Update: The full book is published! More details here.
University is supposed to be a period in time when young adults “grow up” and leave juvenile things like card games behind forever. At least, that’s what I told myself as I prepared to enter my undergraduate studies. I played more basketball and started jogging for fun and profit. This new level of activity, coupled with a liquid diet in the summer of 2000, resulted in me losing 30 pounds. I felt lighter, more active and more confident. Talking to members of the opposite sex felt manageable. The Star Wars card game I obsessed over was now a thing of the past.
The “new James” strategy worked, for the better part of four years. But some obsessions never truly die — they only rise from the dead, like a phoenix from the ashes. How is it that I relapsed back into Magic, a game that I had not played for the better part of five years? How did I leave one obsession behind, only to acquire two new ones? And how did the takeover occur so completely and thoroughly for the better part of the next decade?
It all began with an innocent gathering with some old high school friends. The rest, as they say, is history.
It was a casual affair. A small gathering at my buddy Matthew’s place. It was digital gaming night. We played a few games on the Sega Dreamcast and on the PC. Soul Caliber, Street Fighter, and Starcraft. We had fun trash talking each other. It was already the downswing of the gaming session, and a few folks were ready to head home. But lo and behold — Matthew had some old Magic decks laying around his house! None of us had played since high school, because we were all “grown up” with adult priorities like computer gaming and drinking. We’d forgotten about the game, for a little while. On a whim, we dusted off the old decks and started playing.
In hindsight, I should have said “no” to all of it and gone straight home. We’d had a few drinks by then, and it was getting late. I was certainly feeling sleepy. But a few casual games couldn’t hurt, right?
As I shuffled my deck of Magic cards, I could feel myself settling back into my old rhythms. It felt fun, and important, to make little decisions over the course of a game, and to decide my fate in its outcome. I turned my mana sources sideways to “tap” them for magical energy, and used that energy to cast spells and summon creatures. It had been ages since I’d played Magic, but for me it was like riding a bicycle — you just don’t forget. You never forget your first gaming love.
My interest in the game was re-kindled that night. My friends and I had subsequent Magic gaming sessions. And through the process, I began researching all the things that had happened to Magic over my long hiatus. It turned out that Magic’s publisher, Wizards of the Coast, was doing phenomenally well. Magic was going strong as a card game. I pored over online inventories of cards I had missed out on during my university years. The game felt fresh because the rules didn’t change. But new cards did change the fabric of the game, and they injected a new vitality into my obsessive pursuit.
I started buying cards again. I would go to the card store and buy a sealed pack of cards. I would open the pack, and be either happy or disappointed depending on what was inside. I would usually buy another pack, and then another, trying to find cards that I liked. After some time, I graduated to buying individual cards online, or at the store. I enjoyed categorizing my cards and placing them in different piles. I enjoyed surprising my casual playgroup with strong new cards that I would casually slip into our gaming sessions.
Magic became an arms race. My friends were just playing the same casual cards over and over again. But I inhabited an inner competitiveness — call it a gift and a curse. While Derek, David and Edgar were stuck in ancient times with their old decks and strategies, I was stockpiling new cards and finding modern ways to win the game. I enjoyed beating them through a combination of acquisition and research. It wasn’t enough to just play the game — I needed to win in convincing fashion.
My friend Matthew possessed the closest thing to a tournament caliber deck at the time. It was an over-powered monstrosity of a deck that won consistently, like a well-oiled tank. I remember playing him over and over, and losing more times than not. But with each loss, I wanted to bounce back and understand how Matthew beat me. I felt like I was getting closer to winning, which was certainly an irrational feeling in retrospect, because it wasn’t true. It certainly says something about myself that I would rather be in a competitive situation, win or lose, than play “casual” Magic where my pre-conceptions of “stakes” were low. It also says something about my ability to rationalize “getting closer” to victory, and sticking with it.
In hindsight, this made sense. I was not only irrationally competitive in games, but I needed to channel my competitive juices into something after quitting online poker cold turkey in my post-university days.
The backstory to this Magic revival was online poker. Playing poker online was absolutely taking over my life at the time. I was a year into the poker obsession and I finally called it quits. All the negative signs were there: I was spending inordinate amounts of time in front of my computer, logging into Full Tilt Poker or Pokerstars. I was playing for small stakes each night and becoming emotionally invested in my results. I would get frustrated when I lost, and sink more time into it when I won. I spent all of my waking time reading up on strategies on how to become a better poker player, and reading hand analysis on poker sites. When I wasn’t playing, I was watching televised poker. It was getting out of control.
