Normally, in this series of articles I keep things fairly impersonal and theoretical, in the spirit of investigating various political, ethical, or philosophical topics in gaming. However, I think it’s important to occasionally recognize that our gaming practices occur in the larger context of human lives, often in competition with other interests, and are always embedded in our relationships. For instance, in my particular case, I started playing Magic whilst visiting a den of welfare recipients in Ottawa during the summer of 1996: not the most auspicious introduction to the hobby perhaps, but interesting to note from a contextual standpoint. While I’ve often strayed from the game, I’ve also always ended up coming back to it, as I traveled from country to country to country. Today, I’m going to tell the story of how Magic left and then re-entered my life as I circumnavigated the globe, via the simple act of my teaching my wife to play. If touchy-feely stuff isn’t your thing, feel free to join us next week when our regular broadcast will resume. If you’re still tuned in, let me tell you my story…

Tokyo: Selling Off the Past

The setting is Tokyo, 2009: I was getting ready to leave Japan for good, and was dragging an incredibly large, heavy, and awkward suitcase full of Magic cards around the city, looking for potential buyers. The bag would have been too expensive for me to transport out of the country, but was too valuable for me to leave behind without trying to sell its contents. So I was jogging from train station to train station, dragging my burden up and down staircases and through tiny alleyways, until I finally found a willing shop owner. I sold the entire lot for $1200, the price of my plane trip back to Glasgow, UK, where I was then enrolled as a doctoral student. Cut. End scene.

Regrets? I’ve had a few. Tarmagoyf, Wasteland, Moat… I barely knew you(r future worth in Canadian dollars). Nevertheless, the space the collection took up in my life—physically, emotionally, and mentally—was getting too cumbersome for me to manage. And I (wrongly, as it turns out) thought that quitting the hobby would help me focus on my studies. So I chucked it all in, and there was no Magic in my life for the next five years or so.1Although I of course came back to the game, in time. Doesn’t everybody? In fact, although I didn’t know it at the time, I was ultimately headed for a place where people are routinely beheaded for casting sorceries . . .2

Saudi Arabia: Sex Bacon Magic

For two years, I lived in a country where bacon is contraband, extramarital sex gets you thrown in jail, and being accused of practicing witchcraft brings a death sentence. This is due to Saudi Arabia’s enforcement of Sharia (Islamic religious) law on its citizens and foreign visitors. So don’t hold your breath waiting for GP Riyadh… it ain’t gonna happen, folks.

It’s an interesting contrast in culture with the West, where we think ‘magic’ is impossible (illusions, on the other hand, can obviously be manufactured),3Gob of Arrested Development fame makes this important distinction: and practicing magic is therefore legal. ‘Sorcery’ is legal in the same way that pretending to be a dragon is legal: it constitutes silly, but permissible, behavior. It’s only because some influential Saudis think that magic is real, that they also think it must be outlawed. Similarly, if I thought that telepathy was real, I’d want some sort of injunction in place protecting my mind from being read all willy-nilly by everyone. But I don’t, so do your worst. Or do your best. Whatever. I don’t really take the threat of telepathy seriously, is my point here.

Anyway, to get back to the story, bacon tastes better when you haven’t had it for a while.

Mmm… Bacon
Mmm… Bacon

I met my future wife Joanie at a social gathering in this dystopian novel, and we started dating almost immediately thereafter. However, we couldn’t appear in public together without fear of the religious police chasing us down and having us deported. So we went into the desert and we broke the law, sometimes multiple times an evening, like many people in that country have had to do in the past, and are no doubt still doing today. Not to blow up anyone’s spot or anything.

As exciting and romantic as that may sound, it was also desperate and stressful. So within a year we got married: partly because it felt so right looking into each other’s eyes, and partly because looking over your shoulder all the time isn’t all that relaxing. Or sexy. After another wacky year together in the Kingdom (during which the King changed the days of the weekend with only a few days’ notice—a story worth telling in itself),4 Joanie was ready to give birth to our daughter Leonie, and we were ready to vamoose for the slightly more liberal setting of Dubai.

Dubai, Baby

It’s trite to say, but having a baby is a real game-changer. It slows down your physical and social life to a literal crawl. You grow and learn a lot, but the pattern of your existence is fundamentally altered and it takes a lot of adjustment to get used to. Indeed, for most Magic players, marriage is the kiss of death for their hobby, and the arrival of a child the final nail in the coffin. But for us, it was just the beginning.

A Spirited Young Lady
A Spirited Young Lady

For me personally, I suppose it was more of a renaissance. Because we couldn’t take our newborn out hiking with us on the weekend, which was our custom at the time, we needed to find some sort of sedentary entertainment: something to do while the baby slept. And I, having recently found two old decks of Magic cards in my possession that had somehow survived the 2009 Great Purge of Tokyo, had an idea to suggest.5Magic is like cancer: if you want it out of your life, you really have to burn it out to the last cell. Joanie picked up the basic rules of the game pretty quickly, and soon I was putting together standard Commander decks for our amusement.

As new transplants to the Emirates, we were virtually friendless and probably going through some measure of culture shock to boot. One quiet weekend, I remembered that Magic wasn’t illegal in Dubai and looked around online… Soon, we found a reliable venue for drafting with a group of gamers who met at a very swanky, spacious café close to Dubai Mall. The baby loved all the new faces and the extra attention, and we as parents didn’t feel so isolated either. Conveniently, we could even go shopping afterwards!

