“Magic: the Addiction” Excerpt #3: Good Magic player, bad magic player

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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 what I’ve learned from my experiences.

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

Good Magic player, bad Magic player

Even if you’ve never played Magic, you likely have some pre-formed conception of what Magic players are like. The game is mainstream enough to be mentioned in popular media, and those who haven’t played it have heard about it. Ask anyone who’s watched The Big Bang Theory about the stereotypical Magic gamer, and images will inevitably form of the nerdy, rules-quoting player who takes things too serious and is out of touch with reality.

Funnily enough, there’s a certain truth to this perpetuating stereotype. In general, stereotypes tend to persist because there’s enough truth and credibility in them to stand the test of time. The stereotypical Magic player, however, is too ideal of a generalization. Within the confines of my local gaming store, I’ve observed several different personality types. I’ve met a lot of outstanding people who play the game, and some of them have become lifelong friends. I’ve also met some reprehensible people who I would never want to interact with ever again.

I’ll preface this statement by saying that eighty to ninety percent of Magic players are perfectly normal. They are polite, fun to play with, and gracious in victory or defeat. But every once in a while, I’ll run into some “rotten apples” that give the game a bad reputation. The game is popular, welcoming and inclusive. As a result, it manages to attract players of all personalities and traits.

Games like Magic are empowering, but also give socially awkward people a platform to amplify their unpleasant behaviors. It’s normal to work one’s frustrations out in a game – it’s the reason millions of people participate in sports. A line is crossed, however, when those frustrations are directed at other players with no consideration or social grace. Emotions can become heated and some players lash out, either at others or themselves. Sometimes, the ugly side of entitlement rears its head.

A lot of reprehensible behavior stems from the root cause of social awkwardness and insecurity. As human beings, we all search for validation and belonging. So it comes as no surprise that some socially awkward folks play the game to validate their own existence and self-worth. This is something that affects all human beings, not just Magic players. In any social setting, both good and bad things are bound to happen.

I’ve not been a complete saint when it comes to these things, either. As I’ve matured, I’ve consciously adjusted my behavior by being observant of my own weaknesses. My fifteen year-old self acted rashly and emotionally. When I started card gaming against in my mid-twenties, I learned to harness my emotions in a more constructive way. On the other hand, I’ve interacted with lots of adult players who have never quite grown up and learned to behave responsibly. This section is dedicated to the Peter Pans of the Magic world.

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So what types of player generalizations exist? I’ll start with the soloists – the players who use the game as an overt outlet for their quirks. They seek not to compete but to demonstrate an intellectual superiority over others, as if winning with a unique set of card combinations meant that they won the game of life. Magic is a testing lab for the soloists’ projects, and the opponent is merely along for the ride. If they could play SimCity or solitaire with Magic cards, and treat their opponents as automatons, they probably would.

Playing with soloists is awkward. They make no attempt to be inclusive, and aren’t capable of communicating normally through small talk. When soloists get excited about things, the other player has absolutely no idea what’s going on. On the flip side, they try to give others unheeded advice about the smallest minutiae, no matter how inconsequential it may be. Some of these players are actually geniuses at the game, because of how they theorize about new ideas. Once in awhile, soloists come up with brilliantly executed decks but lack the communication skills to share them constructively.

I once played with a guy in a tournament setting who avoided all eye contact with me. When we sat down, I tried to shake his hand and he returned the favor like his hand was a dead fish. We started the game and he played cards on the table. I wasn’t sure what to make of him, so I kept to myself. His eyes rolled around the playing area uncontrollably, as he made a grimacing stare to no one in particular.

In our first game, he won decisively after I failed to realize what his strategy was. From out of nowhere, he assembled a combination of cards for a surprise kill. I looked at the odd cards he played on the table in the first few turns, and believed he was on a non-combo deck. That’s why I chose to wait, and waiting too long cost me the game. After winning, his eyes lit up and he started to talk about how concealed and devious his deck was. He then looked at me and mentioned all the small mistakes I made in the game that led to my loss.

At that point, I was flabbergasted. I didn’t think that my opponent needed to rub copious amounts of salt into my wound – I had just lost. But he didn’t seem like the type of guy who cared. As I walked off, he continued to mutter phrases to himself about how powerful his deck was and how he would continue to make changes to it. Good luck with that, I thought cynically. Maybe you can go home and play with yourself, too.

Soloists aren’t all that bad when compared to another genre of socially awkward and aggressive players: the abrasive loudmouths. The abrasive loudmouth players will not stop talking at anyone around them. When they talk, everyone pretends to not hear them, or make eye contact, for fear of being sucked into an awkward one-sided “conversation” that would last for more than ten minutes. Once that happens, it’s game over and the players on the receiving end have to make an awkward excuse to leave the scene.

