“Magic: the Addiction” Excerpt #2: Storm!

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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

A dark and stormy comeback

John Lennon said, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.” I’ve always admired this statement for its stark honesty. I believe that life is an unpredictable journey – and it’s often the unpredictable things that define who we are.

I had a plan for how I would live my life: develop a solid career, buy a house, get married, and start a family. At the beginning of 2013, I was feeling good about each of these things. My job was stable and provided good opportunities for learning and growth. I was well liked in my company and worked on projects that interested me. Things with my girlfriend were going great and we enjoyed each other’s company. Taking the next step forward and getting married entered the conversation. In terms of personal health, I whipped myself back into shape. I stayed active by playing basketball and running half marathons.

Magic didn’t quite fit into the life narrative I had outlined for myself. It was a fun hobby and I had created a lot of great memories through the game. I enjoyed playing in tournaments and developing great relationships with fellow players. As I was intensely competitive, I always perceived the game as more than a hobby. I jumped into Magic with a seriousness typically reserved for academic studies and work pursuits. But I knew that it wasn’t critical to my long-term goals.

Still, Magic had an undeniable allure. Now that I had my basic life needs taken care of, it was tempting to go up higher on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and re-visit an old friend. I had ways to keep my other vices like poker and video games in check. I followed online poker coverage and dabbled in the occasional house game with friends – this was enough to satiate my appetite for the game, and prevent me from doing anything more extreme. When it came to video games, I stopped gaming on the console but kept things going on my mobile phone. I had grown interested in the video games industry, and it was enough to read about games instead of playing them.

Magic, however, was different. It was far more interesting to play the game than to watch it. I also sat on a huge card collection that I wanted to keep. They were worth a few thousand dollars, and most of my older cards had appreciated in value. More importantly, they held a lot of nostalgic value and I was reticent to liquidate. Unlike other vices in my past, there was no nicotine patch available for Magic – the only way to experience the game was to play it.

I knew enough about my own addictive personality to understand that I could only dip my toes in the proverbial Magic waters instead of jumping back in. To handle my own limitations, I came up with a strategy to keep the game at arm’s length: I chose to avoid my local scene of Beijing Magic players. If I got too close to the local scene, I wouldn’t be able to resist playing every week. I needed a gradual return to the game, so that I did not throw my existing priorities off-balance.

After some consideration, I decided on a solution: I would only play Magic when I visited the United States on business trips. To do this, I built a single competitive deck and kept it with me in Beijing. When I traveled to the States, I would take it with me. But I would not play the deck in Beijing. I kept only one deck in my Chinese apartment – everything else would stay in Canada. In doing this, I would resist the temptation to sort through my card collection and build new decks. My mind would understand this separation on an instinctive level – America was to be associated with Magic, and China would not be.

Playing tournaments on the road, on my business trips across America, was something I’d been doing for several years. I’d enjoyed playing Magic in places like Austin, Seattle, San Francisco, New York, Amsterdam, Taipei, and Berlin. I started doing this to break the boredom of business travel. Some travelers visited bars and restaurants; I visited local Magic stores and played in tournaments.

It was fascinating to meet local players and experience different metagames. Playing in local tournaments allowed me to discover a bit of character in each city. I enjoyed taking in the sights of each Magic store – chatting with storeowners and socializing with Legacy enthusiasts. Every establishment contained a different atmosphere and player base. I enjoyed learning about the Legacy format as practiced by a wide range of people. To access this wealth of information, all I had to do was pack my Magic deck with me on each trip.

Since I restricted my playing time to the time that I spent outside of China, this amounted to playing three or four times a year. In theory, this was great and I achieved my goal of playing small bits of Magic. What I failed to account for was my always-on competitive streak – it never dissipated, even during these brief moments. While playing a little bit was better than not playing at all, I started having negative feelings associated with my inconsistent results in traveling tournaments.

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To return to the game, I decided to play a Storm combo deck. The basic premise of Storm is to play a powerful combination of cards all on one turn, to build up a storm count. After a critical mass of cards is played, a kill card like Tendrils of Agony would be used with a special attribute – the ability to copy itself once for each spell played this turn. Tendrils of Agony only does two damage on its own – but copied nine or more times, it could deal twenty points of damage and kill the opponent.

