How do we handle our losses better in Magic: The Gathering?
“One of the most basic factors in sports is that winning becomes a habit, and losing is the same way. When failure starts to feel normal in your life or your work or even your darkest vices, you won’t have to go looking for trouble, because trouble will find you. Count on it.” – Hunter S. Thompson
“You must never be satisfied with losing. You must get angry, terribly angry, about losing. But the mark of the good loser is that he takes his anger out on himself and not his victorious opponents or on his team mates.” – Richard Nixon
Hunter S. Thompson was a journalist who employed participant observation to write about Hell’s Angels and was beaten half to death for it when they found out. Richard Nixon was the President of the United States from 1969-1974. Hunter claimed that Nixon represented the “dark, venal, and incurably violent side of the American character”.
They’re both on the first page of brainyquote.com when you search for “losing”, and to my mind, this couldn’t be more fitting. Hunter’s quote sounds like something from The Tibetan Book of the Dead while Nixon’s could be from the Sith Handbook, but between them they get across both sides of what it is to lose when you’re extremely invested: the dark, hard disappointment of the experience of losing, and the intellectual understanding of what it is to succeed and fail, in all its transience, aspiration and agency.
Both led lives which required massive sacrifices for their work (cover participant observation is basically like a protracted under cover mission, in this case in exceptionally dangerous circumstances, and the campaign trail alone is a massive sacrifice for a politician seeking high office) and had a tonne of failure (Hunter – after rising to fame after the Hells Angels thing – wrote much less as his fame inhibited his ability to work and committed suicide in 2005, while Nixon lost a presidential campaign in 1960, a campaign for governor of California in 1962, and was the only President to resign from office). When I started writing this article I made a point to find two quotes because I forgot to include one last week, but I think they illustrate an important point about experience and how it alters perception.
There has been a fair bit of discussion in the UK community (and elsewhere, I would think) about the problems of the new PPTQ system. Lack of level 2 judges and strain on those there are causing difficulties between TOs and Judges, as well as among the judging community on one hand, and difficulties in balancing tournaments in such a way as to keep both the competitive players and the casual players happy seem to be the two main issues. It’s difficult for a tournament organizer to find a nice big venue, ideally with easy parking and access of public transport, and pay a judge or two, while also providing enough prizes that all the players are happy.
I’ve written before about the points at which different sorts of players overlap and where this becomes problematic (contested space) on a local level, but what I now think is happening is that these difficulties are manifesting on a regional or national level. On a local level, I just try to avoid being around people who are going to be distracting and irritating. It happens rarely, and I’m not around much because I normally play in at home, or at Neil Rigby’s, or the pub at the end of the street, or the local shop when it’s quiet. No doubt some of my attitudes annoy people too, and they likely try not to be around when I am. That’s all fine – in fact, I think this is basically ideal, and how things should look when they’re functional.
The problem is, though, that PPTQs put people like me in with people who just want to have a relaxing day playing cards on a Saturday. In their shop. Being sullen when I play (concentrating), moaning about their play mat (trying to get a fair share of the space), rules lawyering them (knowing the rules, and treating competitive REL tournaments appropriately)… and so on. I’m not doing anything wrong – this is how these events are in terms of seriousness, if nothing else the participation promo for winning is worth £100 or so – but it’s totally understandable that many local players would rather me – and people like me – didn’t come back to their store, because there’s a good chance I’ll mess up their Saturday, after which they’ll spend Sunday mowing the garden (or similar), then go back to working hard all week.
I understand, and I empathise. I’ve also said to a lot of my friends that we should be looking to modify our behaviour as much as possible to minimise the damage we’re doing in this respect.
It’s one thing to understand the “every-person” position I described above, and another to understand a less typical perspective. This is where I think experience is important, so I’m going to discuss what my life is like in respect to cards when there are events I want to play remotely soon.
I spend at least an hour a week on average arguing really intensely with Matt Light about tiny, nuanced differences in methodology, ethics, morals, logistical practice, general philosophy on life, the nature of friendship and other nonsense that I’m sure to any neutral party would seem both asinine and a bit mad. Sadly this is required, or we would never be on the same page about things, and we would get nothing done. I am convinced that it needs to keep happening until it stops on its own, as perfecting this stuff is part of striving towards being a better person and a better team. It’s draining and repetitive, I genuinely hate it, and it’s frequently followed by a period of dark introspection. That’s all fine, the game’s worth it.
I’ll then meet up and play cards over the week 3 times early in the season, 2 after the bulk of the work is done, 3 if it’s going wrong or a big event changes things up. That’s likely to be something like Monday 12-6 with David and Matt, Wednesday 12-9 with David and Matt, Thursday 12-5 with Ross. Monday and Thursday would be all day without breaks, we would have a break in the evening for an hour or so to get food. Everything we would be doing for that entire period would be focused on the format we were testing for to the extent that we would rarely event speak about anything else. That’s 15-20 hours a week, most weeks of my life, which I’ll never get back. That’s fine, the game’s worth it.
