COVID-19, life and Magic: experiential thoughts

My personal GPS, late 2019 / early 2020:

December: Shanghai, China

January: Vancouver, Canada

February: Vancouver, Canada

March: Shanghai, China

While I am not unique in this geographic situation, I will share some thoughts borne out of experience in these troubled times. This piece serves as a mechanism for me to sort through a jumble of thoughts and emotions.

The beginning

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I was vacationing in Vancouver, Canada for Chinese New Year’s.

Business as usual, family gatherings as usual…until the coronavirus hit the Earth with unparalleled force.

For the opening weeks of COVID-19’s majestic entrance into the collective consciousness, WeChat (China’s biggest social network) was abuzz with discussion, speculation and debate.

Where did the virus come from?

How do I save myself from death?

Are my kids safe?

Is the United States to blame? (lol)

As of today, the questions have not stopped. A tiny interruption during the first few days of Kobe Bryant’s death, and then right back to the deluge.

All in all, quite a human rollercoaster of emotions, coupled with some sweet conspiracy theories and two scoops of whataboutism.

It brought out the best and worst in people, as major events tend to do.

To put things into perspective: imagine North American discourse NOW, but at 5x the volume, and happening two months earlier. That was the initial Chinese information wave.

Over the years, I’d trained myself to ignore the news. News are the harbinger of negative events. They tick the classic “things that you cannot control but find yourself worrying about all the time” box.

It is an incredible waste of time to read about most events. If noteworthy events are important enough, you will eventually hear about it.

In the case of COVID-19, it was challenging not to digest the news and assume outright fear. While it is the news outlets’ responsibility to report on what is happening, the interpretations can spin out of control.

In China, it is also politically motivated, which adds another layer of indirection. I suppose this is true everywhere, as we are now seeing…but I’ll stop myself here, lest I succumb to my own warnings of conflation and whataboutism.

The lowest common denominator “sheep” in the populace — and there’s no polite way to put this — will assume the worst and spread the worst misinformation.

This event was the classic example of “there is no point in reading 99% of the coverage,” because (A) there is a huge variety of opinion; (B) the medical experts do not have a firm grasp on long-term solutions; (C) even if you were the most well-read person on the planet about this, it does not make you immune.

Worrying about COVID-19 can feel like standing on a train track, having a speeding train come your way at breathtaking speeds, and being preoccupied about the color of your pants. Sure, color coordination might save you, but it only does so much.

Naturally, one could and should take precautions. But so long as we are living in a society — and not on some Martian space station — there is not much one can do to completely eliminate risk from the equation.

Things that I consider productive uses of time:

  • Understand what one should do in case of infection. One doesn’t worry about how not to catch a cold, but how to treat it. There is good information out there on this.
  • Discuss questions and concerns with friends whom you consider well-informed and reasonable. Take time to learn from others in one-on-one settings, and not on noisy social networks.
  • Think critically. Put yourself in the shoes of a contrarian, as the situation calls for it, and be open to considering multiple angles/interpretations.

By the way, I believe masks are valuable in a psychological sense. They are an effective placebo for the self, and also make others in one’s vicinity feel better. The opportunity cost of wearing a mask is fairly low, anyway, so it’s worth doing.

But I recognize and understand that I’m speaking from a privileged point of view. Masks are fairly easy to buy in China, whereas the same access may not apply to other parts of the world.

Back to my personal situation, circa January 2020.

It did not make a ton of sense to fly back to China right away, especially given the remote nature of the work I do running my startup. I was (and am!) blessed to take advantage of a nomadic existence.

So my short-term vacation turned into a longer-term stay. My mom was certainly happy that I’d basically “moved back” to Canada for a couple of weeks.

Pros:

  • Semblance of normality in Canada
  • Spending significant time with significant other, family and friends
  • More time to get healthy, go to the gym, take long walks and runs
  • Opportunities to play paper Magic

Cons:

  • High costs of short-term rentals in Vancouver, Canada
  • A nonzero amount of guilt for parachuting away from China, especially when in-laws are located in the country
  • Anxiety and stress about not knowing when to fly back, and how much of the situation is real vs. imagined

So let’s talk about Magic: The Gathering

We’ll tie it back into COVID-19, I promise.

I’ve played Magic in more countries than I can recall. I’ve made many great friends through this shared love of the game. I’ve written two books about the subject. I run a podcast where I interview folks about their Magical lives. My livelihood, through my company CardBoard Live, is built on the foundation of the game.

For the uninitiated, Magic is a social construct. You build decks of cards to play with others in face-to-face settings. There is a substantial digital component to Magic as well; some of the largest tournaments in the world are played through a digital client.

COVID-19 makes face-to-face play much less desirable. Since January, most Chinese public spaces, including gaming stores, have shut down.

I was in a unique mental space. I knew what was happening in China, but I was physically located in North America.

As such, I went out and played in paper Magic tournaments with real people when I could. I played locally and also in surrounding areas like Seattle, Washington. Managed to reconnect with some old friends whom I’d not seen for some time.

