Hey guys. I’ve got a book coming out this year called “Magic: the Addiction.” It’s about the two decades I’ve spent playing the Magic: The Gathering fantasy card game. It’s a deeply personal recollection of competitive gaming, and its ugly side-effects.
I’d like to share with you some excerpts from the upcoming book to pique your interest. To make sure you don’t miss any updates, please click the menu in the top right corner and subscribe to the blog for updates, or join the mailing list. Thanks! –James
I’ve dedicated thousands of hours of my life to playing and collecting the card game known as Magic: The Gathering. I’ve traveled across multiple continents in search of worthy opponents, sweating close calls and reaching exhilarating heights in organized competition. Magic is more than a hobby for me – it’s a way of life, and the lens through which I see the world. In the twenty years that I’ve played this game, it’s provided no shortage of important life lessons, all of which have defined who I am as an individual.
Magic is both a steady companion and a cruel mistress. There is something comforting about the cards I own, with their richly illustrated fantasy art and well-worn shuffle creases. When I feel stressed, I like to sit in my bedroom and sort through my old collection of cards. Even the calming act of looking through old cards, however, evokes fierce memories of past situations on the competitive battlefield. Like a well-traveled soldier, I can go back in time and recall all the battles that I’ve waged over the years with my card collection, as if it were yesterday. The cards may have aged, but the memories have remained fresh.
In my earliest Magic memories, I played the game with my brother Jack in grade school. We were competitive with each other, and the game helped us channel our sibling rivalry through the mechanics of head-to-head Magic duels. These early experiences sparked my first foray into a fantastic universe, and helped develop my lifelong competitive streak. Back then, I didn’t consider how I would grow up to become a life-long gamer, or become addicted to the game as an adult. I just wanted to challenge my brother to an endless series of battles in our household.
The duels were fought in our active imaginations – my army of ravenous vampires and dangerous demons versus his resilient tree-folk and elvish archers. In every game, I wanted to out-play my brother by surprising him with a well-timed counterattack or tricky spell. Magic’s creative rule mechanics and intricately illustrated fantasy art pulled us in close, and never let go.
As I approach my mid-thirties, my power of imagination has waned. Childhood is but a distant memory in the rear view mirror. I have adult responsibilities, living far away from the country that I once called my home. Yet Magic has endured the test of time and never stopped challenging me, continually fueling my competitive fire.
I no longer compete with my brother, but I’ve moved on to something similar in Magic tournaments around the world. Every time I’ve thought about leaving the fantasy, the game sucks me back in. I’ll hear about some new card that’s been released. In the next minute I’ll be brainstorming new ideas in my bedroom, sorting through my existing collection of cards for the millionth time.
Magic is a constant companion, but the competitive fire that once burned inside me is flickering. In recent years, I haven’t been able to channel my love for Magic in a healthy and productive way. I’ve struggled with reconciling my need to compete with other things that are important in my life – family, relationships, and career. At times, Magic behaves like an ancient piece of my past that I can’t move beyond.
My relationship with the game is on rocky ground. My priorities have changed and for the first time in my life, I’ve started to question the game’s benefits. I’ve experienced a run of bad breaks, through no fault but my own, that have contributed to the feeling of burnout. I feel as I’m trapped in a negative loop that I can’t escape.
Inevitably, questions surface. Why am I not having fun with my hobby? When things cease to be as fun as they once were, is it worth the time and effort to keep trying? Can I turn the corner on how I mentally approach the game, and find peace from within? Where is the dividing line between hobby and obsession – and have I already crossed that line?
These are the questions that I will answer, intimately and honestly.
Thankfully, I’m not alone. For many, Magic approaches the level of organized religion in terms of how it enthralls and captivates. It’s a way of life for many gamers, as evidenced by the thousands of lively debates occurring every minute on popular web sites like the aptly named MTG (Magic: The Gathering) Salvation. For the most dedicated players, there is no alternative – the game demands regular participation, whether it’s in weekly tournaments or monthly kitchen table games.
