Life

How Learning To Play ‘Magic: The Gathering’ Changed My Life

I was introduced to Magic: The Gathering by David Bowie. I’d moved back to Denver after college to find that most of my friends from high school had grown up and left town. I was lonely, depressed, and — even worse — bored. I spent my evenings stumbling from bar to bar, trying to wedge myself into social situations, still unsure of how an adult makes new friends. It was a trying time, but one that taught me a great deal of self-reliance and fearlessness. It led me to do crazy, dangerous things. Things I would have never imagined myself capable of. Like karaoke.

“Next up, David Pimburton!” the DJ announced. She stared down at the slip of paper in mild confusion, realizing that she’d mispronounced my last name.

“It’s Pemberton!” I yelled from the crowd, like a ‘that guy’, sauntering forward with a can of Tecate clutched in my fist. I climbed on stage, took the mic, and waited for the music to start playing.

It’s a god-awful small affair,” I crooned, adopting my best ironic British accent, slurring my way through the first bars. It was a sloppy rendition of Bowie’s “Life on Mars?” If I’m honest, the best thing about singing David Bowie at Karaoke is that his songs are often best when shouted — the one volume that drunks can manage — in unison with the audience. On stage, I could feel the pulse of the crowd waiting for their turn to sing.

“Is there life on Maaaaaaaaaaaars?” A few people applauded, not at my voice (which is terrible), but at the joy of singing along to David Bowie. His music has a mystical way of bringing people together.

“That was really great!” yelled a tall, thin boy with long hair and thick sideburns. “But that’s the song I was going to sing. Now I’ve got to find something else.” He bought me a drink and introduced me to his wife, Pallas. “I’m Matt,” he said, shaking my hand.

The combination of booze and Bowie led us into deep conversation, and at the end of the night, I wondered if Matt and I might be friends. Like I said, these lonely nights often led me to do strange things, including, in this instance, passing my number to a boy.

“I know it’s weird,” I yelled, as someone on stage bludgeoned Billy Joel’s ‘Piano Man.’ “But we should all hang out sometime!”

I woke up the next morning smelling like salt and yeast, the telltale odor of a long night that would soon be accompanied by a massive hangover. This was something I was becoming accustomed to — the booze, the fuzzy memory, and the miserable day-after. I left my apartment (which I hated) and got in my car (which I hated) and drove to my job (which I hated). I spent the morning drinking black coffee, trying to wash away the metallic taste of a night spent drinking. Around lunchtime, I received a text message from an unknown number.

It simply read, “Do you play Magic: The Gathering?”

Yes, that Magic: The Gathering. The game of nerds the world over, popularized by virgins and pimply faced teenagers. At least, that’s where my mind went at the time.

I was a proto-hipster in high school. I wore all black, listened to obscure indie bands, spent all my free time going to concerts with my brother, and defined myself by a dramatic sense of irony. Don’t get me wrong — I genuinely loved that scene, and the memories I have of nights spent with my brother are some of the best of my life — but at that time I was obsessed with being cool, or at least with appearing so. I didn’t want any of my friends to know that I secretly read comics, or watched anime, or (gods help me) read fantasy novels. I hid my dragons and wizards and swords and sorcery. My nerd-dom was a shameful secret.

I can vividly remember sitting at a lunch table with everyone arguing passionately about the best Interpol record (Turn on the Bright Lights, obviously), when a group of kids sitting two tables over caught my eye. They were awkwardly dressed, greasy haired, neck bearded students playing Magic: The Gathering.

They all look so lame, I thought. What the hell are they smiling about?

***

“Here, you can play with my zombie deck. It’s just black, pretty basic, so it should be a good deck for you to learn with,” karaoke-Matt said, handing me a stack of cards.

“I’m playing with a white deck,” he said. “The colors oppose each other naturally, so it should be good fun.”

Ha ha. Seems like fun, I’m psyched. Matt had invited me over to his apartment to play Magic, which I’d never played before. In fact, I had no concept of the game at all, and was completely unaware of absolutely anything that he was explaining.

“You play a land each turn, and land produces mana. Mana is what you use to cast spells, which will either summon creatures, or things like enchantments and sorceries.”

Ah yes, sorceries. Tell me more, nerd king.

“The goal is to get the other player’s life total to zero. The first person to do that wins the game. Of course, you can also win the game by giving the other player a certain number of poison counters, or by making the other player use all their cards, or by getting your own life total over 200. Does that make sense?”

