Blog Fanatic: Why we play Magic
"This really shouldn't have been posted. It isn't Magic related, it isn't Magic history related, but above all it is not our business. While I appreciate the candour, we should not have been told."
David Chapman, regarding my "Divorce" article from 8/11/04.
I had a conversation with Zvi Mowshowitz the other day, regarding a post he had made in his journal. In his post, he had commented that he thought events like music concerts to be tremendous wastes of money. I posed him the following question: "Which meant more to you - winning Pro Tour: Tokyo, or the money from having won Pro Tour: Tokyo?" Zvi thought for a moment, and responded "at this point, the money."
That seemed contrary to my own sensibilities. My thrill, when it came to pro competition, was the accomplishment and not the reward. When I won money at Pro Tour: Mainz, I was thrilled that I had finally finished in the money, more so than with the money I had won. Sure, the money was good, but the part I felt best about was having done so well. This attitude is what separates the true professional Magic players from the weekend warrior Pro Tour players. Gung-ho, must-win Pro players have their eyes on the prize. They will consistently finish near the top of the standings. More casual Pro players (such as I used to be) are happy to compete, and if they win, then that's a bonus. I've seen Zvi get depressed when he doesn't make day two of a Pro Tour. I've been disappointed that I didn't do better, but looked forward to my next chance to qualify.
If you're reading this article, chances are that you're a Magic player. You may have been playing since Alpha, or you may have just started with the Mirrodin block. Regardless, there's something about the game that keeps you playing, and that compels you to come to StarCityGames.com's website to check out articles about Magic: The Gathering. What brings you here? Some people love the competition afforded by Magic duels - the opportunity to prove themselves better than another person, or the best of a group of people. Others love the strategy of the game, the ability to take disjointed pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and try to make them into a bona fide work of art. You've heard all the reasons before, but they all have one aspect in common: social bonding.
Every aspect of Magic comes from a base level of human interaction. At the most simple level, Magic is a game that by definition must be played by multiple human beings. When people build decks, they are doing so to both challenge themselves and to challenge other people. Players write about their decks online to communicate their ideas with other players. Groups travel together from city to city, forming loose or tight knit teams as they hit the latest tournament. Friends get together after a hard day of work or school to play some games of Magic and unwind form the stress of the day.
This is not to discount the mechanics behind the game of Magic - the game itself has stood the test of time. There were some rocky periods, but the Magic community (formed of people who were joined by their care for the game) spoke with their voices and pocketbooks, and more and new people were moved into R&D, which is made of up people who have a vested interest in other people enjoying the fruits of their labors.
Take a minute to think about the enormous number of people that are involved in Magic. Millions of people worldwide play the game. Right now, there are players having a game in China. China! This is a country that most Americans discount as a place where American consumerism and goods are not allowed, but Magic is big enough in China that it's printed in not one, but two dialects! Imagine these players in China. Imagine there is a group of ten who are getting together to play Magic. Are they going to someone's house? Do they meet at a local bar or restaurant? Outdoors? Indoors? How do they arrange getting together? When it's all said and done, they are playing the same game of Magic that everyone else in the world plays, but their experience of playing the game will probably be very different than my experience, or your experience.
Games like Magic and Everquest have thrived and grown over the past decade. Both of these games have the social experience in common - Magic is a game which is highly portable and can be played on many levels. You can meet up with a friend and have a one on one game. You can meet up with a group of friends and trade off one on one games. You can meet up with a group of friends and have one large group game. Once two players are eliminated, they can continue playing with one another. Magic is amazingly modular in that respect - nobody is ever truly eliminated from playing. There is always another person who will be willing to play against you. Everquest works on many of the same levels. Many have regarded the game as a giant chat room with a game engine built around it. This may be true, but the draw the keeps people coming back to Everquest is the interaction with other players of the game.
How did you start playing Magic? Did you see other people playing the game, as I did? Did you stop to ask the people playing what they were doing? If they could teach you how to play? Maybe you saw the game in a local card shop, and thought it looked interesting. After reading the rules, did you seek out other people to play against?
Why do you still play Magic? Is it because your friends play the game? Is it for the challenge to see what you can accomplish on the tournament scene? To see how much money you can win? These reasons are all social - you want to challenge yourself against other people. You want to be better than them at the game. You need a point of comparison. Jon Finkel is very good at Magic on a technical level, but he also has an immense need to beat other people - an almost pathological hatred of losing. He may not show it on the surface, but he uses the fuel of his losses to fire up his need to win, and his drive to prove himself to other people.
There are many great technical Magic writers. Eric Taylor. Mike Flores. Oscar Tan. Zvi Mowshowitz. These people are respected for their skills in dissecting the game and giving dissertations on what makes the game itself tick. All of these writers have written to impart their knowledge of the game onto other players.
There is another class of writers, the ones who are loved not as much for their successes (which is not to say they have not had success) or their knowledge (which is not to say that they are not knowledgeable) but for their personalities and love of the game. Jamie Wakefield. John Rizzo. Jon Becker. Josh Bennett. These players have equally contributed to the Magic community - not through their technical play, but by connecting to the basic human emotions of their readers. The first group gave us lasting knowledge of Time-Card Advantage, Who's the Beatdown, the Control Player's Bible and My Fires. The second group gave us Mare and two dogs, good times for Becky, old man grump, and a return to Zardoz. Both groups of these writers are beloved, but for entirely different reasons.
My favorite article ever, and one that left a lasting impression on me, was not from any of these writers. It was a relatively innocuous piece from March of 2001. The title was "The Other Women of Magic: Dating a Pro Player" and was written by Anne Forsythe. Her writings dealt with the trials she and Aaron had endured from his Magic playing career. It felt more human and profound than any other writing I had ever read in Magic. There wasn't an ounce of strategy. Nobody played any games of Magic, outside of as a peripheral device that was a wedge between the love of two people. I imagined the pain both of them must have felt - Aaron unable to understand Anne's frustration, Anne's feelings of abandonment and rejection. I imagined the hard work the two had to have put in to fix their relationship, and the love they had for each other to have put in this effort. I went back and reread it today, and it still chills my spine to see how candid Anne was about her and Aaron's relationship, and how she had written this article as a way to reach other people who had been in the same situation the two of them had found themselves in.
Without the Bob Brubakers and Anthony DiNatales and Vinny the Pimps and Chris Huangs and Kirks and Andys and Serendib Jim's and Clay of Sardias and the Neils and the Daves and the Steves and Joels and Mikes of Magic, I surely wouldn't have been with the game as long as I've been.
Today, without the Petes and the Teds and the Aarons and the Tobys and the Joshs and the Zvis and the BDMs of the game, I wouldn't be with the game - but they are here. Living breathing human beings. I check in on them and ask how they're doing, realizing that we all have a life outside of Magic.
Yesterday's blog was a glimpse of that life outside of Magic, yet it was a part of me, and a bridge between two points of my life - New Orleans and New York. In New Orleans there was Have a Hobby and Tulane. In New York, there was Neutral Ground and Grey Matter. But between these places, over the divorce, and above the game itself, were the people who I've met playing the game. These people have all touched my life, and hopefully I've touched theirs.
Ben can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org