On Magic: Part 3 — The Competitive Drive

James Hsu
14 min readAug 9, 2015

Update: The full book is published! More details here.

What’s shaped me most as a gamer is my fierce competitive drive. While I can be mild-mannered and non-confrontational in everyday life, everything changes when I am placed in a competitive gaming environment. It doesn’t matter whether I’m playing Super Mario Brothers or poker — I want to beat my opponents in convincing fashion. If I can’t win, I want to study the game and get better at it so that I can eventually win. Forget about meeting James-the-nice-guy at the poker table. If I’m competing, I want to crush my opponents. I want to collect every damned chip on the poker table.

This competitive desire to win manifests itself in several negative ways. At times, I’ll be frustrated with myself because I didn’t think that I played optimally. Other times, I’ll scowl because I’m in a dark state of mind. I may even behave nicely and normally on the outside, but mix in a few verbal jabs at my opponents. I’ve become increasingly aware of how awful I can be. These days, I can act as if things are fine on the outside, but it doesn’t change how I feel inside. I just don’t like to lose.

The reason I picked Magic as my homecoming game was simple. I needed an outlet for competition and felt that poker was no longer healthy nor suitable for me. I wanted to compete in something that I felt I could walk away from at any time. I wanted to feel the competitive fire consume me, as Star Wars once did, because that’s when I felt most dominant and in control.

The great irony is that as much as I felt in control, I really wasn’t. First of all, there was an opponent sitting across from me who also honed his skills through practice and preservation. Second, the game I played involved elements of luck, and separating skill from luck in post-game analysis was easier said than done. Third, the emotional highs and lows I experienced in-game were difficult to control. The competitive drive shapes me into a different person, and provides temporary loss of control, but I still craved it.

The beginnings of my competitive drive originated from playing basketball. For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved basketball. Whether it was playing, watching or studying the game — I loved it all. There was a dark side to this, though. I’ve always been that guy on the basketball court — that jerk who took things way too seriously, and yelled at his teammates for making mistakes. That guy who argued with opposing players and resorted to physicality. That kind of person you did NOT want to play with.

In my younger days, my basketball state of mind was unwavering — I wanted to win every game I played in. It never occurred to me that others may play the game for different reasons, and that I needed to adjust my mentality. Even when my opponents wanted to have fun on the court, I refused to acknowledge that anything other than playing seriously mattered. I played physically and intensely with everyone. I was definitely not a fun person to be with, on the basketball court. Taking it easy on people was not in my vocabulary; playing the right way was.

I believed that playing basketball the right way meant playing with effort. All basketball players possess different strengths and physical attributes. Some are blessed with athletic ability, and some aren’t. Regardless of one’s genetic makeup, however, there was one true equalizer — determination. Players didn’t have to be supreme athletes to make effort plays, such as chasing after rebounds, playing focused defense, or running fast breaks. Effort plays merely demanded mental focus and discipline. Playing with full-on effort felt like one of the universal truths of sport, and greatly appealed to my sense of competition.

Effort plays also left me with battle scars. Two dislocated shoulders, one chipped tooth, stitches above my eyebrows, and countless twisted ankles later, these physical artifacts remind me of just how physical the game can be. But I’d have it no other way. I’m proud to possess my scars, because they remind me that physical sacrifices have to be made in the spirit of competition. That concept was pure and true.

As I played less basketball in my post-university years, I shifted my competitive energy into games like poker and Magic. Card games were my gateway to competition, at a time when I could no longer out-run or out-jump younger basketball players. The return to Magic was exciting because I could now be competitive in a way that transcended physical requirements. I could theoretically compete in Magic for as long as the game existed, and my mind was working. Magic was an accessible battlefield, the equivalent of pro athletes playing golf or poker after their professional playing days were a thing of the past.

The competitive drive comes with a set of built-in limitations. When I won, I felt good, but only for a very limited amount of time. When I lost, the feeling would consume me for much longer intervals. It certainly felt disproportionate in terms of gain/loss. Nonetheless, I enjoy Magic and its meritocratic way of making players feel like the stronger player is rewarded. Unlike basketball, Magic is an individual sport and not based on teamwork. Every successful or failed moment could be attributed to the self, and not to a lazy or uninvolved teammate. I cherished this type of competition, which was open yet accountable.

Controlling my competitive drive is an everlasting journey, and an ongoing process. I’m a lot more relaxed with age, but I still revert back to old habits when I’m not careful. Nonetheless, I feel fortunate that this drive has helped me hone my mental and physical skills, and I am optimistic that it will continue to do so. It is truly both a blessing and curse.

Do “peaks” and personal bests exist when it comes to a game like Magic: The Gathering? The game is all mental, so it’s not something that immediately comes to mind.

