The Phases: Love, Loss, and Magic the Gathering

What does becoming an adult actually mean?

Magic: The Gathering cards

Untap

At the beginning of their turn, Magic: the Gathering players “untap” the resources available to them on the battlefield by rotating their cards so they are all vertical. This represents replenishment — the Magic player can draw power from the land, can issue new commands to their summoned monsters, can re-wield the artifacts at their disposal. What is old is new, what is used becomes unused.

April in New York is like living in a pissed off armpit. The air is thick, made vicious from the smells clawing up through heat after months of hibernating beneath snow. There’s too much friction — people bump into and brush against each other, bodies peel off bodies and subway seats like old registration stickers on car windows. There is not enough iced coffee, there is never enough iced coffee.

I was doing fine. My shit was, I am proud to say, finally together.

But April 21st of 2012 was a great day for me. After years of barely skidding by on Trader Joes broccoli and chicken cutlets and the couches of friends and kind strangers, I was doing fine. My shit was, I am proud to say, finally together. I had a “real job,” one that promised career-growth and steady paychecks and to keep most of my soul intact. I was writing, but not trying to publish, my typical modus operandi. I had a girlfriend I loved and who loved me back and, praise be, we actually lived together in a massive Bronx apartment with a living room the size of three Williamsburg bedrooms put together.

And for once there was money in my wallet and safe in my bank account.

Not a lot of money. But New York has two version of making it: a place in a Manhattan high rise, or not having to hustle anymore. I didn’t need to pick up shifts barbacking at The Charleston in order to pay for groceries or my cellphone bill, didn’t need to lean hard on my bartender buddies in order to afford a night out, didn’t have to scour the “free in New York” message boards for something affordable to do. My clothes were top-shelf Target and GAP Factory Outlet chic. All signs were pointing to Happily Ever After.

My clothes were top-shelf Target and GAP Factory Outlet chic. All signs were pointing to Happily Ever After.

I’d been eyeing the comic shop — Magnum Comics and Cards — for a few weeks. Growing up, my family co-owned a Houston comic store and, as a result of spending many afternoons in one, comic shops have always possessed a nostalgic appeal to me. The smell of ink-saturated paper, the thick-as-humidity silences interrupted by nerd quarrels or unfortunate music, the figurines collecting dust in display cases, the racks of ever-marked-down t-shirts, all of it tinged with sour, barely-concealed body odor. I love it.

So, for the first time in years, I walked into a comic store. I perused the shelves, peered at the items in the glass cases, and smiled at the disgruntled, long- and oily-haired male cashier. I skimmed the Dungeons and Dragons manuals, flipped through a few trade paperbacks, and finally decided to buy a pack of cards from my favorite game in high school: Magic: the Gathering, a collectible card game where players use decks made from fantasy-themed cards to pretend to be wizards beating the shit out of each other.

Maybe it’s OK to be geeky again, I thought. Maybe it’s time to accept this is who I’ve always been. Maybe it was a mistake discarding the things I loved growing up in order to make room for who I thought I was going to become as a New Yorker.

Maybe I was, and always would be, a nerd.

My mom died the next day.

Upkeep

During their upkeep, players must pay for any costs required by cards on the battlefield. Failure to do so could result in those cards being discarded or, in some rare instances, the player can simply lose the game. Everything has a cost, even stasis.

Mom always liked that I was a nerd. She bought me comics and art supplies on impulse, would listen as I described the plotlines to whatever DrangonLance or Forgotten Realms or Wheel of Time book I was reading, adored my illustrations of dragons and dragonfly-winged pixies. She loved buying me Magic cards, loved watching as I opened the packs of cards and told her which cards would be going into the deck I was playing at the time. She relished in the fact that I’d usually open something valuable in the packs she picked out, that, even if she didn’t “get it,” she was a critical part of the thing I loved the most.

She bought me comics and art supplies on impulse, would listen as I described the plotlines to whatever DrangonLance or Forgotten Realms or Wheel of Time book I was reading.

In my eulogy, I told this story from childhood: my friends and I were playing outside. Mom stepped onto the driveway and raised her hand like she was grabbing a rope made of air. She pulled it down and, even though the sun was shining, a torrential rain began pummeling us. In the short run across the street and into the safety of the garage, we ended up completely soaked. Mom went inside, and the rain stopped.

I finished by saying Mom showed me that magic, real magic, really exists.

After the funeral, my brother and I went to her apartment. While poking around, we discovered an entire closet filled with Barbie dolls. Boxes and boxes of them, unopened, untouched, stacked on top of each other like those “plugged in” humans Neo discovers when he first exits the Matrix. I’d always known she liked signature Barbie dolls, but the depth of her interest and the breadth of her collection surprised us both. It was then it hit me there were parts of her life I’d never know.

