On Magic: Part 6 — The End (of the Beginning)

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

The day of reckoning is here.

Magic: The Gathering is a game. It is a fantasy card game. It is a hobby and a diversion. But it means the world to me. And nothing beats the feeling of playing in a big Magic tournament.

The traveling, the practice, the theory. The ups and downs of competition. The emotional highs and lows. The euphoria and the pain.

New Jersey is here. I’m ready. Let’s go.

Main Event — Day 1
New Jersey Expo Center
Saturday, November 16

It’s seven o’clock in the morning. The sun’s been up for a brief period of time. Spencer and I arrive at the convention center, ready to do battle with our fellow Magicians.

As we approach the building with McDonald’s breakfasts in our stomachs, we see a large group of folks milling about outside; they’re early birds like us. Everyone waits for the convention doors to open. Magic chatter surrounds our ears as people discuss the finer points of Magic strategy, and any other small talk they can muster. A couple of players move around and make inquiries; they’re trying to find the last missing cards they need to complete their tournament decks.

The biting New Jersey cold hits us, but it’s tempered by the thick sense of anticipation in the air. Spirits are generally high, as the tournament has yet to start. Hopes and dreams of tournament glory remain uncrushed. In the wee hours of the morning, optimism prevails.

After an hour of waiting, the convention doors are open. We trickle in, ready for a day of intense gaming.

As I enter the convention center, I am struck by just how massive the entire operation is. Thousands of players are here, slinging Magical cards with one another. Many players are practicing with their tournament decks and making excitable conversation with each other. Others buy and trade cards, showing their expensive pieces of cardboard meticulously organized in thick binders. Alongside the players, the “judges,” in their distinctive black button-down shirts, organize tournament details and process player sign-ups.

Judges are the volunteer referees of Magic, and the people that make large-scale events possible. Today, the judges are wearing small pins that identify their country of origin. I see Brazil, France, Canada and other national flags. Like the players, judges have traveled afar from distant lands to support the game they love.

Designated vendor booths grace the great hall, selling every make and model of Magic card imaginable. I can see players shelling out money to buy the last cards they need, and anything that strikes their fancy. Players are trading in their cards to the vendors. This is the business of Magic, and the lifeblood that keeps the game flowing. Without the secondary market, the game would be nowhere.

In the corner and near the exits, a food vendor is located inside the great hall. There are several washroom stalls nearby. On this particular day, players would not have to leave the convention center for anything.

While I’d been to Grand Prix events before, it’s hard not to be impressed each time by the sheer scale. To see a staggering amount of people, congregated into one place to play Magic: The Gathering, is truly an awe-inspiring sight.

What’s more, this was by far the biggest Grand Prix for Magic’s “Legacy” format — a format that allowed the old Magic cards of yore, and my personal favorite. A few days ago, the tournament organizers had announced that with 4,000 registered players, New Jersey broke a new record. Spencer and I wouldn’t be here if it were any other format; now, we had officially become part of Magic’s history.

Before the tournament can start, seating plans are announced and players are asked to sit at pre-assigned spots so that the organizers hand out the loot for participating — a playing mat, card sleeves, and promotional card. It also affords the organizers an opportunity to get all players’ registration information in order, and review first round pairings. With today’s high player volume, waiting is the order of the day.

As I sit and wait, my initial sense of anticipation is replaced by boredom. I’ve always detested waiting for large Magic events to begin, especially without the presence of friends nearby to chat and take my mind off Magic. Spencer’s gone off to his own seating area, so I’m surrounded by strangers. The initial rush of playing in a historic Magic event starts to dissipate by the minute.

The players sitting next to me are as anxious as I am, and this leads to moments of awkward small talk. A kid in a backwards baseball cap starts talking about how great his deck is, and makes un-funny jokes to punctuate the awkward silence. A nerdy college student in a plaid shirt talks about how this is his first Legacy tournament. I avoid eye contact with them all and try, unsuccessfully, to tune out what is being said.

After what feels like an eternity of waiting, the organizers and judges announce that the tournament has officially begun. The first round tournament pairings have been posted throughout the convention center. Players stand up to check the pairings, which tell them where they’re supposed to be sitting for their first match.

