Reflections In The Eyes Of My Son

In this week’s article, Michael shifts gears a bit and shares the experience of teaching his son how to play Magic for the first time with you.

He’s always watching.

They always watch; the curiosity of children is boundless at times. The wonder in their eyes is truly something to watch if we only take the time to pay attention.

Children are like sponges; they’re like clay. They’re spongy clay. They absorb everything, and it molds their selves.

Chris is no different; he watches everything I do. He constantly asks to watch me regardless of what I’m doing. He wants to go with me everywhere I go; it couldn’t possibly matter less where I’m actually going.

At seven, his hands are barely big enough to hold the Xbox 360 controller; that doesn’t stop him from occasionally beating me at Halo and Call of Duty, Black Ops 2. I don’t let him win; I never let him win. That’s one thing my grandma taught me. “You never learn the value of a win if they’re given to you.”

When he beats me, he truly experiences joy. I like seeing that almost as much as I hate losing. It creates a very weird feeling as a parent and a gamer. I suppose I can accept losing—for now.

He loves his Pokemon cards, if for no other reason than the fact that they provide him a chance to play a card game with “Michael” as my stepchildren call me. He cherishes them, constantly trying to emulate the motions I make when I shuffle my sleeved decks. Unfortunately, that’s hard to do with unsleeved cards.

So I sleeve his decks up in the old StarCityGames.com blue and white sleeves. He still tries to get the shuffle motion down. He’s getting better.

I still hear about the time he actually beat me. Not the times where I only had one Pokemon or couldn’t draw energy; he’s smart enough to recognize those games as wins that, as he puts it, he didn’t earn. No, the time he actually took me out Pokemon by Pokémon. It’s already one of his favorite memories out of the oh-so-many he’s experienced during his long seven years on this earth.

Oh, and he constantly asks about learning to play Magic. I try to explain that the complexity of Magic is far greater than Pokemon; a darker secret is that as a full-time employee who sits through at least two hours of traffic a day, I don’t have the energy or patience much of the time to teach him. I’ve become that parent who doesn’t have time for his own children.

I need to stop that. If my grandparents treated me like that, I’d never be the person I am today.

One day a couple of weeks ago, he asks again to learn Magic. I’m on the computer, and my initial reaction is the same as always.

“No, today’s not a good day.”

“So when will be a good day then, Michael?” my mind chastises me.

I tell him to come sit beside me as I close the laptop that I spend far too much time on. I pull the coffee table close and pop open the deckbox containing my Standard Domri Naya deck. I know he won’t understand everything; then again, I never thought he’d pick up the nuances of Pokemon as fast as he did.

Give the kid a chance.

I tell him that I’m going to be playing against a phantom opponent (we know this phantom as the “goldfish” that haunts our dreams) and that I would just walk him through what I was doing. Luckily, my two-year-old daughter Zoey was over there “playing” with a random stack of Magic cards I let the kids mess around with. I pretend she’s my opponent.

I walk through, step by step, what I do every turn.

First I untap. Next I’m going to draw my card. See this Sacred Foundry? Read the card and tell me what it does.

The teacher in me comes out. I turn every subsequent turn into a quiz; he’ll learn quicker if he talks me through what I’m doing instead of me giving him all the answers.

What do I do first? Right, I untap my cards.

He watches intently. I consider what I’m showing him to be boring; I can tell he doesn’t share that sentiment. The giant grin on his face tells the whole story.

You used to have that giant grin, Michael.

I can see the excitement in his eyes. Those eyes, watching so intently; they’re like a mirror reflecting into the past.

My past.

In the middle of recounting the steps of a turn long ago committed to memory, my mind takes me back to my first experiences in Magic. The cluelessness, the wide-eyed stares at cool-looking cards. The desperate yet futile attempts at grasping an understanding of the rules.

It’s all there in his eyes too.

In the background of my trip down memory lane, I can hear myself still explaining the structure and breakdown of the turn while getting in small teaching points about what a shockland is. That has kind of faded to the background as I allow my memories to swoop in and take me away to a different time. . .

. . .

. . .

. . .

The year is 1998. I think.

My cousin Patrick Stowe introduces me to a couple of games. I remember one involved Marvel superheroes on cards, one involved a table covered with a replication of a futuristic battlefield where we rolled die and moved painted figures, and this one where you tapped mana and played spells.

Obviously I liked the superheroes one the best. I also liked the tabletop one. What am I saying; I loved all of the above.

Patrick showed us this tournament called Friday Night Magic. I remember sitting in the back of that store while people played, watching intently while having absolutely no clue what was going on.

I realize this is the phase that Chris is in; a general understanding that it’s a card game but no idea exactly what is going on.

You know how certain memories bring about certain feelings? It’s hard to explain, but thinking back to those days brings me back to a very specific feeling that’s incredibly hard to explain but feels so familiar. I long for that feeling; not just because of the memories of Hunting Moa and Yavimaya Elder but because of how much I loved those days in general.

Life was easy in those sweltering summer days—no bills, no children, no worries. My only concerns were playing cards all day then going back to the house with Grandma and Grandpa for some amazing dinner from Grandma and then watching Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy; all of this revelry was followed up by an entire night of playing Magic. And by entire night I mean Grandma having to come out to fuss at four in the morning because we’re getting too loud.

This is what Magic meant to me; it doesn’t just represent a competitive outlet for me. It represents a time in my childhood where life was at its best. My memories involve my grandparents being alive. They involve a time where Magic wasn’t a stressful endeavor where victory was the only thing that mattered.

It was a time where the only thing that mattered was the fun I was having. Magic was a game.

Magic was fun.

. . .

. . .

