Flow of Ideas – Magic And Your Social Life

Read Gavin Verhey every week... at StarCityGames.com!
Monday, April 5th – This article doesn’t cover a new Extended deck. It doesn’t have any Jund mirror match strategies. It doesn’t contain a tournament report, or even cover some fundamental strategy for mastering Magic. Yet this might be one of the most important articles you’ll ever read.

This article doesn’t cover a new Extended deck. It doesn’t have any Jund mirror match strategies. It doesn’t contain a tournament report, or even cover some fundamental strategy for mastering Magic.

Yet this might be one of the most important articles you’ll ever read.

We all play this great game called Magic. It’s a huge part of our lives. We sink hours upon hours into playtesting, travel across state and country borders, and think about the mechanics of the game endlessly. Magic garners us friends, opportunities, and experiences.

The paradox to all of that is, despite how invested we are in the game, for some reason a large majority of players like to pretend Magic doesn’t exist to those not in the know. You tell them you’re going on a road trip with some friends. You say you can’t make it tonight because you have ambiguous plans, and you don’t know when they’ll end. You’re going on a mysterious trip to Hawaii that’s only a week long. It’s like Magic is a secret club that will disown you if its name is uttered. But it doesn’t have to be this way. And, moreover, it shouldn’t be.

I tell everyone about Magic. My friends know. My teachers know. My coworkers know. Even my prospective girlfriends know. It’s no mystery. After telling people for years, it has never once been any kind of social calamity. There are just a few things you have to keep in mind when talking to, for a lack of a better term, “muggles” about Magic.

I’m going to let you in on the most important secret to all of this. Ready? The only Magic most people know is the kind where you pull rabbits out of a hat, or that involves the quaint countryside school of Hogwarts.

When you tell people that you play a game, and that game is called Magic, it’s not going to immediately invoke visions of fat children munching on candy bars in the lunch room, or people running around in capes singeing their leg hairs to summon efreets, like many players fear the utterance of the M-word will. There is a good chance most people you talk to aren’t going to know what a Magic card is. And, as the person making first contact, there’s a good chance YOU are going to be able to craft what they think about. If you tell them that you go around the country playing a game of skill and winning money alongside trips to exotic locations, then your hobby is going to be accepted as a very cool thing.

But it’s not all just in what you tell people. It’s in how you tell it to them.

The most important advice about Magic in a social context I first read from, of all people, Zvi. It’s very simple. People who don’t know about something are going to react to it based on how you tell them about it.

It doesn’t matter if you tell someone about how you fly across the world every week and pay your way through college with Magic if you try to skirt around the topic and utter “it’s not as weird as you think” every other sentence. The only time Magic has ever caused social awkwardness for me was back when I acted like this.

It’s very simple psychology, really. If you try and hide something and someone finds out, they are naturally going to think it’s something worth hiding — in this case because you think it’s embarrassing. If someone has no idea what Magic is and you keep telling them it’s not a weird thing to do, then it can be assumed that people would normally think it is a weird thing to do. It doesn’t matter what it is you do. Imagine this:

Girl: I’m going out with the girls tonight. What are you up to tonight, though?

Guy: I… have plans.

Girl: Oh? Doing what.

Guy: Just some stuff. I’m just going to be busy all night.

Girl: Well, that’s certainly descriptive. C’mon. What are you doing that’s so important?

Guy: Well… I… Okay. Don’t tell anybody, but I’m a baseball player. I try not to let too many people know because they think it’s kind of an odd thing to do.

Girl: Oh… I see. I don’t know very much about that kind of thing. What do you do, exactly?

Guy: Well, I… (looks down nervously) uh, dress up in a silly uniform throw a ball to other players who try and hit that ball. I have fun doing it, it really is a lot of fun despite what people think.

Girl: Hmm… ‘Kay. Well, I’ll see you later.

That conversation is totally ridiculous. Playing Baseball is something totally normal to do, and generally accepted. Yet that is not far off from how many people are introduced to Magic. With no prior context, something which is completely acceptable can seem foreign.

Instead of a situation where you try and misdirect them away from what you’re doing and eventually have to awkwardly tell them anyway, if you just confidently talk about Magic as if it were baseball there is very rarely going to be any harm done.

So then, now that we have a confident process of talking about Magic, what exactly are you going to tell someone who doesn’t know what Magic is?

Let’s look at some sample openings I’ve heard before.

“Well, it’s a game where you cast creatures and spells to reduce your opponent’s life to 0.”


“It’s a high fantasy based game where you duel your opponent with decks of cards instead of on a board or with miniatures.”


“You are a planeswalker, —”


Telling people about the game’s rules off the bat does nothing to positively craft their idea of what Magic is or, more importantly, what exactly it is that you do on your weekends. You are not going to encompass the game in one sentence, so it’s better not to try.

