Sometimes, you don’t realize you’re in a funk until you’re snapped out of it.

This past weekend, I had the privilege of drafting Sniffygull’s incredibly fun Monkey Cube. Fellow Hipster and longtime friend Derek Gallen was in attendance for an eight person cube draft with mostly people I’d never met. It might’ve been via Discord, DR4FT, and Magic Online rather than at a physical table, but it’s the closest experience I’ve had to the Magic I adore in almost a year. I drafted a powerful deck whose only issue was not having two more pieces of early interaction (I’ll remember that black has less spot removal than I’d expect for next time, and there will be a next time).

My most notable takeaway wasn’t the deck I drafted, my discoveries about the cube’s design, the games, or even how much fun I had. I already know that cube is awesome. What did surprise me was how seriously I took my games.

I’ve played a lot of Magic over the pandemic. I’ve accidentally hit top 1200 mythic just because I love War of the Spark draft. I’ve amassed a trove of gems that’ll keep me infinite through some long dry spells. Sure, I’ve been having less fun in this era of bingeing, but that’s no surprise due to the pandemic being a drain on everything and how much I miss playing with my friends. But it wasn’t until this past weekend that I realized that I’ve just not been engaged by Magic.

In a cube draft with nothing but pride on the line, I intently focused on every single game. I unconsciously bit my lip, took quick pauses to reevaluate my strategy, and committed my deck to memory rather than vaguely recall it. I didn’t have a livestream running in background or constantly flick between browser tabs, as I always do while playing Arena. I didn’t confuse my deck with a similar one I’d played four drafts and two hours prior. For the first time in forever, Magic commanded my full and undivided attention. With a little human interaction, Magic finally engaged my brain fully. And man, it felt gooooood.

I knew I’d been engaging less with Magic—there are no weekend team drafts, weeknight LGS Pioneer, MagicFests, or work lunches to discuss Magic’s story, so of course I’m spending less time on it. It wasn’t until this past Saturday that I realized how mentally disengaged I’d become. Somewhere along the line, pandemic Magic became something I performed out of habit rather than out of legitimate enjoyment. I thought I was burned out, that bingeing and the doldrums were at fault. But the solution wasn’t just spending more time and energy elsewhere—it was searching a bit more for ways I wanted to play (and could due to the pandemic). Kaldheim draft is fun, but I’m more excited to build an Arena cube to play with my friends than I am to play with or against multicolor snow decks over and over.

I believe that Magic is the best game in the world. However, it doesn’t deserve the title just because of how good its rules frameworks are, how well designed its cards, environments, and components are, or how historically significant it is. Magic’s excellence flows from the emergent behaviors which arise from these factors. Magic fosters friendships. Magic is an outlet for intellectual challenge and self-expression. Magic provides the thrill of playing against another living, breathing human being, not just a faceless username in the corner of the screen.

I may not be able to play the way I truly want to now, next month, or even six months from now, but Sniffygull did me an enormous favor by demonstrating that I don’t have to wait for the world to come to me to start enjoying Magic again—that magic can be recaptured with just a little more effort (and being incredible generous and trusting with a Magic Online collection) right now.

Zachary Barash is a New York City-based game designer and the commissioner of Team Draft League. He designs for Kingdom Death: Monster, has a Game Design MFA from the NYU Game Center, and does freelance game design. When the stars align, he streams Magic (but the stars align way less often than he’d like).

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