Playing non-casual MtG as a non-casual Christian

I probably do need to apply for rare breed status…  While the phrase “Christian gamer” is no longer an oxymoron as such, for more than 20 years now I have been playing competitive-level Magic as a Christian.

Church v. Magic

It never occurred to me that anyone would ask me to write about it; but, since they have, then I probably also do need to define a few terms…

(DISCLAIMER: I’m also realising that I only know how to write about gaming-related topics as a competitive-level Magic-player; people trying to improve at Magic are used to reading dry, technical, excessively lengthy prose; my writing is likely to reflect that cultural bias) 

Why don’t we begin with “Christian” and “gamer”..?

A “Christian” is nothing more and nothing less than a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth.  While most Jews would say he’s not the Messiah, I am aware of at least one occasion where his mother thought him a very naughty boy (namely, the wedding at Cana: in the way that parents do, she had overruled Cana 1his earnest remonstrations – “Dear woman, why do you involve me? My time has not yet come!” – and ordered the servants to do whatever he told them; that he might tell them to fill ceremonial washing jars, whose contents were *in *no* *way* suitable for drinking, and take a sample to the actual *master* of the actual *banquet* … was an idea that had, I am quite sure, never even entered that haloed head of hers).

A “gamer” is nothing more and nothing less than a total loser someone who plays an unhealthy amount of games and doesn’t get out into the fresh air enough of the indoor variety.  Some of these games require an internet connection; some of them require a measuring tape; some of them seem to require as much financial commitment as a skiing hobby heroquest 1(but without all those wonderful photos from the Alps that you can use to make your friends envious of how successful your children are).

Being a member of the gaming community is now far more socially acceptable than when Jane Austen first wrote Pride & Prejudice (“… “A gamester!” [Elizabeth Bennet’s normally angelic sister Jane] cried. “This is wholly unexpected. I had not an idea of it.” …”). Being a member of the Christian community is less so.  Society seems to have reached an interesting crossover point, in fact, where – subject to income – parents object to a daughter being with a clergyman / professional gamer to essentially the same degree.

“The Gaming community” is, of course, a hopelessly imprecise collective term.  Minecraft is as different from Magic the Gathering as Warhammer is from Settlers of Catan.  Even within the much narrower field of Collectible Card Games (CCGs), where one might infer commonality, there is instead the sort of contempt usually reserved for the football team on the other side of the city – Magic-players and Yu-Gi-Oh!-players do not exactly mix well.

“The Christian community” is, of course, a hopelessly imprecise collective term.  Franciscans are as different from the Kirk Session as Charismatics are from Copts.  Even within the much narrower field of Evangelical Protestantism, where one might infer commonality …

… well, let’s just say that Christians and gamers might have more in common than I first thought when I sat down to write this essay, shall we?  Both are thought of as ‘odd’.  More importantly, both of their ‘interests’ are waaaaay too complicated for any single essay; even attempting to illustrate the interactions between *my* Christian faith and *my* game of choice, Magic, is likely pushing it.

And so we come (in fear and trembling) to Magic the Gathering™ (MtG), also known as Magic; to me, the Game of games; Richard_Garfield[1]and I really do think it is fair to say that it has more depth than any other game ever invented – to answer the immediately obvious objection, football merely has more *money*.  On that note, when attempting to impress a sceptic, I usually do start with the money: circa fifteen years ago, Hasbro bought the rights to MtG from its creator, Richard Garfield … for *five* *hundred* *million* U.S. dollars.  No, your eyes aren’t deceiving you.  Yes, that figure is subject to circa fifteen years of inflationary adjustment.  No, it wasn’t a mistake on Hasbro’s part – Magic the Gathering™ is their biggest earner, not close.  Yes, MtG has grown enormously since then.

Oddly, I find that the above impresses Christians quite as much as the secular sceptics; and it *shouldn’t*.  “You cannot serve both God and Money [Luke 16:13c]” is arguably the single most explicit injunction in all four of the canonised gospels.  I could try to find other ways to impress, ones that ought to impress Christians and non-Christians alike (e.g. the fact that more than *twenty* *million* people are registered with the DCI, the sanctioning body regulating competitive-level Magic ; or the fact that Magic is so complex that no more than *twenty* people really understand the rules) …

… but *why*, exactly, am I trying to impress?

