You play this game for a reason.

No—you play it for a different reason than that. There’s something deep down in your makeup, at some sublittoral level you barely ever touch, that draws you to this. Be honest with yourself, because I’m about to be honest with you.

I play Magic because end-of-turn-loot-with-Jace feels like a shower-IPA after mowing the lawn. I play Magic because Scragnoth, Darkling Stalker, and Spiritmonger squirt nostalgia-necter into the porches of my brain. I play Magic because “Hold up, in response—” is one of my favorite phrases in human history.

I also play Magic, though, because the intricacies of my brain make it hard to read tone and faces sometimes, and interaction through set rules and responses makes my life easier. I play Magic because it allows me to externalize my anxieties into “c’mon topdeck a land” rather than “hey, you using that degree?” I play Magic because it makes me a more complete person—I have a history with it, I can use it to access a given moment, and I know it’ll be around for years to come. I play Magic, at base, because it gives me power.

All games are about power—roguelike games about denying you power until you’ve earned it, MMOs about comparing power levels garnered through hours of training—but more specifically, games are about empowerment, about goal-based growth through repetitive experience. Magic, especially, is a game of iterative empowerment—you start with a blank field that you populate with the things you can afford until you are able to execute goals. Magic is dense enough, though, to mean those goals can shift between decks, between games, and even between moments.

In addition, Magic operates off of a nested expression of empowerment—you start self-construction and -actualization during deckbuilding. You can see this as an abstract statement about the nature of power: the beginning of empowerment lies in reducing randomness, in constricting the number of risk factors possible. It may help to think of deck construction as a catalog of privilege, as a way to start the game (i.e., the actual experience) with something already in your corner. You can win the game with nothing but eight swamps and fifty-two Shadowborn Apostles, but it’s an uphill battle. If you build your deck correctly—or open an Aethersphere Harvester—you’re already moderately empowered. The struggle lies in leveraging that power into achieving a goal. Magic’s stated goal is one of subjugation, of “beating your opponent.” Even when you’re playing a group hug deck or an off-kilter deck (e.g., Battle of Wits, which still executes a winning mechanic), you’re inherently engaged in an act of dominance.

The thing is, assuming play value isn’t restricted to finances (and oh man, is this a fraught field of thought), everyone can become empowered in the game of Magic—in both the metaphysical sense, that you get better at the mechanics of the game as you practice, and in the individualized game sense, in that you end the game with more assets and resources than you started. This is why so many people find Draw-Go and resource denial decks frustrating: someone is literally taking power away from you, pilfering the ability to control your own resources and taking away your power to predict the scope of the game (e.g., I have three Mountains in play, so next turn, I can play this Chandra—oh, Stone Rain, never mind). Magic is a violent game in its flavor, but we resist it when it becomes violent in its ludic mechanics—and don’t get it twisted, someone siphoning off power from you is an act of violence.

But there’s the beauty of Magic—by giving us a playspace to test the boundaries of social interaction and power struggles, we’re able to better experience and articulate how it feels to be denied opportunities, how it feels to lose power and be stymied by someone else’s external plans. For some of us, it’s one of the few times that we feel frustrated by the schemes of others, for those people who skim like water-striders over the placid surface of privilege and opportunity. These are the ones who get extra-salty when you nuke their last dual land, because they’re used to the narcotic amnioscape of power.

Finding a solid fusion of empowerment and empathy is the good shit that we’re all searching for, ideally, whether in utilitarian and effective policy, or in dropping a Kynaios and Tiro and turtling up for twelve turns. So when your Scapeshift gets Spell Pierced or your Dark Confidant takes a Fatal Push, take a second to breathe deep and itemize your blessings—then jujitsu the ever-loving-hell out of their aggression in whatever form you find fulfilling. This is a game of power, and you’re powerful for playing it.

A lifelong resident of the Carolinas and a graduate of the University of North Carolina, Rob has played Magic since he picked up a Darkling Stalker off the soccer field at summer camp. He works for nonprofits as an educational strategies developer and, in his off-hours, enjoys writing fiction, playing games, and exploring new beers.

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