While there are many benefits to playing online, there is something intrinsically appealing about actually sitting down across from your opponents. Those interactions are becoming more rare in these past months, and I thoroughly cherish them.

Which brings me to…

A few words about Magic Online

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February marked my first foray into Magic Online. Magic Online is this extremely old-school digital client to play Magic; it had existed for millennia decades. Prior to picking this up, I had played the newer and shinier client called Magic Arena, which is the preferred way for new players to get acquainted with the game.

To use an imperfect analogy, imagine this.

Playing Magic = driving

Magic Online = 1995 Toyota Corolla

Magic Arena = 2020 Tesla Model 3

The ’95 Corolla is dependable. It is not without its warts and the need for constant oil changes. Most of the time, though, it just works. There is this special analog feeling — the feeling of hey, I’m actually driving a motor vehicle with an engine — that you get with the Corolla.

The Tesla, on the other hand, is the present and future. It pervades contemporary discourse. It contains cosmetic bells and whistles. No, I don’t really need to watch Netflix in my ride.

We tell our friends that we are going to buy a Tesla next month. It stands for something, even if that “thing” is dubious. It serves as a socioeconomic statement — OK fine, maybe Magic Arena doesn’t go that far.

The Corolla has analog controls that are at first overwhelming, then tolerable, then preferable. In the beginning, it’s alien and hard to figure out. Once the indoctrination period is complete, the controls become second nature and you can’t live without it.

By contrast, the Tesla is sexy but lacks personality and character. Strip away the glossy exterior of the Tesla and there are deep-seated issues within. It is a computer, and one tends not to fall in love with such things.

At a superficial level, a Corolla and Tesla are both cars. They have four wheels, doors, and a steering wheel. But that’s essentially where the similarities end.

Why did I start driving the Corolla? Is it because of COVID-19?

corolla

“The COVID-19 outbreak forced me to play more digital Magic” is an easy narrative.

But it’s not the whole story.

The true catalyst for firing up Magic Online was a series of disappointing IRL tournament performances.

From September 2019 to January 2020, I played terrible Magic. I played in a Legacy Grand Prix, a Star City Games Legacy event, a Seattle Legacy event…and I put up some real stinkers.

Legacy is a format (ruleset) within Magic that I really enjoy. The problem is that I was not particularly good at it. On a given day, I might do well at a local weekly or pick a good deck for the metagame.

But I’ve been plateauing hard for a number of years. The last time I made a noticeable leap in my game, it was 2011 and I was single with a lot of free time on my hands.

If I’m honest with myself, I can only do well at events if my opponents played really bad. And that’s not something you want to count on.

The icing on the cake? Before the coronavirus hit the planet in full force, I had signed up to play a Magic team event.

In a team event, you play 3 vs. 3 — a super cool way to compete. But you needed to find two teammates.

I asked one of my distinguished friends to join the team — a friend who had played in multiple Pro Tours, the highest level for competitive play. He’s easily one of the strongest Magic players I know, full stop.

He declined my invitation. The implication was that the overall skill level of the team was not high enough for him. He was competitive to a fault, and bless his heart, he was out to win events.

I respect him for being honest in his intentions, and letting me know that there was a gap in our skill levels that would make the event un-fun for all involved.

I looked inside myself and my friend was absolutely right.

I held zero animosity for him then and still hold zero animosity now. It’s true. In hindsight, I’m so glad he turned my invitation down.

Why do we do the same thing, all the time, and expect different results?

Was I magically going to play far better in this team event, when I had outright sucked for the past six months?

Had my Pro Tour-playing friend joined the team, would I have magically not let him down?

Would I have magically not let myself down?

This was the true wakeup call. I needed to stop bullshitting myself.

I had other priorities in life. Getting healthy, staying fit, spending time on my passion projects, working on my day job of building CardBoard Live, hanging out with loved ones.

There are legitimate reasons for why Magic cannot be my whole life. I could roll with it and simply enjoy competitive Magic on a casual level.

But it did not make the frustrations go away.

I tend to face a problem head-on and consider the actual tangible things that I can do to change my reality.

I can’t transform into a completely casual player, not caring about wins and losses. That’s just not in my DNA.

Instead, I decided that I was going to improve my technical play.

No excuses for myself. If you want to get better at basketball, start practicing layups. Start the conditioning process.

Stop whining, stop sucking, stop feeling sorry for yourself, and figure it out. Even if you have to learn to drive manual transmission, because that’s what’s inside the ’95 Corolla.

Enter Magic Online.

More about Magic Online (I know, I know…)

poker

Imperfect analogy #2:

Digital Magic = online poker

Let’s say you want to get better at live poker. One way to get better in a relatively short amount of time is to play online.

Playing more poker hands online doesn’t guarantee that you will become a better player. But without the base 10,000 hours of experience — and seeing all the possible situations where you’re supposed to raise/fold/call with hand X — there isn’t even a foundational leg to stand on.

