Whoops, It’s 2016 and I Just Got Obsessed With Magic: The Gathering
After years of resistance, a political campaign’s worth of peer pressure, and then probably a couple hundred dollars spent trying and failing, I’m finally obsessed with Magic: the Gathering.
Released by Wizards of the Coast in 1993, Magic is an analog trading card game that combines elements of fantasy role-playing with the collecting allure of baseball cards, letting you take on the role of a demi-god who casts spells in order to strike down his or her opponent. Nowadays, it boasts 20 million players. Over the past twenty years, it’s been a constant on the periphery of the gaming and nerd culture scene, exerting a quiet but inescapable influence. It never hooked me—at least not until I discovered its online version.
That Sinking Feeling
It’s one in the morning, and things aren’t going well. I’ve lost my first few matches; my virtual card decks have fallen apart. I think I have an idea, though. I frantically sort my cards, switching one color in my deck for another, the air caught in my lungs. With over 16,000 different cards available, Magic: the Gathering‘s greatest barrier to entry is its sheer breadth. The number of strategic options potentially available to any player at any time is massive. If other games are a lake, Magic is an ocean.
My journey here started with an itch, an intrusive desire for a complicated, smart game. I’d been toying with other card games, but they didn’t quite satisfy. The online-only Hearthstone is a brilliant game, designed by Blizzard as a streamlined take on the mechanics of Magic, automating its complex resource management as a means to get to the action faster. But with its smaller card set and more simplistic ruleset, it didn’t hold the right appeal. It’s addictive, but it offers you floaters as soon as you dip a toe in. I wanted to sink or swim on my own merits.
I’d played Magic before. A corner of my high school cafeteria would be taken over every morning for tournaments and trading sessions. Here, I learned the basics, bought some starter cards, assembled a few decks. But Magic is an expensive game—in money, but also time. Getting the cards to build a deck that can compete was a matter of luck or wealth, and I had neither. But I always remembered the thrill of a winning combo, the creative satisfaction of understanding how a deck worked, trying to iterate on and perfect its assortment.
Then I learned from a friend that you can play it online. That was the last push I needed.
An Ocean of Minds
It’s two in the morning, and what looked good in the isolation of deck building is falling apart at the hands of a smart opponent. I designed my deck to quickly fill the board with creatures that attack fast, doing high amounts of damage quickly. But my opponent’s deck is packed with spells that can remove creatures or stop me from playing cards altogether, and I’m not as prepared for it as I should be. My strategy crumbles. Oh well.
Losing is part of the joy of Magic, though. A deck is like a mind, with ideas and intentions; when I fail, I’m forced to work harder understand my deck’s psychology. My opponent’s, too. When the machines of sorcery and creatures fall apart, I see better how they work. Or, as the case may be, don’t.
Magic Online succeeded in sucking me in where the paper version did not because it offers a safe space for all this losing. While you still have to buy your cards, the virtual versions are a lot cheaper. It also lets me learn without other people in the room. My opponents are abstractions, not kids I know from math class. If I lose, no one will give me a hard time or feel sorry for me. I can play slow, play deliberately, read every card on the field twice. I can even have a rulebook open for quick reference.
Magic: Online has given me a diving board from which I can jump into the deepest, most dangerous parts of the Magic: the Gathering ocean. I’m currently drowning, and I will be for a while yet. But for the first time, I can see myself learning how to swim.