[Note: Some of the names today have been changed out of respect for the people I played Magic with throughout college. The experiences and stories herein have not been altered. ]
“Hey guys, are you playing Magic today?”
We were gathered around the ATM, on our way to catch a movie that night – Eric, Whitney and I. The source of the question? Trevor, the worst Magic player at Tulane. Trevor typically played with a different group of players than our group, mainly because we had willfully separated ourselves from the players who were so bad that they made the game a chore to play. Games with Trevor and Roger and Francis would become struggles in rules explanation, tests of horrid deck building, and exercises in frustration at bad play.
Trevor once showed up for a multiplayer game (free for all) with an Aluren deck. This wasn’t just any Aluren deck – oh no! It was an Aluren deck where every creature was a zero- or one-drop vanilla creature, and his damage sources were Firebreathing, Crown of Flares, and Fiery Mantle. It was something awful. I looked at the deck after he lost game after game that night. I swear it was as follows:
4 Dwarven Trader
4 Llanowar Elves
4 Mons’s Goblin Raiders
4 Phyrexian Walker
4 Crown of Flames
4 Fiery Mantle
24 various Forests and Mountains
The worst part of all of this? Trevor was having fun with the deck, dropping his entire hand sans Aluren by turn 3, and then having nothing to play with Aluren past the fourth turn. He didn’t understand when some of us would explain to him that the deck made no sense – that he didn’t need Aluren with that many zero and one drop creatures, that it added nothing to the deck, and that vanilla 1/1’s were horrible when he had access to vastly superior creatures in his collection (Kird Ape, which he played in other decks.) None of our words got through to him, and so the Tulane playgroup fractured into two sections – casual and competitive players.
Every now and then, we’d have some of the casual guys come do drafts with us – this was when we were competitively drafting Urza block. I distinctly remember the first time Roger drafted Saga/Saga/Saga with our group. He ended up with a Green/Red deck that had a lot of suspect choices – but anyone who’s drafting for the first few times will make the kind of mistakes he made, such as not drafting enough creatures, and drafting”cute” cards over good cards. Since we could help each other to build decks, Anthony aided Roger to turn his 45 card pile into a 40 card deck. Roger insisted on playing Sporogenesis, one of the worst cards in the set (and in Magic). Anthony explained to him that the card was bad, why it was bad, and how he shouldn’t run it.
We start playing, and I beat Roger in the first game. Game two rolls around, and he drops a fourth turn Sporogenesis. Anthony’s eyes bugged out.”Roger! What are you doing? I thought I told you not to play that?””It’s good!,” Roger replied enthusiastically.”Roger! It’s awful!””No, no dude! It’s really good! It’s like getting creatures every turn! Trust me!” Roger lost having not dropped a single creature that game, thought Sporogenesis had doled out quite a few counters to my creatures by the time of his death.
Roger was not invited back to play with us.
This might seem like the eternal struggle of Johnny versus Spike versus Timmy – the hardcore win-at-all-costs tournament player versus the win with nifty combos and the exploration of deck building player versus the win with large big creatures with wow bang huge effects player. I don’t like the terms Timmy, Johnny and Spike. To me, there are two types of Magic players in the end – those who play to win, and those who don’t.
Playing to win does not mean that you are trying to compete at the Pro level – it does mean that whenever you play, your goal is to win a game of Magic. It might be a group game, Friday Night Magic, the Pro Tour, or an Emperor Match, but the player who plays to win is motivated by wanting victory over their opponent. They do not like to lose, and will not pull punches in their game play to shortchange victory. I myself am a player who, when I sit down to play a game of Magic, play to win that game of Magic.
The other type of player is one who does not play to win – they are playing for the sake of playing the game of Magic. Please note that I do not call this playing for fun – to me, playing to win is playing for fun, just as for this group, playing to play is playing for fun. This group is much more intent on the social interactions of the game – casual play, trying to showcase off weird decks, normally unfeasible creatures and spells, and just gaming without the goal of winning in mind.
I have, in ten years of playing the game, not been able to come to grips with this latter type of player. I haven’t. I just don’t understand the mindset of sitting down to play a game of Magic, and not giving it your best. I do not discount this type of player, but I do not understand them. What are the traits of this type of player?
The playing-to-play player empties their hand as quickly as possible. They don’t play with a long term strategy in mind. Instead, they cast creatures and spells when mana permits, in order to be able to play with everything they draw.
The PTPP will not try to improve the flaws in their deck when their deck loses. For instance, let’s say that on one particular day, quite a few of the players in our group pack Circle of Protection: Black. Let’s also say that on that day, the playing-to-play player of the group shows up with a mono-Black weenie deck, which repeatedly gets shut down by COP: Black. What will the PTPP do? Better to say what they won’t do. They won’t switch to another deck. They won’t throw in a second color to their deck that can deal with enchantments. They won’t add artifacts which deal with enchantments. They won’t add loss of life effects to their deck. Instead, they will sit down and play the same deck in the same way over and over again, losing time and time again.
The PTPP will then show up the next week with the same deck, until it is bludgeoned from their cold and lifeless hands.
Guys, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. It is a truth about this game of Magic, and it is a reality many players such as myself do not like to think about. What is this secret? The majority of Magic players are like Trevor and Roger above, players who playing-to-play and not playing to win. Again, this is not good player versus bad player, or casual format player versus competitive format player – this is player who has a main goal of winning any given game of Magic versus player who could care less about winning or improving, but instead just wants to fiddle around with the pieces.
This frightens and frustrates me. I do not enjoy playing the game of Magic at all with players who are playing-to-play. The game loses all fun for me when I’m not being challenged on some level. I can play something as stupid as a one-on-one Fallen Empire draft, but I’m still going to try to win the draft to the best of my ability. It’s not fun for me to win if I’m drafting every Order of Leitbur and Hand of Justice while my opponent is first picking Icatian Moneychangers and Tidal Flats.
Please don’t confuse this for snobbery – I will happily play with players who are of a lower (and higher) skill level than myself if they are trying to win and trying to improve. The best way to become better at the game is to continually lose to players better than yourself, and then learn from them just what they are doing that is allowing them to beat you consistently. The best way to become worse at the game is to beat players who are worse than you, are not trying to improve, and have nothing to offer you except laziness and easy wins. When you finally do face that hard opponent, that opponent will demolish you as they’ve been trained through fire whereas you’ve got abs of putty.
I never figured out how to handle the Trevors of the Tulane Magic community. He’d often want to play with us, but we were trying to practice Urza block draft, and his very presence would ruin our entire practice session. Bad drafters are particularly ruinous to team drafts, as they both end up with a weaker deck on their own, and feed two opponents much stronger decks than they otherwise would have deserved. Bad drafters who do not improve at the game and draft cards that look”fun” instead of”good” are even worse. There’s nothing wrong with taking a card or two here and there that you want to experiment with – otherwise people would never have figured out that Cowardice is a bomb in Masques Block Limited, as it looks awful on paper. However, when you’re taking that Sporogenesis as a first pick five drafts down the line, you’ve just got to go.
Have any of you ever had this same problem? I wanted Trevor to understand that it was not elitism that kept him from playing with us, but it was literally a base philosophy about the game that radically pulled us apart. It was as if we were playing two entirely different games of Magic, by two completely different rulebooks. He was not excluded because he was worse than us, he was excluded because he was playing-to-play and the rest of us were playing-to-win. Playing with him was not fun for me, or Anthony, or many of our other playing-to-win players. I only wish that I had figured out a way to express this without hurting his feelings or causing a social rift. I did not have the answer back then, and I still cannot satisfactorily answer that question today.
Ben can be reached at [email protected].