The Michelberger Hotel lobby is a maze of pillowed couches spotted with fashionable young Europeans swirling cocktails. Radiohead’s Creep is playing overhead, infecting everyone with its driving 90s angst. We saddle up at the long bar and order a drink, taking in the scene. This area of Berlin, near Kreuzberg, hosts a wonderful juxtaposition of modern conveniences with a nostaligc european grit. The Michelberger rests atop a hill overlooking the remains of the berlin wall—which in person couldn’t hold back a bored teenager—and houses some of the more cushionedly hipster looking travelers. The workers are mostly expats from Europe, Australia, even America. They’re full of energy as they fill glasses and wipe down tables.
Us, we’re silent, watching it all flow. Thom Yorke is crooning acidicly over the crowd. Past the front desk at the center of the room, through the side door into a cold European courtyard, stands the door to the Michelberger Restaurant. Soon we are through it, and seated at a long communal table under a festoon of low hanging, warm light. The walls and floors are soft white tile; the diners around us speaking a dozen languages. The place was swanky.
We ordered our courses with a voracious enthusiasm and had been until this point eating and drinking with gusto. As the first course was set down before us I snapped up utensils and posited myself to dive into the small cheese croquettes and fresh bread. Kate reached across the table and smiled.
Okay. Why don’t we slow down, and enjoy our food.
Okay, I said. And we took a deep breath, surveyed the dish, and took a bite, chewing slowly and deliberately. We did that thing where we shake our heads at each other as we eat together. It tasted fucking great. Better than any food I had tasted since we landed a few days ago. Better than food had tasted in weeks. With each bite, the room slowed. Or we slowed down. Either way, the pace of it all suddenly fell in sync.
The rest of our trip I walked slower and breathed deeper. I slept peacefully and held her hand when I woke. Feeling warm as we moved across the icy roads and between trains, the cold no longer penetrated our coats. We had found a pace. We were enjoying our food.
Back in New York after the fierce East Coast Blizzard and the jet lag’s final paleness dissipated, I began grinding out drafts of Oath of the Gatewatch. There I was, at FNM, or in an art studio in Brooklyn, getting a grasp on a new format. The usual unknown quantifiers being sorted in my mind, I wrestled my first few drafts out to strange and unremarkable conclusions. Once the new season of Team Draft League had begun and I was sitting with five other quality gentlemen, it occurred to me.
I was nervous, because I wanted to win, but I struggled to find the calm that keeps us focused during our game. I opened my first pack and fanned the fourteen cards out. I stared at my Linvala, knowing it was the pick, and began examining the pack when I heard her voice inside me.
Okay. Why don’t we slow down, and enjoy our food.
I took a deep, deep breath and looked again. Suddenly I was no longer nervous, no longer blinded by own cluttered thought. Slow down, I heard again inside me, and enjoy the draft. I placed my Linvala down, mapped the remaining cards in the pack, and passed it. A wonderful rush beat through me. I was calm, warm, and focused. I had a plan. The room around me fell into step with my thoughts. I cut white, got rewarded, and drafted a decent UW deck. My team won.
Then I drafted again. And won. And then again. And won, again.
Each time I sat down, I heard her voice. Slow down, and enjoy the draft.
Time stretched out like a sunset across the sky, the whole of my mind radiant and peaceful. I was in love with her, and that love had filled a hole in my game.
I was impatient. I’m sure some of you are guilty of the same problem. Your brain short-circuits, you don’t think things through, and you become blind to what’s happening. You stop playing Magic, and start putting cards on a table. It’s something I’ve struggled with, but this thing was not clear to me for years. The problem existed between the surface of my awareness, and as a result I could not understand what was happening when it afflicted me. But after a few years of constant leveling up, my view of magic expanding with every win, every loss, my development had come to a head. I had to understand once and for all how impatient I had been. And with this perfect storm of vacation, time away from Magic, and the deepening of my relationship with my girlfriend, I believe myself to be breaking through to one of the mightiest level ups.
Often, when I have studied Magic, developing my ideas and how I envision myself within them, I get caught up with concerning myself over fragmented aspects of the game. Tunnel vision, especially when drafting, can swallow me into a vortex of thought that disrupts the natural flow of information I should be tuned into in order to conceptualize my deck. Having a crystalline understanding of the greater landscape of a deck, how it plays out, how it wins and loses are vital. Taking this process one pick at a time instead of all at once is a short cut my mind wants to take, but it’s not necessarily the reality of what’s in the cards.
As an example, when I first pick a Linvala, my mind immediately wants to imagine winning games by casting it. That big moment when we take over with a sweet, powerful mythic rare, can blindside our thinking. It’s exciting to open such a big game, but the deck I am beginning to draft is far from realized. Navigating from here, from pick one, according to my bomb, no matter how powerful and high-impact, must be applied patiently, and with a flair of artistry. Relishing in this thinking, instead of allowing my mind to be clouded by jumping ahead, is where I have always come up short.
Since this shift, I have seen a profound change in my win percentage. My ability to draft, to play, and to win has gone from a concern to be muddled within to a joy. As simple as this might sound, I have found my love in playing, win or lose, again, and it has taken me across the barrier into a new paradigm. I am still far from perfect in any way, but I am delighted to slow down and simply play. Winning has become a puzzle, not a fight.
Take a deep breath, and enjoy your food.
Derek Gallen lives and writes in Brooklyn, New York.