“None whatsoever,” I said, wondering if there was a bar nearby.

“Okay, let me try and explain it another way.” Matt pulled out a piece of paper and a pen. He drew a long valley with two mountains on either side. On top of the mountains, he drew two wizards. “You and I are the wizards and these cards are our spells. We are trying to kill each other, more or less. We can summon creatures to fight for us, or we can use spells that target us — or our creatures — directly. When you attack with a creature, you ‘tap’ him, which means he is running across the valley to attack me. If I have a creature, that creature can block his attack, and depending on how strong our creatures are, one or both will die.. So… it’s a game of strategy, where you have to force me to take as much damage as possible while getting around my defenses. Does that make sense?”

“So I’m a wizard on a mountain,” I said. “Summoning monsters to kill you…”

“Exactly!”

A few minutes later, I found myself saying the words, “I’ll attack you with Nightshade Stinger.” Which sent my imaginary flying ghoul to Matt’s imaginary side of our imaginary valley.

“I’ll block with Skyhunter,” he replied, pushing his card forward.

My heart was pounding; my senses felt alive. We were at the end of our first game, Matt was down to just one life and I was down to two. I was shocked at how thrilling it all was, at how swept up I was, at the sheer madness of using my creativity so freely again. “I cast… Execute on your Skyhunter,” I said. I was unsure of the command — it was my first time casting a spell after declaring an attack. Did I get the order right?

“That means…you killed my Skyhunter,” Matt said. “And your Nightshade Stinger got through. I’m dead.”

“Holy sh*t,” I whispered. “I won?”

All things considered, my first game of Magic lasted just under 15 minutes. Which is all the time it took for me to be completely and forever hooked. I never thought I’d enjoy a game with spells and monsters, something so overtly nerdy, but when I was playing Magic with Matt, there was no temptation to try to be cool. After all, when you’re pretending to be a wizard summoning dragons, there’s little room for irony. Sitting there, it hit me: I’m a nerd. Probably always was.

I didn’t care, though, because it was the most fun I’d had in months. My lonely trips to lonely bars had been pointless. Sure, the story is nice to build on the mythos of the tortured artist, but at the end of the day, it had made me less of a person, more tired, with almost no motivation to follow creative pursuits.

“Good game,” Matt said, shuffling his deck. “Want to play again?”

***

“I can’t believe you keep beating me,” I grumbled.

My girlfriend, Sara, leaned back in her chair, took a drag of her cigarette, and let out a slow, knowing puff of smoke. “It’s all part of my plan,” she said.

I taught Sara how to play Magic: The Gathering early in our relationship, and I’d like to note that she seems to have a preternatural ability to play a game steeped in strategy, deception, and ruthlessness. Like me, she loved the game instantly, so much so that we decided to meet, every Wednesday, to play Magic and drink cheap beers on the back patio of Drifters, one of my favorite local bars in Nashville.

“Are you guys playing Magic: The Gathering?” our waitress asked as she brought two pints of beer to the table.

“Yeah,” Sara said. “Do you play?”

“It’s been years,” she said. “I wish I had the guts to play in public.”

A group of mustachioed hipsters sitting at a table next to ours started to snicker. I looked over and noticed that they were laughing at us. I heard them whisper words like “nerds” and “kids game.”

They were obviously missing the point. What’s wrong with being a nerd? And what’s wrong with being a kid? It’s a lesson that, not too long ago, I had to learn myself. Maybe it’s not Magic. Maybe it’s Settlers of Catan, or fencing, or watercolor painting — it doesn’t matter. What I’ve learned is that you’re never too old to be silly, never too old to play games, never too old to try something new, so long as it’s something you can do with other people. Judging the things people nerd-out on — whether it’s a fantasy game, a fantasy TV show, or dressing like an 1849-era gold prospector, complete with a waxed mustache — is absurd. We all have the same number of hours in our day and we spend them how we like. Maybe Magic works for me because it’s a game that mimics real world stakes, where people come together to problem solve without there being any real world implications. If my Shockmaw Dragon dies, who cares? (Well, I do, which is why you’ll never kill my Shockmaw Dragon.)

“Anyone who has a problem with people playing Magic,” I said to our waitress, “is a real asshat.”

She smiled and walked off, somewhat embarrassed by the volume at which I said “asshat.” The table of hipsters continued to snicker. I mean, I get it, we were adults in a bar in the middle of the night playing a card game with wizards and elves and goblins. But hey, at least we were smiling.

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