Chatter of the Squirrel – Fun

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As everyone knows, I don’t play a lot of Magic Online. Whenever I do, I have experiences like the one yesterday that make me loathe the anonymity of the Internet and the readiness with which people take advantage of it…

As everyone knows, I don’t play a lot of Magic Online. Whenever I do, I have experiences like the one yesterday that make me loathe the anonymity of the Internet and the readiness with which people take advantage of it.

So I’m battling. Yay. R/W Giants, the deck is sick. My opponent, WilliamHolden, is misplaying left and right, uses Lash Out on an irrelevant Kinsbaile Skirmisher, trades damage inefficiently, etc. etc. Standard story. I topdeck an Oblivion Ring to remove his blocker for the win, and he goes off on this ridiculous tirade about how lucky I am, how I am so bad at Magic, the usual. How he “deserves to win”. Right. So I say to him, “You must be one of those people that complains all of the time on MODO for no reason” – a fatal mistake, as it would turn out. I wanted to point out how irritating it is when people yammer about nothing, but I should have known better. You’d think after all these years I’d learn to keep my mouth shut. Nope. Guess that’s why they call me Chatter.

His retort – “You must be one of those people that wins all the time when you don’t deserve to because you’re lucky” – blisters. Eye roll. Rather than rebut that in ten different ways, I avoid the needless internet flame war and say nothing. Game 2 he overextends with a bunch of irrelevant creatures and I four-for-zero him with Thundercloud Shaman. I braced for impact, averting my eyes from the flood of frustrated LOL-ese that I was certain would soon be gushing forward my way. Instead, though:

“WilliamHolden has disconnected.”

Okay, I have heard about this. I sat there at the ready because I knew he’d be back. Nine minutes pass. I twiddle my thumbs, play Sudoku, ponder the meaning of life, grow a beard. Magically, he reappears. Seconds and minutes tick. Then – combat phase. He thinks he’s going to get me. An “F2” from me denies the dream, and so he’s back into the tank. I enjoy a brisk jog, fly to Cancun, sip tropical drinks, return. All of the sudden my men are sideways. “OK,” I click. It’s yet another seven minutes before the clock ticks down and he loses.

I know this type of thing happens. I know some people are perfectly fine wasting their opponent’s time and the time of every single other person in the draft to unleash their frustration needlessly. Hopefully, some of those people irritate internet columnists and get called out. Hopefully, but not always. The entire experience, though, left me thinking about the reasons why different people play Magic, how different people participate in the game. It let me to think about why I myself played, and all of the sudden I had a revelation:

I play Magic to have fun.

Trumpet. Blast.

Now I understand that might not be too profound. “It turns out, Zachary David, that when people play something, often they enjoy it.” But I’ve been involved in the tournament scene for quite some time, and the realization that I played Magic for fun led to an even more profound epiphany:

A huge chunk of people don’t have fun playing Magic.

Think about this for a second. I’ll start first with the enormous amount of Pros who have quit the game because it’s grown tedious, it’s grown tiresome, because slogging through matchup after boring matchup just to test for a tournament no longer becomes worth the cost. We’ve all heard about these people, and this type of reasoning makes sense. If you’re playing a game, you ought to be enjoying it, and some people just don’t anymore. There’s a whole slew of people, though, who don’t fit this mold, and yet it’s very obvious to me that they aren’t enjoying the entire experience either.

A forum poster in one of Tom LaPille recent articles asked Tom how he could make it to so many consecutive PTQs. Tom’s answer was simple but profound: “I have fun at them!” Yet think of all the people who go to a PTQ because of the inertia of the situation, because it just seems like “the thing to do.” Think of all the people who tilt after two or three games of a playtesting session because “it’s not worth it.” Think of all the people who complain about the 6am roadtrips, the forty-dollar Tarmogoyfs, who drop from the tournament after their first loss because they “just don’t want to deal with it anymore.”