While the fantasy flavor of Magic is something I value as an asset to the game, I would still happily play tournament Magic if Magic was about purchasing refrigerators instead of casting spells. When it comes to terms of tournament Magic, it’s not in any way crucial that the person you are talking to knows what the premise is. Once again, the most important thing to focus on is the tournament side of things since that is the aspect that will both lull them into why you work so hard at this game and show how important it is that you continue to play.

A lot of people immediately make the poker comparison, but often I find likening it to poker elicits an eyebrow raise and a connection with gambling. Instead, I find chess is a much better comparison.

This is my usual opening. I’ll go through each step afterward and explain each point.

Girl: So, what do you do for fun?

Gavin: I’m actually a professional card player!

Girl: Oh, cool! Like poker, or…?

Guy: Nah. I’m not really into gambling. I fly around the world to play this game called Magic for thousands of dollars in prizes. It’s a great time, and the company even covers your airfare! I’ve been to Europe, Hawaii, South America, and all around the rest of the U.S. to compete against the best players in the world — all the while paying my way through college with what I’ve won.

Girl: Wow! That’s really awesome. Is that like a job you foresee yourself doing for a while?

Guy: Kind of. It definitely takes up a chunk of my time, but I keep a steady focus on my school because my education is important to me and I like to make sure I have free time to hang out with my friends. But Magic has been a great opportunity which has made me a ton of friends and brought me to several places. I have a lot of fun playing it, and I will continue playing as long as I keep enjoying the game.

Girl: Huh, I can’t believe I’ve never heard of this. What’s it about? How does it work?

Guy: Well, the game is very intricate and has a lot of nuances. Imagine playing chess, only instead of having set pieces to play with, each player chose their own pieces to bring to the table out of thousands. There are a ton of strategic decisions to make! But the basic gist of it simple. Each player starts with 20 life points. Through carefully using your cards, you aim to put them to 0 before you do the same to you.

Girl: Very cool. You’ll have to teach me sometime!

This is the core of what I tell everyone, depending on what details I think matter most in the conversation.

I open off with the professional card player bit for a few good reasons. Even if you’re not playing on the Pro Tour right now, I recommend doing this as long as you are playing in high level tournaments a lot. Adding the word professional just adds a mystique to it that “playing cards” doesn’t have. Most importantly, though, a lot of people will just ask you an opening question about what you do for fun at some point, and a lot of those people won’t actually care what your response is. Rather than go through the whole routine, if they obviously don’t care then there’s no reason to go for the long explanation and you can just leave it at that.

Usually, though, they’ll ask the next piece. My response to that does several things. First of all, it asserts that Magic is not about gambling which is a very important distinction. Then, you casually name the game and what it has done for you. In my case, I’ve been around the world and Magic has paid for almost all of my college education. Usually it’s not the money that excites people, since money is nebulous, but the fact that you’ve been to so many places. Definitely don’t forget to mention the places Magic has brought you if you have a reasonable list.

In response to their next question, I like to assert that I don’t really see Magic as a job, but that it does take up a lot of time. A lot of people like to shrug Magic off as some minor commitment, when it’s really not that at all. If you tell, say, a prospective girlfriend that you play “this game” every now and then and you end up gone every other weekend, that’s like violating personal trust. If you’re just up front and make it clear Magic is important to you and it will take up time in your life, then it’s not a surprise later on. Of course, by the same token, it’s important to also point out that you have time for fun too; it’s not ALL about Magic. Lastly, it’s important to note that Magic isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

The final question isn’t asked that often, but when it is that’s how I like to respond. The “Chess with pieces you bring” comparison is the one which seems to resonate with people the most, far more than any kind of poker comparison.

Once again, keep in mind you’re not going to cover the whole concept in a sentence, and one question leads to another. It’s likely they won’t even care about what you tell them here, they just want you to, once again, say something. I like to just keep it generic because one question begets another. You start explaining mana, and before you know it you’re explaining activated abilities, and then somehow you end up on a rant about banding. And that’s never good.

Well, that’s all fine if they don’t know what Magic is. But what do you do if they already know?

Fortunately, more and more the people I keep talking to who know about it either have a neutral view of Magic, a good friend that they know used to play, or even they might have played at one point. Even one of my college teachers used to play, and it gave us an added personal connection during class.

In each of these cases, it’s important to just survey what they know to come up with the best answers. You want to make sure you explain how you play in tournaments around the world so they don’t associate you with the casual, kitchen table Magic they probably know best. While there’s nothing wrong with casual Magic, if they already know what Magic is and imagine it as something done on kitchen countertops and basement floors, you want to tweak their perception to give it an air of professionalism.