As players scurry to their assigned tables, I take a deep breath and think about all the practice I put in with my tournament deck. All the test games with friends back in Beijing, and with my friend Spencer over the past few days.

Despite a good night’s sleep, I feel nervous; pre-game jitters are out in full force this morning. I mentally replay matchups and test games in my head. I think, in vain, about ways to slow down my beating heart. Who would I face in the first round, and what would he be playing?

I gather all of my thoughts and file them away for later. It’s time to play Magic.

I sit down across the table from my first opponent, in the first round of the Grand Prix. We exchange pleasantries as I take my deck out of my bag. I make small talk with him, for the dual purpose of breaking the ice and to get some intel. He offers up the fact that he’s relatively new to the Legacy format, and that he’s just happy to be here.

As the match begins, I quickly find out that he’s on Blue-Red Delver, the powerhouse deck of the Legacy format. It’s the deck that I had prepared for well in advance, given its deck-to-beat status. Despite my opponent’s inexperience, the power level of his deck alone is reason to be wary. Blue-Red Delver is strong enough to pose a serious threat to any opponent, by the sheer strength of the cards alone. I had to play tight to win.

Due to Delver’s popularity, I had a certain game plan against the deck acquired through many hours of practice. But the deck is number one for a reason — when it gets going, there’s very little the opponent can do.

My opponent wins Game 1 of the best-of-three round, using the speed and counter magic of the deck to great effect. I bounce back and win Game 2 to take the match into the third and final deciding game.

Game 3, however, is underwhelming for me; my opponent outlasts me in the mid-game to take match point. He out-attritions me, the way that Blue-Red Delver has a tendency to do when it’s on fire.

I offer the handshake in defeat. It’s a first round loss, but I remain in good spirits. I had exorcised my Grand Prix jitters, and my heart rate was back to normal. There’s nothing to do now but look ahead and prepare for the next round.

Round 2 is a longer and more protracted affair. I am paired up against a Miracles deck — the same strategy that my friend Spencer employs. Both my opponent and I are trying to “control” the pace of the game, but his late-game control plan is even stronger than mine. To win the match, I had to draw well and become the aggressor. Death and Taxes had the ability to switch gears, but once again, I would have to play tight and alert.

I take down the round in two games to dispatch my opponent. I play precisely, with minimal jitters. It helps that Spencer and I had play-tested this matchup fairly often in the past couple of days. Knowing is definitely half the battle.

At this point, it feels good to get my first win of the tournament. I calibrate my mindset and allow it to go back to square one. I tell myself not to get too emotionally invested in the win, for there would be many more hills to climb. Let’s see if I can keep this up.

In Round 3, I am paired up against a fellow Death and Taxes player — a mirror match! As Death and Taxes is an “under the radar” deck, we share a laugh at the unlikeliness of two players with similarly uncommon decks facing one another.

“Aren’t we supposed to prey on other decks, instead of fighting each other?” I ask him. I like to crack a sarcastic joke now and then. Of course, I can’t stop thinking about how important a win here is. The joke is my attempt to break the tension.

He just shrugs and smiles.

The match goes long, which is to be expected given the way Death and Taxes plays — denying the opponent their primary game plan, and seeking incremental advantages. For the second straight time, I’m embroiled in a control-versus-control matchup. In the mirror match, the capabilities of the deck are largely neutered versus the same strategy. It would come down to “he who draws better, and avoids small mistakes, wins.”

As fortune would have it, things don’t turn out well for me. My opponent draws better and is in sole possession of the X-factor — a secondary Black color to complement his primary strategy. He plays Dark Confidant to draw more cards than I do, and I don’t get the mana denial pieces in time to punish his secondary splash.

While Game 1 is close and protracted, Game 2 is a complete blowout in his favor. After about forty-five minutes of dueling, the close of Game 2 is imminent and I offer him the
concession handshake.

“Well played,” I say to him. My statement is genuine this time.

“Thanks,” he says, clearly pleased to have won the round. He also sounds genuine this time. His focused expression relaxes ever-so-slightly.

Another loss! With two losses, it was definitely going to be an uphill battle the rest of the way. I couldn’t afford to lose another round, or I would be out of the running for Day 2.

