Friday, March 9, 2012

Magic and Immersion

Depending on what numbers you use, the average Magic player is between 16-24 years old.  I will have given 19 years of my life to this game in one way or another in August of this year.  That means that I've been playing the game longer than a huge portion of its audience has even been alive.  When I look back, there is nothing I would change about the role the game has played in my life.

Darwin Kastle recently shared his own Magic story and I want to continue to explore mine.  But my story doesn't involve any Pro Tour Top 8s or GP near misses, and there are barely any adventures involving beautiful women throwing themselves at me.  So instead of boring you by using an Amis-style objective correlative to build a narrative, I thought it better to tackle the subject more seriously.

Why in the name of all that is good and decent in the world have I spent so much time on a hobby that in case of a zombie apocalypse will only leave me with a rather large pile of kindling?

I would guess, three days of continuous burning.

The answer comes, as always, in the form of a list.

6)  Magic Makes You Feel Smarter -- Forget the obvious correlation between geeks and games, Magic directly rewards you for being more intelligent than your opponent.  Sadly, this isn't as true now as it was in the 90's, but we can't have everything.  For me, playing a match between two reactive control decks is the ultimate battle of wits.  When the Brazilians solved the 'Tog mirror at Worlds, they were recognized as geniuses.  Flores has spent fifteen years riding on the laurels of the theoretical work from the days before Facebook was nary a winkle in Zuckerberg's voss.

The first time that your opponent passes the turn without attacking because you successfully represented a trick feels like the first time an anonymous web denizen re-posts your favorite MS Paint creation.

Once, my friend was facing down a horde of fox samurai and his opponent held a full grip.  For three turns my friend gave every indication that he had no outs, building up a board with a lot of real estate and nothing save for a lowly Zozu the Punisher.

On the last turn, he sent the goblin in the red zone, dead to a counter attack if his opponent didn't block but considerably more dead if he did.

"Take it," the unknown said from across the table, marking the damage, dropping him to half his starting life total.  Hidetsugu's Second Rite. 10 to 0 in only 4 mana.  My friend punched his ticket to Nationals later that day.

5) Magic Can Make You Money -- My mother was actually smart when it came to knowing that my cards might be valuable someday, but even she thought paying $15 for a piece of cardboard was ridiculous.

It was this piece of cardboard.  All $3500 of it.
Still, I once traded a PS2 for 40 dual lands, 8 Force of Will, and 4 of every rare from Masques to Judgment, plus playsets of every Extended staple at the time.  Toss in a few Lion's Eye Diamonds and a ton of Portal rares, and you can see why I'm pissed I sold all of it in 2006, before Legacy exploded.

My bad beat stories aside, the point is that when you crack a DKA pack and see foily gold planeswalker goodness, you aren't thinking "Golly gee, now I can build that Tier 2 tokens deck I always wanted."  No, you are imagining how you are going to spend that $80 in cash you just found.

Likewise, if you show up at an SCG Invitational or other decent pay-out event, you aren't looking forward to a million rounds of tournament level Magic.  Nope, you are picturing your triumphant pose as you stand with a giant novelty check.

Not included: #twoexplores

4) Magic Can Make You Famous; Or At Least, Land You A Job -- When I met Sam Black he was a relative unknown, playing in the Midwest Magic scene.  A few years later, Sam is one of the most recognized deckbuilders of the day.  Gerry T?  He was a teenager who usually hung out with the St. Cloud kids in Minnesota.  Bill Stark was a grinder, and a fantastic writer when I knew him, but he wasn't pulling down giant novelty checks.  He helped my game immensely, and got me in to writing about it.  Now he has had a column on the mothership, and sees his influence on the game itself.

Ted Knutson was one of the first to promote me, and I didn't even meet him until years later (and I doubt he even remembers how much influence he had on me in the early to mid 2000's).  I like to think that the look on his face when I volunteered to help with coverage without bringing a laptop to the GP was strong constructive criticism, even though I'm reasonably sure he thought I was an idiot.

When I look at the kind of exposure Magic has, it is not nearly as limited as it seems.  If you stand out and perform better at what you do than your peers, you have every chance of being invited to the absolute best secret society party on the planet.  You might get a job working for a game company, or developing web content, or running a website dedicated to the game.

Our dream of fifteen minutes can easily connect fifteen years.

3) Magic is Habit-Forming -- I've sat down in a high stakes room, ready to play pai gow, and suddenly I'm snapping the seven cards they give me back and forth in my hand until someone says "Gotcha" and returns "Stop That" from their graveyard to their hand.

Not a true story.  They just told me to stop it or I'd be kicked out.
I love shuffling sleeved cards.  I'm not the only one.  At least one other of my friends keeps a sleeved deck around at all times, just to be able to riffle every once in a while.

The mechanics of the game are repetitive and ancillary, so they slowly become mindless.  Most seasoned players don't even look while they shuffle, and their draw step is a sequence as regular as their grandfather on Metamucil.  

These habits become ingrained, and eventually they are as familiar as anything else you do every day.  So familiar, in fact, that it's eventually hard to imagine a few weeks going by without a shuffle.

2) Magic is a Community -- It is very nearly true that wherever you go in the world, someone wherever you are smokes cigarettes.  There's also a good chance that nearby is a gaming store.  That means that if you are a part of either group, unless you are totally repellent, you can make friends pretty easily.

I have ended up in some very odd situations.  Going back to the first trip I ever took out of the country, though, I've always been able to find someone willing to give up a smoke or who has an extra deck sleeved up for FNM.  That sense of belonging is intoxicating.  

I've met people I would normally never spend more than a few minutes with whose couches I've crashed on for days.  All because we share an affinity for tiny paintings and we know what EOTFOF stands for.

If you didn't, now so do you. Have any couch space?

The way that the community bands together, and even the contentious way we fight over issues that the majority of humanity does not have the foggiest idea about, all of it combines to provide a familiar space, and that is essential to the power of immersion our game wields.

1) Magic is an Identity -- If you've ever found yourself saying the words, "I'm a Magic player," you know exactly how potent this effect is.  I can still remember the first time I ever self-identified that way.  It was in 1995 and I was at a tournament held in the lunch room of a local Catholic elementary school.  A teacher happened to be catching up on her work when she saw me in the hallway.  I was young, so she stopped to ask me what I was doing there on a Saturday.

"I play Magic." 

Of course, back then I might as well have said, "I sacrifice goats and bathe in their blood while sodomizing headless chickens," given the effect it had on the poor woman, but I learned something about myself that day that has stayed true ever since.

I write, and I play.  When I read the article about geek shame, I started off nervous.  The writing was well-done, and the article was fantastic, but I couldn't help worry.  Because a lot of what is discussed given that subject would never have occurred to me.  Fortunately, Natasha did a great job of describing the changes we are seeing, and the emergence of the previously "misfit" identity has become one of the prevailing trends in modern society.

By this point in my life, if you told me I could never be involved in the game again, it would be like telling me to go a year without reading The Lord of the Rings.  It could never happen.

This year, I'll be reading the trilogy for the fiftieth time, as I used to read it three or four times a year, but the deluge of recent, high quality fantasy has cut into my extra Tolkien Time.  I'm not afraid to suggest that I sincerely hope I get to spend 50 years with our game.

50th Anniversary Edition?

Ben Snyder has spent more money on Magic than he has ever made in a single year's salary.  If you want to help him spend even more, check out his novel, Dreamrise, and stay tuned for a collection of previously unpublished short stories, as well as the sequel.

PS: WhereTheMeatComesFrom is accepting submissions again based on interest.  If you would like to have me edit and post something on the site, please e-mail your submission to

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