Those people aren’t having fun, and for them, playing Magic doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense. Why play a game that you don’t enjoy?

This article is going to be about enjoying yourself, getting the fire back in your Magic game. This doesn’t have to be a competitive fire, but simply a desire to play Magic not just because there’s nothing else to do, but because you enjoy the entire experience in and of itself. Put simply, I want to talk about how you, a Magic: The Gathering player, can have more fun.

Let’s talk first, though, about why people continue to play Magic even if they’re not enjoying it. The first and most obvious reason, of course, is what I call “the dream.” There’s something alluring about a $40,000 check and immediate recognition. I’ll go ahead and admit it myself: I love paying for parties off Wizards’ money, and I love it when I see people in an event hall and they break out a Sharpie for me to sign Chatters. It’s dumb, but it’s real, and I’d be stupid to pretend that we all don’t like the gold and glory. The problem, though, is that playing just because of the promise of some cash in the distant future is a real low-EV play. Most people, the overwhelming majority of people, don’t “make it,” and many of the ones that do don’t wind up “making it” for very long. Making yourself miserable in the short term is just not a good idea if there’s no immediate payoff at hand.

There are other reasons too, though. Part of it is because Magic is something to do, a way to fill time, a way to easily estimate cost and reward. This, I believe, is one of the reasons World of Warcraft is so popular: there is always a clearly-defined goal, a finite thing that can be accomplished at any given point in time. There are quests to complete, arena battles to fight, raid instances to conquer, and so there’s no need to confront a burning question that stings in all the wrong places and probes at a deep-seeded and very problematic angst: what, exactly, am I doing with my time? We find all kinds of ways to ignore that question, to spend our time accomplishing tasks that may or may not be moving us forward in life. And as long as we’re playing Magic, as long as we can kill three hours slinging cards across the table, we’re doing something. Breathe in, breathe out. We’re safe.

Finally, it feels tight to be successful at something. I totally understand this. We want to win a PTQ because we want to WIN a PTQ. Most Magic players aren’t competitive athletes, and while a good chunk of players are very intelligent, most aren’t involved in the most competitive academic arenas either. Magic, and gaming in general, provide an outlet for that competitive spirit. The problem is that if you’re not enjoying the competition, then you’re too invested in the prospects of success and you wind up having a bad time. Everybody loses (unless they’re the New England Patriots). If you can’t be happy without X amount of “W”s in the results column, it’s time to find another game.

So, what are some easy steps to take to have more fun?

1) Stop complaining.

I love me a good party. I love me some good times. Let me ask you: have you ever reminisced about some kind of tight situation, reflected with a friend on some event you both attended, and said,

“Man, Steve, last night at the Blue Monkey kicked so much ass. It was great. We sat around and whined about the world, we complained about everybody we know, we pissed and moaned and chortled and it was amazing! We’ve got to do that again sometime!”

It’s old news that everybody hates listening a bad beat story. What might be more difficult to realize until you think about it is that nobody has a good time telling a bad beat story, either. And the overwhelming majority of things people complain about are completely ridiculous.

Everybody gets mana screwed. Everybody gets mana flooded. Nobody gets mana screwed or mana flooded any more than anybody else. Nothing is wrong with the MTGO shuffler. You win as many matches because you top decked a Wrath of God as you do because your opponent top decks Lightning Helix. We all play enough Magic that most of the preceding statements are true for every single person reading this article. We don’t like to think that we win as often because we lucksack as we do because we get screwed, though, because that would mean it’d be more difficult to derive validation from our successes. Think for a moment, though, about how absolutely ridiculous it is to conflate one’s success at Magic with one’s worth as a human being. The two have virtually nothing to do with one another. Yet most of us spend a good chunk of time on this game, and so it becomes necessary to justify that time with proportionate personal investment in the outcome.

This is stupid.

