Chapter 29-The Best Game in the World


The Best Game in the World  

I ONCE HAD the pleasure of interviewing Fever Pitch author Nick Hornby for a German football magazine. Hornby, whose brain chews over football games and pop culture inside a shaven head with pointy Pinky and the Brain ears, is aman who understands obsession. He has lived it, as a long-suffering Arsenal fan. And he has chronicled it, in his memoirs, novels and essays. Intrinsically, he seems to get why people lie awake at night, incapable of switching off their desire to explore every nook and cranny of their particular all-consuming interest, sometimes to their own detriment, often to the bewilderment of others. I told Hornby about my obsession, Magic: The Gathering, and although he had never heard of it, his dark eyes flashed with fascination for the first time in our interview. He had done a long, exhausting day of press, but could suddenly feel the talk veering towards a topic dear to him. Turning the tables on his interviewer, he asked me, “Have you thought about it since you came into this room?”  

 “No,” I lied politely.  

Obsession goes to the heart of the nerd tag so prevalent in the decades between Dungeons & Dragons’ creation and Magic’s birth. It is a term burdened with a semantic baggage connoting a mind under siege, which it acquired in the 16th century. Later, obsession would even be equated to the hostile action of an evil spirit, like ‘possession’, but without the helpful excuse of an uninvited demon pulling the strings. Nerds were considered to be obsessed with their interests and, what is more, those interests were deemed too throwaway to be of importance to the well-rounded, God-fearing, Volvo-driving folk of the decent majority. Games, TV shows, popular music – the cultural crud that fascinates Hornby’s characters, too — were often seen as incompatible with the full richness of life’s tapestry. This was stuff to be digested and excreted quickly by the mind. “Get a life!” William Shatner famously told Star Trek fans in a 1986 Saturday Night Live sketch. Yet no-one seems to say that to the suited and booted staying late at work. Or to the legions of golfers feverishly working on their swing. Or to art critics. Society has set up its values and would. rather we conform to them, thank you very much. Investing time into the disposable facets of pop culture is bad. Move along please, there is nothing to see here.  

There is an assumption that obsession is strictly zero-sum: that it shuts out everything and brings in nothing. This is partly true: if I play Magic for five hours on a Saturday, I cannot spend those five hours reading poetry or raising orchids or making sushi. But that view greatly underestimates the value of what can be learned through one’s obsession. How it can open gateways in understanding. How it can facilitate social interaction. Or how it can provide a framework for self-expression, inspiring the writing of a book, for example. Obsession can certainly frustrate and it is in that sense a double-edged sword, but it is not so distant from its virtuous cousin, ‘passion’ whose praises are so gleefully and routinely sung. In one of the schoolbooks still sat on my bookshelf, a quote from Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel is circled in pink highlighter, Nothing great in the world has ever been accomplished without passion, it says. It is perhaps this link which has allowed nerdism to shrug off its sad connotations and, with the relentless thrust of post-modernism, to give way to self-identifying ‘geeks’ – a group whose ‘obsessions’ have aligned with the new millennium’s ‘passions’ in a moment of celestial serendipity and karmic come-uppance.  

Geeks have power and influence in the 21st century and it is now generously accepted that you can invest time and energy into pop cultural pursuits, while also having sexual intercourse, enjoying physical exercise or owning a house. There is still a distrust of obsession, though, a fear that it leads to blind spots in a person’s make up. That obsessives might be puzzlingly unmotivated by the high-fiving capitalistic race to make more money (hence the importance of the Pro Tour in ‘legitimising’ Magic). Or blind to the delights of ‘high’ culture – as defined by the tastemakers in a largely, white, male, middle-class media. Or, indeed, incapable of doing anything genuinely ‘creative’ – the ultimate goal of over-educated, under-employed hipsters everywhere.  

More often than not though, my obsession is a great comfort to me. Richard Garfield once described Magic as a “game bigger than the box” and he was absolutely right. It has become my ‘screensaver’: the default setting my brain switches to when it can no longer compute or create or construct. The permutations of everything about the game of Magic — in its widest possible sense — flood my mind with a level of mental activity which can be gently ratcheted up or down to whatever level is compatible with the background noise of real life. Mulling over combinations of cards for a deck, mulling over how that deck would play out against another deck, mulling over where and against whom I might play that deck… and so on and so forth. It is like toying with a Rubik’s Cube of endless complexity. I shift pieces of a puzzle back and forth in my brain, sometimes combining them in pleasingly fluid and familiar patterns, and at other times becoming exasperated at their stubborn refusal to click into place. It is an experience that I suspect instinctively I share with other Magic players, although it is one we rarely discuss. The tangibles of gameplay tend to dominate players’ conversations and why not? From a rational, intellectual point of view, there is no doubt in their minds: Magic is not just a game, but the game. The best game in the world in fact.  

