Today, I’m going to do something a little more personal and do some self introspection. When I was younger and I started playing Magic, I had a lot of self esteem issues. I was very insecure, not very comfortable in my own skin and really hadn’t found my place in life, and certainly hadn’t made my way in the world. When I found Magic, it solved a lot of problems for me. I was a pretty unhappy kid. I had my struggles at home and things didn’t always go my way in life. When I found Magic, places to go play and people like me to play with, hang out with and interact with, it was really a boon for me on a personal level. The feeling of belonging somewhere, and the feeling of finding my own people was an extremely powerful one for me. I never felt I really fit in at school, got picked on a lot and kind of just always hated it. Going to the Magic store just made me feel alive.
I will never forget the feeling as I started to succeed, and become more and more the star of the local scene, the way it made me feel. Gaining acceptance from my peers and the people I spent most of my time with really made me feel like I had value, a feeling I didn’t really get anywhere else. I certainly didn’t understand these things as I experienced them as a 15-year old boy, but I do now, writing about them as a 39 year-old man.
Sometime in the late 90s, when I really started to parlay my talent into some local tournament success, I entered an Extended PTQ with a mono-blue draw-go deck. I ended up doing pretty well in the tournament, winning the finals against, for my money, one of the best players in the world at the time, a personal hero of mine and Magic Hall of Famer David Humphreys. While I was very proud to have won the match, the thing that I really remember is what happened the next day. I went to Your Move Games, to play some random tournament, and Tom Guevin, an old school Magic player, walked in the room and said, paraphrased… “Dave said your deck was bad.” This wasn’t out of character for Tom – he was a jokester and of course I didn’t know what to make of it. Dave happened to be in the room and said “Tom, that’s not what I said, I said I lost to the player, not the deck.” Of course, Tom just shrugged, but I really remember how good I felt from getting such a compliment.
Another thing I remember, in fall of 2000 when I was 18, I was a bit more of a regular on the Pro Tour scene. I had some amount of success, made some friends and I was participating in the Masters Series that weekend in New York City. For the finals, I had a tough matchup against a great player named Jason Zila. I was sitting at a table playtesting my matchup when Jon Finkel, who today is a close friend of mine and has always been a personal hero, walked over to our table to inquire about the results of our practice session. I was pretty down on myself, already dreading the matchup, and I was pretty vocal about that. Jon, who maybe thought nothing of it at the time, said to me:
“I think you’re going to win, and that’s all that matters.”
I was profoundly impacted by what he had to say. To me, if Jon thinks something about Magic, who am I to argue? I literally and instantly became more confident about the match knowing that Jon believed in me.
I guess the reasons these things stand out to me personally was because they had such a profound impact on me at a particularly young age, at a time when I really needed it. One thing I really struggled with during my “first” Magic career was assigning my self worth based on my recent Magic tournament. Writing this now, I realize it’s a very dangerous mindset, and frankly it just has no basis in reality.
Don’t get me wrong – getting upset when one comes up short in their goals is a reasonable way to feel. However, feeling like you’re worthless as a person because you didn’t draw your third land, made a play mistake, chose a bad deck or had a bad tournament really isn’t worth it. This is easily the hardest thing I ever had to learn in my own life. I remember when I was young, every single time that I went to a tournament and did badly, I’d go home, sulk, feel bad and worthless, and just count the days until the next time I had the opportunity to try to win again and thus prove my worth.
I guess the point of writing this is to hopefully allow someone to learn from my mistakes. Rest assured, I still take pride in winning, but one thing I’ve learned over time is that while having goals and endeavoring to meet them is productive, achieving them is gratifying and extremely satisfying, beating yourself up for coming up short or failing to achieve them really isn’t – it’s both destructive and counterproductive. The truth is, if you constructively interact with your endeavors and you can say you gave it your best, it’s truly okay to come up short; it actually makes you stronger and not weaker. I wish I had been able to see things from that perspective at the time, but glad I can see them that way now.
“Getting upset when one comes up short in their goals is a reasonable way to feel. However, feeling like you’re worthless as a person because you didn’t draw your third land, made a play mistake, chose a bad deck or had a bad tournament really isn’t worth it.”Probably a bigger regret than evaluating myself as a human being based on my Magic talent, results, success, whatever, was my propensity to do so with others. This is something I wish I could take back. I guess psychologically, for a kid who makes his way in the world doing a specific thing, it was easy for me to want everything judged on that metric, as it was the one I was good at, at least that’s how I felt at the time. I think, looking back, it caused me to be not so nice sometimes and definitely miss out on what could have been some quality relationships, interactions and the like. It literally just didn’t occur to me that people could have different goals in going to a Magic tournament than to do anything within the rules to win, while also spending all their free time thinking about Magic, and theorizing and whatever else. It’s kind of weird for me to think about now, but that’s the truth.
I spent a lot of time in my twenties doing a lot of introspection, self reflecting and trying to learn about myself. For me personally, it was a long journey. At about age 31, I was lucky to have the opportunity to come back to Magic in a professional capacity. I had a lot of friends who were still playing and it was easy for me to integrate back in. This time around, I had learned from my own mistakes. I always tried to get to know people, have positive interactions, do what I could to promote other people and not worry so much about myself. I would, of course, always try my best, but I also tried not to value myself based on Magic skill accomplishments and so on.
Now, I assure you, winning the World Championship, getting in the Hall of Fame, those things made me incredibly happy. Doing well at tournaments still gave me satisfaction. I also don’t claim nor aspire to be perfect, but I think I did a much better job in dealing with my own emotions, and finding legitimate reasons to judge my own self worth.
As I think back on my second career, almost at the age of 40, what is it that I really think about? I think about the two interactions I mentioned above for sure, but more than that, I tend to focus on quality relationships I have and friends I’ve made. Sure, I’m really happy that I was World Champion, and that’s a moment I’ll cherish forever, but I get a lot of satisfaction out of times when I’ve able to be there for people I care about, help people I care about achieve their goals or make an impact on someone just by being myself. Truly, more than a great play, a Grand Prix Top 8 or winning a feature match – those are the things that I reflect back on.
The most important thing to me is how much happier I’ve been with this approach to life. Again, I’m not perfect and my life isn’t perfect, but when I think about myself as a person in my first Magic career against my second Magic career, I’ve just done so much better in my own head the second time around, and I think the reasons why are what I’ve described in this article. I wish someone had sat me down when I was between 18 to 25 years old and told me this:
“Listen, the way people are going to remember you and the way you feel is not going to be based on how well you do in Magic tournaments.”
Frankly, I’m not sure I would’ve listened, but depending on who said it, maybe I would have. I also assume that a large swath of people who read this will have the reaction of “Yeah, of course that’s not all that matters!” I respect that people come along, are raised and develop and feel differently than others. Overall, I wish I had realized that earlier too, but I feel like the point of writing this is not for you, but rather for the couple of people who might not have gotten to that point yet.