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.
Some context: in the last chapter, I had settled down in Beijing, China. I started to play Magic once again after a one-year hiatus. To get back into things, I chose to play Storm in the Legacy format. Here’s what happens next.
The Beijing Magic scene
As fate would have it, it was my membership in the online Magic community that led to my discovery of the Beijing Magic scene and motivated me to keep going. At this point, I had already put my active participation in the game on hold for a number of months. I was conflicted between continuing my Magic journey and quitting. I didn’t play Magic for a while but continued to browse the online forums.
As I was browsing the forums one day, I came across a post made by a user, GoblinZ. Nothing stood out in terms of what GoblinZ wrote. Instead, what piqued my interest was his listed location: Beijing. Intrigued, I looked at his posting history and realized that he was pretty knowledgeable about the game. He had also been a regular poster for a few years, and posted quite a bit in the Storm threads. If nothing else, we could talk about our favorite Storm decks.
I sent him a private message:
This is James a.k.a. Plague Sliver. Are you located in Beijing? If so, would love to find out more. Where do you guys play Legacy?
A day later, he responded:
Hello. Yes, there is regular legacy event on Sunday at “Tian Shi” card store. And there are usually some guys playing legacy there at weekends. I usually play legacy with my teammates at “Fan Ya” card store near Zhong Guan Cun in Haidian district at the weekends. As for standard and draft, I recommend “Ka Dou” and “Fan Ya”. If you would come to Beijing, maybe we could have the chance to play together.
Sounds like there were at least three places to play. I wasn’t completely sure about my own time investment in the game, but decided that some scouting was warranted. Playing Storm overseas a few times a year wasn’t enough for the serious competitor in me. As a next step, it seemed completely reasonable to scout the local Magic community first. Maybe it was engaging enough for me to continue playing locally.
After an initial set of back-and-forth messages, GoblinZ and I agreed to meet at the upcoming Beijing Grand Prix, held on the western side of the city in a university study hall. The main event wasn’t Legacy, but there was a Legacy side event that GoblinZ planned to attend. I could accomplish two things by going there: take in the sights of the Grand Prix, and size up the state of the Legacy scene. I also had an opportunity to play in a small tournament with my Storm deck. I quickly looked up the location on my phone and took the subway ride there.
GoblinZ was initially nowhere to be found. He was busy battling in the Standard format main event, which I didn’t plan to play. This gave me time to walk around and take in the sights around me. Like other Grand Prix events I had attended in the past, the university hall was packed to the brim with at least a thousand players. The air was filled with excitable, Magic-related chatter. Vendors lined the university, selling their Magic-related cards and merchandise. As the players were predominantly Chinese students in their twenties, the Grand Prix looked like a local university exam gone haywire. Instead of pen and paper, the students took their high-pressure Magic exam with well-assembled pieces of cardboard.
In-between rounds, GoblinZ texted me some updates on how he was doing. I texted back a few words of encouragement. Unfortunately, after picking up his third loss in the tournament, GoblinZ was mathematically eliminated from second-day contention. GoblinZ forfeited his spot from the tournament and came over to meet me. We shook hands and made our introductions.
In person, GoblinZ was a quiet and unassuming young man. His sharp and observant eyes revealed a strong intelligence behind a quiet demeanor. GoblinZ told me that his real name was Ji. He was working on a Ph.D. in women’s studies, but had played Magic in Beijing for several years. Due to Ji’s affinity for western literature, his written and spoken English was strong. Ji’s online name, GoblinZ, combined his love of playing Goblins in Magic with the first letter of his last name. One of the first Legacy decks he played was Goblins, but he has since expanded his horizons to include decks like Storm.
I felt at ease at how freely Ji opened up to my questions. He appeared happy to meet an outside party who had taken on an interest in the Beijing Legacy scene. It turns out that I had struck gold. Due to the language barrier, most of the Chinese Magic players didn’t post on forums like the Source. Ji was one of the few who did, and I just happened to notice his posting. After a few minutes, Ji walked me over to a large table and introduced me to the rest of the Beijing Legacy enthusiasts. Many of them had come to the Grand Prix to exclusively play in the Legacy side event, and were waiting for the event to begin.
