On Magic: Part 4 — Chinese Ascendancy

James Hsu
15 min readAug 25, 2015


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

Gaming transcends nationalities and borders, often in unexpected ways. Magic: The Gathering has traveled with me to places around the world and provided me with a truly global perspective. In places like New York, Amsterdam and Munich, I’ve sat down with strangers to play Magic, armed with only our mutual love of the game as a shared language. Some of these strangers have, over time, become life-long friends. No matter where I was, I could always find a vibrant community of Magic enthusiasts. It comes as no surprise, then, that I would find my Magic “fix” as I moved to China in early 2012, even if I didn’t look for it immediately.

For a Taiwanese-Canadian guy in his late twenties, moving to China was no small transition. In late 2011, hot off the rush of Grand Prix Providence, I made the decision to leave my family and friends behind for good. I would leave my existing obligations, with no pre-defined return date, in search of new adventures and experiences. My non-gaming friends generally perceived me as mild-mannered and risk-averse; consequently, my announcement came about as a shock to them. They asked me why I would want to leave Vancouver for life in the Middle Kingdom. Most of my Taiwanese friends had only heard horror stories about Mainland China. Even my mother even asked me to reconsider.

Still, I had made up my mind. Big life events generally require a leap of faith, and I had more than naïve optimism to guide me on this decision. For one, leaving Vancouver signified a new beginning; I could leave all traces of my Canadian life, including my failed long-term relationship, in the past. Also, things were progressing well with the lovely girl that I met in Beijing, China. Despite the long physical distance between us, we talked several times a day on the phone. We even visited each other a few times in our respective countries. After a few months had passed, we decided to give the relationship-to-be a shot in the arm by closing the location gap. It helped that during this time, I had already received a job offer to work in Beijing as a Software Product Manager. Product Management was a part of the tech industry I desperately wanted to be in, and this was my chance.

New beginning, new relationship, new career. No-brainer, right?

As I flew across the Pacific Ocean, however, I knew that there were going to be challenges ahead. The biggest challenge was uncertainty. The clearly defined rules of engagement that I relished when I played games like Magic were inapplicable to the laws and physics of the real world. To move to a foreign land meant giving up elements of control, certainty and predictability. While most things in my life had turned out relatively fine, I knew that the past did not dictate the future. There was so much ahead of me that I knew nothing about.

Had I over-romanticized the move? Would I hate living in China? Would I work well with Chinese people in my new job? While I was not one to give up easily on new pursuits, in the back of mind, I rested my finger over the “China reset button.” Should things not go well, well…there was always the opportunity to go back. It might be a last resort, but it’s there.

Needless to say, for the first time in a long time, gaming would take a back seat to the other things that awaited me as I landed in Beijing that fateful day. The competitive drive that propelled my obsession with Magic would lie dormant for a while, as I gathered my affairs in order.

Fortunately, I made it. I didn’t run back to Canada — far from it. Fast forward to 2015, and I’m still living in China, loving life and enjoying my relationship with the same girl whom I met so many years ago. What’s crazier is that I managed to live one whole year in China without actually thinking about Magic, or opening a Magic-related website. One year was definitely a personal record for someone whose entire life was dominated by an interest in card games.

In retrospect, I did it using a combination of willpower, precautionary measures, and necessity. As I was getting my priorities straight and trying to understand the lay of the land, it was easy to tell myself that hobbies would take a back seat to the Chinese way of life. I also conscientiously left my Magic cards back home in Canada, so that I could resist the temptation to “relapse.” Furthermore, I focused a lot of my initial time in Beijing to healthy living and regular exercise. I started going to the gym and playing basketball more frequently. Living unhealthily while toiling away at a startup had taken a toll on my body, and I was focusing on getting back in shape. Magic certainly felt counter-productive to achieving my fitness goals.

