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One Game, Revisited


There’s a lot of important information that I could learn before the game, but I’m playing Elves in Legacy. Who gives a shit? My game plan here is to play a bunch of 1-drop 1/1s in a format in which people cast spells that are better than 1-drop 1/1s, and I aim for some kind of moral victory as I’m wheeled out on the 0–2 stretcher.

That’s not what happened, though. I’m somehow at 2–0 because of getting above-average draws against below-average decks and killing my opponents in a grand total of twelve turns. There’s a lot of luck involved in Magic, but that’s not relevant here. What’s relevant is that my opponent seems like a fairly somber fellow who’s a bit too laid back. I don’t mean that he’s relaxed; I mean that his weight is visibly shifted back in the chair as he does anything, and what he’s doing is mostly looking around the room and giving one-word answers when I ask him the usual sorts of questions that have become the Magic equivalent of “What’s your major?” (after introducing myself, shaking his hand, and swiftly wiping my hand off on my jeans). I’ve neither heard of nor seen him before.

Strategically, I’m not sure what the optimal play here is. In any situation, the best possible outcome of a game of Magic is to have your opponent concede to you, so by even considering starting a game of Magic, I’m admitting defeat at the challenge of playing perfectly optimally. Opponent’s commitment to monosyllabism is impressive. The fold in his t-shirt where his stomach meets his pectorals forms an additional frown, just below the stylized name of some band that I intend to dislike. My opponent has outplayed me so far by frowning; when frowning, we think more critically about things and tend to trust our gut less. Gut instinct is worthless unless you’ve put in the effort. I have not. My opponent’s gut is overdeveloped. I am smiling, and speaking doesn’t seem to encourage my opponent to walk into the trap of smiling along with me. Also not smiling is Julia, sitting diagonally across from me despite my strenuous objections to her coming here today. From a feminist standpoint, it’s fairly impressive that I have such little input into where she goes at any given time.

My opponent breathes loudly through his nose. I will no longer note this every time it happens, as this is the only reaction he has to anything, and while it’s a useful indicator that he hasn’t died, it’s loud and raspy and unpleasant, and I pick up his sticky blue dice after he says, “High roll,” without looking at me, and my score doesn’t beat his. I get to skip out on a lot of dialogue quotation because of my opponent’s demeanor. He looks at his opening hand (inhale) and says that he’ll keep (exhale), and I’m starting to wonder if maybe there’s something wrong with my face that’s causing him to not want to look at me . . . ever. Julia isn’t either. Her hair is the red that people write metaphors about. I lay out seven cards from the top of my deck to make a smiley face toward my opponent, which he doesn’t see.

The basic principle for mulligans with Elves is figuring out whether the opening seven is a piece of shit. Lands beyond the second are mulligans. Regal Force or Emrakul are mulligans. Too many tutors and Archdruids are basically mulligans. The nightmare scenario is a bunch of 1-drop elves and nothing to do with them (it’s a nightmare because you have to keep that hand and try to win games of Legacy Magic: The Gathering with it). As always, the risk of starting everything over with fewer cards has to be weighed against what you have at the present time, and human beings are fairly terrible at weighing the odds of a worse-than-average unknown against a known quantity. I’ve been dating Julia for three months, and she seems to have no interest in me or the book she brought with. I met her at a coffee shop six months ago. She was reading a book. I asked her what book she was reading. She gave me a slight glance and held the book up without saying anything, then went back to reading it.

My hand has a land and some Green cards, so I smile to one side and say that I’m keeping it. When I look at what cards are in it, I’m happy to see it’s fairly decent: exactly one land, a Glimpse of Nature, and five 1-drop Elves. If you wouldn’t keep this hand, that’s because you don’t have the fortitude required to play Elves. This is a hand that can win on turn two. Even if I had looked at the whole thing before keeping, I wouldn’t have considered sending it back. Someone is sitting next to me and craning his head over to look at my hand and mostly just looks confused. Here is my first major game-related decision: Do I ignore him? Tell him to go away? Scowl? I’ve been practicing my scowl at small woodland creatures lately, and they usually stand there quaking fearfully before taking off into the underbrush. I scowl at him. He looks away. Julia smirks.

It wasn’t my first game-related decision, though. I decided to play this mediocre deck just because it’s the type of deck I like (and because people expect me to play it at this point). On the other hand, it’s the deck I’m best at, and I’m not about to spend hours practicing some other deck for this one tournament just to have New Phyrexia come out in under three months and make it completely useless. But what about all those other game-related decisions I made? Should I have asked Julia to try to distract my opponent? Judging by his withdrawn nature, I doubt it would have been effective, and Julia isn’t one for overt displays of sexiness anyway (even in situations that demand it). Should I have talked to him even more—anything to try to break through that wall he’s showing me? This is such a good hand. As long as I can rely on this here Glimpse, I can win early, and if he’s playing some silly joke deck, I’ll just kill him on turn two . . . as long as nothing terrible happens and I don’t get distracted during my combo. The ex-hand-looker is asking Julia what book she’s reading, and she smiles. My stomach starts feeling as though it’s spreading to other organs inside me, and I swore that I wouldn’t feel this way. I have to focus on this game. My opponent is ready to play.