There were about fifteen Legacy players sitting together. They were a close-knit group, judging from their body language and easygoing banter. Some of them joked around; a few of them practiced playing their Legacy decks. I walked around the table and introduced myself to each of them. They were quick to exchange pleasantries. I felt very positive with first impressions, and immediately felt the warmth of the group.
Beijing had its share of passionate Legacy enthusiasts. After a bit of conversation, I learned that several of them had played Magic competitively for a decade or more. It was clear that the old-timers knew the ins and outs of the game. One of the players, Hao, operated a Magic store close to where I lived – that would prove to be a great convenience later on. The community was friendly and eager to talk about their experiences, interjected with a fun story or two. I’ve always enjoyed socializing with fellow players, and this time was no different. It was a little harder for me to discuss Magic in Chinese, but I managed.
The unique thing about Chinese Magic is that very few of its players have made a name for themselves on the global scene. In Wizards’ Magic coverage, I often hear about powerhouse teams from European countries, or professional players like Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa from Brazil. This is, of course, in addition to the strong coverage of American professional players. China, by contrast, has generated next to no coverage, and I couldn’t name one Chinese player from memory.
At first, I thought that this discrepancy had to do with language issues. Perhaps the English language was a big barrier for Chinese players to overcome? But this explanation was unsatisfactory. It failed to explain why Japanese players were so dominant in the game. Japan has enjoyed a strong tournament presence for at least a half-decade, despite its people not being known for their grasp of the English language. I could rattle off the names of a half-dozen Japanese professional players, but I struggled to do the same for Chinese players.
It was precisely due to China’s anonymous reputation in the competitive scene that I didn’t associate Magic with China at all. I reasoned that if a region had enough of a grassroots scene, then some professional players are bound to rise to the top. Due to China’s anonymity on the global scene, I never suspected for a minute that there would be a group of passionate Magic players in Beijing. It’s one of the reasons why I was able to place the game out of mind for my first year here. But I was wrong.
As I started to play in more Chinese Magic tournaments and spoke to more people, I began to understand the reasons for China’s underrepresentation on the global stage. The first reason is pure pragmatism. The Chinese are pragmatic and base a lot of decisions on financial benefit. Those who have the ability to practice and play in tournaments tend to be older people with families and stable jobs. While Magic doesn’t make sense from a financial or career perspective in any country, in China this is amplified by the expectations of society.
I work in the tech industry, and there’s a telling question being asked by startup founders in the United States that differs greatly from one being asked by founders in China. In Silicon Valley, the question being asked is: how do I change the world? In China, the question is: how do I make money from this? Chinese society expects its people to study and work hard. It expects its citizens to make lots of money; wealth allows one to settle down and start a family, as well as take care of one’s existing family. In this life narrative, there is little financial incentive to seriously invest in Magic. And unlike Japan or Korea, there is barely any state-supported infrastructure that allows for gaming as a full-time career.
Even younger Magic players in college don’t have free time to chase their gaming dreams. They are constantly under pressure to excel in academics, and land a decent job after graduation. China is a country defined by scarcity; people compete ferociously for jobs and opportunities, and this starts at a young age. By contrast, there are lots of American college students who don’t face the same pressures, and can grind endless hours on Magic Online. They also have time to play in lots of live tournaments.
Chinese students tend to be “late bloomers” in dating – many have not been in serious romantic relationships during their high school years. There is a lot of pressure to excel in academics, at the cost of a social life. For many students, college is a time of liberation, and they are keen to explore social activities for the first time. In other countries, students typically experience a greater range of social activities before college. For Chinese students entering college, it’s more difficult for Magic to take center stage.
There is also the financial barrier of entry for Chinese Magic players. The average income of the Chinese middle-class person does not support a serious Magic habit. The rising cost of cards is already a problem in North America; in China, Magic cards command the same prices as they do overseas. For Chinese college students, it is often impractical to play online or acquire tournament cards.
