Magic: the Gathering and Depression: Thoughts on Managing the Relationship
November can be a difficult time of year on the mental health front. The shortening days cause a drop in levels of sunlight-induced serotonin. The cold, damp English weather makes getting out and exercising seem a lot less appealing than it did a couple of months ago. Perhaps playing lots of Magic, The Gathering will help? Last year I started writing an article on the subject, and I thought this would be a good time to finish writing this article about my thoughts on it. If it makes this part of the year a little easier to get through for a few people, it will have been worthwhile.
Magic: the Gathering (MTG) and depression seem to go together far too often. Perhaps the tendency to think very rationally makes the meaninglessness of life harder to ignore. Or, maybe it is because the Asperger’s traits that help us focus on the game so obsessively are also creating difficulties for us elsewhere in our lives. Whatever the reason for the frequency of the correlation, trying to pick a path through the two is a challenge that I expect will be a familiar one for a lot of people.
I am sure that Magic can help sometimes. If you are in the right frame of mind to get completely absorbed in your games, I reckon it is the most effective distraction from everything else that there is. I have found some of the hours spent trying to work out strategies and optimal lines of play to be some of my happiest, and the adrenaline rush you can get from the really exciting matches will usually leave you feeling better.
Magic can have other very important secondary benefits too. Having a tournament schedule offers a form of structure to your life. Attending them necessitates social interaction (not applicable to online Magic, obviously) and helps keep you busy, which can be very important because too great a shortage of activity and/or a lack of social contact will usually leave you feeling bored or lonely, and generally worse. If you do well at Magic events, it can certainly provide a great self-esteem boost, and if you are not feeling too good about yourself generally, it can be really nice to have that reminder that there is this thing you can do that you are actually rather good at.
But is playing more Magic always going to help you feel happier? In my opinion, absolutely not (despite what some memes circulating Facebook may suggest). Playing Magic usually involves spending very long days indoors, often in places with little or no natural light, with no change of scenery for many hours on end. The social aspect can also be rather insular as there are never that many different players in each town or city. Playing enough to improve your game often means sacrificing opportunities to be outside, exercising, spending time with your partner, family and pets, attending social events, and relaxing after long, stressful working days or weeks. In your quest to be the greatest Magic player you can be, I think it is absolutely essential that it does not come at the expense of your mental health.
If you are feeling very depressed already, a Magic tournament that would usually be a source of excitement can feel daunting and stressful. It ceases to be an effective distraction from the meaningless futility of life, and instead feels like a pointless waste of time that will change nothing that will make life any better. Despite being surrounded by people, a tournament can feel incredibly lonely when the only viable topic of conversation with the people you are around is Magic. At these times, results that might be a cause for celebration at other points in life can feel completely empty, and I have gone through several years of barely playing my favourite card game at all because of feeling this way.
Not enjoying things you usually enjoy is one of the easiest common symptoms of depression to spot, yet not doing the things you usually enjoy will probably leave you feeling worse. It is an incredibly awkward position to be in. If you do stop playing for months or years, when you do finally decide you are going to start playing again you find your cards have all rotated out of Standard and buying the new ones will cost you money you probably do not have because holding down a job and managing your money are two things that quickly get more difficult the more depressed you feel.
Depression will also severely handicap your game. At its most severe, your memory goes and you cannot concentrate at all, and whatever you do to try to make the right plays, you will find you keep making mistakes that you cannot quite believe you are making. In this situation, it is really important not to be too hard on yourself. Politicians seem to love talking about parity between mental and physical health (while simultaneously cutting funding for many mental health services, but that is another matter), and in this situation, I think it is quite a helpful comparison. Entering a Magic tournament while feeling depressed is rather similar to going in to a tennis match knowing you are carrying a knee injury. You hope you will be able to play your best, but you have to also be aware that your play may be hampered and your level of play may be compromised, so your result will not be a fair reflection of your abilities. As the match progresses, you might find that the injury is too severe to make it worth continuing, or that playing on is making it worse, and in that situation the sensible thing to do is to retire from the event. Pro Tour Amonkhet winner Gerry Thompson recently dropped from a GP at 5-2 for such a reason (so long as I interpreted his article correctly). Non-pro players are probably not relying on Magic: the Gathering events for their income like he is, so if a Pro Tour winner can drop from a big event to look after his mental health, the chances are that you can afford to too, and if you do drop from an event because you are not enjoying yourself, I would encourage you not to beat yourself up over it.
