How I Overcame My Unhealthy Addiction To Magic: the Gathering

Ryan Saxe details his battle with mental health, including an addiction to Magic, plus the path he took to overcome these struggles.

Parallax Tide, illustrated by Carl Critchlow

It was a sunny day during my sophomore year of college. I had just gotten out of class and was walking back to my apartment. I blacked out. I have no recollection of the walk. I was not under the influence of any alcohol or drugs. I basically blinked. Next thing I know, I was sitting down at my local game store cracking open the first pack of a Khans of Tarkir Draft.

The really scary part? It didn’t phase me.

I was just happy to be drafting. In fact, I did two drafts and was there for about six hours. It wasn’t until I left the store to go home that I remembered I had other plans that day. I cried. I told myself I wasn’t going to play Magic that day. I assured myself that I could stop playing if I really wanted. That I had control over myself.

I didn’t. I was sick. I was addicted to Magic: the Gathering.

When I share this story, the most common response is “can’t you just choose to do something else?” Honestly, the answer was no. I lost agency over my life at this time. And I know many other people in the Magic community have experienced this as well.

The goal of this article is the following:

  • Spread awareness that addiction is not uncommon in this community.
  • Share how I overcame addiction and maintain a healthy relationship with Magic.
  • Normalize talking about mental health.

Before I get into the full story, I want to make sure to say that I am not a medical professional. The opinions and advice in this piece should not be taken as gospel. If you believe you’re struggling with addiction, I hope this piece helps you internalize the problem and push through it. But I also strongly suggest reaching out for professional guidance and support if you’re able to. Furthermore, even if you’re not struggling with addiction, digest what I have to say. There could be somebody close to you going through this and your support would mean the world to them.

How It Started

A reward to distract from pain.

For me, that’s how Magic transitioned from a harmless hobby to this devil on my shoulder that would cover my eyes and make my decisions for me. I’m truly grateful that Magic could be my escape, but I really wish this escapism didn’t evolve to addiction.

I love this game with all my heart. I went to Friday Night Magic every week. I played Commander every Thursday. I drafted every Tuesday. I was pretty good for the LGS crowd, but not the end boss. None of that was a problem to begin with. I could skip those events if I wanted to.

This all changed on Saturday, October 4th, 2014. I remember the date because it was Yom Kippur.

A friend of mine, Jon Sampson, owns a cube that’s all one-drops. A couple times a month, we would get eight people together on a Saturday and draft it in a coffee shop or bar. This particular Saturday, I left early, choking back tears. My girlfriend of almost three years had just broken up with me (don’t forget that it was Yom Kippur, so I couldn’t even comfort myself with ice cream). This led to one of the darkest months of my life.

I didn’t eat.

I lost an incredibly unhealthy amount of weight. I didn’t even really go to my classes or do the work. I refused to go out with my friends because I didn’t want to associate alcohol with happiness, and honestly, I’m really glad I had the foresight to avoid alcohol because otherwise this addiction could have manifested into that.

During this dark time, Magic brought me out of it. It was the only thing that would make me smile. It started because I just loved the game, and playing it made me happy. But as I played it more, I improved. And then I started winning. A lot. I became the FNM end boss. It felt like people at the store were asking for my opinion more and more. Eventually, this became the only thing I cared about.

The reward wasn’t winning, but a consequence of winning. The thrill of feeling like people actually cared about what I had to say let off fireworks of dopamine in my brain. I had to learn more and get better. The better I got, the more people would look up to me.

At this point I lived and breathed Magic. In my classes, I was reading articles or building decks instead of paying attention. Every ounce of free time became dedicated to the game. My roommate at the time said I started talking in my sleep about Magic cards. 

And even with all of that, I didn’t see it as a problem. I was passionate about a hobby, which is a good thing, right? Well, it can be. But this evolved in unhealthy ways.

How I Realized It Was A Problem

Being passionate has always been something I strongly identify with. It made it easy to shrug off my unhealthy relationship with the game as just me being passionate. I hypnotized myself to be blind of the issue. What broke that hypnosis was recognizing behavioral deviations from other personality traits that I strongly identify with.

For example, I historically put the well-being of my friends above my own. I would drop everything to help a friend. So, when I found myself saying things like “I’ll come over tomorrow to help, I’m playing Magic tonight”, it was jarring. When I noticed that I was putting Magic above the well-being of people I cared about, I started to realize there was an issue.

I began paying close attention to how I felt and what I was thinking. I began to recognize that whenever I knew there was some Magic event I could be attending, if I tried to do something else, I would feel this deep and heavy desire to leave and go to the event. And eventually I would find myself there. Sometimes I could hold off the desire to leave long enough that I couldn’t play in the event, but then I would just watch or trade and hangout with other players. And maybe even buy a box and try to coerce eliminated players into a draft. 

I was pretty much incapable of choosing how to spend my time. I lost agency, and once I recognized that loss of agency, I wanted to get it back. Every day I tried so hard to not play Magic. And every day I would fail. I spent many days happily slinging spells, and many nights terribly upset that I, yet again, could not pull myself away from this game no matter how hard I tried. 

