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More Than a Game — Magic: The Gathering; Side Effects May Vary


Magic means different things to different people. It can be just another card game—perhaps a hobby or even a way to make money. For me, it became more than a game; it became an obsession. It went from a weekly group game with some friends to the core of my identity and self-esteem.

This is neither something I’m proud of nor something I recommend, but it was an essential part of my path to the Hall of Fame. My first exposure to Magic was in 1994, when I was a senior in at Syracuse University, shortly after the game had been introduced in 1993. The guy who ran my local comic book shop tried to get me to try it. While I liked him, in this instance, he just came across as a bad junkie-slash-dealer trying to get a friend to start taking drugs with him. According to his description, one of the game’s biggest selling points was that, “It’s so addictive!” Given that the game came in packs and not a single box, this wasn’t a selling point to me.

The comic-book guy did convince me to stop at a coffee shop in the evening to watch him play with a group of friends. Not understanding the rules and being a chess and euchre player, what I saw that night failed to fully entice me. Rather than risk a time-consuming addiction, I avoided giving it a try and saved my time for school, dating, chess, and comic books.

That summer after I graduated, one of the first things I did was visit a girlfriend of mine in Vermont. She eagerly encouraged me to try her new obsession, this new card game, Magic. While she declined to teach me based on it being too time consuming, she did give me a rulebook and made me promise to check it out. My summer job included a lot of free time for reading, so I read it cover to cover and decided that I was intrigued.

Initially, I didn’t know any other players, so if I wanted opponents, I had to teach people to play and provide them with cards. So not surprisingly, Magic started out as a casual game with friends. This is when I first started to learn how differently people were affected by Magic. While most of my friends enjoyed giving the game a try and occasionally buying and opening a new pack when we could find a store that carried it, that was usually the end of it.

Much to my surprise, as I bought more cards, played more often, and improved my game, fewer of my friends wanted to play Magic with me. I had some experience with this from being a casual chess player. If two chess players are of very different skill levels, the game is usually quite lopsided and not much fun for either player. My friends were becoming tired of always losing and were actually being turned off by how obsessed I was becoming with the game. They didn’t understand how satisfying Magic was for me. Not only did it do an incredible job of scratching my strategy-game itch, but deck building also gave me a very satisfying creative outlet.

This was also the point when my pride and ego started to become involved. Every time I designed a killer new deck, I wanted to show it off, and every time I crushed an opponent, I wanted my excellence appreciated. Understandably, this didn’t endear me to my less strategic-minded circle of friends.

This led me to the first major life change induced by Magic: a new circle of friends. It was about this time when I discovered other Magic players, and better yet, tournaments! I had probably chosen an unfortunate time to start my Magic career. Of course, when I started playing, it didn’t occur to me that I would ever view it as a career. I started playing Magic before really starting a work career. So while I found an okay job after college, my free time was spent entirely on Magic and not looking for a better job. Since my job as a paper salesman (like The Office, only much more boring) was boring and unsatisfying, I dove even more into Magic.

As Magic became a bigger part of my identity I found it harder to relate to people who didn’t play, didn’t want to play, and/or were bad at Magic. This led me to spend more time with other Magic players and less time with my older friends. My older friends were probably fine with this in part because all I ever wanted to talk about was Magic, and they were probably tired of being pressured to learn or play Magic. It was even one of many issues that led my fiancée and me to drift apart. Since then, many of my most successful relationships have been with other Magic players. All of my closest friends are currently Magic players—or at least were when I became friends with them.

The game is like a drug in many ways and yet much better in many ways. The game takes, but it also gives. It’s addictive, it can put a strain on relationships, and it leads you to try to pressure others to try it. It can strain your financial resources and lead you to make bad life choices.

Unlike a drug, it’s not physically or chemically addictive, so I have less excuse for my choices. It’s more like gambling because it’s more psychologically addictive. Magic monopolized my time and my money and completely changed the course of my life. As I started to become a successful tournament player, I felt the need to have the best tools to give me the best chance of winning. So, I sunk every available dollar—and even some that weren’t really available—to buy Moxes and other power cards for my decks. As I immediately started winning thousand-dollar prizes with my thousand-dollar deck, I felt vindicated.

