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Summoning Sickness: Learning to Play Magic: The Gathering

By Amanda Rossenrode

There exists a dying tradition in a land where ”friends” are stamp-sized profile pictures on social media and meeting with actual people consists of humus and taking turns showing YouTube videos: The Game Night. I do not speak of the false, brittle cheerfulness of a game night consisting of couples on the verge of un-coupling, forcing each other to do something social while making passive aggressive remarks on their partner’s inability to answer questions about their relationship in a “cute” party game. I speak of an evening of competition so fierce that at the end of the Monopoly game, everyone is standing in tense anticipation of the next move, friendships destroyed over a fistful of pastel cash. 

Maybe this is why my husband and I are no longer allowed to participate in such events. 

My husband and I are extremely competitive people and consider each game we play a bitter blood sport. We play games in a manner that would make Game of Thrones seem like Candy Land. We have little honor, and have no qualms aligning to destroy another player only to then betray each other for victory. We take every game, from Clue to Mousetrap, as seriously as spina bifida and as such, no one will play with us anymore. 

Most games are pretty lame with two players. The strategy aspect is missing. Having been banned from even playing Mario Kart with anyone else ever again, I finally unbent and after ten years of him pleading, took up Magic: The Gathering. 

As someone who had never heard of the pastime, it sounded daunting and ultimately boring. The explanation as to the premise and objective clocked in at about twenty minutes with nonsense sounding words like “Mana”, “Interrupts,” and “Summoning Sickness” being thrown around. Before the game could even start, I was required to “build a deck,” which took time and a knowledge of the game I did not possess. For those of you uninitiated with Magic, imagine if you knew nothing about how Monopoly worked and rather than buying property, the first step was to go through the deck and choose which cards you wanted. At first glance, Boardwalk seems like a valuable card, but it takes a lot of cash and ownership of Park Place to build upon Boardwalk. If you had never played the game, how would you know how invaluable the “Get out of Jail Free” card is?

It’s a difficult sell, telling someone that before playing a game they are required to do homework and spend alone time on a project. Several months ago, on a particularly impoverished Saturday evening, he broke out the shoebox of cards and I broke out some patience and listened to the rules of the game. The green deck is nature and growth. Hm. The white deck is protection (this deck is more awesome than that, but it sounded weak and passive at the time). Black is death. I liked the sound of it, but was then told that my powers could hurt me as well. Ever the pragmatist, I put a pin in that one. When I heard that red is fire and destruction, I knew that was the choice for me. In video games, I like to play the smash-em-up burly knight with the fire-axe and destroy all that lies in my wake, rather than some shapely enchantress casting spells on goblins. So, I stumbled through my first few hands, picking up the rules as I went along. 

It was slightly frustrating at first, playing against someone who knew the rules by heart. I read the cards quickly, and would triumphantly lay down a card I thought to be utmost destruction only to be informed of some minor fine print that rendered it useless. It was like playing a game made up by an older sibling who changes the rules to suit him. “It doesn’t matter if you got the slinky in the basket on this turn because today is opposite day.” Also, I don’t like to be given exceptions in a game, as this can taint the victory. Knowing that your opponent only thinks you won because he allowed a do-over is vexing. 

Once I started to get the hang of it, Magic was entirely addicting. Sure, it did require some homework, but there was a feeling of triumph that I could form a strategy and use my knowledge of obscure rules as a weapon to be unleashed at the opportune moment.  I would proudly announce the summoning of wyverns and walls that strike and watch with joy the dismay and disappointment that would cloud his face. 

What makes the game so absorbing is the combination of strategy and chance. It’s like chess and Monopoly combined. I played chess when I was a kid, but always found it kind of dull. Although I have been banned from Monopoly, there is a sense of stratagems to it, but it really depends on the roll of the dice. You can be the most thoughtful player in the world, but if you spend your whole time getting sent to jail and blow all your money on the unvisited Boardwalk property, you’re going to lose. 

In Magic, you pick the cards in your own deck (at the moment, since I’m still figuring it out, I’m only playing with one color) so it’s up to you to balance what’s in it. At first, I stocked up on the lands, which are used as currency. I rarely have excess money in real life, so I like to have lots of cash in games.  Certain hands I would play I would have nothing but money the entire game and slowly get whittled down, point by point, unable to defend, by his cheap, weak creatures. As a result, I added about fifty brutal creatures and spells to my deck, making it impossible to physically handle. I would play entirely uneven games, usually populated by the same cards as the last hand, because I have the shuffling technique of a one-handed sloth. 

I have gained some skill at the game, and while I am not ready to take it to the streets yet, I know I enjoy it. It fulfills some part of the control freak in my personality and can send me into a truly satisfying rage. Why, in the name of the gods, old and new, did I not destroy that stupid spider with my Lightning Bolt before he put a giant growth on it?! Why am I so stupid? Likewise, it makes me happy. There is so much in real life we can’t control. There is nothing like coming home from a hard day at work, where customers talk down to you and your boss scolds you for a mistake that wasn’t yours, and then seeing the light fade from your beloved’s eyes as you turn all of his forests to ash and send his beloved grizzly bear to the graveyard. 18-0, my love.