There’s no reason I should have expected to win my first Magic duels in over a decade. Still, losing at the War of the Spark pre-release taught me plenty about myself.

A world of Magic

Wizards of the Coast’s 25-year old card game, Magic: the Gathering (MtG) has outlasted every other collectible card game on the market. It’s spawned books and board games and even a crossover with Dungeons and Dragons (which is owned by the same company). My parents wouldn’t let me play the game when I was younger, but I’d sneak in rounds with my friends at their houses, borrowing their cards and summoning mystical creatures to attack my foes. By the time Magic faded from my mind, I had a rudimentary understanding of Magic’s rules, but never owned a card, never made a deck, never played a tournament.

Over the past year or so, IG Moderator UnseenAcademical’s told me about ways that the narrative in Magic: the Gathering seems to be leaning towards social justice. The game is introducing more women and characters of color, for one. This expansion even seems to be indirectly addressing issues of authoritarianism (which you can learn about in our forthcoming podcast). I also reconnected with my friend Emily Teng at the Game Developer’s Conference, finding out she writes for Magic. It seems my rekindling of interest in the game was…shall we say, in the cards?

So, over 15 years later, I found myself curious enough to want to try my hand at the game again. After playing the digital game, Magic the Gathering: Arena for about a month, I traveled to Vancouver, BC. UnseenAcademical would be my escort for a pre-release event for Magic’s newest expansion, “War of the Spark.” We showed up a little before 6p, ready to play cards until the early morning.

Preparing for the game

A spread of booster packs and limited-edition cards for deck creation.
My tools for deck creation.

Magic’s core is simple: deplete your opponent’s life points or make them run out of cards in their deck. Each card requires “mana” though, which comes from using Land cards played from your hand. New tactics and cards come into the mix with each expansion, requiring adaptation over time. Crafting a good deck and knowing the ins-and-outs of play is critical to victory.

According to Academical, pre-release events are some of the best opportunities to try the game on for size. Each player buys a pre-release box with 6 randomized booster packs, along with two special-edition cards stamped specially for the pre-release. Of the 77 cards drawn, each player creates a 40-card deck of cards they drew and lands from the store. The restricted card pool made of new cards means even vets have to learn new strategies. Players can win free cards if they play well, but most people seem to show up to have fun (and eat/drink with others).

Academical helped me whittle my cards down into a 40-card deck. We crafted around my two Legendary God cards, rare, powerful creatures. I also had other cards that would allow me to summon and strengthen a zombie army. If everything worked out properly, I’d get hordes of winged undead to throw at my foes. With an optimistic smile, I sat down to my first match.

The first one’s free

In my heart, for some reason I still had an expectation that I’d walk away victorious. I told people I wanted to learn about jumping into Magic right now… that was true, but I also wanted to win.

Turn after turn passed in my first game, and my opponent didn’t play any creatures. I thought he was setting me up, but it turned out he just wasn’t drawing the lands he needed to put creatures out. The technical term is “mana screw:” when you can’t take actions because you don’t have the correct resources. I took a little more than half his life points before he conceded.

I smiled and picked up my cards, feeling happy that I won, though I didn’t do much. “Good game!” I said. “Just curious: what was the other color in your deck?”

“I’m not telling, you’ll just have to find out,” he said. It turns out we weren’t just playing one game, it was a best-of-three set. Feeling a little sheepish, I shuffled my cards. At the same time, I didn’t want to win just on luck of the draw. I wanted a chance to prove myself… I thought this would be that opportunity.

Instead, he stomped me. He summoned card after card that I couldn’t rebut, playing combos that I eventually just took his word for. Unlike the digital version of Magic, there were no pauses, no glowing borders around my cards to let me know when I could make legal plays. I lost the second game, and I lost the third even harder. My first competitive Magic match: a sound defeat.

My opponent in match two was younger than me, a blonde guy with an optimistic lilt to his voice. He seemed eternally good natured, and nearly floored when I played not one, but two eternal god cards. Maybe a little disappointed he didn’t have any of his own, he stayed upbeat regardless.

He won game one, but stayed graceful and cheery. He coached me through misplays I made, corrected my misunderstandings of the rules. I nearly won game two, but a clutch play near the end secured his victory. I shook his hand as the game ended, but felt my spirits fall. Much as I respected his attitude, I couldn’t adopt it for myself.

“Where’s your poker face?”

Many players getting ready to duel.

