I am a late bloomer when it comes to trading card games. Though I certainly fell into the stock market-floor madness of Pokémon card trading in elementary school and tried to teach my mother to play Yu-Gi-Oh on more than one occasion, I abandoned card games before giving Magic much of a look. My first memories of the game are vague recollections of playing it at age 5 or 6 with my cousins, having no idea what the hell was going on. It was not until the launch of Oath of the Gatewatch in early 2016 that I decided to learn the game and try to take it up as a hobby. It would not be until Kaladesh came out, later that year, that I began to amass a real collection and build fun casual decks at all hours of the night.
Magic is not the easiest or, depending on what you want to do, cheapest hobby to get into. I have still not dipped my toe in the local gaming scene, despite it being fairly diverse and well-established. Anxiety holds me back, of course, but I think I still fundamentally look at Magic as a fun tabletop game to play with close friends or partners. I do enjoy studying the more competitive aspects of the game, but my goal in building my heavily flavour-based control deck built around Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver is not to rack up wins. I love Magic not so much for its mathematical and competitive aspects (called Spike-y in Magic parlance) but rather for the art, the stories you can tell, and the immense modularity the game offers. If you like a particular character–maybe not as much as I love Ashiok, since that’s impossible, but let’s just say–there is probably some kind of possible deck to build. It might not win you a lot of money or renown in the tournament scene, but it will offer a huge amount of pleasure.
And this pleasure does not start on the battlefield. For me, at least, the act of choosing a theme for a deck, or maybe finding a particular card I like, and building a deck outward and upward from there, is immensely satisfying. There is a real craft to it, though the nature of the deckbuilding challenge varies depending on the competitive level of your play. In my case, there is little pressure to maximize value or win percentage, which means I craft around themes, narratives, or just interesting quirks. For instance, and I keep bringing them up:
My favourite deck I’ve ever built is constructed around this card: Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver. They are a fascinating and mysterious character, which was the initial attraction. Their appearance and backstory–essentially an enigmatic sorcerer who can make nightmares come to life and wants to bring the mighty low through fear–got me hooked. On a closer look at the card, however, I realized that there was a themed deck I could build. And build it I did. To explain it simply, the deck revolves around removing cards from the opponent’s deck with Ashiok and various other cards with similar effects like Gonti, Lord of Luxury, using the opponent’s own cards against them. It’s not themed too strictly–there are a couple of cards included to save money, for instance–but after a lot of testing against other casual decks, I’ve been pleased at how well the deck can perform in certain circumstances. It’s not mechanically complex or especially tightly constructed, but the deck exemplifies the way Magic experiments with every aspect of the play space, not just the battlefield, and how that can leads to surprising outcomes.
I haven’t had as much time for Magic lately, but I’m hoping to bring some of my new friends into the hobby, maybe even setting up a regular play group like the one I have for Pathfinder. Properly contextualized and drained of competitive anxiety, the game is a powerful stress-reliever for me, channeling all of my attention into a complex and ever-changing state of play. I don’t know how I ever got by without it before.
Admittedly, my enjoyment of the game is not untempered by frustration and tension with its fanbase. Magic has the well-earned reputation of being a boys’ club, at least at the higher levels. Women do play the game in large numbers, but tend to be much less visible in the community, often relegated to casual play simply through social pressure and bigotry. It’s one reason I’ve been so hesitant to play at local game shops: there are a lot of misogynist jackasses in the fan community, and I don’t want to have my fun time be dedicated to raging against the machine.
The game also has a history of questionably sexualized character designs, including some rather ignominious lapses of sensitivity around implied sexual assault. A few queer and trans characters have appeared in the game so far, including Ashiok and lone trans woman Alesha, Who Smiles At Death. Despite producer company Wizards of the Coasts’ attempts to open the game to more audiences (for capitalistic reasons, but still), however, the game’s fan community is host to some reactionary elements, including people who outright insulted a trans community member’s voice in Youtube comments.
Although this sobering reality persists, however, it has not prevented me from enjoying the game the way I want to. It has a stable and strong place in my daily life at this point, so here’s to many more years of queer spellslinging.
Also: bonus pin art at the bottom!
Now the next three days of journal entries will be:
March 23: Art! It’s time to show off a lot of my design and artwork that I haven’t shown in public before!
March 24: More nerding out about stuff, this time my academic and intellectual interests. Chaos! Ecology! Bodies!
March 25: Talking about relationships, relationship anarchy, and how I’ve navigated a new phase of my life. All exciting and positive things coming up.