Paper Magic, in the Time of Coronavirus

It’s a weird time to be someone who writes articles about paper magic (I almost called myself a ‘journalist’, isolation is doing funny things to my ego). Like many of you reading this, I play Magic Arena but, also like many of you reading this, my heart is always more in paper magic. Arena is certainly a nice way of continuing to engage with this game during the pandemic, and I have been playing a lot more Arena that I care to mention. But nothing quite hits that same spot that paper magic does. There’s just something about shuffling a deck yourself, trying to read your physical opponent, running out of counters and using torn up receipts which then blow away as soon as someone opens a window, that Magic Arena can’t match.

But, over here in Jolly Ol’ England, our LGS’s closed and friends/family are unable to visit each other. Do we have to shelve paper magic until summer rolls around and this pandemic, hopefully, ends? I don’t think so. There is a wealth of ways that you can play paper magic.

First: Teaching

Chances are that you live with someone who doesn’t know how to play magic (don’t worry if you live alone, there’s stuff for you later in the article). Or, rather, you live with someone who doesn’t know how to play Magic… Yet. Put together some simple constructed decks using whatever cards you have available, shuffle up, and teach them the basics. Not only is this a great opportunity for you to try your hand at purposefully casual deckbuilding, but it’s also a chance for you to share the hobby that you love with friends and/or family. 

We’re all getting to know the people we live with a bit better during the lockdown. At least, I hope you are, and in a good way. My housemate, for example, introduced me to the Star Wars X-wing miniatures game a few days ago and now I’m hooked on yet another expensive tabletop hobby. Yay for me! We have at least three months to kill before things even start to return to normal, and you have a kick-ass card game that you can introduce a prospective new player to. 

Teaching Magic is a lot of fun in of itself. I’ve always enjoyed pairing the explanation of mechanics to the story and flavor of the cards to new players. “So, if you Sorin’s Thirst my Soldier, you’re calling upon this Vampire lad called Sorin to attack them for you and then you gain their life essence! Also, he’s been trapped in a wall for a year so he’s quite thirsty…”. By teaching the game, you also become better at the game. Much like rehearsing a script, the more you practice and the more thought and verbalisation you put into the motions the more ingrained your process becomes. I can’t count the amount of time that I’ve been explaining a game mechanic to a friend who’s just getting into the game and they ask me a question that opens up a possibility with my deck or gameplay that I hadn’t considered before. If you are living with someone who doesn’t yet know how to play, there has never been a better time to corner them and force them to play with your wizard cards. What are they going to do? LEAVE? HA!… This is, of course, a joke. Please don’t force nana to play wizard cards if nana doesn’t want to play wizard cards.

Second: Drafting.

Teaching is all well and good, but what if you already live with someone who plays magic? More to the point, what if you live with someone who plays magic and you’ve already played your two edh decks against one another six times already? Well now is finally the day to make good on all those times you said “I have, like, a box of draft chaff at home, I should totally make a pauper cube!” and then went home and totally didn’t make a pauper cube.

Cube construction is an art and, seeing as you’re unable to get new cards, what you end up making may well be janky as all hell. But, much like with making educational decks, even if what you can create won’t stand up to snuff outside the pandemic, you’ll be learning a lot from your shortcomings. Creating a limited environment with even more limited cards will present unique challenges and puzzles for you and your pals/family to resolve. Do you take a couple of mega-powerful cards out from your modern decks to put into the red/white cube pool to make up for a lack of the colour pair’s draft archetype? What does that do to the overall balance of the environment? 

This cube is something you can tinker with as the weeks go on, and it will bring you a whole new perspective on limited environments. Becoming the architect for your own environment will give you a peak behind the curtain in the game designer’s mind, and will leave you more well equipped to succeed in the formats you play once you can safely leave your house. A cube also offers a bunch more replayability than regular decks, and you can even proxy in a few cards with custom designs if you feel like it ala the playtest cards found in Magic’s Mystery Boosters. 

Drafting this cube also doesn’t have to involve exactly eight people. You can tailor your cube’s list to better reflect the amount of people who can play, and you can even try out different forms of drafting. I’ve found that, when drafting with two people, eight ‘packs’ of four cards that you take two from as your first pick, and one from as your second and third picks, works surprisingly well. But you can test out your own forms and formats. We’re living through unprecedented times, after all, go nuts.

This also extends to the various wacky formats that you’ve heard of but never gave too much of a thought to; make a new tiny leaders deck, play pack wars if you can, play that that format where everyone draws from the same massive deck, no I don’t know what it’s called and I have no idea what I need to type into Google in order to find out. There are a myriad of ways to enjoy paper magic with what you have at home. But what if you don’t have anyone else to play with?

Third: If you’re on your own

If you’re on your own right now, firstly, you have my full solidarity. These are terrifying times, and I can’t even begin to appreciate how harrowing it must be to be experiencing this all in an isolated state. Obviously, the advice in this article won’t be able to remedy the full woe of your current situation, but I do have a little thing that I used to do when I was in a differently isolated time.

Back in my teenage years, I didn’t have many friends and, whilst those I did played Magic, they also all lived in another town. There were many nights I would spend whilst they were playing magic or some other game I couldn’t buy where I’d be stuck at home itching to play but unable to. Whilst I was having those days, I would often sit by myself at my kitchen table, place two decks on either side of the table and, much like I was the card game enjoying grandchild of that old man at the start of Bugs Life, I would play my own decks against myself.

This, of course, was nowhere near as enjoyable or as fulfilling as playing magic with your friends, but it wasn’t without its benefits. I learned a lot about my own thought process and shortcomings as a player when I was my own opponent. I saw flaws in my strategy, anticipated when I would get greedy, and when I wouldn’t press my advantage. I also worked out what cards in my deck weren’t cutting it, and which were the actual high-level threats. Much as being trapped in isolation with someone can teach you a lot about them, viewing yourself from the outside can teach you a lot about yourself.

I still do, from time to time, play my EDH decks against each other on my own. It’s almost certainly not for everyone, but if you haven’t given it a go, and you’re really itching to play paper magic again, I would recommend this.

Paper magic is, in my opinion, the best way to enjoy this game and hopefully some of these bits of advice gives you some inspiration as to how you can still pick up and play during a lockdown.

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