Handling anxiety, fear, doubt and depression at a large Magic: The Gathering event
Magic: The Gathering has been a huge part of my life for going on three years now and a couple of weeks ago I finally got to tick a huge event off my Magic Bucket List – I attended my first Grand Prix. I previously wrote about my experiences, preparations and mental health issues surrounding the run up to the event here: Fear, Doubt, And Self-Loathing At Grand Prix Manchester, by Rebecca Rose
I’ll pick up where I left off in my previous article, a fortnight before Grand Prix Manchester. A teammate found a competitive Standard event within driving distance which seemed like a perfect last chance opportunity to try our decks out and get a taste for the meta outside of our local store and MTGO. It went really, really badly for me. 1-4 was my result, and what was worse is I couldn’t pinpoint where it went that wrong outside of having a lot of bad match ups. That got me thinking, what were the good match ups for White-Blue Humans? I struggled to name any. Frustration started to set in and I knew I had to do something.
Over the next few days I started to consider my options. As I only had mediocre or negative results from tournaments and online, I was starting to accept that maybe the deck just wasn’t good enough at that time. I know I said previously that I was decided on White-Blue Humans, but I felt like my piloting of the deck didn’t have enough room for improvement to produce drastically different results at the GP. I wondered if the Mono White list might be better and tweeted Tom Ross to ask his opinion on its positioning for Manchester on the off chance he’d reply. Amazingly I got a tweet back! I was pretty thrilled to be briefly interacting with one of my Magic idols, but unfortunately it wasn’t good news. He said the meta should be midrange enough the weekend before Manchester, but he wasn’t sure on the weekend of GP Manchester itself. If Tom Ross himself wasn’t sure, then I sure as hell wasn’t confident.
Then I received a list from a friend, something very different for an aggro player like me – Grixis Control. The whole deck excited me though, it was control with minimal counterspells, it looked to have a lot of good matchups – namely all the creature decks running around and it had great Red cards like Chandra, Flamecaller and Goblin Dark-Dwellers in the mainboard. Luckily my teammates had all the cards I was missing (most of the deck) and I had just enough money to convert my White-Blue Humans deck to Grixis Control on MTGO. I was back to feeling hyped for the GP and started testing with my new deck right away.
A few days later my depression decided to visit. I didn’t mention I have depression in my previous article, as it affects me so rarely nowadays and I feel pretty well positioned to cope with it after a lot of therapy and being on medication. But it hit me big time just five days before the GP. “Maybe I’m on a downer?” I asked myself – I had been feeling extreme highs for the past week with a new exciting deck to play and the overwhelmingly positive response I received after my first article was published. The thing with depression though is even if you can pinpoint the reason for it deciding to give you a visit, it won’t always help. For all I knew my depression wouldn’t even pass before the GP at the weekend, so I did all I could to soldier on through the constant sadness and incredibly heavy feeling I could not escape. I ended up self-harming to try and cope. I hadn’t harmed in over a year prior to this, as usually the guilt and shame I felt after was even worse than the depression itself. But for the first time ever I kept a level head. I told myself I had nothing to be ashamed of. I was doing the best I could to get through this, and it was a very tough time.
I started to feel light and excitable again and come Friday morning I couldn’t wait to get to GP Manchester.
The Wednesday before the GP, I slowly felt the depression start to finally ease off. I was so, so relieved. Somehow I had managed to shake it, possibly by keeping myself as busy as possible and trying not to get too caught up in why it was happening. I started to feel light and excitable again and come Friday morning I couldn’t wait to get to Manchester.
I travelled with my boyfriend, Russell and two of our friends/teammates by car. The journey was definitely one of the longest I’ve ever had, we left around 11am – I wanted time in the morning to open my birthday presents, which also happened to be that day! By the time we reached the venue we just about had time to register for the very last side event of the day, a Standard Last Chance Qualifier.
The journey was definitely worth it though. When we arrived in Manchester we had about ten minutes to locate the house we were renting and dump our belongings, and I spent most of those ten minutes in awe. I hadn’t given much thought to the place we’d be staying in, but the house we’d found via Air BnB was nothing short of stunning, with an amazing river view and plenty of room for seven people. We even spotted a ping pong table – as Magic players this of course directly translated to “epic draft table”. I was actually looking forward to spending more time there later on with the rest of our friends.
