, there’s an established etiquette surrounding their use. It’s generally accepted in the Warhammer community that some conversions, especially certain scratch builds and kitbashes, may not be allowed in some places or events. They may be wonderful display pieces, but for one reason or another they may be unsuitable for the gaming table.

Large tournaments are usually a bit stricter when it comes to custom models, and most game stores will at least enforce a “what you see is what you get” rule (frequently abbreviated as “WYSIWYG”). So for example, if a model is holding a plasma pistol it must be treated as having one for the purposes of the rules. This means that even in pickup games, players know what rules to expect when they see something on the table. Without WYSIWYG, it would be a bit like an opponent using a bird token to represent a wolf in a game of Magic: after a few turns you might forget that the bird token is actually a 2/2, and that it doesn’t have flying. It just causes confusion.

Depending on the tournament organizer or venue, additional restrictions on custom Warhammer models may be put in place, such as only allowing models that were made using official Games Workshop kits. If you built your tank using parts from a Gundam model kit, you might be really proud of how it turned out, but you might not be allowed to use it outside of a home game. Stock kits and toys from other companies can be especially egregious in public games; showing up to a tournament with a bucket of green army men would be a surefire way to get kicked out, even if they’ve been painstakingly painted!

Taking It For a Test Drive

Casual games of Warhammer are naturally a lot more forgiving than tournaments. If a player wants to test out the rules for a model or squad they’re thinking of buying, it’s generally acceptable to use stand-in models for a game or two, even though they aren’t WYSIWYG. How acceptable it is can depend a lot on what model you’re using as your stand-in, but using a Warhammer model that’s about the right size for the squad in question is rarely an issue. Before the game begins, both players can discuss it and make sure everyone is on the same page. It would be a different matter, though, if you didn’t have that talk ahead of time and surprised your opponent by declaring a model was actually representing something else. The use of a stand-in model requires everyone to opt-in to it; WYSIWYG is the default, and if you want to go against that you need to be clear about that up front.

It’s also understood that after a few matches you’ll replace your stand-in models. You might have a mob of space Orks pretend to be a unit of cold, mechanical Necron warriors for a little while, but that’s only meant to be a temporary measure; it’s only a test drive to see if you like how these units perform in-game. After all, once you’ve gotten a feel for how Necrons work, you’ll either decide to start collecting those models, or you won’t. in either case you don’t need to keep using Ork models to represent them indefinitely.

Testing a New Deck

Probably the most common, and certainly the most generally acceptable use of a proxy card is to use it for play testing. When trying out a new deck or when preparing for a tournament, players will often use proxies for cards they are considering, or for building opposing decks they are expecting to face. This allows players to try out a few different ideas without needing to commit to buying any cards. Just like using a stand-in model for a game of Warhammer, once the players determine what they actually need, they’ll either replace their proxy cards with the real thing or they’ll removed from the deck in favour of something else.

Because proxy cards used this way aren’t intended for long-term use, they’re usually hastily-made slips of paper in a card sleeve, or sharpie-marked commons and basic lands. It only has to be good enough for a game or two, so it’s form over function; almost no effort is put into making them look good. The card name is sometimes all you’ll get, too; if the players are familiar enough with the card they won’t even bother writing down the rules text or mana costs in order to save time.

Cheaper than the Real Thing

Remember the accessibility argument from earlier? That’s this right here. Some cards are expensive, and not everyone can afford them. As a result, some people choose to use proxy cards instead. As opposed to play testers who will proxy a card as a short-term measure, these proxy users have no intention of ever purchasing the real card, usually because their financial situation is such that these cards will always be beyond their means.

This is perhaps the most contentious aspect of proxy card use. Because sanctioned events don’t allow them, their use in casual pickup games at a game store can be a bit of a grey area. Some shops have clearly established rules about proxies, but most of them either don’t have a policy, or don’t make it generally known to the public. This often leaves players uncertain about whether they can use them or not until it becomes an issue.

A Creative Outlet

Some people have taken to making proxy cards in the same way that some Warhammer players make scratch-built models. Using either digital editing or a steady hand, they’ll make unique looking versions of cards, with custom card frames or artwork. There’s a lot of similar creative expression in card alterations and custom tokens, too, and it’s always neat to see people apply their artistic skills to Magic. Even if it’s just a whimsical little doodle to embellish a card, the time and effort that goes into the creation of card alters, custom tokens and yes, even proxies, is impressive to see. These aren’t just scribbled notes or quick printouts shoved into a card sleeve, they’re pieces of art.