Lance (name changed to protect the oblivious) was a particularly egregious example of a loudmouth player in my store. Lance was unpleasant to the extreme; he would punctuate his gameplay with annoying proclamations and boasts. You got served! Ha ha, bad move! You played THAT card?? What, are you an idiot? When he wasn’t berating other players, Lance would talk to me as if I was his friend. He mistook my polite head nods and eye contact as friendship. The unfortunate truth was that nobody was his friend.

I felt sorry for Lance; he appeared oblivious to what a massive jerk he was. Nobody wanted to tell him for fear of being sucked into an hour-long conversation. More likely, no one cared. When people finally had enough and snapped at him, Lance looked confused as to why it happened. In other cases, he took the abuse in stride, likely believing that it was typical human behavior.

It’s a shame that Lance never figured out how annoying he was. He was actually a competent player but the words that came out of his mouth prevented him from making actual friends. I fantasized that perhaps Lance suffered from attention-deficit disorder, or abused as a child. That was my only way to cope with how insufferable he was. I never found out why Lance lacked any social norms, because he disappeared from the scene within a few years. None of us knew where he went. But deep inside, we all breathed a small sigh of relief that we would no longer have to put up with his antics.

The next type of awkward Magic player I’ll christen the poker player. Not necessarily because these players play poker, though many do. I call them poker players because they share one trait in common with many poker players: they will relentlessly bemoan their bad luck and regale crowds with their “bad beat” stories. When I played poker, I came across these chronic complainers almost every day. In Magic, it’s no different. Approach these players and expect to hear an endless supply of stories that begin with, “I was really unlucky in last week’s tournament, here’s what happened…”

Some of these players behaved like ticking time bombs. At one tournament, I noticed one player who was literally steaming before the rounds began. He was telling people left, right and center about just how unlucky he was in his previous tournament earlier that day. He recounted in stunning detail about how his opponent drew exactly the one card left in the deck that won the opponent the game. I had him dead to rights, he proclaimed. And he draws the one card that beats me! I played around the stupid card the whole game, and he still draws it! Can you believe it?

As our tournament began, he looked visibly frustrated after an early loss, and the verbal tirade continued. Got unlucky again! God, what’s going on here? I can’t seem to have any decent luck if my life depended on it! His face looked swollen with fury and disbelief. In the next round, he lost another game – and this time, he absolutely lost it. Finally having enough of the game, he threw his cards against the wall with an unexpected violence and stormed out of the store. I’m not sure if he ever came back to the store to pick up his cards.

At the time, I really wanted to stand up and make my public service announcement. Buddy, nobody cares how unlucky you got. We don’t care much of a “bad beat” you took while playing Magic for a few dollars. It’s a fucking card game, deal with it and shut up. After repeating those words in my head, I restrained myself from making a public outburst of my own. It’s bad enough having to witness things like this – I didn’t want to make my own negative contributions.

Besides, it’s easy to possess tunnel vision in a game like Magic. For every stroke of bad luck, there is an opposite stroke of good luck. Players just tend to remember the really bad experiences, and not the times when they won games due to great luck. Luck is a part of the game; being negative about the randomness of the game does a disservice to its design and longevity. Things have a way of evening out in the long run – but sometimes the weak-willed players don’t realize this.

Having said that, venting can be an effective mechanism to diffuse frustration. My buddy Chad is a smart dude who has been playing Magic for a very long time. He and I are the same age, and he’s incredibly mature when it comes to navigating real life. He’s a handsome dude with a Ph.D., has a great girlfriend, and is witty to boot. He’s a joy to hang out with.

Chad, however, is the master of the bad beat. To listen to Chad speak about Magic, you’d think that he was the unluckiest Magic player in the world. Maybe the world was conspiring against him. Each round, his opponent manages to out-draw him. There is no logical reason to him losing, other than the Magic gods being cruel to him. His narrations are entertaining and punctuated by dramatic eye rolls. His body language tends to be one of resignation. There’s a reason we call him bad beats Chad.

I know that Chad can’t be that oblivious to think that the universe is conspiring against him. Chad certainly doesn’t complain in the same way when life throws him a curveball, or when his employer screws him over. Rather, Magic has become Chad’s release valve – a playground where he is free to express frustration. He’s also supremely confident in his abilities as a player and believes he can outplay the average Magic player. In some sense, Chad believes that luck is the only thing that allows him to lose games. Conversely, when Chad wins a game or plays well, he’s extremely excited. He is all about the highs and the lows of the game.

