They Always Come Back

I resigned from the Magic judge program in November 2018, but I didn’t throw away my shirt. For the last few months, it’s hung in my closet, still clean, along with the two pairs of black Propper tactical pants that were the bottom half of my judge uniform. I still have my name badge.

Prior to my resignation, I was the Regional Coordinator for the Mid-Atlantic US region. I held that role for six years, until I allowed my contract to pass along to one of my dearest friends, Eric Dustin Brown. I’d made no secret that I wanted Eric as my successor – he’s charismatic, hard-working, and we share a lot of the same values when it comes to community leadership and development. In a call back to the “let’s pretend” days of my childhood, I’ve often joked with him that we are the Judge Program version of superlative hip-hop group Run the Jewels: Eric as a Caucasian Killer Mike, loud and out in front, and me as a shorter, fatter El-P, charmingly misanthropic.

At the time of my resignation, I was thoroughly burned-out on Magic in general, and on judging in specific. I became a judge in 2004 and threw myself into it head-first. By 2007, I was essentially a full-time professional judge: I worked for Star City Games, the world’s largest secondary-market retailer of Magic cards, as an event coordinator and judge manager. My work weeks would consist of pulling orders for our customers, answering emails for our judges, and providing input on how we could run bigger, better, Magic events.

My work weekends – two to four each month – consisted of running Magic tournaments for anywhere from 30 people to 3,000 people. I spent a lot of time in cargo vans, and easily ate my body weight in overpriced concession stand food. At the time, I’d yet to turn 30, so the prospect of living out of a suitcase didn’t seem untenable. I was making more money than I’d ever made before, and in certain circles, I was well-known and well-regarded. I’ve often joked with friends that, in imitation of Ron Burgundy in the movie Anchorman, I was “kind of a Big Deal.”

What I didn’t realize at the time, and what it took me more than a decade to figure out, is that I was both unhappy and unhealthy. I’ve never been a fitness nut, and while I was working myself ragged every week, I wasn’t taking care of myself at all. I figured that my anxiety and my depression were personal shortcomings, rather than chemical imbalances in my brain. It wasn’t until I began seeing a psychiatrist in 2018 that I realized that there wasn’t anything wrong with me as a person, but that my brain was doing a crappy job of giving me the chemicals I needed to feel okay. But I digress.

I left the judge program in November 2018, with no intention of coming back. I’d been a judge for fourteen years, and I didn’t want to be a judge anymore. I had gotten to the point that I often criticized other judges for reaching: clearly disinterested in engaging with the game, or the program, showing up at events to collect a check while underwhelming everyone around them. In my case, it had been this way for several years: There was a period where judging comprised a significant portion of my annual income. While people will often speak enthusiastically about the idea of getting paid to do what they love, my experience was the opposite: attempting to make a living from Magic killed my love of Magic.

When I finally gave myself permission to resign from the judge program, a funny thing happened: I fell back in love with the game. The introduction of Magic: the Gathering Arena gave me a way to play the game without all the things I don’t like about Magic: the crowds, the wait times between rounds, the rude players with vaguely misogynistic (or worse) attire and an attitude to match. Playing Magic no longer took the commitment of an entire day. I could (and often do) play Arena during my lunch break from work. Since I didn’t have to care about tournament policy, or the secondary-market value of a booster box, I could relax. I wasn’t obligated to be a guru. I would hear about massive tournaments and the inevitable logistical issues that would result, and a part of me would chuckle and think “thank God that’s not my problem anymore.”

Many people get into judging because they love the game, and they want to help their communities. The Magic community contains some of the best friends I’ve ever made in my life. I’ve had experiences as a Magic judge that otherwise would have been completely unavailable to me: I was stranded in Barcelona for a few days, once, due to repeated plane malfunction, and spent my evenings getting inebriated on Spanish sangria while listening to a septuagenarian British cat burglar tell us stories about his life. I tried feuerzangenboule in Germany with my girlfriend at the time, a doctor of nuclear chemistry and an even stronger judge than I was. I even got to tour the corporate headquarters of Wizards of the Coast, the company responsible for creating Magic, on two separate occasions. I love Magic, and I love the Magic community. I don’t think there will ever be a time I won’t know how to play the game.

So, in February, I re-tested for Level 1. I studied, but I didn’t study too much. I worried, but I didn’t worry too much. (How embarrassing would it be to fail?, I thought to myself on more than one occasion.) When my proctor, Clay, told me I scored a 92%, I felt very pleased. I’ve judged one event since, and while I don’t have the same fire for judging I once had, I enjoyed myself and I think I did a fine job.

This weekend, I’m driving to Wilmington, North Carolina, to present at a judge conference. I want to be a part of my regional community and, hopefully, contribute positively to that community in the ways I wasn’t contributing as an RC. I want to spend time laughing with my friends, and I feel very confident that’ll happen. And I can’t wait.