One of my strangest ever experiences came after a particularly bad couple of months. When I finally started to feel better I remember finding loads of unopened boosters I had won in tournaments I had no memory of even playing in, and I had seemingly chucked them in my bag and forgotten about everything completely. Back then I rarely drafted so I used to open all my prize boosters almost immediately, but I must have just lost interest in what they contained. Despite having obviously done pretty well in the tournaments, had I not found the unopened boosters I would otherwise have not even known they had even happened.
So what potentially helpful tips can I offer to help you find the right place for Magic in your life? Well, one thing I actually rather like about my own experience of depression is that it rather forced me to question the existential dilemmas in life, and I think it has helped me develop ways of thinking that have been extremely useful to me.
I constantly question why I am doing anything. I ask myself what purpose it serves – what I am hoping to get out of it and how realistic that expectation is – and this is very relevant when trying to maintain a healthy perspective on Magic. Like many who play the game, I want to be good at it and I enjoy the excitement of the competition. The idea of making a living by playing a game I enjoy seems appealing, but why? A very small proportion of Pro Tour competitors are able to earn anything close to a decent living wage from playing competitive Magic, and those who have the ability and dedication (and luck – it is Magic after all) to do this could surely earn more money in other fields, so I think that even for the top players in the world, their primary motivation for playing has to be enjoyment. For a non-pro player like me, enjoyment is absolutely the main thing I am hoping to get from playing, and I find it helpful to remind myself about this and regularly question whether an event I am participating in or considering participating in will provide this.
With this in mind, it does not make sense to play in a Magic tournament when you think you would enjoy another activity more, and this has led me to make some decisions that might otherwise seem surprising. I have missed many tournaments when the weather has been good and I have chosen to play tennis instead to get some sunlight and exercise (and a few trophies too). At GP London in 2014, on the Sunday I felt shattered and decided I would probably enjoy some extra time in bed more than any of the early morning tournaments, and it was a decision I was quite happy with.
The importance of a Magic: the Gathering event being something the players hope to enjoy is something I find some tournament organisers and judges seem to understand far better than others, and if you are fortunate enough to have multiple nearby stores at which you can play, I would encourage you to consider this factor when choosing where to play. On some occasions, I have travelled considerably further than I have needed to in order to play Magic, on the basis that the tournament I was going to would be more fun, better run and better-judged. This is because if you are having a day where, all things considered, you have done pretty well to make it out of your bedroom, and you get to a Standard Showdown three minutes late having told the tournament organiser you are on your way and running three minutes late, you will probably wish you had not bothered if you then get given a match loss because of those three minutes.
Trying to do well at Magic can so easily become an unhealthy obsession rather than something fun, and I think it is very worthwhile to ask yourself which of those Magic is for you. You can so easily find many articles written with the aim of helping you become a better player. I think the enjoyment is often something we take for granted, but without it, the importance of your results quickly diminishes.
While winning can boost your self-esteem, if you end up valuing your self-worth based on how you do at Magic: the Gathering then you are putting a lot on the line when you go in to a tournament, especially as it is a game of such high variance. I find it is helpful to have enough other things going on in life that I can take my mind off MTG after a disappointing result, which is something I have had varying degrees of success with. The chances are there will always be more to you than your ability to play MTG, and a lot of the people you come across in day to day life will not even care whether you are any good at the game anyway. You can lose your sense of perspective from within a Magic bubble, and it is important to leave the bubble sometimes in order to regain it.
Fortunately, for most of us, as we get older we also become both richer and happier, and I think in my case this has generally increased the amount of enjoyment I have got from playing Magic. I played more than ever from 2015 until this year and generally got better results than ever before. This actually makes the questions I have considered in this article extremely relevant to me as I would probably have to sacrifice a lot to get just a bit better, and right now I am not sure whether it would be a worthwhile sacrifice, mainly because I am unsure whether playing more than I already do would actually make me happier.
In all the years I have been playing, this is the first article about Magic: the Gathering I have written. Maybe I should write more? That will depend on how this one is received though, so do let me know what you think.
I hope some of these thoughts have been helpful, and failing that I hope they have been of some interest. Either way, I wish you well in your enjoyment of Magic, and of life generally.
Thanks for reading,