The thing that separates Chad from the random Magic poker player is his discipline. He recognizes the variance in the game, but he’s still constantly seeking self-improvement. While Chad bemoans his bad luck, he also picks himself back up and moves on to the next battle. Both Chad and I adhere to the Golden Rule – do unto others as you’d like them to do to you. He’ll share stories with me, and not with any random stranger within earshot. Chad is totally fine when I return the favor and share a bad beat story with him, because we’ve been through a lot together.

Poker players aren’t half as bad as the perpetually entitled, God’s-gift-to-Magic players (G.G.T.M.P.’s). G.G.T.M.P.’s are close relatives of the poker players, because they possess an unhealthy excess of the holier-than-thou attitude. They tend to be insufferable and arrogant people who feel entitled to win every match over you because they think they are “better players” or “made the right decisions.” I’ve definitely felt this emotion at times, depending on my opponent or the situation. G.G.T.M.P.’s live in a perpetual state of entitlement, however, regardless of the situation. They could be playing basketball against Michael Jordan and feel like they have a chance to win.

If G.G.T.M.P.’s won, it’s because they were skilled. If you won, it’s because you were stupidly lucky. Never mind that Magic is a card game designed around a mixture of skill and luck. If you beat a G.G.T.M.P., walk away quickly or risk a long-winded diatribe on idiot Magic players who shouldn’t be playing. These entitled brats are so full of themselves that it’s a miracle they haven’t imploded like hot air balloons. Their bouts of whining and disbelief are all rolled into one intoxicating brew of ridiculousness.

Ultimately, all of these behaviors define Magic players in a vacuum – we play the game in an attempt to exercise some form of self-control. We wish to exist in a domain where discipline and improvement is readily visible, and fairness prevails. At times, we choose to embrace the fantasy world, with its set of mores and rules, instead of the randomness of real life. It’s no surprise, then, that we want to embrace this imaginary construct of a universe and behave as if the real world didn’t matter. In this scenario, the machinations of luck are a rude reminder of the unfairness that we face in real life. Real life has its share of disappointments and cruelties that games can often transcend. Inside the Matrix, we can shape our own destiny and create our own rays of sunshine.

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The irony is that all of these stereotypes represent me at various points in time. I can be an elitist, insufferable prick on certain days. I’ve also been both a sore winner and loser in the past, and cared little about my opponents’ feelings. In my Magic journey I have inhabited and assumed all of these ugly personas. While I’ve restrained myself from throwing cards against the wall, I have fantasized about doing so in my angriest moments. The game is rewarding, but also punishing and unregulated in how it guides players along the way. There is minimal validation, and everybody gets something different out of the game.

When I doubt my own involvement in the game, I ask myself the question: why do I continue to play this game? In these times of despair, the player stereotypes come back to me in full force. They remind me of all that is unpleasant with the game, in addition to my existing insecurities about my own playing ability. These thoughts reside in a pessimistic part of my mind that is never satisfied and always unhappy.

In any event, badly behaved Magic players won’t make me quit the game. I strongly believe in doing things for the right reasons – leaving something behind, based on factors that I can’t control, feels misguided. I can’t control how others conduct themselves, but I can try to be a better person each day. It would take much more than a few rotten apples to keep me away from the game.

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The glass half-full perspective is that there are many great reasons to play the game. Magic is a great game that attracts a diverse group of people. Despite the wide spectrum of negative personalities, I’ve met a number of players who have turned out to be amazing people. Magic has a lot to offer, is fairly easy to learn, and appeals to many different types of players. The well-rounded nature of the game appeals to creative people, who in turn champion the game and help make it progressively better.

One defining hallmark of Magic is its infinitely complex nature. There is ample room for learning, reflection and improvement. In any given scenario, there are many possible decisions and lines of play. The game rewards planning, and mulling the different micro-decisions in a turn that lead to winning or losing. There are many unknowns – the opponent’s patterns, the cards concealed in the opponent’s hand, and the cards yet to be drawn – that make decision-making an imperfect science. It is a game where good plays are rewarded, bad play is punished, and players enforce their own styles of play. Two players can play out the same situation differently, and both be correct due to how they’ve rationalized their actions. In the end, the game resembles martial arts sparring — the one who makes the least mistakes wins.

The natural high of competitive Magic comes from making tough and intuitive decisions that lead to a win. There is an amount of intellectual superiority and fulfillment that one feels when the odds are overcome, and one outplays the opponent. Making proper, rational decisions is a key part of the game. There is also consolation in knowing that even when the right decisions are made, the inherent variance of the game can lead players into losses. As they say in poker, the best thing to do is to focus on decisions and not short-term results. In any luck-influenced game, there is short-term variance; even the most skilled players can lose to random events. Over time, however, skill conquers all. It’s not uncommon to see the same good players consistently finish at the top tables of larger tournaments.