Despite the game’s ability to attract devoted practitioners, this is not a propaganda piece extolling the virtues of Magic: The Gathering. Nor is it a rant piece about the state of gaming and its negative effects on the population. I will recount my journey in a brutally honest but fair way. I will hold no punches when it comes to self-examination, because I aim to be as transparent with myself as possible.
If you do not play Magic, you will gain insight into my addictive personality, stubborn attitude, and inner flaws. One does not play and obsess over a fantasy card game for twenty years without some strong psychological need to do so. At the end of the day, the game is an outlet for who I am. Outlets manifest themselves differently for different people, but the psychological drivers are similar. I hope that my reasons for playing will resonate with you, echoing some of the joys and pains you’ve experienced.
If you play Magic, or enjoy gaming in general, you will likely see a part of your own story in mine. Many of the experiences I’ve lived through are shared gaming experiences, familiar to players around the world. The joys of winning and the pitfalls of losing are central themes in my journey. The Magic community shares a deep common bond, even though players gravitate towards the game for different reasons. If you’re a fellow Magic player, I hope that you’ll take this journey with me and learn more about yourself in the process.
It’s time to begin the journey. Let’s go.
My Origin Story
Magic is a huge gaming phenomenon – how exactly did I get involved in it?
I’ve always been a gamer and a lover of nerdy things. For as long as I can remember, I’ve enjoyed games and competitive pursuits. As a kid growing up in Taiwan, I played Monopoly and Stratego at recess with my first grade classmates. I would sneak off to the local arcade after school to play games like Double Dragon. I once developed a huge blister on my thumb from playing Double Dragon. To avoid getting into trouble, I lied to my parents and told them that the blister came from using my dad’s woodworking tools at home.
When I was seven years old, my dad decided that we would pursue the Canadian dream. Our family immigrated to Canada in 1989. I developed an almost-immediate fondness for rice and Kentucky Fried Chicken. After learning the nuances of Canadian culture and the English language, I was settling in comfortably as an overweight and nerdy kid in grade school. I had many hobbies and interests – they included video games, basketball, reading, and drawing comic strips.
One of my earliest hobbies was collecting old board games. I’d ask my parents to take me to garage sales and the local Salvation Army to find discarded treasures that others no longer wanted. As money was tight in the household, my parents gladly acquiesced to my requests to find inexpensive board games. I’d take the games home and share them with my younger brother. We amassed a wide collection of them, from Wheel of Fortune to Mastermind to Othello, and played them when we weren’t doing our homework.
One of the most exciting moments of my life occurred when my brother and I convinced our parents to buy us a first generation Nintendo Entertainment System for Christmas. The deal that we struck with them was this – if we did well in school, we’d get a new Nintendo. We succeeded, and my parents delivered on their promise. I’ll never forget going to the local electronics store and asking the store staff to take out a brand new Nintendo system for us. We dashed home and started playing games like Super Mario Brothers, Castlevania and Double Dragon right away.
Those first gaming experiences with Nintendo were phenomenal. The early nineties were a renaissance for gaming, as console gaming found their way into family households. It was no longer a requirement to go to the arcade to play video games – everything available in arcades was now available at home, albeit in a powered-down version. While the eighties introduced gems such as Atari, they never hit the mainstream in quite the same way that Nintendo and Sega did. As a young kid, I benefited greatly from being in the right place at the right time.
Jack is my only sibling, and three years younger than I am. He was my adversary whenever I needed a challenger for any video game that we played. Most of our sibling rivalry was resolved through Nintendo, but there were also one-on-one duels on the basketball court. Though I was the big brother, I never gave him any breaks. Jack and I constantly squared off in competition. While some video games allowed for “co-op mode,” where two players worked together to beat the game, we always preferred head-to-head competition. We always found it more fun to challenge each other, instead of working together to defeat the computer opponent.
In those early days of gaming with my brother, I honed an aptitude for competition. More specifically, I honed an aptitude to win-at-all-costs. Our sibling rivalry translated to trash talk, physical fights and video game contests, in no particular order. Jack wouldn’t back down, and neither would I. Both of us had tempers to match our enthusiasm for playing games. Sometimes, our contests would resort to real fisticuffs.
My brother and I played a lot of games, but Magic: The Gathering was the special one that hooked us both.
