What I Love About Magic: The Personal Growth

Posted in Ways to Play on February 21, 2017

By Meghan Wolff

Meghan is one half of the Good Luck High Five podcast and an adjunct professor at Tolarian Community College. She loves Limited, likes Modern, and dips her toes into each Standard season. She's decidedly blue and is the #1 hater of Siege Rhino in the Multiverse.

Thank goodness one of the lessons Magic teaches is to persist, to keep fighting until that last point of damage is dealt, to continue in the face of disparate life totals and overwhelming board advantage and seven cards in your opponent's hand.

Thank goodness it teaches perseverance because sometimes you foolishly pitch an article on the impact Magic has on our lives thinking, yes, I understand the scope of this, and yes, I can absolutely write this, and yes, this will be fun and interesting and wonderful to write.

And then several days later you're on the brink of tears because no, you giant fool, there's no good way to capture the hundred unique ways a hundred individuals told you that Magic has shaped who they are. There's no good way to capture the spectrum of human emotion and personal experience a hundred people, strangers and friends alike, so happily and willingly and bravely offered up. But you're going to try.

This is, of course, the story of how this article came to be. I am the giant fool, and you are the brave, kind, magical people whose stories of growth and change I so inadequately represent below. Thank you.

"It's made me more open to competition and boosted my creativity and small math skills." —Myles Hebert

The most concrete way Magic helps us grow is by developing and honing our mathematical, problem-solving, and critical-thinking skills. From combat math to evaluating who's winning the race and what variables might alter the outcome, Magic challenges both concrete and abstract mathematical thinking. We're given a solution—getting our opponent to 0 life—and we have to work out for ourselves how to get there, while the relevant variables change from game to game and moment to moment.

I suffered from the "I'm bad at math" mentality for years. I can't pinpoint when it started, but it was probably around the time I declined to take AP Calculus. Why would I if I was bad at math? A few years into playing Magic, I had an epiphany. I'm fine at math. I'm not great (after all, I never did take that calc class), but I'm actually pretty good at mathematical problem-solving, and, more importantly, I have a lot of fun with it.

Magic didn't just make me a better problem-solver; it helped me believe in the solutions I came up with. It turned a lie I'd believed about myself for years into a pretty great truth. It was like thinking I was afraid of roller coasters without ever having ridden one—which, incidentally, is also something that happened to me.

Magic encourages creative thinking as much as it encourages thinking critically, and there are players drawn to the game for the competition who discover a way to foster their creative talents through building decks, cubes, and more.

For Courtney "Frenchie" Donovan, the focus and problem-solving Magic requires helped her when fibromyalgia disrupted her life.

"I had played roller derby since 2010 and even got my certification to train fitness classes at gyms, but I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia in 2013. As a result, I struggled to stay as competitive as possible in my sport, and the constant pain and brain fog was having an increasingly negative effect on my work and home life."

Then, Courtney began playing Magic.

"I found that the more I played, the fewer issues I had with brain fog. I could remember driving directions and not have to stop in the middle of conversations. As my physical abilities deteriorated, I was so happy to have something I could do with my mind instead. I began Top 8'ing small local events and was beginning to find an identity to replace the one I was losing."

"As a result of Magic, my mind is sharper, and I can pay attention to all of the activities on the track, and I apply the confidence and patience the game has taught me so I can make the best calls possible. I'm hopeful that I will be able to Day Two a Grand Prix soon, and I am so thankful to have Magic to give me something to identify with and be proud of."

The impact that Magic has on our problem-solving and critical-thinking skills ripples out, affecting more than the realms of deck building and competition.

"More than anything, Magic is the game I've found [to be] the closest approximation to how life works, generally," said Patrick Sullivan. "Circumstances are often not 'fair,' and in fact the concept of [fairness] doesn't really exist. There are so many decision trees occurring, and most people aren't even aware that these decisions are happening, much less that they have any agency in their outcomes. You can play well, better than the person across from you, and still lose.

"Because of this, the focus can't be on the outcome, though the successes feel nice. The mental and emotional energy should instead be spent on the process. [Alhough] 'Should I have chump-blocked a turn earlier?' and 'Am I being decent to the people around me?' are very different questions, the process behind answering both honestly requires thoughtfulness, honesty, and clarity. I think I've gotten better about answering questions like the latter because of the amount of energy I spent thinking about the former. The math and vocabulary skills are nice, but this is where Magic has influenced my development the most."

Critical and creative thinking are only the starting point in terms of the ways that Magic can help us grow. So much of the game takes place at kitchen tables, at local game stores, at Friday Night Magic, and at Grand Prix that being social is as intrinsic [a] part of the game as instants and sorceries. Magic builds friendships, confidence, and comfort.

"It helps me be more confident in my decisions, move on from mistakes, and navigate spaces where I'm the only woman." —Mara Katz

"Magic, mainly through judging, gave me confidence, presentation skills, and appreciation of structure. [It] made me who I am." —David Lyford-Smith

For some players, it's the challenge of being social that pushes them in new directions; for others it's the opportunity to be part of a community with a shared passion. Magic doesn't push us into being social and then watch us flounder; it gives us something to talk about, a structure for interactions and conversations that can, especially over time, turn into the building blocks of friendships.

