Hosting a games night at my house last Christmas, I was asked by an old friend whether I still played Magic: the Gathering.
“I haven’t played the game for ages, mate,” I replied. “I’m not sure if I ever will again.”
I was wrong.
I’ve played sporadically since 1994 when a series of bizarre events resulted in me purchasing a Revised starter deck. Gazing upon the image of the iconic Shivan Dragon that graced the cover of the rule book, I fell in love with the game. Twenty-five years later, and after a five-year hiatus, I found myself once again tapping cards, building decks and reading articles. Quite a lot has changed from when I first started playing, of course, yet I’m still drawn back to my favourite mono-red archetypes and the latest reimagining of Lightning Bolt.
The truth is that I never stopped loving Magic, but as I approached my mid-thirties, life got in the way.
When I became a father, Magic wanted too much of my time and energy and, with every new set, the spiralling cost of singles became prohibitive. Slowly I began to drift away from the competitive scene in both my playing and writing and began looking at cheaper, less time-consuming games.
First, I discovered League of Legends, since the competitive yet free-to-play aspects of the game appealed to me. However the levels of toxicity during and after matches rapidly grew unbearable. My breaking point came when the disciplinary panel failed to deal with a severe case of harassment from one of my team-mates, simply because we had lost a ranked match. They felt the post-match abuse I routinely suffered didn’t warrant any consequences. I still hold that it is unacceptable for any human being to tell another to ‘get cancer and die’ on the back of a lost game. I uninstalled League of Legends.
The next game I tried was Hearthstone, Blizzard’s online TCG, which is similar to Magic and requires a lot less investment to build top tier decks. I had a good run, mostly playing aggressive Hunter and Warlock decks, yet quickly became frustrated at the sheer chaotic randomness that could determine a win.
A good example of the above is Yogg-Saron, Hope’s End. Yogg-Saron. Upon being summoned, Yogg-Saron casts a random spell for each spell you casted during the match. Unlike Magic (apart from casual sets such as Unhinged), all of Yogg-Saron’s spells were indiscriminate in their targeting. This meant that, after the dust had settled, I often ended up being in a worse board state than my opponent!
One thing I had begun to realise during these two ventures was that, although at the time I didn’t actually miss playing Magic, I did miss the social aspect that came with it.
So I put Hearthstone aside and rekindled a nostalgic love of pen and paper RPG’s and began running numerous sessions at my house and a local game store.
I achieved acclaim during these sessions for challenging and entertaining my players in equal measure, frequently running anarchic fantasy adventures which had ridiculous NPC’s in them. Consider my annoying Goblin beggar with an upper-class English accent, for example, or the boat captain offering voyages on her vessel, The Frigid Kraken.
It was fun to be gaming with real people again.
While creating my RPG adventures, I wrote a book about my time playing Magic which covered from when I first started playing in 1994, to when I first quit in 2001. There were times during writing it that I thought about returning to Magic, but there always seemed a reason not to. Whether it was the daunting cost of getting back into game, or the fact that my closest peers no longer played the game – there was always an excuse not to go back to the cardboard crack.
Then Wizards released a D&D module called Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica…
Like many people, Ravnica is my favourite plane in the Magic universe, so I began running a campaign set in Ravnica with one of my roleplaying groups. The more that my players encountered anarchic Rakdos cultists, serene Selesnya monks and insane Izzet techno-mages, the more my interest in the game reignited.
One particularly rainy afternoon, I happened to chance upon a Twitch stream of a famous Magic player, Martin Juza, who was playing a new online variant of Magic called Arena. It looked like a massive improvement compared to its ancient predecessor, Magic: the Gathering Online. I downloaded Arena, and discovered that my love of turning cards sideways had returned with a vengeance!
Initially I got caught out with a few snags, like forgetting that, unlike Hearthstone, you actually need to put lands into play to cast spells! Despite those issues it didn’t take me long to get back into my stride and I made the Mythic tier in constructed on Arena in the first month that I had returned to play.
I achieved that feat on the back of playing my beloved Mono-Red Aggro. There has always been a special place in my heart for hitting people for one with a Mogg Fanatic… I mean Fanatical Firebrand! It did take a lot of grinding, as well as looking at deck lists on the internet whenever the boss wasn’t looking!
The best thing about coming back is that I have once again re-joined into the great Magic UK community.
Whether that has been reacquainting with old foes and friends alike to meeting new players through Facebook, or learning my own town, Worksop, has a thriving community of decent up-and-coming players – so far everyone who I have spoken to since coming back has been amazing.
Perhaps best of all was tuning in to watch Autumn Burchett become the first British player to win a Pro-Tour (sorry Mythic Championship, old habits die hard!). Well done Autumn! Since returning I have really enjoyed the general acceptance of anyone playing the game regardless of who or what they represent, and the lack of toxicity that regretfully often reared its ugly head in ages past.
It feels good to be back. Magic seems to be in a much better state than the last time I left it.
P.S. – Here is the Mono-Red Deck List of Arena that I hit Mythic with:
4 – Fanatical Firebrand
4 – Ghitu Lavarunner
4 – Goblin Chainwhirler
1 – Legion Warboss
4 – Runaway Steam-Kin
4 – Viashino Pyromancer
3 – Experimental Frenzy
4 – Light Up the Stage
4 – Lightning Strike
4 – Shock
4 – Wizards’s Lightning
20 – Mountain
1 – Act of Treason
2 – Banefire
1 – Direct Current
2 – Fiery Cannonade
1 – Karn, Scion of Urza
4 – Lava Coil
2 – Rekindling Phoenix
2 – Scrabbling Claws (Yeah, I have no idea why I have these in here either!).
Here is the deck I played at my first ever Standard tournament in 1995:
4 – Birds of Paradise
2 – Cockatrice
2 – Granite Gargoyle
2 – Force of Nature
4 – Kird Ape
4 – Shivan Dragon
2 – Thicket Basi1isk
1 – Fellwar Stone
1 – Mana Vault
1 – Sol Ring
4 – Desert Twister
2 – Disintegrate
1 – Channel
1 – Fastbond
2 – Fireball
2 – Hurricane
4 – Lightning Bolt
2 – Lure
1 – Regrowth
1 – Wheel of Fortune
1 Maze of Ith
1 Elvish Farmer
1 Life Force
4 Red Elemental Blast