Reflections On Magic

Below you’ll find my history with Magic followed by some some thoughts about the game.

How It All Started

Even though I’ve spent most of my gaming time with computer games, my favorite game is probably Magic: the Gathering, for the beautiful blend of innovative design, social interaction, simplicity, competition, and creativity. The latter is probably the most compelling element: few games allow for the freedom of self-expression like Magic: the Gathering.

I first played Magic at a summer camp in 1998, between my 7th and 8th grade year of schooling. My roommate (Patrick King, for the record) at this camp taught me how to play and a few weeks later I bought my first cards from 5th Edition and Tempest block. Soon I discovered other kids in my grade who played Magic, which led to some of my most interesting friendships in middle and high school.

Like many kids when they start playing, my deck was a five-color abomination of the most superficially powerful cards I could find. Imagine a deck full of cards like Crash of Rhinos and Alabaster Potion and you’ll get the idea. Indeed, even after I started playing tournaments, I remember unblinkingly trading a Cursed Scroll (far away the most expensive card at the time) for the bargain-bin rare Multani, Maro-Sorcerer. I almost cried when an older and wiser friend told me of their price discrepancy.

My twenty-year-plus history with Magic can be roughly divided into main segments with large segments of time in-between, which is a positive indication because it shows that I’m not addicted to Magic like I was to Dota 2, thank God, and part of why I am not fearful about retaining it in my life or even introducing it to my children.

The Beginning: Tempest-Urza Block

My formative Magic years were in middle school and early high school. With the advent of the internet and now-defunct web-sites like, I studied Magic deck-building theory and quickly pulled ahead of my peers. To this day, the largest tournament I’ve ever won was a roughly 50-man tournament held at a local college. Piloting a “white weenie” deck, I won the junior division and then went on to win the entire thing, top-decking a Glorious Anthem in the third game of the grand finals. High school ended up being too busy for me and my friends to keep up our Magic hobby, so in following years Magic was relegated mostly to sleepovers.

Getting Serious: Innistrad-Return to Ravnica-Theros-Khans Block

At many points in my twenties I considered getting back into Magic, but my intent on developing myself personally and professionally, combined with the lack of sets that appealed to me, pushed me away. This changed shortly after I got married and we moved to Cleveland, where I had exactly zero nearby friends and desperately wanted some male social interaction. (While I did eventually make one friend, a brother in Christ named Nathan, I came to appreciate just how socially incompetent most Magic players are.) Its during this time that I crafted my current preferred deck style and piloted it to some decent finishes in local tournaments. I also started playing Magic: the Gathering Online, regrettably, which made me spend even more money on what was already an expensive hobby given my low income at the time.

Getting Casual: Ixalan-Guilds of Ravnica-Present Block

You’ll notice that I stopped playing at Khans and started playing again at Guilds of Ravnica, which should indicate how much I enjoy multi-colored formats. Indeed, the other sets pale in comparison, and once Guilds of Ravnica rotates out its likely that I might quit playing again. This time around almost all of my play has been through MTG Arena, which is a stellar response by Wizards of the Coast to Hearthstone, has a great economy and allows for a simple, easy, fun way for someone as tied down as myself to continue playing Magic. Having a little more money at my disposal, I also decided to venture into modern and legacy with a budget monoblack devotion deck (since I already had many of the key cards from my second foray.

The Future: Magic and Evangelism

In the summers between college years, one of few times I played Magic was with friends after a Bible study I hosted at my parents’ house. We would study the Bible for 30-60 minutes, have an open conversation about worldviews (the study was open to people of any belief system), and then play Magic until the late hours. I tried in vain to restart such a study but failed to make enough friends to build traction. In the present, I’d love to have more spiritual conversations with the people I play Magic with and I intend to making a good effort. What will that look like exactly? I don’t know. At the very least I will point people to this presentation of the gospel using Wrath of God.

Thoughts On Spectating Magic

Despite Magic being my favorite game, it is certainly one of my least favorite to watch. This is for two reasons:

  • Lack of compelling personalities. I can name some accomplished Magic players, sure. Can I say I care about any of them? Arguably Brian Kibler, because he also plays aggro decks and seems to live a somewhat interesting life. Maybe I would even root for him in a tournament. But would go out of my way to watch him play? Would I follow his pro career? Would I monitor his standings in a tournament? No.
  • Hard to follow. This is probably Magic’s greatest weakness: even if you don’t know the rules of the game, without knowing the cards being played, spectating the game is more work than enjoyment. Producers might occasionally show previews of cards to viewers, but this distracts from the play and happens too slowly and too infrequently to be of much use.

Thoughts On Competitive and Professional Magic

“Competitive” is a subjective term. Here I’m not talking about playing to win at your local Friday Night Magic but rather investing serious time in traveling to qualifiers for larger tournaments with the intent of going professional. The game has too much luck to counteract the time and money you have to invest. Imagine spending hours perfecting a deck only to drive two hours and get mana-screwed or mana-flooded constantly in your first three rounds. Bye-bye. Time to go home.

With MTG Arena you can now qualify for the Magic Pro League from the comfort of your own home. Except, you’re still competing with tens of thousands of other Mythic players who are also competing from the comfort of their own home. In a luck-based game like Magic, how do you counteract that high likelihood of losing to bad luck? You play lots of games. Congratulations, you’re a slave to Magic.

I’ll say about Magic what I’ll say about any game, including Dota: its a fun hobby and terrible profession. Do something interesting and challenging in your life that is also healthy and beneficial to other people. I say this so you don’t envy those who do play games professionally. They sacrificed so much to feed their addiction. Enjoy watching them, appreciate them, but never cease to feel bad for them: they gave up so much to do so little.

I’m speaking about modern gaming professions, by the way. I realize that twenty years ago you could be a champion in Magic based simply on skill and not the fact that you gave your entire life to the game. Yes, modern pros are much more skilled than pros of the past, but given the diminishing returns of time invested in the game, its an uninspiring achievement.

Thoughts On Art and Lore

  • Artists now only care about photorealism. I see very little art that is truly innovative, expressive, or gritty. Look through the cards in Alpha / Beta / Unlimited and compare that to a modern set. Its night and day. ABU art was enchanting and haunting. Modern art is repetitive, like every card has the same artist. Yes, this comment is exaggerated and also drips with “nostalgia-bias” but I think the gist of my point stands.
  • I miss Magic cards with references to actual literature, especially biblical references. I felt more cultured reading such cards. The move to using only lore and themes within the fantasy universe of Magic might reduce thematic or legal challenges but it does not make the game richer.
  • Stop the gruesome artwork. Thankfully its not overly common, but its wanton and unnecessary. Art can be gritty, visceral, and emotive without resorting to shock value.

Thoughts On Formats

  • Standard is too creature and planeswalker-based and modern is too combo-based. Standard needs more viable combo decks and modern needs to have its combo decks nerfed until creature decks without 4 Aether Vial are relevant. This will never happen because it will massively anger a player base that has sunk gobs of money into this mediocre format, but its still what ought to happen if WotC doesn’t create a new format.
  • WotC need to publish cards directly to the modern format. Standard is a poor funnel. Cards that belong in modern do not belong in standard, and vice versa.
  • Modern is too expensive to take seriously, and I say that as someone with vastly more disposable income than the average Magic player.