Sure, we all want to do well. But the reason people complain about things is to call attention to a particular variable that mitigates the severity of the outcome. “My girlfriend wrecked the car.” Having a totaled vehicle really bites, but being able to blame it on someone else makes it bite less hard because it allows us to divorce ourselves from the result somewhat. “I just got my paycheck, but I blink my eyes and between the kids, insurance, the house payment, the car payment, the cell phone bill, and utilities, it’s all gone!” Having no money really bites, but being able to say I’m spending it all on necessities means I can confront (in this case, validly) the anxiety that I’m doing something wrong, because my belief system says that most people who don’t have a lot of money at one time are doing something wrong. “I was bashing my opponent, but he topdecked Lash Out and won the clash and I died.” Having a loss to a huge donk really bites, but being able to point to a reason for my loss other than a skill deficit between he and I means that I can continue to derive satisfaction out of my esteem for my Magic-playing ability.

You get the drift.

The bottom line is that, unless complaining about a situation leads other people to help resolve it, there’s really no reason to do it. Sure, it turns out that Thundercloud Shaman wins games when it kills all your guys, and there is probably no way you could have played around it or done anything about it. When that happens, you lose. It’s an if → then condition. What difference does it make?

2) Pick up a casual format.

I’m one of those weird people that loves playtesting. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to get in good testing around here because most people either do it improperly or hate running a gauntlet too much. Moreover, some PTQ formats just aren’t fun, and some PTQ formats are very random. When this happens, a lot of people drop Magic as a whole, drift away from the game, or otherwise become disenchanted with the entire PTQ process. They forget that it’s still cool to see people at tournaments, to form networks, to play the game against people whom you may never have even met otherwise.

Casual formats, though, make you remember how tight it is to sit down with a group of friends and simply play the game. I don’t necessarily mean multiplayer, either. There’s a reason that the team draft circuit has been so popular for the entire history of the Pro Tour, and Cube is taking off as well. It’s cool to depart from the norm but still do something that tests skill, is fun, and gives you an excuse to hang out with your boys.

Most of us remember what Magic was like before we started playing “competitively.” Now, I’m not one of those people who loves to “hearken back to a golden age” or whatever. I love the game more now than I ever could have fathomed then, and I love playing it at the highest level. But remember, when we started, how unique and engaging every single game we played could be? Each match was different. Each match was, well, cool. Casual formats allow us to rekindle this mystique somewhat, to take a step back and simply play, with no investment in the outcome. This is a good perspective to have.

Going along those lines…

3) Don’t focus on results.

I’m not saying that winning somehow isn’t important. Winning is very important if you consider yourself a competitive player. But don’t go on life-tilt because you 0-2 a PTQ, don’t get so frantic over a double-mulligan-to-five loss that it drives you crazy. Things happen. All you can control is how well you play a given match, and focusing on anything else makes it more difficult for that to happen.

You may remember a few months ago when I said I had found myself, recently, becoming so focused on the record I would need to Top 8 or how well I needed to perform across the rest of the tournament that it was crippling my game. A new attitude propelled me over that hurdle, and as a result I snagged 13 Pro Points over two months. What I didn’t mention, though, is how much more fun I was having as a result. The stress was gone, the performance anxiety was eliminated. I’m sure this is harder, of course, if you’re a point away from clinching Level 5 like Marijn at Worlds, or something, but even still you’re only going to do as well as sum total of the individual matches you play. If you make $30,000 in a year but you hate every moment of what you’re doing, if the stress of each individual tournament drives you crazy, then you might as well get a real job.

I won’t go as far as to say that none of this matters, because it does. Results matter a great deal – especially if you’re like Sadin and have the full-blown hunger. But you’ve got to be hungry for something.

There’s no reason to play Magic if you don’t enjoy it. If you find that isn’t true, or that you’re in a position where everybody else around you isn’t enjoying themselves, it’s time to take a step back and reflect on your position. But if you are in that state, or something similar to it, I hope this article has provided a few suggestions as to how to get back to loving the game we all say we love.