Magic en plein air: so much better than plastic chairs
Magic en plein air: so much better than plastic chairs

One thing that people who have lived abroad will have noticed is how easy it is to slip into a pre-existing community of expatriates. It’s often easier to establish a circle of friends in a foreign country because you start off sharing the same set of needs and interests, and speak the same language. Because you don’t really need other people in your home country with the same intensity, it can actually be more difficult to set up a scene there than elsewhere. In either case, having a hobby like Magic greases the wheels and helps build up a community more quickly.
By the way, I retroactively apologize to everyone for all the times that Leonie wasn’t actually napping during drafts. Not having much experience with infants, I couldn’t have predicted how disruptive she could sometimes be. Eventually, we figured it out and got a sitter for game days. I also didn’t predict how good Joanie would become at Magic…

It’s a Win-derful Life

In one FNM tournament, Joanie and I both won free passes to the Middle East Film & Comic Con. Another silly place to take a baby, with all the loud displays and maddening crowds, but that didn’t stop us. I noticed that there was going to be another Magic tournament taking place there. The winner would receive a free flight to GP Moscow 2014 and a sponsorship deal from Battlezone, a local game store. It was Standard format: not exactly my strong suit, but I decided to give it a try with a Minotaur tribal deck (living the dream), backed up with Thoughtseize and Whip of Erebos. I squeaked in at fourth place.

More Winning Than Charlie Sheen (Too Soon?)
More Winning Than Charlie Sheen (Too Soon?)

Which was good enough! The first place player had already bought his flight to Moscow, the second place player was a friend who had already earned a free ticket at another tournament, and the third place player didn’t want to go at all and was happy to trade his ticket for the packs I’d won. To recap: I’d just gone from completely quitting the game, to playing quietly at home with my wife, to being as successful at the game as I had ever been in my life.

Joanie and I became Battlezone regulars, and I started running punishment leagues there. During the Khans of Tarkir league, Joanie rose through the ranks to become the Khaness of the Abzan, doing battle and making big decisions for her clan. During this heady period, we also recorded a couple of podcast demos together under the title The Exile Zone. We even won a release event playing Two-Headed Giant under the team name ‘Couple’s Massage’;6Making us one of those ‘Magic couples’ that Wizards seems to have some interest in promoting recently: a coded reference to a funny anecdote which took place before the tournament.7An earlier version of this article got retracted for containing ribaldry concerning said anecdote. Also, poor writing composition. But mostly the ribaldry.

A Happy Ending
A Happy Ending

Moscow and Everything After

Suffice it to say that Joanie did better than I ever could have anticipated, and the exhilaration of winning together was a new kind of fun for us to experience as a couple. However, the next phase saw me spending a lot more time at the shop preparing for the big trip to Russia, and gelling with ‘Team Battlezone’. Although Joanie eased off the game a bit at this point, she supported me in doing this because she knew that it meant something to me. I’m sure it helped that she could understand the attraction of playing the game, due to her own experiences with it.

Team Battlezone, in WUBRG order: Have Shirts, Will Travel
Team Battlezone, in WUBRG order: Have Shirts, Will Travel

There’s a lot to say about Moscow as a city, and even more about our trip in particular, but I’ll stick to the basics for the sake of brevity. I was the first of two players of our five-man team to clinch an appearance for Day 2 of the GP, and my deck was deemed interesting enough to warrant coverage by Magic Hall-of-Famer Olle Råde.8 Unfortunately, I choked hard the next day and didn’t end up in the money. On the bright side, I did get to play in a chaos draft tournament there, where I had the supreme pleasure of playing a Ray of Command on my opponent’s Goblin Mime (he countered the spell by saying “No”). You’ve got to love chaos draft!

After this, I slowed down a bit. I still ran leagues for Battlezone, and briefly became a talking head for their video series, which we called ‘Resolves’ (after an in-joke: one of our players made a terribly self-defeating play in Moscow, and his dumbfounded opponent simply gave him the bemused response “Resolves”). You can catch some of the rare footage below, shot just before we left the Emirates to return to Canada (if you can somehow stand listening to the two of us mumble over the looping bed of Mario music):

Conclusion: Bringing It All Back Home

Life isn’t—can’t be!—all world-travelling, fun victories, and big tournaments. And when it’s not, it’s easy to get lost in the minutiae of the everyday: paying bills, doing chores, and making weekly plans. Whilst necessary, all of that stuff can be rather numbing, so it’s important for a healthy relationship that you also spend a fair amount of time doing things you both enjoy together. A shared hobby goes a long way toward making mutual downtime more pleasant and meaningful. That needn’t be gaming, but in my personal case I’m certainly happy that my wife digs Magic.

Goofing on Sorin at GP Montreal 2015
Goofing on Sorin at GP Montreal 2015

Since we came back to Canada Joanie is working again, and so has less time to play, but she still makes it out to the big tournaments – GPs and prereleases – when she can. While Magic has historically played an important role in our relationship, that relationship continues to grow outside of the game. Our marriage is obviously more than Magic, although it still contains it when we can find the time. What’s really important is understanding each other, and backing up the other person on the things that are important to them, whatever those things are. And it’s no big secret that that’s how to keep the magic in your relationship.


References   [ + ]

1. Although I of course came back to the game, in time. Doesn’t everybody?
3. Gob of Arrested Development fame makes this important distinction:
5. Magic is like cancer: if you want it out of your life, you really have to burn it out to the last cell.
6. Making us one of those ‘Magic couples’ that Wizards seems to have some interest in promoting recently:
7. An earlier version of this article got retracted for containing ribaldry concerning said anecdote. Also, poor writing composition. But mostly the ribaldry.