Casual Fridays #58: Muggles, Olive Trees, And Estrogen. Oh, And Braintree

Readers from early this year will recall one of my later columns on the Dojo, a piece on New Year’s Resolutions. One of those resolutions was to do more recreational reading. I am happy to report that, while many of my other resolutions have crashed and burned over the past eight months, my determination to…

Readers from early this year will recall one of my later columns on the Dojo, a piece on New Year’s Resolutions. One of those resolutions was to do more recreational reading. I am happy to report that, while many of my other resolutions have crashed and burned over the past eight months, my determination to sock away a little extra time to do voluntary, recreational reading has paid off.

I’d like to share with you two of my more reading ventures, and what I see in them both that made me think of Magic and the way we play it. This won’t be laugh-out-loud funny stuff, but it should be reflective and entertaining. First, a series of well-known fiction books (J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Massive Cottage Industry). Second, a well received but far less noticed non-fiction piece on globalization (Thomas Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree).

I get the sense from other postings on other sites that many Magic players – especially, but certainly not exclusively, the younger and newer players – have been keeping up with the Harry Potter books. Most of those who have read these "older children’s" books would probably agree that many of the things that attract us to Magic attract us to these books as well. Hardly surprising at all.

But what I also noticed about these books as I read them over the past month is that what may make them timeless – that is, a widely-held classic like The Lord of the Rings or the Chronicles of Narnia – is that they take the time to grow over time with a character we care about, and put depth into characters that often don’t have it.

(This is especially true of women characters, where Rowling, with more modern sensibilities, has the natural advantage. Hermione’s already a major force at Potter’s side, pretty much saving the show at the end of the third book. No doubt she’ll be kicking ass by the end of puberty. Tolkien gets the same amount of space – three books – and what do we find out about Arwen, the new Queen of Gondor (and everything else)? That’s she’s as hot a babe as Galadriel. Yawn. I mean, has she stuck up for anything? Cast any spells? Dated a Quidditch star? I think not. And don’t give me "Eowyn" email. The woman had guts but needed a freakishly strong hobbit to finish the job for her. Having a hobbit help you win is SO 1960s, people.)

Magic, as a game, seeks the same sort of depth. No, not in the storyline – sorry, couldn’t give two twigs about it – but in the drama of players that surrounds the game at the professional AND casual level. On the professional level, well-established sports and games have easily recognizable names: Jordan, Kasparov, the Williams sisters. Magic is starting to generate a cast of characters that are (internal to our community) instantly recognizable. With more exposure, they may become known to others.

But the more important sort of "character development", in my eyes, happens on the local level. In living rooms, local shops, and American Legion halls, a recurring cast of characters comes to life before every regular player’s eyes. Every weekend tournament she goes to, every time she has her buds over for the weekly game, every time she lingers in the card shop and overhears a conversation about the new Sligh, she experiences many of the same people and develops a deeper sense of the local metagame. A novel comes together in her head that weaves together protagonists (including herself) and anatagonists, plot twists and cliched scenes, peaks of success and valleys of defeat.

It’s lore on a singular, ultra-local level, an individual parallel to the legends of college football or chess with Big Blue. We weave stories that we can share with our children or grandchildren years from now. (More likely, we’ll just share them the following week with our buddies, dates, or spouses.) But instead of some distant, unattainable hero being the star, we ourselves are. Who cares if Sue was a jerk to Kelly in the final Survivor episode (you all have no idea how much self-righteousness I sacrificed to research this damn Parallax Survivor thing), when we can tell a far more interesting story about how we drafted the ultimate deck at the local shop and finally beat the one guy who’s been thrashing us for three years? Who cares what wide receiver got injured in the first week of the NFL season (aaaiiiigh! I can’t believe I drafted Galloway in my fantasy league!) when we’re still trying to recover from the whupping we took in four straight chaos games last night?

Just as the essence of basketball comes down to one sandy-haired kid shooting hoops in the driveway of an Indiana farm every evening until dusk from the time he’s ten to the time he’s retired from the NBA, the essence of Magic comes down to the young woman who is about to cast the winning card at the World Championships, with a smile on her face as she thinks back ten years to that day her boyfriend dragged her into the geeky card shop with the strange smell.

The Harry Potter series works because, well, it’s a series. We’re going to care about these characters for a long time. (Four to seven more years, I hear, not counting movie sequels.) Dungeons and Dragons just released a successful Third Edition because its players create amazing stories. Magic works, and will work, for much the same reason.

But that’s not all it has going for it.

Any of you taking anything resembling International Studies in college (or a very good high school) had better damn well be reading one single book this year. I know it sounds insane to do this, but ask your teacher for a copy of the course curriculum. (If it’s a private college, you’re paying to know and probably already have a copy. If it’s a public school or university, you and your parents’ tax dollars are paying for it. Get it.) Somewhere in that outline should be five words close together: "Thomas", "Friedman", "Lexus", "Olive", and "Tree". Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree is the first non-fiction work I’ve read that went down as smooth as fiction. He is a top-notch – and I mean TOP notch – reporter who has covered foreign affairs for The New York Times.

(While events have changed considerably in that region since he wrote it, his first book, From Beirut to Jerusalem, was alone worth the tuition of graduate school…yes, that’s an exaggeration, what book is worth twenty-eight freaking thousand dollars at eight percent interest? But it was still the best book I read there. He describes his work as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East during the tumultuous 1980s. Absolutely harrowing.)

