The Warmth of a Burning Bridge

I made a decision recently to burn the bridge back to a specific hobby of mine that I have enjoyed many hours with.

Specifically, Magic: the Gathering.

A quick disclaimer before I go on: I have genuinely enjoyed many games of Magic and there are some absolutely wonderful people working on it (James Wyatt, for one; Grant and I really enjoyed talking with him back in Episode 85) and there are also some equally wonderful people in the community (Shivam Bhatt springs immediately to mind, but there are tons of others).

Magic has a lot of nostalgia baked in for me. I originally started playing back in high school around the Ice Age block. I spent a lot of time as a junior, senior and young high school grad playing the game with friends, and that was a great thing to do as a teenager. I put it down right after the second set in the Urza block because everybody scatters to the four winds after high school and I had nobody to play with. I picked it back up again right around the Return to Ravnica block. That second time was when I got into Commander, which became my favorite format. I really liked the singleton aspect, the static commander, and the slower pace that it created.

But I’m still walking away. The reasons are multitude: that it’s a huge cash sink that infringes on other hobbies I enjoy more is a big one – I’d much rather throw my recreational budget after tabletop RPG products or even video games, and staying competitive enough to be engaged even on a “budget” level in M:tG requires significant financial investment. There’s also a constant “arms race” that requires a lot of mental engagement. Every time a new set comes out, one has to acquaint oneself with a bunch of new cards, how those interact with the old cards, and while that can be fun, it’s a lot of time. There’s this obsessive collection aspect to it, at least for me. I got into the habit of cracking packs for what I wanted instead of buying singles, and that turned into a sort of gambling-esque thing.

And then there are the twin elements of toxic community members and the M:tG Finance scene. Magic is very competitive, and it is also very much pay-to-win. A bunch of the most powerful cards are part of something called the Reserve List, which means that WotC has promised to never reprint them or cards that do the same thing (at the same power level). That means that those cards, if you have them, will constantly rise in price because there’s a finite supply of them that can never be replenished. (The most infamous of these is the Black Lotus, which, if in mint condition and graded as such can cost as much as a new car. I’ve never had one, and neither has anyone I know personally.) Add to this the hyper-competitive tournament scene and the fact that those same awesome cards are widely useful even in casual formats like Commander. This means that there’s some real money in play in collecting, and that fosters both a stock-like trading industry and some really toxic competitive spirit. Magic, in a lot of ways, is like amped-up poker and a number of M:tG pros are in fact either former or current poker pros. Once again, none of this is to say everyone involved is bad. But there definitely are some jerks. It also has the tendency to push everything toward hyper-competitive decks with four-figure price tags.

You can work around it to some extent, and I did. But I spent a lot of time keeping up with stuff that might be going up or coming down in price. For a while, most of my podcasts were Magic-related ones.

At some point, it stopped being fun and started to feel like an obligation. Moreover, it started to feel like a pretty unhealthy habit.

A quick aside about that: role-playing games, I have found, are a wonderful, healthy thing in my life. They draw me into community, help me maintain some of my closest and most treasured friendships, and give me a way to give back to geek culture and even the Church by way of the podcast and this blog. They foster my creativity, give me the means to explore moral, psychological, and philosophical concepts, and give me something to look forward to every week.

Magic did almost none of that. I enjoyed the game itself enough to keep playing, but the collecting, keeping up with things, and constant financial inventment really started to feel like a grind – I was putting a lot into the game and taking next to nothing out. This might have been different had I a local playgroup, but I never did. The closest place to play was a card shop a half hour away with a bunch of very competitive players who I didn’t really have a huge bond with.

That contrast became more and more apparent and it started to nag at me a bit. In fact, the nagging got stronger and the game (or at least the constant collecting, sorting, deckbuilding, and meta-concerns) started to feel sinful to me – I was spending a pretty healthy chunk of change on little colored pieces of cardboard, and it was preventing me from doing other things I enjoyed, but it also felt like hoarding.

Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” -Luke 12:15

Interestingly, though, the specific sin felt more like Gluttony than Greed – I was spending all of these resources – time, money, and brainpower – on this thing with no real purpose in my life but more of the thing.

That went on for a short while and then one weekend I decided to take a break. I packed up the collection and stuck it in the closet, uninstalled the Magic Duels games from my computer, and systematically un-followed a bunch of M:tG social media. I didn’t talk about it much; I felt kind of unsettled about the whole business, if I’m going to be completely frank. The first 24 hours or so were kinda weird, but then?

I felt like a weight had been lifted off me.

As time went on, the collection stayed in the closet and several new sets came out. Looking over them online as a non-player has been an interesting experience. On the one hand, there’s definitely an aspect of coolness to it. Magic has always been a well-designed game and their art is second-to-none. On the other, I feel this weird aversion to spending any more time and money on the actual game itself. (Though interestingly, this does not apply to the lore and art – I was able to enjoy the beautiful artwork and nostalgic lore of the new Dominaria set more or less in a vacuum and I’m looking forward to picking up the art book for it – and the Plane Shift document that WotC will inevitably put out.)

That would probably be that, except the week before Fear the Con, I started feeling this weird “hitch” or “pulse” as I was driving my car. I thought it was maybe some bad gas or a bad spark plug or wire, but a local shop, based on my description of the problem, specific circumstances in which it occurred, and not seeing any warning lights, diagnosed the problem as a failing transmission pump. Transmission repairs are very expensive. We had enough savings to cover it, but our savings took a horrible beating last winter and I didn’t want to deplete them further. During the conversation around that, I brought up the idea of selling off my Magic collection, which my wife responded to with surprise, asking me if it wasn’t a “little drastic.” During the ensuing conversation, I realized that, no, it wasn’t all that drastic to me.

As it turned out, the shop that made the initial diagnosis was wrong. Since they don’t do transmission work at all beyond fluid changes, we took the car to another local shop that specializes in them and it turned out the problem was actually an improperly attached spark plug wire. The jerking feeling I was experiencing while driving was, in fact, an improperly-attached spark plug wire.

Vindication! Sweet relief! And more importantly, no regrets about going to Fear the Con. I went and had a great time.

Based on the circumstances, I could have just pulled back on the plans to sell the collection off, but I discovered I didn’t want to. That pile of card boxes taking up space in the closet really felt like dead weight to me. And so I decided to sell the collection. Allen and Ashley from Min/Max pointed me to a friend of theirs that’s just getting started in the online magic selling biz. He made a house call, looked over the collection, and we came to a price that left both of us happy.

And that was that.

I had a good run with Magic, and I may still do the occasional mock draft with friends, but as far as collecting, and more importantly, spending both time and money on it on a regular basis? I am done.

Again, I don’t intend this as a blanket judgment. There are plenty of perfectly wonderful people who can enjoy it and not get sucked in like did, or who have the disposable income not to make that side of it such a chore. I don’t think less of the wonderful people like The Professor or the LoadingReadyRun crew who are making M:tG content out there. I don’t think the game is inherently a blight on geekery, much less the Earth.

But for me, specifically? I’m going to stand here and enjoy the warmth of that bridge as it burns.

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