Our first encounter with Magic occurred one fateful afternoon at the local shopping mall. More specifically, it happened as we made our usual rounds through a gaming store inside the mall. It was 1994; our family had been in Canada for five years. We regularly visited the local shopping mall to eat at the food court and buy groceries – it was one of our regular family rituals. That day began like any other. As we walked around the mall, I asked my parents to take my brother and I to the gaming store, as was my custom.
The gaming store in the mall sold imported European board games. They were too expensive, but I always wanted to drop by and admire them. The only things I could afford with my allowance money were the small lead miniatures that the store sold. I had already taken on the hobby of painting these miniatures to form a small army in my bedroom.
Though my brother and I loved to play video games, we had a special appreciation for physical knick-knacks. Over the years we lived in Canada, my brother and I had enjoyed collecting sports cards and various physical memorabilia. While video games were cheaper and easier to come by, there was something special about the physicality of a non-digital game. Everything about board games, from their custom packaging to the tactile feeling of the game pieces, appealed to us in a visceral way that video games could not.
On that particular day, a new game on the store shelves immediately caught our eye. It was the two-player starter set of Magic: The Gathering. My brother and I couldn’t take our eyes off it.
The box itself was shrink-wrapped, but the store displayed an open set next to the unopened one to illustrate what was inside. The box of the starter set housed what looked like two decks of playing cards in pristine shrink-wrap. On closer inspection, we noticed that these weren’t regular playing cards; the card revealed at the front of the deck looked like nothing we’d ever seen before. Included in the same box was an oversized rulebook, and a pouch full of crystalline counters to keep track of players’ life totals.
Below the shelf, in a glass counter, we witnessed something incredible. The store not only sold unopened product of Magic, in sealed packs, but individual cards too. Those cards were spread out, face-up, in the glass case — images of dragons, wolves, vampires, angels and other fantasy-themed motifs adorned each small piece of cardboard. Each card was labeled with a price tag — $1, $5, $25. We didn’t know why the price tags differed by card. Who in their right mind would spend $25 for a single card? You could buy an entire imported board game for that price – why spend it on a single card? We were equally fascinated and confused.
My brother and I didn’t have enough allowance money to buy the individual cards in the glass counter, but the starter set was priced just right. Between the two of us, we could put together the thirty dollars to buy the two shrink-wrapped decks and take them home. My brother and I decided that we would give this cool new game a try. Who knows? Maybe we’d get lucky and pull one of those $25 card from our deck, too.
We were familiar with collectible sports cards, and the idea of “chase cards” and valuable rookie cards. Magic appealed to our collectors’ tendencies, but felt unique. For one, the game could be played. You couldn’t play a game with Larry Bird or Wayne Gretzky; you certainly could with these Magic cards.
Buying the Magic starter set gave us the same endorphin rush as buying our Nintendo video game console. After hastily paying for the two-player set, we rushed home to open the shrink-wrap packaging. We opened up the box and glanced at the two shrink-wrapped Magic decks inside. There was one deck for each player. We didn’t care about deck assignment, yet – what mattered now was to tear open the packaging to get a closer look at the individual cards.
There was an immediate, visceral reaction to flipping through the cards in the deck for the first time. For one, the cards were printed on sturdy card stock, in vibrant colors. They felt collectible and substantial as I thumbed through them for the first time. The cards had the smell of newly manufactured playing cards, and this was inviting to my senses. I didn’t know how any of the cards worked, but I saw the fantasy elements of the game in plain view. Elves, merfolk and various fantasy creatures stared back at me, inviting me to play with them.
I resolved to get us up to speed as quickly as possible, and I needed to teach both Jack and myself how to play. As I flipped through the rulebook, my brother started arranging his creatures, spells, and lands in neat piles on his bed.
Like all Magic novices, my brother and I had to understand how the rules worked in order to start playing. Despite our best attempts to absorb the rulebook from start to finish, there were obvious gaps in our knowledge. We would play the game and get into a situation where the rules weren’t clear, and we wouldn’t know how to continue. To get around play stoppage, we made things up and improvised. If something wasn’t clear, we made up house rules to resolve the issue.