My poker “rock bottom” occurred one dark Friday night, after a long day at work. I went home, logged in to a poker site, and started playing four tables simultaneously. I usually play two tables, but I was impatient that night. I wanted to play more tables so that I could see more hands per hour. In the poker rat race, it’s easy to get impatient while waiting for good hands to show up. Playing multiple tables kept me more engaged, but it also amplified the wins and losses each night.
That night, things looked promising at the beginning. In a few quick hands, I went up a few hundred bucks. I was hitting all my draws and out-playing my opponents. It seemed like a promising early sign. But I lacked discipline and fortitude in online poker. I treated most sessions as an exercising in “clocking in” my poker hours. I never took breaks or stopped to reflect on how I played, in the moment. I couldn’t stop to smell the roses or analyze the spots where I could have played better.
The rush of poker was just too strong at the time — I wanted to keep playing it. In my head, I thought I was an intellectual player, in the same vein as when I played Magic or Star Wars. But in reality, I was a loose cannon and too prone to letting emotion take over my game. I wasn’t so much playing poker, as poker was playing me.
That night was the perfect reflection of my symptoms. As I won early, I played progressively “looser,” getting myself into more trouble and yet refusing to log off or step away for a few minutes. The story has a familiar ending — I managed to lose all my winnings that night, an hour later.
Did I stop myself and call it a night? No, I kept going, irrationally convinced that I could play through this trouble. Foolishly, I told myself that I would “bounce back” if I could just keep weathering the storm.
But my emotions were getting the better of me. I couldn’t stop thinking about the hand I played fifteen minutes ago, where I got unlucky. Or the hand I could have won had I stayed with it. I was on pure emotional tilt, and most dangerous of all, I felt myself above all that.
I played more and more hands, without much in the way of results. I started losing track of time, until I heard a sound outside my window.
It was the sound of a rooster crowing. I then realized that the sun was coming up, and that I had played roughly fourteen consecutive hours of online poker. Time was now a foreign concept.
This was a definitive wake-up call. It was Saturday afternoon, I was down a bunch of money, and I hadn’t slept. At that point, I was fatigued, frustrated and in a sour mood. What did I have to show for it? Absolutely nothing. The only things I could tangibly “claim” in this nightmarish session were the dark circles under my eyes.
That was the key incident that made me quit playing poker for money. I still play the game with friends for low stakes, but I’ll never make poker a “job” again. I know that it enabled the worst parts of me and my addictive personality.
Everything is interconnected. At this point in my life, I needed to channel my competitive juices into something else, and Magic was the outlet. Not only that, but I justified my level of “fandom” of Magic with a well-reasoned list:
It’s not as bad as poker.
I’m not losing money anymore. I could always get back on my feet if I got too addicted in Magic, because it’s safe. I have nothing to lose, other than my time.
If I’ve experienced the highs and lows of playing a card game for money, playing a card game out of enjoyment should be a piece of cake.
It’s absolutely OK to have a hobby like Magic, and be invested emotionally here, because at least it’s not as bad as an online gaming addiction.
So I threw myself into Magic with gusto. The next step was perfectly logical and just as addictive as online poker: enter the Magic competitive circuit.
I did a little bit of research to understand how I wanted to get back into competition.
Wizards of the Coast had evolved Magic into several iterations. Much like professional sports, there were different ways to play. There was the format known as “Standard,” where only the newest cards were allowed, and older cards were no longer permitted for play. This made sense on a business level — if players could just play old cards they owned, and compete with what they already had, how were they going to sell cards? There was “Extended,” which allowed for a combination of old and new cards alike. There was “Draft,” which allowed players to assemble decks on-the-fly with packs they open, and put players’ real-time deckbuilding skills to the test.
But there was also the “Eternal” format for diehard players. This format allowed you to use nearly every Magic card you owned, with the exception of cards that were design mistakes and banned from ever seeing the light of day again. The barrier to entry was high in “Eternal,” because the playgroups were smaller than the mainstream “Standard” groups, and so events were harder to find on a regular basis. Older cards were more expensive to track down and buy. But because they never rotated out and became obsolete, it made sense that they would command a higher price tag. Most of an “Eternal” player’s collection would never need to be replaced, and old cards could be used indefinitely. There was another plus that I uncovered in my research: because “Eternal” players were generally older (they were young when the old cards came out), they were generally a little more relaxed and sociable.
