#120: Obsession and an Old Friend

I have no steady interests, only recurring obsessions. And living in Detroit now as an adult seems to reactivate long-dormant ones – obsessions, that is. It might be that a place naturally lends itself to the playing out of different impulses. I’m always obsessed with something, and if you’ve been reading my letters for a while you know that that thing can be pottery or kendo or tacos or meandering walks or the latest draft of my manuscript. Obsession for me is like a vine; it simply grafts itself the fenceposts of whatever’s around.

For several years when I was a teenager I played the card game Magic: The Gathering. I wasn’t one of those kids who’d bring the cards to school (I felt far too self-conscious to do that), but I’d take my long white boxes over to my friend Ken’s house and we’d play in his basement, sometimes climb over the wall in his backyard to go to Gamers’ Inn, a card/board game shop in the strip mall on the other side. After that it’s a familiar story: we moved on to other games, other interests; the cards languished in my parents’ basement for years until they were given away or sold at a yard sale or thrown away with a bunch of stuff that time a pipe burst and the basement flooded.

I’d more or less forgotten about Magic until I found out that DB and some of his friends still played. In the months before I left New York I’d join them on occasion, and we played again on my recent visit too, cases of beer in the fridge, bags of charcoal for the barbecue later that night, a form of some ancient male bonding, except instead of crouching in wait with bows and arrows for a herd of elk, we’re at an apartment in Brooklyn conjuring elves and goblins on a dining room table. But this last time it was different, this last time something took hold.

One of the things that sets Magic apart from other strategic games is that in poker or chess the pieces are fixed, but in Magic, a new set of cards comes out every few months. Games impart their values through their mechanics, and one of the primary mechanics of Magic, even before you really start playing, is assembling your pieces. Building your deck. Deckbuilding teaches economy, probability, thematic resonance. A deck has sixty cards, is a balance of “spell” cards and resource cards that you need in order to play the spells. You can have a deck of more than sixty cards, but each added card makes it less likely that you’ll draw your other cards. What I remember most about playing the game as a kid isn’t even playing the game, it’s the countless hours spent crafting decks, shuffling them, drawing opening hands over and over, adding and removing cards, sifting through 25-cent boxes at Gamers Inn for the pieces of a new deck idea. What I see now is that it was in a way preparing me to write and edit novels, to start with one or two scenes and follow them through to an entire book, and to edit that book down to only what is necessary, to only the strongest components, the ones that work best with each other. Magic for me was competitive storytelling.

In the last decade and a half, Wizards of the Coast, the company who makes the cards (and who acts as a sort of high council of wizards, issuing rulings and clarifications that filter down to the local level) have Magic running like a well-oiled machine. Each season a new card set comes out with new game mechanics and is set in one of an indefinite number of fantasy worlds. Now there are recurring characters called Planeswalkers that act as glue for the different worlds, Wizards’ version of the Avengers. Tournaments are held at local comic book and card game shops around the world every Friday night and results are synced to each player’s unique ID. Achievements are unlocked. Grand Prix and Pro Tour events are livestreamed. The cardlists of winning decks are posted immediately online, new decks are built to foil the old ones, newer decks built to foil those. There’s a lot more writing about Magic now, too, a lot more theory around the game, a whole language around mana fixing and card advantage and tempo. It’s like running into a friend you haven’t heard from in fifteen years and seeing that they’ve really grown into themselves.

I’ve started dipping my toes into the game again. I’ve gone to a couple local “draft” events, where each player gets few packs of cards and then has to make a deck out of those cards. It feels like I’m in a movie where I get to go back into my thirteen-year-old body as a thirty-one-year-old, and the difference now, I think, is that I’m much more methodical. I know better my weaknesses, my blind spots, which ones I can overcome with study and which will just take time. I review my mistakes and successes, I’ve learned how to learn.

And this kind of recurring hobby is exactly why the rhythms of novel-writing fit me so well. A few months on a draft, a few weeks off, just enough time between so that when it’s time to start again, I am newly, utterly, obsessed.