It was then it hit me there were parts of her life I’d never know.

We join fantasy football leagues. We collect Beanie Babies, or sneakers, or ticket stubs to concerts. We bird watch, we take bus tours through celebrity neighborhoods, we refresh Bachelorette message boards every few hours (or minutes). Some of us jam brooms between our legs and play Quidditch. Some of us collect bones. But maybe all of us are, in our own way, nerds.

So why don’t we embrace it?

After Mom died, I took inventory of my life. I had a job, sure, but the goal was to be a writer, not tinker with Excel spreadsheets and purchase orders. I’d spent years writing poetry, trying to figure out my voice. I studied prose poetry, tilted toward narrative poetry, and then dove full-on into confessional poetry. Poetry had always been where I’d had my most success: being a finalist in middle school competitions, competing at a national reading in high school, getting published in undergrad, being selected as a featured reader in my MFA program’s poetry festival.

But was I really writing what I wanted to write?

After Mom’s death this question would continue to plague me.

Did I even want to be a poet?

Main Phase 1

During their first Main Phase, players may cast spells, summon monsters or artifacts, or add a land to the battlefield. Players spend their resources to gain “board advantage,” to amass more resources than their opponent. Sometimes players use up all their resources and obtain “inevitability,” a pathway to win the game. Sometimes players can’t do anything and pass their turn. Sometimes players can do a lot of things but, in the scope of the game, nothing happens, nothing changes, and they still lose. Sometimes action and inaction are the same.

In the summer of 2012 Twenty Sided Store was the hallmark destination for Brooklyn’s Magic scene. Located a few blocks from the Lorimer stop on the L train, in the shadow of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, it was the home base to New York City’s most competitive Magic: the Gathering players… at least, that’s what I gleaned from Googling “Magic Tournament New York” and skimming their webpage.

In the summer of 2012 Twenty Sided Store was the hallmark destination for Brooklyn’s Magic scene.

I was there for a “prerelease” tournament — a type of tournament where players build decks solely with the cards they open from a set that has yet to be formally released. As I waited for the store to open, I watched the other players milling about on the sidewalk. I wasn’t sure what to expect — my gamer friends in Brooklyn were all very attractive women and men and, usually, very tattooed. These guys (they were all dudes) looked… normal… like background actors filling a crowded bar or a university hallway.

I’m normally a gregarious person, but I found myself closed off. I didn’t know how the game had changed in the ten years since I’d played it. I didn’t know if I’d be any good, if I could build a deck right, if I’d even have fun. I wasn’t even sure why I was there — I’d only bought a single pack a few weeks ago. I hadn’t even unpacked my bags from my trip to Texas for the funeral. Playing through the tournament (winning twice and losing twice) I didn’t feel like I belonged. My mom was dead and I was playing Magic: the Gathering? Was this, then, how the world worked?

My mom was dead and I was playing Magic: the Gathering? Was this, then, how the world worked?

Not long after this, I won a runner-up grant in a YA contemporary novel competition. I’d been waxing about whether I should keep working on poetry or not, and decided that this was a sign. I dropped poetry entirely to write prose. The grant money paid for most of a sleek MacBook Pro, and as soon as it came in the mail and I skinned it of its plastic packaging, I began writing the novel. The dream was to finish it within a year, to get an agent and become an Author with a capital A.

Except the words wouldn’t stick.

My writing process dissolved. Where I could normally crank out pages and pages of material, hack it to bits like a lumberjack on bath salts in editing, and end up with something distilled, something finished, I now found myself staring at blank pages, filling them, deleting them, then filling them again and deleting them again. The story swirled inside my head. The protagonist’s voice was so clear I swore we had conversations in my dreams. I knew the character arcs, knew where they would fall and where they would triumph. The climactic ending where the protagonist throws it all away was snapshot-clear in my mind.

I just couldn’t figure out how to put it all on the page.

In a bid to force the story out of me, I joined the masses of writers cranking out novels in November for National Novel Writing Month. I joined NaNoWriMo’s message boards, posting problems, soaked up encouragements, and I managed to eke out about twenty-five thousand words in a month.

But reading it out loud it felt like speaking through ash. I was spending all my resources, all my energy trying to write this “contemporary” novel.

Yet the pages always reverted to white.

Combat

In the combat phase, players declare which (if any) of their summoned creatures attack, and their opponent declares which (if any) of their creatures block. Creatures exchange damage and, if they receive lethal damage, are placed in their controller’s graveyard. Creatures that are unblocked deal damage to their controller’s opponent, reducing the opponent’s life total. A player is defeated when their life total reaches 0. Combat is both about reaching your opponent, and depletion. It is violent, and intimate, and rare is the game that ends without it.

