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.

Mise.

So, I played in a Magic: the Gathering tournament on Saturday.

This is not a thing I normally do. The last time I played in a tournament was almost two years ago. While a younger version of me had aspirations to become a professional Magic: the Gathering player, those aspirations have long been dead. (True story: when I graduated high school, my parents paid for me to go to the US National Championships that summer, as a spectator. When I came back, I promptly told my parents that I was quitting Magic.)

I think Magic is one of the greatest games created in my lifetime. It’s a game that rewards creativity, logic, reasoning, and psychology. The friends I’ve made as a player, tournament organizer, and judge have been among the finest people I’ve ever known. My involvement with Magic has provided me with unique experiences that I’ll cherish forever. How many of you have been stranded in Barcelona overnight, getting lectured by a septuagenarian British cat burglar over a pitcher (or three) of too-strong sangria?

It’s no surprise to anybody who knows me well that my enthusiasm for Magic has waned over the last few years. Ever since I became a judge in 2004, Magic has been a major part of my life. I worked as a professional tournament organizer for the better part of seven years. I ran my own business selling Magic cards on the Internet for nearly three years. I’ve been a contractor for Wizards of the Coast, the company that produces Magic, since 2015. I honestly don’t think there will be a time in my life where I won’t know how to play Magic.

Yet I’m getting older. There was definitely a time in my life where I would wake up at 4 AM to drive three hours to judge a Magic tournament for ten to twelve hours, get paid less than $100, and then drive home that night. That time has passed. I value my free time differently. The community has also changed. There are only so many times I can correct a young, white, college-aged boy on his use of “gay” or “retarded” at a Magic event. I’ve had to reprimand players for wearing shirts with slogans like “Cool story, babe, now go make me a sandwich.”

While the community has changed, it is still a community with which I identify. It still possesses many lovable characteristics, and some of my favorite people. I like to think that I can help make it better for others. Hence, getting in my car and driving to my favorite game store in the world: Atomic Empire, in Durham. (To quote my good friend Aaron “Cluze” Lacluyze: It’s a great shop. You should check it out.)

To my slight surprise, I had a really good time! The details of my play are irrelevant, other than that I dropped out of the tournament after two unsuccessful rounds, and decided I’d rather treat myself to lunch at Cook-Out than play another round or two in hopes of maybe winning a pack. There was a time where I would have focused on playing the tournament out, in hopes of getting that pack, but that time has passed.

I consider myself to be more competitive than the average person. I definitely cared about winning, but as soon as it was clear that I wasn’t going to win, I thought about what the loss was going to teach me. Playing Magic, and losing at Magic, provides me with many useful opportunities for introspection, and that appeals to the parts of me that would like me to be a better version of myself. (This is an area with many, many opportunities.)

So, yeah – I went to a Magic tournament, I lost a bunch, and then I had a cheeseburger and a milkshake. I got to be enthusiastic about Magic with other people who are enthusiastic about Magic, and that counts for something. I don’t imagine I’ll ever pick up Magic as a competitive hobby again. Still, I’m glad that I was able to engage with the game and the community in a way that felt positive and helpful to me. Maybe I’ll do that again sometime.