My opponent moves his cards at very specific angles with no time spent in broad in-between actions. Cards are tapped or untapped, and he takes no time to change them from one to the other—just a flip of his fingers (the fingers that I no longer want anything to do with). This has some relevance to how I should play, but I can’t figure out what it is. His black-bordered Underground Sea teleports from his hand to the table. It is straight, and now it is sideways. He mumble-casts Thoughtseize. I am still smiling and have to give it mental glue not to move from there. I pile up my hand and slide it over to him, singing a bright and cheery New Order song so that I don’t focus on his hands flicking, shuffling, moving and interacting with the sleeves that, after this, I will have to touch again. I have made a horrendous misplay by not spreading my cards out facing him. Julia is discussing the directoral ouvre of someone whose movies are Swedish or something and really boring. Hand-watcher is asking, “So, like, who do you think lies more, men or women?” My opponent says Glimpse, and his fat hand that I hate motions that it’s my turn. The face part of my face has been replaced with cardboard, so I don’t break the smile. I’m hoping my opponent cheers up, because it’s beautiful outside (probably).

I draw my card for the turn (it’s a 1-drop Elf, because I am playing Legacy Elves), and I unsmile, then smile back at it. “Forest, Llanowar Elves, pass the turn” (I say as smugly as possible, reaching my arm over the back of a chair in a way that seems luxurious and nonchalant but is fairly impractical due to the cramped quarters of the tournament). Is my opponent picking up on this? I haven’t sent him the slightest whiff of a chalant this entire game. He’s probably quaking over there . . . if he realizes I’m sitting across from him. My opponent asks if it’s his turn. I say, “I don’t see why not,” because that’s what casual people say. It’s what Julia said to me after our first kiss, when I asked if I could see her again soon. She’s not saying anything right now—she’s laughing. I’m pretty proud of my technical play this game, which has consisted of playing Llanowar Elves instead of Fyndhorn Elves for reasons that I’m entirely sure are correct.

My opponent draws a card and makes some sort of sighing sound that I don’t understand. He plays a fetch land and Darkblasts my Llanowar Elves. I’m not going to analyze the significance of what fetch land he just played. This is because I am completely fucked. Who plays Darkblast? Did he pre-sideboard? Maybe he’s just terrible and insanely lucky. I have to focus in order to pull this one out. It’ll be an incredible story when I pull out a victory against an unbeatable card. The problem with this plan is that Darkblast is an unbeatable card. Julia is enjoying this game a lot more than I am. Despite her reputation as a bit of a downer, she’s the one who seems to make friends more easily. Of course, I made pretty good friends with her friend the other night, prompting my next-morning proposal to switch to an open relationship. This sounded like a perfect idea: I didn’t do anything wrong—just too early. I can’t feel this way, especially during a game. How can I turn this game into something that sucks slightly less than it does at the moment? She must know something about what happened. Can she tell? I shouldn’t feel this way about anyone else, considering what happened, but not everything has a rational explanation. Things were never really perfect between us. We’re incompatible in so many ways. Conversation has never naturally flowed. But I can’t let that stop me.

My opponent isn’t watching me. Neither person next to us is watching me. Do I want to win this game? What are the consequences of winning? My opponent acts tankish regardless of whether he’s tanking. Do I draw an extra card here? My hand is on the deck. I start my turn and draw . . . one. Just one. I play my second land and pass. I have to play Archdruid and hope he doesn’t dredge. He doesn’t dredge. He plays a land. He’s so lucky. I bump my hand into my deck during his turn and draw Archdruid during my turn. I need another land here. Why the hell is she here? Who is this guy here? I shouldn’t be here. Another turn passes. My out here is to . . . I just need that third land because he’s not doing anything. I draw another Archdruid. I just need that extra card . . . once.

I can draw the next card off the top (it’s a land), and there’s no one sitting next to me. I deserve to win this game, but this isn’t worth it, and it was never worth it.

I concede.

My opponent wins the next game. He chats loudly with the person who was sitting next to me, and they’re beaming and wish me luck in the next round, and I think they’re sincere. I smile back.

Jesse Mason



This is the first installment in a quest to complete Gavin Verhey’s Journal of Impossible Things (this is Entry #23).

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