Shortly after, we arrived at Event City where the Grand Prix was taking place. I can’t quite describe how it felt walking into the main hall there, but it is something I will never forget. Everything looked exactly how I imagined it would compared to videos of GPs and large events that I’d seen, I couldn’t quite believe I was finally at one of these events myself. Seeing it in the flesh and knowing I’d be spending my whole weekend there was one of the best emotions I’ve ever experienced. I almost felt like I was finally home. There’s no other way I could describe it.
Whilst signing up for the Last Chance Qualifier we even bumped into our friends, which was definitely fortunate as most of our phones had died during the long journey. I was surprised how easy it was to spot people in such a large place and decided we didn’t really need a designated “meeting spot”. Due to the layout of the venue it seemed to be relatively easy to find anyone who wasn’t still playing, and we had a group Facebook chat if we absolutely couldn’t find anyone.
I had a great time in the side event, but my results were lacking at 1-2 after three rounds. Some of my other friends were also on negative results or just plain knackered, so we decided to visit a local supermarket to stock up on food for the weekend whilst the rest of them played on. Amazingly I was not worried about my results in the slightest though. This would have been a prime opportunity for my anxiety to come and tell me how awful the main event could be tomorrow, but honestly I had been having so much fun I didn’t stop to think about any implications. All of my opponents were lovely people and there was a definite atmosphere that I was buzzing from. It felt like a huge Magic family gathering. When we returned to pick up the rest of our housemates I was stoked to come back tomorrow and play all day. I also picked up a map of the venue, a side event schedule, and decided to hand in my deck list for the main event to help things run as smoothly as possible in the morning, when Event City would definitely be much busier.
On the Saturday morning we made sure to arrive with time to spare, and I made sure to get up with time to eat a decent breakfast before leaving the house – I’d potentially be playing nine rounds of Magic so I needed to be fully fuelled. I also had snacks of fruit, nuts, a large bottle of water to help keep me going, a fully charged phone, cash for anything I might need and decks for side events. I was so ready for this!
I was very correct in my assumption that the venue would be more packed than the night before. There were swarms of people absolutely everywhere, and it made me very glad that I had the chance to check out the venue the night before. I don’t usually listen to music in public, but as I went for my last cigarette, with ten minutes to go before the players meeting, I was glad to have my headphones with me and just zone out a little from what was going on around me. It helped distract from both the pressure of my first GP about to start and the slight unreality I was starting to feel. Soon after, there was a seating plan posted outside and as I headed indoors amongst the sea of slow moving people to find my seat, I could feel my heart rate starting to beat faster and faster.
by this point I’d identified I was very much headed for a panic attack if I didn’t start to calm down soon.
Luckily I was one of the first to find their seat, giving me some time to try and deal with what was happening to me; by this point I’d identified I was very much headed for a panic attack if I didn’t start to calm down soon. My heart was beating at a ridiculous rate and the back and chest pains were starting too. My first reaction was the usual for me, a mixture of “why is this happening right now?!” and “just try to calm down!” I knew this wouldn’t help my anxiety one bit, so I turned to a method I had learnt of in the book recommended to me prior to the event about dealing with anxiety. It had worked once before to stop a panic attack in its tracks, although that was in the quiet of my own home, not in a huge hall surrounded by thousands of people.
The book is called DARE, as is the method itself for dealing with anxiety and panic attacks, and it consists of four steps:
1. “Defuse”… The first step alone however proved difficult as I had to really convince myself that having a panic attack right now wouldn’t matter. I managed to find the logical part of my mind and told myself I could always call a judge over if it happened. This provided some relief at least, knowing I wasn’t in an inescapable position and helped step two…
2. “Allow”, where I accepted the anxiety and let it in. The pain was definitely making it hard to apply the most important step for me personally though…
3. “Run Towards”, being excited by the panic instead of scared and demanding even more from my anxiety. If you’ve never had any experience with anxiety or panic attacks, let me tell you that the pain can be excruciating; so much so that my personal method for dealing with them in the past involved lying down in a dark room with painkillers and ice. I managed to pull it off though. I spoke to my anxiety in my head, telling it to make my heart beat faster and that I could handle anything else it threw at me, whilst at the same time grabbing those rushes of adrenaline and turning them into excitement for my first ever Grand Prix. By the time nearly everyone found their seats, my symptoms had started to lessen. I was ready for step four…
4. “Engage” – getting back to the present moment and enjoying my GP experience.