As I read about “Eternal” Magic, I sensed that I had found my nirvana. I missed out on several years of Magic releases, due to my involvement in Star Wars and then leaving it all behind to focus on school. To play an “Eternal” format meant that I could not only play the most powerful cards printed in the game, but get a chance to see older cards in action from the time period that I’d been away. The learning curve of this sub-genre of Magic was going to be high, but I was patient and thought that I could take the initial punishing losses and not give up. I didn’t expect to do well in tournaments at first, but I could work my way up. Besides, this was a less mainstream version of Magic, and if there’s anything that my childhood taught me, it was my propensity to be a little different.
This was around 2006, a year after I graduated from university. I didn’t have a lot of competitive cards back then, so I decided to play a mono-blue control deck by assembling what I had, and buying a little bit here and there. It wasn’t a top tier deck, but I didn’t own any of the multi-color lands that would enable better combinations of decks and stronger strategies. I did my research and knew that I was fighting an uphill battle, but I was mentally ready.
Needless to say, I got trounced in my first competitive Magic tournament. I was nervous. I made play mistakes. My opponents played many powerful cards, and “killed me” quickly. I didn’t know how the Magic competitive rules worked. Other players had to patiently explain to me how advanced interactions worked. I didn’t have confidence going into any of my matches, and was hanging on for dear life.
I lost, but I was hooked once again with the drug that was competitive gaming. I was tapped into that thing again — the idea of playing a game competitively, where winning and losing were tangible outcomes and I wanted to be good at it, despite all odds.
I relapsed back into my old ways.
Even in that initial Magic tournament, the personalities of my fellow Magic players materialized into plain view, and would be refined in my mind countless times. In every card store, in any part of the world, stereotypes and generalizations exist. And for the most part, they are true. It’s hard not to notice negative connotations of Magic players mentioned on Reddit or various places of the Internet. Chances are, even if you’ve never played Magic, you have some formed perception of what Magic players are like.
Here’s the rundown, based purely on personal experience:
The socially awkward folks who play the card game to validate their own existence or self-worth. They seek not to compete, but to demonstrate some sort of intellectual superiority over others, as if winning with a unique set of card combinations that they “innovated” meant that they won in life. If they could play SimCity/solitaire with Magic cards, and treat their opponents as automatons, they probably would.
The abrasive loudmouth players who will not stop talking at anyone around them. When the loudmouths talk, everyone pretends to not hear them, or make eye contact, for fear of being sucked into an awkward “conversation” that would last for a solid thirty minutes. Loudmouth players are generally sociopaths who lack empathy for other human beings.
The “poker players” of Magic. Not because they play poker (though some do), but because they will recount endless situations and tragic “bad beat stories” that had befallen them while they played in last week’s tournament. Newsflash — nobody gives a shit how unlucky you got, it’s a fucking card game. A variation of the loudmouth player, but sadder and more insufferable.
The perpetually entitled God’s-gift-to-Magic players. Insufferable, arrogant pricks who feel entitled to win every match over you because they were “better” or “made the right decisions.” If they won, it’s because they were skilled. If you won, it’s because you were a stupid lucksack and waste of space. Never mind that Magic is a card game designed around a mixture of skill and luck. If you beat one of these guys, quickly walk away or risk a long-winded lecture. These entitled pricks are psychopaths-in-training; nearly all of them are egomaniacs.
The whiners. They’ll whine not only about in-game situations, but about anything Magic related. Maybe they don’t like the way new cards designed. Maybe they don’t like the chair they’re sitting in, or that the tournament they played in was not well organized and lacked sufficient prize payout. If you give them a hundred dollar bill, they’ll complain about how it was folded. Whiners are physical manifestations of Internet trolls — in a state of complaining loudly and doing nothing about the situation.
The Magic druggies. I witnessed a former coworker frequent the local card store 24/7, always looking for the latest Magic card fix or trading with kids half her age. If I didn’t do exactly the same thing, albeit in 1/5 of the time that she spent, I probably would have called her out or felt more sad about it.
