Why We Play

I’ve read articles by various pros saying that when they travel all over the world to play Magic, it’s not really for the love of the game or the lure of exotic locales. It’s not even for the money, although I’m sure that helps. Above all, I’ve heard it said again and again, the reason they’re there is to spend time with the friends they’ve made on the Tour, people from all over the world who form a community.

It’s midnight, and I’m hurtling across the hinterlands of central Kentucky with three sleeping guys I barely know, thinking about the three or four hours we have yet to drive and the mountains in our path, when it strikes me: I am wasting my life.

I’m in the middle of the fourteen-hour drive from Champaign, IL to Richmond, VA. With me are Shawn Larson, an acquaintance from a game store in town; Aaron Hauptmann, a veteran of several Pro Tours, who contacted me after reading my article about scrubbing out at the GP Trial in Indianapolis, which he won; and Cedric Phillips, a friend of Aaron’s who has likewise qualified for (and I believe attended) the Tour. Shawn and I met up with Aaron and Cedric in Lafayette, Indiana, and we’ve been driving ever since. I’ve started my shift at the wheel, talk of formats and card evaluations has slowly faded out, and I have entered the Kentucky of the soul.

Let’s look at this rationally. This is going to end up costing me a couple hundred dollars, two days off work, and an entire weekend of time and energy. We’ll get into Richmond sometime after 3am, I’ll get five hours of sleep if I’m very lucky, and then I’ll go 0-2-drop in the main event and 1-1 in a Draft. On Sunday, I’ll 2-2 the Pro Tour Qualifier at best, 1-1 another Draft, and wait in ignominy as Cedric and Aaron finish in the money. This isn’t conjecture; this is predictable fact.

Yes, that’s what rational thinking looks like in the mental state of Kentucky.

I enjoy Magic, of course. In fact, I love the game. But think of all the other ways I could be spending my time and money! I could have called a dear friend of mine, packed up a car, and driven an hour to a state park in Indiana. She and I could have hiked and talked all day, shared a painfully chaste night at the lodge, and had a wonderful, real weekend at a fraction of the cost. Why the hell did I feel the need to drive to Virginia to play a game? Are my priorities that out of touch with what I actually want to be doing? Am I committing myself to pursuits that will make me miserable in the end, while letting the truly important things slide by? Should I pick Stinkweed Imp over Tidewater Minion when that ugly little common run shows up?

Hell if I know. At this point, though, it’s a wee bit late to back out.

It’s the next morning, and I’ve just registered for Grand Prix: Richmond and walked into the tournament hall. The place is huge, and in the midst of this throng are a whole lot of recognizable faces – pros or writers or notable judges – although there are very few I could actually name offhand. Four Japanese pros I half-recognize are sitting in a tight cluster, consulting a visual guide to the cards in the set. Osyp Lebedowicz breezes by me at some point – the first time I recall seeing somebody in person whom I recognize from Pro Tour coverage (okay, actually it was De Rosa a little earlier, but this way I get to drop two names). I try not to stare. I mean, I’m cool, right? Heck, some of these people actually know who I am. I introduce myself to Pete Hoefling, who’s manning the dealer table (and who, yes, does know who I am). He’s a really nice guy, and we chat a bit about the tournament.

After Head Judge Sheldon Menery gets us seated for deck registration, I open and pass a mediocre pool that I’m happy to see go. Meaningless, of course, but psychologically fortifying, and certainly better than the other thing. My actual pool contains a Sacred Foundry, a foil Stomping Ground, a strong B/G/W deck with lots of goodies (if no serious bombs), and a Brightflame that I leave in the board. I later determine that the dual lands, along with a Boros Garrison and Gruul Turf, make splashing for Brightflame and Galvanic Arc virtually free. I board into that later in the day, to very encouraging results.

It’s a good pool, and I’d tell you all about it – except that this isn’t a Sealed article. I originally planned it to be, but then I sat on it way too long and now I don’t feel it’s relevant… and I want to talk about something else anyway.