. . .

As I reminisce, I come back to reality as my Hellrider finishes off my invisible aquatic opponent. My son has a sheepish grin as he witnesses the absurdity that is Hellrider. I bet you’re one of the few people who smiles at that card still, Chris.

I tell him that we’re going to actually play a game.

He is taken aback. “I can play too?” he asks incredulously. I tell him that he can even play with the Naya deck; I’d play with the other deck (Jund, which is the only other deck I have built, albeit with some proxies that I knew he wouldn’t understand). I tell him to play with his hand up so I could walk him through the turns.

The game goes long, and Chris falls in love with Domri Rade. Seriously, he raves about “that planeswalker.” It draws him a few cards, and he even gets to fight with Boros Reckoner and my Huntmaster. It takes him a bit, but once he understands how awesome that play is, his eyes light up.

The glimmer in his eye reminds me of how I felt when I first attacked with an Ancient Silverback with a Rancor.

He actually wins the game; he learns how awesome it is to miracle a Bonfire of the Damned followed by a Thundermaw Hellkite.

Again, that smile . . .

. . .

. . .

. . .

He won’t leave me alone.

Every day as soon as I step in the door, “Can we play Magic?!”

He’s hooked.

The same disinterested parent rears his ugly head; two/three hours of traffic tend to have that effect on me. An exasperated, “No, Chris, maybe tomorrow,” is all I can offer.

How can you ever expect him to learn, Michael?

I stop, look over at Chris, and tell him to go into my big box of old cards. His eyes immediately perk up when I tell him that I want him to go look for cards that he wants to play. I tell him that he doesn’t need to pick out more than one of each card but rather to pick out any card that he thinks he wants to play with.

I tell him we’re going to build him his own deck. His smile warms my heart more than any win in any tournament could. Why don’t I do this more?

When he returns a mere fifteen minutes later, Chris hands me a stack of cards tentatively as if worried that I’ll disapprove of his choices. I think as parents we tend to forget that our kids look for our approval in most everything they do; this includes selection of favorite cards apparently. I comfort him a bit by looking at the first card, a Monstrous Carabid, and telling him that it’s a really cool card that I’d played that card in a tournament once (I had; Living End was a fun deck!).

A sample of what he brought back:

Chris' Picks

On Skaab Goliath:

“This is the best one ’cause it takes NINE damage to kill him!”

On Fusion Elemental:

“This one is probably the best ’cause it attacks for eight!”

On Craw Wurm:

“This one’s the best.” (No further explanation needed apparently.)

I chuckle as I think back on my initial attempts at creating a deck. Visions of Priest of Titania, Llanowar Elf, Yavimaya Elder, and fatties like Ancient Silverback and Avatar of Might dance through my head. That feeling comes back. While Chris is happily explaining his choices, for some reason I miss my grandparents again. The mind is a very strange thing.

I tell Chris that we’re going to build the decks “tomorrow”; in reality, I wait until he sits down so I can go try to surprise him by building him a deck with some of his selected cards. I start picking out cards to fill in the gaps; knowing how his choices trend towards the “fatty” end of the spectrum, I set out to build him a G/R Elf deck similar to mine from so many years ago. The memories of how much I loved attacking with huge green creatures drives my deckbuilding process.

Llanowar Elves obviously. Let’s go ahead and throw in these Elvish Mystics as well. Rampant Growths should be easy enough for him to understand. OOH! I can throw in some Elvish Archdruids (the new Priest of Titania)!

Let’s throw some Lightning Bolts and a Mana Clash in for fun.

A little of this . . .

A little of that . . .

I’m like a scientist in a lab, trying to include a mix of cards that he liked in addition to other cards that would help Chris understand the nuances of card types and decision making.

I try to keep from having only cards I know to be powerful; after all, I want him to have cards he wants. I don’t want to be the dad that makes his son do the “smart, correct” thing that he doesn’t want to do; I want my son to have fun. So I include the Craw Wurm. I include the Thorn Elemental. I throw some other cards in like Garruk’s Horde. He’ll definitely enjoy this.

What he ended up with:

Chris' Deck

The games are crude, and I have to explain a lot. He gets excited; he gets frustrated. He starts learning.

The more he learns, the more he wants to play.

I feel like a dad who used to play semi-pro baseball watching his son swing a bat for the first time. Like the former basketball player watching his daughter hit her first shot. It’s the same thing; I hope to pass my passion on to my son, and he seems to be taking to it.

It reminds me that Magic is a game first and foremost. I think we all forget that every now and then in the fervor for competitive success. I know I do.

Magic is fun when you allow it to be. Just creating a fun deck to play against Chris with I feel the excitement rising. I get to play Doomed Necromancer and Fact or Fiction again. I have to be careful not to include too many powerful things, so I include subpar cards to even things out. But the excitement is real. I can play with cards that I enjoy playing with regardless of how successful they’ll be against Thragtusk Jund or Deathblade in Legacy. It doesn’t matter; the Goliath Sphinx in my deck blows Chris’ mind.

This is fun again.

For the first time in my life, not only do I think about putting together some Commander decks, but I look forward to the day where Chris understands Magic to the point where we can do that together.

Every now and then Magic’s meaning to ourselves shifts; it happened when we first started transitioning from kitchen tables to FNM, and it happened when we started taking our FNM decks to PTQs and StarCityGames.com Opens.

And it just happened to me again. I think this is the best transition so far. I still want to win competitively, but I really enjoy the time I get to spend with Chris.

The glimmer in his eye tells me the feeling is mutual.

Michael Martin

@mikemartinlfs on Twitter

Mikemartinlfs (at) gmail (dot) com