This Magic Moment: How Sobriety Helped Me Rediscover a Beloved Game

January 08, 2020

By Dan Sheehan, January 08, 2020

Growing up, my entire social life was based around the card game, Magic: The Gathering. If you’re not familiar, Magic is a deck-building strategy game designed around elaborate and often confusing fantasy lore. It rules. I started playing when I was around 11 years old, in 2002. My friend’s older brothers played and let us build our first decks out of their unused cards. One man’s trash, etc. There was just a handful of us, but we made do. We’d build decks and play against each other for hours every weekend. We’d play in public, in our basements, or at local game shops nearby. By any adult’s metrics, we were terrible, but my friends and I didn’t care. The game brought us together and it was the mechanism on which all of our friend group’s social interactions were built. Magic provided me with what good fantasy provides most kids: an escape from the day to day anxiety of growing up.

I played well into my high school years until, like most teenagers, I started to feel like anything I’d enjoyed more than a year prior was dumb and childish. Having become ashamed of my own hobby, the promise of getting a fresh start in college led me to leave the game behind. Being a nerd in high school had been difficult and doing “normal” things in college sounded easier. So shortly after that I took to getting blackout drunk. A decade later, I quit drinking.

There’s a pressure sometimes to make stories of finding sobriety big and dramatic but the long and short of it was that I was good at drinking until I wasn’t. One day I realized that it had stopped feeling like fun and started feeling like a chore, so I decided to start stopping. But early sobriety is tough. It’s full of false starts and setbacks. I was experiencing a wide swath of new anxieties. In the early stages of sobriety, like some kind of off-brand Christian bumper sticker, shame is your co-pilot. You feel silly for all the times you made your friends look after you when you’d gotten too drunk, or self-conscious about your new beer gut, or maybe just annoyed that you feel as though you’ve been bested by a beverage. It’s intense and it can be alienating at times, so I’d been making an extra effort to stay social. But for a few months, bars were off the table, and because I am someone who writes and does comedy, it goes without saying that most of my friends spend a lot of time in bars. My social life was not exactly thriving, and I knew that if I didn’t find a way to scratch that itch soon, the odds of being able to stay sober were slim. So when a friend invited me to start playing Magic again with her at a local game shop, I figured, why not?

The more we feel anxious about ourselves or the things we love, the more we can be compelled to buy to try and fill the void. I tried to fill mine with cheap beer and a baffling love for Southern Comfort.”

When I got back into the game, I started slowly. I found what was left of my collection at my parents’ house, put together a deck and was pleasantly surprised to find that the knowledge of the game’s mechanisms came back quickly. I wondered how many useful things I could’ve learned if I’d been able to purge my brain of exhaustive knowledge about my teenage hobbies (eight years of French completely evaporated from my mind but if you need to know anything about Dragonball Z, I’m your guy) but I was glad to have hung onto this particular piece of the past. A game of Magic has a rhythm to it. A series of phases repeated in the same way every turn. With each action taken, other players have an opportunity to respond. Spells have a cost and mistakes have consequences. The game is an escape but its rules are grounded firmly within reality, and in that rhythm I found myself some peace of mind. Untap, upkeep, draw a card, play a land for turn, tap five lands, play a creature, attack opponent with said creature, opponent blocks with their creature, whoops, my creature’s dead. All’s right with the world. 

Before too long, I was playing every week.  Being back felt like I’d woken up a whole aspect of my personality that had been dormant, banished in lieu of my more mass appeal parts. But while I was glad to be back, I kept the fact that I was playing again pretty quiet. Magic still felt like a piece of my past that I only offered up to those that knew me well. I still felt ashamed of my interests. Then I felt shame for feeling shame. As if all those years later, I was still nervous about some 13-yearold taunting me for having a hobby. (And to be absolutely clear, there’s no reason to have these hangups. Magic is as much a game for children as chess is a game for children, which is to say that while yes, some of the players are children, the ones that are good are rare and terrifying to behold.) But with niche interests, there’s still sometimes this idea that loving something outside of the mainstream is something to be ashamed of, as though an adult man who spends an afternoon entranced by a football game is somehow more mature than an adult man equally invested in a game of Magic, or that there aren’t plenty of people more than capable of doing both. On some level, this is by design. The more we feel anxious about ourselves or the things we love, the more we can be compelled to buy to try and fill the void. I tried to fill mine with cheap beer and a baffling love for Southern Comfort. 

I went from someone who enjoyed his hobbies confidently and in the face of criticism to someone who got drunk to try and prove he’d never had those hobbies to begin with.”

It felt freeing to be back in game shops. If you’ve never been, most game shops are like the nerd equivalent of a public basketball court. The store serves as a place to buy things but it also serves as a hub for the community, a place for people to meet up and hang out. In our late-capitalist nightmare where it feels like we constantly are paying more for less, a space in which people bring cards from home to play pick up games with their friends seems downright Rockwellian (Rockwell famously loved Magic: The Gathering and was an unrepentant Stax player). 

Talking to people at the store, I learned that the trajectory of the average player’s Magic career was nearly identical to mine. They played in their youth, got too cool for it for a while, and then years later returned in search of community, a creative outlet, or just something to do. One of Magic’s greatest in-game assets is its flexibility. If you want to make a deck that’s funny to watch but rarely wins, you can. If you want to make one that’s so ruthlessly efficient that your opponents preemptively quit out of spite, you can do that too. Gameplay accomplishes something different for everyone, and it turns out it’s similar for the game itself. Sobering up had left me feeling hollow and disconnected from myself. I’d essentially used heavy drinking to filibuster my own personal growth and when I took it away, it was hard to see what was left. 

As it turned out, Magic was one of the last things that had brought me genuine joy before the introduction of alcohol into my life. In fact, the amount of time that passed between when I stopped playing and started drinking was less than a year. At the time, it had felt like so much longer. I’d fully rebranded myself as a mature, collegiate adult who NEVER played card games and SOMETIMES got so drunk he fell into landscaping displays. But in hindsight, the timeline is clear. Over the course of a year or so, I went from someone who enjoyed his hobbies confidently and in the face of criticism to someone who got drunk to try and prove he’d never had those hobbies to begin with. I don’t write any of this to propose that diving head first into Magic: The Gathering is the key to getting and staying sober and I don’t think my problems with alcohol started because I stopped playing Magic (though I’m willing to say this as part of some sort of multi-million-dollar promotional deal if the fine folks at Wizards of the Coast happen to be interested) but I don’t think the timing is entirely coincidental. My issues came from a series of individual choices, not the least of which was to stop doing something I loved because I thought it would make me more appealing to complete strangers. 

There’s been a memory that’s stuck out to me lately. When I was in high school, I attended a prerelease event for a new set of cards with my friends. We were 16 years old, unknowingly at the beginning of the end of our time playing the game together. One of the people I played against was a guy in his late 20s or early 30s, probably right around the age I am now. He told me that this was his first Magic event since he was a teenager. I remember finding it off-putting, as though there was something else he was supposed to be doing. It was one of the first twinges of self-consciousness that would eventually pull me away from the game. I wonder sometimes if that guy still plays, if returning to what he used to love helped him find his way forward. Having gone to a similar event myself, now on his end of things, I can’t imagine losing track of joy twice. There’s no uniformity to the process of reclaiming the things that adulthood takes from us. There’s no one set of actions that can reconnect you with your past, but when someone asks me how I started the process, I tell them that when I was feeling like I’d lost track of who I was, returning to something that only ever brought me happiness had helped me find my way forward.

Illustration by Adam Waito.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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