While it’s normal to see older Magic players acquire expensive cards and collections, they’ve already reached the stage where playing serious tournament Magic is impossible. The game is accessible only to those who have disposable income. It’s rare to hear about middle-aged Magic players who place well in Magic Pro Tours – they generally have other life priorities that prevent them from investing a lot of time in the game. By the time Chinese players have the ability to travel and play extensively, they’ve outgrown the game on a professional level.
When it comes to travel, it’s a logistical challenge for Chinese players to travel to play in tournaments. China is a massive country, and players generally need to book flights to play in multiple cities. Compared to American Magic hot spots like the New England area, or car-accessible European Union countries, travel is prohibitive for the Chinese. Also, there is the issue of Visa requirements for out-of-country travel. For any Chinese person to travel, they need to secure a Visa to the country they’re visiting. The Visa application process is not guaranteed – Chinese players may be denied a Visa if they are deemed to be a flight risk by the Chinese government. All of these logistical reasons make it difficult for all but the most affluent Chinese players to travel to play in tournaments.
It’s easy to dismiss the Chinese players’ under-performance as a case of un-originality, or lack of creativity. There is an oft-cited stereotype about the Chinese people’s deficiencies in these areas, and how creative deck building contributes to success in Magic. In reality, this is far from the truth. The Chinese are way ahead of the curve when it comes to gaming. Entire generations of Chinese kids have been raised on gaming through the ascending ubiquity of mobile devices. Kids in China play games everywhere they go – on the subway, with friends, and at home. New games are invented every day in China. For this generation, creativity and thinking outside of the box is the new normal.
Another reason to dispel the myth is that originality in deck building is a problem everywhere, not just in China. The practice of “net-decking” – copying exact deck lists online – is a global phenomenon. The Chinese don’t do this any more frequently than their American or European counterparts.
After Ji’s initial introduction, I became an official member of the Beijing Legacy community. I started visiting Chinese Magic web sites and joined a Legacy-specific chat group. Despite my previous efforts to distance myself from playing the game locally, I warmed up to the idea. Besides, I was in a real rut as far as the game was concerned, and wanted to do something new to shake things up. I wasn’t fully committed to playing fulltime yet, but I figured that making new friends couldn’t hurt. If I played just a little bit more Magic in this new setting, I might be able to rid myself of the negative feelings I had built up inside.
This was a breath of fresh air and my chance at redemption. Now that I knew the local community of Legacy players, I could practice more frequently and level up my skills. If I put my mind to it, I could invest more time into Magic and become a competent player again. Magic was always an international game for me – now it was solely in my backyard. The ball was in my court, and it was my move to make.
How could I refuse my shot? Encouraged, I began to re-invest my energies back into the game. In the back of my mind, I knew that I didn’t want to get too addicted again. But I had taken a one-year leave of absence. This leave reinforced my self-confidence, and proved that I could keep the game under control.
Playing Magic was like starting a new romantic relationship – the parameters were different, and I needed to build on the hard lessons that I had learned before. I learnt those earlier lessons through pure trial and error. Now, I needed to ease back into the game through a series of ultra-casual first dates. The goal was to keep my passion for the game in check, and not get too excited too early. I had a long way to go, and I didn’t want to face early disappointment in case things didn’t work out.
Lost in translation
The biggest personal adjustment for me as a Magic player in China was learning to communicate in Chinese as I played. In our Canadian household, my parents made my brother and I speak Chinese. Their insistence on this rule was the single biggest reason why I retained my Chinese language proficiency over the years; it has helped me tremendously after I moved to China. In Beijing, I spoke Chinese in everyday situations. But speaking Chinese while playing Magic was a whole new ballgame.
Magic had a unique vocabulary and language of its own. Keep. Draw. Go. Mulligan. Resolves? My turn. I place this effect on the stack. All of these proprietary Magic terms were second nature to me, so long as they were communicated in the English language. But learning them again in the Chinese language forced me to adapt, and experience the terms for the first time. This doesn’t even take into account the card names.