Storm was originally a play mechanic that complemented other strategies. Wizards of the Coast never intended for it to be a strong engine on its own, that entire decks could be built around. Over time, key printings of new cards allowed this archetype to emerge and flourish. Free spells that required no resources to cast entered the picture. Tutor spells were printed, which allowed the Storm pilot to consistently find the kill pieces in every game. Ritual spells allowed for tremendous amounts of resource acceleration on a single turn. All of these cards worked together in great synergy, enabling the Storm pilot to chain spells together for a game-ending Tendrils of Agony.

The rise of Storm is a testament to the ingenuity of the Magic community. Through constant iteration and testing, the best Storm players in the world have elevated the deck to a level beyond the designers’ original intentions. Mark Rosewater is fond of rating returning play mechanics on a one to ten scale, where one is definitely coming back in a future set and ten is not a chance in hell. On Rosewater’s scale, Storm is a ten. In fact, the scale itself is named the Storm scale, for good reason.

Playing Storm is like solving a complex math problem. The Storm pilot tries to figure out how to execute the kill in a glorified game of solitaire. The monkey wrench in the equation is the bothersome opponent, who will try to disrupt the combo kill. Hence, critical thinking is required to win every match; calculating probabilities is a must. Winning with Storm means anticipating what the opponent will do, and stepping through intricate branching possibilities to solve the puzzle. Winning with the deck feels greatly satisfying at the cost of a steep learning curve.

Another way to think about Storm is as an elaborate ballet sequence, with one small misstep being the difference between life and death. The margin for error is extremely small when compared to other decks. With other decks like Zoo, playing the wrong creature on a particular turn is a small and ultimately rectifiable mistake, and wouldn’t be a matter of life and death. In Storm, however, every play is life and death.

There are lots of things to keep track of, and one misplay usually spells game over for the Storm player. Did I play the right spell on my first turn? Did I sequence my spells correctly? Do I go all-in for the kill this turn? If I don’t go all-in this turn, what are my percentages in subsequent turns? How do I sequence my spells so that I can play exactly ten spells for lethal storm count, and play around the counter that I know my opponent has? If I don’t go for it now, what are my chances later?

I had personal reasons to play Storm. The first was the raw objective power level of the deck. There would be games where I would kill the opponent on the first or second turn, before they could do a single thing. Oh, you just played a land on your first turn? I guess I’ll just draw a card and kill you now. Shuffle up for next game. The feeling of power, and the ability to crush the opponent like an insignificant insect, appealed to the black mage in me. It’s no coincidence that the key engine cards in the deck hail from the school of black magic, where self-sacrifice could be exchanged for tremendous power. I wished to repeat the adrenaline rush of powerful kills on a regular basis, and Storm fit the bill.

Another reason to pick up the deck was the linear nature of how combo decks worked. I reasoned that if I only played Magic a few times a year, I wouldn’t have time to study the constantly changing Magic metagame. Combo is like a hammer; it forces the opponent to answer your threats, instead of having to understand what their game plan is. With combo decks like Storm, I could jam my kill down their throats and force them to have an answer for me. I would be in the driver’s seat.

A secondary consideration was that I already owned most of the cards needed to build the Storm deck. I wouldn’t need to spend much money to update the Storm deck with some of the latest technology. It’s a deck that only needs gentle updating as time goes by; the most powerful cards are from the older Magic sets, and I already owned them. Rosewater and the Magic design team had already made their mistakes; they would be unlikely to repeat them anytime soon by printing newly degenerate Storm cards.

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Over the next few months of playing Storm, I would learn that things weren’t as easy as I originally expected. In my desire to get back into the game, I had over-simplified the benefits of playing a combo deck and it came back to haunt me.

Storm was a deck of extreme highs and lows, with nothing in-between. For every game that I would crush the living daylights out of my opponent, there would be another game where my opponent had all the answers for me. In the latter type of game scenario, I would be placed in a straitjacket like a trapped magician, trying to figure out how to get out of my nasty predicament. Storm is the deck of choice for a special type of player who chases emotional highs at the risk of crushing lows. The immense pleasure of winning games with overwhelming power is offset by demoralizing, mistake-fueled losses. The Storm player lives precariously from one sequence to another, and isn’t afraid to learn from constant losing. Losing leads to growth and self-improvement.