Admiring a well made proxy card and playing against one are two different things, however. Obviously in a sanctioned event it doesn’t matter how pretty your proxy card is, you aren’t allowed to use it. On the other hand, in casual games a good looking proxy can help to blur that hard line, even with players who are normally opposed to using proxy cards.

The Rule of Cool

Members of the Warhammer community often refer to the “rule of cool” when it comes to atypical conversions. Effectively, the rule of cool means that players are more willing to bend the rules to accommodate an impressive scratch-built model or creative kit-bash because they feel that playing against it would enhance their gaming experience. Even if the model isn’t strictly WYSIWYG, most opponents will be fine with it if they can see the work that’s gone into the custom model, and the passion their creator has for the game.

By the same token, players are more likely to be accepting of cool looking proxy cards for similar reasons; it might not be a real card, but if it’s visually impressive people will be more forgiving of it because of how cool it looks. Mind you, the inverse is also true: a cheap, lazy proxy, like a slip of paper or a sharpie scribble, can detract from the gaming experience and can make players less willing to play against the deck. Even something seemingly minor like announcing at the start of the game that you’ll be treating all of your basic lands as Snow-Covered can be frustrating for some players, since it’s one more thing that they’ll have to remember. In a game as complicated as Magic, that can be taxing, and it can make someone’s experience that much worse. It turns out that even Magic players are a lot happier when you stick to WYSIWYG rules.

Not For Sale

It’s important to note that professional looking proxy cards should always be clearly labeled as being “NOT FOR SALE.” While a veteran player may know that Gaea’s Cradle was never printed with a Future Sight border, a new player may not, and they may mistake a proxy for a real card. If it isn’t labelled as a proxy, it runs the risk of being mistaken for a counterfeit card, and that’s a can of worms nobody wants to deal with. Not only that, but the buying and selling of proxy cards is a legal nightmare best avoided. Just don’t do it.

Looking For Alternatives

I still don’t think I’m all that keen on proxy cards, but I’ll admit that I’ve warmed up to them a bit. They can be handy if you’re testing a new deck and haven’t finalized everything, and even if they are being used in a more permanent capacity I can appreciate why some people choose to use them. Whether it’s for financial reasons, or just as a creative way to express themselves, I can see how they can be appealing.

I always feel like I should be able to find an affordable card to use instead of making a proxy of an expensive one, and by sticking to real cards I don’t need to worry about what deck I take to a sanctioned event. Plus, I enjoy the challenge that building a deck in this way can present, but maybe I’m just weird like that. In Warhammer I really like kitbashes and scratch-built models, so I also have to admit that being opposed to proxy cards presented a bit of a double standard, and that didn’t sit right with me. I’m trying to move past my bias, and I’m more willing to bite my tongue at the sight of a proxy card at the kitchen table than I was before. Even so, proxies still aren’t appropriate for every occasion, and I’m willing to voice my concerns when I feel it’s necessary. After all, even scratch-built models have to stay home sometimes.

A Friendly Discussion

Obviously you can do whatever you want in your private games, but remember that it’s possible not everyone in your group feels the same way about proxies. It’s a subject that is rarely discussed until one turns up in a game, and if the proxy appears unexpectedly it could cause some friction at the table. Your kitchen probably doesn’t have an official policy on proxies, but maybe it should; no matter where you stand on the subject, it may be worth taking the time to talk with your friends to see what’s appropriate for your group, and what isn’t. Just be polite and open to suggestions; you’re all there to have fun, and part of that should be making sure that your friends are having fun too.

Remember that there are as many different ways of approaching Magic: the Gathering as there are players, and we can be very stubborn when we think we’re right. It can be worth stepping back every once in a while to question your own positions, and even if you don’t end up changing your mind, you can gain a better understanding of why you feel the way that you do.

The views and opinions presented in this article are my own, and do not reflect those of any group or business.
Always check with your local game store before using proxy cards or scratch-built models at their venue or event.

2 Responses

  1. Doug

    I use proxies in my commander decks if the card is expensive or hard to get if I already own a copy. I actually keep a binder of those cards so that I can sub them in if someone isn’t okay with me using the proxies.
    In constructed I will use proxies for testing only.

    • Ben Iverach-Brereton

      I know a few people who share certain cards between Commander decks, and use a proxy to avoid having to unsleeve it every time they switch decks. It keeps their cards safe, and lets games start faster. For good or bad, people seem to be a lot more forgiving of proxy cards when an official copy can be produced upon request.


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