“Long I fell, and he fell with me. His fire was about me. I was burned. Then we plunged into deep water and all was dark. Cold it was as the tide of death: almost it froze my heart.” – Gandalf the White, Lord of the Rings
Maybe it’s my fault. Maybe I’m not ruthless enough, maybe I lack the competitive spirit necessary to be the very best I can be at Magic. Maybe I’m just too old now; the raging fire inside dimmed to smoldering embers by the passage of time. Maybe I’ve become a coward; too afraid of how others will perceive me to take what I’ve earned by rightful competition. The accusations clatter across my conscious mind like thunder and for a moment I have to ask if I believe them. That’s the funny thing about fighting with yourself: you don’t pull punches and you know exactly which tender spots will hurt the most. I stand here pondering the essential difference between what is “right” and what is “correct” and a part of me can’t help but wonder why this is suddenly important to me on such a personal level. This time however the monster inside does not win, the questions pass without producing an emotional response and the woman in the mirror keeps staring at me with sad eyes.
This surprises me; for most of my life I’ve actually been a little over competitive. This isn’t just a Magic thing; I’ve ruined numerous valued relationships with my need to constantly win somehow. At the Magic table however, I’m the girl who’s fond of saying, “I love winning more than air and losing hurts my soul.” I’ve cried after losses; not once but on numerous occasions. We aren’t talking full-fledged bawling like a kid who’s dropped an ice cream cone but when a frustrating day of Magic is finally over, I’ve been known to get a little (or a lot) misty. You can judge me for that if you want to but I’ll counter by reminding you that I also whoop and holler after particularly satisfying win. I am tenacious, driven by both my desire to win and the knowledge that losing will hurt on a personal level. I am not the greatest Magic player alive but if you’re going to beat me you’d better be committed and you’d better be prepared to scratch and claw for every point of life on the way down. For good or for ill that’s who I am. I am fully aware that my passion for this game is at once my greatest asset and yet my greatest weakness when playing Magic. If the woman in the mirror cares, her face doesn’t show it.
We’re arguing now, this woman and I. The simple truth is that I don’t want to change. I like being a competitor; I like thinking of myself as the kind of person who would do anything within the rules of Magic to win a match. My mind recoils in horror at the thought of behavior that could potentially reduce my chances of winning by even the tiniest of percentages. I’m angry now. This woman needs to understand that you can’t give anything away when competing; the opponent you let up for air now will be the same opponent who strikes you down a few turns later. You don’t get to pick and choose which rules you want to follow princess, and nobody cries for a scrub that lacks the courage to finish the deal by any means necessary. That’s right, I said it sweetheart. Scrub. Did you forget that I’m a disciple of David Sirlin1? Don’t you realize that my opponents are prepared to do whatever it takes to win? They will not only refuse to extend the same courtesy to me but if necessary they will use the rules as a weapon to defeat me. What’s more, they will do so without a hint of the remorse and teary-eyed introspection you are demonstrating here! The monster is in full control at this point; I laugh at the silly woman in the mirror and her ridiculous accusations. Of course, she laughs right back at me but I can see that it’s half-hearted; born of false bravado and resentment. Her laugh holds no power over me but those damned haunting eyes are another story altogether.
I’m scared now. The woman and I stop to share a cigarette and some scotch on ice. I expected that getting angry would work but the empty feeling inside hasn’t gone away. I try to reason with her, to make her understand that what I did was completely legal under the current rules of Magic. I had 8 Power spread across 3 creatures and my opponent had 8 life. I clearly went to my declare attackers phase, tapped all 3 of my creatures and indicated that I was attacking him rather than his Planeswalker. I even paused for a second and asked, “Do you have any responses?” To which he replied no. We went to blockers and when he passed I informed him that he was dead. Oh sure, he cried about his Jace, Architect of Thought but let’s be honest I gave him every opportunity to put his triggers on the stack. He just didn’t understand how his own cards worked. This wasn’t an FNM lady and I don’t want to hear any nonsense about how he was like 15 years old either; “You buy the ticket, you take the ride.” So what if he looked at me like I just kicked his puppy and why should I give a damn if he dropped right afterwards? I didn’t want to do it but if I hadn’t and he untapped to cast some kind of game winning bomb I could still lose. Why are you staring at me like I’m the lead instructor at the Kobra Kai karate school?
