Cover image: Femeref Enchantress by D. Alexander Gregory

“If you have to fight with yourself over it, you should probably mulligan the hand.”

For the past few years, that mantra has kept me from falling victim to overly greedy hands. But only recently, I found that you can apply it to situations outside of gameplay. If you’re faced with a decision that should’ve been easy, but you’re fighting with yourself on it, the decision is being made right in front of you.

Back in November, I preordered Party Hard, Shred Harder, the Secret Lair that featured cards that look like metal band shirts. I’ve been growing my appreciation for metal, and the Assassin’s Trophy spoke to me, so I sprung for it. Forty dollars took about thirty seconds to parse out.

Fast forward to January, and the mulligan mantra came back into view. I realized that I thought of that order maybe twice in the past two months. In “Death by a Thousand Cuts,” Rob Bockman makes the case that we need to check in with ourselves on our motives, because our decisions aren’t always as small as they seem. And here I was needing to question my motives.

To give you a better idea of what my stream of consciousness was looking like, here it is in the form of a stage production.

[Lights go up. Two Travis Normans are sitting at a vintage diner table, and both are wearing papier-mâché costumes. One looks like a brain, the other like a heart.]

Brain: So, Heart, we haven’t thought about the Secret Lair in months. Did you realize that?
Heart: Yeah, I suppose you’re right. But the Assassin’s Trophy is so cool! It’s going to be great to own. People are going to compliment us on that a lot.
Brain: Yeah, but what about the other cards, though? We don’t really have a plan for those.
Heart: Well, we can jam the rest in the Ramos, Dragon Engine deck. You can make cuts to fit them in, right?
Brain: I suppose, but what about Thraximundar?
Heart: [nervous] . . . what about him?
Brain: You know he hasn’t been playable in years. He’s going to end up in a box somewhere, and you know it.
Heart: But—but the Assassin’s Trophy is so cool!
Brain: Of course, but is your excitement for that worth the neglect of the others?
Heart: Well . . . I . . .
Brain: I think you know what I’m going to say next.

I was fighting with myself over what was meant to be a fun, easy purchase—but I came to the realization that it wasn’t for me after all. I went into my emails, found the order confirmation, and cancelled the order. My name on the list disappeared as quickly as it arrived.

Fear of Missing Out is a real and present challenge in Magic, and our opportunities to grapple with it continue to grow. It isn’t as simple as watching from the home while your friends go to MagicFest Vegas when you can’t. Now, it includes a year-long battle with an endless stream of products, experiences, and hype cycles. Couple that with a year of isolation under COVID-19, and it feels like we’ll jump at any chance to be excited again, since it’s a break from staring at our four walls. This stream can feel like everything is happening outside our door, despite convention centers being empty for a year.

This can lead us to make impulse purchases, since they offer the excitement of being a part of something our friends are doing. Sometimes they pay off, and we’re happy with the path we chose. Other times, they turn out as an attempt to fill a gap of something else that’s missing in our lives. Since the product line has expanded so wide, we have to make more choices of where we put our money. This creates moments where we have to pick between two things we love, and let one pass us by. But remember: not owning something doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate it from afar. Sometimes, love without ownership is enough.

The Train that Never Stops

In my case with that Secret Lair, I had fallen victim to the hype, plain and simple. I saw people across Twitter express their excitement, and that helped fuel my own interest. After all, I didn’t want to miss out on owning such a cool thing. The hype train is a powerful machine, getting stronger the more we become connected online. But as it continues to evolve, we people are still largely the same. We’re still eating breakfast cereal, refreshing our emails, and trying not to slip on sidewalk ice. We can’t steer the hype train, but we can control if we want to get on in the first place.

I believe we can be better about when we climb aboard, if we treat it like an opening hand. Sometimes, we see a product that checks all the boxes for us, like seeing a perfect curve-out in our opening seven. In that case, it’s an easy choice. Other times, we see products with only some aspects we like, so we try and sell ourselves on why it’s a good idea. But is that choice really going to get us to where we want to go?  If a friend asked us if it was a good fit for them, what would we say? This can apply to anything in the Magic space, from Secret Lairs to Commander decks.

