Magic Saved My Life

Posted in Perilous Research on June 4, 2015

By Jacob Van Lunen

Jacob Van Lunen began playing Magic in 1995. He has participated in organized play at every level of competition and was a member of the winning team at Pro Tour San Diego in 2007, thanks to an innovative draft strategy. As a writer, Van Lunen has had more than three hundred Magic strategy pieces published

I started playing Magic when I was nine-years-old. At this point, I've recounted how I learned the game ad nauseam. Like many others, I've taken breaks from the game. Magic has been a guiding force for good in my life. I've been lost whenever I've strayed from the game, but Magic seems to find me in the darkest of places and lift me up and out of them. Today, I'd like to tell my real origin story.

Art by Johannes Voss

It was cold and smelled like the nurse's office at my school. I opened my eyes and saw a sea of painted white concrete. My bed was uncomfortable and small, made up with a few thin hospital sheets. I was in a windowless cell with a giant roommate who grunted angrily in his sleep.

I remembered being in school just one day earlier. I caught a beating in the locker room because I was insufferably annoying at that age. I forgot an important paper for English class and the teacher said she would be calling my parents. After school, a coach had a chat with me about "manning up."

It didn't feel worth it. There was no part of my life that I enjoyed. I got home and took enough pills to kill a small horse before going to bed, hoping that I would never wake up again. Three hours later, I woke up with a tube down my throat. My older brother had found me and called 9-1-1.

I don't remember much about that night, but I remember waking up in the mental hospital. This was my first experience with the actual world that we live in. I was a rich white kid with two well-educated parents. I lived in a giant house. We had an in-ground pool and a koi pond. The people I met at St. Claire's came from very different walks of life. My roommate, Hector, was sixteen years old with a son; he wanted to get out of a gang initiation process that he had started. In group therapy, most of the girls talked about being raped. There I was, a whining rich white kid that wanted to die because I was dealing with the slightest degree of difficulty for the first time in my life.

I felt stupid. I didn't talk to anyone for the first few days. I didn't want them to know what a phony I was. I was scared of everyone. By the time I started "opening up," I had concocted an entirely fabricated backstory for myself. I knew that my tendency to exaggerate and stretch truths had a lot to do with me being there, but I didn't want to humiliate myself.

My parents came to visit and brought me some of my old Magic cards. That afternoon, during free time, I started organizing my cards and building decks. A few of the other kids came over and started talking to me about it. One of them already knew how to play. Over the next few weeks, I played Magic.

Once I was out, I started going to tournaments. I quit all my sports teams and started taking the bus to a local mall with a Wizards of the Coast store to draft three nights a week. All I did was draft. I usually lost, but I could feel myself getting better. Sometimes, I would take the bus to New York City and play at Neutral Ground.

At school, I became the kid that tried to kill himself. Teachers were extra sensitive with me. They'd coddle me and let things slide. It infuriated me. I started not doing homework and getting into fights just to see if I could piss them off. A lot of my classmates used my trying to kill myself as a perfectly good reason to never interact with me at all.

The worst of it was with my parent's friends. They'd talk slower and softer when they spoke to me. I'd want to grab their heads and shove my thumbs through their eyes just to see if they were real. I hated that everyone knew about it. It was my defining quality. I was the kid that tried to kill himself. I'd make grunting noises and weird faces in their friends' direction when my parents left the room. Sometimes, I'd just blankly stare at company endlessly with the hope that they'd be scared of me and never come back.

Spending time alone with the family became an odd dynamic. I'd get little speeches about how I might not be here if my brother hadn't found me. I'd be constantly reassured about how wonderful my life was. Things changed. I came from a tremendously strong family unit and I had shattered that. I loved them and they loved me, but the conversation shifted to God and how lucky we were instead of us just existing as we were. Maybe I was just paying more attention. Maybe I was just a demented narcissist that assumed everything was about me. To be honest, I don't think my recollection of that time period is a reflection of reality as much as it is the way I perceived it.

When I went to play Magic, no one knew me, or maybe they were the only ones that did. I wasn't babied or avoided. It felt real. Magic was a place that I could escape to. It gave me the opportunity to reinvent myself to the people I played with. They didn't go to my school, they didn't know my family, they just thought I was a guy that played Magic.

Then I went away for college and discovered a new game. I started playing poker. I bought in for a few hundred dollars on a poker website and had worked it up above twenty thousand dollars over the course of a semester. I stopped playing Magic and became a zombie. My roommate had left school because he had a nervous breakdown. This meant I had a dorm room to myself. I took full advantage of the extra space by gambling twenty hours a day as I chain smoked cigarettes out the window.

I failed all of my classes. Sure, I had won twenty grand, but I also incinerated twenty grand of my parents' money. I moved back home and started seeing my psychologist again. I decided to take a break from poker, I got a job working as a TV salesman at Best Buy, and I started playing Magic again.

At a local draft, I ran into a friend that I used to play with frequently. He was going to college near where I lived and he invited me to a party that Friday night. There, I ran into one of my old Magic buddies and he joked about going to the Two-Headed Giant PTQ the next morning. He had been drinking a lot and I was pretending to drink because I had promised my doctor that I would avoid drugs. I woke up on a couch at 5 a.m. and saw my friend asleep on the floor. I woke him up and asked if he still wanted to go to the PTQ. In the coming years, we'd become best friends.

At the PTQ, we lost our first round but didn't lose a game throughout the remainder of the day. In the Top 8, we drafted absurdly good Sliver decks. The Sliver Kids were born.

A few months later, we went to the Pro Tour and won the whole thing. It felt scripted. I didn't know that it was possible to be that happy. I felt lighter, like my lungs held more air. I no longer self-identified as the kid that tried to kill himself, because I knew that I would never try it again. My anchor had been cut loose. I wasn't a useless piece of crap that sucked at everything. I was a Pro Tour Champion. More than that, my best friend was also a Pro Tour Champion, and he wouldn't have been if it wasn't for me, and I wouldn't have been if it wasn't for him.

The Sliver Kids: Jake Van Lunen and Chris Lachmann

Happiness is about relationships, and relationships are about accomplishing things with other people. I was once too broken to have real relationships, but Magic fixed me. The whole idea is reductive, but there's a lot of truth to the sentiment.

Magic is the greatest game. Magic makes us smarter, forces us into social situations, and gives us purpose. Life can be difficult and unforgiving, but we can always channel an unlimited amount of creativity and excitement into Magic. It's hard to quantify how necessary the outlet might be.

I'm lucky to have found Magic, but I'm luckier that it found me.

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