Part of my 12-month card game fasting period also consisted of willfully ignoring the Beijing Magic scene. As a self-rationalization exercise, I told myself that China was a developing country and that few, if any, Chinese could afford to play a game like Magic. While the game was international and localized into many languages, including Chinese, it was hard to imagine many Beijing Magic players playing the niche “Eternal” formats that I loved.

What I failed to account for, of course, was the propensity for any Magic player to ignore the financial costs of the game once they were hooked. As I have now found out, China has no shortage of players who spend inordinate amounts of their disposable income on a fantasy card game. If there was ever a time to look in the mirror and be hypocritical about assuming what other people would do, this was it.

"Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans” — John Lennon

I certainly had a plan for myself and my career. The plan for Magic was to be on the back-burner, relegated to nothing more than an innocent diversion. But life is funny sometimes. The game had a pull of its own, and beckoned for me to come back. Little by little, the walls I erected to keep the game out of sight, out of mind broke down.

Come 2013, I was feeling better about every aspect of my life. Life with my girlfriend was happy. My job was treating me well. I was in respectable physical shape. Now that I had my routines down, it was easier to justify getting back into Magic. After all, what could be better than a reunion with an old friend?

To ease my way back into Magic, I resolved to avoid the Beijing Magic scene, at least initially. To limit my obsessive habits, I decided to hold on to one competitive Magic deck, and only play the deck when I visited the United States. This was my way of drawing clear lines of separation when it came to the game — North America was associated with Magic, but China was not. And what happened in North America stayed in North America. It was my way of compartmentalizing.

Now, the act of playing in local tournaments visiting North America wasn’t a new phenomenon for me — I developed the habit a few years back while I traveled to different locations for work. I absolutely loved being able to play Magic not only in my hometown, but in cities like Austin, Seattle, San Francisco, Amsterdam, Taipei, and New York. Using Magic as an opportunity to meet people who I never would have otherwise had the chance to meet, given my introverted nature, was fantastic.

As I restarted my Magic playing ways, I was having fun and enjoying myself. But the joy of the game would also cascade in unexpectedly negative ways. Since I decided to limit my playing time to the limited times that I spent outside of China, this amounted to only playing three or four times a year. While playing a little bit was better than nothing, the negative spiral came out of my desire to do well at these events.

Quite irrationally, I placed myself back in my “golden age” of Magic, when I was practicing multiple times a week and knew the format like the back of my hand. While I was now a casual Magic player, at best, and not putting in nearly the amount of time into the game to be remotely competitive, I still expected to win every match.

I still felt bad when I lost, and chased the feeling of victory. Despite being a casual player.

In hindsight, this was sheer madness. This was a real mental and emotional problem.

I tried to shift my mental approach to “let’s just have fun playing Magic,” but it was not working. The competitive part of my mind was fighting this desire to just have fun. Playing just to play was not enough. Not only had I changed (and devolved) as a player, but the format had also changed over the last couple of years. New cards had been printed, and with new cards came new strategies. Old strategies fell out of favor. Having a notion of how to play the game could only get me so far, and I was struggling. It’s one thing to know how to ride a bicycle; it’s quite another to win the Tour de France.

To compound the problem, I chose the hardest bicycle to win a race with. In 2013, I resolved to play just one deck, a competitive “Storm” deck. Playing Storm in Magic was like solving a complex math problem. The individual cards needed to synergize in order to carry the player to victory; the player needed to think critically to win each match. Winning with Storm was analogous to knowing what the opponent would do, and stepping through the possibilities to solve the puzzle. What’s more, the margin for error was extremely unforgiving compared to other competitive decks — Storm was an elegant yet complicated ballet, with one misstep being the difference between life and death.

So why did I choose Storm? It appealed to the Magic hipster in me. It was unconventional yet powerful. Every victory felt sweet, and appealed to the “win in style” mindset that I adopted over my years of playing Magic. Storm rewarded intimate knowledge and practice of the deck, and punished mistakes. It wasn’t easy to thread its poison needle into the places it needed to go, but it had moxie.