She isn’t the only one haunting me however. In between bouts of self loathing I keep coming back to the words of Seth Burn, a man I admire and respect immensely in our little community. “Would LSV or PV do that?” The truth is, I don’t know the answer to that question but I suspect it’s no. One person I admire who I can guarantee would not do it however is two-time Player of the Year and Magic Hall of Famer Shuhei Nakamura. This is a guy who, as recently as GP Nagoya was lauded in coverage for letting his opponents take back counterspells being aimed at his Abrupt Decays. I’m not going to pretend that I’m even in the same solar system as these players but the simple truth is that they destroy myth that you simply have to grind every advantage to be successful in this game. I affectionately label these men as “White Mages” of Magic and truthfully I respect them more for their pure sportsmanship than I do for their win/loss records; as impressive as those records may be in all 3 cases. For lack of a better term these men are my heroes so much as one can have a hero in regards to a card game. Of course the woman in the mirror knows this just as well as I do. I beg her to forgive me with my eyes but she stays silent, shaming me with the tears that stream down her face.
The woman has beaten me and we both know it. Deep down inside I know that from this point forward I will no longer be able to pretend that right and wrong don’t matter. I know that I will no longer be able to use the rules of Magic as a shield to protect my fragile conscience. For better or for worse the monster’s heart has grown 3 sizes this day and there will be no turning back. To be clear, this isn’t to say that I intend to play my opponent’s decks for them; there’s a fine line between a tactical mistake and a simple mechanical error. The sad truth however is that I can’t feign ignorance anymore and I’ve always been able to tell the difference in my heart. When my opponent taps his Geist of Saint Traft to attack both he and I expect the card to create a 4/4 Flying Angel token that’s tapped and attacking. When my previously mentioned opponent added a loyalty counter to his Jace he clearly intended for all my attacking creatures to get -1/-0 and thus spare his life. Why wouldn’t he want these things to happen? If he didn’t want them to happen, wouldn’t he say something like, “Well, I’d make an Angel but I’m at 1 and you have a Suture Priest/ Blood Seeker in play so I’ll pass.” More to the point, why would I feel justified in saying, “I’m sorry it wasn’t clear if you actually wanted that second turn with your Emrakul because you didn’t put the trigger on the stack. I assumed you just didn’t need the turn dude, better luck next time buddy”? I hate losing to sloppy players as much as the next gal but how is the solution to turn competitive REL into a fantastic game of Simon Says? I don’t presume to be smart enough to answer these questions for other people and while I wish the rules were more “right.” I have little problem accepting them as “correct.” This isn’t about judging others; it’s about my own ability to sleep at night after looking at this woman in the mirror.
I won’t lie; I’m still a little scared. For purely selfish reasons I am worried that my win percentage will go down. After all, it’s not like I haven’t won my fair share of games on a “technicality” in my long years of playing Magic. I’m not going to play the game of woulda-shoulda but it certainly seems reasonable to state that if I had shown mercy in these games, some of them would have led to losses. This is a hard pill to swallow for a competition junkie like me but the woman in the mirror will not be bargained with. I’m also worried that this new approach is going to lead to some judgment calls on my part that I’ve never had to deal with before. How exactly do you define the line between exploiting a “mistake” and abusing a “technicality”? I trust my heart to make these judgments when the time comes but I’d be a liar if I told you I can guarantee I’ll get them right. I’m going to do everything in my power to ensure my opponent and I complete a good game of Magic and if that means letting him cast another Elf from his hand because he’s drawn too many cards off a Glimpse of Nature, so be it. The woman in the mirror would expect nothing less and I’m tired of letting her down just to satisfy my own need to win at all costs.
The mirror woman is still crying right now but her eyes have changed. She’s no longer accusing me of failing myself and for a few brief seconds I swear she’s actually smiling at me. I smile back for a moment before we finish up that glass of scotch. This is only the beginning; this feeling depends on living up to my own ideals as both a person and a Magic player every single day until I finally leave this game behind. This isn’t going to be easy but somehow I know that it will be worth it. I stop and take one last look at the woman in the mirror before uttering the only words I’d vocalize all evening:
*turns out the lights*
1David Sirlin, Playing to Win: Becoming the Champion, April 24, 2006 http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/sirlin