Well, partly because I can’t help feeling Magic doesn’t get the respect it deserves: imagine having to explain what Chess *is* when you tell people you play competitive-level Chess.  That’s by no means the worst of it though.  At least secular sceptics don’t put on a compassionate expression and say, in the gentlest of tones, “I’ll pray for you…”  Dearest brothers and sisters in The Faith: please.  Do you offer to pray for the Chess player who has learned the openings by rote, and now plays the first three or four moves solely by reflex?  Do you offer to pray for the golfer with a handicap of 2.0?  More seriously, do you offer to pray for the lawyer or the financial trader..?

And *this* is why I am trying to impress; or, at least, why I am trying to impress *Christians*; because, where an activity is socially acceptable (or, better yet, seen as positive evidence of worldly success), Christians have occasionally been known to waive the question of Right Or Wrong.  If I manage to cloak my beloved Magic with the purple robe of social acceptability, Triumphant_Entry_of_Constantine_into_Rome_by_Peter_Paul_Rubens[1]then perhaps I can get it to pass under the terrible rod without so much as a sniff of disapproval…  The golfers and lawyers seem to manage, so why can’t I?  Is it really too much to dream that, one day, people associated with me will seek to elevate themselves in the eyes of their social set by talking about how I play competitive-level Magic..?

And now let me unpick that last paragraph.  It isn’t just too much – it’s Wrong, even to begin with.  To quote Jesus’ own words (to religious conservatives trying to elevate themselves in one another’s eyes at a fashionable dinner): “… everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted [Luke 14:11].”  And here’s me dreaming of people seeking to elevate themselves…??  Honestly, this essay was riddled with these motives when I started writing it – I had to tear apart a whole page of wonderfully witty prose in order to drag them into the light by their tails.  Is it Wrong for me to hope that Christians might waive the question of Right Or Wrong?  Obviously, yes.  Is it Wrong for me to stay timidly silent, in fact, in the face of Christian disapproval of socially marginalised activities – whether Magic or anything else – or, indeed, for me to do anything less than denounce this as an utter bloody dereliction of our Christian duty?  Well, duhh…  Jesus himself, pacifist though he was for the most part, made a whip of knotted cords in the face of such hypocrisy.  Several days later, he was asphyxiating to death on a Roman cross.

Munkácsy_Christ_before_Pilate_part3[1]As Pontius Pilate once asked the Chief Priests condemning Christ, I now ask Christians condemning Magic, therefore: What Charges Do You Bring?

“Weeerrll, it’s the artwork, innit: looks an awful lot like Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) – [the crowd gasps] – to my mind.  And, look, it’s even got the word Magic [people faint] – in it.  That can’t be Right.  Stands to reason Guv.”

(NB: the reply Pilate got was quite as weaselly as the above – and, while the above reply is of course fictitious, it is recognisable from my experience of church culture)

All right…  For now, let’s artificially accept this smuggled-in premise that D&D, at least, is Wrong – that it somehow led a generation into diabolism.  How, exactly..?  Artwork alone wouldn’t suffice for that; it would have to have been through some grievous misuse of human imagination.  In which case, the argument falls apart immediately: Magic simply doesn’t use the imagination in that way.  At no point in a game of MtG is one journeying ever deeper into some dark dungeon of the mind, fatalistically rolling dice every step of the way, never knowing what hellish development to expect.  No.  The mental state is similar to that in a game of Chess (although Chess has only one mathematical axis of attrition, whereas MtG has at least three, and – being a game of cards – *also* *has* elements of partial information and random variance; it’s quite beautiful, really…); and, in a game of Chess, does one waste mental effort on the romantics of knighthood when a Knight is threatening one’s Queen, or worry that one’s Queen might secretly be a Drag Queen?  Of course not.

<aside>

Also, before we go any further, D&D has been around for quite a while.  Where is the evidence to show that it played a significant role in leading a generation into diabolism..?  People don’t have to like it, and Christian parents are at liberty to forbid their children from playing it – my dad forbade me from playing it, in fact, and I have honoured that prohibition even as an adult – but there really does not appear to be any concrete basis for denouncing D&D as objectively Wrong.  I do acknowledge that there are individual games that attempt to recreate a horror movie scenario; but to claim that that, in general, is what D&D is – and, worse, that that is all that it is – is as ignorant and feeble-minded as claiming that Indiana Jones is the son of Dracula.