In other countries I visited before I moved to China, English was the universal constant – the one thing that allowed me to share common ground with local Magic players. Whether it was Germany or Amsterdam, the local players spoke passable to fluent English and we had no problems in communication. While English wasn’t necessarily their first language, all it took was a few clarifying words to resolve play-related issues. Also, everyone knew the Magic card names in English.
Although the Chinese population grew up studying English in school, it was strictly in written form. The entrance exams to universities tested for reading and writing comprehension. Hence, many Chinese are adept at English written communication, but have poor verbal communication skills. Magic required a lot of real-time verbal communication; the key to playing a smooth game without critical misunderstandings depended on it.
In my early days in Beijing, I often overestimated the English language abilities of my work colleagues. My colleagues wrote excellent English emails that were nearly indistinguishable from that of their American counterparts. Due to this, I often perceived their overall English abilities to be strong, and extended this perception to their spoken English as well. As a result, I would speak to them using natural and colloquial English. At first, I didn’t understand why they gave me blank expressions in meetings after I spoke. It was only after I stopped to reflect on what had happened, and slowed down my English speech, that I fully understood.
After slowing down my pace of speech, they displayed signs of recognition. Sometimes, they would still struggle to grasp the full meaning of what I said. When I sensed that this was happening, I would repeat my sentence or transition into Chinese to finish the thought. The latter approach usually worked better.
By the time I started playing Magic in Beijing, I had gotten used to associating the game with a certain language: English. I tried to use English with my opponents while we played, but it slowed the game down tremendously. They didn’t know what I said, and we would use hand gestures to clarify our thoughts. Also, when I used English, they would try to respond in English as well. For many complex scenarios, having my opponents respond in English was nearly useless.
Nonetheless, there was no shortage of enthusiastic Magic players who wanted to practice their English with me. They would make quite considerable effort to communicate with me in English, which I appreciated. It was one part courtesy, and one part interesting challenge for them. But their spoken English would often be unintelligible and I struggled to understand their sentence fragments. (In general, my colleagues at work in the tech industry had stronger English skills than the average Magic player. This made sense, because the requirements to enter a prestigious university were quite strict in China.)
I would hear English words for simple things like: OK. I tap for blue mana. Go. But if the dialogue got any more complicated, there would be an inevitable impasse. I need to put this spell on the stack. Do you have a response? Are you passing priority? There were particularly tricky interactions when it came to the older Legacy format. To finish the job, I’d often speak Chinese to clarify the situation.
There were also cases where naming a specific Magic card was critical. Certain cards like Phyrexian Revoker and Pithing Needle required this; it was part of how the card functioned. My opponent would name the card in Chinese, and I would not understand what the card was. We would then look up the card on a mobile device so that I could see the English version of the card. Conversely, I would name a card in English and do the same explanatory translation for my opponent. This type of back-and-forth name exchange was a regular occurrence, and I got used to quickly resolving them. Over time, as I learned the Chinese names of commonly played cards, this became a non-issue.
The attempts to blend English and Chinese together reminded me of those times that I used to watch Spanish TV commentary of professional basketball games. I couldn’t find an English channel that broadcast the game in hotel rooms, and would watch the Spanish channel instead. The announcers spoke Spanish, which was a language I did not comprehend at all. As a result, the commentary became an odd amalgamation of two languages, with only the English parts audible to me.
I would hear something-something-something-KOBE-something-something. My ears perked up at a single familiar word and I knew that the commentators were talking about Kobe Bryant. Everything else, though, was foreign. Trying to understand the Spanish running commentary became a fun but ultimately futile exercise.
When my Magic opponents interjected complex in-game dialogue with simple English words, I felt exactly the same way. What good was it to say the simple words in English, when ninety percent of the overall phrase still made no sense to me? By combining the languages, my opponents actually made it harder for me to decipher their phrases, not easier.