If peaks exist, then my Magic-playing journey certainly peaked in 2010–11. I was on a natural high and firing on all cylinders, in terms of the fun I was having and how I approached the game. I was playing a lot of Magic and improving as a player on a daily basis. Unfortunately, this “Magical period” made me overlook all the negatives I’ve experienced with the game, and with myself, since then.

2010–11 makes me want to “hang on” to the notion that playing Magic is worth it. Part of the reason I play today is for the remote possibility of conjuring up past glories and endorphin rushes, collected during this time period. While I am grateful for the highs of Magic, I am also resentful that its nostalgic powers have not allowed me to move on from the game. Like an aging pro athlete who is not willing to retire, I crave a return to this period, even though I am 99% sure that it will not happen again. It’s hard to replicate lightning in a bottle.

Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t all sunshine and roses. This period was a high for me as a competitive Magic player, but a low for me in other respects. At this time, I was unhappy and semi-depressed on a personal level, because I ended a long-term relationship with a girl who I thought I’d marry and spend the rest of my life with. Things had been building up to this moment. We were stable together for many years, but as we got closer to marriage, I wanted more. After a lot of painful soul-searching, I realized that I would be satisfied walking down this path with her, but I wouldn’t be happy. That was the key differentiator which led to the relationship’s undoing.

So, for the first time in seven years, I was single again, after having spent a quarter of my life with this girl. If there was a rock bottom, this was it. I doubted myself. Did I make the right choice? Am I deliberately sabotaging the situation? Did I deserve to be with anyone at all? These questions constantly surfaced and re-surfaced in my mind, with no clear answer. I started to ask myself if my desire to compete was somehow related to the desire to be happy. Was I chasing something mythical, outside of my control, which I would never find? If I “won” at a game or “settled down” in life, would I really be happy?

I wanted to wash away all the pain and disappointment that came out of this breakup. I was back at square one in terms of being in a romantic relationship, with nothing to show for it. There was definitely inner panic, due to the fact that I was approaching thirty years of age. There’s always been a little voice inside my head that excelled at pushing my buttons and telling me to go harder and faster. That voice now whispered in my ear: you’re running out of time. James, you’re older and still inexperienced in the ways of relationships. You managed to fuck this one up. Why would anyone ever want to be with you?

I wasn’t exactly sure that I wanted to continue living in Vancouver, Canada, either. It felt small and limiting, because my ex and I shared a similar group of friends. I was constantly running into them, all the time. I didn’t feel like I owed an explanation to anyone as to why I made my life decisions.

To compound the problem, I was toiling away at a local startup company, working crazy hours and on the verge of burning out. Now that I was single, I poured more time into the job, as a form of self-flagellation for my sins. It was unhealthy. I was doing an unexpectedly good job of compartmentalizing my sadness. After my boss found out about my personal situation, he remarked that it was amazing and that he “basically couldn’t tell I was going through all that.” James, this is the voice inside your head again. You’re not only a fuck up, you’re also real good at covering your tracks. Way to go, cyborg.

Yes, I needed a change.

See where this is going? Outlet, thy name is Magic. I sank myself deeper and deeper into the one thing that carried me through the last few years. Unlike poker, it was pure. Pure competition and fun. I imprinted Magic more deeply into my identity. Whereas I might have previously found time to play in one tournament a month, due to self-imposed “responsible grown-up rules” I placed on myself, I was now ready to dedicate myself to becoming a better Magic player.

I started playing once or twice a week. I was open to improving, and sought advice from better players. I discussed strategy with others. I play-tested more outside of tournaments to keep my skills sharp and get my repetition in. In this process, my friendships with fellow Magic players grew stronger. Some of them found out about my situation and supported me as best they could — I am still grateful today for their patience and understanding.

I didn’t have a significant other anymore. I felt justified to increase my spending on Magic cards, and rationalize them as “investments.” During this time, I started buying “foreign black border” dual lands, which were functionally identical to white border cards at three times the price. They were the Magic equivalent of buying fancy rims for a car — mostly superfluous. But I liked the black-bordered cards in foreign languages. This was my version of a Maserati.

More than anything, I liked how the cards looked in my deck. They were rarer and hard to acquire. I wanted to receive compliments from other players when they saw that I was fancying up my deck. Peer pressure also helped. I now had Magic friends who were also collecting high-end swag, so why not? It seemed simple to step away from adult responsibilities for a little while, and focus my efforts on buying high-end collectible cards. Competition also allowed for a little escape every now and then.

In my defense, these black-bordered dual lands have provided amazing value just a few short years later. Due to the increasing popularity of Magic collectibles, they’ve consistently gone up in value. Magic cards are incredibly liquid, to boot, so I would have no issue finding a buyer should I feel the need to liquidate. As a general rule, Magic cards appreciate in value over time. I’ve talked to my good friend Matt about pooling our money together and starting a Magic hedge fund. And we’ve been completely serious about it.

