By Derek Gallen

I walked away from Magic: The Gathering more than ten years ago, during my undergraduate term at Boston University. Upon cashing in what few resources I possessed to help finance my education, I decided to sell my collection and didn’t get all that much for it, at least not by today’s standards. Around that time I was busying myself assembling a set of Alpha and had many Beta editions of restricted cards, playsets of each dual land, and a trunk full of miscellaneous cardboard housing random bulk of the time like Show and Tell and City of Traitors.

Until then Magic had been good to me, during my teenage years: I had a regular store, Barron’s Comics and Cards in Milford, Connecticut, where I had frequented and played against several famous (and infamous) Pro Tour regulars and old school veterans. After several years traveling regularly to New York City to test my skills at Gray Matter and Neutral Ground, I managed to qualify for the JSS Division of Pro Tour New York in 1999, and for a weekend watched the game at its highest level of competition. Most importantly, I sparked several key adolescent friendships with local players; those late nights spent bent over tables and gnarled carpets blasting music and running gauntlets were some of the more beautiful childhood memories I’ve retained. But I was ready to solidify my path; to graduate college and stamp Magic into life’s archives, join the work force, and begin slowly to pay down an encumbering student loan debt. I believed I’d never look back.

Now fast forward to last year, my first summer without a job since graduating college. With little to occupy me apart from reading books and biking from park to park, self-reflection reared its head and somewhere in that mire I remembered Magic: The Gathering. I was flooded with an ineffable sentiment. A plan to escape from the mental strain of my situation had revealed itself. I spent two full days in bed scouring articles and watching videos of Pro Tours on the Internet. As I emerged bleary-eyed from my apartment to bike to the Local Gaming Store I suddenly recalled my DCI number, an old sequence utterly buried in my mind before that moment, and laughed to myself. I was ready to draft.

To say I was rusty, wholly unfamiliar with the current state of the game, is a gross understatement. I opened Ral Zarek and passed it, having never cast or really even seen a planeswalker in action. I’m sure whomever was on my left was pretty happy. I remember shivering with excitement as I shuffled and cut to play my first match. Before I realized what was happening, three rounds were over and I was already heading home to make myself an early dinner and calm my nerves. Something inside me had become activated; a part of my brain I had left uncharted for a decade had electrified. I fell asleep that night still hungry, a million circuits firing inside.

Once the thrill of activation had normalized did I level with myself as to how much I was losing. But unlike teenage Derek, who had been content to play the game for fun and go on the occasional hot streak; unlike teenage Derek, who collected all the cards he could and dreamed of finishing his set of Alpha; 30-year-old Derek very simply, perhaps woefully, wanted to win every game of Magic he played.

I had time to get better, so I took advantage and drafted M14 at the LGS a full six times per week, the maximum number of drafts I could join in on over a seven-day spin. I got slaughtered, but won a few packs on occasion, flipped the rares into more drafts, and kept at it, watching videos every morning and every night before bed, and reading any articles I found appropriate. I had to get better, I told myself, I had to beat teenage Derek at the game. I had to prove to myself I could be better than I was back then, that I had become more capable of understanding the game.

Before I knew it, summer was over, I had found a job, and I was able to buy cards again and commit myself more fully. My heart poured into understanding

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Theros draft. I became furious when I lost or forced a deck that didn’t happen, when I misplayed or didn’t read a card correctly. Unabashedly hard on myself, I obsessed over missed triggers, bad blocks, and other details of lost games as I lay in bed each night. Without my even knowing the term, I was becoming a spike.

Others noticed this in me, too. As a now-regular at the store, I had met and played against many of the other regulars, and being a mostly friendly person in between games, I got to chatting with many of them. I quickly discovered I was not alone in my time lapse, that there were others who had left the game around ten years ago and had decided to try and make a return. Then there were those who had just come on board within the last year. Magic had not only gotten far more complicated, but it had swelled with a sudden influx of old and new players. What’s more, 99 percent of the people I met were warmer, more interesting, and respectful people than the average opponent I played back at Barron’s.

Magic had become a better game, attracted better people to it, seemed to be bigger than ever, and was growing. New Magic-related friendships bloomed in my life, and soon the game took on a unique roll for me: It banded me to like-minded people, rid me of anxiety and impatience, and taught me to examine my decision-making process, rather than the results of those decisions. And I was getting better with each passing week. In a very short period of time I was growing into a better person. More accurately, I was settling into my adult self more than I’d been able to achieve in ten years of being engulfed by the working world.

I built Standard decks and watched others play Legacy and Modern at the LGS, bought competitive cards at an alarming rate, and with each format I dipped my toe into, more and more I became aware of how far away I was from what I wanted for myself. To commit more time and money to the game was feeling the oceanic fissure widen every time I stepped up to the display case at the LGS full of Tarmogoyfs and dual lands, the prices of which were rising with every passing week. In fact it seemed that the more I spent on the game, the amount I had yet to spend rose proportionally, and I lamented over my old collection of cards that had multiplied ten-fold in value. I had a long way to go if I was to be truly competitive, that was for sure.

Around that time was when GP Richmond was announced, and I resolved to at the very least learn the Modern format, build or borrow a deck, and organize the weekend off from work so as to travel to my first large-scale Magic event since before the year 2000. I traded in my binder full of Standard cards, bought into Melira Pod two weeks before the event, and ran the deck every chance I had with peers and at testing groups. I barely had enough mental capacity to interlock the combo by the time I got into the car that would take myself and three of my peers to Richmond, but I had to grind it out, to prove to myself I could withstand what was before me. If I could eke out a few wins I’d be happy with myself, but if I completely scrubbed out I’d probably have to consider my investment of time and money thus far, and be realistic about what future Magic held for me. In the end I was aiming only to beat teenage Derek at the game that weekend. And if I did, everything else was gravy.

I ended up winning my first two rounds against Grixis control and Hate Bears before losing the next three rounds consecutively to Affinity, Storm, and All-In Splinter Twin. Then I beat Infect and lost to GR Scapeshift before dropping at 3-4.

It was by no stretch a great performance, but I played tight, knew where my mistakes had happened, and my fear of the Modern format had been quelled. I had beaten teenage Derek, of that I was sure, and I was satisfied with that much as my victory. A few friends made day two, and one of my carmates, Jamie Parke, made top 8 and qualified for Pro Tour Journey into Nyx.

I bought a few cards, played in some side events, and got home late Sunday night to Brooklyn with a very particular feeling. I saw inside where I had come to, where I wanted to be, and how to begin navigating the way to close the gap. I needed to get better still, to face the challenges that lay ahead, to commit myself emotionally and financially to the game.

So off I go, my sights aimed at sitting down for the next GP equipped to blow my performance at Richmond out of the universe. And I want you, my reader, to follow me, to see the spike beat back his ghosts and level his way into strong performances at the higher levels of competitive Magic. Along the way I’ll be reporting in detail my tournaments, my level-ups, and my continued development as a relapsed player—a place it seems many of you find yourselves these days.

“I will tell you what I will do and what I will not do. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it calls itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: And I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use—silence, exile, and cunning.”—James Joyce

Derek Gallen prefers all things black leather, but dislikes rolling dice when resolving Hymn to Tourach. Cannot be terrored. Effects that prevent or redirect damage cannot be used to counter this loss of life.

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