I’m back! Except I’ve been away for so long that most of you probably don’t remember me. So I guess . . .
Hi, I’m the new casual writer on Gathering Magic! I haven't been slinging the cards much for the last year or so, but I couldn’t stay away. And it wasn’t the powerful new cards in Theros or the new Commander precons that brought me back, but a far more powerful reason: My Magic playgroup is the funnest group of people I've ever been lucky enough to hang out with. I missed the guys so much that I would go to the card shop on Magic night and talk to them while they played, and eventually, I picked up the cards again just so I could hang out more with my best friends.
Unfortunately, the only thing that is certain with an expat playgroup (I live in Seoul, for reasons that still aren't completely clear to me) is that the people you love will eventually leave, and at the moment, we are having a major exodus of some of our coolest people. That got me thinking about what it takes to sustain a strong Magic playgroup, and now I’m back to drop some hard-earned wisdom.
It’s in the Way That You Use It
Chris, on the other hand, has the mind of a serial killer hidden behind a disarming smile and a slow Texas cool. All you need to know about Chris is this: If anyone else played one of his decks, you’d immediately ban that person from your group and consider giving up Magic, but with Chris, you just don’t care. When he wrecks your board, he does it with a smile and a hey-I-can't-believe-that-worked kind of shrug. When he combos off and kills the whole table, he makes it fun for everyone. When he steals your favorite toys, it kind of feels as though he’s just sharing them with you.
Teysa, Orzhov Scion deck with twenty copies of Shadowborn Apostle. On turn six, he was hit by an Extirpate that basically crippled his deck, and he laughed and said it was a cool play. Then, when he and his partner were on the brink of destruction, he top-decked the only out they had left, and he snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. And he laughed while we said it was a cool play. I swear, I enjoyed watching him pull off the upset victory more than I would have enjoyed finishing him off on my next turn, and that is the mark of a great guy.1
These guys taught me that a fun play experience is about so much more than power levels. They weren’t trying to enforce some arbitrary standard of “casual” or imposing their vision of the format on the rest of the group; they were having fun and helping everyone else have fun, and if they just happened to win the game, that was just details. And they made “broken” fun. I don’t know where the line is—between putting cards in your deck because they're the most powerful options available and putting cards in your deck because you think they’ll do something cool—but these guys showed me that there is a line and that being on the right side of that line makes all the difference in the world.
The One Rule
In Magic, as in life, there is really only one rule you need to follow. Some call it the Golden Rule, or Wheaton’s Rule, but I call it Earl’s Law: Don’t be a dick; be a dude. Casual Magic should not be about the cards, it should be about the people. And to the extent it is about the cards, it should be about watching your friends do their things and then doing your thing while they watch and go, “Whoa. Cool!” If you can't do your thing when your friends do their thing, you might want to find a new thing—trying to stop your friends from doing their things so that you can do your thing better is usually a bad idea. Remember: Your friends came to play cards with you, not to watch you play cards. If you can't see that distinction, you are doing something very wrong.
Bringing the fun means paying attention to how everyone is enjoying the game, not just you. It means benching an unfun deck or taking out the cards that leave the rest of the table checking their cell phones while you tutor three times, untap all your permanents, and take a bunch of turns in a row. It may mean being willing to take the second-best option in your deck-building or avoiding playing a card that will put a frown on someone else’s face. It almost certainly means building your decks with an eye toward variance, novelty, and shenaniganery (or, if your playgroup really enjoys third-turn kills, I suppose it means making sure your deck kills on the third turn every game—to each their own).
Above all, and I cannot stress this enough, it means being a good sport. Share the joy of your opponents’ victories with them, don’t mope when they beat you. The guys who are leaving my playgroup were all smart players with strong decks, and I often went at them pretty hard (do not give Thassa, God of the Sea a second chance . . . ever!). But whether I took a piece out of them or finished them off, these guys were always cool about it—they knew that the fun was in the game and the guys, not the winning or losing. And bringing that attitude made me a better player and a better person.
And finally, to all the Brothers in Coats of Arms who have brightened up my life over the years and the miles: Thanks for the memories, and may the road ever rise up to meet you!
1 Of course, not all cool guys are guys—some cool guys are girls. I mean, women. And I've played with some supercool women, but unfortunately, we don’t have any in my playgroup at the moment. Here’s hoping that changes soon!