</aside>

The only real objection seems to be that the artwork is … well, icky.  And this is *fair*: some of it is.  I myself have nearly *quit* *the* *game* on several occasions for that very reason.  I doubt any Magic-player would disagree with my saying that the New Phyrexia set was monstrously evil, that the various Innistrad sets were indeed horrific and that the Hour Of Devastation set was as bleak as hell.  I would even go so far as to say that the game’s creators have realised that Magic-players don’t like too many ‘dark’ sets in a row – it’s bad for business.  Nevertheless, *Magic* *is* *a* *business*; and, like most commercial activities, it’s a business that isn’t catering specifically for Christians.  If it comes to that, however, the meat markets that the apostle Paul wrote about in Romans chapter 14 weren’t catering specifically for Christians either; and, as a result, there was quite the divide amongst Christians over whether or not to boycott the meat markets and eat only vegetables …

… which, today, is *of* *course* an entirely unrecognisable controversy (Magic-players will all be *astonished* to hear, for example, that Paul had to rebuke the vegetarians for being judgmental).  Even so, hopefully both Christians and Magic-players will see the point I’m trying to make.  Magic is one of the innumerable grey areas of life where it isn’t *reasonable* to expect everyone to agree; what *is* a reasonable expectation is for the Christian whose faith is strong enough to play Magic not to look down on those whose faith is weaker in this particular area; and, equally, for those whose faith is weaker not to pass judgment.

Oranges 1With that out of the way, I propose to discuss how my own personal implementation of the Faith (considered idiosyncratic by other Christians) interacts with my own personal style of competitive-level Magic (considered idiosyncratic by other Magic-players).

You can think of this as half-time, if you want to.

Okay, so, firstly, I’m realising that – at least in this initial essay – it simply isn’t realistic for me to drill down to the level of detail necessary for me to explain my own personal view of the moralities of the five *colours* of Magic; much less the moralities that you tend to end up with by pairing two colours (there are five ally-colour pairings and five enemy-colour pairings) or how things change when you add a *third* colour.  Apologies, Magic-players: we’re going to have to go at a pace that isn’t too exhausting for the poor old Christians; a follow-up essay can be written if people want it…

At a less granular level, then: do I take the approach that, Hey, It’s Only A Game?  After all, in a very real sense, that is the *point* of play – to do ‘bad’ / ’stupid’ things in an artificially safe environment, so that consequences can be learned as painlessly as possible.  All young mammals know this.

Hedgehog 1

Well, no, I don’t take that approach; or at least, not in the case of Magic the Gathering.  What I’ve found is that my conscience will only allow me to do ‘bad’ things as part of a joke, i.e. the game has to be *intrinsically* satirical – Munchkin, Junta or Battle Cattle, for example, do afford that rarest of pleasures; but Magic is far too important for ‘bad’.  Magic-players will, of course, point out that the ‘Dad Jokes’ I write on my cards are **EXCEEDINGLY** ‘bad’, to the point of causing actual physical pain … but making ‘bad’ jokes doesn’t make one a ‘Bad Person’, surely?

Mox Pearl 1Oh, um, yeah, I deface my Magic cards using a permanent marker.  With the worst jokes I can think of.  No-one else seems to do this.  Sooo… WHY?  Well, primarily because it makes them less *valuable*.  Theft is a real problem (some cards can be worth £30, £60 or £100 … and occasionally a *lot* more); proving ownership even moreso.  However, there is such a thing as self-respect – who wants to fence cards with ‘bad’ ‘Dad Jokes’ on them?  Secondarily though, I acquire cards in order to *play* with them; I’m not interested in the financial side; I don’t *want* to be interested; Chandra 1“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also [Luke 12:34].”  So, yeah, I guess there is a pinch of Christianity in there after all.  Magic is a game; I want people in tournaments not to forget that.

Go join the casual players round the kitchen table then; leave competitive-level Magic to people who care.   Good answer … except that I care too *much* about the game for that.  Magic is a game of *skill*; without that crucial element, it isn’t properly *life-giving* anymore; and I want it to be life-giving – not only for me, but also for my opponents. For me, the game needs to comprise both fun and skill and, more than that, they need to be combined in the right *proportion* to one another (credit to G. K. Chesterton, btw, for the idea of healthy proportionality); this is key to understanding the decks I build.

There is another key, however.  One that I’m rather ashamed of…  I’m a rotten loser.  “Salty” is the term used by the Magic community; in that sense, I most certainly am, as Jesus put it, the salt of the earth; and despite years of losing, this particular cake of salt doesn’t seem to be anywhere near losing its saltiness.  Hence, not only do my decks need to be proportionate; they need to not lose.  *That* means playing with ‘good’ cards; *but* I also want to play with cards that are morally ‘good’, not merely ‘good’ in the sense of being good at what they do; at this point, my Magic-playing friends usually have to go and lie down with all the lights turned off until the migraine goes away…

[interlude with soft, calming music]

What do I mean by morally ‘good’?  Here are the basic guidelines:-

  1. I prefer not to play with any creature of “demon” or “devil” type.
  2. I prefer not to play with any card that has icky artwork or a nasty feel to it.
  3. I prefer not to play with any card that makes my opponent lose the will to live.

