The year was 2015. The place was the small college town of Provo, Utah. I was one in a sea of faces and young people struggling to figure life out. My major was Psychology with a minor in Art History, so…that tells you how much I had figured out…it wasn’t much.
As a newly married man, I was feeling the pressures of providing for a budding family. My wife and I were living in a tiny cheap apartment that should have been condemned. It had no heat, sunlight and bugs were coming through holes in the walls, our water froze every few days, and the landlord didn’t care. School was a struggle as I tried to cram all my medical school prerequisites into as short a time as possible. I was stressed and starting to become depressed.
With all my expensively gained university knowledge of psychology I remember reading that physical exercise has been shown to be just as effective as antidepressant medication. Too embarrassed to see a therapist I dusted off the ol’ running shoes and hit the pavement. Little did I know that running would in fact lead me to a positive outlet.
“Ha…Magic: the Gathering. Isn’t that the game those nerdy kids play?”
I ran from my problems, at least 3 miles every day. After weeks of running I finally discovered an answer. On my usual route, traversing the concrete of Provo, I noticed a paper fluttering in the wind. Stooping to pick it up I found a battered card. “Magic the Gathering” was on the back. Flipping it over I found a painting of a mountain above a symbol of fire. The Art Historian in me was intrigued by the talented artwork. Nostalgic feelings flooded my mind as I remembered collecting Pokémon cards as a child.
“Ha…Magic: The Gathering. Isn’t that the game those nerdy kids play?” I pocketed the card to show my wife when I got home and kept running. 10 feet later I saw another beat up card. This one was shiny. “Oppressive Rays” joined the Mountain in my pocket. I kept running.
Every 10 feet I found a card. On the sidewalk, in the gutter, in the street intersections, under bushes. “Lava Axe”, “Tireless Missionaries”, “Elvish Mystic”, “Marked by Honor”. The artwork astounded me as much as the names confused me. For another two miles I ran collecting cards. By the time I returned home I had a stack of over 150 cards.
I showed the cards to my wife and we shared a laugh at how odd the scenario was. We decided that some “nerdy gamer” forgot that he put a deck of cards on top of his car and drove off, unaware that he was seeding the bland world of Provo with Magic. My wife and I love board games so, after I looked up the basic rules, we tried to play.
It was rough. We had no idea what we were doing. My wife didn’t like the game, but I was intrigued and wanted to know more. I looked up some information online but was still really confused where exactly I should start.
A few days later, on my usual running route I passed by a store named, “The Dragon’s Keep”. The front windows were plastered with dragons, miniatures, and comic books. It had always seemed a stereotypical haven for the lonely and socially inept dorks of the world (how wrong I was), thus I’d never entered the store. Today, however, I noticed a new sign, “FATE REFORGED!!! Magic: The Gathering Pre-release Tournament this Friday. Sign up with a friend and get a free pack!” I stopped to read the poster. I wanted to know more. I stood outside the door of The Dragon’s Keep for a couple minutes wondering what to do. Should I just finish my run, or should I go inside and ask about this new game?
Finally, in my short running shorts and sweaty pullover I opened the door and crossed the threshold. As my eyes adjusted to the florescent dim I expected to see overweight, nasal, neck-bearded 35-year-old men wearing fedora’s and practicing saying “m’lady”. Instead the store was full of tables, colorful games, interesting looking comics, and normal looking human beings. Still, I put the hood up on my sweater lest I be recognized and labeled a “nerd”.
A line was formed in front of the counter and I slid into the back of it. Eavesdropping I heard people registering for the upcoming tournament. I tried to be discreet while picking up all the information I could. I didn’t have my wallet on me, but I wanted to register. I figured I would get to the front of the line, talk to the store employee for more information, then return under cover of night and perform my nerdy deed of registering for a card game tournament.