Getting back to globalization, and (wait for it!) Magic. In his most recent book, the Lexus represents the heavily connected, super-industrialized, global community that creates goods and services through impressive technology and international business networks. The Olive Tree represents those communities that have a more traditional and local focus – the rural towns with dying family farms, the concerned citizens living in an ecologically fragile system, the conservative nationalists that do not want to see their beloved country give up control of government policy to massive overseas flows of capital and currency. The two are in conflict, and few write about what that really means better than Friedman. He visits with citizens at an election in rural China, college students on American university campuses, world leaders across Europe, and just puts it all together.

Making a Lexus is a violent activity. The earth is torn as ore is mined. Noxious gases spill into the air as steel is forged and paint is produced. Forests are splintered as wood paneling is manufactured. And so on. People who liked the earth, air, and trees they way they were get upset. (And heaven help you if you use Firestone tires on the finished product and make recommendations to underinflate them!)

But what we get out of global economy is potentially incredibly rewarding – new relationships between cultures, increased understanding between old enemies, and a sense of interdependence that is both frustrating and exhilarating…not unlike a family that has to live together, whether they like it or not.

Another thing we get is Magic (and other games) being played around the world, with players in Turkey matching wits over the Internet with players in Australia, or trading sealed tips with players in Brazil. The way that the Magic community has come together, nationally (in any country where it is popular) and internationally is one of the great things of the game. As Magic players, we’ve benefited tremendously from globalization, and I wonder if our younger readers even can imagine a world where people didn’t collaborate over the ocean to get the latest strategies on a game.

One of these days, the Internet is going to be an old piece of junk that no one uses anymore because we’ve come up with something far superior to fiber-optics and T1 lines and satellites. It will happen, I imagine, around the time young adults entering college this year are in mid-career status. And they will have to deal with the next wave of forces, whatever follows globalization, or solidifies it. Teenagers in that future, no doubt, will find them stodgy for being so reflective about this "Internet" trash. I hope both young and old people then still have Magic around as global recreation. I love hearing stories of Magic from around the world, and Friedman’s book made me value those relationships that much more.

Also, here’s another lesson from Friedman’s discussion on the Herd: Very large capital flows should be integrated into the game of Magic once again. How about a multiplayer Mana Drain, or Drain Power? I’ll let WotC chew on that, if they’re game.


Our group is facing a fantastic new dynamic now: we have (potentially) our first woman joining the group. Diversity rocks and we’re looking forward to the new perspectives on the game she brings, as well as the familiar thrill of teaching someone the game. But I’ll admit I have some anxiety on her behalf. She will have to put up with six to seven guys (at the very least…the group has reached its full capacity of twelve more than once) on a weekly basis, she’s younger than any of us…and she’s new to the game. Eek!

(My anxiety is probably patronizing. Hey, I have a daughter. I plead guilty. Patronizing is what fathers do when they see younger women in the midst of learning a new skill. In fact, it’s what they do when they see ANYONE in the midst of learning a new skill. A few days ago, I spent ten minutes of my life that I’ll never get back on the phone with my father, who in setting up my visit back home in Massachusetts felt it necessary to explain the layout of the T system I had commuted on for seven years…

"Now Anthony, when you get off the blue line, you’ll have to get on the green line. Or the orange line. You’ll have stuff to carry, and those green line trains have steps."

"Really, Dad? Tell me more about these things you call…steps?"

"Don’t be such a wiseass. After you get off the green or orange line, you’ll have to get on the red line. And it takes a while for the red line train to get all the way down to Braintree."

"Braintree, Dad? What an exotic name for a New Land. Gosh, I don’t know much about Braintree, other than the fact that I LIVED THERE LONG ENOUGH TO GRADUATE FROM HARVARD, GET MARRIED, HAVE A CHILD, FIND A JOB, AND GET PROMOTED TWICE.")

Hmmmm, what was I talking about again? Right, me being patronizing.

I would be ecstatic if readers, PARTICULARLY WOMEN since you’ve been there (that’s "there" as in "learning Magic in a male-dominated environment", not "there" as in "Braintree", necessarily), would take a moment to write to me and suggest any tips for making sure that the transition for our newest player is as smooth as possible. My group is VERY experienced at integrating new players – we’ve brought on a new player, through personal or professional relationships, about once every three months for the past two years. So I don’t need advice in that area.

But I know from experience at local shops and elsewhere that many women take a slightly different approach to the game. (Genes, environment, whatever. Let’s not get into a bio-sociological discussion here, just yet.) There are challenges and opportunities they face that men don’t (and vice versa) in learning a game like Magic, and I’d be grateful to any female player who would care to share their experiences, pointers, etc.

If the responses are plentiful, and the letter-writers (and our new player) indicate consent in using their tales of glee and woe, I may occasionally revisit the issue of this learning curve and how a casual Magic group can branch out of its usual "list of suspects." I’ve been meaning to have a newer player from our group co-author an article or two with me so that we can get into the fun stories and lessons of someone crashing head-first into the game, and this may present an excellent opportunity that fits Casual Fridays’ "mission" perfectly. Anyhow, it will take a while to develop this thread, but you may see it again.

COMING SOON: Nominations are still being accepted on the Hall of Fame’s Third Edition for a tiny bit longer. (Otherwise, you’re waiting two more expansions, until Apocalypse.) Also, bear in mind the Connect-the-Dots Deck contest is still going on…entries accepted (along with everything else) at [email protected] until midnight on Thursday, September 28! See last week’s article if you want the details on that contest.

Anthony Alongi
[email protected]