Guideline 1 is obviously the least defensible; it’s merely one of the ways in which I try to show respect for church tradition (I prefer not to eat food made from blood for much the same reason).

Guideline 2 has more to do with sensibilities than faith, I’m afraid.  As far as I can tell, in addition to the contradictions already described, I seem to be unusually sensitive to artwork.  [shrug]  I’m the idiot who really does waste mental effort on the romantics of knighthood even in a game of Chess; and Magic is far, *far* worse for that sort of distraction than Chess.

[interlude with soft, calming music]

As for Guideline 3, remember what I said about the game being life-giving?  I want a dead opponent, not a broken one; and I want the killing blow to be swift and merciful.

Arbitrary moral guidelines, of course – whether for Magic, or any other game or, indeed, any other human activity at all – are by no means unique to Christians.  Obviously…  One of my Magic-playing friends refuses to play video games that amount to historical re-enactment (e.g. Call Of Duty); it’s disrespectful to the dead.  Equally, while he has no problem with killing in a purely fantasy setting, killing indiscriminately (e.g. wandering into a random village and slaying all the hapless occupants) is, as far as he is concerned, O. U. T.  Equally, in Magic itself, some of the very harshest restrictions are applied by the most casual of players, who – in the innocent pursuit of raw, unadulterated ‘fun’ – have been known to ostracise a player who spoils said fun with ‘unfair’ cards.  ‘Serious’ tournament Magic, tightly regulated by the DCI, can actually result in some of the most ‘fair’ play there is; this is paradoxical but shouldn’t feel surprising …

… and, by now, many of my friends are wondering why on earth I haven’t quoted G. K. Chesterton yet; they’ve read carefully through each successive paragraph, line by line (braced for the rake to spring up from the grass and smack them between the eyes); but, alas, all the quotations have been merely from the *bible*, and have even had the INDECENCY to have been in italics, thereby enabling them to be spotted a mile away.  Allow me, at last, to put these good people out of their misery:-

“I could never conceive or tolerate any Utopia which did not leave to me the liberty for which I chiefly care, the liberty to bind myself.  Complete anarchy would not only make it impossible to have any discipline or fidelity; it would also make it impossible to have any fun.  To take an obvious instance, it would not be worth while to bet if a bet were not binding.  The dissolution of all contracts would not only ruin morality but spoil sport.  Now betting and sports are only the stunted and twisted shapes of the original instinct of man for adventure and romance, of which much has been said in these pages.  And the perils, rewards, punishments and fulfilments of an adventure must be real, or the adventure is only a shifting and heartless nightmare.  If I bet, I must be made to pay, or there is no poetry in betting.  If I challenge, I must be made to fight, or there is no poetry in challenging.  If I vow to be faithful then I must be cursed when I am unfaithful, or there is no fun in vowing.  You could not even make a fairy tale from the experiences of a man who, when he was swallowed by a whale, found himself on top of the Eiffel Tower, or when he was turned into a frog might begin to behave like a flamingo.  For the purpose of even the wildest romance results must be real; results must be irrevocable.  [GKC, “Orthodoxy”, Ch. 7: The Eternal Revolution]”

Oops, no italics.  Heh heh heh Sorree.

Anyway: why, therefore, not submit simply to the tournament rules set by the DCI and, within those rules, embrace the freedom that they allow?  Why all these complications?  [sigh]  Good question.  The best answer I can give is that tournament play – in which “results must be irrevocable” – is, despite its shortcomings, the most life-giving Magic environment I’ve encountered; casual, multi-player games (e.g. “Commander”) are all very well in their way, but they don’t keep me coming back for more.  *However* … in and of themselves, I do not find the DCI rules to be sufficient for the supreme purpose of being life-giving – not only for me, but also for my opponents.

Falls 1

Christians and Magic-players are by now most likely wondering how on earth I ever *win*; and I’m glad to have provided them with a sense of common ground and mutual understanding.  It’s possible that there may be a miraculous element to it – people certainly never seem to know quite what to expect when I sit down across from them – but, whatever the reason, it does seem to be the case that the Scottish Magic community doesn’t seem unduly surprised when I make the Top 8 in a tournament.