Everything was going according to plan. I was third in line, and then the back door to the shop opened, and in walked Patrick O’Connell. I’d met Patrick years before in Romania, when both of us were serving a two-year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Patrick had been in the mission field longer than me and I always looked up to him. Patrick was a cool kid; he was going to see me, and my cover would be blown.
He took a couple steps then stopped in surprise when we made eye-contact.
“Mason! How are you? What are you doing here?” he said.
“Hey Patrick. Uh…nothin’ much. What are you doing here?” I replied, trying to look nonchalant.
…silence…neither of us wanted to admit it. Although in our eyes we both knew the truth. Eventually Patrick spoke, “I’m here to sign up for the Magic tournament here on Friday.”
Relieved I told him I was there for the same reason. The tension broke. We both shared the same dark nerdy secret. He joined me in line and started telling me all about Magic: The Gathering. He convinced me to go to the tournament, lent me the money, and gave me the free pack of cards we got for signing up. It was fortuitous, and I was excited. I didn’t finish my run. Instead I ran home to tell my wife all about it. She was less than enthused, especially when I told her I owed Patrick $25, the tournament started at midnight, and would last till 6:00 am. However, she has always been supportive and was happy for me to try something new and reunite with an old friend.
That Friday Patrick and I attended the tournament. I made my first deck and played for hours. I didn’t do very well in the tournament, but I was hooked. My spark in the game was lit, I was now a Planeswalker.
My wife bought me some cards for Christmas, and I started going to casual tournaments every Friday evening. Creating decks and playing them against others gave me a creative and strategic outlet. I had a lot of good experiences. The look of shock when I played a “Raise the Alarm”, instantly summoning soldiers to block my opponent’s creatures. The satisfaction of a “Harsh Sustenance” to win a game. The delight in seeing a well-made deck from an opponent. I didn’t even care about losing. It was fun just to see the art of crafting and playing a good deck.
I made a lot of friends. I love chatting with my opponents and getting to know them. One such opponent was a 14-year-old boy. This teen lived in a local home for troubled kids. It was his birthday and his parents weren’t coming to see him. The one thing he wanted to do on his birthday was go to a game store and play Magic. The group home allowed him to go with a chaperone. I felt bad for him. He was spending his birthday far from home playing games with strangers. After our game I bought him a simple booster pack and said, “Happy Birthday.” This tough teenager teared up and gave me a hug. His chaperone said it was the only gift he got that day.
I’ve since moved from Provo, yet I continue playing Magic. Just mentioning it is enough to draw out all one’s “closeted secret nerd” friends. People I never would have guessed have turned out to be die-hard fans. It has brought me hours of entertainment and connection with my older brother, younger sister, nephews, brother-in-law, friends, and strangers. I even got my mom to try it out once.
I spent some time living in Kansas City and when I moved away my friends wanted to hang out one last time. So, what did a medical student, a taekwondo instructor, and an engineer all in our 30’s decide to do? We bought a box of Magic cards and played for seven hours. I got home at 6:00 am, much like that first tournament with Patrick, and told my wife about all the fun I had. She sleepily woke up to listen and was again happy for me. Then she told me that since I was awake, I could go take care of our baby when he started crying at 6:15.
I’ve attended dozens of tournaments and bought too many cards. I’ll never forget winning my first Draft tournament after playing “Plated Crusher”, finally finishing Top 3 at a Pre-Release, or sitting for my Judge’s Test so I could help at the local game store tournaments. Family, work, and school have since made my life too busy for regular tournaments or game play, but I’ll still dust off my cards and play with a friend on my kitchen table.
It may seem silly, but Magic: The Gathering has made a profound influence on my life. It didn’t cure depression, it isn’t a substitute for medical help, but it did give me something to lean on during a difficult time. It shifted my direction from the darker path I was on. It connected me to an open supportive community of friends. It gave me the freedom to let my nerd flag fly. It brought hours of fun and critical thinking. It stimulated my imagination with its rich story and lore. It filled my life with “Magic”.