I could go to the casino and play 20 hands an hour, or I could play online and reach 200 hands an hour. I’d still get there using the former approach. But if I care about efficiency, then the latter is a no-brainer.

Magic is a competitive pursuit where you can only be qualified intellectually to hold positions on how to play the game if you put in the time and effort. Thinking deeply about Magic is a luxury that comes after, not before, basic proficiency.

Many armchair Magic players love to give their opinions on strategies without putting in the time. They are usually wrong. Don’t be that person.

Perhaps you read this and disagree.

My position is formed out of interactions with high-level players. Even if I am not playing Magic at anywhere close to their caliber, I can extrapolate what they say-write-do.

I spent three years, via my interview podcast, talking to folks about it. And this is the one common thread that all good/great players have in common. No exceptions.

Another way to think about this — there is no “magic” to being good at Magic, just as there is no magic to being good at anything that is challenging and hard.

While everyone’s rates of improvement differ, the foundation is half the battle.

Want to make it to the National Basketball Association? Start by shooting layups. Everybody has to shoot layups, even Kobe Bryant. And Steph Curry, the best shooter on the planet, warms up before a game by practicing his three-pointer.

The peaks and valleys of obsession

I wish I could say that I don’t have an obsessive personality. But I’ve struggled with this in various forms:

  • Video games
  • Poker
  • Magic (paper)
  • Magic Arena (digital)
  • Long-distance running
  • Basketball
  • Working out

…and now Magic Online.

February and March made it tough for me, as I had a lot of spare time inside my house. The appeal of being able to play Magic whenever I wanted reared its ugly head. There were no boundaries.

I continued to make my startup a priority. But I stopped reading books, learning new things, talking to friends, and doing all the things that made me a balanced and grounded person.

I played 250 to 300 matches on Magic Online in 30 days. By my standards, it is a lot of Magic. I might have played more Magic in this time than the past three years combined.

But I got what I wanted — a technical foundation earned through sheer repetition. And I feel much more confident with my Magic game.

Now I don’t feel the need to keep doing it. It’s mostly out of my system.

It was actually through talking to a Magic friend, Lawrence Harmon, that got me out of this mess. Lawrence gave me the perspective I needed and warned me about chasing vanity records on Magic Online that contribute to nothing of substance. I tend to trust his opinion because he’s one of the best thinkers in the game.

Basically — play Magic to get better, to learn, and to make good decisions. Play Magic to have a good time.

Everything else is fluff.

Mindset is everything.

I’ve walked out of the initial Magic Online experience with some much-needed clarity.

My future relationship with Magic Online

1. Recording play-through videos with a friend

This is where I Skype call with someone and play/talk through games together, as a unit. I recorded my first play-through last week and have some more sessions planned.

It’s a fun way to sit down with a friend and play digital Magic in a social setting. The mindset is about learning and getting better. Instead of focusing on sheer reps, learn to play smarter.

I enjoy these types of coaching sessions, especially when I can be open-minded and learn to trust the process.

Besides, in these COVID-19 times, it’s more practical than ever.

2. Play larger amounts of Magic Online leading up to meaningful paper events

Also in the “play smart” category — don’t get too obsessed with playing Leagues or whatever, unless there’s an IRL tournament coming up and I need to lock down my strategy.

It doesn’t mean I won’t fire up the occasional League, but the emphasis must be — play to learn.

Playing for the sake of playing leads to diminishing returns, especially when it’s me.

I’m very happy. A month ago I wouldn’t have even been able to write this post. I would have been buried in my head, trying to play Magic.

Balance, and perspective, is everything. Without it, we are lost.

Where am I now?

ff

I am back in China. The initial city lockdown in Shanghai has passed like a rolling wave, and things are much more “normal.” Returning via a commercial flight was simple and not as scary as I anticipated.

Folks here in China are cautious yet optimistic about what the future holds. I’m part of the positivity movement.

Things with my significant other are good. Getting better, at least. That’s been a huge silver lining throughout these trying times. Solidarity and spending quality time together.

I’m concerned about my family and friends. I continue to pray for them. If you’ve read this far, take a break and talk to your loved ones.

Not having a regular gym to go to is hard. I miss my squat rack and rowing machine. Instead, I’m cranking out pushups, crunches, planks and squats at home. Doing burpees to get that cardio workout. Improvise.

I’m working to rehab my knee. I’ve neglected it for far too long and I can’t just sit on my lazy ass and expect to get stronger. The goal is to run a marathon in the future. Too many distractions that I need to sort out, but it’s a start.

I have my daily rituals of cooking my own food, minimizing contact with others, wearing a mask when I go out, disinfecting my home surroundings, and so forth.

Tasks that started out unfamiliar but have woven themselves into the fiber of my being.

Kind of like driving a ’95 Corolla, really.

 

Thanks for reading,

James

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One Comment

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  1. Nice blog, James. I might need to start one myself again…

    Like

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