A look into positive mental well-being within the Magic: The Gathering community
When I last wrote for Manaleak, I talked about the impact that Magic: The Gathering has had on my mental health over the three years I’ve been playing. Specifically; the positive benefits of a fun, exciting hobby that encourages me to be social, and gives me something to focus on when I’m ill. I am also very open about my borderline personality disorder and often find myself needing something to take me out of my head; Magic is just perfect for that. I have also met the best group of friends through playing, which in itself has been a huge benefit to my mental wellbeing.
I was really happy with the response to my first article, as well as to Rebecca Rose’s fantastic piece. This made me want to reach out to the community of Magic: The Gathering players and fans to see if there are other people out there who feel that Magic is something that impacts their mental health in a positive way. Mental health awareness is a subject that I believe should become commonplace in everyday conversation, so any opportunity to have such a chat with anyone is a positive experience.
When I first reached out through social media for MTG players, fans and enthusiasts in an effort to get a conversation going, I didn’t expect half of the responses that I got. Not only that, but the sheer variety of respondents – both men and women of different ages, backgrounds and lifestyles who wanted to give me an insight into how Magic: The Gathering has been a benefit to their mental health well-being.
“I’ve never been a massively sociable. I found (and still do) it hard to express myself and maintain friendships as I was uncomfortable in a normal social environment.” I got an email from a young man named Alex, who had seen my initial post on Facebook. “This reached its peak at university, at which point I was diagnosed with depression (after seeing a GP). After leaving university and coming home, things did not improve.”
“Nobody judged me, nobody treated me like an outsider, nobody was rude and horrible to me. For the first time in a very long time I actually felt welcome somewhere.”
Alex writes that he had been mildly interested in Magic after playing in bursts between 8th Edition to Ravnica, and then observing Innistrad to Return to Ravnica. The diagnosis of depression came just after Battle for Zendikar was released and his doctor suggested that he reach out for social contact to aid his recovery. With that in mind, Alex went to a Modern Friday Night Magic with his Affinity deck and was really surprised by how much of an impact the evening had on him. “Nobody judged me, nobody treated me like an outsider, nobody was rude and horrible to me. For the first time in a very long time I actually felt welcome somewhere. People listened to what I had to say, and were genuinely interested in having a conversation with me about Magic and anything else that came up. For the first time in three years I actually felt positive about some interaction I had had with people.” After just one evening, Alex then went on to attend every FNM that he could. With the confidence he gained from the support of his group, he has actually been able to find a good job! An absolute result in anyone’s eyes!
Taking that first step back out into the world when you have been diagnosed with a mental illness is incredibly difficult, but Alex found that he could put a foot in the metaphorical door by taking up an interest that got him out of his home and meant that he would have to interact with others. It might have been a frightening experience for him to begin with, but with time and continued recovery Alex got more out of Magic: The Gathering than he might have initially expected.
“I suffer from generalised anxiety disorder and Asperger’s Syndrome.” Nate messaged me through Facebook, “As someone who spends a lot of time by myself and is rather timid, I find that Magic allows me to talk to people and it’s helped me a lot in making friends and bonding with people over common interests; it’s essentially allowed me to develop a social life outside of one or two very close friends. I would go as far as saying Magic has seriously improved my life and even when I don’t play much, just going through my decks and thinking of them and the like keeps me engaged and relaxed.” Like Nate, there are roughly 30,000 young people in the UK with an anxiety disorder. I have suffered from anxiety myself since I was very young, and from my personal experience it is a terrifying condition to live with. The simplest way I can describe the disorder is the most intense feeling of fear you’ve ever known – and it can happen at any time.
the sensation that comes with shuffling cards in a deck can be particularly comforting. This is A self-stimulatory behaviour, also known as ‘stimming’.
Although this might not apply to Nate in particular, the sensation that comes with shuffling cards in a deck or even just playing with dice can be particularly comforting for those who are on the autistic spectrum. This is self-stimulatory behaviour, also known as ‘stimming’. The repetitive notions that come with shuffling cards and rolling dice can be calming, therapists recognising the behaviour as a way for individuals to protect themselves from sensory overload. I am still learning about this fascinating behaviour myself, and would be keen to explore it further with regards to Magic: The Gathering players who are on the spectrum – perhaps at a later date.
Stay-at-home dad Dave messaged me to share his story. He initially struggled with social anxiety in the early days after his little girl was born, but after six months of being at home while his girlfriend went back to work he was diagnosed with postnatal depression – research conducted by NCT has shown that 38% of new fathers are ‘concerned about their mental health’, and it has been recognised in recent times that men can suffer with PND just as women can following the birth of a child. “In that time it was suggested that I was having real problems with socialising, moving from retail (Dave’s previous role before his daughter was born) to parenthood was very isolating… I was playing a lot of Hearthstone at the time, it was my escape but it wasn’t scratching the itch of socialising. I had a bunch of cards from years before when I’d played Magic and decided I should maybe try and find the local Magic community and get involved.”
