Right now, Magic isn’t making me happy. I want to be clear that this isn’t a criticism of Wizards of the Coast, it’s an observation of my feelings. I absolutely believe that The Sky is Still Not Falling and Magic is still going strong. I’m just feeling down when playing Magic normally raises me up.

So, today, I’d like to share how I’m feeling with you all, why I think I feel this way, and what I intend to do about it. Perhaps it’ll help me process my own feeling better. Perhaps it’ll help you understand your feelings a bit better. Even if you’re feeling great about Magic, it can be helpful to understand why things are good for you right now.

I don’t write directly from the heart very often. I’m always afraid of even seeming like I’m using this platform to fruitlessly complain or adding another angry voice to the cacophony so often seen on the internet. But I do think it’s important to put this out right now, and hopefully this will come across as earnest and not a rant.

Some Background

There’s an absurdly obvious primary cause for malaise right now: the ongoing global pandemic. I’ve already written a year ago about how the pandemic disrupted the natural cycles by which I enjoy Magic. Without tournaments, without discussing Magic’s story over lunch with my coworkers, without Friday Night Magic at my local game store, my old routine couldn’t exist. I binged Magic over the span of a couple weeks instead of spreading play over months. There were no different kinds of events to provide texture to each experience, it was just a grind of one or two different formats on Magic Arena until the next format released. Under this paradigm, it was all too easy to burn out and just stop playing. And it was harder to coolly recognize this and change course when constant, looming dread about the state of the world dominated my thoughts.

This year, I’ve adapted and some things feel a bit more normal now. I’ve been able to find new ways to engage with Magic. I’ve gotten together and drafted with vaccinated friends. I’ve even played in-person events (in an N95 mask). Magic has released some products almost tailor-made for me, most notably Modern Horizons 2. And while I’m not yet ready to get on a plane and fly across the country for a Grand Prix-style event, I am stoked that Channel Fireball is providing just such an event this weekend in Las Vegas. When I’m ready, I am absolutely optimistic that the kinds of events I love will be there for me to play in.

With all that said, it sounds surprising for me to be burned out. Life is safer and there’s cause for ever more optimism, both for the pandemic and Magic. I entered 2020 concerned that the Year of Commander and Secret Lairs were harbingers of Wizards of the Coast shifting the focus away from players like me (decisions that certainly helped Wizards succeed wildly in 2020 despite the pandemic). 2022 looks to begin with plenty to look forward to, like Unfinity, the Brother’s War, and Magic’s doubling down on its fiction.

The Cycle Breaks

My dissatisfaction stems from three different areas. Magic itself, activities centered around Magic, and aspects of my experience in regard to the game.

To start, let’s talk about Magic. While I have a lot of praise for Modern Horizons 2’s draft format and many of the year’s mechanics, I’m not as sanguine about the primary experiences. I remember Kaldheim and Strixhaven as sweet formats, but thin ones. I’ve drafted enough green Snow and blue Lesson value decks for a lifetime and I’m not sure if I’ll ever want to play those mostly two-deck formats again. Adventures in the Forgotten Realms might be one of the most successful sets of all time, but it was one of the least fun draft formats I’ve ever played.

For all the praise that I’ve seen Midnight Hunt receive, I struggled to enjoy it once I’d figured out how blue-black and white-blue worked. I’m not sure if it’s actually Midnight Hunt’s fault or if I just wasn’t in the right headspace to enjoy it for what it was. All of that’s to say, with the exception of Modern Horizons 2 (and AFR, which I couldn’t touch after the first week), I’ve been enjoying every set less than the last and have finally hit the wall with Crimson Vow. It sounds like a fine format but I’ve not been motivated to play more than a handful of drafts when I’d normally have jammed at least twenty by now.

Part of what gets me into the right headspace to enjoy Magic are Magic-adjacent activities. Things like deckbuilding, cube curation, reading articles, chatting with friends, being at my local game store, and tournament preparation. I couldn’t do many of these in 2020, but I could do most of them in 2021. But also, 2021 is when competitive play ended (at least, for the time being), so there’s no reason for me to play Constructed or prepare for tournaments.

The sheer amount of content coming out meant that my favorite Magic column, Mark Rosewater’s Making Magic, was mostly forced into a cycle of six pieces: 2 articles previewing the upcoming set, 2 articles telling design stories of that set, and 2 mailbag articles. They’re good pieces from a fantastic writer, but they’re not the content I love most from him. I completely stopped reading Channel Fireball (despite being a CFB Pro member) because their vastly expanded content meant I spent more time removing articles from my feed reader than actually reading the few I wanted to. These are the things that keep me engaged with Magic when I’m not playing, and their hold is weaker than it was last year.

And finally, there’s my own situation. There are vibrant Magic communities in New York City, but my favorite local game store has yet to do any Magic events. I’ve struggled to get to know people at other stores because it’s really hard to communicate and make friends without facial expressions. And I do need new friends. My friend group was shrinking prior to the pandemic, but it’s accelerated the process and now it’s difficult getting just eight people together. (And because of the pandemic, I’m really not comfortable inviting strangers into my home just yet.)

Right now, there are fewer people and activities that keep me engaged with Magic. There are some overt aspects of the game that’ve pushed me away (most notably Adventures in the Forgotten Realms and my issues with Magic Arena’s limited options), but I can’t really tell whether the formats themselves are to blame or if it’s just burnout.

The Remedy

So, what’s to be done? We’ve addressed plenty of factors, many of which I have some control over and others which will likely improve on their own in time.

The most important thing I should be doing right now is playing other games. I’d forgotten that I identified that exact same need around this time last year—this is when I started playing Fallout: New Vegas, Legends of Runeterra, and Horizon’s Gate. I know from both improv and game design that it’s critical to engage with things outside your usual sphere. That’s how you bring new experiences into your familiar ones, how you develop meaningful perspective, and how you create longing for what you love. And besides, I’ve taken little breaks from Magic before—I barely played the beloved Hour of Devastation because I was burned out then, too.

It’s not like Magic holds no joy for me. I still love writing, I still love the act of appreciating the design of sets, and mechanics, and cards. I still nurse the dream that one day, I’ll have the chance to give back to the game by working on it. I’m not going anywhere, I just might have a lot less to say about Crimson Vow and Kamigawa Neon Dynasty Limited than I normally would. And in the interim, it’ll be really nice to dust off some old favorites like Chrono Trigger and play some games I’ve been meaning to get to, like Humankind, Firewatch, and Gloomhaven. Maybe I’ll write about what those games have to teach, as well.

And, as always, thanks for reading.

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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