Next week, I’m getting on a plane to go play Magic.

I haven’t said those words since February 2020, when my world was completely different. Flying to a tournament is intimately familiar—I traveled to multiple Magic events every year from 2012 to 2020, from Grands Prix and MagicFests to Pro Tour Qualifiers and the only American Regional Pro Tour. Yet this trip is going to be very different from all those that came before.

Today, I’d like to step a bit away from my usual discourse about the intersection of Magic and game design (as well as how much I love Limited) to write one of my irregular personal pieces. Let’s talk a bit about how significant and unusual this trip will likely be. Thanks for indulging me.

Setting the stage

For starters, let’s talk about the trip itself. I’m flying to Madison for CubeCon. It’ll be four days of hanging out and drafting with about two hundred Cube enthusiasts. I’m bringing my UMA-Inspired Cube, which has graciously been voted to be one among many featured cubes. After that, I’m off to California to spend a couple days visiting my sister. Then, I’m turning east towards Las Vegas to bear witness to Magic 30. Finally, after a week and a half away from home, I’ll fly back to New York. It’ll be my longest Magic trip ever and the first not to involve Organized Play.

It’s all exciting, unnerving, and a little bit sad. It’s wonderful getting to gather with like-minded and drastically different Magic players to discuss and play the game we all love. Doing so in a distant, unfamiliar space accentuates these interactions by breaking familiar routines. I’m excited to see friends I haven’t seen in years, meet people I’ve only interacted with online, and get to know folks I’d never otherwise connect with. Trips like this have been part of my core identity by creating texture for each year, giving me more moments to look forward to, fostering friendships, and simply being fun. It’s nice to have a bit more normalcy after and amidst fairly turbulent times.

The known and the unknown

Of course, these trips were never purely positive. I’ve tended towards depression after most of them. This trip is likely to be my most socially taxing Magic trip ever due to its length, company (I’m traveling with far fewer friends than normal), and social dynamics (I’m not going to compete, I’m going to meet and interview people). Those are the familiar stressors that I’ve always kept braced myself for, but the entire landscape is new, both for me and for the broader Magic communities.

The world of Magic is drastically different. There’re the obvious disruptions of the global pandemic, but much of what it wrought accelerated existing trends. Magic’s central spotlight has firmly shifted onto collectors and Commander players. Competitive-minded players like me still have a home, but there’s less I get excited about (I’m motivated by glory, and there’s no competitive narrative I feel able to behold or pursue). I truly love that Wizards has expanded already-big Magic’s tent to accommodate many more players and player types, but I worry that some of this growth comes at the expense of how I enjoy the game and the quality of its offerings. Sets like Streets of New Capenna or Alchemy Horizons: Battle for Baldur’s Gate failing to hit the mark with me might not be growing pains, but indicative of what Magic is going to increasingly be like going forward.

Also, I’m different! The last time I traveled, I was 33 and at the pinnacle of my competitive career (I’d finally qualified for the PT). Now, I’m 36, I have no more aspirations towards pro play, I’m more confident as a player, designer, and person, and (best of all) I’m married. My communities have also changed—Team Draft League died (again) during the pandemic, NYC’s local game store scene is fractured, and many of my Magic friends have inched away from the game as they became parents. For the first time, I’m not traveling with a community of TDLers at my side, but mostly flying solo.

I can’t plan for how this nontrivially different version of myself will do, and that makes me anxious. I’m happy for the opportunity to finally travel again, but it’s tinged with sadness for the people who aren’t coming with me and the knowledge that things will never be the same as they were. Change is hard for me, and this trip represents a serving and a half of change atop two platters of events that enthralled, exhausted, and depressed me when I was in my prime.

I’m always fascinated by how multifaceted feelings are. Peel away the top layer of my deep excitement for this trip and you’ll find a jumble of less pleasant emotions. Keep digging and below it all lies a bedrock of excitement (with a few vents of change-fear belching exhaust). I engage in this exercise to see what’s there at the bottom, to confirm and remind myself that yes, this is exactly what I want to be doing. I find it helpful to prepare for what I can anticipate, to gird myself against the unknown factors, and to remember to be open to having fun. Perhaps this approach could be helpful to you. Perhaps it seems like utter nonsense. Hopefully it’ll do well for me, as it has in the past. And more importantly, hopefully this trip is every bit as awesome as it feels like it could be.

Catch you next week, just before heading off to Madison for the first ever CubeCon.

Zachary Barash is a New York City-based game designer and the last 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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