Ah yes, the community.  That seems like a good place to finish.  Sincere apologies, Magic-players: “Timmy”, “Johnny” and “Spike” will have to wait until some hypothetical follow-on essay as well…

I have made a LOT of friends through Magic the Gathering.  On the occasions where my work has required me to live abroad for weeks on end (Calgary in 2003, for example – a shout-out to Russell Heitzmann and Jason Ness seems appropriate at this point), my go-to plan is still to find that little backstreet shop with Magic players and crowbar wurm my way in.  Even so, the Scottish Magic community is something special; as was demonstrated at GP Birmingham in May.  For the first time ever, a Scottish player won the whole thing.  Big deal.  Well… yes, actually, it was.  The *noise* from the Scottish crowd sounded almost like a football match or a game of tennis in the centre court at Wimbledon; that was every bit as much a first for a Magic GP – normally there are maybe one or two mates trying not to feel too self-conscious – and it made it feel like a fairy-tale ending come true.

Campbell WINS 1

That kind of belonging has been central to healthy humanity throughout history.  It requires a shared commitment to an ideal – the reason why casual play can’t build a community – and also requires, to be frank, a boatload of self-sacrifice from certain heroes who make the space in which a community can form and grow.  Let’s hear it for the store owners, the organisers, the judges, therefore: you *know* who you are; and it was *you* who brought about that fairy-tale ending.  Even in a church, the acid test is community, not theology.  But – and this really is my closing question; put to me by the worthy Doug Kimbley when I asked my fellow Magic-players on Facebook for possible input – how can Christians add to such a community?  How can (and I quote) “the kirk … be more prominent in the community rather than just being a wedding/funeral venue”?

And I think the answer boils down to self-sacrifice.  Christianity isn’t necessarily any better than any other worldview for the purpose of breeding heroes; but it does do a wonderful job of teaching how to be a suffering servant for no earthly reward.  It also teaches us to look after people who *aren’t* prominent in the community, but *are* key to its life and health; and I’m thinking, at this point, of the store owners – who sometimes struggle to break even, both financially and emotionally – the organisers, the judges.  Who looks after them..?  Or the player who’s just gone 0/2 [drop] *yet* *again*, and whose friends are all 2/0 and don’t have time to listen to ‘bad beat’ stories (or who hasn’t got any friends).  Who looks after them..?

Clearly – by way of paging Captain Obvious – this would need to be done *very* *sensitively*, and without all that wretched preaching.  The question: “HAVE YOU BEEN SAVED..??”, for example, might reasonably be met with the answer: “Nope, I drew six lands in a row and died to a stupid vanilla 2/1 with no evasion.”  And, Christians, if that last sentence didn’t make any sense … then get yourselves educated to the point where it does.  More than that: lose the damned judgmentalism.  *Every* *single* *person* reading this essay does at least know one proverbial verse of the bible: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son… etc. etc. (I wouldn’t even be remotely surprised if every single Magic-player reading this essay could quote me chapter and verse).  Not everyone understands it; not everyone needs to; but *Christians* *absolutely* *do* *need* *to* *understand* John 3:16, in order to take it to heart and, having taken it to heart, *put* *it* *into* *practice*, i.e. faithfully live it out.

In fact, stuff it, I’m going to take a mason’s drill to all those hard-hearted churchgoers at this point, and quote from Ezekiel (Magic-players, you might want to imagine the voice of Samuel L Jackson…): “My people come to you, as they usually do, and sit before you to listen to your words, but *they* *do* *not* *put* *them* *into* *practice*.  With their *mouths* they express devotion, but their hearts are greedy for unjust gain.  Indeed, to them you are *nothing* *more* than one who sings love songs with a beautiful voice and plays an instrument well, for they hear your words but *do* *not* *put* *them* *into* *practice* [Ezekiel 33:31-32, theme tune from Pulp Fiction kicks in…].”

Jackson 1

Seriously.  If the hackneyed phrase “Christian duty” means anything at all, then at the very, very least – however little we grudgingly give back – it means at least this: that we have to refrain from even so much as a hint of judgmentalism, and go the extra mile for the world that God so loved.

Right then: we’ll leave it there for now.  My name is Jeremy Mansfield, I was ‘outed’ as a Christian years ago by Tim Stables in his debut article about competitive-level Magic and I’m here to help; although any advice I give on deck-building probably ought to be taken with a dangerously large pinch of salt (i.e. you might want to consult with your GP beforehand – the doctor, not the tournament).

 

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