Brian Weissman, who as The Deck’s creator proved his understanding of Magic’s inner workings early on, is convinced that there is nothing better. During regular gaming chats with fellow Seattle locals Richard Garfield and Mark Rosewater, he says it has become clear to him what defines Magic’s brilliance. “From chess to tic-tac-toe, if you look at the curve of all the people who play a game and their skill level, the longer that curve is — so, the bigger the gap between the best and worst – the better that game is. And I think of all the games that exist, Magic probably has the biggest curve.” Because the game’s modular design has made it almost infinitely expandable (providing head designer Rosewater’s brain doesn’t explode one day in the pit), it has continued to add a degree of variety that makes it accessible at a plethora of different levels, yet never completely decipherable. “Super computers have effectively solved chess,” says Weissman. “Magic is a totally unsolvable game. It is effectively infinite and because it has infinite permutations, it has an infinite curve of skill, which makes it in my assessment by far the best game ever made.”  

It is a view echoed by the Pro Tour commentator Rich Hagon. From his chair in the booth at every elite event, he sees the game’s best unpick its secrets and the number of viewers logging on to watch Magic climb. He compares Magic to a video game that can never be beaten. “Magic,” he says, “will never disappoint you by going, ‘The end. Game over.’ It can’t. It’s too complex. If you like exploring, if you like knowledge, if you like cool stuff; it’s heaven.” Just as the game has an arching skill curve, it has a myriad of modes in which players can enjoy the game. They can be as creative as they like, they can be as casual as they like. Or, they can emulate the pros, and seek out the planet’s most testing competition at the Pro Tour. “It is a voyage of discovery that lets you be competitive along the way,” says Hagon. There is, at every point along Magic’s rising curve, a way for its players to find vast satisfaction.  

While that unrivalled breadth might sound intimidating to potential players, the game has been explicitly broken down into more manageable chunks. Magic’s different formats, created at the birth of the Pro Tour, have allowed players to engage with it at a level commensurate with their knowledge, desire or budget. Standard, at the heart of Wizards’ business model, is the key. “Now when someone joins the game, it doesn’t matter if there were 10,000 or a billion cards printed previously,” says Richard Garfield. “They only need to worry about the previous year’s 1,000 cards. And that clearly works.” Digital technology, too, like Duels of the Planeswalkers, has helped the game reach a host of new players. And a series of blockbuster movies planned by 20th Century Fox should be the next stride into terra incognita — a decisive crossover for a well-marshalled brand into a mainstream more attuned to gaming than ever before.  

Hopefully, that should make the next intake of Magic players more diverse than the first who took up the game. Not just another generation of teenage boys hankering for a way to meet new friends and prove themselves, but adults with careers to juggle, looking for a stimulating hobby they can squeeze in online, too. Or women, who are flocking to video gaming, but who might also thrive on the opportunities Magic provides to compete and socialise. Even if the latter’s recruitment may be happening slowly, it is clear from rocketing tournament attendances and revenues that, each year, more and more players are discovering just how exceptional the game is. At just over 20 years old, Magic has categorically not peaked.  

Those coming to the game afresh will not just discover the very rational, intellectual reasons for its success: its cunning design, its deceptive simplicity and almost endless complexity. I am almost certain, the first thing that will hit them when they sit down and play, is the same irrational feeling that hit me – that hit every player their first time around: a visceral “wow!” An inescapable, incomprehensible sense that they are discovering something awesome. Strangely though, the emotional response to the game is something players rarely verbalise. We talk far more readily about what we have done, rather than how we feel, as if discussing our reaction to an experience designed deliberately to make us feel good, is somehow the breaking point of the ties that bind us. As if we want to pretend we have distanced ourselves from the very reason we started playing in the first place – an overwhelming emotional reaction to the game almost as certainly as an intellectual one. We wear stiff upper lips as social armour. We guard against embarrassment. We are afraid of saying, “You know what? I bloody love this game.”  

I cannot deny that my feelings about Magic needed much scrutiny as I set out on the mission of writing this book. Was I a ‘Magic player’ or just ‘someone who liked playing Magic’? Did I want to belong to a group sometimes stigmatised by old nerd behaviour — painful awkwardness, defensive aloofness, sometimes even misogyny best left in a 1970s role-playing dungeon? I wanted to write about something that I cared about and kept returning to the idea of Magic. But I wondered if my obsession with it was one I regretted. If I could not be anything more than sheepish about it. If I, too, could not proudly proclaim that I love this game.  

Setting out, part of me felt that many of Magic’s players were too close to the game, too focused on its minutiae to explain it to norms who scoffed at gaming, fantasy and anything even vaguely geeky. The one-foot-in, one-foot-out dance I had been doing since leaving New Zealand meant at least I might be able to describe the game’s appeal in a broader context and highlight its importance to the wider world. Throughout my life in the game, I had found myself trying to justify my own involvement in it – to see if it meant anything to me beyond its irrational, almost therapeutic role. By stacking up all the sensible reasons for Magic’s popularity I thought I could at once do my bit to help legitimise the game and feel less marginal playing it myself.  