"As someone who was bullied and had bad social anxiety, Magic gave me a community that was welcoming and helped me make great friends." —Nick Packard

"More than anything else in my life, [Magic] showed me that I am not alone." —The Professor

Magic has a dual role as a game where we're able to slip away, even if it's only for a bit, from the worries plaguing us in our everyday lives. It also builds communities, and when reality eventually pulls us back in, community is there to help us manage.

Magic can help us overcome our fear of new situations, from stepping into a room of 30 or so perfect strangers to wandering the streets of Berlin looking for a game store whose website you're nearly certain said "Draft Night" because you're in need of a roomful of people with whom you have common ground.

"Before playing Magic, I felt very alone in the world," Gemma Hammens said. "I knew there were plenty of other people like me that existed, but I rarely saw evidence of them. Since joining the Magic community, I have never felt alone in that same way. I can see people like me all the time: people who are kind, caring, creative, intelligent, and a little weird in various ways."

Art by John Stanko
Art by John Stanko

For Gemma, the space and support that Magic offers helped her traverse the most difficult experience of her life.

"On June 27, 2016, I miscarried a baby I was very much in love with. It was a very early stage miscarriage, but still it shook me; it is without a doubt the worst thing that has ever happened to me. It was a time of a grief so vast, I was forever altered. Magic, during that time, was my tether. I was able to focus on Magic, which acted as a buffer for my grief. I made a leather wristband with the art from the card Goldenglow Moth to represent my miscarriage, and I wear it any time I leave the house as a way to honor my child that never was. Magic was an anchor for me.

"Magic has helped me grow in numerous ways, all of them good, and as a result I believe I am kinder, wiser, more loving, more confident, braver, and (this is a big one) at peace with who I am."

The social situations and communities that Magic creates also open us to experiences and points of view outside of our own, and they encourage us to broaden our views and our empathy for other peoples' experiences.

"It's given me a community where the ideals I care about in larger society are more tangible and able to be put into practice." —Andrew Rudiger

While Magic shapes some players' social lives, for others, like artist Stephen Raffle, Magic grows and enriches our other interests and passions.

"I'm a bit of a Twitter junky, there's a ton of interesting people on there," Raffle said. "They are my audience and a source of inspiration. Before joining, I just drew whatever and shared it where I could. Without a proper outlet to display my work, it felt like more of a hobby than a job. I simply felt like a man making art, but not a true artist. Don't get me wrong; I'm glad to scribble, but having a purpose justifies my talents. As an artist, I create because I have the urge and talent to do so. Producing art makes me happy, though making art to share with others who appreciate it fills me with a greater satisfaction.

"I happened to stumble across Twitter one day thanks to a fellow local player. Timidly, I began to dip my toe in, following a few people and podcasts. I shared a bit of artwork here and there, which got the attention of some of the community. They'd give me the motivation for some fun ideas, which caught the eyes of others. Thanks to this game, I've met so many great personalities [that] have given me the encouragement and support to become the artist I've always wanted to be. I'm even given hope that someday this can become my career and [I will] draw everything people desire all day, every day."

For others, Magic can become as formative an experience as college or a first job.

"I dropped out of college after my freshman year at Seton Hall University," Patrick Sullivan said. "Soon thereafter, I was kicked out of my parent's house. There was still the local card shop, and I loved Magic, so that became my life. I don't know if any of that qualifies as 'growth,' but I was vulnerable and without direction for a couple of years. Magic was my job, and travelling to tournaments was my college experience, and my Magic friends (many of whom are still among my closest) were a proxy for my family."

As much as playing Magic can be a formative experience, it can also shape the goals we set for ourselves. It changes not only the path we're on, but the route we choose when we come to a fork in that path.

"Today, most of my free time is consumed streaming Magic, creating Magic content, thinking about Magic (be it theorycrafting, brewing, or getting my Vorthos on), or figuring out where I'll be playing Magic next," said Emma Handy. "Magic has been so good to me and provided me with so many opportunities that I've all but given my life back to the game, and I don't regret a bit of it. In spite of everything I've already done in Magic, I'm still trying to push forward and end up in a spot where my career is somewhere around the cameras of Magic coverage—be it in front of them slinging spells or behind them whilst talking about it. Magic has irrevocably changed my life, and I wouldn't have it any other way."

When I see family for the holidays, or catch up with college friends, or meet new people on trips, I always get caught up trying to describe exactly what I'm doing with my life these days. No matter what marginally coherent explanation I stumble my way to, I always end with telling them what a surprise my life is. A bizarre, wonderful surprise.

"There's no way I could have pictured this five years ago," I tell them.

It's ultimately the reason I wanted to write this article. I love a lot of things about Magic, like having a competitive outlet and stretching my problem-solving skills and meeting new friends at every event I go to. Ultimately, however, it's the surprise that I love the most because it's a rare gift to surprise yourself with the person you've become.

"[I'm] not sure how to describe it, but without this community I don't know who I'd be." —Mirabeau Laing


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