Magic is absolutely full of insufferable misfits and outcasts that ruin it for everyone else. Of course, that’s not to say that everyone is like this, but most people are. And it does make the game unpleasant when you’re having a rough day winning matches and you’re wondering, why the hell am I here, playing this forsaken card game with people like this?
In my darkest times of gaming, when I look at myself with revulsion and wonder aloud, why do I do this, why do I play this stupid card game, the stereotypes come back to me. They remind me of all that is unpleasant with the game; they remind me of myself. These thoughts reside in a part of my mind that is never satisfied, always unhappy, and perpetually glass half-empty.
The irony is that all of these stereotypes represent me. I can be an elitist, insufferable prick. I’m definitely “all about winning.” I have felt entitled to win, when I felt that I “deserved” to win a matchup that I had prepared for in agonizing fashion, like a mid-term exam. At different points in time, I have inhabited all of these ugly Magic personas, even if I only thought terrible thoughts and never externalized them.
These misfit Magic players never made me quit the game, anyway. I’m a grown-ass man. It would take a lot more than players with surly attitudes to stop me from playing. Most things I start and stop doing in life never have anything to do with other people. I don’t hide from situations or people. If I stop something, it’s on my own terms. It’s about control.
I’ve probably let a few relationships continue far too long, because I wouldn’t quit or give up some false perceived sense of control. But my philosophy is that I won’t let other people ruin my enjoyment of life. If I do that, the terrorists will have already won. I probably could have, probably should have quit in 2006, when I started to obsessively play in tournaments. But I didn’t stop myself.
Here’s the glass half-full perspective: there ARE good reasons to play the game. Despite all the terrible personalities that exist, I managed to meet a few folks who were laid back and cool about things. Some of them have become close personal friends. Even the cool folks exhibit ugly characteristics from time to time — let’s face it, one has to be a little bit unstable to play a card game competitively. Friendship through Magic is like a non-sexual version of online dating — the hobby just attracts a certain type of person. With shared interests, it’s easy to share some common ground.
As my Magic friends and I talked over the years, we landed on a few reasons for it being such a great game:
It’s infinitely complex, with a lot of room for reflection and improvement. There are so many decisions in any given scenario. Two players can play the same situation differently and both be “right.” It is a game where good plays are rewarded, bad play is punished, and players enforce their force of will on the game. A fancier, more descriptive version is that the game like sparring in martial arts — one who makes the fewest mistakes, wins.
Magic makes you feel intellectually superior for making a play or decision in a game that leads to a win. Or even knowing that in a loss, the right play was made. As they say in poker, focus on decisions and not results. In any partially luck-driven game, there is bound to be short-term variance.
It appeals to people who would love nothing better than to spend disposable income on esoteric pieces of cardboard that are somehow more expensive than “real life” things like cars or computers. There’s an entire subculture around “pimping” one’s deck, much as one would pimp a car. Sure, nobody needs the shiny rim and amazing paintjob if you’re just trying to get from point A to point B, but it’s still awesome to own something that you’re proud of. I am quite guilty of getting into this subculture.
It taps into a childhood nostalgia that is still very much alive, twenty years later. When my brother and I started playing back in grade school, we had absolutely no idea that Magic would have the lasting power that it did. But it’s survived due to all the reasons above, and just being a fun game to play. It’s firmly in the pantheon of Monopoly/Chess/Poker now, if a little less mainstream.
You can adopt certain strategies that allow you to win on your own terms, with style and panache. One reason I play “Legacy” (one of the aforementioned “Eternal” formats) is because it allows creativity and self-expression. The card combinations are plentiful, and there are many different ways to implement a winning strategy. For a pseudo-hipster like me, it wasn’t just important to win, but I needed to win on my own terms. While I didn’t want to play “Sim City Magic,” I still wanted to play “hipster cool cards Magic.” Legacy allowed cool cards and cool ways to win.
Compete on a mental level, because it’s easier than competing on a physical level. Recall what I said about channeling one’s competitive juices — I’m never going to be dominant on the basketball court or through any objective comparison to a professional athlete. But when I play Magic, I can be on an equal playing field with many other dedicated players, both professional and non-professional.
This has shaped my path over the next decade — playing a fantasy card game that fed my competitive urges, and provided its share of good and bad. Little did I know that despite riding out the storms in my life, the worst was yet to come.
To be continued…in Part 3
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