I never let Mom read much of what I wrote. It was an act of self-preservation — she had a Ph.D. in English, and would often forego following the plot of a story or the thrust of a poem to highlight minute grammatical errors when all I wanted to know was whether my writing sucked or not. Later, I didn’t want her to read my work because it was so personal, and so much of it was about her: her decline into prescription pill abuse, the ways in which I’d discover her passed out on the floor after I came home from school, the terror and anxiety of watching her drunkenly careen off into the night in her Texas-sized truck.

I wanted to write something sobering. I wanted to rip apart the past, stitch it into something tragic and beautiful, and give it to her.

What I’d always wanted was a piece Mom couldn’t pick apart, something she could look at and say was good, and true, and raw. I wanted to write something sobering. I wanted to rip apart the past, stitch it into something tragic and beautiful, and give it to her.

I’d been attacking the page to get through to her.

But with her gone, what was the point?

I didn’t linger on this. I discovered my coworker also played Magic, and together we found a new shop opening in midtown called Montasy Comics. A couple days a week we’d head over to an unmarked door beside a discount women’s shoe store, wait to be buzzed in, and take a narrow set of stairs up to a modestly-sized comic book shop that had sacrificed half of its floor space to gaming tables and, inexplicably, wouldn’t let you use the bathroom before 7:00pm. Instead of pointing my energy at the page, I focused it on playing inordinate amounts of Magic: the Gathering. I’d crack packs at midnight over Kati rolls; I’d debate deck construction with a friend on the One Train as it chuffed through Harlem; I’d play over pints until the bar kicked me and my coworker out to start their Big Beautiful Women night.

I went from a weak player just returning to the game to a semi-competitive player in the New York scene. Within a few months, I was able to reach the late rounds of one of the largest type of competitive events around: a Grand Prix, where thousands of players gathered to compete in a two-day event.

I went from a weak player just returning to the game to a semi-competitive player in the New York scene.

I also began meeting other Magic players in New York — regular guys with normal day jobs that just happened to also like a game about pretending to be a wizard. It’s one of the great things about Magic, anybody can play it. That goth bartender? She just took down a major tournament. That bearded guy in a Dragon Ball Z shirt with body odor that can wilt lilies? He’s been playing since the nineties. Those two gay guys in chambray shirts and jeans? At home they settle arguments by playing with 100-card decks. That Goldman and Sachs lawyer? She exclusively plays vampire decks.

It wasn’t long until I began regularly playing with a few guys, and then a few more, until I found myself as a central member in one of the largest groups of Magic players in New York City.

I wasn’t writing at all, which was a relief. It meant I wasn’t struggling to write.

Main Phase 2

There is a second Main Phase following combat. It functions similarly to the first Main Phase, except that, in the event resources were exchanged during combat, the player potentially has a whole new battlefield to review, to analyze, to fill. The losses during combat inform the player what spells they should cast. The gone helps prioritize the new.

In the year after Mom died, I got engaged, and my brother had a daughter. I grappled with this, with the inevitable “goes on” part of life, with how my life appeared to be suddenly split between the moments where I’d forget Mom was gone and the moments her memory would suddenly appear before me, triggered by a smell, someone’s braying laugh, a stranger with a similar pooka twinkle in their eye.

I learned that’s the thing about death — the person’s gone, but they leave behind this ghost-limb twinge, this ephemeral nagging that says they’re not all gone. My Mom’s shade haunted the strangest of places: the reflection of a bug-smeared windshield (she wanted to write a picture book called “SPLAT”), the jagged scrawl of a birthday card discovered in the bottom of a desk drawer, in how I would, inexplicably, think of her every time the M72 bus I took to work nosed through Central Park and slipped under one of the park’s low bridges.

That’s the thing about death — the person’s gone, but they leave behind this ghost-limb twinge, this ephemeral nagging that says they’re not all gone.

By 2014 I was playing even more Magic. Previously, I’d competed in tournaments where you get the packs at the store and build your decks with whatever random assortment of cards you opened. But after a year of intense playing and trading cards, I had enough of a collection I could compete in tournaments with cards I owned. It wasn’t long until I was playing almost every format Magic has to offer, save for the one that uses some of the game’s oldest cards in decks that cost as much as homes on Tiny House Hunters.

Black Lotus, considered the rarest Magic: The Gathering card

Magic had become my new writing. I’d spend more time studying decks than reading, brewing decks than drafting outlines, watching tournaments online than editing pages. Here was a simple, creative outlet: the content already existed as cards, my sole responsibility was to figure out the best combinations of cards to put into decks, and then to have fun.