The pain was now beginning to phase in and out instead of being constant, and my heart-rate had slowed. You might think I was incredibly relieved at this point, and don’t get me wrong – deep down, I was certainly glad it was starting to stop, but I couldn’t hold onto those feelings. If my anxiety got wind that I actually was scared (why else would I feel relief afterwards?), the whole attack would more than likely have just started again. Instead I started taking an interest in what was going on around me, and slowly came out of my little coping bubble.
A few moments later however, I found another cause for anxiety. In taking interest of my surroundings I noticed nearly everyone had decklists with them. I say nearly everyone, but I couldn’t spot a single person without one. I was confused – how could I have been the only one on my table that handed it in the night before? That didn’t seem right; surely at least some other people were prepared? What if it’s been lost or I’d made a mistake handing it in somehow? “No.” I told myself. I knew I had handed in a decklist and I was told that was okay by someone running the event. I double-checked with a passing judge and he confirmed handing it in the night before was fine. I let the relief wash over me this time and the rest of the player’s meeting passed without a hitch. My fellow GP-goers and I enthused over the goodies we received, moaned a bit about how long it took to be given them all separately, and compared how many Grand Prixs we’d attended. It felt like pretty standard affair, and I was back to being in a good place mentally and emotionally by round one.
As I found my seat for round one I was incredibly hyped to get my first GP properly underway. As the seats filled up more and more around me though, I was still waiting for my opponent to arrive. As the announcer began telling us about the protocol for the main event, I listened in extra hard to the rules regarding tardiness. I informed a judge of my missing opponent as soon as I could once the round begun, and was starting to think I got an easy bye. A few minutes later my opponent showed up. I called a judge over and explained to my opponent it’s what I had been told to do. I’m not going to lie, I felt kind of bad as he was given a game loss, told me it was his first GP and said that he didn’t know what was going on, but that’s the nature of these events.
We played our “second” game and my Grixis Control deck did exactly what it needed to against his Bant Humans list. So a mere twenty minutes into the GP I already had my first win. I was feeling pretty content, although a lot of people had told me the first rounds of GPs are the easiest so I made sure to not get too ahead of myself. There was still a long way to go.
I continued to do well. Rounds two and three I got paired against Four-Colour Rites and Mono White Humans – both great match ups for me – and my deck and I carried on the good performance. I often find it harder to recall the finer details from games I won over games I lost, but I vividly remember the emotions I was experiencing at 3-0.
Before the event I remember thinking that getting 6-3 to make day two of the GP wasn’t an outlandish ambition to have, especially as I’d managed 5-4 at a big event before over two years ago. At 3-0 I was technically halfway there and proving my previous thoughts right. I was experiencing a whole array of emotions – a mixture of shock that I was the one of the people I knew with that result (the majority of us were 2-1), ambition to get that 6-3 or better record, and joy that it was going so darn well for me! I even started thinking about what record I’d need to win money and my friends were all pretty hyped over how well I was doing. I knew the tournament was going to get progressively harder at this point though, especially as very good players would be joining the event in round four with three byes.
My round three opponent was sat amongst a lot of other players who had travelled from the same country, all wearing the same team t-shirt. How they’d all managed to be sat near each other when there were hundreds of people on a 3-0 record I don’t know, but that coupled with the fact he told me he’d come in with two byes made it a little daunting for me before I had even seen what we has playing. I had escaped my bad match ups so far – Green White Tokens and Black White Control – despite them being prominent meta decks. At 3-0 I couldn’t dodge them anymore, and my game one against the Nissa, Voice Of Zendikar / Gideon, Ally of Zendikar menace was over fast. I tried to not let it phase me too much though – I had a sideboard plan worked out for the Tokens deck which my team had previously helped me with, and plenty of time left on the round for another two games. I kept a hand with a Virulent Plague and a sizeable amount of hand-hate, feeling pretty good about my chances. He resolved an Evolutionary Leap very early on however, and the result was an incredibly grindy game where he was never truly lacking threats to kill me with, despite a lot of his cards being relatively turned off by my Virulent Plague. I started making some mistakes around halfway in to our thirty minute long game and my confidence was definitely shaken at the end of it. There were several points before my opponent finally won that I just wanted to scoop up my cards and concede from a sheer lack of hope, but I persisted until the end.