And then you have the rare cases where Magic is some kind of unholy perpetrator, the kind of toy you should leave behind when you’re 12; a nerdy holy grail, hanging up there with Linux and Dungeons and Dragons.

In these cases, many times you’re fighting a lost cause. It’s hard to win their opinion because they already have it set. Sometimes the places you’ve visited and money you’ve won will elicit a concession, or an “agree to disagree.” Most often, you will bring it up, they will voice an “hmm,” and seem unenthused, and then it’ll never be brought up again. And that’s okay. If they aren’t interested, you shouldn’t keep bringing it up.

The key to getting along with these people has absolutely nothing to do with Magic at all. It has to do with your charming personality.

Despite what it may have sounded like above, I don’t open with Magic. I do not recommend introducing yourself with “Hi, my name is (blank), I play Magic,” at a party while you smugly push your aviator glasses up your nose and run your hand back through your thick, black hair.

If someone doesn’t know you at all and you bring up Magic, they have no reason to care about what you say about the game.

But if you chat with them for half an hour and you’re both giggling along, cracking jokes and having fun, trading stories and swapping questions, then whatever you say about Magic is going to have some resonance. And that’s when you can convert over whatever their previous thoughts about the game were. You don’t want to say, “oh, he just played casual Magic at lunch. That’s different from what I do.” That’s telling, and has less impact. You want to show the person why you’re different from 14 year old Jimmy “Hee-Haw” Hawthorn, not tell them why you are.

That’s what can really make all the difference.

People do not inherently think Magic is weird. It’s just in how you present it. In today’s world, people are going to find out eventually. And wouldn’t you rather be the one who has the chance to tell them and explain it to them then have them find out via piecing together information on a Google search of your name?

In relationships, Magic has either been something girls can find impressive, or something that can end things — and it’s all in how it’s presented. If you hide what you do, or if you aren’t up front about how much time you’re realistically going to spend playing, it can lead to a mess you won’t want to be in the middle of when the girl actually finds out. If you’re looking for anything long term, not being up front about Magic is a disaster. Once again, it’s not about the actual playing of the game, but how it is handled. Just like anything else in life, people don’t like being lied to or not told about something — and Magic is no exception.

The majority of people I know think my (admittedly moderate) success at Magic is something great to be proud of — which is excellent, because that’s how I feel, and that’s how I’ve tried to come across. There’s no way they would have thought that if they had to find out through their own means.

I’m going to close up with a story from my own experience. There are a lot of ways Magic has helped me, and a lot of people I have told who have found Magic interesting. But I think most relevant is this story.

Fellow StarCityGames.com writer Max McCall and I are good friends. We live in the same area, spend a lot of time together, and when I transferred to the University of Washington, I begin to be assimilated into the same social circles as him. Most notably, a circle of people whose primary hobby was a total opposite from Magic: Swing dancing and Blues dancing.

As we began to spend time together and I met his dancing friends, in due respect to Max, whom had kept his Magic playing habits a secret from his school friends for the entirety of his three year stay on campus, I asked him what procedure he would like me to take involving the topic of Magic in his friend circle. I was told I could do what I wanted, but to leave his name out of it.

I followed Max’s directive. I told the people I became close with, but kept Max out of any mention of Magic events. The dancers were pretty chill with my Magicing, and several even grew respect for me for it.

Eventually, though, there hit a conundrum.

Both of us were going to Pro Tour: Honolulu. I had told everybody why I was going, yet I began to hear several exceedingly awkward conversations with convoluted topic misdirecting where Max was telling people he was mysteriously going to Hawaii that weekend and changed the topic whenever asked why. Murmurs started flying about. And at some point, one person did a Google search while we were gone.

When we returned, several of us met up for a casual get together. At this get together, the wise, Googling individual decided to finally out Max in the most embarrassing way possible. He stood up, and started reading, verbatim, a tournament report Max had written for a PTQ he had won. Much ridiculing followed.

Despite Max and I playing the exact same game, and having the exact same friends, they were cool with Magic when I told them up front, but were more annoyed about Max and the game when they found out the hard way.

Think about that.

Fortunately, we resolved any awkward feelings and it has all blown over now. Max has finally learned to be secure in his Magichood, and all of our mutual friends are cool with Magic. Some of them even respect Max more now.

Hopefully, going forward, you, too will be confident enough to tell people about Magic. It’s a great game, and there’s no reason to hide it. People are far more likely to think it’s neat than deride you for it. I’d love to hear what you have to say and about your personal experiences. Either post in the forums, or message me via e-mail at gavintriesagain at gmail dot com.

Hopefully I’ll talk with you soon!

Gavin Verhey
Team Unknown Stars
Rabon on Magic Online, Lesurgo everywhere else