With every new player I met on my travels, every interview I conducted, every chapter I sweated over though, I felt my scepticism recede. In its place, I felt excitement. I felt enthusiasm. I felt belief, not only in what I was doing, but in every member of the community, sinking their energies into the game. Why? Because I was ditching my dilettantism and finally joining in. As Greg Leeds, then president and chief executive officer of Wizards of the Coast, told in July 2013, “Magic is the ultimate strategy game, but the reality is our fans aren’t playing a game; we say they joined a community.” While that might sound like woolly nonsense in the mouth of any other company, Wizards is not just any other company. It is one built on foundations laid by Peter Adkison, an iconoclast, an idealist, an innovator, who wanted above all to teach the world to sing. Or at least to get its geeks to game together. Without him and the connection he strove to forge between customers and company, Magic might be just any other product – or worse, a fad gone bad. Instead, it is far more than that – a game, yes, but as its full name Magic: The Gathering implies, also that very real community.  

After over 20 years, it is a community of genuine cultural significance. Look at its impact on the nascent internet, its influence on phenomena such as poker and German-style board games, or at the emboldened strides its players and creators have made into a new, tech-savvy business world. What began as an inspired twist on classic card games and a riff on the rule-breaking Cosmic Encounters, has grown into far more than just a game in the traditional sense. In an age where the idea of a ‘social network’ applies primarily to virtual friends, Magic has been the analogue bridle harnessed to the digital foal, in control of the web’s technology as it has bolted from under other riders. Magic’s incredible symbiosis with the internet has meant that new channels of communication have always been in the service of the game; in the service of what remains a powerful premise left over from analogue days: meeting people face-to-face; getting to know them warts and all; using a shared hobby to build meaningful relationships. Magic can be a real, supportive ‘social network’ in an ever-more apparently social age; one in which time online has become an ersatz for time spent with cherished friends.  

Thankfully, that realisation made me understand that meeting Richard Garfield was not this story’s emotional high point at all. Instead, the ensuing journey of writing it was, knowing that at the end of it, I would have something to share with a community to which I wholeheartedly wanted to belong. As much as I want to belong to Magic though, I want Magic to belong to as wide an audience as possible. For that to happen, the game needs to reach out and meet the rest of society halfway; to demonstrate that the skill, talent and energy it pours into every deck or duel is something it can share. If the Magic community can do that, then I believe those traits will meet with the recognition they are due and the same acknowledgement I have tried to give them in these pages. Aaron Forsythe, the game’s director of R&D says, “The more people that play, the more new people they draw in and the less prevalent the stigma associated with playing a fantasy trading card game becomes.” That gradual socialisation requires anew openness and a new willingness to reach out to non-traditional gamers, to show them precisely how enriching Magic can be.  

Because, despite its occasional sins, Magic is enriching. For me, it has become a supranational home; something that helps soothe the deracination I feel after a lifetime on the move. It is the best game in the world because its cunning ruse of being ‘just a game’ has allowed it to slip into the lives of those who needed it most: an awkward generation still caught on the cusp of the internet-connected, knowledge-based world we take for granted today. It gave them not only a reason to hang out together, but via the aspiration created by the Pro Tour, something to strive for; the encouragement they could do something smart with their lives and go on to be, on some fundamental level, happy with themselves.  

Think back to Mark Justice, the ‘Stormin’ Mormon’ who stumbled into the Pro Tour spotlight just as his personal life was falling apart. As the pressure to perform got to him – and his marriage to a devout woman from within the Mormon faith fell apart – he slipped into a spiral of heavy drinking and drug use, which soon left him penniless, friendless and shut out by Wizards of the Coast. Still, he says, Magic saved him. At first, he clung on to the structure the Pro Tour provided. Then, even when he was way past playing cards, he sought out the still-glowing embers of self-esteem which had been ignited by the game. Thankfully, they would never go out.  

He drifted for a while, not knowing how to rebuild his life. But, little by little, he cleaned up his act and came out the other side of his blackest days a stronger person. Justice realised it was time for him to do what he had always wanted to do: to get an education. Today, he is finishing his PhD, is happily married and has kids he hopes will one day discover Magic for themselves. Why? Because it filled him with belief when he needed it most. “Magic gave me confidence that I could do anything I want in my life,” he says. “When I hit rock bottom in around 2000, with no money, having alienated every friend and every work contact I possibly could have and had no idea what I was going to do, I still knew that if I approached the rest of my life as I had done Magic, I could build it all back up again.” While Justice’s might be an extreme example, no-one mentioned in this book had anything but gratitude for the way the game had helped drag them into a wider world. From Peter Adkison, who discovered his business chops after a baptism of fire; to Jon Finkel, who went from bullying victim to world’s best; from Marilyn, the Boeing janitor who became a millionaire; to Mark Rosewater, who went from frustrated screenwriter to funmaster-in-chief; via the inimitable Richard Garfield, who went from spacey maths student, to spacey millionaire. The Rob Hahns, Brian Weissmans, Olle Rades, LSVs… and many, many more like them all sense keenly just how much Garfield’s creation has changed the last two decades of their lives. 1am happy to join them, having been empowered to write this story by a community I am proud to belong to. After that, there is only one conclusion I can come to: Magic: The Gathering has changed the world, one grateful geek at a time. And you? You could be next.