From here on out, the details are a blur. I lose Round 4 to another Blue-Red Delver deck, and with that, my Grand Prix dreams are over. While I can keep playing in today’s tournament, I won’t be able to advance.

I’m disappointed at the result, but there was a certain silver lining to all this. I had played my best, but the cards didn’t fall my way. Playing a card game like Magic means being subject to the whims and fancies of randomness. More than anything, I learned a lot of things about myself. I was a longshot to win it all anyway.

There’s a lot of other thoughts coursing through my mind, and I make an effort to file them away for later reference. When I fly back to Beijing, I would re-examine them. Right now? I wanted to enjoy spectating the remainder of the tournament, buy a few nice Magic cards to take home, and catch up with Spencer.

Spencer has, unfortunately, suffered a similar fate as I do. We’re both out of Day 2 contention, but Spencer decides to keep playing for honor and glory. I decide to cut my losses and drop out of the Main Event; instead, I register to play in the Legacy “side events.”

“Side events” are smaller tournaments run in the convention center for players like me, whose dreams are crushed in the Main Event but would still like to play competitive Magic. Side events offer prizes like any regular tournament. Though my Main Event dreams are crushed, I opt to keep playing and practicing with my beloved deck, Death and Taxes.

I fare considerably better in the side events, winning the majority of my matches against softer competition and cashing for prizes. While I’m not in the top percentile of Legacy players, I’m comfortably above the mean when it comes to playing against other drop-out Grand Prix participants. It’s much easier to obtain edges in those matchups, and to out-play these players.

Though I was out of the Main Event, it’s still a welcome consolation to know that I am capable of doing well in small tournaments. It’s a shot of confidence in an otherwise disappointing weekend.

Beijing, China
Tuesday, November 19

I’m back home in China, and thinking about my next move.

I never thought that I would travel all the way from Beijing to New Jersey just to play in a Magic tournament, with nothing but dreams and lofty expectations to motivate me. Results were one thing — how I did I feel about my future with the card game? More importantly, how did I feel about myself?

The disappointing Grand Prix results were the least of my concerns. I tend not to focus on the results of a single tournament, no matter how big, because they were inconsequential in the bigger picture. If I wanted to keep playing Magic, there would be many situations like this again. I’d have plenty of other opportunities to do well.

What I really needed know was whether I’d matured as a player and competitor. The trip served as a test of sorts — I traveled halfway across the world to try and re-awaken the spark inside me. I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with Magic — sometimes I’m on top of the world, and sometimes I’m bitter, dejected and frustrated. How I handled high-level competition this time, and whether I made improvements in those areas, would be a key factor in my continued participation.

New Jersey was a self-imposed ultimatum. If I was learning and growing, then the choice to continue playing Magic would be easy. If I was stagnating in my personal development, then there would be little reason to continue.

Let’s get the good stuff out of the way first. If there is anything to be gleaned from this particular Grand Prix, it would be the affirmation of my healthy mindset and approach to the game. I passed this test with flying colors.

First, the presence of my competitive drive told me that I still cared about playing in tournaments; this was an important element of the “right mindset and approach.” My Grand Prix experience left no doubt in my mind that I still had it. I enjoyed the mental competition against other Magic players, and against myself, more than ever. After New Jersey, I wanted to get better and prove to myself that I was capable of improvement. The fire was burning more strongly than it had for years.

This was a surprise of sorts; my passion to compete had waxed and waned over the past couple of years, as my life priorities had changed ever since I moved to China. My career was a stronger focal point. I was in a serious relationship with someone special and it needed nurturing. I felt the need to connect with my family more closely due to our longer geographic distance. Compared to all of these things, I had played Magic sparingly and not actively sought to improve my game.

Playing Magic, in many respects, felt trivial compared to my other obligations. But being thrust back into a high-stakes, pressure situation in New Jersey made me realize how much I enjoyed the moment. It re-awakened the fire.

Paradoxically, not thinking about Magic all the time made it more fun to get back into the competitive circuit. A lot of it had to do with a renewed sense of focus that I obtained from maturing as a person. There were times in the past that I mentally burned out from playing too much. But now that I was in the moment at certain precise times of the year, and I learned to enjoy the moment, things were easier.