Do you ever feel like we’re wasting our time here? I have occasional bouts of this. I self-identify as a writer, and thus (not to sound pretentious, but) an artist. I, in my heart of hearts, am dedicated to inspiring emotion, unlocking meaning, and building that slim and tenuous bridge that fleetingly yet lastingly connects one human consciousness to another.

Uh, I mean… Exhumer Thrull was a surprising all-star for me. Two guys out of the ‘yard can mean a huge swing in the late midgame…

Perhaps you see my point.

I mean, what am I doing here? Not to denigrate our fair hobby in the slightest, but this is not my scene. When I’m feeling stressed and overwhelmed, I should reach for my notebook… but I reach for my cards instead. Why is that?

We all have our own reasons, of course. These are mine.

Fun should come first, but it doesn’t for me. First and foremost, I play Magic because it is comforting. I know the rules, I know the cards, and I know at least a functional amount of strategy. When I sit down to a game of Magic, I know what I’m doing, and whether things turn out the way I wanted them to or not, I almost always know why.

It is, in short, refreshingly unlike the rest of my life.

May I be honest here? Good. I am not, you see, entirely on top of things. A lot of people look at me and think I really have my sh** together, but I don’t. I have trouble keeping up on bills and housework, maintaining relationships and budgeting my time. Lord knows there’s no rational reason this article took me a freaking month to write. The weird thing, of course, is that I never have enough trouble with these things to suffer any really serious consequences, as if some subconscious part of me has decided to take care of the things that are really important, or at least too urgent to ignore. I lose track of my credit cards because that’s just a late fee and I don’t care about money, but I’m never, ever late with my rent… I just sort of… almost have it together, and I don’t really know what the problem is.

I’m by no means claiming that my Magic game is stellar, even by comparison. All I’m saying is that with Magic, I have a much clearer picture of the link between my actions and their consequences. I end up going 3-1-2 at the GP, and I understand why. I know that I had a solid pool that I built well. I know that I was more on top of my technical play than usual, possibly because I chose to take much sparser match notes than previously – but I played too slowly and built a deck that couldn’t really punch through for the win, hence the draws. My mana was surprisingly consistent, and I really should have stretched it further for the (sometimes) game-breaking Brightflame. I can go back over it, analyze the individual choices I made, and understand their impact on the outcome, while also being able to immediately identify those elements I couldn’t control. Sometimes the other guy has Chord of Calling into Angel of Despair, and there’s not much you can do about that. Sometimes you mulligan to three because of terrible luck… and sometimes you figure out later that you weren’t running quite as many lands as you thought, as I did at a PTQ recently. Oops.

When I’m feeling stressed, I love playing Magic because it has far fewer variables than life, and I know how to manipulate them to at least give myself a fighting chance. Doubtless there are variables I’m not even aware of, as I once was ignorant of mana curves and even creature counts. In time, though, I trust that I’ll read up and come to understand those variables, too. It’s a system with enough simplicity to be solvable and enough complexity to be endlessly fascinating, and it truly makes me happy.

I can’t help but wonder, moreover, if Magic might serve as a sort of sandbox for strategic thinking. Surely there is some similarity of thought process between remembering that he played Leap of Flame in game 1 and recalling while navigating on the fly that, yes, Green Street is probably still under construction. If I get better at remembering not to target Bramble Elemental with Char when my opponent controls Veteran Armorer, will I get any better at remembering to pay my phone bill? Or at least not to lock the keys in my car with the motor running? Well, let’s hope. But the fact is, there is a much greater chance that I will start learning not to attack into a tapped Keiga when my opponent has a Minamo, School of the Unseen hiding under all those Islands than there is that I will start being able to juggle all the competing aspects of my life, because in a Magic game there are blissfully few things clamoring for my attention.

And yet… and yet… and yet… There’s so much more to it than that, isn’t there?