I was no longer going into Magic tournaments expecting to lose, as I did when I first tried my hand at organized play. With plenty of playtesting and discussion under my belt, I was prepared and ready. My friends had this mindset, because they had been honing their skills for several years. But for me, it was new and exciting to catch up. I was growing as a player through practice and immersion in the game.

Mind you, it wasn’t just this process of growing as a Magic player that contributed to my strong sense of nostalgia. It was the experience of traveling across North America to play in the Legacy Grand Prix in 2011, with my two good friends Matt and James, which forever changed my view of the game. The Grand Prix was one of the biggest Legacy format tournaments around, and this year it was held in Providence, Rhode Island. The East Coast had a strong heritage of competitive Magic players who knew the format inside and out. While my friends and I were based on the West Coast, we certainly wanted to compete with the best. A few months in advance, we were planning the whole thing. We figured out a way to get there cheaply, and make an epic road trip out of it. We had no doubts that it would be the experience of a lifetime – which it most certainly was.

Beginning our journey in Vancouver, we flew to Toronto. From there, we took the seediest Greyhound bus of our lives to Buffalo, New York. In the darkest of nights, we rented a car in Buffalo and drove nine hours to Washington, DC. Soon after, we visited New York City proper, before arriving at our destination in Providence. The journey was long, memorable and glorious.

By the time we arrived in Providence, we were ready to play in the largest Legacy tournament of our lives, in the biggest stage for Magic. I had the fortune of winning three byes to start the tournament, as I won a Grand Prix Trial in Vancouver. The impact of having three byes cannot be understated, as it meant that I had three free wins and could skip the first three rounds of the tournament. By the time round 4 came around, I had studied my environment, re-focused, and was ready to do battle.

At the time, I was playing and honing my favorite strategy, called Zoo. Zoo is aptly named – the strategy consisted of playing a lot of fast-hitting animals and critters; it relies on speed rather than resilience to beat opponents. I was so invested in squeezing out every edge I could, that I read every article I could find on it. I even cold-emailed a well-known online Zoo player to introduce myself. He and I exchanged a lot of ideas before the big event. I loved my Zoo deck to death, and it remains my favorite strategy of all time.

Once the tournament started, I was in a relaxed state of mind. I took down rounds 4 and 5 fairly easily. I drew well, and my opponents did not. The Magic gods appeared to favor me. In-between matches, I would check on Matt and James to see how they were doing. As we talked, I couldn’t help but get caught up in the incredible atmosphere of the tournament’s venue. While it was just a large convention center, Magic players were everywhere. Everyone was focused and determined, trying to grind out one more win in their journey. It was a joy to see so many Magic players gathered in one place, from all over the continental United States.

The story didn’t have a happy ending, as the proverbial wheels fell off for me in the later rounds. This was the breakout tournament for the Channel Fireball Magic team, who used a Landstill Stoneblade deck in Legacy for the first time. Channel Fireball was a popular Magic web site, and the team consisted of professionals and ringers who played the game. I played against both Martin Juza and Adam Barnello, two Channel Fireballers who played the deck extremely well. I lost both of my matches with them due to a combination of inexperience and sub-optimal play. It didn’t help that I had never seen some of the cards they played that tournament, and even committed a serious play error in a pivotal game.

The great thing about Magic, though, is learning from one’s mistakes. Every Magic player possessed a mental rolodex of do’s and don’ts. I’ve lost matches through mistakes, and it’s easy to imprint those mistakes into memory so that they rarely occur again. The competitive experience, and primary element for success in Magic, is to make less mistakes than one’s opponents. Over time, this mental catalogue grows for every player and allows them to get better and stronger at the game.

It was tough to lose to Juza and Barnello, but I stayed upbeat. While my Grand Prix journey was over, I looked at where I was in my Magic playing life and tried to put things into perspective. I was playing in the biggest stage for Magic for the first time, with no overwhelming expectations for myself. I played to the best of my ability. I had a supportive group of Magic-playing friends, and two of them were right here with me. This road trip has been, in every sense of the word, awesome. I was in a happy place, and possessed enough latitude to enjoy myself despite not making Day 2.

Mentally speaking, I was in a good place. Grand Prix Providence 2011 was the culmination of everything I’d experienced as a Magic player since 2006, elevated to a higher level. Throw in the fact that I was entering a new romantic relationship with a girl who I really clicked with, and the world just seemed open to so many new possibilities.

To be continued…in Part 4

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James Hsu

Co-founder / CTO, CardBoard Live. Author. Podcaster.