On other occasions, when I socialized with the local Magic players, there would be an extended discussion about certain cards. This new card, Eldrazi Displacer, is perfect for your deck! It can bounce Flickerwisp, and that’s great when you combine it with Stoneforge Mystic. I couldn’t slow down the entire conversation to ask what the English equivalent of the Chinese card was. Slowly, over a few minutes of contextual analysis, I would retrace the steps and figure out what card they were talking about. When I got really stuck, I would ask them as a last resort. Over time, I also learned to listen to conversations with greater focus and concentration.
Language has also indirectly affected the Magic friendships I’ve developed. There have been a lot of great Beijing players whom I’ve played with. Due to my comfort level, however, I tend to easily befriend those with stronger English skills. It’s a lot easier for me to share my stories and experiences with someone, without additional hurdles like language getting in the way. There were a handful of English native speakers who played Magic – those with foreign backgrounds like me. They became my practice partners and people I shared gaming in-jokes with.
While I am on friendly terms with local Chinese players, it takes me longer to warm up to them. My Chinese skills limit what I can express – I can’t crank out a sarcastic joke or witty observation if my vocabulary restricts me from doing so. But since I’ve been playing with some of the Beijing locals for over a year now, we’ve warmed up to each other.
Playing, communicating, and socializing in different languages is a lot of fun, and I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything. I never could have imagined, in a million years, that I would now be playing the game I loved as a child with people from halfway around the world. The global reach of Magic is an endearing quality, and one of the key reasons why I continue to play in live tournaments. Nothing beats the excitement of physically sitting down with a foreign opponent, knowing that the game transcends all cultural boundaries.
The only certain things in life…are death and taxes
Starting to play Magic again was a fine first step, but what about breaking out of my Magic funk? At the tail end of 2013, I was playing Storm and constantly losing with it. What would be different for me this time around? I mulled this question in my head, over and over again.
I had grown weary of hitting the wall with Storm. It just wasn’t working out, especially when I had not practiced with the deck frequently enough. There was a mental barrier to playing Storm in Beijing, and feeling those same crushing feelings when I didn’t come through. It was the elephant in the room, and I had too many memories of debilitating losses that hampered my attempts to play the deck. So when I entered a larger tournament in Beijing, I wanted to pick another deck to do battle with.
The first choice for my Magic renaissance was a deck called Death and Taxes. I had played the deck in a small Vancouver tournament a few months ago, when I visited Canada to see my family. Despite my mediocre results in that tournament, I walked away with a positive impression of the deck. The goal of Death and Taxes was to control, or regulate, what the opponent did. Similar to a deadly boa constrictor, Death and Taxes slowly and surely applied a vice grip on the opponent – until they were dead.
The first thing I noticed about Death and Taxes was that it was an order of magnitude easier to play than my Storm deck. While Death and Taxes required great concentration and focus to play, it didn’t feel like a fifty-minute math puzzle. The premise of a control deck like Death and Taxes was to understand what the opponent tried to do, so that the pilot could react to it. Hence, I found myself focusing to understand the opponent’s rhythms and then working to disrupt that rhythm. Storm, on the other hand, required a lot of mental math and problem solving, and rewarded me with potentially exhilarating moments. There were no exhilarating moments with this new deck, but I also didn’t die quite as often.
In Death and Taxes, everything played out methodically and the deck’s pilot sought small, incremental advantages: small singles and base hits instead of swinging for the fences. The game plan was to basically advance towards victory by taking the opponent out of their game plan, one small piece at a time.
What’s interesting about Death and Taxes is that it doesn’t look like your typical control-based deck. Traditionally, control decks in Eternal Magic formats play powerful spells and haymakers – cards like Counterspell and Wrath of God that decimated the opponent’s spells and armies. Here, the control pieces are manifested through innocuous-looking creatures, artifacts, and lands. The pieces don’t look powerful at first glance, but they synergize together extremely well to “tax” the opponent’s progress.
Specifically, the deck utilizes Aether Vial – an artifact that allows its controller to cheat out creatures into play without utilizing mana resources. This is one of the key engines of the deck. In terms of creatures, Thalia, Guardian of Thraben is the hallmark of the deck. Thalia ensures that the opponent’s spells cost more resources to play. To break the symmetry, the deck focuses on playing primarily spells that would not be affected by Thalia’s effect. Mother of Runes grants protection to all creatures, including herself, and negates the opponent’s creature removal spells. Meanwhile, lands like Wasteland and Rishadan Port restrict the opponent’s available mana resources on any given turn.