We played the living daylights out of the Magic two-player starter set. We dueled each other for hours upon hours, each and every single day. Every individual game of Magic was different and could be finished quickly. This made it incredibly easy to shuffle up and play one game after another. We were losing track of time as we played, and the video games were cast aside in favor of Magic. The game felt more addictive than any game of Double Dragon that I’d played in the arcade.
We had some exhilarating duels. In one game, I would summon my Sengir Vampire to beat up my brother’s creatures. He would kill the vampire and respond with a dragon. In another game, my Scryb Sprites would fly over his land-locked army, and I would “boost” the Sprites with add-ons like Giant Growth to make it more powerful in combat. Each game was slightly different and filled with intricate decisions. The fantasy flavor also made it exciting for us to imagine what was going on in our heads as we played. We just kept playing with no end in sight.
What made the game interesting was the customization element. Although we knew nothing about how to properly build decks, we were hooked right away on card acquisition. We kept going back to the gaming store to buy “booster packs,” or randomized packs with fifteen Magic cards inside. Opening up more packs meant more cards, and more cards meant more deck-building options. Both Jack and I were discovering new creatures and spells that we’d never seen before. Whenever there was anything remotely interesting from our packs, we’d throw the new cards into our decks for a test drive.
Looking back on it now, we had absolutely no idea how to properly build decks. We’d jam new cards into our decks with no consideration for probabilities and ratios. In effect, we were watering down our decks by playing too many cards! Since we didn’t remove a card to add a card, our deck sizes grew bigger and it became harder to draw a specific card in the deck throughout the course of play.
To compound the problem, we still didn’t know how many of the rules worked. The rulebook was written unclearly in places, but we had no one else to ask for clarification. When we were unsure about how something worked, we improvised rules clarifications so that we could keep playing. It didn’t matter, because we simply wanted the game to go on.
The rules indicated that we should play with something called the ante. The ante rule stipulated that before each match, each player would randomly pick the top card of his deck to wager for the prize pool. The winner of the match would win the ante card, creating an interesting way for a player to grow his collection – by taking it from the other player’s collection, permanently.
Both my brother and I valued our Magic cards, and considered them our own possessions. I definitely didn’t want to give any of my cards away to my brother, and neither did he. As a result of the ante rule, and knowing that the ownership of our cards was at stake, every game we played was fiercely competitive and deadly serious. When we knew that our most powerful cards would be on the line, we would compete furiously to protect our collection. This further fueled the competitive fire between us. More than a few heated arguments broke out when we tried to win each other’s cards, and argued for rules in favor of one player.
After a few months of heated battle, we felt ready to branch out and try our luck with other players. A number of kids in our school played Magic during lunch breaks. Some of our neighbors’ kids also played. So both of us took our decks to school and started dueling other players.
We found out that other kids didn’t play for ante. They chose not to use the rule in order to preserve their collections if they lost games. Being a gaming purist, I initially disliked the introduction of house rules to remove concepts such as the ante. But that’s the price for being able to play with others, I thought to myself. I was fine to go along with this modification. Besides, I soon found that I could be at ease, because lack of ante took pressure away from having to win games all the time. There’d also be times when I would be extremely happy at the lack of the ante rule, when kids with super impressive cards crushed my deck. Some kids had crazy cards like the Lord of the Pit or Mahamoti Djinn. These creatures were very strong, and I was relieved to not have to permanently lose my cards when I lost game after game to those players.
It wasn’t just our neighborhood that was hooked on the game, either — gamers around the world just couldn’t get enough of it. Stories surfaced of thieves breaking into gaming stores to steal advance shipments of new Magic cards. Parents became worried at the long-term impacts of their children playing a card game obsessively. At one point, there was a newspaper article that wondered aloud if Magic was Satanic, and was going to be the downfall of Western civilization.
Magic was addictive. The more we played, the more we became hooked. We bought increasingly more packs of Magic to add cards to our collection; more ammunition for our decks. I played throughout my middle school years, as did my brother. We were still relatively inexperienced at the game, but we loved every minute of it.
To be continued…
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