On Saturday, I was intending to go to a Team Standard Grand Prix Trial with two of my friends. We’d settled on running W/B aggro/disruption with Descendant of Kiyomaro, a fairly standard Greater Gifts build, and a slightly modified version of Osyp’s Izzetron. We’d busted our butts buying, borrowing, or trading for most of the cards we needed. We’d even done some testing, which I hear is a pretty good idea. Unfortunately, my testing with Izzetron had shown dismal match-ups not only with Owling Mine, which I expected, but with Gruul Beats as well. I don’t know what the problem was, which frustrates me. Maybe Osyp’s just better than me (gee, ya think?). Maybe, as is often the case, my slight modifications diluted the deck more than I realized. I don’t know, but in any case, suddenly I personally was looking at nigh-unwinnable games with what looked to be a significant portion of the field. Moreover, there was the small matter of the three Umezawa’s Jitte and three Godless Shrine we still needed for our W/B deck, plus a Steam Vents for me and two Giant Solifuge for the board, and a few minor issues like Goryo’s Vengeance for the Gifts deck.

The night before the tournament, around midnight, it suddenly struck us that we’d be absolutely insane to go. We’re not even going to be able to go to the Grand Prix, so the absolute best-case scenario involved us winning byes to a tournament we can’t attend (or, rather, conceding to someone who could). We hung up our card sleeves and decided to spend the next day playing Magic anyway.

We met up around 3pm, nine hours later than originally planned. I bought three draft sets of Mirrodin block, and we shuffled them all together into one giant Fat Stack* with a separate stack of lands, our one and only casual format. We declared that this would be Ironman, with any card that left play being physically destroyed. We watched Dodgeball and Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle while killing each other with a deck composed increasingly of Equipment as the games went by. Skyreach Manta was an unspeakable house, and Vedalken Orrery was a surprise MVP. Eater of Days fell to Echoing Ruin without once turning sideways. Tel-Jilad Wolf toted Nemesis Mask to gruesome results, and I didn’t put Grafted Wargear on Spikeshot Goblin because I’m an idiot. In another game I shredded a Mindslaver, probably my favorite card and our only halfway valuable rare, in order to flip a Grafted Wargear around another guy’s team, then Arrest his last guy. And I still lost that game. We walked to Wendy’s for hopelessly stale fries and sodas poured by a guy so stoned it took him five minutes to get the job done. We ended up running back in a torrential downpour, soaked to the bone and really hoping not to get struck by lightning. Of course, we couldn’t sit on David’s furniture in wet clothes, so we hung our pants up to dry… and that’s how I ended up spending an evening playing Magic with no pants on.

It was, in short, one of the most absurd and enjoyable evenings I’ve had in a long time that involved neither alcohol nor women.

Despite what some people think, though, casual play doesn’t have a monopoly on fun and camaraderie in Magic, and ultimately, that’s what made the Grand Prix a wonderful experience for me. I met Ben Bleiweiss, who’s cheerful and friendly and not nearly as intimidating as his picture makes him look (but don’t tell him I said that). I met the one and only Ferrett, who chatted with me sporadically throughout the day about Magic, writing, fame/recognition, and whatever else. I witnessed the legendary Eric “Danger” Taylor insisting on taking a picture of the Ferrett’s bare chest and threatening to beat Ted Knutson with a chair to prove that he’s not nearly as kung fu as he thinks he is. I saw or met half a dozen people I had heard of because of their accomplishments playing or writing about Magic. I, alone among those watching, failed to realize what my opponent was holding when he counted my five creatures, held up a card in his hand, and asked a judge, “Does it have to be that many?” (Hex, of course). I got a game loss for failing to mark down one of the cards in my deck, mulliganed to four, and still won the match. I overheard the following conversation between rounds:

GUY: Oh my God! The hottest chick I have ever met just called me, and I couldn’t answer because I was losing at Magic: The Gathering!
HIS FRIEND: Call her back!
GUY: Yeah, but… what do I tell her?

The people I met were funny, nice, sarcastic, crude, friendly, quiet, boisterous, absurd. A guy promised to trade me a slice of pizza if I fetched Mountain Dew for him and his friends, then gave me the pizza anyway when I returned from the out-of-stock machine empty-handed. I talked theory and strategy with my car-mates most of the way there and back, and felt like my brain had physically expanded. When we’d had enough of that, we listened to the Great Luke Ski and chortled the rest of the way home. In short, I had fun.