The only problem was that I couldn’t attain the enlightenment I hoped for. I had severely underestimated the need to practice with the deck. Practicing Storm at home, as a form of Magic solitaire, was one thing – playing live opponents and anticipating their lines of play was quite another. Even a month of downtime between tournaments resulted in repeated mistakes, as I failed to stay sharp. I felt frustrated at the seemingly simple play errors I made – errors that resulted in mounting losses. Playing a few times a year, without sufficient practice, became my surefire recipe for disaster.

In theory, I didn’t need to understand the inner workings of other decks because of how powerful my game plan was. In reality, I had grossly underestimated the importance of knowledge and learning the matchups. After the first game of a best-of-three match, players substitute in cards designed to slow or stop the combo kill. Other players would bring in newly printed “hate cards” for the Storm matchup that I hadn’t familiarized myself with. My lack of preparation could have been systematically avoided. Yet, I handicapped myself by not pouring my heart and soul into the deck. After one tournament, I would sit on the sidelines for a few months until I played the next one.

To compound the problem, there’s a level of psychology that works against the combo player in every tournament. Players absolutely hate losing to combo decks. The feeling of getting blown out in the early turns is one of the worst feelings for players on the receiving end. As a result, players tend to over-compensate in tournaments by overloading on hate cards for combo decks. This reinforces the need for combo players to prepare and practice.

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Picking up Storm was a pivotal decision that made my intermittent forays into Magic decidedly less fun. This is no slight against the deck; the deck is absolutely amazing in the hands of the right player. I’ve witnessed Storm players like Bryant Cook and Kai Sawatari take their decks deep into larger tournaments, and demolish their opponents. Cook and Sawatari are two leading examples of Storm grandmasters who have invested years of practice into their decks; their dedication to the dark art of Storm have resulted in terrific major tournament finishes. While they honed their craft, I tried to emulate greatness by playing only a handful of times a year.

In my tournaments, I said one thing to myself before matches: have fun. This was easier said than done, however. The competitive part of my mind needed to win games of Magic, and this clashed with my self-proclaimed mantra. It wasn’t enough to play Storm and scrub out of tournaments, because that didn’t feel fun. Winning was fun; losing felt terrible.

I played my Storm deck sparingly, on the road and without practice. In most games, I committed one mistake after another. Losing with Storm felt like losing to oneself, rather than the opponent, because of how losses occurred. Usually, it was a small miscalculation or the inability to account for the unknown. I treated these miscues as my own undoing. Even when I won, it had more to do with my opponents playing sub-optimally than with what I did correctly. This was a difficult pill to swallow because, win or lose, I never felt as though I bested the competition. I couldn’t find the validation that I desired, even in victory. Through the whole process, I was too inexperienced to smile or take a deep breath – I was in a cloudy state of deep thought each game.

It’s always been hard for me to extract joy from losses. Soon, I found myself in a deep mental rut. As much as I tried to laugh off mistakes in a match, they affected me. I wanted to get better, but I didn’t practice outside of tournaments. I couldn’t lower my expectations and keep a smile on my face as I lost one match after another. The sense of entitlement reared its ugly head. Why couldn’t I win? My opponent doesn’t even know how to play this game – he made more mistakes than I did! He also doesn’t understand Storm, and dismisses my deck while he gets lucky. I deserve to win, not him.

Given my mental approach to the game, I grew increasingly disappointed with my competitive comeback. After a few bad outings with the deck, I decided that enough was enough. I did the only thing that a perpetually frustrated player would do, in a fit of impatience – I presented myself with an ultimatum. The ultimatum was straightforward: either put a lot more practice into Magic, or quit the game. Playing small doses of Magic was clearly not enough for my personal enjoyment. The ultimatum made sense because I did not want to play the game half-heartedly anymore.

By 2014, I was at a dire crossroads as far as Magic was concerned. I found myself stranded a million light-years away from the times I played the game as a kid. During those times, I could enjoy the simple pleasures of casting spells and discovering cool new cards. Later, as I grew up to play competitive card games, I managed to do well enough to fuel my internal motivation. Those good memories felt distant now, as my results took a dive. I could no longer validate myself as a good player, and it was the lowest I’d felt in nearly two decades.

I agonized over my self-imposed ultimatum, and the decision that I needed to make. Though I came up with an extreme existential question for myself, I couldn’t quite find the right answer. Instead, I opted to delay the decision and put the game on hold for a couple of months. I figured that I could buy myself some time to sort through my mixed emotions. The decision to leave the game was not one to be made lightly. I had invested another year of my life into the game; walking away just got harder.

To be continued…

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