But then an old friend and roommate from my MFA program called me up. Why don’t we start writing again? he said. He proposed that we become accountability partners — ensuring we wrote a certain number of pages a week. (We chose, arbitrarily, 7.) It wouldn’t have to be part of a greater work, it wouldn’t have to be anything better than gibberish. We would just need to start writing again, with an audience of one in mind, and then we’d talk about it on the phone.

I said sure.

I was years past trying to write my YA novel. In fact, I was years past trying to write anything new. I had this idea, though, a sort of dystopian parody that sounded mediocre whenever I explained it.

But it was a start.

And it came with the exact amount of expectations I needed to write again:

None.

End Step

During the End Step, players cast spells in preparation for the upcoming turn — casting instantaneous effects that, even if they don’t always win the game outright, set up the game for a player to potentially win. While there isn’t always an action a player can take during the End Step, there is a sense of preparation. The ending is a way to acknowledge the start of something new.

I wrote Petr into existence: a young man whose life is turned upside down after the government kidnaps him on his way to purchase a baguette. His kidnappers drive him to a warehouse, strap him to a chair, and leave him alone in the dark.

He waits.

And then he waits some more.

And then he waits some more.

After a few months of writing inordinately long descriptions of what it’s like to sit in a chair, I went back and rewrote the waiting.

And then I rewrote it again.

My writing partner said my writing was good, but, after months of going back and forth over new pages, old pages, rewritten pages, he flat out said the story wasn’t going anywhere because nothing happens. It’s just page after page of a guy, sitting in a chair in the dark, waiting. He, literally, wasn’t going anywhere.

It’s just page after page of a guy, sitting in a chair in the dark, waiting. He, literally, wasn’t going anywhere.

There isn’t a way to make sitting in a chair interesting for 60 pages, he said.

OK, I thought. So I wrote the beginning of the story, expanded upon the part before the kidnapping.

But Petr always ended up right back where I started: he’s kidnapped, he’s chair-strapped. He waits.

Magic: the Gathering is a skill-intensive game. But like any intricate game, you rarely find anyone’s naturally good at it. You have to practice. You have to put in your time, your reps. You have to play a deck until it almost comes alive, until you know its behaviors, its tendencies, its preferred matches. You have to sit in a chair and do your time and work it until it’s right.

And as wrote and rewrote and re-rewrote, I realized that’s where Magic and writing intersect. Ass in the chair, figuring shit out. Doing reps until it’s just right.

Grieving, too, is like this. It’s a weight that never lessens, but you live, you do your reps, and it goes from a weight dragging you down to a weight you sometimes forget you’re carrying.

Petr’s story, I realized, begins when he gets up out of the chair. After I wrote that scene, of Petr standing, weak-kneed and stumbling toward the stale light of a late winter afternoon, I dropped the manuscript entirely. I was so focused on a story about stasis, of being tied down, of being unable to move forward, that when I finally broke away from a theme of petrification I discovered I never had much of a story to begin with.

Grieving, too, is like this. It’s a weight that never lessens, but you live, you do your reps, and it goes from a weight dragging you down to a weight you sometimes forget you’re carrying.

I also realized I had other things I wanted to work on — had been preparing to work on — without realizing it. Writing a terrible dystopian parody was still writing, was still getting in some reps.

My mother was gone. But my life wasn’t waiting for me to live it. I’d gotten married, moved to Philadelphia, had a kid, started a new job.

It was time for me to get out of the damn chair.

I was time to start really writing again.

Cleanup

In the Cleanup Step, players who have too many cards in hand discard down to their starting hand size. Damage done to creatures is healed. If the End Step is the resolution of the turn, the Cleanup Step is the space between the end of a turn and the beginning of the next turn — the “before” before the beginning, so the beginning may begin.

I don’t play Magic much anymore.

I mean, sure, I still play in a few tournaments here and there, still talk to my New York gaming group via an obnoxiously addicting email chain (Go Team Vents!). But it’s a hobby now, a thing I do in those rare instances where my interests and my free time align. There’s no urgency to my play style, no internal imperative cajoling me to win. When I play it’s for fun, and it’s made me a better player overall.

There’s a picture on my fridge of my mom wearing a black jumpsuit beneath a mustard blazer. She’s got this mischievous smile, this look aimed at the camera that dares the cameraman to try and be as happy as her. I look at it every day, sometimes just to smile and admire her style, sometimes to see if there are traces of her in my daughter’s face.

I’m working on another novel now, about superheroes, and superheroes failing. I’m also writing poetry again, but not about the South, or mothers, or much (if anything) familial. I’m using the fantasy tropes I grew up with, the comic books, the werewolves, the vampires and other horror stuff I loved as a kid and rediscovered as an adult.

Maybe I’ll have a finished manuscript soon.

About the Author

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