The other element of possessing a healthy mindset: playing with an unprecedented clarity and focus. Throughout the Grand Prix, I faced a “win or go home” ultimatum in nearby every match. I needed to play my best and make good decisions to survive. I had to concentrate fully each step of the way. Although my final results were lackluster, I felt that I made more good decisions in-game than bad ones.

This also meant that I reflected positively on what had happened in the matches without dwelling on the negatives. I played my best, I played disciplined, and I tuned out most of the distractions inside my head.

Make no mistake about it — there were a lot of potential distractions inside my head. In all my years of playing card games, I tended to dwell on losses and bouts of bad luck. What’s more, my brain was hardwired to experience radical highs and lows: the thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat. I typically became unhinged due to letting my fears and frustrations get the better of me. The desire to best others is one of the reasons I seek competition, but it’s also frustrating when I lose and let it spiral out of control.

I didn’t fully exorcise those demons in New Jersey, and likely never will. But I made progress.

In those three fateful days, I displayed a steady approach to the game that I lacked in the past. The key thing, as I repeated to myself over and over, was to play to the best of my ability and leave things on the table. Resist the urge to let match results affect me emotionally, and prevent negative emotions from carrying over to subsequent matches. Be consistent. Focus on the now, and only the now. Make good decisions and the rest will follow.

It’s obviously impossible to play completely without emotion. Emotions fuel the competitive drive. Emotions meant that I cared about wins and losses, and provided the spark for self-improvement. What’s different now, however, is the extent to which I allow negative emotions to fester. It’s important to feel it and to acknowledge it; it’s also important to let go.

Magic comes naturally to some players. The talented players are capable of accruing wins no matter what pile of cards they play, or how little preparation they have. Like Lebron James or Tiger Woods, they have a strong intuition and feel for the game, that makes them appear superhuman.

I am not one of those people.

To win in Magic, I have to work for it. I have to scrap and fight for wins. Every Magic win I have is a byproduct of my mental concentration and focus. I play Magic like I play basketball — being savvy, willing to hustle, and outworking my more-talented opponents.

New Jersey was a reminder that in order to mature as a player and see more successful results, I needed to show resolve and focus at all times. I couldn’t take it easy; I needed to work harder than the competition.

Continuing to play Magic was never going to be easy for me. Then again, nothing rewarding in life ever is.

Playing Magic with my competitive disposition was great but mentally taxing. I knew from past experience that despite making improvements as a player, regression was always possible and lurking beneath the surface. A bad string of thoughts, or a period of dark negativity and doubt, could derail all my progress. My personality helped me get into competitive hobbies, but I needed to keep it under control. I did not want to take one step forward and two steps back.

Since New Jersey, I’ve thought long and hard about how to systematically play Magic in a healthy way. One afternoon in Beijing, I came up with a pact to make peace with myself:

The Pact
Rule #1: never be all-in on Magic.
Rule #2: be analytical, but don’t be critical.
Rule #3: stop bullshitting and start winning.

They say that constraints produce creativity, and a sense of well-being. Therefore, in order to continue playing, I had to structure constraints into my routine to be successful. This is an early draft of the pact, that I will continue to revise.

Rule #1: never be all-in on Magic.

Never put all my eggs in one basket when it comes to Magic. no matter what the circumstances may be. For New Jersey, I had already made the mistake of forsaking my girlfriend so that I could travel to play Magic. We missed out on a joint vacation to Thailand during that weekend. The key mistake, however, was not involving her in my decision making.

A more responsible, well-rounded person would have discussed it and laid out the options. But I just decided to go to the Grand Prix, and told her about my plan as an afterthought. While I might have gone to New Jersey anyway in the end, we never had a respectable conversation on the subject. I told myself that I would not do it again.

The other part of going all-in on Magic, which I wasn’t proud of, was becoming a complete social recluse in New Jersey. Other than socializing with my traveling buddy Spencer, I made no effort to get to know new people and expand my horizons. I didn’t visit New York City. I didn’t meet my non-Magic friend who lived in the area.

Traveling to play Magic was one thing, but placing myself in mental exile was not ideal.

Rule #2: be analytical, but don’t be critical.

