5½ Things I Learned After Playing Magic: The Gathering for 5½ Months

Magic: The Gathering is a collectible trading card game that’s been around since the early 90’s. It’s a combination of sword and sorcery storytelling, the card draw and variance of poker, the complexity of chess, and a big dose of just plain nerding out with friends.

Approximately 20 million people play Magic regularly, so you likely know someone, or know of someone, who plays. Magic encompasses everything from casual “kitchen table” games to small Friday night tournaments at local game stores to big regional events with thousands of players and prizes, and a professional tour where the best players in the world compete for unsmall amounts of cash money, with live coverage and color commentary.

There’s even a Hall of Fame.

How I Got Hooked on Cardboard Crack

It’s a deceptively complex game — easy enough to learn the basics in an evening, but you could spend the rest of your life diving into complex rules, interactions, and gameplay, trying to incrementally improve. From a design perspective, it’s one of the most brilliantly-designed things I’ve interacted with — a living (and growing) database of 13,000+ cards that all have to work with each other, follow the rules, and not become too unbalanced in any direction. Oh, and it still needs to be accessible for new players.

My brother-in-law, Anthony, likes games. He’s played Magic on and off for close to two decades. In 2013, when we were visiting family in Texas for Thanksgiving, I said, “OK, teach me this game.”

Men typically bond easily over shared activities. I dig games and learning, and I wanted to get to know Anthony better since we’re rarely in the same town for very long. Win win. After Ant taught me the basics, and I clumsily played a few games, I remember thinking, “Hey, this is kinda fun…”

He gave me an intro deck (that’s a game-ready deck of 60 cards you can start playing with immediately) for Christmas a few weeks later. From there, we’d play occasional games during whenever we’d see each other, once or twice a year. It became a family gathering staple, especially as my nephew started learning the game from his dad and all three of us could play. Cross-generational dude bonding time. These holiday kitchen table tourneys were the extent of my interest and involvement with Magic for two years. I might have played 25 games total until the past Fall.

Then something clicked in September, 2014.

I started reading articles about gameplay and mechanics. I’d occasionally watch prerecorded matches on YouTube or live coverage on Twitch.tv to see how the pros played. I found a handful of podcasts that helped explain how to analyze cards and combinations of cards, and talked about the elusive “metagame” of Magic—how decks and playstyles are changing across the larger landscape of competitive play. I started following some of the folks that actually design the game itself.

Midnight in the Dorkden of Good and Evil

In late September, I went to a midnight prerelease for a new set of cards (Magic releases four themed sets of new cards on a regular schedule each year). To give you an idea of how this plays out, imagine 40 gamers seated around rows of folding tables in a warehouse in the middle of nowhere, each opening 6 booster packs of brand new, unique cards they’ve never used, building a 40-card deck from those packs, and then playing each other in a tournament until the wee hours of the morn.

I went 0–3 that night, before I finally bailed for bed. I lost to a guy with years of play under his belt, to the store owner, and to the judge (each sanctioned event has a certified rules judge, the neutral arbiter of the game to ensure the event is fair, friendly, and fun for everyone). I lost, but I didn’t lose horribly. I was certainly outplayed by experienced players, and made my fair share of misplays as well, but in retrospect I could see how wins in most of my matches were within reach.

I wasn’t as good as I wanted to be, but I wasn’t as bad as I thought I’d be. Despite not winning a thing, my first competitive Magic tournament wasn’t a complete bust. And that lit the fire.

The Middle of the Magic/Web Startup Venn Diagram

Earlier that month I had also started using a website called PucaTrade to send and receive cards with other people. PucaTrade is a clever marketplace that assigns a point value to each card (based loosely on the aftermarket prices of Magic cards). You then add cards to your want list. If a card is worth 100 points, and you have 100 points, as soon as you add that card to your want list someone can send it to you, with no interpersonal interaction. Likewise, you can list the cards you have and choose to send them to people who are looking for those specific cards. It’s an efficient system, barring any postal system hiccups along the way.

Not having to deal with the hassle of going to a store to trade cards (and likely losing value in the exchange) or trying to find local trading partners to haggle with has been a literal game changer for my interest in Magic.

Since September, I’ve sent 160 cards all over the country and received 230 cards, some from as far away as Norway and Australia. I’ve built multiple competitve and casual decks that I enjoy playing, and gotten value out of cards that were just sitting in a box unused. (If you want to try PucaTrade out, follow this link and I’ll get a little kickback.)