I sat down to match three against a tall, lanky guy who’d been playing the game for years; he’d attended multiple pre-releases, but also lost his first two matches. “Oh, don’t worry, I’m just here to boost other people’s win rates,” I tried to joke. It came out with more despondence than levity.

Game one progressed and I managed to summon a formidable zombie army…then he erased it with a single card. I couldn’t use the useful cards in my hand since I didn’t have enough land (karmatic mana screw, perhaps) . It all felt like a mess.

“Where’s your poker face?” he said. A flash of fury ran through me as I processed insult added to injury…. But he was right. I reached for my deck to start my turn.

“Well, it’s not here,” I said. I drew another card I couldn’t use and wore it all over my face. Learning the lesson and using the lesson are two different things.

We still chatted lightly back and forth, me still visibly unsettled. “Magic’s a hard, complicated game,” he said at one point. “That’s what chases a lot of people out: they play and they lose, and then they get frustrated and quit.”

He went on and took his turn, but those words stuck in my head. Even if he was genuinely trying to just converse and relate, I felt called out. Judged…because I’d literally just been thinking about how I wasn’t going to play Magic again after this event.

I actually won my final match of the night. I sat down across from another player with three losses, someone perhaps equally frustrated and tired. Both of us lamented our past losses, shuffling our cards and beginning the game. There were no prizes on the line for either of us, and really, not even bragging rights. It was nearly 1am.

I played my best game of the night during our second bout. I used passive abilities, making it harder for him to stop attacks. I remembered penalties I put in play. I reminded him that it cost extra to cast his spells, preventing him from acting. I won a couple turns later, but beating someone as disheartened as I was didn’t feel like much of a victory.

Insight from defeat

Josh and UnseenAcademical holding their pre-release boxes.

UnseenAcademical and I walked back to his place at the end of the night (he won a couple booster packs), talking about our matches and the night overall. When I told him about my loss in match 3 where the “Where’s your poker face?” guy wiped my zombies out, he said, “Funny, that card doesn’t even work on zombie tokens.” My face dropped: if I’d kept my head in the game, I could have saved my zombies. Sure enough, by focusing on my upcoming defeat, I helped create it.

I told Academical about how I felt called out by the “some people just quit” comment, still fuming a bit. He responded insightfully (as usual): “I guess it’s worth thinking about why you’re playing the game, and what you want to get out of it.” I could have applied that logic to the whole trip, after all. Why didn’t I focus on why I came all the way to Vancouver instead of getting my ass kicked at the shop down the street from my house?

Magic is a game like most others: a blend of strategy, preparation, skill, and luck. It’s a game people get better at with time. Playing in Middle School was no reason to expect victory against opponents playing the game for years. I could have focused on the interactions: the fun of international travel, of seeing a good friend, playing one of his favorite games. I could have made new friends, asked people how they felt about the lore and the game’s diversity… Instead, I obsessed over ranking myself in a competition that shouldn’t have mattered. I let my hurt pride affect my thoughts and actions. Regardless of how many wins I got, I acted like a loser.

Pushing through mediocrity

Though I don’t usually default to playing games on Hard Mode anymore, I enjoy challenge in a game. The hundreds, nay, thousands of deaths I suffered in Celeste brought me a sort of joy. Bosses pummeling me into oblivion in Sinner: Sacrifice for Redemption infuriated me, but I knew that I’d figure out the loopholes and emerge victorious…eventually. When the challenge is me vs. a system, I find the patience to learn the skills.

When the challenge is me vs. another person, though? When I lose to another person, I feel incompetent and exposed. Maybe I just lack time or experience, but I showed that weakness to another person. If there were a place to display patience though, it’d should be in games with other human players! I should be happy to be in situations where I can learn from them, improve my gameplay. My reaction to showing weakness is a flaw, one I have to work on if I want to get better at new things (or just be an enjoyable person to play games with).

I’ve played a handful of Magic: Arena games since the War of the Spark pre-release. I find I don’t get as emotionally attached to winning when I don’t have to look a person in the eye. I’ve also picked up another couple card games, though: the digital game Shadowverse, and the physical card game, Keyforge. Playing Magic in Vancouver reminded me how much I love card games. The clatter of shuffling cards, the feeling of drawing the perfect card for a clutch play. I also love sitting at a table with another person and talking about everything and nothing. It’s an experience I find myself craving more and more.

Mediocre as my skills may be, I’m opening a space in my life for card games. I probably won’t buy more Magic cards until another event, but I’m not done being a Planeswalker either. I may not become the best, but I want to prove to myself that I can get better…not just at the game itself, but at being a good sport, too.