magic

Turning The Tables

I think it’s pretty fair to say that if you’re active in, or even just aware of politics and “what goes on”, you’re going to be disappointed about something eventually.

This disappointment can be debilitating.

How many of our ranks disappeared without a trace after the 2012 election?  How many of us are still licking our wounds from a failed local race?  Losses compound into the worst kind of frustration and despair, building into a wall of doubt that is extremely hard to overcome.

In short, losing sucks.

But there IS something worse than losing.

That thing is losing without learning anything.

I am not the Energizer Bunny, nor am I Pollyanna or Pangloss.  I know how bad things are, and at any given moment, I am quite disappointed with the vast majority of the conservative movement.  From the garden variety “just a blogger” to the leadership of the GOP and everyone in between (myself included), we haven’t been effective recently when it comes to figuring out how to win.  But that disappointment is pointless if all it does is sideline you.  So instead of dwelling on the losses and disappointments, I compartmentalize those distractions and focus on what I can do to move the ball forward- with a hefty chip on my shoulder.  That is a learned response to losing, and one that our movement needs to adopt.

Now.

If my life was a bit more typical, this paragraph would probably be where I started bringing up my years in football or basketball or whatever that sport is with the sticks and the punching, talking about the importance of having a “short memory” after a loss, and putting work into preparing for the next game.

However, that’s not who I am, or what my experiences were.

Who I am is a retired Magic: The Gathering player of 8 years, and my experiences are that of a kid who struggled through years of failure, cronyism, and poor investments, only to become one of the better players at my local Friday Night Magic.

Friday Night Magic (or FNM) is where the competitive M:TG community goes to test their skills.  As such, it’s not a particularly nice place for a cocky 16 year-old carrying a homemade deck that “beat all my friends” to walk into.  I got humiliated every Friday night for about 3 months before it sank in that something had to change.  After countless rounds of playing at the “losers table” (only the first of the three FNM rounds was randomly paired) I finally admitted to myself that my deck, fun as it was, wasn’t enabling me to make it to the next level.

So I did what many failing teams do, I tried to copy the concepts and strategies of the guys who kept beating me.  If you can’t beat them, join them, right?

Well,  not quite.

Don’t get me wrong, I did do a lot better after co-opting bits and pieces from the decks that  kept beating me, but that was only enough to win me one round out of three.  The trouble stemmed from the fact that although I was using good cards and okay strategies, my deck wasn’t close to being consistent.  I was stuffing my deck with a hodgepodge of cards I had lost to, without thinking about how they interact with each other.  My deck lacked cohesion, and I lacked a winning record, but I was getting better at playing the game.  Again, my deck held me back.

That’s when I became a “netdecker”.

“Netdecker” is a wonderful pejorative used by “highly principled” Magic players, who play decks of their own construction, to describe players who went to the internet for tried and true deck lists.  My most vivid recollection of the term being thrown at me was after I beat one of the perennial “losers table” guys in the first round.

He wasn’t even mad that I crushed him.  Though he lost often, his smug moral superiority has always stuck with me.

“Real Magic players don’t netdeck.”

I was just happy to have a win.

I got rid of all of the remnants of my fun “friend beater” casual deck, went to the internet, and built a competitive deck.  Something that entire teams of people worked to build and tuned to perfection, with a sideboard to fill whatever minute holes it had.  Something that had great match-ups against a lot of the decks at my FNM.

I improved to winning two rounds out of three.

That’s when everything changed.

Magic is an expensive game.  A solid performing standard deck can set you back $300.  Top tier decks can cost more than $500.  Assembling the cards you need to build one of those top tier decks is tough for a lot of people to justify, and understandably so.

That’s the first barrier for entry into the “top tables” crowd.

Those guys at the top tables, the winners, had accrued tons of cards and built a bunch of decks.  Some of them were even “nice” enough to lend said decks to others- as long as they knew when to roll-over.

Is taking a fall a big deal if it means you get some cards thrown your way at the end of the night?

For a lot of players at my FNM, that answer was “Nope.”

I hadn’t realized it during my stint at the losers table, but close to half of the players at my FNM were piloting decks owned by two or three people.  Those people, you’ll be shocked to find out, were the guys who usually won top spot at the end of the night.  I hadn’t had cause to stay past the third round until this point, so I didn’t see what went on.  The bullying, extortion, and cheating that existed at the top tables was loathsome to behold.

Seeing my friends, guys who were really solid players, having to give up wins to the local “Don” and then get psychologically tormented and abused because of it motivated me to get better.

And I did.

That’s when people started “offering the draw”.  Barrier two.

Once you’re a confirmed threat, the top tables crowd wants to minimize their risk.  They do this by giving you the option to guarantee your entry to the “top four”, the playoff portion of FNM, by intentionally drawing with you in the third round of the tournament.  A player with a 2-0-1 record will get in over a player with a 2-1 record every time, so it was in both players’ interests to skip the last round of the regular tournament in  order to ensure that they’d win at least one prize pack.  It was just how business was done.

That’s not how I operate.

I’ve drawn a great many matches of Magic, but that was just a function of the type of decks I played, slow controlling decks that won by attrition.

I didn’t play into the top table cabal; rather, I forced them to play by the actual rules of the game.

I didn’t win every time, but that didn’t bother me.  Regardless of how the match resolved itself, one of those perennially locked out 2-1 players made it to the playoff rounds.

That wasn’t smiled upon by the guys in charge.  Neither was the fact that a few of the “unaffiliated” players, myself included,  started lending out cards and building extra decks, no strings attached.

The level of competition at my FNM increased exponentially once there was an alternative to the top table gang, and the spot at the top wasn’t as “fixed” as it once was.

I spent some time in the winner’s circle, but in hindsight, not even my Magic Scholarship Series win comes close to the pride I have helping to subvert the corrupt power structure of my FNM.

But now I have more important things to work on.

Worse corruption.  Worse cronyism.  More people dependent on worse systems.  Sillier pejoratives getting thrown around.   More people screeching that winning means losing one’s principles.

The magnitude of the problems may have changed, but the strategies are the same.

We need to gauge what we’re up against, and realize that we have to adapt to beat it.  We can’t be afraid to keep some of our tools and tactics in the toolbox if that’s what the situation requires.  Staying focused on winning opens up opportunities to change even the most corrupt systems.  Finally, winning doesn’t have to mean losing your principles, but losing means having other people’s principles forced onto you.

Knowing that, I don’t stay depressed.

I get motivated, and I try my best to motivate the people around me.  I will continue to chase after wins, refine strategies, and lend help to whoever needs it.

And I’ll do it with a smile on my face.

Because while “political activism” isn’t a game, there’s no rule against having fun participating in the process.