Magic is also alluring in that it allows one to adopt certain strategic frameworks – to find one’s own personal style to victory. It’s a mixed martial arts competition, and the participants can harness jujitsu, karate or judo as the situation fits them. There are many different ways to play, and players can find their own unique voice. These frameworks are multi-faceted and can also change in real-time. Depending on how a match goes, players can adapt to the attacks of the opponent and create skillful counter-attacks.

To take this analogy a step further, there is an insane degree of customization available to Magic players. Everything in the game, from art variations of the same card to one’s dice and counters, can be customized to reflect the player’s personality. In the same way that athletes prefer a certain brand of clothing or performance shoe, Magic players are empowered to show their unique creations to the world, sometimes to great and surprising results.

One of the reasons I play the Legacy format, which is one of the evergreen Eternal formats of Magic, is due to its expansive card pool. The Legacy format allows its practitioners to use cards from the entire history of the game. As a result, players are given latitude to construct the widest array of decks imaginable. Players can embrace an almost endless amount of play combinations and styles.

Compared to the more confined play space of the Standard format, the Legacy format allows for greater self-expression. Over time, Wizards of the Coast has sculpted the modern game to a linear format that is dictated by certain card types, like creatures and planeswalkers. By contrast, the Legacy format is a wild whirlwind of possibility; some of the most powerful spells ever printed are available for the taking. Due of the high power level of the cards, Legacy scratches the complexity itch for many players. Some of the most powerful cards like Brainstorm and Cabal Therapy are easy to learn but hard to master.

For a pseudo-Magic-hipster like me, I enjoyed the appeal of a more niche format, coupled with the flexibility to choose how I wanted to win. While I didn’t want to be a soloist, I wanted to play rare cards with panache. I wanted to try things that were new, and not be relegated to copying cookie-cutter decks that a million other people played. In the Standard format, there was less room for customization within a specific deck. The Legacy format allowed for interesting combinations; even a single card substitution in an existing deck could make a huge difference to success or failure.

Magic also appeals to collectors. Collectors love to spend their disposable income on esoteric pieces of cardboard that are even more expensive than real life objects like cars or computers. An entire Magic subculture exists around collecting the rarest cards in existence. In this respect, the game attracts an entire group of collectors who don’t necessarily play the game but follow it with a zealous passion.

The collectible nature of the game is what enticed my brother and I to play all those years ago. When we saw individual Magic cards with high price tags on them, we jumped on the chance to acquire them for ourselves. Two decades later, I find myself spending inordinate amounts of energy and resources to track down foreign language versions of cards I already own. I do it for the pride of owning rare foreign language versions of cards, in the same way that car enthusiasts upgrade their hubcaps or wiper blades. Playing with rare cards, instead of the vanilla versions, have become part of my identity – and I don’t mind spending thousands of dollars to do so.

Collecting cards is a form of self-expression, and people tend to choose their own path. While I like expensive German language cards, my friend Clark loves to collect all printed versions of the Kiln Fiend card. I’m not sure how many copies of the card he owns by now, but it’s likely to be in the hundreds. He has them in multiple languages and printings. For Clark, it’s fun to pay homage and obsess over a single card. Another friend, Greg, loves Asian language cards. He’ll mix up different Asian languages in a single deck. The need to collect, and obsess over cards, hits everyone slightly differently.

In addition to the allure of collecting, many people enjoy Magic as a form of mental athletics. Whereas physical sports are subject to the competitors’ athletic abilities or age group, competitive Magic is all about mental concentration and focus. As someone who’s played a lot of basketball over the years, I don’t have to worry about losing to a Magic player with fresher legs who can out-jump me on the court. In sports, youth and athletic prowess is often rewarded. In the game of Magic, however, this is a non-factor. In fact, wiser and more experienced players usually experience an edge over their opponents. Even in my thirties, I can hold by own against younger competition, and that’s an attractive proposition.

The Magic community is many things to many people. If you like to compete, Magic is your game. If you like to collect, Magic is filled with different ways to do so. If you simply want to socialize with friends over a card game, it’s also there to serve that purpose. The game is a melting pot of possibilities; it’s a vehicle for personal empowerment and creative expression. Conversely, it also serves as an outlet for players’ insecurities and tendencies.

One way or another, Magic has shaped my path in life. Like a steady partner, it’s provided its share of good and bad experiences. Magic was a gift from above, but it’s also enabled some bad feelings that I would have to work through for years to come.

To be continued…

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