After this match I was feeling a bit blown out. I kept going over the mistakes I made – namely forgetting Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy can target any instant or sorcery, not just those with a converted mana cost of three or less, and was beating myself up a fair bit to be honest. I moaned to my friends about my misplays and frustrations but they didn’t seem to fully understand, to them I was still doing well with a 3-1 record. I had a deep dread inside that I was simply going to end up 3-3 after the next two rounds.
The next round was almost over before it began. I was paired against Green White Tokens again and this time my opponent finished up two games in lightning speed. There was barely any time for me to make mistakes, which just made me feel worse; I had gone from closely losing a game two and at least having a chance of a game three, to being completely steam-rolled and being able to do nothing about it. I began to prepare myself for what I’d do if I lost the next round too. I decided I would drop. Although at 3-3 I’d still be in with a chance of reaching day two, I was beginning to feel very run down mentally and emotionally, and I would need to win three rounds in a row just to make it. Even if I could manage that despite how I was feeling, did I really want to have to rush back to our house after the ninth round to cram in as much sleep as possible, get up super early the next morning and then potentially just be knocked out of prize contention within an hour or two? It felt like a lot more stress and potential disappointment than I could handle. I discussed it with my friends for some moral support and they were pretty great about it – they agreed with my reasoning for dropping if I lost, and reminded me there was still a lot of fun to be had outside the main event. They wished me luck for the next round and reminded me that 3-2 was still a good record, 4-2 even more so!
So as I sat down for round six, I was feeling relatively level-headed. I was just going to see what happened, and know that I would continue to have a great weekend no matter what. Within a couple of turns I could tell my opponent was on Four-Colour Rites. At last, back to a good match up! Then I experienced a very odd series of emotions and thoughts. I’m not sure how frequent these are for other people, and I’ve only experienced it once or twice myself – usually in high-stakes situations. I began to become somewhat scared of doing well. The following thoughts started running through my head.
“If I win I’m going to have to play for the rest of the day!”
“I’m not sure I have the energy to do nine rounds.”
“I could still end up 5-4 even if I win this. That’d feel horrible.”
“What if I can make day two though…?”
“What if I went 7-2…?”
“I’m not sure you can do this.” I heard my self-esteem tell me.
Meanwhile, my opponent was assembling a turn four/five Ormendahl, Profane Prince. As I stared at the lack of ways I had to kill his creatures in my hand to have stopped it coming to this, I felt for the first time that weekend like I was simply not enjoying myself anymore. As I sideboarded and shuffled up for game two, I was not with it at all. I felt like I simply didn’t care anymore and that clearly I didn’t deserve to win, especially if one of my best match ups was getting what he referred to as his “nut draw” against me. Game two went very much the same as game one and I lost pretty fast. I ticked the “drop” box on the results slip feeling pretty tired of Standard, my deck and the main event, and was glad that my opponent didn’t remind me I still had a chance at making day two as I would not have had the energy to explain why I wasn’t carrying on.
Once I had dropped and signed up for a Modern side event beginning shortly after, I honestly wasn’t feeling too bad despite everything. I felt pretty relieved to be doing something different and I was looking forward to playing more of an aggressive deck for Modern – I decided to play Infect. A few of my friends had signed up for the same event and I started to feel a lot more chilled out and ready to start having fun at the GP again.
One of my friends and I won our round one games fairly quick, giving us time to go and relax for a bit. The weather was absolutely lovely, and there was plenty of grass just outside the venue to soak up the sun on whilst having a bit of food. I was definitely back to enjoying my weekend.
At some point I’d checked my Magic Twitter feed too, just to see if any pros would be attending that I could look out for. I’d already spotted Martin Dang and Joel Larsson walking the hall during one of the earlier rounds, and read on Twitter that Patrick Dickmann would be there too. You may call it “fangirling” but I was just psyched to see these people in person that I had watched play time and time again at big events, and respected greatly as Magic players; it almost completed the whole experience of being at a Grand Prix for me. I saw Patrick Dickmann outside whilst relaxing with my friend, and as a personal favourite of mine in terms of both playing and always coming across as a really nice guy on footage, I dared myself to go up and ask for a photo with him. He obliged and I even managed a small conversation before rushing back to my friend. I more than likely came over as “fangirly” at this point but I didn’t care; I got to meet one of my favourite people in Magic, and what’s more is that he was every bit as nice in person! I could feel my anxiety in shock that I’d managed to do it, and it just made me feel even better.
