My first Mountain Goats show was a month after my eighteenth birthday, at Cat’s Cradle in Chapel Hill. I paid $7.50 at the door. They were still in the process of phasing out smoking indoors in North Carolina bars, and so there was a barrier of fusty Parliament exhaust at the front and back, right where the doors led out into the humid night. I had only heard some of their lo-fi self-releases and All Hail West Texas, and so I wasn’t intimately familiar with the band; but it was eight bucks and I was bored and lonely. John Darnielle, the frontman of the Mountain Goats, is a frenetic performer: shoeless, hair dyed black, almost always wearing a velvet blazer and dark jeans, he pogos and bounces and monologues. He played for two hours that night, introducing “new stuff from my next record,” which was to be The Sunset Tree.

My most recent Mountain Goats show—by my count, my twelfth—was in December, when I drove up to North Carolina to see them at the Haw River Ballroom. They played some of the same songs they played back in 2004—the encore crowd-pleasers of “This Year” into “Best Ever Death Metal Band Out of Denton” into “No Children”—and some songs I hadn’t heard in years. I’ve seen the band in coffeeshops and maximum-occupancy-50 underground bars, and I’ve seen them at open-air brushed-steel breweries and retroconverted textile mills. So there’s a lot of history there—there has to be, as Darnielle has now written over 650 songs. Jumping into the Mountain Goats discography is an exercise in maximalist scholarship, like trying to familiarize yourself with Magic’s back catalog. That’s led to the quasi-quasi-ironic slogan you’ll see on Mountain Goats merchandise and as the title of the podcast he hosts with Night Vale’s Joseph Fink: “I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats.”

There are places to start with both tMG and MtG, though—The Sunset Tree and Tallahassee are the two I’d recommend for people who want the full album experience, with The Sunset Tree as the album I’d recommend to people who aren’t interested in indie singer-songwriter stuff. It’s the Force of Will of The Mountain Goats—overly powerful and rough around the edges, but such an impressive thing that it warps the rest of the format/discography around it. Over the course of it, Darnielle (or a series of narrators through which Darnielle processes his traumas and trials) comes to terms with the outsize penumbra cast by Darnielle’s abusive stepfather, culminating in the devastatingly ambivalent line in the final song, “Pale Green Things”: She told me how you’d died at last—at last. It’s an equivocating encomium for something you can’t put into words, but have to spend years grappling with nonetheless.

The nostalgia I have tied up into those old songs is a similar nostalgia I feel regarding Magic: the Gathering. I’ve drafted at least two drafts out of every set—save Worldwake, for some reason—in the last fifteen years. I’ve never put that in writing before, and I’m taken aback at the truth of it. Those fifteen years—from 17 to 32—have perfectly coincided with my love for The Mountain Goats—indeed, those drafts have regularly been soundtracked by those albums. Over a dozen albums, in fact, and about to be one more: last week, John Darnielle announced the new Mountain Goats album, which is influenced by Dungeons and Dragons and heavy metal fantasy.

The announcement of a livestream with Wizards of the Coast was well-received among his fans, but less suitably timed for Magic’s audience, following dropped coverage and a lack of transparency following Magic Fest NJ, so I thought I’d give further context into why this partnership works, why there’s an audience overlap, and how the same themes of empowerment and empathy found in the Mountain Goats’ songs are what makes Magic work for so many people.

Darnielle plays games—he’s tweeted D&D characters and the first games of Magic he played with his young son—but he also has written eloquently about the power of games in his novel, Wolf in White Van. The protagonist of that book, disfigured and traumatized after an impulsive suicide attempt, invents a by-mail puzzle RPG that attracts a cult following. This therapeutic tool eventually causes him great pain, and the bulk of the book is him trying to understand how fantasy can be corrosive, whether it’s a role-playing game or the D&D frenzy and subsequent Satanic Panic backlash.

Games, like any form of roleplay, can be the way we process outsized emotions and tensions in a predictable and ordered system, and Darnielle understands that better than anyone working in music right now. He might not characterize himself as a games writer, but he writes about and understands the draw of games as elegantly and persuasively as he writes about his own life. Games aren’t just play, Darnielle understands: they’re rituals, systems that can’t be fully understood without the superstition and sanctification that emerges around them. Crown Royal bags, guild-branded dice, the Credit Card Game—there’s no culture or subculture without exclusive rituals. There’s no “us” without an outside “them” and no growth without pressure.

Darnielle writes with great tenderness, even when he writes about deeply callous characters—for example, the mutually-destructive, substance-abusing couple of the “Alpha” song series and Tallahassee/Get Lonely. That tension is one of the better things about his work—the juxtaposition of “damage” and “victory.” Both of those words have deep resonance for Magic players as well—the sense of overcoming adversity, the process of turning your scars into works of art, the feeling of everything being stacked against you, and still fated to turn out alright. “We are strong,” Darnielle sings in “Riches and Wonders,” “We are faithful. We are guardians of a rare thing. We pay close, careful attention to the news the morning air brings. We show great loyalty to the hard times we’ve been through.”

It’s up to you to plug in your own experience into “hard times,” whether it’s games or trauma or just the long slow process of becoming a full person. And when you do, you realize the value of that experience, if there’s any to be found. That’s why I listen to the Mountain Goats; that’s why I play games; that’s why I write. That value is self-derived, but it isn’t self-isolated: it’s shared. When hundreds of Mountain Goats fans chant “HAIL SATAN!” along with Darnielle, it’s about the victory of shared experience; when thousands of Magic players convene to test decks or skills or just shuffle up a Cube, it’s about the shared experience, the rituals of shuffling and presenting and mulliganing. You’re not alone, John Darnielle tells you. You’re not alone, Magic tells you. Dragons are rad as hell, they tell you together.

A lifelong resident of the Carolinas and a graduate of the University of North Carolina, Rob has played Magic since he picked a Darkling Stalker up 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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