Unfortunately, it just wasn’t something that could be played effectively without a lot of practice. More practice than three or four times a year. As I committed one play mistake after another, which resulted in match losses, I found myself in a deep mental rut. As much as I tried to laugh off a mistake in a match, it affected me. I wanted to get better, but I didn’t put in the time to get better. And I couldn’t lower my expectations. That insidious feeling came back to me, from my childhood — I felt entitled to win.

Given the way I was wired, I presented myself with the only ultimatum I knew: put in a lot more practice at Magic, or quit completely. In my mind, those were the only reasonable options.

Come 2014, I was at this crossroads. I agonized over the decision. When I was unable to make the choice, I put the game down for a couple of months. It was time for a bit of soul-searching.

Since my days in Canada, I’ve frequented a Magic forum called “The Source.” It is, hands down, the best place to discuss the Eternal Legacy format. I’ve made many great connections over the years with regulars on the forum, despite having never met them face-to-face. It’s where I’ve discussed ideas with other creative players, and received a ton of useful advice.

As a result of “The Source,” I’ve made great friendships with people from all over the world. Many of the online friendships have translated to real-life ones. The one thing I love about the community is that Magic players can be incredibly generous with their time. Whether it’s showing someone around a city, offering game advice, or helping someone out on a personal level — Magic players are capable of showing the love. I’m forever indebted to the community for its altruism, and try to pay it forward when I can.
It’s no exaggeration to say that “The Source,” and what it represents, has kept me going through my good and bad times in Magic. Reading the forums and having well-reasoned discussions with other members has improved my livelihood on several occasions. It is my sanctuary and my elixir.

As fate would have it, it was precisely because of “The Source” that I found my connection to the Beijing Magic community. During my self-imposed Magic suspension period in early 2014, I was browsing the forums when I realized that one of its members, GoblinZ, was a Beijing Legacy regular. His signature indicated that he was based in Beijing. What’s more, his posts were in perfect English. Intrigued, I reached out to him.

One online conversation led to another. Through GoblinZ’s help and introductions, I discovered the Beijing Legacy scene. While the Legacy format, with its endorsement of older and more powerful cards, was less mainstream, Beijing possessed a fairly active scene. I had underestimated the amount of Chinese players who played the game. Many of the players were far more passionate and dedicated than I was.

This was a breath of fresh air, and a revelation. It meant that I could choose the first option –invest more time into Magic, practice more, and become a half-way decent player again. I could re-invest my energies back into the game in a productive way. I always knew Magic was an international game, and now it was in my backyard. The ball was in my court. How could I refuse?

The first in-person meeting I had with GoblinZ was at the Beijing Grand Prix. While the main event wasn’t Legacy, I had the pleasure of hanging out and playing in the Legacy side event with the group. As expected, most of the Legacy players in Beijing showed up to show their support for the format, and it was a great way to meet the group. While I didn’t do well in the tournament, that certainly wasn’t my goal. The goal was to meet GoblinZ, meet new folks, and get invigorated again — and I was successful on all fronts.

Many of the Chinese were strong technical players, and could play the game at a high level. They were mathematically and fundamentally sound — great attributes to have for any Magic player. Like North Americans, the Chinese also grew up in a gaming culture with lots of video and card game around. What’s more, the Chinese are quite capable of making complex decisions on-the-fly, a byproduct of living in a fast-paced society. Many of the Beijing folks had played Legacy for several years, and were well versed in the game. It’s hard to compare Beijing to renowned cities like Seattle or New York, but it’s definitely no slouch, either.

As an aspiring Magic player in Beijing, the one new thing I had to get used to was communicating in Chinese as I played. Although Magic was an international game, and Chinese players were excellent at reading and interpreting English, they fell a bit short when it came to spoken English. This wasn’t really a problem in matches, as many of them were also used to playing with Japanese or foreign players, and knew the lingo and hand gestures to navigate the match. More than a few eager players were interested in practicing their spoken English with me, anyways.