Rounds two and three of the side event were a breeze emotionally. I won round two and lost round three, and in between the rounds bought the final bits for my Legacy Burn deck from vendors and caught up with friends doing various different events. As I waited for the final round of the side event to start I remember finding it amusing that despite my earlier worries about playing nine rounds of Magic, I would be sitting down for technically my tenth round soon. I was feeling great though, the pressure of the main event was off and due to my deck choice for Modern I had lots of time in between rounds to enjoy everything else the GP had to offer.
I tried to offer an ID to my opponent in the last round, because the prize difference between seven and nine points was minimal and it was getting really late, but they said they needed those extra prize tickets. I ended up winning our match and it was an awesome end to the day for me. 3-3 in Standard, and 3-1 in Modern – I was very happy with that for my first ever GP.
None of our housemates made day two, but we’d all had a lot of fun in side events and at the GP in general. We left the event pretty hyped – one friend had won a box they suggested we could draft, another friend suggested a “drunk draft” would be even better, and yet another suggested having a midnight BBQ . We managed to tick two things off the list. After driving around Manchester for a long time at 11pm and finally finding some alcohol, we gave up on the BBQ idea.
That evening we had a ridiculous amount of fun. We put the ping pong table to great use and the friend donating the box to draft with put several drinking rules in place – we had to draft face up to ensure these were all obeyed. One of the rules included everyone drinking whenever someone drafted a card that was stereotypical to their preferred playstyle, so I took a great amount of joy in taking four Fiery Temper and building a super aggressive Mono Red deck. It must have been close to 3am when we started heading to bed and we were in agreement that we should definitely all holiday together again for a weekend, when there wasn’t a GP happening!
Getting out of bed was a lot more difficult on the Sunday and we just about made it to the venue in time for a Legacy side event at 11am. As I had only just completed my first ever Legacy deck the night before, I was very excited to play. Despite my only knowledge of Legacy coming from watching SCG videos and having a few proxy games with friends, I was surprised how quickly I recognized most of the decks I came up against. My result from the event surprised me even more – I was 2-1 going into round four, and once again offered an ID to my opponent. He declined, preferring to play it out and once again I went 3-1 – I was feeling very pleased with myself!
There weren’t any scheduled side events that any of my friends or I particularly wanted to play in at this point, so we decided to try and do an on-demand Chaos Draft together. The organisers were sold out of product however, so we were at a bit of a loss what to do. Shortly after, one of my opponents from the event we attended a fortnight before the GP came over looking for extra people to play Cube – the timing couldn’t have been better. I’d never cubed before, and it’s something I had always wanted to try. As we gathered enough people to play it turned out some of my friends already knew his friends too, and most of us had met at previous events in the past.
I drafted what I thought was a sweet ramp deck with big Eldrazi finishers, but I underestimated just how powerful some of the other archetypes available in the cube were. Unfortunately I ended up going 0-3 with my deck, coupled with tiredness from the night before this meant I didn’t have as much fun as I’d like, but cubing itself was definitely something I wanted to do again afterwards. Despite my poor result I was really grateful to have been able to play with such a great cube, and have had something new and interesting to try out.
After the Cube Draft most of us were hungry or knackered, and with no further side events scheduled we decided to head out for food and go back to clean up the house. I felt quite sad leaving Event City but I knew it had to end at some point. After returning to the house to clean and pack, I don’t think any of us were ready for the weekend to be over. We ended up visiting a pub local to where we were staying and didn’t hit the road back to Southampton until gone 11pm.
I was genuinely sad to be leaving, but reflected on what an awesome weekend I had. It was better than I could have ever imagined and there was so much more to the GP than the main event. In hindsight I probably over-prepared with the Standard testing for me to drop after round six of the main event, but to be fair to myself I was going in blind with no real idea how anything would go results wise or mentally.
We’d all had the best time and some of us had even become closer friends.
We decided we would definitely all share a house for London and maybe even attend another GP before then if possible. We’d all had the best time and some of us had even become closer friends. If I had to tell anybody with mental health issues one piece of advice for going to a GP though… It’d be make sure you’re prepared for the week after. I certainly went through some real blue days following the GP, but it was absolutely worth it and I made sure to keep myself relatively busy with things I enjoy.
Right now I can’t wait for GP London, have a new found love of Legacy and will continue the Standard and Modern grinds. I’m also going to continue writing in the meantime, and am open to any suggestions that people would like to read about regarding mental health and Magic: The Gathering.
Thanks for reading!