I’ve read articles by various pros saying that when they travel all over the world to play Magic, it’s not really for the love of the game or the lure of exotic locales. It’s not even for the money, although I’m sure that helps. Above all, I’ve heard it said again and again, the reason they’re there is to spend time with the friends they’ve made on the Tour, people from all over the world who form a community. I’m no pro. I may never be, nor am I even certain that that’s what I aspire to. But in Richmond, I think I got a little taste of why they do it, and I’ve got to say, I understand.

So that’s why I play Magic, in a small and inadequate nutshell. From a cynical, rational perspective, I play it because its limited variability gives me a sense of comfort and self-determination. From the perspective of stuff that actually matters, I play it for the people, the stories, and the memories that I simply wouldn’t have otherwise. This thing that could be so empty, so mechanical… simply isn’t, because we come to it and we fill it up with whatever meaning we need. In the end, regardless of my Kentuckian throes of self-loathing, I’m not wasting my life, and I know it.

So… why do you play Magic?

Kelly Digges
first initial last name at gmail dot com

*If you’re unfamiliar with Fat Stack, it involves a shared library and a shared graveyard. It’s all five colors, and the lands are separate so that nobody gets manascrewed or manaflooded. You choose to draw land or nonland each turn. It’s a wonderfully random format, and we usually play with our standing Fat Stack, carefully prepared for maximum chaos. On one occasion, one of us played Biorhythm with one creature in play when nobody else had any, so the win was on the stack. Somebody Terminated the creature for the draw… and then somebody else played Needlebug. For. The Win.

**Okay, this isn’t a footnote, but I wanted to say that I realize I took a page from The Rizz today and did a little more rambling and soul-baring than I usually do. I’m not saying I’ll make a habit of it, but I’m curious as to whether it sank or swam. No doubt you’ll let me know…

***Also not a footnote, but here’s my pool in case you’re interested, with those cards played marked in a thoroughly cryptic fashion intended to confuse you. Or just with asterisks.

Lionheart Maverick
Veteran Armorer*
Nightguard Patrol*
Gate Hound
Divebomber Griffin*
Skyrider Trainee
Harrier Griffin*
Wojek Siren
Chant of Vitu-Ghazi

Vedalken Plotter
Drift of Phantasms
2 Crystal Seer
Zephyr Spirit
Muddle the Mixture
Flight of Fancy
Flow of Ideas

Stinkweed Imp*
Exhumer Thrull*
Vindictive Mob
2 Cry of Contrition
Last Gasp*
Douse in Gloom*
Caustic Rain
Necromantic Thirst

Sparkmage Apprentice
Goblin Spelunkers
Goblin Fire Fiend
Indentured Oaf
Ordruun Commando
Coalhauler Swine
Surge of Zeal
Instill Furor
Galvanic Arc
Hypervolt Grasp (up here in Red because I don’t feel it requires Blue)

Fists of Ironwood*
Civic Wayfinder*
Silhana Starfletcher*
Dousing Shaman*
Sundering Vitae*
2 Beastmaster’s Magemark
Perilous Forays

Souls of the Faultless*
Ostiary Thrull*
Blind Hunter*
2 Orzhov Signet**
Orzhov Basilica*

Boros Garrison
Sacred Foundry (woo!)

Votary of the Conclave
Selesnya Evangel*
Centaur Safeguard*

Lurking Informant
Dimir Infiltrator
Dimir Aqueduct
Duskmantle, House of Shadow

Steamcore Weird
Ogre Savant
Izzet Chronarch
Mizzium Transreliquat

Elves of Deep Shadow*
Gaze of the Gorgon*
Rolling Spoil

Burning-Tree Bloodscale
Gruul Turf
FOIL Stomping Ground (double woo!)

(6 Forest)
(6 Plains)
(3 Swamp)