The game plan is methodical and deliberate. Small creatures and vials hit the battlefield, immediately producing taxing effects on the opponent. Mana-denying lands and additional lock pieces impose additional hard-to-overcome burdens. All of the opponent’s spells are eventually rendered ineffective as the game goes on. The pace of the game slows down to the point where even a small attacker striking for two points of damage a turn can win the game. Although the game takes many turns to play out, Death and Taxes prides itself on the inevitability of victory. Slow and steady is the deck’s motto, and it’s proven to be highly effective in the hands of skilled pilots.
So I knew the basic game plan. I also found it highly satisfying to pilot an objectively weak but synergistically strong pile of cards. The Death and Taxes pieces were narrowly useful when evaluated on their own – they certainly fit the description of “underpowered,” misfit cards. If an observer saw the cards in the deck with no context, he might understandably denounce the Death and Taxes player as crazy or clueless. The magic formula lies in the devastating chemistry between the cards. Moreover, the deck has flown under the radar as a deck that most players didn’t know very well. Hence, many players don’t have significant experience playing against it. The subversive rogue element of the deck appealed to me as well.
The only problem facing me was card availability. I didn’t own most of the cards in the deck, and the Beijing tournament was fast approaching. Luckily for me, Ji came through for me when I told him about my predicament. He graciously lent me his complete Death and Taxes deck so that I could play it. It was to be a test run, and I would assess whether I wanted to continue playing it in the long-term by buying the cards later. With Ji’s assist, I eagerly awaited the tournament to start. Win or lose, I was going to play something different from Storm.
In that tournament, I fell in love with the Death and Taxes deck. I put everything I knew about the deck, through practice and study, into motion. I effectively controlled the pace of my matches and used the taxing pieces to slow down my opponents. I used built-in tricks of the deck to dodge my opponents’ reactions and frustrate them. My creatures synergized together, and won matches for me. When I made play errors, I wrote them down so that I could review them for later.
Most importantly, I won over half of my matches that day. The results weren’t spectacular, and I didn’t finish in the top percentile of players, but I definitely felt the potential of the deck shining through. A couple of close losses gave me opportunity to reflect on what I could have done better. While my tournament run was filled with play mistakes, I sensed opportunities to rebound back from each one. Unlike the high-stakes nature of playing Storm, where a single mistake could cost me the game, a mistake with Death and Taxes still allowed me to climb back into games. I felt that with more practice, I could turn those close losses into wins.
After finishing the tournament, a vast weight was lifted from my shoulders and I felt like a million bucks. Switching gears and playing Death and Taxes served as a validation for me as a Magic player. I demonstrated to myself that I was still capable of winning Magic games, and stopped the losing spiral I had subjected myself to for months. Losing with Storm had demoralized me; now I could outplay my opponents again. This deck felt like the motivational life coach I needed.
I made peace with the fact that I needed to shift gears and embrace this deck. I was not going to get immediately better with the Storm deck, and pivoting to Death and Taxes felt like the right call. I also knew that my time away from the game had given me the rest I desperately needed, but that my self-imposed exile was conditional. If I came back to play the Storm deck, I might risk falling right back into the same mental traps from before. Rather, I needed to link a new deck to new goals. I made a pact with myself that Death and Taxes would symbolize my new beginning – it would also play a key part in re-igniting my competitive fire.
I had no idea, however, that I was stepping precariously closer to burning out of the game. The more I re-invested into Magic, the more I placed all of my self worth into the game. Since success felt attainable, failure could not be an option. My self worth was like a stack of poker chips, and I was now wagering every part of myself by shoving the chips into the center of the table. I was mentally all-in, with no thoughts as to slowing down. The momentum of the tournament’s moral victory carried me down a precarious path that I would not know how to handle.
To be continued…
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