Rather, what was interesting was having Magic card discussions with Chinese players. I could remember one discussion where I literally had no idea what cards they mentioned, because they listed them off in Chinese. Initially, it was challenging and time-consuming; we tried to describe what the cards did, but that just led to more misunderstandings. Later, I got savvier and pulled out a website that would provide all localized translations of a Magic card. The smartphone now acts as a universal translator of sorts when I discuss and play Magic, which is awesome.

Even now, I’ll break out my smartphone during matches, when I need to verbalize what card I need to name with Meddling Mage or Cabal Therapy. Both of these cards are examples of Magic cards whose effects dictate that players name a Magic card in existence — and that’s easier said than done with a language barrier in the way! In higher-level tournaments, it will always be possible get a third party to help with the translation, lest I run afoul of legality by using my smartphone to get an assist.

Playing, communicating and socializing in different languages is a lot of fun. It’s one of the key reasons why I still play an analog card game like Magic, instead of transitioning fully to online play. Despite some of the negative gamer stereotypes I wrote about earlier, I still enjoy playing live matches of Magic. I’ve been fortunate in recent years to have gotten to know a lot of cool people through the game.

Starting to play Magic again was all fine and good, but what about breaking out of my “Magical funk”? At the tail end of 2013, I was playing Storm sparingly and losing with it all the time. What would be different for me this time around, in the Beijing scene?

The turning point was when I went to a Beijing tournament in the first half of 2014. I wanted to try a non-Storm deck, but my cards were still back home in Canada. When I asked for another deck to compete with, GoblinZ came through. He lent me a deck named “Death and Taxes” to pilot. This turned out to be the Plan B that I desperately needed.

Death and Taxes was not an easy deck to play, but it was still an order of magnitude more forgiving than Storm. Unlike Storm, the Death and Taxes strategy was not to solve an intricate math puzzle. Rather, the goal of the deck was to control, or regulate, what the opponent did. Like a deadly boa constrictor, Death and Taxes slowly but surely puts the vice grip on the opponent. The game plan was to take them out of their game plan, one steady piece at a time. Like Storm, it was a cerebral deck, but different in how it played out.

I played Death and Taxes in Beijing and immediately loved it. I had some experience with the deck, at a tournament back home in Canada. While I fell out of contention from that tournament quite quickly, it was more due to my inexperience with the deck than any inherent weakness in the strategy. Even then, I could see its potential and lethality. That was why I asked GoblinZ to lend me the deck — because I felt a connection to the deck and wanted to come back for more. It was sufficiently under the radar, and that had its appeal to me as well. It wasn’t so much that Death and Taxes needed to be non-mainstream for me to enjoy it; rather, its lack of popularity ensured that opponents wouldn’t know what killed them until it was too late.

I managed to do fairly well with Death and Taxes in the Beijing tournament, winning more matches than I lost. I won’t lie about what this meant to me — it was a validation of sorts for me as a Magic player, as if a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I was having fun again. I was even outplaying my opponents from time to time. Winning mattered to me, and it never ceased to stop mattering. This was my comeback.

The fire was back. My personal renaissance in competitive Magic was in full bloom.

It’s only writing this now that I can say with a certain degree of regret: one step forward, two steps back. I took a step forward. I felt confident about my future with the game that I’d struggled to love and hate over the years. On the surface, things seemed fine — I took a break from Magic, settled into Chinese life, and now the two things have synthesized together. All good stuff, right?

But even as I experienced some positive reinforcement, I was stepping preciously closer to the edge. The more I re-invested into Magic, the more I put myself all-in. Now that I thought success was attainable, failure could not be an option. Even if it most certainly was. The highs come before the lows, and I didn’t know that I was about to get even closer to burning out — this time for good.

To be continued…in Part 5

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James Hsu

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