Then there’s the logistical stuff, which includes borrowing cards I need, selling cards I don’t need to make sure I don’t end up spending a total fortune at all the events I play, begging people for lifts… and then travelling to the events. With the same people I spend 20 hours week with, outside of tournaments (which are 3 hours of driving, 7-10 hours playing). That’s 33 hours, just for the cards stuff, not including anything else we do (we’re friends, too!) or the arranging stuff on social media. Other than Kirsty, and my father before I went to high school, I don’t think there is anyone I have spent more concentrated time with over a prolonged period of time than these guys. Naturally, this is good in a lot of ways and a strong bond is formed – I’ve written before about the friendships I’ve made playing cards – but at the same time, this can be draining. “Familiarity breeds contempt” and all that. That’s all fine, the game’s worth it.
So the first event comes, and I lose my win and in. OK, no problem. A few weeks later there is a double header, and both events are pretty close – top 8 with no losses, beat Matt [Light] in the quarters, lose to a pretty unfortunate draw vs Atarka Red with Dark Jeskai, then top 8 the next day too, but this time lose to a mull to 5 and stalling on 2 land game 3 in the semis. Then two weeks of failing to make land in two events, followed by an event in which I don’t lose a game till I lose the final to Matt Light, who lost a final and a quarter final in the weeks between. This is all after season 3, where I spent the whole season getting crushed (I’m pretty bad at Modern, I’ll admit, but it is also a pretty rancid format for people trying to approach it like I did, and I couldn’t handle practising a tonne of sealed while also practising Standard)….
….that’s all fine, the games worth it….?
I suppose so, but it’s also pretty choking.
It’s tiresome that people are *so* inconsiderate (never tuck chairs in, put their hand on the pairings and obscure them from view, take up more than their share of space with their play mat and still want room at the side for their other assorted tat, don’t wash). It’s irritating that the venue is dark and hot. It’s a pain that they think it’s unreasonable that you want them to play by the rules. It’s a pity that there is a performative element to turning up to play cards, and you’re considered a bit rude if you don’t play your part, meaning that you need to be pretty engaging all the time, even though ultimately you don’t *really* want to be there, and you would rather you hadn’t lost the ones before.
That’s what it really comes down to, as well. Every event that I have not won, I have lost. I won an Expedition Scalding Tarn the other day, which is a lot better than having won say 10 boosters, but at the same time, it’s not what I was there to do – win.
Losing in these circumstances for me manifests in physical as well as psychological symptoms. My mouth tastes bitter, my throat swells a bit and I find myself needing to manage my breathing. It’s hard not to have a go at people when they say the wrong thing afterwards – really hard – and it seems like every other time there is someone around who doesn’t seem to understand what losing is like, and that it’s better just to give people a minute. There have been three events where I cried, and experienced massive amounts of anguish (luckily never in public).
Then there is the reasonable self-doubt; because, really, what am I doing with my life? Some very close friends of mine who have stopped playing are living rather enviable lives now, while I spend my weekends in places I don’t even want to be to chase the opportunity to chase a trip to the Pro Tour; talk about drinking the Koolaid. I’ve made sacrifices to have what I have, and it’s not like I wrote a seminal piece on Hell’s Angels, nor was I Prime Minister.
Logically I know that the time to make these sorts of appraisals is not right after you lost because that’s immaterial; winning a PPTQ isn’t going to justify *anything*. But that doesn’t stop the introspection.
I am very likely an extreme case, but I can see elements in loads of people. Joe Jackson was always a “What am I doing here?” sort of guy, disappointment manifests most plainly with Matt Light as anger, and sadness with David Inglis. Neil Rigby often retreats inward and reflects on the games he played, but there is a point between the loss and this introspection where Oldham’s favoured son mirrors the disappointment that engulfs me. It’s a hard thing to truly care about something, work hard, and not get paid off.
The purpose of this article was to offer some insight into what it feels like to experience Magic: the Gathering from my point of view and from there, consider what it is like for people like me in general. I’m not sure what the solutions are, but it seems to be that a greater understanding of the perspectives of all involved would surely be helpful. I always advocate treating other players with respect, but I think the Golden Rule (e.g. “do unto others…”) falls short a little in this case because I don’t think each group wants to be treated the same way; it’s a bit like trying to save a fish from drowning.
Community Question: So, how do we handle our losses better in Magic: The Gathering?
That’s it for this week. Next week I’ll try and get out a primer for the Esper list I’ve been playing, as it’s a little different to Fabrizio Anteri’s.
Thanks for reading,