I must resist the urge to be overly critical of myself or others. I’m typically introspective and analytical to a fault, and my own worst critic. Analysis is good; criticism is possibly good. My criticism also extends to my opponents. If other competitors exhibit habits or attitudes that I don’t agree with, I want to beat them in order to teach them a lesson.

Criticism turns to frustration. Frustration circulates negatively, bleeding out to other parts of my life. Sometimes it becomes manifested into anger towards a loved one, or condescension towards a Magic opponent.

Finding faults with others is unhealthy; it’s one of the reasons I get into unhappy moods when I play Magic. In recent years, I’ve actively stopped doing that in life and it’s paid great dividends in Magic competition, too. Try to give others the benefit of the doubt. Doing so has given me the opportunity to be happier.

Rule #3: stop bullshitting and start winning.

Also known as being really fucking honest. If the goal is to win and to do well at tournaments, resist the temptation to play cute hipster decks that are wacky or interesting. No badge of honor exists in losing with an off-the-wall deck.

If the goal is to maximize my chances of winning, play an objectively powerful deck. Playing to win means removing all unnecessary handicaps along the way.

I didn’t select Death and Taxes as my deck of choice at the Grand Prix because it was wacky or cute. But I should have been more objective in my decision. I chose the deck because I felt like I possessed an edge over opponents when I wielded the deck.

A more realistic person, on the other hand, would have seen through that lie. My perceived edge was not really there. I hadn’t put up great results with the deck yet, and had played in less than a handful of tournaments. It was conceivable to pick up and practice Blue-Red Delver in time for the Grand Prix, had I really put my mind to it.

Instead, I clouded my judgment with rationalizations, and stubbornly hung on to the deck. I failed to re-examine my position of “Death and Taxes is a deck that gives me an advantage when I play other players.” I was overconfident in my assessment. Had I been more objective with myself, the real question would have come down to, “Do I want to win, and is Death and Taxes the deck that gives me the best chance to win?”

Play to win, or don’t play at all.

The game of Magic has always been a reflecting pool, and a manifestation of my personality. I enjoy dealing with, and learning from, new challenges because they say something about myself. It is the Mount Everest in my horizon. In my dark times, I’ve allowed card games to dictate my happiness and mood. Conversely, they’ve picked me up too when I was searching for my own identity and interests. For me, Magic’s never been “just a game” — it’s always been something greater.

But sometimes, a game is just a game. There are times that I have to slow down and smell the roses. I have to appreciate the game for what it is, and not what I want it to be.

Organizing, clarifying and writing my thoughts on Magic has been a therapeutic experience. I’m grateful for the support and encouragement I’ve received on this project. Writing is a time machine that allows me to look back at my earliest days of playing card games, and I’m happy to be along for the ride.

As I close my eyes, I go back in time and retrace my steps. It’s the early nineties, and my brother and I are gawking at the Shivan Dragon card for the first time. The art is gorgeous. The stats are phenomenal — a 5/5 flyer that breathes fire! That seems insurmountably big. It was majestic. We’d never seen anything like it. Right there and then, I knew that I wanted to own the card.

I close my eyes again, and am teleported to another out-of-body experience. My memory shifts to the eighteen-year-old me, playing the Star Wars card game I loved more than anything else in the world. The Star Wars card game was my religion then; it took up all my waking time and thought. I’m playing in a tournament, and in pensive thought. I’m thinking about how to win this game. I’m also thinking about taking that trip to the Langley card store next weekend, to buy the new Yoda card from the Dagobah expansion set.

I blink twice in succession and time travel once more. I see another version of myself, in my mid-twenties. Now, I’m playing PokerStars on my laptop. I’m slouched in an unhealthy position and staring at my hand: pocket aces. I’ve just been dealt pocket aces, the best hand in the game, but I’m tense. Would I be able to claim a big pot with these aces? My online opponent sitting to my left has been overly aggressive — should I play it straight, or try to trap him? Decisions, decisions.

All that I am, and all that I will ever be, is reflected in these gaming moments. The process of introspection has made me realize that I don’t really have a choice in the matter. Magic, and competitive gaming, has chosen me. It’s the gift that keeps on giving, and I intend to stick around for the ride.

Are you with me?

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

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