Charlie Taylor is 10 years old, he has been playing Magic since October last year, and yesterday he played nine rounds of a Grand Prix and finished the day with 3 Wins.
Charlie has autism.
Yesterday evening, after the Grand Prix, I met with Charlie, his mother Sarah-Jayne, and François Hauchard, the owner of Charlie's local shop, Axion Comics and Cards. François' role has grown to become the family's local judge, tournament organiser, and now special mentor to Charlie's development through Magic. The four of us chatted about what the game had done for Charlie.
Sarah-Jayne began the story by explaining a little about how autism had affected Charlie:
"What autism means for Charlie is that he struggles to understand the world around him, finds concentrating hard, and he has trouble with his social skills, often misinterpreting people. It's a cognitive disorder which affects behaviour, so he can be very challenging, and it means his moods can swing a lot – when he's focused and engaged, he's on fire, but when he's anxious or distressed he finds it very hard to deal with rationally and gets very upset and angry. In school he always had friendship problems and suffered bullying. His participation in after-school activities was limited and stressful. In the end, Charlie was out of school for the best part of a year due to the impact of this on his mental health. Thankfully, he started at a great specialist Unit for children with autism in September."
During the Grand Prix I had stopped by to watch Charlie a few times but I had seen none of that, and to learn that he had autism had come as a total surprise – he hadn't seemed any more overwhelmed by his surroundings than any other 10 year-old thrust into a Grand Prix, less so in fact.Charlie Taylor
"Magic has been very good for Charlie", Sarah told me. "He's not been playing long but he's already good at it, and he's going to get better. But it's more than that - coming here is so great for his confidence, and it's good for his social skills to meet all these people."
What I also didn't realise, but Sarah explained to me, is that the DCI Floor Rules contain all sorts of guidelines to help people with disabilities enjoy playing in tournaments.
"The tournament organisers have been really helpful. It's details like the fact that we can sit at the same table every round so that Charlie isn't stuck right in the middle, surrounded by people he doesn't know. That also means that I can sit with him and be there for support. And also the way that he's spoken to by the judges, the way they explain things – just these little things make such a difference for him."
How did the other players treat Charlie once they discovered he was autistic?
"The majority of players are very nice, very patient, very helpful", Sarah said, "a small minority really want to win, though, and once they realise that Charlie has some buttons they can press which will mean that he loses concentration, they'll push them. It can be hard to watch sometimes because I can see what's happening. We went to Paris earlier this year and afterwards I realised that I needed to learn some of the rules of Magic as well, so I would know if anybody was cheating against him. But in London that hasn't happened really."
"It's not just the players though", Sarah continued, "the judges have been good as well. I don't think all the judges knew that Charlie had autism, so sometimes they might speak to him as though he was a normal adult player, and Charlie did get upset once when he almost got a Game Loss. But we sorted that out, and afterwards the judge came and thanked me for helping, and showing him how to communicate with somebody like Charlie."
So how did Charlie find Magic?
"Well Charlie collected Pokemon cards for a long time – he was a huge collector, but he never played. The next step was Magic, and as soon as he starting going to the Magic club... well, he just took to it straight away. François can probably tell you this part better than I can, though."
With that Sarah turned to Charlie's Magic mentor, François:
"To see the change in Charlie since he started coming to the club... it's impossible to describe. When he first came to us in October Charlie didn't even dare to walk into the room. You can imagine that it's our weekly Magic club and there are twenty players in there and they're busy playing and talking amongst themselves. It was very difficult for Charlie - he couldn't really engage with the others so he would stay outside, or would keep going back out to his mother".
That was a description of Charlie that I simply couldn't recognise. The reclusive Charlie that François and Sarah knew just a few months ago seemed a world away from the mature and confident boy who had earlier walked up to me during the Grand Prix and asked me to bring a deck along that evening so that I could play against him. Was the socially-awkward Charlie they described really the same boy who was now sat across the table from me in the hotel bar, confidently and skilfully piloting his favourite Eldrazi deck? And could this transformation in Charlie really be down to 'a card game about Goblins and Elves'?
Sarah-Jayne, a teacher herself, was in no doubt:
"There is something that isn't being picked up on by the education system, but that he's getting here from playing Magic," she explained, "It's very easy for Charlie to lose his focus and in school that meant that he got marked out as 'a naughty child'. We struggled a lot for a few years, and it wasn't until he was 8 that he was recognised as having autism. By then I had read so many books on parenting while trying to work out what was going wrong for Charlie without really finding an answer, and it was only when I finally came to read about autism that I realised I recognised it all - they were talking about my child!"
"Even though Charlie has made so much progress since he started playing Magic we still meet some resistance from his school about the fact that he plays", Sarah-Jayne told me, "I've spoken to them about it several times to explain how it benefits him, but I don't think they really understand. When we went to the Grand Prix in Paris it meant that we had to take Charlie out of school for a day, and when he goes to the Magic club it often means that he will stay up until 9.30, which can affect him in school the next day. I believe so strongly in the way that Magic is helping Charlie that I will fight to let him play, though. If it's affecting his schooling then we'll deal with that, but as far as I'm concerned the benefits are...well they're enormous".