It All Adds Up

Thanks to that first prerelease experience and the ability to easily trade cards, in the last five and half months I’ve played more Magic, gotten better, and had a lot more fun playing the game. This Christmas, I even managed to beat my brother-in-law a few times, which is obviously of incalculable value for bragging rights until the next family gathering. “Hey, why don’t you bring your A-Game next time, huh?” he taunted, half-joking, as we pulled out of the driveway headed for the airport.

Magic has become my hobby. I love the game, and I’m learning a lot about myself playing it (good hobbies should do that, I think).

What I’ve Learned So Far

I. Don’t take yourself too seriously. I am a 36-year-old grown man playing with cards called things like Goblin Ski Patrol, It That Betrays, Mold Demon, and Mudbutton Torchrunner. You just have to own the ridiculousness of it.

(And before you throw the first stone, remember you’re reading a 2,000 word think piece on Magic: The Gathering. We’re all ridiculous. Enjoy it.)

II. Non-computer hobbies are important for my emotional health. My job is computers. For a long time, my hobbies were, too. I spent my 9–5 (and then some) staring at a blinking cursor, willing something into existence, and the best way I could come up with to unwind from work was sitting on the couch, browsing open tabs, and coding up some silly side project. No boundaries, no separation, no good.

There’s certainly a side of playing Magic that’s web-based—research, reading articles, watching stuff, trading cards, and, for the PC crowd at least, playing an online version of the game. But for me, it’s mostly sitting at the table, sorting cards, organizing, building decks, play testing, and then playing games with, you know, other humans. How novel!

As an introvert, I’m prone to get stuck in my own head and trick myself into thinking I don’t need other people. But sharing hobbies with other people is life-giving. Getting out, physically going places, meeting folks I’d never typically choose to hang out with, interacting with tactile things, even the simple act of shuffling cards, all of it is making me healthier emotionally by building better guardrails between work and play.

III. Sucking at something is good for my soul. I am fairly capable at…things. I can always improve, but I feel pretty comfortable writing, designing, playing music, public speaking, building things, etc. And to be honest, it had been awhile since I just absolutely was terrible at something, mostly because any “new” things I was trying were either variations of my competencies or built on the shoulders of them.

But Magic? Oh, no. I was very, very bad. I’m still not that great. I encourage you to lose to a 10-year-old in a game. It is a marvelous humility factory.

Not being good at something is healthy, especially for a prideful, stubborn, impatient, competitive person like myself. Magic keeps me humble. And being humble keeps me hungry to improve. I feel like I’m just starting to get a grasp on the rules of the game, the intricacies of interactions, and the opportunities I’ve been missing in gameplay.

IV. All problem solving is cumulatively good for me. I solve problems for a living. Design problems. Word problems. Strategy and system and process problems. I got 99 problems, but a niché ain’t one.

I firmly believe that the more I learn, and the more varied the sources of that learning, the better tools I will have at my disposal to solve a specific problem when I encounter it. And the more data, annecdotes, and wisdom I can draw from, the more dots I can connect, the better my solutions will be.

Playing Magic is a different kind of problem solving, but it’s just another subset of experience and knowledge to draw from in my work and life. The more I exercise my brain, the better it gets (especially while getting older, where I know I will face some degree of cognitive decline). I don’t want a hobby that lets my brain check out; I want a hobby that engages me intellectually and challenges the difficulty of learning new things and making new connections as I age.

V. Addictive personalities love new targets. My capacity for consumption knows no bounds. Food, sex, sleep, buying stuff, binge watching horrible movies on Netflix—the target rarely matters as much as the appetite that wants to be satisfied.

This presents a three-fold problem: (1) I like playing Magic, (2) Magic takes time to play, and (3) Magic cards cost real money. So my desire to play, if left unchecked, will eat my time and my money, both of which are extremely valuable resources for a young, one-income family who enjoy each other’s company and like to travel.

I suppose every hobby is like this. I can’t imagine what a golf or hunting habit costs. But still, keeping my hobby in check is something I know I have to navigate based on my history and personality. Which brings me to the overarching thing I’ve learned…

Bonus ½: Discipline is always important everywhere. Saks Fifth Avenue founder David Campbell says, “Discipline is remembering what you want.” If I want to get better at Magic, it will take the discipline to practice. If I want to have time to practice and play, it will take the discipline to plan my calendar. If I want to have disposable income to spend on the game, it will take the discipline to budget for it.

All of my goals for 2016 follow this theme of discipline. Going to the gym regularly, eating out less, losing weight, launching a new business endeavor, paying off a chunk of debt, reading 50 books—it will take discipline to pull it all off. Everything I want is on the other side of discipline.

What an awesome thing to learn from a card game.