With the advent of the Pro Tour, everything was taken up another notch. Now I was winning even bigger prizes, but the expenses were even greater. At the height of my Magic career, I was winning an average of around $30,000 a year, but I was spending around $12,000 a year in travel expenses. I was having huge amounts of my winnings taken out in taxes, I was missing work time, and I was unable to find or keep anything but low-paying jobs, given the time commitment of traveling the world for Grand Prixes, Pro Tours, Nationals, Worlds, and Invitationals.

I imagine it was much like being a gambler. I’d make a big score after months of frugal living and spend much of it celebrating or rewarding myself and paying taxes. Then, it would dry up from my traveling to one event after another on unpaid vacations. Finally, I would end up going into debt to keep going to events in an effort to avoid falling off the Pro Tour gravy train. By the time I had another big win, much of my winnings went straight to paying off my debts.

I liked to say that I “ate, slept, and dreamt Magic.” While I was working as a paper salesman, I spent work time writing down deck ideas as they came to me. For every few sales calls I made, I made one to a Magic-playing friend to discuss my latest deck idea. As I went to bed at night, I considered which cards to add and subtract from my latest deck. After every boring day at work, I always headed to the game store for that night’s tournament—or at least some good playtesting. For seven years, I dated another Magic player and helped her make it to the Pro Tour, and our quality time outside the bedroom generally involved Magic.

When less successful players or nonplayers asked why I devoted so much of my life to the game, I often had the hubris to compare myself to Tiger Woods: “He wouldn’t be the greatest golfer if he only worked on golf once in awhile.” Of course, I was never the Tiger Woods of Magic. Perhaps for a while, I was like Phil Mickelson early in his career, but never Tiger. Whether Mark Justice, Mike Long, John Finkel, Kai Budde, or whomever, there were always at least a couple players getting better results than I had. In addition, I could never quite win it all. I won an Invitational, a Grand Prix, and even a team Pro Tour, but I never finished higher than second in an individual Pro Tour. When people argued for my inclusion on the first Hall of Fame ballot, they could only point to my many PT Top 8s—I had failed to make a signature win.

The bad news is that now I’m forty years old and unemployed with little on my resume to recommend me for anything outside of designing and developing card games. Despite a lifetime invite to the Pro Tour and the promise of an appearance fee, I find myself staying home from most PTs that would involve expensive travel because I’m trying to be responsible with my money as I search for my next job.

Fortunately, this is more than a story of some guy’s failed life. The things Magic took from me were my responsibility, and there are plenty of successful Pros who have lives to be envied (Jon Finkel is a good example). In addition, Magic has given me at least as much as it has taken from me. I have several great friends from all over the world whom I would never have met and become friends with if it weren’t for Magic. I’ve partied and been a tourist in great cities around the World: Tokyo, London, Venice, Rio de Janeiro, Berlin, Amsterdam, Kuala Lumpur, and Prague, just to name a few. I have my face on a Magic card. I’m currently dating an incredible woman who thinks the expression on my face when I’m playing Magic is sexy. Every job I’ve ever loved I got thanks to my Magic career: managing a game store, working for various game companies, and writing about Magic.

So, this story isn’t meant to be a tragedy—just a cautionary tale. You don’t make it into the PT Hall of Fame without at least ten years on the tour. Ten years of commitment to a game is certainly enough to change the course of your life. I don’t regret the years of my life that I’ve devoted to Magic, but I would make some choices better if I had a do over. Of course, I’m sure everyone can look back at a few things they would have done differently by the time they reach forty, even if they’ve never heard of Magic. So if you’re hoping to be the next Conley Woods, Brian Kibler, Jon Finkel, or perhaps the next Darwin Kastle, I say go for it—just do it with your eyes wide open, and try to show some understanding toward those who might choose differently or who might not understand your choice.

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