Appreciation and Ownership

In Magic, there’s a tricky relationship between appreciation and ownership. It’s all too frequent that both run hand-in-hand. If you like something, you do what you can to go out and get it. Simple enough, right? While that might have made sense ten years ago, it’s no longer the case now.

Wizards of the Coast has been upping their product offerings as the game grows. However, we’ve reached a point where the product line has outgrown the means that most customers have to purchase them. These changes are difficult for everyone, from hardcore collectors who pick up everything, to beginners who are finding their way in the hobby. We’re at this proverbial buffet line that has a bunch of new food options, but our plate remains the same size. Sure, you can stack those crab legs higher and higher, but it’s a story that probably won’t end well.

This expansion has moved us into a new position, where we have to be more selective with where we spend our money. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it can be tough when we like more cool things than what we can afford. This isn’t new to being a Magic consumer, but it’s different when most of these things are fairly attainable, and are showing up much more often. We’re not getting new versions of $100 VIP Boosters every month, but rather smaller things that make us say, “That’s really cool, and I can afford it. Should I get it?” It’s the Secret Lair drop with $80 in reprints for $39.99, or the extended frame version of a card you already own. We face more choices now than ever before. The challenge comes down to when we draw a line between appreciating something special, and feeling the need to own it.

It’s worth mentioning that ownership plays somewhat of a part in what we can and can’t do inside the game. Since I own a Wasteland, I can play it in Legacy. I’ll never own an Underground Sea, though, so I’m not going to build Grixis Delver. Gameplay aside, the majority of the tension between appreciation and ownership lives in the shiny new things that come out each year.

Take Demonic Tutor, for instance. When we first saw the Japanese Showcase cards for Strixhaven, Magic fans were aflame with excitement. The Ukiyo-e style art was unlike anything most people had seen on a Magic card. I myself had just purchased the Douglas Shuler version, but after seeing the new one scattered all over my Twitter feed, I started to think about greener pastures.

My dad always used to say about movies, “If you’re thinking about it the next day, then you know it was a good one.” I was walking my dog the morning after, and I caught myself thinking about the Demonic Tutor again. My brain asked my heart, “Will it still be special when every vendor at a grand prix has a Pringle-curled foil copy? How about when people post photos of their cube decks, and it’s there? Will it still be special after we get two or three new D-Tutor arts over the next several years?”

To put that into perspective, Demonic Tutor has been around since Alpha, but over half of its arts have come in the past four years. This card, like many others, is a cash cow that fuels repeated excitement in cracking packs. Wizards has and will continue to make cool versions of Demonic Tutor, long after Strixhaven. As much as I wanted to want this new one, I couldn’t overcome those questions. It feels strange to turn down one of the coolest card arts I’ve ever seen, but here we are. Love doesn’t have to mean that it needs to be sleeved up in your deck.

Well of Knowledge by D. Alexander Gregory

Moving Forward, With or Without New Things

Only you can decide on whether a product is right for you, so it helps to ask those tough questions. If it’s not for you, it’s okay to still appreciate it without having to own it yourself. It’s important to remember that we can celebrate our friends’ excitement, without having to feel like we’re missing out on something ourselves.

What the hype train fails to mention is that every Secret Lair single, etched foil commander, or time-shifted Ponder will still be out there next year, waiting for someone to pick them up. You have the power to decide on if you want these things in your life, and nothing can take that away from you. The hype train will come and go, so maybe you’ll just catch the next thing that rounds the corner.

Travis is a Virginia-based player and writer, who has been turning things sideways since Starter 1999. He primarily plays Commander, Pauper, and Legacy, and has a passion for introducing new players to the game. When he isn’t making people pay the Thalia tax, he can be found mountain biking or playing the guitar. You can follow his exploits here on Twitter and Instagram.

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