This pain finally made me realize that I couldn’t resolve this by myself. I needed help.

Getting Help from Friends

I talked to my friends and family about what was going on. Unfortunately, while I did recognize that there was a problem, I still couldn’t admit to the magnitude of it. I didn’t use the word “addiction” to describe it, but I really wish I had because I didn’t end up getting professional help from a therapist for another year. I worked with my friends and family to come up with safeguards and solutions, and they helped, but not enough. Still, I’m grateful for my friends and my family for being there for me in this painful time.

Initially, I had people check in on me and help me go days without playing Magic. I was still allowed to play, but my goal became “how little can I play this week”. It became a game where I was competing with myself, trying to set a record for how many days I could go without playing. One thing I learned helped a lot was socializing about Magic. If I talked to somebody about Magic, it at least scratched part of the itch such that I didn’t have that deep desire to go play. Eventually, I got to the point where I was only playing Magic twice a week.

While this was a big accomplishment, it didn’t actually address the problem. I still had to fight so hard to have this agency that I felt trapped in my own mind. Eventually I decided to just sell my whole collection and stop playing Magic altogether. For me, that showed progress because months prior there’s no way I could have made that decision. However, this just postponed the inevitable.

Getting Professional Help

A few sets later, I got back into Magic. Everything started fine, but eventually I became one of the best at the store again, and experienced that same explosion of dopamine when people seemed to care what I had to say. But this time, I noticed the problematic signs and was able to keep it at bay for some time. I dedicated specific days to Magic and other days I successfully refused to play. Unfortunately, this fell to pieces in the Spring of 2016. 

Before that spring, my default mood was happy. But something happened that flipped that switch that, if I’m being honest, is too personal to share in this article. When I would wake up, my head would be cloudy and heavy, and I would drag my feet all day. And the only thing that could make me smile was Magic. With a lack of dopamine, I began to crave it. In this semester, I pulled at least ten all-nighters playing Magic.

I fell back into old habits and I fell hard.

Luckily, my friends and parents noticed my intense mood shift from happy to sad, and convinced me to start therapy. By June 2016, I was clinically diagnosed with depression. And by August, I would finally admit to myself that my relationship with Magic was not only unhealthy, but an addiction. Then, by the beginning of 2017, I had a solid structure set to maintain a healthy relationship with Magic.

This last section will detail how therapy helped me get to where I am today. Although I must remind you that I’m not a medical professional, the account of what I learned through therapy is not sufficient professional advice.

Maintaining A Healthy Relationship With Magic

Everything is about reward. When I describe how I got addicted to Magic, it’s from the reward the game provided. That burst of dopamine. When I spiraled to have an unhealthy relationship with Magic, it was at times in my life when I couldn’t get that reward elsewhere. Understanding this was an aha-moment. It let me take preventative measures to ensure I didn’t seek out Magic as a reward when I knew other aspects of my life couldn’t provide the same sense of satisfaction.

Rather than monitoring Magic all the time like I did when I initially attempted to control how much I played, I could instead monitor how much I was enjoying all the different aspects of my life. I made a list of all the different parts of my life that I sometimes found rewarding. This ranged from interesting classes, to physical activities like dance, to just hanging out with some of my close friends. Any time I observed a complete lack of reward from those other activities, I knew I had to completely avoid playing Magic. Otherwise, I could live my life as normal without relapsing.

This is a passive strategy. It’s about observing what’s going on in my life and making sure that I’ll be okay. No action is required in my everyday life until I recognize that lack of reward. This made it pretty easy to implement and I found it quite effective. However, passively recognizing the common pattern that is a catalyst for my unhealthy tendencies doesn’t ensure a healthy relationship with the game. I needed to insulate. I needed to add some extra padding such that, if I slip up, I have a safeguard to prevent relapse.

As Magic always provided a reward, I learned to leverage that to my advantage. Magic worked well as a motivator for other things, such as studying and even cleaning my apartment. I made it a habit to ask myself before I went to bed each night, “is there anything important that I need to do tomorrow?” and if there was, I was not allowed to play Magic until those things were done. While this was an active modification of my everyday life, it only modified it productively.

These two strategies, together, ensured I never fell back into my Magic addiction. Sometimes I wouldn’t recognize flares in my depression and lack of reward, but my structure to have Magic as a reward for productivity protected me. Other times, I really wanted to play Magic and deviated from my structure, but it was okay because I had other rewarding things in my life.

Now, four years later, I still haven’t had another relapse to my addictive tendencies. I no longer use these strategies daily, but they’re incredible parts of my skill-toolkit to ensure I maintain a healthy relationship with the game. On multiple occasions, I have taken a break from the game due to a lack of reward in the other aspects of my life. Whenever I return from those breaks, I make sure to use these skills to protect myself. 

This has been a painful journey, and everybody has a different relationship with mental health struggles, but I’m okay now, and if you are struggling with this, you will be too. Leverage the people around you, seek professional help, discern the catalyst of your struggle, and devise a set of strategies and structures that protects you.