However, Dave’s first experience of going out to find some people to play Magic ended badly when anxiety met eight pints over three hours so he didn’t get to play at all. Although alcohol may ease the feeling of anxiety initially, overall it can actually make anxiety much worse in the long run. Fortunately for him, a guy he’d met from that night tracked him down on Facebook and invited him along to a nearby FNM. After being helped to build a ‘truly terrible Dimir/Eldrazi aggro deck’ by a group of players who were more than happy to help him out, that one night turned him into a regular. The people in his playgroup also understand his responsibilities as a father, respecting his arrangements for childcare and even allowing for events to start later so he can see to his daughter before he comes along to play – which is a huge weight off his mind. “Magic has done more for me to combat my social anxiety and depression than any of the counselling that I’ve had, not that my counsellor and doctor aren’t lovely and helpful but the outlet of a welcoming and happy social group has been brilliant for me.”
While I received a lot of responses from players over social media, it was chatting to a close friend of mine named Jake about this very subject that really brought home just how important a good support network is in both positive mental health as well as having people around you in times of need. He told me about how much he bonded with his friendship group prior to GP Manchester this year as they tested decks and played each other in preparation for the ever. With this one huge interest in common, it allowed for close friendships to form over a relatively short amount time – something which he was in need of when his granddad passed away recently. Without hesitation his friends were there to offer support, even if it just meant a few hours to play some Magic games to take his mind away from the loss – if only for a little while. “Magic: the Gathering brings people together,” Jake told me, “It’s been just so good for me in so many ways, probably more so now.”
A fellow patron of the Manaleak.com gaming centre in Birmingham named Matt spoke to me in person before a draft and he told me of how his mental health deteriorated at university. A breakdown over his identity lead to a diagnosis of psychosis by his doctor. Research has shown that men are more likely to have their first episode of psychosis in their late teens and early twenties. Magic: the Gathering was a hobby that was approved by his Early Intervention Team, as it was a social activity that required focus. Matt is now in a stronger place mentally, on medication and a regular face at EDH nights!
Coincidentally, my own mental health began to worsen when I was first at university and continued even when I moved to a different one, culminating in a breakdown. A survey by the National Union of Students found that 78% of students have ‘experienced mental health issues in the last year’. Furthermore, a staggering 64% of students do not use formal support services for mental distress (although it’s not clear whether that’s due to lack of services, stigma or other concerns), while 26% of students choose not to tell anyone about their feelings of mental distress.
There were a few short messages from players who told me that Magic has been a benefit to their physical health as well as their mental health. One young woman (who wanted to remain anonymous) said that she had chronic physical conditions that affected her on a daily basis, but getting out to play Magic once a week allowed her to ‘feel like she still had a normal life despite spending most of the week in bed.’ Serious physical illnesses can lead to a decline in mental health, which can then go on to affect physical health further – it’s truly a vicious cycle.
“I have terminal lung cancer.” There was one message that really hit home for me personally, from someone who wanted to remain anonymous. “In a position like mine it can be very difficult to aim for things. A lot of things I don’t have time to achieve and because of that it can be hard for me to find hobbies I see as worthwhile. Magic has so many different levels to aim at that I can work my way through them without thinking I should be better than I am. Additionally it is a good way of making friends outside of cancer. As soon as I was diagnosed a lot of support groups were suggested but not much else. Magic has become my support group in its own way.” Sadly, mental health care and support in the wake of a cancer diagnosis is not offered as standard – something which I personally think is appalling. Furthermore, I’ve seen from my own experiences that when someone is diagnosed with cancer, it can become all-encompassing as they move into treatment and such. For this anonymous respondent to have something like Magic: The Gathering to focus on outside of the disease, it’s a positive in an otherwise negative situation.
The number of responses I had about this topic was staggering, let alone the fact that they were all positive! It seems to be that Magic: The Gathering as a hobby and an interest is something that is incredibly beneficial to mental health and often physical health as well. I could list all the known, unknown and experienced benefits, the reasons and more statistics than you could shake a foil Tarmogoyf at, but I think Jake himself summed it up with only one sentence.
“Magic: the Gathering brings people together.”
A huge thanks to everyone who messaged and emailed me about this topic, it means a lot that we can get this conversation going. Thank you!
If you want further information on any of the subjects in this article, please feel free to email me – firstname.lastname@example.org
As always, thanks for reading.