"Of course", François chimes in, "the benefits for Charlie are so much that it has to be worth the price. I really believe that any child has a fantastic potential, all you have to do is find the way to unlock it. You can see that in Charlie – he has been playing for just over six months, and already he has nearly qualified for the UK national championships!"
So why was Magic so good for Charlie?
"For autistic children the fact that everything is so visual is a real help. Charlie won't remember a card name, and in school when he was learning something abstract like his multiplication tables it just went in and out of his head. But with a Magic card the artwork of the card is something that sticks with him - the picture helps to explain what the card does and he can hold onto that."Charlie and his Magic mentor, Francois
And François agreed:
"In Maths for instance – at Charlie's level they are trying to teach the Two Times Table, and then maybe the Three Times Table. That's the level that the school is aiming for, and Charlie struggles with that in school. But then you bring him here, where everything is maths, and he is fine. Better than fine, he's very good! He knows all the cards and he works it all out... +2/+0 on this, -3/-3 on that, trample 4 damage, Proliferate this and that...".
"I didn't learn anything at my old school," adds Charlie, "Not really."
But Charlie has clearly learnt Magic, one of the most complicated mental sports on the face of the planet, in double-quick time. I had been duelling against him as we chatted, but the game had long since passed the point of being a contest and Charlie had progressed to slow-rolling me - after promising his mother that we would only play one game Charlie was determined to spin it out.
"Would you like to see my deck from the Grand Prix?", Charlie asked, and passed me his deck for inspection It was a Blue-Black deck with a splash of Green, and it was clear that Charlie had built a powerful controlling Infect deck that had some complex interactions with Proliferate, featuring cards like Carnifex Demon , Fuel for the Cause , and Corrupted Conscience .
"It only took me six minutes to make my deck", Charlie explained, as excited and animated as he always is when talking about Magic, "I wanted to play Blue-Black even though some people told me that it wasn't good, but I could see that my deck had everything. I could control, and I could give poison counters, then I could Proliferate the poison counters and counterspell my opponent's cards. It all worked like a chain reaction!"
I began to explain to Charlie that the word for what he meant is 'synergy' but as I did so I could see him beginning to lose focus. I realised then that it's not important to Charlie to know that there is a specific word for what he is talking about, it's only important to him to understand that these 'chain reactions' exist.
That raised another question. I understand next to nothing about autism, but from what little I thought I knew a familiar routine was important, but in Sealed Deck everything is new every time – wasn't that the exact opposite?
"Routine is important", Sarah-Jayne agreed, "and that's partly why it was so good for Charlie that we were able to sit at the same table every round. As for the Sealed Deck thing, why don't we ask Charlie?"
Charlie stopped to think for a few seconds - this was obviously a question that he wanted to answer correctly, and I was struck by how serious and thoughtful he becomes when posed a question (usually about Magic) that holds his interest. Why does he like Sealed Deck? Charlie wanted to know the answer as much as anyone.
"I think Sealed is the most fun part of the whole thing," he answered, considering his words carefully, "I really enjoy building decks, although I don't like having to register the cards before that, I find that very difficult and Mum has to help me with that. But building decks is the best part - it makes the deck feel special. It feels like it's my deck, because I made it".
As Charlie was answering I glance across to Sarah-Jayne, and it's impossible to mistake just how proud she is of her son.
"He's fearless, really", Sarah-Jayne explained, ruffling her son's hair, "He doesn't want to do things the easy way, so he wasn't going to play a different deck just because somebody told him that it might be better. He believed that he was right and he stuck with it".
"And a lot of the advice was wrong, as well." Charlie chips in, his voice firm with conviction. "One man told me that I was wrong to play with Corrupted Harvester in my deck because I was Infect and it didn't do poison damage. But I knew that I had Tainted Strike so that I could give it +1/+0 and Infect, and I won a game with it! But I didn't like it when all these men were crowding around and telling me that I was doing things wrong", and he frowned unhappily.
As much as Sarah-Jayne appreciates the role that Magic has played in transforming her son, she was never slow to pay tribute to the tremendous influence that François has had, and the amount of personal involvement that the quiet Frenchman has taken in her son's life. The trio come as a unit, and have done ever since Charlie walked into François' shop.
"I owe so much to François", she admits, "he has been incredible. He has spent so much time with Charlie and really persevered with him. I think that if it had been just me on my own I wouldn't have recognised that Magic was something Charlie was good at, and we would have just moved on, but François could see it – he came and told me that Charlie had a talent for the game and offered to help mentor him."
"But more than that, we wouldn't have been able to go to Paris without François, or come here today to the Grand Prix. And then the practical things, like the special treatment we get for Charlie from the judges – it just wouldn't have even occurred to me that such a thing existed to ask for it. But because François is a judge he knew what was possible. All of this is down to François".Charlie and Sarah-Jayne
And there's no mistaking the love for her son, or her gratitude to François and the others at Axion Comics & Cards, when Sarah-Jayne sums up what Magic has done for Charlie...
"When Charlie walked into the Magic club it was like, for the first time, he was being seen for the child inside. They saw the child that I saw, and they accepted him", and, tired after a long day of being a mom, she smiles.